Cancer Revisited

Cancer Revisited

Michael B-Day 3By Mary Ann C. Palmer

I.

I was little, just five years old, alone in my bed, lying on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin; eyes wide open. The sharp scent of night seeped in through my bedroom window. I wanted my mother. But that was impossible. She had died a few months earlier and I was living with my Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe. My room filled with shadows. I couldn’t swallow; it was as if a hand was grabbing my neck. My heart raced, thumping hard against my back. My thoughts were shouting at me. Within minutes, I was swallowed whole by fear. I jumped out of bed and ran to Uncle Joe screaming.

 

“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said. But I knew I was awake. I knew it. This scene repeated itself. I would learn later that I was having panic attacks.

I practiced not crying over my mother. I practiced how to bury my feelings. The events, however, were stenciled in my memory, not fully formed, but etched there just the same.

***

I would sit on my mom’s lap; just the two of us on our living room sofa, she clapped my four-year old hands together and sang, “You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” I giggled and collapsed into her soft blue cotton robe. I nuzzled in as close as I could, inhaling the soft powdery scent of the skin on her neck. She must have just taken a bath because her hair was wrapped in a twisted towel. Then Nanny, my mommy’s mom, called me for lunch. I skipped into the kitchen.

***

I stood by the window in my brother’s room with my mom. She was dressed but wearing the twisted towel on her head that she always wore now. We watched from the fourth floor as my 8-year-old brother Gary, in his yellow slicker, walked out into the rain, down six steps–one, two, three, four, five, six we counted together–and then down the block on his way to school. We sang, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…” Just mommy and me.

***

Wandering into the bedroom I shared with my mom and dad, the crib I still slept in tucked behind the bedroom door, I looked for Poochy, my well-loved stuffed dog with floppy ears, but I couldn’t find him. I looked everywhere. I finally found him on my mother’s dressing table, right next to one of her bras. The bra looked funny to me, one side was filled with something. Why does mommy have wood in her bra, I wondered. Somehow I knew not to ask. So many things were secret now.

***

Aunt Anne, who’d been around a lot lately, had to leave before my grandma got here. “Will you be okay?” she asked my mom. Why wouldn’t she be okay, I thought. Aunt Anne left. My mom was sitting in my dad’s upholstered armchair in her blue robe and the twisty towel on her head. I sat on the arm of the chair to get closer to her. She was very quiet, and then I noticed tears rolling down her cheeks. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” But she didn’t answer; she just kept crying. Grownups aren’t supposed to cry. So I cried, too. I was scared, like when I was sure monsters were under my crib. But then my mom’s tears stopped. She put her hand under my chin and said, “Why don’t you go get your doll out of her carriage and show me how you can change her diaper.”

***

While my mom was sick, I spent more time with my grandma and her sisters. We went to Prospect Park and one day we even went to see the Statue of Liberty. After our outings, I remember opening the door to our apartment and looking straight through the living room to the bedroom to see the shape of my mother’s legs under the blankets through her partially opened door. I was always happy to come home to her. I loved my grandma and aunts, but I wanted to be with Mommy.

***

Dad lifted me, limp as a rag doll, out of my crib. My head rolled onto his shoulder. He carried me out to the living room. My brother Gary was already up, sitting in his pajamas on the floor, playing with his Legos. I was placed down next to him. My grandparents and a priest were sitting on the sofa. The priest went into the bedroom with my dad.

Gary and I played with his Legos. We made leprechaun houses out of the little white bricks. We made little cots for them out of folded pieces of paper. I didn’t see the leprechauns, but I believed they were there. Gary said they were. I wonder if he knew at 8 years old that if you catch a leprechaun he must grant you three wishes.

I would learn later we only needed one.

***

On my 5th birthday Gary and I were at Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe’s house. Even though my mom and dad weren’t there I was hoping I would have cake. Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe did a lot of whispering that day. Maybe there would be a surprise. And there was. That night all of my relatives came over—aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was late. “I’m five now,” I thought, “so I guess I get to stay up late.” I never had a birthday party at night, and never with so many relatives.   Everyone was dressed up, wearing black. My Aunt’s high heels clicked on the gray and white linoleum floor. The basement party room was smoky from cigarettes and cigars. Ice clinked in highball glasses. I pretended my Mary Jane’s were tap shoes as I made my way around the room. One by one, the adults wished me a happy birthday, then whispered something to each other.

***

The next day Gary and I were brought to stay with one of my aunt’s sisters; I didn’t know her but she and her husband were nice to us. Their grown-up daughter was there. She sold costume jewelry and she let me choose a ring from a big blue velvet tray. It was a long day. When we finally went home, I was surprised to see our living room filled with relatives, but the first thing I looked for were my mom’s legs under the blankets in her bed. She was not there and the bed was neatly made.

My father called me to sit on his lap. I asked him where Mommy was. “She went to heaven,” he said. I didn’t know where heaven was.

“When is she coming back?” I asked.

“She can’t come back,” he answered.

“Why not? I want to show her my new ring,” I said.

“If she comes back, she’ll be sick again. You don’t want that, do you?”

I knew it would be selfish to want my mom to be sick again. This was a big decision to make. I sobbed. The adults tried to get me to stop. “Look,” they said. “Gary stopped crying.” I tried to see reason in that, but I couldn’t. I shut down. I stopped crying. And did not cry again. “Look how good she is,” everyone said.

***

I wished my family had told me the truth. When I was old enough to read I found one of my mother’s funeral cards with my birth date on it. I realized the late night birthday gathering was not for me; it was for my mom. I still didn’t cry. So what should have been loss and grief morphed into fear and worry. I continued to have panic attacks. I worried about getting cancer my whole life, even as a child. Every little lump or bump was cause for alarm. And then I did get cancer, ovarian cancer, when my youngest child, Michael, was four. I became my mother, and Michael became me. But I thought I could do it better. I could protect this four-year old. I see now I was naïve. Caught up in my own fight, I didn’t fully see at the time what Michael saw.

II.

At 37, I had surgery for what was supposed to be a benign tumor. It wasn’t. When I got home from the hospital I explained to Michael I had a tumor in my belly, and I had had an operation to remove it.

“What’s a tumor?” he asked.

“It’s like a little ball inside my belly that’s not supposed to be there.”  I explained that I had to take strong medicine to make sure I got all the way better and the medicine would make me feel sick.

I couldn’t use the word cancer. I would fall apart. I knew it was very important not to cry in front of Michael. My mom tried not to cry in front of me, but she did, leaving me frightened and helpless, too little to understand.

***

 I crept into the bathroom, holding the wall for balance, trying not to wake my husband Bob. The night was slanted, unfocused. I pulled myself up to the bathroom sink, balanced myself with one hand on the counter and adjusted my blue turban with the other. I looked in the mirror, half expecting to see my mother’s face gazing back at me. A wave of weakness passed through me; I needed to get back to bed before I passed out. I took small steps and deep breaths. I almost reached the foot of the bed when I collapsed. The fall at that point was almost a decision; I just didn’t have the strength to do this anymore. Bob rushed to me. I was still conscious, sprawled on the floor, and aware my turban had landed a few feet from me. Bob ran down the steps, returning with his mom and dad still in their pajamas, panic in their faces. Bob called ahead to the hospital, scooped me up and rushed with me to the car, his mother following with a blanket for me before she went back to the house. I was grateful she was there to take care of Michael. In the morning, she would tell him I went back to the hospital and get him ready for school. But I later learned Michael woke up first, padded up the stairs to my bedroom in his little blue feety pajamas to look for me, and I was gone. It wasn’t the first time.

I came home from the hospital that afternoon. I had been severely dehydrated, again, and was given IV fluids. Michael ran to me as soon as I got inside the house and hugged me with his whole body. His arms and body not quite enough, he wrapped one leg around me as well. He followed me upstairs, sat on the carpet in front of my bed and watched Ninja Turtles, his favorite show, while I slept.

***

A week later I had a fever. The chemo depleted my white blood cells, leaving me susceptible to serious infection. When my temperature reached 103; I called my doctor.

“Come to the hospital,” he said. “Enter through the emergency room and I will meet you there.”

It was early afternoon. Bob was coming to pick me up but I needed to make arrangements for Michael. Bob’s parents had gone back home to Clinton, NY, seven hours away. Michael would be home from nursery school soon. I called my friend Celeste.

“Can you take Michael?” I asked.

She always said yes. It was never even a question. Michael blended in easily with her five children. Five or six didn’t make a difference to her. But it mattered to Michael. “Mommy, I don’t want to be with Celeste. I want to be with you.”

***

I lay on the sofa watching Michael play as the late afternoon sun angled into the living room through our greenhouse, now empty. I no longer had the strength to tend the geraniums and spider plants. Hunched over on his feet and hands, Michael trotted around the living room. He occasionally scampered over and put his head on my tummy. I’d pat his head, and tell him he was a good little dog. He panted; I giggled. He was not just pretending to be a dog; he actually believed he was one. Michael embodied his fantasies; it was one of the things I loved most about him.

I waited for Eugénia and Ely to arrive, two of my best friends from when we lived in East Hampton. Older and nurturing, I looked forward to their company. When they arrived they were visibly alarmed by what they found: a too thin, exhausted woman laying on the sofa, a little boy playing at her feet. I was actually feeling pretty good that day, happy to be spending time with Michael. Eugénia immediately went to the kitchen to make me something to eat. Ely sat with me. As we talked Michael galloped in and out of the room, letting out the occasional bark. Our conversation faded as we focused on Michael playing, so obviously joyful, creating his own little world. Then Ely said, “Who knows how this is going to affect him.”

***

Eight months passed; it was time for my final surgery. I had prepared Michael over the past few days as best I could for the separation. The day I was due at the hospital I showered, dressed, adjusted my wig, and went downstairs to say goodbye. Michael was still sleeping. I woke him up. I didn’t want him to find me gone in the morning again.

“Michael, sweetie. I’m leaving for the hospital now.” He looked stunned. His eyes filled up as he clung to me.

“Why are you always in the hospital?” I held back my tears and told him I’d be home soon and in the meantime Grandma was going to take him to the Nature Center to see the owls. I knew from my four-year-old self that distraction only worked in the moment, but doesn’t touch the fear and anxiety. The talking we had done about mommy leaving hadn’t made any sense to him; only the visceral was real, the separation. Still, I thought, he can handle this.

***

The year ended. I survived. On a warm, sunny day in April, Michael turned five. His fifth birthday would be very different than mine had been. I gave him a black standard poodle puppy we named Harpo, who would become his constant companion for the next 15 years. We had birthday cake and he blew out the candles. Michael’s whole family attended the party—grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, not unlike all the relatives at my fifth birthday. But my birthday marked the end of my young life as I had known it. I would never see my mother again. Michael didn’t understand at the time, but he had what he wanted most for his birthday, the same thing I had wanted but didn’t get. Mommy.

***

Michael’s panic attacks started that summer.  From our front porch, I saw my husband running up the long driveway carrying him. They had been out for a walk, holding hands and scouting for dogs, Michael’s favorite pastime even though he had his own dog now.

“Michael’s hyperventilating,” he said as he ran to meet me. I looked at Michael, gasping for air, his eyes frantic, pupils dilated. I recognized the panic. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a paper bag.

“Breathe into this, Michael,” I said as I held the bag around his nose and mouth. He began to relax, his breathing slowed.

This would be the first of many panic attacks, the trigger obvious. I thought I had protected him. I did all the things my mother was not able to do: I had explained I was sick. I made sure he saw a child psychologist once a week. And I lived. Michael did not lose his mother.

But had I really protected Michael? He saw me rushed out of the house for emergency treatments. He saw me throw up in the kitchen sink because I couldn’t make it to the bathroom. He saw me wearing a turban on my head, just like the one my mom wore. He saw me lying on the couch for the better part of a year, and he saw the shape of me in bed, my legs under the blankets when he ran up the stairs to my room.

“Leave mommy alone. Let her rest,” I had heard his grandma say again and again.

Michael saw what I saw when I was four. I couldn’t prepare him for separation during a time of such intimate mother-child bonding. I couldn’t prepare him for the loss of routine, for the comfort of his mother kissing a scraped knee or lying down next to him at night to protect him from the monsters under his bed. Four-year olds can’t merge reason and emotion. I’m not sure anyone can.

Author’s Note: A child is born and we pray he or she will be safe and healthy and that we will live to see that child grow. We imagine a charmed life for this little boy or girl. A life free from harm and the traumas and mistakes of our own childhood. Then life happens. That is how the child really grows.

Mary Ann is currently writing a memoir about coming through life’s adversities with love, hope and spirit intact. “Cancer Revisited,” taken from that memoir, marks her first published essay. Mary Ann has worked as a book editor and tutor and currently is the owner of Synchrony LLC, a boutique agency specializing in web development and online marketing.

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The Other Way Around

The Other Way Around

imagesBy Elizabeth Richardson Rau

I am the mother of the kid you are probably afraid of. The one that you heard other kids used to buy pot from. Yours bought from him, too, yet you refuse to admit that, and I understand why. Pretend hope is much easier than unpleasant reality. I have never been the “not my kid” mom who would rather not know because the repercussions had not yet come home to roost. For a time, that was someone else’s problem. Until it became mine.

Now you look the other way when you pass me on the street and whisper about me in the grocery checkout line. You are relieved it is not your kid who got into trouble the way mine did. You are sure it’s because you are a better mother; more involved and on top of things than me. These are the lies that mothers tell themselves right before the other shoe drops right in the middle of a perfectly manicured, freshly mowed lawn.

I didn’t ignore my son’s fall from grace or handle it privately so as to spare the community any adolescent unpleasant reality. Most moms like things neat and tidy for appearances sake; those unfortunate things happen to other people.  I, on the other hand, wanted to spare another mother my nightmare and get support for my son; a fine young man who had lost his way. My brutal divorce paired with my kids’ father’s open hatred of me was the catalyst for my son’s descent into substance abuse. Yet I stayed strong and positive for their sakes—no one else was. Isn’t that what we do as mothers—fill in life’s holes so our kids don’t trip in one and disappear?

He slept on your basement floor for years, when he was clean-cut and dressed a certain way. Now he is sporting platinum, knotty dreadlocks and prefers not to shave. He looks homeless, I tell him. He thinks he looks rad. It is a phase, like when he wore all black when he started skateboarding. We celebrated together when he asked for a pink shirt for his 11th birthday. But that phase was different. That was before. Now he’s on that list of kids you don’t want your own kids around—the ones with the reputations. You hadn’t met many of them personally, but you just knew, because you had heard things. Now you are the one saying those same things. About my child. The boy you’ve known since he was 6-years-old.

Some of the things you say are true. Most of them are not. The night my son overdosed on a combination of non-lethal drugs, your son was right alongside him doing it, too. He lied to you, I know; that you need to believe him, I understand. My son is the same boy inside that he’s always been—kind, funny, smart and gentle. And now battling severe depression, perhaps because you’re all afraid of the Hester Prynne-like A on his chest. He’s still respectful at school, has a part-time job, skateboards past your house and waves, even though you ignore him and break his heart. And mine. He’s the same kid you took with you on vacation and cheered for from the lacrosse bleachers. He’s still that kid. I am still the mom who loves him and would die for him without hesitation.

I suppose you are still that mom, too. Though, you’re the fair weathered kind, who hung around when times were just tough enough that you could be supportive, but not so tragic that it might affect your social status. You’ve taught your kids to be the same type of people. I know because they turn and walk the other way if they see me coming. I have the disease of life’s reality and it just might be catching. I understand. I do. Fear is powerful. But love even more so. Thank you for inspiring me to show my children how to love, even when those on the receiving end might not seem so deserving. This is when people need love the most—when they face their greatest hardships. Thank you modeling how not to behave towards others who are less fortunate or are struggling through the unimaginable. Appearances really are deceiving because it is not you who should be afraid of my kid; it is actually the other way around.

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.

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A Father’s Twist on Faith

A Father’s Twist on Faith

0705-tlh-faithBy B.J. Hollars

On the first day God created Heaven and Earth and on the second faulty internet routers.

“Damn thing,” I grumbled, unplugging and re-plugging the cords.

“Daddy,” my four-year-old called, heading down the basement stairs. “What’s the matter?”

“Oh, Daddy’s just fighting technology again.”

“Are you winning?”

“Too early to tell.”

“Okay,” he said, heading back upstairs. “Well, don’t let the sun fall down on your anger.”

I froze mid wire-plug.

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t let the sun fall down on your anger,” he repeated.

I lifted an eyebrow. “Where’d you pick that up?”

Veggie Tales.”

“That’s it,” I sighed, dropping the router and focusing on the real problem. “Vegetables are henceforth banned in this household.”

“Yes!” he shouts.

Talking vegetables,” I clarified. “You’re still eating them. I just don’t want you relying upon them for spiritual guidance.”

Groaning, he began his shoulder slumped march off to bed.

It was only a matter of time before he’d forsake me.

In truth, my own spiritual upbringing probably rivaled talking vegetables. By which I mean I was raised Unitarian. And it was good. What the congregation lacked in animated produce it more than made up for in interfaith dialogue, songs about nature, and a heavy reliance on quotations by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Since I couldn’t remember much else about our time as Unitarians (or anything spiritual that came after), I called my mother.

“How’d you intend to raise us?” I ask, referring to my brother and me. “I mean, religiously-speaking.”

“Well, I think Dad and I sort of failed at that,” she says. “We kind of left you rootless.”

“We went to the Unitarian church for awhile…”

“We did,” she concedes. “And then we were involved in that cult-thing for a bit…”

“Oh right,” I say, “that was weird.” (Though it wasn’t; it was mostly just people sitting in fold out chairs in somebody’s basement and talking about recycling.)

Technically, my mother’s Jewish, which means technically I am, too. And though our family only ever celebrated Hanukah until the latkes ran out, my brother and I always looked forward to that long swath of days on the calendar. For us, it wasn’t just about the food, or even the presents. We enjoyed the ritual: the dreidels spun, the candles lit, and our mother rattling off Hebrew with the expertise of a newly bat mitvahed 13-year-old. She surprised us year after year, revealing a part of herself she’d seemed to have kept hidden.

“Well how’s Dad feel about religion?” I ask her.

“I don’t know. Let me pass him the phone.”

Static, followed by my father’s voice.

“Hello?”

“So tell me your thoughts on religion,” I say.

“Well,” he begins, “I guess I don’t really have any thoughts.”

At which point, in perfect father-knows-best style, he follows his statement with an impromptu, 15-minute sermon on the entirety of the Judeo-Christian experience.

He’s a grave digger by trade, which means he spends much of his life wading through the aftermath of the world of the living. Yet rather than allow his job to turn him somber, he’s turned to humor instead. Ask him how things are at the cemetery, and he’ll tell you—every time—that things are “pretty dead around there.”

By the close of his sermon, my father has regaled me with insights found nowhere in the Bible, offering references and allusions to Johnny Appleseed, Donald Trump, and a host of others contemporary figures.

“…I mean, I just can’t believe Joseph lived to be like 650 years old,” he says mid-sermon. “Or any of those other guys, either.”

“What guys?”

“You know, the sheep guys.”

“The shepherds?”

“Yeah, the shepherds!” he agrees. “That’s them!”

Despite his skepticism, he concedes, too, that maybe he should read the Bible sometime. (If he did, he’d learn that Joseph died at 110).

“You know, maybe I’ll do that,” he concludes. “Maybe I’ll read it tonight.”

Hanging up the phone, I try to count my father’s blasphemies. But there are too many.

Which is not to say I’m without my own.

In high school, at the behest of a girlfriend, I was baptized in a pastor’s backyard pool. I informed my parents of the proceedings half an hour prior to start-time. Without questioning me about my apparent 180 degree turn toward Jesus, they hopped in the car to bear witness. What they saw, I imagine, was their son in a predicament no one could have predicted. All I remember is a man who looked suspiciously like Casey Kasem dunking me beneath the water line, and when he pulled me back up, there was a cheese tray on a patio table.

If I was supposed to feel something, I didn’t—a clue, perhaps, of my less than pure intentions. Nevertheless, my girlfriend was happy, at least until we broke up the following fall. Soon after, while driving home from an early morning swim practice, I heard a radio report that the pastor’s house had gone up in flames. I drove to see the smolder for myself, and as I stood in his lawn, the ash drifting down, I thought: You caused this. This is payback for your blasphemy.

Given my history, no one should take their religious cues from me. And when it comes to deciding faith’s place in our children’s lives, all we know for certain is that the answer to that question is deeply personal.

And all I know is I don’t want my children’s spiritual grounding to come by way of cartoons or me using the Lord’s name in vain. I’ve long felt there must be more.

Which is why, for the past year, I’ve begun dragging my family to a church. Initially, I was sold on it due to the architecture, the hymns, and the free child care.

Meanwhile, my son seems to enjoy it for reasons nearly as profane as my baptism.

“Daddy,” he called at the end of last week’s service, “can we go get the free popcorn now?”

“Go forth, my son,” I say.

As I watch him drop his kernel trail through the community room, I find myself feeling good about our place in our spiritual journey.

We’re here, we’re open-minded, and we’re eating our food rather than talking to it.

 

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Hatched

Hatched

Newborn yellow chickens in hay nest along whole and broken eggs

By Dierdre Wolownick

“Number One’s rolling!”

My son’s finger shakes in anticipation. I follow his stare and see one perfect white egg roll onto its other side. All around us, people gasp.

Kids of every size and ebullience level fill the museum; we’ve been jostled and stepped on all morning, elbowing our way through airplanes and plumbing, the human body and impossible machines. Science-in-art. Hands-on things to push, pull and measure. But nothing has so captivated as this little warm pyramid of glass with sixteen eggs in various stages of hatching.

Nothing to push, pull or touch, no moving parts, absolute silence. It doesn’t seem like an exhibit that we wouldn’t be able to tear our little movers and shakers away from.

Yet here we stand, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, motionless. I never knew my son or daughter could stop moving for that long.

A tiny speck of beak pokes out through a hole in Egg Number One. People cheer. I don’t, but I feel like it. Everything gets blurry. Has it really been so many years since I was part of this mystery? For a fleeting, foolish moment I want to do it again. I want to be that chalice of life, and create something glorious, something that will make people teary-eyed. There’s no glory in fame, prestige, money. Renown is fleeting. This alone is glory.

The top of Number One cracks almost all around. Now there’s no more room near the exhibit. Looking through the glass, I see faces of every age pressed as close as they can get. I hear whispers only; even the tiniest children respect the sanctity of this moment.

What hard work! The chicks that have already hatched lie exhausted, laboring just to breathe. I remember the exhaustion. Will I never feel that way again?

Both my kids squeeze even closer to the glass. Number Two has rolled over, in the bumpy, unsure way of an egg. But then there are more gasps, and children point and whisper-shout and pull on sleeves or arms. Number One is out!

Everything is blurry again. I get angry with myself for a moment, but then a ball of red and yellow goo flops onto the metal mesh, out of Egg Number One, and everything else is forgotten.

How ugly it looks! — eyes almost as big as its head, beak covered with red and yellow fluid, down plastered to its tiny, quivering body. None of that diminishes the excitement buzzing around the glass pyramid. The parents are all smiling. You can tell some of them have forgotten where they are. They, like myself, have gone back in time.

The kids are all in the here-and-now. Most of their comments consist of “Look at that!” or “Mommy! Daddy! Look!” The exclamation points are audible. This is a moment to be shared, and remembered. My own are bursting to tell Aunt Diane, who stood before this very exhibit so many years ago — in another lifetime — but never actually got to see one hatch.

Some of the onlookers whisper things like, “Come on, move!” or “Go ahead, do something!” But it just lies there, its little body bouncing rhythmically, breathing for the first time.

I discover I’m holding my breath, and let it out. Did I expect to hear a cry? For an unexpected moment I feel again the unbearable anguish of silence between what we’d thought of for nine months as “the end,” and the cry that marked the beginning. The beginning of those million little anguishes. Of fears we didn’t know we had.

Will I never feel them again? That prospect fills me with bleakness. Never a great ogler of babies, I’m amazed to find myself wanting another.

My husband and I decided, so many years ago, that two was enough. And I’m too old. If we’d married earlier, if I’d had the first two younger, maybe…. But now, at our ages, it would ruin everything. We’d both be exhausted again, have no time for each other again. And the two we have are so good together. No, we made the right decision.

And yet…

Another chick, hatched a few minutes before we got here, stumbles over and pecks at “our” chick, once, twice. People gasp. “Don’t do that!” chides a small voice.

I try to remain detached. Do they eat the amniotic fluid from the others? But it isn’t working. Doesn’t it hurt them to cut the cord? I wince as they place my warm newborn on a cold, metal scale.

We have to leave. There are other places to see, we can’t spend our only day in the museum watching chicks hatch. It’s over. I’ll never feel that way again.

Author’s note: The toughest decision of all: To create — or not — another human being! The awesomeness of that choice has resonated with me forever; before I was even old enough to have children, I remember wondering, “how do you know how many to have?” This incident gave me at least one answer.

Dierdre Wolownick lives and writes in northern California. Her work has appeared in parenting and children’s magazines, as well as other types of publications, in many countries, and her short fiction has won First Prize from the National Writer’s Association. She has lived and worked on several continents, and geography is one of the main ‘characters’ of her novels.

 

 

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Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

By Jenna Hatfield

adoptionsupporthatfield

I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

 

Just over two years ago, I quit adoption.

I pulled down my award-winning adoption blog. I removed myself from all online forums and listservs. I unfollowed certain adoption people on Twitter and unfriended them on Facebook, keeping only my daughter’s mother and those who held rank in other categories in my life. I even cold turkey stopped attending an in-person adoption support group, which I had been helpful in creating and sustaining.

I walked away without looking back. If we’re speaking in adopto-speak, you could say I “closed” my adoption world.

And I’m better for it.

I so badly wanted to be understood in those early days after placing my daughter. I wanted to talk to people who knew the deep hole ripped within my being. I didn’t want to explain the loss to people who had no clue; I wanted the silent understanding that comes with having been there, done that.

I turned to online groups first, my inner introvert and the area in which I live not leaving me other options. I wasn’t welcome in any support groups for birth parents as I maintained an open adoption with my daughter’s family; their losses as birth parents in closed adoptions were more real than mine. At one point, a woman took pictures of my daughter and placed anti-adoption rhetoric on them.

But those with deep hurt, caused by adoption and its years of secrecy, its problems with ethics, and life-long loss associated with relinquishment weren’t the only ones who didn’t like my presence in their online groups. Adoptive parents didn’t like the way I shared the realities of my loss; should openness heal those wounds? They called me bitter and angry when I questioned unethical laws. Instead of offering solace when I grieved the loss of my daughter in my life, they lashed out and told me to quit complaining; I chose this, after all.

We talk so much about the mommy-wars, about breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, but no one was talking about the parent-on-parent hate so prevalent in the adoption world. No one wanted to discuss how to fix the problem as nobody wanted to own up to their own participation in the hate. I needed support to make sense of the challenges I faced in open adoption, but I couldn’t find any. I knew many parents who gave up long before I did, their adoption relationships paying the price.

I shared less and less of my adoption-related life online, instead choosing to help local women start a face-to-face support group for birth parents. My hopes of being heard and, most importantly, respected soon shattered on the floor of a coffee house basement when another mother yelled at me and stormed out for sharing my truth.

My truth isn’t always to understand, of course. Sometimes I’m thrilled when my daughter’s family includes me in her life, when she texts me to ask me a question, or when the sons I am now parenting delight over a visit. Other times I struggle with the overwhelming reality of loss, most often when my younger, parented children express their own feelings of grieving her lack of daily presence in our lives. I present an odd mixture of truth to the adoption world, one that doesn’t fit a mold.

A few months later, I quit everything.

I don’t fancy myself a quitter, but a human being can only stand so much hatred, so much blame-game, so much time in fight or flight mode. At some point, it has to be acceptable for a person to say, “This is enough.” And so I said, “This is enough.”

I turned inward, sharing and seeking comfort in only those closest to me. I turned to those trusted few each time her birthday month rolled around; I struggle the most around her birthday. I found a new therapist who also helped me understand some of the bigger picture of my adoption journey. Together we focus on what I need at any given time rather than engaging in a combative back-and-forth as to who has it worse. I’ve also learned to share more with my husband; I thought by not sharing how I felt, I protected him. Instead, I isolated both of us from bigger healing.

In the past few months, I’ve been writing about adoption again, gently sticking my toe into the water. For the most part, the tentative return feels a bit like the first ocean swim after a winter spent indoors. I’m struggling a bit, but I remember how to do this. I’ve already felt some of the hatred in anonymous comments and not-so-anonymous questioning of my exit and return. But I’ve also felt the warmth of love from friends, family, and strangers alike.

The warmth of the larger community, even beyond just those specifically touched by adoption, is what drew me in over a decade ago. People wanting to connect with people, to meet others in their space, to say, “You are not alone;” these things will always matter the most to me.

As I find my footing again in what I share online about adoption and how it touches me and affects my family, I feel grateful for the lessons I learned before, the space I gave myself, and for the open arms of the online community. I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

For now, I’ll wade in a little deeper, but maybe only to my ankles.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at http://stopdropandblog.com.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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This is Anorexia

This is Anorexia

art-dandelion

By Anne Lonergan

The scene is too beautiful to be the setting in which our lives veer drastically off course. The doctor’s office is orderly but inviting, the walls are painted a warm shade of white, the lighting soft and pleasing. Behind the large white desk, a wall is lined with books and periodicals and treasures from the sea. Another wall showcases framed degrees and multiple awards. Large panels of glass replace the remaining two walls, granting access to a pink sun setting over the Long Island Sound. We are high above the water, the sun is low. Through the act of bearing witness, the three of us help the huge orb nestle itself beyond the horizon. The dock that protrudes from under the office windows ends abruptly in the darkening water, the boat having long been packed away for the winter.

This is our first appointment. My husband and I are concerned that Catherine, our 15-year-old daughter, is not eating well, not eating enough. She and Dr. Homm had been together for ninety minutes. I am the newcomer, invited in to hear the results of the testing. The waiting room resembled a cozy sitting room, stuffed white slipcovered couches, nautical nuances, a nubby sisal rug under foot. I spent the time reading pages from books titled A Parents Guide to Eating Disorders and Loving Someone Who is Starving Themselves, feeling grateful we are seeking help before it gets to that.   I turn from the bucolic setting sun, about to mention the beautiful view, but the words catch in my throat.   Catherine’s small frame is perched on the edge of the chair opposite the doctor, her eyes are wide and afraid, she looks ready to run. Her fear pulls me out of the pink light reflecting off the water, to the empty chair at her side, and I take her cold hand in both of mine.

“Go ahead Catherine,” prods the voice behind the desk.

“Mom, I am underfeeding myself,” her chin jutting out as it does when she is feeling defiant.

“Use the word,” the professional tone insists.

“I am anorexic.” Catherine’s chin trembles and a single tear pools at the corner of her mouth.

My thumb—that had been stroking the back of her hand—stalls in the hollow curve between her pointer and middle finger. My eyes mirror the fear in Catherine’s, and betray the sadness that wells in my throat. But I keep them focused on hers, willing them to also portray my resolve.

“Okay.” That’s it. That’s all I say to her. A cleared throat from the other side of the desk turns my head.

For the next thirty minutes, the doctor walks us through a plan for Catherine’s recovery, a regimen of caloric intake, portion monitoring, and weekly visits. And as I hold Catherine’s hand tightly, just now warming in mine, one word is bouncing noisily in my head, reverberating off of each side of my brain: how?

“This is your daughter’s effort. You can love and support her, but only she can heal herself,” Dr. Homm informs, pushing her chair back to stand.

The traffic on I-95 is stopped. Catherine sleeps in the passenger seat next to me, exhausted by the appointment, and hunger. I lean my head against the headrest, and turn to look at her. Her forehead rests against the window, the fur on the hood of her unzipped black parka sticks to the condensation; slightly protruding vertebrae are exposed at the base of her long slender neck. Dark circles loom under softly closed eyelids. Her hands are more delicate these days, but still hers, and familiar to me. The parka swallows her, as if we bought it two sizes too big. The energy in the car begins to swirl with the rapid beat of my heart, as I realize I haven’t truly looked, or listened. I see now, inside her resting form, a mind in frantic motion. I hear now, too late, her own voice whisper to her high achieving self, “it’s not enough, you can do better, work harder.” She has been at battle with herself for some time while her parents burst with pride at all of her accomplishments, buried deep in denial.

A horn honks behind me.

“Shit!” I cry, startled.

The smell of rosemary chicken curls around the banister, and wafts up the stairs, making its way to noses behind a shower curtain, past doors cracked open a bit, because it’s homework time, and that’s the rule. My thirteen-year-old son, Matt, lays scratchy linen placemats on the worn kitchen table. Silverware for five clanks together in his tight fist, it’s easier to make one trip. Metal against metal accompanies the sound of multiple conversations bouncing off of marble counter tops, presided over by lit candles on the kitchen island.   Cabernet is splashed into two glasses lined up side by side, a set, ready for the nightly celebration that is the family dinner. Stragglers from upstairs grab plates to fill, and take to the table.

Eventually, though, the hum of activity in the kitchen becomes suffused with Catherine’s silence. Her struggle over what, and how little, to serve herself, while others grab hungrily for serving spoons piled high, overpowers the sounds of my family’s stampede. She is waging her battle silently, mixing into the group, while standing glaringly apart. Do our full plates disgust her, or tempt her, or make her feel ashamed and alone? Her long dark, thinning hair veils her face.

“Seriously?” Matt stares at the tiny portion on Catherine’s plate. “You’re so weird.” He tosses his hair off of his forehead revealing teenage acne.

“That’s enough, kiddo. How was practice?” my husband, Joe, asks him.

Catherine glowers at Matt while pushing food around her plate, spreading it out in order to create the illusion that more has been eaten. The dark cabernet slides past the lump in my throat.

“Dim the light a bit, please,” I say, looking towards the chandelier. My seventeen-year-old daughter Molly complies. She has quietly assumed an agreeability not often seen before, either to balance Catherine’s irritability, or to relish being the “good child” for a while, possibly a combination of the two.

“Thank you for dinner,” Catherine mumbles, excusing herself early from the table, plate in hand, headed for the disposal.

“She’s fine,” Joe insists, after the children excuse themselves, stories of the day exhausted. Catherine had not said much. Had we gotten too used to her being quiet, or too tired to fight it? Joe and I are face-to-face, two half finished glasses of wine on the table between us. I put my hand on top of his, holding his eyes with mine for a moment. Catherine looks so much like her dad. They have the same dark eyes and heavy eyebrows. Profoundly inquisitive, they both tend to be more serious than silly. His ability to close his eyes to personal struggle or sadness or despair is well honed from a childhood scarred by his parents’ divorce, and ensuing vicious custody battle. He is the kind of man who agreed to trade in a large, brand new house with intricate molding, for an old, broken, much smaller house, with a crooked chimney, for twice the money, so his children could see the waves from the front door. An accomplished athlete, he is also the ultimate optimist.

“No, she’s not, ” I said, squeezing his hand.

Over the last few months I have not seen much of Catherine’s face straight on. I see her face in profile, her softly rounded slightly upturned nose, and red, full lips that pucker when she is deep in thought. “Pouty lips” we’ve called them since she was a little girl. The nickname always made her eyes smile before she’d roll them in mock irritation. What was a soft jawline that ended at an ear lobe covered in tiny little blond hairs is sharper now, with shadows underneath. A brass cuff grips the cartilage on the top of her ear too tightly. I glimpse the back of her head, chestnut brown, wavy long hair falling to the middle of her back, often worn down now, no more jaunty ponytail swinging from high on the crown of her head. My sight lines of my little girl are different because she is often turning away, or fully turned and walking out of the room. We have times when words don’t work for us, so I search her eyes for hints to how she’s feeling inside, and she averts them, turning her head, before I can see. I try to pause when we pass on the staircase, just to keep her near me for a moment longer.

“Buddie escaped to the beach today. Mrs. Leahy brought her back again.” I say. Catherine loves that her dog has a bit of rebel in her, and often sneaks out of the yard. But my voice sounds too cheerful, a bit needy and desperate. Catherine wants to feel normal, to be treated like everyone else in the family, but I cannot find that normalcy, yet. My awkward words fall flat.

“She’d come back on her own, if people would just leave her alone,” she says, moving past me, towards the dog curled up at the bottom of the stair.

“I’ll pick you up after school for your doctor’s appointment.”

“Great,” she replies with stinging sarcasm.

My thoughts exactly, I think, as I continue to climb the stairs.

The rain is coming down in sheets, from dark low-hanging clouds, making my windshield wiper’s effort futile. The humidity in the car from our dampened clothes is at odds with the chill of a November day. Condensation fogs the windshield. Catherine’s appointment is at a satellite office in a different town. Her simmering silence makes the country music playing on the radio, that we used to sing to together, sound hollow, like some kind of tinny filler. Trying to find the house tucked in between so many others all in a row, narrow driveways running next to each other, in between torrents of rain drops, is adding to the tension in the car.   At last I see the office, cross two lanes of traffic, horns honk, I park.

“We’re here,” I say, hearing the strange falsetto squeak out of my throat, as if singing the phrase would make Catherine amenable to being here.

The grass beside the rutted pavement is brown, speckled with patches where nothing grows. Bay windows that speak of a past charm look more like warts broken out all over the house. I offer something about the location being more convenient. The dreary clapboard house contains multiple offices where different health professionals rent space.   The oversized sign on the front of the building explains: Life Care.

Here? The one word question is laced with judgment and disapproval of the tilting front porch and peeling white paint. And if I feel it, my daughter is surely three levels past disapproval, to contempt and disgust. The charming cottage where her first appointment had been, filled with white nubby furniture, on the water’s edge, had apparently given me the false impression that her healing process would be set against beauty and softness. The mud that splashes as we race in between raindrops, suits our matching foul moods. I press the latch and push on a heavy red door. It doesn’t budge. I use hands, one on the latch and one on the door and push again. Nothing. I rage at the absurdity that this door has become an obstacle, a barrier to get past, like a red stop sign on the path to recovery. With a third press, both hands on the worn brass latch, and a well timed bang from my right hip, the door relents, opening with a crash against the inside wall, sending a bowl of candy formerly perched on a spindly table, crashing to the floor. We watch rainbow colored balls roll all over the entranceway. I turn, place my hand on the small of Catherine’s back and gently encourage her over the threshold. Feet planted, hands dug deep into the pockets of her black parka, she looks at me wide-eyed. My mind races: Would she refuse to go in? The rain leaks through the porch roof sounding like the tick of a clock as it hits the warped floor. The corner of Catherine’s mouth turns up and then her eyes do the same. One hand tries to hold in the laughter that bubbles up and out of her, as her other hand grips my arm.

“Nice tackle, Mom!” she giggles.

Progress! Sitting next to Catherine in one of the two chairs on the other side of Dr. Homm’s desk, I will not contain the smile that threatens. I am the only one of the three of us smiling.

“Catherine has gained 6 pounds in 2 weeks,” Dr. Homm says, from the chair pushed back from her desk. Her lips are set in a straight line. My heart leaps. Catherine is staring at Dr. Homm, arms folded across her chest, hostile. The birthmark on her middle finger looks bigger than it used to. She has not taken off her black parka.

“It is unusual for a true anorexic to comply this quickly and willingly. I am wondering if this is what we call disordered eating, whether Catherine is shall we say ‘trying on a hat’, albeit a dangerous hat.”

I am confused by the lack of enthusiasm in her voice, but not surprised by the weight gain. There is a place directly under Catherine’s chin, at the top of her neck that was once taught and concave, which is now softer with a slight curve. It is not something anyone else would notice, except of course, me, and Catherine.

“I have doubts,” Dr. Homm continues. “Given the extent of the depletion sustained by her body, I am recommending she continue these sessions to monitor her weight and metabolic levels. We have a long way to go.”

Catherine turns toward the window, while I schedule the next appointment, silently telling me I’ve betrayed her. She has done what we asked, and now, feels we’ve moved the finish line. I will spend another car ride home explaining the situation to deaf ears.

“Why are you so angry, love, she said you’re doing great,” I said pulling the car down the narrow driveway.

“I hate the way she talks down to me, like I have no idea about anything”

“Her tone is a little stiff, but she’s a doctor not a friend.” I attempt.

“I don’t want to go back.”

“I know.”

“No, really Mom, I screwed up, I get it, it was stupid, but I’m putting weight on, like you all want, I know what to do, I really don’t like her, I can do it myself.”

Maybe it’s fatigue from the battle, or wanting to disrupt Catherine’s anger with my own, that makes me detour from our regular route home, and pull into a health food store.

“You still have to go. But if you think you have this all figured out, show me what you like to eat, what you’ll eat enough of!” I shout at her profile.

“You’re going to make me keep seeing her?”

“Show me you really get it, Catherine, how serious you are about getting better, and then we’ll talk about it.” I said, a bit softer, finding that familiar perch between anger, disappointment, and my desperate love for her.

She pulls her fists out of her pockets, pushes the cart over the slush, through the automatic doors. I release my grip on the idea that Catherine will join the rest of her family in eating meat and potatoes, but joining her family, and eating, are all I care about now, and I am proud of her and feel hopeful.

She wanders in and out of aisles, we read labels, she teaches me things. I joke about rabbit pellets and birdseed and she laughs a little, she tells me about quinoa and bulgar and I listen. When we get home, we clear off two shelves in the pantry for her. Catherine methodically organizes her food into groups, wheat flour, coconut shreds, chia and flax and pumpkin seeds next. As I watch her put brown rice besides bags of farrow, delicate hands busily organizing, I am reminded that I have not won the war, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve even won today’s battle. My daughter arranges everything in a perfect straight line, and then does the same to the other shelves in my pantry.

My husband Joe is almost asleep when I put my book down and turn off the light. Down the hall, Matt is brushing his teeth, undoubtedly spraying toothpaste and spit all over the bathroom mirror. I enjoy listening to the sounds of my family settling in for the night. I close my eyes and wait for the girls to come in, grateful Molly is picking up Catherine at her friend’s house. The back door opens underneath me, earlier than expected. Molly walks across the kitchen floor, I can tell its Molly because her strides are longer. I look at the ceiling, waiting to hear Catherine’s lighter tread. There is rustling in the kitchen, and then footsteps leave the house. Muffled noise comes back in the house a second time. A feeling of dread drags me from under my warm comforter. Molly meets me at the top of the stairs.

“You need to come look at Catherine,” she says with sad eyes, and a towel in her hand.

Catherine is lying on the bathroom floor, in jeans that she should have outgrown by now, and her black parka. Her knees are pulled up against the side of the toilet, her head protected from the tile by her hood, pieces of the fur lining clumped by dried spittle, stick to the corner of her mouth. Her eyes are closed and she is still. I lower myself to the floor, and stroke her hair, while Molly tells me what she knows. Vodka shots, she had already thrown up at least twice, she was talking in the car. The anger that I had imagined I might feel at a time like this never comes. Instead, intense sadness and cold fear consume me.

“Go get your father.”

I swallow hard and pull Catherine to a seated position; she opens her eyes but cannot focus, “I’m sorry,” she groans, and lurches toward the open toilet. She wretches, and wretches again, but there is nothing left in her stomach.

Joe settles Catherine’s wisp of a body into white eyelet sheets on her left side, pushing her hair gently off of her forehead, and puts the white wicker waste basket near her, on the floor. I lay in the other bed, on my right side facing our daughter. I cannot distinguish his anger from his sadness, and right now, I cannot help him to either. The lamp on the night table between the twin beds is on. It’s white with painted grey shells. No matter how many different ways the girls have decorated their room over the years, this lamp has been their reading light. It casts a bright white over Catherine’s limp body, creating shadows under her bottom lip and behind her on the backside of the bed. Joe kisses Catherine on the forehead, and then comes to me. I look at him expectantly, his big calloused hand pushes the hair back from my temple the way he does when I’m upset. He kisses me lightly on the lips.

“I’ll go check on Molly,” he says and leaves the room.

I have never felt lonelier. I have pulled the putrid smelling vomit stained shirt over Catherine’s head, rinsed the bile out of the tendrils that escaped her pony tail, faced the shock of her body lying limp on the bathroom floor. I have been driving a sad, angry and hungry girl to appointments alone. No one to show me the expression my face should be making when she says “I’m fine now,” no one to help me untangle her confusion, no one to tell me what would be the most supportive words to use on the car rides home when she’s filled with silent rage, and no one to tell me how this happened on my watch or how to fix it! Why does her father just get the kiss on the forehead? Why does he get the synopsis of each appointment, that I am too exhausted to go into with any detail, and why does he think that his cliche’s of ‘hang in there’ and ‘you’re doing a great job’ even scratch the surface of what is required here? I hear him on the other side of the door.

“Good night, kiddo,” he says to Matt.

I swipe big tears off of my cheeks, and squeeze Molly’s comforter to my chin. I implore Catherine, for the hundredth time, to let me help her. With the lamp on, listening to the sound of the heat click on and off, the periodic creaking of an old house, my breathing slows. I stay on my right side all night, and watch Catherine’s blanket rise rhythmically up and down until her eyes open in the morning.

A few days later, Matt, Catherine and I return home from running tedious errands. The prescription at the drug store wasn’t ready yet, the vet bill was too high, and the grocery store filled with food had not inspired ideas for dinner tonight. Mail and purse in one hand, I bend to pick up a UPS box left at the front door as the kids shuffle past me. Matt kicks his shoes off, leaving a scuff on the wall, bounds up the steps two at a time, hands shaking the dark mahogany banister as he goes. Catherine moves slowly in his wake, lining up her boots exactly next to each other, tips of the shoes an inch away from the moulding that meets the floor. She said little while we were out, and seemed to lack the energy to do more than pull the fur trimmed hood of her parka over her head. Her father had taken her to her appointment, but I hadn’t gotten the update yet. She looks too thin today. Trudging up the staircase, her small hand dwarfed by the banister, she eventually drops it limply by her side. I walk into the kitchen towards the island to put down the things that burden my arms, and stare blankly out the window where icy water moves rhythmically towards the shore. Cold rage washes over me. I am angry that images of a bubbly baby girl, a toddler with birthday cake smeared on her lips are being replaced by darker images of dull eyes and thinning hair. I wander through ugly fantasies of my hands grasping Catherine’s shoulders sharply, shaking her. I even see fear in her eyes at my anger, and I relish that fear because it is a reaction, it is alive, it is SOMETHING! What is wrong?! Why are you doing this to yourself?! Your Doctor asks if I understand what she’s said, and in my fantasy, I shriek frantic, out of control. No! I don’t! Not at all, I understand none of it! Blood pulses behind my eyes. The marble countertop is warming under my perspiring hands. I brush the tears away at the sound of Matt coming down the stairs.

“Ready to go, Mom?”

Three months later, I’m lying in bed, waiting for Catherine to come home. My book rests against my knees; my fingers play with the edges of pages not read yet. I washed all of our winter coats earlier in the day and packed them away in bins. Folding Catherine’s black armor with the fur trimmed hood, that had hidden her body and her face for so many months, I hoped desperately that next winter it would just be a black parka again, protecting her only from the cold winter winds, and nothing else. My thoughts drift to a setting sun, and the white office, on the water’s edge. That moment could not be counted as the beginning of her challenges. Before the first appointment there was weight loss, unrecognizable at first. And before the weight loss, her mental struggle which she endured quietly and alone. I push my glasses to the top of my head and rub the bridge of my nose with my finger. Pages flutter slightly under the blades of a slow moving ceiling fan. Joe breaths a little deeper next to me, sleep has quieted his thoughts. So, what was her trigger: the soccer tryout, the break up with what’s-his-name, a big chaotic family, a controlling mother? Or was the beginning way back at her very own beginning? Born with the predisposition to be a high achiever, rarely at rest, searching for control, she has insecurities and anxieties that take time and maturity to handle. “How she’s wired,” described one expert. There is a stack of books on the subject of eating disorders, written by doctors, and survivors, tucked in the bottom drawer of the chest next to my bed, each with a different theory on why and how. The only thing they all agree on is that there isn’t a finish line. Setbacks will have to be regarded as a normal part of moving forward. I close my eyes, and push my head back further into the pillow.

The mudroom door opens, answered by the dog’s tail thumping against the floor. Catherine peeks her head through the bedroom door.

“I’m home,” she whispers.

Before I can respond, she strides into the room, curls her leg under her and sits on the edge of my bed. I shift my book and sit up a little bit straighter. A child sitting on my bed in the middle of the night has come to represent a myriad of things over the years: bad dreams, a funny story, a revelation, a break up, a sadness. I kept a quiet expression, put a hand on her leg and listened.

“I’m so glad you’re awake! You are going to think this is so funny,” she says, trying to cover a giggle with her hand, glancing guiltily at her sleeping father.

“Tell me!” I say to her twinkling eyes, waving a dismissive hand towards her father who I am sure is wide awake and listening, under closed eyelids.

“James was walking and texting, so he wasn’t paying attention….”

Through bursts of laughter she tells me about her night. Her hands mesmerize me while she talks. She wears silver rings on multiple fingers on both hands; some are stacked together, some alone. The ring that holds her birthstone is perched above her thumb knuckle. All of them are sparkly and bright. Her hands are fuller, knuckles less pronounced, each finger a softer version of what had been. She waves her hands expressively during the story, dancing through the air in illustration, tossing her hair back as the story picks up speed.

“Isn’t that the funniest thing you’ve ever heard? Can you believe he even did that?” Catherine wipes at glistening eyes, the amethyst on her thumb flashes in the light.

Anne Lonergan lives in Connecticut with her husband and four children. She is a member of the Westport Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction will  be published in two upcoming anthologies by Kind of a Hurricane Press.

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The Pit

The Pit

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There was no reason to tell my daughter that the thrill of the tickets paled in comparison to the very idea that my sixteen-year-old daughter was willingly, of her own accord, taking ME to a concert.

By Ellyn Gelman

I was in Hartford, Connecticut, but I was dressed for Nashville. The country music fans appeared to grow exponentially as the concert start time drew near. Unusually warm for May, spring had finally pushed out winter and was showing off with vibrant yellows and greens. A light breeze carried with it the smell of beer and hotdogs. The concert tickets folded in the back pocket of my jeans were a gift from my teenage daughter, Dayna. I remembered back to a week ago…

The hastily made card had been crafted from a single piece of white paper, folded in half, the scent of sharpie ink still fresh. The card was signed, “Happy Mother’s Day!!!! Love you too much, Dayna.” Tucked inside were two concert tickets.

“Lady Antebellum Mom, just you and me, Darius Rucker is the warm-up band; it’s in Hartford, so awesome right?” Her words spewed forth like a fountain of teenage joy as she danced around the family room.

“Road trip Mom, next Friday, can you believe it; aren’t you so excited?”

“Yes. So excited,” I said.

No reason to tell her that the thrill of the tickets paled in comparison to the very idea that my sixteen-year-old daughter was willingly, of her own accord, taking ME to a concert.

We waited for the gates to open.

“Is it almost time to go in?” Dayna said, her smile full of the metal braces she couldn’t wait to get and now hated with a passion. She was five feet, five inches of beautiful with tight ripped jeans tucked into Frye boot knock-offs. Her small white T-shirt, tied at the waist, showed a only whisper of belly when she moved.

I scanned the crowd. Cowboy hats and denim, short skirts and cowboy boots. Lawn chairs lazily tucked under arms or slung over shoulders. Wait, lawn chairs? I reached into my back pocket for our tickets. No row, no seat numbers.

“Dayna, do we have seats?”

“Uh, um, I don’t think so,” she said. She kicked at a pebble on the ground.

“Do we need lawn chairs?” I said.

“No Mom, these tickets are for the pit.”

“The pit?”

“Yeah, up front, at the stage, you know, you stand in the pit. The tickets were twenty-five dollars each on Stub Hub.”

“I know what the pit is,” I said.

I had been to a few concerts in my fifty years. Foreigner, Cars, Grateful Dead, to name a few, but I had always had a seat. The pit had always been that “place down there” where bodies that were too close moved wildly.

“Are you bummed?” She said. The truth was, I was bummed. Five hours of standing? I looked down at my feet. My toes had already begun to protest their confinement in the points of my brown leather and suede cowboy boots. I had purchased them years ago on a trip in Colorado. They were authentic, hand-made, and spent most of their time in the back of my closet. Don’t blow this. You’re at a concert with your daughter, in cool boots. When I looked up, Dayna’s dark brown, thickly lined eyes wore a veil of worried hope.

“No, I’m not bummed, really. I’m just surprised, in a good way. I’ve never been in the pit before.”

“You’ll love it,” She said.

She wrapped her arms around my waist and laid her head on my shoulder. Her soft brown hair smelled like grapefruit and possibility.

We were among the first to enter with our neon yellow “pit access” wristbands. The theater was shaped like a giant fan. The seats spread out behind the pit, and then fully opened to a green uncovered lawn. Dayna grabbed my hand and pulled me right up to the stage where, like prospectors, we claimed a front-row spot. My chin rose just above the stage. There were x marks on the floor where Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum would eventually stand. A maze of electric cords taped to the floor resembled arteries and veins that would carry the force of sounds and light to the stage. Tiny specks of dust swirled in the light cast off from a hundred theater lights above.

The pit filled slowly with teens and young adults. A slight teenage girl in skinny red jeans and a black Lady Antebellum t-shirt stood next to me with her dad. I was relieved to see another parent in the pit—even better, he looked older than me. We smiled a bit awkwardly at each other. An alert young security guard, whose sole purpose was to scan the crowd in the pit, stood to our left. Behind us, two stocky young women in their early twenties posed repeatedly for “selfies” with cell phone and beers held high. One wore a baseball cap backwards.

The start time approached and brought with it an anxious sense of ‘ready,’ and the crowd grew tighter. Darius Rucker took the stage amidst bright lights and loud cheers. Everyone danced in a tight collective, jumping up and down. There, next to the speakers, it was as if the music made its way through me before it was released into the rest of the theater. I felt connected to everything: my daughter, the music, the crowd, all of it. Dayna was right; this was “so great.”

In an unguarded moment, Dayna and I were shoved to the side and the girls, who had stood behind us waiting for the past hour, displaced us. They danced as if our spot had always been theirs.

“What? That’s so not fair?” My daughter said, pointing at them.

“I know,” I said. Thinking, fair?

“They can’t do that,” she said in the full outrage of a naïve teen.

“Well, they just did,” I said. I had no intention of confronting them there, in the pit, or anywhere.

“No way. Come on.” Dayna grabbed my hand to pull me forward.

Instinctively, I pulled my hand out of hers and stayed put. I simply watched as she slipped around the women and reclaimed her spot. She turned back to look for me. I motioned for her to come back to me where we would be safe. She shook her head.

“Mom, come on, this is our spot,” she said.

I was taken aback by her nerve—or was it confidence? I no longer felt connected. I was hot and sweaty, trapped between my daughter’s boldness and my timidity. Left up to me, I would have done nothing (go ahead, take our spot), drowning all potential for a good time in a pool of resentment. That would have been my story, but I didn’t want that to be my daughter’s story. There she stood in her reclaimed spot, a lone soldier fighting for “fair.”

I pushed my way gently, somewhat apologetically, between those women and stood next to my daughter. I was forced to hold on to the stage for balance with my back slightly bent backwards like the letter C. I waited for something to happen, like a beer can to the head, yelling, something. Nothing. I looked over at my daughter. That is when I saw one of the women jab Dayna in the back with her elbow. The other pushed her from behind. Dayna kept her eyes forward, jaw clenched. She refused to acknowledge their aggression. They pushed her again and laughed. I knew that laugh. Suddenly I was thirteen again, a new girl in a new school.

The lunch lady handed me my change. As I made my way to an empty table, three girls approached me. “Give us your money new girl, we know you got money.” They were like seagulls on the beach and I was a single scrap of food. They pushed me and grabbed at my clenched fist. It only took a couple of hits to my back before I handed over the quarters. The girls laughed as they walked away. It was my first and last hot lunch in eighth grade.

I turned to the two women.

“Hey, stop that. Don’t touch her again,” I said.

“This is the pit, man, everyone gets touched in the pit,” the one with the baseball cap sneered.

“Yeah, if you’re in the pit, you’re gonna get touched. Get over yourself,” the other chimed in. She waved the back of her hand in my face.

Dayna grabbed my arm.

“Mom, if this is going to ruin the concert for you, we can just move back” she said.

“No,” I said.

I turned and grabbed the security guard’s arm.

I explained the situation to him as I frantically pointed out the aggressors. He made his way over and spoke with them. They pointed at me. I stared hard at them. The guard pointed to the exit. Yes that’s good make them leave. Behind me, Darius Rucker continued to sing and the crowd around me danced. I waited for the next move. They did not leave, but they backed up. I turned back to the stage, shaky, still on guard, but no longer afraid.

Darius Rucker sang his last song and yelled goodnight to the crowd. He reached down and touched all the out stretched hands as he made his way off stage. In a sudden move, he stopped in front of Dayna, bent down, and placed his guitar pick in her hand. The crowd roared.

“Mom, that did not just happen,” she said. She jumped up and down, her fist clenched around the guitar pick held high in the air. I jumped up and down, too. Her joy was my joy.

Lady Antebellum was up next. Before the night ended, Dayna was the recipient of three more guitar picks, each one handed to her, none thrown. She gave one to the girl next to me in the red jeans. A teenage boy ran up to her at the end of the concert.

“Oh my god, you are the luckiest girl on earth,” he said.

Dayna gave him a pick, too.

It was after midnight as we made our way slowly to the car.

“Wasn’t it all so great mom?”

“It was perfect, Dayna.”

Author’s Note: Two summers have come and gone since Dayna and I saw Lady Anetebellum in concert. We learned a lot about each other and ourselves that night. This summer, I went to see Chicago in concert at the same venue with my husband and friends. We sat in our own chairs in the upper lawn section. I could barely see the band and I felt disconnected and uncool. I spent the entire concert longing to be in the pit.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Wilton, CT. She has been published on National Public Radio “This I Believe” and in Brain, Child.

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Literary Gifts for Thinking Mothers

Literary Gifts for Thinking Mothers

 

Customizable and cost-conscious, these wordy and wonderful gifts are perfect to give or to receive. Buy yourself or a friend their favorite book — on purses, candles, scarves and more…

 

il_570xn-743413502_tczaKeep Me in Your Heart Hat

Smart lines from Winnie the Pooh make a debut on this soft jersey knit black slouch style beanie hat. Check out the site for a full suite of wearable “bookish”  items.

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_570xn-925477132_hsep

A Well Read Woman

These T-shirts are printed on super soft, 100% preshrunk lightweight white cotton. Create your own text-based messages for your next book group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_570xn-1006230881_n49oTurn the Page

We loved these handmade origami butterfly earrings made out of recycled book pages. Many varieties are available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-746827368_bx93Tea Time With Jane Austen

Sit and sip. Each pack of 8, 12 or 24 teabags are individually  packaged in charming sewn paper envelopes and sourced from well-known British tea companies.

With pretty vintage styles and Victorian-inspired designs, each teabag in this range features a quote or reference to one of the Jane Austen’s  literary masterpieces.

 

 

 

 

 

il_570xn-1074023944_h7a4Game Night?

Score! This word-based Scrabble-themed throw pillow is a  perfect showpiece for your home and lets all your holiday company know you’re a reader. There are many words and messages are available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

icm_fullxfull-104279550_gcr1rc5q63kgck4wo8woCustom Pendants

These Custom Necklaces feature your child’s own artwork, written words, or pre-designed options. The custom pendants are also offered on key rings, bracelets, bookmarks and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-645506233_svkuWarm Words

Let everyone know about your great taste in literature with a page from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on an infinity scarf. The Book Scarf is American-made from super soft 100% cotton knit fabric. Peter Pan? Frankenstein? There are many scarves to choose from.

 

 

 

 

il_570xn-1135190175_q195Classic Author Notebooks

Journal with Mark Twain and other classic writers with these handmade notebooks. When the spark of inspiration ignites, don’t let it die thinking you can write it down later. Carry the greats with you, and keep the prose flowing. You know Whitman, Twain, Dickinson, Poe, and Faulkner would do the same. (Books with their

 

 

 

il_570xn-501275387_qnoeCarry The Words

Ask Novel Creations to transform a favorite book cover into a fun purse,  and you’ll be happily surprised. Every party-going purse is unique, handmade– and a perfect conversation piece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-949126138_p4i4Literary Luminaries

Our Brain Child office has been extra fragrant this month, with these smart book-related candles made from a blend of fragrances and essential oils. Each one is hand poured in small batches. There are many options available.

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-1023105943_jkazGreeting Cards for Bookworms
These folded paper crane cards are perfect greetings for book lovers. Each print includes a digital copy of an Illustration placed on vintage book pages and stamped on recycled paper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-1026707088_garjShow Those Literary Lines

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

These 11-ounce rocks glasses showcase the first edition inside cover and opening lines of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Search the site for other literary lines.

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-1095308165_4eb6Keep The Change

Change, credit cards and keys go together in this change purse that comes in dozens of designs including this book text one (which of course is our favorite).

 

 

 

 

 

 

toy150227_0351-copyAnd For The Kids…

Kids can create stories with Props In A Box — Filled with fun quality items, kids can be make believe dinosaurs, pirates, astronauts and more.

 

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Mother As Witness

Mother As Witness

art-sandbox

By Melissa Uchiyama

My daughter’s tooth lies over there, on a tea saucer by the sink. It is her first one, the first milk tooth to drop from her mouth. She wiggled it with incessant fascination, so much so, that she got an instant cough, fever, and must wash her hands every few minutes. All the germs that come with wiggling teeth. This is all new.

Her pink training wheels sit by the front door, wrenched off like another two baby teeth. Not needed. Grown out and flung away. All this growing and that’s hardly the end. This is the tip, the first shoots. My baby girl cannot stay small.

She is climbing up like a vine, a summer tendril with beans and new flowers. Another wiggly tooth sits by the other’s hole. Her legs cast off from the hips and she is almost-six going on eight. Amazed at the sharp sides of the tooth and that which couldn’t be seen before, she kept placing it back inside, back in its place. Everything had already changed. That which falls out cannot go back. It’s done being there. In fact, there are already grown-up teeth with ridges.

I fight to record the growth. Not just hers, but also my son’s. I cannot capture the changes fast enough, cannot devote myself to sitting long enough with paper and pen. It’s easier to nurse with Netflix than to peck one-handedly on a keyboard. The material stacks up. Already like teens, they sour their faces when I again whip out my phone to take a picture or ask them to repeat a phrase so I can pin it verbatim in my notebook. Three out of five times, my son will ruin a shot by sticking out his arm. They want pictures later, the camera away now. They want the evidence, but they want my eyes, my whole body engaged in the present, actively listening, in real time.

I’ve gotten fast at taking the right shots, so I’m still in conversation. I count it my job to take so many pictures and record short clips with my phone. Parenting frenetic, funny, emotional kids takes effort and momentum. I do not always record quotes, conversations or dramatic essays. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with everything taking place. I wash a few dishes or lay down to nurse, and the time seems to be gone. If I’m not recording, not wildly looting and frantically puling each memory into a case, who, then? Life with kids seems like it’s long, the whole “the hours are long”, but like the chomp of a gator, it’s quick. Each glimpse into who we are together at this moment could be lost.

That’s the challenge and total impetus of this writerly-mothering movement: we want to capture these moments of growth and pain, all the stretching of muscles and mammary glands before it’s over– before we’re lost to the blur. We want to feel each pearl of truth. It is not enough to simply jot down, “July 10: no more training wheels”. How big were her eyes when she peddled into the sun? Did she squint in concentration? How about those knuckles and what did she say that sounded proud? I already forget.

My infant, the newest person in our clan is two months old, and holds up her neck with the best of them. Her yet-blond lashes double daily and her faculties increase, yet I’ve not even written out her birth. I have not written about those first looks and how she feels in my arms. That weight increases as she takes in my milk. She is already twelve pounds and nearly rolling over. I think I’ll remember the big things, but I already rely on my photos to spark memory. It’s like jumpstarting a car’s battery. That’s the trick about motherhood–no stage seems like it’s leaving until suddenly, it does. You need every member of the family to roll around life with a Go-Pro camera stuck on their heads so at least there’s no want for footage.

I used to record conversations with my daughter, verbatim, used to keep a notebook of her funny expressions and all of the wonderful words, mispronounced. This new gap in her mouth may change new sounds in her speech as she already corrects the old, endearing ones. “Door” has been “doh-ah” and “excited”, “es-kited”. My son is in that stage of trying out autonomy through knowing my first name. He tries to access my attention, calling out “Moolissa” when “Mommy mommy mommy” doesn’t work. He’s perfectly integrated the word “actually” into his everyday lingo. Yet, I have zero remembrance of their first words.

I mourn the thousands of gorgeous moments undocumented. They are lost. My son, his legs are growing thicker. He stands with his father’s shoulders and back, giggles and speaks with me about how baby popped out and isn’t there anymore. He wants to talk about planes, engines, his baby, favorite teachers, with the language of NOW, of him being three, today, at 4:51. Without sufficient recordings, I will forget the ring and tenure of his voice, loud and then soft.

To want to write, to be a writer, though stages of child and mother is both blessed and torture. It is to adore a summer sun and see it fading. To be so busy with the act of loving and the desire to remember every ray of sun as it spreads. Childhood in itself is the act of changing, the seasons of marking time. Maybe writing, then, is the remarkable.

We want this, but most days leave us so plumb tuckered-out, we may barely get through the tuck-in story. My husband and I have both knocked our poor kids on their heads with hard-cover books when we’ve fallen asleep, mid-story. Who can journal much or write anything cogent any of these tired days? And suddenly, months have passed. Suddenly, it is time to invite guests to the first and then next birthday parties. Suddenly, teeth sit under a pillow, waiting for you. Time keeps moving; they keep growing and we mothers, we try to keep up. All we can do is snap, capture even a moment of beauty, a whir of beating wings.

These fallen teeth, these training wheels sit while I decide what we shall do with them. Treasure? Trash? Leverage to stick under a pillow for money and the promise of something better? It all leads to independence, the kind of run that makes us proud. It also makes us weep. Our babies are gone, pumping legs, splashing hard, teeth under fluffed pillows.

Today I caught my daughter’s thin limbs peddling, pushing hard round the corner. Those training wheels shall not go back on and that tooth is out for good. Most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that I wrote it down.

Melissa Uchiyama is an essayist and sometimes poet. She focuses on raising bicultural children and young writers in Japan. Find more and connect via www.melibelleintokyo.com.

Why I Put my Drug-Affected Daughter Back on Drugs

Why I Put my Drug-Affected Daughter Back on Drugs

8-year-oldgoesviralwithhard-rocktune

By Melissa Hart

“Stupid Mommy! I hate you! You’re an idiot!”

It’s 2:45, the end of the school day. I cower in a corridor like a kicked mutt surrounded by serene hemp-clad parents and their eight-year-olds. Patchouli oil emanates from their golden arms and legs. They bend their sunny open faces toward one another—faces that cloud and pinch at the sight of my second-grader.

She’s flushed and furious, sweaty curls standing on end. She smells of spilled tempura paint and noodle soup from her overturned Thermos on the floor. Her green dinosaur boots stamp a frenzied tarantella around me as she screams.

“You never do what I want. You’re the worst mother ever!”

Shame flames my cheeks. The other mamas in the hallway, the bearded longhaired papas, probably believe her. I’m Snow White’s Evil Queen, Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel. In short, I most surely suck.

I don’t meet the eyes around me, I don’t say a word. I turn, chin ratcheted at an ignoble angle, and walk out the door praying my child will follow. She does, still shrieking insults. Then, she kicks me.

My transgression? I’ve left the Honda in the garage on this sunny day and asked her to walk a half mile home with me.

*     *     *

“She needs medication if she’s going to stay at this school.”

My daughter’s principal, boyish and skinny as a weasel, sits in the counselor’s office across from the tranquil second-grade teacher and me, and delivers his verdict. “In the classroom,” he tells me, “she screams over math and reading assignments. She does cartwheels behind the teacher when she’s delivering a lesson. A boy called her ‘weirdo’ and she slugged him. She refuses to sit at her desk for anything academic and wants to spend all her time at the Peace Table.”

The Peace Table. Most schools have detention. My kid’s classroom has a hand-carved wooden table where a troubled student can go to chill out. My child has, I discover, taken up permanent residency there. We’re gathered together in the principal’s office today because two hours earlier, he bent low to her ear to suggest she return to her desk, and she shoved him.

“She threw my back out.” He reaches behind him to massage his injured lumbar. I bow my head, but he isn’t finished. “I saw a documentary on kids adopted from Romania. They had reactive attachment disorder—all the same issues as your daughter. The only thing that helps these kids is medication . . . mood stabilizers.”

Gently, the teacher’s mouth falls open. Marijuana’s about to be legalized in Oregon and the smell of it competes with patchouli in the afternoon corridor. My fellow parents may rock the ganja, but our school’s a hotbed of anti-vaccination activists. They carpool up to the Capitol to protest mandatory inoculation, hold chicken pox parties and embrace each other in celebration when their kids present with the itchy red spots. Once, I mentioned to a father in the corridor that I’d taken my child for a flu shot, and he got up in my face.

“Why,” he snarled, “Would you poison your daughter?”

Me, I’m a fan of modern medicine. My child is vaccinated, and when she falls ill, she takes Tylenol. But mood-altering drugs? For a second-grader?

I want to remind the principal that my husband and I adopted our daughter at 19 months old from a skilled foster mother in Oregon—not from Romania where kids once languished, cribbed in their own excrement, for a decade. Instead, I spread my palms out on the table in supplication. I’m beaten, pummeled by years of similar meetings in preschool, in kindergarten, in first grade. I think of a summer camp counselor who summed up my child’s temperament in one sentence:

“She’s not one who earns a lot of stickers.”

At last, I address the principal. “We’ll do,” I say, “whatever you think is best.”

The second-grade teacher stands up, long hair swinging. At six-foot-four, she’s quiet royalty in the shabby room. “I’ll meditate on her,” she says, by which she means she’ll actually stay up an extra half hour that night to sit in lotus position and ruminate upon my child and her issues. “I think there are alternatives,” she concludes mildly, “to drugging your daughter.”

I’d love to believe her. But I think we’ve run out of options.

*     *     *

Research abounds on the effects of constant loving touch and eye-contact with babies. In parks and grocery stores, infants dangle from frontal packs like Sigourney Weaver’s alien baby. My husband and I wore our own daughter in a soft cloth backpack until her feet nearly touched the ground; we gazed into her eyes and hand-fed her long after she could feed herself. But even those ministrations weren’t enough to soothe prenatal exposure to god-knows-what substances, coupled with early emotional neglect.

At birth, relinquished by parents who—in social worker speak—”had priorities other than child-rearing,” she moved in with a career foster mother—a woman who devoted her life to giving bereft babies a decent start in life in exchange for financial stipend from the state. The foster mom—a stoic big-hipped brunette with a passion for dragon decor–drove her charges to medical appointments and arranged for occupational and physical therapists to visit her home. With four children roughly the same age howling the same basic needs, she found little time to coo and cuddle. My husband once walked into her kitchen to find four toddlers arranged in a high chair assembly line, opening their mouths in turn to receive spoons of canned pears.

“She’s a feisty one,” the foster mother told us on the day we met our new daughter. She chuckled, a toddler under each arm, their chubby hands clutching hand-knit stuffed dragons. “Falls asleep squalling in the middle of the living room floor. I just step over her.”

I gazed at the strange little girl tottering across the sunny summer porch. She was dressed in a peach pantsuit with her curls gelled backward. Somewhere, she’d picked up a pointy lawn ornament, which she brandished it in my direction. With her face wrinkled into a scowl, she looked like an aggrieved elderly bingo player who’d been dealt a crappy card.

I didn’t know then about the trauma that foster babies experience—hadn’t considered what it felt like for her to be ripped from the only body, the only sounds and smells she’d known for nine months and embraced by an incubator for a week, and then a car seat and a high chair and a crib, but not by much else.

Perhaps, when no one responds to her pleas for assistance with a wet diaper or with a favorite ball that has rolled under the couch, she learns to holler like hell. She learns to kick and yell and scream because it earns her attention—even if it’s attention in the form of exasperated assistance. Lacking that, she shuts her eyes and withdraws into herself. Alone behind her closed lids, she ignores the fuzzy dragon-slippers that step over her. She searches for peace.

*     *     *

It’s Parent-Teacher Night. My husband and I walk into the second-grade classroom with its walls plastered in colorful drawings and watercolors around rows of two-seater tables. We weave through a crowd of parents embracing and planning play dates and roller-skating parties to which our child is never invited. We stop at a desk in front of the teacher’s podium. “Here’s her name tag,” I tell my husband. “Front and center.”

“She’ll always sit where I can put a hand on her shoulder if I need to.” The teacher looks down at me from her awesome height. “A soft touch helps to focus her.”

As other parents exclaim over their children’s hand-knitted flute cases and beeswax candles molded into the shape of Mozart or Lao Tzu, we look at the curious one-legged stool that stands in place of a chair at our daughter’s seat. “It gives her sensory information,” the teacher tells us, “and helps her to be aware of her body in space.”

We look at her, blankly. She smiles. “It calms her down.”

We heft the weighted blue blanket under our child’s desk—another calming device—and note the noise-canceling headphones. There’s a necklace on her desk—a black string with a blue and white rubber triangle. It’s for chewing; otherwise, she gnaws her pencil in half.

We move toward the Peace Table at the back of the room. “She spends a lot of time here looking at books,” the teacher tells us, “particularly if she’s having a rough day.”

My husband and I sink into the little chairs at the scrubbed wooden table. We grip each other’s hands, no words for our humiliation.

“Breeze is racing through the Little House series,” I hear one mama tell another. “She wants to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. She sewed her own sunbonnet and apron.”
“I wish Moss would read,” a father says. “It’s all about lacrosse at our house.”

My daughter refuses to read. We’ve blown through soccer lessons, basketball, ballet, gymnastics, horseback riding, aerial silks. Each coach and teacher says the same thing. “She doesn’t like to listen,” by which they mean, “She’s giving us a boatload of grief, and we’re sinking. Please, please bail.”

“We’re sorry,” we tell them and slink away from the field or gymnasium or dance studio in the wake of our failure.

At home, presented with requests to feed the cats or set the table or finish lessons sent home from school, our eight-year old howls. If we persist, the insults begin. “I hate you! You’re stupid!” And—wait for it—”You’re not my real parents.” She calls it the “Everything Feeling,” those emotions that collide within her and explode in all directions, causing her hands and feet and words to lash out and hurt someone else as much as she’s hurting.

I look around at the life we’ve created for her—the bedroom full of books and dress-up clothes and musical instruments, the photos on the wall of our family vacations to tropical beaches and wildflower mountains and national parks. I fight an urge to shake her little shoulders and stare into her big brown hostile eyes and yell, “Why can’t you just be happy?”

            But I don’t . . . because I know better. The Everything Feeling’s got me in its grip as well, and has since I was her age.

*     *     *

            I’m eight years old. My mother—my confidante and playmate and Brownie leader–buckles my siblings and me into our station wagon and flees from our chic Los Angeles suburb. She deposits us in a scrappy duplex half an hour north in a scrappier beachside community. A makeup less woman–Budweiser in one hand and Marlboro in another–embraces her. She’s my mother’s new lover. “We’re leaving your father,” Mom tells me.

And, I add silently, my friends and my school and my Brownie troop, our cats and never-ending rabbits and the cute neighbor boy who’s taught me to shoot the bird and pass gas like the Fourth of July.

I don’t say a word; I don’t cry. I’ve heard the midnight screaming and the shattered glass. I’ve seen the black eyes, her bruised nose. I’ve felt her fear and mine, and I’m old enough to grasp the necessity of loss.

To a point, and then, not.

Something in me begins to hate my mother for not protecting me from trauma. I despise her new girlfriend—her rasping voice and her habit of striking a match on the zipper of her Levi’s. I flee our duplex every chance I get and run wild on the beach with a pack of stray dogs. I go feral. I growl at the nicotine stink of the living room as we eat dinner on tired carpet in front of the cold empty fireplace. I fall asleep to the wail of the foghorn on the jetty with my teeth and fists and stomach clenched tight.

It takes my father three weeks to find us. He appears at the front door with a patrol car’s lights whirling behind him and demands that my mother meet him outside. She and her girlfriend stand in the doorway, arms folded across their Superman t-shirts, sans bras. They shake their heads. “No way,” they say.

An officer steps from the car. Red and blue beams flash across the sandy volleyball court between duplexes. He walks up the steps and presents a piece of paper. My mother’s face crumples. We follow our father—me first, then my younger sister and brother, down the stairs and into his Buick. It’s 1978. The DSM IV has recently deigned to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Still, a psychologist declares my mother unfit to raise children.

I never live with her again.

As a concession, the judge allows us to see her two weekends a month; apparently, she can’t turn us gay in 48 hours’ time. Every other Friday, she drives down in her VW bus to pick us up from our father’s house. I murmur tearful goodbyes to the stepmother we’re learning to love and shed more tears on Sundays when I’m ripped from my mother. I can’t feel her arms around me, smell her, or see her for ten days at a time. I forget how to draw a deep breath; I walk on tiptoe and read a novel a day between school and bedtime, four on the weekends I’m not with Mom.

“Why can’t you just be happy?”

Each of my parents demands this throughout my adolescence. Every other Sunday night, I sit in my bedroom on the ice-blue carpet, head pillowed on the rosy bedspread, and replay my weekend at the beach. Saltwater and sand still cling to my calves as I sit there for hours, eyes shut tight, hands shaking. No one comes into comfort me.

Therapy? No one has time. Mood stabilizers—out of the question. The Reagans are in the White House; red ribbons tied on the fence around my school remind me to just say no to the hooded stoner kids lounging in my classroom’s back rows. Drugs are for weak people, my father and stepmother tell me, mixing a third gin and tonic. “We’re fine. We’ve got this.”

My insomnia begins that year. My mother’s first girlfriend leaves her. I lay rigid in the darkness, worrying about her until the wee hours. Is she lonely? Is she suicidal? What if she dies? In my father’s bedroom, the battles begin anew—the slamming doors, the screams, the shattering glass. My brain waves twist and warp, training themselves into terror.

But I know nothing of neuropsychology. All I know is a longing to run the safety razor across my wrists as I stand in the shower at six AM. A crushing depression follows me to school, trailing me onto the high school track and the drama club stage.

I don’t do drugs—I do musical theater. I try unconsciously to restructure my neuropathways, boosting serotonin with exercise and music and laughter with friends. Some days, I almost achieve a retraining. But fear triggered by years of Sunday-night separations, by domestic disturbance and an officer at the door suggesting my stepmother take us to a friend’s house until my father stops losing his shit—these incidents reinforce my faulty neuropathways until I stand sobbing in the shower at dawn

*   *   *

I make it through college eschewing all other meds save Benadryl—two of the pink pills at night when chamomile tea and melatonin tablets fail. When diphenhydramine stops knocking me out, I add acetaminophen to the mix. Tylenol PM enables graduate school, marriage, and the adoption of my daughter.

In the daylight, I’m functional. My child is in preschool each morning with a teacher who loves her. But then, she hits kindergarten. Our world becomes afterschool meetings with principals, IEP circuses. The rooms of our house echo with screaming and slammed doors. At night, I lay in my husband’s arms and curse the anxiety that robs me of sleep.

He finds me a psychologist, a mellow and intelligent young man who tells me how much my husband loves me, how much I need help. He tells me a story of his husband—a man my age plagued by insomnia until he went on a low dose of Ambien. “It’s okay to take sleep aids,” the therapist concludes, but I shake my head.

Beholden to a prescription, I explain, means more than just a half hour wait at Rite Aid once a month. It means inadequacy, a failure to function like everyone else, to get a grip.

“Lots of people take prescription meds,” he argues.

I think of Nancy Reagan’s red ribbons and shake my head. “I’m fine,” I tell him. “I’ve got this.”

I take up long-distance running; now I’m thin and muscular and exhausted. Periodically, I break out in hives. An allergy, I tell myself, to sports gel or Gatorade or the flax seeds I spoon into kale smoothies. But when my lips bulge and my eyes swell shut and my husband drives me to the emergency room looking like the Elephant Man and with his same wheeze, the doctor refers me to another who diagnoses Hashimoto’s Disease. Three and a half decades of anxiety and sleeplessness have caused my immune system to attack my thyroid.

“Take this pill every morning.” The pharmacist at Rite Aid shows me the little blue oval of Levothyroxine.

“For how long?” I ask him.

He blinks surprise behind his spectacles. “For the rest of your life.”

*     *     *

Shortly after Parent-Teacher Night, I attend a regional adoption conference. Adoptive parents, foster parents, and social workers share watery coffee and stale maple-glazed donuts in a chilly borrowed office suite, listening to a sociologist talk about the effects of early trauma on a child’s neurological development. Brain scans appear on her PowerPoint like a couple of cauliflowers. “This is the brain of a normally-developing child at three years old,” she tells us. “And this is the brain of a three-year old foster child who’s experienced trauma and neglect.”

We study the runt cauliflower, significantly smaller, and listen to the list of potential stressors affecting our kids. They start in the womb with little pre-natal care and periodic baths in drugs and alcohol. They extend to the shock of delivery and removal from the birth mother, then placement in a sterile neo-natal unit and a transfer to foster parents who may or may not offer physical affection and a tranquil, structured environment.

Some foster parents—mostly retired and courting sainthood—have the luxury of accepting one drug-affected infant at a time. They carry the child everywhere, cuddling, crooning, and feeding them pudding while gazing into their eyes–the works. Others juggle several needy kiddos at once. Money and time, in short supply, don’t permit a whole lot of baby wearing and eye contact.

“Foster kids’ brains have a different structure,” the sociologist tells our goose bumped group of conference participants. “They have a low volume of calming chemicals and a high volume of excitatory chemicals. Our kids view conflict—any conflict—as a threat to their survival. Adoptive parents, no matter how noble their intentions, represent one more trauma.”

Someone raises a hand. “What about medication? Anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants?”

The presenter taps the poor little wrinkled cauliflower on the screen with her pencil. “Meds can help,” she says. “A lot.”

She clicks off her laptop and invites questions from the group. I flee to the restroom. In a sterile stall I sit and stare at the door. Right there on the cold toilet seat, I have an epiphany that changes my life.

My brain needs help.

I slink toward my little white anti-anxiety pill at 44 years old, resolute but convinced that I’ve failed at the basic human tasks of sleep and moderate optimism. Within two days of swallowing it, I sleep an eight-hour night. “Everyone’s getting medication for Christmas!” I joke with my husband.

Everyone that is, except our daughter.

            *   *     *

Our eight-year old, I continue to insist, needs affection and attention and hip hop lessons—not mood stabilizers. Never mind that she screams over her plate of spaghetti because it’s got the wrong sauce, screams over the loss of her favorite TV show, chases the cats, fists me in the stomach, and falls into bed squalling. “We’ll find her a good therapist,” I tell my husband. “That’ll help.”

We agree on a kind Polish counselor who does sand play therapy with innumerable plastic Disney figures and teaches our child to lie on her back in a warmly carpeted office and blow soap bubbles, breathing deeply to combat stress. The woman teaches her “rabbit breaths” —short bursts of inhale and a long exhale designed to replace hyperventilating over second-grade math assignments and requests to set the dinner table.

None of it helps. My daughter shoves the principal, who begins sending her home from school mid-morning. “We’re a charter school,” he says. “We’re not set up for behavioral disorders. Think about moving her to a special education class at the public school.”

I grit my teeth. I’ve been a special ed teacher, know first-hand the challenges of wrangling a class full of kids—each with specific needs and none getting optimum attention. I’ve stepped over plenty of squalling children myself to attend to the one toppling computers from desks and punching holes in the walls. “She is not,” I tell the principal, “switching schools.”

In the dank patchouli corridor, when my daughter actually does manage to make it to 2:45, I meet no parent’s eyes. The other second-graders line up in the doorway and shake the teacher’s hand and grasp their hand-woven lunch baskets, heading off in pairs for afternoon play dates and Friday night slumber parties. My child’s the last to leave. She huddles at the Peace Table while the teacher gently reprimands her for the latest shrieking/hitting/spitting incident. At home, she shuts herself up in her room and slumps on the bed.

“I feel like a broken light bulb,” she tells me, surrounded by piles of schoolwork she hasn’t completed.

“What do you mean?” I ask her.

“I’m different from everyone,” she mutters. “I shouldn’t be here.” And then, “I want to be dead.”

I stare at her—my suicidal eight-year old in her blue Frozen t-shirt. The words under a smirking blond Elsa read “My castle, my rules.”

For the second time in a month, I experience an epiphany. What other choice did Elsa have, I think, after 18 years of loss and neglect? Her parents were dead. A propensity for frigid temper tantrums kept her locked in her room. Why wouldn’t she retreat to the top of a mountain, build a fortress of solitude, and take charge of her environment?

Maybe if she’d just swallowed a little mood stabilizer once a day, she wouldn’t have iced an entire kingdom.

I call my husband. He phones a developmental pediatrician and makes an appointment for diagnosis and a prescription. I call the principal and withdraw our daughter from her second-grade classroom. “We’re going to homeschool her,” I say, the sentence absolving me of IEP meetings and outrage and shame. Elsa’s words ring through my head, full of triumph.

My castle, my rules.

*     *     *

It’s 2:45, the end of the school day. My child, a third-grader now, runs to meet a bus full of friends outside the building that houses their afternoon program. They race into a classroom full of art supplies and sewing machines and games and books and beanbags. She has time for a quick hug, a swift, “I love you, Mama,” before melting into a group of giggling girls.

At home, I open my laptop beside her colorful math and literature textbooks, the flash cards, the globe, the Borax crystals and the paper-and-string robotic finger she’s created. We’ve been homeschooling for six months now. We laugh a lot. Sometimes, we argue. On our worst days, when I resent having to wake up too early and stay up too late to attend to my own work, or my daughter fumes at having to study when she wants to lounge on the couch reading Garfield comics, we cry. But mostly, we relish small daily revelations and the one big one—she’s finally happy.

She takes mood stabilizers for six months. They chill her out, but give her a Winnie the Pooh physique and a slowness not conducive to gymnastics and hip-hop classes. With the pediatrician’s permission, we cut the dosage in half and wait for the return of our demon child.

She doesn’t resurface.

Instead, she wakes up smiling, singing, even—excited about her day.

We quarter the pills, then abandon them altogether for a low dose of Ritalin which allows her to learn multiplication and fractions and spelling without chewing her pencil in half.

Several mornings a week, we walk up the hill to a forested park, on a quests for newts in the stream and Cooper’s hawks in the Doug firs. We discuss planets and poetry and how baby chickens can breathe inside the egg.

One day, on a sunny morning on which we’ve discovered four types of lichen on a fallen branch and spent 20 minutes identifying a colossal mound of gleaming black opossum dung, she slips her hand into mine.

“Remember when I was so bad at school?” she asks me.

“You weren’t bad,” I respond automatically. “You were scared and angry.”

We walk past a patch of sunny daffodils. I point out a deer path winding through the tall grass, but she persists.

“I was mad at you for leaving,” she says. “Every day, I missed you.”

I squeeze her little shoulders and stare into her big brown affectionate eyes, remembering what it felt like to be torn from my own mother 10 days at a time.

“I know,” I tell her, and we walk hand in hand toward home.

Author’s Note: It’s been almost a year since I completed the final draft of Rabbit Breaths–a year of homeschooling, of meetings with developmental pediatricians and counselors who diagnosed my daughter with severe ADHD. We’re still looking for the right medication that allows her to function calmly and happily in the world. Not medicating isn’t an option, but my husband and I have greatly stepped up our attention to nutrition and sleep and exercise and outdoor exploration and the arts. As well, we discovered Russell Barkley’s excellent Taking Charge of ADHD and a local parent/child support group. We take each day an hour at a time, practicing (and sometimes failing) our patience and creativity. Most days, we remember to laugh.  

Melissa Hart is the author of the YA novel Avenging the Owl (SkyPony, 2016) and the memoirs Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2015) and Gringa (2009). She’s a contributing editor at The Writer Magazine.

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Rooting For The Cubs, Again And Again

Rooting For The Cubs, Again And Again

art-cubs

By Carolyn Alessio

I grew up watching the Cubs in the 1970s, which was dubbed the era of “Sustained Mediocrity” by Wrigley Nation. My father Sergio, who introduced me to the North Side team, had markedly better memories of the Cubs from his youth. In 1945, the last time they played in the World Series, my father was 16.  Similarly, my nine-year-old son will have infinitely more positive memories of growing up with the Cubs. Of the three of us, I am the only one who became a fan in the team’s darkest hours. Literally, because Wrigley Field did not install stadium lights until 1988. Over the years, darkness has periodically plagued but also instructed me, both inside and outside of baseball.

Just as with fighting depression, following the Cubs requires a combination of secular wizardry, superhuman patience, and hope.  My father, an electrical engineer and child of Italian immigrants, rarely spent extra money or indulged himself, but every summer he made sure to take me to Wrigley Field. We parked on the grounds of a convent next door that rented out spots during games. I remember the enterprising Sisters in habits waving us into their makeshift lot. The confluence of Catholicism and baseball seemed perfectly natural to me—in many ways, they were the twin religions of our pious household.

In the sparsely filled seats of the upper deck, my father carefully filled out a score card, often consulting the green wooden, manual scoreboard that still sits over center field today (now with electronic screens on each side of it.)  My father never spoke to me directly of his experiences with prolonged melancholy, (my mother filled me in later), but I do know that he tried medication briefly as I would later. Back then, however, antidepressants were not nearly as effective or refined. My father did demonstrate however, in his steady following of the Cubs. That routines helped him inestimably—even if built around a team renowned for losing. So my inherited addiction to ritual turned out to save us both.

I don’t think the Cubs’ half-baked performance of the 70s significantly intensified my father’s existing depression, but the experience gave us more insight into the natural psyche of Cubs fans. Just as I hope to shield my children from inheriting my knee-jerk sense of self-doubt and anxious tendencies, I worry about the unintended effects of encouraging my son’s bone-deep affection for the Cubs.

In the 1970s, the Cubs rarely budged from the basement of the National League East except to swap places with the Cardinals, but each morning I dutifully checked the box scores in the newspaper during the season. If the game had run too late–as on the West Coast while playing the Dodgers or Giants–I would call Sports Phone for the score. The number was not 800 or 888 as it might be today; it didn’t even have an area code. I remember still wearing my pajamas many summer mornings when I called the hot line on the kitchen wall phone. I twisted the long plastic phone cord as I waited nervously for the recording to run through the litany of local teams’ scores.

Today, my young son merely grabs my cell phone, summons Siri, and asks, “What’s the Cubs’ score?” The process still involves a few seconds of anxiety, but the efficient digital assistant gets directly to his team. Siri editorializes too much for my taste, however, especially on the rare days when the Cubs have lost badly or, as she smugly says, been “trounced” or “remained in hibernation.”

By 1978 and 79, my adolescence approached, along with severe anxiety beyond most teenage angst, and an ambivalence about eating properly. I had a few friends but preferred to stay home on Friday nights and watch doubleheaders in which the Cubs often lost twice. I was only comfortable contemplating love while watching homerun slugger Dave Kingman on my parents’ old black and white TV. One day I even wrote him a fan letter on pink stationery, and tucked in a McDonald’s gift certificate for $5. A Golden Arches sat across Clark Street from The Friendly Confines, so I figured it would be convenient for my hero. Aside from the excitement of Kingman, who once drilled a 500-foot homer far past the field, and the elegant assists of shortstop Ivan DeJesus Sr., I took refuge in the team’s predictably tepid, afternoon home games. (Wrigley Field would not have lights or night games for another 10 years.) Watching the day games gave shape to my uncertain days and reminded me that other stories existed besides winning.

Two years ago, when my son began watching Cubs games more regularly, and keeping closer track of the schedule, I understood the real legacy of my father. When my son asked about a game that approached in a few hours, I felt a mall reassuring lift in my chest not inspired by SSRIs or Cognitive-Feedback Therapy.  Regardless of how our days had gone, or the amount of times we might have been disappointed (or disappointed others), the upcoming game would still take place at a specific stadium at a designated time. Tickets had already been purchased. Baseball continues to shape our days.

In late September this year at Wrigley Field, as the Cubs sailed past the Cardinals in their last home game, a St. Louis fan sitting behind my family chanted, “Eleven championships!” The man spoke as though he had personally enabled those winning seasons, maybe by summoning the spirit of the Cardinals’ legendary Stan Musial, or by boosting each Cardinal’s Sabermetric prowess. My nine-year-old Little Leaguer smiled at the fan’s desperate bragging. Recently, when the Cubs lost two playoff games in a row to the Dodgers, I experienced again the basis for that feeling of deep connection to a team’s fate.

In public I blamed Clayton Kershaw’s maddening curveball for muffling the Cubs’ bats, but in private, I decided that my own mistaken display of a “W” sign in our front window after one loss had triggered the Cubs’ dangerous dive. I quickly remedied the situation and all seemed well, except for the fact that somebody was closely observing my superstitious behavior. Somebody, that is, besides my bemused husband and skeptical teen daughter. I figured it out on the eve of the opening game of the World Series, when my son earnestly reminded me to “Take down the ‘W.'”

These days, so much else about my old team has radically changed that I often feel on the verge of disorientation. The Cubs are playing bizarrely late in October, and all season long the team has displayed consistently powerful hitting and stingy pitching. When my son marvels at Kris Bryant’s batting average or Jake Arrieta’s ERA, I automatically feel nervous, not just for the team’s transformed franchise but because I want to protect my son from disappointment, the past, and having a hall of mirrors in his head like mine. So naturally I turn to quirky ministrations that just might help preserve the magical balance. Of course, the rest of Chicago and perhaps the Western Hemisphere is also blathering away about the “curse of the Billy Goat” and other black magic that has kept the Cubs from even playing in a World Series for 72 years.

But observing a mother’s odd baseball rituals up-close at home might lead a child to transfer the strategies to his own Little League play. Instead of practicing daily to improve as he did last season, maybe my son could just designate a lucky pair of long socks and pray for a downpour when his team faces a tricky situation. A young baseball devotee like him might not even differentiate completely between professional and amateur ball. My son learned this lesson vividly and firsthand last May at Wrigley, when he joined more than 900 other kids one afternoon in running the bases after the game. The video that my husband made, set to the theme song from “The Natural,” shows him trotting along at an efficient pace, confident and with no trace of the Club Foot he was born with long ago. It all looked so, well, natural, that later I was surprised to hear that my son had been shocked that the bases were “a lot farther apart” than he had thought.

Last July, a reference to a Cubs team of the past unexpectedly connected my son and me. After his Little League team played a challenging final game to finish third out of six teams, my son’s coach called the boys together and began to hand out awards. These were not the mass-produced, flimsy trophies usually shoved at players by the league, however, but brand new Rawlings baseballs on which the coach had written personal tributes and comparisons to famous professional players. As he presented each award, the coach compared his nine- and ten-year-olds to All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers like Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench. To support the comparison, the coach cited specific examples both from beloved moments in professional baseball, as well as meticulous Little League game-notes that he had kept all season.

When the coach got to my son, he presented him with the award named for Andre Dawson, a Cubs outfielder from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I knew the name well, from my later, somewhat happier fan days while in high school (when the team actually made the playoffs). Dawson, as the Little League coach explained, was known as “The Hawk” because he was persistent and rarely avoided fielding a ball, just like my son, who had transformed himself from a tentative, shaky outfielder into a go-to third baseman. Listening to the presentations, and watching the young players lean in, solemn and wide-eyed, I felt a sense of grace. The patient coach was using similar reference points to help guide the boys. Maybe I wasn’t as off-course in parenting as I had believed—or at least I was doing an acceptable job of managing my limitations.

Not long ago, on the afternoon following the Indians’ 6-0 victory over the Cubs in the first game of the World Series, I asked my son on the way home from school what he thought had changed in our team since they triumphed over the Dodgers. “Well,” he said, skipping a rock into an alley pothole, “I did eat a Cubs cookie the night they got the pennant.” It took me a moment to picture the frosted cookie with the team logo that my husband and I had brought him from a wedding, and even then I glanced over to see if my son was serious. But he just shrugged and smiled to himself, like he was working out his own private form of Cubs Sabermetrics in his head.

Carolyn Alessio lives with her family in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, and teaches high school in nearby Pilsen where only a small but mighty portion of her students are Cubs fans. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Pushcart Prize anthology, The Chronicle of Higher Education and is forthcoming in America. 

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With Child, With Alcohol

With Child, With Alcohol

Alcohol addiction : Portrait of a lonely and desperate drunk hispanic woman (image focused on her drink)

By Liv Spikes

At five-and-a-half months pregnant, the golden fluid flooded my body with a warm calm. I loved that feeling; I missed that feeling. My head swelled with the sense that everything was all right, now, in that moment. The drink was my insulin, it righted me, made me level. Giving myself permission to have a drink after all that time was like scratching at a scab, and once I started, an itch kicked in and I became singularly focused on ripping the whole thing off. I guess I’d forgotten that.

It was the night of my annual work Christmas party. I started closing up the fine art gallery I managed, when it occurred to me to pour myself one of the single serving bottles of wine we kept in the fridge for clients, and on occasion, the staff. It’s my company party, I thought. I deserve a glass. I poured one of the 6oz bottles into a clear plastic cup and sipped it as I counted the daily deposit.

Having a drink always felt like taking off stilettos that were half a size too small. Ahhh, my brain said after the first gulp. Now that’s better.

On my way home to change outfits and pick up my husband for the party the thought popped in my head that I should stop by the liquor store to get Jason a six-pack so he could enjoy a pre-party beer while I layered on eye make-up and perfume. And since I was there, I decided I should get myself a single serving bottle of champagne because two drinks were probably no big deal, and it was my party after all, and once I got to the party I wouldn’t be able  have anything to drink with the rest of the staff. In years past, I was the notoriously wasted, the manager who overdrank, and overshared.

Jason drank his beer and watched CNN. I decided on tight denim maternity trousers, a navy sequin tank, and a cropped navy wrap sweater. I sipped champagne while curling my hair and by the time we loaded into the car, my tummy filled only with amber bubbles was warm, I was comfortably buzzed, cozy in my adorable pregnant body.

When we arrived, the mingling staff were holding cocktails; they had eaten nearly all the baby quiches and warm brie laid out for them. Having promised to  announce the sex of the baby to them, I waited all of six minutes before tapping on my boss’ glass and saying, “Well guys, I’ve kept you guessing long enough. Jason and I are having a….BOY!” My coworkers clapped and a few even said “Ahh,” with damp eyes. Jason hugged me sideways and we made our way around the room smiling and accepting everyone’s congratulations.

“Livi!” our office manager Chrissy said, “Come here. I want you to meet Rosie.” Jason and I separated and I made my way to the bar next to Chrissy.

Rosie was a petite blonde woman standing behind the bar pouring wine. “Rosie is pregnant with her second boy,” Chrissy said.

I stood on my tip toes to get a total body look at the expecting bartender. Her belly was no bigger than mine, though her baby was due two months sooner.

“Aren’t you adorable?!” I said, as though Rosie was a little girl in a Halloween costume. She responded with a chuckle and in her charming British accent said, “Well I don’t feel adorable at the moment, but thanks.”

Chrissy and I made our way over to the gift table to scope out the presents up for exchange. Still feeling airy, and a little uninhibited, I said to her, “I wish you wouldn’t have introduced me as a fellow pregnant lady, now there’s no way Rosie’s gonna give me a glass of wine and I wanted to have one.”

She looked befuddled and said, “Course she will. She’s back there drinking

Champagne!” Delighted to have a fellow pregnancy rule-bucker on my side, I said, “Then go get me a glass! But please, find a way to make it discreet.”

My boss joined me near the gift table as Chrissy headed off on her secret mission. I spotted Jason across the room graciously chatting with our notoriously awkward frame shop worker. I watched the gentle tip of my husband’s head and thought, I love that man.

“Your hot tea little mama,” Rosie said in her accent as she handed me a white porcelain mug brimming with white wine. She winked as she passes it off to me.

“You’re a life saver,” I said. “Honestly Rosie, I was born in the wrong era.” I slid into my well-rehearsed routine about how I should have been born in the Mad Men era when women wore polka dot dresses and celebrated positive pregnancy tests with martinis.

“Oh, honey. You weren’t born in the wrong era, just the wrong country,” and with that, she returned to tend her bar.

After that exchange my memory of the night grows fuzzy. I remember standing in line for the buffet food. I watched in slow motion as Jason mistook the thick balsamic dressing for gravy and smothered his potatoes, pork loin, and dry role in it. I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. The food was horrible, so bad that aside from a few bites of cold beet salad, I left the majority of it on my plate, untouched.

I didn’t mean to, I never meant to. If this were a court case and intent was linked to culpability I’d get off scot-free. Over-drinking wasn’t something I ever set out to do, it’s just what happened whenever I had a drink. The obvious solution was to avoid drinking. I know that now and I knew it on some level then. But I couldn’t; I couldn’t leave the one thing alone that made me feel so much better in the short term and so much worse in the long term.

I awoke at 2:30 and discovered I was alone in our bed, lying on a bath towel, wearing only my bra and underwear. I found this strange. The carpet on the side of the bed was a darker shade of green than the rest. I felt thirsty. I went into the bathroom. My sparkly pregnancy tank and secret fit belly panel jeans lay on the floor in a heap, vomit trailing down the front of everything. The horror I felt was unmatched—incomprehensible.

I looked in the mirror and a puffy-faced, puffy-bellied alcoholic stared back at me. There was no other explanation; no way around the definition I’d been dodging for a decade. I thought for a moment that I may actually understand why cutters tear into their wrists with razor-blades; I could intellectually understand the need to convert internal pain to an alarming external statement.

I started piecing together the familiar scenario: I didn’t drink the one glass of wine I had intended to drink at the company Christmas party. I drank from a bottomless white coffee mug that Rosie ensured was never empty.

My husband got me home. Somewhere along the way, I vomited on myself. He tried to get me to stay in the bathroom, but I insisted on going to bed where I continued vomiting. I have done this to him dozens of times before, I have never done this while carrying his unborn son.

My breath quickened, I felt a throbbing anxiety. I ran down the stairs and found him sleeping on the couch. I sat next to him on the floor and shook him as gently as I could until he awoke. When his eyes were half-open, I started crying.

“I am so sorry. So very, very sorry. I don’t know what happened. Please come back to bed with me. Please. I am so sorry”

“Don’t tell me: tell that to our baby.”

The gravity of this statement didn’t resonate until later–how could it? I was too focused on getting him to comfort me, to lie by me in the hopes that his mere physical proximity would alleviate the horror of being in my skin. I kept begging; I declared I wouldn’t leave his side until he came back to bed. I said the words “please” and “sorry” over and over, knowing on some level that they had lost all meaning for him.

This was our dance. The dance I forced on him. We went out, we drank, I drank more, I blacked out. Sometimes I talked in circles until he wanted to smother me with a pillow, other times, I insisted on having numb sex for hours always proclaiming I was “almost there”, often, I picked fights with him, mean fights with below-the-belt punches. Fueled by vodka, I let him know he wasn’t making enough money and that our life was not the life I had imagined. Puking–on him, or off the side of the bed–was my typical indicator that this scene in our personal rendering of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf was over. The curtain fell for the evening.

Whenever I regained enough consciousness to realize what I’d done, always I started in with the pleading, begging him not to be mad at me. I imagine he heard only, “I’m so window, so very door knob for what happened last night.” You do something enough times to a person and I suspect the word “sorry” sounds as much like an abstract inanimate object as a meaningful phrase.

I lay on the floor next to him for over an hour.  I felt like bugs had taken up residence beneath my skin and were scrambling in different directions. My head throbbed its familiar ache. I found myself adding up the prenatal vitamins, sleep aids, migraine meds, and over-the-counter cough syrup down the hall in the medicine cabinet, wondering if it would be enough.

I thought about the cautionary articles I’d read about drinking during pregnancy, articles describing how quickly alcohol crosses into the placenta: if you are buzzed, your baby is wasted. I wondered what level of drunkenness was beyond wasted, what my son must have felt like floating in his drunken caretaker’s middle. The fear was crushing.

I also wondered, only briefly, if my binge or subsequent vomiting could have killed him, but I could only stand the thought of my dead fetus inside me for a few seconds.  More horrible thoughts swirled around like the blizzard created by shaking a fragile snow globe, and I wanted to throw the globe against the wall and shatter it into a million pieces.

There are tragedies you can try on for size: horrible circumstances you can contemplate like, what if my spouse were killed in an accident? Or, what if our house caught fire when we weren’t home and everything burned to the ground? Our minds allow for this. But the one tragedy I was incapable of thinking about was the one in my head at that moment: What if my behavior, my choices, caused irreparable damage to my baby? What if he’s born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), something completely preventable, that I caused? I thought of moms at the grocery store shopping with their nine- year-old special needs kids holding onto the cart, and how we cant our heads and think, that poor woman.  What if I made my own almond-eyed boy, except rather than a genetic blip, his condition was caused by me, my actions. There is no pity for this woman, no forgiveness, no do-over.

I want to tell you that was the last time I ever drank. I want to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” and have that lie define my bottom, contain the messy and enigmatic disease of alcoholism; I want to make this story the trampoline beneath the high rise: There. Good came of it. I was saved.

Knowing I was an alcoholic wasn’t enough and neither was the degradation I felt that night. I can’t explain that, can’t swirl together pretty enough words to answer the nagging question of why I couldn’t fully surrender even in the midst of that pain.

When my next ultrasound indicated the baby was developing normally, and the shallow distance of a few weeks separated me from the Christmas party, I drank again. I drank two or three glasses of wine on several more occasions during my pregnancy. Is that true, was it only two or three? I didn’t vomit or blackout again, but in terms of quantifying my consumption, I’m hardly a reliable source.

The horror and disgust of that night blurred with passing days like a car accident in my rearview mirror. It wasn’t my fault, it was Rosie’s. I won’t have more than three, no matter what. It’s just that I didn’t eat enough. Yeah, but…. All alcoholic lies strung together in my diseased brain’s effort to defend my right to drink, to rationalize irrational behavior. This is what addicts do. We forget, we minimize, and we honestly believe the shame of a previous fiasco will insulate us from the next one. And then, we do it all over again.

My son was born on his due date and pronounced healthy. He bore no visible markers of a baby with FAS; I know because I’ve now studied it at length. It’s a dose-dependent syndrome and spectrum disorder, and no one knows just how much alcohol is safe.

When he was four-months-old I got confronted by a daycare worker when I came to get him after work. Another mom smelled alcohol on my breath when I passed her in the hallway and she reported it right away. I could tell you I just had a few glasses of champagne with some clients before leaving work, but that doesn’t change the facts.  It was another Lifetime Movie kind of moment. A moment that begged the question, Is this who I am now? Am I the mom who got drunk during pregnancy and who the daycare worker isn’t sure about releasing an infant to? My infant.

My drinking career is littered with these. I line them up in my head like landmarks on a cross-country tour, places I stop to take horrific Polaroid’s in my mind’s eye. The first time I drank I blacked out. I got so drunk on a college graduation trip in Hawaii that some guy delivered me to the doorstep of the room I was sharing with girlfriends, rang the doorbell, and left. When they opened the door, I was covered in sand and two cockroaches crawled out of my hair. I will never know where I’d been or what had happened. I got so drunk the night before my wedding that I peed in a hotel elevator; I got up the next morning, vomited, and had a mimosa. I have dozens and dozens of these snapshots stashed in my gray matter, experiences that would rationally define a bottom for an alcoholic. But none of them are the smoking gun for my sobriety, and I’ve got a few years now.

“Rational” and “alcoholic” have no business commingling in a sentence. I got my fetus drunk.

I have shameful memories of the more generic and even humorous variety like lots of women do, college snafu’s and stories of being cut-off at the bar.  Buried beneath those stories– beneath sheets of denial and layers of rationalization–are the stories I tell only a few women, stories I’d prefer not to share because saying the words out loud makes me feel like I’m standing naked beneath halogen lights in the cold. This story makes me feel ugly and dirty; it makes me want to throw rotten fruit at myself or spit at the reflection in the mirror. I hate this woman. I live with the odium that I jeopardized my baby; ironically, during the only time in his life I could completely control his environment.

When I get the courage to share the ugliness, a dark beauty unfolds. In the five years since this happened, I have shared this story a few times in the safety of a women’s recovery meeting. Not because I’m under an illusion that it might help prevent another woman from doing the same thing; it won’t. And not because I find it “therapeutic” to revisit the worst night of my life; I don’t. I share it sometimes because when I unfold the ugliest in me, it gives other women permission to unveil the ugliest in them. And there, with our worst sins splayed out on the floor, we can experience the intimacy of empathy. When I tell this story, some women cannot stop their faces from puckering, because repulsion is a visceral emotion, and I don’t fault them for that. But always after the telling, I talk with a woman who opens up about her own alcoholism colliding with pregnancy, breastfeeding, or motherhood at large.

In this one-on-one connection, the shared humiliation and humanity of my biggest screw up makes another struggling mom feel less lonely in her own, and that does help. It eases the isolating loneliness and the ache of regret. We share stories and through those I see that really good people make really big mistakes, and the alcoholism is a take-no-prisoners disease that you can’t outrun, outsmart, or outgrow.

These are not the glossy magazine stories of the follies of motherhood, of even the follies of drinking and motherhood (“My daughter calls my wine glass mommy’s sippy cup!” ha ha ha). These are the tales we swear we’ll never utter to a soul. The moments we hope God himself didn’t see. There is no “healing” from this shame. There is only time, and the slow cool comfort of taking right action.

My son tests at the top of his Kindergarten class. He is well adjusted and has no behavioral problems. His eyelashes curl all the way to his brows, they clump together when he cries. His enunciation of words is exaggerated and his delivery of sentences is emphatic, like a mini-Jerry Seinfeld.  He is too big to cradle in my arms; his legs and torso have grown long in the few years since his birth. I watch him sleep sometimes at night and like all parents and I wonder how he got so big, how this person grew from a cluster of cells to a sentient being on my watch, under my care. I remember not wanting that responsibility, feeling burdened by it.  I knew my husband was better qualified to insulate and incubate him and I couldn’t hand him off, couldn’t leave the egg in the nest and have him sit on it for me while I went to the bar.

My husband is a logical man, he isn’t one for lyrical declarations. I told him several years ago that I needed to really apologize once and for all for many of the things I did drinking. He chuckled an exhausted sort of huff and said simply, “I don’t want you to apologize. Just quit doing it.”

“Sorry” is defined as, “feeling sorrow or regret”. It is a feeling, and the problem with that word is that it offers no call to action, no promise of restitution. In his early infancy when I was still drinking I whispered I was sorry to my baby boy as he lay sleeping in his crib. I did it nearly every night. I thought I meant it, because I felt horrible about continuing to drink, I just couldn’t yet will myself to take the necessary action to quit. And unless you happen to be an alcoholic, that probably doesn’t make any sense.

I no longer whisper that I’m sorry to him. These days, I focus on making constant and consistent amends for what I did. To amend is, “to put right.” I try to right that wrong by giving him a sober mom, which is what he deserves and frankly, the only shot I’ve got at living without the crippling shame a drunk mother incurs.

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Coffee Cake and Kindness

Coffee Cake and Kindness

coffeecakeandscones038

By Reni Roxas

I suppose none of this would have happened had it not been for my two teenage boys fighting in the car.

As soon as my oldest son, Eric, a high school senior, joined us in the parking lot he said, “I’m not going. Not unless the idiot rides in the backseat, where he belongs.”

We were going on a college campus tour. The so-called “idiot” was Eric’s fourteen-year-old brother, Paolo, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, his crutches thrown in the back seat. A month before, Paolo had broken his leg during freshman basketball tryouts and  was given a pair of crutches with doctor’s orders to stretch his leg on car trips. It forced Eric to give up the coveted front passenger seat to his injured brother.

I am the Filipina mother of these two boys. When Eric and Paolo were younger I watched them tumble and tangle, a Rubix cube of locked arms, elbows, and knees that not even Henry Kissinger could disengage. As they grew older and less physical with each other, I watched their rivalry mature into a battle of wills. Now here we were, in the parking lot of an apartment complex where we lived in a three-bedroom apartment. Two years before, we had migrated to Edmonds, Washington, from the Philippines. Apart from a widowed Filipina-American who lived on the third floor, my sons and I were the only Asians in the entire apartment complex.

“I don’t have to put up with this,” Paolo muttered, climbing out of the car.

“Where are you going?” I said, alarmed.

Paolo had opened the back door and grabbed his crutches. Before I could say another word, Paolo hobbled back inside our apartment building.

“Paolo!” I hollered.

He was gone.

What was it about boys? Half the time I was talking to the back of a T-shirt.

Eric slid triumphantly into the seat next to me.

“I’ll deal with you later,” I hissed, grabbing my cell phone and dialing Paolo’s number.

Although Paolo was only a freshman, I wanted him to see a college campus. I managed to get through on the third try.

“Paolo, get back in the car, please.”

A pause.

“Okaaaayyyy,” my younger son mumbled.

The two parking spaces next to our car were empty. I decided to use the extra room to turn the car around to make it easier for Paolo to get back in the car.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a green pickup cruise by. The truck slowed down as it passed us before continuing down the driveway.

I was about to shift gears.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

It was Paolo, appearing with his crutches by my window.

How did he get here so fast?

“I was—never mind,” I sighed. “Just get in.”

By this time our car was straddling three parking spaces.

I craned my neck to see down to the bottom of the driveway. The pickup had made a U turn. Strange. The driver had the engine on idle. Was he waiting for me to back up? I stuck my hand out the window and waved him on to indicate that he had first rights to the driveway.

As soon as Paolo got in the car his brother said, “If you think I’m going to put your crutches in the trunk, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“One more word out of you, Eric,” I said, ” and I’m going to—”

SCREAM. Great. My Monday morning was falling apart and we hadn’t even left the parking lot. There was no time to argue, not when my car was occupying three parking spots. I yanked my door open, got out, grabbed the crutches from Paolo, and tossed them in the trunk. Before shutting the trunk closed, I waved again to the pickup driver to signal that he could proceed.

The truck didn’t move.

When I got back behind the wheel, the boys were in the middle of a full-blown quarrel.  “Stop it, you boneheads!” I yelled. But my words did little good. My boys had a mind of their own at this impossible age, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

Suddenly we heard a rumbling. A diesel engine had fired up. The idle green pickup had roared to life. It was now thundering toward our car, screeching to a full stop next to us.

A young Caucasian man got out of the truck, yelling, “Goddamn mother——.” I thought he was going to come after us with a crowbar. Instead, he disappeared into one of the ground floor apartments, slamming the door behind him.

“Oh, God,” I whispered.

I recognized him. The truck driver was our neighbor! It was his parking space I was occupying.

For the rest of the drive the boys were quiet. It was as if our neighbor’s anger had dwarfed—and in a strange way quelled—any animosity they felt for each other.

After the campus tour, my friend Rick, the university professor who hosted the tour, took us to Chinatown for lunch.

“I feel terrible,” I told him, recounting the morning’s incident. “How can I make it up to my neighbor?”

Rick smiled, his chopsticks diving into a bowl of chow mein.

“Ah,” he said, between mouthfuls. “Just kill him with kindness.”

***

“What’s that?” asked Eric.

He was watching me tie an orange ribbon around a coffee cake I bought at the grocery for twelve bucks.

“It’s for our neighbor,” I said.

Eric frowned.

“It’s a peace offering,” I said.

“You’re wasting your time and money, Mom.”

I pretended not to hear him.

“Guess what,” I said, trying to act cheerful. “We’re going to pay him a visit. And you’re coming with me.”

Eric rolled his eyes, but I was on a mission “to do the noble thing,” and he knew better than to try and stop me.

At 5:00 that afternoon Eric and I left our second floor apartment, took the elevator to the ground level, and walked out into the parking lot. The green pickup was there, a sign that the owner was home.

I knocked on my neighbor’s door.

The door opened to reveal the same young man from the day before.

“Hi. Are you, um, the owner of the green pickup?”

I felt stupid for asking a question to which I knew the answer.

The man leaned on the door frame and gave a slight nod.

He wore a thin cotton T-shirt and torn blue jeans. His brown hair had begun to recede and a five o’clock shadow was settling on his chin. He couldn’t have been older than thirty.

After clearing my throat I said, “I’m the neighbor who accidentally used your parking space yesterday. I’m sorry. My boys were misbehaving. You know how it is with children—”

I stopped and waited for a reaction.

There wasn’t any.

My neighbor’s face was vacant.

Over his shoulder I could see inside their living room. A plump young woman was on the couch watching TV with a bowl of popcorn on her lap.

I gestured toward the gift in my hands and said, “We brought you a cake—”

“That won’t be necessary,” the young man interrupted, “I don’t eat cake.”

Again the expression on his face was vacant. It struck me that his voice was completely devoid of tone, as if he had deleted himself from our conversation.

I stared at him then had to look away.

Clearly, this man didn’t want me standing at his door. This man would not be killed with kindness. I had seen that “vacant” and indifferent look before. I have seen it when a human being is racially “profiled” and instinctively dismissed by another for being “different.”  Standing in the threshold of my neighbor’s apartment, I was cognizant of the fact that he was white and I was brown. I became painfully aware, that my hair was black; my nose was snubbed and flat, my lips were thick, and that my old life was an ocean away. I realized that a barrier had been erected long before I knocked on his door. He had seen my sons and me on the apartment grounds before. I imagined that in the courtroom of his mind we were guilty without a trial. It didn’t matter that I had to deal with two squabbling teenagers, and that my son was on crutches. We were “Asian” and we all looked alike to him. I had certainly lived up to the stereotype of the “bad Asian driver.” We were all the same to him, and we were different from him. I felt small. No, in his eyes I was less than small. I was reduced to that voiceless, weightless state to which prejudice diminishes a human being. I could not be seen. I was invisible.

Still, I made one last attempt. “Well, if it’s not something for you, perhaps your wife might enjoy it?”

The young man shifted his weight off the doorframe and leaned forward slightly, his steel-blue eyes drilling through mine.

“She won’t eat that,” he said, quietly.

And just like that, he closed the door on us.

I turned to Eric, stunned.

The coffee cake in my hands felt like a millstone.

“What did I tell you, Mom,” Eric said. “You just wasted your money.”

I looked at him and said, “If you saw this as an act of kindness, then it isn’t a waste of money to me.”

But I was talking to the back of a T-shirt again. Eric was five paces ahead of me hurrying to his video game.

Bewildered, I did not head upstairs. I walked outside, through the parking lot under the clear, starry night sky. A light evening breeze ruffled the orange ribbon on my coffee cake. I felt grateful for the fresh Pacific Northwest air, yet a trifle lost and adrift to be in this great land of plenty where a neighbor would turn down a peace offering. In the Filipino culture, his behavior would have been unthinkable; only the most grievous offense, like if I had insulted his mother, would have merited this type of rejection.

Two years before, I uprooted my children from the Philippines to give them independence, a backbone, and a better life. Even though we had separated, their American father had given our children the precious gift of birthright——to be part of what was once described as the “least imperfect society in the world,” citizenship to the United States of America—the land of milk, honey…and walls.

The parking lot was quiet; no trace of the human outburst from the day before. All the cars were parked neatly in a row, separated by thick white painted lines. Everything demarcated, as it should be, everything in its place. I recalled a greeting card I once picked up in a store. To me the words echoed the anthem of the immigrant:

We didn’t come here to fit in.

We came here to live our dreams.

I walked back to my apartment and opened the door. Both boys were on the couch with their laptops, lost in a world of their own. They weren’t fighting. I went into the kitchen, the coffee cake still in my hands.

A head popped from around the kitchen wall.

“Need help, Mom?” Eric offered. There was a new gentleness in his voice.

I set the coffee cake on the kitchen counter, feeling a burden lift inside. I hadn’t made a fool of myself. It was there in my son’s voice. His concern showed me that the kindness my neighbor refused to accept had not been wasted.

 

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This Is Where You Belong

This Is Where You Belong

Art Street Chalk

By Beth Eakman

Book Review: This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick (Viking 2016)

After years of serial relocation, Melody Warnick and her professor husband, Quinn, thought they’d found a permanent home in Austin, Texas. They had two young daughters now, so they bought a house, made friends, and settled in. But only two years later, Quinn was offered his dream job in Blacksburg, VA, and the family was on the move, again.

Warnick, a freelance journalist who’s written for publications like Parents, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Psychology Today for a decade or so, found herself in a quandary familiar to moms. What was best for her kids—putting down roots—made her want to run. She did not love the town that the locals jokingly called “Bleaksburg.” She felt stuck.

Then, one evening as she was driving through the mountains, returning from an interview with an elderly woman who lived in the middle of nowhere, Warnick had an epiphany. She’d always assumed that people who lived in tiny, isolated places stayed because they were stuck, but this woman had had options. She loved her tiny hometown. She didn’t feel isolated; she felt connected.

Could connection to place be cultivated?

Warnick’s search for answers to these questions and her experiments applying what she learned form the foundation of This is Where You Belong (Viking 2016). The book is loaded with social science, advice, humor, and encouragement and reading it feels like a chatting with your smartest, funniest girlfriend.

When, with kids and husband in tow, Warnick hikes, attends festivals, and marches in a holiday parade, she feels increasingly connected to Blacksburg. When she doesn’t, she fakes it. That’s a thing, too. Acting like you love where you live works, by some magic that only psychologists really understand, and makes you love it more for real.

She calls out every recently relocated mom, starting with herself, for turning to the tawdry consolation of big box stores. No matter where you are in the world, nothing soothes a homesick, disoriented mom like popping the kids in that red cart and strolling the predictable grid of Target’s aisles. Warnick breaks to us gently what we already know: shopping locally is better.

In fact, investing in your community with time, money, skills, and creativity is good for more than just keeping money in the local economy. It’s a whole movement, called “place-making.” People are making their towns, old and new, into places they want to live. They participate in everything from the PTA to city planning committees. They initiate. They become “creative placemakers.”

In a beautifully written scene, Ella, Warnick’s twelve-year-old (and natural scene stealer), is flipping through Instgram photos.

“You know what we should have in Blacksburg?” Ella says. “A sidewalk chalk festival.”

When the Warnicks had lived in Austin, they’d gone to a street art event. “Sidewalk chalk,” in Ella’s own words, was her “true medium.” Their driveway in Blacksburg always “looked like someone was filming a Beatles movie….” Before her experiment, Warnick might have said, “That would be fun,” and returned to her novel. This time, she felt the call.

“Creative placemakers,” she writes, “…aren’t superheroes.” They’re just regular people, including moms and artistic twelve-year-olds. They make the leap from “That would be fun” to “Let’s give it a whirl.” I won’t spoil the fun of the rest of the chapter.

Movers and stayers alike will enjoy This is Where You Belong. I originally thought I’d pass my copy on to a friend who’s moving to Colorado, with teenagers, but I decided to keep it. I bought a couple more for housewarming gifts.

Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at www.betheakman.com, or on Twitter @BethEakman.

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Raising My Black Son

Raising My Black Son

A portrait of a happy laughing African American man

By Suanne Schafer

Twenty years ago, I adopted an interracial child—I’ll call him M—thinking a mother’s love could overcome all barriers, even racial ones. Twenty years later, I’m not sure I did my son any favors. I’m a white mom trying to figure out how to raise a black child in a hostile—and potentially lethal—environment.

M came up for adoption during my fourth year of medical school, the unwanted love child of a sixteen-year-old white mother and a black seventeen-year-old father. Unable to take her mixed-race baby home to her blue-collar family, the young woman kept her pregnancy secret from everyone except her mother then gave the baby up for adoption.

My family was tickled to have a grandchild, whatever his color.

As a physician I often think about nature versus nurture and have found that, though we’re not genetically related, he’s clearly my son. We’re both a bit shy but share a quirky sense of humor, a fascination with science ranging from dinosaurs to birding to stargazing to medical oddities, a dash of sarcasm, and the joy of using just the right curse word to express our true feelings. We both love science fiction, Star Wars, and exploring international cuisines.

Early on I bought all the appropriate books on black heroes like Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King and incorporated them into our daily reading ritual, but M was never interested. Unfortunately, Mr. King was not a Tyrannosaurus Rex and therefore didn’t capture M’s attention. I marched in the MLK parade alone.

After completing my residency, I interviewed from New York to California, including a small rural community in which M would have been the second black person. Ultimately I chose to practice in San Antonio, a culturally diverse city where interracial families are common. Thus, M grew up with friends of multiple racial and ethnic groups but seemed to choose his friends based on common interests rather than common skin tone.

Fortunately, we had very few racial incidents as he grew up. Probably the most blatant occurred as we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant. A white man came to pick up his take-out, saw me sitting with my four-year-old black child, and approached us practically spitting through his teeth, demanding “With all the white kids out there to adopt, why the hell did you adopt a nigger kid?” The Chinese owner of the restaurant, who certainly must have encountered racial barriers himself, apologized profusely then escorted the gentleman to the door and asked him never to return.

When he was sixteen, we went to Tanzania together. Going on safari was on my “bucket list” and M had some desire to find his African roots. There, though no clear-cut incident occurred, he seemed very uncomfortable. He’d never been in a place where blacks significantly outnumbered whites. Because he was clearly interracial and accompanied by an affluent white woman, he was considered an mzungu, a white person, and was treated accordingly.

We live in a predominantly white neighborhood – yet M came inside one day from checking the mail saying, “Mom, these folks in a car watched me until I got inside. Guess they were making sure I wasn’t breaking in.”

About that time, the news exploded with stories of young black men in hoodies being killed. With M’s tendency to take long walks in the evening to blow off steam from raging male hormones, I grew nervous, treading a delicate line between making him fear life and teaching him to use common sense. Teaching him to avoid potentially hostile situations, to never mouth off to a cop, to not wear a hoodie, to keep his hands visible and empty at all times, to back down in a confrontation. I suspect I was more worried than he was.

Last week he hollered questions from the kitchen back to my office. “Mom, how much money did we make last year?” I raised my eyebrows at the “we” but gave him the figure he sought. After few more rather personal questions, I asked what he was doing. “Calculating my privilege,” he said. A few seconds later, “I’m really privileged.”

I asked him to come into my office to review the application he filled out and suggested he give “real” answers, not those based on his white physician mother’s income, education level, etc. The findings: He was an unemployed black male who dropped out of college and therefore—surprise—had no privilege.

A female child in blue-collar family, I too grew up without privilege. My father dropped out of college one semester prior to completing an agricultural degree, left the family homestead, and worked as an itinerant well logger in the oil field. By the time I was twenty-four months old, I’d lived in twenty-two towns across the western United States. Over the years, Dad’s wanderlust abated somewhat, but I still attended three fourth grades, three seventh grades, two ninth grades. I graduated from high school and put myself through college with scholarships and by working full-time and going to school part-time. I picked cotton, worked as an aide in a nursing home, roofed and painted houses, clerked in a bookstore, did piece work in a toy factory. Later I became a secretary and medical transcriptionist, a travel and medical photographer. I continued the wanderlust bred into me and attended four colleges and traveled abroad before deciding to become a physician. By the time I graduated from medical school, my parents had contributed a total of $275 to my college expenses.

Knowing how hard it was to juggle work, school, relationships, and life in general, I wanted M to have an easier life, easier access to an education. As a result, he’s had every economic and educational advantage possible. I realized he was intelligent but having trouble focusing, but the school district refused to believe he had ADHD because he was doing well in school. A private psychologist tested him and verified my diagnosis. ADHD, dysgraphia, and a borderline learning disability in mathematics hampered his ability to learn. Once he was diagnosed, I fought yearly battles with our school district because of their failure to follow the learning plan set out by his psychologist. Medications to tone down the ADHD turned him into the world’s grumpiest kid and completely suppressed his appetite, so for years we’ve teetered between a controlled or uncontrolled attention span.

Coupled with the learning problems, unlike his mother, he’s not a “driven” person. A procrastinator par excellence, he’d rather play video games than anything. I keep telling myself this must be his nature, because he certainly wasn’t nurtured to be lackadaisical.

At this point I am the mother of an unmotivated child, one who despite having a substantial college savings account, doesn’t wish to attend college. He’s also a black child raised in a white family. I’m not sure he grasps what it means to be black in America. I’m equally unsure I can teach him that, or perhaps it’s too late to do so.

M is a good young man, a success in that he graduated from high school at a time when blacks are twice as likely to drop out of high school, when 40% of children expelled from school are black, when 70% of children arrested are black or Latino. He’s sexually active but not promiscuous, doesn’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Except for an occasional outburst of testosterone-related temper, he is caring, even-tempered, and sweet. At some point, he’ll be a good father, but due to the procrastination issue, not necessarily a good husband as he’ll put off doing household chores as long as possible.

I’m coming to terms with the idea that M will have to make his own mistakes. Letting go has been hard. I am getting better at it, learning to offer support, rather than fight his battles for him. I no longer set my alarm to be sure he gets to appointments on time. I let him decide if he needs to take his ADHD medication to get through a job interview or other duties.

Mostly I hope that at some point he can reconcile the duality of his heritage and can integrate his exterior with his interior. I pray that American culture will evolve to the point “white privilege” no longer exists. That a black man can be simply a black man without negative consequences. That a black man can earn what a similarly educated white male does. That black children will have true equality of education. That a black man should not have to be a superman to be equal to an ordinary white man. That every black male has the opportunity to become the best person he can be.

Suanne Schafer’s short works have been featured in Bête Noire Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing and two anthologies, Night Lights and Licked. Her debut novel, A Different Kind of Fire, explores the life of a nineteenth century bisexual artist living in West Texas and will be out in 2018. Her current work in progress involves a female physician caught up in the Rwandan genocide. Suanne also serves as fiction editor for Empty Sink Publishing, an online literary magazine.

@simplefoto

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“What Did the Sickness Make Your Brain Do?”

“What Did the Sickness Make Your Brain Do?”

sad woman with hand in head with redhead hair

by Sarah Sanderson

My daughter was six when I climbed into her bed and tried to explain psychosis. A few months earlier, I’d been hospitalized with postpartum psychosis after the birth of my fourth child. I was growing tired of dodging my eldest’s repeated questions about the whole experience, so this time, when she asked, “Why did you go to the hospital?” I decided to attempt a six-year-old version of the truth.

“Mommy had a sickness in her brain,” I replied as I pulled my daughter’s Disney Princess sheets up to my chin. “Some people get sick in other parts of their body, like when you have to throw up or when Jack broke his arm. Mommy just got sick in her brain.”

“What did the sickness make your brain do?” she persisted.

I wondered how much detail I would have to offer before she would be satisfied. “My brain just… made me think some things that weren’t true,” I tried.

“Like what?”

I had to have seen that coming.

I wanted to inform without scaring her. The part about the whole episode being triggered by memories of childhood sexual abuse was definitely out. My religious fixations probably wouldn’t make sense either. Was pressured speech—the compulsion to speak aloud every thought that comes into your head—too freaky? I settled on paranoia.

“Well… I was scared of the computer.”

Abby burst into giggles. No one had ever reacted to my story that way before. “What did you think it was going to do to you?” she laughed.

The truth was that I had convinced myself that my childhood abuser had somehow downloaded keystroke-capturing software onto our computer and could read everything I had ever typed. As my husband and a friend of ours led me towards the car to get me to the Emergency Room, I shouted, “Don’t turn on the computer until I get back and fix it! Promise me you will not turn on the computer!” It made sense at the time.

Now, I snuggled with my little girl and sighed. “I thought someone was watching me through the computer and I got scared.”

Abby laughed some more. “That’s silly, Mommy!”

“Well, it was silly, you’re right,” I agreed. “But at the hospital they gave me some medicine for my brain and now I’m okay.”

“And that’s why you stay in bed,” she pronounced, familiar with this part of the story.

“Yeah, because of the medicine,” I conceded. A side effect of my medication was that it knocked me out for ten hours at a stretch. I had always been the one to jump out of bed with whichever child woke up first, no matter how early or how little sleep I’d logged the night before. In the past months, however, my husband had shifted into the role of morning parent, because I was usually completely unconscious until after everyone else had eaten breakfast.

“How long will you have to take the medicine?” Abby asked. “If you went to the hospital and they made you better, why do you need medicine now?”

Good question. When I was released after four days on the psych ward, I met with a private psychiatrist for the first time in my life. She patiently explained that most women who experience postpartum psychosis also have, or subsequently receive, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. At this, I revolted.

“No,” I explained to my new doctor, “I don’t have bipolar disorder. I’m fine. This was a one-time thing. It was triggered by all this sexual abuse stuff! I don’t have a mental illness!” The idea of me having a mental illness was just ridiculous.

The doctor agreed that I could possibly be in the minority, but I would have to take medication for at least eight months until the threat of manic relapse passed. After that, time would tell.

So as I lay in bed with my six-year-old daughter, still in the initial eight-month window after that first psychotic episode, I told my little girl, “I won’t have to take the medicine for very much longer.”

It turned out to be a promise I couldn’t keep. A few months later, in the process of weaning off the medication, I became manic, verging on psychotic, again. When I saw the psychiatrist back in her office afterwards, she confirmed what I now suspected: bipolar disorder had set in after all. Unlike postpartum psychosis, which is a one-time designation, a diagnosis of bipolar never goes away. I could now officially count myself among the chronically mentally ill.

Talking to kids about mental illness is like talking to kids about divorce, or sex, or any other uncomfortable subject: you have to do it over and over again. It comes up, and you answer their questions at their developmental level, and then a few weeks or months or years later, it comes up again, and your answers change.

As I grow more comfortable with my own diagnosis, I am learning to field these questions more adeptly. On some level, though, as I learn to see myself through the eyes of my children, I find that I am still working through my own feelings. Some part of me still can’t believe I’ve landed in this “mental illness” camp. What am I doing here? When will I get out? If I ignore it, will it go away? Each time I confront the issue with my children, each time I verbalize my explanations to them, I am explaining it to myself.

Recently, my third child, who is now six, started calling other people “crazy” in a derogatory way. For weeks, I kept hearing it and letting it slide, but it rankled me. I finally called him on it.
“We don’t use that word that way,” I informed him. “People have real sicknesses in their brain, and just like a sickness anywhere else in the body, they can’t help it. So we don’t use that word to make fun of people. It’s not nice to people with that kind of sickness.”

He stared at me quizzically. My heart thumped, and I recognized the feeling of shame coursing through my veins.

This child was two when I was hospitalized. We never had a snuggly moment of truth afterwards. He can’t remember me ever bouncing out of bed in the mornings. Maybe he doesn’t know I have a mental illness at all. Was I ready to reveal myself to him?

After a moment I decided now was as good a time as any to step out of the mental illness closet with this child.

“Like me,” I leveled with him. I braced myself for the barrage of questions that might follow.

But he didn’t ask. “Okay, Mom,” he shrugged, and ran out of the room.

We’ll talk about it again some other time.

Sarah Sanderson lives with her husband and four children in Oregon. Find more of her work at www.sarahlsanderson.com.

 

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On Being A Soccer Mom

On Being A Soccer Mom

Soccer player's feet on the ball

By Dawn Davies

There’s that embarrassing mom thing where, if you’re like me, and you’re at a soccer game watching your children play in say, a tournament, and your soft, delicious little child, the one who still sleeps at night with a stuffed horse, is making a drive toward the ball, and she reaches it, pulling ahead of several lesser children, feigning out a slow-thinking defender, putting out an arm to steady herself against the face of said slow thinker, squaring up to shoot, and you are watching her from the sidelines, wearing shorts short enough to allow you to survive the oppressive heat yet long enough to cover the ugly purple thigh veins your pregnancies gave you, pacing and tripping over a cooler full of Capri Suns and orange wedges, and at the same moment your child is about to make contact with the ball, your own foot reaches out and kicks the air like a marionette. You cannot help it any more than you can help gagging the first time your baby has diarrhea, or yelling “fuck” in front of your preschooler when you grate a hunk of knuckle skin into the pile of Monterey jack cheese on Taco night. It is a reflex and you cannot stop it.

Then there’s that thing where, if you’re like me, after you’ve watched a number of children play soccer for a number of years, and although you have never once played soccer yourself, you begin to believe you have developed a nearly psychic coaching gift, and in a series of brilliant illuminations of strategy that assert themselves only after you shingle your hair into the bobbed, highlighted helmet the other soccer moms are wearing, you realize you know exactly who needs to come out and who needs to go in in a given game in order to win it, and you see your husband on the other side of the field, coaching the game, and you pull out your cell phone and dial him up. You watch him reach into his pocket, check to see who is calling, see that it is you, and decline the call. You call him again.

“What?” he says. You can hear him scream this from the other side of the field a portion of a second after it comes through the phone.

“Pull Kristi out. Put Maya in goal. Move Alexis to midfield.”

“Right.” Your husband says and he hangs up. He makes no substitutions and ignores your frantic waves, then as your daughter makes another run for the ball, you kick your foot in the air again, this time screaming, “Shoot it!” as if your telling your child to shoot the ball is what will make her do it, as if she who has played soccer for five years would never think of this on her own when running up on the goal. There is another battle for the ball and you involuntarily kick the air a third time, as if you are a frog on a dissection table in Bologna and Luigi Galvani is electrifying your muscles with a charged scalpel. You can’t stop yourself from looking like a sideline fool. You cannot not kick. It’s a thing soccer moms do, and nearly against your will, you have become one.

When is it you realize you have allowed your children’s accomplishments to begin to replace everything you have ever done? Oh, it’s now. It’s right here on the sidelines of this under-watered, crispy field in the sports complex designed with the maximum legal square feet of asphalt parking lot and minimum legal number of trees. It reaches nearly one hundred degrees here in peak sun, and your naked neck broils like a steak while you watch twenty-two children burn a collective 6,600 calories. You haven’t seen the inside of a gym in three years because you have been too busy washing sports uniforms and returning them to the proper bedrooms, and checking gear bags, and feeding your progeny supper at four in the afternoon in time to get them to their various practices, which you must stay and watch, because that’s what the good soccer moms do. You must appear to be a good soccer mom, even though you fear you are not one. You are barely holding it together, and you just want to go home and take a nap pick the kids up after practice is over, only you can’t do that. The good soccer moms will notice if you don’t stay and they will judge you for it. You know this because you yourself judge the “bad” moms who drop their children off, firing bitter darts of jealousy from your eyes as they drive away to meet a friend for coffee, or grab a massage while they know their child is safe at practice. Even though they tell everyone they have to go “pick up a prescription,” or “take another child to math enrichment,” you know and you judge them.

Your soccer mom status is cemented by a few other behaviors. First, there is the belief that your daughter is an irreplaceable anchor—the star, if you will, even if only in your own eyes, on any given team. Or your son is the star. Or your stepson is. Or it’s not soccer, but lacrosse, or it’s not lacrosse, but football, or basketball or baseball or softball or dance, and at any given moment, two or three or four of your kids play on several different sports teams and you spend your afternoons, evenings and weekends coordinating practice times and carpools with other mothers whose children are not as good as yours, mothers you would ordinarily have no interest in spending time with, though it’s not because their children are boring or average, it’s because their mothers talk too much. You drive to windswept fields teeming with hundreds of other children, and plunk your ass in a folding chair while your children exercise, watching them with the same obsessive interest slower members of society have in reality TV shows. Sometimes you bring snacks. For yourself.

Next is the unhealthy obsession with outfitting your children like professional athletes. Sporty kids need gear, so if you are a regular person like me, you fork over whatever you can swing, handing down cleats and outgrown gloves and gear bags to your smaller children in the gear queue, occasionally shopping at Play It Again Sports in a neighboring town where no one you know will see you buying used sports equipment. You forgo new clothes for yourself, or luxuries of any sort in order for these children to have the extra thick shin guards, or properly fitting Under Armor, even though you remember playing childhood softball and basketball in sneakers from K-Mart and cheap, silk-screened team t-shirts without any ill effects, except for the fact that you did not get a college sports scholarship. You begin to believe that your children need this gear in order to have the athletic opportunity they deserve. If you are rich or a sociopath who cares not one whit about running up the credit card bills, you buy the best of everything you can find at Dicks or Soccer Max, or Sports Authority, thinking, almost against your will, that a $160 shellout in football cleats for a nine-year old now, might translate into a professional football career that will allow your little QB to one day buy you an upscale house and a silver Escalade. As if a pair of cleats will be the thing that turns your child into a winner.

Then there is the schedule juggling. If you are at all like me, after you recover from the cost of the gear, and the league entrance fees, insurance fees, uniform fees and conditioning coach fees, and your children are safely ensconced on their various teams, you use the last of your money to purchase a master organizer they sell for moms who are trying to get a handle on a schedule every bit as complicated as a teaching hospital’s surgical schedule, or the daily flight schedule managed from an air traffic control tower of an international airport. You spread out all the practice times and game times for the Bombers, the Eagles, the Blazers, the Knights, and the Intimidators on the kitchen table and begin to input data into the organizer, carefully orchestrating who has to be where when, and what time dinner needs to be on the table on various nights, and which sports events coordinate with school events that can’t be missed. If you are lucky, your child will not be on both the school team and the travel team of the same sport in a season, as that is a scheduling state so stressful that it has been known to cause mothers to develop trichotillomania. You can easily spot these poor women: they are the ones quietly plucking out their own eyebrows or eyelashes at red lights or in sports complex parking lots. They looked pinched and backed up, because they have had to train their bowels to follow a certain schedule, as they have no time of their own to take a dump from seven am until midnight on weekdays or at any time during the weekend, especially if they still have preschoolers at home.

This schedule reckoning takes a spreadsheet and enough wheedling and favor-trading with other carpooling moms to where the high-stakes détente you manage to sustain are of the kind you might find at an international political summit. If you are like me, this herculean effort makes you cry at least once per season, or drink alone at night after everyone has gone to bed.

Then there is the ill-lighted, miscast pride that comes with knowing that you birthed a remarkable athlete. If you are anything like me, when other parents can’t help but notice your child’s extraordinary athletic ability, your ego swells as if they are complimenting you, and you can’t seem to separate your child’s personal accomplishments from your own. This is the shameful part of soccer momming. It is heady stuff that can weaken the soul. You see your child twist in space in an artful way, and watch them outrun or out-think a competitor, and even though the competitor is a pony-tailed princess who sleeps with her own stuffed animal at night, your mind has reduced her to enemy status. Instead of seeing her as a person, you categorize her as an obstacle for your child, the star, to overcome, and what’s more, you created that star. It came out of you. You did it. It’s yours and there is a dirty aspect of ownership that comes with watching your child play sports, so when you think about it in the heat of the moment, the other child is a dangerous condottiere that you yourself must overpower. It’s awful and thrilling at the same time, because it is the only bit of power you feel in your life. You are triumphing, by proxy, over a nine year-old child. Bully for you. Kick the air and scream “Shoot it!” until your voice is hoarse and you will later need to cool down by overeating at the post-game fast food restaurant after the victory you had nothing to do with.

If you are like me you cannot stop these thoughts and actions, even though you know you are a walking cliché, and it is something you swore you would never become. Like kicking an invisible ball on the sidelines like an idiot, this suburban movement is a part of something that has its own tide, a tide that moves in and out with the seasons, a tide you feel yourself drowning in on occasion, because after all, you were the tattooed, boot-shod rebel who swore she would never live in the suburbs and drive a minivan, and yet you have ended up rocking that minivan hard and living in the burbiest of burbs, which frankly, bores you to tears, but is so, so safe and so good for the children. You are the woman who swore you would stick your kids in daycare the moment your maternity leave was over so you could go back to building your career, but that plan scorched up like a dried leaf the moment your first child was placed in your arms. You quit work “for a while,” planning to go back when the child started school, but here it is ten years later and your second or third or fourth child has yet to start kindergarten and you have found yourself working pro bono as the chief operating officer of a very small, cluttered business that seems, at times, to have no purpose. Others might tell you to check your privilege for complaining about such a luxury, but it is more confusing and complicated than simple middle class wealth. It is the battle between a loss of identity, and its crooked bookend: the promise that women can have it all, the promise that we have choices, yet are looked down upon for choosing this path when we could have done “so much more.”

Maybe, if you are at all like me, you struggle with job skills required for being a soccer mom, and must hide these struggles, because your natural skill set has slowly revealed itself to be the kind that prefers simplicity and order and quiet, and you know you are forgetful, and you know you will make mistakes because you are forcing yourself to do this hard job as best as you can when really, you would be better suited for a different job, a simpler job, say, perhaps as a painter (house or art), or a philosopher, or a clock repairwoman, or a artisanal baker of gluten-free masterpieces which you sell at local farmer’s markets. At times, especially during the middle of a given season, you may remember college, when you had the luxury to write short stories for fun and you wrote one about a married woman with kids who fakes her own death and uses a new identity to start over in the Pacific Northwest, a place that seems cool and woodsy and quiet, a far cry from standing in four inches of palm tree shade on the sidelines of a sports field, or your sour laundry room, or the inside of your sweat-soaked minivan.

You might even attempt to become the best soccer mom in all the land, wearing the bobbed hair helmet, keeping the minivan vacuumed, remembering which child wears which uniform, remembering to never again leave the middle defender on your daughter’s team, who you are responsible for driving home Wednesday nights, at the field like you have done twice before, only you are not naturally organized and become easily overwhelmed by the complex details and responsibilities, often forgetting to bring the orange slices on your assigned game day. This deficit requires you to occasionally dump your kid on the field and race to the grocery store, buy oranges, race home and cut them up, and bag them and bring them back to the field, often missing the first quarter of the game. Or you forget to turn in the cookie dough or gift wrap fundraiser orders in, or worse, you forget to sell the cookie dough or gift wrap at all. You certainly can’t get it together enough to make the t-shirts with your child’s picture on it, and give it to your family slash cheering section to wear on game days, because you can’t remember to tell your family members when the various game days are. There are so many game days.

Why do you suck so badly? If you are like me, it’s because you either didn’t read the job description of what parenting would be like before you signed up, or you were not willing to extrapolate “years of extreme sleep deprivation and constant chaos” from everything everyone has said since the beginning of time about parenting. It’s as if you got drunk and joined the Marines on a lark and now want out, only there is no way out without going to prison.

Lest I appear to be one-sidedly bitter and negative, let me say this: despite living your life on the sidelines, or setting up mission control from a seven passenger vehicle shaped like a manatee, or listening to books on tape through headphones to protect yourself from soccer mom colloquy, despite your bobbed helmet of hair reducing your sexual attractiveness by a factor of ten, despite worrying about your contribution to the collective cultural anxiety of women’s achievements by staying home and devoting all of your energy to a few non-influential people who don’t even thank you, and despite such an overall uncooperative reality, there is something golden about this time.

It is a time when your children are as beautiful as they have ever been, though you thought nothing could be as beautiful as their babyhood. The flushed, salty cheeks, the hair sticking to the sweat on their necks, their knobby knees, bandaged fingers, their giant protective equipment that seems to dwarf them at the beginning of the season, but which look perfectly fitted by the last game. The effort they give forth that makes you weep at times. If you are like me, you have cried while watching the two teams shake hands after a particularly difficult game.

Your children are doing important work, even though it looks like they are playing games. They are building their bodies, learning how to move, learning how to listen, learning how to take a small desire such as “get the ball” or “stop the ball,” and turn it into a hunger to make something bigger happen. They are learning how to lose graciously, one of the most valuable of life skills, and if they have good coaches, they learn about devotion: to team, to coach, to someone other than you, and this is healthy. It helps them grow up to be the kind of children who won’t live in your basement after college.

This is a time when the children still need you to show them how to be. They won’t always and the assertion of this truth will be increasingly painful as time goes by, but for now, know that, even though they don’t thank you and they leave their God-awful, wet, stinking shin guards on the cloth upholstery of the minivan time after time, they need you to orient them in society. You are training two or three or four little people to grow up and be better versions of yourself, and this is one way to leave your mark on the world, one way to make a difference—to produce people who are consistently good to others despite personal obstacles, ones who will be decent to others despite having menstrual cramps, or being cut off in traffic, or feeling exhausted, or losing something important, like a big game, or a contract, or a job, or a friend. It’s a marathon of slow growth.

You can see this growth transform them, sometimes from week to week. One day, you will see the coach introduce a skill and your child will fumble with it like a puppy, yet improve bit by bit, until one day during a game, when the pressure is on, you will see the child execute the thing perfectly, exactly the way she was taught. Later, you will see the quiet pride on the child’s face when the coach praises her for it in front of the team.

If you are like me, the first time you realize that the effort you invest in making these activities happen is a finite thing, and that one day it will go away, it stops being a chore, and begins to be something precious, like oxygen. You watch them with a different eye while they repeat the same drills for weeks, running, jumping, getting knocked over, failing, laughing, weeping, building friendships, pushing their limits, and for a brief while, all things considered, there is no limit to the hope vested in these beautiful young people of yours. The ones who sit with quiet anxiety during breakfast before a game are the same one who sing “Diarrhea” at the top of their lungs in the back of the minivan after the game, and you see sublime work happening here—a slow burn of something transformative—and you think, if you ae at all like me, as you shove the balled-up, sweaty gear into the washing machine one more time, that like with all things parenting, it’s not about you. It never was.

Dawn S. Davies (www.dawnsdavies.com) has an MFA from Florida International University. Her essay collection, Mothers of Spata, received the 2015 FIU UGS Provost Award for Best Creative Project. She was recently featured in the Ploughshares column, “The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week.” She had a notable essay in the Best American Essays 2015, and a Pushcart Prize special mention for nonfiction in 2015. Her work can be found in The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, River Styx, Brain, Child, Hippocampus, Cease, Cows, Saw Palm, Ninth Letter, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere.

 

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Sexuality on Campus

Sexuality on Campus

A eight years old school girl close to the schoolyards

By Mary E. Plouffe

Recent surveys indicate that between nineteen and twenty-three percent of women will experience sexual assault in college. That’s one in five of our daughters. Those assaults are rarely by criminals, or even strangers. They are by their classmates: the boyfriend they broke up with, the guy they just met at the frat party. They are our sons.

How did we get here?  So much has changed in the way we approach sex in our culture in the past few decades. We are more open and honest, more accepting and less judgmental. Yet despite our best intentions, I believe we have inadvertently made things more confusing for the young people we care about.

We have taken the shame out of sex. The average age of first marriage has risen by more than 7 years since 1950. Along with this shift, Americans now accept that most people will not postpone sex until marriage. Sex before marriage is less a “sin” and more a fact of adulthood, even to the majority of those sitting in pews every Sunday.

We have taken the ignorance out of sex as well, establishing early, accurate education about sexual function, emphasizing safe sex for disease and pregnancy prevention. Most fifth graders can tell you the biology of how sex works.

But I wonder if we have taken the emotion out of sex as well. I wonder if we’ve neglected intimacy and relationship and human emotion in the safe sex discussion. When and what are we teaching our kids about psychologically safe sex?

Too many times in the past ten years young women in high school or college have described their first sexual experience to me as “getting it over with,””losing my virginity so I could stop worrying about it” or even ” so I wouldn’t be embarrassed about being a virgin.” This implies that having sex is something you do for yourself, because your body is ready to have sex, because, like getting a driver’s license, it is a rite of passage.   Relationship is not an essential part of the experience, just the tool for accomplishing it. If you are lucky, they tell me, you have a boyfriend you want to have sex with, but if not, the pressure to be sexual overrides waiting for the right person, the one with whom sex is a logical step of intimacy that grows out of relationship.

Sex in college also has its own rules. The young women who educate me about this are often trying to digest the rules themselves, and struggling with their own reactions. So they try to explain to us both.

“Partying” I am told, is separate from dating. It’s more like a play group where sex is part of the party. Alcohol, and sometimes drugs, are part of the party, so that the sex is easier, and the experience heightened. Sexual contact with a boy at the party is not “cheating,” even for those with a boyfriend. To meet that boy for coffee and conversation the next day would be cheating.

But at some schools the party culture is also the entryway, the signal that you want to date.   “What if you choose not to party? I asked one.

“Then people think you don’t want a boyfriend, that you’re a nerd or not interested at all,” she answered. “I really don’t want that.”

“So, you’re hoping to meet someone special?” I asked.

” Yeah, it’s like, we get the sex part over with first, then maybe see if we like each other.” Girls who choose this entryway hoping to find relationship are often devastated if no one calls once the party is over.

“Hooking up” is slightly different. It can mean just needing sex and agreeing to satisfy that need contractually. Sort of like needing a dance partner, and taking whoever is available. Some boyfriend/ girlfriend bonds tolerate this, some do not. “It’s just sex, right?’ one asked hesitantly. “So, it shouldn’t matter.”

These young women are confused, and so am I. In the most formative period of their emotional lives, they are being asked to take the emotion out of sex. This is hard for mature adults to do. Even hard core proponents of open marriage can end up in therapists’ office wrestling with psyches that are not as “evolved” as they want them to be. Despite our logic, most of us care about the very personal act of sharing out bodies with someone else. Few of us can do it cavalierly, most of us cannot keep emotion out of the equation even when we want to.

College age women are particularly vulnerable. They are seeking relationship as much as sexuality, trying to define who they are, and who they want to bond with in friendships, in peer groups, and in loving relationships.   And the complicated rules of college sexuality do not help.

A few students are afraid to dip into the college sexual scene, but many more try to participate, and find themselves numb, or upset, or, as one student said ” not exactly guilty about it but just so uncomfortable with myself.” Most are relieved when I suggest that there is nothing wrong with them, nothing inherently superior about being able to separate sex from intimacy, sexuality from emotion.

There is probably a normal curve about this, like so many human variables. In thirty-five years of clinical practice, I have met people on the far ends. A few who saw sex as having no moral or emotional component. They felt free to be sexual with any interested partner, and were irritated and confused when others judged or felt hurt by their behavior. “Sex is like sneezing for me,” one man offered “Sometimes you want to, sometimes you need to and sometimes you just can’t stop yourself.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those whose sense of intimacy holds sex in a unique place. “I don’t think it’s a sin,” one young woman who remained a virgin into her late twenties explained her choice, “I just think of sex as God’s wedding gift to me and my husband, and I don’t want to open it early.”

Most of us fall somewhere in between. A place where sexual need and emotional connection meet, where sex is not only about physical desire, but about psyche: the experience, sometimes unexpectedly powerful, that a relationship is special, and that adding sexuality to that connection feels safe and right.

Morality is a component of this, but that word needs to be used carefully with today’s young people. “Oh I’m not religious” is often the quick response I get when I use it. And my follow up, “But you are not amoral, right?” usually takes them by surprise.   Most are relieved to engaged in a discussion that assumes that that developing an ethical self, a personal right and wrong, is part of becoming an adult, whether guided by a church or not. So I help them discover their own intuitive reactions to questions that push their boundaries. “If it’s ok for you to have sex with your boyfriend, is it ok if two of his roommates want to join in?

Fear of being judgmental of others is sometimes paralyzing, and keeps them from embracing their own good judgment for themselves. It short circuits finding the place where temperament, personality and morality meet. They do not want to be accused of “slut-shaming” their classmates who seem to participate in the recreational sex culture without difficulty. But there is no need to judge others in order to find what works for you, to find the freedom that comes from setting boundaries because you know yourself well, and you accept what feels right and what does not.

We can teach fifth graders the biology of safe sex. They can understand how condoms work, and how conception happens. But you cannot teach fifth graders the psychology of safe sex. How do you talk about trust, and vulnerability and self-respect and shame? How do you explain intimacy and emotional connection and commitment? You cannot address these constructs with minds that do not yet have the capacity for self- reflexive thought, do not understand a world where motivation comes from multiple sources, and do not have the experience of powerful emotional urges that complicate and defy logic.

Somewhere between the” birds and bees” lesson, and the freedom of college, we need to have much deeper discussions about the truth that sexual safety is not just about avoiding pregnancy and disease. It is about ensuring that we are ready for the powerful emotional feelings that come with sexuality. It is about putting intimacy back into the equation, and validating that it belongs there.

What message do we give when we pretend that casual sex is for everyone? Young men and women both feel the expectation to comply when this is the atmosphere the rest of the culture accepts, even idealizes, as normal college experience. When we offer no guidance about sexual decision making, and turn a blind eye to a culture of promiscuity, it is easy for “permission” to become “expectation” to become “entitlement”.   From there it is a very short distance to rape.

Sex can be for recreation or for intimacy. Most of us, ultimately, choose the latter. We crave the deeper emotional closeness that real relationship offers, and we imbed sexuality into that. That is not only because we want family, or children, or security. It is because our psyches find it so much more satisfying.

That is the truth that we need to talk to our children about. That casual sex is not always casual. It is not a stage of development that everyone must go through, or feels the same about trying. And that even when it does not cause pain, it can lead to confusion and misperceptions and feelings no one expected. Delaying sex, and choosing partners carefully is not only about avoiding disease and pregnancy. It is also about valuing the intimate emotional component that comes with the experience, and understanding what that means for you.

Prep schools and colleges must take responsibility for the interpersonal learning environment as much as they do the academic one. Social clubs and fraternities that become alcohol saturated brothels on the weekends are not unlike locker rooms, where bravado and testosterone- fueled “group think” overpower sensitivity and good communication. Real solutions must go beyond teaching students to ask more “affirmative consent” questions in the heat of alcohol fueled arousal. Schools need to set standards, provide healthier social alternatives, and crack down on those that consistently cause harm.

Public policy seems focused on prosecutorial responsibility once rape has happened. Yet, at a congressional hearing in August 2015, a victim’s advocate reported that nine out of ten women who have been assaulted on campus do not want law enforcement involved. This seemed to surprise our legislators but it does not surprise me. Because, for every case in which violence or surreptitious drugging provide a clear cut division between victim and perpetrator, there are many more where the story reflects a more complicated truth. Men and women participated willingly in the college social scene. They wanted something they knew might or would become sexual. The results were terrifying, or tragic, or not at all what they expected. They are not merely looking for someone to blame. They are looking to understand how this all went so terribly, terribly wrong.

We owe our children more. Much more than a wink and a nod, an implied permission to be sexual so long as they do not get pregnant or get a disease. We owe them the truth about real human sexuality. That it is a complicated and emotionally powerful part of human experience. And that one’s values and personality must guide our choices if we are to be comfortable with them.

Exploring sexuality means more than finding out how your body works. It means accepting that humans are uniquely created: we are both animal and spiritual. Sexuality bridges those two selves, and in the best moments, unites them. When we find the person who knows and loves us emotionally, physically, and spiritually, we call them Soulmate.

If we want our young people to aspire to that, we need to show them how.

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.

 

 

 

What I Didn’t Tell Them

What I Didn’t Tell Them

spring flowers on wooden background

By Jessie Scanlon

The Hot Wheels and Lego bricks strewn across our family room floor would usually have annoyed me. But that early spring evening the toys seemed to anchor me in the normal. I concentrated on my breathing and tried, mentally, to disconnect my facial muscles from my emotions. My daughter and son sat beside me on the sofa. Could my husband have been kneeling on the floor? Or standing?

“I have to have an operation,” I told my children with a smile that I hoped showed confidence. “It’s one that Grandma had 12 years ago, and that Aunt Sarah will have soon. I’ll be in the hospital for a week, and after I come home I won’t be able to drive you to school or pick you up or let you sit on my lap for a while.”

What I didn’t tell them was that I had breast cancer.

In the weeks since I’d been diagnosed with an almost matching set of invasive ductal carcinomas, I’d talked to friends and friends of friends who had been in the same situation or could otherwise give advice. Snippets of one conversation kept replaying in my head. “I was a basket case after my diagnosis…. I cried all the time…. My daughter slept on our bedroom floor for a year…. Years of therapy for the kids….”

I, too, cried often as I grappled with the diagnosis, but had managed to hide my tears from the children. My husband and I agreed that we would never lie to them. And we knew that eventually we’d tell them the whole truth. But I wasn’t convinced that it was necessary or even helpful, to scare them when my prognosis seemed good. Why burden them with the C-word?

I imagined my son Christopher telling a friend on the playground and hearing, “Oh – my grandpa died of cancer.” Could a four-year-old understand that that didn’t mean I was dying?

Many children, on hearing that a relative has cancer, ask if the disease is contagious. It’s not, of course, but a gene mutation had heightened my risk. It was why my mother had chosen to have a prophylactic double mastectomy, which my sister had now decided to do as well. Both children stood a 50% chance of having inherited my faulty gene, though the risk of actually developing breast cancer was greater for my daughter, Ella. So, no, cancer isn’t contagious, but …. Was a seven-year-old old enough to grapple with that?

Before the conversation, I’d met with a hospital social worker. “You know your kids best,” she’d said, and then sent me home with two backpacks, each containing a stuffed animal, a set of markers, and a workbook called “Life Isn’t Always a Day At The Beach” with fill-in pages like “If I could, I would put cancer in a rocket and send it to _______.”

I hid the backpacks in the guest room closet and continued to tell half-truths.

My hair began shedding after the second chemo treatment and this required an explanation. So as we sat around the dinner table one evening I reminded the kids about my surgery. “Now my doctors want me to take some medicine,” I told them. “You know how when you take Benadryl it can make you sleepy?”

They nodded. “Well this medicine has a funny side effect. It’s going to make my hair fall out.”

“Really?” Ella asked. I tugged a few strands from my head as evidence and then tossed the dead hair into the trash.

“Can I pull some out?” she asked.

“No,” I answered sharply.

Maybe I should have let her in – into my experience as a woman about to lose her hair.

Some cancer patients embrace their situation and hold head-shaving parties. A friend told me a quieter version: she’d helped a neighbor pull out her hair one spring day on the back porch, and as the tufts floated away in the wind, birds swept down to capture material for their nests.

But I took a different route. My hair stylist arranged for us to meet in the salon’s seldom-used men’s bathroom. A friend brought a bottle of Prosecco and three plastic cups and we toasted before he shaved my hair down to stubble. But it felt more like a wake than a party.

I cried when I looked in the mirror. I don’t know whether I cried from vanity or simply the shock of seeing my appearance catch up with the reality that I was a cancer patient. But I cried freely, knowing that the tears wouldn’t tarnish my maternal image, and then I went home and let the kids rub my fuzzy scalp. “Doesn’t it almost feel like a teddy bear?” I suggested. When my daughter won a cheap tiara at a fair later that summer, we snapped a picture of me wearing it, and laughed. Princess Chemo, I thought to myself.

I imagined that chemotherapy involved hours on the bathroom floor and Terms of Endearment-style drama. But I scheduled my treatment for the morning, took the anti-nausea drugs, drank gallons of ginger beer, napped, and most days was ready to be Mom by the time the kids got home from camp.

Ditto the 5 ½ weeks of daily radiation that fall. I’d shift from caretaker to patient only after making breakfast, packing lunches and dropping the kids off at school. When the kids asked why my chest looked so pink, I told them I’d forgotten to put on sunscreen.

I had crossed the line into dishonesty. My kids seemed fine – “They’ve weathered the year well,” I told those who asked – but I had lingering worries. So one November evening I went to a “Parenting Through Cancer” meeting at my hospital. Just as most exam rooms aren’t designed for the delivery of bad news, the conference room felt too dry for the subject.

Some of the women in the room had much scarier diagnoses than mine. All of them had been more honest with their children. I came home with two books – one for adults, the other for children – that, feeling emotionally depleted, I carelessly left on the kitchen counter.

The next morning, the colorful spine of the children’s book caught Ella’s eye and she opened Mom Is Getting Better. I tried to dissuade her, telling her that it was a boring story, but she insisted.

After a few minutes, she asked, “So did you have cancer mom?”

“Yes,” I told her. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” she said.

When my husband and I agreed not to be completely honest with the kids about my diagnosis, I thought I was protecting them – that I was preserving their “normal.” And for the most part, my husband and I – helped by friends, babysitters, and my parents – succeeded. But I was also protecting myself, and an image of myself that I wanted my children to see: a strong, dependable, and brave parent who would be there to love and protect them.

Was I wrong not to tell them the whole truth? Perhaps. But I don’t regret our decision. “You know your kids best,” the hospital social worker had told me. But the truth is that I knew myself. And in those raw spring days, when I wore sunglasses to school drop-off and pick-up to hide my puffy eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to talk calmly about my cancer, let alone to calm any fears they might have had. First I needed to manage my own.

One winter morning as I was driving the kids to school, the radio tuned to NPR, a sponsorship message from the Cancer Institute of America came on. With every repetition of the word “cancer,” I resisted the urge to turn the radio off.

It droned on so long that my son, now five, said, “Blah, blah, blah. Who cares?”

“Chris! Mom had cancer. That’s why her hair fell out!” Ella said, in an exasperated big sister voice.

“Oh,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied, pausing at a stop sign, and then turning right. “I did.”

 

 

 

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Rubicon

Rubicon

View of the Roman bridge in Rimini

By Emily Myers

The rental apartment in San Francisco was sparse. Spring sunshine bleached the walls and the linoleum was warm under my feet. My newborn was asleep in my arms and I had the phone wedged between my shoulder and jaw.

I missed my mum and told her so.

“I miss you too,” she said, and the phone crackled as it always did when she moved away from the window. The line between us stretched from damp, rural England to blistering California. Interference was expected. I pictured her in the cottage at the cove, its squat granite walls and small square windows, in a narrow valley spilling out to the sea. I could hear her moving, sitting down. I imagined her in those wing-back chairs, facing the fire, logs burning in the grate, spitting and popping. Dad would be out with the dogs.

“I wish you were still here. If only you were here, I could nip over and help you.” She sounded baffled. “What are you doing over there?”

I swayed, looking down at Max, three weeks old, his lips blistered from nursing. My whole body ached.

“Dom got a job, remember?”

I wanted to say it felt like I was standing alone in the middle of a rainstorm. I could see the water making rivulets all around me, my feet in the mud. The water was moving with such speed, and yet surrounded by this torrent of rain, it felt like nothing would ever change. I would always be here, watching this kind of water, on this kind of river bank. What I wanted to say was I missed the geography of my childhood, its familiarity, and that a nostalgia for it had crept in uninvited and was sitting heavily on my chest.

My mother told me about squabbles in the valley. There was a dispute about who should get the firewood from a fallen tree. Dad and Francis were going head to head with their camellias in the Penzance flower show. Eamon was back in hospital and Penny and her three grown daughters were up at The Nook with Val, who was now bedridden. “You know how close that family is,” she said.

I waited for my personal rainstorm to pass, slowly piecing together the jigsaw of my child, pulling genes from here and there; the dimples, the turn of his mouth and the curve of his nose, trying to make sense of things.

“It feels like you’ve been away thirty years,” said my mother during one of our long-distance calls.

“A lot has happened,” I said.

I wanted to say that my love for my child felt like a giant peony had bloomed in my throat and sometimes it was hard to breathe.

Max’s head got heavier and his eyes brightened, and he chuckled and sought me out. Every day the picture of my child, the character, became a little fuller.  I knew the eczema on his thumb and the milk spots under his chin. I knew the smell of formula on his breath and how his eyelashes had grown. I knew how he hiccupped when he laughed. He loved his bath, I found out, and I noticed his feet were the length of my thumb. I saw how he pulled his socks off and sucked them and looked startled when he rolled himself over, and how he marveled at his hands and gripped my hair when I leaned into his crib. I knew the feeling of his cold fingers and sharp nails on my chest, and how he’d sleep in broad daylight, tolerating the fact that I hadn’t put up curtains in his room. I found that the rainstorm had created a river. Familiarity just took time.

My mother came to visit. She came alone because Dad didn’t like leaving the cove. There was no one to look after the dogs or the chickens, he said. Mum made it clear she had come to see me, that I was the priority. She meant it with love, but it felt like another kind of suffocation. The line between us should have been clear, but still it crackled.

“She is your mummy,” she said to Max who was, by then, a toddler, “But she is also my child.” She hugged me awkwardly with one arm. Max ran off, squealing.

“You’re not coming back,” she said when she left. She looked exhausted. We were both tired by then. And perhaps she was right. By now, I was pregnant with my second child.

I have always thought of the cove as the sediment of my being… something about the permanence of the granite, gray-pink and flecked with quartz. I loved the story of Great-Granny Favell seeing the valley for the first time, scorched with daffodils. She came from Sheffield with her sickly husband and bought the one-story stone house by the river. Slowly she acquired farmland and outhouses and became a plump matriarch, dogs at her heels. The war brought her daughters and a daughter-in-law back into the cupped hands of the cove, where grandchildren ran to the slip and played in the tide pools. A safe haven. Now, men lean on their boats and talk of the past. When the old lady died, she handed the valley to the National Trust to preserve its torpid beauty and her descendants hang on to what was left. Nothing changes now. No one wants that. It is wonderful and stifling, like another peony blooming in my throat.

After my mother went home, we resumed our weekly phone calls. It was hard for her to find reference points.

“How is that lady we met in the park?” she’d ask.

“Oh, I haven’t seen her again.”

“And Max’s soccer games?”

“They’ve finished.”

I’d recently befriended someone with a son the same age as Max, but to tell my mother would make me seem sadder and lonelier than I was. I was pulling away, finally coursing my own river. The storm had broken, letting me take big gulps of air. But when I spoke to my mother, I was pulled back to a place that didn’t allow for change. We fell back into what we were both missing: each other. In the end, it seemed easier not to call.

My mother had her own interpretation for my silence. “I can’t bear to think of you being unhappy,” she said.

“I’m not unhappy,” I said. “I need you to support me.” My words felt urgent. “Dom and I are together. We have healthy children. These are things to celebrate.” What would she prefer, I wanted to say, me sleeping on their couch?

She was slow to reply. “Yes, I get it.”

Later, she called it her “Rubicon.” Perhaps it was mine too. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed a watershed called The Rubicon and committed himself to war. I like to think that in our case, the territory was emotional and put us on a path to peace.

Emily Myers is happiest working out life’s complexities with her three sons. She has worked for the BBC in London and for the arts education group, A Little Culture, in San Francisco. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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First Steps

First Steps

Portrait of mother and baby legs. First steps.

By Emily Page Hatch

I’m eating a turkey sandwich in between seeing clients when I hear my email inbox ping. It’s my son’s daycare; they’ve emailed a video. I lower the volume on the computer and slide my desk chair in. I see my 13-month-old grinning at his daycare teacher, Amy, with the dyed hair and multiple piercings. Amy is gentle and sweet, and my son loves her for loving him. She is crouching across from my boy coaxing him to walk toward her. In her high-pitched voice, she says, “Go buddy!” And with my mouth agape, I watch as he goes. He takes three jerky steps and falls into Amy’s arms. “Yay! Yayy! Yayyy!” she squeals.

Then the video is over. I watch it ten more times, dizzy with joy and pride. I call my coworker over to watch it. She smiles, but her eyes are solemn. “I know it’s hard,” she acknowledges, not to be there for that. We are therapists, so attuned to feeling, empathy seeping from our pores.

My son has been close to walking for months, standing sturdily on two feet, hesitating to take that leap, to let go of my hand. But he let go of Amy’s today, beaming as he bounded forward. He is thriving at daycare, like I knew he would, blossoming from babyhood into toddlerhood, in spite of not being with me, or because of not being with me? I miss him so much my throat closes up.

A confession: I didn’t have to work full-time. I had a very flexible, part-time job and spent much of my time at home. But I chose to take a new job when my son was 6 months old, a Monday through Friday gig, with a long commute. It was a dream job for me, with better pay and professional growth. But as a new mother, it would be hard; I knew this, and yet, I worried more that I was failing at being a full-time mom.

The newborn months had shaken me. My baby could never get enough milk, and I could never get enough sleep. I knew no other way to soothe him than offering my breasts, and I knew no greater pain than nursing for the longest time. He wanted only me and I loved him more than life, but I was crumbling under the weight of his needs.

One day, we walked downtown and I attempted to wear him again in the Ergo carrier. Last time it hadn’t gone well; maybe I hadn’t fastened it right. I had read about the benefits of wearing your baby; the attachment, the convenience, the sense of security. I wanted to be a baby-wearing mom. I also wanted to free my son’s head, so he wouldn’t develop a flat spot.

With difficulty, I strapped him across my chest and set off down the road. Frost coated the March ground, but within minutes we were hot, my son a little furnace squirming to get out. He fussed and cried immediately. My heart rate quickened and so did my steps. He spiraled into screaming, and I broke into a near-jog, sweat dampening both of our stomachs. Five minutes felt like fifty.

Finally, he stopped. He fell asleep, and I could breathe again. But I stayed on edge, keeping my stride. Babies in motion stay asleep; I had learned that much thus far. We made it downtown and without thinking, I ducked into a store, not to buy anything, but to do something that felt normal. The door chimed and my son awoke, fists clenched, face scrunched up in a fury. He roared. I bolted out of the store and tried to comfort him under my breath, “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay.”

He is probably hungry, I thought. He was always hungry, needing to nurse. I needed to know there was more I could do to calm him, to enjoy him, to actually leave the house. He hated the damn Ergo carrier, and goddammit, I hated it, too. It was far too hot and I feared he couldn’t breathe. It kept him facing toward me, while he preferred to look around. It wasn’t right for us and that was okay, but I couldn’t think when he cried.

Siren wails filled the street as I trudged up the hill home. A few people passed by and their looks seemed to say – what are you doing to him?

Why wasn’t I better at this?

By the time we reached home, my body roiled with rage. I wasn’t mad at my baby; I was mad at myself, and tired, so tired. I unclipped one side of the carrier and took my son out. I propped him up on a Bobby. Then I ripped the rest of the carrier off and flung it in the other room.

Something in me snapped. I picked up a book and threw that too, and a shoe, and my purse – I whipped these items into the foyer and shrieked. It felt good, so I did it louder. And louder. I couldn’t stop. My pure frustration voiced for the first time.

I took a breath and suddenly noticed the room was silent. My son had stopped crying. His eyes searched mine, looking for the mother he knew. The room came back into focus. I ran to him and scooped him up. I put him to my breast and sank into the couch and sobbed.

He deserved better.

In an office an hour away from my baby, I get emails with photos of him finger painting and playing in the sand. I get daily reports of what he’s eaten, how he’s played, what he’s made, and how many poops he has taken. He’s sent home every evening with crafts he’s created during his highly structured day. I feel sure he is learning more at “school” than he ever would with me, that his teachers stimulate him and exhibit more patience than I ever could.

And yet, I miss him, almost more than I can stand.

Seven hours after my son takes his first steps, I pick him up at daycare. I creep into the room and wait for him to notice me; it’s my favorite part, observing him like a fly on the wall. After a few seconds, his eyes meet mine and he looks away, like he can’t handle the excitement. He looks back at me with a mega-watt smile, and then at his teacher, as if to say, “She’s mine! That’s my Mom!” His eyes dart back and forth and he giggles with glee. I lift him up into an embrace and press his soft cheek against mine.

My legs feel wobbly as we head out to the car. I carry him, this boy who can now walk on his own. He and I take new steps together every day, and I’m learning – like birds learn winter is fading and it’s time again to sing, like flower buds make their home in the earth and get ready to bloom – that our love is enough.

Emily Page Hatch is a freelance writer, therapist, and mother. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Babble, The Huffington Post, The HerStories Project, Modern Loss, and other publications. You can connect with Emily on Twitter @EmilyPageH or visit www.emilypagehatch.com.

* Names have been changed to protect identity.

 

 

 

 

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A Brother Lost

A Brother Lost

Two children, male and female standing against the sun, sunset, romance

By Laura Richards

I was five and he was three. I stared at the tiny black and white photo of a sad little boy with pleading eyes standing on a metal folding chair, a number pinned to his sweater. “This is your new brother,” my mother said as her words trailed into the distance.

Life as I knew it was about to change forever.

I remember the long drive from Boston to JFK in New York and sleeping on a row of hard, molded plastic airport chairs waiting for the baby flight to arrive from Korea. I saw him for the first time from behind sitting on someone’s suitcase as chaos enveloped him. He stared in wonder at a soda fountain and popcorn popper at the Howard Johnson’s rest stop on our way home. Transition from poverty in another country to the bright lights, flash and color of the Western world seemed too much.

He smelled of kimchi and slept on the floor even though he had a bed. He called me “Uhn-nee” the Korean word for sister and refused to remove his clothing until one day my parents had to wrestle him down in the backyard and strip them off as I watched terrified from the kitchen window. To him new clothes meant a new home. My mother said he was the only child she ever knew who had corns on his feet because his shoes were too small.

Malnourished and wandering the streets of Seoul all alone, he had been shuffled to numerous placements in his brief life and all had sent him back. A child utterly rejected by every adult he’d ever known with an understandable inability to trust, living with the constant terror of being sent away again. Bone scans had to be done of his hands to determine his approximate age. He had no known date of birth so my parents used the day he stumbled off the plane and into our lives as his birthday.

It turns out that despite his rough start in life he was very bright to the point of gifted. He and I would sign up every summer at our branch library for the children’s reading program “Hooked on Books.” The librarians made fishing poles out of long dowels with brown yarn for the lines and cut up manila folders for the hooks. For every book we read we were given a colored paper fish to add to our hooks. The ones burnished with gold and silver paper were the most coveted as it meant you had reached the five, ten or even fifteen books read mark. Every summer my brother’s fishing pole was heavy with multicolored fish and multiple silver and gold because he was their star reader. Mine was flimsy with just a few colored fish blowing about as I wasn’t a prolific child reader. I was jealous of his ability and bountiful colored catch. Sure he outsmarted me academically but socially I had him beat.

As the years passed, it became more and more evident that something was very wrong with my brother. He didn’t connect in a normal way, had issues perspective taking and eventually became paranoid and combative. My parents did everything humanly possible to help him. He had plunged from being at the top of his class at a prominent private school in Boston to the depths of delusion, barricading himself in his bedroom and complaining that poisonous gas was being piped into our house. It was heartbreaking. He blamed all of his problems on a lasagna my mother had made years before. We tried to soothe him by explaining we had all eaten the same lasagna but reason had no place at his table.

It came as a tremendous relief when he was finally diagnosed in high school with paranoid schizophrenia after a complete collapse at yet another private school, this one a boarding school on Long Island. All of his therapists felt he would be better off outside of the family unit and though my parents weren’t particularly comfortable with the idea, they were desperate to help him so complied. It took one emergency room doctor mere minutes to figure out what a dozen others couldn’t over as many years. We were devastated by the diagnosis but grateful to finally have answers. For me it crystallized the tragedy and sadness of what could have been. A brilliant mind and promising life stolen forever.

He and I had a typical sibling relationship especially when we were younger. He drove me crazy teasing, imitating and barging in on me and my friends and I would chase him around the house and do all of the mean things that much taller, older sisters do to shorter, younger brothers. I would play Randy Newman’s song “Short People” as loud as possible on the record player with unrelenting glee. We built encampments in our back yard, slid down the sand pile at the DPW lot behind our house, incurred the understandable wrath of our mother when we used an entire roll of scotch tape on her wallpaper trying to keep our fort blanket in place. Of course it didn’t work and we ruined her wall (sorry mom). We would stay outside in the dark after a snowstorm making elaborate igloos and paths until we were beckoned inside by the bell my parents had affixed to our house. He was my playmate and partner in crime.

Eventually those typical sibling experiences were replaced by atypical experiences like visiting him in psychiatric hospitals. One night, I sat as he was restrained to a hard, flat bed by leather wrist and leg straps, his paranoia at its peak. At the very worst, and most terrifying, he became homeless for a while. The police needed a recent photo to officially declare him a missing person, a photo that I had taken just weeks before at his high school graduation. I will never forget driving to my parent’s house with it on the front seat beside me, stunned at the turn of events. His smiling face in cap and gown, my parents flanked either side of him smiling too, basking in a rare, happy day in a life that had been full of difficult ones. Things seemed to be looking up for him but my tears fell. Instead of seeing him enjoy his post high school summer with hopes of what might lie ahead we were filling out police forms and fearing the worst.

He eventually turned up but things were not good. While I was starting new jobs, dating, getting married, buying a home and building a family as a wife and mother, he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and group homes unable to work and struggling to get through each day. I was getting on with the business of life while he was living in self-inflicted isolation and hating people for various reasons.

As a mom, I tend to take for granted the childhood memory-making happening under my nose every day. Events and funny stories that will eventually become humored and sentimental discussions around future holiday tables. My four boys will get to enjoy this but it’s something I can’t share with my own brother even when I try to jog his cluttered mind to remember what it was like for us. Only he knew about the untuned piano key in our Great Aunt’s parlor that sounded like an old fire engine bell. He knew what it was like to sit on a warm evening on the screened porch of our other Great Aunt and Uncle and watch “The Lawrence Welk Show” with the heat bugs in the background. He was there when I tried to shave my legs for the first time and badly cut my shin on my dad’s old metal razor. Things that only siblings share and reminisce about, not mourn.

He has better days but that little boy who shared and holds all of my childhood memories is lost forever within his illness. Holidays are particularly tough for him and therefore for us. He joins when he can but the voices distract and it often ends badly. Last Thanksgiving, he declared that we were all Nazis and he hated my food after eating three full plates of it. I’m grateful for the good moments when he chats with my sons or throws the ball with them in the backyard knowing it’s fleeting and he will soon be back to his stonewalling and paranoia.

When someone asks if I have any siblings it’s hard to answer and I often hesitate knowing the next question is inevitably, “What does he do for work?” or “Does he have a family?” or the truly dreaded question, “Are you close?” How do I answer or explain? I often reply, “Yes, a brother who is mentally ill and lives in a group home.” That usually abruptly ends the conversation yet saves a series of future awkward questions. Sometimes it starts a conversation that they too have an aunt, grandparent or cousin who suffers from depression or bipolar and I’m glad. Glad to know we can talk about such things and that I’m not alone and it’s not just our family struggling so deeply with mental illness.

My relationship with my brother is now limited to the occasional email always signed, “your brother” followed by his name as if he’s reminding both of us of his place. That he is a brother, my brother. I’d like more but it’s just not in the cards. He has no sense of boundaries with the phone and visiting isn’t something he’s comfortable with. I love him but it’s hard. He’s a hard person to love.

Laura Richards is a Boston-based writer and mother of four boys including identical twins. She has written for a variety of publications including Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, U.S. News & World Report, Redbook, The Boston Globe Magazine and Scary Mommy and can be found on Twitter @ModMothering and via her website www.LauraRichards.co.

 

 

 

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The Art of Killing Time

The Art of Killing Time

13173241_1088146351252368_2437146213812031078_oBy Penne Richards

And time with its medieval chambers

Time with its jagged edges

And blunt instruments

Gabriel—by Edward Hirsch

No one was talking about it, myself included. I felt an overwhelming tug to offer a deposition—a confession, a cry for mercy. Everyone reassured me it was an accident, but it felt like an attempt to let me off the hook.

I imagined a fictional court reporter rereading the unspoken words looping in my head: I plead guilty, Your Honor. I am to blame; I drove the car that killed my daughter. But I couldn’t speak. Fear sat on my throat, snatching my voice; it blocked my air. Every moment I was awake felt like I was being punched in the gut by a 200-pound male wrestler. On the occasions when the pain subsided, it wasn’t much better—I began to flinch in anticipation of the oncoming punch. I don’t exactly remember when I stopped touching my stomach; people always thought I was hungry and tried to feed me.

I ached to gently rock Kristina, again. To snuggle her toddler body in the nape of my neck, humming soft lullabies. Her honeysuckle fragrance, mingled with the liquid amber scent of baby shampoo, lingered on me long after she was gone.

***

At the gravesite, the day of Kristina’s funeral, the July temperature climbed to ninety-three degrees and the sun was out in full force; it was a dry desert heat that swallowed me whole. The dark taupe colored dress sprinkled with red petunias draped over the limp frame of my body. Fidgeting with the hem, I tried to cover the bandage on the wounded gash of my right knee, while adjusting in the seat of the limousine. Either I didn’t own an appropriate black funeral dress, or I didn’t want to wear black. If there was a handbook to advise the proper attire for your child’s funeral, I hadn’t read it. Torn between finding a dress the shade of mourning and one that screamed please-wake-me-from-this-hellish-nightmare, I settled on something that was clean and pressed. I never wore it again.

***

Black silence from the limo’s ashen bleak interior twisted around our necks and suffocated us. Hans, my husband, sat beside me and wrangled out of his sports jacket for the ride, while my mom clasped her perfectly manicured hands across her black rayon tea length dress that matched her hair shade precisely. Dad fiddled with the black tie he wasn’t used to wearing and Hilde, my mother-in-law, stroked her short auburn hair in a type of meditative ritual. I stopped counting her strokes after she reached number seven. In front, ahead of us, was the hearse; it carried Kristina. Breathing was restrictive as I contemplated ways to get to her; she was a car length ahead but I couldn’t calculate my way. From the view of the right door’s window a policeman sped by on his motorcycle to the front of the cemetery’s procession. As our chauffer merged onto the highway, other cars created a Red Sea sort of opening by slowing their speed and steering toward the shoulder allowing our group of cars to pass. While traversing across an overpass, a shiny silver Porsche whooshed passed our line of vehicles; it was moments later when the same Porsche had been pulled over by a cop. The sun’s daylong heat cooked the street’s asphalt until the black tar bubbled and squished under the weight of the passing cars.

***

Springing straight from a face down position, I leveraged my palms off the pavement like a runner sprinting out of the starting blocks toward the finish line and dashed toward the two collided cars. Running toward the mangled gray Ford Tempo, I didn’t recognize the shrieking coming from my mouth. Kristina was still inside the wreckage, but the medics on the scene didn’t see her. My voice stalled and gargled. I screeched out a slow speed version of my baby; she’s still in the car.

***

After I toppled out of the limousine, we took our places at the reserved cloth covered metal chairs strategically placed on top of the green faux lawn. Loose dirt spilled along the edges of the green carpet to create an otherworldly atmosphere. Elite looking easels held massive flower arrangements in various shades of pink that lined the parameter of the site. Extended family, friends and acquaintances closed in around us to shield and protect us; it was prison. The graveside service, its thick hot fog, encased me and delirium ensued.  The preacher said words of comfort and peace, or at least I assumed he did; he words evaporated into the heavens. At the end of the ceremony, I stood beside Hans not feeling his hand in mine; we looked at each other then stared at our family and friends not knowing what to do. Their hugs enveloped us in a supportive suffocating way. A tinge of sweat rolled down the back of my right leg as we walked back to the limo and collapsed inside.

***

Reaching my gray Ford Tempo before the medics, I jerked open the car door and clawed my way to the backseat, but their arms tugged me aside; she looked unconscious. Dear God, is she breathing? No one answered. Arms kept dragging me further away while I desperately tried to scratch out of their grasp. I needed to touch her, to hold her.

On the left side of the road, a lady bent over my twelve-year-old nephew’s pale body, wiping his blond hair out of his face, she gave him her breaths. One medic focused his attention to my mangled knee; blood trickled from my right kneecap, down the inside of my tattered jeans, and collected around the rim of my white sock creating a pinkish red stain around my ankle, but I pushed him away in an attempt to reach my baby.  “They can help her,” a voice said over my wailing. Men loaded my nephew from the ground, to the stretcher, and finally into the ambulance.

In the fleeting moments before this, before the Tempo crossed through the four-way stop sign, my freckled-faced nephew sat satisfied beside me in the passenger’s seat smiling and humming along to the tunes on the radio. Kristina happily tucked into a booster seat in the backseat of the Tempo with its seatbelt strapped across her lap. Having just left my brother and Dad’s work site to run an errand, or get a coke; I don’t remember the reason for leaving.

***

Kophino, the Greek word for coffin, gurgled across my tongue when I attempted its pronunciation. I thought by replacing the English word with a foreign counterpart would disguise the meaning, add distance, and remove its necessity; it didn’t so I stopped. During the funeral the royal blue fabric of the pews, inside the church I grew up in, held our numb bodies in place. Wood paneled walls varnished with walnut stain boxed us into place. Floral arrangements made of pink carnations, white rosebuds, yellow daisies magnificently flocked the foyer and the front of the sanctuary, while their aura beautifully extinguished the oxygen. Rows of pews occupied the bodies of relatives, friends, and acquaintances, each tightly squeezed next to each other to pay their respects. We were escorted into the front right pew, the one closest to the pastel pink metal casket with bronze handles; its sheen blinded me into a catatonic state.

***

A stretcher lifted her to the back of the emergency vehicle and I raced to join her, but they denied me. The paramedic shut the steel red door of the ambulance to secure Kristina and my nephew inside with the silver headed paramedic; his scruffy whiskers gave the appearance that he gave his patients all his attention. I was steered to the front passenger’s seat. The blue-capped paramedic with his matching blue jump suit raced around into the driver’s seat. Sirens blasted into action, as we sped away. Please, Lord; please let her be okay. Please. I’m begging. I prayed in a murmuring tone.

Darting his eyes between the road and my bleeding leg, “we need to get you looked at too,” he said. Tears tumbled down my face and collected on the front of my white t-shirt as my body convulsed into deeper panic. “Good Lord, go faster,” I said, sobbing while I swiped my running nose with the back of my trembling hands.

***

Our first visit to the funeral home was for our private viewing. “It’s customary to give the Mom and Dad time alone before the rest of the family joins,” Mr. Funeral Director said while clearing his throat and nodding at me, and then Hans. His salt-and-pepper wiry hair was parted on the left side while a few strands of his hair flew around when he walked. He wore a smoky gray pinstriped suit appearing fresh from the cleaners and the maroon tie was tamed with a silver tie clip. Ushering the two of us away from our family, down the hall and to the left, to a room. The ambiance was grim; wood paneling with a mahogany stain covered the entirety of the intimate room. The pale pink casket simmered against its dark surroundings; it emitted a mystical air. Positioned at an angle in an attempt to cover more space and appear substantial, Kristina’s casket remained petite. My feet planted deep in the hallway’s beige carpet, I vacillated between bolting from the room and rushing to her.

***

Doors to the emergency room exploded open and other medical people flooded out like ants to a crumb of bread. The exhaust from the engine collided with the bristling heat of the June day. Once they reached the ambulance, they seized Kristina and my nephew; they slid their stretchers out of the vehicle’s armor. I rushed to her, but again they blocked me. Two nurses, each in blue scrubs, encircled my left and right arms and gently coaxed me into a treatment room, further away from my baby. No one there was familiar. Strangers flocked around me and fussed about my gashed knee with disinfectants and bandages. “You’ll probably need stitches,” one voice said. I swatted them away from my knee, but then grasped the petite hand of the nurse with the kind looking brown eyes and short silvery hair. “Please, just put a bandage on it. If I need stitches, I’ll come back. I need someone to tell me where my baby is. Please, will you help me?” I asked pleading. Mary, the emergency center nurse, stopped what she was doing and sat next to me on the treatment bed. She scooted in close to dissolve the space between us and wrapped her arm around my shoulder; gently she hugged me. I crumbled into her. “The doctors and nurses are giving your baby girl all their attention. She is in good hands. They’ll come talk to you as soon as they can, but right now your sweet girl needs them,” Mary said frankly. “Until then, I need to take care of you. I’ll have you ready when they come for you.”

***

A newly purchased dress made of white eyelet fabric with a thin red ribbon tied neatly around her waist; its tailored fit and hues complemented her olive complexion. The sash matched the poppy shaped purse she liked to carry. The matching white eyelet bonnet concealed the necessary shave she was given in the hospital. Her once shoulder length chestnut-colored curls had disappeared and in its place grew a cap of thick dark hair; she was lovely. Hans’s six-feet-four frame leaned down into the coffin to reach her, while I stood on my tippy toes like a ballerina in toe shoes to snuggle into her cheek. Our tear dollops soaked the satin lined pillow that Kristina’s head rested on. We stayed with her longer than I remember; others joined us later.

“For Kristina’s funeral services, do you want an opened or closed casket?” I heard Mr. Funeral Director ask. There was a ping-ping-ping ringing in my ears and I was having difficulty registering voices or any sounds. “Typically when a love one has sustained an injury prior to their passing,” he continued but I wasn’t listening. His gold link watch ticked with each second; it hid the day’s time under the white cuff of his shirt. Closed, we decided.

***

The sensor on the automatic glass doors of the emergency center instantly slid open the moment my husband’s white Hanes sport socks stepped onto the entrance mat. With his scruffy size twelve Nike high-tops in hand and a disheveled tan work shirt hanging over the top of his jeans, Hans dashed inside. His red-rimmed eyes were puffy. “Baby, I came as fast as I could,” Hans said as he hugged me into his chest. “Where’s Kristina? What happened? Are you okay? Have you talked to the doctor?” Hans’s voice spilled a German brusqueness I scarcely recognized; it tilted me. His dark blue eyes stared down at me and I started to wobble and the room was spinning.

***

A chocolate agouti colored bunny sat on Kristina’s lap as the photographer snapped Easter themed photos. On a bright April Easter Sunday, our last holiday with her, she donned an apricot sailor dress paired with a white short brimmed straw hat and matching white patent shoes. Kristina’s chestnut curls cascaded loosely along the top of her shoulders. In her right hand she carried a white wicker Easter basket with a lamb’s face painted on the exterior, as a tiny purse dangled from her left shoulder. She pranced about hunting eggs. The greenish-brown grass hid the brightly colored plastic eggs that the children gleefully searched. The chocolate covered bunnies softened in the sun’s warmth.

***

Once the respirator was turned off, Claire, the petite ginger haired physician lifted up her wire rimmed spectacles and dabbed her watery blue eyes with a tissue. Terry, her nurse, wore sea foam colored scrubs; a pink stethoscope draped around her tanned neck and a round lavender button was pinned on her scrub top that read, “I love kids.” Claire and Terry had been taking care of Kristina, and us, for the last two weeks of her life; they felt like family. Terry glided the pastel print curtain closed and switched off the lights from the bedside monitors. The five of us were alone with a wooden rocking chair in the tiny room of the pediatric intensive care unit. Hans crumpled into the rocking chair and reached for me to join him. I nestled onto his lap as Claire and Terry lifted Kristina’s small body off the white crib sheets and draped her across our arms. Hans cradled her cap of dark hair while I stroked her petite legs and feet. Claire squeezed my shoulder as she turned to leave the room. “Take as long as you need,” Terry said as tears streamed down her cheeks. Closing the curtain behind them, Claire and Terry left us alone to say our good-byes.

***

Pin dots of drizzle collected on my blue trench coat on that distant April afternoon, as I exited the charming museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. I was visiting a friend, killing time. Metal clock sculptures, in various shapes and sizes, occupied the outdoor courtyard as artistic symbols of the Swiss exactness of time. I ran my fingertips along the clocks’ grainy steel, gazing beyond the courtyard’s plush lawn and along the peaks of the Alps. I settled on the billowy skyline; its natural architecture beckoned me into a momentary tranquility.

Le temps guérit toutes les blessures. The mantra that time heals all wounds is deceptive, a one-size fits all delusion. Time alters; it soothes; it diminishes the scar. But most remarkably, time eclipses despair and inches, ever so slightly, toward hope.

***

Spring’s purple geraniums had long since withered under winter’s soil and a fine dusting of snow covered the brown brittle grass. I felt the damp cotton pillowcase under my cheek, as I roused to the sound of my own sobbing. Morning sunlight poured brightness across the rumpled silvery comforter like a mound of glistening diamonds. Through a mass of tangled wet curls that shrouded the wreck of my face, I gulped air. I willed myself back into the dream, to the part where I scooped Kristina into my arms and laughed, a deep belly laugh—the kind that makes you cry. As we twirled, she giggled. After catching her breath, she nuzzled her lips next to my ear and whispered I love you, Mommy.

 

Penne Richards is a full-time medical staff recruiter and a MFA student at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert studying creative writing and writing for the performing arts. Her work has been featured in Ten Spurs, the literary nonfiction journal at the University of North Texas. She enjoys spending time outdoors, especially in a new city. Penne, the mother of four children—Kristina, Ashleigh, Nick and Addison, lives in Lubbock, Texas with her husband, Darin and their family. She is currently at work on her first book. Find her as @pennerich.

 

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Someone to Watch Over Me

Someone to Watch Over Me

Mom Dad Me Provincetown 1957 Edited (002)

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

“A tasket, a tisket, Joan will make a brisket.”

My mother’s friends serenaded her with those lyrics at my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary party. Mom was famous throughout Flushing, Queens for her brisket.

As soon as she heard someone was facing illness or surgery, she’d call the butcher. Then she’d cook and deliver that person a braised brisket so delectably tender you barely needed a knife. Easy to freeze, it tasted even better the second day. Her brisket served with mashed potatoes was the ultimate comfort meal. Food is the mamaloshen – the mother tongue – of Jewish families. Mom didn’t speak Yiddish, but she understood it, just as she understood the healing properties of food. When there was a death, my mother took over the job of setting up for shivah. She’d lug out her 50 cup electric coffee pot, hard-boil the eggs and start slicing the bagels.

As a child I thought I lived in a boarding house, because there were always so many people at the table. Cousins, aunts, and uncles spilled in and out the front door in time for meals, and my mother’s friends, many of them elementary school teachers, showed up at 3:30 most afternoons. She served cinnamon coffeecake, cigarettes and conversation. Her phone rang incessantly. There was always the sense of something exciting about to happen: a faraway guest about to arrive unannounced, a meal, a bed, a welcome for anyone who needed it. My mother thought nothing of cooking dinner for twenty. She was less than thrilled, though, when in the midst of frantic Passover preparations, the kitchen steamy with chicken soup and simmering brisket, Great Aunt Rose and Uncle Babe from Brooklyn arrived four hours early and sat expectantly in the living room, waiting for mom to serve them cake and coffee.

There was dancing in that house, and noise. The brown velvet loveseat was pushed aside for a child’s impromptu ballet recital, or for my mother to give a clumsy cousin waltz lessons on the eve of his marriage. Guests revolved through the front door in an ever-changing nightly cast — that same great aunt and uncle from Brooklyn who often showed up uninvited on Sunday just in time for dinner; the former landlady from Provincetown who came for a weekend but stayed six weeks; my pot-head boyfriend my father despised even as my mother kindly welcomed him.

We moved into the Moorish-style brick colonial in Queens in the spring of ’56. The plumbing, circa 1927 was original; the radiators distressingly large and clanky. But the level back yard was just the right size for children’s birthday parties, and the low limbs of the crabapple tree just right for climbing.

And there was music. Show soundtracks on the hi-fi, like Gigi. Camelot. Fiddler on the Roof. My Fair Lady. The musical parodies of Alan Sherman. Benny Good man stomped at the Savoy, and Artie Shaw began his beguine. Best of all, my mother played the piano. She was innately musical, able to play a song after hearing it only once. As a child of the Great Depression, she was entirely self-taught; her parents were too poor to waste money for such frivolities as piano lessons. As an adult, she would sit at the Baldwin spinet that had been her mother’s, an ancient dark wood instrument tucked up against the stuccoed wall of the sun room. Her favorite piece was a wistful bit of music she played for herself. “What’s that called?” I asked once.

“It’s just a little something I wrote for my mother,” she said. “It’s called ‘Liane forever more.'” Her mother had died young; I was named for her. Often she’d segue into a second, hauntingly lovely melody that evoked a yearning sadness in me. She’d sing softly to herself, “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see….” She played it so movingly I thought she’d written that one too. Only years later did I realize it was George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Every evening before my bedtime my mother and I would peer out at the moon through the window on the stair landing. She would sing me a song that years later I sang to my own children: “I see the moon and the moon sees me, the moon sees somebody I want to see. God bless the moon, and God bless me. And God bless the somebody I want to see.” The somebody for her, of course, must have been her mother. As young as I was, somehow I understood that she was sad in a place my kisses could never touch.

That house was my mother’s domain, comforting and safe. I basked in the warmth of her sustaining love.

Still, she was a slapdash housekeeper. Clean, but not neat. She was too busy making books of Braille for the blind, editing newsletters, running the temple bazaar, driving people to doctor appointments or reading to the geriatric residents at the local psychiatric institution. Years later and all grown up, my brother and I would periodically check the back of the kitchen cabinet to see if she’d thrown out the packet of yeast which had expired in the early 1970s. “Still here,” he’d announce with satisfaction.

“You need Carbon 14 to date it,” I said.

But the mess was oddly reassuring. “I wish I could be as sure of other things in this world as the fact that this housework will still be here long after I’m gone,” she often said.

When I moved into my first apartment, she packed me off with a set of Marimekko melamine plates and the Temple Beth Sholom Sisterhood cookbook, Home on the Range. I was single, working, living alone. She didn’t call to check up on me. She never asked when I planned to get married. “Other mothers like to bother their children,” I complained.

“I don’t like to pry,” she said. She especially hated having to disturb me at work. She didn’t want my boss to think I was getting personal phone calls on the company’s dime. If she absolutely needed to telephone me at the office, she’d leave a pseudonym. I’d return to my desk to find such messages as, “Call Margaret Dumont,” or “Maria Ouspenskaya returned your call.” She knew I’d recognize the allusion to our favorite old Marx Brothers and Lon Chaney werewolf movies.

“Mostly I just like saying “Ouspenskaya,” she admitted. “It’s so satisfying.”

She wasn’t the only one with an alias. When I was a high school senior, I answered an ad in the back of a magazine for the Famous Writers School correspondence course. “Do you have a restless urge to write?” it asked. I did. I ordered the free copy of their “revealing” aptitude test, but hesitated to use my real name. Mom and I had recently watched “Citizen Kane” on late night TV, so I said I was “Rosebud Kane.” Months later, a man rang our doorbell. This was still the days of Fuller Brush salesmen and Avon ladies making house calls, so it wasn’t unusual to find a salesman on your doorstep. “I’m from the Famous Writers School,” he said. “Are you Miss Rosebud Kane?” Mom instantly knew. With a straight face, she said, “She’s not available. I’ll tell her you called.”

The cliché has it that some people will give you the shirt off their back. Along with the shirt, Mom gave the skirt, the shoes, the pants, the purse and money for cab fare. I once gave her a beautiful sky blue silk robe she said she loved. She packed it when she flew down to Florida to stay with Aunt Jeanette, who was very ill. When Aunt Jeanette’s nurse admired the robe, Mom gave it to her. I asked her why she had done that. She said, “because I hope she’ll take extra good care of Jeanette.

She took extra good care of everyone, except herself. I was in my late 20s and newly married when she began to have worrisome bouts of coughing. Shortness of breath. Bronchitis that lingered too long. I nagged her to stop smoking. She laughed it off.

The house too showed signs of neglect. The rickety piano bench bulged with tattered sheaves of music she no longer played; issues of National Geographic and The New Yorker magazines piled up, unread. The gold wall-to-wall carpet once so plush it held the trace of her slippered feet each morning oxidized to dirty mustard. Like an aging aristocrat, the house still got by on good bones, increasingly shored up by the scaffolding of my memories.

Eventually that carpet bore the indelible indentation of a tall tank of oxygen. It loomed large against the living room wall, a giant metal canister susurrating ceaselessly. Plastic tubing snaked from room to room, the translucent umbilical cord tethering her to that tank. Increasingly she turned to watching game shows and old Fred Astaire movies.

That Thanksgiving, I cooked the entire meal at my house, packed it all up and brought it to her, but she could only manage a few mouthfuls. “Everything is delicious,” she apologized, “but it’s just too hard to eat and breathe at the same time.”

Cigarettes were her undoing, but that miasma of nicotine also contained the life breath of my mother’s laughter. Ten days after I gave birth to my second child, she was rushed to the hospital. We got a call at 3:00 a.m. to come say goodbye. Gathered around the bed, we held her hands and stared at her, our eyes filled with unshed tears. Finally, she spoke up. “Sorry it’s taking me so long. You shouldn’t=t have rushed. You know I’m always dressed too early to go places.”

She revived. The doctor sent her home with only weeks to live.

“Promise me one thing,” she said. “Don’t let the rabbi do that ‘Woman of Valor’ speech at my funeral.”

I knew what she meant. Every rabbi reads the psalm about “the woman of valor” whose “price is far above rubies.”

Through tears, I said, “I swear.”

Valor. The dictionary says, boldness or determination in facing great danger. See also, courage.

“There’s a song I want you to play at my funeral, she told me. Nothing too sad. It’s from The Fantastiks. It’s called Try to Remember.”

The day after she died, Aunt Adele brought us a brisket. It wasn’t as good as Mom’s.

Mom showed me that making a home is a journey, not a destination. She taught me to love Gershwin, Big Bands, Beethoven and the Marx Brothers; to use clear nail polish to stop a nylon run, to take care of others, and yes, how to braise a brisket.

Author’s Note: Last fall I was asked to contribute to an anthology of essays on women and food, and to include a recipe. I wrote about my mother’s brisket. But when I shared the piece with a colleague, she said, “This isn’t about food. It’s really about your mother. Send them a different piece.” Which I did. I haven’t been able to write much about my mother since her death 19 years ago — until now.

Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of the memoir Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers.) Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Parents, Literary Mama, Brevity, The Manifest-Station, and in several anthologies.

 

Lighting Up

Lighting Up

Art Italy

By Beverly Willett

Four years ago, my youngest daughter and I flew to Italy to celebrate her 16th birthday. I’d been saving up frequent flyer miles for a decade. She’d been setting aside birthday and Christmas money from her grandmother to buy clothes. We couldn’t afford the couture houses, but my daughter wanted to shop in Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, before we took the train to Venice.

As our trip grew closer, I realized I’d never gone on a mother-daughter trip with my mother. Back then I never even heard of anyone taking what has become de rigueur today. But those were different times: My mother was born during the Depression; I was a late baby boomer. Unlike my citified daughter, I grew up in a family of modest means in a small rural conservative town. Even now, the rigid roles of parent and child are occasionally still evident between me and my own mom.

In fact, I didn’t even know she smoked until the week after my father died. It was the year I turned 30, and I’d stayed on after the funeral to help my mother organize papers.

I’ve got a secret, she blurted out one night as we picked at leftovers from the covered dish supper held at the church hall after the funeral, my mother breaking down to tell me she needed a cigarette.

How long have you been smoking? I asked, astonished.

Since I was 13, she said. A total of 43 years. My father had been a chain smoker, and Mom hid her smoke behind his during my growing-up years, lighting up only at night with a cup of coffee after I went to bed. Then again while I was in school.

“I knew smoking was wrong,” my Mom had explained. “I didn’t want you to do it.”  Back then, whatever was considered dirty laundry was kept well hidden. And if not, it became a scandal. But Mom was distraught over Daddy’s death that night, and so desperate for a smoke, that she came clean.

When she did, I sat there transfixed, realizing for the first time that my mother was undoubtedly a more complicated woman than I’d ever imagined. She’d given me an opening by sharing her secret so I suddenly unloaded mine.

“I like to drink,” I said, spitting out the words. Drinking was against our Southern Baptist religion growing up, and I didn’t have my first taste of alcohol until college. I’d kept that fact from my mother, too. And although she still adhered to her childhood faith, I eventually became an Episcopalian, where drinking is allowed.

So that night I told my mother I had a bottle of wine in the car, and minutes later, we sat at her kitchen table breaking bread, Mom with a cigarette dangling from her lips, puffing and exhaling through her nostrils, me sipping wine from her crystal dessert goblet. Me, feeling closer to my mother at that moment than perhaps I ever had. Stunned that she’d taken my revelation equally in stride.

Both full-fledged adults, it had nevertheless taken alcohol, cigarettes and death for us to fully let our guard down. It was a turning point in the slow evolution of our relationship.

I flashed back to this moment more than two decades later as I stood with my 16-year-old daughter in the shadow of the Duomo, the magnificent 14th-century white marble Gothic cathedral in Milan.

Should we go in? I said.

Can we sit outside in one of the cafes first? she asked. The piazza in which the Duomo sits is the city center, and the squares porticoes are lined with shops and cafes.

“Sure,”I agreed. We’d just gone shopping, and I’d snapped photos of her in the dressing room, smiling even as I struggled to rein in my sadness. My daughter was on the cusp of womanhood. The full transition was inevitable, and once it occurred, irreversible. I was savoring my daughter’s last days of childhood.

“You know I’ve had this dream since I knew we were coming,” my daughter said as we stood in the piazza, hesitating before she continued her confession. “I thought it would be cool for us to sit in one of those little cafes and have espresso and smoke a cigarette. My daughter knew how I felt about smoking. The scientific research had become indisputable. And more than a Marlboro pack-a-day had undoubtedly contributed to my father’s too early demise. Maybe my own mother had even somehow saved me from a lifelong habit I might have come to regret.

I drew in my breath as I formulated a response in my head for my own daughter. Somehow I figured this moment in the piazza was a turning point for us, too. I was petrified to make a wrong move. This girl with her still developing brain needed a parent for the many transitions ahead. I would always be her mother and she my child. But one day I hoped I could also be her good friend. And that it wouldn’t take as long for us as it had between me and my own mother.

Mine had been a difficult divorce, too. As the custodial parent who attended to the nitty gritty, I was concerned that I fell into the role of bad cop all too often. It was hard saying no when part of me wanted to say yes.

“Sure”I finally said to my daughter. But you know smoking’s not good for you.

I’m not going to be a smoker like Grandma, my daughter said, giggling as she skipped over the cobblestones and into a tobacco shop to buy cigarettes.

After she returned, our waiter led us to a table. A soft breeze blew through the square during the several attempts it took for my daughter and me to light up. I coughed and mostly pretended to inhale. My daughter looked as expert as Marlene Dietrich as she held the cigarette between her index and middle fingers. “My friends are never going to believe this,” she said. I had to smile. Caffeine and cigarettes (and perhaps a bit of shopping), and for the moment we felt as one.

Beverly Willett lives in Savannah, Georgia after nearly a lifetime in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Salon, Family Circle, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She’s a proud member of the Peacock Guild writing group at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rage, Shame, and My Daughter’s African Hair

Rage, Shame, and My Daughter’s African Hair

By Cindy Reed

Akeyla climbing

Who wants to be the human embodiment of a teachable moment, the object of a lesson on tolerating racial differences? I want her to just be a kid, one whose kinky hair happens to tumble out of her head more width than length.

My seven-year-old bounces out of the bathroom, eager to show me her hair. She has declared today to be a natural hair day, a break between braidings.

“Look Mommy! I’m African!” she squeals. Her hair points in every direction, weaving in and out upon itself and springing up behind one ear. Mine, unwashed, hangs limp at my shoulders, gray encroaching on the commonplace brown.

She’s told me that she loves wearing her hair free like this, without braids or twists. There are no plastic bands tugging at her scalp, no sharp parts to attend to. Worn down, the tendrils are long enough to tickle her neck. This is the way nature intended it to grow out of her head. It’s perfect.

I slip on a glittery headband to keep it out of her eyes.

“I can’t wait to show my friends at school!” she says, hopping out of the minivan at the elementary school drop-off line.

My daughter’s hair is the color of the dark coffee I drank at the traditional ceremony held when her birthmother first entrusted her to me over seven years ago on a cloudy day in Hosanna, Ethiopia, when the sky couldn’t make up its mind whether to storm. In a brief meeting that crossed chasms of age and race and class, two translators helped me ask questions of this shy teenage mother, words handed off from English to Amharic to her tribal language like batons. To say things were lost in translation is an understatement, but the fierce hug she gave me left no room for misunderstanding. I would now be carrying her heart around with me. I promised that we would love her daughter always, would teach her of her birth family, would make her proud to be Ethiopian.

The bus ride back to Addis Ababa was somber. Our travel group of adoptive parents had witnessed families broken apart. Tucking our joy at being new parents into a side pocket of our hearts, we found room to pour in the oceans of tragedy and loss we’d just left behind.

My promises to my daughter’s birthmother come flooding back as I make my way to the school pick line, on this day when my daughter chose to showcase her natural hair. I am hoping to hear stories about how the other kids loved the style. But instead I retrieve from school a little girl transformed, her free, naturally-styled hair from that morning now stuffed unceremoniously into an unfamiliar scrunchie. Everything is tamped down, a far cry from the near-Afro she sported just hours ago. “Where’s your African hair?” I ask. She looks down. “I don’t want to wear it like that anymore.”

She is quiet on the drive home, refusing to answer my gentle questions about the day. Inside, I prepare myself for a first conversation about racism, about difference, about pride and standing strong.  

At bedtime, she relents. “A second grader grabbed my hand and pulled me around before school to show people my crazy hair. Kids laughed at it.” She gathers her pink blankie close, a first gift from her aunt that has rarely left her side since she arrived in America. She sucks on the corner. “I don’t like my African hair,” she says.

She begs me not to say anything to anyone at school, which is, of course, the first thing I want to do. But she has now been the subject of unwanted attention and the last thing she would want is a brighter spotlight to shine down on her differences. It’s hard to argue with her. Who wants to be the human embodiment of a teachable moment, the object of a lesson on tolerating racial differences? I want her to just be a kid, one whose kinky hair happens to tumble out of her head more width than length.

I smooth her hair back into a tight ballerina bun for bedtime, catching up the strays, rubbing almond oil into her scalp.

Our town is not diverse, but we take progressive stands on social issues. We provide a southern haven for an eclectic mix of the eccentric, the misfits, and the hippies, both neo- and original. Still, this is primarily a white town. Black and white neighborhoods stand largely side by side, the result of the south’s dark history of segregation.

We knew the charter school we chose was especially lily white, nestled up a mountain and away from downtown, offering no public transportation and no school lunch. The race-blind admissions process is governed by the unbending rules of the state lottery system, numbers on post-its standing in for children and futures. The result? My two adopted daughters can tick off on their hands all the students of color in the entire K-8 school, many, like them, the transracial adoptees of white parents.

But despite its lack of diversity, the school prides itself on inclusiveness and tolerance. The school, like the town, is a bastion of white liberalism, with all the good intentions and challenges of privilege such a world outlook raises.

Surely my daughter’s differences—her kinky hair, her chocolate skin, her African birth—would be embraced here, we had thought.

My heart aches. My mind rages. I struggle to formulate a response to the schoolyard taunts. I want to find those kids and—

And what? Scream at them? Punch them? Berate their parents?

Maybe I’m overreacting. I mean, kids point at people who look different. My own kids stare and ask uncomfortable questions: “Why is that lady fat?” or “What’s wrong with that boy’s legs?” Kids latch onto any difference and pull. Hard.

So I don’t write a ranting email and copy it up and down the chain of command. Instead, I start small, mentioning it to the classroom teacher. “Maybe just be on the lookout,” I ask.

Saturday is braiding day. My daughter tends to hold forth in the salon, a big personality with a flair for the dramatic. The ladies under the dryers laugh and coo at her sass and sunshine.

As she entertains, I make myself small in my chair, trying not to intrude in this sacred space of African-American women. I never mastered the art of styling black hair. No matter how many YouTube videos I watched or Carol’s Daughter products I bought, my twists uncoiled before I could snap a hair band on the bottom and my parts ended up hopelessly crooked. My failure feels like a breach of the promises I made to my daughter’s birthmother over coffee and tears all those years ago.

“Make styling a special time with your daughter,” an African-American friend urged. But hair time for my daughter and me continued to be the opposite of special.

So here we are, at the salon.

It’s embarrassing, this failure. Styling the hair of African-American girls is a point of cultural pride and black women have on occasion let me know when I have missed the mark. A woman once followed me into the grocery store bathroom, staring while I shepherded my daughters through the chaotic process of peeing, wiping, washing, drying, and otherwise not rolling on the floor.

“You’re not combing her hair, then?” the woman asked, running her fingers through my daughter’s tangles. I pressed the girls to dry their hands faster, but they were mesmerized by the automatic paper towel dispenser, waving their hands like maniacs and sending reams of brown recycled towels onto the soapy floor. I was unsure how to respond and so I didn’t. The woman pretended to wash her hands. “I’d do it for you, but I’m headed back to Atlanta,” she said, turning to leave. As if we were friends. As if next time she came to visit she’d have time to style my daughter’s hair. Maybe we’d sit together and I’d learn, watching her fingers fly through two-strand twists and expertly patterned cornrows. My face burned.

At the salon, I flip through old copies of Essence. My daughter sits on her booster in the big styling chair, insistent. “I want straight hair today,” she demands of her regular stylist, a big-hearted woman of unnatural patience. I am usually hesitant about the blowou—which tends to knot the instant we reach the car and collects our Saint Bernard’s shed hair like a lint brush. But on this day I have no energy left for a pep talk about embracing her curly locks. I concede.

As the flat iron crackles, my daughter’s African hair disappears in a haze of steam. She easily slides her fingers through what is typically a dense thicket, delighted at the finished product. It is long and sleek and smooth and looks just like her “ethnic” Barbie’s hair now, ready to brush or sweep back in a breezy ponytail.

Back at home, I hear the neighborhood girls gushing. “I love your hair like this!” and “You should wear your hair like this all the time!” My daughter, at last, feels included. As I watch from the porch, I brush aside a nagging thought that this inclusion comes at the expense of her true self—that she has been taken in and validated because her hair now conforms to their expectations.

But there will be time later for conversations about African pride and self-esteem. For the moment my daughter is laughing and happy, and my heart is full.

Cindy Reed is an award-winning freelance writer and speaker who teaches writing at cindyreed.me and blogs at www.reedsterspeaks.com. She lives with her family, created by international adoption, in Asheville, North Carolina.

Postcards From the Sandwiched

Postcards From the Sandwiched

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By Amy Yelin

March 28, 2015: I’m standing in the Durham, North Carolina airport, I-Phone in hand. I’m about to call my 87-year-old father to tell him that I’ve landed safely. It’s been more than a year since I’ve seen him. Usually he and his wife fly up for Thanksgiving, but this year, with both of them not feeling well, they didn’t. And while I’d thought about flying down sooner, I was either too busy or too financially strapped or perhaps simply too nervous about what I’d find when I arrived to follow through.

On our phone calls the last few months, I’d noticed my dad repeating himself much more than usual. This call from the airport would be no different. When he answers, I tell him I’ve landed. Moments later he asks, “What time is your flight taking off?”

“No, I just landed,” I repeat. “I’m about to get in a cab and come to your house.”

“Ah…” he says. “How was the flight?”

“Fine,” I say. “Real quick. Nice, big plane.”

A few minutes later, he asks, again, “So is your flight taking off soon?”

“I’m here, remember?”

“Ah, that’s right,” he says. He laughs at himself. His voice perks up. “I’ll see you soon then!”

“Are you sure you need to go?” my husband had asked when I told him about my impending trip. “I mean, is it really that bad? Or is he just forgetting a few things here and there?”

“I’m not sure,” I said “Which is why I’m going.”

My seven-year-old son overheard our conversation and reminded me of his concert on Friday. “I’m sorry buddy,” I said, “That’s when I’m flying out. I’m going to have to miss this one.”

“Don’t go mama,” he said, hugging me.

“But I need to check on grandpa.” He hugs me tighter and says, “Ok.”

That Friday, as I sit on the airplane, I imagine my son singing “If I had a hammer” with his second grade class. No doubt, if I were there, I’d be crying—children singing always make me cry—and just imagining the scene makes me teary-eyed on the plane. Then I think of my father, and my stomach clenches. Is he OK? And that’s when it dawns on me: I’m smack in the middle of the sandwich.

The Sandwich: What is it? A Brief History

What does the term Sandwich Generation even mean? It’s not a true “generation”—like Millenials, or Generation X, or Boomers. The term first emerged in the 1980’s, courtesy of a woman named Dorothy Miller, who published a paper titled, “The Sandwich Generation: Adult children of the aging.” The moniker stuck and made it into the dictionary in 2006.

A 2013 Pew Research Center study defines the ‘Sandwich Generation’ of today as those who have a living parent age 65 or older and are either raising a child under age 18, or supporting a grown child. Today, 71 percent of the sandwiched population is between the ages of 40 to 59 years old and, according to a 2012 AARP Florida study, there are a lot of us: approximately 20 million.

As the Pew report notes, we are a people “pulled in many directions.” Tugging at our financial, emotional and time-crunched strings are our children, our jobs, and our aging parents.

Curious if it’s always been this way, I contacted Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families.

“This kind of sandwich situation has really only been around since women entered the workforce,” explained Coontz. “Before that you might have had people “sandwiched” in the sense that they were three generations living together under one roof -for example, in colonial times. But people didn’t live as long then and women didn’t work outside the home, so it’s different than today’s situation.”

After the turn of the 20th century, the number of extended families living together went down, dropping dramatically by the 1940’s and 50’s. Coontz references a best-selling advice book during that era, penned by a psychiatrist, that posed the question are you an old fashioned mom, or a modern mother? “Old-fashioned moms were too interfering in their kids’ lives. Old-fashioned moms kept extended families in the home,” said Coontz. “So you saw more and more people putting their parents in the new modern assisted living facilities that were cropping up in the 1950’s…and they weren’t ashamed to do so. And you also saw moms staying out of their kids’ lives.”

As she talks, I know exactly what she means. In the forties and fifties, as we all know from movies, kids just picked up games in the streets. There was no societal pressure to watch your kid every second, or help them with everything

Coontz adds, “Today’s parents feel pressured not only to stay economically and educationally competitive, but also to sign their kids up for more enrichment activities and spend more quality time with them. Add to that the fact that today’s sandwiched parents are also in the prime of their work lives and may have aging parents to take care of on top everything else and it can feel like a real pressure cooker.”

Or if we’re sticking with the sandwich metaphor, she offers, “like a Pressed Panini.”

When I get off the phone with her, my older son is standing in front of me holding my car keys and a baseball glove in his hand. “We’re five minutes late for baseball practice!” he says.

I’m tempted to tell him to pick up a game of stickball in the street, but instead I smile and apologize. A minute later, we’re running out the door.

Lucy’s Pressed Panini: It Takes a Village

Forty-five year old Lucy Van Beeber remembers her father and son playing light sabers together. It was during the period her dad was first diagnosed with bladder cancer, in 2008; also the same year her second child, daughter, Bianca was born.

“My father was grouchy a lot then,” recalls Lucy. “He had had his bladder removed and he had an ostomy bag and he wasn’t adjusting well. So there we were with the kids, visiting and my four-old son Marco just wanted to play with grandpa. He wanted to play light sabers, and so I found these wrapping paper tubes that they could use. And they played together.”

It’s a memory Lucy treasures.

Tragically, Lucy’s father’s cancer would metastasize. Throughout much of 2009 she drove back and forth from her home in Somerville, Massachusetts to her parents home in New Jersey—a four-and-a-half stressful trek each way.

“My kids have known their whole lives that my attention is divided,” says Lucy. “It’s just always been that way.”

In 2010, as her father was dying, Lucy’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After her mother also became ill, Lucy was hardly ever home. Her husband took on the role of the primary caregiver to the children, then ages two-and-a-half and six.

On April 21st, 2010, Lucy’s mother had a mastectomy. Thirteen days later, on May 3rd, her father passed away.

When talking about the experience, Lucy pauses here for a moment. “That was a really tough time,” she says. “Caring for two sick parents and being away from my husband and kids. And after my father died, it was time to do everything for my mom, who had just lost her husband and her right breast. It was really hard.”

Carol Abaya, M.A., is a sandwich generation guru. She even owns the URL sandwichgeneration.com. Her personal story about caring for her aging parents was featured in a New York Times article in 1999. For the past 25 years, she has used her personal expertise gained from caring for her aging parents to help others in the same boat. Although she’s semi-retired now, she still gets calls from people all over the country with questions about how to make decisions for their parents.

Abaya is adamant about a few things -one of them being: people in the sandwich generation cannot do this caregiving thing alone. When I spoke with her on the phone, she emphasized the importance of sharing responsibilities and asking for help.

 

Abaya is adamant about a few things-one of them being: people in the sandwich generation cannot do this caregiving thing alone.

 

“It’s just like when you’re raising young kids,” she says, “and you’re organizing play dates, and carpools and you and the other parents share chores. Well, this is what you need to do with your siblings, if you have them. Split up the chores; have meetings and communicate, even if by phone. Too many times I’ve seen one sibling try to take on everything and not ask for help. And then she ends up getting sick herself.”

Studies support this advice. In her recently published book The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, author Ai Jen Poo cites a JAMA article showing that “family caregivers, especially those who must balance jobs with unpaid caregiving, are likely to neglect themselves to the detriment of their health. Sleep deprivation, stress, depression, immune system deficiency, diabetes and hypertension are common.”

Lucy recognizes how fortunate she is to have a good support system—despite the fact that neither she nor her husband have family nearby. During the time that she was running back and forth from Massachusetts to New Jersey to care for her parents, her neighbors stepped in to help. “They would take our kids for the day, or pick them up and take them to school and activities. Or they’d bring by meals. We’ve been able to build our own support network.”

Although her brother lives in California, he also helps out. “We have a very close relationship,” she says, adding that they talk a lot and share the responsibility of checking up on their mother who currently lives alone in New Jersey and is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s.

“I worry about my mom a lot,” Lucy says. “I worry how lonely is she? So I call her every day. My brother and I each call her—one of us in the morning, one of us in the afternoon.”

Despite the stress and guilt that so many in the sandwiched generation feel, Koontz notes that it’s not all negative. “What I mean is -from Generation X on down- you have a generation of kids whose parents were more democratic in their childrearing and so their children feel more of an emotional obligation to care for them . That’s a positive development! It doesn’t eliminate the time, emotional and financial pressures today’s parents are under, of having to make choices between who you are paying attention to. But it can help to look at in this light: that we’re doing much more for our families than people in the past, and that’s a good thing.”

Supporting Caregivers in the Workplace: A Growing Trend

One place Lucy finds support is at her job at Boston University. “It’s a good sort of constant,” she says. “And I can talk to people who have been in similar situations.”

Lucy’s not alone in feeling this way.

According to Jennifer Fraone, an Associate Director at Boston College’s Center for Work and Family, “more and more employers are beginning to recognize the emotional toll that caregiving and juggling both children and elderly parents takes on their employees. It’s noticeable in terms of absenteeism from the workplace. Or employees leaving.”

Unlike childcare issues, Fraone notes that it’s traditionally been much harder to find information and support around elder care, and this is where employers can step up and help.

“The good news is that there’s been a lot of growth in the last five years toward supporting employees’ whole health, and not just their physical health. Employers are recognizing that there’s a lot more that contributes to their health care costs and productivity—so they are looking at stress in their employees in a more holistic way. They are asking how do we minimize stress and help employees cope?”

Brown bag lunches and internal support groups led by geriatric social workers are becoming increasingly more common. Some organizations now employ geriatric case managers, or specialists who help families with immediate care needs, as part of their employee assistance programs.

Flexibility is also key. The Family Medical Leave Act, a federal law, allows employees to take annual leave from work to care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition. But, says Fraone, “Caregivers also need to be able to take off time in small increments to take someone to an appointment and not feel like they are going to be penalized. The more flexible an employer can be, the better. It’s all about building a culture of trust. We’re trying to help employers shift the emphasis from face time (“I can see you!”), to what are the results—what is the quality of what you’ve delivered?”

The Family and Work Institute, an organization out of New York with a similar mission, annually conducts the most comprehensive and far-reaching study of the practices, policies, programs and benefits provided by U.S. employers to enhance organizational and employee success. The results of the Institute’s 2014 study show that nearly half of employers polled now offer elder care resources.

“This is a really positive trend and I hope it keeps going,” says Fraone. “We want employers to see people as a whole person, with a whole life.”

Living Arrangements: No Easy Answers

When I arrive at my father’s house I find it cluttered but clean. Together with the help of their visiting home health aide, my dad and his wife had tidied up for me.

My father is fortunate in many ways. He has no serious health issues that we know of. He doesn’t even have arthritis–a fact that impressed a geriatric doctor I met on another flight to visit my father several years ago. He is also remarried to a woman twenty years younger. I suppose one could say that all of this makes me fortunate too, as I am not his primary caregiver.

During a phone call several months ago, out of concern for his memory issues, I’d proposed the idea of an assisted living facility.

“That’s where you go to die,” he said. He also quoted the expense. I dropped the subject.

Fortunately, over the course of three days at his house, I conclude that my father is doing better than I’d thought. Yes, he repeats himself sometimes, but he is sharp and funny and, with paid help, coping quite well on his own both mentally and physically. I can stop worrying. For now, at least.

“The goal is to empower your elderly parents,” says Abaya. “As long as they are safe and their health or finances aren’t being negatively impacted, step back and let them make their own decisions. Sometimes these might be bad decisions, but you cannot make choices for them using your own values. You need to respect their values.”

One thing she strongly advises against is uprooting a parent after a spouse dies. “Unless there’s no alternative, it’s better for them to stay where they have friends and doctors and a support system in place.”

Of course, these are very personal and difficult decisions for each family. Five years after her father’s death, Lucy’s 82-year-old mom continues to live on her own in an apartment in New Jersey, despite her early Alzheimer’s.

“My brother and I have run the gamut of how we’ve approached her situation,” she says. “I have an apartment downstairs and I’ve considered having her live with me, but it’s an urban, unfamiliar area for her, and with her Alzheimer’s that could be dangerous. Plus when I’ve said to her, ‘you are moving up here,’ she responds ‘No I’m not.’ I’d love for her to be a mile down the road so I could swing by and take her to Marco’s hockey games, or for an outing. I’ve taken her to look at assisted living facilities around here but she either doesn’t remember them or resists the idea. Right now we actually have a deposit down on assisted living facility nearby but there are no openings.”

And so for now, they wait.

***

Kathy Hubbard, a 52-year-old mother of two teenage daughters in Pennsylvania, knows she is one of the lucky ones in that her father is a planner.

“My parents live about 25 minutes away,” says Kathy. “My father is 77; my mother 75. They are preparing to sell the house they’ve lived in for 15 years and move to an assisted living facility.”

She explains that her grandfather (her father’s father) started having increasing dementia when he was 75. “I think for my dad, the impending move brings him enormous peace of mind. But my mom feels like she’s too young and vital for assisted living.”

Her father’s penchant for planning means she and her sister also know what’s in his will; they know about his assets, and she says, “We have the combination to everything.”

This puts Kathy’s mind at ease. As does the fact that her parents chose to get rid of much of their stuff before moving out. “One of the greatest fears I had was that my parents would leave me and my sister with a huge house to clean up. I know that happens a lot, and they went through that with their own parents…and it was tough. I’m so very grateful to them for take the initiative to do this.”

But by no means is this whole experience easy for Kathy. Her mother is depressed and “needs a lot of emotional support,” so Kathy talks to her every day. “I’ve been spending the last two years both helping my parents move out of their house while helping my exceedingly anxious 18-year-old daughter get her brain around that she’s going to college. We went to look at schools and she had a panic attack. It’s been a tough process. And I feel like I’m constantly bouncing from one anxiety-ridden thing to another.”

For another perspective, Kathy refers me to her friend Robin Colodny, who lives in Kathy’s same town of Bala Cynwyd, PA. Robin is working mom with a 16-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, and her mother lives with them.

“She invited herself to come live with us three years ago after she’d had enough of my stepfather and wanted to be closer to her family,” says Robin. “Really she wanted me to move back to Florida, where I’m from and where she was living. But I wasn’t going back.”

Robin repeatedly states that she’d like to put her mom in “a time out.”

 

Of course, these are very personal and difficult decisions for each family. Five years after her father’s death, Lucy’s 82-year-old mom continues to live on her own in an apartment in New Jersey, despite her early Alzheimer’s.

 

“In her own mind, I think she thinks she’s asking for so little, but to me, it feels like she expects a lot of service. And she expects it instantly. And constantly.”

One of the bright spots of having her mom live under the same roof seems to be the relationship between the grandmother and her grandchildren

“My son gets along beautifully with my mom,” Robin notes. “When he’s interested in interacting with her. Sometimes he’ll play the saxophone and she’ll be his audience. Occasionally they’ll play a board game like monopoly. She worships my kids.”

Abaya points out that teenagers, who often need their parents attention even more than younger children, can get lost in the shuffle when parents are also caring for aging adults. Robin’s own experience highlights this when she says, “My mom takes up most of my time and energy. That’s where I really feel the sandwich…my daughter could use more of my attention right now, and I can’t really spend the time with her. I have to deal with my mother.”

She adds that to the extent her kids can help out, they do. But, she says, “They can’t do the things that exhaust me: The taxes. The financial stuff. The insurance stuff. Taking her to medical appointments.”

When I ask her if she thinks they’d be getting along better if they didn’t live together, she says, “Yes. Without question.”

The potential for tense family relations isn’t necessarily stopping generations of families from moving in together, however. According to the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, more than 4.3 million U.S. Family households—or one in 20 nationwide—were made up of three generations living under one roof. Part of this phenomenon can be explained by looking at the large number of grown children who moved back in with their parents during the recession. While the economy has improved, members of the “boomerang generation” aren’t necessarily moving out any time soon.

Whether these families are happy or stressed—or perhaps a little bit of both—only they can say.

 

a young happy woman huggs an older happy elderly women

Caring Across Generations: An Antidote to the Sandwich?

Sarita Gupta lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband, five-year-old daughter, and her elderly parents. Shortly after her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Gupta asked her parents to sell the house they’d lived in for forty years and move in with her.

“It was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had with my parents,” she recalls. “But they agreed.”

Gupta is happy to have her whole family under one roof, but like others who are sandwiched, she’s often overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caregiving and trying to navigate the current system to find appropriate resources for her father. “You really have to seek out information,” she says. “It’s like a second job. And it feels like everyone is struggling with these issues, and with accessibility and affordability of care.”

Gupta’s unfortunate “expertise” in this area serves her well as co-director, with Ai Jen Poo, of Caring Across Generations, a national movement to “change the way we live, age and care in America.”

Poo, a MacArthur Genius Fellow, is also Director of the Domestic Workers Alliance. Several years ago, she noticed that a large number of housekeepers and nannies were asking for training in elder care because their employers were requesting that they also take care of their elderly relatives. She and Gupta then got an idea: how could we bring both individuals and families together with the direct care workforce to craft a different future? This was the seed for Caring Across Generations, which officially launched in 2011.

The movement aims to provide a potential solution to the sandwich—or at least greatly ease some of the pressures that we sandwiched folks face. They recognize that the current long-term care system is broken. As Poo writes in Aging with Dignity: “There is no question that we are failing today’s families. Our current system is a holdover from another time, when life expectancy was around sixty years and dementia was rare…looking at the total landscape of our economy, it’s clear that the system cannot hold if so many adults between the ages of thirty-five and sixty, traditionally considered the peak of a person’s productivity, are stretched so thin.”

 

The movement aims to provide a potential solution to the sandwich—or at least greatly ease some of the pressures that we sandwiched folks face.

 

 

If that’s not enough, there’s another problem—what Gupta refers to as “a silver tsunami” heading our way. By 2030, due to the aging Boomer population and medical advances that help people live longer, about one in five Americans will be older than sixty. The Census Bureau projects the baby boomer population to total 61.3 million by 2029, when the youngest of that generation reaches 65.

“There will be millions needing care in the decades to come,” says Gupta. “Add to that a recent AARP study that notes 90 percent of seniors want to age in place—in their homes and communities—and there could be a real care crisis heading our way that affects all of us. We want to get in front of the problem now and build a new care system that respects people’s desire to age in place. “

The movement is tackling the issue on four fronts: cultural change work; local, state, and federal policy advocacy; online campaigning; and field activities and civic engagement—currently with a broad coalition of 200 organizations.

“Caregiving is deeply undervalued in this country,” Gupta says, ” and we want to change that. We also want people to embrace multigenerational relationships and shift how people view aging in this country.”

These are certainly no small tasks, but the organization is coming up with creative ways to bring people together around these issues, including reaching out to Hollywood screenwriters to talk about how they might think about these themes in their films. Last year they also organized a concert in Harlem in honor of Grandparents Day, inviting musicians from the millennial generation (born approximately between 1980 and 1992) to play the music of their grandparent’s generation.

“These are two huge populations: the millennials and the boomers,” says Gupta. “And we’re looking for ways they can work together to change the conversation on care…think about how powerful it would be if they were advocating together?”

On a federal and state policy level, the organization is moving the needle on some of their issues. For instance, they’ve been working with the Obama Administration on changing the home care rule to ensure that domestic workers receive at least minimum wage and have overtime protections in place. And, according to Gupta, they’ve been very successful in sparking conversations on the state level.

“States are on the front lines of this issue and we want them to take on the issue of care in meaningful ways.” She cites Medicaid expansion in Ohio and Maine’s “Keep Me Home” initiative as two examples.

“Maine is the oldest state in our nation demographically,” she says. “They’ve really taken this issue seriously. ‘Keep Me Home’ is just the beginning of how they want to address the issue of care moving forward—including building new environmentally friendly senior housing, along with providing new supports for seniors, and reassigning the reimbursement rates of the Medicare system to cover home-based care. So there’s opportunities like this, at the state level, that are moving across the country.”

There is no doubt that she is passionate about this mission. She points out that we are a nation of “doers,” and refers to a passage in Poo’s book, that reminds us how at one time in this country we didn’t have indoor plumbing:

“We made a decision to create a system to have water in our homes. Why can’t we think about care in this way? In a systematic way. How can we build a “careforce”? Homecare workers would be good preventive medicine and save costs for families. There is a lot of opportunity here—not just a crisis. Let’s look at it this way. We want something different and we’re confident that we’ll get there.”

Listening to Sarita makes me feel a bit better about the future, for my own family and for Lucy’s, and Kathy’s and Robin’s—and all my friends who are also trying to juggle childcare, elder care, and work. While we may not see many of these changes come to fruition in our own parents’ lifetimes, at least there is hope for our children, who will have to grapple with many of the same issues we are facing now if things don’t change.

“I don’t ever want to be a burden to my kids,” Lucy said in her interview with me.

I feel the same. And I bet I’m not alone.

So I’m holding out hope that Gupta and Poo’s vision of a “careforce” in this country becomes a reality. Something needs to change.

***

Amy Yelin’s essays and articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, Literary Mama, The Mid, The Manifest Station, The Gettysburg Review and other publications. Her humorous essay “Once Upon a Penis” is included in the anthology Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime Art of Parenting. She is also Managing Editor of SolLit: A Magazine of Diverse Voices and she teaches writing at Grub Street in Boston.

Click here to meet Amy and learn more about the writing of this feature story.

Top Photo: Sam Edwards | OJO Images | Getty Images | CNBC.com

The Last Stories

The Last Stories

DSCN0371~2By Anna Belle Kaufman

“Zackrabbit,” I say to the five year old seated behind me in his car seat, “I have another stop to make. But I can see you’re tired. If you don’t feel up to it, just tell me and we’ll go home now.” I glance back at my son in the rearview mirror.

My boy is no longer an eager little bunny. His once glossy bangs are now a limp curtain across his brow, dancing eyes are dulled by Dilauded (a powerful narcotic), the mischievous grin all but extinguished by pain. His neck and  right cheek are bandaged, swollen and purple with infection. Zack, cradling his constant companion – a small stuffed panda bear named Bumby – thinks for a minute, rubbing Bumby’s nose, then says, “I am very powerful Mama, I can hold in my tired.”

Heading towards our small home in the hills above Hollywood where the sun burns bright through smog, we drive through streets of MGM Technicolor: garish billboards, magenta bougainvillea, people bright as tropical birds in their shiny turquoise and pink spandex eighties aerobics wear. I, however, am living in different movie: one filled with the chiaroscuro nightmare and impending doom of Film Noir. The color leached from my world  a year and half ago, on the day – right before Zack’s fourth birthday – that my son was diagnosed with AIDS. In 1987 there are no treatments of any kind. Nothing.

I have grasped at whatever I could find: special diets, supplements, energy healing – anything that might help keep him alive until a medicine was created. But when Zack became too ill to attend kindergarten in the fall, I knew it was hopeless. Now, I only hope that he’ll be able to enjoy one last holiday season and not suffer.

The sense of doom heightens for me as each day winds toward dinner hour. The ever-present lump in my gut tightens with the sound of the liquor cabinet opening. My husband Gerry, working less and drinking more since Zack was born, is, at best, checked out after four or five, and can be a mean drunk (although never  to Zack, who he adores). I never know if he will start an exhausting nonsensical argument or angry tirade or how ugly it will be. I must negotiate a minefield, caring for Zack and trying to avoid explosions which, though not directed at our son, affect him. Gerry denies illness and death as much as he can. He says “I don’t do grief.” Now, even as help is obviously never going to come to save our boy, he forbids me, fiercely, to ever mention the D word with Zack.

So I must help my son on my own, covertly. But how? Although I have prepared Zack for numerous surgeries, helped him work through medical traumas with play and stuffed animals and blood made from paint, I have no experience or familiarity with death. I was not around my grandparents when they were dying, nor have I any religious education or community to draw upon or turn to. I don’t even know what I believe about death, if I think anything continues on. My pre-Zack career as a designer of costumes and sets did not prepare me for this; there is no script to study. I know the power of the right story, but what story is developmentally appropriate for a kindergartner? There are no children’s stories that I can find about dying that are not of the rather vague seasons variety with illustrations of trees losing their leaves – a metaphor that is useless to my suffering boy. Our Pediatricians never mention the D word and no one at the hospital is of any help. Internet groups, chat rooms and Google have yet to be invented. Bookstore shelves in the 1980s are not stocked with volumes on dying and grief. Except for one.

I manage to find the number for Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s office in Virginia and leave a message. Surprisingly, she calls me back almost immediately and we talk for quite a while. She gives me her home phone number, saying “Please, call me anytime, any hour of the day and night that you need to. I just ask one thing: don’t give my number out to anyone else.” Then she adds “I’ve written a story for another little boy. It’s just what you need, I’ll send it right away.” Zack’s anxiety level, as well as mine, has increased as he feels worse and I am relieved when the package arrives, a story bound like a pamphlet, illustrated by Elizabeth herself.

When Gerry is out of the house, I read “Letter to Dougy” to Zack. In it, Elizabeth explains that when one doesn’t need one’s body any longer, your spirit leaves it to go to God, like a caterpillar leaving its cocoon to become a butterfly and fly away. We study her pictures of butterflies drawn in brightly colored markers. When we are through, Zack looks up at me with his old twinkle, smiling through the swollen cheek, in spite of the pain.

“Momma, when I die, we will go to Grandma’s and you will take the station wagon and I will fly and I will get there first!”

Glad that we had some private time to have the death discussion, I am, however, unprepared for it to come up around Gerry a couple of days later. I am seated in the back seat of the car next to Zack while my husband drives along Santa Monica Boulevard. Zack turns to me and asks, in his piercing high chipmunk voice, “Momma, when I go to God, will Bumby come with me?”

I feel that too-rapidly-descending-elevator feeling sink in my middle: there will be hell to pay tonight if  Gerry finds out we’ve talked about death, or God, in whom he does not believe.

Speaking quickly I answer, “Of course.”

Zack gives me a look and says “But Mom…. he’s a stuffed animal!”

Busted. By a five year old. The one time in his life I’ve given him the brush-off. Luckily, Gerry seems to have not heard us and, relieved, I quietly reply,

“I believe that if you want him there with you, he will be.”

I wonder if Zack understood the message underneath the brush-off, because he never raises the topic again in his dad’s proximity; his dying becomes a new intimacy between us, after those of pregnancy and breastfeeding. The following week, while visiting Zack’s grandparents, my mother and I are in the bedroom discussing her health problems and her grandson’s worsening condition in lowered voices while Grandpa and Zack talk in the dining room. I suddenly become aware of a palpable silence beyond the closed door and open it to find Zack standing there, anxiously shifting from foot to foot, rubbing Bumby’s threadbare nose. His Grandpa, absorbed in snacking and reading the paper, has neglected his frightened charge who now wants to go home, tears running down his cheeks.

“Zack, Did you think Grandma and I were whispering about your illness?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“You don’t have to to wonder, or hear accidentally. I’ll tell you everything you want to know and I will always tell you the truth.”

We talk about his illness. He already knows that his blood was poisoned by a transfusion when he was a baby but I have been careful never to use the word AIDS. People are terrified of AIDS and AIDS patients, fear they can catch it from mosquitos, shared potato chips, a hug or a kiss. Even some nurses at our hospital won’t go near children they once cared for when those same kids were diagnosed with HIV. I don’t want anyone to shrink from a child who – in spite of lengthy hospitalizations and traumas in his first two years – became an exuberant extrovert, a charmer who used to love to work a room. A boy who, just a year ago, had bolted in the mall, zooming up to a complete stranger to introduce Bumby. I watched while the woman in the elegant pantsuit appeared alarmed, then smiled, and, by the time I  reached them across the food court, was ready to sign him for her talent agency. Being small for his age was an asset, she said, handing me her card. One month later, I found out why he’d stopped growing and told her we’d have to pass on her offer to to make some college money. (Zack, acutely aware that he was shorter than other children his age, explained it to me — and to himself. He would grow on the day of his birthday, when he turned five.)

Now, at this moment at Grandma’s, sitting on the bed clutching Bumby, Zack asks me “And can I die?”

Other parents, who might also pause if this question is raised, are able to answer “Not until you are very old, not for a long long time.” But I have promised to tell the truth.

“Yes Zack. Your body can become very sick and tired and painful and your spirit might want to leave it, like the butterflies leaving their cocoons. Or like taking off and dropping  a heavy coat  you don’t need on a hot day at the beach.”

He nods, he loves the beach. Grandma then joins in, talking about heaven, telling Zack and I that we will all be together there someday and that when she gets there she’s going to find a great big beautiful piano and practice all day. And if she gets there first, she will be waiting for him. Zack, relieved and cheerful, says “Okay, Mom, let’s go to Century City now.” And I push him in his stroller to the outdoor mall to see the holiday decorations.

But as fever and pain intensify, his fears about dying return. After coughing badly he asks “Do I go now Mom?” Then again, the next morning he asks me “Am I dying now, Mom?” He doesn’t want me to leave him, even for a  few minutes, and I realize that he thinks death is imminent and  he is afraid that it will happen to him if or when I leave the room, or leave him alone. We have another talk.

“Zackrabbit, Death won’t sneak up on you and surprise you. You will know if it is coming. You’ll decide when you’re ready and you will tell me.”

I believe this to be true. And it is. The first time is just a hint: I am rummaging in the hall closet when Zack creeps up behind me

“Momma, what is it like to be a let-go balloon?” Because Zack pronounces L as W,  it takes me minute to understand what he has said: a balloon that has gotten away from it’s owner. I see a forlorn pink balloon, lifting out of the extended  hand that held it and is still reaching for it, getting smaller and smaller against a threatening gray sky. I don’t share my image, but ask “What do you think, Pumpkin?”

Zack says that he thinks it would feel good to float free and fly up in the sky. He is telling me obliquely that his body, tethered to earth by pain, would welcome release. I, however, am the hand that holds the balloon. I don’t want to let go. I know it is only a matter of time before my balloon escapes from me, disappearing into nothingness while I remain helplessly earthbound.

He next tells me — although certainly I see him failing — through a story. Not one that he makes up, but one he chooses: Watership Down. At the foot of his bunk bed stands a green oxygen tank I have decorated with a drawing  of a purple panda, and a small television so that he can be distracted from pain. From all the videos, Zack only wants “Watership Down,” ignoring even former favorites like Dumbo, that has a train in it. We rewind and repeat to watch Hazel, the rabbit heroine, die. It reminds us of the story of the butterfly. We study the part where Hazel’s body, hurt and sick, remains on the ground and the Black Rabbit – the angel of death- flying, comes for her. Hazel’s spirit self – a more transparent version – flies gently up out of her body into the sky and leaves with the Black Rabbit.

Our last story is the one that allows each of us to say goodbye.

It is December, 1987, evening. In Zack’s room the only light comes from the colored globes of the balloon man lamp on the night stand. Zack and I have watched Watership Down a few times in the past two days. It is clear to me that Zack is so terribly ill that he should have left by now. At his last visit to Cedars-Sinai a few days earlier, the pulmonologist listened to his chest and couldn’t hide the shock on her face. Perhaps he is hanging on for my sake; I worry that he thinks it is not okay to leave me, or leave without me. And, of course, it is not. But I can not bear for him to suffer more than I can not bear to lose him. He sits on the potty next to his bed, belly distended and aching, eyelids swollen with edema, eyes unfocused black dots beneath lank bangs. We are alone.

So I tell him a story. It is the story of his entire life, in third person – I never say it is him. I tell him about a little boy who was born early, who spent lots of time in the hospital and who had many surgeries and was very brave. A boy who had a tube in his tummy and then a silver trach in his throat when he was small. A boy who went to St. Thomas School and learned to ride a big trike. A boy who has a panda bear that he loves and carries everywhere, and who makes waffles with his Grandma and silver jewelry with his Mom and computer drawings with his Dad, and who loves trains more than anything.  A boy who loves his Momma very very much and whose mother loves him more than anything else in the whole wide world. His mother understands that it is time for him to leave his body behind because it is very sick and it hurts. It is okay with her. She will be all right.

Only the end is fiction: the biggest lie I have ever told or will ever tell in my entire life.

“Zack, do you understand the story?” He doesn’t speak, seems only partly conscious, the whites of his eyes rolling up, but he nods yes, and I know he comprehends exactly what I am trying to tell him.

The next night, at 3:00 am, the Black Rabbit flies to our house; it comes for him while I hold him in my arms, singing his favorite lullaby.

Hours later, after the death certificate has been signed and his body and Bumby taken away together, I sit on Zack’s empty bed in the dusk of the early December evening. Outside, just past the window, a monarch butterfly flits around and around and around, making figure eights below the porch eaves. It flies like that for a long while, thirty minutes or more, as if it is trying to get my attention. Then it settles on the eave closest to the bed, folds its wings, and remains there while I finally fall asleep. It is gone the next morning.

On Christmas morning, a week later, my husband and I distribute Zack’s still-wrapped gifts to children on the pediatric ward at Cedars. I return home to find, among the condolence cards, a gift package with my name on it. Unwrapping a small but heavy box, I lift out a dense object that lays smooth and cold against my palm: a black glass figurine of a rabbit.

On the phone, the woman who sent the gift explains that she sent different glass animals to everyone on her list. Not knowing  why, she sensed  the black rabbit was right for me. She has neither read nor seen Watership Down although she also has a young son, and is amazed to hear the story.

***

When I told the last story to Zack, and in the even darker time after, it was unimaginable that I’d ever be okay. But eventually I learned that what I thought was a lie was simply truth that took a very long time to reveal itself.

Now, so many years later, on my desk next to a photo of a little boy with an impish smile, a shiny black rabbit crouches on its haunches, nose in the air, gazing at me. It silently prompts me to tell the tale I’ve never told before. You know the one. About a mother, some butterflies, and a rabbit, and the stories that came when they were needed.

***

Author’s Note: Six weeks after Zack died, I met Elizabeth Kubler-Ross at one of her retreats. She gave me a scarf that she had knit, made from the wool of her sheep, in pink – Zack’s favorite color. Her teaching story for the group was about a black rabbit.

Anna Belle Kaufman is a retired art psychotherapist who lives in the country in Northern California with her second husband, dog, and two pet goats. Her essays and poetry have appeared in The Sun, Calyx, the Utne Reader and the Networker.

 

 

The Intertidal Zone

The Intertidal Zone

Intertidal ART

By Jessica Johnson

My aquarium-going habit started when I was twenty-four during a family visit to Boston for my brother’s college graduation. His degree was in music, and I had swerved from studying science toward a graduate degree in creative writing. Questions about our obscure paths to middle-class adulthood hovered, omnipresent yet mostly unsaid.

I stood on the pier outside the New England Aquarium with my parents, my brother, and his new girlfriend, whose existence was a surprise, whose ways were surprising. My brother had not prepared us well, nor her, and so we didn’t know what to do with each other. Every new utterance seemed to require a response I didn’t know how to make. I wanted the weekend to be over.

We stepped through the aquarium’s glass doors and passed through the frenzy of admissions. An ever-echoing din filled the building.

In the Jellies exhibit, tanks arced along the wall with headlines like, In 2020, Will You Be Eating Jellyfish Sandwiches? The curved water boxes held illuminated parachutes, parachutes large and small, ghostly white or lit by colored spotlights so that they glowed pink or green. I watched the jellies ascending through the tank in breath-like motions, trailing their ribbony cords. I drifted from my family and felt myself—my self with all the craggy edges catching on the world—fading as I peered into one tank, then the next.

Maybe you have experienced it, too, the fascination of silent invertebrates behind glass. I looked and looked and still wanted to look longer, unsure of what I might be looking for. I could see their motion, their form, the traces of their inner workings. I wanted to hold them in my mind, to hold onto their form or function, to somehow have them.

It was then that I became a sucker for glass, for its promise of revelation.

****

I first desired the creatures of the intertidal when my brother and I were kids. Sprung from the station wagon after a long trip to my grandmother’s house on one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, we would run down, past the house, to a wide stretch of beach. As we stepped onto the cobblestone of rounded rocks, the ground began to sizzle: crabs no wider than a Canadian dollar coin in the cracks between the rocks. Because we could, we kneeled and pried rock after rock from its resting place; the crabs scattered trying to wedge themselves into a further crevice or go still on the edge of a shadow. Their hard backs seemed painted with deep purple, or avocado green, or, in greater numbers, speckled with the color of dried blood.

Because we could, we’d pull one from its shelter. We wanted to feel its articulated legs picking across our palms. As the crab carried its discoid body to the edge of a hand, we’d put another hand in its path, making it walk a treadmill of kid-flesh. If one of us set a crab down, the other would prevent its escape.

At six or seven, wanting to know them, wanting to keep them, we chose the most obvious way—

carrying them back to the house in a bucket. If she remembered to, our mother made us release them before bedtime; if she didn’t, we’d find them limp in the next day’s heat.

They were never as interesting in the bucket, attempting to climb out, scrambling for cover in the white plastic cylinder, as they were on the beach. But what to do with them? We couldn’t, of our own volition, let them go.

As we got older, we kept trying to hold the beach’s fauna, if not physically, then essentially. We kept trying to keep something of them. On long vacations, we made friends with local kids who spurred us to become classifiers. The crabs’ undersides were flat and white, but their armor had a pattern: a white spire in the middle, longer and narrower, supposedly indicated maleness. For days, we prowled the shore, flipping them over to determine their sex. Boy, boy, girl, boy, girl, girl, girl…

Bored with classification, we started looking for fancier and more elusive invertebrates: the moon snail, the sea cucumber, the big and scary spider crab. We became connoisseurs. When we found our specimens, we now knew better than to collect them, and the memory of their precise existence faded soon after we returned to the house, washed our feet in the outdoor spigot, and blended ourselves into the rhythm of dinner and bed.

How old was I? Eight? Nine? At some point, I started staring at my reflection in a wide bedroom window of the house near the foot-wash station, practicing detached comparative judgment on my own body, learning to think of it as something to be manipulated, disregarded. I silently cataloged the differences between myself and the more acceptable others, the graceful and bendable girls who could run on the wide, sandy beach confident in the knowledge that they were definitely not fat. Separating me from them was a slight layer that waxed and waned. Some years I could see the faint outline of my ribs, other years I could not. In some lights my legs looked hopefully slim and long, in others heavy in the thigh. It’s just babyfat. I had it too. You’ll shoot up. I did—I was gangly. Just wait a few years. Whatever my female relatives said, my self-observation was like a time-lapse photo montage of a natural disaster, small pictures speeding toward an unwanted outcome. I separated my body from my self, rendering it available for study, taking a kind of comfort in the observer’s role.

Eventually, like our European forbears in the West, we children became extractors, using the beach as a source of material to serve our utilitarian purposes. We collected driftwood for forts and shells for glue-gun craft projects that, once made, never lived up to what we’d imagined.

Finally, in our early twenties (after a period of teenage hedonism during which the beach was something that you shook out of your hair after a night of partying) we became consumers. Growing up we’d watched our parents and grandparents pick oysters from the rocks, occasionally shucking and swallowing one right there on the beach. We too dug clams, soaked them in buckets, and, with our laptops open, concocted “saffron-infused” broths in which to steam their ribbed, mottled shells, their soft bodies.

Clams, but not oysters: while we’d turned from little naturalists to extractors to consumers, the beach changed without our noticing. Maybe because of overharvest by tourists who didn’t know to throw the shells back, or maybe for a more global reason, the oyster stocks declined, and if we had oysters, they were from a farm at Fanny Bay. Despite the fact that I could buy its species and swallow them nearly alive, the desire for some congress with the intertidal, the desire to keep and know it, the desire that later drew me to the glassy tank of jellyfish, was never fully satisfied.

***

Enter the aquarium: a larger, socially sanctioned, and (crucially) climate-controlled creature-bucket. The Boston visit turned out to be the first of many trips to sites of curated nature, which I continued to frequent as I got older, had jobs, and spent more time indoors. During vacations, during the drifting alienation of business travel, I sought refuge in aquariums, conservatories, exhibitions. Whenever it seemed like there was nothing else to do, I indulged the impulse to look at life in vitro, to collect facts and then walk out into the blue sky.

In his 2003 history of the aquarium, The Ocean at Home, Bernd Brunner relates an anecdote from mid-nineteenth century Europe, the time and place when aquariums came into vogue, both as a form of public entertainment and as home décor. A German aquarist, Gustav Jäger, described how “even educated” visitors would sometimes, in an agitated aside to the ticket taker, ask “What in heaven’s name am I supposed to see in there?”

What am I supposed to see? Aquariums are built to reveal, giving human visitors the impression that they are meant to “see” something beyond what’s physically there—they are meant to see as in have an insight. Through a glass barrier, they allow the visitor to see into realms she can’t ordinarily penetrate; I can see in, but by allowing me to do that, by existing only for the purpose of allowing me to do that, aquariums suggest that there’s something to be gained by doing so—a perspective, an understanding.

Aquariums seem to be products of the cultural assumption that we can know things best by removing ourselves from the situation and looking in a detached fashion. We treat knowledge something fixed and apart from us, locate-able: something we come to.

But something I come to is also something I walk away from, something I can’t take with me. And so, with the glassed-in creatures of the intertidal, the more I looked, the more I wanted to look. The more aquariums I visited, the more I wanted to visit. The creatures there seemed knowable, but as their images faded in my mind, not particularly known. Like the man in Jäger’s story, I saw in but had no insight.

***

Nevertheless, it was insight I was seeking when, four months pregnant, I (once again) made the quick trip from Portland to the Bonneville hatchery and sturgeon interpretive center to watch the sleepy, giant fish floating behind the glass. They drifted from the murk-like zeppelins toward my window and hovered there. I stared at their ancient, folded eyes, at the shape of their bodies, their ridged backs and shark-like tails, unsure of what they could tell me, but relieved to be looking, separated from the bodies on display.

Pregnancy plunged me into my own biology and made me long to escape by gazing, to locate the relevant biology outside a detached self. Some women crave the experience of growing a baby, but I was not one of them. My fantasies of motherhood involved helping with homework, reading books aloud, and watching soccer games. I wanted to be the parent of a first-grader, but a pregnant lady? Not so much. Although it was medically normal in every way, my pregnancy rocked me. Aside from the inconveniences and subtle indignities (the constant nausea, the inconveniently frequent need to urinate, the rapidly shrinking wardrobe) what quietly terrified me was the end of agency, the loss of my perceived control over my body and my time. I was used to beginning my day before dawn and checking through items on my ambitious list, but pregnant, it felt like I lacked the energy to carry out basic obligations, like my job. I couldn’t get myself from point A to point B: on the way home from work, desperate for the couch, I’d pull over to vomit or nap in a parking lot, unable to drive for even five more minutes. Pregnancy was happening to me, unfolding consequences that I could not walk away from. My uncomfortably full torso and I couldn’t be removed from whatever was going to happen next.

During the long months until my daughter was born, my general fear was punctuated only by ultrasound appointments, during which I could see a schematic black and white picture of the creature, of her skull, bones, brain, and spine, moments when I could see all of this outside of myself, high on the screen above my head, when the technician was measuring parts and telling me what they meant. The part of pregnancy I liked, the part in which I feel the most myself, were the rare moments when my pregnancy turned into an aquarium and I returned to the cold, gentle comfort of observation.

***

Eight months after visiting the sturgeon at Bonneville, my husband and I and our baby, on an extended family camping trip to the Oregon Coast, took a break from the campground to spend an afternoon at the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Just inside the doors, school-age kids leaned over a long, man-made tidepool, poking chubby fingers into a cluster of fat, green anemones, exclaiming when the anemones’ free gelatinous wands reflexively pulled closed. In the middle of the room, a small crowd had started to gather around the tank where a keeper’s arm reached down from the surface, deus ex machina, to feed an octopus. Tentacles clutched the arm with ferocious speed as the crowd gasped at the cephalopod’s power and intention.

Outside, a bright wind was taking the sky away from itself, sweeping the smoke of last night’s campfires out over the Pacific. Inside, it smelled like a cooped up sea, the floor’s cemented pebbles slick with splashed water.

I shuffled toward inner rooms where columnar, vertical tanks revealed the native species we may never have seen in the long sand flats, the intertidal marshes, things we may have found, half-rotted, on the hard sandy beach: the razor clams and sea cucumbers, the lampreys, the salmonids, the rock fish, the skate.

Maybe you have felt this way too: the sensation of inhabiting an unfamiliar role. I was the one with the gently swaying gait, the stable shoes, the old jeans, the ten dollar sunglasses nestled in my hair, new to being a caregiver. The one with an infant harnessed to my chest. Her legs dangled from the Baby Bjorn, slightly bent in total rest. Beneath the receiving blanket that shielded her nap from the overhead lighting, her grapefruit-sized head slumped against my hoodie. Her sleepy breathing was like the gentle rasp of a tiny, subtle violin.

***

In the early days of parenthood, we were trying out activities to see what would fit our new reality the way I tried on old clothes to see what would fit my changed body. The aquarium seemed like a way to get back in touch with my pre-maternal, non-maternal self, the person who’d been dormant for eight weeks of round-the-clock newborn care.

The Center’s walls held conceptual exhibits on coastal phenomena, things like upwelling, the effect of invasive species on the intertidal zone. There was none of what my professors called charismatic macrofauna: no seals, no penguins, no dolphins, no tragic whales. This was not the aquarium of Disney-like exotica, but the visual demonstration of a college marine ecology class, the university (Oregon State) turned inside out, the models of our collective knowledge on display (even if the deductive processes that construct that knowledge remain hidden). Each important piece was precisely illuminated. A person could learn something here. Less an aquarium than a science center, it was an aquarium as I always wanted aquariums to be. I should have been riveted.

I could sense my husband’s how much longer? glance as he wandered toward the gift store. (Pity the spouse of the nerd, the obsessive, the over-focused.) The baby kept sleeping.

But instead of lingering at each module, I found myself glancing over the text and moving on with my sleeping cargo, touching nothing, trying no levers, pushing no buttons, forming no hypotheses, making no connections. Whatever the tanks offered, I didn’t really need. The itch to find something in them had vanished. In an un-self-like fashion, the old self—the removed, gazing self—was no longer there.

***

And so the aquarium’s allure ended: with my daughter shifting against my chest like a cloud on a still day.

Caregiving is treated as a low-status occupation in our culture, distinct from the academic enterprises in which we construct our knowledge of the world outside ourselves, most of which define themselves in terms that assume a mind-body dichotomy—terms that have us approaching other bodies with minds rather than with bodies. Caring for babies and children, the ill, the disabled, and the elderly is a poorly paid type of labor, and the money gets worse depending on the amount of actual time the worker spends with the patient or charge. Little training or education is required to do it; the perception is that anyone can. When a family member cares for another, as I was caring for my daughter, it’s associated with instinct rather than knowledge, and I’d been conditioned not to take pride in this flood of instinct by a culture that elevates experiences of insight over experiences of intimacy.

But taking care of an infant—that common, instinctive activity—launched me into the caretaker’s way of knowing, an experience and an expertise that rendered the aquarium powerless.

The way I knew her redefined for me what it means to know a living thing. Unlike the knowledge created and disseminated through our universities and textbooks, knowledge created by caretaking is not durable, not static, not share-able, could not be put behind glass, is not exhibit-able.

As I veered away from the tanks, I knew she would sleep for at least another half hour. I knew how the slight back and forth sway to my walk kept her asleep. I knew she would be hungry a few minutes after her eyes opened, leaving me just enough time to get to a place where I could change her diaper before she began her red-faced grimace, her squeaky see-saw cry. When we stepped outside the science center into the ripping wind, I knew that she would need to be shielded from light as well as air, and I would grab a blanket to wrap around her, and she would be covered and safe before I consciously realized that I had made her so. I knew the meaning of each squirm and vocalization. My body was so finely attuned to my daughter’s body that I could sense her need before there was any signal I could name, before I could even say how I knew what I knew.

In the weeks since her body left my body, we were awash in the cycle of wordless attention, the feeding, sleeping, waking, holding, and cleaning, the repeat and adjust and repeat that comprised her continued thriving. And so we floated through the aquarium, gelatinous, unprotected, and interdependent, with the mildest interest, from sea urchin to rock fish, herring to barnacle, inseparable from our ourselves: creatures caught in our own tide.

Author’s Note: Now, with two children (aged one and four), I find myself more immersed in caregiving than ever, and I continue to think through all the ways the caregiver’s role frames my perspective. On our summer trips to the coast, my daughter has begun to explore tide pools. So far we’ve managed to leave the crabs alive and well.

Read our Q&A with Jessican Johnson

Jessica Johnson’s poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in Tin House, the Paris Review , Kenyon Review Online, and Harvard Review, among others. Her book of poems, In Absolutes We Seek Each Other, won the DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press chapbook contest in 2014. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, son, and daughter and teaches at Portland Community College. Find her online at www.chromeislands.com.

The Gap Year

The Gap Year

BT 15 Gap Year ArtSam Rich has all good things to say about the ten months he spent living and studying in Patagonia—even about the time he was chased by a pack of Chilean street dogs.

Sponsored by Rotary International, which places some 8,000 students in similar situations worldwide every year, Rich, now 20, took a year off after he graduated high school, deferring his acceptance at a competitive Massachusetts university.

“My junior year in high school, I began to feel like I was being forced into this system—graduate high school, go to college, get a job,” Rich recalls. “And I was thinking, ‘When am I going to get to travel and get outside of this bubble they call the United States?'”

He got his wish, living with a family and attending school in a remote region of Patagonia, which is where he met up with the dog pack during a pre-dawn run, as one and then another stray joined in, nipping at his heels as he was trying to make his way over unfamiliar streets.

Rich not only survived the encounter, he went on to write an essay about it, which he used midyear to apply from abroad to a fresh round of colleges. Whether the essay, or his gap year in general, helped get him into Tulane University, where he’s now a sophomore, Rich can’t say. But he feels certain his experience changed him in fundamental ways.

“Before my gap year, I would not have applied to a school so far away from home,” says Rich, who grew up near Boston. “It’s easier now for me to connect with people. Before, I really stuck to what I thought was ‘my group.’ Now I’ll talk to anyone.”

That kind of maturity and perspective is exactly what’s sought by an increasing number of U.S. high school graduates—supported by their sometimes more-reluctant parents—who choose to take time off before or during college. Nobody keeps definitive numbers, but colleges, universities, high school guidance counselors, and college admissions reps all report anecdotally that interest in gap years among American students is sharply on the rise.

Choices abound and are growing more plentiful every day, from private organizations that plan every moment of your child’s experience (and charge you for it accordingly), through middle-tier options that place young adults in home-stay or au pair situations abroad, to U.S.-based service organizations like AmeriCorps that pay participants a small stipend and try to find them affordable housing options during a year of service. Some young adults go completely independent and fashion a do-it-yourself gap that may include work, an internship, an apprenticeship, service, travel, or all of the above.

Whatever route a gapper chooses, there are challenges. Gap year programs can be expensive, straining the bank accounts of parents who had counted on four, not five, years of young adult dependency. Students who apply or reapply to college during their gap year find that tracking deadlines and filling out the Common App, FAFSA, and other required documents can be more difficult from an Internet café with spotty service thousands of miles from home. All gap students must reapply for financial aid, and not all colleges and universities will offer deferring students the same merit aid package from year to year. Some don’t allow gappers to defer at all; they must reapply for the following academic year.

Navigating those hurdles is simply part of what makes a gap year so valuable for students, proponents say.

“We love the notion of students taking control of their lives and navigating adult-like situations,” says Charles Nolan, vice president and dean of admission at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., a small, elite college that competes with MIT, Harvard, and Stanford for students. “We believe that any student who takes a year off to do something different, rather than just follow the pack, comes to college with a different perspective on their education.”

Why Gap? Let Us Count The Ways

The American Gap Association (yes, there is such a thing—it’s an accreditation, standards-setting, and advocacy organization) defines a gap year this way:

“A gap year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers. Typically these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working. A gap year experience can last from two months up to two years and is taken between high school graduation and the junior year of their higher degree.”

Others are less exacting in their definitions. No less august an institution than Harvard College, which maintains a web page extolling the virtues of a gap year, defines it more loosely as “one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way.”

Either way, proponents from Harvard on down say students who take a year off from their studies are more mature, better focused, more curious, better community members with a more refined idea of what they’d like to study and how they plan to contribute to the world.

Olin College has an unusually proactive attitude towards gap years. The school guarantees that any student put on its wait list will eventually gain admission—though that often means waiting a year. A surprising number of students take Olin up on the offer every acceptance cycle, even though the school offers no guidance as to what students should do with their unexpected time off.

“Part of the creative process is letting them figure out what they want to do,” says Nolan, who says students in the most recent incoming class used their gap year to work in Korea, travel with an aid group, write a rough draft of a novel, work in TV production, and mentor girls in STEM education, among other pursuits.

Whatever their choice, students come to campus “a year older, a year wiser and ready to work,” Nolan says. “Age 18, 19 and 20 is a critical developmental time for young adults. That year can make a world of difference in how students approach their studies.”

There is a small but growing body of research that backs up Nolan’s perceptions, according to Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the American Gap Association.

A gapper himself (Knight took time between his freshman and sophomore years of college to travel in India, Nepal, and Tibet) who later worked as a gap year consultant, Knight started the AGA in part to collaborate on gap year research and serve as a resource for university admissions personnel and educational counselors.

On its website, the AGA quotes studies that show:

  • * A majority of students report a gap year had an impact on their course of studies (either confirming their initial interest or setting them on a new course)
  • * Students return to school with higher levels of motivation, which translate into a measurable boost in performance during their first semesters at college, and
  • * Later on in life, students who had taken a gap year overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs.

The AGA itself collaborated on a study with Bob Clagett, the former head of admissions at Middlebury College, that found that students who took a gap year performed better during their first year of college than they were expected to do without the time off. Clagett developed a methodology to track gap students’ actual GPA performance against an academic rating that looks at everything from high school grades, national test scores, and teacher recommendations to the intensity of an applicant’s essay to predict how they would perform if they’d entered college directly from high school. In almost all instances, Clagett found gappers outperformed their predicted rating. Even better, that boost lasted for all four years of college.

The AGA’s Knight firmly believes gap year students excel in college because they’ve had time to think about their priorities, a precious commodity in modern American life. “We spend a majority of our lives chasing a definition of success without taking time to figure out ‘What’s my individual definition of success?'” says Knight. “A gap year lets you explore your definition of success. If you have a particular passion for music or engineering, you want to work or get an internship or explore a possible career, this is that moment.”

Students exploring the possibility of a gap year approach it from many different vantage points. Within the industry, Knight says, counselors, gap year program directors, admissions directors, and others connected to the industry informally categorized students into five general groups:

“Meaning seekers” typically have high SAT scores, decent or midrange GPAs, and are looking for context for the learning they’ve been exposed to. Knight says a majority of gap year students fits into this first category.

“Overachievers” not surprisingly, have high SATs, high GPAs, and have been gunning for the Ivy Leagues or similarly competitive schools for much of their educational lives. Typically, these students are burned-out from their high-pressure high school experience and are looking for a break before beginning an equally rigorous secondary education.

If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure.

“Pragmatists” are very much aware of how much college costs and typically don’t want to commit to four years of tuition without a better sense of their higher education goals. These students often use a gap year to intern, apprentice, or work at an entry-level job as an entry point to potential career decisions that will be made in college.

“Strugglers” are students who might not have found academic success in high school, sometimes due to a learning disability or learning difference. A gap year can give such students a needed boost in perspective, self-awareness, and self-confidence as they participate in non-traditional learning activities and are able to experience success, often for the first time.

Finally, “The disengaged,” a small sliver of gappers, are typically students who feel no burning desire to continue on immediately to college. This sub-group uses a gap year to refine their focus and—their parents hope, anyway—gain some fire-in-the-belly for their next moves in life.

What Colleges Think of Gap Years

A study conducted by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, co-authors of 2009’s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College, found that the top two reasons cited by high school students taking a gap year were a desire to find out more about themselves (“meaning seekers”) and burnout from the competitive pressures of high school (“overachievers”).

It’s not a coincidence that some of the most gap-friendly universities in the United States—including Princeton, Tufts, Elon, and the University of North Carolina—are among the most elite. After all, they have the highest rate of accepting overachievers who are burned out by the process of getting into college in the first place.

In a heartfelt essay on its gap year web page, Harvard College laments the cradle-to-college obsession of getting into the right college, which it says can produce “some students [who] are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors. It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes,’ stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it.”

If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie Schoenthaler might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure. All he knows is that, midway through his junior year at a large, well-ranked public high school in Massachusetts, he just wasn’t feeling the love as his fellow students threw themselves into the college-search process.

“Near the end of sophomore year, I was getting a tiny bit burned out, and it crossed my mind that the possibility existed that I might not have to go straight to college,” Schoenthaler recalls. “Once junior year hit, and I didn’t know which college I wanted to go to, I just found myself thinking, ‘This is the only time I’m going to be able to bike across the United States. Now when I’m eighteen or later when I’m sixty-five.'”

None of this was lost on his mom, Robin Schoenthaler, who had long been concerned about how boys in general, and her two sons in particular, were faring in a school system being pushed, on both state and national levels, to emphasize testing, more testing, and a general interest in having children color within the lines. “From about third or fourth grade on, I was very distressed at what I consider the schools’ absolutely relentless demand on boys,” she relates. “Neurological science is conclusive that many of these demands are not developmentally appropriate.”

What’s more, Schoenthaler was a gapper herself who took several years before she found her way onto a college track that eventually lead to an M.D. And then she had the honor of serving for many years on the admissions committee for the Harvard Medical School. “Harvard had a completely generous deferment policy for people who wanted to take a gap year after acceptance,” Schoenthaler says. “Their reasoning was, everybody wins. Either a student comes back a year later more mature, dedicated and ready to work. Or they don’t, and that’s great, too, be- cause medical school isn’t for everyone.”

So when she saw her son Kenzie’s growing disinterest in the college-application process, she floated the idea of a gap year, which he eagerly took up. By his estimation, he couldn’t be happier with his do-it-yourself plan. He has a part-time job at the afterschool program he’d attended as a child, which he loves; and another part-time job at a national grocery chain that’s teaching him about second shifts, corporate values, and punching the clock alongside people of all ages and ethnicities. He earned an EMT certification this past spring and is planning on earning a second Wilderness EMT certification after taking a class this spring in San Francisco—to which he plans to bike 3,000 miles across the United States.

Like many gap parents, Dr. Schoenthaler was worried about whether the school at which Kenzie was accepted, Lesley University, would let him defer, whether his merit aid would transfer from year to year, and what his reentry into academic life would be like after a year out of the trenches.

As it turns out, American colleges and universities are all over the map in terms of awareness of, and support for, gap years, according to AGA’s Knight. “Tier 1 and Tier 2 schools tend to be extremely excited about gap years; some allow you to put right on your application that you’re taking a gap year,” Knight says.

Tufts University made news last March by going one step further—the school announced a program, to debut in fall of 2015, that helps some would-be gap year students pay for airfare, lodging, and other costs, provided they are enrolled in a structured full-year program of national or international service. Princeton and the University of North Carolina offer similar programs.

But they’re among the minority—for now anyway, says Knight. “Tier 3 schools, the larger schools, the state schools…lots of times they don’t have the staffing to accommodate some- thing different, so you wind up having to reapply.”

Lesley University didn’t offer any information on gap years or deferrals on its website or in its admissions materials, which meant Schoenthaler, with a little coaching from his mom, had to take matters into his own hands. After a face-to-face meeting with the admissions office, some paperwork, and a few phone calls, Kenzie’s deferral was approved and his merit money earmarked for next year. “It was a maximum of three days of work, and I gained 365 days,” he says. “So overall on a time- benefit scale, that ratio seems pretty good to me.”

Parents Worry

Deferrals aren’t the only thing that keeps parents up at night. No. 1 among parental concerns, admissions officers and gap year experts concede, is the worry that their child will never go to or return to college.

While statistics show that’s only rarely the case—research by authors Haigler and Rae found that 90 percent of gap year students return to college within a year—that doesn’t keep parents from worrying.

“Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once.”

After hearing tales of local gap kids who wound up working in entry-level retail jobs rather than heading to college, Dr. Schoenthaler told her son emphatically that his plan was to last for one year and one year only. “I’ve made it 100% clear that he’s going to school in September. Getting that degree is the end goal.”

Kenzie says he’s received that message, loud and clear. “This is a pretty awesome life—I’m fairly independent, making money—but people warned me not to let it get too awesome or I’ll wind up just staying home and living in my mom’s basement. A gap year is great, but you can’t let it become gap years.”

“Alexandra” is a Connecticut mother who asked that her name be changed to protect her family’s privacy during a time of delicate negotiations with her daughter, a high school senior graduating this June, who is lobbying to take a year off before college. That proposal that fills Alexandra with apprehension, especially coming at the end of what has been a long college-application process. “To me, a gap year means never going back to school,” she says, conceding that her concerns might stem from her own upbringing. “I was bred on the predictable, expected steps: high school, college, then you work your butt off in a field that you care about.”

She worries that a gap year signals a lack of motivation on her daughter’s part, and wonders if she has the maturity to organize a productive year off—a particular concern since her daughter has not—yet, anyway—articulated any clear plans. “What if she never winds up going to college? What if she lives at home for the next ten years? And, most important, how can we finance a five-year plan?”

(See “Who Gets To Gap?” for details on how some parents pay for that extra year.)

Parents tend to focus their worries on the “before” and “after” parts of the experience, but every now and again, the gap year itself goes seriously wrong. Promised internships or apprentice opportunities disappear or disappoint; the gapper goes adrift and never enrolls or returns to college; or, in the case of one young woman we’ll call “Aubrey,” an immersion year abroad starts out badly and gets worse.

Aubrey enrolled in a well-known and well-vetted study-abroad program with high hopes and eyes wide open. At the time, she was fine with not getting her first or second or even third choice of country; in retrospect, she now thinks some of her difficulties might be endemic to the culture of her host country, a former communist state.

Her first host family had a mother who was cold and monosyllabic and a father who, she came to realize, was an alcoholic. The second couple she was placed with was kind, but they had no children and knew no teenagers in town, and their largely unheated home was a 90-minute bus ride away from the school Aubrey was expected to attend every day. When she made it there, the schoolteachers, rather than engaging or encouraging her, flatly ignored her. When she asked her local program director to be placed with a family in town that had teenagers—and had already agreed to host her—she was told she was “lazy and complaining” and that she couldn’t move. Finally, overcome by loneliness and disappointment, Aubrey went AWOL—with her parents’ distant blessing—striking out for the airport without permission but with the help of other exchange students in the area who knew of and understood her predicament.

Back stateside, Aubrey’s mother was equal parts proud of her daughter for surviving in a negative situation for so long, heartbroken she hadn’t had a better experience, and frustrated that her stateside liaison for the international program seemed to have little sway over the situation on the ground overseas.

“The moral of this story is negative things can happen on these trips. My daughter wasn’t physically harmed, but she is heading home five months early with a lot of mending and healing in her immediate future,” Aubrey’s mother says. If she could tell other gap parents one thing, she says, it’s to be mindful that you and your child are at the mercy of an organization that may not always function as promised. “These systems are only as productive as the people in them.”

Welcome Back

Whether their landing is bumpy like Aubrey’s or smoother, at some point gap year students need to reintegrate themselves back into academic life, which can be a challenge. Kenzie and his mom both are mindful that his reentry may be ticklish.

“You’ve matured a year, you’re a year more experienced, and you may have had some very out-of-the-box experiences,” Dr. Schoenthaler says. “Kenzie hangs out with firemen; one of his co-workers used to be a Hell’s Angel. He’s having non-college, non-middle-class experiences, so he may feel some lack of identifying with some of the other students” when he enrolls in college next fall.

Erin Jensen, a domestic and international admissions counselor at PSU in Portland, OR, has become something of a specialist in gap year transitions. PSU awards college credit to students who participate in certain programs offered by Carpe Diem, a Portland-based travel-abroad program; upon completion of their gap year program, students then transfer those PSU credits to whatever college they plan to attend.

In helping students ensure that their credits transfer properly, Jensen discovered that gappers transitioning to college faced other hurdles as well. In her experience, it’s not common for gap year students, particularly those who have been on yearlong international experiences, to develop a kind of “reverse culture shock,” she says, with their maturity level and global outlook out of sync with incoming freshmen arriving straight from high school. “Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once,” she says.

While some schools, including PSU, allow gap year students to apply for sophomore housing, most don’t do any more to help ease re-entry into an academic setting. Jensen has heard that Whitman College hosts a luncheon for gap year students at the beginning of the year to allow them to bond and share experiences. If more schools did that—or offered gappers the opportunity of rooming with other students returning from travel—that could ease the transition, Jensen suggests.

For his part, Sam Rich says he did feel ahead of his peers when he arrived on campus as a college freshman. “I definitely felt like the dad at first. Everyone seemed overly excited and a little immature, and here I was coming from living in a foreign country for a year.” By intention, he chose a roommate who had spent a few months in Bolivia, “just because he’d had experience in a different culture.” As the term progressed and the freshmen settled down, Rich says, his feeling of differentness gradually faded.

And then there’s Aubrey, home early and dealing with a double set of re-entry issues. Not only must she reintegrate into academic life come fall, she first must figure out how best to fill five unexpected months.

When we spoke by telephone, she had to hang up early because she was due at a job interview for an office assistant position and was feeling hopeful something would materialize. As for the public university she’s accepted at in the fall, likewise she feels optimistic things will work out okay.

Which leaves her only with the challenge of processing her feelings about her truncated year abroad.

When asked how she was feeling so soon after returning home, Aubrey paused for a moment and then said the message she’d sent to friends as she was leaving her host country still best summed up her emotions: “Sometimes in life we must expect the unexpected. Though my exchange did not work out as I hoped it would, I continue to have no regrets. Living [abroad] for the past five months has taught me about myself, the world, how to deal with others and how to accept the fact that sometimes situations are simply not fair.”

Hard-learned lessons, to be sure, but ones that will likely last a lifetime—which, gap year proponents would say, is really the goal in the end.

Tracy Mayor is a long-time Brain,Child contributor. Her essays and longform journalism have also appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Boston Magazine, Child, Self, and online on Salon, The Rumpus and the New York TimesMotherlode blog. She is the author of the parenting humor book Mommy Prayers (Hyperion, 2010) and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize.

Illustration by Rick Brown

Good Enough

Good Enough

By Katherine Dykstra

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 4.23.31 PMMy son, slapped red and squinty and no bigger than a sack of flour, was curled up on my chest, panting, shocked by light and air and breath. My husband Parker stood over us, tears rolling down his face. There was the sound of chirping monitors and the murmuring obstetrician and the metallic scent of blood against a sharp chemical sterility. As I tried to memorize my son’s face — searching violet eyes, sailboat mouth — I was overwhelmed by a feeling of strength. I did it. We had done it. The nurse pulled aside my gown and directed Arlo’s face toward my breast, touching the cleft between his nose and upper lip with my nipple. Eyes closed, he opened his mouth, latched, sucked. He reached up and pressed on my breast with his hand, which, fingers spread, was no bigger than a silver dollar.

“Look,” said the nurse, winking at me. “He’s helping.”

During my pregnancy I’d been amazed by how my body could build and feed and stretch to accommodate this tiny human, awed that I could trust it to bring him into the world. Now, this baby, minutes old, knew how to feed himself when I did not. Watching his hand knead my breast, I realized he and my body would be handling things without me.

Breastfeeding continued to be easy for Arlo. He latched, had a good suck, and gained weight. I, on the other hand, had milk blisters on my nipples and was engorged on the right side, my right breast looking and feeling like a rock. Each time he latched, I felt as if someone was driving a pocketknife into my breast. I gripped the pillow so I would not grip my son. So by easy, I mean, it was hard but tolerable. Motherhood was supposed to involve sacrifice, I thought. Milk blisters and discomfort weren’t going to stop me from breastfeeding, which had always been the plan.

Other mothers I knew had supplemented with formula when their newborns didn’t gain back their birth weight, or when they feared they weren’t producing enough milk or could no longer drag themselves out of bed every hour to nurse. Some decided to give up breast-feeding all together, their bodies too broken from pregnancy and delivery to endure one more assault. I didn’t judge them; only they knew what was happening with their bodies, their babies, but I felt proud to be breastfeeding.

My goal was to nurse Arlo until he was one year old. My mother had breastfed both my brother and me, and I knew that “breast was best.” I knew that by nursing I could pass on my immunities to Arlo. And I knew that breastfeeding would help my uterus shrink back to its original size, lessen feelings of post-partum depression and help me shed my baby weight. These are the reasons I started nursing. Why I continued, despite the milk blisters, engorgement and exhaustion, was something else.

In the weeks before I gave birth, I happened upon the psychologist Donald Winnicot’s concept of the “good enough mother.” Winnicott, maintained that to thrive, a child doesn’t need a perfect mother, only a mother who is good enough. But the first months of motherhood were hard in a way I wasn’t prepared for. Day to day, I barely felt good at all. I had never been on demand for so many hours and days and weeks on end. I’d never been responsible for another person’s bottomless need. I no longer recognized my body — misshapen and still throbbing from labor— or my life. I couldn’t decide whether or not to return to work, and I was lonely; the friends who had visited me in the hospital vanishing after a couple of weeks, back to their own lives and jobs and plans. I couldn’t go to yoga or work in my garden or read a book. And this little being, whom I loved more than I knew I was capable of loving anything or anyone, cried. A lot. The only way I seemed to be able to make him happy was by nursing. Nursing was the thing that evened the scales, weighted so heavily with all I felt was failing at, to “good enough.”

When Arlo was four months old, Parker was nominated for an Emmy, and we decided that rather than take Arlo with us to Los Angeles, my mother would fly to Brooklyn and babysit for the weekend. It would only be three days, no time at all, and, I reasoned, good for everyone. My mother was dying to spend time with her first grandson; Arlo would get to bond with his grandmother; and Parker and I could benefit from some time alone. I would get to be myself again — a woman who enjoyed picking her way through novels during long plane rides, who could stare out of car windows in new cities for hours, who enjoyed a glass of wine and the surprise conversation of a night among strangers — if only for a weekend. It would be easy, I thought, or at least doable.

My mother worried that Arlo might not take a bottle from her, but I knew that as long as milk was coming, Arlo wouldn’t be picky about the mode of delivery. I worried more about his sleeping, picturing them both awake through the darkest hours of the night. What I never considered was what would happen when I got back.

I prepared for the trip by pumping enough milk for Arlo to drink for three days. I asked the hotel in Los Angeles to put a freezer in our room so I could bring the milk I pumped while I was away back to New York to replenish my frozen supply. I even bought a cooler to take on the plane, where I also planned to pump. Naively, pumping on the plane was my greatest stress. I still felt uncomfortable nursing Arlo in public, convinced that everyone was watching. Pumping was worse. Unlike breastfeeding, which, I believed, was beautiful, pumping made my breasts look and feel like udders, something I didn’t want even Parker to see. In the end, aside from an attendant’s telling me with a raised eyebrow that I could pump as long as I was “discrete,” it went fine, no worse than having to use a port-a-potty. I noticed, though, that I didn’t pump as much milk as I had on my last morning at home, but I chalked that up to the stress of the flight.

I planned to time my pumping in Los Angeles so that I’d be free to go out to dinner with Parker and his coworkers and to the Emmy’s without having to excuse myself to pump, an ordeal that necessitated electricity, a bathroom and access to my breasts; the dress I planned to wear had a dozen tiny buttons running up the back. I pumped in the hotel, after loafing at the pool with an old friend, in the middle of the night and upon waking on Emmy day. With each pump, I noticed I was producing less and less milk, my breasts growing harder and more painful by the hour. In an attempt to stimulate let down, Parker cued videos of Arlo for me on his iPhone, “songs” the two had recorded together — Parker on the guitar, Arlo chirping along. By Emmy day I’d given up on the pump altogether and instead stood over the hotel sink manually expressing, watching my precious milk trickle down the drain. On the red carpet, my breasts felt like two gourds.

When Parker and I returned to New York, we’d been gone for less than 72 hours. I barely said hello to my mother and went straight for Arlo. I pulled him from his crib and nursed to relieve the pain. In 30 minutes my breasts went from heavy as kettle bells and bruise tender back to normal.

I sighed with relief, thinking everything was better, that this would be just a minor hiccup in our nursing story, until the following day. When Arlo and I sat down to nurse, he sucked, unlatched and began to cry, a confused wrinkle popping up between his eyebrows.

“What’s wrong, baby?” I asked and touched my nipple to his upper lip, stimulating him to open his mouth. Again, he sucked for a minute and pulled off, his face crumpling. I hefted him onto the other side. He began to scream. I felt my breast and found it soft.

As Arlo shrieked, I ran hot water over one of the frozen bags of milk I’d brought back from Los Angeles. When I presented it to him, he flew at the bottle, guzzling the milk like he hadn’t eaten in days.

This scene repeated itself every two hours as the day wore on. A knot in my stomach grew as it dawned on me that I’d made a grave mistake.

I phoned a lactation consultant, who informed me that while I was in Los Angeles, I’d effectively told my body that Arlo and I were done breastfeeding and that it should stop producing milk. She advised me to start taking fenugreek—an herb that has been known to increase milk supply — three times a day and to rent a hospital-grade pump and use it after every nursing session and then again in the middle of the night. When I asked her if my supply would come back, she said, “I have no idea. Rent the pump right now.

For the next two weeks, every time we sat down to nurse, Arlo ended up in tears, frustrated as I moved him back and forth between my breasts before going to the freezer to defrost more of our dwindling supply. We both reeked of maple syrup, the result of the fenugreek. I was exhausted, from the constant pumping, from getting up in the middle of the night, from worrying that I was starving my child. Both of us cried a lot.

As Arlo and I struggled, the refrain from so many — my mother, my doctor, my friends, even Parker — was that I should supplement with formula. This irritated me. I didn’t want a way out; I wanted my milk to come back. I had gotten through pregnancy and labor by trusting my body, by believing that it knew what to do, even when I didn’t. I was supposed to be able to feed my baby. But what was dawning on me was that my body did know better than me; after 72 hours without nursing it knew that there was no baby to feed. I believed my failure was my fault, for being selfish, for wanting what I’d had before, the freedom to go away for the weekend, for making the choice to celebrate with my husband baby-free. When those around me encouraged me to supplement with formula, I heard them confirming my darkest thoughts, that I couldn’t undo what I’d done and this was crushing. In my head, it wasn’t that failing to nurse would make me a bad mother so much as that nursing, if I could do it, was what made me a good one.

Suddenly I understood why the women I knew who’d stopped nursing did so. Before, a part of me didn’t believe that they’d tried hard enough. Everything I read said there was no such thing as producing too little milk. Your body met whatever demand your infant put on it. The more you nursed and the more you pumped, the more milk you produced. What this didn’t take into account was the incredible demand of constant pumping, constant feeding. A newborn eats every two hours, sometimes more, all through the day and night. Infants are good at nursing, but they’re not yet as efficient as they will be. It takes them longer. They fall asleep. They wake back up and want to eat again. It is hard. It is all a woman can do.

When a friend who gave birth three weeks after I did told me that she was going to give up nursing because her daughter wasn’t gaining enough weight — parenthood was a lesson in pragmatism was the way she put it  — I supported her. Formula is a fine choice, I told her. Babies thrive on it. That’s what I believed then, what I believe now. Nursing certainly doesn’t have to be for every mother.

Early on, when our babies were teensy, my friend and I would walk to the park and meet a dozen other mothers who’d all had babies around the same time. We’d sit in the shade of a towering ash tree and talk about who was sleeping and who wasn’t and what carriers we preferred and how our bodies were healing. And when our babies started fussing, we’d pick them up and nurse them. A bunch of women sitting in a circle with their boobs out, was how I described it to Parker.

One day as we were leaving the park, my friend told me she hated being “that mom,” by which she meant the one pulling out a bottle amongst a sea of boobs. Her shame surprised me. How did anyone know she didn’t have breast-milk in that bottle? Plus, we all were doing whatever we could to get by. One mom confessed to sleeping her daughter on her stomach (forbidden); another said she turned down the monitor while she was trying to let her child cry it out. I confessed that Parker and I slept with Arlo in bed between us against the advice of every book I read and every person I talked to, including and especially our own doctor. That was the only way Arlo would sleep, so that’s what we did. Pragmatism. There was no room for any of us to judge. Which is what I told her.

Yet here I was harshly judging myself. I’d said that good enough was what I aspired to be, but now four months later I was wrapping up my entire success as a mother in whether or not I could continue to nurse.

Arlo and I were very lucky. All the fenugreek and pumping and crying worked. My supply came back and I was able to nurse him exclusively for another five months. But when he was ten months old, I went back to work and was once again faced with supply issues. I weathered them for a while, killing myself to produce, until one evening after Arlo went to bed and I tried to decide between pumping for the fourth time that day or sitting on the couch and having a glass of wine. It dawned on me that maybe good enough wasn’t the average of things I did that worked against the things I did that didn’t, maybe it was the average of the time I spent trying and caring and wanting to be a good mother with the time I spent trying and caring and wanting to take care of myself. The next day, we bought a tub of formula.

At a recent dinner with the same moms who used to sit, breasts out, under the ash tree, the woman seated next to me told me she was about to go back to work and she was concerned about where she would pump and if she would produce enough milk. I told her that I’d just begun to supplement. She shook her head, “I just don’t know if I can,” she said. “My mother nursed me. I just swore I would never give my baby formula.”

Of course, I’d once felt the same way, but in the wake of our trip to Los Angeles, even with my success getting back my supply, I’d begun to realize that I had to accept what my body already knew, that I could not live exactly as I used to, that the rigors of trying to be a person and a parent force choices and that it is easier, healthier even, to adjust expectations to realities than it is to feel constantly disappointed. For me, giving Arlo a bottle of formula a day turned out to be an enormous relief. He is 18 months old now and flourishing. I, too, am well. Or at least, good enough.

Author’s Note: Arlo is 18 months old now. Our nursing days feel like forever ago. But new challenges spring up all the time—I know there will be no end to the challenges of motherhood but I do my best to help us through the tough moments and, when what I try doesn’t work, I try to relax and readjust my expectations. I try to go easier on myself.

Katherine Dykstra is a nonfiction editor at Guernica. Her essays have been published in Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, Best and Shenandoah, among other publications. 

Pregnancy Endnotes

Pregnancy Endnotes

By Aubrey Hirsch

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You don’t commit to the idea until after the first ultrasound, when you’re about seven weeks along. Though you’ve produced enough positive pregnancy tests to build a small log cabin, you can’t believe it’s real. Your husband squeezes your hand in the elevator at the OB/GYN. They might look, you say, and there might not be anything there at all. That happens sometimes. He nods. He’s very accommodating of your doubts, even though he doesn’t share them.

But there it is, on the screen, a little blob of white pixels. It looks like a gummi bear or a wad of chewed gum. It’s hard to focus with the ultrasound wand pressing against your cervix, but there’s no doubt that it’s there. The doctor adjusts the wand and the blob starts to flicker. The movement is so fast you can barely see it, especially with the tears already starting to fill your eyes. That’s the heartbeat, she says, looking at one of you, then the other. Oh, you say it as if you are surprised, but you already know.

II

The thing that stuns you, though it seems obvious in retrospect, is that you can’t ever take a break. For every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month for nine (almost ten) long months, you are pregnant. There’s no negotiating that. You jokingly ask your husband if he wouldn’t mind taking over for a few hours so you can eat sushi, shave your legs, take a long nap on your stomach. His answer is always the same, I would if I could. The way he says it, his hand on your hand, his eyes locked on yours, you believe him.

III

You’ve heard those first subtle movements compared to bubbles or butterflies, but what you feel is more like gentle thumping, like a miniature heart beating against your belly. You read that these movements aren’t voluntary at the beginning. They’re like a series of tiny seizures. You imagine the fetus inside you, skinny and transparent, its impossible proportions, stiff-armed and shaking. It doesn’t sound very pleasant. But the image actually helps a little. When you’re feeling nauseous or tired or sore, which is pretty much all the time these days, you pay attention to your second heart. You press your palm against it and say, I know it’s hard, baby. But you and me, we’re in this together. It feels like solidarity, like you no longer have to suffer alone.

IV

Everyone keeps telling you it’s a miracle. They call it magical, what’s happening inside you. You know, though, that it’s science. Sperm meets egg. Egg meets uterus. Cells develop, differentiate, firm and fold. There’s the dividing, the lengthening, the genomic blueprint followed to the letter. Knowing all of this doesn’t make it any less special for you. There are still so many mysteries ahead. You actually feel grateful for the questions with easy answers.

V

You float through the first half of your pregnancy trying on two possible futures, two possible babies. You fantasy shop for both of them, building imaginary registries in your head. When you browse online, you click on both of the big, bolded links: girl; boy. You come up with a perfect name for each potential baby. Driving to your twenty-week ultrasound you feel nothing but elation.

But when the technician pushes wand into your side, points to the screen and says, “It’s a little boy!” you suddenly feel like crying. You want this boy, yes. You love this boy. But where is your girl? The little girl you’ve been dreaming about, whose room you’ve decorated in your mind, whose territory you’ve set aside in your heart?

On the drive home, you practice her name with your tongue as you fight back tears. You realize you’d been dreaming of two babies, and you’re only going to take one home with you. It’s silly to feel this way, you know, about a baby who never existed. Inside of you is your son, your survivor. Your love, now fired in sadness, grows fiercer.

VI

As you progress, you discover that pregnancy is a kind of performance art that you have to do any time you want to leave your house. At a certain point, there’s no hiding it and the questions come like rain on a cold morning. Over and over again you will say: October. You will say: Boy. You will say: Yes and No and We haven’t decided yet. Sometimes you will lie. You might say: Girl. You might say: November. You might say: Alice or Benjamin or George. You might do this just to do it, for the thrill of saying something new. Or you might do it for the flimsy sliver of privacy it lets you keep between the matinee and the evening show, when you will again pull on your shoes and venture into the world and cease being your name, or any noun at all, and instead walk under the flashing marquee of your adjective: pregnant.

VII

Everyone has opinions. To save your energy, you start agreeing with all of them. It becomes like a game, kind of fun actually. You’re going to breastfeed exclusively, right? Of course! You should use formula. That way the dad can help with the feedings. That’s the plan! Definitely get an epidural. Mine saved me! Definitely! Are you planning an all-natural birth? I hope so. Yes! Do you have a doula? Are you doing yoga? Are you being induced? Did you do the genetic screening? Are you drinking red wine? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Always, everything, yes.

It gets a little tricky when the people you’re talking to disagree with each other. In those moments it’s best to make a quiet exit. Trust me, they will be so interested in validating their own opinions that no one will even notice you’re gone.

VIII

The 3 a.m. feedings start weeks before the baby is actually born. Everyone keeps telling you to sleep now, while you have the chance. But the baby is up at three demanding cereal or almonds or fresh mozzarella. When he’s fed, he wants to play, kicking at your insides, rubbing up against your ribs. It’s hours before you’re asleep again and when you are, you dream of him.

IX

You’re eager to talk about something other than pregnancy, so you are excited to meet someone with your same job at a Memorial Day barbeque. Turns out she’s pregnant, too. She asks you all the typical questions about your due date, your childcare plans, your health.

You don’t respond in kind. Instead you gently deflect. You ask about her work, her classes, a paper she’s writing. You think you are saving this woman from having to repeat the same answers over and over and over again. You imagine that she must be dying for a break from talking about pregnancy. Doesn’t she, like you, still have this whole other life? Doesn’t that deserve some attention every now and then?

A few days later, on her blog, she will write a lengthy and heartfelt post about wishing she had more pregnant friends. She will lament feeling like she has no one to talk to about her pregnancy, no one who understands what she is going through. And you will feel like the biggest asshole on the planet.

X

The stretch marks come overnight. While you’re sleeping, they appear across the top of your bottom, in a wide, red swath. It’s kind of sexy, you say to your husband, like you’re wearing a zebra-print thong, even when you’re naked. Some- times you believe that. Other times you are surprised how intensely you hate them. You think both of these feelings are okay. That they can co-exist, for a while at least. These are scars we’re talking about, after all. They will need time to heal.

XI

The baby is big and you are small and that combination makes for close quarters. By the end of the eighth month, there’s nowhere for him to go without putting pressure on an organ, snagging a tendon, rubbing up against an already tender bit of muscle or bone. He wakes you up at night with his calisthenics. You sigh and moan, turn over onto your other side with much effort.

One night your husband, dazed, mostly asleep himself grabs you and gently sways you, rhythmically, from your hip. You are so surprised by it that you don’t even notice the baby calming down, going quiet. Finally you realize he is rocking the baby to sleep. After another minute or so, he has rocked you asleep as well. And the three of you sleep together.

XII

Next time you think you’ll keep the due date a secret. As it approaches, everyone wants to know if you’re ready. Ready? READY?? Then the date comes. And goes. And then every- one wants to know where the baby is. Why no baby yet? When are you going to have that baby?

But no one’s more disappointed than you. This date was your anchor and now that it’s gone, you’re just sort of … floating. You ask your doctor when the baby will come. When he’s ready, he says. With no date to count down to, no finish line in sight, you feel like the pregnancy might go on forever. That you might never get to meet your son.

XIII

Of course the pregnancy does eventually end. In the hospital you change into the cotton gown, worn nearly transparent around its feeble ties, while your husband hurries home to get your bags. These are the last moments you will spend alone until you attempt your first shower some eight days later. And anyway, are you really alone, with the baby already readying himself inside you?

You roll the question around in your head until a nurse comes in, then another nurse, and then your husband. And then you aren’t alone anymore.

You can’t honestly say you enjoy those last few hours of your pregnancy, but there are a few joyful moments that you hold onto:

Catching a line of a song on your playlist that sounds like it’s telling you how strong you are.

The feeling of ice on your tongue when everything else in the room, in the world, seems to be heat.

The surprise you feel when your lungs keep filling with air long after you’re sure you have no breath left.

The way your husband looks at you like his heart is breaking, and healing, and being born.

And the moment the doctor arrives and tells you you’re about to become someone new.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of WHY WE NEVER TALK ABOUT SUGAR. She currently writes a biweekly parenting column for The Butter. You can learn more about her at aubreyhirsch.com.

Art by Michael Lombardo

Spud Day

Spud Day

By Beth Eakman

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 1.50.54 PMIt took me about a year after my husband left to feel like I’d regained something resembling control of my life. I had managed to scrape together a couple of regular freelance writing gigs and a part-time teaching position at the local community college that would give me a small but regular pay-check—and the regular part was going to do wonders for my mental health.

It had been rough. My kids, ages three and five at the time he left, had been profoundly freaked out and honestly I had, too. I was single again, which was weird. A lot of the people I’d thought were my friends had ditched me, everything had broken, and I’d burned through almost all of the savings that my ex and I had split up in our settlement. But as the bad first year was coming to a close, things were beginning to look up.

In late July, I got a phone call from one of the top Montessori schools in the nation. I’d put my daughter, Annika, on their wait list as soon as we’d moved to Austin and had completely forgotten about it. They had a last-minute first grade slot for her. Did we want it? My mother offered to pay the tuition.

The fantasy of becoming the working-mom who “does it all” shimmered like a beacon on the distant horizons of my imagination. I had emerged from the smoking ruin of marriage, kept my kids clean and fed, secured gainful employment, landed a boyfriend, and, as far as anyone outside my closest friends and the school registrar knew, could afford private school for my kids. We might be eating lentils and scrubbing the stains out of thrift-shop clothes inside the house, but those clothes were clean and pressed when we walked outside. I might not actually have a traditional family anymore, but I was doing a pretty good job of faking middle class.

My first major setback was Spud Day.

The Montessori school we joined requires an almost cult-like level of parental involvement. At the very first parent meeting, we all sat in a large circle in the classroom chairs that our first through third graders used during the day. Because I came from work and thus was not one of the first parents to arrive, I got one of the really tiny ones. I was wearing a fullish, knee-length skirt, which I had to wrestle the entire time because my knees were higher than my seat. I learned from the introductions that I was one of two single parents in attendance. The other was a teacher at the school.

We discussed the school’s philosophy. I’d been a Montessori preschool teacher in the handful of years between my undergrad and grad school, so I knew and was in full support of the method, which allowed me to space out a bit and focus on keeping my skirt tucked tightly under my legs, think about wearing flat shoes next time, and glance furtively at my watch, calculating how much the childcare was going to cost. After an overview of the history of Maria Montessori and her method, the meeting agenda went on to recommendations for supporting the Montessori education at home—televised news: bad! Branded clothing: horrible!

I was selective about the quality and amount of television my kids watched, but, in the words of my first single-mom friend, there are going to be days when television and potato chips are going to be your best friends. I made a mental note to cut back, but a full prohibition was out of the question.

This was the mid-2000s, probably the apex of the social trend of what one journalist has called “aspirational parenting.” It was a kind of child-raising philosophy that I had been totally down with when my kids were babies. We were the cloth-diapering, baby-wearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping people who took parenthood very seriously, probably in reaction to our own find-yourself/me-generation parents, many of whom had had a much more casual philosophy.

A certain percentage of this population crossed the line from aspirational to competitive. You might use cloth diapers, but they grew and hand loomed their own organic hemp for their cloth diapers. You might support gentle discipline, but they considered making a recalcitrant youngster brush his teeth against his will child abuse. And, because this was Austin, there was an additional level of Competitive Earthiness.

Even with our organic textiles, homeopathic remedies, and mail-order composting worms, we Montessori parents weren’t barking lunatics like those Waldorf nuts. Heavens, no. They were a contingent who rejected recorded music in favor of folk songs sung by the family and manufactured toys in favor of baskets of pine cones. We were still a pretty aspirational bunch, though, and the discussion at the parents’ meeting was increasingly lively.

I kept my mouth shut, aware that I was lucky to be here, able to give my daughter—and later, my son—a top-notch education.

“Spud Day,” was one of the last few agenda items. Good.

Spud Day, it turns out, was an exciting treat for the children. Every Friday, parents should send a potato along with the rest of the daily healthy brown-bag lunch—no chips, crackers, or cookies. This potato should be scrubbed and poked multiples times with a fork. Apparently there had been an insufficiently poked potato some years ago and the resulting explosion in the oven had reached legendary status. Furthermore, the potato skin should have the child’s initials or otherwise identifying symbols carved into it to reduce confusion.

“Oh,” the teacher rhapsodized, “when the potatoes are cooking the smell just fills the room and it is absolutely heavenly!”

“What kind of potato, exactly?” one parent asked.

“Just a plain baking potato,” the teacher said.

“Well, at our house we really like to bake sweet potatoes,” another parent offered, initiating an avalanche of potato-related discourse. What I’d thought had been passionate opinions about televised news programs and Disney characters on t-shirts paled in comparison to the freshly energized positions on potatoes.

“But sweet potatoes are so much bigger than regular potatoes. They would take longer to bake!”

“Not all of them. It depends on each individual potato.”

“I think Irish potatoes tend to be more uniform in size.”

“Irish potatoes? What are Irish potatoes?”

“They’re the same as baking potatoes; you know, just regular potatoes, the brown ones that you’d get at a restaurant if you ordered a baked potato?”

“At our house, we like to slice sweet potatoes into about one-inch thick disks and sprinkle them with olive oil and cinnamon and bake them on a cookie sheet,” the sweet potato aficionado interjected.

“Wow! That sounds great! About how long do you bake them?” A side conversation broke out among those excited to try this at home.

The teacher and her assistant were trying in vain to reign in the conversation.

“Should we send toppings, like butter or sour cream?”

More side conversations erupted. Emotions ran high regarding bacon bits.

I might have had my head in my lap at this point. I was pretty sure that there were dissertation defenses that were shorter than this conversation about Spud Day. Was I the only one who was finding this absurd and existentially exhausting?

The meeting went almost an hour past its originally scheduled closing before ratification of potato policy. I noted the critical action items as follows. Send potato in your child’s lunch on Fridays. Poke potato with fork and carve identifying mark in potato skin. No fancy potato varieties. Basic condiments would be provided. Additional condiments could be sent, with the exception of bacon bits, which had been determined to serve no good purpose. Maybe for next year’s meeting, I would volunteer to create an instructional brochure about Spud Day.

At 7:30 am, ten minutes before we were to leave for the first Spud Day, I discovered that the only potato in the vegetable drawer of my refrigerator was a red-skin potato, aka, a “new potato.” Curses. I checked my watch: no time for a grocery store run. Surely this would work, though, right? It was approximately potato-sized. I poked it with a fork, carved an A in it, and sent it in Annika’s lunch box.

At 1:00 that afternoon, I received a phone call from the school. The Montessori method emphasizes classroom leadership and self-reliance by the children, so I was only slightly surprised to hear a child’s voice.

“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class. Is this Annika’s mother?”

“Yes?” I responded in the slightly sweeter voice that one reserves for children.

“The potato that you sent for Spud Day was the wrong kind.”

I explained as gently as possible that I was aware of this, but that it had been all I had and that, speaking as a person who’d baked red-skin potatoes before, I knew that they would behave approximately the same way as Irish potatoes when subjected to heat.

The world would never know. Non-conforming potatoes were not added to the baking sheet. My claim was entirely theoretical and therefore invalid.

When I picked her up from school, Annika displayed great self-discipline and forbearance when she told me, concisely, how disappointing it had been.

I had exposed both of us as outsiders and frauds. I might be able to pass my- self off as a normal, competent, middle-class mom, but I could not pass off a red-skinned potato as a baking potato.

I would not, however, accept defeat so easily. Not over a potato.

The next week I sent an enormous, brown, Irish, baking potato.

Waleed called, again.

“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class. Is this Annika’s mother?”

Sigh.

“The potato that you sent for Spud Day was too big. You need to send a smaller one next time.” It was becoming increasingly clear that Waleed, one of the older children in the mixed-age classroom, had the job of compliance officer. This was likely a merit-based assignment and he was clearly proud of it.

Annika preferred not to discuss the topic on the ride home from school, but confirmed that, while this potato had actually made it onto the baking sheet, it had emerged with a hard, impenetrable center. She had not eaten it.

My boyfriend, Mike, whom I would later marry for being just the sort of guy who’d do this sort of thing, offered to go to the grocery store and find me a potato that would not subject my child to further ostracism and disappointment. He was the father of teenaged twin girls and thus a true veteran of conformity and compliance problems. He bought me a plastic-wrapped four-pack of “Baking Potatoes” so very medium sized and uniform in physical presence that they were surely genetically modified and probably irradiated. I sent one to school.

“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class…”

“Yeah, right, Waleed. I know who you are. Now what?”

“The potato that you sent to school didn’t have holes poked in it.”

“What?! Yes, it did! I poked the whole skin all over with a fork! That potato absolutely had holes in it.”

“Well,” he paused thoughtfully, “I guess the holes weren’t deep enough because the potato didn’t cook all the way through. Maybe you need to poke it harder next time.”

I stabbed the next potato from the genetically modified pack, which, incidentally, did not seem to have aged at all in the intervening week, with a sharp, pointy, paring knife, perhaps more violently than was strictly necessary. It went to school covered with little black dash marks.

“Hello, this is Wal….”

“What. Just. What, WaLEED?” I was aware of placing unnecessary emphasis on the final syllable in a way that made me sound less adult than might have been appropriate.

“The potato that you sent to school today for Spud Day didn’t have initials carved into it.”

“Really?”

“But it’s okay, because we carved an A into it ourselves. There are 30 children in the classroom so you are really supposed to carve initials into it your- self so that we can tell which potato belongs to which person.”

When I picked Annika up from school that day she said, “Mom, you don’t need to send a potato to school for Spud Day, anymore.”

What were the odds that I was the only parent failing at Spud Day? I might be making Waleed’s day with the regularity of my failures, but with the seriousness with which he undertook potato audits, surely I wasn’t the only one getting the calls.

I didn’t dare ask other parents.

I made a decision. I would no longer try to pretend that I was the kind of mom who could do the whole parenting gig solo and conform to the exacting standards of Spud Day. I didn’t know why this particular operation exposed my Achilles heel, but frankly I didn’t need the aggravation. It was affecting my self-esteem.

The truth was that I was keeping my head above water, but just barely. I was barely getting the garbage cans out on a regular basis. I was probably at about a 50 percent success rate if you counted the mornings that I heard the truck and came flying out of the house in my pajamas, barely controlling the wheeled can down my steep driveway toward the curb. Spud Day was clearly one potato over the line of what I could manage.

I sat my daughter down to ask her how she’d feel about just skipping the whole thing.

“You know, Mom,” she said, “I don’t really like potatoes much anyway.”

Author’s Note: I am pleased to report that Annika, now headed into her sophomore year of (public) high school, shows no permanent signs of trauma from her mother’s Spud Day shortcomings. When asked if she’d like to contribute to this postscript, she said “I think we all know that there were plenty of holes poked in those spuds. Waleed was kind of a tyrant.”

Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at www.betheakman.com, or on Twitter @BethEakman.

Illustration by Casey Arden

Homeschool U

Homeschool U

unnamed-5Hey Moms and Dads! Overwhelmed by the amount of glossy materials your high schoolers are receiving daily, begging them to apply to schools they can’t get into and you can’t afford? Pulling your hair out over FAFSA forms more complicated than the Mars Rover assembly instructions?

There’s an easier way: Homeschool U.

In a single weekend, using tools you have in your basement and bull-slinging skills you honed during your own days as a liberal arts undergrad, you can transform your student’s humble childhood home into an institute of higher learning, and upgrade your status from hapless, penniless parent to Assistant Dean of Student Life.

Don’t wait—get “early action” on the domestic renovation that can save you $55,000 a year, minus the upfront investment in a freestanding keg cooler.

Kitchen = “Dining Services”

Install a swipe-card reader, and you’re ready to start staging the same delicious, nutritious, culturally authentic dining experience touted by the top colleges for a fraction of the board bill. Their food is “just like home-cooked,” yours actually is home-cooked. They tout sustainability; you serve the most sustainable meal on the planet—leftovers. Their freshmen pack on 15 lbs., your kitchen comes complete with a Nutrition Coach unafraid to point out the rising muffin top or burgeoning “one pack” on the student body.

Family room = Student Union

Here beats the social heart of Homeschool U, the place where students can kick back, stream Family Guy and scarf Bacon Ranch Pringles while Skyping with their dorm-bound buddies—just like real college. For added authenticity, set up a card table stacked with pamphlets urging Homeschool U students to take back the night, confront their gender-normative prejudices or up their carbon awareness. And unlike real campus unions, you’re free to serve beer—at the for-profit price of $3 per Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Living room = “Library”

Academics don’t take a back seat at Homeschool U—they take the couch. Here, in the living room-turned-library, students are free to study the majors you and your partner pursued in decades past, using the same classic texts (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Women’s Room, and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, the latter in paperback with its cover ripped off for added authenticity). Engage the restless mind of your Homeschool U student with 24-hour access to Google, YouTube and MythBusters reruns on cable; upperclassmen wishing to pursue a more aggressive course of study should be encouraged to friend Drew Gilpin Faust on Facebook or follow Nate Silver on Twitter.

Basement = “Laundry services”

A web cam and debit-card reader are all you need to transform your washer-dryer from cost center to revenue generator. No more hauling baskets of stinky workout wear or Victoria’s Secret hand-washables to the musty depths; simply Tweet “#wshr1nowfree” to your student anytime after 4 on a Sunday afternoon to get your for-profit laundry business rolling. When students get desperate, Just Like Mom’s wash-dry-fold service correctly sorts their clean wardrobe to the proper dresser drawer, just like in the old days, for $15 a basket (cash only, in advance).

Mom = “Resident Assistant”

Before, you were the cook, the carpooler, the signer of permission slips, funder of shopping excursions, supplier of soccer snacks—in short, the mom, lowliest of the socially acceptable, bottom of the fashion food chain, recipient of eyerolls uncountable. Now you’re the Resident Assistant, the knowledgeable “big sister” on campus with the self-confidently retro wardrobe and the frank talk about HPV vaccines, incipient eating disorders, and why hooking up with that loafers-no-socks risk management major is a bad idea.

Dad = “Director, Career Services”

As the father of the household, your pleas to cover up a little more, come home a little earlier and think a little more carefully about that Francophone Studies major fell on deaf ears. As Director of Career Services, you wield a bit more power—namely, a LinkedIn profile chockablock with contacts for unpaid internships and a resume replete with past favors ready to call in for that first job post-graduation. If that doesn’t hold your scholars’ attention, they might dedicate themselves to Homeschool U’s motto—Lux, Veritas, Virtus, Verizon, or Light, Truth, Courage, and unlimited texting on the family plan—to graduation and beyond.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Dadima’s Basement

Dadima’s Basement

By Mary Anne Williams

WI 15 Dadima's Basement ArtAt thirty weeks pregnant, my daughter’s rhythm against my drumtight belly is strong enough to wake me now. Usually, I drift back to sleep. Tonight, however, I hear the heavy footsteps of my Indian mother-in-law above me; I am in the basement of her home in Portland, Oregon. My sons call her Dadima.

I hear water boiling and can picture how Dadima slits cardamom pods with her fingernail, crushes cloves, and adds the spices to Red Rose teabags before pouring in the steaming water. She will sit in her home office, drinking her late-night cup of tea, working until her eyes begin to close.

Dadima has worked like this her whole life—she used to wake at 4:00 a.m. to make tea for her father before starting her homework. Her work ethic led her from Mumbai to New York. But it was grief that drove her even further West; after she was widowed she left the East Coast, where she had obtained three graduate degrees. She moved to Portland and started her life over.

Her home in Portland is a place of new beginnings. At nineteen, my husband and I fell in love here, in the romance of a sudden snowstorm. I had been intoxicated with the unnamed spices I smelled in his hair, his exotic middle name, my understanding of his culture.

Five years later, there was another beginning in this basement. It was the first place I stayed after my eldest son was born. Tonight it looks the same as it did then: there’s the pale blue patterned arm chair where I learned to nurse. Moonlight spills through the window the way it did the first night back from the hospital.

Inside me, my daughter nudges again. I want her to know the story of those first few weeks with my first baby, Jesse, her oldest brother. She is the only one of my children who may give birth to a child someday. And if she chooses this glorious burden, she too will have to swim amidst the judgment and support of other women, the expectations of her cultures.

Someday, when I tell my daughter the story, I will reassure her. Even though the tension from my difficult labor and postpartum period nearly tore Dadima and me apart, the darkest times can be overcome. If they try, people can heal and learn to understand each other. I will tell my daughter about a recent time when Dadima stayed with us, in our home in California:

Dadima and I were sitting in the playroom rocking chairs, side by side. The room was encircled by windows, and that evening the sun was setting, leaving pink wisps of cloud in a purple sky. My second son, Boman, was screaming while my husband put him to bed.

“Why does he scream like that?” Dadima asked me. “What’s wrong?” For a moment, I felt the familiar tension in my neck—I remembered how she used to ask me so many questions after Jesse was born, questions I couldn’t begin to answer. But I have more confidence now, so I took a breath and told her the truth: there is always something else Boman wants before bed—more milk, another book, one more chance to pee—and when it is denied and bedtime is final, he screams. At last, he collapses, snuggles up to the offender and his long-lashed eyes flutter closed.

I expected a lecture about how we should stop Boman from screaming, but instead Dadima just laughed. “KK was just like that!” she said, speaking of her youngest brother. “There was always some drama. He was always screaming about something. And just imagine in India—the neighbors would come to the door, giving advice. Not that anything they said made one diddle of a difference!”

I started laughing, too; I could picture the scene so well.

I love the sound of our laughter together.

*   *   *

When my husband and I found out we were expecting our first baby, I couldn’t have pictured how Dadima’s neighbors would line up to give advice about a wayward child. I didn’t understand Indian culture or even American culture and did not follow the typical approach of either culture to a new baby’s birth. According to the oldest relative in my husband’s family, an Indian daughter traditionally returns to her mother’s home for the final weeks of pregnancy and the postpartum period. Her mother gives her all of the guidance necessary in the early weeks of the baby’s life.

Meanwhile, in my experience of American culture, the woman is isolated in her own home. She receives short visits from friends and family, and occasional meal deliveries. No one wants to disrupt her bonding time with her baby, or give too much advice. It’s assumed—sometimes falsely—that she wants space. I was guilty of this assumption. When a close friend had a baby before I did, I didn’t call for weeks after the initial congratulations, worried I would disrupt her. Later, she told me the isolation made her depressed.

My husband and I were both graduate students that summer our eldest was due. Although we were settled in California during the school year, we chose to return to Portland, Oregon, our hometown, for Jesse’s arrival. We hoped to be surrounded by old friends and family who would care for us. My own parents had moved from Portland several years before, so we stayed with Dadima. No grandmother was more thrilled to have her first grandchild under her own roof. She even offered to host my parents after the baby was born, so all the grandparents could enjoy their first grandchild together.

In the first several years my husband and I had dated, I tried to impress Dadima. During the summer, I returned to Portland and worked in her massive garden. Surrounding her house on all sides, Dadima’s garden is magical: filled with berries for neighborhood children, unique flowers, vegetables and rose bushes planted in memory of her husband. During those same early years in our relationship, Dadima remodeled her basement, perhaps as a way of gaining a roommate after her son left home. She created a small apartment there, complete with its own bathroom, kitchenette, and an enormous window that filled the dark basement with sunlight. That summer, I spackled walls by Dadima’s side, squished paint-filled sponges into the cement floor and rolled light gold paint on the walls of the new bedroom.

Despite my attempts to please her, I didn’t feel Dadima fully approved of me. It was subtle, mostly in the form of rumors. I heard she thought my clothes were too tight, that I lacked the ambition of her family. Still, Dadima was friendly to my face, even telling me I should live in the basement apartment during the following summer. When trying to decide about this offer, I opened the curtain of the basement window. Dadima had planted pansies that climbed down the window-well. It felt like you were living in a hill of purple flowers. I stayed—not just that first summer, but several more. She refused to take any payment from me. The basement became my home within her home. It was the space I wanted for Jesse’s arrival.

I assumed we would stay in the basement apartment throughout my pregnancy and postpartum period. But Dadima had another plan. “In India, we don’t let pregnant women go up and down the stairs,” she said. “I want to give you my own room.” Dadima had a sunny bedroom on the main floor, next to a bathroom, but the bathroom would be shared with anyone else who stayed in the home, including her and my parents that summer. I assured Dadima that I could use the railing when climbing and descending the stairs and that I would be much more comfortable in the basement apartment with my own bathroom, but it seemed she had an unwritten list of reasons we shouldn’t stay there. “There are spiders down there,” she said. “What if a spider bites the baby?”

I was puzzled at her sudden resistance—I had stayed in the basement many times in the five years prior. I couldn’t understand why it was no longer acceptable. Once, when I was first dating my husband, one of his friends had given me a piece of advice about Dadima: “Choose your battles, but remember if she pushes you and you don’t agree, push back harder,” he said. “She just wants to see how much you really want it.” So I pushed back—I wanted that basement apartment. Dadima promised me everything I asked for. When we drove up to Oregon I was confident in my success.

*   *   *

Dadima’s late husband Robi was orphaned when he was sixteen. When Dadima and Robi married they were isolated in upstate New York. After my husband was born, Dadima spent long hours working on her dissertation while Robi watched the baby—there were no trusted elders around to help them. Because Dadima had no experience with in-laws herself, she was guided by the powerful hand of culture to determine the appropriate approach to a new grandchild and a foreign daughter-in-law.

I still don’t know how long it took Dadima to prepare for our arrival that summer—countless hours in the garden, gathering strawberries to make jam, pruning so every flower blossomed to its full potential. When we arrived, we entered her house through the front door. A jasmine vine climbed around it and whenever anyone passed through the doorway, Dadima would breathe in and say, “Oh, it smells like heaven!”

Inside the house, the smell of jasmine was overpowered by the scent of cooked food—Dadima must have been cooking for hours before we arrived. Cinnamon and cardamom-flavored rice, dal, greens cooked with ginger and garlic, and coconut flavored curry with tomatoes from the garden. The pale wood floors shone, the dishes were all washed, drying on thin towels on the reddish-pink granite counters. I felt a warm glow of love and appreciation for this woman who had done so much for us. But when I walked by her room, I saw the sign on Dadima’s bedroom door. Written with her beautiful cursive hand- writing, the sign welcomed my husband, the baby and me to her bedroom.

My heart started pounding. I slipped into the kitchen again and opened the door that led to the basement. I held onto the railing, trembling as I descended. My fear was confirmed: the basement apartment was filled with boxes.

*   *   *

My mother likes to tell a story about me as a two-year-old. In her brief absence from the kitchen I opened the fridge, climbed to the top shelf, and brought down the pale plastic pitcher of juice all by myself. But when I tried to pour it into my cup, the juice rushed to the lid, popped it off, and spilled all over the floor. I’m sure my mother scolded me, but she was also clearly delighted with my independent spirit—something valued in American culture.

Perhaps because of my parents’ respectfulness toward my desires, I was shocked when Dadima ignored my specific requests, favoring her own beliefs about my needs instead. At first, we moved into her room as she had clearly wanted. But my cheeks flamed every time she burst into the room to try to feed me more berries from her garden or another piece of toast. I felt like a child again, my “right” to make my own decisions stolen on the eve of my entrance into adulthood.

Perhaps my lack of control during that period was my introduction to motherhood. My midwife tried to warn me about my controlling tendencies. “You can’t prepare for labor,” she said. “You have to live in the moment.” She told me to stop making lists. But even she was upset when she realized I was not staying where I’d wanted to nest. “I just hope your hormones can overcome that,” she said.

Dadima’s eyes were shiny when my husband told her I wanted to stay in the basement instead of her room. “I was just trying to do the best thing for you,” Dadima said, addressing me and not him. “You can stay wherever you’d like in my home.”

I cleared out the boxes in the basement, scrubbed the shower and arranged the baby clothes on a shelf by myself—Dadima was teaching classes that week. But I was relieved to nest alone. When she was there, Dadima hovered over me when I walked down the stairs, and clucked her tongue in disapproval when I hung laundry to dry on the line.

*   *   *

I didn’t understand Dadima’s behavior during my first pregnancy until I was pregnant with my daughter, five years later. The revelation came when I was drinking tea with an Indian friend in her living room. The sun glared down at us through her West-facing windows while Jesse, Boman and her son played together on the tan carpet. She served my tea spiced with black pepper and my daughter kicked, perhaps tasting the flavor in her own way. Somehow my friend and I began talking about our sons’ births and it all came out—the silent battle with Dadima over where we should stay in her home. My friend burst out laughing when I told her. “Of course she didn’t want you going up and down the stairs,” she said. “In India, we don’t move at all that last month. My cousin was shocked that you were swimming in your state, but I told her that is just how you do it here.”

In the end, my daughter came out easily—all of that swimming, living in my own home, and giving birth two previous times helped my third labor proceed smoothly.

But the summer I stayed at Dadima’s house, when I was in labor with Jesse, I learned the horrible truth that so many mothers face: babies don’t always come out when they should. Instead of the homebirth I’d envisioned for Jesse, we ended up at the hospital, my husband slumped in sleep in the chair next to me. Pitocin dripped into my arm, augmenting my labor. When I cried out my husband jumped to help me. But the pain swallowed me before I could feel the comfort of his hand on my back.

Thirty-seven hours after my water broke, the doctor pulled Jesse from my body, unwrapping the cord from around his neck during the final pushes. She placed him on my chest as I requested. There are pictures of that moment, but I have no memory of it. I can only remember the emptiness—my once-hard stomach suddenly soft, the absence of Jesse’s little body inside, the deeper shock of labor that left me too tired for joy.

My first memory is seeing my husband and Jesse gazing at each other—by this time Jesse was already swaddled and quiet. Suddenly, Dadima strode in, looking younger than her sixty years, her hair jet black, skin glowing. I later learned she had sat in the waiting room all night.

I tried to protest her entrance—the doctor was still stitching between my legs.

“No one is looking at you,” Dadima said, reaching for her grandson.

At the hospital, I was the annoying patient, the one who called in the nurse at 2:00 a.m. because of a mild rash on Jesse’s chin. The nurse assured me it was nothing to worry about. I heard her chatting with another nurse outside my door afterward. “New mom,” she said. The other nurse laughed.

I couldn’t sleep that night, despite the nurse’s reassurance. Instead, I listened to Jesse breathe. He made a sound like the cooing of a dove. He never made that sound again. The second night in the hospital, he screamed. I was ready for sleep, but too terrified to let him out of my sight. When we arrived at Dadima’s house the next day, I finally fell asleep in the coolness and comfort of her familiar basement, my fingers touching the edge of Jesse’s thin cotton blanket as though the slightest connection would protect us.

When I woke, it was dark. Moonlight spilled through the window. The rest of the room was veiled in shadow. I looked into the co-sleeper next to me. My two-day-old baby was lying in a pool of black blood. I didn’t even know I could make a sound like that. It was more than a scream. The room was flooded in light—my parents and Dadima flew into the room. Dadima forced a pinch of salt under my tongue. I heard Jesse crying and suddenly I realized that what I had seen was no longer there; instead of blood in the co-sleeper, there were clean white sheets. Jesse was in my arms, crying. I was naked.

That’s when I thought I was going crazy. And deep down, I blamed Dadima.

Now I look back and wonder if the hallucination was a way of warning me that Jesse was in distress. He nursed a little bit, then slept again. I stayed awake, listening to him breathe. In the gray light of morning, he was still sleeping. I couldn’t wake him, even when I squirted creamy-gold colostrum on his full, beautiful lips. When I checked, Jesse’s diaper was dry, and it had been 12 hours since it was wet. I called the doctor, hoping for assurances, even the condescending ones of the hospital nurses. Instead, I was told to bring him in right away. I later learned that because of the massive heat wave that was sweeping the city, dehydration had been a problem for many babies.

I was one of many, but when I came to the doctor, I felt alone in my failure. Jesse was losing weight—already at the lowest he should be before he started gaining it back. I suddenly saw how sunken his dark eyes were, the pale yellow tinge of his skin, the way it didn’t spring back when pinched. The doctor recommended formula and a lactation consultant’s guidance. After failing to experience a homebirth, I didn’t want to fail at breastfeeding, too. My husband drove me to a friend’s house, a lactation consultant. My friend held Jesse under an A/C window unit until he screamed. My throat felt full listening to him wail, but this time, when he latched on I felt the tingling sensation of milk rushing to his lips. Her diagnosis was that Jesse was too hot to stay awake. Dadima’s house had no air conditioning and every time I’d nursed him there, he slept within minutes of sucking and could not get enough milk or trigger my supply to increase.

When we came back to her home, Dadima sprang into action. She called hardware stores to buy a window air conditioning unit, but all were sold out. So she started calling friends, trying to find an air-conditioned home where we could stay when the temperature climbed above 100. At last, she secured a house that belonged to a Nepali friend of hers.

In the way of many thriving communities in India, friends, nieces and nephews were constantly in and out of the house. Although I craved time alone with Jesse, it was more important that we stay in a place that was cool enough for him to learn to nurse. I tried to set myself up in a quiet bedroom at the back of the house and was poised for nursing, about to stuff my nipple into Jesse’s small mouth, when Dadima burst through the door. She was dragging one of her friend’s 20- something male nephews behind her.

“Don’t worry!” she said to me, perhaps seeing the blood that rushed to my cheeks. “He sees the neighbor nursing all the time.” I tucked my breast back into my shirt. “Come closer!” she said to the young man. “Isn’t my grandson beautiful?”

By the end of the week, Dadima had secured an air conditioner that she bought from a neighbor for double the price. But even the relief of the cool air hissing from the window unit and Jesse’s resumed excitement for nursing couldn’t make me feel better. It felt like every time Dadima gave Jesse to me, he was crying. I waited for relief from Jesse’s constant demands for milk, for my husband’s summer job to end, and for the ceaseless advice and questions from Dadima to subside. Instead, each day felt darker. The only moments I felt like myself were during my daily walks with Jesse. He snored in his carrier and I rubbed his bare feet while we drifted among the leafy elm trees near Dadima’s house. Once, when he was almost six weeks old, Jesse looked up at the elms’ green leaves as they whispered to each other. He smiled. I thought I might be happy again someday.

Dadima confronted me shortly after. She called my name, but didn’t acknowledge when I entered the kitchen from the basement stairwell. Instead, she washed dishes for a while, fluorescent lights overhead casting their jarring light into the porcelain sink. Her elbows shook when she scrubbed. I knew her fingers were cracked from the dish soap—ever since my parents left a few weeks before, she had cooked all the food and washed almost all the dishes. Each time she finished a pot, she banged it into the dish rack.

I stood behind her for a moment, Jesse sleeping in my arms. At last, she turned to face me. Her eyes were dark. “We need to talk,” she said.

When I’d tried to confront her once, she’d asked me if I wanted tea in a high voice. This time, her voice was low.

“I would never have let her hold Jesse by herself,” Dadima said.

Earlier that day, I had come upstairs to find that the same neighbors who had sold us the air conditioning unit were crowded around Jesse. Under Dadima’s supervision, it looked like the neighbors’ two-year-old daughter was preparing to hold Jesse. I had erupted and snatched Jesse from Dadima’s arms.

“How could you think that of me?” Dadima said. “I would have let her pretend, but kept Jesse in my own arms.”

“How am I supposed to know that?” I snapped. I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. I began to jiggle Jesse gently—maternal instinct or rage.

“But how could you think that of me?” she said again.

I took a deep breath, trying to calm my voice. “You don’t do what you say!” I said. “Before we came to your house this summer, you told me we could stay in your basement.” I paced across the hardwood floor. “But you cleared out your room instead. Then you said you would give us time alone with the baby. We’ve had almost none. You even promised me your nephew wouldn’t be staying here this summer. Now he is living upstairs.” Mention of him reminded me to lower my voice. But my whisper sounded harsher. “You never asked me about any of that.”

“Why would I ask you?” she sounded genuinely surprised. “I didn’t want to trouble you. I just wanted to do the best thing for you.”

*   *   *

By the time my second son, Boman, was born, I had become a different person. I had made it through sleepless nights, illnesses, ER visits, nineteen months of nursing and another labor. I had gained confidence as a mother, and loved to see Dadima play with both of her grandsons. There was a part of me that accepted the period surrounding Jesse’s birth had been a clash of hormones and culture; the emotional American’s desire for space and freedom battling the more supportive, but occasionally suffocating love of Indian family.

Still, it was when Boman was eight months old and Dadima picked me up from a minor cyst removal surgery that I began to truly understand Dadima’s perspective. As always, it was Dadima who was there to support me through the transition; she insisted on being there throughout my surgery and recovery period. She asked how I felt when I got in the car. I admitted it was worse than I expected.

Back when I had tried to impress Dadima, I had dreamed that someday she would open up to me. She would tell me stories of her past—her childhood in India, her romance with Robi, her struggles as a single mother after he died when my husband was only four. But as the years ticked by, she was silent. If I asked her about these early years, it would appear she didn’t hear me. Suddenly, on this drive home from my surgery, Dadima began to talk.

She told me about the scar on my husband’s stomach, a long horizontal line that I have run my finger over countless times. Their pediatrician had claimed my husband had pyloric stenosis. In these cases, the pyloric sphincter doesn’t close properly, so the baby vomits up any consumed milk. Dadima didn’t remember those symptoms, but she remembered how stupid the doctors made them feel. When my husband was two weeks old, the doctors promised her there would be no scar and took him for surgery. In the end, the surgeons cut him open, leaving a scar so intimidating on an adult that I can’t even imagine how it looked on a two-week old baby. The trauma of leaving a newborn in NICU was not the end of their ordeal; Dadima and Robi didn’t have the money to pay for this surgery.

In that moment, I suddenly understood why Dadima seemed so unfamiliar with newborns, why she hovered over me, wrote us generous checks, came and stayed with us during these times of transition no matter what we said. Her own postpartum experiences had been even worse than mine—she must have blocked many of the memories. But she could remember her needs. She was trying to give me everything she did not have—a loving support network, financial help, and most of all, a wise elder woman who could coddle, cook, and teach during these challenging moments.

*   *   *

This time, when I am pregnant with my daughter, we arrive at Dadima’s home to visit. Jesse and Boman run into the garden, picking blueberries from the bushes, laughing with delight. As usual, Dadima has cleared out the basement, and washed every set of sheets in the house.

I hug her, feeling a rush of love for her extraordinary generosity, for never holding a grudge against me even when she has seen my worst side.

“Thank you,” I say. “Everything looks beautiful.” I don’t respond to her unspoken offer of her room. She knows I will choose the basement. My sons know, too. They come in from the gardens, and Jesse, now four, opens the door to the basement stairway.

Dadima tells my husband to carry the bags; she wants to make sure my hands are free so I can hold onto the rail.

“Watch out for the spiders!” she says from the top of the stairwell. I look up to Dadima, and even from the basement I can see the laughter in her eyes, and in the background is the faint hissing sound of water boiling for tea.

Author’s Note: When I found out this piece had been accepted, I sent it to Dadima to see if she felt comfortable. She was incredibly supportive, and it brought us even closer together. It helped us talk even more openly about the cultural issues we still have. As for my daughter, she is now a joyful, walking ten-month-old, and while I am enjoying her babyhood, I look forward to the day when I can share this story with her.

Mary Anne Williams is a recent graduate of Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. She lives with her husband and three young children in the Bay Area and writes about intercultural relationships and family.

Art by Elizabeth Rosen

 

Just Between Friends

Just Between Friends

By L. Bo Roth

justbetweenfriendsThe noisy school gymnasium held dozens of women in their underwear, kicking boxes around with their feet. “Welcome to the Endless Knot Warehouse Sale” read a sign over the door. In the dim light, it took me a minute to adjust. Lining the periphery of the room were rows of clothing racks—roughly organized by color—filled with long dresses in rayon and silk, big blowsy caftan tops, and flowing pants in bright prints.

The empty cardboard boxes in the center of the gym, I gathered, were used to push around the floor to collect all the discounted clothes you wanted to buy. People were in this for the volume, clearly. Prices were slashed, and deals were to be had all for the price of ridding yourself of a little vanity while you stripped in front of three dozen women you’d never met, shoving them aside for some face time in one of the mirrors.

I’d just left my dance class and was still sweaty, but this didn’t seem to deter anyone else—at least not the folks from my class who waved me in from across the room. “Come on, there’s great stuff here!” they yelled. It was a bit of a stretch to think of summer caftans with winter rain pelting down, but I gave it a go. I’d just lost 50 pounds and had very few summer clothes that fit. After a bit of digging, I had three shirts in my hand and was heading to the back when I heard a familiar voice.

“Laurieeee!” she yelled.

I looked. I stared. I had absolutely no idea who she was.

“Laurie. It’s me. Greta!

Oh. My. God. “Greta? Is it you? I…didn’t recognize you!”

And I didn’t. The woman standing there bore so little resemblance to my old friend that I stood there, stupified.

“Well, that’s because I’m so fat!” she said with her hearty and familiar chuckle. She spat the word and it cracked like a whip.

It stung.

Greta, whom I hadn’t laid eyes on in years, was almost twice her previous size, which was never small to begin with. Greta, who’d made my kids dozens of macaroni and cheese “cocktails,” who’d giggled with me through endless Weight Watchers meetings, and snuck me out early so we could power-walk the lake, this same Greta was now zaftig. She looked like a completely different person.

I was at a loss for words, which is saying something. If we were still close, I might joke, “Hey baby, you’ve taken another step towards Goddess-hood!” But what I really would have said in the old days was more along the lines of, “You? How about me? I’m over the top!

Except that I wasn’t. And I didn’t know her that well anymore. She was huge and I wasn’t. Not anymore.

I spoke carefully. “That’s not it,” I said, with what I hoped sounded like surprise. “It’s your hair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with long hair.” True fact. She always had what her husband once lamely called “butch hair” (boy, that was a memorable dinner party) and now it was shoulder length and straight. She looked incredibly tired and kind of washed out.

“But look at you!” she shouted, smiling. “You’re so skinny! Tell me. How’d you do it?”

I had met Greta ten years ago, back when we joined a playgroup for moms of toddlers. These were also, as it happened, the Weight Watchers years for both of us, when she was the one who lost 50 pounds (and I, instead, got pregnant). Days when she invited me over for fabulous lunches of soup and grilled eggplant sandwiches with goat cheese. (“And only four points! Do I rock or what?”) while our kids chased each other around the backyard. Years of last minute dinner-parties, always at her house, always with plenty of wine and where our gang of toddlers were easily lured to the upstairs playroom with endless refills of fish crackers and juice. She was the Martha Stewart of our tribe: crafty, helpful, a wizard with handmade gifts and fabulous baked goods at a time when some of us—okay, me—struggled to put out generic cheddar and saltines for playgroup.

Once I came to her house the night before Halloween, frantic beyond measure—me, anxious, gulping tea—while she calmly sewed my daughter a costume. She decorated sugar cubes for my baby shower with petal-pink flowers of liquid candy. She made chocolate-covered strawberries for playgroup, and often greeted me at the door with a pan of hot homemade scones when I was having a bad mom day.

When my second-born died from complications of heart surgery, the whole world sent me nice condolence cards and offered to help, but Greta showed up on my porch with a wooden box she’d painted red and decorated with gold stars and charms of baby booties and angels. “For memories,” she said. “It’s a memory box to put things in.” She brought scones, then, too.

People said they wanted to help, but it was Greta who came over with food, or walked me around the lake, who took care of things when grief overwhelmed me. And when I finally, after several miscarriages, got pregnant again and was about to give birth, she came along as labor nanny, playing card games in the birthing room with my eldest daughter, and then took what seemed like hundreds of hideous crotch shots as my son’s giant head came out, went back in and out and in again in an endless drama of childbirth hokey pokey. At 3:30 a.m., she picked up my sleeping daughter and held her up like a rag doll. “Your brother is about to be born! Watch, watch!”

I’d say we were close.

But seven years later, that baby boy is eight and I hardly know Greta anymore. I have this jumble of things I still know about her. Things that I don’t really know what to do with. Things that hang in the air when we meet like this, unexpectedly. That her husband drinks too much. That her daughter is mean. That her mother is meaner and finally died a few years ago. That she remodeled their house into a palace I’ve never seen. That she loves red wine and heavy dark beer, that she can cook anything without a recipe, and can throw a dinner party at a moment’s notice, with food it would take me a week and three cookbooks to plan.

Remembering the good times comes easily, like the summer day she made ginger carrot soup and we slurped it up on the wide concrete stairs of her front porch. When we laughed till we cried when her daughter cut her own hair with dull scissors, making her look like a tiny Edward Scissorhands. And Greta, frantic on that stoop when that same toddler decided to dump scouring powder in the VCR and put broken glass in her sister’s bed, all in the same afternoon. (Like I said, that girl was a challenging one.)

For the years we were in playgroup together, I hugged her children, and wiped their snotty noses without a second thought. I held her hand when her husband was cruel, I told her she looked beautiful in red because it was true, and praised her cooking like it was manna from heaven. We traded clothes and made each other laugh with snarky jokes only mothers of toddlers could appreciate, and she made me believe I was entirely fun. I offered pep talks and silly laughter over late afternoon beers if that was called for. And I told her, whenever you need me, just call.

But she stopped calling. I can’t pinpoint the exact day and time Greta began to pull away, but pull away she did.

Maybe it’s human nature to deny the truth, or maybe I was just determined to keep my friend, but it’s tricky to read the signs what with chasing toddlers, or running to the store for more of those orange fish crackers our children survived on. Each time she put me off, I told myself she was just busier than usual, or that maybe her phone machine was on the blink, since mine had recently gasped its last. On the other hand, on the hand I refused to look at, I’d lost most of friends after my baby’s death—my grief was too much for them, or maybe their fear was too much, they admitted six months (or two years) later—but Greta was one of the loyal holdouts; she stepped up when so many others dealt with it by avoiding me altogether.

I loved her. I couldn’t imagine losing her.

But still, she turned away. I invited her to my son’s first birthday party—a simple afternoon on a picnic blanket under the lilacs—but despite my pleading, she begged off. Not long after, she agreed to take a walk with me, when I asked point blank, what was going on. “Can you tell me what’s wrong? Did I do or say something?” She looked away and avoided my eyes. “I’m fine,” she said, picking up the pace. “We’re fine. I just don’t like to talk about all that emotional stuff like you do, okay? Can we just leave it?”

And so for a while, I left it. I let her set the rules and tried to follow them, sweating it out to stay fun because, after all, Greta was one of the few who knew where I’d been and the road I’d traveled. She knew what was hard, and she knew why. Even if she wouldn’t talk about it.

So I stopped calling so often. First I’d let a week or two go by. Then a month. I stopped by her house once to give back a dish, and she stood there at the door, lovely as ever, but never invited me in. (Back in the day, I’d let myself in and flop on the couch.) I could smell stew cooking on the stove, bread baking in the oven, and the smell was heavenly, and I told her so. She dismissed it with a wave of her hand as ‘just dinner,’ but we both knew company was coming and I was no longer on the guest list.

The second time this happened I decided stopping by wasn’t such a good idea, and moved on to emails, each one shorter and sweeter, each one ending with an invitation. “Lunch sometime?”

I’d say. “A quick walk around the lake? I’d love to see you.”

In some ways, losing a friend is harder than bearing a death, because when someone you love dies, they’re not down the street cooking dinner for someone else, or shopping in your local supermarket, or laughing with their new friends as they walk the lake, just like you used to do.

Somehow, years went by. It seems inconceivable, now, that I could move on without this friend whom I’d leaned on through the hardest days of motherhood, whom I’d laughed with, changed diapers with, traded horror stories with, cried with. I moved on because I had to, because I had no choice.

She just wasn’t that into me. And she wouldn’t tell me why.

Eventually, I fell into a pattern of checking in with Greta about once a year just for old times’ sake. I’d write and tell her I missed her, because it was true. I’d tell her something funny, tell her I thought I saw her car at the co-op the other day, does it still have that dent in the back left fender? And how are you these days?

And yet here she was, years later, in the flesh at the mobbed mumu sale, miles from home even though we only live a few blocks from each other, asking me—with a big friendly smile—how I’d managed to lose weight. Her face was smiling, open, receptive, like she really wanted to know. As though all that time hadn’t passed at all.

The irony was not lost on me. Yes, we’d spent years sharing the most difficult challenges of mothering, but then we spent more years where she never once picked up the phone. And here she was, out of the blue, wanting my secret to weight loss success. Waiting for my answer.

“Um….Atkins?” I stammered. “You know, very low carb. Lots of broccoli. No sugar and no alcohol, can you believe it?” (Wine had, after all, been our secret sauce for surviving toddlers.)

We gamely updated each other on our kids and their stats, but it felt perfunctory. The hole of those years felt too big, like it could swallow me in one gulp. Because in all those years, as the rhythm of a life filled with her laughter and Martha Stewart moments faded, I’d been forced to find my own rhythm. I had learned to live without those dinner parties and giggly afternoons; I had to find new people and discover what I really wanted to do with what little free time exists for mothers of small needy children.

For whatever reason, I was no longer worthy of Greta’s free time. And while it took me far too long to accept it, I realized, standing there with my old friend I hardly recognized, that despite all these years of missing her big heart and her laughter, maybe she was no longer worthy of mine.

We stood there chatting, me feeling a little awkward about my weight loss success, she with a couple of caftans in hand, while bright tropical shirts flew over our heads and frantic women kicked their boxes and said, “Do you mind?” to get us out of the way.

And we ran out of things to say.

We looked at our watches, and I realized I felt trapped standing there with my three little shirts. Greta had a full box at her feet, more shopping to do, and I suddenly needed to go outside in the pounding rain just to breathe. I asked her to call me sometime, as I always do. We both knew she wouldn’t.

Reading this now, it’s tempting to drum up patchwork answers. Some- thing that would give reason or neatly explain how someone who stood by you through the best and worst days of motherhood could walk away with barely a word. But now I’ve got another way of looking at it.

Maybe motherhood and friendship is like a big, 2,000-word jigsaw puzzle. There’s a picture there, a beautiful one, and together you work on it, piece by piece, bending over the table, celebrating each time you find a match, a piece that deliciously clicks into place, the big picture growing more clear. But in our case, maybe Greta and I got to the end of that beautiful picture and a key piece was missing. There’s nothing much to do then, but take a photo before you crumble it up and put it away. And be glad for the time spent, the memories of muddling through, happy for the pieces you shared.

Author’s Note:  I wrote this piece eight years ago, but, thanks to Facebook, I found out Greta was divorcing her husband, selling her lovely house, and moving across the country. One night before she left, I took a deep breath, grabbed my husband and knocked on her door to say goodbye. She greeted us with a huge surprised smile, poured us a glass of wine, and caught us up on the last ten years—at least the high points. We didn’t bring up what happened but we did laugh a lot. It felt a bit like old times. And despite everything, it was pretty great.

L. Bo Roth is a Seattle writer, editorial consultant, and pitch coach. This is her second piece for Brain, Child.

Art: Oliver Weiss

Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

By Dawn Davies

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 5.04.33 PMStay up late on a Sunday night reading a book about a woman in medical school because you have gotten it in your mind that you, too, want to go to medical school. Not now, of course, but someday, when the kids are older.

Read long past the time when you should be asleep, until your eyes drip tears of exhaustion. Your husband is out of town on business, and you have allowed all three children to sleep in your bed, though you fear that, like feeding a begging dog from the table, you are creating a habit that will be impossible to break. Program ‘911’ into the instant dial function of your portable phone and nestle it next to your ribs in case someone breaks in and you have time to hit only one number.

Go to sleep and dream about vampires. Wake up ten minutes later to the sound of crying. It is the baby: let him nurse you dry. Notice the deflated shape your breast takes as it lies across the mattress. Go back to sleep. Wake up again to the sound of crying in the distance and locate only two of your children, sleeping curled and stiff, like the victims of Pompeii. Break the suction and peel the baby off your boob, then get up. Kick the Labrador off the bed, call him a nasty name, and then trip over him in the dark as you follow the sound to the children’s bedroom.

The smell of urine surrounds you. In the corner, the three-year-old is sitting on the wood floor in a swath of streetlight, marinating in a pool of pee, her footie pajamas half off, yet twisted and inside out enough to render her as helpless as if she wore a fuzzy, size 4T straightjacket. Note the eviscerated night diaper oozing from under her buttocks.

Change the child. Sop up the pee on the floor with your husband’s favorite bath towel. Pray that the child was not sufficiently stimulated to be interested in truly waking up. When she rubs her eyes, lay her gently in her own bed. Do not speak. When she falls asleep, return to your own bed because the baby is in it and he could roll over onto the floor. When the child hollers out, “I can’t sleep,” play quietly with her in her room. Crawl into her bed with her. She is warm and round and soft and trying to wheedle a story out of you. She calls you “Beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” and her dimpled baby hands explore your face sweetly, so you read to her until your words begin to come out garbled and you wake up from the sound of your own snoring amplified inside the Little Golden Book covering your face. The child is gone. You hear her in your bedroom shaking her tambourine and shouting the same, “Stick out my wiener!” she heard the next-door neighbor’s six-year-old future predator calling out of his upstairs window the day before. Note: it is 5:37 a.m.

Bring your hands up like an orchestra conductor and cue in the baby’s cries. Unzip the five-year-old’s pink Dr. Dentons and tell her to go use the potty. Outside, it is still dark, but you know that when the sun comes up, it will not be satisfying because the godforsaken Northeast, where you live, is exhibiting a record streak of cold rain, so bone chilling and wet that the sight of the sun, even for fifteen minutes, would make you weep for joy. You have not seen it in weeks and everything around you looks grey, including your own skin. At 6:15 a.m., take the children downstairs for breakfast because, even though you are exhausted, the onus is on you. It is always on you.

Let the dog out the back door. Put four frozen waffles into the toaster and make a 13-cup pot of coffee. Add sliced bananas to the children’s plates so you can at least say you offered them fresh fruit. Let the baby transfer all of the food in the dog’s bowl to its water dish, because he is happy doing it and, for three minutes, not hanging off your kneecaps. Drink your coffee. Drink it. The children pull all of their toys out of the toy box and scatter them around the house. Your resources are low and you do not know what to do with this day. Even though your husband has a burgeoning career at a newspaper, and you own a starter house, you are broke, nearly as broke as you were in your student days, when you worried about gas, and groceries, and paying the utility bills, only back then you could get a second job or sell some marrow in a real emergency, and now you are tethered to three other people who will die if you don’t feed them, and whom you can’t leave alone for five minutes.

Decide to take them to church because the day before the five-year-old asked, “What is church?” and because church is free. Remember the few times in your single days when you attended a local Unitarian church which offered a loose Pagan ceremony culminating in a barefoot group dance down the aisles with percussion instruments and pan pipes, and sexy, lean, bearded vegan men who scoffed at the Establishment. Look up “Churches” in the Yellow Pages and decide on a Methodist one a few miles away. Without yelling at the children or the dog, whom you find eating the crotch out of your only pair of stockings, get everyone dressed for the icy rainstorm that is predicted to last all day, choosing leggings, velour jumpers, and tight turtlenecks stretched down and popped over their enormous heads, making their hair collect static-like plasma balls.

Think of the ‘A’ you got in inorganic chemistry the semester before you met your husband in college. Think of the noble gasses, of neon filling thin, rounded glass tubes shaped into seedy, blinking signs in the window of a bar, a bar that serves whiskey—which you would like to drink—and of argon, and a gallon jug imploding when the oxygen is sucked out of it. Think of small amounts of krypton in a flash bulb, and of everything you know going up in a mushroom of white. While you get dressed, the girls rub their socks into the area rug and shock the baby with the tips of their fingers, making him laugh and cry at the same time.

Stuff their arms into their coats, fishing at the end of the sleeves for fingers to pull through to the other side. Think about rolling a condom onto a limp nob. Notice how, in their winter clothes, your children look like blood-stuffed ticks. They complain, like they always do when wearing coats, about being too hot. Ignore this and pack them into the nine-year-old wreck of a Saab and wonder if your husband is up yet and reading the paper in a quiet, clean hotel room on the other side of the country.

Find the church and park in the only spot left in the parking lot, which in the sleet looks impossibly far away from the church door. Carry the two younger children, who are now crying because the freezing rain is whipping them in the face, dragging the hem of your long, wool skirt in icy, slushy mud puddles as you go. The five-year-old, who must walk by herself, trails behind, stomping her boots into dirty potholes out of spite.

The service is pleasant and easy to endure. The choir sings hopeful songs about God’s love out into the clean, warm space, and neat, controlled people occasionally look at you and smile. Do not see one toy truck or Barbie littering the carpeted aisle and there is a faint smell of Lemon Pledge and old-fashioned perfume, the kind that would be found in matron ladies’ bosoms. All of this makes you want to go home and clean your own house. It makes you want to start over. It makes you want to confess something wildly, something that will make you feel better, something that will wipe your slate clean, although you know the Methodists do not practice confession.

When the service ends, wander down to the coffee hour in the basement. Look around for people who don’t have that glazed, New Testamentesque appearance, and absentmindedly switch the baby to your other hip to fill out a visitor’s card. Drink coffee. Notice that the L.L. Bean denim jumper/hunter green turtleneck ratio is high, too high for your comfort, perhaps nearing 70 percent. Get cornered by a woman in one such jumper whom you fear is a designated ‘greeter’ after she immediately begins asking you questions about yourself. Put your guard up. Lie when possible, especially when projecting the idea that you have your shit together, and that everything you do you are choosing to do. Nod when she mentions Sunday School and mothers’ groups, knowing you will not join these things.

Corral the children and force them out of the church, which they now don’t want them into their car seats. Insert the key into the wretched Saab, and for good measure, since you are in the church parking lot, pray that the car will start. Turn the key and accept the dull ‘click’ that follows to be punishment for teasing that soft kid, Jeffery, in fifth grade. Think about Karma, think about Jesus, think about the Holy Spirit coming down and filling you up like sunshine fills an empty room, renewing your mind like the minister preached during church. Squint your eyes. Try to make it happen. Feel nothing. Realize you don’t know how to pray.

Pop the hood and get out. Suck on the rain dripping off of your lips and stare into the engine as if you know what you are looking for. Jiggle the battery connectors and see a spark. Hear the children whining from inside the car and note the love of Christ the parishioners exhibit when they drive by you, blank and faceless. Mutter, “What the cuss frigging fudge muckers!” at them for not stopping to help, and marvel at this particular combination of almost-curses you have vowed to use ever since the five-year-old has asked you to stop being so foul.

Turn the key again. Sense a slight difference in the way the car doesn’t start and feel a surge of hope. Get in and out of the car eight more times, jiggling the battery cables and listening to the car almost start before it finally does, yelling, “Bite me,” into the open air only twice. Drive away in pouring, freezing rain, blasting whatever you can on the radio, which is Hootie and the Blowfish, to drown out the sound of the baby’s shrieking and the animated discourse between the three-year-old and the five-year-old in the back seat.

By the time you pull into the driveway, the baby is sleeping so hard he looks drugged. Bend over to scrutinize the depth of his unconsciousness and lift one of his lids to see if his eyes are rolled up—a sure sign that he is sleeping deeply. Take the two older children inside, intending to leave the baby asleep for the four more minutes it will take for him to be sleeping deeply enough for you to carry him inside without waking him, because you really need him to take a nap and get out of your life for thirty minutes. That’s all you are asking.

Check the answering machine for messages. There are none. In the dining room, while watching the car out of the window overlooking the driveway, read stories to your other children until your eyes start involuntarily tearing and closing. Lie down on the floor and suggest they play “Doctor Heals,” with you as the comatose patient. Lie like a corpse and drift in and out of sleep for perhaps four minutes while your children drop feathers, to which you are allergic, onto your face. Feel a nice, tickling sensation on your fingers.

Wake up to discover they have colored all of your knuckle joints with the indelible black magic marker you told them never to touch. Both girls are sitting on top of the kitchen counter eating a plate of cookies. There is a spilled bottle of delicious looking, ruby red antibiotic pills next to the five-year-old’s thigh, the ones you were prescribed for your quarterly sinus infection. Ask her if she opened them. When she says no, grab her shoulders and shake her, asking this time through clenched teeth if she ate any of them. When she says no again, multiply the number of pills you take per day (three) by the number of days you have been taking the pills (three) and subtract the total from the total number of pills that should be in the container (ten days’ worth). Thanking the God you just went to visit, find 21 pills on the counter. When your child asks to eat one, shout, “NO!” then hug her hard. Wonder how many milligrams of amoxicillin it would take to kill a thirty-four pound-person. Imagine yourself sweeping the crayons and paper and glitter off the dining table and laying your five-year-old across it, performing a gastric lavage with supplies you happen to have lying around the house, then see yourself walking in slow motion, down a hospital corridor in a white coat and stethoscope, your hair flowing perfectly behind you, forgetting the now-closed bottle of pretty drugs next to the candy fiend that is your child.

Suddenly jump up from the table and run outside. Find the baby shrieking in the car seat inside the nearly sound-proof Saab. Bring him out. Ignore your neighbor, the tire-shaped, middle-aged gossip, who is looking at you through narrowed eyes, and imagine how far this story will make it around the block by the time lunch is over. Go inside and nurse the baby, tuning out your other children for as long as you can, which is less than a minute, since one of them is jumping up and down on your feet and legs and the other is trying to ride the dog. Think about Sophie’s Choice and imagine, if you had to for survival only, worst-case scenario only of course, which of your children you would give away if you were forced to in order to save yourself and the other children. Weigh the pros and cons logically. Scare yourself with your own thoughts.

When the baby wakes up enough to put him down without him bucking and screaming and flailing, the phone rings. Lunge for it viciously, hoping it might be your husband. It is a lady from the Methodist church calling because you filled out the visitor’s card an hour and ten minutes earlier. It’s part of their ministry, she says, to reach out to newcomers. Leave the room to take the call, because you are considering pouring your heart out to the strange lady on the phone. Imagine her soft, grandmotherly bosom smelling of perfume. Imagine pressing your head against it and sobbing. Imagine the kind of hugs you could receive from these partridge-shaped church ladies. Remember standing outside of the church with the hood of your car up while all of these ladies and their husbands drove past you in the rain. When shrieks ring out from the living room, hang up the phone and rush back into it in time to witness your three-year-old flat on the floor, with the baby on top of her in a wrestling hold, trying to gouge out her eyes. Tell the five-year-old, who is climbing up the armchair to knock it off and to “stand up and just sit there.” Separate the fighting children and smack the dog who has jumped into what must have looked like a fun foray.

Calm down. Suggest to the three-year-old that the dog might like to play while you change the baby’s diaper on the couch. Watch her roll the dog onto his back for a belly rub then jump onto its extended leg, self-performing the Heimlich maneuver. When she vomits up several bites of cookie and one bite of cranberry bread and starts crying, jump up, and with one foot on the baby to keep him from rolling off the couch, reach for the three-year-old. When the baby starts crying, ask the five-year-old to hold him, and when she says, “No!” holler at her, making her cry, too. Don’t care when the dog immediately begins eating the vomit from the floor, as he is doing you a favor and you now do not have to clean it up. You must go somewhere where there are other people, you think, because you are so lonely you could scream, and besides you want to shake someone and this frightens you. Call your mother. Listen to the phone ring empty on the other side of the line. Call your husband’s hotel and leave a message. Take more Tylenol. Drink coffee.

Feed them grilled cheese sandwiches. Give the crusts to the dog, who has become an expert beggar since the children were born. Think about slipping under the table for a quick nap while they eat.

After lunch, stuff them back into their coats and boots and drive to the mall, cruising a few extra minutes around the mall parking lot until all three children are so deeply asleep that they could be hung from their heels and not awaken. Envy them. Park the car and decide to rest your eyes for a few minutes. Tilt back your seat and rest, feeling a deep fatigue behind your eyes, hoping that you will not fall asleep with your jaw gaping open to the point where you and your family resemble a Mafia hit to passers-by. Fall deeply asleep. Wake up to utter darkness with dried spittle crusted on your chin. Freak out, shouting, “Jesus Christ!” until you realize it is the middle of winter and only 4:30 p.m., 30 minutes after you fell asleep. Stare at two worried mall cops slowly circling the Saab with flashlights.

Drag the children into the mall and walk around. Thank whatever God you hope might exist for their public behavior, which for a change is orderly, calm, and obedient. Stop in the food court to buy them a giant muffin the size of a cauliflower with your last ten dollars. When your three-year-old starts hopping up and down and grabbing her crotch, yelling, “I have to do a dinky!” stuff the muffin into the diaper bag, then herd the children to the bathroom. Beg the three-year-old not to touch anything except the toilet paper and her own pants. Put the baby down and help the three-year-old onto the toilet, then go back out and unzip the five-year-old’s sticky zipper, and guide her into a stall. Stand near them so they won’t be abducted, until you notice the baby toddling out of another stall with festoons of toilet paper streaming from his mouth. Grab the baby and remove from his mouth a gray mass of wet paper molded into the shape of his hard palate. Hope that it came from the roll in the dispenser and not from the toilet.

Grabbing the baby, race back to the three-year-old, who is now shouting, “Mommy, close the door. Strangers can see my ganina!” Hold the three-year-old’s door shut while the baby bucks and kicks and flails in your arms, and the fiveyear-old initiates a display of linguistic skill by saying, “It’s not ju-nina, stupid, it’s bu-gina.” Don’t dare put the baby down because he might fling himself back onto the filthy bathroom floor and crack his head against the tile, possibly rupturing one of those fragile arteries that could cause a hemorrhage in his brain—you read about them last night in the book about the woman who went to medical school and now, for as long as your children are your responsibility, these arteries will forever worry you. Impress yourself by discussing in depth the types of bacteria that might be found in a public restroom with the five-year-old who asks questions about germs.

When the three-year-old, out of the blue, asks to get her ears pierced, look at your watch. Sigh. When she says it will help her look more like you, exhibit poor judgment and say yes, because this is the child who calls you “beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” the child who knows how to use a gentle touch to get exactly what she wants from you. Walk to the piercing place quickly, lugging the bucking, screaming baby, as the five-year-old attempts a precise depiction of how much and how little it will hurt. At the piercing place, ask the three-year-old if she is sure and when she says yes again, whip out the credit card you only use for emergencies, then help her pick out a pair of heart earrings. Watch carefully with her as a slightly older child gets her ears pierced without crying.

Let a young sales clerk hold the baby. Sit in the piercing chair with the three-year-old on your lap as she looks around brightly, yet shyly. Love her to death. Feel like her betrayer when, after the piercing girl stabs her simultaneously in both ears, the three-year-old starts shrieking and does not stop. When the baby, never one to miss out on anything, howls along in concert with his sister, kneel on the floor of the piercing place and rock them. Yell, “No!” when the five-year-old asks you to buy her a fur-covered diary. Look at the three-year-old’s ears and notice that the earrings are wildly askew, and that that the piercing girl has completely botched the job. Get angry. Demand a refund, and although you are not ordinarily a nasty person, smirk when they tell you to come back for a free re-do when the holes have closed up. Tell them if they ever see you again it will be in court. Drag your screaming three-year-old and the rest of them three hundred yards through and out of the mall to where you parked the wretched rust-heap of a Saab. Feel the same small stab of disappointment you usually feel when you see it hasn’t been stolen. Buckle everybody in. Straighten up to get out of the car and hang yourself on the clean shirt hook. Ask the three-year-old to unhook you.

When you try to start the car 20 times and the engine doesn’t turn over, yell, “Fuck!” as loudly as you can. The sound of it echoes in the air and the five-year-old starts crying. Unbuckle everybody. Pick up 56 pounds of wretched children and carry them a hundred yards back into the mall to a pay phone. Call the AAA that your parents gave you for Christmas last year—a subtle hint that they do not think your husband is a good provider, with your finger plugging your other ear to block out the sound of the five-year-old who is still weeping, clearly trying to recuperate from your profanity. Wait for a tow truck while the mall shops close around you. Your three-year-old, recovered from the piercing ordeal, flounces about asking strangers, “Do you like my new earrings? I used to be a girl without earrings, but now I am a girl with earrings. My mommy made me get them,” then quietly, “It really hurt,” and the baby eats a third of a jumbo pack of sugarless gum and its foil wrapper.

Stand outside under an awning while the rain spits around you. Spot a tow truck trolling around the parking lot and run through dark puddles of slushy water as you chase it down. The tow-truck guy jumpstarts the car in the two minutes it takes you to buckle everyone back into their seats. Snort when he warns you to not stop anywhere else on your way home. Dig the leftover muffin out of the diaper bag and hand chunks of it to the children. A sense of frantic futility fills you as you drive down the highway, and you glance back at the five-year-old tracing raindrops on the window, the three-year-old, her crooked earrings in her beet-red ears, sucking her thumb, and the baby burping mint. They sit silently, slumped and broken-looking in their car seats, and it is here where your own tears unleash like rain from the clouds in your sky that have been living over you for months, for—truth be told—who knows how long. Cry hard as you drive down the highway. Imagine, on impulse, taking this highway south instead of north, and driving to a place filled with bright light and warmth and sunshine. Imagine pulling over, releasing your children into a field of flowers, where they happily chase butterflies into the distance, getting smaller, smaller until they are gone. Then imagine getting back into the Saab and following the road to a bridge suspended over a rushing river, and speeding up as you drive over the rail of the bridge, straight into the warm, blue water. Hate yourself. Hate everything about who you’ve become and what you are destined for and how much everybody needs you all the time, and as you pull into your dark, icy driveway, realize this: you will never go to medical school. Carry your sleeping children, one at a time, into the house, putting them straight to bed in their clothes. Kiss their sticky mouths and filthy cheeks and whisper, please forgive me, I promise to do better tomorrow. Feel like a crappy mother and wonder what kind of a doctor you would have made if you can’t even manage three healthy children through one long Sunday.

Check the answering machine. There are no messages. Wake up to check the locks on the doors and bring the portable phone into bed, making sure 911 is programmed into the instant dial function. Fall back to sleep to the sickening sound of the cat licking itself at the foot of the bed and dream of fat, milk-white lizards crawling through the round letters of the alphabet.

Author’s Note: It took me 14 years to write this piece. I would start it then stop, telling myself that no one would want to read anything in second person. But I needed the second person for two reasons: first, I was trying to capture how overwhelming it felt to have three really young children, and writing out the minutiae gave some sort of tribute to what mothers go through every day. More important, I needed the distance of second person, because every time I wrote “you,” I didn’t have to write “I.” I was depressed for a time after the birth of two of my kids, and I didn’t give it a voice for several years, because I was ashamed of it. I no longer am. Being able to see humor is what gets me through hard times, and I’d like to think this piece gives a voice to that as well.

Dawn S. Davies is an MFA candidate at Florida International University and the fiction editor of Gulf Stream Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Styx, Ninth Letter, Saw Palm, Cease, Cows, Fourth Genre and others. She can be reached at www.dawnsdavies.com.

Artwork by Katie M. Berggren

My Daughter at the Blue Venus

My Daughter at the Blue Venus

By P.L. Lowe

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 12.03.52 PMMy daughter is a stripper.

From the first minute I knew of her existence, on some preconscious level, when her microscopic sub-cells were still climbing out of the primordial slime of my uterus, dividing, expanding exponentially, I was aware of this incomprehensible joy that seemed to stand on its own, a separate entity apart from both me and this inch-long creature.

I wanted to climb into my own womb like a lover and protect her from pain. I wanted to fight dragons and turn chaos into cosmos. The birth itself was fast. I had the urge to push in the car, so she came in a rush of panting and blank forms to fill out. Too late! Straight from the delivery room. No doctor. Never mind. He arrived in time to stitch me up. Fond memories. I nursed her on the delivery table vowing death to all tyrants who might threaten her happiness.

She tells me ten minutes before I go into a classroom of seventy students to give an hour and a half lecture on the Mannerist artists of the sixteenth century. Enrolled in the college I teach in, she is waiting, as she often is, sitting on the worn carpet outside the door of my office. Most days we go in and she chats about life while I organize my thoughts for the coming lecture. But today she sits down and right away says I have something hard to tell you. My brain immediately pulls up the file of Probable Fates to be Suffered by My Teenage Daughter: 1) you’re pregnant; 2) you were pregnant, but have had an abortion; 3) you have some weird disease, sexually transmitted of course, that the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta wants to study using you as a victim/guinea pig; 4) you have joined a South American cult but they only sacrifice virgins so that you have been spared thank God. I see now (foolishly) that my files have not been updated lately, so this particular fate, the fate of being a stripper, has not yet been added, has snuck up on me unprepared, was never considered. She says her stage name is Jubilee.

We took her home nameless because her father looked at every name on my list as too foreign, too pretentious, too reminiscent of past loves. Only after we received a letter from the state Social Security Office threatening some bureaucratic disaster that would surely befall us if we did not immediately name the afore born child, did we agree on a name.

For the first year of life, my girl child lay peacefully wherever she was put: in her crib, on a blanket in the middle of the floor, on the wooden pew at church, a fact that made her cry when I told her sixteen years later. On her first birthday, she decided she had enough inertia to last a lifetime. She crawled out the door and down the street, to be rescued by a neighbor who looked with complete derision at my inability to keep track of a one-year-old child. When she discovered my make-up drawer she began her serious study of art, making fingerpaints from Clinique eye shadow.

By age two she had decided to study medicine, at least the medicine cabinet, wearing my diaphragm on her head because she had heard a British friend call it a Dutch cap thingy. By three she had organized the neighborhood into quadrants geographically according to the quality of snacks available at each house. At four she began ballet lessons, only to discover on the eve of her debut as a dancer that she did indeed have some talent but invariably turned into a still life in front of an audience. She started first grade full of quiet hubris and practically every teacher after that tells me with knowing nods that she is the Most Creative Child they have ever taught. Their smiles, as they tell me this, reveal a satisfaction that only comes with great discoveries, such as the Holy Grail, Albert Switzer, Queen Elizabeth’s Dutch cap thingy.

We look at each other. I wonder if I have time to cry and still be ready to teach. She speaks first, telling me she is dancing at the Blue Venus. My mind busily conjures up images of Venuses. Titian’s Venus of Urbino: too modest; Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus with Cupid coyly fondling his mother’s breast: too Freudian; Botticelli’s Birth of Venus: yes, rather ephemeral, not even erotic really. Okay. We are on safe ground; we can deal with this. The fact that my daughter looks nothing like Botticelli’s Venus, has cropped pink hair even, has little to do with my relief. She laughs and tells me she is finally losing her fear of dancing.

In middle school she wore a long, black trench coat and read Bukowski. She wrote poetry of such incredible machabaeorum that, Mrs. Verble, her English teacher, sent her to the guidance counselor in order to share responsibility should the strange student decide one day to slit her wrists while conjugating verbs. The guidance counselor (who considered herself in possession of a broad sense of humor as well as a practical knowledge of the pubescent psyche) declared the poetry brilliant but said the trench coat sadly must go as it was frightening the band students.

I look at my daughter in her baggy tee shirt and jeans, remembering the ambivalence her developing body stirred in me over the years. Watching it grow from a pink wrinkled prune at birth into that adolescent vessel, virginal, full of tender erotic beauty unfettered by guilt. At times I could hardly bear to look at her. At times I almost hated her for all that freedom and sensuous energy.

By high school she had exhausted the usefulness of grunge and Beat Poets. She instead became the Student of Fine Upstanding Character. She had the survival instincts of a presidential candidate and was able to act as the moral barometer of the whole freshman class without causing anyone of lesser morals to feel, well, lesser. In her sophomore year she birthed a literary magazine, raising funds by organizing nights of poetry reading and music. If sophomores voted, she would have been voted Most Likely To Do Whatever The Hell She Wanted.

I take a deep breath and ask why. She fiddles with her hair and says she is tired of part-time, minimum wage jobs that require the intellectual capacity of a mentally challenged baboon. She says she has an obligation to strike a blow for Third Wave Feminism. She says she is morally responsible to use her sexuality as a weapon against the property owning capitalist powers that would subdue the proletariat. She says this is something she has to do—to feel in control. She says she doesn’t know why.

In her senior year of high school she discovered Franz, a disgruntled intellectual who had barely begun to shave, but had read more German philosophy than was good for him. He smoked pot that he stole from his father’s secret stash while his father was in court busily defending the rights of juvenile delinquents. Franz was the first addictive substance for the Student of Fine Upstanding Character. It was the beginning of her life as a vortex, like a toilet flushing endlessly, always down. Weeks would go by when she would snarl at anything that challenged her hold on reality. Then suddenly the vortex would reverse, swirling upward, as if she had traversed half the globe in search of Truth. Then there would be whole months when she seemed almost normal; we would talk and laugh and I would think my daughter had returned for good.

I have five minutes now before class begins. She tells me she is not allowed to give lap dances or blowjobs. She smiles kindly, reassuringly, as she tells me this, as if I have been waiting for this exact information, secretly hoping she will divulge such details to assuage my motherly worries. My daughter pauses a moment, then tells me she is terrified. The men … want to touch….

At the end of her first semester of college, Franz had been replaced by a girlfriend named Leslie, a deeply religious lesbian whose parents sent her chemicals through the mail to help with test anxiety. By May, Leslie was history, but my daughter had failed two of her classes due to a lack of presence in the classroom. She said she freaked, while also developing a preternatural fear of leaving her dorm room. In June of that year her beautiful, brilliant, best friend from high school put on her prom dress and drank a cocktail of cranberry juice and Phenobarbital. After the funeral, my daughter began cutting herself. She worked at a bookstore for the summer wearing long sleeves to cover the growing roadmap on her bare arms. In September, she moved in with a slick man, ten years older. A bottle of vodka became the third leg of their triangle. I tried frantic forays into the dragon’s lair, only to find the princess in league with the monster. I had half-hysterical conversations with my husband who nodded and looked at his watch.

Our time is up. I hear savage mutterings from disgruntled students. All dates and places have retreated from my brain. I will have to pull out the heavy guns and threaten a pop quiz. I think of Vasari’s Perseus and Andromeda and see only my daughter’s scantily clad form writhing in front of a squint-eyed businessman in a pinstriped suit, or an aging computer repairman wearing mirrored sunglasses and a hat that says TGIF.

My daughter spent the next few months contemplating the trajectory of a falling body from the bridge that leads into the city. I wanted to weep with relief every time I saw her alive. I finally dragged her bodily to a psychiatrist who mentioned the possibility of bipolar disorder—the Condition Formally Known as Manic-Depressive Illness. Dr. Wise said her behavior was focused on getting her father’s attention. He said she had trouble keeping boundaries with men because they All had become her father—a shadowy figure to be conquered and forced to love her. My husband said I was exaggerating the diagnosis. He had no memory of our discussions about cuts and vodka, and any thought of bipolarity or suicide was ridiculous. Anyone could see how healthy she was.

After the divorce, she enrolled in the college where I teach. I look at my daughter one last time. She smiles brightly, looking like the pink-haired college student that she is. I hug her, tell her I love her, then walk into class and pull up the first slide. Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror stares back at me with a curious knowing. He was the same age as my daughter when he painted this. Nineteen. He looks twelve. I tell the class the artist later withdrew from society and became a recluse experimenting with alchemy. My daughter has finished experimenting with chemicals. Now she is experimenting with life. She is learning to dance without becoming a still life. She is discovering the possibilities of joy. Tomorrow my daughter moves into an apartment with a friend she met in math class. But tonight you can find her at the Blue Venus.

Author’s Note: I recently held my first grandchild in my arms and looked at his mother—my daughter and the subject of this essay. Although we talk constantly, there is a point at which no words can convey what we have been through. My daughter is experiencing her own version of that incredible connection of mother to child. Seeing her as a strong, loving adult fills me with a hope that I want to pass on to other mothers with troubled children. With my daughter’s encouragement, I have submitted this essay for publication.

P.L. Lowe is an art historian living in Staunton, Virginia. She recently spent time in the Middle East and is working on a novel about her experiences there. This is her first published work.

This essay appears in our 2014 Special Issue for Parents of Teens. Purchase your copy today.

Sting of Proud

Sting of Proud

By Jean Masthay

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 9.31.35 AMChicago, January 23, 2011

The snow and wind shaking off Lake Michigan envelopes me with strange warmth. Soldier Field’s stately columns glisten in the glow of the lights. Forgetting my stiff joints and numb toes I turn to hug my daughter-in-law, Amanda. We both have tears in our eyes, but I don’t dare break into a full cry.

I wonder what Amanda is thinking. Her husband, my son, Tim, the Green Bay Packers’ punter, just finished playing fist-pumpingly, towel-wavingly well helping his team beat their arch rivals, the Chicago Bears, 21 to 14 in the NFC Championship game. Is she satisfied that his many months of intense training have paid off? Proud of the risks he took to pursue his goals? Maybe she’s simply happy. I don’t ask, but tighten my hug through our layers of clothing and simply say, “Our Tim did his job well.”

“Wow, Mom! Tim’s going to the Super Bowl!” Tim’s little brother, Tad, my six-foot-three teenager, puts his arms around me. He seems so proud, but what else is going through his mind right now? Is he jealous? Or just excited and grateful to be part of our family’s wild ride through the NFL? As with Amanda, I don’t ask, just lean my head against his chest, gently edging in. The rest of our large family isn’t here to celebrate with us. Tim could get only three tickets for today’s sold-out game, and it was Tad’s and my turn. The others are at home watching this on TV: my husband, Mark, and our younger kids, Tyler and Tara, in Ohio; Ted at his college campus apartment at the University of Dayton; our eldest, Tom, with his own family in Kentucky. I can picture them clapping, shouting and smiling, just as we are. I miss them.

Tim is 23, a rookie, and now a champion. He’s been climbing uphill since the day he first ran out onto an NFL field less than a year ago, and today he’s only one step away from helping to plant a flag on the summit. Closing my eyes for just a second I murmur, “Thank you, Lord. You made him strong, so determined.”

Cheering Packers fans are all around, hugging and high-fiving, while down on the field, little green and gold men are having a celebration of their own. I scan the field, trying to spot Number 8. I hope he takes his helmet off, because his bright red hair is still a beacon in any crowd. But the players are now heading for the locker room. I wish I could see my son hug his teammates. See the sparkle in his eyes, the stay-cool-even-though-I’m-crazy-excited grin spread across his face when he touches the George Halas trophy and listens to his coach’s pep talk about preparing for the Super Bowl. But instead I’m one of thousands, standing in the cold, smelling the spilled beer, trudging down countless steps, crowding into jammed concourses, shuffling across ramps, until I finally reach an exit.

Today, Tim punted eight times for a total of 334 yards, sweetly dropping five inside the Bears’ 20. The ball that he booted 58 yards with three minutes left in the game pushed the Bears back to their own 18-yard line, leaving the Packers’ seven-point lead unthreatened. Chicago’s Devin Hester, the NFL’s most accomplished punt returner with an average of 17.1 yards, was limited to 5.3 yards per punt return today. Overhearing strangers’ comments—”Beautiful kick!” “Good thing we had Masthay in there.” “We owe this one to the punter”—I can’t help breaking into a smug smile. I am more accustomed, when I tell people about Tim, to hearing “Hmm, the punter? Well, at least he won’t get hurt;” “We don’t like to see him play” (referring to the disappointment of a fourth down situation); or my favorite, “Oh, the kicker!” (No, the punter!) On occasion, someone wordlessly furrows his brow, in which case I assume he has no idea what a punter does, and therefore doesn’t think much of it. Today, in Chicago before 70,000 fans here in the stadium and millions more watching on television, Tim confirmed how important the punter is to the outcome of an NFL game, and I am as proud as ever to be the punter’s mom.

But it’s been almost an hour since the referee blew the final whistle, and the urge to reach my son is nearly crushing now. Leading Tad and Amanda, I try to pick up the pace to exit this massive stadium so that we can reach the gathering spot for players’ families. I recognize a family of four who seem to know their way around, so I move closer to trail them. Suddenly, the crowd slows. All eyes turn to the nearby stands where TV lights, cameras, and reporters are clustered. I join in the straining to search for any familiar faces in the spotlight. No Packer redhead here. We press on until we finally reach our destination, a cold, dark parking lot. Security personnel check our credentials and direct us through a narrow turnstile into a fenced-in area crammed with other eager, waiting families.

My eyes are fixed on the tunnel beyond the fence and across the parking lot that leads to the players’ locker room. Guards protect the closed gates to prevent anyone unauthorized from mingling with the players. I know the drill: Tim will verify us as his family and only then will the guards open the gates for us. Smashed together with other players’ loved ones, I wonder how much it matters to the adult men celebrating, showering, and dressing in that concealed locker room that their families are here waiting to share in their victory. Something deep inside of me is reaching up through my chest and squeezing my throat. How odd. This is a celebration. I couldn’t be prouder of my son, but I can’t loosen the grip on my throat. I have eagerly and gratefully shared every previous chapter of his athletic success, but what is my role now that Tim has a wife and a professional career? Right now he’s with his teammates and coaches. The comrades he trusts. The ones he trains with, jokes, bickers, plays, and eats with. Anxious young wives and girlfriends, tired puffed-up parents, a few little ones sitting on shoulders, and Tad and Amanda surround me.

It wasn’t so long ago that Tim ran to me, wearing his purple uniform and holding out a gold medal, so proud to be a member of the Johnston Hornets soccer team, champions of the eight-year-old division at the Iowa Summer Games. I tried not to laugh when he was in eighth grade and I caught him primping in front of the mirror before his baseball games; already playing left field on the high school junior varsity team, he explained with great gravity, “Looking good is part of my image.” When he was in high school and the starting center midfielder for the Murray Tigers soccer team, I cringed the night he showed me the hexagons imprinted on his side by the shot he had dived so dramatically to block. I drove him to and from so many practices, cheered for him and shared his setbacks in so many games. Starting his freshman year at the University of Kentucky, he insisted on driving alone to football training camp, so I waved good-bye from our driveway, and through my tears, watched him head off. Even though college stadiums were bigger, seasons longer, and the distance greater from home, I was in the stands.

Now, waiting outside this Soldier Field locker room, trying to keep my frozen fingers and toes moving, I’m reminded of a winter evening 12 years ago when we lived in Murray, Kentucky, and we were waiting for 11-year-old Tim to emerge after a middle-school basketball game. He was always the last player out. His brothers and sister found this habit annoying, while his dad and I just considered it part of his swagger. Our champ eventually appeared, the family sighed with either exasperation or delight, and we went home together to eat, watch TV and do homework. Tonight in Chicago, waiting for Tim the professional football player to exit a locker room, I understand that something fundamental has changed. This is his job. He has postgame responsibilities that have nothing to do with us—team prayer, coach’s speech, the cold tub, interviews. Still, I feel restless. Players are beginning to wander out now and their families are flooding from the holding area to join them.

At last, I catch Tim’s tall, lean figure coming down the tunnel. He’s pulled a dark-colored toboggan hat over his head but the fluff of his red bushy sideburns still pokes out. He taps the shoulder of the nearest security guard and points at us. The guard opens the gate and I bolt toward Tim. Part of me really wants his wife to reach him first, but I can’t resist racing all-out to his side. I need to connect with him so badly that it surprises me. On tiptoes I stretch to reach for his face and plant a kiss on his cheek. “How does it feel, son?” Understated as usual, he replies, “Good, it’s good.” Amanda takes her turn with a long embrace and they communicate wordlessly, just with their eyes. I smile, watching them. Tad, shivering, lifts his hand to meet Tim’s in a high five.

While we spend a few minutes rehashing the game, my mind settles on Tim’s face. But for a moment, I don’t see him. Instead, I see Timmy, my orange-haired, freckled-faced, pudgy-cheeked, impish kid. The moment can’t last, though. There are too many lights, too many people. This isn’t the old days. The next game isn’t the divisional championship or the state play-off. It’s Super Bowl XLV, the culmination of all Tim has worked for—and the culmination of what he and I have been through together as mother and son.

Author’s Note: Two weeks after winning the NFC championship Tim and his teammates went on to win the Super Bowl. I was there shuffling through crowds, clapping, shouting, hugging and crying again. The Green Bay Packers haven’t made it back to the Super Bowl, but Tim’s multi-million dollar contract extension through 2016 and record-breaking performances keep me proud, and also alert. Armed with the lessons I learned during his rookie year, I continue to work, with grace and with humor, on my ever-evolving relationship with my son the punter.

Jean Masthay is the executive director of a nonprofit in Cincinnati. She lives in Lebanon, Ohio, with her husband and their teenage daughter. She’s working on a memoir about becoming an NFL mom.

Art by Michael Lombardo

Open and Closed

Open and Closed

 A selected essay from our new Fall Issue

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 6.37.34 PMBy Catherine Newman

The kids have come into my bed, warm and fragrant from sleep, and we’re lingering under the covers, even though it’s a school morning. Early pink sunlight filters through the tiny octagonal window and sets our blue walls aglow. “I love our house,” I sigh, and Birdy, 11, sighs from somewhere near my armpit, says, “Me too. So much.” Ben, 14, is quiet—maybe he’s asleep again. “I love our doorknobs,” I say.

I can see three of them from here, and no two are the same: one is beautiful old cut glass, one is a dinged-up bronze, and the other looks the newest—a kind of fake vintage porcelain set into a brass plate. All of them predate us, like a knobby collage of other people’s taste.

It’s an old cape house—not ancient, but our bedroom ceilings are low and slanted, and there are traces of the decades of previous inhabitants: artifacts of disparate periods and styles that nobody has bothered, or wanted, to smooth over with coherence. The floors are all wood but appear to have been installed in different rooms during different decades, the maple boards here laid down this way even though the scuffed oak ones there are laid the other. There are newish cabinets in the kitchen, but nobody’s done anything about the closets, of which there are three in the entire house, only one with a door, barely as deep as your arm. And then there are the doors themselves: most are thickly painted, with chips revealing colors as layered as a Gobstopper, but the doors to the kids’ tiny rooms are the newest, barely finished pine and so deeply luminous that someone must have thought they were too beautiful to mar with knobs, which they don’t have.

“Ugh. I hate our doorknobs.” Ben is awake after all! Awake and filled with contempt! Who knew? “I think that might be the first time in your entire life that I’ve ever heard you use the word hate,” I say, and Birdy laughs. “I was just thinking the same thing,” she says. Ben is, typically, as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful, “Oh, okay, you go ahead then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, with the barest whiff of tentativeness, “She is.”

“Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”

“You hate the doorknobs,” I say now, because I know about active listening, and Ben says again, “Ugh.” And then, “I hate the way they don’t match. I wish they were all, I don’t know, brushed nickel or something.” This is a kid who watches HGTV whenever there’s cable, who droolingly studies the New York Times Great Homes and Destinations slideshows online and reads the IKEA catalogue cover to cover like it’s a book about a hero’s journey through Swedish light fixtures to a better life. He is moved to exclamatory passion by such modernities as black flooring and vast white sectional sofas and open-concept steel staircases. I have suspected our scrappy Bohemian lifestyle and raggedy Salvation Army aesthetic of grating on him, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, I bristle. I think: Brat. I say: “That’s a couple hundred dollars I don’t really want to spend on doorknobs. But you should feel free. Honestly, be my guest. You’ve got some money saved up. I’ll drive you to Home Depot.”

“No, no,” he says, mild again, and cowed. “It’s stupid, I know. It doesn’t matter.” At which point I flush with shame. Because doorknobs don’t matter, not really—but this lovely boy, trying to flex the new muscle of his differentness from us? That matters.

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality. You merrily indulge their clomping around in their rain boots for sunny months on end; you chuckle over their sudden quirky interest in Care Bears or jazz or chai. And you look to the future, imagining that you will be called upon to support your children’s differentiation in ways that are delightful or noble or both: “I’m gay!” they will say, and you will rush to the streets in your PFLAG t-shirt, plaster your car with “I gaily support my gay children” stickers. “I’m a vegetarian!” they will say, and you will stir-fry tofu happily, blanket it with nutritional yeast; you will adore the Buddhist boyfriend, you will donate to their bluegrass band’s Kickstarter, and you will be pat-yourself-on-the-back perfect with the banjo-playing bacon-eschewing gay lotus-scented lifestyle your child has chosen.

Only that’s not what it’s like, because those things are only samenesses masquerading?as difference. It’s the actual differences, however tediously minute, that are truly challenging. What’s hard about a child’s differentiation is—Aha moment!—that it’s different from you.

And what Ben wants to be is rich. He wants to live a white-and-black-and-silver life, climate-controlled and, ideally, featured in various aspirational publications. He is the proud owner of four shares of Jet Blue stock, which he researched extensively before purchase. He prefers hotels to camping; he’d rather eat out than suffer another of my famous bean feasts; he likes nice ties, and ties one on at the slightest provocation. He wants a pool-side robot butler from Hammacher Schlemmer, despite our sore lacking of a pool or robot funds. In short, we have birthed Alex P. Keaton.

Do we press into him, like a kind of socialist steam iron, an understanding that profit tends to be carried to the wealthy on the backs of the working poor? Yes. Yes we do. And Ben wants to donate vast chunks of his future wealth to various worthy causes, writing enormous checks, à la Bill Gates, from the acre of mahogany desk on his own private island. Also, he has promised to take us on a private cruise of the Caribbean, an idea I confess to finding not unappealing, even if my Lily Pullitzer cover-up will have been salvaged from the Goodwill.

Meanwhile, this kid just hates the doorknobs. Or— lightbulb!—wants one of his own? “Do you want a knob on your bedroom door?” I ask now. “It’s honestly never occurred to me.”

“Oh, I’d love that,” he says. “I’m kind of sick of not being able to close my door all the way.” Our teenager. Have you ever heard of privacy? you are wondering. I know. Man, we are the lamest.

After school, we troll the aisles of Home Depot, and Ben carefully deliberates before picking out a brushed nickel doorknob—one that locks, even. “Is that really okay?” he asks (like Oliver from Oliver) and leans against me happily as I pay. I am thinking of long-ago fireworks—a film clip that plays in slow-mo of the children turning, terrified, and running into my open arms, tumbling, laughing, against me, and then running off again. A door is closing. It’s a metaphor and, also, it’s just the door—closing and opening, as doors do.

Author’s Note: Luckily, if Ben ends up seeing this piece, he’ll just skim it for the details about other people’s nice homes, and he won’t even realize it’s about him.

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

Open and Closed

Open and Closed

 A selected essay from our new Fall Issue

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 6.37.34 PMBy Catherine Newman

The kids have come into my bed, warm and fragrant from sleep, and we’re lingering under the covers, even though it’s a school morning. Early pink sunlight filters through the tiny octagonal window and sets our blue walls aglow. “I love our house,” I sigh, and Birdy, 11, sighs from somewhere near my armpit, says, “Me too. So much.” Ben, 14, is quiet—maybe he’s asleep again. “I love our doorknobs,” I say.

I can see three of them from here, and no two are the same: one is beautiful old cut glass, one is a dinged-up bronze, and the other looks the newest—a kind of fake vintage porcelain set into a brass plate. All of them predate us, like a knobby collage of other people’s taste.

It’s an old cape house—not ancient, but our bedroom ceilings are low and slanted, and there are traces of the decades of previous inhabitants: artifacts of disparate periods and styles that nobody has bothered, or wanted, to smooth over with coherence. The floors are all wood but appear to have been installed in different rooms during different decades, the maple boards here laid down this way even though the scuffed oak ones there are laid the other. There are newish cabinets in the kitchen, but nobody’s done anything about the closets, of which there are three in the entire house, only one with a door, barely as deep as your arm. And then there are the doors themselves: most are thickly painted, with chips revealing colors as layered as a Gobstopper, but the doors to the kids’ tiny rooms are the newest, barely finished pine and so deeply luminous that someone must have thought they were too beautiful to mar with knobs, which they don’t have.

“Ugh. I hate our doorknobs.” Ben is awake after all! Awake and filled with contempt! Who knew? “I think that might be the first time in your entire life that I’ve ever heard you use the word hate,” I say, and Birdy laughs. “I was just thinking the same thing,” she says. Ben is, typically, as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful, “Oh, okay, you go ahead then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, with the barest whiff of tentativeness, “She is.”

“Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”

“You hate the doorknobs,” I say now, because I know about active listening, and Ben says again, “Ugh.” And then, “I hate the way they don’t match. I wish they were all, I don’t know, brushed nickel or something.” This is a kid who watches HGTV whenever there’s cable, who droolingly studies the New York Times Great Homes and Destinations slideshows online and reads the IKEA catalogue cover to cover like it’s a book about a hero’s journey through Swedish light fixtures to a better life. He is moved to exclamatory passion by such modernities as black flooring and vast white sectional sofas and open-concept steel staircases. I have suspected our scrappy Bohemian lifestyle and raggedy Salvation Army aesthetic of grating on him, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, I bristle. I think: Brat. I say: “That’s a couple hundred dollars I don’t really want to spend on doorknobs. But you should feel free. Honestly, be my guest. You’ve got some money saved up. I’ll drive you to Home Depot.”

“No, no,” he says, mild again, and cowed. “It’s stupid, I know. It doesn’t matter.” At which point I flush with shame. Because doorknobs don’t matter, not really—but this lovely boy, trying to flex the new muscle of his differentness from us? That matters.

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality. You merrily indulge their clomping around in their rain boots for sunny months on end; you chuckle over their sudden quirky interest in Care Bears or jazz or chai. And you look to the future, imagining that you will be called upon to support your children’s differentiation in ways that are delightful or noble or both: “I’m gay!” they will say, and you will rush to the streets in your PFLAG t-shirt, plaster your car with “I gaily support my gay children” stickers. “I’m a vegetarian!” they will say, and you will stir-fry tofu happily, blanket it with nutritional yeast; you will adore the Buddhist boyfriend, you will donate to their bluegrass band’s Kickstarter, and you will be pat-yourself-on-the-back perfect with the banjo-playing bacon-eschewing gay lotus-scented lifestyle your child has chosen.

Only that’s not what it’s like, because those things are only samenesses masquerading as difference. It’s the actual differences, however tediously minute, that are truly challenging. What’s hard about a child’s differentiation is—Aha moment!—that it’s different from you.

And what Ben wants to be is rich. He wants to live a white-and-black-and-silver life, climate-controlled and, ideally, featured in various aspirational publications. He is the proud owner of four shares of Jet Blue stock, which he researched extensively before purchase. He prefers hotels to camping; he’d rather eat out than suffer another of my famous bean feasts; he likes nice ties, and ties one on at the slightest provocation. He wants a pool-side robot butler from Hammacher Schlemmer, despite our sore lacking of a pool or robot funds. In short, we have birthed Alex P. Keaton.

Do we press into him, like a kind of socialist steam iron, an understanding that profit tends to be carried to the wealthy on the backs of the working poor? Yes. Yes we do. And Ben wants to donate vast chunks of his future wealth to various worthy causes, writing enormous checks, à la Bill Gates, from the acre of mahogany desk on his own private island. Also, he has promised to take us on a private cruise of the Caribbean, an idea I confess to finding not unappealing, even if my Lily Pullitzer cover-up will have been salvaged from the Goodwill.

Meanwhile, this kid just hates the doorknobs. Or— lightbulb!—wants one of his own? “Do you want a knob on your bedroom door?” I ask now. “It’s honestly never occurred to me.”

“Oh, I’d love that,” he says. “I’m kind of sick of not being able to close my door all the way.” Our teenager. Have you ever heard of privacy? you are wondering. I know. Man, we are the lamest.

After school, we troll the aisles of Home Depot, and Ben carefully deliberates before picking out a brushed nickel doorknob—one that locks, even. “Is that really okay?” he asks (like Oliver from Oliver) and leans against me happily as I pay. I am thinking of long-ago fireworks—a film clip that plays in slow-mo of the children turning, terrified, and running into my open arms, tumbling, laughing, against me, and then running off again. A door is closing. It’s a metaphor and, also, it’s just the door—closing and opening, as doors do.

Author’s Note: Luckily, if Ben ends up seeing this piece, he’ll just skim it for the details about other people’s nice homes, and he won’t even realize it’s about him.

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

Free Range

Free Range

By Anne Korkeakivi

FreeRange_Main_artMonths before our trip to Tanzania two-and-a-half years ago, first on safari in the Selous Game Reserve and then to the beaches of Zanzibar, I began my campaign to keep our daughters, then aged thirteen and fifteen, from peril.

I made sure the girls had booster shots up to date and received jabs against yellow fever. One by one, I lined up bottles of 50+ sunscreen and 50% DEET bug repellent, pocket-sized dispensers of hand sanitizer, and LED flashlights, like ready soldiers, on a shelf in my closet. I purchased new sneakers, pairs of tube socks, and long-sleeved but lightweight blouses.

I ordered regulation-size duffels in impenetrable material, and then hovered over the girls’ efforts at filling them, although—having grown up mostly as expats because of my husband’s work as a human rights lawyer, and having traveled often—they were used to packing. Because our weight allowance was small for the prop-plane flights we’d be taking once in Tanzania, but also to limit the possibility of loss or theft, anything of monetary or personal value—other than cameras and my younger daughter’s totemic baby blanket—was deemed verboten.

For clothing, Internet forums advised against taking on safari: black (too hot), dark blue (attracts tsetse flies), bright (scares the animals), and white (too many problems to enumerate) clothing. Bare legs and shoulders would be no-nos on Zanzibar (about ninety-six percent Muslim). Oscillating between the girls’ bags, I nixed and naysayed.

“You do realize,” my older daughter finally said, “you aren’t leaving many options.”

I moved on to my husband. His employer, the United Nations, provides him with an emergency First Aid kit; I insisted he empty it onto our bed and explain each item. After, I raided our medicine cabinet and made a trip back to the pharmacy, scoring Norfloxacin and Azithromycin, Loperamide, paracetamol, a topical antihistamine, an oral antihistamine, water-purifying tablets, rehydration salts, an antiseptic gel, a thermometer, bandages, and a small mountain of Malarone, the pricy but side-effect-free anti-malarial prophylactic.

Had I thought of everything?

“Remember,” I told the girls, “these are wild animals.” I went through a litany of behaviors they mustn’t exhibit on safari, finishing with, “At all times, you do what the guide tells you.”

The night before our departure, we watched a biopic about Bethany Hamilton, the champion surfer girl who lost an arm to a shark attack at the age of thirteen. When my younger daughter, during the closing credits, asked, “Are there sharks around Zanzibar?” the better, saner parent inside me realized I might have freaked out the children.

“Honey,” I said with a laugh, “don’t you worry about it.”

Then I went into my office and googled “sharks” and “Zanzibar.” (To note: offshore, there are reef sharks, tiger sharks, lemon and white and whale sharks, and hammer-heads. Stingrays and barracuda are also known to Zanzibar’s deeper waters.)

As largely expat parents, my husband and I are set up for giving our daughters broad and varied experiences of the world, something I deeply want for them. I just don’t want any of those experiences to leave them hurt or unhappy.

I am not a tiger mother. I am a lion mother. I do not fight with my children, but—from the moment I insisted one be birthed by Caesarean, rather than forced to turn in my womb, and the other be nestled, against all local convention, in my French hospital room as a newborn—I’ve fought for them.

As my kids were growing up, there were times when some people told me I was being overprotective. Maybe there were times when I was.

We set off for East Africa.

Over five days in the Selous Reserve, we came eye to eye with lions, elephants, buffalos, warthogs, wildebeest, hyenas, zebras, giraffes, monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, hippos, and impalas. I was having the time of my life—except for that moment when a crocodile slithered directly beneath one of my daughter’s feet as we putt-putted along the silty Ruffiji River in our flat-bottomed boat. Or, when my other daughter absent-mindedly stood up in the back seat of our Jeep to get a better view of a group of seven young male lions—about six feet from us. (In fairness, this was the only time I saw our usually very calm guide lose his cool as well. “Get down,” he hissed) Slowly, I began to trust in the experience. In potentially hazardous situations, I saw my daughters learn fast and listen carefully. Like the heat, it sank in. By the last day of our stay in the game reserve, I had relaxed enough to leave the girls to their own devices while my husband and I joined an armed ranger on a walking safari, proscribed to kids sixteen or under. They had a good time. Amongst giraffes and whistling thorn trees, my husband and I did also.

We left the next day for Zanzibar exuberant and unscathed. I thought the most perilous part of our trip was finished.

Somewhere over the dusty red expanse between the Selous and Dar es Salaam, our flippety floppety twelve-seater prop plane hit turbulence. Miles above the wide earth, we were flung up and down like puppets. It hadn’t escaped my notice that of the two “pilots” on board, the one actually flying the plane was receiving instruction from the other.

“Look,” I said, pointing out the window, while gripping my seat. “There’s the Ruffiji!”

As I successfully diverted both the kids’ and my own attention from worrying about falling out of the sky to appreciating the beauty of the river snaking its limpid brown way through the acacia-dotted landscape beneath us, I thought: Maybe I’m finally becoming a cool mother.

At our hotel in northern Zanzibar, there was a problem with the reservation. Sleeping quarters were located in two small, whitewashed structures in an “L”-shaped configuration, separated by a thatched-roof reception area. Despite having booked adjoining rooms, my husband and I were put in one building; the girls in the other.

My mouth dropped. “No way.”

“We like our room,” the girls said.

“We don’t have anything else,” the reservationist said. “They’ll be fine,” my husband said, patting my shoulder.

By the time we were ready to move on to Kizimkazi in the south of Zanzibar, my family was laughing at my fussing, and I was laughing a little at myself also.

Our arrival in Kizimkazi was the stuff of dreams. Placid monkeys played around thatched-roof villas of the resort where we were staying, sheltered by huge gnarly baobab trees. Green-blue water glistened just steps from our villa’s patio. The feeling of peace was as soft and sultry as the weather.

When the girls asked to go surfing off a reef in open sea at sunrise, I personally zipped up their wet suits, and waved as their little boat disappeared towards the lightening horizon.

That’s when it happened.

Halfway through lunch, with my daughters back on land, the thirteen-year-old announced, “I think housekeeping took my blanket while I was out surfing.”

Since her birth, this daughter had slept entwined in a soft white cotton blanket with a turquoise trim, bestowed upon her by a doting aunt in America. That blanket had been everywhere; every move we made, every journey, every overnight visit. I’d turned whole houses upside down searching for it, a baby perched on my hipbone, small trusting hands clutching my shoulder. In a life with a lot of transiency, that blanket was a constant. There was no coincidence in it having been the only object of personal value either of the girls was allowed to bring on this holiday.

An investigation was launched. After discussing strategy with the hotel owner, I joined my thirteen-year-old by the pool, where she was sipping passion fruit juice over Jane Eyre, her blue-painted toenails dangling in the water.

“They’re going to look for it,” I said, keeping my voice level.

“Okay.” She smiled. She went back to her reading.

“Okay?” I searched her face, ready to offer comfort and assurance.

“Okay.”

A few hours later, the owner had news: Yes, housekeeping had taken the blanket. They would wash it and then leave it in my daughter’s room.

At dinner, my daughter said, “My blanket’s back.” She added, with a wry expression, “I think it was used for cleaning.”

Back at our villa, she showed me the once snowy-white blanket. It was now gray, threadbare in places to the point of being almost transparent. Swathes of the satin trim hung loose from the cotton. The housekeepers must have washed down the whole resort with it.

I gathered what was left of the blanket and gingerly tucked it into a plastic bag. “I’ll fix it up as soon as we get home,” I promised. “I’ll bleach it and patch it, and I’ll make it okay again.”

“Great,” my daughter said, serenely. “Thank you.”

All that night, I churned under my bed’s swirling mosquito netting. There was no one to blame—mistaking the blanket for a cleaning rag had been a careless but innocent error by housekeeping. But, I knew no matter how I sewed or patched, I would never be able to turn that blanket back into the pristine unbroken white square with continuous green-blue border it had been for the thirteen years previous.

The more I thought it over, the more upset I became. And the more upset I became, the more I began to wonder. Of all the things to go wrong—this was something I’d never even thought about. Was my daughter more upset than she was showing? Was she less upset because she trusted me to be able to make the blanket all right again?

As the eastern skyline turned from periwinkle to pink to bright blue, and quiet dhow fishing boats appeared on the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean, the truth dawned on me.

I was more upset than she was.

During the years I’d been busy trying to give my daughters the world at the same time as shielding them from it, a curious thing had happened. Even my baby daughter had grown older.

The blanket sits on a shelf in my office cupboard now. When we returned home to where we live in Switzerland, I bleached it white again but didn’t try to patch it. I decided, instead, to see what would happen. Sure enough, my daughter never asked for it.

I catch a glimpse of what’s left of the blanket sometimes, when I’m extracting a copy of my novel to mail or looking for a new ink cartridge. I know my daughter sees it too, because she keeps things in that cupboard. A little part of her surely misses her old blanket and would like to see it whole again, but not enough to ask me about it.

She’s dealt with the loss in her own way, just as I’m learning to deal with it in mine. Allowing your kids to grow up is a slow letting go that continues all through their teenage years. Next year, my older daughter will leave for college. Two years later, my husband and I will be empty nesting.

“Don’t worry,” my younger daughter remarked recently to me, as I was marveling over how she and her sister both tower over me. “We will always need you.”

And they will. And they won’t.

As I learned in an unexpected way, under the shade of baobabs and at the feet of lions.

Author’s Note: As a journalist, before becoming a novelist and before having kids, I travelled far and wide. I can only once remember feeling real fear. Becoming a mother may have increased my sense of peril, but it has also enlarged my appreciation of going out and about in the world. My daughters are great travel companions! Everywhere we go, they share not only laughs but also unique perspectives. Becoming a mother has enriched me as a writer too, bringing out the gentleness and vulnerability that allows me to ponder a trip to southern Africa in a way I would never before have expected.

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of the novel An Unexpected Guest. Her work has been published by The Atlantic, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

Should You Tell a Close Friend When You Know Her Child Smokes/Drinks?

Should You Tell a Close Friend When You Know Her Child Smokes/Drinks?

By Candy Schulman

YES!

Debateicon“Make me a promise,” Lisa said the night before our daughters started high school. “If you ever see Hannah smoking or drinking, you must tell me. We have to tell each other.”

Hannah was Lisa’s younger daughter. Lisa had already survived raising one teenager. I was a novice: my first time jumping blindfolded into the unpredictable age between tween and empty nest.

Our daughters had once been playmates, sharing birthday parties and sleepovers. Then suddenly they grew apart, old enough to choose who they wanted to escort home after school. Lisa and I no longer chatted in the playground while our girls pushed each other on the swings. We could no longer orchestrate their play dates, but Lisa and I still had our own.

I agreed to tell Lisa if I ever saw Hannah smoking or drinking, believing it was the ethical thing to do. I just didn’t know how hard it might be, or even if I’d be able to keep my part of the bargain. I had smoked at a young age, and in retrospect I wish someone had persuaded me to stop before my addiction took hold—and as an adult suffered through withdrawal. Besides, today we know how dangerous cigarettes are, and mourn for strangers whose teenagers are killed by drunk drivers.

The issue grew more complicated when a group of ninth-grade parents arranged a meeting to discuss drug and alcohol use among adolescents. Our adolescents. Our adorable children, who just yesterday, it seemed, were hugging stuffed animals as they sailed into dreamland. It was frightening to face the topic, but I knew my daughter had been catapulted into a world where she had to navigate Physics and Calculus as well as peer pressure, booze, and pot. We’d all heard about unchaperoned high school parties, where Facebook and texting made it easy for groups of teenagers to congregate at whoever’s house was free of parents.

One parent, who had the wildest son in the school, waved a piece of paper in the air. She made a bold suggestion: “I want everyone to sign this pact. We must tell each other if we see anyone’s child smoking or using drugs. We’re obligated.”

This “pact” had been successful in her son’s school where she’d just moved east from California. Arguments exploded. We all had different values on the subject. I was thankful that my daughter was not on this boy’s radar or party list. She still spent weekend evenings baking brownies with her best friend. There is a wide spectrum of acceptability among parents when it comes to our children’s substance use. At this particular meeting, one European-born parent confessed to serving wine to her daughter’s friends when they came for dinner. And there were other parents, who still smoked pot themselves, possibly in front of their kids. Wouldn’t their alarms go off differently than mine?

Only a handful of parents signed the group pact; I wasn’t one of them. Lisa quickly took me aside and whispered, “We still have our own agreement, don’t we?”

“Yes,” I said, hoping I’d never have to oblige. Hoping she wouldn’t either. “I trust my daughter,” I added.

“Believe me, you’d want to know,” Lisa assured me. I came to agree with her—in spite of ambivalences surrounding privacy and the possibility of risking my daughter’s trust.

Our kids live in a more complicated social world than when we were teenagers. From R-rated movies to celebrity gossip where substance abuse is commonplace, our teenagers have seen more—and probably done more—than we can imagine. Without stepping over boundaries, we still have the responsibility as parents to keep them safe, and offer them help if they are in trouble.

I must confess I avoided looking at Facebook photos where Lisa’s daughter might be guilty of holding up those telltale large red plastic cups, toasting to her friends. As it turned out, Lisa was the one who had to do the unthinkable. Hannah’s friend started getting drunk and smoking pot a year after her mother died of breast cancer. Lisa picked up the phone and asked the father to meet her for coffee. She didn’t even know him well, but she told him what he’d been expecting—and ignoring—all along. He thanked Lisa for her honesty and concern.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Lisa told me.

“We’ve both been so fortunate,” I said.

“So far,” she said, nodding. “We still have our private pact, don’t we?”

“Of course,” I said. And hoped I’d never have to honor it … knowing that I would.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Salon, Babble.com, Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

 

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

NO!

debateicon2Full disclosure: I’m a fixer. Not the Olivia Pope variety, but I am the kind of person to whom adults spilled their lovelorn conundrums before I hit puberty. This tendency to be told things continued into adulthood. Once a friend confided an impending marital split two months before the spouse learned of the plan (yes, very awkward at school dismissal). So, I’d have thought by the time my sweet little kids garnered pimples and problems with love or illicit substances, I’d be the one to glean all the dirt. Given my moral compass, my desire for safety, and my fixer-leanings, I figured I’d be the one to call all the parents, too.

I’m not the person I thought I’d be. While the reason for this should have been obvious, somehow it wasn’t to me until I became a parent to adolescents. Here’s the thing: if my adolescent confides in me, I cannot betray his trust by calling his friend’s parents, even if I wish I could. That’s because I want to be sure the next time my adolescent is worried, he’ll come to me again. Might there be an exception? Yes. It’d have to be connected to immediate danger.

With two teens and a tween not so far behind, whether to tell seems so much thornier than I’d have imagined back when the incidents between peers were playground-centric. “He didn’t let me play on the team,” pales in comparison to underage alcohol consumption, drug abuse, initial sexual activity, or acts of self-harm.

I remember how charged—parent-to-parent—those early elementary school years were. Once, a kid intentionally spilled milk on my kid’s lunch; another time, my kid teased a classmate. There was the epic incident that involved some softened wax from cheese in a peer’s lunch having wound up in my kid’s very long hair. Whose fault that was never became clear. The apologies between kids remained equally murky. For the moms, a confusing, difficult round of “he said, he said” ensued as its own sticky mess between us. The conversation resolved well, if not easily. In retrospect, I think we were both stunned our boys might not have been entirely innocent and we were also surprised by how without simple answers the ability to support one another well—as fellow moms—became challenging, too.

That’s one of the things about the parenting of adolescents I find tough: we are, as parents, in it to protect our kids through what feels like—and is—a vulnerable, important, and volatile period. Through these teen years, kids change enormously. They are exposed to so much more than we wish at times and much less prepared for some of that than we wish, too. Often, they befriend new kids, and we don’t know the new friends’ parents well or at all. We don’t have the playground any longer as a place where we get to know our peers while our kids get to know theirs. In other words, add to these raised stakes lowered connectivity. And then, heap on pressure to protect their trust. We’re not talking is-the-tooth-fairy-real trust; this is can I trust you parent, to help me when myfriends engage in behavior that might not be okay?

Um, wow. No one mentioned any of this during childbirth class.

When my teen divulges some variation of what so-and-so’s done, inevitably, the lead up is “I’m worried because…” What I hadn’t anticipated is that those moments of disclosure aren’t simply confessional nor are they shared because my teen seeks a fixer.

Presented with a high-octane parenting moment, I do try to establish why my kid is worried, how imminent he thinks any danger is, how likely it is the kid’s parent knows orcould know what’s going on, what other adults know about this, and what I can do. I always offer, although it’s unlikely my fixer skills will come into play. I always emphasize that this isn’t my kid’s to fix—and that concern, like substance abuse or self-harm require a qualified adult’s attention (my go-to is the school’s guidance counselor). Is this irresponsible of me? Or am I responsibly parenting my child? I hope I’m being responsible enough to everyone. I do follow up with my kid to make sure an adult’s attention was enlisted. And I hope that when my kids need me, I’ll have built up trust enough to ensure I can be right where I need to be.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on Twitter-@standshadows.

Blind Curve

Blind Curve

BT 14 Blind Curve Art 2By Debbie Hagan

I pause at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the teenage residents hall in this psychiatric hospital where my thirteen-year-old son has spent the last few weeks. Though I’m in a hurry, with an only an hour to have dinner with Connor, I stare at the fortress-like balustrade. For the first time it occurs to me, from the bottom I can’t see to the top. The stairs go up, curve at the landing, then disappear.

Then I realize these stairs were boxed in to keep mental patients from hurling themselves off the top. A cold bead of perspiration runs down my spine as I edge up the stairs, turning blindly around each corner—almost as if I’m in a funhouse where the floors are slanted and the water runs uphill. When I reach the top, a curious eye peers through the wire-mesh. The latch releases, then the steel door groans open.

Inside the air is thick and moist like a locker room smelling like dirty dishes and teenage sweat. I turn left, past the common kitchen, hurry through the boys’ living room and down a dark, narrow hall.

Connor’s room is the last one on the left. Inside, he’s sitting on his bed, perched on a pile of rumpled sheets, his ash-blonde hair gelled straight up held by something he calls “glue.” He wears tan cargo pants and a white T-shirt hand-lettered with the words: Counter Clockwise, the punk band he formed last summer. Now he stares into space, his eyelids between open and closed.

The room looks more like a college dorm than a hospital: two twin beds, a wooden desk, and an armoire with the door hanging cock-eyed from one hinge. In the corner, a mouse has chewed a half-circle hole that looks like a sketch from a Tom & Jerry cartoon. I notice something on the floor. When I edge closer, I see chunks of the homemade brownies I’d baked a few days ago.

“I can’t stay long,” I tell Connor, setting the Taco Bell bag on his desk. “I’m teaching a class at eight.”

Connor moves sloth-like, an obvious side effect from the new drug. The psychiatrist says it will take the edge off of his explosive moods. My son picks through the paper bag, pushing aside the napkins and sauce as if he’s not really hungry.

I look down to Connor’s desktop. Someone etched into the wood, with a pen, a chubby marijuana joint with smoke curling from the tip. It reminds me of a 1960s Robert Crumb cartoon—a bit too sophisticated to be Connor’s.

“What’s four-twenty?” I ask, pointing to the numbers above the joint.

“It’s the international pot smoking time,” Connor says in a tone that says, Stupid, everyone knows that.

I laugh. “So everyone’s supposed to light-up at 4:20?”

He shrugs, “I guess.”

Maybe he has smoked a joint, but I doubt it. He’s just thirteen. He looks older, being six feet tall with a youthful fuzz of beard. On his arms, he writes punk lyrics, such as, “I have a heart full of napalm, babe.” With his spiked hair, black leather trench coat, eyeliner, and “Fuck off” attitude, he gives the impression that he’s a tough street kid.

I look into his face, and I’m reminded of what the middle school counselor once told me: “He’s so thin-skinned. He has no armor to protect himself.” Now it’s as if I see it—faint lines of blue crisscrossing beneath an ivory scrim.

I stare at the marijuana drawing, and I wish he were in a more nurturing environment. Connor is the youngest of the twenty or so boys on this hall; all seem to have a history of drugs and petty crimes.

While McLean Hospital has the reputation for being the world’s leading psychiatric research hospital, I’m not sure this is a good fit for him. His stories about this place scare me. First there were the boys who stole a spray bottle of cleanser from the janitor’s closet and huffed it. A counselor found them delirious, sprawled over a bed. Two other boys bragged about having sex in the bathroom. This week, a boy became violent and beat another patient.

The atmosphere here is a little prison-like and makes me wonder how Connor can get well. I’d bring him home, but I worry, would he just go back to running away, cutting, and trying to kill himself? I don’t think I can live through that again.

“Are you sleeping okay?” I ask.

He raises and lowers a shoulder, biting his burrito. He chews a little and looks as if he needs to pick through the cotton in his brain to find the answer.

“Last night the strangest thing happened,” he says. “There was this blue streak of light that came into the room. It was right about here.” He gets up and stands in the middle of the room.

“I was asleep,” he points to the spot where I’d first seen him. “And I saw it…there was something here.”

“Was it a ghost?” I ask.

“Hmmm. I don’t know, but it was something.”

He’s staring into space, curling into himself, pale and nervous.

“So what did you do?” I ask. “I prayed to God that it would go away and leave me alone.”

I watch my child, standing in the middle of his room talking about ghosts, and I feel more alone than ever. No one can help me, not even my husband who’s angry with Connor for acting out. I try to tell him, it’s not Connor’s fault. Even the doctors don’t seem to get it. They tell me he’s obstinate and defiant. I argue, this isn’t my son. It’s as if someone stole my son and replaced him with someone who looks like him. They stare at me as if maybe I’m the one with the problem.

I look at Connor, searching his room for ghosts, and I’m feeling alone and scared, and I don’t know what to say. I change the subject.

“So how was the Fall Fling?”

All week he had practiced his cello for the patient variety show. He had chosen William Squires’s “Tarantella”—a strangely hypnotic tune about a woman bitten by a tarantula who falls into a zombie-like trance, which seemed apropos for here.

Connor raises and lowers a shoulder. “Ehn.”

“Wasn’t it fun?” My voice sounds insistent, practically begging Connor to say, yes.  His lips quiver. He can no longer wrap them around his burrito, so he sets it aside. The back of his hand wipes away a tear. Dear God, please give my child one moment of joy.

Connor is crying. I close the door and sit next to him. I place my arms around him and squeeze his shoulders. I’m amazed when he doesn’t brush me away.

“It’s okay,” I murmur. “Just tell me what happened.”

He gives me bullet points. The patients on the third floor—boys and girls—gathered under the trees, on the terrace behind East House, for a picnic. All of the kids sat with their friends. They laughed. They talked. They ate. They played games, like the three-legged race, but no one wanted to talk to him. No one wanted to be his friend.

“Surely there was someone,” I say.

Connor shakes his head and tells me that one of the boys on his hall said something mean.

“What?”

He shakes his head. His face twists into a painful grimace. He cries, “I can’t even get along with people in a mental institution.” He bats away tears.

There’s a thickness in the room, making it difficult to hear or speak or feel anything—as if I’m bound motionless in my chair. I try my best to keep a poker face, because I don’t want Connor to suspect that I’m confused and frightened.

“Let’s face it, Connor, a mental institution isn’t a great place to make friends. Everyone here has issues and trouble interacting with people.”

Frankly, I don’t know a lot about mental illness. Over the past few weeks, ever since Connor was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’ve read a stack of books. I’ve learned one thing: mental illness strains all relationships. It makes those with the illness behave unpredictably, and those who love them afraid, frustrated, and sometimes angry.

As for kids, this has to be the cruelest part. Kids with mental illness stand out profoundly, and, thus, become bullying targets. That’s why Connor is a victim no matter where he goes—even here.

“I know what people think,” Connor tells me. “I can look at them and tell what they’re thinking.”

“Oh, Connor,” I say.

“No, it’s a gift and a curse!”

I stare at the broken dresser, the mouse hole, and my son who now believes he can read minds. I zip up my jacket but it doesn’t stop my shaking.

I’ve forgotten about time. When I look at my watch, I see it’s already past seven. I have to cancel my class. When I call the school, the administrator warns me, canceling a class at the last minute violates my teaching agreement. I apologize and say, “It’s a family emergency.” Still, I know how these things work. I’ll be taken off the roster next semester.

My whole life is derailed—my teaching, my graduate studies, even my relationships with my husband and other son.

I dig through my purse and find a pen and a small notebook.

You’re going to take notes?”  Connor asks.

“This will help me remember,” I say.

I notice Connor is now sitting forward, almost leaning into me, rather than slinking back into the folds his hoodie.

 “You should be a psychiatrist,” Connor says.

I’m a little surprised by the way he has perked up and wants to talk. I decide to seize this opportunity, but I remind myself: Play this cool. Be calm.

 Right away, Connor tells me, “One of my friends cut himself today.

“Hmmm,” I respond and write it down.

“What do you think will happen?” Connor asks.

“Well, he won’t be going home.”

Silence.

It lingers too long, and when I look up, I see Connor’s lips are chalky, his gaze far away. My heart sinks.

“I cut myself.”

“When?”

“Just before you got here.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“I didn’t know your number.”

He had it, but he likely acted first, then thought.

For about thirty seconds, we stare into the void, searching for how to move on.

I go back to playing psychiatrist, writing random words in my notebook.

Connor tells me that after the boy said something mean to him, he grabbed a plastic knife and ran to the bathroom.

“I stood staring in the mirror, and I couldn’t even control it,” he says. “It was my choice.  I could stop, but I didn’t want to. Sometimes the dark side takes over, and I’m not at all me. I lie to people to make them think I’m in a good mood, but I’m not.”

I write, and I wonder if this is new or has he always been this way? Could I have misunderstood my son…all these years?

“Where did you cut yourself?” I ask.

Connor points to his thigh.

“Can I see it?”

“No!”

I’m acting like a mom again. That won’t work—not tonight. As long as I’m playing psychiatrist—open and emotionless—he will talk.

Still the mom in me worries about the cut. I look at his pants. I don’t see blood. I decide he’s not going to bleed to death.

I push on, because there’s one subject I really want him to talk about. It’s the seventh grade school trip. That’s when Connor’s behavior changed. He had told me that he was bullied. I’d mentioned this to his psychiatrist, but Connor refused to talk about it.

I scribble as I gather my bearings. Then I take a deep breath, “Can you tell me what happened on that trip to Washington D.C.?”

Connor squeezes his eyes shut and grimaces. I expect him to explode, order me out of the room, and then bury himself under his covers.

Instead, he’s silent for a long drawn-out minute. Then, to my shock, he begins telling the story. He picks up from what I already knew, how his roommates made him sleep on the floor, so they could have the beds. Then they refused to share their sheets and blankets. They made fun of his deodorant, calling it “women’s deodorant.” In fact, it was a unisex deodorant, which I had bought, thinking it was more fitting for a thirteen-year-old—better than Old Spice or Axe. I couldn’t imagine it could be turned into a joke.

Now he begins talking about the second day of the trip, when all of the seventh grade buses pulled up to the U.S. Mint, and the kids gathered in groups. Suddenly Connor’s roommate, a boy named Mark, shouted to the entire group: “Connor wears women’s deodorant.”

As Connor tells me this, his voice rises in pitch, exaggerated and sing-songy. I stare at him as he clenches his fists and bares his teeth. I’m frightened, because, in this second, I don’t even recognize him.

As if he’s reliving the moment, he shouts out, “Shut the fuck up, man! I don’t use that stuff.”

The fury in his voice makes the hairs on my arms stand up.

Connor composes himself a little, telling me that everyone laughed at him. They looked at him and pointed. Then Mark repeated the phrase he’d read on the side of Connor’s deodorant: “strong and beautiful.” The boy said it mockingly, girly, and the crowd laughed even harder.

Connor told Mark to stop, but he wouldn’t. He kept shouting and laughing, spurring the crowd on. So Connor grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the ground. Joe tried to pry his hands off, but Connor said he wasn’t about to stop.

“I wanted to kill him.”

“So what happened?”

“One of the teachers pulled me off and told me to take some space.”

“That was it?”

“No one ever does anything,” Connor says. “The teachers saw what had happened, but they don’t care.”

I am stunned. How could this have happened in front of teachers—chaperones who are supposed to keep kids safe on these trips? And no one said a word to me or even tried to find out from Connor why he acted this way?

“Did you really want to kill Mark?”

“He’s a sadist. He deserves a spot in eternal damnation!”

I fall back in my chair. To think my son could have killed this boy—over deodorant. Connor’s a big, strong kid and given his level of anger, he might have done it. This scares and confuses me. How could this be the same boy who gives brownies to mice, who sleeps with a rainbow-striped dolphin?

Connor continues, “I heard it everywhere I went. I heard it in my hotel room, at dinner, on the bus all the way home. Twelve hours I listened to it in my ear: strong and beautiful; strong and beautiful; strong and beautiful. I thought I was going to explode.”

By Monday, all the kids in school knew about the deodorant. They ran up to him in the hallways and yelled, “Strong and beautiful.” They shouted it during homeroom, and at lunch. Two of the popular girls handed him a present tied it up with a bow. Excited, he tore off the wrappings only to find a stick of girl’s deodorant and a Cosmopolitan magazine. They roared in laughter. He ran to the bathroom and cut himself with a paperclip.

“I don’t like to talk to people anymore,” Connor tells me. “I can’t make friends without thinking how they hate me. I can’t trust anyone.”

For the first time ever, I understand how this chain of events unfolded and how my son ended up here.

Connor grabs me and hugs me hard. When I start to let go, he grabs me again, tighter, his breath moistening my hair.

“I want to go home,” he whispers, “but I’m not ready.”

I realize, he’s afraid too. He’s afraid of being hurt again.

I bury my head in his T-shirt, soaking up his warm, musky scent.

“It’s okay. You’ll come home when you’re ready. It will be soon.”

On my way out, I’m not so sure. I look back down the stairs, dark and boxed in. A few hours ago I couldn’t see my way to the top. Now I can’t see my way to the bottom.

Author’s Note:  The notes taken that night enabled me to recall our conversations just as they occurred, in addition to the other small details. Connor spent about a month in the hospital, followed by four years of working with therapists and psychiatrists who helped him deal with the pain caused by school bullying. Today Connor is 22 years old, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and enjoying his life—without medication.

The Boob Tube

The Boob Tube

By Susan Vaughan Moshofsky

boobtube“Your nipples are inverted,” the nurse announced as she eyed me. Sitting in my hospital bed the day after I delivered Rachel, our first child, I hoisted each gargantuan breast into position to help our daughter “latch on.” At one day old, it seemed she’d sprouted teeth. I gritted mine through each brief breastfeeding session.

“You’ll need these,” the nurse explained as she handed me two clear, plastic nipple shields. Shaped like three-inch-diameter spaceships, their purpose was to help draw out my nipples, she explained while stuffing the little ships inside my nursing bra. Pre-pregnancy, I was a full-breasted woman. Now, I was practically a size 46 GGG: Wonder Woman without the waistline. At least with those qualifications, I knew I’d have no trouble breastfeeding.

Or so I thought. On my second day in the hospital, the nurse worried that Rachel was getting little, if any, milk, so she suggested formula supplementation. I refused, determined to succeed. New mom though I was, I knew that supplementing was the Dark Side. Would prevent bonding. A sure-fire way to shave off a few IQ points. A failure.

“Try tea bags,” one nurse suggested. I looked at her quizzically. “It helps with the pain,” she explained. Several cups of tea later, I dutifully applied the cooled tea bags to my nipples after each abortive attempt at nursing. After the tea bags grew cold, I replaced them with the nipple shields to make my introverts more extroverted. Another nurse demonstrated the “football hold,” but even that didn’t help. A few friends who visited shared their breastfeeding advice. “Oh, I could never get that close to my child if it was nursing time,” one friend reported. “My milk would let down all over the front of my shirt.”

Another asked, “Don’t your breasts hurt just before it’s time to feed your baby?” I rolled my eyes. They hurt all the time. Now I knew: breastfeeding is the female peeing contest.

By the third day, I had to admit my failure to the nurses, my OB/GYN, the pediatrician, visiting friends, and extended family. Could being discharged from the hospital help? Surely, breastfeeding would be more natural in the privacy of my own home.

But I was wrong about that, too. After a few more days of painful, home nursing sessions broken only by applications of cold tea bags, icepacks to the chest, and wearing the plastic spaceships, it was clear I would not be invited into the LaLeche League.

When Brett, my husband, insisted we call the doctor, sure it shouldn’t be this hard, our pediatrician warned that if Rachel didn’t have enough wet diapers, we should bring her in to his office. There, the doctor suggested we supplement with water until my milk came in. But a couple of days later, she seemed even hungrier—and angrier. And nursing hurt more than ever. It was time for formula and a lactation specialist, the doctor explained.

The specialist prescribed a Supplemental Nursing System, a contraption designed to stimulate milk production. The largest part of the device was an eight-ounce plastic bottle suspended upside down from a white, cordlike “necklace.” Two 1/16-inch surgical feeding tubes dangled from the neck of the bottle, each tube taped to a nipple. Rachel would nurse “normally” (if one could consider this getup normal) but would get formula from the tubes as her suckling stimulated milk production to such proportions that the contraption would soon no longer be necessary. Being rid of this “boob tube,” then, became my goal—every feeding, every day, for three long months.

Parenting books had pronounced nursing such a convenience: one could meet the baby’s need at any moment and in any location! Not with the boob tube! Before each feeding, I had to sterilize all parts of the apparatus by boiling them in a pot, fill the bottle with formula (after preparing that), remove my shirt and bra, dangle the bottle around my neck, get out the tape, tape a feeding tube to each nipple, grab Rachel, now purple-faced and screaming, from a helpless-looking Brett, hoist up a nipple, and finally, position her so she could latch on—over seven or eight times a day. No discreet feedings for me! I went almost nowhere unless I was guaranteed a private room.

After a few weeks with the boob tube, it appeared Rachel was taking less formula each day, but the lactation specialist felt we weren’t progressing quickly enough. To further stimulate milk production, she prescribed three-times-a-day hookups to a mechanical breast pump. Why not? We certainly weren’t entertaining guests under these circumstances! My life at the time was drinking tea so I could put the used tea bags on my nipples, wearing the Amazon-woman nipple shields, and looking like a permanent ad for a 48-hour bra. Add the seven or eight 45-minute boob tube feedings plus the thrice-daily breast-pump sessions, and I felt real sympathy for cows in dairies.

To pass the time one night while hooked up to the breast pump, I watched the movie “Frankenstein” with Brett. I felt like a freak myself, sitting on the couch, the funnel-shaped cone attached to my breast, and the hum of the pump’s motor muffling the creature’s roar in the movie. During a commercial, I reached proudly for the milk container to show Brett how much I’d produced (two ounces of milk after two hours of pumping!!)—and clumsily knocked it over. I watched helplessly as the precious liquid spilled onto the carpet. I know what it means to cry over spilled milk.

Desperate to reclaim any vestiges of self-respect I still had at the time, I vowed not to become some bathrobed slob, hair in curlers with nothing more to say at the end of the day than, “I fed the baby today, dear.” Though that’s all I did, I took pains to get dressed every day before Brett left for work. Then I’d boil the boob tube, prepare the day’s formula, and wait for Rachel to wake up so I could begin the arduous task of feeding her.

One morning I put the boob tube into the pot as usual, started the water to boil and headed downstairs to get dressed, but it was so cold, I decided to climb back into bed for just a few minutes. It had snowed the night before, and the heat hadn’t come on yet. Rachel was still asleep; the chilly house was peaceful and quiet. My plan: get warm under the covers while the boob tube was being sterilized, then run back upstairs and perform the morning feeding once the house had warmed up. Three months into this project, the lactation specialist now estimated Rachel was getting 80 percent of her nutrition from my breast milk—only 20 percent from the formula in the boob tube! With only 20 percent to go, I was determined to make the grade. But weeks of sleep deprivation pulled me into a deep slumber.

I woke to the smell of smoke. Racing upstairs through a gray fog, I rounded the corner to the kitchen, expecting flames. Instead, a black cloud billowed from the pot glowing on the hot burner. Grabbing the pot’s handle, I shoved open the deck door and sank the pot into the four inches of snow outside. I flung open every door and window and darted downstairs to find Rachel sleeping, oblivious to the danger.

I ran back upstairs, worried about the pot sitting on our wooden deck. It had melted all the snow it sat on. I looked inside the pot for the boob tube: nothing. Thinking the contraption had fallen out of the pot in my hurry, I retraced my steps but again found nothing. The boob tube must have melted; the black smoke, its cremation.

Without the boob tube, I couldn’t give Rachel enough breast milk. All my efforts would be wasted! I’d have to get a new device! And with the delay the snow might cause, I’d never get to the 100 percent point now, if it had ever been possible.

I squinted into the pot as if to find some insight. There, etched indelibly into the now-distended bottom of the pot was the word “Medela,” the brand name of the boob tube, and all that was left of the three months of turmoil.

Now it was clear. If ever I’d needed a sign to set me free from the prison of straps and tubes, free from the dread of hearing Rachel’s cry to be fed, this was it.

I reached into the cupboard for the formula and the one bottle we owned, feeling such relief. No more boob tube! No more hermitlike seclusion, sequestered away with Rachel and this odd contraption! I could now feed her with the bottle I’d been avoiding all along. Freed of the boob tube and the terrible mother-guilt that prodded me to exceed the limits of reason in my quest to properly nourish our child, I began to enjoy feeding her. No more wasted bonding time getting her “hooked up.” No more purple-faced, screaming baby. No more days measured by ounces, caught up in a competition with no winners.

Author’s Note: While I’m proud that I tried to breastfeed our daughter, it took burning up the boob tube to show me that motherhood is not a competition. I didn’t need to jeopardize my bonding with my baby just to prove that I could breastfeed, as if I were in some kind of Mom Olympics. Being freed of the boob tube helped me start that bittersweet journey of motherhood—that letting go of what I think is best to make room for what is truly needed.

Susan Vaughan Moshofsky is a mother, teacher, and writer who lives with her family of five in Portland. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Huffington Post, The Oregonian, and Seattle’s Child.

On the Cutting Edge

On the Cutting Edge

By Laura Amann

cuttingedgeFrom a photograph on my desk, my daughter’s face peers out at me. Her eyes are crinkled; her chicklets-perfect teeth are held by a wide grin. Her dark hair curls in fat, sausage ringlets. She is wearing a princess gown. She is five.

Periodically, I look at that photo and close my eyes. I do the same thing when I come across her papers from grade school, with the hearts on top of the i’s and the puppy dogs doodled in the corners.

Today her long, glossy hair has alternately sported thick dreadlocks, been chopped short and bleached an unnatural blond, and been dyed with streaks of blue, green, or pink. Her brown eyes are now muted by a ring of heavy, thick, black eyeliner. Her ear- lobes are stretched and weighted down with huge earrings.

She is still stunningly beautiful and this makes me sad.

It breaks my heart because I know all of her attempts to be different are really a cry of pain. She has struggled with mighty demons as she has wrested her way through adolescence.

Depression runs through the women in my family like a thick, pulsing vein. It strangles our self-confidence, saps our energy, and leaves us limp and lonely. I have watched my sister and mother struggle with it. I have fought my own conflict. I have listened to stories of my grandmother and great-grandmother taking to their beds.

But when I learn that she is cutting, my stomach recoils and I am physically sick—nauseous and clammy as if the flu has suddenly possessed my body. Soon, she starts wearing long sleeves all the time or a thick crowd of bracelets to hide her scars. I learn she has a secret blog and through a concerned friend of hers, I log on. It is so dark and disturbing that I lay awake at night thinking of what I’ve seen.

She had already been seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist for a year when the cutting starts. Now we up the ante. Intense, twice-weekly dialectical therapy, coupled with weekly visits to the psychiatrist and regular group therapy sessions take up much of her time. She visits the school social worker almost daily.

I suspect that she began cutting as a way to cultivate an image she wanted to convey: that of a hipster with a dark and daring soul. But the allure of the cuts quickly spiraled out of control, becoming its own form of addiction and destruction.

When she first came to me three years ago, crying and scared about her mood swings, I was concerned but not shocked. “I know I should be great right now,” she said. “But I just want to be by myself and be sad.”

But who as a teenager hasn’t felt some depths of despair? I remember those teenage feelings of angst and anxiety only too well, which is why in the beginning I was eager to direct her to a nutritionist or a new exercise group. Good food! Brisk air! Let’s just drum those bad feelings right out! For months I optimistically bucked her up, nauseating myself in my own faux cheeriness. I clung to her smallest request, as if an order of Kung Pao chicken could make her unhappiness disappear. But I also had a friend commit suicide in high school and I know the edge of the cliff can spring up quicker than expected.

Soon I learn that I can’t leave her by herself. I scrutinize every outfit. Grab her wrists. Take the sharp objects and prescription medications with me when I leave the house.

In the midst of her chaos, we transfer our home movies from videotape to DVD. The process requires it to be done in real time with the machine playing back what it is recording. I’m mesmerized. There she is as a baby, our first child, and her dad and I are completely in love with her. Her every move is recorded, nothing seemingly unworthy of the camera’s attention. As a toddler and a little girl, she is captivating. Her clear eyes gaze at the camera, lovingly looking at us. She is the ring leader, the head of family plays and sing-a-longs.

She orchestrates her siblings’ moves with confidence and assurance. I can’t stop watching, looking for some sign of the sullen girl who lives with us now.

Her clothing styles change as rapidly as her moods. First, she shed the trendy shirts and skinny jeans for men’s over-size clothing. That look gave way to black rock concert T-shirts which gave way to ’60s style bell bottoms and fringe vests. Each personality adjustment comes with a slew of other refinements. In addition to the new style of clothes, she adapts a new makeup look and a new personality design for her bedroom.

She draws all over her walls. Beautiful swirls, elaborate scrolls of flowers, inspirational quotes, and images. It’s stunning. She takes one wall and creates a vision board, filled with images she finds inspiring—yoga poses, New York City, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and plenty of other tortured souls who killed or nearly killed themselves with their creativity.

She silently glides out of the house. She has a new group of friends. Earlier, when she didn’t have friends and spent hours and days alone in her room, I worried. Now when she’s out with these new friends all the time, I worry. She tells me to relax, assures me she’s fine, her friends are what she needs right now.

I don’t trust this new group of friends, but without proof (and I desperately search for proof), I feel powerless as she slowly slips further away. Later I will learn that my suspicions were correct; she was engaging in high-risk behaviors on many levels. But I want to believe her. Desperately. Even though the line of pills I need to dole out to her every night is a constant reminder that she is anything but okay.

Eventually, I get a call from the social worker at high school, her voice belying her news. She tells me that there was “a setback” last night. I speak the language and know what that means. The social worker sent her to the nurse and when I go to pick up my daughter, I hug her and tell her I love her. She gently lifts her sleeve and I am stunned and heartbroken at the large hospital-like bandage covering the length of her arm. I am scared to see what lies underneath. Scared to see what she did to herself while I slept, oblivious, in the next room. My mind cannot go in the direction of the darkness she clung to last night. But I will fight for her.

*   *   *

A few hours later, we are on our way to check her into a psychiatric hospital; we stop for coffee and bagels—black for me and a coffee/hot chocolate/whipped cream concoction for her. We order bagels as well because, well, we’re hungry. And I’m not sure of the protocol for checking your daughter into the psych ward. Etiquette books don’t cover such topics.

I look over at my daughter, my first-born, my amazing girl, and try to imagine how we got to this point where she needs to spend time in what is euphemistically dubbed a behavioral health center. What words can I say right now that will make this okay? Do I optimistically give a pep talk about new beginnings? Do I break down crying like I want to? I’m hoping she recognizes the symbolism and love represented by the Dunkaccino. I sip coffee and chew my bagel despite the curious lack of salvia in my mouth. It’s almost painful to swallow.

She seems oddly calm, almost relieved. I fall squarely in the devastated and terrified category. I want to prolong the time I’m with her and perhaps commemorate the moment. I come up with a soppy, heartfelt, caffeine-laden toast to the future.

*   *   *

The adolescent psych ward is both everything I imagined and nothing I expected. The waiting room is full of people just like me, parents wearing the same expression of exhaustion, worry, and a tinge of relief. We don’t make eye contact; there is no need—it’s all too unbearable and we know it. And we are the lucky ones. In the hallway outside the waiting room, patients are being wheeled in, strapped to gurneys followed by familiar-looking parents. By familiar, I mean normal. Someone I would see at the grocery store. I don’t know why I find this surprising.

The kids getting checked in all wear a haunted, blank expression. The girls have the same black-rimmed, heavy eye-lined eyes and nails covered in black, chipped polish. Their clothes are grungy and baggy. The surprise is that my daughter fits right in. She looks just like them.

How had I not seen that before? In my quest to keep her out of the hospital, had I waited too long? How could a hospital stay possibly undo years of dark, deep depression? Where had my little girl gone who was on the soccer team and swim team, and loved going to church and hanging with her family?

We pass through three sets of locked doors before checking her in on the self-harm/eating disorder unit, where skeleton-like bodies with haunted eyes peer at her above their jutted collar bones. Quickly, these become familiar faces. A cross between a hospital ward and a bland dorm hall, the unit has both a nurse’s station and traditional dorm furniture (albeit, bolted to the wall). We have to relinquish everything from underwire bras to spiral notebooks and anything with staples.

This isn’t a retreat. There are no colorful posters or inspirational bulletin boards, encouraging residents to “hang in there, baby.” The nurses and clinical staff are professional but not sympathetic. I want them to smile or reassure me I am doing the right thing. But they don’t. They hand me forms to sign and packages of information, none of which are stapled.

The following days are a blur of phone calls to relatives, the school, teachers, doctors, therapists, insurance, and a few close friends. It’s exhausting and emotionally draining and every conversation seems to take an hour. I have three other kids who are scared and concerned. The younger two had no idea of the extent of their sister’s depression. We take a mental health day.

I spend the next week narrating my life, one step removed: I am folding the laundry while my daughter is in the psych unit. I am answering work email while my daughter is in the psych unit. I am driving a carpool while my daughter is in the psych unit.

I feng shui her entire room, cleaning, scrubbing, and airing everything out. I wash and refold her clothes, dust her shelves, take down the dark tapestries which cover the windows and buy a plant.

My feelings slide on a scale ranging from anger to relief to hope. I’m angry that it’s come to this—angry I didn’t do more sooner, even as I recognize that there was nothing more I could have done.

But there is also relief. Relief that she is in someone else’s care. That for a short while I won’t have to check on her constantly. That my heart won’t race going up to her room when she is the only one home. That I won’t need to look out the window waiting for her to come home.

That I can briefly stop questioning the medicine, the therapy, her psychiatrist, her school load, me, her father, our family—always wondering where we went wrong. Someone else can do all of that now. It is out of my hands for now.

And of course, there is hope. Hope that she is finally getting the help she needs. Hope that perhaps her future will be returned to her, a future where the possibility of college and a life outside of home exists.

We are periodically allowed one-and-a-half hour visits where we sit on uncomfortable chairs in a hallway near other patients and nurses. She is lonely and scared at first (which is hard) then excited and almost happy to have met so many people like her (which is maybe even more difficult) and finally desperate and anxious to get home.

We also meet for family meetings with other parents whose stories are just as awful as ours. And like my daughter, I feel an excitement and kinship with these people. Finally, someone else who understands the true struggle of watching a child battle demons.

Because the reality of mental illness is that it’s still extremely difficult to discuss. Those of us navigating the dark pathways are often too emotionally fraught to fight against other people’s assumptions or battle the stigma as we should. Many of us are too busy blaming ourselves as it is. And so the veil of silence continues. Who are we, the parents of children who suffer, who cut, who starve? Who among us shares this heartache?

When she is finally released, we walk slowly to the car and sit together for a while. She begins to weep. I hug her and cry with her. Then I ease the car into the road and begin the drive home.

*   *   *

The second time she is hospitalized it is less traumatic, but not easier.

She only made it a year before relapsing. After her first hospitalization, she participated in an outpatient program for an additional two months. She managed to keep up her coursework and return to her job. And to my relief, she moved away from her group of friends.

But if there is anything I’ve learned from this journey, it’s to expect the unexpected. Studies show that self-injury can be as addicting as alcohol and drugs.

The second time around, we are even more careful who we tell. My daughter’s illness is chronic and at times it can be life-threatening. And yet, her battles are fought internally, and sadly, we’ve learned that some people find it easier not to inquire.

My daughter, my husband, and I have each lost friends or distanced ourselves from people since the first round. Although we had told only a few people, we learned that the same folks who organize a chemotherapy support brigade don’t phone to check in. And the people who volunteer with the disabled don’t necessarily understand a psychiatric hospital.

But our family sticks together, at times straining at the seams. Before being hospitalized the first time, my daughter made me a CD (a mixed tape of love) and the haunting song “Beautiful Girl” by William Fitzsimmons swims through my brain in gentle laps.

Beautiful girl

Let the sunrise come again

Beautiful girl

May the weight of world resign

You will get better

Her doctors told us that the adolescent brain doesn’t completely stabilize until around age twenty-three. There is a good chance that she will age out of the cycle of self-injury and depression. There is also a chance that she will be fighting this battle the rest of her life. And so it’s up to me in the brief time she has left living at home and in our care, to make sure that she has the tools and knowledge to monitor her disease and keep herself safe.

For now that means supervising her medications, checking in with her daily, staying in communication with her school social worker and her therapist. And yes, ensuring that she is eating healthy food, drinking water, and getting exercise.

And sometimes it means simply ordering Kung Pao chicken on a bad night.

Author’s Note: Since this story isn’t mine alone, I showed it to my daughter before sending it into the world. Any hesitancy I had evaporated when she read it and encouraged me to put it out there. We’re hopeful we can assure someone who is experiencing a similar struggle that they’re not alone. Our journey continues, and although the path we’re taking remains murky, we’re both a lot stronger than we were when we started out.

Laura Amann is a writer and editor who mothers a brood of four in the Chicago area. Her award-winning essays have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Brain, Child, Salon, and Chicago Parent. Her reported pieces have appeared in Your Teen, Scholastic Parent, among others.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

 

 

What The Living Do

What The Living Do

By Emily Rapp

BC_FA2013_Final_layout“Is this your first baby?” Any woman who is visibly pregnant has likely been asked this question by strangers in the grocery store line, other expecting women at the doctor’s office, random passersby in the street.

Pregnant women are often asked deeply personal questions in public: if this is our first child; how far along in our pregnancies we are; if we’re having a boy or a girl; if we have a name picked out. However indelicate these questions might seem, to some degree they make sense. Pregnant bodies are a visible symbol of life andgrowth. People like to engage with women who are expecting to give birth to another human being, which is itself a way of altering the progress of time, of literally changing the world by bringing into it a new life and new possibilities.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I loved answering these questions. As a woman with an artificial leg, I have had a problematic relationship with my body for most of my life, and was accustomed to fielding questions like “what happened to you?” I was well acquainted with our culture’s prurient interest in bodies that are considered “different” or “strange” or “wrong.” When I was pregnant with my son, I felt that my body was doing something right and good in the world; “what happened to me” was no longer an incident of limb loss that required an in-depth explanation. Instead, I was about to be amother. I finally felt normal.

I am pregnant now with my second child and how to fieldthese questions from strangers has become much more complicated since the birth, and then the death, of my first child. My son Ronan died of Tay-Sachs disease in February of 2013 when he was nearly three years old. Tay-Sachs is an always fatal, rare genetic condition that robbed him of all his physical faculties—hearing, sight, movement, and eventually the ability to swallow and process food. Ronan was diagnosed at nine months old, when he was happy and smiling and seemed “normal,” yet he had failed to meet any of his developmental milestones. Some of my most heartbreaking memories are trips to the doctor’s office where a nurse took his pulse with a tiny finger thermometer as he giggled and baby-flirted with her. Many times I watched that nurse’s eyes fill with tears, because here was a doomed child, a sweet baby with red-gold hair and long, pale eyelashes and chubby wrists and ankles who would not live to be a toddler, and whose life would unravel in a devastating way. It is terrible to look at your child and think he will suffer and then he will die.

“How old is he?” people would ask me when I walked Ronan in his stroller on the walking path near my house in Santa Fe before he began to physically manifest the signs of his decline. When I told them they might say, “Oh, it goes so fast,” or “You’ve got so much to look forward to,” and “he’ll be walking and talking soon,” and I would wheel Ronan home, weeping and furious with a horrible raging sadness about the wrenching and ridiculous unfairness of the situation. Sometimes I told the truth. I’d say that he was dying, that he would never talk or walk, and brace myself for the response, if only because I wasn’t ashamed of my son and didn’t want to act as if I were hiding anything. This didn’t matter to Ronan—his cognitive abilities were stalled at a six-month-level before they deteriorated—but it mattered to me. At home I would pluck him from the stroller and hold him and cry and wonder why this was happening to me, how it could possibly be happening to such a sweet and innocent boy. The whole order of the world was reversed—babies dying while the parents lived on.

Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but to be entirely helpless as an unstoppable, incurable disease takes a child from you, to be told by a doctor “this child will die,” and then to witness the slow fade of personality and then the body, is a situation that on many days I did not think I would—or wanted to—survive. And yet I did.

My desire to have another child emerged just after Ronan was diagnosed. I wanted to plan for another baby right away. My husband, my supportive parents, many well-meaning friends all questioned this course of action. My therapist, too, cautioned me about having another baby. She warned me about the dangers of having a “replacement child.” I found and still find the idea of a replacement child odious and horrifying although it is a documented term. No child is replaceable. A child is not a couch or a job or a great spot for your next vacation. I was 36 when Ronan was diagnosed. I did not have the resources for the complex fertility treatments that my husband and I would have needed to pursue to make sure that our next child was not affected with Tay-Sachs (both parents must be carriers for Tay-Sachs to manifest, andthere’s a 1 in 4 chance that a child will have the disease when this is the case). When I met with the fertility doctor he cautioned me that the next two years were crucial if I wanted to have another baby. The literature I read online and in magazines assured me that it would soon be too late for me to get pregnant. I was facing the combined loss of my child and my newly formed maternal identity—the future seemed to me a skeletal, miserable existence, a shattered and frightening world.

The only people who encouraged me to have another child in short course were the mothers of other children with Tay-Sachs disease, who understood perfectly. Of course you want to feel life again, one mother told me. I began to argue with my therapist that clinical terms like “radical acceptance” of my difficult situation and “replacement child” were entirely divorced from real-life situations. I wanted another child, in part, to anchor me to the world, to the after life of living without my son, butI never thought a new child wouldreplace him. I would have to live through what happened to him, but did I ever have to fully accept it? What would that look like? Of course these were questions that nobody could or ever will answer.

Although my relationship with Ronan’s father did not continue, we parented and cared for our child until his death. When I look back on those two-and-a-half years of Ronan’s care—the seizures and suction machines and medications and finally, a feeding tube through his nose, it seems thunderous and unimaginable. And yet my imagination conjures up these images with ease and I remember and mourn him all over again. Ronan’s absence in my life is present to me—with varying degrees of force and sadness—every day, and this will be true for the rest of my life. The memory of what was lost becomes its own reality and then lingers. This is true of the leg I lost and it is true of anything precious that is taken from us, any loss that changes our lives on such an epic scale. I don’t believe that people “recover” from loss; we can only hope to absorb it in a way that still allows for daily moments of happiness. Even this is sometimes a struggle, but it is one worth engaging in. We press on. We continue to seek life and love and meaningful experiences. Otherwise, what are we doing?

I met Kent, my current partner, aftermy husband and I had already separated and decided to divorce, putting an end (I assumed) to my hopes of having another baby. At this time, Ronan was still alive but entering his period of greatest and most rapid decline. When it became clear to Kent and me that our relationship was one that we wanted to pursue for the long-term, we immediately talked about having a child together. Both of us were older (I was 38 and he was 58) and we both wanted to be parents, me for the second time and him for the first. I got pregnant four months after Ronan died, in the midst of deep grief but also fully supported and loved by a partner.

*   *   *

I took the first pregnancy test before dawn. When the stick read “pregnant,” I was gripped by euphoria, fear, guilt and surprise, all at once. I ran into the bedroom and woke Kent up to show him the results. All of the competing emotions rushed in: the impossible desire to hold my son again, in real time, with my own hands, to smell his hair and kiss his face and touch his skin; and the great hope that this microscopic, newly formed child in my body would live on, first in the womb, and then in the world. This child would replace nobody, I realized. Ronan existed, and this child would exist. Yet I still wondered: could I find full joy in this new baby when his or her half-brother had died?

A few days later I didn’t think I’d need to worry about it. My first ultrasound at six weeks showed a gestational sac with nothing inside: no heartbeat, no fetal pole, no signs of the beginning of viable life.

“Well, it’s a no-go,” the doctor said, asif I had planned a party that had suddenly been cancelled. “Probably a blighted ovum.” My friend, Elizabeth, who had come with me since Kent was out of town for work, switched off the video she’d been taking to show him the next day.

I blinked at the fuzzy screen, the great space waiting to be filled. Ronan had been driven away from my house in the funeral home van only four months earlier. I would never see him again. This baby had disappeared—but where? The doctor snapped off his gloves and began to make quick marks in my chart. “I see from your chart that your son has Tay-Sachs disease,” he said.

“He did,” I said, still on the table, undressed from the waist down and wearing the flimsy cloth robe. “He died.”

He looked up. “You must be Jewish,” he said.

“I’m not,” I said. The room was cold. My legs were cold. “People think Tay-Sachs is a Jewish disease, but it isn’t.”

“It is,” he said.

“It isn’t.”

“You must be Jewish,” he repeated. Ilooked at him and repeated that I was not.

Elizabeth, sensing my agitation and increasingly annoyed, said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I don’t think you can catch it from over here.” The doctor flushed red, said no more, and left the room. I never saw him again.

The next week I went to a different doctor, who found a strong heartbeat—a vigorous rapid thumping—and a baby forming just where it should be. Kent was with me, and when we saw the tiny form on the screen, we cried. Out of relief, disbelief, fear, happiness, and the idea of these feelings occurring simultaneously.

The pregnancy progressed smoothly, as my first pregnancy had. When I began to show and people began asking me if I was pregnant with my first child, I was determined to remember Ronan in my response, no matter how uncomfortable it made the asker. “No,” I replied. “I had a son and he died.” The conversation often stopped here, the narrative halted. When the questions first began I scrambled to make the awkward exchange a bit easier for the other person. “Sorry to throw that on you,” I’d say, smiling. But now I don’t. My new policy is: asked and answered. Or, as a relative of mine used to say, if you don’t want the answer, don’t ask the question. I don’t elaborate on how or why my first child died when some people go on to ask those questions (and they occasionally do); at that point I tell them that I prefer not to say any more. I don’t want to offer up the details of Ronan’s illness like the pieces of a tragic tale. But I want it to be known—to strangers, to everyone—that he was in the world, that he was fully loved, and that he was my first baby.

I believe that the real danger of having a child in the wake of child loss is the idea that the child who came first and was unconditionally loved will be entirely forgotten. This was an idea I could not and cannot bear. Ronan was singular even after his death. His half-sister will be singular as well, just as loved, just as irreplaceable. She is filling no space; she is creating her own, just as Ronan did, just as every child does. No person’s place is taken by another’s presence. I don’t believe a desire to have another child is a way of healing wounds, or a way of mitigating the great sadness of losing a child. This great joy and sadness can coexist, and in fact they must. This is the responsibility those of us who have lost children have to our living children: to remember. To make known to those we love and live with that each life has a precious place in the world and a significant purpose, no matter how short that life is or might have been.

These are uncomfortable thoughts for all of us, especially parents, because it is so painful to imagine the death of our children; we’d rather not think about it. In general we attempt to avoid thinking about death in this culture, and we pass this culturally sanctioned phobia on to our children. We think they can’t handle it, don’t know about it, but they do. They sense it. They’re humans. They know. It is our job to find an acceptable way to tell them; to make them understand the existence of death and life together. Years before I had Ronan, I met a woman who had framed her stillborn boy’s footprints and hung them on the wall between her bedroom and her living daughter’s. I thought that was just right; I thought that made sense. Death isn’t morbid or unseemly.It’s the inevitable end of any life.

To not discuss Ronan with my daughter, as I will one day,is to devalue both of them in some crucial and profound way. That said, it is not an easy story to tell someone. “Mom had a baby with another man before you were born, and that baby died.” I can see her, years later as a writer, trying to tell that story in a novel, in a poem, in some other book. To whom do these stories belong, and who is in charge of their safekeeping? This is not mine to decide. I can only tell my own truth.

What the living must do is remember.

Author’s Note: Writing about our children is a strange and necessary task as writers who are also mothers. When my son was sick and actively dying, I felt it was my duty to document his life in a meaningful way. I couldn’t save him, but I could save his story. After his death, I am still in the process of trying to make meaning from a situation that felt absent of all meaningfulness. Writing this piece invited me to consider again the strange ways in which chaos works, turning us toward joy and despair, and many times in unequal amounts. This idea of chance, luck, karma, however you name it, is one with which I have long been fascinated, and writing this reignited in me that intellectual interest.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Redbook, O the Oprah Magazine, Salon, Slate, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. She lives with her family in New Mexico.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

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When ADHD Goes to School

When ADHD Goes to School

By Keaghan Turner

Converse C w colorIt’s about that time in the semester when the first paper due date looms on the syllabus, and college students start pulling out their ADHD. They approach the lectern after class and spill their psychological guts. About their quiz grades … about the paper length … about that first novel we read … about their paper topic.

Eventually and awkwardly they get to the point, trotting out what I know is coming: They have ADHD. They might need an extension, they’re planning to come by office hours, they can’t remember what they read for the quizzes, they had a tough time getting through the whole book, their doctor is adjusting their Ritalin or Adderall or Vyvanse dosages. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I would think. “If I had a nickel,” I wanted to say. What a pop-psychology diagnosis! What a crutch! I shook my head in academic dismay over such a Made-in-America “disorder.” How could so many parents be hoodwinked by the big pharmaceutical companies? Maybe if they made their kids read a book once in a while instead of allowing them to play video games for hours at a time they wouldn’t have ADHD. What is the world coming to when college kids need medication to help them read, write, and study? Why are they in college if they can’t do what kids are supposed to do?

Turns out, ADHD is real. At least, it is at my house. And no one was more surprised than me. I wound up with a toddler who might be down the street—naked—before I realized he had left the kitchen, who couldn’t be trusted not to draw blood on the playground, and who broke my nose once (at least) by throwing his aluminum thermos at me from point-blank range. “This is not normal!” I cried, holding an ice pack to my nose. My little boy McDiesel faces off with Escalades in the middle of the street, he cannonballs into the hot tub, he smashes Lego Starfighters—with no provocation or warning—that his big brother has painstakingly built. He has shattered two flat-screen tvs and one MacBook, pulled a leaf of the kitchen table clean off its hinges, and reduced a 1920s mahogany dining room chair to sticks. He is fierce. Feral.

My mother said it was lack of discipline. Friends said it was the Terrible Twos (and then Threes!). Doctors started saying things like it was too early to say for sure if it was ADHD, and that we wouldn’t want to jump to the conclusion that it was ADHD.  My husband didn’t know what to say. I didn’t say anything. (I was shocked: Why in the world were they talking about ADHD? What could my kid breaking my nose have to do with writing a paper? Plus, I do everything right—I recycle, I clip box tops, I have a Ph.D., we have good genes! Nothing could be wrong with my kid.) Everyone said, “What? ADHD? He’s just … active.” or … just impulsive, just curious, just energetic, just willful, just physical, just fearless. Check, check, check. Almost every word matched the Child Behavior Checklist we filled out at the pediatrician’s office, then at the behaviorist’s, the child psychiatrist’s, the occupational therapist’s, and the chiropractic neurologist’s.

We were all right, of course: it wasn’t normal. That is, it wasn’t “typical,” but it was “just” something: textbook ADHD. A severe case, but still, according to our Beloved Behaviorist, it could be worse. I’ll have to take her word for it.

And now we’re sending McDiesel to school. Real school. Public school. True, as my husband says, finally we don’t have to worry (much) about him getting kicked out the way we did at his preschool. But being part of the school system seems much more serious. They have official paperwork for this kind of thing. There, under “Asthma,” is where we check the box. Now is when we label him. Until he goes to college and will label himself, approaching a lectern and saying that he has been having trouble with the material, that he needs help understanding what exactly the professor is looking for, that he has ADHD.

In the meantime, McDiesel’s new kindergarten class newsletter explains the breakdown for daily behavior reports, which, in the past three years his big brother, Typ, has been in school, I have never paid much attention to before:

Happy Face

Squiggly Face

Frowny Face

These three options seem at once overly simplistic and completely adequate. The school day is long and most of McDiesel’s days are filled with happy, squiggly, and frowny faces in different combinations. (Aren’t most kids’?) Every day is a behavior grab-bag and slim chance the Happy Face is going to take the day. McD’s a Squiggly-Face kind of kid, after all. Just textbook ADHD, as our Beloved Behaviorist would say. His happy-face behavior lights everything up; his frowny-face behavior is impossible to ignore and difficult—in the space of a mere six hours of almost constant contact—to forget or overlook.

On the first day of school, McDiesel proudly comes home with a Happy Face and a note that he had a “great” day. Oh, I think. Maybe it won’t be that hard. Maybe he won’t need medication. Maybe we won’t begin filling out Individualized Education Plan paperwork. Maybe he can behave for six hours. My anxiety ebbs. The second day, he hops off the bus and pulls out his chart—obstructing the bus doors—and thrusts it in my face: “Squiggles!” he pouts. Attached note reads: “Sassy!” (Also a deceptively adequate measure of behavior). My anxiety flows. Next day, I take necessary precautions. I dress him in an overpriced preppy T-shirt, madras shorts, and Kelly green converse chuck Taylors. The strategy is to distract Mrs. W. with cuteness. Can she possibly give a Frowny Face to a kid who looks so stinkin’ good? Alas, yes. As if on cue, confirming my sense of some cosmic inevitability, the third day of school, last Friday, brings the dreaded Frowny—a face that has never before entered the house in the two years our family has been at this elementary school so far. (Big brother Typ—wide-eyed—gasps and avoids contact with the paper altogether.) Mrs. W., the teacher I have special-requested, provides a short laundry list of ADHD symptomatic behavior alongside the Frowny: distracting others, talking during instruction, laughing while being disciplined. My anxiety flows some more, approaching tropical-storm categorization. (Come on! I think. What about the Chuck Taylors?)

McDiesel sulks. Things had been going so well. Behavior seemed to be on the upswing during the summer—to the point I was crediting 45 minutes of Occupational Therapy a week for working an almost miraculous transformation: Maybe some beanbag tossing and a sensory tunnel really can undo ADHD! Now OT seems useless. McD seems doomed to a Frowny Face-filled kindergarten year. All of the statistics about learning disabilities, poor academic performance, and social difficulties jockey for position among my myriad anxieties. I sulk.

I spend all weekend promising to come to school for lunch, reinforcing the extra-special milkshake celebration we will indulge in if Monday sees the return of the Happy Face, and even madly agreeing to a trip to the Target toy aisles (negotiated by opportunistic big bro Typ) as a reward for a week’s worth of Happy Faces.

I drive to school Monday, quizzing McD on how to earn a Happy Face (“Listen to Mrs. W.”) in case he might have forgotten or tuned out any of my coaching sessions.

Then Monday afternoon comes and the cosmic forces have realigned: McDiesel has earned a Happy Face with a note that he had a “way good day!” My anxiety is checked, the tropical storm dissipates. We head out for vanilla milkshakes.

Now I’m worried I might have been too lax this week in continuing the behavior pep rally. Yesterday, I drove up hopefully to the drop-off point in front of school. Carpool kids and big brother Typ hop out with waves and smiles. McDiesel unbuckles and acts as if he’s about to do the same. Then, he doesn’t budge, wants me to walk him in, holds up the entire drop-off line, and dangles halfway out the open car door. Frantically (and I hope not too sharply) I call Typ back from the school entrance to grab and drag (if necessary) McD away from the car and through the door. The principal announces over the PA there will be no tardies today because of traffic back-up. I have no choice but to jump out of car, walk around to his side (avoiding eye contact with all parents stacked up behind me in the drop-off lane), remove McDiesel and his backpack, close the back door, and leave him standing curb-side in the rain, a scrunched up squiggly face in my rearview mirror.

But that afternoon, when I ask McDiesel about his day, he says the happy parts were bigger. He was only a little bad. I open his folder and, voila, it’s true! I’m going to get Mrs. W. the best teacher gift ever this Christmas. She gets it. McD is not doomed to a Frowny Face kindergarten year or to years of academic distress. In the center of the Wednesday box, she’s drawn a medium-sized Happy Face. Beside it she’s written: “Precious little boy!” In the bottom right corner, she’s drawn a smaller Frowny Face. In parentheses: “Kept jumping in puddles when told not to.”

“You know,” I tell my husband, as if this is news to anyone. “A good teacher is going to make all the difference for McDiesel.” Back on campus, I assess my students, not as their professor but as McDiesel’s mother. I see the telltale signs: That kid always has to get up and throw something away. This one shakes his foot for the entire fifty minutes. There’s one who can’t stop talking. Here’s one who is approaching the lectern. I imagine their kindergarten selves, their anxious parents who wait to hear how they did, if they got a Happy Face, if all the medications and therapies and specialists and interventions did the trick. And I know they’re like me, waiting for the report, waiting to learn if their kid is making the grade, if he’s going to be all right.

So my student comes up to the lectern and begins his fumbling explanation.

“Sure,” I say. “I totally understand. Let me help you….”

You won’t believe this, but it’s true: he’s wearing green chuck Taylors.

Keaghan Turner teaches writing, literature, and women’s studies at Coastal California University. Her recent essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Babble, South Writ Large.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Ex In-Laws at My Wedding

Ex In-Laws at My Wedding

By Sue Sanders

BC_FA2013_Final_layoutI stood in my ivory silk wedding dress clutching a bouquet with my six-year-old daughter by my side. Lizzie held tightly to a basket of rose petals with one hand and to me with the other. She pulled on my arm and looked up.

“Now we’ll be an official family? And Jeff will be my official dad?” she whispered. Smiling, I nodded, squeezed her hand, and scanned the small crowd gathered on our front lawn for the occasion. Nearly everyone important to us was there: our friends and family, my new in-laws and my ex in-laws.

 *   *   *

When Jeff and I had first met, it was electric. It was also complicated: we’d both been married before and carried bits of our past into our present. I brought my young daughter; he, Louis the dog; and both of us, a subset of ex in-laws. When Jeff divorced, he had only occasional contact with his ex-family: exchanging holiday cards and email and later, becoming Facebook friends. But I remained close to my ex in-laws, chatting on the phone frequently and staying occasional weekends with them at their house in suburban New Jersey. Lizzie, their only grandchild then, helped cement our relationship as did my ex-husband’s severe bipolar disorder, which made it vividly clear that divorce was our only realistic option.

My ex-husband and I met in college and were together eighteen years. His parents, Tom and Nancy, had seen how I’d spent the final five years of my marriage, desperately trying to get my husband to take the pills that could control his illness. We were bound by the horrific experience of seeing someone we all loved deeply refuse psychiatric help and get sicker as a result. His parents knew that their son’s illness was no one’s failing; that ours was the ultimate no-fault divorce. They’d welcomed me into their lives all those years ago and their son’s illness wouldn’t change that, would it? Part of me wondered, but I tamped down the doubt, sure we’d continue to have a relationship.

From the time my husband and I had separated, my ex in-laws continued to be both emotionally and financially generous with Lizzie and me (I had quit working to stay at home with our baby). When my ex’s “episodes” became more frequent and severe, finally leading to the end of our marriage, Tom and Nancy took Lizzie and me into their home while we worked with a series of doctors and New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to have their son hospitalized. They were there for us when their son, in an angry manic phase, canceled our health insurance and had all our mail forwarded to his house. They were there when their son frightened my upstairs neighbor into giving him a key and then let himself into my Brooklyn apartment. Much later, when I finally met with a divorce lawyer and we all realized that my ex-husband was in no condition for court, his father Tom became his son’s legal guardian and represented him in the proceedings.

More than a year went by. I eventually started dating and met the man who’d become my second husband. Jeff and I met online, flirting and getting to know one another remotely. When we finally met in person, we knew it was real. As time passed and our relationship deepened, it all seemed so easy and natural something I hadn’t experienced for ages.

After dating for a year, we moved in together, to a little house in a small town in the Hudson Valley. One afternoon, a few months later, Tom and Nancy drove the two hours from their house to ours the house that they’d loaned us money to help buy—where Tom would meet Jeff for the first time and Nancy, who had joined us all for Lizzie’s fifth birthday party a few months earlier, would get to know him better. I was nervous—I felt a bit like a matchmaker arranging a blind date. Would Tom and Nancy like Jeff? Would it be awkward for them to see me with someone who wasn’t their son and to see Lizzie treat Jeff as the father he had already become to her? Would they flinch if Lizzie referred to Jeff as “my dad”? How did they fit into our lives, anyhow? I wanted them to continue to be involved, but what are the rules for ex-family? I wasn’t sure, but we were grafting new branches to our family tree.

As I wondered what would happen, I realized I was really seeking their approval—even though the logical part of me understood this was ridiculous. I was an adult. I wasn’t their child. They knew staying married to their son wasn’t an option. Still, there was a tiny portion of me that felt guilty for abandoning my mentally ill husband.

When they finally pulled into our gravel driveway, we all dashed out to greet them. Nancy struggled on an arthritic knee to extract herself from the passenger seat, then greeted Jeff with a peck on the cheek. Lizzie and I escorted her into the house, walking slowly in time with her cane, while Jeff helped Tom pull multiple bags of brightly wrapped gifts out of the trunk. I could hear them laughing and talking. Jeff let Tom know how grateful he was for their generosity and compassion toward me. Tom told Jeff he really appreciated hearing that. When Jeff repeated all this to me later that night after Tom and Nancy had left, I felt incredibly thankful—and relieved. I hadn’t realized that I’d been holding my breath and I could finally exhale.

Their visit crystalized something that had been bothering me since my ex-husband and I separated: there needs to be better vocabulary to describe changing family relationships. Lizzie seems to be aware of this deficiency, and flips back and forth in an almost bilingual manner depending on her audience, referring to Jeff by his name when she ad- dresses him, and calling him “my dad” when she talks about him to friends and family. I find the lack of accurate words challenging, as well. What label is there for ex in-laws who are still in a person’s life? I’ve tried to refer to them in other ways, though nothing seems right. Using just first names when I introduce them to friends somehow doesn’t convey our bond. And introducing them as “my ex-mother-in-law, Nancy, and ex-father-in-law, Tom” maybe accurate, but it’s an awkward mouthful. I play around with possibilities, but none seem right: my mother-out-law; my father-ex-law; my parents. I can’t think of any short, pithy label to explain how our relationship, though changed, is still a close one.

*   *   *

A few months after that visit, when Jeff and I decided to marry, we didn’t hesitate to add my ex in-laws to our small wedding’s guest list. It felt right.

So there we all were: friends, family, ex-family. That June afternoon was a clichéd ideal of Hudson Valley wedding weather—sun peeking through wispy white clouds that kept the day from getting too hot. Though our row of peonies had already died back, dropping their petals all over the ground as Lizzie soon would hers as flower girl, the potted foxglove and geraniums on the deck overlooking the distant mountains were in full bloom. A scrum of kids played freeze tag and softball in the yard before settling into chairs with their parents. Then I said that I did and Jeff said that he did too, and we kissed. I grinned at my family and ex-family, so glad they were there for the very beginning of this newest phase of our life.

Jeff’s friends seemed surprised that we’d invited my ex in-laws to the wedding, after they’d been introduced during the reception with that awkward mouthful of words. Later, I poured a glass of merlot and brought it to Tom as he sat on a folding lawn chair in the backyard. He stood and hugged me, a genuine hug from someplace deep inside. I thought about how conflicted he must have felt to see his ex-daughter in-law so happy with a man who wasn’t his son, and to see his granddaughter bond so firmly with a “new” dad in a way that she never would with his son. I hugged Tom back.

“I’m so glad you came,” I said, as we sat back down.

Tom reached for his merlot and took a sip. He seemed at a loss for words.

“You’re part of our family,” I said, tearing a little for all that we’d been through together with his son—and for all that was ahead of us.

“And you’re part of ours,” Tom said softly, eyes moist.

I feel so lucky to have had even that brief conversation. Three weeks after our wedding, Tom died in his sleep.

*   *   *

Now, years later, we’re still writing our own rules about what family is. We visit Nancy in her Manhattan apartment every summer. She’s stayed with us as well. But we still grapple with explaining our relationship to others and what, exactly, to call one another. Lizzie has it easy: “grandma” is grandma no matter what. But I still don’t have a convenient word and perhaps I never will.

Our new nuclear family is celebrating its ninth anniversary this summer and we’ve each celebrated nine birthdays together. Lizzie’s homemade birthday cards to Jeff have progressed from squiggles and backward letters, with stick figures with curly gray hair crayoned on the front, to tiny, careful cursive with anime-like drawings. Some have said “To Dad;” others, “To Jeff.” But however she chooses to address them, he’s very much her “official” parent.

Author’s Note: I’m still wrestling with what “family” means and searching for a word that can describe ours to others less awkwardly—there aren’t any nice, concise expressions that easily explain ex-family still in someone’s life. I also sometimes wonder if these bonds will remain as strong over time as with “regular” family. I hope they do.

Sue Sanders’ essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brain, Child, the New York Times, Real Simple, the Rumpus, the Oregonian, the Seattle Times, The Morning News, Salon and others. She is the author of the book Mom, I’m Not A Kid Anymore.

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First Born

First Born

By Patty Speakman Hamsher

Gabriella's first dayI met my first blood relative in the middle of the night. The summer heat of the Caribbean dripped down my face as all seven pounds of her came tumbling out of me, blue and wet, her eyes wide and scared. The doctor and her dad pestered her for a few cries, and then I had her in my arms. Flesh of my flesh, dark hair and dozing eyes aching to stay awake and make sense of the confusion and sounds, but at peace to nuzzle into my breast and sleep off the adventure of coming to life.

My story begins a lifetime before that. I had been somebody’s new baby, wrapped in a pink blanket and howling in the arms of my mother who was standing next to my brother and father, all of them beaming in our first family photo. I was adopted and therefore had not only a birthday to celebrate every year but also a “special day” that honored the date I officially became part of my family, my first day of life in our family’s recorded history.

It wasn’t until my teen years that I found myself feeling around for missing pieces. I needed information about where I came from, my origin. I felt conflicted why I couldn’t appreciate my post-adoption life, the easy childhood of beach vacations, Brownie meetings, a room mother, family road trips, and skinned knees from playing with the neighborhood kids. But I was fumbling with the desire to lay eyes on someone who had my nose or my uniquely blue and hazel eyes, someone whose identity was concealed in the politics that dominated closed adoptions of the late 1970s. I was sure I would bump into my birth parents someday. I even let myself believe my parents were waiting for the right time to tell me they had known my birth parents all along. In this fantasy, everyone was waiting for me to arrive at the surprise party that would be our reunion.

Five months ago and several years after the self-absorption of my youth had faded into adult reality, I became serious about the search. The intimacy of pregnancy, and the birth of my own two daughters had given me the chance to experience the tenderness of growing life; I couldn’t imagine not knowing the little limbs that nudged me from within. An intense admiration for the woman who gave me up grew as strong as my own babies’ kicks. I imagined the tales I would tell my kids one day, of the two college students who fell in love, went on adventures, and spent a few years traveling the Caribbean, events that put into motion their conception and presence years after the thrill of late-night partying and a two-person tent had faded.

I made an official query to the agency that had handled my case 34 years ago. It was a request for contact with the fairytale characters with my wavy hair and slight build that I had imagined and searched for in random store aisles and crowded bus stops everywhere. My parents, anxiously supportive, offered protective warnings not unlike those they gave on my first drive down the driveway with a shiny new license in my pocket:

“Be careful, Patty, we don’t want you to get hurt.”

Like my brother, they were nervous first, excited second, and somewhere in each of them I sensed admiration and saw the dawning of a private curiosity they hadn’t let themselves realize before. My closest friends encouraged me by way of emails and lengthy voice mails, familiar with my desire to uncover what I felt for so long had been missing. Their encouragement soothed my conflicting loyalties to my family who loved me unconditionally and to my convictions that I would only ever feel fulfilled by taking this leap.

Sooner than I expected, my birth parents were real people on the social worker’s computer screen. These imagined people with the goodness and strength to give their baby a steady life suddenly had breath, and in their realness they shared their apprehensions with the social worker about direct contact with me. And I was again the howling baby, confused about my origin, angry about my helplessness, and frustrated by my limitations. Their faces were no longer everywhere, they were somewhere I couldn’t get to. Their identities were protected and carefully concealed to guard the hurt they had felt and the larger biological family that didn’t know about me. I began to mourn that I would never meet them, and angrily chipped away at the pedestal I had placed them on, the one I had created during late-night feedings with my own babies, when I rocked and realized the fortitude it would have taken me to give my babies to someone else.

It was only when I allowed myself the space to grieve that I gained the clarity to see the big picture of my life coming together. I have no control over or legal rights to my conception or my genes. The people that did only promised to write a letter, hoping that would be enough for me. They asked our mediary, the talkative social worker with years of experience, for permission to address it to me personally, and without hesitation I gave up my first name to them. I thought about how angry and raw I felt about their still-secret identity, and I wondered if they flinched at the sound of my realness.

I found my consolation prize a few weeks later, in between home security offers and credit card bills. Intuition had told me to expect the letter to arrive soon, and reason told me to prepare for a sterile run-down of my medical history and family data. What I found instead was five poignant pages long, typed in a font that was perhaps chosen for its dramatic slant. I read it alone in the back yard of a summer evening, letting the emotions have their way with me while my husband peeked out the window every so often. In those twenty minutes I watched myself reading a letter that was my taproot. I laughed, I cried, I cringed, and I smiled at the way things work out, even though walking through them can feel so heartbreaking and discouraging. I read the letter twice, both times finding myself slightly hung up on the lack of symmetry between the intimate details they disclosed and the sterile conclusion: they never signed their names. A week later, I would get angrier about this inequity and the legality of disclosure, but that night I was too drunk on the facts, more detailed than I could have dreamed about, to notice.

I tottered around in the awkward newness before I was able to reveal myself to my family, the ones who had cautiously given me their support to push the rewind button on the events that existed before the Kodak flash of my first special day. I got used to knowing my medical history and the circumstances surrounding my conception. It was a story as old as time, she wrote, where two careless teens found summer love and later faced the disappointment and embarrassment of families. Only in my story, the teens didn’t rush into marriage and play house with a real baby like their families wanted; they signed papers in the room at the end of the hall where the nurses spoke in whispers because the birth mother couldn’t bear to hold the baby she had signed over to an adoption agency.  I devoured the personal words describing their physical traits that mirror my own and allowed myself the validation that came with the pain she felt for months after my birth.

Years later, my birth parents married and eventually had a son who knows nothing about this full-blood sister who looks for pieces of herself in men about his age without realizing it.

But the letter is enough for now. I have memorized the tender lines that make me physically ache—how she never saw me or held me for fear she wouldn’t have the strength to follow through on what they knew was the best decision, how she would cry for me months later, wondering how any woman could give her child away.  I catch myself mentally crafting pieces of a reply letter to them before the final waves of sleep wash over me at night. But I often awaken without putting anything on paper, leaving my reply hanging in a place of peace where it can’t be rejected.

Last week I answered a phone call while sitting at a red light, and just as casually as the light turned green, the social worker informed me my search case would now be closed. I could tell from her voice and the words she chose when offering her mildly apologetic indifference that this had not been a successful case to her. She had hoped there would be further contact from them after the letter, perhaps they would have been moved to have direct contact after the shock wore off, she said, but it didn’t look like they would follow up after all. And while my kids clamored from the back seat for snacks and my interest in the latest handwriting assignment, I felt the familiar zing of helplessness once again. I was reminded that there is so much that is out of my hands even if it was my own fingers that made the first call.

Like the social worker whose expectations were that of a reunion, supportive friends often ask when I will write a response letter to my birth parents, a question I ask myself every so often and can’t yet answer. For now, I am learning how to find my way to what feels like enough. For now, there is a comfortable feeling of peace about it all that needs no follow-up.

I will always be a chosen baby. But I am armed with the truth that I began in the womb of a young girl who still loves the same young boy she made a mistake with, the woman who has found a place to tuck me into her heart and visit with me from time to time while we both charge on to make lives the other would be proud of, knowing that our paths may never physically intersect. From one family I was given breath, but from the other I was given life.

Patty Speakman Hamsher is a freelance writer and a dreamer living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and six chickens. When she’s not fantasizing about traveling or overanalyzing parenthood, she is an editor at Eastern Shore Savvy and blogs at Salinity Press

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Pregnancy Brain

Pregnancy Brain

By Mel Lefebvre & Lydia Christine Zilahy

pregnancy brainEver had that nightmare where the teacher calls on you to write on the board, and once you’re standing at the front of the class, you realize you don’t have any pants on? Well, this one woman we know did a grownup version of that in real-life.

Standing at her car after buckling in her toddler on her way to work, she was feeling around for something in her pocket when it struck her that her bright red holiday-themed underwear, complete with a ‘ho ho ho!’ and a North Pole postage stamp on her rump was all that was between her bare skin and the world around her. That woman is co-author of this article, and that day she was suffering from a serious case of baby-brain.

Being pregnant is a bit like being in a secret club, only you’re on your own for the initiation. No one tells you that you kind of lose your marbles. “I think it shocks every mom to learn that you may forget to wear your shoes to work,” says Shannon Seip, author of Momnesia! A Humorous Guide to Surviving Your Post-Baby Brain. “I also forgot to put the emergency brake on and my car rolled down into my bushes and I thought, what happened to me? I used to be a smart person!” says Seip, also the mother of two young boys.

Most of us will admit to feeling a bit more scatterbrained while the miracle of life blossoms in our womb. We forget things here and there. No big deal, right? Let us be the ones to welcome you to the baby-brain club. The club where an ease into sleep deprivation and not being on the ball, or even knowing where the ball is, are your new normal right alongside spider veins, stretch marks, and sore boobs. Baby-brain won’t cause long-term cerebral damage, but it will occasionally make you want to commit yourself.

Ignorance may be bliss for one of the more comically disastrous side effects of gestating, but while you still have your wits about you, get thee a notebook.

Maybe a whole stack, actually. And while you are at it, buy a mountain of sticky notes. As a novice to this club, your first assignment is to write out in multiple, in huge letters, ‘you are not crazy’ and begin decorating your house, your car, your office, and even your partner with these and other little reminders to help navigate your day. Why? Well, there are reasons why a pregnant woman might be on the forgetful side, apart from the fact that everything that goes into making a baby can mentally and physically bankrupt you. “There’s just a lot going on, especially with a first-born where the learning curve for a new mom is so sharp. You’re emotional, forgetful, and full of hormones. It’s a rough time,” says Seip. It is baby boot camp. All factors combined might make a pregnant woman feel like she’s losing her grip on reality.

Still think these horror stories only happen to a handful of people and that most pregnant women glow like those on magazine covers? Hate to tell you, it is fact, not fiction.

According to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine, during pregnancy, “the body grows, and the brain shrinks—about six percent. The female brain is different from the male brain to ensure the survival of those who cannot take care of themselves. We aren’t antelope, we don’t just drop the baby and run.” Far from being antelope, take us, for example. Mel Lefebvre, mom to Corin, and Lydia Zilahy, mom to Bianca. Between the two of us, we’ve had five pregnancies. That’s five immense hormonal, physiological, physical, and emotional upheavals that have resulted in pants-less errands, leaving behind expensive equipment after covering events for work, forgetting how to spell (which, for two writers, is just a little more than embarrassing), not being able to form proper sentences while speaking and confusing our conversation partner, inducing much palm-to- forehead slapping once we realize that we don’t sound like the sophisticated, educated women we set out to be.

Thankfully, we have each other. Just when we thought we had finally crossed that line from being cute, quirky pregnant ladies to having completely lost it, we discovered we weren’t alone with our addled brains and abandoned thoughts. Though, comically and quite fittingly, many women have told us that while they did experience forgetfulness and memory loss, they can’t remember the details. And since baby sweeps us off our feet and takes center stage once the baby arrives, we don’t end up talking about memory loss. Toss into that mix a couple of studies that declared pregnancy brain a myth, and it can muddy-up an already foggy horizon. Whether it’s scientifically proven or disqualified as a real phenomenon, we can confirm that during pregnancy and the time that follows, it’s quite common, to, uh, forget things.

“I started forgetting stuff like crazy when I was pregnant, and I still can’t remember any of it,” says Madeleine Coyler, a Canadian four-time pregnancy-brain survivor and mother of three who lives in Saint Lazarre, a small town just outside the bustling city of Montreal, Quebec.

Like many of us, Coyler has packed up and left the house with her list of chores and a lack of focus so typical of members in club baby brain. “I will admit that I have, on more than one pregnant occasion, left my apartment, walked down to the parking garage, and driven halfway to work before realizing I was still in my fuzzy bedroom slippers,” says Coyler.

“My brain is mush,” says Sylvia Kroll, a Montreal resident and mother of two who has undergone three rounds of pregnancy brain. “Names and numbers have gotten ten times worse for me. I forgot my child’s name once, and I think I forgot my husband’s name at one point. He was ‘that guy there—you know!’ I even called my dad Babe once. When you’re pregnant, you get away with everything,” she says.

While rolling with the waves of memory loss can be entertaining at times, it can also be disconcerting for moms-to-be. “It is funny, and scary how much you lose,” says Kroll. As much as we’d love to kick our feet up for nine months and spend the time relaxing and snacking our temporary amnesia away, our attention is stretched to cover responsibilities at work and home. Inevitably, some things get neglected. “I couldn’t remember to open the mail for almost three weeks. Those things kinda fall by the wayside. I mean, really, it’s not as important as keeping your baby alive,” says Seip.

There’s a lot of pressure for women to feel like they can handle pregnancy with super-human grace and poise with perfectly packaged bumps, flowing hair and a glowing complexion. Donning our Superwoman persona and cape, we juggle pregnancy, careers, possibly other children, spouses, family, social engagements, fitness, and other exhausting ambitions. All the while, we have less energy, are sleeping less, battling pants, socks, and shoes with a growing midsection, and we’re less alert, always hungry, probably nauseous, and just want to curl up on the sofa with a bag of popcorn, some ice cream, and nap in front of a movie until baby arrives.

Lara Onaba, mother of Denzel from Peace River, Alberta, wasn’t sure if she suffered from any kind of mind-altering pregnancy silliness. But she put her finger on a contributing factor that made her realize there was something going on in the ‘ol noggin. According to Onaba, “I forgot less after Denzel was born. I think this was because my sole focus was no longer my body. When I was pregnant, I was hungry 24/7, and one day I was so tired I actually just sat down in an aisle at Wal-Mart. I found that I could use my energy to think more when I wasn’t so hungry!”

What Onaba expressed is something quite normal during pregnancy, and is what Dr. Brizendine, who is also best-selling author of The Female Brain and founder of The Women’s Mood and a Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, says is a gentle shut down, catapulting the mom-to-be’s brain and body into a symbiotic state that takes care of the growing fetus. “High levels of progesterone kick in nesting instincts. The growing fetus in pregnancy wants your energy. The body is either turned on or turned off by hormones. Hormones are responsible for a behavior necessary for survival. Now, we don’t want Mommy using her energy to be as active—we want Mommy to eat, sleep, and rest. It is not about Mom becoming ‘stupider.’

The behavior the hormones create is anti-activity.”

The toll a growing human takes on our bodies alone is enough to preoccupy our thoughts and energy, and it’s supposed to. The idea that women feel they have to do it all while constantly needing to eat, pee, and chase sleep while growing a baby and saying goodbye to a life of non-motherhood or taking care of another child out of the womb at the same time is completely ridiculous. The unfortunate reality is that many feel the need to keep up our pre-pregnancy standards of living. Any other effort is substandard and reactions to having an off day (or month) are unforgiving. And women’s harshest critics are most often themselves.

“It’s a weird thing, prego-brain,” says Calgary resident Katharine Barrette, librarian and new mom of Audrey. “In a way, it made me really defensive if I forgot something that, say, people at work noticed. I’d feel I was being accused of being a weak woman in a weakened state, whereas if a male colleague forgot something, even if he was distracted by a personal situation, you would never hear anyone joke about ‘dating brain,’ or ‘divorce brain.’ It was annoying to be thought of as incapable,” says Barrette.

If we’re going to be superheroes while pregnant, arming ourselves with knowledge and facts might help us survive the nine months between conception and delivery. Shifting priorities and modifying standards might help ease the pressure of perfection. So will claiming some emotional and mental space for what is, truly, an incredible physical feat. “Set your expectations really low and focus on the things you did achieve,” says Seip.

In addition to having a whole new human growing inside you, your body produces a new organ, the placenta, de- signed to sustain your baby’s life. We need to make some concessions in needing some breathing room, and compassion for attention that is directed to the space between your ribcage and pelvic bone. With that in mind, the fumbles of pregnancy brain, like showing up to work in pajama pants, forgetting documents and meetings, or even your spouse’s name, are really not that significant.

So, relax a little. It isn’t you. Really. It’s your biology. There is an explanation for the physical changes we go through while growing our wee ones.

Part of that change happens in our brains, as Dr. Brizendine’s impressive six percent brain shrinkage statistic says, and there’s little many women can do to avoid momnesia. If anyone gives us a hard time, slap them with this bit of science and stand proud, perhaps in fuzzy bunny slippers, in the office, all the while having no idea where you put your glasses (they’re around your neck) or that important luncheon you’re missing as you dish out some prego justice.

During pregnancy, the blood flow to your brain changes. “Our blood actually gets shunted away from the forebrain to- wards the hindbrain. Our forebrain is where our short-term memory is and multitasking takes place. And the hind-brain takes care of the survival basics. We actually see on brain scans that the blood moves to the back of our brain,” says Paola DeCicco, a Montreal-based naturopathic doctor and mom to Alice. “Some studies show the brain does shrink, and others show that it doesn’t, but to me, it’s a no-brainer. Excuse the pun. It’s one of those things where your faculties are needed elsewhere. We channel our reserves into focusing on maximizing our energy on this new creature. All of that other information, like remembering phone numbers, remembering to pick up the bread, become secondary,” says DeCicco, whose private practice involves a lot of perinatal care and fertility work. A study by Diane Farrar and associates, published in the journal Endocrine Abstracts, confirms that pregnancy affects a woman’s spatial ability, or in other words, remembering where we put the darned car keys.

What does take our immediate attention are multiple trips to the bathroom at night, feeling our baby move while our center of gravity changes, cooing at ultra-sound pictures, and managing some basic functionality as our bodies adapt to being the mothership for at least one tiny passenger. If that doesn’t rip the super-hero cape right off your shoulders, don’t worry: there are still leg cramps, and needing extra support to haul your belly to turn over in bed as discomfort takes over where comfort left off.

Many pregnant women admit to being wide awake at four in the morning for weeks on end for no apparent reason. One prego-braniac says she took advantage of that time to make lists of the restaurants where she craved a meal and another just gave up and took to snacking on the couch in front of a movie in her last months of pregnancy before getting ready for work. Sleep deprivation is a tactic used by the military to prepare soldiers for battle at any time, yet it is something pregnant women and new parents must endure that is shrugged off as just part of the experience with the expectation that life can go on as normal throughout pre- and post-child living. “There is the theory that the sleep deprivation that happens during pregnancy is prep to get you used to it. By starting to change your cycle, it’s not as much of a shock when the baby actually comes,” says DeCicco.

In their book, Woman’s Guide to Sleep: Guaranteed Solutions for a Good Night’s Rest, authors Dr. Joyce A. Walsleben and Rita Baron-Faust give the astounding statistic that after the first year of birth, women accumulate between 450-700 hours of lost sleep. “That affects memory hugely,” says DeCicco. Chronic sleep deprivation of that magnitude catapults us into survival mode. “Your body’s chemistry has perceived that you’re under a large amount of stress. That kicks off a whole hormonal cascade and puts us into a fight or flight mode,” DeCicco explains. The hormones at work here are our body’s big-league players. Estrogen fiddles with emotions while improving blood flow to the uterus and is responsible for breast tenderness; human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) produces progesterone and estrogen until the placenta takes over; relaxin helps your uterus expand and is also to blame for your chronic heartburn because, as it’s fittingly named, it relaxes your internal passageways, from your esophagus to your bum; progesterone makes sure your egg stays safely implanted in the womb, and finally, oxytocin, the love hormone, is responsible in large part for our nesting behavior. “Take the word progesterone—’progesterone’—it is what keeps the pregnancy intact,” says Dr. Brizendine. Even our brain’s neurotransmitters take a hit. It’s like getting a whole new body for almost one year. “No one’s clearly identified the cause, but the phenomenon clearly exists and it’s obviously a hormonal component,” says DeCicco. With all of that in play, no wonder our brains feel a bit less tightly screwed.

Not everyone is so convinced that baby brain exists. More specifically, that any real and long-lasting changes happen to the brain, and that a pregnant woman’s cognitive abilities are any less than their non-pregnant counterparts. One study, published in 2012 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, ran multiple tests for cognitive speed, working memory, immediate and delayed recall on groups of pregnant and non-pregnant women and found that there were negligible to no differences in mental performance, dismantling what they refer to as the pregnancy brain myth.

Well, Helen Christensen and colleagues who published these findings under the title Cognition in pregnancy and motherhood: prospective cohort study, could be right, but that doesn’t make us feel very good at all. “I have no excuse, then, for what happened to me. It makes you feel worse!” says Seip. “Certainly, the word on the street is that momnesia is real,” she said.

In their concluding remarks, Christensen and colleagues state that memory loss during pregnancy is not inevitable, and may be attributed to all the other stuff that’s going on. “Perceptions of impairment may reflect emotional or unknown factors,” they say. “Women may have memory lapses, and change their focus to children and upcoming birth. This does not mean they have lost their capacities,” Christensen told WebMD soon after publishing her study. In a totally empowering finale, Christensen and colleagues state, “Not so long ago pregnancy was ‘confinement’ and motherhood meant the end of career aspirations. Our results challenge the view that mothers are anything other than the intellectual peers of their contemporaries.” And to that, we say heck, yes. That and, every woman is different. Some women declined being interviewed for our article because they never experienced any goofs or lapses in memory during pregnancy. They kept their pants on, remembered their children’s and spouse’s names, and never missed an important anything, ever.

Back in club pregnancy-brain’s corner, Dr. Brizendine supports the existence of placenta brain and armed us with the perfect defense. “During pregnancy, the brain actually shrinks—no one really knows why. There are many hypotheses. One is that there are all kinds of lipids and fats that live in the brain and that the baby takes what it needs—literally eating your brain. There is a cognition change that happens so that you walk into a room and forget what you went in there for in the first place—what we call the working memory. The change happens to the main function of the hippocampus, the area of the brain most sensitive to estrogen and progesterone. In the first few weeks of pregnancy, estrogen levels rise by about 30-40 times and progesterone up to 100.”

Whether or not your mind gets a little cloudy during your gestational period, some basic common sense can help make this time less stressful on your body. A mom herself, DeCicco knows that a little self-care is a big thing. “I definitely experienced firsthand the lack of focus and sharpness, and plenty of sleep deprivation for a good 18 months. I used Post-it notes to help in this time. My daughter is wonderful, but she was never interested in sleeping, and was exclusively breastfed. It takes a big toll,” says DeCicco. If left exhausted and drained, both Mom and baby are likely to be the worst for wear. The solution is to simply slow down and do less. “The baby, the pregnancy, and you want the calmer, lower-activity Mom. Mother Nature intended for you to really take good care of yourself. This is just the first step to parenthood, so get ready. Consider this Mother Nature’s training wheels,” says Dr. Brizendine. DeCicco strongly encourages pacing yourself with your new, pregnant body. “Like I say to Moms of any age who have that martyr syndrome, if you don’t take care of yourself, it’s your kids and family who suffer. You need to be the priority. You need to be the best that you can be so that everybody else around you who depends on you can benefit and be as good as they can be.”

Common sense can go a long way to helping women pre- and post-baby. Eating healthily and taking naps are two things women can do to manage their exhausted bodies and minds. “There are a lot of nutrients that are incredibly important and can affect brain chemistry and our ability to multitask. Iron and vitamin B12 are part of regular OBGYN screening, but very often, they’re low and patients are not told because it’s not a priority,” says DeCicco. A woman doesn’t need to test positive for anemia for low levels of iron to have serious effects on well being. Low iron levels cause sleepiness, yawning, breathlessness, and other signs of fatigue, which are also a pregnant lady’s constant companions. As a major transporter of oxygen, iron helps with mental focus and helps maintain steady energy levels. So from our willingness to get up off the sofa and go for a walk to basic cellular metabolism, iron, which we get from meats, some dried fruits, nuts, and dark leafy veggies, and B12 supplements, can be a hefty and almost easy fix for a bad case of prego-brain.

Another easy intervention is omega 3 fish oil. “It helps with Mom’s cognitive function, postpartum depression, and with the development of your little one’s brain and nervous system,” says DeCicco. It also helps to have a healthy breakfast with at least 16 grams of protein to start your day. A high-quality protein powder, one containing split peas (which have the highest protein content per serving of almost any protein source) can supplement the bowl of frosted sugar crunch you absolutely must have in the mornings. While pregnant, your metabolic demands are much higher, and we burn through food at a much quicker rate than our non-pregnant counterparts. It’s important to sustain yourself to avoid crashing, feeling irritable and anxious. Getting the blood flowing to the brain will help with baby brain by getting the oxygen moving. Mild exercise can help your mind focus, too. So take a walk, a swim, or find a prenatal yoga class to blow off some steam and bring your mind back to you and the baby.

In addition to taking it easy and napping when you can, one of the problems with baby brain is that pregnancy tends to be so focused on the baby. Any aches, complaints, or stresses Mom feels tend to be met with harsh criticism. Suck it up; this is all part of being pregnant; deal with it; and, what did you expect is some of the helpful advice a few women said they were given, inducing in us a knee-jerk reaction to reach for our super- woman outfit. What could help, actually, is to keep a notebook handy to jot things down so they don’t escape your addled brain. Carry, along with your notebook, an attitude check. If no one perished and the world as we know it did not end, go easy on yourself. For example, if you forget to pick up the bread, so what? A two-person-in-one mom machine’s sanity trumps a grocery list any day. Rather than throwing your arms up in frustration at your misplaced keys, glasses, or wallet, take a deep breath and let yourself be the princess you are, if only until baby arrives. This is your time. Chill out and let yourself be pregnant. In our society, brides seem to be allotted this ‘princess for a day’ mentality. You are pregnant. Guess what? In our club, you just became a princess for nine months.

It’s soothing to repeat Dr. DeCicco’s basic advice. Let yourself be pregnant, and roll with the expected and unexpected effects your body brings you during pregnancy. Work-related performance pressure aside, allow yourself to go with the flow, rather than just sucking it up and hiding our distress beneath super-woman garb. Throw the cape out. The world will keep spinning while you take some mental breaks to ease into fatigue, so don’t take on that extra project, and stay in on the weekend, hiding from social engagements now and then. And ask for help to manage your workload in the office and at home. You might gasp because Wonder Woman would never do such a thing, but guess what? She’s fictional, as is her uterus.

Authors’ Note: If you were reading this article and wondering why the numbers didn’t add up for pregnancies and children, we do count miscarriages and other losses as experiences in pregnancy. Our children, whether they walk with us or rest in peace, are a big part of our lives and we didn’t want to exclude them.

Mel Lefebvre is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Montreal Families Magazine, Montreal Gazette, Your Local Journal, Atlantic Salmon Journal, and the David Suzuki Foundation. She lives in Montreal, Quebec with her husband, son, stepson, bunnies, and cats, and still wonders what she will be when she grows up.

Lydia Christine Zilahy grew up in Montreal, Quebec. Losing a bet brought her to rural, northern Alberta where she got married, adopted an army of pets, and had the wonder of her life, a daughter named Bianca, and two angel babies. 

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Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface

By Francesca Kaplan Grossman

Pink Breast Cancer RibbonThe first time I found one, I had just downed a can of Arizona Iced Tea. Sweet, soft on the back of my throat, ice cold and only 99 cents, it seemed to me the best deal in drinks. I needed it. It was August in Massachusetts, and the air was hazy and heavy around my face. The can sweated, and so did my back, in fluid sheets, and I could feel my sports bra forming a damp “o” shape between my shoulder blades. Soccer practice for high school preseason had already begun, burning off the early morning hours with drills I loathed.

I pinched the cotton of my tee shirt between two fingers and pulled it away from my chest, fanning myself with the thin white fabric. Putting both hands in my shirt, I wriggled out of the bra. It felt like a stunning release to let my breasts slap against my chest as I peeled off the sticky spandex. And then, for some reason, I laid my palm directly over my right breast.

I’m still not sure how I found it. The tiny marble under my right nipple shouldn’t have been noticeable, even to me. But somehow my palm landed directly on it. I rubbed it around for a minute, kneading the circle under my skin, the flesh soft and pliable around it. Then, I pulled my hand away.

I was only sixteen and I had a plan. College, work, motherhood. But mostly motherhood. My mother was the example I could hold onto—a working mom home every day by 3:00 p.m. She was equally obsessed with her work and her children.

My mother worked hard, played hard, and knew us well. Nothing would get in the way of my being just like her when it was my turn.

“It’s nothing,” I said to myself, flipping over onto the hot, yellow lawn, the sharp grass scratching my face, the sun drying my salty neck.

The ground felt hard under me, and though I knew it wasn’t possible, I felt the little marble roll beneath me, like the princess and the pea. I imagined it green and tiny, like a pea, but also hard and impenetrable, like a marble. A marble pea.

“Nothing,” I said again.

I ignored the marble pea for six years, until it started to grow a cousin. This one I could not ignore because I was twenty-two and into truth telling. On my neck, right above where I would have had an Adam’s apple if women had Adam’s apples, was what looked like an Adam’s apple. It was oblong, as if I had swallowed a whole olive and it had never gone down.

“You have a thyroid nodule,” the endocrinologist said, looking at my chart and back at me.

“What does that mean?” I? asked frantically. I scanned?the room for the diplomas?that would tell me this man?was the best doctor ever, but all I could find was a? Best of New York Doctors mention from 2000 taped to the side of his desktop computer.

“It’s no big deal, Francesca,” he said, mispronouncing my name “Francessa.” Not a good sign….

“So what do we do about it?” I asked, my hand instinctively flying to my throat to finger the olive. It was solid under a thin layer of skin, and it moved around when I pushed it.

“Nothing, we’ll watch it.”

“Will it affect me getting pregnant one day?”

“Are you pregnant now?” he asked sharply.

“No.”

“Then don’t worry about it.”

But I wasn’t satisfied with this answer; I couldn’t bear to imagine my life without children. I remained quiet, nodding my respect for a doctor that I was sure must know much more about my body than I did.

So I watched it, in the mirror, in store windows, wherever I could get a glimpse. And it continued to grow.

My husband, Nick, is six foot two. I am five foot nothing, which makes for funny family pictures and a tough time kissing. When he’s on his knees, we’re the same height. There’s a picture of us on our wedding day with my head completely pushed back like a Pez dispenser as he leans down over a foot. At that moment, the olive had grown into a walnut, jutting out of my otherwise flat neck in what should have been the best picture of my life.

“Don’t you think we should take it out?” I had practiced this line a thousand times in the bathroom, at home, and then, right there, outside the doctor’s waiting room. It was the first thing I said to him when he checked on the walnut.

He gave me a stern headmaster’s stare.

“We don’t need to do anything, Francessa. It’s a nodule. Many, many people have them, especially Jewish women.”

Huh? I nodded. It had taken all my courage to get the sentence out, and I could say no more.

“OK.” I finally mustered, unsatisfied and uncomfortable.

“We’ll biopsy it. All right? If that will make you feel better,” he added. It sounded like an accusation.

But I welcomed anything that might reassure me that I was going to be okay.

I had the walnut biopsied every year for seven years, and there was no change. Every time the six-inch needle pierced my neck flesh, I winced guiltily for making the doctor check it.

*   *   *

The first time I shit in my pants I was on the platform of the Number 6 train. I was twenty-six, and a cup of coffee I’d sipped now led to stomach pain I can only classify as agonizing. Though I did everything in my power to get up the subway steps and into a nearby restaurant to relieve it, my cold, shaking body had to let go three steps from the top. The problem in a situation like that, I have since learned, is that walking makes it worse, and stopping gets you nowhere.

Now covered in a putrid brown film that no one could mistake for anything else, I sprinted in shame to my gym, a place that had been my salvation. I rushed? into the shower with all ?my clothes on, peeled ?them off, pumped bright ?green body soap into the crotch of ?my jeans, and threw away my balled-up underwear in a naked dash from the scalding shower to my locker.

When I was finished, I sat on the cold metal bench with towels draped over every part of me, my jeans and tee shirt and bra draped over the bench. How could I possibly live a normal life like this? How could I one day take care of someone else—a child. My child?

I should tell Nick it’s over, I thought. Let him find a woman who is healthy and strong, always ready for life.

Yet I felt elated, having escaped the stomach pain that had overtaken me a half hour earlier. It was blissful, this pause, like a welcome inhalation of normalcy.

I learned later that year that autoimmune disease means your body is attacking itself. It’s chronic pain you can’t escape. You can’t run away from it because it’s inside of you, in some ways it is you.

A delicate young woman with a black gym tee shirt came over to me in the locker room.

“Are you okay?” she asked me.

I nodded, unable to speak. A rising ball of humiliation threatened to choke me, almost like the giant walnut within me. “Do you want me to dry those for you?” she asked gently.

I sighed with gratitude, nodded my thanks and sat in tiny white towels for the next forty-five minutes while a woman I didn’t know dried my shit-stained clothes. She handed them to me in a CVS bag someone had left behind. I had no choice but to put them back on. I proceeded to walk home, seventy-three blocks and two avenues and one bridge, just so I wouldn’t have to get on the subway again.

All this time I hadn’t only been growing a walnut in my throat and developing an angry belly—it felt as though I’d also been growing new skin. Heavy skin. Skin that felt bruised in every pore. Soon, simply turning over in bed was torture. My skin was calloused, pocked, red and raw, especially in the joints.

The doctor told me this pain was peripheral arthritis, connected to the Crohns disease I apparently had developed to accompany my thyroid autoimmune disease.

He actually said, “It goes nicely.”

*   *   *

On a Tuesday I went to have my thyroid walnut biopsied, and, three weeks later, I was having it removed.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” the doctor said. “It’s so rare to have cancer so young,” a second doctor agreed. “Plus, thyroid cancer is a good one to have, if you have to have cancer at all.”

When I turned twenty-nine, I went into Lennox Hill Hospital to have my whole thyroid removed. Doctors suggested I just take half out and “see what we are dealing with,” but I was getting to the point that enduring two back-to-back surgeries was an unbearable alternative. And, I was starting to doubt that these doctors knew what they were talking about, so I demanded they remove the whole thing.

I recovered fairly quickly from the surgery and was home on the couch, a cat curled in the indent of my knees, watching “The Golden Girls,” when the phone rang.

“I don’t want you to come all the way in to hear this,” the surgeon said. “It turns out it was cancerous after all.” He added quickly, “But the good news is, it’s out, so you don’t have cancer any more. Probably.”

Probably?

I remember hanging up the phone and staring at the TV for a full five minutes. When I thought of Nick, my stomach curdled into ice-cold cement.

“I can’t believe I will never see my own children,” I mourned out loud. And then, “I can’t believe he is going to love someone else.”

Assuming I was going to die, I couldn’t bear the idea that Nick would have a whole life, a good life, a long life, after I was gone. And the children he would have would not be mine.

I called him. “It was cancer,” was all I could say. He was home twenty minutes later, sweating as if he’d run the whole way.

I’ve always been angry that the doctors didn’t acknowledge that I had cancer. For years, they told me I was fine, I was overreacting, nothing was really wrong with me, and then they took the thing out, diagnosed it, and it wasn’t mine anymore.

I am, of course, grateful it is gone, but I can’t help but feel cheated. It is a strange and wicked reality.

In a bout of post-cancer depression, I lay on our couch for twenty-two days. No extra radiation was needed, but I ducked out of society anyway.

No one but Nick knew how long I stayed there, only getting up to pee, eat, and feed the cats. I ignored calls and Nick ran interference. Sometimes, he would come home, walk over to me, kiss my head, make us dinner, and tell me about the world outside.

“It’s nice out, Fran,” he said at the beginning of April, two months after my surgery, seven weeks after diagnosis of something I no longer had inside of me. I nodded through heavy eyelids.

Soon after, Nick took me to Jamaica so I could get away. It was such a beautiful thought, to take me away from the grime of the city so we could spend a few days on the beach. It was a grand gesture because we didn’t have the money, and my guilt spread as I agreed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I couldn’t imagine anything less inviting than spending hours on a plane, in line-ups at the airport, without the comfort of my own bed at night, in a strange, hot place.

The first night, I had a glass of wine and watched the resort show, thinking that if I were pulled up on stage to dance like some of the other vacationers, I would just have to lie down on it.

“You look great,” Nick said to me, smiling his crinkly smile and touching my arm. He was a liar, but he was a sweet liar. I looked at myself in the mirror behind the bar. My eyes were rimmed with a yellowish tint. My skin was flaky and beet red from the sun be- cause the medicine I was taking made my skin sensitive in a new, exposed way. My neck was swollen and my fingernails, for some reason, were blue.

“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at him, knowing that I was about to throw up.

I muttered an “I’llberightback” jumped off the stool and dashed back to our room, three outdoor stairways away. I slammed myself through the bamboo bathroom door and didn’t make it to the toilet. Orange vomit covered the walls of the bathroom, sliding down the tile in gooey bits. I lay down in the middle of the room on the bathmat, and a few minutes later, Nick knocked on the door.

“Fran?”

I couldn’t answer.

“Fran?” He pushed in the door and took a step back. I am sure what he saw repulsed him, and though I couldn’t possibly move, I imagined retreating even further into myself.

“Oh, honey,” he said sadly. He got a towel and washed the walls with the floral soap from the shower, scrubbing the floor, literally mopping up the mess.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and took the bundle of towels out into the hallway. When he came back in, he had bedding, a pillow, and a glass of water.

“Can you drink this?” he asked gently.

“I don’t know,” I squeaked. “I don’t know if I can sit up.”

Nick came over to me and slid down onto the mat next to me. He smelled like the floral soap and salt water and the beer he had abandoned. Lifting my head in his hand, he tipped a small sip of water into my chapped lips.

“There,” he said.

He put the glass of water down on the floor?next to me and I rested my?face on the tile in front of the bathmat, the coolness an astounding relief.

Nick tucked my head under the pillow and made a floor-bed under me.

“You don’t have to do this,” I croaked.

He ignored me and slid his body down next to mine. “Try to sleep,” he said.

I tried to nod as his hand traced light circles on my back.

*   *   *

Since that day, I have been to many doctors, but rarely one who smiled. So when I started to see OBs, I feigned calm as they poked and prodded, expecting a deluge of bad news, like “barren,” and “unable.”

I surprised myself (and Nick, too, I think), when we got pregnant swiftly, without event. Both times. And both times I was nauseous and swollen and pimpled and sweaty and so, so tired the whole time.

But I was a “healthy” sick. Which was new to me.

Finally, both times, my body was working like a normal woman’s, and I was finally growing something inside of me that wasn’t going to kill me.

*   *   *

Our son was twelve weeks old when Nick went into the hospital the first time. His first migraine was now six days old. The second time we were practiced in both migraines and newborns, but this one was accompanied with a stomach pain that drove him to his knees.

Covered with monitors, IVs and confusion, Nick stared at me in disbelief. I could only stare back. We were in the wrong roles and weren’t sure how to act them out. I grabbed his hand and squeezed the bruise that had started to form beneath the IV needle. He winced, and I mouthed, “I’m sorry.” So I did what he always did for me. I called his family, got him a ginger ale, cleaned his chin, rubbed his back, sat in the chair, and waited for answers.

We don’t have an answer, even today, for the disease that clots Nick’s blood. Until we know what it is, and probably even if we do, he has to take a blood thinner that prohibits him from any activity in which he might bump his head and bleed to death. He can’t ski or play basketball, and if he gets into a car accident, the prognosis is grim.

But there is more. Our roles have changed and meshed?into one. There is no longer the strong and the struggling. Now we are both.

There is not much we can do. We go to yoga on Tuesday mornings. I work part-time. We both take generic Paxil. We stretch our dollars, we cook on Sundays, we watch Millionaire Matchmaker and chuckle.

Even in the most peaceful, mundane, white-picket-fence version of our lives, there’s a tinsel-thin fear. Another knowledge, one neither of us will admit.

Sure, I’m scared he’ll collapse again from the pain of a clot, shield his eyes from the agony of light, or that his bruises will spread until they paint his skin purple. Or worse, that we won’t see the bleeding, and it will drown him from the inside.

I’m scared I’ll be aimlessly squeezing my flesh and come upon another marble pea that won’t be so easy to remove and will snowball rapidly. But there is more than that.

It is quiet, this fear, and it says: To have two sick parents is a curse. As I tuck in my son and I kiss the wispy hair on the back of my daughter’s sweet head, it whispers around the room. What if they lost us both and had to fend for themselves? Even worse, I wonder if there are silent horrors swimming around beneath their skin? Will their genes betray them? What have we done?

It does not escape me that my two children grew out of me the same way everything else has. They, too, started tiny and unnoticed, growing into the small, wonderful people they have become. I made them.

We made them.

Which can’t be good.

When one of them gets a cold, I prepare for tuberculosis. When one has a bruise, I take a sharp breath in, praying it will not grow. And fevers, well, they just about crush me.

Will my daughter shit in her pants on the 6 train? Will my son be attacked by knots of blood in his veins? Will they grow things the size of olives, walnuts, golf balls under their skin? Will they demand they be removed? Will they hate us for it?

I didn’t drink alcohol for nine months both times I was pregnant. I power-walked and did yoga, tried to sleep well and limited my medications to those that were absolutely necessary. I ate eggs. I did everything I was supposed to do to keep my babies safe and healthy.

But I couldn’t give them healthy, strong parents. And I don’t know how to live with that.

We have dinner together every night, the four of us, like the family we hope we can be.

“Mama,” my son says, his dark brown eyes wide, a yogurt mustache tracing his upper lip.

“Yes?” I say, controlling myself not to wipe it off for him.

“Will you take me to school tomorrow?”

“I can’t, babe.”

“Why?”

My daughter parrots, “Why?” in a two-year-old voice that barely makes sentences work. But her blue eyes are expectant.

“I have to go to the doctor, guys.”

“You always have to go to the doctor,” my son replies, annoyed.

I can do juice cleanses and downward dog myself into my forties. I can strip the negativity from my bones and delete phone numbers from people who will never be real friends. Nick and I can eat more quinoa, love each other late into Sunday night, cut up credit cards, and find family-friendly bikes.

But the very real possibility that something new is happening, is growing beneath the surface of our collective skin, is almost impossible for me to stomach. Though the only choice for us is to try.

Author’s Note: There is a thin line between having it all and losing it all. And it is on that line I balance, and I think we all might balance. We, as mothers, as women, as humans, all teeter between an ecstatic celebration of what we have—a job we are proud of, some people who love us, a home we make—and the impending terror of the possible—a sick parent, or child, or us, a money catastrophe, a splintering friendship, relationship, marriage. The thin line is where life is, and we grab it with our toes, begging them to brace us. That line is where I like to hang out, where I try to write. I hope it is the place where fact becomes truth. This essay turned me inside out, and I feel better after writing it, like throwing up after a stomach bug, or coming up from a deep dive, gulping for air.

Francesca Kaplan Grossman’s previous and forthcoming work includes contributions to Motherlode, the Huffington Post, Ed Week/Teacher, Glasscases.com, among other publications. Francesca lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with her husband Nick and two children, Theo and Brieza. She is currently working on her first novel, The Night Nurse, and a collection of personal essays, The Math of Me: A Collection from a Life out of Sequence.

 

The Wedding

The Wedding

By Mary Ann Cooper

WO The Wedding ArtI’m planning a wedding. Or at least helping to plan one. Sean, my thirty-five year old son who lives in Chicago is getting married next May. The wedding will take place at my younger son’s home in Connecticut, where I also live. The lush yard will hold a tent, dance floor, port-o-potties and everything else that’s necessary for a garden nuptial. Since Sean isn’t here, I offered to help him check things off of his list and make it a memorable day.

My first task was to find a caterer. After speaking with friends and reading reviews, I narrowed my choices down to two. On my first call, I spoke with the owner, an enthusiastic middle-aged-sounding woman. I asked her if we might set up an appointment to review food options.

“I’d be delighted to have you come in,” she said. “I have sample menus you can take a look at and lots of other offerings.”

“Great!” I said.After giving her the date, number of guests and location, we continued.

“Ok,” she said. “Groom’s name?”

“Sean.

“Bride’s name?”

“Well, actually, there are two grooms,” I said. “The other groom’s name is Robb.”

She paused.  “I don’t understand. Another pause. “Oh, wait – is this a gay wedding?”

“It’s a wedding,” I said. “Is there a problem?”

“Um.  No.  It’s not a problem,” she said. The chirp had clearly left her voice.

“It’s just that we’ve never catered for gay people before.”

While I was speechless, seconds went by.

“Well,” I said. “That’s a shame.”

Seething inside, I gave her a quick thank you and hung up.

Through the years, I’ve learned how to handle myself when a gay slight or slur is hurled, whether subtle or blatant.  Previously, I used to fire back, the mama bear ready to protect her own. Now when it happens, whether I’m at a dinner party or just with another person, I exit the situation, finally realizing that I can’t repair ignorance.

I held my breath as I dialed the next caterer. After hearing Sean and Robb’s names, the owner continued taking information without any hesitation.

“It all sounds good,” she said. “We look forward to accommodating your event, and to meeting the grooms. You said they’re in Chicago? What do they do there?”

Wanting to cry with relief, I told her they were both airline captains. I wanted to tell her more, to tell her how kind and wonderful these two handsome men were. But I didn’t.

“Good for them,” she said. “See you soon.”

Sean was twenty-two and finishing college in Vermont, when after some urging by one of his professors, he came out. His first call was to me. I was always close with my sons. While they were growing up, their dad traveled a lot, and now, newly divorced, I was closer than ever to them. Sitting in my driveway, I was just about to get out of my car when my phone rang.

“Mom. Do you have a minute?”

“Of course,” I said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, but listen Mom.  I want to tell you something.”

“Anything,” I said.

The line was quiet for a moment.

“Sean?”

“I’m gay, Mom.”

I heard some relief in his voice, mingled with trepidation. I hesitated, letting it sink in, but realized I had to say something quickly, as I knew he was waiting for my reaction and response.

“Sean,” I said. “I’m so proud of you, honey.  I don’t care what you are. I just want you happy. This can’t be easy for you.”

“It’s not,” he said. “For years, I’ve been asking myself, why me? I just wanted to be like everyone else.  But I’m finally ok with it.”

“I’m so glad. But it must have been so difficult along the way.”

“It was awful. Seriously, would anyone ever choose to be gay, Mom?”

After we spoke, I was relieved and saddened. Relieved that Sean could finally embrace who he was, yet saddened for what might be ahead of him in places where there were people not yet willing to accept others that don’t fit their concept of normal.

During high school, Sean dated many girls, I believe willing himself to be straight. But the relationships never lasted for more than a month. He’d then get depressed, despondent, and try again. My ex-husband and I knew he was struggling; we witnessed mood swings, anger, but never really knew what the cause was. We had him speak with a therapist, talk with the school counselor.  Nothing seemed to help. We did wonder if he was gay, but his outward appearance confused us: Sean was the guy wearing the hat backwards and driving a truck with a girl next to him. We had bought into the stereotypical image of what society says a gay man should look like. Sean later clued me in.

“Mom. It’s not always what you look like. Do you know how many cops, construction workers and servicemen out there that are gay?”

I didn’t, but I’m learning.

It’s been pure joy watching Sean grow into himself, content in his own skin, finally proud of who he is. Proud enough to sit in his cockpit and film a segment for the national “It Gets Better” program, which is aimed at kids who are struggling with their identity. And when Sean met Robb two years ago, it was the icing on an increasingly solid cake.

Last month, I had another wedding planning appointment, this time with a tent company.  A representative was meeting me at the backyard to measure and plan the set-up.  Luckily, Sean and Robb happened to be in town. Looking around, I smelled the lilacs, looked at the tiered patios and the arbor, and thought what a perfect place it was to have a wedding. As we waited, the three of us discussed wedding ideas.

“How about having paper airplanes coming out of the centerpieces?” I asked. Sean looked at me and rolled his eyes, while Robb stared at the pavement.

“No?” I asked.

A truck entering the yard stopped our conversation.

“Here’s the tent guy,” Sean said.

From the end of the driveway, we saw him approaching. Short with muscular tattooed arms, the tent guy’s teeth held a stubby cigar in one corner of his mouth. He wore a sleeveless New York Giants sweatshirt, and his jeans had a belt with a chain hanging from it.

Oh boy, I thought. I hope this goes well.

Sean stepped up and put his hand out.

“Hey, I’m Sean,” he said. “This is my mom and this is Robb.”

“Joey,” the tent guy said, shaking hands. “Nice to meet you all. Nice yard. Let’s take a look around.”

Walking the grounds together, Sean had questions for Joey.

“Robb and I have a lot of friends coming. Should we go with the larger dance floor?”

Joey stopped walking and quickly looked at Sean and then Robb. He took the cigar butt out.

Uh oh. Here it comes. I knew it.

“Wait. It’s you two gettin’ married?” he asked, pointing from one to the other.

I stared at Joey, waiting for the inevitable.

“Yup,” Sean said. “We are.”

“Well, Jeez,” Joey said. “That’s freakin’ great. Happy for you guys. Don’t worry; we’ll get the right dance floor. It’ll all be good.”

I smiled. Another learning experience for me. Just as I don’t want my son to be labeled, I shouldn’t do it to others. With this in mind, I continue checking items off my list.

Mary Ann Cooper is a writer who resides in Westport, Connecticut. She has been published in numerous publications including, Salon and Halfway Down The Stairs. She is presently at work on her memoir, “The Hollis Ten.”

 

The Wanderer

The Wanderer

By Rebecca Martin

RebeccaMartin“Excuse me, I’ve lost my daughter.  She is wearing a purple dress with white polka-dots and white leggings.  Her name is Maeve, M-A-E-V-E and she is 4 years old,” I said it in a rush, but I was so clear and precise in the midst of my panic, the security guard in the Jet Blue terminal in LAX looked surprised that I had left him with nothing to ask—as if I was following a script.  And I sort of was, because the scene where I lose my daughter in a vast place where she could slip away forever, was well-rehearsed.

After four years of being Maeve’s mother, I know the lost child procedures everywhere from Disneyland to our YMCA. I know to expect that the rest of the staff is instantly alerted, in the larger places via earpiece, and that all exits are secured.  At home, I have my own protocol when she doesn’t respond to my call: A survey of our fenced-in backyard from the kitchen window; a run to the garage, including a scan of the rafters I have found her trying to reach in the past, and then a full throttle run out the front door, crying her name until I reach our street’s intersection with a larger one.  Sometimes, I race back to our house breathless and find her in the corner of the playroom, a tiara on her head and a dinosaur in her hand, her full brown brows barely crumpled in confusion at my relief to see her.

One might think I am a negligent mother, and one might be right if they were talking about bed times or table manners.  But I am not that bad about losing my children.  Maeve gives me the slip.  The LAX episode began with me locking her, my son, James, 2, and myself in the bathroom stall.  Just as I was in a position from which I could not quickly recover, she put a soft pink hand on the door latch, turned her head to look up at me from under a falling lock of chestnut hair and smiled a challenge.  Then she turned the latch and used her still toddler-solid legs to shoot out of the stall and then the bathroom, her fuzzy pink wheelie bag bouncing after her while I struggled to recover.  I looked first where I had found her 5 minutes earlier, chatting away on a pay phone. Then I circled the restaurants, before I approached the first uniformed person I saw.

After I briefed the guard, someone from behind me said, “I think your daughter is over there.” I saw nothing of the stranger but the tip of his finger that ended at Maeve, sitting next to a couple she did not know in the mid-century black vinyl airport lounge chairs, balancing her bag on her feet and looking up at the flight information on the screen overhead, as if she were a seasoned traveler in a Doris Day movie, where travel was just a delightful adventure.  I yelled, “Maeve!”  She looked at me as if to say, “Oh, you’re here too?”

I wanted to hug and kiss and scold and shake her, and say everything I have said before that made no difference, like, “you scared me!” and  “I don’t want to lose you!”  But she is unbothered by those things.  She is not afraid of being lost.  Her mother always manages to show up and spoil her fun, and besides, this is who she is.

The first time we unloaded the fuzzy pink bag from our car was at JFK a year earlier, when Maeve was three.  I told her to stay in the car until I had the stroller arranged, but as soon as I turned, she launched herself from seat to sidewalk without a coat.   She seized the wheelie bag and, without looking back, began to stride toward the terminal, dimpled elbows exposed to the February New York chill.  “Maeve!  Stop!” I yelled.  She looked at me over her shoulder.   Then Maeve, who still at three usually spoke in toddler phrases and gibberish, said, “Don’t worry.  I won’t get lost.”  Part of me was pleased at that moment. I had always wanted to give my children the world, and Maeve, for one, was ready to accept it.  I love to watch her jump off the couch and run for the car yelling, “I do!” when I have only asked, “who wants to go to the store?”  That she is game for any kind of going is a joy.  However, the larger part of me was terrified that she would run off right then at JFK and figure out how to board a plane to parts unknown, because, unlike Maeve, I know what can go wrong.

Before I found her scanning the departures board in LAX, that is all I could think of—the risk: that she would find herself someplace where I could not help her.  When I saw her, I was relieved of the fear that someone had taken her, but the fear that she would roam still gripped my heart and made me want to frighten her—to look her right in her calm-as-a-summer-sky blue eyes and lay it all out for her tough-love style, “You like to roam?!  You know where roaming leads?!  I’ll tell you … it leads to being 17-years-old and crying your eyes out in the bathroom of the Brussels airport because the people who were supposed to meet you did not show up after you waited for them for eight hours and a strange older man would not stop offering you a taste of his chocolate bar!” But I didn’t.  She has never heard of Brussels and she is too young to realize that I lived a life before her, so I just said, “Come on!” and grabbed her wrist so tightly she cried, “Ow!”

As I walked the linoleum corridor to the baggage claim with Maeve’s hand clamped between mine and the handle of James’ stroller, I thought how routine this had become: Maeve running, me searching, our remorseless reunions.  I was becoming used to it.  Maybe she was breaking me in, preparing me for the calls from Brussels, or Damascus, or Timbuktu.  Maybe the already dingy pink wheelie bag would end up covered in stickers and releasing clouds of dust from following her favorite band for a year.  Maybe by the time she was ready to really see how far she could get, I would be ready to let her go.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Babble.com, Literary Mama, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

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Everything New is Old Again

Everything New is Old Again

By Alison B. Hart

WO Everything Old is New Again ArtWhen my daughter was 9 months old, my old friend came to town to meet her. Like me, he was nearing 40. I had bought an apartment, married, and had a baby in quick succession. He was single and ambitious and wondering when he might start a family of his own. To a certain extent we were both late bloomers, but that was hard to tell in New York, a city custom-built for extended adolescence.

On the last day of his trip, we had some time before he needed to leave for the airport, so we walked through Brooklyn while the baby slept. It was a sunny day in winter and I was enjoying being out and social, just strolling down the street on a Sunday afternoon, listening to my old friend talk in unhurried, uninterrupted sentences.

“Babies are nice,” he sighed.

I agreed.

“You make it look so fulfilling. I’m tempted to get one of my own.”

“You should. You’d be a great dad.”

But I knew he wasn’t seeing the whole truth of my life, that this was a picture-postcard moment due in large part to our reunion and the baby’s slumber.

We passed a bar on Smith Street and the sweet stink of beer enveloped us.

“What on earth?” I stammered. “It’s 2:00!”

I’d been up for what seemed like days already, but I was aware that most people had just finished breakfast. So many responsibilities loomed ahead that would require my active concentration: dinner, bath, bedtime stories, extracting myself from the baby’s room before Mad Men came on. Surely, other people also had things they wanted to accomplish? It was much too early in the day to jettison all my plans by getting tipsy.

My friend just smiled. “Oh, honey,” he said. He might as well have patted me on the head.

And suddenly I was transported back to my twenties, when he and I first arrived in New York. At 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon back then, I was either at a bar, on my way to a bar, or sweating through a soccer game after which I would lug my sweaty gear to a bar with my teammates. Bars were what weekends were made for.

What I would have given right then, all those years later with my daughter’s nap almost over, for a cold one and some hot wings and no particular place to be.

Then it hit me: this was another case of good old-fashioned nostalgia.

I had a lot of hit-and-runs with nostalgia in the days and weeks after my daughter was born. Whenever I encountered people doing things that seemed virtually impossible for me to do with a child, I remembered the freedom I once had to do whatever I pleased. I could sleep until 10:00 on a Saturday. Hell, I could sleep all day. Before I had a baby to get home to, I could make last-minute plans after work: to see a show or play a game of pick-up or get dinner with a friend who needed to talk. I could get that third drink at the bar without a thought to the cascade of events it might touch off—more drinking, possible loss of wallet in bar or cab, killer hangover the next day. Before I was a mom, I was free to make an ass of myself or waste time or both.

But it didn’t feel like freedom back then. Mostly the options that were available to me when I was younger felt like the wrong options. In my twenties, I wanted stability. It was hard to enjoy myself properly when I was running up credit card balances I couldn’t pay off. In my thirties, still single and living alone, I wanted a life. I could go out for tacos 3 nights in a row (and often did), but only because I didn’t have anyone else’s tastes to consult. I would far rather have been in a relationship and stayed in for the night, preferably with someone who could teach me the difference between red wine vinaigrette and red wine vinegar. When my friends started having babies, I felt left behind. Freedom was lonely.

And what was so great about it anyway? I didn’t want to sow my oats; I’d had plenty of time for that already. When I met my husband in our mid-thirties, the fact that he was Marriage Material (genuinely kind, in possession of and familiar with the deployment of household cleaning products) was a development that thrilled, not spooked, me. Still, we took things slowly at first. We kept separate apartments for 3 years, resisting the pressures of the market to move in together and save money. I took a solo vacation to Barcelona, because I’d never traveled abroad alone and wanted to prove to myself that I could. He built a flotilla of rafts to ride down the Mississippi River with his friends, and gave serious consideration to joining the circus.

Maybe freedom was as simple as wanting to leave room in life for the unexpected. It was easy, even logical, to defer certain responsibilities and take our time pursuing our interests. It may not be like this in every city, but in Brooklyn, New York, waiting until you are 37 to start a family is as natural as riding a bike, growing a beard, and keeping bees on your rooftop.

I was ready to become a mom when I did. But sometimes I missed my old life. I felt so blessed, but also overwhelmed. In fleeting moments that first year, the awesome responsibility of being my daughter’s entire world knocked the wind out of me. When my friend left for the airport, I missed him, and I missed the me that used to be.

Not long after his visit, while my daughter played peekaboo with her grandparents on Skype, I told them that I was thinking about nostalgia.

“What are you nostalgic about?” my parents asked.

“The time before she was born,” I said.

They both let out deep belly laughs, as only people of their generation can laugh at people of mine, even across technology they understand only minimally.

“But you just got started! You’ve got 35 years to go!”

They were right, of course. Intellectually I knew this.

Then a funny thing happened. Spring approached and, with it, my daughter’s first birthday. I don’t know if it was the seasons changing or the days getting longer, but now all I could remember about that chaotic, upside-down year was the week she was born. I remembered how tiny she was—on my chest, nursing for the first time; in the hospital bassinet, staring back at us with giant blue pools for eyes; asleep in my husband’s arms. I remembered how crazy it felt to have a baby in the car seat next to me on the ride home. The car seat itself seemed ludicrous, perhaps even stolen. It used to blow my mind when she fell asleep: to think that there were three, not two, of us in the apartment. Three heartbeats.

Even the hard times were transmuted by memory into something magical. Sure, those first few weeks were a riot of panic and exhaustion. And, yes, my body felt like it had been through a war. I barely left the house except for pediatrician appointments. But every single second was a complete surprise! I couldn’t appreciate it at the time. Not since my own childhood had so much been so new.

Looking back one year later, my vantage point lifted and tossed around by a rogue wave of nostalgia, I was awestruck by the adventure. All the mundane things—changing a diaper, shopping for rice cakes, commuting home from midtown—now felt incredibly special.

For days I felt tingly and alive just crossing the road. It was like that line in Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-one Love Poems”: Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty / my limbs streaming with purer joy?

I did not.

But why not? Why hadn’t I enjoyed what I had when I had it?

I don’t know. I wish I had, but it’s an impossible wish in any case.

The older I get, the more I suspect that wholeness isn’t a feeling that hits us all at once but something more like a long meal whose courses are spread out over years. You start with the hunger of youth. Savor the confusion of the lost years that follow. Pore over the delicacies that you can’t afford. Accept a bite off a rich friend’s plate. Drink a little, maybe too much. Expand in all directions. After some conversation and digestion, order more, this time maybe something to share.

For some of us, at least, maybe nostalgia isn’t a distraction from the present but a necessary experience of it. We get a second chance to appreciate now what we couldn’t the first time. Even when tinged darkly with regret or envy, nostalgia offers a path back to the pleasures hiding beneath. And when it’s connected to life’s purer joys—a long walk with an old friend, a sleeping infant, or a first birthday—we can be reborn.

We had a small party at home on the day my daughter turned 1. Her grandparents came, as well as a few friends and their children. It was still too cold to go outside, so after we stuffed ourselves with cake, we broke apart into predictable groupings. The men talked politics with the grandparents, the kids built towers around the baby, and the women snuck seconds (okay, thirds) in the kitchen. I told my girlfriends about the excitement I’d experienced over the last few days, reliving the birth of my daughter.

“Did it happen to you, too?” I asked.

Yes, they said, they were pretty sure it did.

“Will it happen every year?” I asked.

That part they weren’t so sure about. They couldn’t exactly remember. What parent can remember, years later, which solid food came second or which month the third tooth came in? Eventually rhythms establish themselves, and experiences come to us and flutter away, like the pages of a calendar, turning quickly.

The next year, I waited for it to happen again. There’d been many new developments in my daughter’s second year: walking, talking, talking a lot and in great detail. You could say she was bossing us around by that point, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But the newness of her was not something I registered anymore. The fact of our family was a given I’d long since accepted. I sat at the window in her bedroom, where I’d nursed so many days and nights but no longer did, and I looked out at the trees just beginning to bud and the quality of the sunlight altering. I waited for that tingly, just-fell-in-love feeling to take me. But it didn’t happen. I was in love already, had been for years. And I had been here before, on this block of Brooklyn, in this week of March, a mother remembering.

Alison B. Hart’s work has appeared in The Missouri Review and online for USA Today, HBO, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of the reading series at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn and holds an MFA from The New School. She is currently at work on a novel-in-stories.

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Should You Let Your Child Quit?

Should You Let Your Child Quit?

NO

By Delia Lloyd

Debate_A_v2 for webLike many parents these days, I’m guilty of raising two classically over-scheduled children. We race from piano lessons to craft club and from soccer matches to chess tournaments. And there’ve been more Sundays than I’d care to admit when I’ve been relieved to discover that the swimming pool has flooded so we can’t make it to swim class.

But I always insisted—to myself, if not to others—that my kids’ busy lives were a reflection of them, not me. They were curious. They were energetic. And if they had lots of interests, my job as a parent—within reason and budget allowing—was to enable them to experiment with those interests and see which, if any, developed into a true passion.

Until the day my 11-year-old son, Isaac, came home and told me that he didn’t want to play the violin anymore. And suddenly, I had to dust off my parenting playbook and revisit my assumptions about how much of what my children do is about what they want vs. what I think is good for them.

I concluded—along with my husband—that there were certain things I just wasn’t going to allow them to quit.

I’m not necessarily proud of this decision. I’ll never forget the time when the two of us were on vacation in our early 30s (pre-kids), lounging by the swimming pool, when we overheard a father get into the water with his daughter to work on her front crawl.

“That was two good strokes and one bad stroke,” he shouted. “Do it again!” My husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads. “What a nightmare!” we whispered to one another. “We’d never do that to our kids,” seemed to be our tacit bargain. What a difference eleven years makes.

As soon as my son announced that he was “tired” of violin and wanted to stop playing, I realized that there was no way I was going to let him quit.

Part of it was how I felt every time I heard an adult friend lament about the day she gave up playing the piano … the violin … the flute … the clarinet. “If only my parents hadn’t let me quit!” was the common complaint. Isn’t hating your musical instrument part of growing up?

I was also worried that as my son grew older and showed more of an interest in— and aptitude for—soccer, his well-rounded, inquisitive nature might be sacrificed in the name of sports. Precisely because sports are cool and violin—well not so much. I feared that he might emerge from adolescence a one-dimensional adult.

It was also around this time I read Michelle Obama’s list of parenting rules for her daughters. These include having them play two sports each, one they picked and one she chose for them, precisely because she wanted them to learn how to work harder at things they found difficult.

I imagine that some people who read the First Lady’s list might have questioned that rule. But I found myself agreeing with Mrs. Obama. There’s a real value in old-fashioned perseverance. And with all the talk of “life skills” these days, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for children to start learning the value of commitment early on, even when they find something onerous.

I’m not saying that I make my kids follow through on every single thing they’ve started. French lessons for my daughter came and went. My son was excited by drama for awhile. And then he wasn’t. But he’s been playing violin for six years now and he’s actually pretty good. To give up now would be to turn his back on a huge investment of time, money, and effort over the years, all for something I’m fairly certain he’ll regret, if not now, then later on.

I guess I’ve come around to the view that there’s a certain “eat your spinach” quality to parenting. (For the record, I also make my kids eat their vegetables.) As parents, we aren’t always right, but we are there to help our children see the value in things that they might not be old enough—or mature enough—to appreciate in the moment.

I hope I’m never as overbearing as that man in the swimming pool all those years ago. But I also hope that one day my kids will thank me for not letting them give up too easily.

Delia Lloyd is an American journalist/blogger based in London. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s She The People blog, and blogs about adulthood at Realdelia.

 

YES

By Kristen Levithan

Debate_B_v2 for webThis fall I did something I never thought I’d do before becoming a parent: I let my child quit.

I’d signed my son up for preschool soccer after he had enjoyed his inaugural season last spring. Danny had liked being on the team, sporting his canary yellow jersey, and giving piggy back rides to his teammates, even though he generally showed more interest in trying to climb up the net than in putting the ball into it. When the time came for fall registration, I asked him if he wanted to play again and he enthusiastically said yes.

From the first practice, though, I could tell that things weren’t going to go well. Danny was uncharacteristically aggressive with the other kids, dribbling the ball into them and tussling with them when the coach turned away. When the games started, he began each one excitedly, cheering for his teammates and hustling to keep up with the action. But then something would set him off—an accidental trip, a misunderstood direction from his coach, or a goal for the other team—and he would collapse into tears, march to the sideline, and sit out for the rest of the game, inconsolable.

The same scenario played out the next week. And the week after that.

At first, I refused to entertain the idea of allowing him to quit. Like many of us, I was raised to finish what I started. I didn’t quit soccer, even though it held no appeal to me. I finished games of Monopoly, no matter how interminable. I blanched at the idea of sending the wrong message to my son, of turning him forever into a shiftless fly-by-night.

But then I realized that my reluctance to let Danny quit had a lot more to do with me than it did with him. I was embarrassed by the thought of explaining my decision to the coach and then pacing the sidelines for the rest of the season—my other son was on the same team—wondering what the other moms were thinking of me. I was so busy doing what I thought a good parent should do and worrying about other people’s opinions that I forgot to think about what was best for my son.

When I finally stopped to talk to him, I began to understand why soccer was rubbing up against every vulnerable place inside of him. We danced around issues of perfectionism, frustration, and anger and, though I still don’t know exactly why Danny went from a kid who liked soccer to one who hated it, I knew that quitting was what we were going to do.

Ultimately, I believe that letting Danny quit taught him to listen to his gut and to speak up for himself. It signaled to him that, even at five-and-a-half, what he thinks and how he feels matter more to us than blind adherence to a theoretical principle. And I hold these lessons in as high regard as I do the ones on perseverance and commitment that I worried he was missing.

Allowing Danny to bow out of soccer mid-season also underscored my belief that childhood should be about exploration and experimentation, about letting kids test their wings while we’re still around to catch them if they fall. Giving our kids the option to quit celebrates the idea that they should have the chance to try out new things without the expectation that every new thing will fit.

In the end, letting our kids abandon activities that don’t work gives them the chance to try other things that might. For Danny, that thing turned out to be swimming. He’d loved his swimming lessons over the summer and asked to try them again this winter. With the soccer debacle fresh in my mind, I was reluctant to enroll him in another organized activity: would this just be another $50 down the drain?

But on the first day of lessons, I knew that swimming was a better match for my boy, for now. He waved to me as I headed for the door to the waiting area and then paddled over to join his classmates, a purple pool noodle tucked under his arms. At the teacher’s request, Danny dipped his head under the water and came up for air, a wide smile on his face and droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes. His laughter let me know that he—and we—were in the right place.

Kristen Levithan is a freelance writer and mother of three. She can be found online at mothereseblog.com

Brain, Child (Spring 2013)

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Follow Me: A Mother’s Day in the Israeli Army

Follow Me: A Mother’s Day in the Israeli Army

BC_FA2013_Final_layoutBy Judy Labensohn

When my daughter Yael was seventeen, I checked out her army, just as I had checked out nursery schools, junior highs, and high schools. Like all secular Jewish Israeli girls, she would be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces at eighteen for twenty-two months.

To check out conditions in the IDF, I pretended I was writing an article for The Jerusalem Post. This was not far-fetched, as I often wrote features for The Jerusalem Post and in the 1980’s I wrote a humorous mothering column until nothing seemed funny anymore. The Army Spokesman’s Office let me accompany a group of new recruits on their first day in the IDF.

*   *   *

Cloudy sky at 0658 hours, December 31, 1996. The parking lot in front of Jerusalem’s Soldiers’ Home is empty, except for two soldiers clutching clipboards.

“Who are you?” asks the lean one.

“I’m my daughter’s mother.”

“So?”

“So I’m doing a piece about the first day in the Israeli army to see what awaits my daughter.” The fat soldier tells me to open my briefcase. He feels it up for suspicious objects.

“My only weapon is my pen,” I say. They don’t smile.

By 0725 hours, 150 families arrive, park their cars, and empty their contents: mothers wearing over-sized sunglasses; fathers with paunches; hungry boyfriends; concerned aunts; weary grandmothers; younger brothers and sisters wishing they could go to the army instead of school. The eighteen-year-old draftees wear the standard civilian uniform: blue jeans and knit tops. One member of each family unit lugs an enormous backpack, stuffed with everything the new recruit will need for the next twenty-two months, even though she will probably return home for the first Sabbath after induction.

Three empty buses approach the Soldiers’ Home. The drivers make their way to the front of the crowd with difficulty be- cause the field is full of hugging and kissing civilians. Fathers film as 150 Israeli childhoods end in a parking lot.

“No big deal,” says a former paratrooper pop when I ask how he feels. “I know the army.” Mothers sniffle, hold their sunglasses steady, though the sky is cloudy.

At 0729, the heavy soldier stands near a little wooden table and uses a mega-phone to order all new recruits to stand in line with their induction papers and Israeli identity cards. Young women look pleadingly at their mothers, reminiscent of first days at any nursery school.

At 0743, the lean soldier calls out names. “Mia, Adi, Moran, Ruthi, and Svetlana—get on the bus. Good luck to all of you.”

Fathers now don expensive Raybans. Mothers light up Marlboro Lights. When I ask a new recruit how she feels, she says, “Regular.”

The women take up positions in window seats, so they can see their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, and grandparents. They wave, blow kisses, open the windows to hold their civilian lives, reach for a hand, a face, a bottle of orange juice. Everyone giggles, nervous laughter the best defense in the arsenal.

Middle-aged parents who fought in the Six-Day War or missed that but made the War of Attrition, or missed that but made the Yom Kippur War, or missed that but remember the Lebanon War, surround the bus. Grandparents, who fought the British and then five or six invading Arab armies in 1948, rub their eyes.

From my vantage point on the bus, it is clear as chicken soup that these families are falling apart. The last line of defense sits on the bus. Mothers and fathers—intimate enemies—will now be alone, together. How many couples will stay married?

At 0759 hours, the lean soldier yells at the women to take their feet off the seats. Then he calls more names: “Gila, Galia, Merav, Avishag, Keren.” They climb on the bus. The soldier steps down, but not before saying, “Goodbye and good luck.” He sounds like a flight mechanic wishing the crew a successful mission behind enemy lines.

The driver aims the bus towards the absorption base at Tel Hashomer, an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. Hands and arms, inside the bus and out, flail. Kisses blow into the morning air. Smiles give way, finally, to tears. Tissues replace cigarettes at this quintessential Israeli moment.

On the bus, most of the women sit wrapped in silence, forlorn and dreamy. A few sociable ones climb to their knees and turn around to chat with the strangers behind them. When asked how she feels, Sharona replies, “Pressured.”

“It was hard saying goodbye,” adds Sigalit, sitting next to her.

At 0915, when the bus enters Tel Hashomer, the women are greeted by a billboard:

THE STAFF OF THE ABSORPTION AND CLASSIFICATION BASE WELCOMES YOU ON YOUR INDUCTION TO THE ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES.

In June, 1967, when I was twenty-one, I watched the IDF victory on TV from Cleveland, Ohio. I saw the dust, smiles, and tears, heard the speeches, threats, and songs, and I wanted to be a part of that. By September, when I sat with an IDF representative in Jerusalem, I was twenty-two. The army didn’t want me; I was too old. The billboard at the entrance to the absorption base reminds me of my disappointment.

*   *   *

Mature eucalyptus trees line the paths of the base, called “Bakum” in Hebrew. I associate this acronym, which stands for Absorption and Classification Base, with “vacuum.” The base mirrors the vacuum in each new recruit’s family home—empty bedroom, empty chair.

A blonde male sergeant gets on the bus.

“Sit properly and be quiet. When I call out your name, say Yes,” he explains, and begins:

“Oshrat.”

“Yes.”

“Roni.”

“Yes.”

“Rotem.”

“Yes.”

The new recruits giggle.

“Girls, please. Stop laughing. Stop being smart alecks. This is the army!”

He finishes the list of names and then, with his whole being, shouts the most famous word in the Israeli army: Acharei! Follow me.

The women repress giggles and follow blondie, shlepping their enormous back- packs to a tent.

“Stand in a double file. No gum chewing. No smoking.”

The draftees obey, but guffaw and giggle.

“OK, girls, Acharei!”

In their jeans and knit tops, the women march in two parallel lines to a low, white building, where they are led into a pleasant auditorium. There, they are supposed to watch a seven-minute movie that will prepare them for the ten-step bureaucratic maze they are about to enter. Fifteen minutes later, they are informed the projector is temporarily out of order. Is this an omen, like a nursery school teacher’s guitar popping three strings on the first day?

When a female soldier reads off the name of each new recruit, the young woman goes to the front of the auditorium and is handed stickers with bar codes. These represent the new recruit’s personal IDF identity number. At each station of the bureaucratic Via Dolorosa behind the closed double doors, the new recruit will hand over one bar code sticker.

Ready? Jump.

The first twelve draftees walk to the double doors and then, rather than continue, turn around to wave goodbye to the rest of the girls sitting in the auditorium.

“Want anything from the duty-free?” one smart aleck shouts.

Station 1: Each draftee gives the details of her bank account. The army will automatically transfer a monthly sum to each account—enough for gum, soft drinks, and cigarettes.

Station 2: Each new recruit receives the first payment—NIS 100 ($25) as a loan from the Israel Defense Forces, to be paid back in five monthly installments. The recruits are handed a 20-unit telephone card, a gift from the Soldier’s Welfare Association.

Station 3: The girls are fitted with gas masks.

“A mask that fits you will be kept in a warehouse especially for your use, should the need arise,” explains a female soldier. Each woman has her own gas mask in her closet at home, but should Israel be bombed with chemical weapons in the next twenty-two months, the girls may not be close to their closets. Hopefully, the masks, unlike the projector, will be operative and the warehouse will be nearby and open.

Station 4: Each woman dips one hand in ink so veteran soldiers can take her hand and finger prints. Now it is time for photos.

Station 5: When the draftee is in that fertile transitional state, neither here nor there, she has her mug shot taken for the IDF identity card. The first twenty of the fifty new recruits from Jerusalem do not smile.

Station 6: The new recruit is interviewed for five minutes to verify her vital statistics—name, address, family constellation—and to determine who should inherit her IDF income, in case of death. This is the second time in ten minutes that death is raised to consciousness, though in such a way that the horror of it is denied. Death, in the context of Station 6, is a possibility, one option on the flow chart.

Station 7: Is a clinic where the new recruit must extend both arms. She gets two shots, one in each. Some of the women cringe; others take shots like heroes. This is also the venue for reporting allergies and pregnancies.

Once the new recruit is named, numbered, photographed, shot, and presumably barren, she is fit to sign quartermaster Form 1004 at Station 8. This form lists every item that the new recruit will receive as soon as she walks over to the warehouse, located outside across “The New Recruits’ Park.” The draftee signs the form and exits. She is still wearing jeans and a knit top. Even though all the paperwork has now been completed, making her legally a soldier, she does not yet look like one.

Station 9: At the warehouse, she receives a clean, used, olive green duffle bag. Inside, among other things, is a uniform, which she will try on in the dressing room beyond the warehouse. She removes her civilian uniform and puts on the IDF’s Class A uniform: green Dacron shirt and slacks. It fits! She exits with her civvies in the duffle bag. Now the fun begins.

Station 10: She stands in a circle with forty-nine other new recruits, dressed alike. Their duffle bags sit on the ground in front of them, but these children are not going to play Duck Duck Goose. A red-headed male sergeant stands in the middle of the circle and says, almost kindly, “Welcome to the Israel Defense Forces.”

*   *   *

During those days in May and June, 1967, before it was clear that Israel would continue to exist, I came to realize that Israel was worth fighting for. And if fighting for, then dying for. And if dying for, why not live there?

*   *   *

“Oshrat, Rakefet, Olga, Liat, Noa …” The sergeant gives each girl her dog tag and IDF identity card with the photo taken minutes before at Station 5.

It is clear to any civilian onlooker pretending to be a journalist that these sundry eighteen-year-olds form a group. This particular group, though, has no identity. At least, not yet. They need a name.

In the Talmud it is written that all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet were created on Friday afternoon, at dusk before the first Sabbath. Clearly, God’s options were multiplied once He had letters to play with. Given this tradition, it is no surprise that the army of His Chosen People recognizes the profound importance of names. The sergeant anoints the group Platoon G.

“We’re going to basic training camp #12 in Tzrifin, a thirty-minute drive from here. You will stay there for three weeks,” a squad officer tells them, once everyone is seated on another bus. This is the first time the girls have been told exactly where they will be going, though rumors circulated all morning. Nobody giggles.

“I’m usually not even up at this time,” Ronit says, as the bus drives by the last orange groves east of Tel Aviv. Like the other girls on the bus, Ronit has been out of high school for six months, waiting for this day. Esther takes out her cell phone and calls home. When she finishes telling her mother where she is going, she looks sad.

After thirty minutes, the bus turns into Tzrifin and stops near basic training camp #12. The squad officer orders the soldiers to take their bags from the belly of the bus, put them next to the wooden hut in front of them, and arrange themselves in rows of five. When they are lined up, she reads their names: “Iris, Dana, Hili, Lital, Nechama…” The soldiers look as if they expect something meaningful to happen.

Meaning appears in the form of a short woman, no more than nineteen, with a long blonde braid down to her waist. She is their sergeant and stands before them as if a broomstick has been inserted into her backbone, reaching up to the rubber band holding her braid.

“Stand up. Hands at your side. Straighten the ranks,” she bellows. “Those in the back rows, look at the girl’s neck in front of you.” The women obey and, miraculously, Platoon G looks like a military entity rather than a bunch of teenage girls waiting for boys.

“This is how you stand at attention,” the sergeant pounds, “and this is at ease. Now do as I say. Attention. At ease.”

I have seen only one natural wonder of the world—Niagara Falls—but I am sure the others could not compare with the miracle I am witnessing here on a concrete field in the middle of Israel.

“This is how you turn to the right,” the sergeant instructs. When some soldiers giggle, perhaps thinking of steps they would like to do on the dance floor tonight, New Year’s Eve, their sergeant shouts, “Be quiet. This is the army!” She then teaches them how to march in place. “Left, right, left,” she bellows, just like in the movies. “Now march and move forward at the same time.”

Fifty women march across a field as a unit for the first time in their lives. They wear the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces. Drums should be rolling and trumpets blaring, but the only sound is the cooing of pigeons in the eucalyptus trees. At this miraculous moment of creation, the group is differentiated from all other groups by being assigned a second name: Platoon G, Squad 1.

At 1245 hours, G-1 marches towards the dining room.

They stand in formation at the entrance to the mess hall. “Don’t talk. Stand straight. Be proud,” their sergeant shouts. “You must go to all three meals every day and sit at the table for at least ten minutes. Sit together. Never be late for a meal.”

I wonder why I never gave my children such clear messages. Coming from this nineteen-year-old, rules sound beyond argument.

“When you finish lunch, sit at the table with your hands behind your back. No one moves until 1335 hours. At 1345, we will meet in the open space over there and line up in rows of five.” When the sergeant walks away to eat in the officer’s dining room, the new recruits chortle.

The dining room is an enormous, noisy room with windows on three sides. At the entrance is a sink for washing hands. Directly above it is a sign with the words of the prayer that Jews recite while washing hands before a meal with bread. Since observant Jews who serve in the army know the prayer from childhood and since secular Jews don’t pray, the sign is a puzzlement.

The women eat fried corn schnitzel, fried chicken schnitzel, elbow macaroni in oil, purple cabbage salad in mayonnaise, eggplant salad in oil, tehina, and sliced bread. Oranges for dessert. Pigeons looking for crumbs flutter above the green plastic chairs arranged around the square tables. Conversation among the ten women at the table ranges from com- plaints about the food to fantasies of New Year’s Eve parties. Some of the soldiers sit like statues, staring at the full trays in front of them.

During the ten-minute break after the meal, the girls gather outside the dining hall and smoke.

“How’s the army?” I ask.

“Fun,” says Michal. “Like our annual high school outing.”

“My shots hurt,” Adi complains. “Awful,” blurts Esther.?”All my friends will be in discos tonight.”

Ronit says, “and I have to be in this shitty place.”

At 1344 hours, the women walk over to the large, open field.

The recruits fall into formation and start marching. They march past the dining room, past the orange public telephones, the red Coke machines, and halt in front of the clinic.

“Undo your ponytails,” the sergeant bellows. “When you sit at the desk inside, pull all your hair over your face and bend your neck towards the table so the soldier can check your head for lice. When you’re finished, put your hair back in a ponytail at the height of your ears and line up in fives.”

*   *   *

When my daughter Yael was two and I put her over my knees to inspect for lice, I turned the inspection into a game. I called each lice “Shlomo” the Hebrew name of King Solomon. We were fishing for Shlomos. How many Shlomos found Yael’s hair so beautiful they could not live with- out it? I wondered if Yael would remember those intimate afternoons, when she joined the army.

*   *   *

“Now we will march to your rooms,” says the sergeant. The soldiers arrange themselves in rows as if they have been doing this for months. They march to what is called “the Hilton,” a four-story prefab cross between low-income housing and a youth hostel.

“Take all your stuff to your rooms. The third floor is yours. Put all your things under the bed. Then sit on the bed. Don’t talk. Don’t move.”

The soldiers lug their belongings up thirty-five stairs to their new homes. Each room has two rows of seven iron beds facing each other. Yellow paint on the walls is peeling and the wooden bookshelf is empty. Fourteen windows—seven on each side—allow in natural light and air. On each bed is a gray blanket and on the blanket are a canteen, a belt, and a long, black instrument for cleaning rifles. Next to it are a soap dish full of more implements for the same purpose, ammunition, a green army jacket, a green wool sweater, a green canvas visor hat, and two folded gray blankets. White powder covers the blankets and clothes. After the recruits put their belongings under their beds, they sit on the beds. Then they talk and move.

“Quiet!” shouts the sergeant, when she enters, fifteen minutes later. “I said don’t talk and don’t move.” The soldiers move into obeying. “The white powder is against scabeous worms, which cause unpleasant itching. The powder is used at the end of each basic training course. There are no worms now, but you must air out your blankets every day.”

*   *   *

I was the kind of mother who skipped those chapters in how-to-parent books about setting limits and making rules. For me, boundaries are lines discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, not mothers and daughters. Consequently, Yael, like me, has no schedule and little routine. Her obligations at home are minimal, due to laissez-faire mothering. I do not admit this with pride. In these barracks I appreciate the consequences of such laxity—scabeous worms.

*   *   *

The soldiers are told to report to the Absorption Room at 1530 hours. Once there, the young recruits look tired and fed-up. They sit on low benches with no backs. Do the eighteen-year-olds notice the sign above the doorway? “And God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and take care of it.” Do they appreciate the irony of this sign, when their eyes survey the chalk graffiti on the blackboard next to it: “This is a horrible, depressing place”?

Yawns replace giggles. In silence they wait.

“Hands behind your backs. Sit up straight. Head forward. Don’t move at all. This is how you will receive the platoon’s commissioned officer. Soon she will enter the room.”

It is said, if the Messiah should arrive when you are planting a tree, you must continue to plant. If a commissioned officer walks into a room, however, you must freeze into a posture of submissive respect.

Now the sergeant is introducing a new vocabulary which the soldiers pick up quickly: “Yes, officer.” and “No, officer.”

“Say, Yes, Officer.” “Yes, Officer.”?”Now, say No, Officer.” “No, Officer.”

“You will have a course on weapons, first aid, and chemical warfare. During the basic training, you will meet with people who will help you decide where you will serve in the IDF, according to the needs of the IDF. Now prepare to meet the platoon’s commanding officer.”

The soldiers straighten up and push their heads forward. Drums roll in my head as through the door strides a thin girl, no taller than 5’2″, wearing black-framed glasses and a visor that hides her face. Some of her hair is pulled into a ponytail; the rest straddles either side of her neck. She looks at the floor, then at the new recruits, as if she were wearing contacts for the first time. Her voice thunders with the authority of one who knows all the answers and is always right.

“There are two basic values here. Camaraderie and Discipline. OK. I expect you to help each other. And I expect you to behave. We do not want to punish you, so do not provoke us. OK. Platoon G-1 will do everything correctly and obey all orders. You are one body and you are the best. You will all cooperate. OK. This doesn’t have to be difficult.”

The commissioned officer paces back and forth in front of the stunned women. On each “OK” she looks at her soldiers from under the visor and behind the glasses. Her “OK” is not like that of an insecure mother who, after suggesting to her daughter that she goes to bed, adds an “OK?” as in Are we going to cooperate tonight? Will I still be an OK mother if I force you to go to bed? No. The commissioned officer’s “OK” says, This is the way it is. No questions. Period.

*   *   *

“Help each other and you’ll all get through this. You have a talented staff who want to teach you. OK. We have a lot to give you. OK. I want Platoon G-1 to be the best. It will be difficult, but we will help you with any problems that arise. OK. If you see that a friend is having a hard time, tell us. This is not tattle-telling. We are professionally trained to help you.”

The new recruits look comatose.

“On Friday you have a military trek and then you will stay here this Sabbath. OK.” The comm