Womanhood

Womanhood

By Stephanie Andersen

womanhood“It’s still snowing out there,” she said.

Mom and I were tucked under her blue comforter on her bed late one afternoon, staring out the window into the backyard. The snow had settled on the pine branches, and the windows shook a little in the November wind. I pushed my head into the space between her arm and breast, tracing the hardness of the catheter buried under her skin. She was holding a tiny portrait of a young Victorian woman with big brown eyes, soft curly hair, and pursed lips.

“This is how I imagine you’ll look when you grow up,” she told me.

I stared at the face of the woman and tried to imagine myself as her. She seemed gentle, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes shy and hopeful, her breasts round and high. I was only nine years old, and it was the first time in my life I ever seriously considered the possibility of becoming something other than the child I was.

Mom had found the lump in her breast five years earlier, and the doctors had told her she had only three months to live. She told the doctors, “Go to hell,” then started her treatment. She’d changed her diet, exercised, meditated, repeated positive affirmations, lost her hair, burnt her skin with radiation, and begged God to save her life. She had a little girl to take care of.

She had lived six years longer than the doctors expected, but when they told her they would have to remove her breast, my mother refused. She told my father that she was sure losing a breast would take something from her that she wasn’t prepared to lose.

I had not yet developed breasts. All I knew of womanhood was the shape of my mother’s body, the way she fit around me in her bed, the way she smelled of St. Ives lotion, of baby powder, and of ginger. I had no interest in attaining any of this for myself. I loved the simplicity of my own body, my ability to run barefoot and shirtless in my own backyard. I was thankful that I did not bleed from my private parts and have to leave diapers drenched with blood in the bathroom garbage. My father and I were free, untangled by the chains of what kept my mother from throwing off her shirt and jumping into the lake at the park with us.

I didn’t want to be a woman. I didn’t want my mother’s body. Strength was freedom, and a woman’s body was weak and stifling.

One morning, I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest. I ran to my mother.

“I have a bump on my chest,” I told her. “And it hurts.”

She smiled. “You’re getting your breasts,” she said, rubbing her fingers gently over the tiny bump. “You’re becoming a woman.”

I backed away from her. “It’s breast cancer, isn’t it?” I asked. “It must be.”

For several weeks, my mother argued with me, explaining that I was not dying, just growing up. But I could not be convinced until she took me to a doctor for a thorough examination.

“I don’t want breasts,” I told my mother. “My life is over.”

“No, Stephanie. Your life is just beginning. You’re going to be a woman. And that is a magical, wonderful thing. You’ll see.”

“Breasts stink,” I told my mother after school a week later. “And so does womanhood.” Then I stomped into my bedroom and slammed the door.

Two months before my twelfth birthday, I stood over her, studying her lifeless body. She lay stiffly on a hospital bed in our den. I raised her cold hand and tried to memorize how her fingers felt between mine. Above her on the wall hung a picture of us, me as an infant in her lap, my two sisters flanking us, Mom’s hands wrapped tightly around my waist. It was only then that I realized why my mother stared so intently at the picture of that Victorian woman. It was the only image of me as a woman that she would ever see. And as this realization crept through my thoughts, I suddenly felt a new desire that I had never known before. I wanted to find out what it was about a woman’s body that my mother sacrificed her life for. I wanted to understand what I had been missing.

*   *   *

I was finishing my junior year of high school when I made that happen.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror one afternoon, watching my boyfriend’s white ejaculate drip from my abdomen. I was supposed to be studying for the history final. My boyfriend was still in my bedroom. As I studied how the sperm appeared against my tan, summer skin, I imagined what it looked like under a microscope. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was wrong: I was too young, and I was certainly not considering the other party involved. But I wondered if I were capable of growing and swelling like other girls I had seen at school.

In the late nineties, in upstate New York, teenage pregnancy was no longer a surprise. My hometown, a small suburb just outside of Binghamton, was home to at least five pregnant adolescents in 1997, and they were not the first of their kind. These girls came late to school, flaunting growing bellies and exciting plans for their very own apartments. Two-bedroom, two-bath. They let us all touch their stretching skin. They said things like, “Only two more months,” “We think it’s a boy,” and “I don’t have to take gym anymore.” They were separate from the rest of us, more grown up, more in touch with the future, more interesting, and far more sexual. I watched them as they waddled down our high school hallways with heavy book bags, heavy bodies, and severe looks of determination. I found myself eager to know what it felt like to be watched and touched, to be mysterious, and to have such unavoidable purpose. These girls were at once scorned and cherished. They were our future and our failure. They were not ready but going ahead with it. They were dismal and exciting statistics. They were pregnant.

The longer I stood in front of the mirror, the more honest it all seemed. I was built for it. I needed it. I told myself that in the end nothing I did would matter to anyone else. It was my body, my choice, my wish.

*   *   *

Ten years and six hundred miles later, I hold a cell phone to my ear and listen to a fourth-grader tell her sixth knock-knock joke in three minutes.

“Knock, knock,” she says.

“Who’s there?” I ask.

She giggles. “Egg.”

“Egg who?” I say.

“Egg knock’s my favorite drink, too.” Then she laughs uncontrollably, squealing and hiccupping into the phone.

It’s difficult to fake a laugh. But I giggle nervously, tell her it was “a good one,” knowing that she had made it up on her own and is proud.

“What did the picture say to the wall?” she says, not ready to quit yet.

I pause for a moment as if to think about it. Then I admit, “I don’t know.”

“I’ve got you covered.” She squeals again with delight, hiccups twice, sighs, and continues laughing.

Elianna lives in upstate New York, just outside my hometown. She hiccups if she laughs too hard. She likes to read; she loves to draw. She takes gymnastics but accidentally kicked her instructor last week at practice. She’s tall for her age, almost five feet now, and embarrassed by it. She always has a good report card and likes to impress her teachers. She enjoys jumping on the trampoline in her backyard, swimming at the YMCA, shopping for clothes at The Limited and Old Navy, and listening to music, mostly Hilary Duff; she loves going to yard sales and has been begging her parents to let her start taking piano lessons.

When she heard there were people in the world without hair, she grew hers out, cut it off, and donated it. Her favorite color is blue. She watches Survivor every Thursday night at eight o’clock. She loves having her nails done, being an older sister, and staying up past her bedtime. She doesn’t like bras or mean people. When she grows up, she wants to be an artist.

This is the first time we have ever spoken directly to one another on the phone, but she has a picture of me in her bedroom she stares at, brings to school for show-and-tell, and sleeps with. She has never met me, but Elianna, the girl on the other end of the phone, is my daughter.

What I want to say to her: None of this is your fault. It was never you. I want to smell you, your head, your hands, your toes. I want to know what your hair feels like between my fingers. I want to see the way your thighs turn into your calves and your calves into your ankles. I want to find out, for myself, if your big toe is shorter than your second toe. I want to know the direction in which your arm hair grows.

I dream about you, wake up in the middle of the night worried that you are sick, sad, angry, or afraid. I want to crawl in bed next to you, wrap myself around you, finally feeling the shape our bodies make together. I want to feed you, cook the food myself, make you strong and healthy. I want to help you learn how to read, write, paint. I want to read you my favorite stories, the ones my mother read me. I want to walk through a mall with you, help you try on clothes, tell you how beautiful you look in blue.

I want to know the people you know. I want the pain in my breasts and abdomen to go away when I hear your voice and see your picture. Forgive me. Let me kiss your face, your arms, your ears, your fingers. Your jokes, as much as I love you, are really not that funny.

What comes out: “Very clever, Eli. Very clever.”

Before we hang up, she tells me good-night and that she loves me.

I tell her, “Sweet dreams.”

I’m back in my apartment in North Carolina, under this blue comforter. I cannot complain about much here. I have just earned a master’s degree. I work at a community college, teaching freshman English. I rent a nice little apartment outside the city on the third floor of a brand new building, behind an almost-finished Wal-Mart. I have a large friendly group whom I am lucky to call my friends. There’s no boyfriend, but this doesn’t bother me. I run through the routine, wake up every morning early, walk my dog.

Life is normal enough. I am free and strong, a product of my father’s firm encouragement to be an independent woman. “Women are no different than men,” he always said. “Women can do everything a man can do. Don’t ever sell yourself short.”

The only signs of weakness are the colorful stretch marks on my breasts, the grip I still have on the phone long after she’s hung up, and the picture of my daughter hung on the wall over my bed.

*   *   *

A baby. I would make it work. “No,” my father said. “It will ruin your life.”

“I can do it,” I begged.

“Not in my house.” He ran his fingers through his beard and flipped through his mail. “I won’t be a part of it. If you have this child, you will never know what it means to be independent, to be successful, to accomplish all that you’re capable of. If you choose this path, you choose a life I can’t support. Find another place to live.”

No problem. I would find a place to live. A charity organization. A family who would give me a home, tell me it was okay to be a mother.

At first, inventing myself as a teenaged mother-to-be was exciting. I collected baby clothes, pacifiers, bottles, and bonnets. My charity family gave me a tiny room in their basement. At night, as I lay alone in the dark staring up through the windows into the flower bed outside, I had no doubt that I was becoming who I was meant to become.

As my breasts and abdomen grew, I became thrilled with the changes, finally feeling like I was being given the opportunity to be a real woman. School no longer seemed important. Homework seemed petty. College seemed like a fantasy. In the waking hours of the morning, I would get up out of bed, my bladder full again, tip-toe up the stairs, and stare in the mirror. In my reflection, I searched for a change in my face, something familiar, any sign of the mother I planned to become. But my face never seemed to change. My growing breasts and the bulge in my abdomen grew on their own, separate from my eyes. I’d crawl back into bed and run my fingers over my stomach, feeling my daughter kick my hands through my skin, and ask her to have patience with me.

I wanted to keep that baby just as naturally and vehemently as I wanted my mother to live. And I tried for seven long months to find a way to do it. But 1997 was a difficult year. Clinton reformed welfare, making it impossible for anyone under the age of eighteen to receive aid, and I couldn’t find a way to keep a stable job, finish high school, and care for a baby all at once without at least a little help from the father, who was unwilling to admit to his parents that he even had a girlfriend.

At seven months pregnant, it became clear to me that there was no hope. I couldn’t do it. It had all been a fantasy I couldn’t live up to. I was no mother. In fact, I was little more than an irresponsible teenager with a penchant for the dramatic. I had no job and no future.

Worse, I found myself desperate for reprieve. I wanted out of the martyrdom. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night for anyone, much less for a child I had nothing to offer.

And one night, as I collapsed in the corner of my borrowed basement room, I knew in the most horrible sincerity that I was unwilling to give up my freedom and security for my womanhood. I didn’t want it badly enough. And when the realization came, I wanted to empty myself of my miracle as quickly as possible, renewing myself to the state of freedom, loneliness, and asexuality to which I’d become accustomed.

I would do what my father had told me and do everything my mother hadn’t. I would graduate high school. I would go to college, pay my own bills, travel, and live a long, successful life.

“I’m so proud of you,” Dad said, his eyes red with weepy gratitude.

“This was a hard decision to make but a very strong one.” I was still living in my basement room, but when the pregnancy was over, Dad promised, when life was back to normal, he said, I could return home.

“I want to be strong,” I told him. “And successful.”

“I know you will be,” he said. And I believed him.

*   *   *

Angel and her husband, Matt, had been trying to have a baby for eleven years. Every month, for all of those years, she had hoped she was pregnant, picked out a name, constructed themes for the nursery, and imagined the baby’s face. And every month, when the blood came, another imaginary child died. She had long since lost count of all the faces that might have been.

A friend of hers mentioned a pregnant teenager with whom her daughter went to school. She tried not to get her hopes up. It took me a while to work up the courage to dial her phone number.

“I can’t do this,” I told Angel over the phone. “I’ve decided to go to college. I just can’t do this alone.” I listened to her cry, in what I would later find out was relief, for several moments. Part of me hoped she would tell me she would adopt both of us, the baby and me. I wanted to tell her how desperately I wanted to keep my baby, but I just needed her to help me. I wanted to explain what it was like to feel a human being growing inside me for so many months, to learn what sounds made her sleep, to learn exactly the way I needed to walk in order to lull her. I wanted her to know that what I was saying was dangerous for me.

“Can I meet you somewhere?” she finally asked.

“Okay.”

We chose McDonald’s on Main Street.

Angel became a mother there, when I nodded my head across the table from her, licking the ice cream cone she and her husband bought for me. I said they could have my baby.

It would be Angel who held Elianna minutes after she was born. It was Angel who held her when she first cried and learned the motions of her body and the difference between hungry and wet. It was this other woman—whom I met by accident when I doubted my ability to be faithful to my own instincts—who watched my child grow from a seven-pound, eight-ounce infant into this nine-year-old girl who tells knock-knock jokes and giggles until she hiccups. It was never me.

Because of this, I cannot complain now if Angel, this other mother, chooses to explain the adoption in such simple terms as, “You grew in Stephanie’s belly but in Mommy’s heart.” I can’t blame this woman for waiting so long to let my daughter communicate with me. I can’t tell my daughter that her jokes are not funny or that it is the hope of one day meeting her that keeps me waking up in the morning and trying to be successful, impressive, and strong.

Friends ask, “How do you talk to your daughter on the phone so casually?”

And I respond. “How do I not?”

Since they brought my daughter to their home for the first time, this couple has repeated my name in her ear like a mantra, wanting to “do the right thing.” They want for her to be aware of her heritage and proud to be adopted. My daughter’s only questions have been whether or not I love her and why I gave her away. “Of course she loves you,” her parents tell her. “Stephanie was just so young.” But Eli repeats the same questions, seemingly waiting for a truth she’s sure she has not yet heard.

When her parents first told her she could speak with me, she decided it wasn’t time. Instead, she listened over the speakerphone while her mother spoke to me. When she did this, I tried to adjust my voice and attempted to comfort her with my words, even if I was only telling Angel about the weather in North Carolina. Sometimes I would hear her giggle in the background or whisper something to her mother. But she wasn’t going to talk directly to me, not for six more months.

“Eli’s doing really well in school,” Angel would say.

“Oh, wow,” I responded, trying to express a pride recognizable in my voice. “That is so wonderful.”

I heard a tiny giggle in the background.

“Stephanie’s proud of me,” she told her mother later.

“Yes,” Angel said. “She’d be proud of you no matter what you did.”

Angel always calls and tells me the whole conversation later, all the questions Eli asks about me. She reports that my daughter, her daughter, is making me a glazed plate for Christmas with my name and my dog’s name printed across the front in child’s handwriting and swirls of purple and blue along the edges.

It was my sister’s idea to create a website for Elianna. It may have been illegal for a nine-year-old to have her own MySpace profile, but it wasn’t illegal for a birth family to create a profile titled “We Love Elianna.” With a few keystrokes, my sister made a profile that displayed several pictures of all of us, even my mother. There were pictures of me as a baby, of my sister and me carving a pumpkin when we were children, of my father, of Elianna on her first day of fourth grade, of Elianna when she was a baby, of Elianna when she was still inside me. I e-mailed Angel the password, and we waited.

Three months later, I received a message from Elianna over MySpace. DEAR STEPHANIE, I AM JUST STARTING TO TYPING. WRITE ME BACK PLEASE! I WOULD LIKE TO MEET YOU VERY MUCH.WELL I HAVE TO GO. BY LOVE. ELIANNA

“At Olive Garden,” Angel told me later. Apparently Eli imagined a girls’ lunch with the three of us at the same restaurant where I had celebrated her first birthday, one candle stuck in a scoop of ice cream, my father and I wondering how to celebrate without the birthday girl.

“Does she mean it?” I asked Angel.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

“Why now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Angel said. “I asked her, and she said she wanted to know what your favorite color was. And she really wants to meet Daisy.”

Daisy is my Jack Russell terrier. Eli refers to her as the “birth dog.” I paused. “Will she ask me why I did it? Why I gave her…”

“I don’t think so.”

“What will I say to her?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Tell her what your favorite color is.”

“When?” I asked.

“Are you coming home for the holidays?”

I haven’t been home for Christmas in three years. In fact, I rarely go back to New York for any reason. I opt for distraction—grad school, affairs with married men, short-term love affairs with strangers, menial social melodrama, heavy drinking, various jobs I latch onto and pour myself into, my writing. Now I dial my sister’s number and tell her I’ll be home in a month for the holiday.

She says, “Okay,” but I can tell she doesn’t believe me.

“Elianna said she wants to meet me,” I say.

She’s silent for a minute.

I think about the last time I went home. I can’t remember whose idea it was to spy on my daughter. We had never driven by Elianna’s house before. We hadn’t expected her to be climbing out of a minivan in her driveway, her face so much like mine, with moving legs, with a real mouth, a living, breathing little girl. I slammed on my brakes and fumbled for my sunglasses. My sister slid down in her seat, thinking, like me, that Eli would look up and somehow recognize our car, maybe from the North Carolina plates. We pulled our car behind the tree across the street and watched her for a minute while she waited for her mother to unload the van. I held my sister’s hand, surprised at how much we were shaking.

“That’s your baby,” my sister said, shaking her head. “That’s her.”

I knew she was waiting for me to do something remarkable, to become the lioness confronted with her stolen cub. She stared at me, watching the way my face trembled. Maybe she hoped these long years had been enough to awaken the mother inside me. But after Eli disappeared into her house, I shifted the car into reverse and drove away up the hill.

My sister has often tried to stir my maternal instincts. There have been days I cry in her arms and tell her how much I regret it all. And she’ll call an attorney, tell me to get creative, get angry, claim duress, anything. Just get my daughter back. But I’ve never tried. And I know I never will.

“Are you ready for that?” she asks now.

“I don’t know,” I say.

*   *   *

“You’re not ready for this,” my boyfriend, Elianna’s father, told me ten years ago, the night before I would promise my child to another couple. “You’re not ready to be a mother.” And then I was hitting him. I punched him for all the decisions in the world I felt I had no control over. I clawed at his chest for my dead mother and the baby I couldn’t find the will to keep. I screamed because I couldn’t remember my mother’s face, I would never see my daughter’s, and I couldn’t find my own. He let me go on like that for several minutes as the snow fell against the windshield and melted into water.

There wasn’t anybody who wanted to help me be a mother. But there was a world of people who wanted to help me go to college. And slowly, this became my answer. I constructed a new truth out of what I decided the rest of the world expected of me. I learned that most everyone would respond delightfully to my change of heart. Teachers gave me extra time on my assignments; my father bragged about me in church; my boyfriend thanked me with wet eyes, told me he loved me, and that he would marry me one day.

Over and over, for years to come, all I had to say was that I gave a daughter up for adoption, and people would do everything but bow at my feet, chanting the popular “what a selfless, brave decision to make.” This gave me identity. I was the teenager who gave her daughter up for adoption. But the only image I had of the life I was choosing was the word my father repeated to me over and over throughout my childhood: college. And now that I had no choice, it sounded so good.

I waited, but no matter how many times I recited my mantra—”I’m going to college. I can’t be a mother”—my hand still found its way to her and I still spoke to her. I knew then that my instincts to care for the baby would not disappear when she did.

*   *   *

It’s been three days since Eli wrote to tell me she wants to meet. I tell myself that nothing—no lunch at Olive Garden, no knock-knock jokes—will ever make me her mother.

In the small box in the corner of my bedroom, I keep two ultrasound photos secretly tucked away, the two I once hid from myself just in case one day I needed to remind myself the pregnancy actually happened, that Eli was not a dream. I take them out occasionally and stare at them. I keep her second-grade picture sitting on the antique end table my mother left me in her will.

A year ago, Eli sent me a box for my birthday, a collection of her things she thought I needed to have. Inside, there are leopard print pillows, blue sandals, necklaces, pictures she drew in school, photographs of her swimming, lotions, Beanie Babies, and a letter that she wrote, explaining the little details of her life. I keep the box in another corner, sit next to it some- times. I smell the little pillows, hold the earrings in my hands, study the letter. Once I took out the sandals and tried them on. They fit perfectly.

Eli’s need to show me who she is doesn’t surprise me. These years with- out my mother and daughter have brought me no happy endings or clear answers, but I have realized that my inability to become the Victorian woman in the portrait is not tragic. My mother did not show me that picture to assign me an identity to live up to. That picture was for her. She would never know how my face would evolve as I grew older. This woman I have become, nothing like that portrait, with all of my regrets, with my two diplomas hung on my wall, with an absent daughter, is a woman my mother will never know.

My daughter and are I left to struggle through this strange distance from each other, memorizing pictures of each other, unable to put the pictures away. When asked whether or not I regret my decision to give my daughter up for adoption, I answer honestly. Yes. Going to college has never made up for the nagging regret. I can still smell the milk that leaked from my breasts for a week after she was born. The smell of those leopard pillows is still more comforting than any freedom or success I have earned. But what I’m left with is not a gift I take for granted. I have my daughter’s face next to me as I sleep. It changes in every new photo, her eyes like my mother’s, like mine, but with their own nuances, unexpected, miraculous.

*   *   *

Elianna was born on March 7, 1997, at seven o’clock. She was seven pounds, eight ounces. Lucky seven baby. As I pushed her out, I begged the doctor to not let anyone take her from me, but my words were dismissed as nothing more than the emotional roller coaster of a seventeen-year-old girl in labor. My father stood over me and covered my eyes as she slipped from between my legs. I heard her gurgle for a second, and then she was gone.

I saw her only once before I left the hospital for good. Angel’s husband passed her off to Angel who brought her into the hall for me.

“Do you want to hold her?” she asked.

I looked down at the baby. I waited for something in my mind to click. I waited for whatever it was inside me that might have become a mother to react, but nothing happened as I clung to the IV stand I had wheeled along with me. It was over.

“No,” I whispered.

“Is there anything you want to say to her?” Angel asked.

I thought about it for a second. But only one thing came to mind.

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess there is.” I reached into the blanket and found Eli’s hand. She wrapped her finger around one of mine as I cleared my throat. “Go to college,” I said. Then I pulled my finger from her grip, turned around, and walked away.

*   *   *

I won’t meet my daughter this Christmas. She’ll change her mind, lose the courage, send her mother in her place. I’ll have lunch with her mother alone. I’ll offer Angel a picture of Daisy and me along with a wrapped gift to give to Elianna. It will be a necklace that splits into two halves. Angel will sit across the table from me, run her fingers over my hand, and tell me Eli has my fingers.

“Are you okay?” I’ll ask her, watching the way her eyes well up at the sight of me. I understand that I am a reminder that Eli will never have her eyes, her fingers, or her lips. She will never be able to know what it felt like to carry her daughter to term in her own uterus. And she will watch me remove the necklace from the box myself. I will keep one half, and Eli will keep the other. I’ll never take off my half. I’ll run my fingers over the charm while I am at work, driving in the car, grocery shopping, or staring out my apartment window into the Wal-Mart parking lot.

“I’m dealing with it,” she’ll say. She will return home to my daughter, maybe brush the hair off her forehead, feed her dinner, and tell her what it was like to have lunch with Stephanie, the birth mother.

Back in North Carolina, I will continue to occasionally stand in front of the mirror naked, staring at the scars on my breasts and at the ever changing slope of my abdomen (which has never shrunk back to its original size). It reminds me that there’s a part of me that’s missing.

One night, to my surprise, my nine-year-old daughter will call with an unusual question. “Do you have big boobs?” she’ll ask.

“Elianna’s getting her breasts,” Angel will say in the background. “And she’s not happy. She has to wear a bra.”

I’ll laugh and tell Eli that mine aren’t so big, that there’s nothing to worry about.

“Okay,” she’ll say, sighing.

“I know how you feel,” I’ll tell her, picturing her standing there, staring hopelessly down at her swelling chest. “I didn’t want to get boobs, either.”

And after a small silence, she’ll clear her throat. “Well,” she’ll say. “Your boobs look big in your picture.”

We’ll laugh, and she’ll hiccup, both of us remaining somewhat damaged and slightly delighted.

“I don’t think she’ll ever take this necklace off,” Angel giggles in the background.

And I’ll be thankful, with the phone held tight to my ear, for my own breasts, for the shape of my body, and even for this regret.

Author’s Note: Birthmotherhood has followed me like a grinning ghost into an existence I thought would be empty of my daughter. I am a mother who is both without her daughter and full of her. I have both abandoned her and taken her with me. This essay was a grueling process of discovery and redemption.

Stephanie Andersen teaches college writing in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

Abuelita

Abuelita

By Krista Bremer

Picture 1Several years ago I spent a summer working in a crowded office in Delhi, India. Outside of the city’s rich enclaves, the electric system was overtaxed and unpredictable, and intermittently throughout the day our building would go dark. As our air-conditioning unit came grinding to a halt, my Indian co-workers would stop whatever they were doing and sink to the floor, surrendering to the awesome heat that rapidly engulfed the office. When power was restored—sometimes minutes, sometimes hours later—they’d slowly rise to their feet, rubbing their eyes.

Years later, recovering at home from my second child’s birth in the middle of a sultry North Carolina summer, I was reminded of that summer in India: The hot, thick days blurred together, and my daily activities were constantly interrupted by my son’s insatiable hunger. When he needed to nurse, I collapsed into the nearest comfortable place, surrendering to his demands. Minutes or hours later, I peeled him off me and tried in vain to remember what I had been doing. One day I looked at the calendar and realized that almost two months had gone by. I panicked. Where had my maternity leave gone?

When I heard about a brand-new, state-of-the-art daycare that had only a few slots left, I insisted my husband take time off work to look at it with me. Approaching the office, we could see the children in their classrooms through a soundproof glass door. The school’s director verified our appointment before pressing a button beneath her desk to let us in. As we toured the sparkling facility, she told us about building security, cleanliness, and child development. She explained that the teachers used digital cameras and frequently posted photos of the day’s events for parents to see. While the director gushed on, a child stood behind her, peeling off his clothes layer by layer. Nobody noticed.

With only two weeks of maternity leave left, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. She offered me the name of a Colombian woman who had kept her son for two years. “She might not be a good fit for some people,” she said vaguely as she pressed a torn piece of paper with a phone number into my hand. She also warned me that the woman didn’t speak English. I barely speak Spanish, but, thankful for the recommendation, I decided to call Señora Maria anyway. My husband and I arranged to visit her on the weekend, when her grandchildren would be home to translate.

Her daughters greeted us at the door and invited us in English to sit down on the couch. The grandchildren chatted and joked in whispers around the kitchen table until Maria swayed into the room, tugging the hem of her shirt into place over her ample frame. She nodded a greeting to my husband and me, and then her gaze landed on the baby in my lap. Her hands came together in a loud clap that silenced our polite chatter, and she began to chant to my son in rhyming Spanish. He froze, his eyes widening to the size of quarters as she swept him from my arms. She handled him the way a baker handles bread dough: patting him, pinching him, tossing him from one hand to the other. She made faces at him, then threw her head back and laughed, her belly rolling beneath him like a stormy sea. My son’s face broke into a broad smile.

It’s funny: After weeks of calling references, reading lunch-menu options, and quizzing daycare staff about child development theories and hygiene practices, I trusted this woman from the moment I saw her with my son. I had never seen anyone but my husband embrace my son with such warmth and confidence. I had never seen anyone play with a child so unselfconsciously in front of other adults. It may seem irresponsible, but without knowing what she would feed him or how they would spend their days together, I knew I could leave my baby with her in this house, where her daughters giggled next to one another on the overstuffed couch and the smell of spices hung over the room. My faith in her had everything to do with instinct and almost nothing to do with fact.

My husband felt the same way. Though he could not speak a word of Spanish, he was assured by Maria’s sparkling eyes, her contagious laugh, the weight of her hand in his. She reminded him of his relatives in Libya, he said. I knew exactly what he meant. When we’d stepped off the plane in Tripoli last year, his brother had gathered my daughter from me before even introducing himself. “Ma sha’ Allah,” he cried over and over, praising God and kissing her plump cheeks. Family, friends, and even strangers on the street delighted in our children, hugging them, kissing them, squeezing them, and loudly thanking God for them. Never once did someone ask permission before picking them up or feeding them or whisking them off into another room.

If in the Middle East children are a public treasure to be shared, in the United States they are a private responsibility requiring professional care. Look up “childcare services” in the yellow pages, and you’ll find innumerable businesses with names like A Bundle of Joy Daycare and Unlimited Love Nannies promising affordable rates and secure learning environments. American women like my own mother often live thousands of miles away from their grandchildren and work full-time jobs, so relying on family to assist with childcare is not an option. My daughter’s years in daycare have taught me that many preschool teachers are indeed well-educated and highly committed to the work they do. But no amount of education or commitment could produce what Maria’s eyes told me she would give my son. She called herself Abuelita—Grandmother.

*   *   *

On her first day of work, Maria welcomed me at the door, taking my baby and handing me a cup of coffee. I sat next to her on the couch and looked morosely at my son on her lap. I had been dreading this day for three months: I was afraid to leave him and go back to work but also afraid to stay home and quit my job. The headlines about the war in the paper that day had contributed to my uneasy mood. When Maria asked me how I was, I replied, “Yo tengo miedo.” I am afraid.

She listened to me closely, and when, frustrated by my limited Spanish, I repeated the phrase, she interrupted: “No. Cancela el miedo.” She wagged her finger, as if erasing my fear were as simple as wiping dust from a window. Pray to Jesus for what you need, she told me. Have faith in God.

Her sudden talk of religion caught me off guard, and I had no response. That night, as I sat nursing my baby in the dark while my husband and daughter slept, it occurred to me that Maria was the only openly religious person in my life. My mom had been a good Catholic until, as a teenager, she’d found herself pregnant with my older sister. Nowhere in her church or her Catholic community could she find Jesus’ benevolent love now that she needed it; instead she nearly suffocated under the weight of the judgment heaped upon her. She fled from New York to California, trading her religion for a vast ocean and warm sand under her baby’s bare feet.

Growing up, I never heard the name of Jesus spoken in our house except in bursts of anger. My childhood understanding of organized religion was similar to my understanding of sex: I didn’t know exactly what went on behind closed doors, but I understood that I should know better than to engage in such behavior.

An adolescent rebellious streak, coupled with an outbreak of piety, led me to attend Catholic church for a while; I rode the bus to church on Sundays and dated boys who quoted the Bible in casual conversation—a far more effective rebellion against hippie parents than having sex or doing drugs.

In college I traded religion, with its oppressive rules and hierarchy, for “spirituality,” which slid off my tongue and sounded sensual and intellectual at the same time. While religion demanded solitude and repetitive rituals, spirituality offered exploration and animated conversations. Like a New Age seeker with attention-deficit disorder, I hopped enthusiastically from Buddhism to Sufism to Taoism to self-help. An essay on The Tao of Surfing earned me an A in a comparative religion course. Driving a rented Jeep in the Himalayas, my boyfriend and I picked up a Tibetan Buddhist monk who was hitchhiking on a dirt road; squeezed between the two of them on the front seat, I swear I felt my heart open as Abba played on the stereo. I spent a weekend at a retreat center in California, where people lounged naked in hot tubs discussing God while their private parts bobbed like fleshy buoys on the surface of the water. I’d joined a Buddhist book club, though I was too busy and distracted to complete the assigned readings and hid my negligence behind vague comments about impermanence and nothingness.

So far, my so-called spiritual journey had proven more entertaining than enlightening. When I tried to convert my adventures into the hard currency of faith, I came up empty handed. None of my experiences had enabled me to look someone in the eye, as Maria did, and say with conviction that God was present in my life. In fact, I hardly ever mentioned God at all. I spoke the words “Jesus Christ” self-consciously, as if they were a foreign phrase I didn’t quite know how to pronounce. Maria referred to Christ daily and with easy familiarity, expressing her impatience with and her love for him as if he were just another lively presence in her crowded home. I was intrigued. She made me want to be that intimate with my God.

*   *   *

Maria lived in a large apartment complex and never locked her door. When I arrived one morning and found no one home, I waited on her doorstep with my son. Twenty minutes later she returned from having coffee with a neighbor and scolded me for keeping my baby out in the cold rather than making myself comfortable inside. I had my morning routine calculated down to the last minute and often arrived at her house with only a few moments to spare. But she handed me a tall glass of colada anyway and insisted that I sit and talk. Life in Colombia was better, she said, because people had more time for each other. Distracted by the drink’s? sweet, creamy taste, I forgot my frustration. (I don’t know her recipe for colada, but here’s my best guess: Heat one cup of cream. Stir in a half cup of sugar. Serve.)

After trying in vain to get Maria to accommodate my tight schedule, I learned to allow for half an hour with her each morning. She bounced my son on her lap and told me in detail about her physical ailments while I thumbed frantically through my Spanish-English dictionary looking up the words for arthritis, cardiologist, prescriptions. She got out her calendar and pointed to her doctor’s appointments, asking me which days I could drive her to the hospital. She gave me unsolicited advice about parenting, rolling her eyes in dismay when she heard my son was still sleeping in my bed. “That needs to stop,” she told me sternly, making the motion of a knife slicing across her throat with her index finger. She asked me offhandedly if I ever gave my son coffee and seemed amused by my shocked expression. When she was growing up in the Colombian countryside, she said, her mother would line up all the children at the table on cold mornings and serve them steaming cups of cafecito, into which they dipped their morning pastry. She insisted there was no harm in this.

I was able to convince her to keep my son away from coffee but not sweets. No matter how many times I asked her not to, she continued to feed my son warm bottles of colada. When I tried to communicate my concern about the dangers of white sugar, she squeezed my hand and called me mija—my daughter—dismissing my alarm as the product of an overactive imagination and pressing sweet buñuelos wrapped in napkins into my hand as I rushed out the door. Later that day in my office, I savored each sweet, rich, greasy bite.

Maria peppered me with rapid-fire Spanish, undeterred by the fact that I didn’t speak the language. I’d imagined us meeting halfway—she’d learn some English; I’d learn some Spanish—but from the first day, she made it clear that I was her student, and that her teaching style was full immersion. I borrowed my neighbor’s dog-eared Spanish textbook from the early eighties. On the cover, Latinos with handlebar mustaches and bellbottoms congregated on the lawn of a college campus under the title Cómo Se Dice? After my children went to sleep, I pored over its dated lessons:

Pablo and Raul sat in a café watching the women walk by.

“Do you think that girl’s pretty?” Raul asked.

“No, I think she’s ugly. I prefer blondes,” Pablo replied. “Say, are you going to Magdalena’s party on Friday?”

“No, her parties are always a complete failure. I plan to go to Irena’s party instead, and dance all night.”

I’d arrive at Maria’s house each day determined to work my new vocabulary into the conversation. Noticing my bleary eyes, she might ask: “How was your night?”

“A complete failure,” I’d reply groggily. “The baby danced all night.” Or, trying to convey how I felt about George W. Bush, I’d point to an image of the president on her television screen and announce, “That man is ugly.” Maria would correct my Spanish often, softening her critiques with compliments about how much I had learned.

One morning I sat on her couch drinking coffee as she played with my baby. “Where is your man?” I asked abruptly. I didn’t know the word for husband.

“He’s in Colombia,” she responded. “No U.S. visa.”

“I’m sorry,” I replied, making a sad face.

She waved her hand dismissively. “No problem.” She went on to explain that she preferred life as a single woman. And then she elbowed me knowingly and added, “Life is very different with a man in the house.”

I had never known a grandmother like Abuelita. My maternal grandmother had died before I was born, and childhood visits to my paternal grandmother’s house were a formal occasion. She lived in a southern California retirement community built around a golf course—the quietest place I had ever been. Golf carts and Cadillacs whispered along deserted, palm-lined streets. When I accidentally knocked the slipcovers off the arms of her couch, my grandmother was quick to pick them up and smooth them back into place. We dined at the country club, where my sister and I made faces at each other while the grown-ups drank gin-and-tonics and discussed politics. When we got noisy, my grandmother smiled tightly and said through clenched teeth: “Oh, you little monkeys!” She took pride in her rail-thin figure, maintained through daily aerobics and a careful diet. She was not the hugging type, and when we embraced briefly at the end of our visits, she felt like a tiny bird in my arms—nervous, small-boned, ready to flit away at her first opportunity.

Maria, on the other hand, was like a proud mother duck strutting about her domain, drawing her grandchildren under her wing or scattering them with her scolding, depending on her mood. I liked to watch her hassle them, joke with them, or ignore them altogether, the way only real intimacy permits. With my extended family thousands of miles away, I’d forgotten how good a full house felt. I began to look forward to my time at Maria’s and to linger there as long as possible. At the end of my workday, when I held my son and kissed his downy head, he smelled of scented candles and empanadas.

*   *   *

The week before Christmas, I arrived at Maria’s apartment in the morning to find the walls covered with synthetic greenery. A plastic Santa Claus waterfall sat on her coffee table, and she had pushed aside her living-room furniture to make space for an elaborate nativity scene. There were barnyard animals, wise men, bales of hay, and a small bowl covered in aluminum foil that held several plastic fish. At the center of it all, Mary and Joseph knelt and stared in awe at an empty manger—a small box covered in green felt—between them. When I asked Maria why there was no baby Jesus, she explained that he didn’t arrive until Christmas Eve.

We sat on her couch while I nursed my son, and Maria asked how I was. I wanted to tell her about the day before, when I’d driven to the mall to go Christmas shopping. I’d parked next to a woman whose crying toddler strained against his car seat. “Why did I ever have children?” she screamed as he sobbed uncontrollably. Inside the mall, my young daughter wanted to speak to Santa, and I stood in a long line with parents who cut in front of one another and talked on cell phones while their children nervously confided in a costumed stranger. In the stores I threw gifts into my cart in a nervous rush. On the way home, my daughter asked me to tell her the story of baby Jesus, and I realized with alarm that I knew little about him. I’d heard a few sermons during my churchgoing period as a teen, but all I could remember was that he was born radiant and homeless.

I wanted to tell Maria all of this, but the only appropriate word I could think of in Spanish was “tired,” and so, my eyes filling with tears, I told her: “Estoy cansada.” She nodded, and we both stared at Mary and Joseph and the empty patch of green felt between them.

After a moment, Maria began to talk rapidly, her nose scrunched up in disapproval. I picked up fragments here and there: “scandals in the church … too many rules … Christmas … too commercial … people forget.” I struggled to assemble the words like a jigsaw puzzle in my mind.

As she slowed down, it became clear what she was trying to say. God is not up in the sky. God is in the heart. Maria said this last sentence firmly, patting her chest with one plump hand for emphasis. She told me that before she’d met me, she’d prayed for a family to come into her life—a family that would need her as much as she needed them. And God had provided exactly that. “Look,” she said, gesturing at the three of us on her couch. “God is right here.” She fell silent, and at that moment I felt God flow between us like the water gurgling through the little plastic waterfall, like the milk flowing into my son as he lay limp in my arms, his eyes closed in rapture.

Author’s Note: Maria sometimes jokingly called me “la patrona,” or the boss, and then squeezed my arm and laughed. I think it was her way of poking fun at the stereotypical roles we played: me, the privileged and neurotic white mother, and her, the warm-hearted and dark-skinned nanny. We tried to build a relationship that transcended those roles—by confiding in each other, by making each other laugh, by spending time together outside of our working relationship. But several months ago, when Maria’s son was suddenly deported, I felt more keenly than ever the different circumstances of our lives: My son remained safe in her care, while her son was detained without warning and put on a plane before she could even say goodbye. Maria was devastated. For many months, she cried each time I saw her. But that’s not all she did: She also saved money and got her son a lawyer; cooked and sold empanadas to hundreds of people to raise money for his appeals; and collected letters of support on his behalf. She inspires me to love better, have more faith, and recognize my blessings. Though my son is no longer in her care, we still visit her often.

Krista Bremer is a writer who lives in Carrboro, North Carolina. Her work has been published in The Sun, Utne Reader, and elsewhere.

Brain, Child (WInter 2008)

How to Kill Twelve Hours

How to Kill Twelve Hours

By Jennifer Mattern

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 2.46.54 PMDecide that you have ruined her. Hold yourself fully accountable. Assume all blame. Then call your mother and ask if she’ll take her off your hands.

Say, “With the right outfit, she’d make a great garden gnome.” Wait for a response. None will come. Describe the pointy knit cap you saw at T.J. Maxx, the one that would work perfectly. Sell the package, really sell it: “I could have her knee-deep in your petunias in five and a half hours, just say the word.” Strain to hear what your mother is muttering under her breath. It sounds like, “They call it an inner monologue for a reason,” but you can’t be sure. When your mother hangs up, put down the phone and stare down at the sullen face of your three-year-old daughter.

She stares back accusingly. Don’t bother drying out your eyeballs this time. Blink and get it over with. You always lose anyway.

You are not happy today, and neither is she. “I need to play with someone or I will die,” she intones.

“That’s what imaginary friends are for,” you say. “Go make some.”

You have to play with me or I will die,” she threatens. Tell her to wait, for the ninth time this morning.

The clock chuckles. It is 11:34.

Realize you have forgotten to medicate the dog. Fish one and a half tablets of phenobarbital from a small vial. The dog is not happy, either. But he gets phenobarbital to take the edge off. Resent him as you fold the white tablets into cream cheese and cram them down his throat. Lucky damn dog.

From the living room, the sound of grunting. Think fast. Tell your daughter you will tell her a Jig-the-Pig-and-Pam-the-Lamb story if she will just poop in the toilet, just this once. “Don’t think about my poopy,” she commands. Ask her to repeat herself. “Just don’t think about it or I will die,” she says, before grunting again and digging her fingers into the ottoman. The ottoman yelps. Notice the claw marks she is leaving in its chenille upholstery.

Hear yourself saying, “If you poop in your new Dora the Explorer underpants, I will die.” Watch her consider this. Rub your temples as she walks away from you and climbs the stairs to her room. Stand at the base of the stairs. The sound of crackling plastic. She is changing out of her Dora the Explorer underpants, into a pair of disposable Pull-Ups. More grunting. Then, silence. You are defeated. You are always defeated, in the end.

Gurgling from the kitchen. You have forgotten about the other one. Go to her. She gurgles again in her ExerSaucer, then coos. She coos, and then she goos. Amuse yourself by thinking that Central Casting has sent her here to play the role of “The Baby.” She laughs, although she does not understand the joke. She laughs all the time. She is happy. She is the only one.

At the back door, a hissing noise. It’s the Future again, exposing himself in your backyard. Third time this week. Leering, he opens his ratty trench coat to reveal your older daughter in her twenties, now an expressionless, bruised-looking Goth, busily carving up her unshaven inner thighs with a razor blade.

Pull back. Get your bearings. Your daughter is in the Jerry Springer Show Green Room, waiting for the aging host to call her onstage, where she will confront her transsexual-lover-housemates about the blood- drinking fiasco that went down the other week. You can’t tear yourself away. Watch the audience nod sympathetically as your daughter blames her self-mutilation and confused sexuality on the inconsistent mothering she received as a child.

That’s your cue.

Shoo the Future away. Tell him next time, you’ll call the cops.

Look at the baby. She bangs a chubby hand on the side of the ExerSaucer, then jams one fat finger into her mouth, smiling widely. She thinks you are the cat’s meow. Take a moment to wonder about the phrase “the cat’s meow.” Then wonder how much drool the baby generates in one twenty-four-hour period. Wonder why children are so moist. Wonder why your eyes are no longer moist.

Phone coughs, then rings. Caller ID. It’s the one who might be your best friend, but neither of you talk like that, so it’s impossible to say. She wants to know if you’re coming over to watch The Bachelor. All of the other mothers are. Say you can’t, not tonight. Tell her that bedtime has become The Exorcist, full of blood-curdling howls and splattering body fluids and spinning heads.

You sense she is biting her tongue. Pry, but pry cheerfully. Be blithe. She is concerned about you, she says. Clear off the kitchen countertop as she begins the intervention. Hear her tell you she thinks you are a woman imprisoned. Smackdown. Allow your jaw to hit the countertop, hard. “What was that?” she asks.

Return jaw to starting position and divulge nothing. Encourage her to finish airing her concerns. She picks up right where she left off. “It’s just that you used to be a lot more social in college,” she explains. “Now you’re always overwhelmed.”

Hang up and call your husband at work. Ask him if you seem overwhelmed. “Of course not,” he responds. “You’re just overwhelmed.”

Try hard not to be a woman imprisoned. Decide that today is the day. You will leave the house. You will take the three-year-old and the baby somewhere. Together. You have seen other mothers accomplish this. There must be somewhere you can go.

Spend the next seventy-three minutes preparing for departure. Four bowel movements, two minor tantrums, and one pile of dog vomit later, you are ready to go. You feel good, capable.

On the dining room floor, strap the baby into her car seat. The sound of tapping on glass. As usual, the Future won’t take a hike. He presses himself lewdly against the low window on the side of the house. Draw the shade quickly.

Ask your three-year-old if she’s ready to go do this thing you’re only doing for her benefit. There will be toys. There will be other children. There may be muffins, but no promises. “I’m working on another poopy,” she says. The baby laughs from her car seat.

Leave the three-year-old alone, bracing herself against oversized furniture and growling like a feral animal. Remove the baby from her car seat. Check your watch: 1:22 p.m.

Chirping sound at the back door. Shift the baby to your hip. Investigate. The Future cartwheels into view in the backyard, narrowly missing a pile of dog crap. He flashes you again. This time, it’s a glimpse of the baby—über-successful and desperately unhappy at age thirty, leafing through a dog-eared copy of My Mother, My Self.

Damn Future. Flip him the bird. Threaten to sic the dog on him. Turn around to look for the dog. Find the dog cowering under the kitchen table.

Check on the three-year-old. “I NEED PRIVATE TIME OR I WILL DIE,” she screams, clenching her tiny buttocks together.

Head to the front porch with the baby. The mailbox nips at your fingers. Smack it hard on the nose and bring in the mail. Wonder why your husband is getting promotional flyers from Phantom Fireworks in Hinsdale, New Hampshire. A box of Pyro Pandemonium costs just $24.99, and you get the second box free. It seems like a good deal, but you’re not sure who to ask.

More grunting. Foul stench in the living room. The three-year-old insists there is more to come. Postpone fresh Pull-Up.

It’s 2:17. Lunch is a lost cause. Naps are a lost cause. Head for the computer. Stretch the baby across your knees. Nurse her while you check your e-mail. Your breasts are ten inches long now, so this is not difficult to do. Sit up as straight as you want.

One new message. It’s from your father, who just read your latest essay, the one nobody likes but you. “Too esoteric. Plus you use the word ‘I’ too many times.”

Spot the Ninja in the corner of your dining room. Signal to him. The Ninja nods and hurls seven Chinese stars into your back. The baby does not notice. She goes on nursing and kneading the flesh of your right breast with her sharp fingernails. Wink at the Ninja. It is impossible not to admire his work. So efficient. He bows and leaves silently through the dining room window, startling the Future, who bolts around to the back of the house again.

The computer clears its throat. New e-mail, from the same friend. The concerned friend. It reads, “What about a three-day, sixty-mile walk into historic Boston, to raise money for breast cancer? Lots of survivors do it. Hard-core walking, lots of fem-bonding, a very inspirational, embrace-life kind of thing.” Stare at the screen for two full minutes. The baby bites your left breast and laughs.

The last time you checked, neither you nor your friend was a breast-cancer survivor. Chew your thumb. Think. Think some more. You don’t know anyone who has breast cancer.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” says Jerry Seinfeld, climbing out from under your desk. He hands you a pink ribbon, then stands up and offers to walk the dog. Tell him maybe next time. He nods. “I’ll be here all week,” he says as he climbs into the coat closet.

“I’m all done my poopy,” calls your three-year-old. “You can change me now.” You do. Poof. You change her into a thriving potted plant, with the help of Fairy Godmother, who has just popped up behind the couch. The kid makes a terrific plant, she really does. Shiny, healthy leaves. No stinking, no whining. Just a little fertilizer in the winter months. Finally, a commitment you can feel good about.

You exchange high-fives with Fairy Godmother, who sneezes at a passing tumbleweed of dog fur. The tumbleweed snarls and attacks Fairy Godmother’s leg. Poof. Your three-year-old is back. She sticks one finger into her Pull-Up and starts to cry. Fairy Godmother titters apologetically. She flings a little complimentary fairy dust on the baby. The baby laughs, then bawls. Both children are bawling.

Fairy Godmother beats a hasty retreat. This time, your three-year-old inserts an entire hand into her Pull- Up. She wails harder. Carry both children up the stairs, under your arms, like architectural blueprints. Try not to smear poop on the baby or the wallpaper. It’s too late for the three-year-old.

Half past three. You and the offspring are ready to rock and roll.

Bundle children into coats and hats. Heave and hoist children onto the front porch. Heave and hoist them down the front steps. Heave and hoist them into the car. Pretend the gas tank is not empty. Drive downtown past the art museum. Heave and hoist children out of the car and into the Toy Library. Greet the other mothers. Watch as your three-year-old ignores the other children. They are all ignoring each other.

One mother asks how you are coping with two kids. Be strong. Resist the urge to tell her that having a second child was a dreadful, mind-blowing error of judgment. Do not yell “MY BAD” at the top of your lungs. Do not whisper, “The authorities should not have let me breed.” Do not tell her about the bumper stickers you like to paste all over your brain: STERILIZATION: NOT JUST FOR BREAKFAST ANYMORE and VASECTOMY: ANOTHER GOOD IDEA COME TOO LATE.

The other mother is still waiting for your reply. Your options are limited. You can smile politely, of course. You can joke about sleep deprivation. You can exclaim, “The things the books don’t tell you!” and open your eyes wide in an attractive sort of way. However you choose to respond, it is important to seem calm, benevolent, and good-humored. Do not seem overwhelmed. The Toy Library is not a place for the overwhelmed. People will talk.

Look at your watch. It is four o’clock, and the Toy Library is closing. You have been there for twelve minutes.

The other mothers and children are heading across the street, to Brewhaha, the local coffee shop. Tempt Fate. Join them. In forty-five minutes, Brewhaha will earn its name, and someday, if anyone asks, you will be able to say that you were there.

*   *   *

Do not stop to wonder what went wrong. Know that it was not the carob-and-flaxseed muffin too late in the day. Know that it was not the child who nailed your child in the eye with a Cheerio. The fact is, the fault lies with you, and only with you. The kid simply goes mad in your presence. Too much time together, and she begins frothing at the mouth. You make her rabid.

This is how it goes down: First, scald the roof of your mouth with your coffee. Then, listen for the loud slamming of the Brewhaha bathroom door. Slam. Bam. Thank. You. Ma’am. Execute a cursory visual sweep of your immediate area. Realize that the slamming is being done by one of the four arms that have passed through your vagina.

Bolt for the bathroom, overturning your coffee. Your three-year-old will not come out. She cackles maniacally, your spawn, unleashed on the unsuspecting coffee-shop public. Decide that you are getting your tubes tied next week. Any tube they find, you will tell them to tie.

Crouch by the closed bathroom door. Cajole. Wheedle. Do what you must, but get her out of the bathroom. Imagine her licking the base of the toilet bowl. Bang harder on the door. Command. Threaten, if necessary. No luck.

Be creative. Wedge a knee in the bathroom doorframe. Seize the child. Return to the table, where another mother is mopping up a pool of your spilled coffee.

Grab your coats and stuff them under one arm. Yank the three-year-old toward the exit. By all means, yank too hard, but only half as hard as you’d like to yank. Hold on for dear life. This is not easy, as at some point between your table and the door, her skeletal system dissolves. Be furious. Think, Give her an inch, and she turns into an invertebrate. It is impossible to respect her.

She wriggles out of your grip. Catch her. The sensation is familiar. Recall a toy you once had, a water balloon, shaped like a tube, that kept squirting from your hands. Waste four seconds trying to remember its name. The Water Willy? Next thing you know, you will be thinking of other artifacts of your childhood, Chinese jacks and Jordache bags and Rubik’s cubes, while your child breaks free and slithers up some old man’s pants leg to grab his Water Willy.

She continues to pitch and roll as you drag her to the door. But there will be no quick getaway, oh no. You have forgotten the other one, as usual. She is still sleeping in her car seat, obscured by the Brewhaha recycling bin. Bare your teeth at your three-year-old to stun her momentarily. Think, Who’s feral now, punk? Then shift your focus to the baby in the car seat, at least ten long feet away. Attempt telekinesis. The car seat refuses to levitate. It refuses to even scoot across the floor. Pray for a miracle, a satisfying quickie.

Your prayer is answered in the form of your husband, who walks into the coffee shop at this very second. Hiss, “Thank God” at him through clenched teeth. Flail one arm wildly in the direction of the baby. Your husband understands what is expected of him. He fetches the baby and her enormous diaper bag.

Haul your coatless three-year-old out the door. She will not walk. She is pretending to be dead. Pick her up and heave her across your back, perpendicular. Lock her in place with your arms. Head grimly for the car, one block away.

It is a very long block. Walk slowly, with as much dignity as you can muster, while your child-crucifix screeches and sobs uncontrollably. Scowl as she begs for mercy. Grind your teeth as she pleads hysterically with you to be put down.

You sense movement on your left. Turn your head. It is Jesus of Nazareth, trudging along with his cross. Say, “Pssst. Hey. Jesus.” He regards you with melancholy, indie-rocker eyes. Say, “You really do look like your pictures.” Jesus nods, sadly.

Ask Jesus if he’d mind trading crucifixes, just until you can get your car door open. He declines. Stop dead in your tracks. Do not attempt to hide your disgust. Snort. Say, “‘Suffer the little children’? Ring a bell?”

Jesus looks around nervously for his escort, a burly Roman soldier who’s leaning against a parking meter and perusing a museum brochure. The Roman soldier taps his watch pointedly. Jesus shifts his cross on his shoulders and sprints away from you, as fast as he can. He and the soldier are just in time for a guided museum tour.

Struggle to get the car door open. Buckle your still-sobbing child into her car seat. Your husband approaches with the baby. Put her in the backseat. Look at your husband. Say nothing. Get in the car and turn the key in the ignition. The clock on the dashboard snickers: 5:12.

Pull out of the parking space and head for home. The three-year-old stops sobbing, suddenly. Innocently, she asks, “Mommy, what happened at Brewhaha?” Whip your head around to glare at her. Run a red light. The baby laughs.

When you park in front of your house, the three-year-old demands to hear the soundtrack from the movie Chicago. “ALL THAT JAZZ! I WANT ALL THAT JAZZ RIGHT NOW!” Ignore her. Sit in the car with both children until your husband pulls up behind you in the other car. He gets out and waits dutifully on the curb.

Admire his insight. Hand him both children. Flee into the house and up the stairs.

Give yourself a time-out. Sit on the toilet. Try to relax.

The three-year-old bursts into the bathroom. Leap off the toilet seat. Pee down your leg, into your sock.

“You have to give me a bath,” she yells. “Or I will die.” Another bumper sticker appears in your mind: CALGON, TAKE HER AWAY. Dry your leg, remove your soiled sock, and run her a bath.

At first, ignore the long strands of your post-partum hair floating on top of the water. Put the kid in the tub anyway. Quickly realize that there is too much hair to ignore. Shift gears. Pretend that the floating hair is seaweed. Say, “Ooh, what nice seaweed you have, Miss Mermaid.” She squints at you, like she can’t quite figure out who you are. Mermaids are so last year. She has a better idea. “Let’s play Mean Man and Nice Man,” she instructs.

Be flexible. Be pleased that you will finally get to use that M.F.A. in Drama for something. Say, “Toot-toot! Who’s on board for some Drama Therapy?” Watch as your three-year-old sticks a plastic moose in her privates. Try distraction. Yell, “Drama Express, now boarding at Bathtub One!” and wave your arms like the person you are, a person who has no working concept of the gestural life of a train conductor. She smiles vaguely and says, “He’s my Happy Meal moose.” Tell her moose can drown, even in shallow water. Remove the moose. Try to take her mind off the moose. Ask if you are Mean Man or Nice Man.

You are Nice Man. Endure vicious epithets from Mean Man, like “STUPID! YOU’RE STUPID, NICE MAN!” for forty-five minutes. Refuse to take any more verbal abuse from Mean Man. Mean Man explodes with rage, displacing half a tub full of tepid water. The bath rug is soaked. You are soaked. Abandon ship. Abandon child.

Pass your husband in the hallway. He hands you the baby before entering the bathroom with his shoulders squared and head down. More howls. Thumping and wailing. The baby laughs in your arms, grimaces, then poops. Change her diaper. Ignore the sounds of objects being hurled against bathroom tile.

Nurse the baby. Sing her a lullaby to mask the sound of her older sister being dragged down the hallway to her room. Rock the baby as your husband barricades the three-year-old in her room for a time-out.

Four minutes later, the three-year-old refuses to leave her room. “Your time-out is over. Did you hear me? You can come out now,” says your husband. Silence. “You can come out now,” he repeats, helplessly. More silence.

Tuck the baby into her crib. She sighs quietly and is still. Shut off her nursery lamp. In the hallway, your husband bellows, “I mean it, just TWO more minutes in time-out! You hear me? Just TWO more minutes and THAT’S IT—” This is followed by mumbling, and then all is still. He is a broken man. Soon you hear your three-year-old in her room, singing cheerfully to herself.

Leave the baby’s room. Step carefully over your husband’s prone, inert body in the hallway outside your three-year-old’s closed door. There is nothing more for you here.

Head downstairs and park yourself on the couch. A tumbleweed of dog fur leaps into your lap. It wants to nurse. Bat it away, back under the couch, where it belongs.

You hear the refrigerator door open. The Future has let himself in through the back door. He enters the living room, carrying two bottles of beer. He sits next to you on the couch and hands you a cold one.

Stare at his coat, which remains closed. “Go on,” you say. “You know you want to.”

The Future shakes his head and tightens his belt. It was once a really nice trench coat, you can tell. He reaches for the remote and channel-surfs. He looks disappointed. Say, “No cable.” He settles for UPN.

You wait. Nothing. “Go on, flash me,” you say. “I can handle it.”

The Future gestures to a ballpoint pen lying on the end table. Hand it to him. Watch as he pulls a Post-It pad from his coat pocket. He writes, “YOU THINK I DON’T KNOW WHAT KIND OF DAY YOU HAD?” in small, precise block lettering on a Post-It and sticks it on your knee. He holds out his bottle. You clink. You drink.

Watch America’s Top Model with the Future in companionable silence. The phone sniffles, then rings. Do not pick it up. Keep watching America’s Top Model to see if any of the girls will drown during their first underwater shoot. Glance at the Future. Poker face. Say, “Nobody drowns? Not even the one with lupus?” Watch him smirk.

On a commercial break, check your voice-mail: the concerned friend again. Listen to her message. Listen to it again. Put down the phone and finish your beer.

The Future glances your way. Ask, “Do I seem overwhelmed to you?” He shrugs and picks at his teeth with the cap of your pen. His teeth are fantastic.

The Future turns off the TV. He yawns and rises from the couch. He’s got an early morning.

Feel suddenly desperate. Try to make conversation. Say, “You know, I feel really bad about the way I talked to Jesus today.” The Future shoots you a look. He prints another message on a Post-It and sticks it to your TV screen. He exits through the kitchen, through the back door. He likes the back door.

Yell, “That’s it?” Go to the back door and scream, “I’ve seen better, you know.” Return to the living room. Kick the ottoman. See the Post-It on the TV. “I DON’T DO REGRET,” it says. “TAKE IT UP WITH THE OTHER GUY.”

It is 9:24. The dog is staring hopefully at you. Feed him. Cram another dose of phenobarbital down his throat. Say, “Lucky bastard,” and pat him on the head.

Sit at the kitchen table and stare out the window. The Ninja and the Fairy Godmother are leaning against a telephone pole, groping and making out like teenagers. Think, Get a room. Close the kitchen curtains.

At ten o’clock, your husband enters the kitchen. Share a Slim-Fast bar. Reminisce about the old days, before there were kids. Mussels and beer in Montreal. New Year’s Eve in Calgary. Lazy weekends in Westchester. Say, “Someday we’ll get our life back.” Smile reassuringly. He regards you carefully. “This is our life,” he says.

Raucous applause from the coat closet. Stamping. Whistling. “Thank you very much,” says a voice. “You’ve been a terrific crowd.” Your husband looks around. “Did you hear something?” he asks. Say no.

Head upstairs to get ready for bed. Admire your husband’s elegant flossing style. Hold your breath as the three-year-old yells in her sleep: “YOU’RE STUPID! STUPID NICE MAN!” The baby wakes up, says, “Ga,” then goes back to sleep.

*   *   *

Half past eleven. Go downstairs to check your e-mail one last time. The computer belches. Three new e-mail messages.

Read the first one. It is a rejection from a literary magazine, for an essay on motherhood that you submitted less than forty-eight hours ago. “Subject matter too mainstream.”

Read the second e-mail. Another rejection, this one from the editors of an anthology of motherhood essays: “Too alternative.”

Press your thumbs into the inside corners of your eyes. Press harder. Wonder how the universal condition of motherhood can be too mainstream and too alternative at the same time. Wonder why your right breast is leaking milk. Tell it to behave itself.

Read the third e-mail. It is from another mother you know, the one who is exasperated with you because you do not enjoy talking on the phone. She hates e-mail, but she is writing today to tell you that she is exasperated with you for a different reason. She is thinking about having a second child, and you are giving her “mixed messages” on the subject. If her child never gets a sibling, it will be all your fault. If her child does get a sibling, it will still be all your fault.

The dog paces. Remember that he needs to go out. Open the back door for him and follow him outside. Watch as he lifts his leg and pees on the rusting barbecue grill, the one you forgot to put in the shed after Labor Day.

The air is cold. Realize you have lost the belt to your robe. Look around the backyard. Not a soul. Open your robe and flash the dog. He regards you with mild interest then poops next to the garbage can, which begins to cry. Go back inside with the dog.

On your way up to bed, pause at the front door. Someone is shuffling around on your front porch.

Look at the dog. He does not seem not concerned. A tumbleweed of dog fur leaps onto your shoulder to get a better look. The tumbleweed does not seem concerned, either. Remove the tumbleweed from your shoulder and put it on the floor.

Continue to observe. Your eyes slowly adjust to the dim light. Sure enough, a heavyset man is lumbering aimlessly back and forth on the porch.

Notice how overdressed he is. He is dressed in too many layers, even for this climate. Notice how odd his head looks. He is wearing an unflattering hat, the most unflattering hat you have ever seen.

Notice how clumsy he is, how he lurches. He sits down awkwardly. No good. He gets up. He squats. He falls over. He leans heavily against the three-year-old’s tricycle. This guy just can’t get comfortable.

This guy, you think. The other guy. Turn on the porch light. He stops.

He blinks at you through the door. Blink back.

You see that the man is obese, with terrible skin. He looks vaguely familiar. Wonder if the two of you have met before.

He smiles hesitantly and holds up one hand in greeting. You know him from someplace, but you can’t quite put your finger on where.

Open the front door and invite him inside. As he steps over the threshold, notice that the hat on his head is actually a lampshade. Ah, you think.

Say, “New Year’s Eve?” You know the joke.

He is clearly delighted. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” he says.

Say, “Best punchline of all time.”

He beams.

Offer him a seat on the couch.

Before he sits down, he removes his top layer of clothing: gladiator sandals, Edwardian topcoat, and an ostrich-feather boa. Underneath, he is wearing embroidered Chinese slippers, leather chaps, and a “Welcome Back, Kotter” t-shirt.

Check your watch. It is midnight. Ask if he has time for a beer.

“All the time in the world,” he says.

Think, Of course. Hand him a coaster.

Say, “I know exactly what you mean.”

Author’s Note: At the time I wrote this, I had never known anyone with breast cancer. That changed this past summer. Here’s to Rebecca T.-S., one of my very favorite “Brewhaha Mamas,” who’s fighting the good fight this winter with extraordinary grace, uncommon courage, and a first-rate sense of humor. Just say the word, Rebecca, and we’ll all tromp to Boston in the pinkest snow boots you’ve ever seen.

Jennifer Mattern (www.jennifermattern.com) is a freelance writer and mother of two based in western Massachusetts.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

Before Your Very Eyes

Before Your Very Eyes

By B. E. Pinkham

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 8.52.41 PMA few weeks before the party, Robin’s mother Maria had said to me, “You know how I picked him? He had the biggest ad of all the magicians in Chicago Parent. I just thought that had to mean something. Is that stupid or what?”

“No. I don’t think so,” I’d said, thinking that that’s exactly what I would have done.

Robin, the birthday girl, had chosen magic as the party’s theme. My daughter Eve and most of the other kids were still decorating their purple hats with star and moon stickers when Randy the Magician arrived. He was tall and normal-looking; he had a performer’s presence, already comfortable as we watched him getting ready to work. He opened a bag and started to blow up long thin balloons.

“Hi,” he said to a little blonde girl nearby. “I’m Randy. What’s your name?”

“Andrea,” she said as she smiled and wriggled her legs.

“Oh, okay.” He leaned over her with his hands on his knees. “What’s your first name?”

She blinked at him and kept smiling.

Randy kept smiling, too. “Come on. What’s your first name?”

A few of the adults, including me, chuckled.

Andrea blinked again, still smiling, but her eyes were starting to scan the sidelines. She looked into the air, then down at her shoes. She knew to stay silent because, even if she didn’t get the joke, she got that she shouldn’t ask for an explanation.

Welcome to: Surrealism for Preschoolers.

Randy said, “Oh, it’s okay” and waved at her. She turned and wandered off.

While Randy was making his pile of balloon animals, he repeated the What’s-your-first-name thing three or four times, always with similar results.

It was a bright day, cold and windy outside, and the view from the party room on the fortieth floor of Maria’s Edgewater high rise was brilliant. I could see past downtown Chicago to the smokestacks of Gary. I walked over to the north windows where Camille’s dad and Imaan’s dad were talking.

“Look! You can see the Bahá’í Temple,” I said to them. I’ve never been good at starting conversations. But they turned and looked and, for the next blessed three or four minutes, we talked not about our children and their education, but about the visible landmarks and the sudden staggering proliferation of high-rise condos in Evanston.

Randy put on his magician’s robe. Maria herded the kids and got them to sit on the floor in front of Randy while he reminded all the parents to be quiet. After he’d done a few tricks, he tried his first-name thing once more.

“What’s your name?” he said, pointing at a boy in the middle of the audience.

“Zachary.”

“What’s your first name?”

Zach pushed his shoulders back and smiled. “Zachary is my first name!” Zach is six. The adults applauded and he took a bow.

Like all magic shows, Randy’s had two parts: the illusions and the patter. He had the equipment and the skill for the illusions. Objects showed up under empty cups, were pulled out of the birthday girl’s ear, and jumped, invisibly, from hat to pocket. For the patter he did cartoon character voices, made rude sounds, and mixed in age-appropriate potty jokes with some serious health and safety reminders. Hey kids, it’s fun to be a little naughty for a laugh but let’s still show that we’re really all good boys and girls. I’m a real grown-up. I know the limits, and I can show you how to take it right to the edge.

Welcome to: Middle-Class Values Indoctrination for Preschoolers.

I was sitting off to the side of the show. Bob—Robin’s dad and the writer of Randy’s paycheck for the afternoon—was leaning back in his chair directly opposite Randy, with his arms crossed over his chest and his legs straight out and crossed at the ankles. He was not laughing or smiling.

Randy, always smiling, said to Bob, “You know, you’ll have much more fun if you lower your expectations.”

“I already have,” Bob said, nodding slowly. His very slightly amused expression could easily be mistaken for an attitude of skeptical appraisal or possibly for an it’s-just-a-kids’-show sort of cynicism. Or even for sleep deprivation.

Randy dropped his chin toward his chest. “Oh. Kay,” he said, keeping his eyes on Bob’s face. He looked like he was thinking, There goes my hope for a tip here today.

Welcome to: Non-Verbal Communication Dysfunction for Adults.

I wished that Bob had smiled for the guy. I would have hated to see an ego collapse at a kids’ magic show.

Now, I felt like I had to laugh a little more emphatically to reassure Randy. I frequently find myself laughing and applauding for the benefit of the performers (and not so much for my own pleasure) because I believe it’s my duty as an audience member to give them their “E” for effort. It’s my show for them. I have acquired this very Midwestern attitude since moving here. Back in New York, where critical judgment takes priority over big-hearted validation, standing ovations were given only if one could not possibly contain one’s excitement. Out here, it seems we sometimes give out standing O’s to show our gratitude to the performers who have not left us to live on one of the coasts. Or because—like their families—we’re proud of them just for getting the job. Midwesterners make good audiences.

The kids were laughing. The other adults also were chuckling on cue, but Randy kept checking on Bob. Bob was still in the same pose. Looking at him now, you might think that he was even less satisfied with his worker than he was before.

Brave and reckless, Randy tried again. “You know, if you lower your expectations you’ll have much more fun,” he said, this time louder and with more feeling.

“I already have and I’m having a fine time,” Bob replied, also louder and with a tiny bit more feeling.

There was way too much dramatic tension in the room for me. I was trying to think of a new line for Randy, so I barely noticed when he looked at me and pointed.

“Would you come up here and help me?” he said. Wasn’t I already helping? I walked toward him hoping he’d do it—maybe he’d ask me for my first name.

“What’s your name?” he said.

“Ellen.”

“Where are you from originally, Ellen?” I guess he knew better than to try the what’s-your-first-name thing on a grownup.

“New York.”

“New Yawk, huh?”

“Yes,” I said. (Note to non-New Yorkers: Do not say that.)

“What part?”

“Long Island.” What’s my face doing? I’m not used to this talking with everyone looking at me. What if I get the answers wrong? Where do my hands go? But then, I breathe. I’m cool.

“So do you want to go back there, or do you like Chicago?”

“Chicago’s just wonderful. We love Chicago,” I said as images flashed through my head: the drive to New York and back on Route 80, some brutally ugly little house we might have to live in there, the inevitable daily crawl on the Long Island Expressway. None of it seemed even slightly appealing; it never has. Then flip, flip, flip in my mind through all the places we’ve lived here, plus a selection of pleasant memories of the city and the lake. That’s right! We love Chicago. I was just checking my answer. I wanted to be sure I’d told the truth.

“So, Ellen, what do you do?”

He wants me to say it? Say what? At-home mom? That’s what I’m supposed to say. But he wants me to come out and say it? There’s got to be a better way for me to answer that question, but I don’t think that it would make sense without the soundtrack and visuals. I’d need flashbacks to represent all the resonance his question inspires in me. Each day of my life is complicated with memories of my own childhood; with small reminders of movies, novels, and songs I’ve loved; and with impressions of my mother’s life and my beliefs about the lives of my sisters and friends. Could Randy have any idea about all that? I mean, did he even see The Hours? Maybe not.

Maybe I could say that, while my children are at school, I spend as much time as I can attempting to give some order to the chaos of my life (past and present) by writing these little narrative things about said chaos. The rest of the time I fulfill my duties by keeping the house hold stocked with peanut butter, milk, and paper towels; by keeping clean clothes available (even though I deeply, childishly resent it); and by maintaining a full and fully met schedule of activities for the above-mentioned children. Also, I believe that I have, so far, managed to keep them healthy, safe, and clean—and I have, so far, kept their intellectual, spiritual, and emotional needs reasonably well attended to without causing them undue psychological trauma.

And I have never even once forgotten to pick one of them up from school. I’d like that noted. And, also, one of them has autism—but I can’t just announce that, can I? And I really like my husband; that’s no small thing, either.

But I couldn’t say all that. I knew I should just come out and say that I’m writing a book—or trying to write a book. No, be definite: Writing a book. It sounds more rational.

“Absolutely nothing.” I said. “I have two kids.”

And right there I realized that that is my problem and that it’s always been my problem. Rather than even try to verbalize a rational answer to a big stupid question, I will say something dry and ironic to make my own private joke on myself.

If you lower your expectations you’ll have much more fun.

If you don’t know me and don’t know how my internal and external life teeters on the brink of anarchy and how much I’ve come to like it that way, then you can’t understand how deeply amusing that answer was to me. Few people know that I always stand off and point at the truth from a distance.

Because why bother when the slippery mess can’t be nailed down any way? Everyone’s life resists encapsulation, sound-biting, simple narration, spin doctoring, and even Oprah. Let’s, instead, explore the differences, in the field of self-expression, between uselessness and purposelessness, shall we?

Welcome to: Post-Structuralism for Mommies.

Then Randy picked up a long wooden box. Its blue-green paint was scuffed up from traveling in the magician’s case. I let him put my arm inside. He slid two metal plates through it, just below my elbow. I wanted to be a good assistant, so I winced as the plates hit the bottoms of their slots. It was just a little wince; I was subtle. Then he bent the two halves of the box away from each other. One half contained my lower arm, the other my upper arm. It didn’t hurt, but I furrowed my brow slightly to suggest that it did. The kids gasped and giggled. Randy put the halves back together and took out the plates. He took my arm out of the box. Everyone applauded. I looked over my shoulder at Eve in the front row. She wasn’t smiling like the other kids.

I went back to my seat.

Soon the show was over and Randy handed out the balloon animals. Eve, holding her pink balloon puppy, came over to me with her lower lip pushed out and her eyebrows knit together. She reached for my magical arm.

“See? It’s okay. It didn’t get hurt,” I said. She touched it and hugged it while looking me in the face so I could see her expression. She even snuffled up nonexistent tears. Then she leaned into my chest.

“Mommy, I didn’t like that.”

“It was all pretend, honey. Nothing ever really happened to my arm, and it didn’t hurt. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said. She hugged me again and then went back to swatting her friends with her puppy. She’s just that kind of a girl: capable of expressing herself honestly while putting on a good show for her audience.

Author’s Note: I started to write this story the day after the party, but something was missing, so I left it alone. A month later, at a Cubs game, I became fascinated by the behavior of four young guys seated in front of my friend and me. They were putting on a great bad boy act for right fielder Sammy Sosa, heckling him every time the ball came within a hundred feet of him, but they skillfully omitted all profanity and anything more than mildly insulting. Sosa, of course, tried to ignore them, but eventually he gave them a noncommittal nod. The hecklers congratulated themselves with high fives and “Yes! Sammy gives us the nod!” then went right back to their tirade. Obviously, I don’t go to games often, but they got me thinking about when and how those cultural rules are learned.

B.E. Pinkham lives with her husband and children in Chicago.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

There When I Need You

There When I Need You

By Stephanie Farrell

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.59.26 PMMy mom often joked that the second baby should be called “the nervous breakdown baby.” I’d have found this funnier if I hadn’t been her second baby and if she hadn’t subsequently had a nervous breakdown. Now, with two children of my own, my stepfather reminded me that I am the same age she was when she was hospitalized. It was a gentle nudge, his way of telling me not to take on too much, but it made me feel like my biology has faulty wiring. Now on those days when I feel isolated or exhausted, I picture an old kitchen timer, ticking louder and faster right before the buzzer goes off. Time’s up—this is all you can take, no more.

In the years before her breakdown, Mom put on a fabulous act. She was Supermom. She set up a preschool in our garage and taught all the neighborhood kids. She taught us how to bake cookies, make collages, and collect bugs. She would make up stories about Mrs. Carter, a little old woman in tennis shoes who secretly rode a motorcycle. Much like the fictional character Mrs. Pollifax, created by Dorothy Gilman more than a decade later, Mrs. Carter was often hired by the CIA for international adventures. Mrs. Carter, much like my mom, led a double life.

Every morning Mom would say that she needed to put on her face. She meant her make-up; she’d rarely stray out of the house without it. But my mom put on a face all the time, a happy face that belied what lurked inside. She wore it to Garden Club and League of Women Voters and to Little League games and to my Brownie meetings. She wore it with her neighbors. She wore it with most of her friends. Underneath the face, she was hurting. Despite her joke, I know that we didn’t cause her nervous breakdown (okay, I say that only after a few years of therapy myself), but we probably hastened its arrival.

My mom’s mom, who wore a capable-Mormon-mother-of-six face, became a closet alcoholic. Grandma was recovering from her own childhood; she’d had to raise her siblings in poverty when she was just a kid herself. At her best, she could make a mean lemon meringue pie while at the same time assisting my grandpa, a doctor, with his patient on her kitchen table. At her worst, she said horrible, not-to-be-repeated things to my mother. Since they weren’t to be repeated, my mom didn’t repeat them. She didn’t speak of them. She didn’t laugh at them. She just stuffed them down and put on her face and carried on.

I have learned a lot from my mom. One of the things I learned is that you can be in a great deal of despair and still get up and put cereal on the table and change a dirty diaper. You can take the kids to Monroe Falls every day in the summer, teach them to swim, and laugh at their antics even though you secretly long to die. You can sing silly songs to them, read stories, and comb their long hair, being gentle because it’s so tangled. And you can act like everything is okay and fool most of the people most of the time. But not your kids.

I knew my mom was sad. I knew it at an early age. It was my job in the family to cheer her up, keep her happy, and do what I could do so that on the rare occasions when my dad was home, everything was fine. If that meant keeping my sister quiet, I would distract her. If it meant bringing my dad slippers and his newspaper, I fetched. I was my mom’s cleaning helper. I also became the entertainer, remembering ?funny stories to share? with her.

I also know that each ?of us has a breaking?point. When my mother ?reached hers, she finally got ?help. Though kids can add? pressure to a stressful life,? they are also a tether to ?remain on this side of the? grass. She felt the tug of us even ?when she was in a locked ward making brown-glazed piggybanks and pink crocheted slippers. When she got out, her face wasn’t so firmly on. She would allow cracks to be seen. She would say she was sad. She told us that for years she had tried to be perfect and that it was a mistake—we are not perfect.

My mother taught me a profound lesson. You are allowed to get help, but don’t wait until you desperately need it. I am determined not to follow her lead into the hospital, to sedatives and group therapy with permanent locked-ward residents. So in my own recovery process, I have learned to shed more of the face, to be out there with my feelings. I also find tremendous comfort in my faith. As a Christian, I easily acknowledge my imperfections and rely on God’s grace. I also like the promise that God is not going to give us more than we can handle. (To which my brother likes to quip, “God must sure think a lot of us.”)

When I became a mom five years ago, my mom drove out from her home in Ohio to South Jersey as soon as I went into labor. Our son, Daniel, was born while she was en route. She stopped by the hospital at the tail end of her drive. I looked at his tiny little feet next to my big feet and then over at my mom. “You’ve known me since my feet were this small,” I told her. I was filled with love; I got it for the very first time how intensely a mother can love a child, and I realized that this is how much she cared for me.

She was full of nervous energy that visit and my house seemed to be her best outlet. She scrubbed the bathtub, made the laundry room sink sparkle, polished the wood floors, and swept the driveway. I think she rearranged my cupboards, too. I haven’t been able to find my small bowls since.

Three years later she flew out again, this time not to celebrate a birth but to join me in grieving. I had had two miscarriages in a row. The first one knocked me off my feet. I was at fourteen weeks and the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat, so he ordered an ultrasound. The screen showed an empty womb, the baby almost disintegrated. I was heavy with grief and sobbed for days like I had never cried before. But the doctor told me that what had happened was very rare: I could have done nothing to prevent it, and there was just a one percent chance of its happening again. Five months later, I learned something about percentages. I had “vu jà dé”— it’s like “déjà vu” except it has all happened to you before, just a little differently.

The second time, I was eleven weeks, at a regular check-up, and again no heartbeat. I stood in a doorway at the doctor’s office, just where I’d stood before, while they called to order the ultrasound. If it happens again, I told him, I’m going to fall apart. Someone is going to have to come and pick up the pieces. This time there was a fully formed baby, but it was no longer alive. My mom came to pick up the pieces.

She was again there for me, but not in the way I expected. Daniel was then two and a half and ready to be potty-trained, she declared. I said, Knock yourself out. And I meant it. Potty-training was the last thing in the world I cared about. Really, I didn’t care about anything, not eating, not sleeping, not anything. It was the first time in my life when I couldn’t make any kind of decision. And there my mom was having this incredible bonding experience with my son, the trips to the bathroom a special adventure for the two of them. After three days, the job was finished. Daniel was dry through naps and at night. I am still amazed at this, but at the time, I wanted to yell, I am the one who needs help. Every now and then she would show up on the screened-in porch where I planted myself early in the morning and stayed parked all day. She’d let me cry for a minute or two and then would leave again. After a week, I started to make meals. “I put those dishes in the sideboard, not there,” I told her. “Hey, we recycle!” I’d say, pulling a two-liter bottle out of the trash can. She smiled at my irritation, happy to see that I was beginning to engage in life.

Many months later my husband and I somehow summoned the desire to try again, and this time everything went fine. Our daughter, Emily, arrived with lots of hair and bright blue eyes. My mom was thrilled. She loaded her car down in pink packages for her first granddaughter and made the drive out. Yet again, I sat on the porch, this time content to nurse and read and drink lemonade. Mom’s nervous energy returned and this time she attacked my yard. She weeded, mulched, and planted. Perennials and rhododendrons appeared along our side fence, orange hibiscus along the back fence, impatiens and lilies in front of the house.

Despite previous experience, I expected her to take care of my postpartum needs: meals, diaper changes, etc. But again, she just gave me space, this time to bond with my baby on the porch, every day transforming the view of the yard from its state of neglect. Now I could look up from my book and enjoy the view rather than think, “Oh, I should really take care of that” before turning back to my novel. (I rarely let anything get in the way of a good book, especially not housework or weeding.)

On her last morning with us she gave me a pedicure on the porch, gently massaging my still-swollen ankles. With cotton balls between my toes, I cried as I watched her car pull out of my driveway. How could I take care of both of these kids and this house and do all that I am supposed to do? I was overwhelmed, mostly by sleep deprivation and by the feeling that my son had become possessed. Why else would he choose this time to pee in our closets and write on the walls?

It was a crisp fall morning a few months later when my mom called to tell me that she had cancer. The Big C. Not cancer—no one in our family has cancer, I thought. Emotional breakdowns, depression, drunk and disorderly conduct, this we understand. Nothing some rehab or Prozac couldn’t cure. Cancer is a whole different planet, one our family has never visited. My mom had always joked that she didn’t have a moderate bone in her body; she went overboard in whatever it was. Well, this time was no different. It wasn’t a little lump to be removed. It was Stage IV uterine cancer.

It was my turn to pack up the car and drive to her. I made four trips over the next four months, a total of forty hours in the car with my two kids in tow. We drove through thunderstorms, hail storms, a blizzard, and fog. I wondered whether I really knew my mom. I had this desperate need to capture her. I was panicked with a deep nagging fear that her good days were over, that I was going to watch as she slid into a period of illness that she wouldn’t recover from, that she would die. As I was driving I realized that even though she was not there for me the way I thought I needed her to be, she was there for me.

When I got to Ohio, I embraced the opportunity to mother her, for she had taught me how to do it. When she was determinedly positive, I smiled with her even though I didn’t share her optimism. I drove her to chemotherapy in Cleveland, twice through blizzards. We stopped for coffee and bagels on the way, fortifying ourselves. We had always talked about making a quilt together. With no time to waste, we worked on a quilt wall-hanging while we watched the I.V. drip, drip, drip into the hole in her chest for six hours.

She didn’t look like a cancer patient at first. “I always wanted to be a blonde,” she said when she first showed me the wig she’d picked out. She had a head shaving party, inviting her friends to a day at the salon. Later, when her head got itchy at a chemo session, she shed the wig with a smile. “Guess I am having a no-hair day,” she said. Her starkly bald head, more than anything else, made the cancer real.

During the winter of her cancer, we cried together only once. I caught her on the Monday after chemo, when the effects were worst. She was honest about how terrible she felt. I blurted out how much I hated this, hated all of it, that I still needed her and that she absolutely was not allowed to die yet. Not yet, I am not ready. I don’t think I will ever be ready. But maybe when you’re in your nineties and I’m in my sixties, we can talk about it.

We cried together on the phone, my handset getting all wet. I was in the kitchen, leaning over my counter, looking out at a gray winter day. She was in her king-sized bed, confined to it for the next few days by the chemo that had wiped her out. Normally, she was distracted from the pain by the birds who visited her wooden balcony. But that day we didn’t have to talk about the birds and I didn’t have to tell her funny stories about my kids that I had saved up or about how happy I was to have organized my linen closet. I could just say, it stinks. The whole thing. Winter, living far apart, being positive, feeling sick, cancer, death.

Months later, when she had made it through chemo, the strongest stuff they can give you, the kill-ya-to-cure- ya strength, she said, “Just thank God that He has cured me of cancer.” But here’s the problem: you never really know if you are cured from cancer. When you’re on the toxic stuff, nothing is growing. So after she was done with chemo, we were in wait-and-see mode. Her face was back on, adamantly positive. I was a little kid again, knowing that everything was not all right but not allowed to talk about it.

I really wanted to call my mom this morning. There’s a terrible time in the morning when I linger between sleep and alertness—it can be a good fifteen minutes before I remember that she is dead. Our winter of cancer was followed by a spring of false hope. Then on my daughter’s first birthday, right before we cut the cake, she called to tell me that she was in the hospital. The cancer was back and she was terminal.

Our last month together was surreal. It was as if every morning she walked toward her grave, eyes wide open, but upon getting there, she found herself still standing. No? Not today? she’d ask politely. Well, okay, then. There was no more pretending. During that month, she talked about her hopes for us, and she shared how painful it was when her mom died. She gave me tips on finding mom-substitutes.

The week before she died, my mom checked into the presidential suite at the spa. It was there that I saw her for the last time. She treated me and her two sisters to pedicures and manicures, facials and massages. The next day I brought the kids there for a swim in the pool. When we were done, we said goodbye, and she and my aunts climbed into the hot tub. I tried to do our funny goodbye schtick—you say goodbye, walk away, then come back and say goodbye again. But she had already turned after my first goodbye; she was laughing with her sisters and didn’t hear me. I stood there in the hallway, holding my kids’ hands, looking at her. It was as if her trial with cancer had crystallized her, like a fire burning away all but the core. What endured was her strong, joyful spirit, determined to live a full life to the very end. I left, knowing I had just seen my mom for the last time, but I smiled at the kids. In the car, I put on their favorite Sesame Street tape and cranked up the volume so they wouldn’t hear me weeping.

In some way that I can’t fully put my finger on, it feels significant that my mom died just after my daughter was born. When I talked to my ob-gyn about my own risks for cancer—and told him, wasn’t it crazy, but I might want to have another child—he assured me that it wasn’t. The alpha and the omega, he said. The alpha and the omega.

Author’s Note: Since writing this essay, my father’s been physically and mentally ill and I’ve had two more miscarriages. What are you doing to take care of yourself? my mom would ask. I’d tell her that when I can find the words, I pray or write. When the words won’t come, I quilt. I just finished a quilt for my daughter Emily (now two), that is made from her outgrown sleepers and my mom’s flannel nightgowns. It felt like a tangible way to recognize my role in connecting these two generations.

Stephanie Farrell lives in Vineland, New Jersey, with her husband, Peter, and their two children. She does freelance work for her regional newspaper. This was her first essay published in a magazine.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

New Day, Neurosis

New Day, Neurosis

By Amie Klempnauer Miller

200352457-001I am obsessed with excrement. I call the nurse, even though it is Sunday, to ask how concerned I should be if we have not had a soiled diaper in thirty-six hours. Wets, yes. Stools, no. Our daughter, Hannah, now just two-and-a-half weeks old, has been a slow starter in this arena. The nurse is reassuring, suggesting that Hannah might just be a “reluctant pooper.” She advises me to give the baby a sitz bath, to kind of warm things up down there. If that doesn’t work, she says, try a little anal sphincter stimulation with a rectal thermometer. If that doesn’t work, try half of a glycerin suppository. If that doesn’t work, good Lord.

And so we begin. Jane, my partner and Hannah’s birth mom, pours a bowl of warm water and we dip our baby’s little bottom in it. She screeches and urinates. Nothing else.

We put a little KY jelly on the rectal thermometer and give the anal stimulation a go. I cannot believe we are doing this. We are lesbians, for god’s sake. The only lesbians I have ever known who thought about anal stimulation were the women who always scared me when we lived in New York.

Still no stool, so we decide to give up for a while. Jane carries Hannah into the living room where she slumps down into the oversized blue armchair, the baby lying in her arms. Hannah is feeling mellow, now that we are not dipping her in bowls of water and coming at her with gooey probes. She begins to root around Jane’s chest where she knows hidden food awaits. Her mouth hangs open, like a baby robin groping for a worm. Jane pulls her shirt up with a look of resignation. The fatigue of new parenthood is setting in like a slow, looming storm front. The adrenaline of the first two weeks has dripped away. Hannah sucks for ten minutes or so and then falls blissfully into sleep.

Jane sets Hannah—gently, gently—into her carrier and tucks a pink-checked flannel blanket around her legs. We go into the kitchen to make lunch.

“Why did we do this?” Jane asks. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I mutter. It’s surprising how quickly you wear down. Some things are not as bad as I expected: We get more sleep than many people, since our baby sleeps for one four-hour stretch each night. Before Hannah was born, I stocked the freezer with lasagna and soup and meatballs, so our diets haven’t been limited to take-out and toast. But the worry of new parenthood is far worse than I anticipated. The anxiety is intense. Hannah rasps and gurgles in the night and I leap out of bed to make sure she is still breathing. Her umbilical cord is seeping a little: Does that mean something is wrong? She spits up and I have no way of knowing what is normal and what is too much. If she soaks half of her bib, is that too much? Are three spit-ups okay, but six too many? Is this gastroesophageal reflux? Or is it just infancy?

I dread the evening because I know that the anxiety always gets worse after dark. With dusk comes fear. I tell myself that I needn’t be so worried. We have a support network, Hannah has checked out well at all of her doctor’s visits, and we have access to a twenty-four-hour nurse line. But at night, worries become obsessions and remote possibilities become impending certainties. I wait each night for the dawn.

Jane and I feast on each other’s anxieties. One of us worries about something, anything, reasonable or not (but best if it contains a kernel of possibility, a morsel of fact), and plants the seed in the other’s head. It takes root. It grows. We offer half-hearted reassurances: “I was just reading about encopresis, which is really terrible, but it usually doesn’t occur until later. She probably won’t develop it.” Meanwhile, each of us knows that the fear is growing, that the assurances are not heartfelt. And just as we know this, we know that we are feeding our own neuroses. And just as we know that, we become less and less able to do anything about it. We each withdraw, pulling back behind our own veil of worry.

“I think she’s fine,” I say. “But of course, we can call the doctor. Do you want to?” (You’re It.)

“No. I don’t think we need to call. What’s she doing? Is she all right?” (Now you.)

“She’s okay. I just wish she would have a stool. I can’t believe it’s been thirty-six hours.” (Your turn.)

“Why’s she crying again? Should we call the doctor?” (Back to you.)

“I don’t know. Maybe. What do you think?”

And on it goes.

My cousin, mother of two miraculously grown children, calls to check in. I tell her the Saga of the Stool. Stephanie suggests that we bicycle Hannah’s legs (already doing that), hold her vertically (gravity), and try not to worry (hopeless). As we are talking, Hannah begins to screech. Jane waves at me and says that she thinks it’s time for the suppository. I get off the phone. Jane carries Hannah into the nursery and puts her on the changing table. The glycerin suppositories, made for children, look impossibly enormous. I take one from the bottle and cut it down by two-thirds. We are ready.

Jane removes the diaper and almost whoops. There is a poo. Not a huge one, but not a smudge. We are thrilled. I put the suppository back into the bottle, we clean Hannah up, and we go back into the living room, grinning giddily. I am so pleased that I call Stephanie to report.

“The eagle has landed,” I say.

She’s as excited as I am. This must be the bond that holds parents together: shared excitement over basic bodily functions that are otherwise not discussed in polite company.

“That’s wonderful,” she says, and I know she means it. “Things are moving.”

We sink into the sofa, Jane cradling Hannah. I am exhausted. I feel like I’m in boot camp, but at least we have had a victory. We have made it another day.

A week later, we are convinced that Hannah has cystic fibrosis. The beauty of this anxiety is that it has some degree of rational basis. After Jane became pregnant, we learned that she carries the most common genetic mutation that causes the disease. We immediately confirmed that our sperm bank screens all of its donors for the thirty most common mutations and does not accept anyone who tests positive. But still, we worry.

I scrutinize the entry on cystic fibrosis in the Boston Children’s Hospital Guide to Your Child’s Health and Development—which we own—and learn that symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and digestive problems. Every time Hannah wheezes, snorts, grunts, gasps, or spits up, all of which she does with regularity, I am convinced that it is confirmation of chronic illness.

We learn that the initial test for cystic fibrosis is a sweat test. The doctor collects a little sweat from the child and measures the saline content. An elevated salt level can signal a positive result. I stay up at night and feel my heart clench when Hannah snorts. Jane admits that she has secretly been licking the back of Hannah’s neck to taste for salt.

By the time Hannah is ten weeks old, we’ve let go of our cystic fibrosis worries. Now we think she might be deaf. She doesn’t turn her head at our voices and she doesn’t startle at loud sounds. I try to test her hearing by ringing the doorbell. No response. I snap my fingers. No response. Jane and I begin sneaking up on the poor child and clapping behind her head. No response. We remind each other that she does seem to listen to music and calm down when the bathroom fan is running. But these could be anomalies. Clap. Nothing. I begin searching the Internet for resources on hearing impairments. I should know better by now. I quickly find the suggestion that parents try to test their child’s hearing by clapping behind the baby’s head.

We remind ourselves that she had a hearing test in the hospital and passed it just fine. But the tech was busy that day, I think. What if they just did a social promotion? Jane calls the pediatric clinic. A doctor calls back and says that the hospital test is ninety-nine percent accurate, but there is some concern that she isn’t startling.

I scurry back onto the Internet. Jane and I make a pact to stop trying to startle Hannah, at least until after her next doctor’s appointment, which is in a week. I think about doing it anyway when Jane goes to the grocery store, but I resist.

At eleven weeks, Jane takes Hannah to the doctor for a check-up. Everything looks good. The doctor isn’t concerned about her hearing or the startling lack of startling. She reassures Jane. Hannah gets weighed and measured, her growth noted and compared to other babies her age. At two weeks, she was below the fiftieth percentile in overall weight and now, at eleven pounds, three ounces, she is in the seventy-fifth percentile. Excellent. Her torso is exceedingly long; she has grown to twenty-four inches in total body length, putting her in the ninety-fifth percentile. But her head, which was in the ninetieth percentile for circumference, is now in the fiftieth percentile. It grew, but at a slower pace than the rest of her body.

“Do you think her head isn’t growing fast enough?” Jane asks me that evening. She knows better than this. She understands statistics and the fallacy of percentiles, especially when it comes to diagnosing normality. “Do we have a pinhead baby?”

I imagine Hannah all grown up: a giant torso with a head the size of a Vidalia onion. Our little Onion Head.

“I think,” Jane says one day when the baby is peacefully asleep in her bouncy seat, “that I have been assuming that something is wrong with Hannah rather than expecting her to be all right.” I have also been constantly worried that there is something grave, something dreadful that has eluded the doctors, that is lurking behind the diaper pail, hiding under the crib, waiting to snatch our baby away. Some of this is a product of reading too many articles and watching too much television. We have heard the stories about sudden deaths, freak viruses, and bizarre conditions that go undetected. It feels threatening to trust her to be healthy, as though we might be blindsided if we do not remain diligently on guard.

I suppose our neurosis is normal, although I sometimes wonder if it would help to have a husband in the house who would say, “Oh, she’s fine” and turn on the Packers game. I have made a lifelong art of worrying and I’m not about to stop now. Still, I do realize that I need to let go of at least a little of it before our pediatrician refuses to see us anymore.

It’s a thin line between fear and love, a line that has become perforated since Hannah’s birth. The two passions intermingle, and anxiety courses through my heart. Is it possible to love a child wholeheartedly but without fear? Or does the magnitude of our vulnerability as parents demand that we stand on guard against all dangers, real and imagined?

I lie in bed at night and watch the clock, counting the hours until dawn.

Author’s Note: Jane and I are still worriers, but our fears lessened somewhat after Hannah really did get sick with a couple of nasty viruses, one of which landed her in the hospital. While we were there, one of the nurses noticed how willful Hannah is, even when hooked up to an I.V. “You’re strong,” she said several times to Hannah. “That’s going to serve you well.” Hannah is strong, as it turns out, and Jane and I are beginning to let ourselves trust her to recover when she gets sick and trust ourselves to give her what she needs to grow and thrive. And, we’re happy to report, her head is a perfectly normal size.

Amie Klempnauer Miller is the author of She Looks Just Like You (a Memoir of Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood (Beacon Press, 2010). She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her wife Jane and daughter Hannah.

Mom Blame

Mom Blame

By Katy Read

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 8.13.17 AMMy son was a couple of months old when he introduced the nightly practice that we came to call The Board.

It would happen at bedtime. The parenting books all said you should establish a soothing routine. I would sit in the gliding chair, turn the lights down, rock the baby as he nursed one last time. I might whisper a lullaby or run softly through Goodnight Moon (or, okay, flip through a magazine or watch ER). The idea behind this peaceful ritual was to send my son the message that it was time to relax and get ready to sleep.

He got the message, all right.

As soon as the lights dimmed and the gliding began, my son would pop his eyes open, fling back his head, straighten his legs, and arch his back. He would turn his tiny body board-like, rigid as a two-by-four.

It wasn’t the rocking, my singing, or even one of those gory surgery scenes on ER. By day, my son loved—indeed demanded, loudly, often in the middle of a store—to be held and rocked. But at night, he would resist it using the only weapon he had (besides wailing, of course, which he would deploy the moment

I set his board-like body into his crib). My son already was learning how to impose his young but steely will. He would not go gentle into that goodnight ritual.

The Board complicated our evenings. But putting babies to bed is always difficult—everyone knows that. Things would get easier, I kept hearing. Sure enough, a few months and many raucous bedtimes later he began sleeping through the night.

Boldly, I got pregnant again.

*   *   *

A few years ago, I discovered how different my views about raising children had become—different from those of other people, different from those I had once held myself.

I was gossiping over coffee with a group of friends, and the talk turned to one woman’s young nephew, whose recent behavior suggested some kind of problem.

“It’s just what you’d expect,” the aunt said, shaking her head, “the way he was raised.”

The young man, a gifted student, had dropped out of college and moved back home. He had no plans for his future. No job. No friends. Didn’t date. Rarely left the house. Slouched in front of his computer all day.

“No wonder,” the woman continued. “Janet was always so clingy and overprotective. When he was little, she wouldn’t even leave him with a babysitter.”

“Well, but you can’t put all the blame on Janet,” said another family member. “It’s Dave’s fault, too. He stood back and let her smother him.”

I hesitated to add my own opinion. The young man was not my relative. I didn’t have all the facts, and maybe it wasn’t my business. Once, though, when he was little, his family had brought him to our city for a visit. I remembered the parents walking through a hard rain to take their son to a children’s museum.

“Don’t you think it’s possible,” I finally said, “that whatever has caused this behavior, it’s not the fault of either of his parents?”

The faces around the table were frowning, skeptical, perplexed.

*   *   *

At one time, I might have reacted the same way. I used to see a kid with a problem, from a toddler acting up in a restaurant to an ashen-faced teenager begging for spare change on a street corner, and assume that the parents had screwed up. Spoiled the kid or neglected him, been too harsh or too lenient, allowed too much sugar or too much TV.

It worked the other way, too. If a child was cheerful and responsible, obviously his mother and father had raised him right. The parents were often happy to agree. Yes, well, we always made sure we set limits/were consistent/ate dinner together as a family.

I don’t make those assumptions anymore. Or, if I start to do so out of long habit, I catch myself. These days, when I hear a mom or dad boast about some parenting triumph or other, I have to restrain myself from asking whether their supposedly well-brought-up offspring might simply have been born that way.

*   *   *

It’s one of the enduring images of my older son’s early years. My husband and I still secretly chuckle about it, not just because it’s funny and cute—my children have said lots of cute things—but because it’s such a textbook illustration of the qualities that would come to define our son. Our laughter is affectionate, even a little proud, but it is tinged with frustration.

Picture him at three years old: sturdy, round-bellied, the size and shape of an elf. He stands in the kitchen wearing green flannel footie pajamas, curls flopping over his forehead, feet firmly planted like a tiny lumberjack about to swing his ax. He has misbehaved in some way, and my husband has warned him that if he keeps it up, he will be placed in time out.

My son glares up at his father from his knee-high level and points at him with a fierce pudgy finger.

“No,” he replies, his little elfin voice stern. “I will put you in time out!”

Struggling to suppress our amusement, we fail once again to grasp the implications. Toddlers drive everybody crazy, right? It will get easier, we keep hearing. Soon, soon.

*   *   *

Why do we so confidently trace the behavior of children, even of the adults they become, to the actions of their parents? Why are we so certain that fathers and mothers (let’s face it, especially mothers) have control over how their kids “turn out”? It’s a measure of how deeply these assumptions are embedded in our culture that the questions themselves seem almost absurd.

Sure, most people believe, theoretically, in some confluence of nature and nurture. But the nature part is invisible and baffling; even scientists have barely started to grasp the complicated machinations of our genes. Nurture is much easier to sift through for clues.

And, man, we are desperate for clues. Wondering about our own paralyzing shyness or obsessive neatness, we think back to what our parents might have done or said to make us this way. We draw a connection with our father’s aloofness, with our mother’s white-gloved insistence on keeping the bedroom tidy.

The sages who serve as our guides to human nature—philosophers, psychologists, novelists—have compared babies to unmolded clay, white paper, blank slates just waiting for their parents’ chalk. “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” asked seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. “To this I answer, in one word, from experience.” The importance of family environment in particular in shaping character was touted by early twentieth-century scientists. For those times it was enlightened, if a bit ridiculous, for behaviorist John B. Watson to boast that he could take some random infant and “train him to become any type of specialist I might select—a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even into a beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

These days most people, unlike Watson, would consider the difference between an artist and a doctor at least partly the result of talents and penchants. Career choice aside, though, the notion that humans are profoundly malleable—that a model upbringing produces a model child, that a child’s flaws reflect her parents’ mistakes—has taken hold, been culturally internalized, come to seem self-evident. The concept appeals to Americans’ faith in our endless capacity for improvement, in our confidence that hard work—in this case, raising children—pays off. Helping to popularize and legitimize the notion is the ever-growing parenting-advice industry. Desperate parents want suggestions for controlling their children, and a book that throws up its hands is unlikely to rule the best-seller lists.

The idea is entrenched enough to be satirized on The Simpsons. In one episode, Bart gets arrested and sent to jail, and a distraught Marge moans that she’s “the worst mom in the world.”

“It’s not totally your fault,” Homer Simpson consoles his wife. “All these years, I watched you turn our son into a time bomb and yet I did nothing.”

*   *   *

I started paying attention to the way other children acted. At our daycare center, I noticed that at the end of the day most kids simply walked out the front door. They did not have to be slung over their parents’ shoulders as they thrashed and screamed and kicked off their shoes. At the park, I saw toddlers riding serenely in their strollers, gazing at dogs and birds—not straining against the straps and howling to be freed, as if held hostage by a kidnapper. I observed kids quietly sitting on the sidelines at sporting events, kids waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, kids behaving as if they wanted—even strove for—adult approval.

What was especially mystifying was that the parents in these situations were rarely seen coaxing or scolding or bribing or cajoling or threatening or tricking or punishing to achieve this compliance. I concluded that they had already done all that work behind the scenes, using some carefully formulated mixture of discipline techniques to lay a solid foundation of obedience.

Obviously, I was doing something wrong, though it wasn’t clear exactly what. Should I impose tighter limits or pick my battles? Show more empathy or less? Loosen up or crack down? Be a drill sergeant or a therapist? And whichever course I picked, was I following it with unswerving consistency, or were there times—late at night, in the car, at a party—when I might be letting some slight human variability slip into my approach?

Seeking guidance, I combed parenting books, which assured me that my children’s behavior was well within my control.

“But how do you want your child to turn out? What will your child need from you in order to become the person you want him to be?” ask best-selling authors William and Martha Sears in The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child from Birth to Age Ten.

The books promised to make our lives easier with endless strategies for taming kids, from putting them in time-out to plunking them in soothing baths, from setting strict limits to offering multiple choices, from pasting stickers on a chart to counting 1-2-3, from gentle reasoning to the robotic suppression of my own anger (which many of the books warned would only reinforce the undesired behavior).

I tried the suggestions (except the soothing baths, grasping at once the difficulty of deploying this technique in the checkout line at Target) but could not manage to achieve the promised results. When I offered my son multiple choices (blue shirt or yellow? broccoli or carrots?), he would pick (c): None of the above. When I drew up a chart to reward obedience, he quickly found a way to beat the system—1) deliberately misbehave, 2) obediently stop when told, 3) receive another sticker—until I caught on to his ruse.

I would muster all my self-control, determined not to lose my temper, but my son was equally determined and far more ruthless. Sooner or later I’d blow and hear myself yelling. And that, all the books said, you must never, ever do.

In the books, time-out meant ordering the child to his room and keeping him there for one merciful minute per year of age, during which he would cool down and emerge ready to play nicely. In our house, time-out meant dragging my son shrieking to his room as he clung to walls and banisters, pinning the door closed with a chair or pulling against the knob with all of my weight while he battered against the other side like a starving wolverine. A handful of minutes in captivity would only enrage him further, so that a five-minute confinement for some minor infraction could turn into an ordeal stretching through the afternoon.

I used time-outs anyway, if only for a few minutes of raw-nerved peace and a sense that justice had been served. But they did not produce any detectable long-term change in anyone’s behavior. Except my own. Which was deteriorating.

*   *   *

I switched from parenting books written for the general population to books geared for a particular type of kid, manuals whose titles contained words like “spirited,” “challenging,” “defiant,” “explosive.” These euphemistic terms only hinted at my son’s complex character, which blended the qualities of a particularly indomitable two-year-old with those of a particularly self-assured teenager.

My other son, just seventeen months younger, was more cooperative, more even-tempered, more willing to acknowledge adult authority, more eager for approval, more readily repentant, more kid-like. Though they had been subject to more or less the same parental treatment, the boys were developing into different people. That should have been a clue.

But its meaning was obscured for a while by what the two boys, often mistaken for twins, had in common: energy, daring, a sense of adventure. Some kids are content to splash happily at the shore; mine weren’t satisfied unless the waves were lapping at their earlobes. Some kids hide behind their parents when strangers appear; mine would chat up passing pedestrians or the guy repairing the refrigerator. Some kids sit cross-legged and rapt during story time at the public library; mine would become loudly, theatrically bored and have to be taken from the room. While horsing around at a cousin’s wedding reception, they knocked over a potted palm that only a heroic dive by my husband—picture a man in a suit and tie, soaring Superman-style across a hotel party room—kept from crashing onto the wedding cake. I loved my sons, but most days with them were exhausting and exasperating.

This need not be so, people kept suggesting. Teachers, relatives, therapists, friends, and a few total strangers offered advice, solicited and otherwise, on how to discipline my sons, as if the boys were a couple of young mustangs who, in the hands of a skilled wrangler, could be broken. Listening to my stories, friends would ask “Well, have you tried … ?” as if the solution to years of struggle might materialize in a few seconds of reflection. Parents of mild-mannered, compliant children—kids who could be counted on to sit for hours, patiently coloring, while the adults chatted—would give tips for transforming my boys into easy kids like theirs.

The advice-givers were mostly polite, but their words held an implication with which I was already grimly familiar: I was doing something wrong. The proof was in the boys’ misbehavior itself, prima facie evidence that I was screwing up. If I were raising them right, they’d be fixed by now.

“Our kids used to try that kind of nonsense,” my father-in-law remarked. “We got them over it pretty quickly.”

“If you’d just resolve yourself to putting them in time-out whenever they misbehaved, pretty soon you wouldn’t have to do it very often,” a friend advised, as though my sons weren’t already sentenced to their rooms for part of just about every day.

“I see you’ve gotten stricter with them, and I like it!” said a teacher, thinking she was giving me a compliment, on a day when my sons capriciously decided to be more cooperative than usual.

After a while, I began to wonder how many of the advice-givers were really in a position to advise. Sure, most had experience raising kids. But none of them had raised my kids.

*   *   *

Behavioral geneticists—scientists who study the influence of genes on behavior—have for years been defying the philosophers, novelists, and even many psychologists by arguing that parents do not stamp personality on a child. Though in most cases the powers of nature and nurture are impossibly entangled, these scientists have attempted to tease the two forces apart by studying separated twins (who share nature, but not nurture) and adopted children (who share nurture, but not nature). Researchers involved in ongoing projects at the University of Minnesota and the University of Colorado, among others, claim their studies indicate that genes account for roughly half of a child’s personality—and, still more controversially, that the other half, though apparently shaped by the environment, does not appear to be much influenced by parents.

The Minnesota team found that identical twins raised as strangers in separate homes wound up just about as much alike as twins raised together from birth (and more alike than non-identical siblings raised together). In other words, although none of the twins’ personalities were identical, what differences existed did not seem to come from having different family environments. In similarly surprising research on adoptive families, the Colorado team found that adopted kids and the siblings with whom they were raised resembled each other in personality no more than would any two strangers plucked off the street.

This research suggests that whatever similarities we notice between typical children and their parents comes not from anything the parents say or do, but from the genes they pass along. In other words genes—not rules, habits, or role modeling—are why the children of avid readers become bookworms, why the children of aggressive parents become bullies, why the children of neat freaks grow up to keep the floor under their own beds dust-bunny-free. When kids whose parents smoke or abuse or divorce grow up to do those things too, the research suggests, it’s not because they’re mimicking behavior they witnessed growing up, but because they inherited their parents’ tendencies. Same goes for the offspring of responsible, careful, well-adjusted parents.

Many people are resistant to, even offended by, this idea. It seems to overturn everything we understand about families; it makes the hard work of mothers and fathers appear superfluous. Parents don’t matter?! Even many psychologists don’t accept the concept, and when you tell a layperson about it—I can vouch for this—you likely will see her stiffen, frown, and mount an indignant rebuttal.

Not that there isn’t room for argument. Perhaps the researchers’ methods are flawed, their measurement instruments clumsy, their conclusions premature. Anyone who has followed the recent dieting debate over fat and carbs knows that information isn’t infallible just because it comes from somebody in a lab coat.

But when I first heard about this research, I was intrigued. Maybe our belief that parents are responsible for molding their children’s characters is one of those flat-earth-type cultural assumptions that people of future generations will come to see as pitiably flawed. Maybe it will someday seem as absurd as the notion that mothers cause their children’s schizophrenia or autism, as doctors declared in the 1950s (condemning a generation of mothers to wrenching guilt and depriving their children of effective treatment). Maybe shaping personalities is not the most important aspect of parenthood anyway—how many of life’s other important relationships are measured by the degree to which one party unilaterally and permanently alters the other’s personality? Isn’t this, in every other case, usually considered impossible (note to self: don’t mention this argument to spouse)?

Some might see this as a shocking abdication of responsibility, but the thought that I might not be solely accountable for my sons’ behavior filled me with great relief.

*   *   *

Still, I might have shrugged it all off as so much esoteric theory if it weren’t for an experience I had, soon afterward, that demonstrated for me the realities behind the research. My epiphany occurred, of all places, in a shoe department.

I was alone in Marshall Field’s, checking out the sale items, relishing the vaguely guilty freedom of an afternoon with both boys in school and no pressing assignments or chores. My eyes fell on another shopper, a woman accompanied by her three small children. I felt a surge of empathy, knowing how impossible it was to get any real shopping done in the company of even one child, let alone three.

But then I noticed that the woman was strolling nonchalantly among the clothing racks, stopping now and then to hold a blouse up for inspection or to finger the fabric of a jacket. She looked about as carefree as I felt, sans the guilt. The trio of preschoolers followed her through the aisles like quiet little ducklings, the oldest one pushing the youngest in a stroller whose handles were taller than he was. Not one of the kids was whining with boredom, or begging for a snack, or running to hide inside a rack of dresses, or pushing the stroller on a demolition course into other customers’ shins, or scampering over to find out what it’s like to run down the up escalator.

The group reached ladies’ shoes, and without hesitation the mom strode in to check out the footwear. My mouth literally fell open as she began to try on sandals. Without being told, the children fanned out around her to watch. The woman examined one style after another, pivoting her foot this way and that, half ignoring her brood. Which she could easily do, because the kids did not once try to snatch up pairs of stiletto pumps themselves, put them on their own feet, and clomp around. They just stood there.

Ordinarily, witnessing this kind of scene, I would feel stirrings of envy and shame. How did she get them to act that way? Why won’t my kids do that? Is she a better mother than I am?

This time, though, those questions barely crossed my mind.

These children were so astonishingly docile that all at once I knew their behavior was not the result of any clever discipline schemes their mother might have employed. This woman had not coaxed, tricked, threatened, or beat them to get them to act like that. She hadn’t made her children that way. They just were.

And with that I understood something else: No technique or book or tip, no sticker chart or consequence or 1-2-3, not even the world’s most soothing bath, would ever turn either of my sons into that kind of kid. Those children and mine might as well have come from two different planets. They had different natures.

And once I figured that out, I began to comprehend a few other things.

*   *   *

The day my older son was born, I lay on the delivery table and watched his face as a nurse carried him over to meet me. He wasn’t crying. His eyes were wide and flashing about, his head swiveling, his mouth an awestruck O. He was taking in everything his newborn senses could absorb: the lights, the sounds, the cool air, the blurs of color and motion. He had no idea what all this stuff was, of course, but he did not appear afraid of it. He looked fascinated.

His father and I turned to each other, thrilled and terrified. “What do we do now?” we said.

Ten years later, we’re still wondering.

When your kids don’t act like the children on television or in books do—when they are not as fragile or malleable or angelic as you’d been led to believe all children are—you’re forced to shed the idealistic gauze through which you once viewed motherhood, cut the velvet bows, drop the pretenses. You give up hopes of languid picnics, of delicate sandwiches eaten cross-legged on a blanket, and make do with fast food on the fly at the playground. You let your kids pick out cheap Halloween costumes at Target rather than toil over hand-stitched outfits that you know they’d probably refuse to wear. You lose, early on, your high squeaky mommy voice and instead begin addressing your kids in the ordinary straightforward tone you use with adults, because you find that your kids respond best to frankness. You remind yourself, over and over, that the only time the word “good” means “easy” is when it’s applied to children.

Your romanticism dissolves, leaving behind a wintry clarity that, you discover, has a beauty of its own. No longer do you envision every moment of motherhood as rosy and wonderful.

But now, when something genuinely wonderful happens, you know to trust it.

Until my sons were about four and five, my husband and I considered having another child. I was sure raising three children was humanly possible—I had seen other moms do it. Eventually, though, I noticed that those other threesomes were usually the patient, obedient sort of kids. That settled it. My husband and I resolved to stop at two, and we made the decision final with a rummage sale.

On the day of the sale my older son sat with me in the front yard. I had promised the boys I would share the proceeds from their toys, and my son was eager to help move the merchandise. He spotted a small elderly woman gingerly examining an assortment of items from the garage, including the little vehicles that the boys had pedaled around the driveway before they’d graduated to bikes with training wheels.

My son sprang forward to assist. The woman told him she was shopping for something for a grandson. Polite but determined, my son guided her along with helpful questions. How old was her grandson? What colors did he like? Would he fit into this little blue convertible? Or maybe he’d prefer this fire engine? Did she notice that the ladders were detachable? Would she be interested if the price were a dollar lower? The grandmother beamed at the suave five-year-old salesman and asked him questions right back. They chatted amiably for a few minutes, and when she settled on the fire engine, my son offered to help her put it in the trunk of her car.

“Oh, he’s marvelous,” the woman said, glancing back at my son as she handed me money for the truck. She turned to me with twinkling eyes. “You must be a wonderful mother!”

Had I been honest, I might have told her I could no more take credit for my son’s ability to charm a stranger than I could for his capacity to drive his parents crazy. I might have confessed that his personality was unfolding in directions that, like it or not, I could only watch with helpless amazement. I might have held forth with my views about nature and nurture and parental influence or lack thereof. But just then, gazing at this smiling grandmother, I felt a blurry tingling in my eyes and a tightening in my throat and for a few long moments I could not speak at all.

Author’s Note: For years, the discussion of raising “challenging” children has been dominated by so-called experts, who have helped sustain the myth of a disciplinary panacea. Meanwhile parents, myself included, have hesitated to speak up, partly out of reluctance to publicly criticize our children, partly out of shame or confusion over our own presumed failures. The first turning point, for me, was realizing how many traits associated with the challenging child—determination, assertiveness, energy, curiosity, self-assurance, vitality—are prized when exhibited by an adult. The second was coming to see that, under the right circumstances, those traits can actually be pretty great in a kid. Recently, when interviewing the author of a particularly reprehensible parenting book, I mentioned that my sons were often difficult. “Would you like some help changing them?” the author asked patronizingly. “No thanks,” I said. “I’m not interested in trading them in for different kids.” The remark left him sputtering, but I meant it.

Katy Read’s essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in Salon, Working Mother, Real Simple, Minnesota Monthly, Chautauqua Literary Journal, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

A Friendly Book of Facts for Boys and Girls

A Friendly Book of Facts for Boys and Girls

By Eileen Pollack

149616045When I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to teach creative writing, one of my graduate students told me that his wife wanted to meet me. “She says it’s eerie, but she feels as if she knows the characters in your stories, especially the teachers at your school.” As it turned out, my stories seemed familiar because my student’s wife, Jill, had grown up in the same tiny town in upstate New York as I had, in the building right behind my house. Even though Jill is ten years younger, nothing much had changed between her childhood and mine, including the favorite sayings and peculiar behaviors of our teachers.

Another coincidence: It turns out Jill dated my mother’s best friend’s son. After they broke up, the boy’s mother continued to act as Jill’s surrogate mother. Thrilled by this connection, Jill and I grew close. One night, she and her husband invited my son, Noah, and me to dinner, a generous act, given that I was trying to survive the lonely, depressing days after a divorce. When Noah and I showed up at their house, Jill handed me a book with a faded but eye-catching turquoise cover. Being Born, the title read. Above the title was a photo of a tomboyish girl—who strangely enough resembled Jill—and a clean-cut Leave-It-To-Beaverish boy marveling at a nest of eggs.

“I know that book!” I cried. “That’s the same book my mother gave me to teach me the facts of life!”

Jill smirked. “You’re right. It is the same book.” She opened the cover and showed me “Pollack fmly, 55 Willey Ave., Liberty, N.Y.” inscribed in blue ink in my mother’s pristine hand.

I jumped back. Not only was this a book I had last seen in 1965, when I was nine years old and living halfway across the country, it was a book I had tried my hardest to avoid. Imagine if an ugly, scary dog had bitten you as a child, then followed your scent for thirty years, only to spring from a friend’s front door.

“How did you get this?” I demanded. Jill pointed to the piece of notepaper protruding from the book.

Hi Jill—

Bob and I were cleaning a bookshelf and found this book that Eileen Pollack’s mother gave me for Dean & Mike. I thought you might be able to use it and, eventually, give it back to Eileen. She may like to have it, since she probably read it as a child.

Love, Terry

If not for the smiley face, I would have wondered at the woman’s sanity. Could she honestly have thought that Jill would use Being Born to teach her own children about sex and love? The book had been published in 1936, then re-issued in a “revised and enlarged 35th printing” in 1952, four years before I started being born myself, and even though the facts of life hadn’t changed much since then, I assumed someone must have invented a more up-to-date and engaging way of presenting them.

What intrigued me was trying to remember why I had refused to do much more than open and shut the book. I was the kind of child who couldn’t not read. If I was on my way to the bathroom, I would grab my father’s dental journals so I wouldn’t be restricted to reading the toothpaste and deodorant. Had something about this particular book put me off? Or would I have balked at reading anything whose cover assured me that it was “A FRIENDLY BOOK OF FACTS FOR BOYS AND GIRLS THAT IS THE STANDARD WORK ON THE SUBJECT,” friendly being the fakey adjective teachers used to describe policemen and doctors, who, despite what grownups said, had the ability to haul you off to jail or jam a needle in your arm. Nor would I have reacted well to the author’s sexually ambiguous first and middle names, Frances Bruce, or the unpleasant connotations of her last name, Strain, with its implications of a difficult bowel movement.

“Blech,” my son said. “What is this thing? The pictures are disgusting.”

I figured he was saying this because the human reproductive system will always disgust a child of eight. But when I took back Being Born, the images returned to me with frightening clarity. The hideous black-and-white diagram of “the mother’s reproductive system” resembled nothing as much as a disapproving, big-nosed secretary in hideous cat’s-eye glasses, while the map of “the father’s reproductive system” reminded me of an evil alien with testicles for his eyes and a penis and foreskin for his nose. (Are any words ickier to the ear than “scrotum,” “testicles,” “penis,” “seminal vesicle,” “epididymis,” “erectile tissue,” and “urethra”?)

I quickly set down the book, at which the pages turned by an unseen hand and fell open to the photos that spanned the center seam. “Blech!” I said. And you would have said “Blech,” too, if you had seen those grainy clay models of cross-sectioned human wombs splayed across a table like cuts of spongy gray organ-meat. If that wasn’t enough to make you retch, you could have turned the page and found a series of illustrations that, despite the floral imagery of the captions (“Hands and feet blossom from tiny buds”), resembled the severed limbs of a plastic doll some malicious child had held to a flame until they melted.

Still you would have thought, given how ignorant I was of the mysteries of grown-up life, I would have studied Being Born with a microscope. It’s not surprising that a girl of nine wouldn’t know what a penis looked like. But I didn’t know what a penis was. When I was in third grade, one of my piano teacher’s cats gave birth and I asked her how she could tell which kittens were boys and which were girls. Well, she said, you could tell boy and girl kittens apart the same way you could tell boy and girl human beings apart. Oh, no, I said, that didn’t make sense. The only way you could tell human boys and girls apart was by the length of their hair, and boy cats and girl cats all had the same length hair, so how could a person know?

That’s when Being Born appeared on my bedside desk. And, when I didn’t pick it up and read it, on the sink beside the toilet, then elsewhere around the house, until my mother finally gave up and put it inside her drawer.

Only to take it out a few years later when I asked my brother to show me his circumcision scar. You might think this proves I knew what a penis was. But I had read somewhere that circumcision involved cutting a baby’s foreskin, and I had no idea what a foreskin was. In Hebrew School, we often recited a prayer about Jews carving God’s words on the doorposts of their houses and keeping them as “frontlets between their eyes,” and I had decided that circumcision involved carving the Hebrew letter chai on a baby’s forehead, but I couldn’t see my brother’s chai, so I figured the scar had faded and asked him to point it out.

At which my mother removed Being Born from her drawer and put it back beside my bed, then on the table in the living room, then back inside her drawer, where it must have stayed for years until she handed it to her friend.

And now, here I was, holding Being Born again. I opened to the inside jacket … and immediately was struck by the discovery that only fifty short years ago, adults were out of their minds. While it made sense that Mrs. Strain would include an endorsement from the Journal of the American Medical Association, how could she have been clueless enough to boast that “This is a book to arouse enthusiasm.” Arouse? Nor was I persuaded by the good doctors praising Mrs. Strain for being “unemotional and scientific” while remaining “friendly and personal” when any kid could guess that reading Being Born was going to be as friendly and personal as listening to a doctor ask you how things were going at school while sticking a thermometer up your butt.

Even the author’s assurance that the answer to the question “Where was I before I was born?” is “as fascinating as the story of Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoe” struck me as oddly inappropriate, given that Treasure Island is a book about a fatherless child being abused by a one-legged pirate and that Crusoe presumably spends a significant portion of his adult life with nothing but his own hand as a means to sexual gratification.

Nor would it have escaped my notice that Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe are boys’ adventure stories. In Frances Bruce Strain’s universe, boy fetuses might be allowed to live on tropical islands before they’re born, but girl fetuses no doubt are required to spend those nine long months sitting quietly in tiny pink padded cells. She can’t describe an egg without chiding it for not fitting the acceptable dimensions of femininity. “Curiously,” she writes, “the egg cell or ovum is many, many times larger than the sperm cell. Being a lady, you would expect her to be small [a curious grammatical ambiguity, that dangling participle], but instead of being smaller, she is larger.”

In refusing to read Being Born, I was clinging to what little pride the world allowed me in being female. If I didn’t know what penises were, how could I envy boys for having them? It wasn’t that I wanted to be a boy. For years, I had been stealing looks at my older sister’s pamphlets about how to stay neat and fresh even when coping with “the curse.” As inane as those booklets were, with their tips for washing cashmere sweaters so they wouldn’t lose their shape and making boys feel special by asking them questions about themselves, they heralded an era when I would be able to go places in cars with boys and enjoy exciting adventures without my parents. If getting my period was the price I needed to pay for such freedom, so be it, and I appreciated the way the authors of those pamphlets didn’t whitewash (so to speak) the way cramps could keep a girl curled up in bed all day or send an embarrassing gush of blood through the bottom of her skirt or shorts.

But that same girl could have picked up Being Born and read the entire section on men-stru-a-tion (“such a long word and such a personal one for girls”) without figuring out that once a month blood would come streaming out her vagina and she had better be prepared. As to cramps, Mrs. Strain’s opinion was that any healthy girl could entirely prevent cramps, if only she took care never to catch a chill or think gloomy thoughts!

The author applied this same goofily evasive approach to her male readers’ questions about their “seminal emissions.” Despite two-and-a-half pages of explanations, a reader would never have guessed that such emissions had anything to do with sexy dreams. As to the reasons a boy’s penis might become erect, he likely had failed to empty his bladder, or else his erections had been caused by “excitement over a ball game or fire, or over an examination, or punishment.” Now, I have never had an erection, so for all I know a boy might find himself with a hard-on from catching a pop-up fly, toasting a marshmallow, or studying for a difficult math test. But if Mrs. Strain truly wanted to assure her readers that getting an erection while being spanked was normal, she might have tossed her readers a hint that thinking about a girl (let alone another boy) might produce an erection, too.

All she has to say on that score is that when we are “really stirred up,” we get stirred up “all over,” and if readers want to know more than that, they should turn to page 30, where they will find this maddeningly elusive bombshell:

When the two mates are ready to unite and the sperm fluid is to leave the father’s body, the penis becomes hard and straight like a finger, though much larger in size. Erect, it enters more readily into the long narrow pas- sage of the mother that leads up into the place where the egg may be found.

I’m all for an approach that is “devoid of emotionalism and sentimentality,” but you can’t tell me Mrs. Strain is showing a “sympathetic understanding of youth” by refusing to acknowledge that if you tell a boy that one day his penis is going to grow as hard as a finger (only bigger!) and he is going to stick it up a woman’s narrow passage, he is going to want a few more details as to just how his penis is going to become hard and straight, and that his female friends are going to be left dangling, so to speak, as to whether this isn’t quite a painful activity to engage in.

I suppose that making fun of a book like Being Born is like shooting giant ova in a barrel. I can hardly express surprise that a book written in the middle of the previous century by the widow of a Congregational minister would have taken a sexist view of sex. I was happy to discover that at the end of a long, bizarre discussion of interracial coupling, Mrs. Strain issues a heartfelt plea that each of us accept everyone else, no matter his race, color, creed, or nationality. What I object to is that the author presents sex in such a frightening and repulsive way while pretending there is nothing the least bit frightening or repulsive about what she’s saying. How else to explain the passage in which Mrs. Strain tells her readers that “[o]nce in a great, great while, the soft down coat on a human [baby] does not disappear. It stays.” Such a baby grows up to be covered with thick dark hair. But not to worry! Some circus will pay the child “a good price to be exhibited before the public as the Wild Man or Wolf Man.”

A woman who sees nothing unpleasant about life as a sideshow exhibit will be all too willing to illustrate her account of childbirth with a nightmarishly distorted Karl Rove-headed baby being extracted from yet another grainy cross-section of a female torso by a pair of disembodied hands in white rubber gloves. And if you are going to admit that little girls are bound to hear stories about childbirth so disturbing that they announce “I don’t believe I shall want any babies when I grow up,” you can’t brush off such worries with a fairytale about how the stories “got started long ago when there were no hospitals, no doctors, no nurses who were especially trained in the care of mothers” and how giving birth in a hospital has become a piece of cake. I gave birth at one of the best hospitals in Boston, attended by a team of doctors and nurses so well-trained that even their ova and sperm had degrees from Harvard Medical School, and I can tell you some pretty disturbing stories about the mistakes everyone made and the pain and misery I was in for two days of labor and the emergency C-section the doctors eventually needed to perform to save my baby’s life.

Not that I disagree with Mrs. Strain’s testimony that the contentment of nursing a newborn is worth every bit of the pain and mess, or that feeling a fetus kick inside you is “like the flutter of a bird in the hand,” or that it is very exciting to “hear the little heart beat,” or that some people say you can even hear a baby hiccough inside its mother. I am here to testify that nothing is more bizarrely miraculous than feeling another human being hiccough inside you.

What drives me nuts is the way the author of Being Born seems unable to accept that sex and birth (and love) can be beautiful as well as ugly, wondrous as well as painful, enticing and mysterious as well as frightening and repulsive. Not only does Mrs. Strain seem unable to convey such complexities to a child (who is perfectly able to understand that it’s possible to both love and hate one’s parents, or that it feels wonderful to run and play even if one becomes hot and sweaty in the process), she subscribes to the delusion still prevalent today—cross reference Martha Stewart—that everything can be made beautiful and pleasant if only the lady of the house dresses it up in the right décor.

You can see this in the chapter in which Mrs. Strain goes on about the differences between animals, who eat and reproduce by instinct, and human beings, who have conquered their wild, instinctual natures by relying on good manners. While lions and monkeys kill other animals and eat them raw, human beings make a social occasion of eating. “There is a lace or linen cloth on the table, pretty china, bright silver and glass, flowers. Everyone talks and laughs, tells the events of the day, and enjoys the good warm food. … Sit down alone and try to eat your dinner on a newspaper with an iron spoon from an iron pot, and see what would happen to your appetite.”

According to Mrs. Strain, the same is true of that other human appetite, “mate hunger.” Animals might run around showing each other their brightly colored buttocks without so much as an introduction, but human beings have learned to wear clothes and mate in private. Instead of using bodily colors to attract each other, “men and women use color in dress, personal decoration and hair arrangements, voice, gesture, words, songs, smiles, gifts—all sorts of things.” This allows them to find partners who match their “heart’s picture” of the ideal mate—at which point, if Mrs. Strain’s illustrator is to be believed, they marry and take off their clothes, revealing themselves to be as pure and airbrushed as the hairless, breastless “modern statue of a young woman” reproduced near the end of Being Born, and the “ancient Greek statue” of a young man equally devoid of pubic hair, with genitals so tiny and dark I couldn’t have made them out if I had tried, which I don’t remember doing, because I never reached this far in Being Born.

Then again, I probably saw many images of naked men, if not in that book then elsewhere, even if I refused to let any of them register on my conscious mind. How else can I explain that I went overnight from being completely ignorant about sex and birth to being the font of wisdom for the other kids? In seventh grade, when I was finally forced to sit through a movie called “From Boy to Man,” the penis on the screen provided the final piece in a puzzle I had been filling in all along.

That same week, I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and was aroused to the point of sexual obsession by the scene in which Robert Redford surprises Katharine Ross in her bedroom and orders her, at gunpoint, to take off her clothes, at which they have passionate sex and the viewer understands that the “rape” was only a game the couple had been playing all along. One of my classmates also had seen the movie, and she and I became so exhilarated by our discussion of the rape scene that I ran over my fingers with the sewing machine and just kept talking.

Which was as good a sign as any that I was ready to understand the facts of life.

Maybe all we need to do is wait until our children’s psyches are developed enough to accept that something can be exciting and painful—both—and then confess that sex is as weird and gross as they think it is, but eventually they are going to want to do it anyway, and when they do, please use a condom. After that, they are on their own. I like to think I was as enlightened and hip about discussing the facts of life with my son as any parent could be, but I am sure he couldn’t wait until our conversations were over and remains as baffled by love and sex as I am.

No matter what anyone says or does, kids are going to pick up the facts of life from other kids, or, if they are lucky, from reading novels. Now that I think about it, I became a writer precisely because I wanted to get down in words how pleasurable and painful life can be from the moment we inhale our first breaths to our first experience of love and sex, with the astonishing opportunity this provides to give birth to very small people who will grow up to be as thrilled, confused, and terrified by love and sex and birth as we are.

Author’s Note: Even today, when books about sex are so much hipper and forthright than they were when I was young, most kids would prefer that their parents speak to them directly about love and reproduction than squirm out of the conversation by handing them a book. One of my students told me that when she was in seventh grade, her mother brought home several copies of a huge, colorful book about sex and gleefully demanded that my student hand them out to her friends as bar mitvah presents. (Rather than read the books herself, she ended up learning what she needed to know by reading The Clan of the Cave Bear novels.) Another student said that as a sixteen-year-old babysitter, she was asked by a parent to read her charge “the book on the nightstand” before the little girl went to bed. Imagine her dismay when the book turned out to be a discussion of the facts of life, complete with transparent overlays of the reproductive organs. (The babysitter also knew that the little girl was adopted, which the girl herself did not, and she half expected the mother to ask her to clue in her daughter on that information, as well.) Everyone in my class agreed that handing your child a book about sex just makes the topic seem all that much weirder and undiscussable, except one student, who said her parents were so unbelievably embarrassed by anything the least bit sexual, she much preferred reading a book than witnessing their discomfort as they stammered and squirmed, trying to impart what little they knew about the subject.

Elleen Pollack directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan and divides her time between Ann Arbor and New York. Her book,THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM: WHY SCIENCE IS STILL A BOYS’ CLUB, will be published in September of this year by Beacon Press.

Brain, Child (Spring 2010)

Illustration: gettyimages

Should A Parent Who Shares Joint Custody Be Allowed to Move Out of the Area?

Should A Parent Who Shares Joint Custody Be Allowed to Move Out of the Area?

NO

By Stewart Crank Jr.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.48.59 PMYears ago, my children lived with me half the time, and I shared in the responsibilities and celebrations of their life. We ate breakfast together; I took them to school; I celebrated their birthdays (on their birthdays) with them, woke up every Christmas with them, packed their lunch, and knew their friends. Although my ex-wife and I were finished, I remained firmly planted in their everyday lives.

Then, for reasons of her own, my ex-wife moved with our children seventy-five miles away, to another state. My lawyer told me that there was nothing I could do.

That was six-and-a-half years ago. Now I see my kids about once a month over a weekend and have gone as long as two months without seeing them at all. I know their friends by name and some by face, but only from pictures. I have spent as much as two-and-a-half hours (with traffic around Washington D.C., the metropolis planted between the kids and me) driving one way to see a play. I’ve watched the play, seen my children for five minutes, and then turned around to come home. Attending their events like this is difficult at best, and between work and the drive, sometimes impossible. Stopping by and grabbing them for dinner has become a four- or five-hour event versus a two-hour event. None of their friends has ever stayed the night at my house. This unfortunate situation is only bearable because the kids and I are very close despite our lack of time together.

As parents, our children should be our first priority in life. And study after study—published everywhere from the Journal of Family Psychology to Psychology and Health—has shown that the best possible situation for children and parents of divorce is to retain as much of the support and access that was in place prior to the separation of the family unit. It should be the exception, if not illegal, to take the children more than a reasonable distance from a willing and able parent. Ideally, parents would live right around the corner from each other, a bike ride away for the child.

When one parent moves away from the children or one parent moves away with the children, it creates an environment that is painful and challenging for both the children and that parent who suddenly spends less time with them. For any child, it is bad enough that the parents’ inability to maintain their commitments as husband and wife has left that child with two homes instead of one—placing a great distance between these two homes adds insult to injury.

With the advent of e-mail, social networks, and text messaging, many people may feel that the connection to our children can be maintained at any distance—and believe me, it does help keep us in touch. Yet nothing beats a parent and child’s walking down the street, hand in hand, or the ability to share in the day-to-day activities of doctor visits, school pickups, helping with homework, eating meals together, or simply being in their presence.

Children who have a distant or absent biological parent are statistically more likely to develop social problems like violence, drug abuse, and unhealthy sexual relationships. No parent out there feels this would be in the best interest of his or her child. And still, every day, divorced or estranged parents make the decision to place distance between a child and a parent.

It’s a selfish act—whether you are the parent moving the child away from the parent or the parent moving away from the child. The children are the ones who suffer the most. They have no control over the situation. They don’t have the coping skills that grown-ups do. The parents may claim good reasons for the move—and there are good reasons. People find better job opportunities; they move closer to family; they remarry. But I’d argue that it’s rare to find a reason good enough to trump a child’s need for his or her other parent.

My own father and mother may disagree with this statement because a big move is exactly what happened in our lives. I still have the letter my father gave me at Dulles Airport when I was ten years old, on my way to live in California. His letter confirmed his unconditional love for me, despite our impending distance from one another. It still makes me cry when I read it, twenty-eight years later. My mother, stepfather, sisters, and I moved from California to London, and my father to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It wasn’t a bad life at all—winters in London, summers at the beach—but not a day went by that I didn’t yearn for a more consistent relationship with my father. I often wonder how different my life and my choices would be had he not lived so far from us and had we spent more time together. I compare my own life with those of my half brother and sister, who were raised full time with him, and see a stark contrast in our lifestyles and our viewpoints. It makes me wonder if I would have found a calmer path in my own life had he been more present.

In recent years, even the courts have started recognizing that equal access is best for the children. In Florida, for instance, the court is legally obligated to order that parental responsibility for a minor child be shared by both parents, unless it is detrimental to the child. In Alabama, the law states that both parents have an equal right to the custody of their children. As our society evolves, we should see more courts shifting toward default laws that support joint custody. Terms like “equal access,” “shared parenting,” and “proximity” are repeated through the thousands of words I have read on this very subject. Laws affecting shared parenting rights are being scrutinized throughout the country.

Regardless of the law, we should all try to keep our children close to both parents. We should do this because we love our children deeply and want to give them the best odds of flourishing. Is there a purer motive than that?

Stewart Crank Jr. is a father and editor who lives in Virginia.

 

YES

By Sarah Clayton
Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.49.13 PMI handed my nine-year-old son’s violin over to his stepmother and, in that moment, felt my own heart slip out of tune.

“This is not a toy,” I said, knowing this sounded harsh, but I was too bereft to explain myself in any other way. I was delivering my two young sons, ages nine and eleven, to their father’s home in suburban Connecticut, five hundred miles from my own rural home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. They would be there for the next three years, and I would be the visiting parent, as their father had been for the first four years of our divorce.

In that short yet interminable moment of delivery and departure, I began to understand what the majority of fathers go through in divorces; in saying good-bye, they know they will see their children only in fragments of time, shards of days and hours. I had had the luxury of uninterrupted time with my sons since they were in utero. Now it was my turn to live with them in fragments.

And it was the right thing to do. After all, they are as much his children as mine, a fact often forgotten in divorce situations. Plus, my ex-husband was remarried, an event essential to my agreeing to let the boys go; I needed to know that someone would be there when they got home from school. The boys were also approaching puberty, and, unless a father is abusive or disinterested, boys need to cross that great bar into manhood in his presence. And all children of divorce, whether boys or girls, need to know their fathers as real people—complete with weaknesses and strengths and idiosyncrasies—and not just the Good Time Charlies children usually see during the short, weekend visit.

It wasn’t that I’d stopped loving the boys’ father when we separated; I simply couldn’t live with him anymore. We wanted different lives and couldn’t seem to find a compromise. But just because their father and I had different views on what we wanted didn’t mean the boys couldn’t enjoy both of us and both our worlds. It didn’t mean those worlds had to be around the block from each other, though.

Sometimes a parent’s needs trump a child’s when it comes to living arrangements. To be a successful mother at that time, I needed to regain my once imperturbable core of happiness. That meant getting as far away from my ex-husband as possible. To his credit, he was gracious enough to let me take the boys to England, the land of my mother.

The boys thrived there. By the time we left, three months later, my withdrawn older son, six-year-old Nicholas, sang a solo in the local school play. My younger son, Chris, renowned at four years old for his whiny nature, found his peace and became a delightful companion as we explored the fields and villages of Dorset. We all needed that break from the other world. And here on the banks of Chesil Beach, the boys got their mother back.

We moved back to Virginia, the land of my youth, when I learned that my father’s cancer was terminal. The boys’ father would come for a visit, and I’d fill my house with the food and wine he liked, then move out so he could have the boys to himself. It caused the least disruption in the boys’ routine and made it less stressful for him.

Then he got married, and it was time for them to leave me. I was eviscerated. They were thrilled. They loved their little stepbrother, and the minute we reached their father’s house, the three boys were off, overflowing with the joy of beginning life together. Heart unstrung, I was awash with worry: Would their father read them to sleep as I did? Would he keep Chris’s violin playing going, Nicholas’s running?

During those three years with their father, I saw the boys whenever possible. We’d head off to ski or to the beach, and once we slipped over the border into Canada to celebrate Nicholas’s thirteenth birthday. We had a ball, and I became Good Time Charlie. This was fun.

But it wasn’t necessarily easy. I went up for Chris’s first violin concert when he was nine. “Chris is an excellent violinist,” his conductor/teacher said. “But he would be even better if he remembered to bring his violin to school.”

I despaired. Why didn’t his father remind this uprooted child to take his violin to school? And why wasn’t Nicholas running? But I couldn’t deny it; the boys were thriving. I realized it didn’t matter that things weren’t done as I would have done them. They were happy to see me and happy to be with their father. In one great exhalation, I let go of my worries. Mothers, it seems to me, tend to think only they can raise the children. But fathers have every right to share their vision and talents, too.

When the boys came back to me three years later, they once again took to the mountains, swam the rivers, and reveled in the freedom of country life.

When their father called, they slipped back into their Connecticut world. They’d come to know their father as a three-dimensional person, just as they knew me, with all our faults and strengths. They had been immersed in and enriched by both worlds and both parents in a way they might not, had we lived closer.

Many people criticized me for taking the boys so far away from their father; many were in awe that I’d let them go live with him for that great length of time. But it seemed the right thing to do, and I’ve had to conclude, watching the boys turn into fine young men, now twenty-seven and twenty-five, that it is okay for parents to move away from each other after a divorce as long as they honor the other’s role as viable parent.

I’ve also realized that after divorce—after ripping apart the fabric of the family—it’s important for parents to first regain themselves. As they say in the airplane safety instructions: “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” Sometimes, it takes moving away to give both of you, ex-husband and ex-wife, time to put on your own oxygen masks and begin to breathe freely once more.

And, in the end, it was the boys, in growing up, who moved away from both of us.

Sarah Clayton, the mother of three sons, lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where she writes travel pieces and essays for The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and National Public Radio, among others. She also writes romance books.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

Breaking the Law of Averages

Breaking the Law of Averages

By Jill Storey

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 6.10.49 PMI was always a sucker for the clarity of math, especially statistics. I loved the way statistics brought order to the world, sweeping the messiness of ignorance and chance into a neat pile of percentages. Because of statistics, I was never afraid during thunderstorms. The odds of being struck by lightning are one in 600,000 every year, which, it seemed to me, was virtually a free pass to sit on the porch during a storm and watch fissures of lightning rip through the heavens.

When I took a statistics course in graduate school, probability formulas drew me in with their soothing logic. People and events became numbers, and when I plugged those numbers into formulas, I could make sense of problems that had seemed shapeless and shadowy. Probability theory was a kind of faith: It gave answers to why things happened and a set of commandments for making choices. Luck and fate had no place in my belief system.

It wasn’t until much later that I understood the answer a famous physicist gave when asked why he hung a horseshoe over his front door. “I have been reliably informed,” he answered, “that it will bring me luck whether I believe in it or not.”

*   *   *

The atmosphere of the prenatal ultrasound lab at the university hospital was as clinical as its name. No soft-focus posters of smiling babies or of young mothers gazing soulfully at their half-moon bellies here—just the hard plastic and bright steel of machines and monitors, the toneless hum of fluorescent lights.

But I didn’t mind the sterile room, or even the standard-issue thin cotton gown I was wearing, through which I could feel the cold vinyl of the examining table along my back. I was eight weeks pregnant and extremely happy about it. I had been married earlier that year at age thirty-six, and my husband, Richard, and I were eager to start a family. I had read the medical literature and learned that the odds of my getting pregnant quickly were slim. According to the statistics, less than fifty percent of women my age become pregnant within the first year of trying. But within two months I was clutching a pregnancy test, an oracle in a white plastic stick with a glowing pink line that seemed to shout Yes! You’ve won! Because of my age, however, the baby had a higher risk of genetic disorders, so I was here for an ultrasound to determine what type of prenatal testing I needed.

The ultrasound technician spread cold gel on my stomach to smooth the movement of the transducer wand over my skin. Richard and I watched the images on the screen next to us as she moved the wand back and forth, but the blurry white smudges against the background of a black triangle were as inscrutable as the Milky Way.

“Did you take fertility drugs?” asked the technician. She was probably asking because of my age, I thought. When I said no, she probed further. “Clomid, assisted insemination, anything?” Again I told her no. She asked when I conceived, and when I told her the date, she seemed to distrust my answer. I could practically set my watch by my menstrual cycle, I said. She continued circling the wand over me. My husband gripped my hand.

“I’m going to have the doctor take a look at these pictures,” said the technician. She was gone for five long minutes. My husband and I whispered to each other. Was I having twins? Why didn’t she just say so? Why wasn’t she clear on my conception date?—it was right there on my chart.

The doctor came in and sat down, with that serious half-smile doctors wear in an attempt to soften bad news. “Sherry says you didn’t have any fertility treatments?” he asked. I thought the sound of my heart thumping would set off the ultrasound monitor. “I didn’t,” I replied. “What’s wrong?”

He pointed to the image on the screen. “You have three fetuses.” Now I could see three wavery little beans on the monitor.

“You mean I’m having triplets?” I asked. My husband looked stunned.

“Well, not anymore,” replied the doctor. “I’m afraid you’ll be lucky if one survives. One has a good heartbeat. But it’s only the size of a typical six-week-old fetus. One is even smaller and has a weak heartbeat. One, I’m sorry to say, has no heartbeat at all.”

I tried to make sense of this information. Was I still going to have a baby? How many? Does one fetus with no heartbeat get subtracted from two live ones? The arithmetic overwhelmed me. I looked at Richard for guidance. How is it possible for grief and hope to coexist in the same equation?

Richard finally spoke. “So what do we do now?”

“Come in next week, and we’ll check to see if those two are growing,” answered the doctor. He paused. “I’ve never seen a triplet pregnancy without fertility drugs. They’re very rare.”

Rarer, it turns out, than a lightning strike. Natural triplets—those conceived without fertility drugs—occur in only one of every eight thousand pregnancies. Since the odds of being hit by lightning are one in 600,000 every year, if I live to be eighty-five years old, my lifetime odds would be about one in seven thousand. Better than the odds of having the hearts of three babies beating a tiny riff in my womb.

One week later, I lay on the same exam table. This time, the doctor did the ultrasound himself. I didn’t watch the monitor as the wand danced its clumsy waltz over my belly. I couldn’t bear to see them if I couldn’t keep them.

The doctor put his hand on my arm. “I’m sorry,” he said gently. “There are no heartbeats.”

I nodded mutely.

“I’ll call your OB/GYN. You can wait to miscarry, or Dr. Lee can do a D&C.” He left Richard and me to adjust to our new future, wiped clean of anticipations: no happy announcement, no due date, no baby. Times three.

I hated the thought of the little bodies inside me, entombed in my uterus. We went straight to Dr. Lee’s office. The procedure was quick and efficient—”Here come the cramps; count to ten; breathe; you did great”—and I went home to ponder the question, why me?

*   *   *

The ancient Greeks believed that the gods controlled everything: birth and death, earthquakes and droughts, the color of your child’s eyes, the deer that crossed your path three days in a row. For more than two thousand years, across continents, people continued to believe that whatever happened was part of a divine plan. Whether their gods lived on Mount Olympus or ruled in heaven or appeared in the form of an eagle, people took comfort in the idea that there was a reason for everything.

Then came the Renaissance, which encouraged scientific inquiry and the questioning of old ways of thinking. One of the questioners was an Italian mathematician and gambler named Girolamo Cardano, who discovered the laws of probability. I picture him at his oak desk at the University of Padua, two ivory dice clenched in his hand. Over and over and over again, he rolls the dice across the desktop, tallying how often each number comes up. I wonder if the sound of ivory clattering over the wood began to irritate him, and if he spread his handkerchief down to soften the noise. Perhaps his hand began to cramp, and he had to switch to his left hand. How long did it take—days, weeks?—to discover that lucky sevens came up not when he blew on the dice, or said a prayer, but, on average, one out of six times? Did Cardano—weary from lack of sleep, black dots dancing in front of his eyes even when he rested them briefly— swear off gambling after he learned that the probability of throwing snake eyes or double sixes was 2.8%, and no promises to heaven would ever change that?

Or perhaps my image of Cardano is all wrong. Maybe he simply worked out the calculations on his slate one warm summer afternoon when no students came seeking his counsel. If so, I doubt he stopped gambling. It’s easier to ignore mathematical theory than the reality of a cramped hand.

*   *   *

Six months later, I was pregnant again. Like a gambler switching blackjack tables after a big loss, I switched to a new doctor, a new chance. We didn’t tell anyone about the new pregnancy; we hardly talked about it ourselves. Unlike the first time, I didn’t dare get excited. I didn’t wonder if it was a boy (fifty-one percent chance) or a girl (forty-nine percent). I just counted the days until my ultrasound appointment.

That day never came. Six weeks into the pregnancy, while sitting in my office developing a spreadsheet, I started bleeding. I called Dr. Raskin’s office in a panic. “Go home and lie down,” the nurse advised me. “There’s nothing we can do.”

This time, I didn’t need a D&C. My uterus was already emptying itself, cramp by painful cramp. I was upset, of course, but it was easier this time, since I had never seen the peanut-shaped ghost on the ultrasound monitor. The embryo’s wisp of a heart never beat through the technician’s wand. This was just average bad luck, I tried to tell myself. After all, one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. The cramping stopped after a couple of days, and I went back to work.

A few days later I was absorbed in my spreadsheet, tinkering with the sales projections, when I felt a cramp. A pause, and then another. Damn, I thought, I didn’t bring any painkillers. I tried to work, but the cramps became sharper until I could no longer concentrate. I figured I’d better call Dr. Raskin, maybe get a prescription painkiller. When I got through to her office, she told me to come in right away. “You’re not supposed to be cramping anymore.”

By the time Richard and I arrived at her office, sharp waves of pain gripped my pelvis. The pain was so bad I was afraid to tell the doctor about it; I had the irrational thought that if I didn’t admit the intensity of the pain, it would stop, and I could go home and return to having an average miscarriage.

Dr. Raskin immediately ushered us into her office. She tried to palpate my abdomen gently, but I gasped at each probe of her fingertips. Richard watched helplessly.

“What do you think it might be?” he asked.

“It could be that you didn’t actually miscarry,” she replied. “Cramping at this stage is consistent with a tubal pregnancy, but your fallopian tubes feel normal.” I knew something about tubal pregnancies, where the embryo, on its way from the ovary to the uterus, implants in the fallopian tube instead of completing the journey. There the embryo grows, stretching the tube until it bursts, ending the pregnancy and destroying the tube. One to two percent of all pregnancies are tubal.

There is a story about a statistics professor who lived in Moscow during World War II. When the German planes strafed the city, the professor never rushed to the air-raid shelter with the rest of his neighbors. “There are seven million people in Moscow,” he explained. “What are the odds that a bomb will hit me?” One evening, his neighbors were surprised to see the professor huddled in the shelter with them. “What made you change your mind?” they asked. “There are seven million people and one elephant in Moscow,” the professor replied. “Last night, they got the elephant.”

But I couldn’t be the elephant. Not me, not this time.

After all, Dr. Raskin said my tubes didn’t seem swollen.

“I’m going to send you across the street to ultrasound. We need to figure out what’s going on. Do you think you can walk there, or shall I find a wheelchair?”

“I can walk,” I said, still trying to mask my pain and fear. Richard and I took the elevator down and crossed the busy street.

“Do you want to rest?” he asked.

“No, I just want to get there quickly.” When we entered the lobby we saw that only one elevator was working and dozens of people were waiting. “Let’s take the stairs,” I said. My panic somehow propelled me up four flights of stairs. As we entered the ultrasound waiting room I turned to Richard and said, “I think I’m going to pass out.”

The next thing I knew I was lying on a table in an ultrasound room. Richard and a woman in a white coat hovered over me. I was exhausted, light-headed, and peacefully, blissfully pain-free. “What happened?” I asked.

“I’m Dr. Sorenson,” the woman replied. “You’re probably in shock; don’t sit up.” She didn’t need to warn me; all I wanted was to lie there, luxuriating in the quiet, calm absence of pain.

Again the cold gel and the wand moving back and forth as if my abdomen were a Ouija board. Dr. Sorenson watched the screen closely. “There’s a lot of fluid in your peritoneal cavity,” she said.

“Fluid?” I pictured my womb floating on gentle waves.

“Possibly blood. We don’t know. I’m going to call your doctor.”

Dr. Sorenson returned a few minutes later. “We don’t know if this is a tubal pregnancy, and the only way to find out is to look inside. Dr. Raskin is waiting for an operating room to become available.”

An orderly transferred me onto a gurney and wheeled me into the emergency room to wait. The gurneys were lined up in two neat rows, each bed holding a patient facing a sudden crisis. Next to me, a heavyset woman rolled her head back and forth, muttering, “Help me Jesus! Oh, Jesus, Jesus, please help me!” Across the aisle a man held a woman’s limp hand and explained to her, “You OD’ed, baby. I found you on the couch.”

While Richard left to call my family, a nurse sat down next to me and asked how I was feeling.

Physically, I was only sore, but I was exhausted and frightened. “I’m scared,” I said.

“Tell me what you’re afraid of,” she said gently.

“I’m afraid I’m hemorrhaging or something.”

“Don’t worry, we’re monitoring you, and you’re doing fine. Is there anything else?”

“Yes,” I whispered. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my tube and I’ll never have a baby.”

“Women can get pregnant with one tube,” she said. “We’re going to take care of you.” The noise in the room seemed to recede. I closed my eyes and tried to believe her.

*   *   *

After the surgery, after I stopped throwing up from the anesthesia, after they let me wet my parched throat with ice chips, Dr. Raskin came in and sat next to me. “It wasn’t a tubal pregnancy, Jill,” she said. “It was similar, though. The embryo implanted in your ovary, and your ovary ruptured. That’s what made you pass out. The fluid they saw on the ultrasound was blood from the rupture. I saved some of the ovary, but it was pretty messy.”

I tried, in my woozy state, to absorb this news. “My ovary exploded?” I imagined my ovary, a small bright planet in the darkness of my abdomen, bursting open in a shower of fireworks.

“Well, basically, yes. It’s called an ovarian pregnancy. I’ve read about them, but I’ve never had a patient with one. It’s so lucky you were at the hospital when it ruptured. Otherwise, you could have died, you know.” She patted my hand. “I’ll let you rest now.”

She left the room and gently closed the door. I turned my head into the scratchy pillow and, for the first time all day, I cried.

*   *   *

There is a concept in probability theory called “independence.” It means that in any set of random occurrences, such as a set of ten coin tosses, each occurrence is completely independent from those that came before it. In other words, if you toss a coin nine times and it comes up heads each time, the probability of it coming up tails on the tenth throw are still fifty percent, no more, no less. The outcome of the tenth throw has nothing to do with the outcome of the previous nine. So now my pregnancies comprised a set of two random and independent occurrences.

My triplet pregnancy was one in eight thousand, and my ovarian pregnancy was, I learned, one in ten thousand. According to probability theory and the doctors, these anomalies were completely independent of each other. I know the ancient Greeks never would have believed that. But did I How could not just one but two such improbable things have happened to me.

In biblical times, communities sometimes identified guilty people by the drawing of lots, believing that God would cause the lot of the criminal to be drawn. Rabbi Isaac ben Mosheh Aramah, a fifteenth-century scholar, was more cautious: He thought that the casting of a single lot was a chance occurrence, but if that same lot was drawn repeatedly, it was a sign from God that the person was guilty. My lot had been drawn twice, from thousands and thousands of lots. What did it mean? It was easy to believe in random chance when other people suffered misfortunes. When my turn came, though, I felt cursed.

*   *   *

Two days after the operation, Dr. Raskin came into my hospital room. She sat down next to the bed and sighed. “Bad news, I’m afraid. Your blood tests show that we didn’t succeed in removing all of the fetal tissue, so it’s continuing to grow. But since the pregnancy was outside your uterus, a D&C won’t work.”

It sounded like science fiction. Pieces of a baby gripping my insides, trying to regenerate. “So what do we do?” I asked. “I’ve consulted with some of the specialists here, and we’re going to try an experimental drug, methotrexate. It’s used in treating cancer, but studies have shown success in using it to abort pregnancies. It should kill off any remaining tissue.”

So my pregnancy was a cancer, my body turning against me. I received the drug that afternoon, and, a couple of days later, my pregnancy finally let go.

When I left the hospital, Dr. Raskin told me that I needed to treat my body as if I had broken my pelvis. No one knew how long my recovery would be or what my chances were now of getting pregnant.

*   *   *

If I were living in Greco-Roman times, I would consult astragali to find out if there was a child in my future. Astragali, which were made from the knucklebones of animals, were similar to dice, except with four numbered sides instead of six. The person seeking to know what the fates held in store or to make the correct decision would pose a question and then throw four or five astragali. Each possible combination of numbers corresponded to an answer from the gods. Reading through the translations of the meanings of various throws, I came upon one interpretation of a throw that made me feel as if the gods were reaching through millennia to tell me something:

Three fours and two sixes. God speaks as follows:

Abide in thy house, nor go elsewhere,

Lest a ravening and destroying beast come nigh thee.

For I see not that this business is safe. But bide thy time.

The name of this combination of astragali was The throw of child-eating Cronos.

*   *   *

I followed my doctor’s advice, took a leave of absence from my job and abided in my house. But over the next days and months, my body continued to betray me. First an infection landed me back in the hospital on IV antibiotics. Then, about a week after I came home, a sharp pain in my pelvic region took my breath away. Five minutes later, another one. The pains were intermittent, like knife stabs, so intense it made the pain from my ovarian pregnancy seem like mere menstrual cramps. Richard took me to the emergency room, where they examined me with the ultrasound machine. The exam found nothing amiss; the “ravening and destroying beast” did not appear on the screen. Maybe it was a symptom of scar tissue forming from my surgery, said the doctor. A shot of painkiller and I was sent home. The following week the pains came again. Another trip to the emergency room, another ultrasound, more baffled doctors. They sent me home with powerful painkillers that made me vomit uncontrollably. The episodes recurred several times. I was afraid to go out, afraid to be left alone. “It’s just pain,” shrugged one doctor, dismissing my fears.

There was no name for whatever was attacking my insides. There was nothing I could look up, no facts, no variables this time to calculate the odds of these episodes occurring. I was weak from the surgery, the recurrent and unpredictable pains, the emotional toll of repeated loss.

Six weeks later, the attacks ended as mysteriously as they had begun. The doctors cleared me to try to conceive again. Months of hope punctured by disappointment passed. I had more surgery to clean out the scar tissue from the rupture the doctors thought might be preventing pregnancy. By now I was thirty-eight, and my doctor thought I should try fertility treatments.

The fertility specialist recommended I start with a drug called Pergonal, delivered in a series of injections that stimulate egg production. He told me the statistics: Women my age have about a one in twelve chance of getting pregnant with the drug. With my medical history, probably less, and the process would be expensive and time-consuming.

The statistics were discouraging. Would it be worth trying? For thousands of years the Chinese used the I Ching as an oracle. The questioner cast stalks or coins or dice and matched the pattern with one of the sixty-four hexagrams. The I Ching’s explanation of the hexagram foretold the person’s fate. That changed, according to scholar Richard Wilhelm, the first time a person, instead of passively accepting his fate, asked what he should do. By taking his “fate” into his own hands, he turned the book of divination into a book of wisdom.

Maybe I could change my fate. I went for the fertility drugs.

I conceived the first month of treatment. At six weeks, I again offered my belly to the ultrasound machine. I again watched the black-and-white screen, that modern crystal ball that had so often been the bearer of bad tidings. In the swirling snow on the screen, a shape coalesced: a constellation of white dots with a quivering star at the center. One fetus, one strong heartbeat.

*   *   *

During my pregnancy, I knew there was still much that could go wrong. I could miscarry (ten percent probability after confirming a heartbeat); the fetus could have a chromosomal defect (one percent chance at my age) or be afflicted by some random disease. But I realized that I couldn’t control or even predict what was going to happen by paying attention to probabilities. Pregnancy statistics, like all statistics, rely on samples, a group chosen to represent the whole. A sample, then, is simply a metaphor; it suggests a larger truth, but it is not the truth itself. I could interpret the metaphor in my own way.

My faith in probabilities hadn’t protected me from ending up as an outlier; luck, it seemed, didn’t care what I believed in. But what did I believe now? I thought about how runs of good or bad luck seem to inevitably run out, just as, in laws of statistics, everything regresses towards the mean. Maybe luck and fate obey laws of the universe that we simply haven’t discovered yet.

I decided then to let go of the statistics. In past ages, even the most brilliant mathematicians didn’t dare calculate probabilities, because to do so meant challenging the mysteries of the divine.

*   *   *

I gave birth to a baby girl on a rainy November night. There were no stars out to witness her arrival; there may have been lightning in the far hills. The nurses wrote down her vital statistics; she was, to everyone but us, an average newborn.

Twelve years have passed now. Our daughter is very good with numbers. She is also extremely lucky at games of chance.

Author’s Note: I am still fascinated by both the science and the psychology of probability. Most people are overly concerned about low probability events (e.g., plane crashes) yet nonchalant about higher probability events (e.g., car crashes). As a math-minded person, this never made sense to me, but now I understand it better. When you’re the one out of ten thousand—whether it’s having a rare disease or winning the lottery—it feels as if you’ve been singled out, separated from the rest of the world. If no one shares your experience, your suffering seems more intense and your joy more special. For me, the lightning bolts I endured in my quest to have a baby were blunted by that most ordinary of joys, the birth of my daughter, and, two years later, the birth of my son.

Jill Storey lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children. Her articles and essays have been published in Salon, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, BabyCenter, Ms. Magazine and other publications.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

Lumpy

Lumpy

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 2.11.21 PMOne minute we’re skipping through the sunshine, and the next we’re lodged in the belly of the diagnostic beast. It’s the x-rays that happen first—only we’re not actually thinking first because we don’t understand yet what’s ahead of us. We’re in the radiology department that’s just down the hall from our pediatrician’s office, which is the comforting medical equivalent of the girl next door: How bad can it be if they don’t even make you leave the neighborhood?

Still, I sit in the waiting room beneath the warm weight of Birdy, breathing in the summer smell of seven-year-old scalp between her braids, and I wonder if our lives are about to change. Is there going to be a before this moment and an after? The radiology order is sweaty in my fingers. “? mass in chest wall” it says, in busy-doctor scrawl. Four words and one dislocated punctuation mark: That’s what I have to go on, and so I go on it. The aggressively preemptive question mark followed by the word mass, which I hate: its evocation of neoplastic malignancy on the one hand, and of the Pope chanting through an incense-scented funeral on the other. Or that mystifying physics property that’s like weight, only different: The mass of the mass is equal to something squared divided by the extent to which we can spare Birdy, which is not at all. Q.E.D. The alliterative “malignant mass” I’ve heard a million times, but “benign mass” is suddenly not ringing any bells. Also, chest wall. “Fortress Around Your Heart,” that Sting song, plays in my head like a soundtrack: Is the fortress around your heart a good or a bad thing? I can’t remember. But your heart is kind of counting on your chest wall to protect it, I’m guessing; it’s not really supposed to have a mass in it. I’d be happier with “mass in kneecap” or “mass in big toe.” “The further away it is from your brain, the better,” my son, Ben, once consoled his grandmother, who was having a squamous-cell something removed from her shin. Indeed. But also the further away it is from your heart. My heart.

So far, approximately four minutes have elapsed, and I’m already deranged. It will be another two and a half months before they figure out what’s going on.

“Abigail Newman.” The radiology technician is holding the door open, and the use of Birdy’s given name, which nobody ever uses, makes me feel like she’s in trouble. Abigail Newman, you get in here this second! Did you leave this mass in your chest wall? I help Birdy off with her clothes while the technician clucks over the order. “You just don’t like to see stuff that’s unilateral like this,” she muses grimly, shaking her head. No? I concentrate on not bursting into tears by teasing Birdy about her outfit: a floor-length, floral-sprigged johnny with a little lead apron tied around her waist. “All you need is a bonnet and you’d look just like Ma Ingalls!” I say, and Birdy laughs, twirls, and curtsies, before sitting dead still for ten minutes so the buzzing machine can spy on her bones. Have we all heard the same urban legends? About spider eggs in Bubble Yum and how the lead apron is, radioactively speaking, like trying to stop a bullet with a piece of paper? I hate having heard that.

“Wow,” I say, looking over the tech’s shoulder as a series of images appears on her computer screen. “Look at all your strong ribs! I really see why they call it a ribcage! It really does look like a cage! Doesn’t it look like a cage? How fascinating!”

The optimistic patter of the worried parent! It is very exclamatory! And it continues further down the hall, where we’ve now been sent for an ultrasound after the x-ray has illuminated exactly nothing.

“I thought it was going to be bone,” the tech said, “but it’s not—which means it’s got to be soft tissue.” She tried to grimace at me sympathetically, but I looked away to better thwart her pessimistic contamination. Soft tissue. Oh, Birdy of the softest tissue! Soft tissue is the Kleenex nest she made for her tiniest bear in an old walnut-shaped nut bowl. Soft tissue is the Don’t squeeze the Charmin! meatiness of her luscious thighs.

“Wow!” I say instead. “We get to see all your insides working! That’s a lucky thing!” You see their innards before they’re born—that strange prenatal introduction to your baby via her black-and-white internal organs—and then, if you’re lucky, never again. “So, so lucky!” I say again.

And we are—we are lucky. The ultra-sound tech shows us her beating heart, the galloping wild horse of her life. But my Pollyanna muscle is strained and spent by the labor of good cheer. You know the tech can’t and won’t answer your questions, but still you can’t help yourself. “What do you think?” I say, trying to trick her with my chummy casualness. “See anything?”

“We’ll let the radiologist take a look,” she answers, all pleasant poker face.

We are sent back up the hall to wait, and our pediatrician finally calls us in and shrugs over the radiology reports. “They didn’t see anything,” she says—and I imagine for a moment that our collective hallucination has been swatted away by the empirical hand of science, like the finale of a Scooby-Doo mystery: Turns out those pirates had projected a hologram of a mass onto this chest wall here, which had us all fooled! “Which is good,” she continues, “but weird, because it’s not like there’s not something here.” Right.

The doctor and I take turns feeling Birdy up, and she giggles. I love this doctor. I love that two hours ago, when she was first checking out the bump, she’d been openly baffled. I love that she called in a couple of colleagues, and the tiny exam room turned into a kind of jovial chest-wall-mass party, everybody pressing on Birdy’s ribcage and expressing more curiosity than fear. I am already nostalgic for that time. “How long has she had it?” they wanted to know, and suddenly I wasn’t sure. Had it been in my peripheral awareness for a while? Maybe. But then I’d been smearing Birdy with sunscreen, and there it was for sure, the lumpy, insistent fact of it, like something pushed under her skin: a donut hole; a bottle cap; a clot of abnormally dividing cells. SPF fucking 45! My creamy ho-hum cancer precaution seemed, suddenly, malevolently, like a red herring.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Now, the doctor says the first thing that scares Birdy: “I think I’m going to send you guys to the surgeon.”

“Surgery?” Birdy’s alarm-wide eyes fill with tears, and the doctor is quick to reassure her.

“Just because they know more about this stuff,” she says. “Not because they’re going to operate on you.”

One cherry-dip cone later, good cheer has returned to Birdyland. “Dumb lump,” she says, and pats her chest affectionately with a sticky, pink hand.

Our appointment is scheduled for three weeks from now. In the endless interim, we see my brother and his wife, brilliant physicians both, who examine Birdy at my request. They are heartbreakingly gentle with her, and she shows off a little under the bright light of their attention. “I call him Lumpy,” she says, all casual-like, puffing out her little bare chest. “Because he’s so lumpy!” They are both dismissive—they agree that it’s likely some kind of a benignly anomalous growth spurt—and afterwards my relief coincides with a cooling and lightening of the summer’s hot, heavy skies.

We also see my parents. “Whatever you do, don’t mention it to them,” I badger Michael in the car. “We’ll tell them about it later, after it all turns out to be fine.” We are in their apartment maybe fifteen seconds before I blurt out, “Birdy has a lump in her chest. They don’t know what it is. I’m sure it’s fine.

We’re seeing a specialist. I don’t want you to worry.” I can’t help it. Their concern is the psychic equivalent of someone holding my hand during the scary parts of The Wizard of Oz. I feel like an asshole to worry them, but I’m glad for their company.

The surgeon, when we finally see him, has a kind of blustery masculine confidence that doubtless makes him a terrible person to date, but he is an excellent one to talk to about a mass in your daughter’s chest wall. We leave his office with an order for an MRI and a holistic sense of Birdy’s fineness: He is not overly concerned, he has told us, and I believe him. Only here’s what happens: Waiting, which we must do more of now, is the diagnostic equivalent of solitary confinement, corrosive of both spirit and sanity. The relief starts out vast and gleaming, like a serene expanse of turquoise sea. But then all the what-ifs—the troubling turns of phrase and outside chances—rise to the surface, until the likelihood of Birdy’s okayness is fully circled by sharks. The picture of health jigsaws apart into pieces—fragments that, held up one at a time, are impossible to interpret. “‘It’s probably cartilage,'” I quote the surgeon back to Michael, in the middle of the night. “‘But we just want to make sure there’s nothing inside the cartilage that’s making it grow like that.'”

Michael, who’s floating calmly at the surface of what’s most likely, which is that Birdy’s fine, says, “They just need to make sure.”

Right. “I’ll be shocked,” the surgeon has said, “if there turns out to be a malignancy.” This seemed good enough at the time—great, even!—but now I hate that he said the word aloud, even for the purpose of dismissing it. And the more time passes, the more I want to ask him approximately how often he’s shocked. For all we know, a dozen things a day shock him: “I’m shocked that nobody filled the ice trays!” “I’m shocked that we’re out of Special K!” “There turned out to be a malignancy? Well, color me shocked!”

There is also the fact that our MRI is not even scheduled yet. “You’ll get a letter in the mail with the date and time of your scan,” the surgeon’s receptionist had explained.

“Wait. What?” I had literally not understood. “Do you want to give me the number and I’ll just call and make an appointment?”

“It doesn’t work that way.” Her pinched eyebrows suggested my recalcitrance. You’ll get a letter in the mail.” I was frayed and fraying. These were the same people in charge of the magnetic resonance imaging of my child—but the telephone eluded them?

“Maybe they could send it by carrier pigeon,” I said to Michael in the middle of the night. “Or singing telegram.” When I called after a week, it turned out that the appointment-scheduler was on vacation; after two weeks, the letter-mailer was. I am unraveling so profoundly that I’m surprised not to see limbs fallen off and strewn around the house. “Maybe I’ll just go ahead and go to medical school and specialize in radiology,” I say to Michael, in the middle of the night. “To save time.” I finally wrangle the appointment out of them. We have two more weeks to wait.

“I’m not going to Google it,” I say to Michael in the middle of the night. “Don’t you Google it, either.” I get up and Google it. And here is my conclusion: People don’t tend to log onto the Internet to tell nice, boring stories about everything turning out just fine. My new get-rich scheme is going to be a web-site called www.itwasnothingafterall.com detailing people’s various diagnostic false alarms. “They thought it was a tumor, but it turned out to be just a piece of old Fiddle Faddle!”

Meanwhile, I can’t keep my hands off Birdy’s chest: I’m like a bad date, wrapping my arms around her and groping her on the sly. I daydream about Birdy’s illness and death, and experience an anticipation of grief that’s almost ecstatic in its clarity. I tell you this confessionally. In this twilight zone of waiting, I cannot stop imagining my own bereftness. So on top of everything else, there is my histrionic lameness to deal with.

Brave Birdy Bluebird is what they call my daughter at her karate class, and I think about this during the MRI. Have you had one? I haven’t, and so I have ill-prepared Birdy for it: the noisy, white and whirring tunnel that sucks her in and keeps her while she holds her breath for twenty-five courageous seconds at a time, fifteen times in forty-five minutes. Have you held your breath for twenty-five seconds? I haven’t, and I am doing it now, because I cannot stop trying to have this expe- rience for Birdy, and it is hard. This is your maternal empathy on crack. I am dizzy and smiling nonstop, like a crazy person. Birdy’s chin quivers at one point, and she says, near tears, “I think I might have breathed during that last one.” We are alone in the room, Birdy in the tunnel in a paper dress, me squat- ting to hold her hand, and the Muzak version of the Annie soundtrack stops long enough for a disembodied voice to buzz in: “That’s okay. We’ll try that one again.” Upon strict magnetic orders, I have removed my belt and earrings, but I keep picturing the metal fillings flying out of my molars into the tunnel, lodging in Birdy’s skull.

“At least nothing actually hurts!” I offer, lamely, moments before the tech comes back in with a dye-pumping, huge-needled IV.

“Whatever you do, don’t move while I inject you, or we’ll have to do all the pictures over again. Okay, sweetheart?” Across the way, they are wheeling in a tiny baby, pushing her into a different tunnel. It is not just us, I know.

On our way out, they give Birdy a coupon for a free ice-cream cone from the Friendly’s downstairs. “This is so lucky!” she says, thrilled, while they swirl her soft-serve, and I am so in love with her that I have to squeeze her and kiss the top of her head, even though it’s not enough. What I really want to do is shrink her down and stuff her into my mouth. I want to marry her. I want to buy her a present—I can see the gift shop across the hall—but then I wonder suddenly if we’re going to be coming here a lot, and if we’d better keep a trick or two up our sleeves just in case. I imagine wheeling Birdy down from the Pediatric Unit upstairs, watching her fondle the Beanies and choose one; I imagine her cheerful disbelief: “This is so lucky!” In the Friendly’s line behind us, a woman bursts into tears, and a man puts his arms around her. It is not just us. The MRI shows—wait for it—nothing. More precisely, either more or less than nothing. The radiologist, who has never once laid eyes on the flesh-and-blood fact of my daughter, actually thinks there may be more swelling on the other side of her chest—a suggestion that maddeningly defies empirical evidence. We are stuck in a world of robots making their robot pronouncements. Our surgeon, who is away on vacation, communicates to his reception staff that he wants us to do an ultrasound. Another ultrasound? Yes. We’ll get a letter in the mail with the date and time of our scan. It’s like one of those awful Escher drawings, and this one is called “The Moebius Strip of Medical Imaging.” We are driving around and around the diagnostic parking garage, looking for the exit sign, and we can never seem to leave the level we parked on.

Two weeks later, the ultrasound tech leaves the room for a second, and Michael says, “I guess they gave her the day off from high school.”

Her ponytail bounces, her gum cracks, and she speaks so, so kindly to Birdy. “Are you doing okay, sweetie?”

“I am! I’m great!” I watch the screen and strain to interpret it. I see the gently sloping landscape of Birdy’s chest; I see the tech compare the two sides, type in the letters “R” and “L.” I am mustering every analytic skill I have, as if what’s in front of me is a poem full of complex symbolic imagery: What does it mean? I don’t know. I don’t see anything that looks like a tumor, but I’ve never seen an ultrasound of a tumor, so how would I know? I studied semiotics in grad school, and here it is again: Signs can be radically unmoored from their referents; nothing could be something, something could be nothing; a spiking fever could mean a healthy immune system or leukemia; an absence of pain could mean longevity or imminent death. Is luck finite—like a bottle of water guzzled all at once? I don’t know.

Another two weeks later, we watch Birdy from the kitchen window—she’s bent over a patch of chives in my mother’s herb garden while my father’s riding mower, running and riderless, careens down a hill towards her. We have just met with our surgeon who reviewed the radiology reports for us and concluded that it was, as he’d suspected, a benign overgrowth of cartilage. “I am very glad there’s no tumor,” he said to us, and then, to the medical resident who was shadowing him, “I was very worried there was a tumor.” What happened to I would be shocked? I felt faint from the combination of relief and retroactive fear. I hadn’t even worried enough, it turned out! I had not fully understood the danger. “Cartilaginous exostosis,” is the official diagnosis: i.e., a lump. It might get bigger when she gets bigger; it might require a brace or surgical intervention; blah blah. It is not life threatening, and so I am filled with fondness for it. Lumpy! Only now I am running outside, screaming, and the tractor has already veered away and stalled in a patch of vinca under the maple tree. Birdy is standing in the sunlight, whole and unharmed. My father had stepped away for just a minute, it turns out. This is not the other shoe dropping. It is not tragic irony or doom or punishment for our interpretive failures. It is life, with loss woven into its very fabric. That’s just what there is.

Author’s Note: Oddly, I’m writing this note on the day of Birdy’s eight-year pediatric appointment—what I still like to call her “well-baby check-up”—and our doctor and I were able to exchange a few subtle, relieved signals over Birdy’s head about the fact of Lumpy’s having turned into what we call in Yiddish a nisht geferlach—no big deal. As my father likes to say, “There are very few true geferlachs in life.” Amen.

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

 

Self Preservation

Self Preservation

By Antonia Malchik

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 1.02.09 PMAn hour into my peach canning session on a hot August afternoon, I’ve peeled five batches of fruit. I’ve long since ceased to think about how the ripe, sinful flesh, blush-colored and naked, always brings to mind Georgia O’Keeffe paintings and sex. Instead I hustle, doubtfully eyeing the diminishing, discounted box of orchard-run peaches, the ones that have fallen off the trees and bruised. I picked them up three days ago at a farm five miles away. Some are already growing mold. The waste angers me as I cut away bruises and green fuzz, sometimes throwing away most of a peach, but I haven’t had time to get to them. The wedges pile up in the pot, splashing into squeezed lemon and leaking peach juice. Even as I pick up the pace, I try to remember that I’ve chosen this time-consuming and unnecessary hobby, that it’s a process to enjoy. I move the knife too quickly against the naked peach in my palm and it slips close to my thumb.

Water spits constantly onto the hissing gas burners. I’m working alone, lifting peaches from a boiling pot into an ice bath. The skins slip off peach-flesh—dusky, firm, and slick. The peaches are freestone variety, chosen for their rich flavor and the ease with which the flesh falls off the pit. They boil for a scant thirty seconds to release the skin, no more than six at a time in the pot because that’s the most I can dip in and out before the fruit begins to cook.

Upstairs, the baby wakes up crying. I brush sweat-soaked hair out of my face. His nap lasted thirty minutes less than usual. I’ll have to wrap up early. The baby’s fingers are too eager and his curiosity too persistent to allow him near an activity that requires scorching hot burners and my full attention. I’ll be lucky to finish this half after he goes to bed tonight.

The last six whole peaches come out of the pot. I slough the skins off as fast as possible, turn off the boiling water, put the gigantic pot of skinned, sliced fruit on a back burner; contemplate washing up the bowl full of shed skin and pits, the knife and cutting board, the lemon juicer, the thick puddles on the counter splashing silently onto the floor, before everything turns sticky and mixes with cat fur.

Through the baby monitor, my son’s crying increases in intensity and violence over the rattling of his crib bars against the drywall. I stop wiping the counter and try not to begrudge his theft of my time alone. But the resentment comes anyway: Get me. The fuck. Out of here.

*   *   *

Everything about canning season, including the crying from upstairs, reminds me of my son’s birth. My first attempts at this old-fashioned practice took place a week either side of his delivery, seven weeks early. Bored with pregnancy and summer heat, my husband and I played at freezing peaches in sugar syrup on one oppressive Wednesday in August. We made jokes about the pornography of the fruit and covered the kitchen with juice and sugar. The next Sunday we bought a box of tomatoes, thinking to cook them down and likewise install them in freezer bags. By then I was, unknowingly, already sinking under the effects of HELLP Syndrome, a rare, often fatal pregnancy illness. Complaining of stomach pain, I put off the tomato project and went to bed. I thought I had a mild case of food poisoning. By Wednesday, my liver was failing. The obstetrician performed a Caesarian while I was unconscious. I met my son thirty hours later, after the machines in Intensive Care stopped monitoring my breathing.

The next Wednesday, my son was still lying in Neonatal Intensive Care with the other tiny, sick premature babies. The doctor had called at seven a.m. to warn us they’d found a second air bubble next to his lungs and might have to move him to a tertiary care center two hours away. I can’t leave him, I kept saying to the nurse, who’d heard the same from countless discharged mothers and would continue hearing it long after my child was strong and growing. I kept putting off withdrawing the tip of my thumb from his miniscule fist, the only part of him we were allowed to touch until they removed the chest tubes and oxygen sniffer. I spent the drive home twisted in tears. I didn’t want to stop crying, thinking somehow it kept me connected to him, forty-five minutes away.

Nine o’clock at night my husband found me blanching tomatoes in the kitchen, stripping their torn skins.

“You should be resting,” he said.

“I need this.” I fished six tomatoes out with the slotted spoon and tried not to cry. The incision from the C-section ached; my feet ached; my head ached. But the movement from box to pot to icy bath to bowl, knowing I was making something without having to eat any of it, kept the tears at bay. “I need to do something real,” I said.

Splash, roll, split went the tomatoes. Their skins didn’t slide off like the peaches’ did. I had to peel them, papery on top with a squishy underbelly dripping watered-down red.

*   *   *

I’m descended on both sides from families in which competence is the predominant religion: the ability to make things, fix things, grow things. The knowledge that you could scratch out a life far from the conveniences of modernity. For my paternal and maternal grandparents, food was simply about survival. But more than that, its production and preservation defined the value of a woman. My Russian grandmother kept my father and his siblings alive during World War II by digging potato beds and scouring the woods for mushrooms after working double shifts managing the metallurgical lab at the weapons factory. On my mother’s side, my forefathers went West to Montana, where the women, no matter how soft they’d begun, grew hands puckered and hard from the sweltering woodstove, the endless kneading of bread, the maintenance of the vast pickling crock, the coaxing of vegetables from the water-starved soil of Eastern Montana, the drying and preserving and pickling that ensured—they hoped—a winter free of hunger.

The summer my little sister was born, another August, my mother sweated, short and swollen, over a stove bubbling with jars of beans drowned in vinegar. Dilled pickled beans became her signature side dish. In later years, every time a jar was opened she restrained my sisters and me from eating the entire thing at one sitting, and we would negotiate over the chunks of pickled garlic on the bottom.

I was four that summer. My mother grew her own beans, and I marched colanders full of them from the garden to the quart jars waiting in ranks on the counter. The jars lay on their sides, each dosed with feathery dill leaves, cloves of garlic, dill seed, and crushed red peppers. They waited to be packed with beans and filled with vinegar.

In many families, this would be a story about the harmony of the kitchen, mother passing down to her daughter the practices of her pioneer grandmother. But it isn’t. My mother didn’t want me kicking my heels on the alderwood kitchen stool, didn’t want me snapping the tops off the beans with eager, sloppy fingers. She didn’t want me there at all.

“Sweetheart.” Snap, snap, snap went the beans. She worked fast over the chipped enameled colander, her huge belly pushing her well back from the sink. A light-blue kerchief kept her blond hair out of her face. “Go outside and play.” Stuff, stuff, stuff went the straight beans tighter and tighter into the jars. The rogue skinny curled ones landed on top, once she’d set each jar upright again.

I studied the orange diamonds worked into the ugly brown kitchen carpet. I didn’t want to go play. I wanted to help. But my mother’s explosive temper was formidable. Her statements were not requests or suggestions; discipline was another thing she had brought from frontier farm life: brisk and painful. I slid off the stool and went out to the garden with my toy tin bowls, where I pretended to make a soup of Jerusalem artichokes and red currants.

The dilled beans joined the rows of jams and jellies and crocks of melon balls in liquor already established in the cool earthen root cellar below the back porch. After my little sister was born, my mother was happy to let me help change diapers, but shooed me away from the bubbling in the kitchen, where she was squishing bitter chokecherries for jelly into a conical metal sieve.

It would be easy to say that my mother practiced and maintained her frontier-woman, pioneer-wife skills because she loved them, the rhythm and movement of the seasons and the process itself. Part of that is true. Canning was also the only way she could escape from motherhood and still keep a fingertip in the creative life she passionately wanted. She chafed at being a mother of small children. More than anything, she wanted to spend her time writing stories, a dream she put off until my sisters and I were grown.

Raised to believe that the only time well spent is spent producing something or fixing something, she could not bring herself to throw her children on neighbors, friends, or her own parents so that she could write. Who would have understood, then, in that small Montana wheat-ranching town, where everyone was poor and few women worked outside the home and the only daycare was a bedraggled part-time place run by the local Kiwanis in the basement of a church?

Canning was the only household activity that was marginally creative and belonged solely to her. She did not want help. On the contrary, she wanted her husband and daughters far away for long days so she could devote her energy to an act that would for a time both soothe her artistic urges and satisfy the expectations of her competent, long-dead grandmother.

Mostly, she pickled beans.

*   *   *

My son, the baby upstairs, is almost a year old now. A month of hell followed his birth, a month of breathing and heart monitors, a month of chest tubes and oxygen. We almost lost him twice. I love him with a fierce possessiveness I never thought myself capable of. Whenever he gets sick, I vividly imagine losing him, and I hold him tight and cry like an idiot.

We brought him home from the hospital when he was four weeks old, scraping the five-pound mark—lighter than the smallest of our four cats, barely the size of a bag of sugar—and still three weeks to go until his official due date. We’d been turned inside out through that month, our priorities shaken out and stomped on. The freelance copy editing career I’d planned on returning to seemed pointless beside his need for me, and mine for him. I couldn’t imagine ever being tired of his presence.

He cried for months. He nursed every hour and a half around the clock. He slept flat out on my chest every night until he was four months old. Each morning I woke up, back aching, to remember I would not have a minute to myself for at least thirteen more hours. I woke up to resent the life I now had, to resent the baby whose life I, an atheist, had prayed for. On the days when he cried the most, when neither the breast nor swaddling nor pacifier nor his bouncy chair could soothe him, the mother I dreaded becoming seemed dangerously close. The kind of mother I’d grown up with: angry, impatient, unhappy, frantic to have a day alone.

I envisioned terrible things that I don’t want to admit to, screaming back at him being the least awful. One day my arms, meant only for motherly comfort, felt weak after a desire for violence surged through them, and I laid him gently down in his crib, shut the door on his cries, went to the garage, and shrieked at the top of my lungs until I grew hoarse. Then I sat there among the dirty garage smells, trying to work out if I still existed, under the exhaustion and frustration and constant nursing.

I had never envisioned being a full-time, stay-at-home mother, yet there I was with a high-needs child I couldn’t imagine abandoning to daycare but one I couldn’t continue sacrificing every moment to. If I kept trying to devote myself—myself—to him, one of us would get hurt. I foundered, fumbling in the dark, looking for a way back to the person I used to be. Before marriage, before mortgage, before who I was became defined by the small, delightful, draining individual whose life I was responsible for.

Every now and then my father used to take my two sisters and me out for the day so my mother could write. We’d go fishing or run errands. When we came home, there’d be hot jars of peach chutney or dilled beans resting on the counter, but rarely did any writing get done. It’s a hard thing to battle those demons every day, the ones that tell you that putting pen to paper without knowing what will come of it is pointless or worthless. To do it occasionally is almost impossible.

It’s hard to admit how many years I’ve spent trying not to be like my mother, trying not to let an urge to create pickle in frustration. After I had a child, it was hard to find out that, I, like my own mother, felt I had to purchase the right to create by doing something useful. Much as I enjoyed the canning itself, I wanted the approval of my dead ancestors. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I could give my grandmothers and great-grandmothers a bright quart jar of peaches I’d put up and an essay I’d published, I know which one they’d be proud of.

When I started to can peaches and tomatoes, I was grabbing at anything that would restore a sense of self as someone other than a nursing, soothing, rocking mother. A hobby I could pick up the instant my son went to sleep.

It was surprising to discover I liked it. Now, when I turn down a social invitation in late August because I’ve got a box of tomatoes to put up, I do it because for the last two months I’ve been looking forward to skinning and bottling those just-ripened San Marzano tomatoes. The sight of those jars standing in ranks in our cool basement is immensely satisfying. It makes me feel … well, competent. And achieving those jars—the canning process itself—has a soothing rhythm that quiets all the tense, trivial thoughts I tend to obsess over during the day.

I know that my passion for canning is often a stand-in for something more. Sometimes I’m sweating over a boiling pot of blueberry-lime jam because I badly want to be sitting somewhere else with a notebook in hand. I’m reminded of my mother then. The difference is, I can change that feeling, acknowledge that there doesn’t have to be one predominant self—whether mother, writer, or competent frontier-woman—to feel whole. Canning, which began as an escape, has simply become part of the ebb and flow of who I am.

*   *   *

I put a lid over the stockpot of peaches, switch off the baby monitor. The kitchen is awash in canning detritus: a pot of cooling sugar syrup, three sticky knives, a dripping cutting board, the wide-mouth funnel and jar lifter, the dishwasher full of clean, hot quart Mason jars, the flies around the bowl of skin and pits, fruit flies still feasting on the box of uncut fruit. Peach juice everyfuckingwhere. I wash my hands and forearms where the fruit dripped. I step barefoot into an unseen puddle and wash that, too. Then I take a deep breath and look around the kitchen, preparing to shift mentally, if regretfully, from the time that is mine to the time that is ours.

Up in his bedroom, my son is facing away from me, and my heart turns over as I see how big he’s gotten, how vigorously he’s using the lungs that began life so tentatively. I pick him up and hold him against me until he snuffles and his crying slows. This year he might be able to eat those canned peaches. I won’t. All I need is to skin them, pack them in jars, dance through the kitchen, making my own little thing, over and over and over.

My mother’s lesson is now a lifeline: It’s the sealing in of self, hoping to get reacquainted with me later, when the diapers are done and the school bus has stopped coming by and rides aren’t needed to sports events or music lessons. When everyone can wipe his or her own bottom. When the babies are finally in college, on their own, busy with jobs and lives. Then, maybe, I can pop open the sealed lid of that jar and taste the self again.

Author’s Note: This is written with gratitude to my mother, for being who she is, and a request for the dilled beans recipe, please.

My older sister commented that this essay made her sad because my life with young children sounded so insufficiently rewarding. This got us discussing women (like me) who struggle with their sense of self after having children, and those (like her) who are generally happy with the balance they achieve, and why. When she said of herself, “[Maybe] it’s natural for me to err on the side of self-indulgence,” I thought her word choice said mountains about how easily mothers still judge themselves for meeting their own needs.

Our son is now three. Our daughter was born a year ago. She was nine days late, and we spent those tedious nights making more than a hundred jars of jam. We still have most of them.

Antonia Malchik’s essays have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Walrus, and the Jabberwock Review, among many other publications, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in upstate New York and can be reached through antoniamalchik.com. 

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

The Demons of Time Management

The Demons of Time Management

By M.M. Devoe

Messy BoyI know I’m not the only mom out there with a boy who can’t remember to bring his homework home, but sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who can’t figure out what to do about it.

I have tried everything: begging, rewards, threats, charts, teacher intervention…everything. My son still regularly comes home, tells me he has reading homework, and then discovers he has left the book at school. Or at piano lessons. Or worse: he has no idea where. He always looks overwhelmed and surprised.

At least three times a week.

So I attended a two-day, ludicrously expensive organizational skills workshop for middle-school kids. It was lousy. They gave no practical advice at all, but they did make up some really long, pointless, and impossible-to-recall names for “creatures”—the voices in your head that keep you from being organized. I had to rephrase everything I learned in a coherent way before I could even understand it. And now I understand it. We are possessed by demons.

So let me save you all $700.

There are four ways kids get in trouble over homework:

The Memory Demon says, “You can remember this; don’t bother writing it down.”

The Clutter Demon says, “You don’t have time for filing and organizing right now; do it later.”

The Gamer Demon says, “You have plenty of time to do both; so do the fun thing first.”

The Time Demon says, “You don’t need to plan; you’ll just do it.”

Apparently, kids like my son have real issues with organization because the voices in their heads are so confident. Demons! Demons! Constantly telling them those lines. So the Memory Demon whispers and my son doesn’t use his planner, doesn’t write down assignments because he’s positive he can remember the first assignment, maybe he’s even excited about it; then the second one comes, and when the third is assigned, there just doesn’t seem time to write it all down, but that’s ok, he knows he’s got three assignments….

“I’ve got three assignments,” he brightly announces after school, slamming an empty backpack on the floor.

“What are they?”

“Uh…” His eyes dart wildly, “History, I think?”

Then the Clutter Demon speaks and he won’t store or transfer papers to the proper place because he figures he’ll do it just a bit later, same reason he doesn’t organize or put away important items in their proper places.

“Hey, Mom,” he shouts across the house, “You have to sign this permission slip!”

“Stop shouting across the house. Just bring it to me.”

“I didn’t want it to get crushed, so I didn’t put it in my backpack. There’s a smushed banana in there.”

“So where’s the slip?”

“What? It’s … I don’t know. Somewhere. I might have left it in the gym.”

Next, the Gamer Demon takes charge: “I don’t have much homework, I’m going to play Minecraft for a while.”

Four hours later …”Are you still up? It’s 10:00!”

“But I’m doing homework!”

Kids do not know anything about time estimation, have no concept of how long something might take, and can’t stop in the middle of a fun activity to take on a really dreary one.

The Time Demon runs it all: kids have no idea how to break down tasks into steps and plan what they need for each step. To them, an assignment to read a book is going to take the same amount of time as a science fair project or a math worksheet. Actually, the worksheet is probably shorter, so they can play a video game first.

See how the demons work?

All of this is normal. These are skills that need to be taught … it’s not instinctive. Some people never learn it for themselves—how many adults stay up late reading a good book and are surprised when it’s suddenly four in the morning? (Guilty!) Who knows a good guy who swears he will take on the short job list … as soon as he watches the game? How many of us run out to the store without a list because it’s just three items—and come back without one of them? Sound familiar? It’s just demons.

I’ll leave you with one piece of practical advice that another mom told me: replace the standard three-ring binder with a tabbed accordion folder with an attached cover flap. Active kids like my son tend to tear papers and then they get lost because what normal mom has those little hole reinforcers on hand, or time to put them on? Our kids want to get it right—and sometimes it’s just about handing them the right tools.

But how do I conquer the Clutter Demon? The workshop said I must teach my son to organize better.

Oh, gee. Thanks.

M.M. Devoe is a NYC-based author whose fiction has won or been shortlisted for 23 literary prizes. She is anthologized alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Pen Parentis and is a Columbia University Writing Fellow and MFA. Find her at www.mmdevoe.com and Twitter @mmdevoe.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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

Fiction: Tenley’s Apology

Fiction: Tenley’s Apology

By Marie Anderson

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 9.45.04 AMMary is searching in the fridge for an unblemished apple for her daughter when she hears Tenley scream from upstairs. Mary sighs, finds a perfect apple, and drops it into Tenley’s lunch bag. “Mother!” Tenley shouts. “Come here! Hurry!”

Mary looks at the clock on the microwave. Her heart sinks. In thirty minutes, Tenley must leave for school. Already this morning, her fifteen-year-old daughter has had two crises. What new problem looms?

Menstrual cramps? A forgotten homework assignment absolutely due today? What problem might Tenley manufacture to avoid going to school? If she misses one more day this semester, they’ll have to get a doctor’s note to confirm illness. The school allows only seven parent-requested absences each semester.

*   *   *

Earlier this morning, Tenley had complained of swollen eyelids.

“Hot or cold cloths on eyes?” she’d asked Mary.

Tenley, slim and beautiful in just a tee shirt and shorts, was standing in front of the big mirror hanging in the hallway outside her bedroom.

Mary remembered how she and her husband had carefully carted the mirror home from T. J. Maxx, hung it, and then had fun in front of it. Sixteen years ago, when Mary was still young (thirty-six) and arrogantly confident. The mirror had witnessed Tenley’s beginning.

Mary stood next to her only child, gazed at their side-by-side reflections in the mirror. She saw the wrinkles and graying hair that she usually didn’t notice. The glow from Tenley’s smooth young body was a brutal spotlight.

“I don’t know what’s better for swollen eyelids,” Mary said, “but your eyelids look fine.”

“They’re not fine! Look at them! I can’t go to school looking like this! I hardly slept again last night. I’ve got insomnia, but you don’t care. I’ve been asking you and asking you to make a doctor’s appointment for me. I can’t sleep! I wake up tired! I need pills!”

“Your eyelids look fine,” Mary insisted. “But I’ll Google to find out if you should use hot or cold on them.”

“And I need a private tutor for ACT prep like all my friends have!”

“You don’t need a private tutor for the ACT. Have you even opened that book of practice tests I got you last month? Plus you’re signed up for those after-school prep classes your school offers for free. That starts soon, next month I think.”

“I have insomnia! You don’t care!”

In the mirror, their reflections scowled at each other.

“Have you turned off your laptop and cell phone at night like your dad and I told you to? Are you texting or Facebooking when you should be sleeping?”

Tenley marched to the bathroom. Mary followed. Tenley slammed the door in Mary’s face. “You don’t know anything,” Mary heard Tenley mutter. “What good are you.”

And then, most awful, “Old lady, you are such a be-yotch.”

Mary sighed and returned to the kitchen to make a deli sandwich for Tenley’s lunch. “Old lady,” she muttered. “Nothing wrong with being a fifty-two-year old lady.”

She resolved to battle if her daughter wanted to stay home from school today because of the imaginary swollen eyelids.

But the other battles could be postponed. She opened a drawer at the kitchen desk, took out her to-do list.

There were three items still active on her list.

P-$, code for pay bills.

Sch Col. That item, schedule colonoscopy, had been on her list since her fifthieth birthday two years ago.

Ph-M. She grabbed a pen and crossed that item off. She’d phoned her mother yes- terday, left a message on her answering machine. That counted, Mary decided.

Underneath Ph-M, Mary wrote: Dwt, DoA, code for Discuss w/Tenley, the dignity of aging.

That would have to happen at a more peaceful moment. There was a lot Mary could tell her daughter about why aging should be honored. Why were their only good conversations the ones that took place in Mary’s imagination?

She added a final item to the list. GTA. Get Tenley’s Apology. She resolved to make her daughter apologize for calling her a be-yotch. But after school, not before. Best to avoid before-school drama.

“Mother!” Tenley yells again. “Where are you?”

Mary pours herself another cup of coffee, takes two sips, longingly eyes the two newspapers waiting for her on the kitchen table. Maybe, Mary decides, she’ll just ignore this latest mom-shout. Maybe Tenley’s cell phone will warble a text from a friend and that’ll distract her daughter from whatever the current problem is.

“Muhhhhther!” A screech.

“Tenley!” Mary screams. “What’s the problem!” She slams down her coffee mug, feels the strain on her throat. Screams had ripped her throat during labor fifteen years ago. She’d had no voice for the first four days of Tenley’s life. Was important bonding lost because she couldn’t murmur love or sing lullabies during Tenley’s first days of life?

Mary gets along great with the children who swarm around her at the library where she works as head of the library’s youth programs. They draw pictures for her, tell her long, involved stories about squabbles with friends or triumphs on the soccer fields and sometimes heartbreakers about sick siblings or divorcing parents.

She’d said as much to Tenley during one of their fights, how the library kids like her, talk to her.

“Well,” Tenley had replied, “they don’t have to live with you.”

*   *   *

Tenley’s next shout has nothing to do with illness or angst.

“There’s a dead mouse in my room!”

Mary smiles, relieved. Not a Tenley crisis. Just a dead mouse. Taco must have caught and killed the mouse.

Taco is their fat white cat who prefers Tenley over Mary, though it’s Mary who feeds Taco every morning. It’s Mary who tends to Taco before the coffee is brewed, before the newspapers are fetched from the curb, before the husband is kissed goodbye. It’s Mary who kneels daily before the litter tray.

Taco has apparently caught a mouse, chewed it to death, and deposited the prize in Tenley’s room.

Somewhere Mary remembers learning that a cat considers it a sign of respect when it offers its kill to another. Mary feels a bit resentful that Taco hasn’t deposited the dead mouse in her own bedroom.

From the kitchen, Mary shouts, “pick up the mouse and throw it out!”

From upstairs, Tenley shouts back, “are you kidding me? You do it! It’s too gross!”

“It’s too gross for me, too!”

“You’re the adult!”

Mary rolls her eyes, sighs. As she gathers plastic gloves, a plastic bag, and paper towels, she mumbles all the adult claims Tenley frequently makes.

“I’m almost sixteen! My curfew should be midnight!”

“Stop checking my grades on Edline. School is my business, not yours! I’m old enough to take care of school without you getting so involved. You and Dad are such obsessive helicopter parents!”

“You don’t trust me!”

“I can wear what I want!”

“Why can’t I see R-rated movies with my friends?”

“Everybody in high school drinks. Everybody. You and Dad are the only parents so weird about it. That’s why I never have my friends over…As soon as I turn eighteen, I’m moving out!”

Mary marches upstairs to Tenley’s room.

Her daughter has fled the room. “Ten-ley?” Mary shouts.

From the bathroom, Tenley shouts back. “Tell me when it’s gone!”

Mouse is supine on the carpet by the bed.

Thank you, Lord, Mary thinks. Thank you that mouse is not on the bed, not on the $300 white down-filled comforter from Macy’s which Mary knows Tenley would no longer be able to use if it had been contaminated by dead mouse.

Four tiny legs spike from the mouse’s body, as though it were trying to swim away from death. Its torn belly is a red lumpy mess, like Mary imagines her own belly must have looked after the unplanned C-section that released her daughter into the world after thirteen hours of hard labor had failed.

“Just get it out!” Mary had begged.

Wisely, mouse has closed its eyes to the mess, like Mary closed her own eyes when the squalling frightening slimy creature was placed near her breast, just for a few moments for that all-important bonding.

The mouse’s whiskers, delicate white silk, droop gracefully. Its tail is curled into the shape of a question mark.

How did that squalling frightening slimy creature turn so quickly into a beautiful young girl?

How could such a beautiful young girl be so brutally contemptuous toward her parents, to the two people who love her most?

Except often Mary feels no love for her daughter. Fatigue when she was a baby, boredom when she was a toddler, and now, now when she’s a teen, a simmering soup of anger, bewilderment, frustration, impotence.

She’d been a surprise. Mary had not wanted children. Too risky. Bad genes. Both her parents were alcoholics. Her husband had reluctantly agreed they’d remain child-free.

But accidents happen.

Mary holds her breath, grabs the mouse with a gloved hand, drops it light as nothing into the plastic bag. She hurries downstairs, outside, and throws it into the garbage bin by the garage.

Back in the kitchen she squirts anti-bacterial soap on her hands and scrubs them under the hottest tap water she can tolerate.

She returns to Tenley’s room and sprays carpet cleaner on the spot where the mouse had been, though nothing visible stains the beige carpet.

Ten minutes later, back in the kitchen, Mary hears Tenley telling her two girlfriends about the mouse. The three teenagers sit around the kitchen table, eating cereal. The girls walk together to school every morning.

“You picked it up?”

“Mais non! C’était la mère qui a touche la souris!” Tenley says in French.

Mary decides not to feel hurt that Tenley said “it was the mother who touched the mouse,” instead of “it was my mother who touched the mouse.”

All three girls take French. When Tenley was in fourth grade and still sought Mary’s opinions, she told Mary she had a big problem. The grade school was offering foreign language instruction during lunch twice a week. “Everyone wants to take Spanish,” Tenley had said. “They’ll have to do a lottery. I probably won’t get into Spanish. I need to get into Spanish, Mama!”

“Well,” Mary had replied. “I minored in French in college. French is cool because in upscale French restaurants you’ll be able to impress everybody when you order in French. Plus, Paris visits are so much better when you can speak the language.”

Later, Mary was driving her fourth grade daughter and a minivan full of girl scouts home from a meeting. Behind the wheel, Mary was invisible the way chauffeur-parents are. The girls talked freely. Tenley explained to her Girl Scout friends why she was signing up for lunchtime French instead of Spanish.

Mary’s reasons had become Tenley’s. The next day, so many fourth graders signed up for lunchtime French, the school had to use a lottery to see who could get into the sessions. That was the first time Mary realized how much influence Tenley had over her peers. And how much influence Mary herself could wield.

Until it stopped.

*   *   *

“Tell them, Mom,” Tenley says. “Tell them about the mouse.”

For the next several minutes, Mary has the three teens’ attention as she describes the ordeal of the dead mouse.

She makes it funny, scary, gross. The girls laugh and groan. “Bravo, Mama!” Tenley exclaims.

A warm glow heats Mary’s belly.

For a few minutes, the dead little mouse is making things right, is restoring the proper balance.

Daughter is loving child.

Mother is respected adult. Mouse is martyr.

Taco appears, mewling. “Taco!” Tenley shouts. “Come to us, Butcher Boy! My friends want to smell your mouse breath!”

The friends shriek their protests.

Taco ignores the teens. He stays by Mary. He rubs his fat white head against Mary’s legs.

The friends head for the front door. Tenley doesn’t follow them. She kneels and pets Taco, still rubbing himself against Mary’s legs.

Tenley looks up at Mary. “What’s for supper, Mama?”

Instead of saying baked tilapia, which is what Mary had planned and which she knows Tenley doesn’t much like, Mary hears herself offering, “How about spaghetti and meatballs?” (Which she knows Tenley loves.)

“Bruschetta, too?” Tenley asks.

Mary hesitates. That’ll mean a trip to the grocery store on her lunch hour to get the tomatoes, garlic, lemon, basil, bread.

As if reading her mind, Tenley says, “I can pick up the ingredients after school.”

“Okay,” Mary says. “Will you help me make it?”

Tenley stands. “Okay,” she says. She heads to the front door where her friends are waiting.

“Have a good day,” Mary shouts.

“Thanks, you too, Mom!” Tenley shouts back.

The girls leave. Mary goes to the kitchen desk, removes her to-do list. She looks at the last item. GTA. Get Tenley’s Apology.

She crosses it off.

Marie Anderson is a married mother of three in La Grange, Illinois. Her short stories and essays have been published in dozens of magazines and periodicals.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Labor Pains

Labor Pains

By Sharon K. Trumpy

appleIn retrospect, I got a little out of control with the idea. Okay, a lot out of control. It’s like this. Have you ever bought a label-maker? You thought you’d label those bins of seasonal clothing in the basement. Pants, 2T. But soon you’re labeling everything. Light switches, kitchen cabinets, canisters of flour. Suddenly labeling seems like the answer to everything.

That’s how it was for Me on Day Six. I’d been tinkering with reproduction since Day Three, when I’d created the seed-bearing plant. But by Day Six, I was tired. When I got to the rabbit, I was just looking for a shortcut. Internal sexual reproduction seemed like the answer. “I can spend eternity creating rabbits,” I thought, “or create a self- perpetuating rabbit and take a day off, like, TOMORROW.”

Easy choice. And when I saw how successful the technique was—the rabbits took to it right away—I started using it on every animal. When I got to man, I was drunk with success. “You know what you need?” I said to him, “A woman. Made in My own likeness.”

Oh, you thought Adam was made in My own likeness? Probably because of the “God the Father” thing. It’s my pen name. I’m no fool—male authors sell more books.

So I made Eve, put ’em both in the Garden, and took a day of rest. Which I’d need, since the humans turned out to cause Me many a sleepless night.

I was proud of them. But they were also … challenging. Spirited. Spunky. No. They were self-absorbed, demanding, and unappreciative. I’d spent half of creation making edibles, apparently for nothing. “Ewww, what’s that green thing?” whined Adam.

“It’s a pear,” I answered.

“I don’t like pears.” Same for peaches, strawberries, peppers, mushrooms. Didn’t taste them, just insisted he didn’t like them.

“Fine then,” I replied, “I guess you’ll be hungry.”

Eve, however, tried everything. A bite of banana, a nibble of walnut. She actually licked a lettuce leaf and dropped it, uneaten, to grab a nearby pineapple. I tried being nice. “Sweetie, you need to finish that lettuce before you …”

“Yuck!” She spit out a mouthful of the pineapple’s prickly outer skin and headed for the apple tree.

“Hold up!” I said, “You can’t eat that one.” Eve gave me a smirk and reached for an apple. “If you eat it, you’ll … die.”

“I’ll DIE?” she gasped. “For real?”

“Uh, yeah,” I replied. “You can eat anything except that because … you’ll die.”

Oh, don’t act so shocked. Remember when your three-year-old threw a tantrum in the grocery store and you hissed that he’d never get ice cream again? You thought no one heard you. But I did.

That’s how I felt when Eve reached for the apple. I couldn’t let her mess up that tree because, well, this is embarrassing, but I was thinking of testing a prototype—apple trees that reproduce like animals. Not exactly like animals but I don’t want to get into details. Trade secrets. Plus, tree penis talk is not for the faint of heart.

Point being, Eve knew not to eat the apples. When I found her hiding with Adam, I knew the score immediately. I was fuming, but I acted casual, like you might when you spot your potty-training toddler straining and red-faced behind the living room sofa. You know what she’s up to but you’re like, “Hey kiddo, whatcha doing back there?” That was Me. “Hey, Adam. Hey, Eve. Whatcha doing behind the boxwood shrub?”

Adam cracked on the spot, “We ate the apples!” he sobbed. “We did! I wasn’t going to—they looked gross—but Eve made me!”

Eve was like, “It was the serpent!” Well, Eve may have been born yesterday, but I wasn’t.

I probably should have scrapped the whole human race at that point—it would have saved Me the trouble of that flood—but I was too angry to see straight. I’m ashamed to admit it, but Eve’s punishment was payback. Honest to Me, eye-for-an-eye sort of stuff. Eve had left Me so stressed out that instead of experimenting with sexual reproduction, I started experimenting with narcotics. And I was going to make sure that sexual reproduction left her wishing for some pain relief too.

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

Photo: canstock.com

Raising Private Milo

Raising Private Milo

By Andrea Lani

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 2.07.33 PMMilo emerges from the basement, dressed in full camouflage regalia: knee-length jungle camo shorts, held up with a tan fake-leather belt, long-sleeved jungle camo T-shirt, olive and green camo cap, with plastic mesh back and John Deere logo over the stiff brim. On his feet he wears cobalt-blue knee-high mud boots—Christopher Robin meets G.I. Joe. Over his shoulder he has slung a green Army surplus bag. His steps are accompanied by the tinny music of his survival kits—Altoids tins stuffed with a cork and fishhook, needle and thread, Band-Aids and alcohol swabs, and other emergency items—rattling in his pockets. In one hand he carries a long stick, curved at one end into a vaguely rifle shape, in the other a longer stick with a small American flag taped to the end.

He heads toward his fort. Milo has claimed for his own the space under our playhouse, which opens onto our deck and sits several feet up off the ground on posts. He’s dug a network of tunnels and foxholes roofed in bark and giant rhubarb leaves for his plastic Green Beret action figure to inhabit.

The military has become eight-year-old Milo’s latest obsession. With his own money he bought the Eyewitness Soldier book at his school’s book fair, he checks out endless volumes on both World Wars from the library, he fills notebooks with ballpoint-pen drawings of fighter planes and jets engaged in combat, he dresses in his military get-up almost daily, and for his last birthday he had two friends over after school, also dressed in camo, to eat Army beans straight from the can and a shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried military-issue meal that included a self-heating rectangle of “turkey” and pouches of pudding, coffee, and orange drink provided by one of the friends, whose dad is in the Air Force.

At my core, I am a pacifist. During the Persian Gulf War, as editor of my high school newspaper, I polled students on their response to the war. I wrote a dispassionate article, but in my heart I sided with the rag-tag group of kids assembled in the commons carrying protest signs. During the early days of our current war in Iraq, I stood one vigil with Women in Black, and while I found the experience at times moving and uplifting (as well as freezing cold and boring), I never felt compelled to go back. While I might have once imagined myself carrying small children to peace rallies, the reality of mothering hasn’t allowed me much time or energy for taking on the military-industrial complex. But watching my son dressed as a mini-Marine gives my heart pause.

Milo first showed an interest in weaponry when, at one-and-a-half, he connected a square Duplo to the bottom of a rectangular Duplo, pointed at me and fired. Any veteran parent could have told me I reacted in exactly the wrong way if I wanted to discourage gun play: I freaked out, which of course delighted and encouraged him. Every remotely L-shaped stick or toy became a gun in my preschooler’s hands. (I took some comfort, and felt not a little bit smug, that Milo never bit his toast into a gun shape as I had heard other boys did, but his younger brother disillusioned me when, at the age of three, he shot me with part of a grilled cheese sandwich). By the time Milo was four he had assembled a regular arsenal from crayons and pencils taped together into pistol formations. At this point I threw up my hands in defeat: I was at once exasperated with his gun-focus, annoyed with the waste of perfectly good art supplies, and impressed with his ingenuity.

Before I had children, I thought my own gun policy would be simple to enforce: I would not buy gun toys. But here I had a child, barely more than a baby, who perhaps had seen another child build a Lego gun, or had seen a movie with a gun at daycare and decided to build his own or, for all I know, had the blueprint for weapon-making encoded in his DNA. As much as I don’t want to believe that violence (or violent play—there is a difference) is what naturally makes a boy a boy, six-and-a-half years and two more boys later, I have a hard time believing it’s not.

As I slowly began to accept the inevitability of Milo’s gun creation and play, I would try to talk to him about the complexity of issues around killing and war. When I told him that killing is wrong, he would tell me that he only kills “bad guys,” and I would try to explain to him that even bad guys have mothers who love them and would be very, very sad if their son got killed. The discussions did not seem to penetrate very deeply—there is something about that age that needs the certainty of a binary world. With everyone from Disney to the then- president dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” I could hardly expect more sophisticated reasoning from my preschooler.

When Milo was three, he asked me on the way home from daycare one day, “Is the Army bad?”

After pausing a moment to weigh the many horrific war-related stories I had just heard on the radio against a petition I had signed that morning urging the U.S. military to intervene in the Sudan, I responded with a tentative, “No.”

“Papa said it is,” Milo replied, alerting me to the fact that I’d been set up with a trick question.

“Well the army sometimes does bad things [invade countries under false pretenses] and sometimes does good things [prevent genocide],” I said. Peacekeeping good, warmongering bad. “And some people in the army do good things, and some do bad things. And sometimes people in the army do bad things because they have no choice because bad people told them to do it.”

At this point I had sufficiently confused him (and myself) to change the subject, but the question lingers five years later. When Milo asks which side of a particular war were the bad guys, I explain to him that each side believes itself to be in the right and the other side to be in the wrong. Even in wars generally considered to be justified—such as the Civil War or World War II—unspeakable atrocities were committed by both sides, and innocents on both sides were slaughtered.

Of course this is much more than I wanted to lay on a three-year-old, and even now, at eight, he seems too young and innocent to comprehend the true human cost of war. What I believe, and what I try to get across to Milo, is that the bad guys in war are generally the guys who run the government—on both sides. The people in power in one country want something from the people in power in another country, but the people with no power at all—the civilians in the line of fire, the enlisted and conscripted men and women—are forced to fight the war, suffer death, injury or a lifetime of psychological trauma, often for reasons they are not privy to, and for a gain they will never experience personally. I realized I had perhaps gone too far in blurring the distinction between good and bad when I overheard him telling his brothers that the Americans are the bad guys during this particular war, and then again later, when he asked me to make him a German World War II uniform.

*   *   *

Milo is not a violent child. He has not struck anyone (other than his brothers) since he outgrew the impulsive toddler years. While I can’t say he wouldn’t hurt a fly (he chases after any fly that enters the house with a flyswatter in hopes of earning ten cents from his father), he protests loudly if I squash an ant (“how would you feel if a big giant stomped on you?”) or flush a tick down the toilet (“Just let it go outside, Mom! Everything has a right to live.”). When he plays war, he assures me that he doesn’t like real war, just pretend war (including his favorite game with his friend, “Kid War,” in which kids fight the Nazis. Just the phrase brings sickening images of child soldiers in Burma or Sierra Leone to my mind).

I’ve had to try—not always successfully—to balance my desire to shelter my son from all of the horrors in the world, and a competing desire to convince him that war is not glamorous. After his request for the Nazi uniform, I subjected him to a two-minute synopsis of the Holocaust that left him burrowed in the couch cushions, sobbing. Last winter, our neighbor lent Milo a series of videos called Dog Fights, documentary footage and computer-generated reenactments of air battles during World War II. The narrator spoke blandly about American planes being “lost” or “taking” Japanese planes. There was no clear connection between each lost or taken plane and the deaths of the young men flying those planes. The books he was reading on World War I also lacked a human element, reciting facts and events as if they had no impact on real people. Looking back at the history books from my own school years, I recall very little compassion and value of human life; I want more than this for my son.

Tired of being asked questions on every element of a soldier’s life, I suggested that Milo write a letter to my dad, who served in the Army in the late 1960s. He was stationed in Germany where he worked as a radio systems operator. When offered big incentives to go to Vietnam, he declined. Milo wrote, “Dear Grandpoppy, I would like to know about your Military training & Tactics. And what did you have to put in the pockets on your uniform? What kinds of food did you have in your M.R.E.’s (Meal Ready to Eat)? Did you have fun in your training? What colors did you wear for camouflage? What rank in the Army were you going to be? Love, Milo.”

My father wrote back, telling him that during training he could only carry his ID card, a notebook and pencil in his pockets, but later on he could carry anything he wanted. Instead of MRE’s, they had “C” rations, canned food that was very heavy and they could only fit two days’ worth in their packs. They didn’t wear camouflage but put small branches and twigs into nets on their helmets. “Some other parts of the training,” he wrote, “were learning to shoot rifles and machine guns which was a lot of fun.”

My dad assures me that all boys play army—himself included, inspired by John Wayne movies—and, despite having no interest in hunting, as a child he had BB guns, .22’s, a .30-30 rifle and a shotgun. Even my husband, Curry, who drives a Volvo plastered with anti-war bumper stickers, claims he was just like Milo when he was a kid—smart, focused, and dressed in full camouflage, toting all manner of toy guns.

*   *   *

This spring Milo picked up several brochures from the nearby Army recruiting center from a display at a local pizza place. He squirreled the brochures away in the playhouse, where he would lie on the bench for hours reading and memorizing the slogans and statements. I tried to leave him in peace, but one day I spirited the brochures away to the bottom of the recycling bin.

Unfortunately, I can’t spirit away his obsession as easily as a few brochures. Last week, Milo came home from a few days spent with his great aunt wearing a black hat with the gold letters “Go Army” emblazoned on it. “Where’d you get that hat?” I asked casually.

“At the Army recruiting store. It’s next to the Big K-Mart,” Milo said. “They had Army, Marine Corps [he pronounced it “corpse”], Navy and Air Force. We only got to Army and Marines.” While this aunt is known for overstepping boundaries—Milo also came home with a haircut and a book of Bible stories—I’m sure Milo saw the Army sign at the strip mall and coaxed her into taking him. The hat was just part of a pile of military swag—backpack, T-shirt, mouse pad, DVD, bracelet, lanyard, water bottle, booklets and brochures—that the recruiters gave to my eight-year-old son. He had also seen part of The Bridge on the River Kwai at her house and came home whistling the tune the British prisoners of war whistled in the movie (better known to me as the tune to “Comet, it makes your face turn green!”) and has been whistling it ever since.

Curry has always been much more relaxed about the whole gun play thing than I am and even bought Milo his first “Junior G.I.” camouflage outfit for Christmas when he was five. But that night at dinner, disgusted with the promotional items, Curry said to Milo, “I don’t want people talking my son into going to some war where he’s going to get killed.” Milo’s face did that thing he does when he wants to avoid crying—his lips pressed together as his chin pulled down, tugging at the skin under his eyes.

Of course, chances are that in a matter of months, Milo’s military fascination will have gone the way of his other interests. He doesn’t give tractors a second glance anymore, his Pokemon cards are gathering dust in his closet, he deposited his crisp, highly valued fifty dollar bill into his bank account, and his extensive gem and mineral collection has been evicted from his lock box in favor of his military accoutrements. My brother is convinced that by high school Milo will have a ponytail like his dad and wear tie-dyed shirts and Birkenstocks. I’m not so sure. He’s got enough Alex P. Keaton in him to head in the opposite direction of his organic gardening, solar-home parents. Whether that direction points toward investment banker, diamond miner, or Navy Seal remains to be seen.

*   *   *

Today, we are at a birthday party at our friends’ house. A pack of kids runs wild on the lawn between the farmhouse where my friend’s in-laws live and the barn where our friends reside while they build their own house—a structure they will mold by hand from earth and timbers—across the road. Most of the guests are families that home school with our friends, some of whom I knew from La Leche League when Milo was a baby but lost touch with when I went back to work. Milo is dressed in his requisite camouflage shorts and Go Army hat. I hope the leopard frog T-shirt he’s wearing, from a local company that prints nature scenes with soy inks on unbleached cotton shirts, redeems me a little bit.

I encourage Milo to go play with the other kids—girls in hand-me-down party dresses and boys he hasn’t seen since he was a nursling—but he is more interested in a skinny guy with a Mohawk who is describing various elements of military-style physical training. Although he is about the right age, I don’t think he is actually in the military, and I wish he would go away. Milo sits in rapt attention, demonstrating his own version of push-ups and military press with his sinewy arms. Then I notice another boy has joined the audience, also entranced. I feel somewhat relieved that it’s not just my son, and I stop paying attention to what the guy is saying.

After a while I see Milo run off with the other boys to kick a ball around the yard and disappear into the barn. For a moment I see him for who he really is, not Private Milo, but an eight-year-old boy.

For now I have made an uneasy truce with Milo’s military fascination. I still die a little inside when I envision him marching off to war, but secretly swell with pride when he builds a tank out of cardboard or sews his own army pouches. When it comes time to sign his selective service card ten years from now, I’m sure Milo will have gone through a dozen other obsessions and I still will not have fully made peace with the thought of the Army taking my boy away.

Author’s Note: I can’t decide if my role as Milo’s parent is to support him in becoming his authentic self or to guide him in the direction I want him to go. My instinct tells me it’s the former, but when that authentic self makes me uncomfortable, I’m less confident in my conviction. I’m still not sure if in acquiescing to Milo’s military passion I am enabling him to be his true self, or if I have turned my back on my own values. Right now I try to remain neutral on his military interest, while at the same time exposing him to the kinds of activities I’d like to see him pursue: art, nature, science, literature. Shamefully, I sometimes use his interest to my advantage; when he fights with his brothers over their armrests in the car, I’ll say “Soldiers don’t need armrests; they’re tough,” or if he complains that the pool is cold, “Do you think Marines care how cold the water is?” I can barely believe what comes out of my mouth.

Andrea Lani lives in Whitefield, Maine, with her husband and three sons. Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, vox poetica, and The Motherhood Muse. She produces the print zine Gemini and blogs at remainsofday.blogspot.com.

Brain, Child (Spring 2010)

Nursing Porn

Nursing Porn

By Sara Levine

nursingpornIt came in the mail, unrequested, and it was called Nurse-a-rama (not it’s real name). On the cover was a woman in a mandarin collar blouse smiling down at her nursing baby, who was very pretty and reminded me of mine.

“Look,” I said to my husband. “This cover baby’s a lot like Sally!” No sooner had I made this claim than I realized that the baby’s face wasn’t visible in the photograph. What I was looking at was a Caucasian baby in the cradle hold, her face averted. The baby had no visible gender, very little hair, chunky arms and legs. One fat hand clutched the mother’s mandarin-collared top, a style I might enjoy, according to the catalogue, all summer long. I was about to correct myself when my husband said, “Oh my god! She totally does.”

That should have been the first sign that I was baby mad and baby worn. And that my husband was in no position to check me.

This story takes place three weeks after my baby was born. At that point, I had no designs on a new wardrobe, which is what the catalogue was hawking. I was reading Nurse-a-rama for the pictures: page after page of big beautiful babies lounging on their mothers’ breasts.

I didn’t immediately think about the draw here, didn’t analyze why this shook my maracas. Not because I didn’t want to know, but because of the way my headspace, formerly a great sprawling park, had shrunk to the size of a parking spot. With so much mental energy focused on the survival of a small, helpless, wriggly person, who had time for reflection? I chose to thumb through the pages of the Nurse-a-rama catalogue instead.

I said I was looking for a nightgown, but I was lying to myself, and I knew it even then.

Nurse-a-rama nightgowns come in three different styles and two different colors. But the babies come in more styles and colors. Sally had been nursing for only five minutes when I snagged on a plump page-seven brown-skinned baby with curly dark hair. Boy, he looked like a lot of fun to nurse! I imagined running my hand over his little t-shirted body, ruffling those curls.

That was the first infidelity.

There was also a redhead, much older than Sally, nursing under a tree. A pale Irish kid, who had to be pushing two, twizzling his mother in a hammock. And a girl with shiny black bangs, lolling with her mother in a field of wheat.

By the time Sally burped, I had nursed a bevy of babies—in the café, in the mountains, in the forest. I, who hadn’t set foot out of the house in days, was nursing babies off the Kiani coast. A newborn baby needs to eat often, at least every three hours. I kept the catalogue around, and soon enough it got to be a habit. I’d sit down to nurse Sally and instead of paying attention to the weight of her body or the smell of her hair, I would get lost in fantasies about what it would be like to nurse the Nurse-a-rama babies. Sally’s hand might tug gently at my shirt and Sally’s mouth might latch onto my breast, but in my mind, I was on a beach, wearing a Chantilly Lace Support Cami, nursing a stranger in a cloth diaper.

“Reading Nurse-a-rama again?” My husband asked. “No,” I said.

“I see it under the pillow. Look, there’s no shame in browsing. If you want some new clothes, just buy them.”

This was a man who, three weeks before, had watched his wife labor thirty-seven hours, had watched her push for three and a half hours, and had held her hand as she told a chain of residents from anesthesiology that the epidural wasn’t working. And I think it was because my husband had been attendant during this long and shocking labor—in which the baby clung to the uterine walls as if she were saying “You will have to dynamite me out”—that my husband urged me to buy those clothes, letting some cocktail of emotion (sympathy, gratitude, tenderness) trump fiscal sense. Our family didn’t have money for clothes, especially not specialized clothes with slits and flaps in them.

Besides, if I thought about it, I loathed the clothes in the Nurse-a-rama catalogue—shapeless, loosely cut, printed with hectic designs meant to masquerade milk stains. Sometimes I’d look at them, but in a perverse way. I’ve just had a baby; okay, how else can I ruin my looks? Should I go to a party wearing the day lily sundress with vertical flaps?

No, I didn’t want the clothes, and I didn’t want to nurse other people’s babies, either. The fantasy was good only as a fantasy. If my friend Bella had handed her son over to me and said, “Nurse him for a minute, will ya?” my milk would have dried up in terror on the spot. So what did I want with Nurse-a- rama? A view into a world, a completely artificial, slick, faked up, felt up, gorgeous breastfeeding world in which women nursed their babies as casually as they might, say, water a plant. Who cares if you slop a little water into the saucer or rustle the leaves with the spout of the watering can? I needed to see that kind of insouciance in action, even if it took nine supermodels, eight babies, seven photographers, and a six-day exotic-location shoot to concoct it. I needed to believe that breastfeeding could happen naturally because the message I’d gotten in the hospital was: You won’t know how to breastfeed unless we teach you how.

Or, as the Russian nurse who stood and glowered over me in the hospital bed said, “People zink they know how to do it! Does not “know how to do it! Need instruction.” And she was just the first nurse. A forty-eight-hour hospital stay meant that four different nurses showed me how to nurse my baby. Their techniques varied, though all shared the view that I was doing it wrong or not as well as I could. “You need to get the whole areola in her mouth!” “You need to sit up straight!” “Head higher than her body!” “Don’t do football hold, do cross cradle!” “Don’t do cross cradle, do football hold.” “Cross cradle too hard, do cradle, good for new mothers.” “Don’t let her hang on the nipple.” The first few hours after a new human being emerged from my body, I sat on a blood-soaked ice bag while experts pitched the baby at my breast and commented on my technique. Of course they meant to be helpful. “Don’t worry,” said the second nurse on the first day. (Had I been worrying?) “The lactation consultant is coming!”

Come she did. The queen of experts swept into my room and after a perfunctory “How are you?” embarked on a lecture on how breastfeeding is like eating a submarine sandwich. She showed me her profile and demonstrated how she would compress a sub to get it into her mouth. Then she rolled up her sleeves and made for my breast, which she compressed, while another nurse picked up Sally and led her into the latch. The three of us breastfed Sally, four if you count my husband, who got into the spirit of the thing and leaned over us, offering pointers.

“This isn’t working,” said the lactation consultant. “I’m concerned about your milk supply.” She whispered instructions to the nurse and departed with a brisk reminder that I could purchase her services in the future if I felt stuck. The room, once she had gone, sagged a little. Even the furniture seemed to have lost its luster. Sally and I were bad at breastfeeding! The nurse announced the lactation consultant’s plan for me: I would feed the baby formula through a little tube taped to my breast “to give her incentive,” and I would pump before and after every feeding because my milk supply was “in danger.”

“Get out of that hospital,” hissed my sister-in-law on the phone. It was way too early to assume my milk was in danger, she said. “Check out early! Go on!” This was good advice, but we were young and the labor had made us stupid. Did I say that when we’d checked into the hospital we’d given up our brains? They were in a little jar behind the reception desk; we’d get them back when we checked out. So we stuck around and fed Sally formula through a tube, though I still don’t understand why. When we left, I had seven pounds of baby in my arms and, in my head, a gnawing anxiety that I didn’t know how to feed my own child.

Once we were home, I nursed Sally around the clock, relieved to do so without the experts watching. If my husband offered a tip (“Belly to belly, remember?”) or my mother rearranged one of my thirteen pillows, I snarled like a wolfhound. Those pillows were extensions of my body and at the same time a mountain range that I had to build every time I sat down. (Why, to nurse a newborn, do you need so many pillows, all of which shift precariously in your lap, inspiring concern that your baby is going to tumble into the crevasse and suffocate, or else topple fontanel-first to the floor, an incident which you imagine having the consequences of the most ghastly alpine accident—Tony Danza skiing into a tree, let’s say, collapsing his lung, crushing his ribs, pulling his leg from his hip socket? Maybe only mothers with hardwood floors worry about this?)

Back home I was paranoid that I wasn’t feeding Sally right, and yet I was too stubborn to let anyone give me pointers. How would I know if this milk thing was working? The baby opened her mouth wide, her latch seemed adequate, her mouth never covered the areola, but sometimes, in my anxious probing, I’d yank her off too soon and milk would spill out of her mouth. Was that proof enough? No. Therefore the way we used to study books and newspapers, we began to study her diapers. Yellow crystals in the urine? Consistency of the bowel movement?

We made charts!

On top of it all, our pediatrician was a brassy, bouncy, back-whacking baby lover who, after Sally’s two-week weigh-in, called us late at night from her car phone. Typically doctors want your baby to have regained her birth weight by then, and our doctor, Dr. Brassy, was “concerned” that at two weeks, Sally weighed an ounce and a half less than she’d weighed when she was born.

“I don’t want to scare you,” said Dr. Brassy, “but we like to see babies weigh more than this so if they get sick, they have some fat reserves to draw on.” She asked me to feed the baby in the office so she could see what was going on. I assumed the cradle position and Sally began to eat; the doctor walked over and corrected my positioning so I was in the cross cradle. Then she went away. As we sat in the little examination room, Sally sucking away, my arm feeling heavy and awkward in the new position, I felt sad and incompetent. There might have been a sign on the door: BREASTFEEDER ON TRIAL HERE.

Dr. Brassy came back in and weighed Sally again. She weighed one ounce more. “I’m concerned,” said the doctor. “Feed her more often.”

I called my sister-in-law who said, “Why is she quarrelling about ounces? I’d fire that doctor.”

So we did. We found a calm, pleasantly skeptical, hands-off doctor who said that as long as Sally seemed alert, we needn’t worry. Of course I continued to worry. Was I feeding her frequently enough; was I holding her in the right position; was her latch all right? Could I nurse her the way I wanted to, or was I costing her calories with my stubbornness?

We peered into other people’s strollers and front-packs, measuring plumpness. Cast an eye back on Sally.

She looked fine. Alert. Skinny.

And then that Nurse-a-rama came in the mail.

*   *   *

I’m thirty-three years old, or was at the time of the story I’m telling, and I had never seen anybody nurse up close. The women I knew moved stealthily to a corner or to the back room at parties; they nursed discreetly. Sometimes they bottle-fed their kids in public and saved the nursing for home. Maybe I got off on Nurse-a-rama because it gave me a chance to gawk, to get a good hard look at how other women do it and check out the positions.

“You know,” said my husband, “I don’t think those babies are really eating. It looks like the models are holding the babies up to their chests, a few inches away.”

“Of course they’re eating. What are you saying?”

“How can they be? Look here. See the distance here … “

He was pulling the expert talk on me—how the baby was held, whether her mouth could be completely covering the areola.

“Well, how can you know?” he said, trying to drop it.

But I didn’t want to drop it. “I want to know,” I said. “I’ll call them.”

*   *   *

On the Nurse-a-rama website there is an e-mail address to place an order and an e-mail address to talk to someone in customer service. And then there is an e-mail address “for all other requests.”

That would be me.

“I would be happy to talk with you,” wrote the President of Nurse-a-rama three hours later, when I was still in my pajamas. “Just give me a call and we can either talk then or set up a time.”

How reasonable!

Of course I hadn’t said I was a Nurse-a-rama addict. Nor had I said I disliked her fashion sense and treated her catalogue like porn. I told her a story that seemed plausible, some- thing that came true later but wasn’t anywhere near the truth then: I told her I was writing an article on breastfeeding.

Wow, I thought. All this time spent reading Nurse-a-rama and now I was going to talk to the person who made it. She would have the low-down on my fantasy world. The adult models, were they really the babies’ mothers? Were they nursing in the photos or faking it?

Most importantly, she would know the babies.

What, Mrs. President, are they really like? You can tell me!

While I was waiting for the President to call me back, I trolled around the website and discovered that Nurse-a-rama had a mission apart from hawking clothing: to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding. The President cared about the health of babies, she cared about the earth’s resources, and she was counting how many cans of formula breastfeeding women saved from the landfill.

I began to regret having an appointment to talk to an obviously superior human being. My confidence wasn’t great in those days. It didn’t help that I wasn’t getting out of the house much. What had happened, I wondered, to my political edge? I’d expected it to get stronger with the onset of motherhood. In my early twenties, I’d read Grace Paley’s playground stories, those witty, sharp-mouthed stories about mothers going and singing to the Board of Education, and I’d thought, This will happen to me; I will become a mother and start caring, big-time. In college I was an ardent but bookish feminist, taking part in a handful of political actions, baffled by my own discomfort when I stood up at rallies and tried to shape my mouth around group chants. But I was patient, because I assumed radicalism would come later, with motherhood. It was like a package I had ordered that was coming, say, book rate from all the way around the world. I would wait, years maybe, and my radicalism would arrive. I would find it intolerable to sit on my butt any longer. The causes I cared about, in an armchair way, I would now get up and do something about for the baby’s sake, but also because I would feel those causes coursing through my milk ducts, and at last I would have a reason to feel connected to the planet.

(I still, by the way, have hope for myself.)

But my baby had been wiggling on this planet for three whole weeks, and how could I pretend I was en route to becoming radicalized when I’d given up even reading the newspaper? Those times I was nursing Sally were my only opportunities to read, and instead of reading Mother Jones, I was reading Nurse-a-rama. I had a bookmark in Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, and that bookmark moved more slowly than I did. I wasn’t radicalized; I was lobotomized.

As I dialed the number for Nurse-a-rama and punched in the personal three-digit extension of the President of Nurse-a-rama herself, I thought, God knows what I am going to say. My only plan was to let the bright bird of my true concerns be camouflaged by dense shrubs of questions I didn’t really give a hoot about—the underbrush, if you will, of the interview.

As it turned out, the President of Nurse-a-rama volunteered immediately that the models were nursing their own babies. “That’s what most people want to know,” she said. “For years people have written, asking if the models are nursing. People say I’ve never seen mothers nurse before, I’m leafing through the catalogue looking at the positions, and I feel like you’re right there in the living room with me!

“Really?” I said. If I had felt like the President of Nurse-a-rama were in my living room, the nursing fantasies would have been off. On the other hand, I might have grabbed her by the mandarin collar and said, “What the hell is happening to me?”

The President of Nurse-a-rama went on, professional, informative, cordial. Clearly she had given this interview a million times, to people who, unlike me, were writing articles on breastfeeding.

She explained that she hired her models through a New York agency that represents pregnant and nursing models. She told me about some models who bottle-fed but tried to pretend they were nursing so they could get the job. “You need a seriously nursing baby to get a shot,” she said. “You need that baby to nurse for twenty minutes. Babies who usually get their milk from bottles aren’t that interested. Every once in a while we’ll get a model who has a nanny or works for a living and is not that well bonded with her baby.”

“How can you tell?” I prodded, alert to a shift in tone, the confiding, slightly sneering tone to which I was morbidly sensitive.

“You can feel it on the set. The child is unhappy and not easily satisfied.”

*   *   *

After we hung up, I pondered those unhappy, ill-satisfied children and their non-breastfeeding mothers. They haunted me, those poorly adjusted mother-child dyads, the insufficiently bonded. Could specially informed people see bad bonding the way a dentist looks at a nice smile and sees Streptococcus mutans? It spooked me that the President of Nurse-a-rama might pick up deficiency like a vibration or a scent in the air. I’d read enough articles that talked about the necessity of mother-child bonding to be prone to worry. At my first meeting with an obstetrician, when I was about twelve minutes pregnant, I’d said, “Will I be able to breastfeed as soon as the baby is born? Will I be able to have the baby on my chest? I’ve read that if the hospital whisks the baby off for her APGAR, I’ll miss the crucial bonding—”

“Yes,” the doctor said with poorly disguised impatience. “That’s no problem.”

(In fact, the baby was whisked off for her APGAR and my husband cried out, “Honey, do you want me to bring her back so you can breastfeed?” Slumped in the bed, already drifting into sleep, I grunted, and luckily my husband knew the grunt meant, “Hell no, I could use a freakin’ minute.”)

Having hung up the telephone with the kind and cordial and informative President of Nurse-a-rama, I now worried that I was that kind of mother, the mother who shows up on the set, hoping to make a pretty picture, but anybody can see—okay, not anybody, but certainly those natural-woman types like the President of Nurse-a- rama—that something was wrong.

What was wrong?

Not belly-to-belly, not mouth-not-on-areola.

I loved my baby, but I also wanted to work. Was I the sort who was a little too cold, not quite attached enough, not attentive? One of the terrifying things about the early days of motherhood was how ill suited I felt my personality was for parenting someone. Suddenly all the little foibles of self were magnified, writ large. When you don’t have children you can just keep evolving at your snail’s pace. There’s no pressure to get it together. If you fail to be as generous, brave, active, and courageous as you wish to be, whom do you hurt besides yourself?

With Sally there, though, small and helpless, I felt like everything about me was now visible, legible, and about to clobber her. How easy, comparatively speaking, were the terrors of the first day home from the hospital. I had walked the baby to the car and eyed the pavement suspiciously. So hard and sinister—did it mean to trip me up? On the highway, I shuddered each time a car barreled past. On the street, children’s voices rose up, harsh and strident. And the sun, why did it have to shine so bright? Think we could get some cloud cover for a minute? Jesus, we have a baby here!

This vulnerability wore off, but three weeks later what had replaced it was a sense that I was the threatening force. Oh my god, how am I going to protect my baby from the influence of me? I might consciously teach her some abstract lesson on, say, manners, but then she would see me grabbing the larger piece of cake when I relaxed, unawares, and there would be the real lesson in manners. My god, was I going to have to patrol myself all the time? Was I going to have to reinvent myself?

In a telephone conversation, I told some of this to a friend, who chided me gently. Why was I worrying about my poor character when I’d just given birth to a baby?

“When would be a better time?” I said. “Trust me, what you’re feeling now, it doesn’t last.”

“What am I feeling now?” I said (not a smart-ass, but truly, a stranger in my own strange land).

“I don’t know. I just remember the storm of those first few weeks—it doesn’t last.”

She was right. I had things out of perspective; the volume on the radio was turned up too high. This was three weeks in—I’m describing a mood here, an olio of hormones, reality, and terror. But for all the post-partum distortions, I’d put my finger on a real dilemma: The first task of motherhood is to learn how to love yourself, and there’s no way to do this quickly. We mark the mile- stones of infancy, but there are no charts for coming to terms with yourself as a human being. I wouldn’t do this project in three weeks, ten weeks; I wouldn’t buy what I needed from a catalogue, ask a question through e-mail and—zing!—get back an answer. I wouldn’t call a hotline, or even the professional, informative, cordial President of some Department of Self- Realization and Kick-Ass Self-Esteem. I was on my own, I thought, at the precise moment that I held a baby in the crook of my arm.

Author’s Note: The first few weeks of motherhood stunned me. I seemed to be nursing my daughter all the time and had forgotten how to get out of my pajamas. In this essay I was trying to capture some of the insularity and insecurity of that period. Time passed, as they say in bad novels, and quickly I forgot how nuts I was on the topic of breastfeeding. I’ve quit my day job and am promoting a series of instructional videos, including 10 Steps to Unforgettable Breastfeeding Technique and Super Nursing: Guide to Advanced Positions. Just kidding.

Sara Levine’s writing has appeared in The Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, and other magazines. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Brain, Child (Fall 2005)

Raising Elvis

Raising Elvis

By Allison Gehlhaus

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 3.42.29 PMI am a real New Jersey housewife. I tell my girlfriends that we could start our own show, the Real Tired Housewives. A show without huge earrings or catfights but with a lot of driving and packing of lunches. A lot. I have five children. When I say this (actually, mumble it) people’s mouths drop open, and some mixture of awe and repulsion twitches across their faces. Wow, they say. I can feel them calculating. They do not know whether to bow down in reverence or call for a psych exam. And then comes the part that I really hate. Four girls and one boy, I say.

I wait.

“Is the boy last?” they always ask.

They get this hopeful smirk on their faces, like they have caught me. Like I kept on having kids, until I got a boy. As though the girls were obstacles on my way to getting it right. The Holy Grail, a son. “No,” I answer, with a thrust of my chin. “He’s the fourth.”

That boy, my fourth, is now twelve. His name is Henry. He loves me. Oh no, he hates me. Loves me, hates me. He’s twelve.

*   *   *

It’s been an eye-opening twelve years. A time to examine some preconceived—literally—notions regarding the raising of boys and girls. Especially my own. I had been stunned and hurt by the comments I heard after the birth of our daughters. The nurses at the hospital told me that they hear a lot of women apologize to their husbands after giving birth to girls. Seriously. Right in the labor room. One nurse said, “Don’t they realize that it is the man who determines the sex of the baby?” Another quipped, “So maybe the men should apologize.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when visitors would say, “Maybe next time,” with a dismissive wave at our little pink bundles of joy. Or, “How soon are you going to try again?”

My brother-in-law actually said, “Three girls. That’s the pits.”

He’s lucky to be alive.

“Another girl? Is Hank mad at you?” a neighbor asked.

And when I answered, “Yeah, my husband’s furious, he’s kicking me out next week,” she didn’t even flinch.

And yet: No one was as shocked or as happy as I was when the doctor held up that baby boy in the hospital.

“I feel like I won the lottery,” I said to Hank.

I’d had three miscarriages after my three girls and before Henry’s birth. I had been flush with grief. I was delighted with my family but had wanted more children—not necessarily a boy or a girl, just another baby. When my body didn’t cooperate, I was stunned, but also ashamed. It’s a feeling my obstetrician said that many women confessed to, but that he couldn’t understand. It had been a terrible time, trying to mother my three daughters with the joy they deserved while being sick with the loss of those unborn babies. Finally having a healthy baby made me gleeful.

But still something nagged at me. People were now treating me like I had finally done something correctly. Did I secretly agree? Was I that big of a jerk?

“It’s about time,” I heard again and again. “Oh, your husband must be thrilled.”

So even while I was telling myself that I was just happy to have a healthy baby, I was thrilled to have a son. Finally. A small voice inside me yelled, You patriarchal hypocrite, as I floated and gloated through the aftermath of his birth.

*   *   *

That aftermath, though, was so thick with sexism that we all noticed it. My girls began to feel assaulted. The line they heard people say to me most often was, “Thank god your husband finally has a son to take over the family business.”

Our business happens to be an amusement park on the Jersey Shore. My daughters and I tried to make jokes about it, anticipating the comments and our snarky comebacks. We began to say, “Yup, the king was born. We’re nicknaming him Elvis.” Our oldest daughter, Meghan, then twelve, finally looked at me one day and said, “What? He’s got a penis so he gets the boardwalk?”

“Right on, sister,” I said, “We never said that. You’re the oldest. Girl or boy, we don’t care, if you want to run the business, knock yourself out.”

Meghan eventually wrote her college essay about how all this made her want to study business to help with the boardwalk. Even if she was a girl. She left the word penis out, for which I was proud.

*   *   *

I had told my friends that I was not going to be one of those mothers who shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys,” while their three-year-old sons beat each other up in the park. There would be no guns. Nor was I going to instantly label him as tough, while my girls were sweet. I had three brothers. My father’s preferential treatment of them had infuriated me growing up. I had read Gloria Steinem. I took sociology of gender in college. I was determined to raise this boy to be a peaceful, loving, non-rock-throwing kid who would grow up to be a fine man, as comfortable in the kitchen as he was in the boardroom. I had standards.

And yet, just last week, we were all cleaning up after dinner while my son was in the other room, killing Nazi zombies on Xbox. My daughter Emily looked at me and said, “Do you realize that your son, never, ever cleans up anymore?” Yikes, I thought—she was right. How did I let this happen? My husband was right in the trenches with us, scrubbing away. Annie, our nine-year-old, was sweeping the floor. My twenty-two-year-old daughter Shannon was clearing the counters, and Henry, aka Elvis, was on the couch, shooting and blowing up people. I had screwed up. I had let myself veer off the path of equality. I had become one of those mothers—one of those “boys will be boys” mothers.

I yelled into the other room, “Hey, get in here—just because you have a penis, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from cleaning up.”

I showed him.

*   *   *

Although I never intended to treat my son differently than my daughters, the reality of who he is, this particular boy, has forced me to. As Shannon said to me, “He is an alpha male with a different operating manual than we have. You need to chill.” And while I can see that my daughters have some stereotypically masculine qualities and my son some female ones, I’ve come to believe that I do need to chill. Even a mother with the best intentions has to concede to gender differences.

I could see this early on. Henry turned Barbie dolls upside down and made slingshots out of their legs. He flushed dollhouse furniture down the toilet. When he was four, I heard him calling me, and when I went down our long, narrow hallway I couldn’t figure out where he was. Finally, I saw him. Flush to the ceiling. He had scaled the wall. His feet were on one side of the wall, and his hands on the other.

“Jeez,” I said, “at least put some pillows on the floor if you’re going to act like Spiderman.”

I never had to utter a sentence like that to my girls. My daughters never asked me to go to the hardware store so they could design and build their own air soft guns. I’ve never said to them, “Wow, that revamped bicycle pump gave you a great amount of pressure.”

Nor have daughters ever called me and asked me to buy potassium nitrate on the way home from work.

“What do you need that for?” I said to Henry after he did exactly that.

“I’m making something,” he mumbled.

“I’m worried that the FBI is going to show up on my doorstep one day because you’ve researched the making of something,” I whined.

“Chill,” he said. “I don’t want to blow anything up, I just want to make my own smoke bombs. They’re harmless.”

The truth is, I don’t really know how Henry turned out to be, as a friend called him, “A boy’s boy in a house full of women.” I have tried over the last twelve years to tease out what is nature and what is nurture. Sometimes I think he is a lot like my father and brothers, and of course Hank, all strong, take-no-prisoners kind of men. It could be also that I am simply comfortable with that kind of male and thus subconsciously encouraged his “boyness.” Or maybe Henry was determined or destined to be who he is no matter what.

Will boys really be boys?

As I try to figure this all out, I am watching the caveman my son evolved from.

Henry grunts instead of answering me. He will knock things off the counter when he is mad. He runs with a pack of boys whose rules of hierarchy astound me. One time in the middle of an argument when he was ten, I said to him, “Instead of throwing my books on the floor, why don’t you say, ‘I get mad when you won’t let me buy a bb gun.'”

He doubled over laughing. “Yeah, right,” he said, kicking my door on the way out. “Like that’s ever gonna happen.”

Once when we suspected our contractor of stealing, we arranged a meeting to confront him. Henry spent three days designing an intricate pulley system so that when the guy opened our door, a small rubber ball hit him in the forehead. He was six. He makes me wish I bought stock in vinegar and baking soda. He plays sports with a ferocity that borders on scary.

As his mother, I find myself also adapting to the changes in our own little ecosystem. Do I love watching him shoot Nazis, design weapons, climb walls? No, not particularly. Am I happier shopping, gossiping, or cooking with my girls? Yup. But it shouldn’t be about what makes me happy. Or comfortable. Although I wrestle with all this, I do strive for some sort of balance between what Henry needs and I need. And that changes day to day.

Hank and I argued once about the way my son threw his best friend out of our house. Just told him to leave. This boy’s mother and I are good friends.

“Your problem,” Hank said, “is that you don’t understand boy world.”

Anytime a husband starts a sentence with “your problem is,” you know you’ve got big problems.

“I have three brothers. I understand way more than you think,” I said.

“Raising a son is different than having brothers,” he said.

“Duh,” I said, because I am such a grown up.

“He should apologize,” I said. “There had to be a better way to handle it.”

“He’ll figure it out,” Hank said. “It’s dog-eat-dog out there. Who’s strong, who’s not backing down—it’s a whole different ball game than with the girls.”

What I should’ve said to my husband was that at least with the girls, I understood some of the ways my daughters and their friends worked out their conflicts—by talking behind each other’s backs, alienating each other, and other similarly lovely tactics. Regrettably, I’d even participated in those kinds of tactics at one time or another.

Instead I said, “Thanks a lot Darwin, I’ll keep that in mind.”

It took months to work out. Henry held his ground, even when the other boy got everyone at the lunch table to get up and move, leaving him alone. There were parties where only one of them was invited because of the rift. Eventually, though, they became friends again when they both played on the school baseball team. Neither one had backed down; they respected each other for it. And most importantly to my friend and me, no punches were thrown.

It was excruciating to watch. Boy world.

*   *   *

We are in a restaurant, or an airport, or at the beach. Someone comes up.

“This was exactly my family growing up, four girls and one boy.”

“How’d the boy turn out?” I always ask, exposing my weakness and not caring.

“He’s great,” they usually answer. “He makes a fine husband. He really understands women.”

And this is the other worry. Besides keeping him alive, I know that someday, some woman is going to be his wife. So when he yells at me that he can’t find his basketball jersey and it’s all my fault because I do the laundry, I go from zero to sixty. I am doubly mad. Triply. I think of his wife. I don’t want her to be burdened with a man who thinks women are his servants. It can get messy, this raising of sons.

*   *   *

Of all the parenting advice I’ve read, the one sentence that has kept me going is from psychologist Haim Ginott: Treat your children as though they are already the people you want them to be. I love this; it encourages you to reinforce the qualities you desire, while subtly ignoring the ones you wish would disappear. This is big-picture parenting, the kind that acknowledges the power of the language we use about and with our children over time. And every now and then, a situation arises and you realize, with a quiet kind of awe, that your children actually are the people you want them to be.

This past Memorial Day, while I was working at the counter at one of our food stands, a customer left without paying. It was ridiculously hot that day, and crowded, and our whole family was working. That was the third time someone had stiffed me in an hour, and I was angry. “Where is that guy?” I asked, steaming mad, looking around.

Another customer pointed to the bar across the way and said, “The guy in the plaid shirt? He went in there.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Henry leave our stand and walk into the bar. A twelve-year-old walks into a bar. He came out a minute later, walked to our cash register, and put a twenty in. He nodded at me, didn’t say a word, and went back to filling up the ice machine. Good boy, I thought.

About half an hour later a woman came up to the counter, apologizing for her husband. “He said you were mobbed—he swears he would have come to pay you later.” She shrugged like she wasn’t so sure she believed him. “But I have to know: Who is that kid, the one that came over?”

“My son,” I said, nervous. “Why?”

“He just came up, kind of quiet, tapped my husband on the back and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but you owe my mother money.’ “

I looked over at my son, who was now sneaking up behind the grill guy, trying to put ice cubes down his shirt.

She smiled and said, “You don’t got to worry about that kid.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” I said.

Author’s Note: Why do I love the story of Henry walking into the bar? Why is it this story I tell? Because it lets me choose from it a combination of qualities that I want my son to have: strength, loyalty, empathy, respect, sprinkled with a dose of good humor. All things that I would want to foster in a good human being. Girl or boy.

When I told Henry that I had written an essay about him, he said, “Of course you did—I’m a fascinating character.”

Allison Gehlhaus’s fiction has appeared in Mothering, and an excerpt of her almost finished memoir, Tough Little B*tch, appeared in Booth. “Raising Elvis” is her first published essay.

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

The Secret Life

The Secret Life

By Kate Haas
Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 6.45.00 PMA few days before his paternity leave ended, my husband returned from an errand with news that would change my life. “There’s another stay-at-home mother on our street,” he announced. “I met her at the store. She says you should come over sometime.”

A month before, when I was still pregnant, I would have dismissed this invitation from a stranger as a mere social nicety. Back then, I was preoccupied with finishing the renovations to our shabby old house before my due date. It didn’t occur to me, as I scraped and spackled, that I would need a new friend after the baby was born. My own mother stayed home in the 1970’s, like most of the women in our suburban neighborhood. But she rarely socialized with the other moms, preferring to bake bread and peruse the New Yorker. I’d always been an introvert myself, and after years of teaching high school, I was itching for solitude.

But after four weeks of motherhood, I was beginning to panic. Our fretful, scrawny newborn rarely slept longer than 20 minutes at a stretch, day or night. When I wasn’t nursing him or attempting to soothe his despairing wails, I was hooked to a breast pump, trying to increase my meager milk supply. Only the presence of another adult made this frantic enterprise bearable, and soon I would be alone all day. My closest friends lived far away. We were new in town, still strangers in the neighborhood. And the rain and cold of a Pacific Northwest January had emptied the local park of parents I might befriend. The news of a potential companion felt like a lifeline.

The day after my husband’s announcement, I wrapped my son in his warmest fleece blanket and walked to the house at the end of the block. A blond woman answered my knock, a baby in her arms. Her eyes, behind wire-rimmed glasses, were dark and tired.

“Um, I’m from down the street. You met my husband?”

“Oh, right! I’m Allison,” she said. “I’m so glad you came over.” She looked down at her baby. “He’s four months old, but I’m still kind of – ” she broke off.

I nodded. “I know, me too. I’m so tired. I can barely – “

We stared dumbly at each other across the threshold, like survivors of separate shipwrecks meeting on the same desolate island.

“Well, come in,” Allison said.

I followed her into a spacious kitchen with a couch at the far end, under a bank of windows. Newspapers lay drifted on the floor, alongside a stack of magazines. A worn copy of The Baby Book sat face down on a milk-stained rocking chair. These were essentially the same components of my own home, but I was aware of a novel sense of pleasure and anticipation as I looked around, like a traveler entering a new country. I hadn’t left my house in days. Until I walked into Allison’s, it had not occurred to me that this might be a problem.

Allison urged me toward the rocking chair. She set her fuzzy-headed baby down on a cheerful Southwestern rug, and I watched him bat intelligently at soft toys hanging from a wooden contraption. My bald four-week-old could only flail his arms aimlessly, and his eyes still registered the alarmed expression of the newborn.

“Gosh,” I said. “Your baby’s really with it. And he has so much hair!”

“Well,” she said modestly. “You know, four months is pretty advanced.” Suddenly we were laughing.

I stayed at Allison’s house for five hours that first day, and she and her son spent the next day camped in my living room. I had never made a friend so quickly, but the shock of motherhood removed my reserve; the sleep deprivation made me feel buzzed and woozy, uninhibited about confiding in a near stranger. Founded solely on proximity and shared parenthood, my new friendship with Allison was like an arranged marriage, companionship our dowries.

It was my first encounter with the heady, instant camaraderie that can spring up between new mothers. I didn’t realize that. I only knew that it felt natural to tell Allison about my nursing problems, my estranged father, strained finances, and the terrible night I cursed out the baby. Only to Allison could I confess the most unsettling aspect of my new life: I couldn’t bear to be separated from my son, not even by one room, but felt no overwhelming love for him. True, I’d never fallen in love with anyone at first sight, but it hadn’t occurred to me that taking awhile to warm up to my own baby might be natural. Allison’s son, meanwhile, was inconsolable in any arms but hers and napped only while strapped to her chest in an upright position. The fabled “feel-good” hormones of breastfeeding didn’t seem to be kicking in for her, either. Confiding these things to another mother was, for each of us, an astonishing relief.

A morning phone call from Allison put a shimmer on the day ahead. I was still facing nine hours with an infant on only three hours of sleep; but now I would be facing it at her house. Allison’s home was bigger than mine, and grander, with intricate built-ins, pocket doors, and stained glass. There was a large loom in the living room, strung with moss-green thread, and a fancy German sewing machine. Bolts of bright fabric were stacked on a shelf, and whimsical arrangements of dried flowers and leaves sat in mason jars on the mantel.

The familiar disarray of new parenthood was everywhere; but there was something infinitely restful about Allison’s house. The unwashed cereal dishes on her table didn’t oppress me, the way my own messy kitchen did. Her stacks of books and magazines looked homey, not cluttered. At home, our thermostat was set to a thrifty 64 degrees; Allison’s house was warmer, and cozy, especially the kitchen, with its comfortable couch where we nursed the babies and swapped stories about our stints overseas, old boyfriends and favorite books, and where we set the babies down to play while we experimented with baking projects.

I had not expected to spend my son’s infancy testing flourless chocolate cake recipes or deconstructing the flawed premises of popular novels about motherhood. (There was no way, we agreed, that the illicit lovers in Little Children could have synchronized their toddlers’ naptimes. Much less had all that uninterrupted sex.) With Allison down the street, like a college friend on the same hall, life with a baby was transformed from the solitary experience I had anticipated – then come to dread – into an intimate, cooperative enterprise.

My husband was relieved that I had someone to keep me company; but I was conscious of a strange reluctance to tell him exactly how much I enjoyed my days with Allison, and what the two of us referred to as “the secret life of the stay-at-home mother.”

*   *   *

“How about a pick-me-up?” Allison would suggest, mid-afternoon. With a conspiratorial smile, she’d reach into a cupboard and bring out five or six varieties of expensive dark chocolate. Breaking a few pieces from each bar, she set the assortment between us in a pretty pottery dish. “This is the way to weather life with a kid,” Allison confided, the first time she broke out the Scharffen Berger.

I nodded, savoring the rich, complex flavors – and the relief of being with her, instead of home alone with my baby and the breast pump. I admired the way Allison, at only five months in, seemed to handle motherhood so deftly. I knew she was just as unhinged with sleep deprivation, yet she nursed her son with offhand confidence, while I still fretted about proper latch technique each time I unhooked my bra. But Allison did so many things with ease; she could scrutinize a piece of clothing, then draw a pattern and sew an identical copy. She could make paper from mush tossed into a blender and operate a serger, a machine I’d never heard of. “It’s easy,” she promised, demonstrating how she had sewn the striped fleece pants her son was wearing. “I’ll show you how.”

Until I actually had the baby, I’d imagined stay-at-home life as a Ma Ingalls- flavored adventure, all bread-baking and vegetable gardening. Faced with the reality, I was still trying to figure out this retro role I’d taken on and how I felt about it. But Allison wore her domesticity the way she wore her favorite red apron – with an unselfconscious flair I aspired to.

After a day together, evenings always caught us by surprise; reluctantly I would collect my baby and his gear and hurry home to make supper. As I entered my darkened house, I couldn’t help feeling that I was returning to a drabber version of reality, unlike Allison’s warm kitchen, where it seemed my real life took place; there, during those long days structured only by the demands of our children and our capacity for enjoying each other’s company. She was the one I wanted to tell things to.

Our babies learned to crawl around each other like blind puppies as the months passed, and later, to walk and play together, as close as brothers. Allison gave me homemade chocolate truffles that first Christmas, and I wrote her a parody of “The Raven,” with Poe’s ominous bird recast as a wakeful baby, vowing to sleep “nevermore.” By the following year, when our sons turned two, we were both pregnant again. Allison gave birth to a second boy, and six months later, so did I. Allison’s older son tried to stab his newborn brother with a fork. Mine suggested we take the baby outside and break him. But I could laugh about this sort of thing now, and besides, I had Allison.

Then, after a while, I didn’t.

*   *   *

There was no argument, no unforgivable parenting lapse ending in a frantic rush to the emergency room with someone else’s bleeding child. As the younger babies grew, Allison gradually withdrew her friendship. We no longer spontaneously spent hours in each other’s homes, and she grew reluctant to make plans. Scheduling get-togethers in advance made her feel hemmed in, she said. She couldn’t be in the house all day anymore. I understood, didn’t I?

When we managed to arrange an afternoon together, Allison arrived hours late, or never. Our days together dwindled. After awhile, I stopped trying to plan them. When we spoke on the phone, it was about getting the older boys together, and the conversations were brisk, logistical. When my four-year-old went to play with hers, Allison and I stood outside our houses, watching him make the trek from one end of the block to the other. I could see her down there, small in the distance, the scarlet of her apron vivid against the gray sky. When my boy arrived at her steps she’d give me a cheerful wave. Then we turned and went into our separate homes.

By the end of a year, I had been neatly removed from Allison’s life. When we met, at the grocery store or the annual block party, she talked cheerfully about her new pursuits, as if nothing had changed. I searched my memory for ways I might have offended. What happened? I wanted to ask; my hurt and my pride kept me silent.

“Let it go,” my husband urged. “These things happen.”

Not to me, though; not like this.

I’d broken up with lovers and drifted away from friends before. Those rifts saddened me, but I understood them. Losing Allison was different, bewildering. What fault line in our friendship had I missed? Or did I simply mistake the bond we shared as new mothers for a more profound connection?

*   *   *

I had other friends by then, women whose kitchens and living rooms were extensions of my own, whose children zoomed around the house with mine while we mothers talked about everything. They were the ones I told things to. But I couldn’t forget the day my son took his first steps on the fir floor of Allison’s kitchen, lurching triumphantly between our two pairs of outstretched arms, our two smiling faces. I remembered the hours of talk there, about things we never told our husbands. What had happened to that secret life, to the intimacy of shared new motherhood?

It took me a long time to recognize that my secret life with Allison probably wasn’t the life she wanted. Maybe it took her a long time, too. Truths like that are easy to miss in the tumult of life witha toddler and a newborn. Maybe, when you’ve taken the time to fashion a cozy, homespun world to make those long days bearable, it’s hard to acknowledge that in the end it was all an elaborate domestic construct, a short-term survival mechanism to pass the time. Until the day you do acknowledge it. That’s one story I tell myself.

Or perhaps there’s a simpler, more natural explanation. Allison and I met in a perfect storm of postpartum hormones and sleep deprivation. We were two new mothers, desperate to connect with someone who understood. Maybe that need obscured other factors, crucial ones, like whether we would have become friends in other circumstances. I tell myself that story, too.

Our oldest boys are in 7th grade now, still close as brothers. I see Allison almost every day, around the neighborhood and in the halls at school. We make awkward small talk or smile briefly and pass without speaking. And despite the stories I tell myself, I still wonder why; and I wonder when, exactly, she realized that the baking and recipe swapping, the hours of kitchen conversation, had served their purpose. That she didn’t need me anymore.

I weigh those questions against what I know for certain: Allison and I saw each other through the most difficult period of our lives. No one needs a friend quite like an overwhelmed, exhausted new mother. I didn’t realize that before I gave birth. I wasn’t the type to reach out quickly. But when I reached out to Allison, she caught me. We held each other up. She was the lifeline I needed, and for a while, I was hers. Ours was a temporary liaison in the end, not the lasting, arranged marriage I imagined. But we rescued each other, all the same.

Kate Haas’s essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Brain, Child (Spring 2013)

Illustration by Allison Krumwiede

Questions and Answers

Questions and Answers

By Margaret Elysia Garcia
questionsandanswersI grew up with a mother who answered all my questions before I’d even asked them—and gave explanations that could send most kids into a depression. At age six, when asked whether I could have ice cream before dinner, I got to hear about how my mother just read Diet for a New America and how ice cream might lead to my premature death.

When my mother came out as a lesbian, I was in junior high, and made the mistake of asking how long she’d known. I expected the answer to come in a sentence with perhaps a numeral in it. Instead I got a complete blow-by-blow description of the last 30 years of her life.

I fared no better with my father, a biologist, who couldn’t fathom that a child might ask a simple question like ‘what kind of bird is that?’ and not want to know the Latin name, all its classifications, its possible position on the endangered species list, its last known sighting, and whether ranchers were responsible for its demise. I vowed that when I had my own kids, I would give them straight and to-the-point answers.

But genetics are a tricky thing. My seven-year-old daughter has already had one or two existential crises in which she’s exclaimed, “Playing? Eating? Sleeping? School? Is that all there is?” My nine-year-old son was caught explaining the history of film to bewildered third graders on the playground.

We watched the original Godzilla together. Then came the questions. What’s radiation? What’s a Geiger counter? These were easy to field. Channel my dad, don’t channel my mother and tone it down. Next questions get harder. Why would people want to test bombs and blow them up in the ocean? Don’t they know there’s fish down there? Why do we have nuclear weapons if we know they could kill? Because we’re human. We can’t help it. I don’t have an answer. Okay. Too many questions. Too many answers. Mommy is tired now.

But for all their questions, the children never asked about the obvious—their surplus of grandmothers. Every Saturday morning their lesbian grandmothers pick them up and take them to their house for the day. But lately they’ve been making observations. “So Mommy, if Papa Dennis is our grandfather and Grandma Lydia is our grandmother how come they don’t live together? How could you be born if they don’t live together? How did they have you? Did they divorce? Where does Grandma Lynn fit in?”

My daughter has come home from school crying that she feels left out—all her other friends have stepmothers and stepfathers. When is she finally going to get some? Again, I have no answers. I think about exploiting my mother and saying, “Paloma, you guys are the only kids on the block with lesbian grandmothers—that’s way better than stepmothers—now go outside and play!”

In 2008, when gay marriage was legal in California, my mother and her partner of 20 years decided to get married. I still worried about fielding those questions. I figured we’d just never make anything a big deal and there’d be no questions. I sat them down and told them over after-school snacks.

“The grandmas can’t get married,” my daughter said. Oh no. All my liberal, progressive parenting out the window. Did I not answer questions correctly along the way? Should I have given more detailed answers she never asked for? Would that have transformed her into an accepting individual? I heard my mouth open and some sort of this-day-was-coming speech fell stumbling out of my mouth.

“Paloma, when two people love each other and are ready to make a commitment … commitment is when … you can marry a boy when you grow up or a girl … or no one … you can stay single …That might not be a bad thing for you, actually—.”

“Mom. I’m not asking for an explanation; I’m just telling you it’s impossible. I want them to get married, but they can’t.”

“Actually, in California, now they can…” I heard myself rattle on about court decisions, extremists, fascists, freedom, and the civil rights movement. A red light flashed above my eyes and I knew I’d done it! Information overload. I had become my parents.

“You don’t get it Mom,” she sighed. “They don’t have any dresses. Have you ever seen the grandmas in dresses? I help them clean their house and closets. I’ve never seen one. Weddings have to have dresses.”

She threw my resolve into a bit of a spiral. I had at least four paragraphs left of my speech about how you fall in love with the person and not the gender. But instead I was forced to explain that, despite having no fashion sense whatsoever, her grandmothers could and would get married.

The grandmas can’t help themselves, Paloma, they’ve bought stock in Land’s End and L.L. Bean.

“No turtlenecks, please!” My son laughed. Poor kid. My mom has been dressing him like a middle-aged lesbian for years now. My daughter asked if they’d at least wear dress shoes instead of sneakers.

“One can only hope,” I said. “But I wouldn’t hold out for it. You don’t need dresses or nice shoes though, you just need love.” Paloma shrugged.

“Okay, Mommy,” she said. “But they’re going to have a cake, right? Everyone? has cake at weddings.” She looked to me to confirm customs and for a second I thought about explaining veganism and a gluten-free diet but thought better of it.

“Yes on the cake,” I announced, happy to finally answer a simple, direct question.

Author’s Note: I knew I was going to write something like “Questions & Answers” for a while. It occurred to me that the fear of the general population towards gay and lesbian parents is always sexualized. I thought it would be fun and much more realistic to show what kids are really concerned about—dresses, for example. I submitted the story to Listen to Your Mother—a national spoken word Mother’s Day show and performed it onstage at Cowell Theater in San Francisco in May 2012.

Margaret Elysia Garcia writes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and memoir. She was a Pushcart nominee in 2011 for an excerpt from Coming Out Too, her memoir in progress about growing up in a gay military household. She was also a Glimmer Train finalist in 2011, and her short story manuscript 605 Freeway Stories won second place in the 34th Annual Chicano/Latino Literary Award in fiction. She blogs at talesofasierramadre.com.

Brain, Child (Winter 2013)

 

Sugar Mama

Sugar Mama

By Andrea Mcdowell

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 5.08.15 PMEvery night I do the dishes by hand in the kitchen sink. My five-year-old daughter, Frances, sleeps upstairs, her arms wrapped around a sleep-time friend, while downstairs I put into practice those lessons I learned from Home Ec so long ago—glass, then silverware, then dishes, then pots. I suspect I am the only one from that class to be doing dishes by hand, because I am likely to be the only one who does not have a dishwasher.

The dishes done, the floor swept, the worst of the mud mopped from the front entryway, the toys returned to their rightful places, the school paperwork read over and dealt with appropriately, the kitchen table wiped, the counters scrubbed, and the leftovers refrigerated, I finally have five free minutes. Immediately a thought intrudes: My insulin pump told me three hours ago to change my infusion site—the location on my abdomen or hips where the insulin is delivered through a plastic catheter left in place for up to five days. Oops. I’d better do it now before I forget again.

I never forgot, before, when I was married. I never forgot to test my blood sugar or give myself an insulin dose or change my infusion site. My sugars never “went high” for days on end, because I always had time to check them after meals.

I change the infusion site. Now I have five free minutes. Real ones. Frances cries. I go upstairs to soothe her. So much for that.

*   *   *

Many things about single motherhood turned out to be surprising, mostly in good ways. For instance: It’s often not anywhere near as hard as I had feared. Frances is a preternaturally easygoing child who demands a lot of affection and attention but never throws temper tantrums. I had thought the separation might cause her to regress—that she would need diapers again, maybe, or become angry or sad or sullen. But no. There is a lot of work to do, and it frequently takes everything I have in me to get it all done every day, but my little girl, thank the gods, seems to be handling the separation well.

Or: Losing the house was also not traumatic. Frances and I have considerably less than half the space we used to, and, commensurately, considerably less than half the stuff. It’s fine. I don’t miss it. I never liked lawn maintenance, and I’m just as happy not to have to shovel a driveway or clean snow from the car in the winter. Empty space is just an invitation to spend money to fill it, as far as I’m concerned. Here, in our new little nest, I sit on the couch with the computer and watch Frances play with her toys beside me on the floor. It’s cozy, I think. I don’t watch cable, since I can’t afford it, which gives us more time to spend together.

Also: It’s lovely to live one subway stop from my office, to know that Frances is that close when she is at school, to spend so little time commuting, to be able to walk or ride my bike when the weather is nice and get in some extra exercise. It’s lovely to live on the subway line and be able to forget for weeks at a time that I even own a car.

And: It’s especially lovely, although potentially expensive, to have a nice big bookstore right across the street. These are reasons that I chose to move us here, of course, but I hadn’t expected to like them quite so much.

But then there are surprises that can’t be described as lovely, such as realizing that married moms can screw up in ways that single moms can’t. We are already assumed to be damaging our children just because we do not have a husband; we are under more scrutiny and more suspicion, or at least it feels like that.

Things I would never have done when I was married, I do now, even though I have so much less time and energy, because I am single and need to prove to the world that I can do this, that I am not hurting the most important person in my world, that she will be fine and I will be fine and I can handle all of this.

I never mopped when I was married. I changed the sheets on a seasonal schedule when I was part of a couple; now I do it regular as clockwork, every two weeks. Sometimes, when I was married, Frances would watch more than the two hours of television that was our theoretical limit for a day, or her dinner would be pasta from a can. Now? Every dinner she has eaten in our new home has been made by me, from scratch, except for carrot soup.

I wonder if this is why single motherhood is so much more exhausting than the partnered kind: We have no permission to slack off, ever. Not from the world, and not from ourselves.

*   *   *

Christmas was more complicated this year, our first as a separated family. Previously I had a kind of self-righteous glow about our anti-consumerist gift stance. Frances would get a few nice things that she asked for, but there was no mountain of presents under the tree, from Santa or anyone else. She had so many toys already, I said; I hated the materialism of it all and wanted her to value other things about the season.

This year, with less money, and much less space for new toys, the pile of gifts under our little tree was at least equivalent to what she’d received last year, once you considered it had been divided by two. Yet I felt only guilt. How could I deprive her?

At least the toys I chose were wholesome. From Mummy, there was: the Charlie Brown Christmas DVD because she loves Snoopy; a stack of foam paper; a pad of construction paper; a new large set of markers to replace the ones that are drying out; a picture book. From Santa, a small bin of Legos, the little yellow duckie she asked Santa for, and a set of toy tools—hammer, two screwdrivers, two bolts and nuts, a pair of pliers, and a little tool belt.

She loved them all. I don’t think she considered herself deprived, wandering around the apartment, her new tool belt pulled snug around her Christmas pajamas. “Babies can’t play with tools,” she would say. “Only Mummies and Daddies and big girls like me.”

I have tools. It’s good for little girls to be comfortable with tools and learn how to use them. Especially when there’s no guarantee that anyone more chromosomally inclined toward tooliness will be around when you need that shelf hung or leak fixed.

*   *   *

Diabetes is often the last thing on my mind.

This is how it goes: The pump vibrates. Two hours since bolus (the insulin dose given to metabolize a meal); time to check blood glucose.

Right! I think.

“Mummy,” says Frances, “I’m thirsty. Can I have apple juice?”

I get her the apple juice. There are dishes that need to be put into the sink. I might as well put that toy away now while I’m looking at it; Frances won’t play with it again until tomorrow. Better check my blood sugar—Oh, that’s the phone. That’ll be her dad calling. Here you are, Frances; let’s talk to your Daddy and tell him all about your day. I’ll check it now. No, I won’t; Frances won’t play with toys, she wants TV, we rehash our daily argument about how much TV is too much and why she can’t watch any when it is fifteen minutes before bed-time. Soon it is bedtime. I’ll check my sugars after I get her pajamas on, brush her teeth, read her a story, tuck her into bed.

Now I’ll get changed into my work-out clothes, because I need that exercise physically and psychologically—it keeps me stable. I’ll check when I’m done, no point doing it now, the exercise will only bring it down. But after that, there’s the dishes in the sink ready to be washed, and I’m in my pajamas, and I’m finally sitting down and can check my blood sugar. By then it is ten o’clock, four hours since my bolus—too late now to bring my levels down before breakfast.

Without another adult around to blunt the demands of child and house-work, taking care of my disease slips aside. How can I make the blood test a priority when the person I love more than anyone else in the world is standing by my knees, pleading with me for apple juice and a story? There’s no one else to get it for her. How can I say no this time, and the time after that, and the time after that?

I know I should. That is what all the experts would say, all the doctors and journalists and authors and celebrity spokespeople, and they are not wrong.

But I can’t. Her big blue eyes, her little hands, those round cheeks, and the fact that I have already wounded her by taking her from her father. How can I deny her apple juice?

I was not surprised to read in the only medical study I found on the subject that single mothers with diabetes have significantly worse blood sugar control than married ones. I test when I can, I eat well, I exercise almost every day, and sometimes that’s already more than I can handle. Just now I looked down and realized that while I’d remembered to put the new infusion site in, I’d forgotten to take the old one out, so I was sporting one on each side of my stomach. A matched set.

I can keep up with the big things, but the details sometimes get away from me.

*   *   *

There was a time when Frances was fascinated with my diabetes, especially with my glucose monitor. “Just a second,” she would say, sitting at the kitchen table. “I have to check my blood sugar.” And she would stick a used test strip backwards into the machine and hold the pricker to her arm without plunging it. “Beep! It’s good! I can eat.”

The first time she did that, I cried. How sweet and lovely that she so badly wanted to be like her mommy; though if the universe ever makes my little girl a diabetic, I’ll rip its throat out, I swear.

Now I watch her play actual games with actual toys, which is a relief. A popular one after Christmas was Keep the Little Yellow Duckie Away from Frances’s Tools. That naughty baby duck will touch the screwdriver, which is sharp, and she’ll hurt her wing. “Then I have to kiss it better, like this,” says Frances, demonstrating. “Then she sits down over here to let it dry. Then she feels better. Because babies can’t play with tools.”

“No, they can’t,” I say.

“Only mommies and daddies, and big girls like me!”

I nod, and she plays with her nuts and bolts and pliers. “What are you going to build?” I ask her.

“The old house,” she replies.

I’d half hoped she might have forgotten our old house by now, or at least found it as easy to cast off as I did, a repository of unwelcome memories and too much space to pay for and maintain. Not so, I find; she wants it back, and thinks she has now the tools to make it. Our apartment is not the old house; she isn’t fooled.

There are dozens of these little ambushes, small reminders that no matter how much of an improvement the separation is for me, this is the end of a world for her, sometimes; I know what she wants, all three of us living together in the old house again, and I wish I could give it to her. It kills me that I can’t. So I give her everything else I can instead, even when it costs me physically and emotionally.

I am always tired. There is so much to do, so little time to get it done. My hobbies fell off singly or in groups so almost none of them remains. It goes without saying that, without cable, I no longer watch television. Even if I wanted to get out I couldn’t, much, since Frances needs to be in bed by seven-thirty (and if I had sense sometimes I would follow her). Is there a mother, single or otherwise, who does not share some of these complaints? No. Perhaps it’s more extreme for me, but none of this can be laid solely at the feet of my disease.

Still, I have fears that other mothers don’t. What if I fall into a diabetic coma while I sleep, and one morning Frances wakes to find me in my bed, unable to wake? What would she do? She is too young to feed herself, or get a drink, or open the door and go for help. She can’t use the toilet on her own. How can I prepare her? There isn’t a friend or family member I would choose to burden with the task of being my diabetes monitor, making sure I am conscious and coma-free. Whatever we do has to be something we can do, just the two of us.

I program her father’s cell-phone number into the speed dial of our phone, and I teach her how to use it, and we practice a few times a week. Worst-case scenario, she can call her dad. He is not my husband anymore for a lot of good reasons, but he is still Frances’s father.

*   *   *

Diabetes is invisible, until complications set in. All of the damage is under the surface, waiting until later to surprise you. You can’t see diabetes. The broken pancreas and the high and low blood sugars are hidden, internal, until one day your vision starts to go, your kidneys begin to fail, the nerves deaden, the plaque lays down its first layers in the arteries around the heart, and the expensive, painful, and potentially fatal complications set in.

I worry that it’s the same with Frances and her parents’ divorce. You can’t see it on the surface, but underneath is she laying down an expectation for abandonment, a fatalism about romance, a scathing loneliness?

On the outside, everything looks perfect—happy daughter, competent mother, acceptable house; underneath, it’s all powered by a neglected medical condition.

My arms are full. That’s the problem. Too many things that I carry (the job, the daughter, the house) cannot be dropped, even for a moment, because I am running as hard as I can to stay in place. The job, the daughter, the house: Even for healthy women, single motherhood can be overwhelming, so why should it be any different for me? Sometimes something drops, and it’s almost always the diabetes—a test, a site, an insulin dose. They add up, I know, and it’s not my intention, but if I stop I’ll only fall further behind. I keep running, and tell myself I’ll go back for them later.

Author’s Note: I’m still single and still—obviously—a diabetic, but since writing this essay in 2007, two incredible things have happened: The Ontario government has become one of the first in the world to cover the costs of insulin pumps and related supplies for type 1 diabetics, which eliminates two hundred dollars of my monthly medical costs. And I bought a used countertop dishwasher, freeing myself from the drudgery of daily dishwashing. Neither change has been revolutionary, but they’ve been significant enough that my blood sugar control has measurably improved.

Other things haven’t changed: Some days, Frances still wants to move back into the old house. And I still don’t have cable.

Andrea Mcdowell lives with her daughter in Toronto, Ontario. She has published on Literary Mama, Rabble.ca and Spacing magazine. Her web site is andreamcdowell.com.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

Should You Discipline Other People’s Kids in Public Places?

Should You Discipline Other People’s Kids in Public Places?

 

NO

By Krystyann Krywko

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.28.22 PMI sit on the edge of the sandbox, watching my three-year-old daughter as she happily shakes sand through a sifter. I turn my head briefly to rock my infant son’s stroller, and in the wink of an eye another child comes up behind my daughter and dumps a shovel full of sand on top of her head. There are tears on the part of my daughter and a look of stunned amazement on the face of the offender. No real harm has been done, other than the fact that my daughter’s hair is now full of sand. I find some humor in the situation. I console my daughter with the fact that the child did not know better but that now, seeing her tears, he probably will. We move on.

Don’t get me wrong: As a former teacher, the urge to discipline is there, dangerously close to the tip of my tongue at times. Sure, public places like the playground, the mall, and the museum would run more smoothly if parents and caregivers were magically able to predict what mischievousness their children might stir up. But let’s face it: In our multi-tasking, multi-faceted world things happen. Your cell phone rings, the baby wants to nurse, the dog’s leash is wrapped around the stroller, and oh yeah, you are supposed to be supervising your toddler in the sandbox.

The minutiae involved in the sorting out of the lives of your own children can be mind-boggling enough without taking on the needs of the proverbial village at the same time. When I go to the playground or the park, I want to get some fresh air, maybe enjoy a coffee, and for my children to have fun—not to sit and worry about disciplining other people’s children. The longer I parent the more I realize my job is not to constantly monitor and supervise other people’s children but to learn how to negotiate these public spaces with others.

I believe when other children are misbehaving in public you have fewer rights and fewer obligations to intervene than you do if those children are your own. One mother I spoke with summed up her feelings this way: “When it’s my house, it’s my rules, but if I don’t know the child and it is in some public place where I see some- thing, then no way. Not my place to judge or discipline. If they are doing something that is bad enough, I figure the store or museum will say something, since it is their territory.”

Of course, we’re not talking about significant physical harm going on here, since we are all obligated to intervene when we see that happening, whether it involves a child or an adult. But in cases of general misbehavior, I think we need to tread carefully.

Other parents and children operate within other boundaries, ones it can be difficult for an outsider to understand. This is particularly true if the child happens to have a disability or other behavioral issue. Public spaces are not so open and inviting as we like to think, and for those who operate outside the norm of expected behavior, discipline should not come from those who do not understand. Intervening when you don’t have the background to the situation can worsen it, as a friend with an autistic daughter pointed out to me. “People constantly judge you as a parent when they look at you and your interactions with what seems to be a typical child,” she said. “More often than not my daughter just needs space, but I find that it is difficult to give her that in public.” Having another parent step in at the wrong moment—good intentions notwithstanding—is at least counterproductive and could even be disastrous.

In addition, our children ought to learn that adult intervention in public places is not always needed. As parents, we have a tendency to want to envelop our children in bubble wrap and ensure that they never feel hurt. But life is not like that; public places are messy affairs. Children have their own ways of confronting and working with those who operate differently. Instead of rushing to step in and fix every conflict, it’s often better if we stand back and allow our children space to find their own ground. That way they become better equipped to deal with difficult situations when we are not there.

And in cases where a child is misbehaving in a way that has nothing to do with my own, I simply believe it’s not my responsibility to assume the role of the parent. My discipline style might be quite different from the other parents’, and I sure wouldn’t want to create a conflict with them over whose style is the “correct” one. Who is going to be the final authority on that one?

Sure, it can be tempting to call a time-out on the little boy who is sticking his gum in his sister’s hair or to speak forcefully to the girl making fun of someone behind their back. And it’s true that I sometimes avoid public places for the simple reason that they are too crowded and yes, too full of crazed children. For the same reason, we often head to the playground at seven-thirty on a warm summer morning or avoid our local bookstore around story time. The example I want to send my children is on of acceptance and understanding. By allowing for a wide range of behaviors and teaching my children how to negotiate public interactions, they are able to see that life does not always fall into neatly prescribed categories and that sometimes it is better to forgive and forget.

Krystyann Krywko is a freelance writer based in New York City where she lives with her family. She is a former early childhood teacher, and is currently working on her Ed.D in International Education Development at Teachers College, Columbia University.

 

YES

By Liza Greville

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.28.41 PMSeveral years ago I was driving down a residential through-street in a down-and-out section of town when a couple of boys caught my eye. Probably seventh-or eighth-graders, heavily pierced and wearing t-shirts in decidedly coat weather, they were pushing around a scrawny kid in a thin coat at the bus stop—a scene of bullying as stereotypical as it comes.

As a clinical social worker, I was tired of people using their power to knock others down and tired of people failing to use their power to lift others up. Actually, I’d had it. So I circled around the block to confront the bullies. It took a minute to get their attention, but I looked eye to eye with these kids and told them to knock it off. They grunted their acknowledgement. As I drove slowly away, I watched them for a while in my rearview mirror. The imposed truce seemed to hold, at least for a few blocks.

I believe we ought to discipline other people’s kids, even in public places. I believe that civil society depends on it. We are our brother’s keeper (and our sister’s and our neighbor’s kid’s), and we have that responsibility, regardless of our parental status. It’s wired into our natures, into our common lot in humanity. It’s the reason kids self-police on the playground. It’s the fire of a posse of grandmas who say “no more” to a gang of drug dealers. It’s the courage of a lone accountant who blows the whistle on a corporate bookkeeping scandal.

Looking back on the bullying episode ten years and two kids of my own later, I can’t say I’m any less frustrated by seeing people knocked down, literally or figuratively. A few years ago the National Association of Social Workers launched a bracelet campaign in the spirit of the American Cancer Society’s “Livestrong” bands. The green bands of the social workers say “Stand Up For Others.”

Stand up for others: a paramount value and one I want to instill in my kids. Yet though I believe it is a natural inclination, it is a value kids need to grow into, and the only way all of our kids will learn it is if the adults in their lives show them how.

We do a disservice to all the kids involved if, by failing to intervene, we reinforce unhealthy balances of power. For example, if I let the bossiest kid at the neigh?borhood party cut in line to crack open the piñata just to head off an expected tantrum, I reinforce the notion that willfulness ultimately prevails over fairness or righteousness. How do I expect my kids and their friends to learn to handle controversy and dissent by setting an example of acquiescence?

Second, we set the stage for large-scale misbehaviors by ignoring small ones. If I’m a field trip chaperone, and I let it slide when a group of girls dis their “friends,” I’m implicitly giving them permission to continue. What do I think they’ll be doing when they have cell phones and social networking sites of their own? Harassment is no small offense, and we’ve all seen some tragic results of friendships turned vicious.

Granted, other kids’ parents or caretakers are the foremost influence on their moral development, and the impact of my moment of discipline is probably minimal. Even so, to fail to set an example of respect and civility lets down all the kids involved, especially, I think, my own kids, for whom I am supposed to be a compass of right and wrong.

Now I won’t say I’ve never packed up and moved on as someone else’s kid flung gravel across the playground; I have. Intervening certainly has gotten a little more complicated now that I’m a parent. I understand now why parents get insecure about disciplining someone else’s kid: We don’t want to embarrass our own kids; we don’t want to mark our kids for retribution the next time we’re not around; we don’t want to get involved ourselves.

Yet I’m not sure our worries are well founded if what we mean by discipline is calm, clear, direct, and purposeful communication. I suppose there is always the chance of a blow-out with the child’s parents, but if we remain cool and focused specifically on the problem behavior occurring in the present situation, odds are for a favorable resolution.

Parenting philosophy and discipline principles aside, there is another very practical argument for disciplining children who are not your own: safety. It’s good to get involved in situations where lack of adult presence is giving way to, let’s say, an adolescent’s faulty perception of risk. One day last summer, I had to stand on my brakes as a kid jumped his bike off a back and into the road. I was only poking along the side street behind the town park, but what if another kid had come flying through, driving too fast, music blaring, and their invulnerabilities had collided?

It’s that neighbor’s kid’s keeper thing again, and once again, I pulled over and rolled down the window.

Liza Greville lives in Kane, Pennsylvania, where she walks the fine line between letting her two boys learn to handle their own problems and disciplining other people’s kids.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

The Other Mother

The Other Mother

By Stacy Lewis

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 5.12.48 PMThe teacher is describing boxes—heart-shaped, circle, and square. She explains how to cut the clay, flatten it, shape and assemble it, and how to put on the finishing touches. She talks about slabs, scoring, coils, and slip. I keep my eyes on her while helping Orlando manipulate his own little clay clump. He is showing his work to his friend Ellery, whisper-yelling questions to me, and ignoring the teacher.

This is the first day of our family clay class. My son Orlando is four and a half. I notice that the older kids do most of the work themselves while the younger kids tend to assist and embellish the work of their parents. Orlando is making clay flowers, and I am rolling out the sides of our heart-shaped box when our attention, and everyone else’s, turns to the little boy and the mother sitting to our right.

“The teacher said that it would be too difficult to make a star!” The mother slams down her rolling pin.

Tears spring into her son’s eyes. “But I want to make a star.”

I go back to my own rolling pin and listen to the mother and the teacher suggest putting star shapes on a square box or creating hanging stars or cutting out star shapes from the box or anything but a star box. But by now the boy wants nothing but a star box.

The mother stands up and starts push-pulling her son to the back corner of the studio. He shuffles his six-year-old self in front of her with his head down and his feet dragging, and eventually they disappear around the corner. We hear him continue to tearfully plead his case. We hear the mother hissing at him to stop insisting on a star, to stop whining, to stop being difficult, to just stop.

When they come back, they proceed to make a star-shaped box. The mother is making the template and with each mistake either of them makes, she says things like, “See, I told you it wouldn’t work! Now you’re messing it up. We don’t have enough time! Get your hands off, stop touching it, I’ll do it!”

Everyone can hear her and everyone, including the teacher—everyone, including me—looks away.

*   *   *

A few days later, I talk with Ellery’s mom, Heidi, about the other mother. Heidi had been in a previous session with the mother and her son, and she had felt terribly anxious around them. We both felt disturbed by how she berated him, and saddened to see the boy alternately apathetic, agitated, crestfallen. We wanted to help him. The mother didn’t seem to realize how she sounded. Should we talk directly to her about it? Bring it up with the teacher? What if we made her angrier, and she took her anger out on her son?

In the midst of our indignation over the mother’s behavior, however, another thought crept in. I admitted to Heidi that I, too, had lost my temper over spilled paints, squished figs, or one too many stray Legos. I had, much to my shame, used my words in ways that diminished both my dignity and my son’s. Heidi insisted I was a good mother. But, I ventured, what if the other mother was stressed, and the class was bringing out the worst in her? What if we could help her? We decided that we would try it—to connect with the child and the mother.

At the next class, I introduced myself to the other mother and asked, “What was your name again?” She breathed out a soft “Thank you” and gave me her name. I asked her son his name, too, and made comments on his work—”Wow, what great ears your dragon has!”—or smiled at him when he caught my eye.

After that class, the other mother made efforts to connect with me and Orlando, by sharing tools and sitting next to us. And yet, her angry actions continued—she bossed her son, sighed with exasperation over his slowness, grabbed tools from his hands—and I shrank away. I didn’t have the guts to do it. Maybe Heidi was right. How could I really make a difference in their lives? I decided it would be best to stay out of it.

Then, toward the end of one class, I went straight into it—but not as I had expected to. Orlando wanted to play with his friend Ellery, but she was still absorbed in her project. He was doing anything and everything to get her attention, though Ellery and her mom and I kept explaining that she didn’t want to play. Yet neither of us grown-ups stopped what we were doing to help redirect or stop him.

Finally, Orlando took his wet, goopy paint brush and plopped it into her hair. And that was it.

I stood up and took Orlando around the corner. I squatted down in front of him, pulled him toward me by the shoulders, and whisper-threatened:

“We will never come back to class if you don’t leave Ellery alone.” The embarrassment I had felt about his behavior had already rocketed into shame—my own. He shifted his shoulders and kept his eyes down. I tugged at him again. “You are making it impossible to get anything done in this class!” He turned away from me, and I grabbed him, “You aren’t listening!” I felt a sudden hot drive to stamp out the source of my stress—all of my energy was concentrated on obliterating my discomfort, and I could see myself, just as I could see that other mother, aiming herself at her child.

And then I saw my child, standing before me, small and sound with a contained anger of his own.

I let go.

I closed my eyes, turned my head away, and exhaled. How had shame railroaded me into acting even more shamefully? When I opened my eyes, I was startled to see someone from another class standing nearby. I quickly stood up, leaving behind those hot, uncomfortable moments, and blindly turned Orlando back toward the class. I don’t know if that person, or anybody else, heard or saw me. I didn’t make eye contact as I walked back to our table.

It seems almost everyone turns a blind eye.

*   *   *

At a doctor’s office once, a receptionist came over and leaned down to help me when I was clearly becoming impatient and frustrated by my over-tired toddler’s attempts to explore the contents of the garbage can. She made a joke—”It’s always the garbage!”—gave me a smile, offered a toy to my son, and sat down right next to us for a minute or two.

Then there was the time someone in the parking lot of the grocery store offered to take my cart back, freeing me to unload my child into the car along with the bags. Her offer was really a small gesture, yet to me at the time it seemed wondrously thoughtful.

There have been times when family members or friends have swooped in to engage Orlando in a new activity when the interaction between us became charged, when I was too tired to deal with cascades of bathwater over the side of the bathtub or was feeling exasperated by his hyperactivity and disregard for decorum.

All these examples have something very basic in common: The people who intervened simply saw that I had my hands full, figuratively and literally, and they acted without judgment.

It had seemed so straightforward when Heidi and I laid out our similar plan: Let’s help ease the tension between the parent and child by connecting with each of them. We would intervene in a way that was helpful rather than critical. Yet the reality proved far more impenetrable. Why had I been at such a loss to offer that other mother and her son a hand? Was it because the other mother seemed so mean? So unaware of her censorious tone and pinched face? Was it because of the taboo against intruding on someone else’s parenting? Or because deep down I wanted nothing to do with her and her pain?

Not long ago, I read an article by psychologist Jeanne Denney that hit home on this topic. In “The Ritual, Tribal Abandonment of Mothers,” she writes:

I have a picture in my mind that will probably never leave until the day I develop dementia. It is a scene from when my children were young. I happened to be in a mall without them. I saw a mother with a baby in a stroller and a two year old in full tantrum running for the escalator. It was one of those scenes full of pathos, wherein a mother just has to “miraculate” some kind of response out of simple desperation. We all saw it. That is when I heard two women in front of me talking. One said: “I remember those days.” And the other one, probably in inner recoil from [the] memory of her own abandonment, coolly responded, “Yeah … I’m glad those days are over.” I remember feeling in that disengaged assessment the perfect expression of the ritual, tribal abandonment of mothers. … [T]here, in public, witnessing hearts did not extend out in compassion. Kind hearts did not listen to a silent plea for understanding, holding, and help. In my mind there is no better way to help children than learning this adult act of silent holding and loving witness for their parents.

I think about when I was squatting down with my own son in the corner of the clay studio, or any of the times I have borne down unfairly on my child, and I can barely stand the thought of someone interrupting us. Like the second mother in Denney’s example, part of me wants to believe that by ignoring the pain, we can make it less painful. Yet another part of me knows there is something powerful and healing about not ignoring. There is something less literal than instructing and more gentle than intruding and it begins with a compassionate gaze.

*   *   *

After the class in which I pulled Orlando aside, I realized that I was stressed during clay class, and that it was bringing out the worst in me. I was overwhelmed by all the details, clumsy with the clay, experiencing afternoon blood sugar crashes, and bothered by what I saw as Orlando’s inattention. I figured I had a choice: change my response or change the circumstances (or some combination thereof). So my husband, Rom, finished the class with Orlando, and I stayed home with our one-year-old, Mica. No one was getting yelled at, at least not in our family; at least not in our family during clay class.

I didn’t quit because of the other mother, though I have questioned myself about that. I think of her and her son as a window onto my son and me, but I also think of them as their own two people in the world. I think of the connections between all of us that are simultaneously undeniable yet unrealized.

At the time, I thought that I didn’t have the guts to reach her, or that I needed to know all the details of her private constellation of stress before really making a difference. But now I realize that I did know something. I knew that simply asking her name helped her shed some of the stress she was under. Our eyes met, for just that one second, and I saw her clearly.

At the time, it wasn’t enough to push me out of my comfort zone toward a place where I could be of real service. But now I feel compelled to keep going. Now I offer a hand to the pregnant woman with bags of groceries. Now when I see a dad and daughter in excruciating negotiation over a second ice cream cone, with the daughter beginning to screech and the dad beginning to clench, I try not to run away inside. I try to acknowledge that I’ve been there, too. I’ve been there, too.

What if I had persisted in my small gestures of ease and kindness toward the other mother and her son? What if I had continued to stay near, silently telling them, “I see you”? Not in a creepy way, like, I see you, and you better behave. But in this way:, I see you, because I see myself.

What if I had told her: “There is no other mother”?

Author’s Note: I began this piece eighteen months ago, just as I was beginning to come to terms with my own first serious bouts of parental impatience and anger. I had always been drawn to and inspired by respectful parenting and was deeply troubled to find myself talking to my young sons in ways I knew I didn’t believe in.

Being in clay class with the other mother showed me both who I thought I would never be and who I feared I was becoming. It is only now, after a certain amount of my own healing, that I can imagine opening myself to that other mother, and holding her experience alongside my own.

Stacy Lewis lives in Seattle with her husband and children. She is a Hakomi therapist and teacher, a homeschooling mama, a walker of woods and neighborhoods, and a lover of the beach. She has a blog at http://sweetsky.net.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

On a First Name Basis with My First Grader

On a First Name Basis with My First Grader

By Jennifer D. Munro

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 5.07.32 PMAlthough Ben is my first and only child, I am his twelfth mother. By the time Ben became my son, I’d missed out on so much already: not only the maternal bonding provided by pregnancy, childbirth, and breast feeding, but Ben’s first breath, first word (which might have been “ma”), first step, first day of kindergarten, and, not-so-endearing, his first cuss. But not being able to name my own child turned out to be the most surprising deprivation, a profound loss that I hadn’t fully considered.

Ben was one of the ten thousand available children in our state’s foster care system. I realized that, although I didn’t choose his name, I could live with a Ben. I could grow fond of a Ben. I could love a Ben. Unexpectedly, though, what turned out to be the problem was not our child’s name, but mine.

When Ben moved in with us six weeks after we met and two weeks after he turned six, I realized there was one more unexpected loss to mourn: It had taken me so long to mother, but I would never be called “Mom.” My husband Patrick and I were Ben’s parents now, planning to adopt him out of foster care when the requi- site six-month waiting period passed. His forever family who would usher him into adulthood. But Ben didn’t call us Mom and Dad. He called us Pat and Jen.

I’m not sure how many of his eleven other mothers he called “Mom,” but I know it’s what he called the single mother who had fostered him for the previous three years—the one who loved him but gave him up because she said he was an active boy who needed an active, two-parent family. We deciphered the coded language later: He was too difficult for one person to manage. He needed a dad who could step in when he punched Mom.

Fathers had been less integral for him. There were father figures in his past, but they didn’t parent. They carried impact for the wrong reasons. One “stepdad” of sorts is in jail for using a tire iron to murder (with no motive) a disabled man. He wasn’t patient around a toddler, either, but he wasn’t the only one among the “stepdads” who insisted that his girlfriend’s children call him Daddy (though the relationships they forged were decidedly un-father-like). Ben’s biological father had always been a distant figure. When I had the chance to ask him if Ben had been named after a family member, hoping to share that history with Ben someday, he replied, “Well, I had said God damn it, if it’s a boy, I get to name it. So at the hospital, it was a boy, but I hadn’t thought about it at all, so I just sort of came up with Benny right there.”

After three years of living with a single foster mother, Ben craved a live-in, microwave-dinner-cooking, piggy-back-giving, shaving-in-the-mirror father. Ben’s complete focus on my husband verified what his foster mother had told us about Ben wanting a dad. Mothers, however, were impermanent, throwaway items, like plastic utensils. In fact, they were apparently interchangeable. Since he would rarely see her again, Ben needed to transition away from calling his last foster mother “Mommy.” She suggested he call her Aunty Jennifer; we shared the same first name. His first foster mother, who had parented him from fourteen months to two-and-a-half years, was also named Jennifer. No wonder the state had a shortage of foster families, since being named Jennifer was apparently one of the licensing requirements. Ben had blown through a lot of homes one summer between the two long-term Jennifers, and I don’t know how many he called “Mom” or “Jennifer” or some of the other profane names he used on me, which was probably one reason that he was so frequently sent packing.

Why should he bestow yet one more stranger with those honored parental titles when every Mom and Dad in the past had either hurt or deserted him? Jennifers didn’t exactly have a stellar track record, either, but I fully expected from the start to be Jennifer to him forever. Mom and Dad would have to be earned and would have to be Ben’s choice. No matter how much we wanted it, asking or demanding it would set it even farther out of reach, since he was diagnosed as an Oppositional Defiant Child (I’m told there are some kids who aren’t), which meant that the more we insisted on something, the happier it made him to deny us. So be it. We wouldn’t ask.

I reconciled myself to being Jennifer and worked on other things. When I picked Ben up from school every day at first, he greeted me with, “What’d you bring me?” After a month or two of coaching him, he upgraded to: “Hi, Jen! What’d you bring me?” and then added, “Thanks,” for whatever snack I’d brought along with the skateboard or bike or scooter. Sometimes after “thanks,” he scowled and complained that’s not what he wanted; after we’d made even more progress, he didn’t throw the unwanted item back at me.

*   *   *

I preferred Jennifer to the other things he called me the first year. His most common refrain was, “I’m going kill you, you fucking bitch.” (He launched such vulgar threats before he knew about prepositions.) He called my slender husband “You fat bitch.” Pat and I found humor where we could and laughed about that one when Ben was out of earshot. But his spitting on me, trying to punch me (he never succeeded, either because I was too quick or he knew better, deep down, than to really try), peeing on the carpet, breaking things, manipulating, stealing, and pathologically lying, all weren’t so funny.

With Ben’s many disturbing behaviors, we needed to create a safe circle of love as well as authority—firm, even uncomfortably strict, parental authority. Why should Ben listen to rules set down and enforced by his friends Pat and Jen? Why obey his buddies, who were “cool,” as he had described Pat to his foster mom after our first meeting? (I was under no illusion that the appellation applied to me, too.) And if he couldn’t learn to abide by rules at home, he’d never learn to follow boundaries in the larger world of school, after-school care, sports clubs, and eventual AA meetings. I jest, but the grim reality is that kids with ADHD alone and none of Ben’s other risk factors have a high incidence of substance abuse, so this is a struggle Ben will almost certainly face. Just one more reason why Ben needed a strong foundation now.

While I knew liberals who were fine with their kids calling them by their first names, these were children who’d been given stability, safety, and nurturing since their first breath. They might have their annoying habits or problem behaviors, but these kids weren’t dangerous. Ben, according to his therapist, was on a fast track to jail, not college. It was our job to parent him toward more positive outcomes, so we needed to substantiate ourselves as his parents, who set house rules that he needed to learn to follow. Having him call us by our parental titles seemed an increasingly important element of his success.

But a “Call me Mom from now on” edict would not cut the mustard. Our born-again-hippie friends could set down the law whenever they chose: “It’s Dad, not Paul,” and quit answering them whenever the kid greeted them as if they were at a bar. You can guess how Ben would have responded to that. He had plenty of other names to choose from. Dummy, Stupid, Asshole, Dead Fish, and the ever-favorite Bitch were all top contenders.

Yet I intuited that Ben wanted us to be Mom and Dad, titles that would claim us as his: “MY mom” and “MY dad,” which is how I still refer to my parents. The words indicate a sense of belonging, literally.

Still, he rarely called me “Mom,” and this only when he wanted something, when suddenly I was the “skinny, pretty Mommy.” The compliment illustrated his shrewd scheming more than my fit- ness for appearing on Project Runway, as he once suggested when I was swathed in winter gardening clothes. I’m not going to disparage myself, but no one has ever called me skinny; the closest I get is, “Have you lost weight?” Yet Ben never once called me “fat” as he did Patrick.

The notion of a mom was very much on Ben’s mind beyond wily maneuvering, though. He at times chewed on the word like a safety blanket when I was nearby, so we ended up having exchanges like this:

“Mommommommom.”

“Yes?”

“Nothing.”

Or,

“Mommersmommersmommers

mommers.”

“Yes?”

“Nothing.”

Or, “Mommymommymommymommy.”

“Yes?”

It took me awhile to learn that he wasn’t looking for an answer. This was his Ohm, his startling mantra. Still, I couldn’t quite relax, like a doctor always on call, never sure when the real need would arise that required a response.

The confusion wasn’t just mine. Once when I wasn’t home, Ben screamed at my husband, “I want my mommy! I want Mama!”

Patrick panicked. Which one?

Calling us Mom and Dad would also, instantly, “normalize” him outside the home. When he referred to us as Pat and Jennifer to teachers or classmates, questions were immediately raised: Who were we? What was our relationship? Were we his parents? This then called for qualifications: We were technically his foster parents until his adoption was finalized, which made him a foster child, which made him a child with a not-so-nice label, a child who just might spell trouble. If he called us Mom and Dad, suddenly there were no questions, and he had no explaining to do, especially to other kids. Nobody need know his unfortunate past as revealed by the “f” word.

How to make that transition?

*   *   *

While my husband was the Prom King of Creative Parenting Methods That Always Worked, I was the Valedictorian of the Plain Jane Nerd School of Parenting. So it’s odd that he can’t take any credit for my inspired tactic: I instructed Pat to stop calling me by my first name. From that point on, we referred to each other as “your dad” or “your mom” in Ben’s presence. As in, “Go tell your dad that dinner’s ready, please.” Or, “Tell your father that he can’t buy whatever he’s looking at on E-Bay. It doesn’t matter how I know and it doesn’t matter what it is, tell Dad to log off.” Or, if I’m mixing a martini (for a guest, of course), “Have your father get you a Band-aid for that. Oh, for heaven’s sake, they’re on the shelf, right in front of Dad’s nose.”

Ben took his cue and started calling us Mom and Dad. It was really that simple. He can’t remember ever having called us Pat and Jen. The profanity and the threats, the intense anger and destruction, all stopped almost simultaneously. He can’t remember calling me any of the other foul names he called me for almost ten months, close to the duration of a normal human gestation. Oddly, I, too, find it difficult to go back to calling my husband by his first name.

Ben has called me Mom for a couple of years now, but I still get a rush of pleasure every time. That might sound like a cliché, but it’s not. I waited a long time to hear that word. Mom. I’m a mom! I kiss scratches and mop up vomit and send him to timeouts when I discover things like the Brussels sprouts from his dinner plate floating in the toilet (only as a new mother did I discover, as he did, too late, that those buoyant round crucifers won’t flush). I witnessed the moment when he finally took off on his bike without training wheels, and he turned to see if I was looking. I was, and he knew it. I treasure the drawings he makes me (refraining from asking, “What is it?”) and display his tipsy Popsicle stick box next to my antique French crystal scent casket. I hold his small hand in mine on neighborhood strolls I used to take by myself, and I ignore my obsessive fastidiousness when he eats an ice cream cone and gets is all over his face and clothes. I gloat with maternal satisfaction at Ben’s empathy for and kindness to animals, having ignored the dire warnings that Ben should not be placed with pets; with mistreatment of animals being one of the primary hallmark traits of serial killers, my hubris in disregarding this raging red flag snapping in a nasty wind can only be chalked up to maternal instinct. Recently two members of his professional support team, who have never met, said separately to me, “You are his mother. You know him best.” My first response was to protest, “No, I don’t.” But I guess I do.

While I once couldn’t understand parents who made distinctions between their “biological children” and their “adoptive children,” sometimes I am tempted to identify Ben as my foster-to-adopt child. Not because I don’t consider him to be my forever child, the child who will either cheer me in my retirement years or send me to an early grave, but as a simple shorthand: “He came to us through foster care” is code for “He’s had a tough life, and we are decent people, so please forgive us for what he just did to your darling angel.” While I simply call him “my son” in his presence, if what he’s just done is really embarrassing or heinous, I just might try to work his history in as an aside, with heavy violins to evoke sympathy rather than a lawsuit.

What I’m more apt to do is refer to myself as an adoptive mother, my own proviso: I went through a lot to get here to this supervisory spot on the play- ground, and I am not a bad parent. Yes, that looks like my third-grader having a screaming meltdown in K-Mart, and you question what kind of ineffectual mother would allow this to continue, but please consider his first six years and give me a hip bump that he’s using no profanity and isn’t trying to steal anything.

Ben doesn’t have much from his first six years, so I save what I can, including his first voice mail message to us a few days after we’d met, in which he says, “Hi, Pat. Hi, Jen,” and asks if can come over and maybe play guitar and Legos with us. When I listen to the message now, almost three years later, to hear his baby voice call me Jen shocks me almost as much as if he’d called me one of the other names he was so fond of that first year.

Sadly, conferring the title on me meant taking it away from someone else. We asked his birth mother to stop signing her rare cards to him as “Mommy.” When he’d made his own choice to call me his mother, it was too confusing to Ben to get cards from a “Mommy” he no longer remembered and who had done very little of his mothering. His social worker suggested that for both of Ben and his birth mother’s sakes, it was better that they move on to a new stage in their relation- ship, signified by her no longer calling herself Mommy. We offered to give him as many cards as she chose to send but requested that she sign them with her first name (which thankfully isn’t Jennifer). She stopped writing him altogether. I can understand the value she put on that single word and how impossible it would feel to go back.

*   *   *

A few years ago, I had accepted without misgiving that the neonatal and baby years would not be part of my mothering experience (although I still haven’t lost the “sympathetic pregnancy” weight gain). And yet, they undeniably provide a deep bonding that endures, helping a mother get through sleepless nights, teething, and teenage hormones. How to bond when detachment and mistreatment came first?

“Mom! Watch this! Watch me, Mommy! Did you see me, Mom?” goes a long way towards mending that gap.

I must be careful about the baggage and weight I give these issues, though. For all that he experienced more in six years than I did in forty-three, he’s just a kid. One day, when he was going through a particularly rough spell, and the therapist had given him quite a lecture about his going to kid’s jail if he didn’t turn it around, I thought that perhaps Ben needed some validation and reassurance. I gave him a big spiel about how he was my son, my only son, the only son I ever wanted, and the only son I would ever have. Oh, a big, bonding moment to cherish! Full string section! Applause! Hankies!

Ben looked back at me and said, “What’s for dinner, Mom?”

 

Some names and identifying details have been changed.

Author’s Note: I assumed that Ben would want to keep his middle name as well as his first name, but just before his adoption was finalized, I thought of a new middle name that had been used by both my husband’s and my side of the family. I loved this name and the idea of being able to name Ben in a way that would further unify us as a forever family. I would be crushed if he didn’t like it, but it had to be Ben’s choice. Fortunately, he loved it, too. He used to just write “Ben” on his papers, but now he writes his new full name in big letters across the top of everything.

Jennifer D. Munro is a freelance editor whose essays and stories have appeared in more than sixty publications, including Best American Erotica; the best of Literary Mama anthology; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. The Erotica Writer’s Husband & Other Stories is her fiction collection about the lighter side of sex and the sexes. She blogs about marriage, miscarriage, motorcycling, and motherhood at StraightNoChaserMom.com.

Birth Control’s Invisible Mommy Majority

Birth Control’s Invisible Mommy Majority

gty_birth_Control_pills_thg_120306_wmainI went to the doctor—a new doctor, actually, since we’d changed insurance and had to switch physicians. As checkups go, it was a bit uncomfortable. Unlike my old practice, where they take action only if, say, you drop a body part in the waiting room, this new gal was on her game.

First, she busted me on my three-glass-a-night Chardonnay habit. Then she followed up with a series of passive-aggressive questions about my general health. (Sample: “As your physician, I’m happy with your body mass index. How do you feel about your weight?”) Then we got to the female stuff. She flipped through the pages of the file sent over by my old doctor. Two births, two miscarriages, a few stubborn ovarian cysts, and a fifteen-year merry-go-round of vaginal infections. A thrilling read, I’m sure.

I still had just the one sexual partner? Her pen paused over the file. Uh, yeah, that would be my lawfully wedded husband of about two million years. And were we still sexually active? Yes, I said, resisting the urge to add, define “active.” And we were still using—she double-checked the file—the diaphragm? She smiled up at me so brightly I felt sure she was about to burst out laughing.

Yes. Okay. I’m forty-four years old and I still use a diaphragm. Feel free to lean over with that Sharpie and draw a big L for Loser right on my forehead.

What do you think of when you imagine diaphragm sex? Hot, spontaneous quickies in the middle of the day on top of the new HE washer? Parking the kids at Grammy’s and booking a dirty weekend away, the kind where you don’t even care what city you’re in because you’re not planning on ever leaving the hotel room?

It’s entirely possible to do those things using the diaphragm as your method of birth control. Possible, but not probable. No, the venerable diaphragm, that cheery latex dome with its alarmingly over-springy coil, its demure petal-pink clamshell housing, its absurd beige “flesh” color (I defy even the most militant feminists among us to tell me the color of the inside of their vaginas. It’s dark in there, people!) … no, the diaphragm conjures up visions of exhausted missionary-style coupling in the dark on a random Wednesday night with one ear cocked anxiously for the patter of little feet. That’s diaphragm sex. Or that’s its reputation, anyway.

*   *   *

Lying awake after just such a marital encounter (one of us had allergies acting up, the other was freaking about work and couldn’t relax), I started wondering about mothers and birth control. Was it my fault I was still using the same method I picked out when I walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic in Ithaca, New York, at the dawn of the ’80s? Or has there been a kind of eerie silence about the whole topic, a distinct lack of progress, a pall over the land even?

We’re a capitalist/consumerist society, I don’t deny it. So why isn’t Big Pharma kissing my butt? I’m a marketer’s dream: like many other mothers, I’m an educated purchaser with a steady income, the primary decision-maker for my household of four plus one domestic animal. I have sex regularly, I need reliable birth control that doesn’t trash my health—come at me, baby, show me the goods!

Companies are constantly trying to hawk mothers new personal care stuff they’ve invented or invested in: ten different kinds of diapers, a dozen varieties of toothpaste, countless new ways to tame the menstrual flow, stop various body odors, soften scales, whiten, brighten, and exfoliate. Pharmaceuticals have developed new medicines to treat depression, head off migraines, settle the stomach, soothe us to sleep and keep us there for the night, and, yes, help our men-folk get it up and keep it there.

Yet in twenty-odd years just once has somebody managed to pitch me better birth control—the beloved Sponge—only to rudely yank it off the market while I was distracted birthing my first baby. (It’s back, by the way, as of last fall, but too late to stem my crankiness.)

Is it the products—is there simply nothing new to offer, no better way to stop egg from meeting sperm? Is it me—am I somehow missing the marketing message? (Entirely possible: I’m a cynical consumer, a miserable shopper and a mule about what I do choose to buy.)

Or is it mothers—are we considered some kind of invisible, or perhaps untouchable, market? As women with children, mothers bring a unique perspective to bear on the topic of family planning. On the one hand, having seen that life comes out of us, we might feel less insistent than before that we be able to artificially start and stop the fertility process at will. On the other, knowing better than anyone how hard it is to birth, nurse, nurture, and raise a human being, we’re arguably the most motivated users of birth control.

Could it be that our saintly halo of motherhood obscures the fact that we’d like to be able do the nasty without repeating the baby part every time? This last bit would be particularly ironic, considering birth control was made legal—in this country anyway—thanks to tireless efforts of Margaret Sanger, who championed its use specifically as a way to help the mental, physical and emotional well-being of “sick, harassed, broken mothers.”

But once birth control broke out of its marriage bonds during the swinging ’60s and women’s-libbed ’70s, maybe mothers’ concerns got left on the dusty pharmaceutical shelf. Is birth control, like, say, fashion, now considered the province solely of the young, nubile, and childless? Drifting off at last to sleep, I thought it might be worthwhile to dig through the detritus of our consumer-centric culture to figure out what part, if any, moms play these days in family planning.

*   *   *

When asked about how women find out about and choose new methods of birth control, doctors, nurse practitioners, reproductive rights advocates and even pharmaceutical marketers tend piously to intone, “That’s a decision best made between a woman and her doctor.” Oh yes. The very phrase conjures up comforting visions of serious, quiet consultation between a mom and her health-care pro on just what the perfect contraception is for that precise moment in her reproductive life.

I have two problems with this scenario. First, women’s health care providers can be and often are influenced by the bombardment of literature, free samples, and logo-encrusted office tchotchkes (Post-It notes, light-up ballpoint pens and so on) promoting whichever birth control method the pharmaceuticals are currently?pushing, all of which?reduces significantly your?chances of having a frank discussion about older, lower-profile?(or maybe that should be “lower profit margin”) methods.

Second, I’m sure somewhere in this land there are new mothers who don’t arrive for that first four-or six-week post-partum office visit exhausted, lactating, overwhelmed, fighting depression, jiggling a possibly colicky infant in one arm while trying to keep a jealousy-enraged sibling from committing infanticide in the office. Those women, I’m sure, get the fully informed story on their myriad birth control options.

For the rest of us—and I speak here as someone who wept through her entire post-partum checkup, pre-occupied as I was with slow-to-heal stitches of a number so staggering it can’t be shared in polite society—that office visit might not be the most opportune moment to make decisions that are literally life-altering.

If you’re one of those moms who missed out on the full rundown, here, cribbed directly from vast, deep and authoritative resources of the Planned Parenthood web site, are your choices for birth control as of summer 2006: the Pill, the Ring (NuvaRing), the Patch (OrthoEvra), implants (Implanon), the Shot (Depo-Provera), POPs (Progestin-only birth control pills, sometimes called the mini-Pill), the hormone-releasing IUD (Mirena), the non-hormonal IUD (ParaGard), the diaphragm, the Cap (FemCap), the Shield (Lea’s Shield), the male

condom, the female condom, the Sponge, spermicides, fertility-awareness methods, male sterilization, female sterilization, emergency contraception (Plan B), continuous abstinence, continuous breast-feeding (Lactational Amenorrhea Method), outercourse, withdrawal.

That’s a lotta choices, there’s no argument there. What’s notable for mothers?

Well, first of all, hormones are still all the rage. Joining the venerable oral contraceptive (the Pill), which is by far and away the leading method of reversible birth control in the United States, are the Patch, which you change once a week, the Ring, which you change once a month, the Implant, which lasts for up to three years, and Mirena, a hormone-releasing IUD that can be kept in place for as long as five years—all new ways of delivering hormones into your system.

Are hormonal forms of birth control safe for mothers? Study after study after study says yes (as the editors of the activist women’s health tome Our Bodies, Ourselves point out, the birth control pill is the most intensely researched medication in history). But there is a “but.” New mothers who return to the Pill, or another combined-hormone method using estrogen, soon after giving birth will interrupt lactation, points out Leon Speroff, M.D. at Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland, Oregon.

And estrogen, present in the Pill, the Patch, the Ring, the Implant, and the Depo-Provera shot crosses into a baby’s body via breast milk. Health activists like Judy Norsigian, co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, caution that we don’t yet know enough about what kind of changes it may or may not cause to the baby.

For those reasons—cessation in breast milk and an uncertainty over the long-term effects of estrogen on infants—breastfeeding mothers are generally counseled to choose estrogen-free birth control methods, says Susan Wysocki, president and CEO of the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health, based in Washington, D.C.

The second bit of news: The IUD is back from the dead. Increasingly, what those new moms are being advised to try, says Wysocki, is intrauterine contraception—either Mirena, which contains progestin or the hormone-free copper ParaGard.

For anyone—like me—who came of birth-control consciousness in the 1970s or 1980s, the idea of any IUD being sold in the United States is anathema. Because IUDs ran the risk of perforating the uterus or causing severe pelvic infection, they used to be offered to women who had already had one child, on the (offensive) premise that, should her fertility be permanently impaired, at least the injured mom had managed to pop one kid out.

Worse, it turned out that one brand of IUD, the Dalkon Shield, was liable to wick bacteria up into the uterus, causing thousands of women to suffer severe pelvic infections. Twenty women died, the manufacturer declared bankruptcy, and all IUDs were pulled out of the American market.

Flash forward thirty years and it’s a whole different ballgame. New, improved, and, according to both manufacturers and a wide range of health professionals, safe IUDs are back on the market and once again being aggressively marketed to moms. Consider this warm-and-fuzzy language from the makers of Mirena:

You have enough to do with a family and full life. You don’t have time to think about birth control … You don’t want to waste any of the little precious time you have for intimacy. Especially if it’s spent fumbling with condoms or dealing with diaphragms to pre- vent pregnancy. Mirena long term birth control lets you be spontaneous. For up to five years, you can enjoy birth control freedom and intimate moments whenever the mood strikes (and the kids are in bed).

Notwithstanding that nasty side-swipe at the diaphragm, the reasons for marketing IUDs to moms are backed this time around by some sounder medical reasoning. IUDs should be used by women who are at low risk for sexually transmitted infections—that is, women who have just one sexual partner, like, you know, most moms. IUDs are usually easier to insert in women who have had babies already; they’re best for women who want long-term but still reversible contraception; and, owing to the upfront costs associated with insertion, which must be done in a health professional’s office, they make most sense economically for women who’ll keep them in two-and-a-half years or more, according to Wysocki. Who fits those categories best? Mothers.

But the biggest news since I last hit a Planned Parenthood outlet: Emergency contraception is now available. When I was in my early twenties and just starting to play the please-God-don’t-let-me-be-pregnant game, there was only before and after when it came to birth control. If you messed up on the before part—either by not using any contraception or having your method fail on you—you had a baby, had an abortion, or dodged the bullet (that time, at least).

Now women have a third, in-between option: emergency contraception. If you’ve been too busy these past few years looking for binkies under the crib to follow the headlines, you could easily have missed the news that the emergency contraception pill Plan B, the progestin-only pill taken within a hundred twenty hours (five days) of unprotected intercourse, is now legally available in all fifty states. (You can also use certain combinations of regular birth control pills as emergency contraception or have an IUD inserted within five days of unprotected sex.)

In the press and in its own marketing materials, Plan B seems aimed squarely at the twenty-something market, at young Sex-in-the-City-types who had one too many Mojitos and woke up with a problem on their hands.

But I wonder why it isn’t promoted more to mothers. A woman with an infant, a toddler, and a kindergartner on her hands is just as likely to mess up her Pill prescription as a single working girl who has at least nights and weekends to take care of her bodily needs.

And consider these two facts: According to the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), in 2002, twenty-one percent of women fifteen to forty-four years of age reported their most recent birth was “mis-timed”—meaning, the baby was wanted, just not then. Twelve percent of that total were deemed by the women to be “seriously mistimed”—that is, occurring two or more years too soon. The study doesn’t specify, but at least some of those mistimed babies are likely be moms with birth control mess-ups on their hands.

And this, which we do know about mothers specifically: Sixty percent of women having abortions are already mothers, according to Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit reproductive-health research organization. Sixty percent! That figure alone certainly puts to rest the idea that emergency contraception is needed only by young and/or childfree women.

Even though its advocates argue than Plan B can go a long way toward preventing some abortions, the EC pill has had a long hard battle toward legitimacy. In some states, pharmacists who object to Plan B on moral grounds are being encouraged not to fill prescriptions. And politics inside the FDA have long delayed hearings that would pave the way for Plan B to be available over the counter (at press time, it looked like the hearings were finally going to go forward). Politics aside, for mothers, Plan B is news we can use.

*   *   *

Talk of politics and Plan B brings up an ugly realization many of us mothers might not have had the time in the past couple of years to properly contemplate: Whatever method we’re using, we had better really trust it, because our backup options are under serious attack.

Like a lot of other women, I try to stay up on the issues, but it’s hard to know where to channel your outrage and still have energy left over for the parts of your life you can control, like love and joy and the cleaning up of the kitchen at the end of the day.

So sure, I knew about South Dakota, which this spring passed a ban on nearly all abortions—including rape, including incest—in an effort to push the issue up to the Supreme Court. And I knew in a vague sort of way that pharmacists were being encouraged to refuse to fill Plan B prescriptions.

But I admit it, I was shocked when I started reading past the headlines and got caught up in a hurry on what’s been going on with women’s reproductive rights in this country. The New York Times Magazine‘s “Contra-Contraception” (May 7, 2006) by Russell Shorto details the truly shocking efforts by some religious and political groups on the far right to oppose contraception—any contraception, even within a marriage. Jack Hitt’s “Pro-Life Nation,” also in the Times Magazine (April 9, 2006), details life in El Salvador, where every single type of abortion is illegal, no exceptions, and women are thrown in jail for having back-alley abortions.

The Atlantic‘s June 2006 cover story by Jeffrey Rosen maps out what will happen in the U.S. if (and some on both sides of the issue now say “when”) Roe v. Wade is overturned. (Picture fifty states, each battling over its own definition of when life begins and what a woman’s say in that process should be.) Cynthia Gorney’s June 26, 2006 piece in The New Yorker digs into the hearts and minds of South Dakotans after the abortion ban was passed there and finds deep ambivalence.

Dana L’s wrenching personal essay in the June 4, 2006 Washington Post, “What Happens When There Is No Plan B?” chronicles how her inability to get hold of emergency contraception in time forced her into having an abortion. The excellent, ongoing coverage of the various chips and blows to birth control in Salon’s Broadsheet column online.

To be sure, not all mothers, not even all feminist mothers, support abortion. But a staggering majority of people support the right to use contraception: Ninety eight percent of all women who have had intercourse use some form of birth control at some point in their lives (according to the NSFG).

Clearly, a lot has happened while we’ve been off birthing our babies. But what will it take to turn the average already overwhelmed mom into a contraceptive activist?

Our Bodies Ourselves‘ Judy Norsigian is fairly blunt, and fairly pessimistic, in gauging the political involvement of regular Americans. “The problem here is an assumption that this is a right that won’t be taken away. Right now people don’t believe it could happen,” she says. “We’re going to see limited activist activity until access to abortion is pretty much taken away,” she predicts.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, knows of at least one group of mothers who are taking notice. “We’ve been talking with women who were very active in the reproductive-choice movement, perhaps in college, before they had a family,” she reports. “Now they’re married, working, raising children who are in middle school or high school or grown and out of the house, and they’re saying, what happened to all that I worked for when I was so active so many years ago?”

Keenan says mothers have two good reasons to keep their head in the reproductive game. First, mothers need to be aware that the political emphasis on abstinence-only sex education and limited access to birth control for young people creates a miasma of misinformation that can put their teenagers at risk for STDs, AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy.

Second, she says, is simply this: “We need to stand up for the values of privacy and personal freedom, and there’s a responsibility that comes with those. We have an obligation to stand up for that freedom.”

For those who can’t, don’t want to or aren’t ready to trade Prego-strolling for placard-carrying, Keenan offers an easier path to activism—voting. Not just in presidential elections but in the upcoming mid-term elections, and in other state and local elections, where many reproductive battles are currently being waged and most certainly will, in a post-Roe world, be fought.

“Even women in predominantly pro-choice states like New York and California cannot assume they’ll forever be protected,” Keenan says. “You cannot assume that someone else will be protecting your reproductive choices.”

*   *   *

As the only female child of a Catholic father so opposed to birth control he wouldn’t let us fix the cat, I had to go elsewhere to find info on contraception when the time came. Where I went was Our Bodies, Ourselves, not the new colorized version, but the old newsprinty one with the young, cool-looking feminists with the long straight hair and the no bras, carrying signs telling the government to keep their laws of our bodies.

All these years later, I realize how much that book influenced both my personal decisions and my politics. The young me chose the diaphragm for some good reasons: thanks in part to Our Bodies, Ourselves‘ deep reservations about the Pill, back when estrogen doses were sky high and side effects were multiple, I wanted contraception that was as chem-free and low-impact as possible. (Special shout out here to all the moms who use natural family planning, a truly chem-free alternative that requires more math than this English major can handle).

The older me still wants those same things, which is why, in the end, I’ve stuck with my dorky diaphragm all these years. On a personal level, obviously it’s time for the devoted father of my children to step up to the plate and get the big V.

On a political level, things aren’t so clear cut. I started out wondering why mothers don’t have better birth control and wound up thankful we have any at all. I guess it’s time to re-engage, however reluctantly, in the same-old fight from three decades—keep yer laws off my bod. If you need me, you’ll find me on top of my HE washer, exercising my constitutional rights.

Author’s Note: Lying on the couch late one night, watching Sex in the City reruns on Lifetime, I nearly spit out my Chardonnay when Carrie announced to the other girls that her diaphragm was stuck. Wait, Carrie Bradshaw uses a diaphragm? Never mind that particular detail makes no sense, plot-wise, in the show. I say, welcome to the sisterhood.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

Object of Desire

Object of Desire

By Tricia Springstubb

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 5.32.07 PMIt reminded me of that period in my life when, if a friend called up with a tremulous note in her voice, I knew her next words would be, “We’re splitting up.” Or, years later, when an urgent request to meet for coffee meant a brilliant son was failing out of school, or a daughter was whittling herself to a skeleton and what, what could you do to stop them?

Now it was our aging mothers who gave our voices a ragged note, that hiss of despair. My friends and I staggered through the long stretch of midnight phone calls, of step-down and rehab, spouting diagnostic numbers we didn’t really understand, comparing tips on home aides. While we struggled to be noble, our mothers remained the pessimists or the optimists, the divas or the earth mothers they had always been. They thanked us over and over, or told us we were doing everything wrong. And then, they died.

After all that, they went into the ground without complaint, heavy seeds that bore no fruit, not any more. But oh, it wasn’t over. Here are some of the things they left behind: boxes of feathered, veiled hats; a collection of pietàs; sweaters; poetry by the shoebox; rooms full of hideous furniture pristinely preserved. A tattered rain coat, thirty unopened sponges, photo albums full of smiling people no one recognized. Without the mothers to pick them up and show them to us, to put them on, or dust them off or gently unfold them on the kitchen table, these things lost their enchantment, the way luminous shapes picked up on a beach turn into unremarkable rocks once you get them home. Standing in my mother’s silent house, I thought of a beekeeper regarding his swarming hive—all that golden dazzle of movement, that hum of wings, and sweet, heavy smell of honey. Then one day the bees are gone. Gone! And he realizes that all he’s looking at is a ponderous box.

Yet what to do with all they left behind? One friend built a pyre, and the hats in their cake-shaped boxes went up in smoke. She couldn’t bear to give them away and what in the world would she ever do with them? Another painstakingly sifted and compiled her mother’s poems, bound them and gave us copies. My siblings and I were lucky, in a way, because our penny-pinching mother didn’t leave very much. She liked to use things up; she was one of those rare people who can throw something away without a second thought. (Something like my original Shirley Temple doll, no doubt worth a fortune.) There was nothing for us kids to argue over, though we wouldn’t have anyway, not if there’d been mountains of silver and crystal. Our parents’ marriage was tempestuous and hard. How well we children get along was one of our mother’s rare, pure pleasures. That, and her grandchildren.

And we were lucky in another way, because one of those grandchildren, my youngest daughter, was planning to move into her first apartment and would need things like colanders and kettles. The mothers’ dying, the daughters’ setting up house—the fearful symmetry of that! The day we closed up our childhood home, my siblings wrapped juice glasses and measuring cups for their niece, gratified that these things would get a second act. It seemed so natural, the wheel of life taking a spin, the baton passing, and we were off the hook about what to do with it all. This was a rainy day in late July, our parents’ anniversary in fact. Just as we were leaving, the sun came out, and condensation rose from the roof. We all started laughing, all thinking the same thing: It was Mom, steamed up over our abandoning the family homestead after fifty-four years.

This granddaughter who was moving out, moving five hundred miles away to New York City, this youngest daughter we still call Baby—this girl once misplaced her cello, which was in a case the size of a closet. While she lived with us, I found twenty dollar bills wadded up in the bottom of the washer as regularly as I did her cell phone (and once her bra) between the couch cushions, her wallet beneath the seat of the car. The floor of any room she occupies quickly becomes little more than rumor. Where her grandmother was thrifty, she is careless, but in the end doesn’t it amount to the same thing? Possessions are their servants, not the other way around.

I, on the other hand, am prone to endow objects with, if not sentience, at least the power to conduct memory and its attendant emotions. Some current scintillates in the weave of that ugly shirt, the first present my husband ever gave me, which he chose with such care and offered with such diffidence and which he’d be astonished to discover still residing in my bottom drawer. This isn’t sentimentality. It’s primitive faith, or else superstition of the purest sort: If I don’t honor you, dear thing, what’s to keep the universe, which after all is mostly composed of things, from turning its back on me? It’s not me converting this bit of cotton into a talisman, but the reverse: The power resides in that shirt, this yellowed prayer book, the envelope of baby teeth tucked in my jewelry box. “I hear the songs the objects sing,” my friend who collects glass and textiles once quoted to me, a line from a German poet. A Siren song, I fumed, surrounded as I was by far, far too much stuff. Possessed by possessions, those treacherous tricksters! After we emptied my mother’s house, I vowed to learn my lesson.

And yet, two months later, a week before my daughter was set to move away, I became fixated on acquiring a dresser. A dresser and a hamper, I told my friends, comrades in this latest stage: the empty nest. If this careless girl at least starts out with receptacles for clean and dirty clothes, her life may assume a new, vertical order. The chaos of her life will fall away, stunned into submission by shining towers of organization. All will be well! My friends nodded. They were busy buying de-humidifiers for basement apartments, curtains for windows that faced brick walls. The song of the objects still sang in our heads, but now, instead of a dirge, we heard a love ballad.

At Target, the Baby glanced at the various dressers, pronounced them all just fine, and drifted toward the jeans department. That night my husband examined the model I bought, which mysteriously fit into a very flat box.

“There’s really a dresser in there?” I’d asked the sales clerk, and she’d murmured something about assembly, and hardware, though maybe she’d said nightmare. My husband returned the box the next day, vowing to take charge of the dresser issue himself.

He came home with a chest of drawers the size of a child’s coffin. It was assembled, yet would fit in the car (a station wagon, a near replica of the one my mother drove). “It’s too small,” I said. He argued it was practical. I insisted it was flimsy. He said look, he’d reinforce the bottoms of the drawers, and tighten the knobs, and while he was at it give the top another coat of varnish. “Why don’t you just build a dresser from scratch?” I cleverly rejoined. Our daughter raised an eyebrow but dutifully filled the drawers—her underwear and half a dozen T-shirts did it. The rest of her clothes went into garbage bags she wedged in around the dresser. Her grandmother’s linens and kitchen things, my dismantled childhood bed—the car was crammed. We were ready.

But sometime between then and the next afternoon, when we were to leave, her father began to have qualms. He e-mailed me from work that the dresser was, after all, too small, and we should take it out of the car. “Are you nuts?” I e-squawked back. He wrote that he was a flexible person, able to admit a mistake. I wrote that the dresser might work out after all, because our daughter said her room was small, and if she said that, it meant Lilliputian. He phoned to say he didn’t want to drag a dresser five hundred miles only to discard it on a New York City sidewalk. I said that would be easier than wrestling it back out of the car at this point.

The dresser stayed in the car, but by now we were both furious and miserable. We left late, throwing off the (completely arbitrary!) schedule he’d set us. He and I, when we spoke at all, continued to argue, all across Pennsylvania, past the signs for Barkeyville and See Penn’s Cavern by Boat and the giant Sapp Brothers Café coffee pot, milestones that in the past always made us happy. Demented, we fought over when and where we should stop to eat, whether we should stay in a Motel 6 or a Comfort Inn. If it had been possible to enumerate the hairs on our daughter’s head, we might have argued over the final number. She and the dresser rode in the back, equally silent.

When I left home for the first time, I moved to a big city, too. I had no job, but a good résumé, friends with room in their apartment, and high hopes. Just like my daughter now, precisely the same scenario. Yet my mother didn’t fret over what I’d sleep on, or where I’d stash my clothes. Surely she never bought me a single piece of furniture, not even a set of towels. By then my father’s drinking was bad. She had four other children, the beginning of her own serious medical problems. Did she believe I’d be better off if, from the very beginning, I understood the price we pay to own things? Or maybe she’d already surrendered, this woman whose homemade wedding dress we found crumpled and yellow in her own dresser’s bottom drawer, surrendered any trust or hope she’d once placed in objects.

The apartment was tiny! The dresser was perfect for it. Where would the rest of her clothes ever fit? That no longer seemed to matter, now that we were standing in her new place, which was so cute, and meeting her roommates, who were so smart and sweet. There was a park at the end of the street, and every passer-by my husband interrogated said the neighborhood was safe, it was a delight, our daughter would love it here. We sank onto a bench, and I leaned my head on his shoulder.

These days when I imagine the Baby’s room I see the little reinforced dresser, a would-be beacon of our love and support. I try not to feel sorry for the poor, stalwart thing, struggling to live up to its task but no match for her usual maelstrom. My friends laugh ruefully as I say this. We shake our heads. What we leave behind, what we choose to give—it’s always so paltry, compared to what we meant.

My mother can’t know (unless she can) that her granddaughter now squints at her Pyrex measuring cup, the red lines all but worn off, or fills her dented tea kettle with New York City water. Thrifty as she was, Mom would be gratified, but more than that. How happy it would make her, what proprietary pleasure she’d take, to know she was part of this new adventure, this blank and gleaming slate of a life!

And when this child uses her grandmother’s things, doesn’t some of that happiness pass through to her? For her, unlike me, these objects are no burden; they make no demands, evoke no regret or sorrow, disappointment, or grief. A single power resides in them now, and that is the magic to make our girl feel embraced, enveloped by something ongoing. Look at her washing the measuring cup, not very well, and setting it on the shelf. Look at her dashing out the door, late, careless, brimming with hope.

Author’s Note: My mother loved to read. Thrifty as she was, though, she never bought books. Stacks from the library anchored every table in our house, and one of my favorite memories is waking in what seemed the middle of the night and seeing, down the end of the hall, her reading lamp shining like a tiny lighthouse.

These days the Baby spends her daily subway ride to work (yes, she found a job!) reading, and has probably endowed a special collection or two with all the library fines she’s paid. How I wish my mom could read this piece about the two of them, and how glad I am that her granddaughter will.

Tricia Springstubb’s fiction has appeared in Redbook, The Iowa Review, and Hunger Mountain, among other places. Her books for young readers include What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren, Lost and Found, and the picture book Phoebe and Digger.

 

Brain, Child (Fall, 2010)

Mother May I?

Mother May I?

mothermayiHere at the dinner table, Birdy is in an ecstasy of cornbread. It has dissolved inside her mouth into a curious paste, and she works it around and around, finally extruding a pale tube of it from between her lips like she’s some kind of coin-op polenta machine.

“Oh Birdy honey,” I say. “I don’t want you to do that.”

“Why not, Mama?” This is Ben now; Birdy can’t speak for slurping the mush back into her mouth. “Is it not safe—like she could choke on it? Or not kind?”

“Safe and Kind” is the rule at school, and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a fine mantra for becoming—and remaining—a human being (it would, for example, make for excellent foreign policy).

“Well,” I say. “I guess it’s that it’s not kind, in a way. I mean, it’s not unkind exactly—Birdy’s not trying to be mean. But it’s gross, which means that it disturbs the other people at the table.”

Ben considers this while he chews a mouthful of chili, as cautiously tight-lipped now as someone’s old granny. He swallows, blots his lips with a napkin, then asks, “But why is it even gross?”

Sometimes I tire of answering their questions, it’s true, but I love the way the kids keep us honest with their curiosity. Especially about manners, which can seem so arbitrary but, at their best, aren’t. “Why?” is just such a good question. Why do you have to say ‘please’? Because it makes people feel good about helping you. Why do you have to say ‘thank you’? Because it shows people that you noticed them doing something for you. Why do you have to use the forks in that particular order? You don’t—we don’t really care about that kind of thing.

Ben’s like a sociologist, sent into the field to study politeness. “Thank you, Mama,” I cue into the silence after pouring him a glass of milk, and he repeats it absently, “Thank you, Mama.”

But then he asks, “But Mama? I don’t even really like milk all that much. I drink it because you guys say I should. Do I still have to say thank you even if you’re giving me something I don’t even want?”

“That’s such a good question,” I say, and mean it. “But yes, honey. You do. Society works best when people are as nice to each other as they can be.”

“I don’t know,” he ponders aloud.

And he returns to pondering when we’re getting ready for bed and I say to a rascally-mood Birdy, “Please don’t bite me when I’m trying to take your socks off.”

“You know, Mama,” Ben laughs, “I think if what you’re saying is don’t bite me you shouldn’t really have to say please.”

“Good point,” I say.

We are strict about manners: The kids have been hissed at in the car more than once, have returned, scolded and solemn-faced, to people’s doorsteps to say, “Thank you for having me.” When the veggies get passed around the table, I use the trick my friend Alix taught me: “Brussels sprouts—Yes please or No thank you?” (Gag me is not one of the choices, as I am quick to remind their father)—and it works like a charm.

But overall, the children behave graciously, and their good manners are their own reward. “What polite children!” people gush at them in the hardware store, at restaurants, when they stop by my office—and the kids beam with pride. “Thank you!’ they say, like caricatures of polite children. And I don’t mention the power struggles when they were toddlers—the stand-offs over markers and cheese, when the little tyrants simply could not bring themselves to dilute their delight, urgency, or rage with the word please.

And Birdy can still, at three, turn into the pettiest of despots: “I need a wet tissue!” she cries, from her car seat, where her fingers are practically stuck together with the sap from an apricot fruit leather. I wait to see if she’ll catch herself.

“Mom, I said I need a wet tissue!

“I hear you,” I say. “It sounds like you really need a wet tissue!”

“I do!”

Silence.

“Mom! My hands are sticky!”

“It sounds like you’ve got some sticky hands!”

More silence.

“Mom, would you please get me a wet tissue?”

“I’d be happy to.”

*   *   *

Part of what’s difficult for toddlers, of course, is that politeness is most often required when somebody does something for you—and toddlers want to be helped about as much as they want another serving of steamed kale. No thank you.

This morning we were watching Birdy wrestle with the large Tupperware container that houses her Playmobil figurines.

“Unh,” she groaned. “Ugh. Oof.”

“Here,” Ben said kindly. “Let me help you.”

But Birdy shrieked, “No, Ben! Don’t.” And then—just as he was beginning to lecture her (“Birdy, even if you don’t want my help, you’ve got to. . . “) she corrected herself. “I mean No thank you, maybe later.” She darted away to the kitchen and returned with a spoon, with which she set to crowbarring the lid, and Ben turned to me with the raised-eyebrow gesture that means, in our family: Good luck, Birdy! But when the lid finally popped off and Birdy hopped up and down triumphantly (“Yay!” she cried, and “Good for me!”) Ben nodded approvingly.

“That’s great, Birdy,” he said, and she said, “Thanks, Benny.” Rooting for each may not be highlighted in the Miss Manners book, but it should be.

*   *   *

Then again, we practice some unorthodox preachings about politeness. I feel, for example, that when you plunk a steaming, buttered ear of it on your child’s plate and he cries, “Ooooh—yum! Corn on the cob!” this is just as good as, if not better than, a plain old “Thank you.” I also think that the pleasure of eating cold green salad with your fingers cannot be overestimated, and at home this is a perfectly acceptable dinnertime behavior. As is resting a comfortable bare knee against the edge of the table, the better to brace yourself while you tug enthusiastically at a sparerib with teeth and hands. These are what we call the “home alone” rules. They differ from “guests over” rules—which differ in turn from “Grandparents over” rules. Which are pretty much identical to “eating at a restaurant” rules, if you please, which means no sticking of your buttery fingers into anybody’s water glass to snatch away and crunch their ice cubes, no not even your own, and no, not even with your salad fork.

I like explaining manners when kindness is the operative goal; I am inclined to think they’re silly when it’s not. And then every now and then there’s a grey area—like the cornbread. “Why is it even gross?” Here at the dinner table, I’m thinking aloud now, saying Ben’s question back to him. “It’s a good question, honey.”

“I mean,” he says, “it’s not gross on your plate. And then it’s just chewed up, which is the same, but chewed.”

“That’s true,” I say, but already a light bulb is illuminating the space above Ben’s head. “I know!” he says. “It’s closer to being poop than when it’s on your plate! And the closer it is to being poop, the less polite it is.”

This is probably a fairly articulate rendering of another of society’s basic tenets. Safe and Kind—and as far from becoming poop as possible.

“Good thinking,” I say.

And Ben smiles at me and says, “Thank you.”

Author’s Note: Ben and Birdy are nine and six now, and they remain polite, vulgar, and curious about the “why” and “how” of manners. “Excuse me, I farted on your pillow,” they say. They say, “Please pull my finger!” and “Would you be so kind as to grab me another roll of toilet paper so I can finish wiping my crack?” I never would have guessed that politeness and scatology could blend together so seamlessly, but I guess you just have to roll with it, right? Turns out I’d rather have a kid who says an enthusiastic “Thanks, Mama!” even if it’s about passing him the prank plastic cat turd, than a kid who takes a fragrant bouquet of flowers sullenly out of my offering hands.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

Bonus Baby

Bonus Baby

By Elizabeth Roca

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 4.37.48 PMLast night I did what I ordinarily do around eleven o’clock. I shut down my laptop computer and put it away, then closed the book I was reading and set it on the lamp stand next to the sofa. I brought my water glass and my wine glass into the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher. While my husband went outside to smoke his last cigarette for the evening, I climbed the stairs and readied myself for bed.

I donned my pajamas and crawled in next to my nineteen-month-old daughter, Camille. She was sleeping beautifully, pajamaed bottom in the air and bobbed sand-colored hair spilling over the sheet. Normally when I get into bed she just rolls against me and sighs, but tonight my movements disturbed her. She stirred, thrashed, then moaned and held up both hands, her eyes shut. “Up high! Up high!” she cried. It is the phrase she uses when she can’t reach an object or when she wants to place something beyond her older siblings’ grasp. She is growing so quickly. I used to think she was dreaming when, in infancy, she stayed latched onto my breast throughout the evening, eyes closed, throat pulsing in rhythm with her fluttering tongue. But this was the first time I had heard the proof: her own words, outlining an image in her brain I could not see.

She’s easy, this little girl, my third and last baby: a tiny, verbally precocious, sharp-witted mama’s girl. She has been a joy to me every day of her life. I am a joy to her, too; I know this as I have known few things. She tromps along behind me all day long, hollering, “Mam-my! Mam-my!” in her surprisingly deep voice. “Lap,” she says, reaching up, and when ensconced on my thighs, yanks my shirt and demands, “This!” I bare my breast and she laughs and latches on, falling back into the crook of my elbow. After a short time she grows sleepy and meditative, playing with a lock of my hair. While she nurses I read or play with my older children or talk on the phone. I kiss the silky, smelly sole of her bare foot and she grins around my nipple and raises the other foot to be kissed, too. Holding her in my arms, making her happy, is often the happiest part of my day.

Her brother and sister, twins, are thick in the drama of being three years old. They compete for my attention much of the time, hanging onto me and demanding treats, shoving each other, snatching toys, pulling hair, whining until I want to scream—and sometimes do. Often Camille moves beyond it all, serenely bedding down a doll in a wooden cradle or swiping ineffectively at a miniature football with a plastic golf club. For minutes at a time, in the throes of grappling with her siblings, I nearly forget Camille. I glance up and feel surprised to see her there, small and solemn under her straight bangs. She sees me looking and gives a goofy grin, all half-grown baby teeth and adult-looking undereye bags. Adoration coupled with sadness flares in me, and I think, It is the strangest thing: she was not meant to exist.

I’m not ignorant, at least not in matters of conception. I know how babies are made. But this one caught me by surprise. I went to my ob/gyn’s office for my yearly checkup and told her something strange was going on with my period. I’d gotten it as usual on my twins’ first birthday. The next month had brought cramps and a single morning of spotting. I might have wondered about that longer if it hadn’t occurred on Christmas Eve, while my attention was caught up in our family celebration. The following month had come and gone without any blood at all. I’d been wondering, I told my doctor, if my body were undergoing some kind of post-breastfeeding hormone fluctuations.

The doctor snickered. A few minutes later, with one hand inside me and the other pressed flat against my stomach, she said, “I think you’re pregnant, and I think you’re twelve weeks pregnant.”

A few minutes after that she performed an impromptu sonogram and confirmed her diagnosis: sometime in early September, probably, I would give birth to my third baby and thereby become the mother of three children under the age of two.

I liked this doctor. When I laughed, she laughed with me.

*   *   *

My husband and I had been told that we were unlikely to have babies on our own, and after eighteen months of the agony that is de rigueur for infertile couples, we had conceived our twins through in vitro fertilization. When you are used to injections, artificial hormones, and egg retrievals, unassisted conception seems nothing short of miraculous. This pregnancy, therefore, was a gift and a blessing. It was also a surprise, and this was the aspect of it that was hard to reconcile. When a gift and blessing arrives unexpectedly, unasked for, in the midst of your busy life, you must decide what your reaction will be: acceptance or rejection.

My husband had also laughed in disbelief and pleasure when I returned home from the doctor’s office and shoved the sonogram photos into his hand, unable to think of words to accompany their blurry but irrefutable images. I was thrilled, grateful, fierce in the expectation that someone might try to tell me that this pregnancy was not a good idea. By any practical measurement it was not. My husband and I had too little money, too small a house, even too small a car to keep three children. Worse, my first pregnancy had been disastrous, a mess of preterm labor that kept me on bedrest for four months, the majority of that time in the hospital. Soon after my second pregnancy was diagnosed I returned to the hospital’s antenatal unit to show off my twins and announced to the nurses that I was expecting another baby. The nurses, who had struggled with me to keep the number of my preterm contractions down to six an hour, looked at me with naked horror.

I was afraid, too. As the second pregnancy went predictably downhill, as I went into preterm labor and was put on bedrest again, as my husband and I struggled to keep our household together and I cried daily because I was no longer able to care for my darling twins, I clung to that initial happiness. By day I lay and catalogued my burden of worries. I was afraid of how adding another baby to the family would affect my older children, who still needed me so much. I was afraid of how it would affect my relationship with my husband, with whom I already spent little time alone. I was afraid of being dragged down, again and so soon, into the walking coma that is the first year after an infant’s birth, when you are so tired you cannot remember the newspaper’s headlines five minutes after reading them.

Most of all I was afraid of losing the pregnancy. This baby, whom I had not expected to have, had become vital to me. Where once I had thought I would be lucky to have one baby, I had come to feel I needed a third. As I lay in bed I felt the fetus’s hiccups, ran my hands over my smooth, stretched abdomen, and dreamed greedily of this new child’s unknown face.

In my ninth month I was allowed off bedrest and my husband went back to work. My energy, unleashed, was considerable. I bought newborn-sized diapers and washcloths and bibs. I dug out infant clothes in blue, pink, and yellow and prevailed upon my mother to bleach a bagful of tiny, stained undershirts. My mother babysat Lily and Jonah so that my husband and I could go out to dinner, and we sat in an Indonesian restaurant and ate soup so spicy it made our eyes water. While we ate we talked, for the first time, about names for this baby.

I went into labor one night while sitting on the living room couch playing solitaire on my laptop. I was thirty-eight weeks pregnant, all danger of prematurity past. The occasion was undramatic: my usual contractions intensified, then intensified some more, and then it was time to go to the hospital. Camille was born an hour and a half later, soon after my obstetrician arrived in the delivery room. I pushed half a dozen times and she was out. Boom, a thunderclap. A snap of the fingers. A magician’s veil waved and she appeared, our little daughter.

*   *   *

From the night of her birth she surprised me. Once settled in the postpartum recovery room I tried to place her in her plastic bassinette so I could lie down in my own bed. She fussed. At first I thought she might need feeding or changing, but after some experimentation I found that she cried if I put her down, ceased if I held her close. Her preference matched mine, and I slept with her at my side, my arm looped around her to prevent her from falling off the bed.

Camille’s demand that I hold her was a new experience for me. My twins had been preemies who needed breathing assistance; the neonatologists had shown them briefly to me and my husband, then whisked them off to the neonatal intensive care unit. I had not been able to hold Lily until she was twenty-four-hours old, and Jonah until he was two days old. Even then I had been allowed half an hour to cuddle my blanket-wrapped infants, then made to put them back into their isolettes; they were too weak to complain. The weeks they spent in the NICU were a constant struggle between my instinct, which wanted to scoop up the babies and run, and my intellect, which knew I could not. Lame after my long bedrest, I limped back and forth between the two isolettes, my hands clenched behind my back, my heart pierced by my powerlessness.

Even as Camille slipped out of me my obstetrician was chanting, “Give her to Mom, give her to Mom; she didn’t get to do this with her last babies.” Camille was laid naked on my chest. The nurse leaned over her and rubbed her with a clean towel, and my husband bent over us on the other side, staring into her small, swollen face. Besides the obstetrician we were the only people in the room. A second nurse who had assisted at the birth had vanished immediately after its finish. The stillness was different from the roil of the two neonatology teams, armed with shiny, life-saving equipment, that had filled the operating theatre where I’d given birth the first time. It felt plain, and unglamorous, and ordinary. A gift and a blessing.

When Camille was one day old we brought her home; it was the first time in their twenty-one months I had been apart from them overnight. They cried at the giant frog balloons their father had bought for them, which they kept trying to pull down to the ground, not understanding what made them leap into the air again. Camille cried once, a thin, scratchy newborn’s wail, and Lily burst into tears yet again.

My emotions surfaced as easily. My husband returned to work when Camille was five days old, and I cried when he left the house, cried at the Barney theme song when it came on television, and cried when Jonah smacked Camille in the forehead with his plastic sippy cup, impatient at my slowness to pour him more milk as I fumbled to help her latch on to my breast. I was suffused by a panic I had not felt since Lily and Jonah’s infancy. It was the certainty that the children would come to harm while under my care, through my lack of attention or competence. I had visions of them being hit by a car, slipping through my fingers on the jungle gym, drowning in the bathtub. Having another baby suddenly felt like an act of arrogance. Surely someone should have tested me beforehand for my suitability; surely I would have been found wanting.

Later that morning I managed to put Lily and Jonah down for a nap while Camille slept. I ate lunch and showered, finishing in time to lift Camille from the bassinette as she woke. It was late August and the bedroom was so hot I could feel sweat droplets forming on my freshly washed skin. Camille wore nothing but a diaper, and I didn’t bother to put on my shirt before feeding her. She nursed briefly and fell asleep again. I held her to my shoulder and stroked her red, wrinkled, velvety back. Her small body made a point of heat against my bare skin. Once more I cried and cried, my sobs the only noise in the calm house. These were tears of joy and gratitude. For a few moments life was quiet enough that I could feel the absolute privilege of holding a human being whose body had so recently arrived from my body. I knew this was the last time this particular miracle would happen for me.

*   *   *

As weeks passed Camille became a cheerful, easygoing baby. All she asked was that I never put her down. I rose in the mornings and strapped the front carrier over my pajamas, holding her as I buttered Lily and Jonah’s toast, changed their diapers, and chased them down to put on their shoes. On errands she rode in the carrier while I used my hands to rein in the twins and gather groceries. She hung off me, a living, breathing accessory, and underneath my more immediate concerns (snacks, parking lot safety, the location of my wallet), I hoped she was amused by her siblings, soothed by my body’s warmth, and not destined for a life of emotional penury because my mind was so often everywhere but on her. But distracted as I was as I grabbed at boxes of tissues or crackers, I bowed my head often to brush my lips against her soft, prickly hair.

Camille gave my mind a rest. She was jolly and adaptable, asking for nothing more than what I knew how to give: my arms, my breasts, my steady though abstracted attention. “Mommy’s baby monkey,” I called her as I carried her everywhere. She clung to me, gazing around with an expression of amused concentration. Even after she learned to walk she stayed near me, clutching a bit of my jeans leg. If she cried, I only had to pick her up to quiet her. At her most tired, sick, or desperate, she wanted no more than my breast in her mouth. Her siblings were in a stage of toddlerhood that rendered them simultaneously active and stubborn, and often I felt I was barely treading water in keeping them safe. With Camille I was tracing familiar territory. I could look at her and think, I’m a good mother. I pretended that she was never going to not be a baby, and that I was never going to find myself bewildered by her toddler moods and ambitions. I was deceiving myself, and the deception was comforting.

*   *   *

My illusions lasted until last month. We—my husband, the children, and I—were outside doing yard work. After a while my husband went into the house. At the same time the children asked to play in his SUV, which was parked at the curb behind my minivan. This was a popular entertainment: pretending to drive Daddy’s car.

I opened the two doors next to the curb. Jonah climbed in behind the wheel and Lily clambered into the back seat. Camille leaned in behind Lily, and I assumed she would climb up also. I bent to gather the various toys and sippy cups that had been scattered over the lawn.

Suddenly my husband called, “Camille is going into the street!” He had come onto the front stoop and was looking beyond me to the narrow gap between our cars.

I turned. Camille had slipped behind me and headed into that gap, running toward the open street. I heard a car approaching from behind my husband’s SUV. I could tell without looking that the car was driven by someone who did not live on our street. Our neighbors drive slowly, on the lookout for the many small children who live in the vicinity. People who use the street as a cut-through drive much faster. This car’s motor was roaring.

I leaped forward, uselessly. Then I screamed, “No! No!” The scream rose from my chest and exited my body in a howl.

Camille turned and ran back to the curb. I will never be sure if she was responding to my scream or if she had heard and understood the roar of the approaching vehicle. At the same moment the car—it was a red minivan, similar to mine—hurtled by. Its window was open and I saw the driver, a middle-aged man, glance over. He was wearing sunglasses that made him look expressionless. He seemed not to have heard my scream, and he had not seen Camille. If she had taken another running step forward, his van would have hit her.

All evening I felt near tears. My husband was upset with me; he felt I hadn’t been watching Camille closely enough, and he was right. But I was unnerved not just by Camille’s near miss, but by the realization that I had thought I was watching her. I was so complacent about her attachment to me that I had assumed she would stay by my side even if I turned away.

I understood, finally, that Camille had run into the street for a reason. The week before, the children had played in my husband’s car, and I had carried her into the street, opened the passenger door, and placed her next to Jonah in the driver’s seat. So Camille had been trying to reach what she must have believed was her assigned spot. Her actions made sense, but I hadn’t foreseen them, and because of that she could have been killed. My delight in her calm nature, and the ease of caring for one baby after having cared for two, had caused me to relax dangerously. My arrogance, I finally saw, had not been in giving birth to her. It had been in assuming that I would always know her mind and heart.

*   *   *

The next break was more subtle. It happened one morning after breakfast, not long after Camille had run into the road. I headed upstairs to shower, leaving the children watching Dragon Tales on television. As I applied shampoo to my wet hair I heard Camille crying and Lily’s raised voice. But Lily was not yelling, and Camille’s crying was mild, so I kept scrubbing my head and hoping she would stop. She did stop; apparently the dispute had been settled. I moved briskly, but I made sure I was dry and dressed before I walked downstairs, because I knew that I would not be allowed back upstairs again. Requests from all three children would begin: Mommy read this book, Mommy get me juice, Mommy I need the potty, Mommy Mommy Mommy.

Camille nursed for a long time and I cuddled her, feeling myself relax as our physical bond worked its magic. But I was struck by the realization that for once I had not stopped what I was doing to run to her aid. As much as I needed to claim more time for myself, doing so felt strange. I had known that Camille would someday relinquish me; I had not expected to relinquish her.

*   *   *

This is the truth: during those months after Lily and Jonah turned one, when my period became so erratic, I suspected I might be pregnant. I didn’t breathe a word, not even to my husband—especially not to my husband, because we had never had luck when it came to reproduction, and I couldn’t believe we might have it now. But I hoped. And when my hope came true and through our hard work she arrived, I was as happy as I have ever been. I was so happy that for months I forgot that nothing lasts. Circumstances change.

For now I still have a bit of her baby self. Her mouth on my breast. Her need to press shyly against me when strangers address her. Her grave little voice saying, “Mommy do it me” when she wants me to tie her shoelaces or retrieve her doll from the floor. Although in years to come she will still need me for many things—laundry and lunches and car rides and games of crazy eights, homework advice and support against disappointment and betrayal—never again will our relationship seem so simple. Never again will it be so physical. I will celebrate her achievements, as I have celebrated the gains she already has made. I will also mourn the passing of her babyhood, which is the passing of a specific, precious time in my life: a time when the touch of my flesh cured all ills.

Author’s Note: Most of my essays are attempts to capture periods in my children’s lives before they fade in my memory. Sometimes I feel so mired in daily life it’s hard to record what’s going on, much less shape it into an essay. My thanks to Kate Haas, whose interest in this subject kept me returning to this piece until I had whittled it down to size.

Elizabeth Roca’s work has appeared frequently in Brain, Child. She lives with her family in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

If You Give a Mom a Nap

If You Give a Mom a Nap

By Katherine Almy

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 1.59.48 PM(with apologies to Laura Numeroff)

If you give a mom a nap, she’ll wake up refreshed and in a good mood. She’ll probably let you bounce on the bed as she’s getting up. After you’ve bounced her out of bed, she’ll be ready to play hide-and-go-seek with you.

Playing hide-and-go-seek will make her hot, and she’ll want to go outside. She’ll be happy to trudge up and down the street with you while you zoom around on your toy fire truck. When you fall off your truck and skin your knee, she’ll pick you up very gently and kiss you tenderly on the boo-boo.

After she’s kissed your boo-boo, it’ll feel better and you’ll see the swing in the neighbor’s tree. Mom will joyfully push you on the swing for fifteen minutes.

All of that pushing will make her hungry, so you’ll run inside and she’ll fix you a snack. Just as she’s sitting down to eat her snack, you’ll remember that you’re thirsty, too, so she’ll jump up to get you a glass of milk.

As she’s settling down to take a bite of her snack, you’ll spill your entire glass of milk. She’ll give you a look, but she’ll get up and get a rag for you to clean up your mess. You’ll push the rag around a bit and she’ll clean up the rest.

When she sits down to finally eat her snack, you’ll remind her that your glass is now empty and you need some more milk. With a sigh, she’ll get up to get it for you.

When you’re done with your snack, you’ll hop down from your chair and run to the electrical outlets in the living room. Mom will leave her mostly uneaten snack to make sure that you don’t electrocute yourself. You’ll run away into the other room, giggling and looking over your shoulder to see if she’s chasing you.

While you’re running and not looking where you’re going, you’ll run smack into a chair. You’ll scream and holler. Mom will roll her eyes and tell you it was your own damn fault, but then she’ll feel bad and kiss your boo-boo. She’ll suggest that you do something quiet for a little while, like reading a book.

You’ll pick out a Thomas the Tank Engine book. Listening to the story will remind you of your train set, and you’ll ask her to pull it out for you. She’ll get out the train set and help you set up a track. You’ll ask her to run the track all the way into the bedroom. You don’t have nearly enough track pieces for that, but when she looks into the bedroom, she’ll see the bed.

And chances are, when she sees the bed, she’ll want to take a nap.

Brain, Child (Summer 2006)

Somewhere Near the Bottom

Somewhere Near the Bottom

By Elana Sigall

archive_abortionYou can blame a lot of folks, from media bigwigs to bishops, if we lose our reproductive rights, but it’s the women who shrink from acknowledging their own abortions who really irk me … The freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away.”

— Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times, July 22, 2004

 

I am forty years old. I am happily married. I own a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn; I have a law degree and three young children. Two years ago, I had an abortion. At my post-termination checkup at my obstetrician’s office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, my doctor said, “You know, you go through life and you think things, and you think you know things. And then you become an OB, and you find out lots of people do this. They just don’t talk about it.”

When I found out I was pregnant, my first child was two and a half, and my younger one was sixteen months. It was the end of January, and my husband had been out of town for most of the month. We had not been trying to conceive.

I had a part-time teaching appointment at Columbia, but I had mostly been home since Talia, my oldest, was born, less out of a desire to be a full-time mother and more out of a kind of inertia about what to do next. My biological clock was ticking—not about having children but about finding myself.

Michael and I wanted another child. He comes from a family of five, and I had two sisters, so a family of two children seemed incomplete to us. But the surprise of the pregnancy sent me into a tailspin. I didn’t feel happy or excited, just anxious and ambivalent. Suddenly, another baby didn’t sound so good. I had never experienced my two children as a burden. But what if this time it were different? What if I resented the baby or just didn’t love it as much? And what if something was wrong with the baby? I had two healthy, thriving children. Why tempt fate?

Almost immediately I learned that the level of my Hcg (the “pregnancy hormone”) was abnormally high, which can indicate Down syndrome. I figured it would at least mean that the pregnancy dilemma would end; I wouldn’t have continued a pregnancy if I knew that there was a birth defect. At the sonogram the doctor cheerfully reassured me that I had a healthy embryo, with a heartbeat. The pregnancy was about five weeks along. He also knew why my hormone levels were so high. “You see this?” he pointed to a dark spot on the screen, “And this?” he pointed to another one. There were two extra sacs. They were empty, and the doctor could almost guarantee that they would not develop into pregnancies. “It’s much better to have one healthy baby than three premature triplets,” he offered consolingly. That night, Michael rubbed my belly and remarked, “How’s our litter? Wow, I could have ended up with five kids after all.” I didn’t laugh. The triplets served in my mind as evidence that my vocation had become child production.

The extra sacs increased my chance of miscarriage, but as the weeks wore on, the precariousness of the pregnancy faded and my anxiety mounted. I began to feel sorry for other people who were pregnant. Having a baby seemed suffocating, even distasteful, despite the fact that I had loved my tiny babies. I was increasingly overwhelmed by a feeling that I had to make a choice between this new baby and me. Three children seemed like a life sentence. If I had the baby, I thought, I would never leave my house again. I would be pushing a vacuum for the rest of my life. I would turn forty, and I would have nothing to show for it except three children in diapers and a one-night-a-week job. One friend asked if I might have regrets if I terminated the pregnancy; I was embarrassed to tell her that regret was unimaginable to me.

I didn’t know anyone who had had an abortion, except a girl in high school. I went online in search of the right answer. I Googled “abortion”; “third child and abortion”; “should I have an abortion?” I found lists of common reasons that women have abortions: avoidance of single motherhood, financial instability. That wasn’t me. I talked to friends. I looked at the newborn pictures of my other children. I visited the maternity ward at the hospital and watched the new babies. I pictured Michael holding the baby, bouncing it. I made lists of pros and cons. I couldn’t come up with anything for the pro side, except that Michael wanted the baby very, very much.

I agonized for seven weeks. How would I be able to teach three children to read? How would I stay up to date with photographs and scrapbooks? I tried to confirm over and over again that Michael would not be resentful, would not be angry, if we ended it. “Let him stay home and take care of it,” my OB said. When I protested that he really does take care of the kids, she said, “Fathers can help. But in the end, somehow, I don’t know why, it’s the mother’s burden.” This might have been reassuring except that it was so wildly untrue in my case that it only added to my guilt.

Michael and I lay in bed at night talking about what to do. He kept saying, “I would love to have another baby, but not like this.” One night, he lay with his back to me, quiet. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I was thinking about names,” he said.

I had a dream about going to terminate the pregnancy at a clinic and finding that they were giving a cat an abortion. I asked them if it wasn’t just better to let her have the kittens and then give them away, but they said that the abortion was really better for her. In the dream, also, I couldn’t find Michael. He wasn’t there.

*   *   *

At twelve-and-a-half weeks—about four days past the deadline my OB set for a safe first-trimester termination—I went to the clinic. Emotionally, I’d been everywhere except here, to the actual moment. I sat in the waiting room with the other women, mostly black, some with men, some with mothers, until my name was called. I sobbed as a young woman drew my blood. She asked me if I was afraid of needles. Michael joined me for the sonogram. The screen faced away from me, but Michael could see it. Unlike the ultrasounds of my past, the tech did not adjust the screen so that I could see it comfortably from my supine position. She dated the pregnancy at twelve-and-a-half to thirteen weeks and gave me a consent form for a second-trimester abortion. I would need a general anesthetic, she said, not a local, as I had requested. When I pressed her for an explanation, she said that I was too far along, it would be too painful.

They put us in a private waiting room, handed me a robe and told me to take everything off but my bra and socks. There was a bed with a flowered maroon bedspread. I searched it for an answer. Michael knew exactly what I was thinking. “You were expecting that we would see the sonogram and have an epiphany and get up and walk out of here?” he asked. But all I had seen was Michael’s face and tears as he looked at the screen.

Nurses and techs kept knocking on the waiting room door, and each time we asked for a few more minutes. Finally, one nurse, Rosie, told us to go home and think it over for another twenty-four hours. “I see this every day,” she said, “And I tell people to take one more day.” I protested that it was getting to be too late, that I was already in the second trimester. “One more day doesn’t matter,” she said.

In the shower the next morning, my daughter told me that my tummy was full. “It’s fat,” she said, patting it. “My belly is fat, too,” she added with a smile. I spent the morning pre-procedure fast in a neighborhood coffeehouse, grading midterms and trying to imagine being excited about being pregnant. I touched my abdomen and imagined Talia and Julian coming to the hospital to see the new baby. I wondered if I would only find the desire for another child after the procedure. I began to look forward to the general anesthetic. I hadn’t slept peacefully in weeks. I hadn’t had a moment when I wasn’t obsessed with my decision. I called Michael. “Let’s take the weekend and try to imagine having the baby and see how it feels,” he suggested. I was so relieved at the thought of not having to go back that I agreed.

But the weekend didn’t go well. We didn’t talk much about it. I was too panicked. We had one conversation about moving Julian into Talia’s room. I tried to imagine where his toy chest would fit. It had his name on it, and a lion, his favorite animal. He also had a small picture of a mama polar bear snuggling her baby that we had gotten him for his first birthday; it had seemed as if he’d spent that whole first year in my arms. If we moved those things onto Talia’s wall, I thought, there would be holes in the wall of the new baby’s room.

Monday morning came, and we hadn’t gotten anywhere. I was looking more pregnant. I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore. I was terrified that people would start noticing.

*   *   *

I walked in and out of that clinic a total of four times. The second time, I made it to the O.R. It was sterile and cold and looked like a delivery room. I sat on the table, and a man smiled at me and said, “I am the anesthetist.” I began to cry hysterically and got off the table. “I have to go see my husband again.” I fell into Michael’s chest, sobbing. “I can’t do it.” Rosie, the nurse from the other day, came in a few minutes later, “Again? So, why don’t you go home and come back?”

I protested. Rosie shook her head. “The doctor won’t do it. You got off the table.”

“Come on,” Michael said. “At least we’ll find out how it feels to walk out of here again.”

Michael went away on business the next morning, and I spent two days feeling almost calm. There was nothing to be done until he returned on Thursday. I worked. I read books to my children and sang them songs and put them to bed. I could never love anyone else as much. Why would I have another baby?

Thursday night, I barely slept. On Friday morning, we took the train back to Manhattan. “So this is on your way to work, right? I mean, if I decide not to go, you can just get off the train and you’ll be at work, right?”

“I can’t try to make the decision in that place again,” he said. We got off the subway in the neighborhood of the clinic and found a coffee shop.

“I always thought that I wanted to have three children,” I offered.

“Let’s make it easier,” he said, resigned. “Let’s go.”

We walked to the clinic and got in the elevator. Michael was crying. “I just keep thinking about the baby,” he said. “But I know that I have to think of you. That’s my priority. You have to be there for me and for Talia and for Julian.”

“The baby has gotten off to such a bad start,” I said.

“Really?” said Michael. “I was thinking just the opposite. That baby’s a fighter. Been here three times already and still around. I love that baby. I can’t wait to hold that baby.”

I looked at him and said nothing. “We are having the baby. Come on. It’s our baby, and we are having it,” he said. We walked out again.

We went to a diner. I couldn’t sip the water. If I did, the fast would be over. Michael looked at me, saw the state I was in. “That’s it.” He walked me back to the clinic. “I don’t think that you can do it with me there.” I agreed. I had to do it alone.

I went into the room, and the tech strapped my legs to a table and told me to lie down. But I wanted to sit up. And I wanted to talk to Rosie again before the doctor came in. He strapped me down anyway; Rosie came in.

“You can still have another baby,” Rosie said.

“But I’m thirty-eight.”

“When will you be thirty-nine?”

“July.”

“So, let’s see. If you get pregnant in July, you’ll have the baby when you’re thirty-nine,” she explained, as if there were nothing at all strange about having an abortion in April for no apparent reason with a plan to get pregnant again in July. Her suggestion comforted me.

I had wanted the happy ending. I had hoped that I would jump off the cliff, arms wide, and embrace Michael with a huge grin: “We’re having a baby!” We would be laughing and crying and relieved, and then I would touch my full, fat belly and everything would be okay. But I couldn’t feel that way.

“I have two children already,” I said. “Two and a half and eighteen months.”

“You have an eighteen-month-old? That baby needs you,” Rosie said.

The anesthetist, a different one, was standing on my side with her hand on my arm, getting ready to stick the needle. “Wait! Wait!” I kept saying.

“Awww, honey, it’s not gonna hurt at all,” she said, tightening her grip on my arm.

The doctor put his hand up to stop her. “We cannot tell you what to do,” he said, getting impatient. “There are other women waiting. They haven’t eaten.”

Rosie told him to go to see another patient. As she followed him out the door, she looked back at me over her shoulder, “We’ll be back in a few minutes. You need to decide.” I watched the clock frantically, wanting more time.

Soon Rosie came back in with the doctor. “So, what do you want to do? If you get off the table again, that’s it.”

“Go ahead.”

The next thing I remember is waking up face down on a gurney in a different room. Another nurse led me to a big recovery chair. I started to sob uncontrollably, in a way I had never cried in fourteen weeks. There were other women there, too, but nobody else was crying. They all seemed calm, maybe relieved. The nurse gave me a prescription for antibiotics to prevent infection and told me to take it for many more days than she’d told the woman next to me. “You were further along,” she said.

I met Michael near his office. We walked to two drugstores to find the medications. I fixated on the bag of disposable diapers behind the counter with the smiling baby on it, and I wept.

*   *   *

The grief found me quickly. I was one hundred percent sure I had done the wrong thing. All of my reasons for feeling hesitant seemed trivial and surmountable, especially compared to these new horrible feelings.

Once the pregnancy was over, I could conjure up again all of the reasons that I loved having children. That was, in an odd way, a relief.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute, the principal collector of data on abortion, does not amass data for any education level above “college graduate” or an income level higher than three hundred percent of the poverty line. But the Guttmacher Institute estimates that by the age of forty-five, one-third of American women will have had an abortion.

During my weeks of agonizing, my obstetrician, who treats professional, educated women mainly over the age of thirty-five, assured me that she’d had many patients end pregnancies for reasons far less elaborate than mine. Sometimes when I spoke, she finished my sentences, having heard it all before.

She told me about a woman who had an abortion when she got pregnant accidentally. She had a son already and hadn’t had a chance to “read the book” on how to have a girl. Another obstetrician I spoke with afterwards, who also practices on the Upper East Side, treating women “who may not be millionaires but who are certainly employed,” describes patients not at all in conflict about what to do. “You have these successful couples with children—women who are very successfully managing a home life and a career,” she said. “They get pregnant by accident and they decide that they want an abortion to ‘keep things where they are.’ Do they feel guilty? Yes. ‘This shouldn’t have happened. I feel terrible.’ But they have the abortion.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, the feminist political activist, reproachfully quotes women who claim that they don’t think of what they’ve done as an abortion when they terminate for medical reasons and who resent being treated in clinics alongside women who “did not want their babies.” But Ehrenreich herself, even as she unfailingly defends the right to choose under any circumstances, suggests that some of the reasons people elect to abort, “like deafness or dwarfism, seem a little sketchy.”

In the hierarchy of abortions, mine must be somewhere near the bottom—under women with no job and no education and no husband and no money and under women with the education and money and desire to find out that a fetus has birth defects. But the right to choose cannot be measured against an objective set of “good reasons”; we cannot embrace any argument that ranks some choices as less “sketchy” than others. Would we rank the reasons for wanting children—what about ego satisfaction, loneliness, wealth transfer, extra help at home, boredom?

Recently, there have been calls from the left for an acknowledgement by the pro-choice movement that abortion is wrong, something to be avoided—a recognition, to use Hillary Clinton’s now oft-quoted phrase, that “abortion is always tragic.” There’s some sense that the pro-choice movement doesn’t stand on any moral ground and that it can’t be sustained in its current form unless it does. But should any baby be born ever that isn’t completely and utterly wanted?

Throughout those difficult weeks, Michael kept saying, “We can have this baby. If we can’t do this, nobody can.” The notion of “choice” takes on a different meaning for those whose lives are already blessed with lots of choices. Of course we could have done it. But I needed a better reason to have a baby, and I couldn’t find it.

Six months ago, a year and a half after my abortion, I did have a baby, my third child, just not my third pregnancy. When Laila stares into my eyes I am overwhelmed by love. She radiates a peacefulness that I don’t remember in my other kids. I already can’t remember a time when she wasn’t here.

The fall before I had my abortion, I was in Ohio, working for John Kerry’s campaign. I was staying with my mother-in-law, in Toledo. Days before the election, we stood outside one night, in a neighbor’s driveway, talking. The neighbor’s expensive cars were plastered with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers, and she was defending her candidate. “What about the right to abortion?” my mother-in-law asked, knowing that this woman had had one herself, once upon a time. “Oh, that’s never going away,” the neighbor said.

My ambivalence about my own decision was agonizing. I was worried about making the wrong choice for myself, and at times I wished that someone else could decide for me.

But not really.

A number of people have asked me how I feel about making public in this article what was such a personal experience. Besides questions about whether I might get a politically hostile reception from some quarters—a risk I was willing to accept—they expressed concern about how I would feel about my children’s reading the article someday. Might they feel hurt? I hoped not, of course, but I thought about it. I realized that, although I decided to have the abortion, the piece is a celebration of the children I have. For me, it is a kind of love letter to them. It is about how much I needed to want each of them, and how much I do.

Elana Sigall is an attorney. She is an adjunct faculty member at both Columbia Law School and Teachers College where she teaches courses on legal issues in education.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

The Trouble With Naming You

The Trouble With Naming You

By Greg Schreur

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 4.55.03 PMSome of the names we’re thinking of giving you, we know right now, are all wrong. Take, for instance, the name Brian, which happens to be the name of the man your mother was originally engaged to until he gave her a black eye. There is no way you could be named Brian, even if it was, as Brian claimed, a terrible accident. Or Thomas, the name of your paternal grandfather, who is the reason your father will have to bite his lip when he helps you struggle through your math homework or watches you flinch away from ground balls while you play second base. Or for that matter, even Rob, a classmate of your father’s in sixth grade who will forever be remembered for eating his own earwax.

These are only some of the names that must be discarded for reasons of negative association. Creepy neighbors and obnoxious co-workers must also be eliminated, along with names like Benedict and Osama. Other names may not suit your surname because the resultant alliteration or rhyming would make you sound like a character in a children’s book, or the combination of the names would create an unfortunate homonym (Mike Rotch is not the sort of thing we want on people’s minds when talking to you). Still other names may seem promising, but even your mother’s father, who is a wonderful man and an ideal person to be the namesake of, would never consent to your being named Marinus.

Indeed, we find it easier to brainstorm a list of names not to give you. We diffuse the tension by suggesting names like Roscoe, Hyman, Dooley, or Yakov. Yet after all these rejects, there are a plethora of candidates that are not readily dismissed. When one of us suggests, say, Paul, we’re both silent for some time as we go through the battery of tests: It is biblical without being sanctimonious; neither of us ever had nor knows anyone with a pet named Paul; in fact the only Paul either of us knows is a man from your father’s office who is a decent person with whom your father has little enough contact to keep it from being awkward. So we repeat the name, using different tones for calling you in for dinner, congratulating you for some random accomplishment, scolding your disobedience, or screaming at you to get out of the way of an oncoming car in a hypothetical future that is itself pregnant with expectancy and nauseating pressures.

With some names we can’t foresee the troubles. But we can imagine. Perhaps your name will be given to another child who grows up to be a mass-murdering cannibal, or your name will be given to a Category 5 hurricane that wipes out an entire city, and although you have never knowingly eaten human flesh or breached any levees, people will metaphorically associate you—your neediness, your intrusiveness—with these things.

Perhaps unseen linguistic forces will cause your name to become a pejorative. At one point, for example, Dick must have been a harmless and honorable name, but then, well, you know, it became something else, and when kids at school start calling you Dick, of course you’ll be smart enough to know that they aren’t calling your name, nor do they think you are actually a penis, so you’ll decide it must be an expression of their feelings about you, and your self-esteem understandably will suffer. You’ll be too embarrassed to go to someone like a teacher. Besides, what would you say, they’re calling me Dick? It’s your name, they would reply, and you would be left alone to make sense of humankind’s depravity, well before you are ready.

Instead of seeking adult help, when a group of boys—one of them perhaps named Peter, another one maybe Rod—when they offer a sense of belonging, you’ll go along. You won’t ask why when they offer you something to smoke. You’ll just smoke. You won’t like it, but you will like being with people who understand you, so you’ll keep smoking until you do like it. This could lead anywhere, but let’s just say that it leads to something more, like partying instead of studying and hiding a bottle of cheap vodka in your bedroom and avoiding your parents when they ask where you’ve been and then a first fateful dabbling with marijuana in the back of Peter’s van.

We aren’t going to name you Dick. We’re just making a point here.

The safe route would be to give you a very common name so there will be several of you in the same class. You will likely be of marginal popularity, both statistically speaking and what with having such a regular name. Of course someone with your name will be the guy whose name all the girls write on their notebooks, but this will only remind you of your own anonymity and cause you to lose touch with reality as you try to live vicariously through him.

Then one of those girls, whom you’ve certainly fantasized about, will call you by your name but will mistakenly use the last name of a guy who’s a total nerd, and you’ll harbor such resentment against her that you will be unable to establish a healthy relationship with a woman until you are well into your thirties, but by then your body is sagging and you’re measuring your life out in coffee spoons like J. Alfred Prufrock (himself nominally challenged). On the positive side, because you will never be with a woman, you will never have to go through the agony of naming your own child, but when the time comes that you’re sitting alone watching Jeopardy while your neighbor is outside playing catch with his son, this does not offer much consolation.

The obvious alternative is to give you a wildly original or unique name or at least a new take on a familiar name, something like Joscua. At first it will be novelty. People will comment favorably about its uniqueness, and this will become a part of your personality. You will be your own man and forge your own way in the world. You will not care what others think. But then you will grow tired of people asking how to spell your name. You might even become resentful of us and stop coming home for Thanksgiving.

We will certainly call, pleading you to see us, even if not for the holidays, but the independence we instilled in you when we named you now comes back to haunt us when you slam the phone down and stop answering. Several Thanksgivings pass, and while we are devastated, you live a successful and carefree life, marry a beautiful woman, and have a son of your own; such interdependence, however, chafes your individualist nature so you remain aloof in your other pursuits, one of which includes your secretary, who falls in love with you, or at least the idea of you, until she is downsized in a round of layoffs and is forgotten. That will not be your concern; there will be other secretaries. Meanwhile, something must be happening back at home with your wife and child, who are themselves learning how to live without you. You won’t think about this until you hear Harry Chapin singing “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Of course you think it’s Cat Stevens, but that’s not the only thing you’re wrong about: No matter how strongly you believe you can undo the sins of the past, you’re no different than the man in the song, and like him your son is too far gone by the time you start reaching out to him. You die alone with scar tissue in the places where your connections to both the past and the future once were.

We will also be careful not to name you Butch or Biff, names that would be difficult to live up to, but your father will try convincing your mother to name you after some sports figure. She will resist but eventually compromise, and in the end you become a Junior. This will make your father proud in a way that surprises him, although he tells people at the hospital that he wants you to be your own man—although seeing his name many years later on report cards filled with mostly Bs and Cs and on the back of a clean sports uniform hunched over on the bench causes him to feel slightly nuanced pangs of disappointment. After one game where you do play much of the fourth quarter, you run up to him excitedly. Although he smiles weakly, he is not looking at you, and no matter how much you strain you cannot meet his eyes.

A few days later you go into your room and find your father sitting on the edge of your bed, slouching so that his head almost rests in his lap. He leaves without saying anything, and although neither of you grasps the symbolism of the moment, you are so disturbed that for the next few nights you sleep on the floor until it becomes too uncomfortable, and sometime in the middle of the fourth night you crawl back under the covers where you warm quickly and fall asleep. Before next season you announce at supper that you’re not trying out for the team, at which your father merely grunts with a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

Oh, we struggle mightily with this responsibility. It leads to disagreements, even arguments. Paralyzed by the opacity of uncertainty, we put you out of our minds or distract ourselves from the obligation of naming you by focusing on the mundane details of your imminent arrival. That is, until someone asks us about your name and we smile coyly, hoping to evade the question; later, however, we resolutely bring out the baby name books, but the names will not have changed and the uncertainty will remain. You are born, and still we have not decided. We refer to you simply as “He” or “Baby” or “Boy.” As a result you are never baptized, never enrolled in school, never called on the phone or sent any mail. You are devoid of identity, like an undiscovered atomic element. Those who are even vaguely aware of your existence speak of you as the son of your father or in a similarly indirect manner. We will try to protect you from a world that chews up and spits out people without a name for themselves. We pad your existence with toys and treats and encourage you to stay with us where we can lovingly and guiltily provide, and you never seem to grow up. In fact you seem to get smaller each year while these things increase, filling up every part of the house, until one day you disappear altogether, never to be found, even by yourself.

I’m not making any predictions here. Despite our fixation, your name will not determine the course of your existence. After all, a rose by any other name is still a rose. Neither fate nor the Divine has conspired against you or your name in deciding your fate; you will have some control over the person you will become with whatever name you are given.

I guess I’m not saying anything except this: Despite all our efforts and good intentions in assigning you a name, this obligation is fraught with so much inherent danger and affected by so many factors outside our influence that you really cannot blame us for anything but the one thing we ultimately did have control over, which was the decision to bring you into a broken world full of overbearing fathers and abusive ex-boyfriends and earwax eaters, traitors and terrorists, name callers and potheads, serial killers and love-struck, downsized secretaries, all of whom, including your parents, are just trying to make sense of their own names.

Author’s Note: This essay came from my growing realization that it’s the bane of every thoughtful parent to worry that you’re warping your children by foisting your own personal quirks onto them. For the record, my wife had no abusive boyfriends, and it was my grandpa who was named Marinus, a wonderful man with an unfortunate name. Also for the record: I’m married to a Kristen, and my three children—Annie, Jack, and Charlie—all are appropriately named. I think.

Greg Schreur writes and teaches in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His writing has appeared in Eclectica, Cantaraville, and Rock & Sling, in addition to educational journals.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

Move The Phone Book Closer

Move The Phone Book Closer

By Hope Gatto

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 11.18.21 AMMy son Max should have begun his religious education in the fall in preparation for his first Holy Communion, but I never called to find out what we had to do to get him started.

I meant to. Honest, I did. But the phone book was just so far away that I didn’t have the enthusiasm to walk into the other room to find the number. I knew it would be a series of extensions and messages until I found the right person in our church who could tell me what I had to do. I was sure I had to bring something in or sign a stack of papers and, well, it tired me out just thinking about it. So I figured it would be okay to put off signing him up for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) class for a while longer, at least until it became really important. Then I forgot about his religious education altogether.

One day, my mother went to the grocery store and ran into Lily, a mutual friend of ours whose son goes to Max’s school. Lily asked how Max liked his CCD teacher and what night he went to class. My mother said she was pretty sure that Max didn’t go to CCD.

Lily gasped. “Isn’t he going to make his First Communion?”

“Hope is too lazy to save her child’s soul,” answered my mother. (This from the same woman who didn’t get on the ball to send me to my own First Communion class until I was fourteen.)

“You saw Lily today?” I asked when my mother frantically phoned me that night.

“Yes. I did.” She sighed heavily, as if she’d run into the Pope himself who made her do penance right there next to the hot dog rolls for having a Satan-worshipping daughter. “You know, Hope, Max is really behind. But Lily said to call her. Maybe she could get him in since she’s knows Karen who runs the religious education department at the church. You don’t want Max to be left out, do you?”

I thought about Max as a hulking teenager walking down the aisle with a bunch of seven-year-olds in white suits and dresses, and I shivered. I mentally traveled back in time to St. George’s church, circa 1987. The younger kids owned the front of the line while I had been regulated to the rear with Jeanie—a loud and mentally challenged woman in her forties also receiving her first communion. After the Mass, my mother invited my grandparents over to the house and served a small cake purchased from the nearby bakery. We poked it with our forks half-heartedly—possibly because it should’ve been served seven years earlier.

While my mother continued to enlighten me on the requirements of Our Savior, I looked over at Max playing his Game Boy and eating grapes on the couch. Next to him, his younger sister, Riley, attempted to put a pair of swimming goggles on our English bulldog. Did they really need to learn about Hell, sin, and bloody wine just yet? In their current world, the Day of Reckoning only meant that report cards had arrived in the mail.

In our defense, the fact that I didn’t get to the distant phone book on time didn’t necessarily mean we were a wild pack of heathens. My husband Lou and I took the family to church on occasion, the kids said their prayers at night before bed, and we even said grace before meals. Without warning, my thoughts suddenly returned to my procession partner, Jeanie—who had yodeled the entire trip up to the altar—and the lame, late, last-minute cake.

I hung up with my mother and decided to call Lily first thing in the morning.

*   *   *

“Why didn’t he start in the fall?” Lily asked.

I actually like Lily very much. She is one of the only other moms I know who runs a chaotic two-kid household with a sense of humor. I could’ve easily told Lily that I wasn’t ready for my son to learn that decent people can be crucified no matter how perfectly they lead their lives. At the very least, I could’ve explained how difficult it is to locate a phone book in my house. But I didn’t.

“I really thought CCD started next year. Do you think there’s any way he could start now and make up the work?” I asked.

“Well, here’s the thing, Hope. I don’t think that telling Karen that you just forgot to sign him up is going to cut it. She’s kind of bitchy like that. And when I say bitchy, I mean all into Christ and goodness and people doing what they’re supposed to be doing. She might say that you would’ve known if you actually went to church and, you know, there’s that whole thing. I’ll have to give her a story. Know what I mean?” she asked slyly.

I felt Jeanie poke me in the back repeatedly as I walked toward the priest.

“Tell her we had leprosy. Tell her that locusts swarmed our house. I don’t care. Just please, Lily, help me get Max into that class.”

“Okay. As long as you don’t mind if I kind of fudge it a little.”

“Fudge away,” I told her. Max’s cake just had to be sweeter.

Lily called two days later and said that Max was the newest member of the first grade CCD class. We’d have to go to the office to sign him up, pay fifty dollars for the books and materials, and he’d have to make up the work, but he was in. Our son could still get his First Communion on time like a normal Catholic child and could proudly appear as if he had parents who weren’t comatose when it came to important things like the redemption of souls and whatnot.

“Now here’s what I told Karen at the office,” Lily continued. “I said that you lost your job over the summer,” she said.

“Okay.” That was true, although it was a contracted temp job that was only meant to last six weeks anyway. Lily knew that.

“I told her that money was tight, and that you and Lou were upset over the financial situation. I also said the kids had been sick, but now things were better and you really want Max to be involved in the church.”

“Perfect,” I said. I was in awe of Lily’s ability to take the truth and manipulate it into the closest thing to a lie without actually being a lie. Money was always tight, but we were stable, and the kids did have a stomach virus that lasted almost a week.

Lily finished up by saying that we were to bring Max to the office the next night to sign some paperwork. I was overjoyed. Everything had fallen into place. I thanked God for friends in high places and felt grateful that I didn’t have to call the multitude of phone numbers and make up a sob story of my own in which I would’ve undoubtedly come up with the most creative, outright lies I’d ever told in my life. Lily had taken care of it for me.

As instructed, my husband and I went to the church office, met Karen, and signed Max and Riley up for some faith. Our son got his books, and we got our daughter into the kindergarten class that met once a month during Mass. That was the other thing. We had to start going to Mass regularly now, and not just on holidays or when my grandmother visited. Though that new responsibility kind of bummed me out, I thanked Karen profusely for squeezing Max in. My family left the office hot to trot in what I assumed to be the Lord’s good graces.

As we walked outside, I heard Karen run out of the front door onto the sidewalk behind me, calling my name. I told Lou and the kids to go ahead to the car, and I went back to see what Karen wanted. Maybe she needed to know if I’d be willing to be an officer for the Rosary Society.

“Mrs. Gatto, I am so sorry. I wasn’t even thinking. I didn’t mean to take this,” she said and held out the fifty-dollar check that we’d given her just minutes ago. “Lily told me about your … situation.” She whispered the last word as if to save me from being shamed, even though we were the only two people standing there. “I’ll gladly waive the fee.”

Oh. My. God.

I recoiled from the check in her hand as if it were a serpent. This unexpected token of good will was definitely not part of the Get-Max-Into-CCD-Late plan. There was no possible way that I could take that check back. None. It would be so completely wrong on so many levels. But just as I started to tell her that we had plenty of money and could surely afford the tuition, I panicked. I became absolutely terrified that she’d kick Max out of his CCD class before he even started because he had a giant liar for a mother.

“Things are getting better, though. Really. They are,” I stammered as I shakily took the check from Karen. The more I spoke, the more I sounded like we were living on scraps that we found in our affluent neighbor’s garbage cans. “We’re getting there. Slowly but surely. I’m working now. I’m teaching, actually. But … this will help.”

After looking around for the lightning that was sure to strike me any second, my eyes fell upon my husband who had been keeping busy in the parking lot by rubbing Riley’s arms. She had insisted on wearing her favorite pink jacket; it was definitely not warm enough for the season. Since we were only running in and out of an office located two minutes from our home, we allowed her to wear it instead of the $125 ski jacket hanging in her closet. To Karen, it was clear that my children didn’t have proper clothing.

“You have the keys!” Lou screamed over to me. “Riley’s freezing!”

Karen put her hand on my shoulder in a pure act of kindness. “Please let us know if you need anything else at all. We have a committee that helps families in need in all types of circumstances. It is very discreet. It’s there to get people back on their feet.”

“Thank you, but I’m positive we won’t be needing that. Really,” I said. I was amazed that she didn’t burn her hand when she touched me.

“I’m hungry,” my son whined to my husband. Karen looked over at him.

“I’m sorry, Max. There’s nothing I can do about that,” Lou told him.

I would have bet my four-bedroom, two-bath house that Max had asked again for the gigantic lollipop in the glove compartment that he’d begged for on the way to the church office. We’d told him repeatedly that it was way too late for that amount of sugar.

At that point, I really wanted to cry. I’d lied to the church—worse, I’d had someone lie for me—just so I could get my son into a class that was only important to me when I thought he might be ostracized. Because of that lie, I had to steal—steal—fifty dollars from people who were actually broke and starving, just to keep my lie straight. And there was a committee that was willing to help my deceptive family through the rough times. I realized right then and there that I was destined for Hell.

Karen stared at my shivering daughter and my hungry son standing next to their father whose clothes didn’t match. (She had no idea that was completely normal for Lou.)

“Thank you,” I said one final time. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I turned from Karen and made my way over to my needy family and herded them like refugees to the car. I cringed as I thought that if he’d just gotten into the car right away with the kids, it might not have been so bad.

“It wasn’t even locked!” I screamed at my husband as I opened the door.

“You always lock it,” he yelled back as we piled in.

“We’re in a church parking lot! Who’s going to do anything to it?”

As we drove home in silence with the heat blasting, I thought of all of the liars and thieves in the world, including the biggest one in New Jersey who that night drove a brand-new red Mini Cooper with white racing stripes out of God’s parking lot.

*   *   *

The next morning, we sent an unmarked envelope to our church with a one-hundred-dollar bill tucked inside. A fifty would have covered the check we’d gotten back, but more was required to make up for the disgrace and deceit. I wondered if simply doubling the amount was enough to buy my soul back from the devil.

Later that afternoon, I came home from the grocery store to find a bag of children’s toys—some new, some used—on my front porch. They were in a plain brown bag with nary a note attached.

Toys for the poor.

Crap.

“I get it!” I screamed to the heavens. I immediately walked to the mailbox and mailed more anonymous money to the church. “This will go to actual poor people,” I said aloud. At least that’s what I had to tell myself in order to put away the groceries safely and not slit my wrists with the sharp plastic edges of an ice pop wrapper.

That evening, we found out that the toys were meant for our neighbor, a second grade teacher at a local elementary school. A friend of hers thought she could use them in her classroom and got our houses mixed up. So it was not the charitable display that I imagined, and we were now out another fifty dollars. But I was calmed, thinking that the situation was now entirely over. We had paid our way out of it with both cash and humility. I assumed that we could comfortably return to our normal guilt-free lives.

The Tuesday of Max’s first class was a little more hectic than usual. I rushed home from the playwriting class I taught to take Max to the church while Lou stayed at home with Riley. I looked at my watch, saw that we were dangerously close to being late, and honked the horn as I pulled up in front of the house. Lou sent Max out with his religion book, a pencil, and a warm coat. I believed my husband had been sufficiently briefed on my fear of continuing to look poverty-stricken in the eyes of the church.

I barely looked at Max in the rear-view mirror as I drove and pulled up to the church building two minutes late. We bolted out of the car and I took my son’s hand as we jogged across the parking lot. When we finally got to the classroom, I stopped and knelt down to give him a kiss. Max’s face was covered in dried ketchup from dinner. I unzipped his coat to find a T-shirt on him about two sizes too small and a giant grass stain on his jeans.

These clear indications of pauperism made me cover my face in horror. How could I have been so stupid to think that my husband, a wonderful father whose only defect lies in his dreadful fashion sense, could ready our son properly, especially in a situation that required meticulous attention to detail? We were not to look poor, but we couldn’t appear that well off either. It was a fuzzy line we had to walk, and I was silly to think my husband could do it with his orange-goes-with-everything attitude. I found a tissue in my purse, spat on it, and then wiped as much red condiment from Max’s face as I could.

“Come on, Mom,” he winced from under my maternal grooming. “Quit it.”

I wondered if Mary ever grumbled bad things about Joseph as she wiped Jesus’ face clean before the kid went out in public. I begged Max to leave his coat on during class.

After pushing Max into the room, I walked out of the building and couldn’t catch my breath. God was still tormenting me with guilt and confusion. He’d made my husband extra backward that night on purpose just to teach me a lesson.

I walked back into the building, checkbook in hand, and found Karen sitting at her desk in the office. I confessed the whole story except the part about sending the anonymous money. I realized that any good karma points I’d get would be shot to Hades if I owned up to that.

Karen listened to me babble on as I wrote out the new check for fifty dollars. When I burst into tears as I handed it to her, she gave me a warm, long hug. She said she would never even think to pull Max out of class and he was where he was supposed to be. God works in mysterious ways, she said.

I realized then that I had actually required a helping hand, but not in the obvious form of free tuition and toys. My true poverty was much more private, and it was exclusive to my wallet of ethics, my Visa card of priorities, and my checkbook of personal sacrifice. When Karen hugged me in her office and accepted my son into the class despite my flaws as a parent, I was given a great big basket of non- perishable humility. I was grateful for the gift, and deeply appreciated the beautiful place from which it came.

I’d like to say that I now volunteer for that Helping Poor Families committee, or whatever it is, but one can move only so swiftly on the path to righteousness. What I can say—three weeks before Max makes his First Communion—is that I am extremely fortunate for a lazy mother. However, I do believe in the miracle of baby steps.

I’ve moved the phone book closer to the phone.

Author’s Note: Max made his First Communion on time like a normal Catholic child. As he walked down the aisle in his tiny suit, hands folded in prayer, I knew that my family was in a special place and among special people. Next May, we’ll do it all over again with our daughter. We are, however, expecting her journey to go much more smoothly. We’ve paid her tuition in advance.

Hope Gatto’s work has been in numerous newspapers, produced on New York stages, and published by Dramatic Publishing, Inc.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

Should Vegetarian Parents Raise Vegetarian Kids?

Should Vegetarian Parents Raise Vegetarian Kids?

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 7.58.41 PMNO: 

By Jeanne Sager

“Daaaaddy Mommy’s not eating her sausage pie.” Tattletale.

Still, my daughter’s right. I’m not eating sausage pie. I’m a vegetarian. I just haven’t figured out how to tell her that.

Jillian is three. She eats—some days like a human garbage compactor—but it’s hard to tell what will be popular on the plate from one day to the next. Cheese is a constant. Hot dogs, too. She has taken to Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. But give her the yogurt she ate just last week, and she grimaces.

“Take it away,” she says, sounding not unlike a pint-sized head of state. “It’s yuuucky.”

On to Plan B. Cheese—her main source of calcium. And hot dogs—her main source of protein these days. With a multivitamin to top it off.

It’s been more than a decade since I myself ate a hot dog, longer still since a piece of meat passed my lips willingly. I battled my own parents in my late teens and finally earned my rights to eat what I wanted—and to not eat what I didn’t want—when I left for college. I’m not immune to the irony. Now I’m trying to convince my daughter to eat some of the very things I’ve refrained from eating for years.

I gave up meat for one reason and one reason only: I can’t stand it. As a kid, I’d shave off the fat and gristle along with half of the pork chop. If my father commented on the price of the steak I was eating around, I’d fix him with a glare. “Well, then, why don’t you eat it?” Usually he did.

Life got trickier when I married a Southerner. His idea of a balanced diet includes pork, beef and lard. Hence the sausage pie.

I’ve adjusted. I’ve learned to cook by instinct rather than taste. I’ve dug my fingers deep into a mushy pile of chopped beef, egg, ketchup, and spices to prepare a meatloaf. I’ve patted ground peppercorns and kosher salt into the fatty outsides of a standing rib roast. I’ve prided myself on being one of those understanding wives, not nagging about the number of times I’ve had to wrap my hands around a piece of pig’s butt.

Scientists have proven children can be easily swayed by their parents’ disdain for a food. That’s one reason I’m still hiding my vegetarianism. But if I don’t believe a parent’s job extends to shaping her child’s taste buds, it does entail ensuring that child is healthy and has a balanced diet with the nutrients necessary for good bone growth and goodbrain development.

I’ve tried from Day One to raise a balanced eater. We started off with rice cereal, tried the barley for five whole days before the smell forced me to accidentally knock the box into the dog’s bowl. Then we moved on to Stage 1 jars of green vegetables, then the yellows, then the oranges, until sweet potatoes were excised from the menu in favor of Gerber’s Stage 2 delights.

When the pediatrician gave the go-ahead for meats, I sucked in my breath and hit the grocery store. I was crossing my fingers we wouldn’t need them, but I was committed to letting her be my guide. I stocked up on jars of every mixed dinner—vegetable beef, turkey and rice—anything to cover up the taste of the animal inside. I held my nose, did the airplane swoop, and in it went. She swallowed and opened wide for more.

Today I have a meat-eating toddler whose curiosity has been paired with eyes the size of Big Bird. If she notices someone acting differently, she’s quick to copy. She’s starting to notice Mommy’s not eating her meat.

I’d love to have her go “lacto-ovo” with me, ganging up on Daddy and simplifying dinner preparation. But in the war being waged to ensure children get the nutrients they need for development, we shouldn’t give them ammunition. If they haven’t shown a natural inclination to accept a wide variety of foods outside of the meat category, forcing them down the vegetarian path is putting the power in their tiny hands. Given a reason to refuse a food, most toddlers will—the risk to their health be darned.

Still morally opposed to putting a slab of meat on your child’s plate? Think about this: The same toddler who is exerting her independence by refusing to eat her vegetables is slowly but surely showing she wants to make her own choices. So let her. When the toddler tantrums have come and gone, we can hold out hope that a responsible young adult will form who wants to adopt some more of her parents’ ways.

Am I a hypocrite? Die-hard vegetarians would tell you I’m failing my child and that I’m not much of a vegetarian myself. But after fighting my own parents, I’m not ready to force much more on my kid than just enough to give her what she needs to grow. Vegetarianism is right for me, but I’ve learned to face the simple facts: It’s not right for her, not right now.

What kids need most from their parents is guidance on how to make the right choices in life. There is where you have to give it your best shot. Take them to a farm to roll in the hay with the newborn lambs. Fill their shelves with books about cows named Clarabelle and pigs who inspire spiders to spin webs of words. Jillian’s introduction to the animal kingdom is already forming a love that runs deeper than the cartoon character of the moment, but she has yet to connect the cow she met up the street to the hamburger on her plate. As parents, we have to give them the power to make good choices, and we have to be patient.

I’m willing to wait. For now, I’ll keep one side of my grill for veggie burgers and the other for hot dogs. We can share the cheese.

Jeanne Sager is a freelance writer and mom from upstate New York. Her work has appeared in Kiwi magazine, Babble, The Stir, among other publications.

 

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 7.59.09 PMYES:  

By Scott Lozier

I learned a lesson from my dad that I wish I had never learned, but I’m glad I did.

My dad was a teacher. He loved teaching so much he worked a second job to support our family. But at age fifty-two he felt he needed a change, so he took early retirement and he and my mom moved down to Florida to spend six months of every year.

After less than a year he got bored and took a part-time job fixing campers. He didn’t much like the job, but that first Christmas he was so proud of the steaks that the company gave out to all their employees as a bonus. Dad had grown up poor, and he believed that having meat was part of a good life. Our family ate meat and potatoes every night.

Two weeks after Christmas, a nurse called me at work to come pick up my mother at the hospital. She wouldn’t tell me what happened. She kept saying, “Your mother needs your help.” I drove to the wrong hospital with tears streaming the whole way, fearing the worst. When I finally found the right hospital, my mother told me that my father died instantly from a heart attack at work. The underlying cause was cholesterol blockage. He was fifty-four years old.

A few days later, when I finally had a quiet moment, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to let this happen to me. That’s when I learned how important it is to be healthy. I had to take care of myself: exercise and eat well. And I had to share my beliefs with others.

Now that I have a child, I want to live longer and teach him to eat well, too. I want to give him the chance to be healthier—and to enjoy his life. I want to give him an appetite for enjoying a more gentle existence. I want him to think about the consequences of his actions. That’s why my wife and I are raising him to be vegetarian.

Vegetarian parents opt for a meatless life for a variety of reasons—but all do so for reasons that they feel are important. Perhaps it’s because we feel it’s better for the environment, or healthier for us, or a more sensitive approach to other species. Vegetarianism is not only a lifestyle decision, it’s also a core value.

Whatever the reason, it makes sense that we share this value with our kids. It’s what we would do with any value we hold, whether it’s respect for others, strong self-esteem, or interest in the world. As parents, we try to model all kinds of admirable behaviors. Why should we disregard the same responsibility when we sit down to dinner?

If you’re vegetarian but don’t insist on vegetarian food for your children, how will your children perceive that? It’s like saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”—you’re setting your kids up to ignore what you’re teaching them. And their disinterest won’t stop at their diet, either; they’ll begin to believe maybe there are special rules for you, rules that somehow don’t apply to them. And if they go through life believing they don’t have to follow the rules, they will find life very difficult. They’ll always be fighting rules. (Questioning rules is good. Fighting them is not.)

I know you’re not going to listen to a word I say until I assure you your kid will be okay without animal protein. So here goes: Your kid will be okay without animal protein. But don’t just listen to me: Do the research. Read the experts: In Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care (Seventh Edition, 1998), in the chapter on feeding, Benjamin Spock writes, “Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plantfoods rather than meats … are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.” Or consider the words (now nearly ubiquitous) ofthe writer Michael Pollan, whose research into American eating styles has led him to the simple maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

If you believe either of these authorities is right, what reason could you give yourself for not raising your child vegetarian? Some parents will argue that kids need to make up their own mind. But would you really give them the same latitude in other important life decisions, especially when they’re really too young to choose? Would you let them “choose” whether to chew on lead paint? Watch television all day long? How much potential damage would you let them do before you’d step in and stop them?

Let’s say you do remain neutral on food issues during your child’s youth.

What happens when, after eighteen years of letting your child follow the herd, he does decide to be a vegetarian? Won’t he feel a little saddened that you let him go down the wrong path for so long, especially when you could have given him the gift of eighteen years of healthful living? Why not give your kids ahead start?

Nobody is talking about force-feeding kids spinach and tofu. But we can show our kids that we are eating healthy food and that it not only tastes good, it is a good thing all around. This is the one lesson I wish my father had known. But now I’m the teacher. Showing my son the lesson I learned—well, that’s just what my dad would have wanted.

Scott Lozier is an arts administrator at Harvard University. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his wife, son, two happy cats, and a family of wild bunnies in the yard.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

 

 

 

Doctors’ Rounds

Doctors’ Rounds

By Anna Blackmon Moore

StethoscopeAbout five months after giving birth to my son Ian, I noticed muscle pain in the front of my pelvis—tight discs of soreness just above my thighs and just below my hipbones that I could not stretch out or massage away. If I sat for long periods, the pain intensified, and I was sitting a lot, nursing Ian and then letting him nap in my lap. I watched him loosen his lips from my nipple and drift into sleep, or drift into sleep with his mouth wide open and his lips still latched, or sigh into my skin and grow still. Rather than put him down for naps in his crib, I stretched more often and started jogging again, assuming the activity would loosen my joints and strengthen my muscles.

A few weeks later, after a short, easy run through the park, Ian and I had a typical Nurse-n-Nap. He suckled for forty-five minutes and fell asleep for an hour. When he woke up, I kissed his hands until he laughed, scooped him against my side, and rose from the recliner. My hip flexors burned. I could barely straighten. Playing with Ian on the living room rug became impossible—no more Roll the Shaky Ball or Let’s Stand Up.

I went to my doctor, a GP in her fifties. She often wore flowered skirts that resembled vintage aprons; I always pictured her in a kitchen doing domestic, motherly things. During my pregnancy, when she’d treated me several times for hemorrhoids, I asked if she had children. “Oh, yes,” she said, pulling off a Latex glove and stepping away from the exam table where I lay on my side. “Two teenagers. It’s sort of tough right now.”

When I described the pain in my hips, she suggested physical therapy.

“You don’t want to take an X-ray?” I asked.

“The usual protocol is physical therapy first, then an X-ray if it doesn’t help. And until we figure out what’s wrong…”—she pulled a pad of referral slips from the pocket of her white coat—”I’d definitely stop exercising.”

“But I barely go two miles. And I love jogging.” So do my flabby thighs. So does my depression, which I additionally placate with Prozac.

“Jogging is probably making things worse.” She filled out a referral slip. “Stop for now. Go to physical therapy, see what they say.”

The physical therapist thought it might be tendonitis.

“How would I get that?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Hip flexors are kind of a weird place for it. Any injuries, any accidents?”

“No.” I was in my underwear, lying face up on the treatment table, my legs and torso covered by a paper sheet.

“Are you still nursing?”

“Yeah.” By then, Ian was about seven months old, eating spinach and beans and squealing for yogurt, but he still nursed. Between the writing classes I taught during the week and throughout the day on weekends, Ian and I Nurse-n-Napped once in the morning and once in the afternoon. When he twitched or cried out in his sleep, I touched his head so he knew I was there.

“Nursing can have all kinds of effects on the body,” she said. “It might get better when you stop.”

I stared into the ceiling. My hips were throbbing. “God knows when that will be.”

She laughed and started circling the ultrasound probe over the sore spots in my hips. I asked if she had children.

“A boy and a girl,” she said. “Nine and twelve.”

She clicked off the console and massaged anti-inflammatory ointment into my hips with her thumbs.

I returned three times a week for ultrasound, massage, and ice packs. I started doing the exercises she recommended. The pain worsened. On my sixth visit, she was on vacation, so I saw one of her colleagues.

“I don’t think it’s tendonitis,” the colleague said. I was on my stomach, knees bent, soles of my feet to the ceiling. She told me to raise my right knee off the table.

“Ow!”

“That bad, huh?” She wore hiking boots and said she had an eight-year-old daughter. “Raise the other knee.”

I blew out a breath, tried to relax. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But you’re really weak, that’s for sure.”

I explained this new diagnosis to my therapist.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” She sat in her cushioned armchair, her legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap. I sat across from her. “You’ve exercised all your life.”

I pushed a throw pillow further down my back. Her couch was aggravating a new pain, deep in my tailbone. Sitting made it ache. Walking helped, but if I went more than half a mile my hips tightened to a burn. “I have an appointment with the acupuncturist tomorrow.”

She thought it might be bursitis. Throughout my pregnancy, the acupuncturist had treated me for hemorrhoids, anxiety, and the cavernous pressure of my son’s butt tucked beneath my right breast like an upside-down bowl. Sometimes I cupped my hand over his cheeks and patted them. Other times I pushed down on them to try and pop a few of my ribs.

“Between your bones and your tendons…”—she held up her hand as if holding a sandwich—”you have sacs of fluid called bursae. They can get inflamed. They can really hurt.”

I nodded.

“Have you had any accidents or injuries?” she asked.

“No.”

“Still nursing?”

I nodded.

“That might explain it,” she said. “Nursing puts a lot of stress on the body.”

“Nursing puts a lot of stress on the body,” my dermatologist told me the next day.

I had made an appointment to treat the dandruff that had started to shower my shirts. He was examining my scalp through a lighted magnifying glass the size of an eye. He had a slim moustache and slicked black hair, a father of five. He’d told me once that he loved having kids. I wondered if his wife did. I wondered which functions she had lost with five pregnancies, five cycles of nursing.

He rubbed a patch above my temple with his index finger. “This is seborrheic dermatitis. You know how infants get cradle cap?”

“Yes.” When Ian was only a few weeks old, I had scraped scales from his scalp while he stared blankly toward his rubber duck.

“Same thing,” he said. “It could be hormonal. Pregnancy and nursing can really change the skin.”

“All the energy in your body is going to feeding your child.” I was back at the acupuncturist’s, lying face up on the massage table with my pants off and a heat lamp warming my feet.

“Other areas of your body are lacking. They aren’t getting as much energy, as much blood, as they normally would.”

I stared at a sparkly, New Age mobile.

“You’re working too, aren’t you?” she asked. She was fifty but looked thirty—tall and strong. She swam a mile three times a week and had no children.

“I teach every day this semester.”

She tapped a needle into my right hip and rotated it until I winced. “You’re putting a lot of demands on your body,” she said.

After a few weeks of acupuncture and no exercise, the hip pain improved. I could walk up to a mile. The tailbone pain, however—a ball of it right on my coccyx—was at times excruciating, and my scalp continued to shed. The shampoo the dermatologist prescribed was $106, and insurance wouldn’t cover the cost. Rather than buy it, I was rubbing vitamin E oil into my scalp three times a week and scraping off the scales with dull nail scissors.

“Your body might never be the same,” said my psychiatrist, during a check-in appointment for a Prozac refill. She, too, was a mother. Her daughter was sixteen. They had just taken a vacation together, hiking and camping in the mountains. “It’s something you have to accept and work with.”

I started putting Ian in his crib for naps, which left him wailing and sobbing before he fell asleep to the music of his mobile. I sobbed, too, for a while—I missed his flesh, his thin, wheaten hair, the curve of his nostrils, the length of his blinks when he woke. But I persisted.

The tailbone pain did not subside, and the pain in my hips kept me from sleeping through the night.

“I would see a chiropractor,” said the acupuncturist. I was on my belly with my underwear hiked up so she could stick needles into the crown of my butt.

“But the problem isn’t in my back.”

“They’ve helped me a lot in the past.” She dimmed the lights and turned on the music—ocean sounds with a harp. “That’s what I would do. Get a ton of acupuncture and see a chiropractor.”

The chiropractor asked how much Ian weighed.

“Twenty pounds,” I said. She pulled on each of my feet to stretch my hips and then walked around the table to my head. Her hands smelled like soap. “He’s about nine months.”

“It can take up to two years before the stress on your skeletal frame gets better,” she said. “First you have him stretching out your ligaments”—she cupped her hands around her belly—”putting stress on your spine, and then you’re picking him up all the time.”

She clipped my X-rays onto the viewbox. I was crooked. My right hip was higher than my left, and my coccyx was curved slightly to the right like a shortened tail. I looked like I hadn’t quite evolved.

“It’s actually not that bad,” she said, standing next to the image. “There’s no sign of arthritis at all.”

“Thank God,” I said. I’d been having visions of incapacitation.

“But your spine is out of alignment, so your hips are out of whack. You need adjustments.”

I lay on my back. She twisted my hips to the left, crossed my arms over my chest, and leaned onto me.

“Take a deep breath.”

She pushed. Nothing. She pushed again. I had been grading papers all day, sitting on my ass. My tailbone was a rock.

“You win the Tight Award,” she said, standing. Her children were grown; her daughter shared her practice.

“I sit a lot,” I said. “But I’ve always been active. I don’t understand why my body is such a mess.”

“It’s not uncommon,” said the psychiatrist. “Women recover at different rates.”

“Nursing releases hormones,” said the dermatologist. “It puts a lot of stress on the body. It can have all kinds of effects on the skin.”

“When I was getting trained,” said the acupuncturist, “my teacher had a baby. After the birth, she stopped working. Her mother moved in and did everything. It was completely understood that her only job was to nurse her baby. That was it. But in this culture, we can’t do that.”

“It will get better,” said the chiropractor. She put her hand on my shoulder. “I promise. Be patient.”

“Have you considered waiting before you have another child?” asked the psychiatrist.

“I’m thirty-six,” I said. “I don’t want to change diapers and breastfeed when I’m forty.”

“You could still wait,” said the therapist. “You have a depressive condition. It can make everything harder.”

“Ian needs a buddy,” I said. “An ally.”

“You still have some time,” said the chiropractor.

“But I want to get it over with.”

“I don’t blame you,” said the acupuncturist.

“How’s the physical therapy going?” asked the doctor.

“We can do whatever you want,” said the husband. He was lying on his back, lifting our son into the air. They were both laughing, balloons full of joy. Chris put Ian down on the living room rug and tossed his blocks into the playpen, high up into the air, one at a time. Ian watched the blocks spin and laughed again—loud roils of delight that made his belly shake while he heaved for air.

When Ian laughs, strangers laugh back. Despair retreats.

“Let’s get it over with,” I said. I was sitting on the sofa watching them, tightening and releasing my buttocks. Trying to straighten my tail.

“Having another kid is worth wrecking your body?” Chris watched as Ian reached for his tambourine, wrapped his fingers around the frame, and put a jingle to his mouth.

“Yes.”

Chris looked at me, his hand resting on Ian’s foot. “Are you serious?”

I held out my left hand, let it droop, and shook it out. Holding Ian against my side all the time had caused some swelling; my wrist and thumb were growing rigid. I curled and straightened my fingers, tightened and released my ass, rubbed my right hip, scratched my head. Ian shook the tambourine and made a new sound.

“Yes,” I said. “Definitely.”

Author’s Note: While I have gotten treatment and relief from the tailbone problem, my hips are about the same, and Ian has been weaned for more than four months. A friend recently decided that I have Iliotibial Band Syndrome, which usually affects people in the knees. I have started lifting weights to strengthen my quads, which might help, at least until I become pregnant again.  

Anna B. Moore has essays and fiction in The American Scholar, Shenandoah, Native Peoples Magazine, and many other journals.  She lives in Northern California and is currently working on a novel.

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)

One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling

One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling

By Laura Brodie

Girl writingMy ten-year-old daughter, Julia, was never a good fit in the public schools. Her teachers described Julia as a “very creative child,” with strong emotions, obsessive interests, and little patience for group activities and social norms. In the classroom, she sat with a book perched on her knees, sneaking dragon stories under her desk and missing the teacher’s instructions. On the playground, she avoided the girls’ cliques and boys’ noisy games, and sat alone in the shade digging for fossils. Every day she came home with another large rock.

By third grade, Julia was complaining of being burned out on her elementary school routine. The mixture of boredom and anxiety, weekly tests, increasing homework, rote memorization for standardized exams—all had left her knee-deep in a puddle of misery, and I, as a parent, shared in that swamp. Nevertheless, I encouraged her to tough it out. Most children had their own classroom complaints, and our elementary school, with its small-town community, seventeen-to-one student-teacher ratio, acres of green fields, and generally caring and intelligent teachers, was, by national standards, idyllic.

But as the year went by and the complaints increased, I sympathized more and more with Julia’s plight, partly because of my own memories of public school drudgery, and partly because, as a professor of English, I understand the need for sabbaticals. If adults benefit from intellectual rejuvenation, then why not children? Why shouldn’t a child have time off to pursue her own research and writing?

The breaking point came during Julia’s fourth grade year, when I lost her for an hour. She had been sitting at home on our living room carpet, pressing tiny Legos into colorful dragon bodies, and so I was surprised to get no reply when I called her name from the kitchen. For the next half hour I searched the house, the yard, the shaded recesses of our backyard creek. I scanned the surrounding pastures for the silhouette of a wandering child, then telephoned our neighbors. They had not seen Julia. They would call if she dropped by.

Assuring myself that a fourth-grader was old enough to wander alone, I stretched out on my bed and tried to concentrate on a novel. After twenty minutes I heard a rustling noise in my closet, and I opened the shuttered doors to find my sheepish daughter, crouched on a pile of old shoeboxes.

“Didn’t you hear me calling?”

Yes, she nodded.

“Why have you been hiding there?”

“I heard you say that it was time for me to do my homework.”

Every child has a misery quotient, the line at which mere whining turns into real unhappiness. Some children are born miserable, their glass always half empty; others are made miserable by the adult world. And when it comes to squashing a child’s joy, there’s nothing like homework. In Julia’s mind, homework was the shadow haunting every day—the shapeless dread that grew larger with each passing year.

I sympathized with her aversion. Today’s public schools seem to have responded to the endless cry for achievement! by adding more worksheets to the homework pile. Math worksheets, grammar worksheets, bland spelling exercises. I wouldn’t mind so much if the work seemed more valuable—if Julia was asked to perform a fun science experiment, or to walk outside and compose a poem about the sounds in her yard. What rankles is the monotony of colorless paper, the columns of equations and fill-in-the-blank history.

As it turned out, Julia’s homework was minimal that afternoon. Once she climbed out of the closet and sat down in front of her books, the whole ordeal took barely ten minutes. She had spent an hour hiding to avoid ten minutes of schoolwork, and the thought of that warped equation broke my heart. It confirmed what I had been thinking for the past year—that my daughter needed a break, an escape, some air. Julia needed something to quell her growing misery.

My mind did not turn naturally toward homeschooling. I had always thought of it as a drastic measure. Homeschooling was for Mormons, for Bible-thumping Baptists, for children with disabilities, mental or physical, and for families who lived off the grid with solar heat and composting toilets. Homeschooling was a little bit weird.

But in the chameleonic world of modern parenthood, we mothers must constantly change colors to meet our children’s needs. We become accomplished fundraisers when our preschools need a fruit sale chair. We take up the violin when the Suzuki method calls for parent-child lessons. And when my daughter decided that she would rather hide in a closet for an hour than complete ten minutes of homework, I knew that it was time for me to become a schoolteacher, if only for a little while.

I told Julia that for one year we could try something different. Starting next September we could stay at home and follow a curriculum that combined her unique interests with the public schools’ idea of fifth grade essentials. She could study dinosaurs and dragons, as well as American history. She could learn some conversational French with her fluent father (on the afternoons when I taught part-time), and her daily violin practice could take place during school hours, rather than cramming it into her after-school schedule. Above all, we could plan field trips to Washington, Williamsburg and Jamestown, to art museums and science fairs and bookstores and concerts. I had only one caveat, stemming from my years of teaching freshman composition. Whatever Julia studied, I wanted her to write about it.

Of the three traditional “R”s in elementary education, writing is the component most often neglected. It’s a time-consuming enterprise, overlooked by many teachers who feel burdened with the exigencies of test preparation. Having no such burdens myself, I knew that if I was going to homeschool my daughter, I wanted her to compose essays and short stories and science reports, to write drafts and polish revisions, and keep the best of it in a portfolio.

Julia seemed willing enough when I described my plan. Lured by the promise that her only daily homework would be to write a page in a journal and read for an hour—something she did habitually—she agreed to my terms. And so from April to August of 2005 I gave myself a crash course in homeschooling.

It turns out that homeschooling is one of the fastest-growing trends in American education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the U. S. Department of Education), in 2003, 1.1 million children were being homeschooled in the United States–about 2.2 percent of America’s school-age population. Brian Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute, places the total higher—somewhere between 1.7 and 2 million. Most experts agree that the number of homeschoolers seems to be expanding at a rate of about 7 to 10 percent per year.

It’s impossible to describe a “typical” homeschooled student in America, though the 2003 government study provides a rough profile. Overall, white children in America appear about twice as likely to be home taught as their black peers, and four times more likely than Hispanic children. Most homeschoolers come from two-parent families where only one parent works full-time. Households with one or two children seem equally drawn to homeschooling, but in families with three or more kids the odds of full-time home education double. Families with an annual income of more than $75,000 are less likely to homeschool, and rural homeschoolers outnumber their urban counterparts (“urban” being defined as 50,000 people or more). Finally, the South is the U. S. region with the most homeschoolers–the Northeast has the fewest. (Northeastern states also tend to have the most strict home education requirements, with more detailed specifications for curriculum and testing.)

These statistics, however, are sketchy at best. According to Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., who specializes in school choice, “You can’t get systematic data on homeschooling because most homeschoolers want to be left alone.” In other words, parents who shun government education also tend to avoid government tracking. The one thing McCluskey asserts with confidence is that homeschooling is “definitely expanding,” and this expansion has taken it well beyond its traditional base.

When homeschooling first emerged as a populist movement in the 1970s, it was spearheaded by two groups: Christian conservatives who favored Bible-based teaching and who deplored what they saw as a lack of moral values in America’s secular schools; and a more free-form crowd, alternately called ” liberal” or “libertarian,” who chafed against the constraints of institutionalized education and sought more “organic,” child-based forms of education. New York University professor Mitchell Stevens, in his book Kingdom of Children, explains how the Christians, with their tight social networks and strong organizational skills, surpassed the loosely based libertarians to become the predominant strain in American homeschooling. That’s why today, when the word “homeschooling” comes up in conversation, many Americans envision a fundamentalist Christian mom sitting at her kitchen table teaching creationism alongside algebra.

But over the past decade that stereotype has been fading. In the Department of Education’s 2003 study, less than half of the respondents cited religious motivations as their chief reason for homeschooling. (It might be one reason, but not the primary focus.) Instead, concerns over safety, drugs, and peer pressure topped the list. In addition, the study found more parents turning to homeschooling for purely academic reasons. As Neal McCluskey explains, “There’s a rise in people who want their children to learn more, faster and better.”

This expansion of home education doesn’t mean that Christian conservatives are taking a back seat. They remain the most solid, well-organized block in the homeschool world, and the new faces in the crowd—me included—who have turned to home education without any religious or philosophical compulsion, owe a debt of gratitude to the early pioneers who suffered jail time and substantial fines to blaze the homeschooling trail. Because of those groundbreaking efforts, home education is now legal nationwide, with fifteen states funding and supporting cyberschools, where homeschooled children can take courses with online instructors. California has even opened brick-and-mortar charter schools specifically designed to support homeschooling families, with teachers who provide enrichment classes, textbooks and videos, counseling and administrative aids.

Many homeschool traditionalists deplore these new developments as the U. S. government’s backdoor method of getting its bureaucratic tentacles back into their homes. For them, real homeschooling means that the parent is the teacher, not some intangible cyberinstructor with fifty students on her roster. Nevertheless, these new public initiatives show the legitimacy that home education has gained across America, and with this growing legitimacy comes an increased confidence and curiosity among so-called “mainstream” parents who are seeking educational options for their children.

That’s where short-term homeschooling comes in. The expansion of home education among America’s mainstream has made it a viable alternative for parents who are dealing with short-term problems. These problems might range from a bad principal to a persistent bully to a homework-phobic child hiding in a closet. Whatever the motivation, more and more parents are deciding that, when faced with problems at school, they don’t have to stick it out, or pay a fortune for a private academy. Instead, they can take a “do it yourself” approach to their children’s educations, teaching their kids at home for a limited time, with the intent of returning to the public (or private) schools at a not-so-distant date.

There are no statistics on how many parents have tried short-term homeschooling. The Department of Education does recognize “part-time homeschoolers”—students who spend less than twenty-five hours per week in school, and devote the rest of the day to learning at home. In 2003, eighteen percent of all homeschoolers fit the part-time mold. (Although guidelines vary across school districts, homeschoolers have the legal right to insist on access to some public classes. Even as I write this, a local friend has just embarked upon part-time home education. Her eighth grade son takes band, geography and algebra in the public system, while she teaches—or arranges for private tutors—in English, science and music.)

Short-term homeschoolers, however, remain well beneath the radars of both the U. S. government and most homeschooling organizations. The National Home Education Research Institute (one of the biggest clearinghouses for homeschooling data), draws a blank when it comes to data on short-termers, as do the folks at the Home Education Association of Virginia. “Sorry, that’s not part of our mission,” the receptionist said when I called their offices for information. Nevertheless, if you ask homeschooling advocates, authors and parents if they know of short term-homeschoolers nationwide, the anecdotes come pouring out.

Isabel Lyman, author of The Homeschooling Revolution, has met with several short-term home educators. “I’ve talked with parents whose child had a personality conflict with a particular teacher, or who had to face bullies, as reasons for short-term homeschooling,” she explained to me in a recent online interview. “Also medical issues or an accident or a school violence incident can drive families to this choice for a brief time. Colorado homeschool advocates reported receiving a gazillion phone calls after Columbine from parents who wanted information about homeschooling. No doubt some switched over but then switched back after the shock wore off.”

In her book, published in 2000, Lyman writes about a Massachusetts widow with a home business who removed her youngest son from elementary school for a couple of years when she became turned off by the school administration’s politically correct style. The boy apparently thrived, but he returned to the conventional system once middle school began, when a new cast of administrators was in his life.

Other parents see the perils of middle school as a driving impetus for home education, especially for young girls facing the sort of nasty peer pressures documented in books such as Queen Bees and Wannabees and Odd Girl Out. Sarah, a mother in my own corner of southwest Virginia, removed her daughter mid-year from the seventh grade when the viciousness of her child’s pre-teen peers began to wear visibly on the girl’s psyche. “She was awake at midnight, crying,” Sarah recalls. By eighth grade the problems had smoothed over, and mother and daughter were back to their normal routines at work and school. Another mom in South Carolina, whose story I encountered after posting a query on the About:homeschool forum, withdrew her daughter from middle school after the girl repeatedly came home with injuries, including marks on her neck from a choking incident. That parent informed her other children that they could stay in the public schools for their elementary and high school years if they wished, but when it came to middle school, homeschooling would be mandatory.

Short-term homeschooling also has a special appeal for families on the move. Kelly, a Georgia mom who also frequents the About:homeschool site, explained that she homeschooled for a year when, in the midst of relocating, her family lived in a neighborhood with a weak school system. Once the move was complete, her son was back in the public schools. “I do not regret my decision to homeschool,” she says. “I would do it again if needed. I also do not regret putting him in this particular school and teacher. She is great and does a superb job with my son.” Kelly described short-term home education as a valid choice, since many families today are transient.

Finally, there are the mothers who simply want more time with their children, or vice versa—the children are asking for more time with Mom. In the same year that Julia and I were playing geography games on our living room floor, at the opposite end of our county Christi and her ten-year-old daughter, Susan, were sitting at their kitchen table doing art projects. They, too, had entered homeschooling on the one-year plan, at Susan’s request. Although Christi was initially inclined to refuse, in the end she thought, “You know, they grow up so fast.” Meanwhile, Rebecca, three miles away, was reviewing multiplication tables with her fourth grade daughter, who also had asked to stay home for one year.

I often wonder if short-term homeschooling has a particular appeal for mothers and daughters. Most of my acquaintances who have tried it describe a need for “special time” with their girls. Of course my musings on this topic are wholly unscientific. The Department of Education’s homeschooling statistics show that girls and boys are almost equally likely to be homeschooled full-time, and since there are no studies on short-termers, I can’t say how their numbers break down by gender. It may be mere coincidence that among the twelve mothers who shared their stories for this article, seven were homeschooling a daughter, usually in response to their girl’s emotional needs. “I really got to know my daughter,” explained June from Alexandria, Virginia, a mother whom I located through the Virginia Organization of Homeschoolers. Homeschooling allowed June and to have long bedtime conversations with her eighth grader, rather than trying to finish homework and hurry to get minimal amounts of sleep. “We are so much closer now,” added Sarah, my local acquaintance, who loved her months with her middle-school daughter, but would never do it again. “I’m not cut out for teaching.”

And therein lies one of the greatest challenges behind short-term homeschooling: How can you do it well, when most parents have no professional training as educators and must try to go from zero to sixty in a matter of weeks? A mother may be the expert on her own child (and I stress mothers because women are the primary home educators nationwide, especially married women who aren’t employed full time), but most moms have no expertise in sifting through curriculums and pedagogical methods. Long-term homeschoolers have years to hone their craft, plenty of time to make mistakes and plot course corrections. But short-term home educators—in particular those who view the experience as an opportunity for enrichment, an educational bonus, not just a stop-gap measure—need to catch on fast if they want to make the most of their brief time. “I imagine that, as in any new endeavor, there’s a learning curve,” says the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey. A parent can spend much of her first year “just trying to figure out how best to do it.” That was precisely the case for June, whose experimentation with teaching methods lasted well into the school year: “I was still trying to figure out our homeschool style (Charlotte Mason? Unschool? Classical?) when my husband declared, “You have six months left! Pick one and be done!”

As I discovered during my own sharp learning curve, there aren’t many resources to guide the short-term crowd. A basic Internet search yields a wealth of sample curriculums, how-to guides, and book-length pep talks, all designed to help novice homeschoolers get started. But most of these are written by authors with an all-or-nothing approach—parents who have removed all of their children from the public schools, or who never tried those schools in the first place, and who often have negative attitudes toward public education, ranging from mildly dismissive to openly nasty. None of these authors consider the pros and cons of supplemental homeschooling, i.e., how to build on the public schools’ foundation, to give a child one good year.

Some folks might question whether separate advice is needed for short-term homeschoolers. “Supplemental homeschooling isn’t all that different from the regular deal,” one Internet correspondent told me. “All the usual books apply.” But that’s not quite true. While the homeschooling books on today’s shelves are a crucial starting point for any curious parent, in their philosophies, their curriculums, and their pedagogical methods they often offer advice that doesn’t apply to one-year dabblers.

Take, for instance, The Well-Trained Mind, one of the most impressive homeschooling guides available, written in 1999 by the mother-daughter team, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. These women advocate a classical education in which global history is the guiding principle, with literary masterpieces and scientific discoveries taught in a historical chronology. In this model, the first through twelfth grades are divided into three repetitions of a four-year pattern: the ancients (5000 bc to ad 400), medieval through early Renaissance (400 to 1600), late Renaissance through early modern times (1600 to 1850), and modern times (1850 to present). Grade school children study each time period at a simple level; fifth through eight graders delve into the same subjects with increasing complexity, and by high school, students should be reading original sources in translation.

It’s an ambitious agenda, and not without flaws; the authors often slight children’s creativity, and they minimize the importance of music and art and the need for play. Still, reading The Well-Trained Mind provides an education in itself, and offers an ideal vision of human intellectual potential. For me, however, the book was also a major guilt trip. It reminded me of how, in our imperfect worlds, we mothers are constantly falling short. The best I could hope for Julia was that, by year’s end, she would have read some children’s versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

At the other end of the spectrum stand the advocates of “child-centered education,” who let the curriculum follow each child’s interests (an approach which, in its loosest variety, takes the form of pure unschooling). David Guterson’s Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense (1992) offers beautiful descriptions of how he nurtured his sons’ curiosity about salmon: “Feeding the salmon fry, weekly, at a nearby holding pond, and measuring their growth and development, graphing changes in water temperature and flow, examining eggs, weighing out feed.” Not to mention the days they spent “visiting the Elwha River hatchery, the fish ladders at the Rocky Reach dam, the Science Center Display on the Nootka people.”

It all sounds wonderful—extended field trips and hands-on learning and long, winding conversations. These are the freedoms that homeschooling allows, whether short-term or long. But unschooling in its freest form doesn’t appeal when re-entry into the public system hovers in the near future. At a minimum, short-term home educators must ensure that their children do not fall behind the public benchmarks in math and English, as well as any foreign language track where the child wants to keep up with her peers. Even in the Guterson household, his wife insisted that their nine-year-old spend a few hours every morning at the kitchen table with her, practicing math and writing.

Short-term homeschoolers usually remain tethered to their school systems’ educational priorities. “That’s the biggest difference between short-term and full-time homeschooling,” explained Rebecca, who chose to stick closely to her elementary school’s curriculum when teaching her fourth grader. Rebecca was content with Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) model, and wanted to be sure that her daughter didn’t miss anything.

Other parents start out with their school’s objectives in mind, but leave them behind as mother and child gain their own footing. So it was for Sarah, hunkered down with her seventh-grader at the other end of our town. They began in January with a stack of heavy textbooks, planning to follow the middle school assignments which were posted daily on the Internet. But civics was never meant to be learned from a book, and neither were half of the other school subjects. For Sarah, the greatest “Aha!” moments came when she set aside the texts and followed her daughter’s budding culinary passion. Lessons in Mediterranean cooking expanded into explorations of geography and history.

My own plan was to use the public curriculum as a foothold, and try to climb the fifth grade mountain from there. Math provided a typical example. I was surprised that my ten-year-old had never encountered Roman numerals. Nor did she have any concept of where “Arabic” numerals came from, or the history of zero (why didn’t the Romans use it?). So I wanted to back up and look at the history of counting and examine early Mayan and Egyptian numbers before we continued with the public agenda of fractions and decimals and long division.

The same was true with social studies. Julia was bored with her school’s heavy focus on American history. She wanted to study the Maya, Aztecs and Incas. She also loved natural history, especially dinosaurs—a topic our school had removed from its first grade curriculum, since dinosaurs are not included in the Virginia first grade Standard of Learning topics. And so we tried to do it all, beginning with the Big Bang (and a brief nod to creationism) followed by an overview of the planet’s development and the evolution of successive life forms through multiple ice ages. We leaped from homo habilis to the Maya, then in January spent a month on Native Americans before we ever reached Columbus. In the end we squashed the usual fifth grade history curriculum into three months, and spiced up the SOL basics with more provocative women, like Anne Hutchinson. “That’s ambitious,” one homeschooling mom laughed when I described our course. In other words: “That’s too much.”

The danger of trying to balance a public curriculum with personal interests is that you can fall into a game of “Anything you can do, I can do better.” If the public school fifth graders are adding and subtracting fractions, then your child should be multiplying and dividing them. If they are studying place value through the billions, you should consider trillions and quadrillions. This is not as difficult as it sounds, since the public school day includes an enormous amount of repetition and wasted time. But keeping tabs on your local school produces paranoia. Is my child missing something essential? Will she fail her first sixth grade math test because I overlooked a key concept?

Trips to the local bookstore can further feed the short-term homeschooler’s paranoia. In my town’s cozy cat-inhabited store, with its children’s section twice as large as that at any Barnes and Noble, Julia and I spent wonderful hours soaking in the new titles. And yet, whenever I passed the Education shelf, my stomach lurched. There was E. D. Hirsch, perched atop his hill of Cultural Literacy, expounding on What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know. Julia hadn’t been exposed to most of Hirsch’s third grade essentials, which included Constantine and the Byzantine Empire, and scientists like Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Elijah McCoy. Even I, with my Ph.D., didn’t know half the stuff.

Equally intimidating were the displays of Summer Bridge Activities—those big paperback reams of worksheets, designed to keep your child grinding away over the summer months. The fifth grade book placed a major emphasis on human anatomy, which convinced me that Julia was missing something essential. So she and I spent two futile weeks learning the names of all the bones in the human skeleton. (The metacarpals are connected to the…phalanges).

So much to learn, so little time. Full-time home educators have the luxury of years upon years spreading out before them: “If we don’t get to the Maya this spring, there’s always next fall.” In addition, homeschoolers with strong religious and philosophical approaches tend to be weaned from the public schools’ competitive mindset, in which children are constantly graded, ranked, and compared. They don’t feel the same pressures to keep up with age-based curricular models. As one mother from Earlysville, Virginia, told me in an e-mail:

In short term homeschooling I personally felt very tied to the school system, to make sure my son was “keeping up” with his peers. But the families I know who make homeschooling a long-term commitment see it as a lifestyle, and they feel much less pressure to stay the course… It’s about learning as a way of life, and finding what makes you happy.

In the end, every parent must cling to his or her own pedagogical rock, whether that involves lifelong learning, religious teachings, or, in my case, a belief in the value of the written word. So long as Julia was constantly writing, I felt that we were on the right track. My confidence grew with the length of her portfolio.

At the same time, I was glad that Julia and I didn’t entirely abandon the public curriculum, because Virginia’s standardized learning topics inspired some of her brightest epiphanies. Take, for instance, the time when we studied the earth’s layers—core, mantle and crust—one small component in Virginia’s fifth grade requirements.

“We should make a model of the earth’s interior,” I said to Julia one morning. “What would you like to use? Playdough?” I imagined concentric rings of clay, balls within balls, cut in half to reveal the multi-colored stratums. “Or would you like to slice a Styrofoam ball in half? You could paint the earth’s layers onto the flat center.”

Julia shook her head.

“Well, what do you want to use?”

“Fruit,” she said.

“Fruit?”

Yes, fruit.

From the basket on our kitchen table Julia lifted a kiwi, then took a steak knife and cut it in half. She held the green fruit to my eyes, and there was a model of the earth: the white core, surrounded by the squishy green mantle, with black seeds like the rocks that float in the earth ‘s magma, and on the outside, the thin dry crust. I felt completely humbled, reminded that all life is connected in repeated patterns—as when one learns that the ratio of water to land on our planet is the same as the ratio of liquid to solid in the human body.

The lesson continued for ten minutes more as Julia and I took turns cutting tectonic plates into the kiwi’s crust, carving a drippy Ring of Fire. “Look,” said Julia, “when the plates shift, the mountain ranges form.” She squeezed the kiwi, and a ridge of lumpy green flesh emerged on the surface. I couldn’t have been more proud if she had painted the Mona Lisa. My daughter could see the world within a slice of fruit.

One final challenge for short-term homeschoolers rests in the arena of social life—how to keep it active for both the child and mother. Socialization is a key concern for all homeschoolers. Fortunately, with the nationwide expansion of home education, more and more communities have established support networks, with families gathering for field trips and pot lucks and classes taught by visiting experts. “Those are life-savers,” says Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers’ College in New York who has studied homeschooling. According to Huerta, the potential for alienation is one of the biggest reasons why some parents give up on home education. It’s an enormously difficult job, and mothers who take it on usually need strong support groups.

But Huerta didn’t know whether the majority of homeschool networks would welcome short-term visitors into their midst. His research into homeschool charter schools revealed bitter divides between parents who want nothing to do with government-funded education, and those who are willing to take advantage of classes or resources offered at public sites. One mother in Huerta’s study contrasted the early “people of conviction” in the homeschooling movement with “the new breed” that want to have their cake and it eat too.

I count myself among this new breed (although I’ve never laid eyes on a charter school), because I want my daughter to experience what’s best in the public system, supplemented by whatever I can offer as a homeschooling novice. If homeschooling purists feel antagonistic toward their long-term peers who have taken advantage of government-funded charter schools, I can imagine how they’d roll their eyes at folks like me, deeply entrenched in the public system and using homeschooling as a temporary sabbatical—an approach which, admittedly, cannot yield any of the long-term benefits of home education. In fact, one thing that short-termers must get used to when reading most homeschooling literature is the chastising tone toward parents who maintain bonds with the public schools. Even Isabel Lyman, an otherwise open and helpful homeschooling advocate, had this to say in a 2003 blog interview with author Peter Brimelow: “Why in the world would any parent with half a brain place their precious child in an American public school?” (“You have to remind me how punchy I can sound, huh?” she replied when I showed her the quote in an online exchange.)

There is bound to be a social void between committed homeschoolers and the short-term crowd. Some temporary homeschoolers with strong religious roots have reported being welcomed into local Christian support groups. Meanwhile June, from Alexandria, found homeschool Girl Scouts to be a godsend. But not everyone can expect the same social support. In our own small town, Julia and I attended a few of our local homeschooling functions, including one very good trilobite dig, but while everyone was nice enough, it was clear that we were merely observers in these families’ world. We were neither as religious as some, nor as liberal as others. The high school kids were too old for Julia, the first-graders too young. If we had possessed vast amounts of time to get to know them all, the distinctions in ages and beliefs might have faded. But social bonds require years to grow, and we never became regulars on their e-mail list.

At the same time, Julia missed out on the social rituals of the public school year. At our elementary school’s annual Halloween parade, when the costumed children marched through the school’s neighborhood, Julia stood beside me on the curb, watching the long procession of fairies and wizards, her sisters among them (who’ve so far been content with their school routine), waving their butterfly wings. When the principal spotted Julia, she stepped out of the parade long enough to give her a hug, and I pitied my daughter in her homebound exile.

Later that year, when her fifth grade friends performed a musical version of Schoolhouse Rock, I glanced at Julia, sitting in the audience by my side, thinking that now she must surely regret our decision to homeschool.

“Would you have liked to be in that play?” I asked when we walked out.

She shook her head. “No way.”

Julia didn’t miss the plays or the concerts, the kickball games or field trips (we had plenty of our own). What she missed were the parties. Her elementary school was a party heaven, with Halloween bashes, Thanksgiving mini-feasts, Christmas celebrations and birthday cupcakes. “Can’t we have a party?” Julia asked on Valentine’s day. So we went to our local tea room, where one can dress in wild hats and tiaras and long white gloves, and we sipped Moroccan Madness tea while munching on cookies and sorbet. But a mother in a boa does not a party make. Julia received no Valentines that year, except from Mom, Dad, and Grandma.

Of course, Julia was constantly meeting other human beings—chatting with historical re-enactors; counting change with shopkeepers; asking questions of librarians and park rangers and musicians. Her after-school schedule included dance classes and tennis lessons with schoolmates who asked about her homeschooling with curiosity and envy. “I wish my Mom would homeschool me,” one little dancer lamented. “I hate school.”

But despite the social contact that I took pains to schedule, for many, many hours in the week Julia and I sat alone in our quiet rural house, while outside the cows and ducks and herons moved in slow motion. After a while one understands why homeschooling is most common in households with three or more children. The family becomes a social unit, taking the scrutiny off one child, and distributing the parent’s attention and frustrations. In the one-on-one homeschooling that I and most of my acquaintances practiced, the dangers of isolation and resentment loomed large. “I did feel at times that there was a noose around my neck,” confessed Christi, reminiscing on her year with her ten-year-old. The rope was less tight than when her children were babies—those wonderful and terrible days of diapers and bibs and bottles had been the most claustrophobic experience of her life. But homeschooling had its own quality of constriction.

So it was for Sarah, who had felt relieved, years earlier, when all her children were off at school. At last she could have time for herself, working at a job that she enjoyed. Homeschooling meant paring that job way down and returning to the house for much of her day. Inevitably there were tensions, especially when her daughter failed to meet her end of the bargain, becoming uncooperative, or surly, or slow.

Most homeschooling books never speak of these tensions—the power struggles and resentments and irrational moments of fury that emerge in any family, however loving. Many authors, even the secular ones, have an evangelical, sometimes self-congratulatory tone, trying to persuade other parents to join the fold. Reading them, one would think that homeschooling is an endlessly rosy enterprise, filled with brilliant, cooperative children well on their way to the Ivy League. In all my reading I never found a book that addressed what I feared most—the battles.

Julia and I have had power struggles since she was two. Getting her out of bed can be a Sisyphean task. And so I never expected our year to be smooth sailing; but neither did I expect that I could so easily be pushed into raging temper tantrums. Halfway through our year Julia nicknamed me “the volcano,” because of my tendency to swing from a state of calm, green dormancy into a heap of spitting lava, especially on those days when Julia seemed to get nothing done.

This is where advocates of unschooling are bound to wave their flags. “Follow the child ‘s interests,” they always say. “Then she’ll be self-motivated. Let dragon books lead to lessons in flight and fire, studies of winged dinosaurs and the legends of ancient China.” In fact, we tried all of that. But whether the subject was dragons or fractions, the result was always the same. If I was not nearby to push and prod and cheer, Julia would muddle through her tasks at the pace of an aging sloth.

One afternoon at our public library I described my concerns to a seasoned homeschooler, a teacher-certified mother with an advanced degree in early education. I expected her to tell me what I was doing wrong. Instead, she sadly shook her head: “That’s the story of my life.”

The more mothers I queried, the more confessions I heard. Many moms had similar trouble keeping their young learners on track, and the relentless foot-dragging sometimes drove the parents crazy. “I was sobbing” one mother put it; “absolute fury” said another. “There were days,” according to June,” “where I felt that if I didn’t get away from my daughter I would plotz.” Maryanne, who’d expected to be a long-term home educator when she removed her two sons from the local middle school, gave up on the plan when she found herself locked in ugly confrontations with her elder son. “Look at what this is doing to you,” her husband finally said. Her boys were back on the school bus the following fall.

Social bonds with other homeschoolers are essential, if only to allow a mother time to air her frustrations. In my darkest moments I was glad that my homeschooling was limited to one year. That light at the end of the tunnel served as my guiding star. But when the light expanded into the sunshine of mid-June, I felt surprisingly sad. For in the end, it had been a good year. Julia and I had grown closer through our moments of triumph and anger. She had read and written and calculated more than ever before in the public schools. And now that she has entered a conventional middle school, and is once again oppressed by the combination of piles of homework, little fresh air (no recess in middle school) and endless multiple choice tests (multiple choice is the greatest sign of the failure of American education), she often grows nostalgic.

“Remember last October when the leaves were turning? We walked around town identifying trees with our field guide, making photographs and leaf rubbings and writing a paragraph about each one?”

Yes, I remember.

“That was fun,” she said. “Let’s do it again.”

Julia has even begun to ask about homeschooling for the eighth grade, a possibility that I have not ruled out. But in the meantime, my daughter needs more time away from Mom (excessive mothering is one of the most common concerns about homeschoolers). A third-party adult can often inspire a child more deeply than pleas from dear old Mother, which is why many homeschoolers hire tutors. In addition, the presence of a peer group in a public classroom can keep a child on task, who might, in a home setting, have problems staying focused, and the social diversity in the public schools can’t be matched in today’s homeschooling communities.

In the end, I believe in supporting public education in America, especially in districts like ours, where the schools are small and safe. But in return, the public schools should be supporting America’s families, not filling our children’s family time with more schoolwork. While I am willing to leave my daughter’s education in the hands of the public schools until three o’clock each day, after-school hours should be devoted to exercise, art, music, and unstructured play—all of the highly educational activities that many schools, in their test-bound shackles, have cut to the bare bones. When excessive homework gets in the way of family time—time for long conversations, as well as visits to museums and parks and concerts—that’s when the schools have crossed my line in the sand. And that’s when Julia and I will be back in our local coffee shop, spending our Wednesday mornings speaking bits of French over a game of chess.

Laura Brodie teaches English at Washington and Lee University, in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and three daughters. She is the author of The Widow’s Season, Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women, Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter’s Uncommon Year (Harper 2010), and All the Truth. Find her at http://lbrodie.publishpath.com

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)

 

What’s in a Gene?

What’s in a Gene?

By Alexis Wolff

whatsinagene“The geneticist is going to look at this and freak,” a woman who introduced herself as Veronica told me as we sat across from one another in her Manhattan office. On the coffee table between us sat my application, which I had been instructed to complete at a desk by the receptionist, even though I’d mailed in an identical one several weeks before. This new application sat opened to a grid where I’d filled in information such as the height, weight, hair color, and eye color of my sister, parents, and maternal grandparents. I left blank the boxes devoted to my paternal grandparents. I’d never met them.

“Let’s try to fill some of this in,” Veronica said, “or else the geneticist is going to have some trouble doing her job.”

“Well,” I apologized, “I’m not sure I know any more than what I put.”

“We can just estimate.”

I shrugged.

“So your dad’s mom,” Veronica continued. “Would you say she was small, average, or large?”

“I have no idea.”

“What would you guess?”

“Medium?”

“Good.”

“And her hair color?”

“Maybe brown?”

And on we went. When we finished, Veronica flipped through the rest of my application, in which I documented my interests and talents, my ethnic heritage, and my personal and family medical histories.

“You’ve got a great profile,” she said, glancing up to look me in the eye. “I could match you in a day.” I supposed that was a compliment.

Veronica put down my application and shifted back a bit on the couch. “So,” she asked, “what made you interested in egg donation?” I hesitated. I knew that I couldn’t tell Veronica the whole truth. My interest dated back a few years to when I was a junior in college and the writer Gay Talese spoke to my English seminar class. The week before, we’d read Talese’s classic profile of Frank Sinatra, which Esquire had recently dubbed “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” We’d sat around the circular oak table discussing specific passages and techniques like peewee league football players watching Super Bowl clips.

A week later, Talese stood before us, wanting to hear about the pieces we intended to write. A sophomore named Lily spoke about the frequent ads in the Yale Daily News promising five-digit payments to egg donors. She said she didn’t understand why a woman would subject herself to such an invasive medical procedure, even for so much money. Talese nodded intently as Lily explained that she planned to interview donors and recipients to understand the process better. When she finished, Talese offered his advice: donate your eggs.

We knew that this kind of first-person participation was a central tenet of New Journalism, yet we chuckled. We were merely students, after all, just toying with the idea of being writers. We loved to read about Talese stalking a sick Sinatra after the singer refused an interview, or abouthim tagging along with members of the notorious Bonanno crime family for his 1971 bestseller, Honor Thy Father, but we wouldn’t have dared try either ourselves, and the thought of donating eggs just to get a good story was preposterous.

Two years later, I’d graduated from college and committed myself to being a writer. I was living in New York City—the same city as Talese, but in a far different world. I’d published a few essays for twenty five or fifty dollars, but professional success was nowhere in sight. As a graduate student with over sixty thousand dollars in debt, and more coming, money was a problem. So when I saw an ad online offering $8,000 for my eggs, I was tempted. I thought of Talese. I could use the money, but more importantly, I could use the story. But I knew I couldn’t tell that to Veronica.

“In college, I always saw ads offering tons of money for egg donors, and I told myself I’d never be a part of that,” I began. “It seemed like they were trying to genetically engineer a perfect child. But I noticed in your ad that recipients know nothing about donors except that they’re healthy and have similar ethnic backgrounds, which makes me think they’re seeking egg donors because they really need them.”

I didn’t say explicitly that I wanted to help such couples, but that’s what Veronica heard.

She nodded excitedly. As she expounded on the rewards of knowing you helped an infertile couple start a family, I felt a little dirty. I admired people with such motives, but for me, at least at this point, donating was about what I’d get rather than what I’d give.

I studied Veronica as she spoke. She was probably ten years older than me, wearing a mauve button-up shirt with shoulder pads. Her lips were painted a shade lighter than her shirt, and her eyelids a shade lighter than her lips. I thought of the advice I read once in a fashion magazine—makeup should match your coloring rather than your clothing. I wondered whether Veronica was judging me too. “So what I’m going to do now is tell you a little about the process,” Veronica said. I nodded as she recited, confidently and precisely, the evolution of in vitro fertilization from a procedure performed with a woman’s own eggs to one that frequently employs eggs from donors. As a donor coordinator, she’d surely given the speech dozens, or maybe hundreds, of times before, but her warm smile made me feel that she was truly excited to tell me.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) estimates that donating my eggs would take approximately fifty-six hours over about two months, Veronica told me. It would begin with a series of physical, gynecological, and psychological examinations to determine my eligibility. Once I passed and was matched with a recipient couple, I would receive an injection to halt the normal function of my ovaries. This would help control my response to the fertility hormones I’d have to inject for ten days, and allow my cycle to be coordinated with that of the recipient.

I thought about that recipient. She’d likely be coming to the clinic the same days as me, maybe even at the same time. I knew I’d be looking around at the clinic’s other patients and wondering who would receive my eggs, and I guessed she’d be searching for me too. I began to feel fond of her, whoever she was.

On the coffee table, Veronica set a glossy black and white paper facing me that showed ten small and seemingly identical slides. The replication made it look looked like Andy Warhol’s version of an ultrasound.

She pointed to six dark blurs in the last slide. “Here we see six mature eggs,” Veronica said. “Look here and here and here and here and here and here.” I looked. Normally, a woman develops and releases only one egg per month, she explained, but under the influence of fertility hormones, multiple follicles develop. I pretended I could see the difference between this slide and the one before it. Pictures like these would be taken of me too, she continued, because after I began taking fertility hormones, I’d come to the clinic early in the morning every few days so ultrasounds could monitor my eggs’ progress.

“Since you’re young, you would probably have even more eggs than this donor,” Veronica said. Most women on fertility hormones produce as many as twenty-five or thirty mature eggs per cycle.

Veronica set another glossy paper before me, this one a color cross-section illustration of the female sex organs. The image looked only vaguely familiar, like something I was supposed to memorize in ninth grade biology. Veronica explained that when the doctor decided the time was right—just before my eggs would have released into my reproductive system—he would inject me with another drug to prepare them for retrieval. After sedating me, he would insert a needle up through my vagina to coax them from their follicles. After I left his office, my eggs would be mixed with sperm and incubated for three to five days before being implanted into the uterus of the recipient.

I’d already read about this process, but hearing it aloud made it more concrete. This was really going to happen. A part of me was going to become a part of someone else—that amorphous woman I had started to feel affection for. I really did want to help her. Still, the thought of giving away a part of myself to a stranger made me feel a little uneasy.

“The procedure can be done in fifteen minutes, and it definitely shouldn’t take longer than an hour,” Veronica said. “And because you’ll be given a sedative to help you relax, we ask that you have someone to accompany you home that day.”

I froze. That was going to be a problem.

I hadn’t told anyone about this meeting, not even my boyfriend, and if I ever told him, I couldn’t imagine doing so until after I completed the procedure. I knew that he, an internal medicine intern at a hospital just down the street, would shake his head in disapproval and tell me that money’s not everything, that a good story’s not everything. Then he’d invoke medical jargon to make his case for what a bad idea this was. He’d remind me that it was possible (albeit extremely unlikely) that the fertility drugs could over-stimulate my ovaries and require me to be hospitalized, and that the retrieval procedure could (in even more rare cases) result in an infection that could affect my future fertility. I suspected that by reiterating the risks, my boyfriend could talk me out of it, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.

“Oh, and one other thing,” Veronica said. “The day of the retrieval procedure is when you’ll get your check.”

I’d already done the math. The $8,000 payment I would receive for approximately fifty-six hours of my time worked out to just under $150 per hour—ten times more than any employer seemed to think I was worth. My boyfriend’s objections aside, I’d have to give this some serious thought.

On my subway ride home, I sat across from a woman who looked seven or eight months pregnant. I stared at her swollen belly and then followed its curve up to her glowing cheeks. She noticed me and smiled. I grinned back. Then I tried to imagine if the exchange happened a few months down the road, after I underwent the procedure; I wasn’t sure the moment would have felt so sincere. Would I wonder if it was my baby the woman was carrying? Would I wonder this about every pregnant woman whose path I crossed, and later, about ever baby, every toddler, every child? Was that anxiety worth $8,000?

It was certainly a lot of money for not a lot of work. In Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe, offering money for donor eggs is illegal. In Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Japan, the use of donor eggs in IVF is forbidden. The United States is, in fact, the only major country with no national policy on IVF, even though nearly 41,000 children were conceived via IVF in the United States in 2001—6,000 from donor eggs. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, not only has a policy but a federal agency—the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority—that, among other things, sets caps on payments to egg donors.

In the U.S., the price for donor eggs has increased tenfold since the mid-1980s, when donors received about $250 to compensate for their time, transportation, and other incidental costs—about $4.46 per hour, a dollar and change above minimum wage. Donating back then didn’t have a significant financial incentive; most early donors acted out of altruism. Most donors still act out of altruism, Veronica led me to believe, but as time passed and the demand grew, donors began to expect compensation not just for practical sacrifices but also for the emotional burden and medical risk associated with donating.

Today, payments average between $1,500 to $3,000 dollars, depending mostly on the location of the clinic. In major metropolitan areas, payments are higher. Highly desirable donors—Ivy League students, models, athletes, accomplished musicians, and so forth—are frequently promised even more. Offers of tens of thousands of dollars are not uncommon, though some infertility experts maintain that advertisements like the ones Lily noticed in the Yale Daily News are usually not legitimate. Women who respond are often told that the ad has been filled but that other recipients are still seeking donors. These other recipients, however, always seem to offer substantially less money. As an Ivy League graduate living in Manhattan, I would be compensated well above the national average for my eggs. Given my doubtful professional situation, it felt nice to have someone recognize my worth, even if she was a faceless IVF recipient.

Two weeks later I was back at the clinic, this time to meet with a psychologist. Dr. Jones (as I’ll call her) led me to the same office where I’d met with Veronica. She sat down, crossed her legs, and set a white legal pad on her knee. “So, what can I do for you?” she asked.

I was taken aback by her question. I explained that I’d met with Veronica about the possibility of becoming a donor, and, as I understood it, this was the next step. Nodding, Dr. Jones explained that donors usually undergo physical evaluations first, but after looking over my application, she wanted to meet with me.

“Do you have any concerns about being a donor?” she asked as if she already knew I did. I could have easily recited Veronica’s speech about the virtue of egg donation, which I could relate to now more than I expected I ever would, but I remembered my reaction to the pregnant woman on the subway and decided to be honest. I told her I worried that I might suspect every pregnant woman I saw of carrying my baby.

“That’s a very real concern,” Dr. Jones said. Although my future feelings could not be predicted, she said, how I ultimately felt about donating was likely to be related to how I now understood my role in the procedure. Donating was more likely to be a positive experience if I believed I was giving a piece of myself for the possibility of life, and if I believed that my involvement ended there.

“What do you mean by ‘possibility’?”

“Success rates for in vitro fertilization with donor eggs are about fifty percent,” she said.

I was shocked. I knew that success rates for IVF with a woman’s own eggs hovered around thirty percent, and I knew that using a donor’s eggs increased the chances of success, but I assumed the increase would be more significant. To my surprise, I was also relieved. After the procedure, it would be just as likely that someone wasn’t carrying a child conceived from one of my eggs as that someone was.

Donating might be a negative experience for me in the long run, she added, if I believed a child with my genes was my child.

“I wouldn’t want to find the child and claim it,” I clarified. “It’s just that there might always be a latent curiosity.”

Dr. Jones suggested we table this issue and move on to my family history. She asked about the abnormalities in my parents’ histories documented on my application (both of them). I told her the details without much emotion; after all, I’d recited the information at nearly every doctor’s appointment I’d had over the last decade. I told her that my mom had battled cancer twice, first of the breast and then of the cervix. Dr. Jones seemed alarmed, both by the rarity of those two types of cancer afflicting the same person and by my nonchalant recounting of it. But to me it was just an empty fact: I didn’t remember my mom being sick, and now she was completely fine. When Dr. Jones asked if there was anything she should know about my dad, I chronicled, just as flatly, that he’d become addicted to cocaine when I was two, divorced my mom when I was three, lost his law license when I was ten, was homeless for a while, and then, when I was seventeen, became a used car salesman.

“Is he clean now?”

“Well, he’s held the same job for five or six years, so I think he probably is. But you never know, do you?”

Then Dr. Jones wanted to know about my sister. I mentioned her allergies and her attention deficit disorder, for which she’s been treated since third grade. Dr. Jones wondered aloud whether my dad has a learning disability too.

“My mom’s always suspected he does,” I said. “His mind jumps a lot. But maybe that’s because of the drugs.”

“Could he be depressed?” she asked.

“Maybe,” I conceded.

Dr. Jones’s pen stopped moving. She shifted in her seat and sat staring at her legal pad.

“I don’t think …” she began, her voice low, “that you’re going to be able to help us.”

She paused for what felt like minutes. “It’s really too bad,” she continued, now looking me in the eye. “We would have loved to have had you, but if there’s addiction or learning disabilities in two generations, well, it’s a liability issue for us.”

I sat on the couch, stunned.

“If your dad had just dabbled in drugs we could maybe overlook it,” Dr. Jones continued, “but from when you were two years old to five years ago, and maybe still ongoing—that’s a prolonged problem.” Drug abuse is linked with ADD, and if both are heritable.

I would also learn from the medical journals that my dismissal, though not legally necessary, wasn’t unfounded. Research suggesting an influence of genetics on addiction is amassing. In March 2006, for instance, the British Institute of Psychiatry released a study that found that variations in the genetic code for the DAT protein, which controls dopamine levels, can cause a person to become addicted to cocaine more quickly. According to these findings, if the suspect gene were passed from my dad to me, I would be fifty percent more likely than my peers to become dependent on the drug. Other studies have produced similar results. I stared blankly at my computer’s screen. This discovery stung worse than the rejection of my eggs.

Over the next few weeks, that statistic haunted me. A baby born of my genes would be fifty percent more likely than average to abuse cocaine. Though my boyfriend and I were far from thinking about having children of our own, I wondered how he might react to this news. Would he pull out now, knowing he didn’t want to have kids with someone whose DNA was so flawed? He, of course, could have children with someone else, but I would always have these genes. This was my lot. I wondered whether it was irresponsible of me to even consider reproducing.

One day, out of nowhere, it occurred to me that I could have lied. The clinic’s screening process was based on information provided by me. My prior medical records weren’t required, and neither were those of my family. Maybe the clinic’s staff wanted me to lie. Maybe that’s why Veronica had me fill out multiple applications and why Dr. Jones asked me to recite the family history I had already listed twice. Maybe they were waiting for my story to change, and maybe I missed the cue that it was supposed to. After all, Veronica made quite clear in filling the blank boxes of my paternal grandparents that veracity was beside the point.

Maybe Dr. Jones and Veronica knew that heredity isn’t all there is to addiction. Variations in my genetic code related to the DAT protein, if I do indeed have them, might make me more susceptible if I tried cocaine, but I haven’t. I haven’t because addiction isn’t just about an abnormal gene, it’s also about the factors that make drugs tempting. Disorders like ADD and depression can influence a person’s decision to turn to drugs, as can environmental and social factors, which also influence drugs’ availability. If addiction is about nature, it’s just as much about nurture. My dad and I—genetically speaking—were equally susceptible to addiction, but he became entangled with drugs while I didn’t, probably because his parents kicked him out when he was sixteen, and remained estranged from him to their deaths. I, on the other hand, was guided through childhood and adolescence by my mom, a positive role model who offered sound parental guidance. That, it seemed, has made all the difference.

But science is cold, definite. Genetics play a role in drug abuse, period. Nurture is unpredictable. It’s the job of Veronica and Dr. Jones and the clinic’s geneticist to play the scientific odds. It’s the statistic that matters, and a baby born of my genes would be fifty percent more likely than average to abuse cocaine. For weeks, that statistic echoed in my mind every time I passed a child in the park, on the sidewalk, or riding the subway. I thought, too, of how it felt to be rejected for a job that I’d nearly thought I was too good for.

If troublesome genes are to be shunned, a scientist might forever doom the future of the Bonanno crime family based on whatever genetic abnormality makes a person more likely to lead a life of crime. But science doesn’t always have the last word. After publishing Honor Thy Father, Gay Talese allocated some of his royalties to the Bonanno children. One of them used the money to go to medical school and is now a successful physician. His story would be unremarkable, discouraging even, to those who think genes are destiny, but to a writer—or me—he’s a goldmine, because in literature it’s the people who defy the statistics that count. This is the way of thinking I prefer.

Author’s Note: Shortly after writing this piece I stumbled onto a list of thirteen characteristics of adult children of alcoholics; characteristics that also apply to the children of drug addicts. I was skeptical at first. How many people aren’t either extremely responsible or extremely irresponsible from time to time? Who wouldn’t, at some point in his or her life, proclaim that they have difficulty with intimate relationships.  But I couldn’t ignore the fact that every characteristic listed seemed to apply to me. Some were more true than others of course, and some might have been true in the way that the intuitions of fortunetellers are. But I saw too much of myself in the list to laugh it off completely, and I realized that my desperate pursuit of experiences about which to write, like donating my eggs, was silly. I already had a story to tell. I’ve read memoirs about families affected by substance abuse, but never about the longer term affects on various family members’ personalities and the life each ultimately chooses to lead. I’m working on a memoir now. Writing this piece helped me get there. 

Alexis Wolff holds a BA from Yale University and an MFA from Columbia University. She has previously been published by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and in the Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, among others.

Brain, Child (Winter 2007)

Sounds Like a Plan

Sounds Like a Plan

By Rebecca O’Connell

Sounds Like a Plan_WI07Dr. O, My OB-GYN, called to say that the plan was illegal in Pennsylvania, where I live, but it was legal elsewhere. Not only that, but it was the very best source of organs for sick babies, since the organs would be new and strong and free of disease. He was expecting a call back from a transplant specialist; the specialist would find out where we could implement the plan.

I thanked him. It was his idea, but I was completely on board. I wasn’t so sure about my husband, but I figured I could convince him.

I was carrying a twelve-week-old fetus with anencephaly: no skull. I’d seen the ultrasound the day before. It was very clear. There were its little legs, its arms, its bright-white spinal cord, and there was its brain: exposed, naked, all the whorls and swirls plainly visible.

Well, I thought, we can make him a helmet. I’ll knit him a nice, wooly hat to cover it up. We’ll replace it as he grows. We’ll manage. He’ll be fine.

But I was telling myself a story. The truth of the matter dawned on me, even as I visualized the cap I would knit my baby: No one can live without a skull.

The doctor performing the ultrasound confirmed it. No, the baby could not live outside the womb. No, the pregnancy was not likely to end spontaneously.

“Well, then, what am I supposed to do? What do people do?” I asked. Screamed, kind of.

The doctor patted my shoulder. The ultrasound tech gave me a Kleenex. “The counselor will be in to speak with you,” she murmured.

I’m sure the counselor was warm and responsive, but I have no idea what she said. I think her main job at that point was to hand me things—a box of tissues, a paperback book called Empty Arms: Coping with Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Death, another box of tissues when I’d used up the first one, a four-by-three-inch glossy print of my ultrasound. This last item she procured for me after repeated requests. “I don’t want to seem morbid,” I explained over and over, “I just want to have something to show my husband.”

My husband was at work that morning. He’d already taken time off to go with me to the ultrasound at five weeks, the one I’d had after some scary early bleeding and a blood test indicating low hCG. He’d been there for the one at six weeks, at which they’d seen a heartbeat after all, and after which we’d gone out to Ritter’s Diner for a huge waffles-and sausage-and-eggs-and-orange-juice breakfast. He’d come to the one at ten weeks, when I was supposed to get the CVS test, but didn’t. A CVS (chorionic villus sampling) test can detect the same fetal abnormalities as an amniocentesis, only earlier; my doctor had postponed it because the fetus was too small.

Small, but still within normal range, so I wasn’t worried. I’d seen the heartbeat. I’d seen the fetus whirling around on the ultrasound screen. I’d had a little bit of morning sickness, and my jeans were tight at the waist. Things were fine. I could go in on my own at twelve weeks for the CVS. I could drive myself home afterwards. My husband had missed enough work. There was no need for him to come with me to this appointment.

The counselor gave me the picture, along with what I perceived to be a look of incomprehension. Was it weird that I wanted a picture of my doomed baby? The Victorians did that all the time. But my memento mori was an ultrasound, printed in a medical complex offering some of the most up-to-the-minute healthcare in the country. My request must have seemed incongruously nineteenth-century in that technologically advanced setting.

I left the office with the picture, the book, a half a box of tissues, and instructions to call Dr. O.

But first, I toted everything over to my husband’s workplace. There was no privacy in his office, and it was too cold to stand outside, so we had a brief, surreal conversation in the car. We agreed: It didn’t make sense to us to carry to term a baby with no chance of survival. We’d have to terminate the pregnancy.

My husband and I are both prochoice. We give money to Planned Parenthood and support NARAL-endorsed candidates, but my husband was raised in an anti-choice culture. In fact, I’d briefly considered breaking up with him in college, when we’d been talking about a pro-choice rally on campus, and he’d said, “I’m not sure how I feel about that issue.” He’d come around, though, had married himself a Feminist, and gotten her knocked up. But I thought he’d still been a little squeamish when I’d insisted on having the CVS.

“I’m pretty unconflicted about this,” I’d told him. “I don’t want to raise a child who has a severe disability. If the test comes back abnormal, I’ll terminate the pregnancy.” He’d agreed, but the conversation had left him looking like he needed to throw up.

Now, our worst-case scenario had come true.

But that was before we’d ever heard of the plan.  I went home and called Dr. O.

“Can you come in? Right away?”

It had taken me months to get an initial appointment for my pre-trying-to-conceive physical exam, so the prospect of getting to see Dr. O immediately, right now, that very afternoon was intoxicating. Even though I thought all he was going to do was give me the name of the doctor who would terminate the pregnancy, I hurried right over.

“Now, I bring this up not to try to influence you in any way, but just to give you another perspective,” said Dr. O when I arrived for my spur-of-the-moment appointment.

If I carried the pregnancy to term, the baby would not live long, but its organs would be healthy and strong. Dr. O counted out the list of strong and healthy organs: A heart.  A liver.  Two kidneys. Two lungs. That’s six organs, six lives that could be saved if I carried this baby to term. My baby could save six lives; my baby could be a hero.

That “could be a hero” phrase might seem a little bit manipulative, but I don’t think that’s how he meant it, and at the time, I barely heard it. All I heard was a plan. There was an out. There was a way I could stay pregnant. I could grow organs for harvest.

Dr. O wasn’t sure that the local transplant program did this sort of operation. He gave them a call, while I watched and listened and blew my nose. He got the answering machine.

We discussed logistics while we waited for a call back. I wondered how they would get the organs out of my anencephalic baby in time to transplant them. They couldn’t take the organs until my baby was dead, but once my baby had died, the organs wouldn’t be good anymore. “Could I have a scheduled C-section? Could they do the C-section in the transplant hospital, so that the minute my baby was done with them, the organs could be put right into the recipients, without wasting any time?”

Yes, Dr. O assured me, that could be done. He could even give me steroids to speed up my baby’s growth, so instead of waiting another twenty-six to twenty-eight weeks to have the C-section, we could possibly have it in as little as twenty-four.

But what about my son, the one who was four years old, almost five? How could I explain it to him? He would be sure to notice my growing belly. He would know something was up. What could I say? Yes, Mommy is going to have a baby, but the baby is going to die. It’s very sad, but there’s a happy part, too. Your little brother or sister’s heart, lungs, kidneys and liver will go on living in other babies’ bodies.

My son didn’t know I was pregnant. Except for my husband and my friend Cathy, no one did. I was thirty-seven years old. This pregnancy had been planned; this baby had been wanted, but I was cautious, too. I knew that, elderly woman that I was, my chances of having a baby with a genetic abnormality were pretty good: one in one hundred, or something like that. We had decided not to mention the pregnancy to anyone until the CVS results were in. The bleeding, the early ultrasound showing an empty gestational sac, and other reminders of my advanced maternal age reinforced our decision to keep mum, and by twelve weeks in, we still hadn’t told anyone else.

But I’d picked out some names, and I’d found a really cute pickles-and-ice-cream pattern I was going to use on the email announcement once we were ready to share our joyous news. I’d been reading my son lots of picture books about new siblings or the miracle of reproduction, starring litters of kittens, puppies and bunnies.

“Well,” said Dr. O, “how much do you remember from when you were five?”

A lot. I remember my kindergarten. I remember my cats. I remember my sister very clearly. I remember that I wasn’t crazy about her, but I don’t have any trouble remembering her existence. I remember my mother going away to the hospital, my grand- mother coming to stay, my newborn sister coming home and sleeping on my lap on the big orange sofa. And when all that happened, I was much younger than five. If my son found out about the baby and the plan, there was no way he wouldn’t remember it.

“And once he’s old enough to understand, think how proud he’ll be of you,” said Dr. O.

“I’ll ask my husband,” I told him. I thought my husband would probably go for it. I knew, deep down, my husband thought abortion was murder. He would be as thrilled as I was to find out we didn’t have to have one.

“Are you religious?” Dr. O asked. My name is O’Connell, but my face is more like Abrams, Levine, Rabinowitz. You don’t need very sensitive Jewdar to pick up on my Hebraic ancestry, and Dr. O’s Jewdar was state-of-the-art. “Because there is such a thing as shalom bais, a peaceful home.” He gave me a mini-lecture about Judaism and the domestic sphere, the essence of which I took to be that while it would be preferable for me not to have an abortion, it was not worth wrecking my marriage over. If my husband was dead-set against the plan, we shouldn’t do it.

He was. My husband and I have been married for fourteen years, about twelve of them in couples’ therapy. Okay, well, maybe not twelve, but a lot. We’ve been on the brink of divorce more than once, sometimes for years at a time, which is not to say it is an unhealthy relationship. Rather, it’s a relationship between people who have had a lot of practice having discussions.

Once Dr. O and I realized the transplant hospital might be a long time calling back, I went home.

I had just finished debriefing my husband when Dr. O called back. I told him my husband was still on the fence.

“No, I’m on the other side of the fence,” my husband said.

I told Dr. O I’d call him back.

I presented my husband with my case. “Either way, our baby is going to die,” I argued. “If I carry the pregnancy to term, at least its organs can help other babies live.”

I imagined another mother, somewhere, holding her newborn, knowing that, without a donor, her baby would die. We could prevent that. All I had to do was carry my baby to term.

“And have a C-section,” my husband pointed out. It was major abdominal surgery, not without risk, not easy to recover from.

“I know what a C-section is like.” I’d had one with my son. It was miserable, but the whole thing was miserable. A little more misery on top would hardly even be noticeable. And if it resulted in something good, some baby getting a heart or a lung or a kidney or a liver, it would be worth it.

“You don’t have to be a martyr.”

This was from my mother. The conversation had gone from our kitchen to my parents’ living room. My son watched TV down the hall while my family tried to talk me out of the plan.

My dad nodded in agreement with my mom. There is nothing my family loathes more than martyrs. My raised-Catholic husband has a different understanding of the term martyr. To him, a martyr is holy, a person who gives of herself, who suffers for a higher purpose. To us, a martyr is someone who suffers for glory. Oh, that’s all right. Don’t worry about me. You go ahead. I didn’t want to go anyway. I’ll just stay here and clean the grout around the bathtub.

“I won’t be a martyr,” I explained. “I’ll be really low key. I’ll wear baggy clothes. If anyone does notice I’m pregnant, I’ll change the subject.”

“But you would still have to travel at nine months pregnant to God-knows-where this scheme is legal; and leave your son for days and days; and have your baby only to watch it die. You’re my little girl. I don’t want tosee you go through that.” I had answers to all their objections. As in my helmet-beneath-the-knitted-cap story, everything in the transplant-plan story would work out fine. Sure, I’d be uncomfortable; sure, it would be hard onmy young son. But it would be worth it.

Anyway, I didn’t have a choice. I was obligated. If you have a chance to save a life, isn’t it your moral responsibility to do so? I had to carry this baby to term so its organs could be transplanted. It was the only reasonable, responsible thing to do.

And besides, I’d never even gotten to feel the baby move yet. Four more weeks, maybe five, and I’d be feeling the baby kicking in there, flipping like a fish. Each little flip would remind me of all those other babies, the potential organ recipients who would take my baby’s organs and keep them alive for years and years.

Why didn’t my family get that? Didn’t they love this baby as much as I did?

I looked at their faces one by one—my husband, my mother, my father. They didn’t look like abortion-promoters. They looked like sad, shocked old people. They looked like sad, shocked, compassionate old people who regretfully acknowledged that terminating this pregnancy was the right thing to do.

My Husband was against the plan. My parents were against the plan. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. And even if they didn’t, even if they were wrong, at least they were resolute.

Dr. O referred me to Dr. T, another OB-GYN. Dr. T explained about anencephaly. Somehow, I’d thought it meant that my baby was normal and healthy in every way, just without the skull. That’s not what it means. Anencephalic babies are missing the top parts of their brains. If I did carry my baby to term, it might be hours or days before brain stem activity and respiration ceased. By that time, the organs would likely have deteriorated; they would no longer be usefulfor transplant.

That’s why the plan was illegal in Pennsylvania—and most other places. For the transplant plan to work, the organs need to be harvested before respiration ceases. This is theoretically possible because anencephalics are born in a vegetative state. But practically speaking, there are many ethical and medical obstacles to transplanting the organs of anencephalics.

Dr. O may have exaggerated the plan’s viability and minimized its liabilities, but if he had planted false hope, I had tended and watered it.

I had the abortion in the same hospital where I’d seen the ultrasound, the same hospital where I’d had my little boy. It didn’t hurt. I was asleep throughout the procedure. When I woke up, the nurses brought me cranberry juice and crackers. They told me my hair looked nice. Nobody called me a baby killer. No one even implied it. One nurse told me she had had the same operation. Another gave me information about a support group, Unexpected Choices, for people who had decided to terminate a pregnancy when they found out it was genetically abnormal.

Anencephaly isn’t caused by a genetic abnormality. It is a form of spina bifida, something supplemental folic acid has been shown to reduce.

“I took my folic acid. I took it even before I was pregnant,” I told my husband. I told Dr. O. I told the nurses, and Dr. T, and the counselor, and my parents, and my friend Cathy. But maybe I had missed a day. I’d taken the folic acid, but not the multivitamin. I’d had coffee. I’d stood near the microwave. I’d had a sinus infection and fever around week five.

“It’s not your fault,” they told me.

And, “I’m here if you need anything.”

And, “It will get better. Just take it day by day.”

My husband doesn’t want to try for another baby. He never wants to go through anything like this ever again. And besides, we already have a beautiful, healthy, smart, funny, wonderful little boy. Our family is complete.

I can’t disagree.

But I’m taking my folic acid every day. Just in case.

Author’s Note: It has been almost a year since the procedure. A few weeks ago, I started feeling nauseated in the morning. I wasn’t pregnant. I think it was my body’s way of making a sorrowful anniversary. In a more constructive way of commemorating the sad events of last year I joined the National Marrow Donor Program, www.marrow.org.

Rebecca O’Connell lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son and two cats.

Brain, Child (Winter 2007)

Lonesome Road

Lonesome Road

By Molly McNett

sophialaurenSometimes I must get out of the house and its “chronic angers,” as the poet Robert Hayden put it. This particular night I fought with my husband—about what? I never remember—and slammed the door at eight-thirty, just after the kids were in bed. I was still nursing. And I was so heavy, thirty pounds overweight, although the baby was six months old already.

Was it dark? I think so. Or it became dark as I walked. The road is a natural place to be alone here, in rural Illinois. There are only animals, and their pastures—no people, no houses in sight. I seemed to be stirring the hot afternoon with the new evening as I walked: My face was warm and my hands were cold, and I could feel these opposing currents moving.

A hawk gave a raspy cry and swooped down from a tree, and then it was quiet. A deer jumped up from a bush in front of me, straight up over the fence and into the soybeans. She took three nearly vertical jumps and stopped, the soybeans up to her neck. She made a pretty picture frozen there in profile, with the fireflies lighting quietly all over the field. I watched them for a while. If I wanted to explain to a deaf person what music was like, I thought, I would show them this field. All these sweet, tiny lights, holding and releasing together or in turn, the whole field a silent polyphony. I was pleased with myself for thinking of this. I stood there watching and being pleased with myself.

A truck came by. I heard it approach from behind, and I stepped off the road, waiting for the noise to go away, to continue my walk. But after it passed, it circled back and pulled up alongside me. A man rolled down the window.

“You okay?”

“Yes,” I said, but I was startled, like the deer. I was half a mile from home. And it was dark.

“I thought you was someone I knew,” said the man. He sighed. “I thought you might be someone I knew.”

Whiskey on his breath. He was maybe sixty. No beard but unshaven. There was a gun on a rack behind the front seat: a hunting rifle. And behind it, the outline of a pissing Calvin on the window.

“This gal I’m looking for … She’s my wife’s daughter, but she run away from her dad and then come to my wife and me and she run away from us then, eleven days ago. There from a distance, I thought you was her.”

He’ll ask if you need a ride, I told myself. Say no, emphatically. Don’t act afraid.

“Did you call the police?”

“Oh, hell, they can’t do anything—she’s eighteen.”

His truck is idling noisily. Then he shuts it off, which makes me nervous. I ask, “What happened?”

“I tried to lay down the law on her. I says, you’ll be home at such-and- such an hour and you won’t have them friends of yours in my house or drugs and whatnot. I love you like a father, and if he don’t lay down the law, then I will.”

His “such-and-such a time” makes it all a little spurious. I have kids. I would never say their bedtime is “such-and-such a time.” It’s eight-thirty.

“You know what she resembles? Sophia Loren.”

I had no image of a young Sophia Loren, only someone matronly, an older “classy lady” whose picture I sometimes saw in women’s magazines in articles about How to Care for Skin at Every Age, along with maybe Catherine Deneuve, or Julie Christie.

He put his elbow on the window and leaned out.

“Why are you out so late?” It sounded like “slate.” Why are you out slate.

“I have a baby,” I said. “I can’t get away any other time.”

This was true: I could hardly get out of the house. I was trapped there. Suddenly I felt I’d confessed something terribly intimate. If he asked me to elaborate I might begin to cry— how important it seems, the fact that you are fat, at a time like this. Everything you say feels like an apology. Everything that happens interpreted through this layer of belly fat, ass fat, huge quaky boob fat.

But he didn’t notice. His eyes were squeezed shut, and he was shaking, softly. And maybe because my own misery had come to the surface, I felt I knew something about him, and why he cried. He was in love with his own stepdaughter. So he was not only drunk, but maybe crazy. Or dangerous. And the nearest house was my own, now half a mile away.

“She’s wild,” he sobbed. “I told her, I got to look after you like your own father would. I got to lay down the law. But them friends of hers … You can’t hold her down. You can’t tame her.”

I am disgusted by him. He is old, and grizzled, and drunk, and in love with a teenager. And yet his face is pitiful. His jowls hang down like some sad dog’s.

Just because you are not attractive doesn’t make you less susceptible to beauty: That is something the young imagine. My breasts are grossly heavy, my legs and face are swollen, but underneath these things I am the same person. I watch men and think of them in the same way I always have, because all love is a dream, whether it is manifest in your own flesh, or not. Even now I am dreaming that I can be mistaken for a young Sophia Loren—at least, on a dark night.

“That’s too bad,” I said to the man. Sometimes you just need to say it. I’m in love with my stepdaughter. I’m trapped in my own house.

He started up his truck and drove off, and I walked home, thinking that it’s hard to predict when people will find something in common. It might only be the fact that we are alive, of the same species, on a road at night. A road where everything is quiet, except for the high trilling of the frogs. A bull in the field with his low, gasping inhale. Coyotes, who sound dangerously close, their voices circling: Here I am, I’m coming, choose me.

Author’s Note: Sometimes walking is the only way to be alone. And it’s a fine one, easy to see as a metaphor, since you walk away from your life as you do it. For me, I’m walking away from my family who needs me, and my house which needs me, to a place where I am only myself for a little while, where I can have a different vantage on the day, or the argument, and so on. If I am angry when I begin to walk, I usually don’t return that way.

Molly McNett lives with her husband, son, and daughter on a farm in northern Illinois. Her writing has appeared in The Best American Non-required Reading, as well as many literary journals. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

photo credit: life.time.com

Mad About Sports

Mad About Sports

By Kate Haas

unnamed-3My four-year-old son stands on our neighbor’s lawn, holding a purple plastic baseball bat over his shoulder, his eyes alight with excitement. As far as I know, he has never picked up a bat before.

“Throw me the ball, Mama!” Nate calls.

Reluctantly, I put down my book, get up from the porch and pluck the whiffleball from the grass. I toss it in his direction; he swings and misses. Confusion clouds his eyes.

“Keep your eye on—” I stop. This phrase cannot possibly be emerging from my mouth. I try again.

“I mean, uh, just keep watching the ball, and swing the bat when it comes near you,” I manage. It feels like an awkward attempt at a foreign language. I toss the ball again. Thwack! It sails over to the next yard. He does it again the next time, and the next. He hits that ball with the bat all afternoon. I am no judge of these things, but my kid appears to have a knack for baseball.

To some, this would be a cherished scene of parenthood: the proud mother, the eager youngster, the wholesome passing on of the sporting tradition. Not to me. The thing is, this isn’t my tradition. People in my family did not play sports. Readers all, we regarded athletics with a combination of bewilderment and disdain. We didn’t join teams or wear uniforms, and to this day we remain completely indifferent to anything whatsoever concerning professional athletes. When I was growing up, it was understood that the sports section of the newspaper went directly to the trash. My siblings and I got plenty of exercise running around the neighborhood, but gym class was the bane of my school days.

I was picked last for every team in P.E. I daydreamed in the outfield or talked with the other bookish outcasts. When the ball came my way, I avoided it. Team captains groaned when I came up to bat but I endured their scorn with fortitude because I knew my cause was righteous. They might have been popular and cool, but my strength was as the strength of ten, not because my heart was pure (it wasn’t) but because I was a reader.

As a reader, I knew what was important, and hitting a ball with a bat was not it. Nor was throwing a ball into a basket, kicking a ball into a goal, hurling a ball at another person, or doing sit-ups. Kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, wielding power wisely: these were the values I had gleaned from reading. Values which (as anyone with a claim to human decency will attest) are conspicuously absent from most P.E. classes.

The party line held that participating in the boring, arduous, and unpleasant activities of P.E. would confer indispensable benefits later on in the Real World. I doubted it. Did Lucy engage in sit-ups before opening the wardrobe door into Narnia? Hardly. True, Narnia wasn’t exactly the real world, but it felt a whole lot more real than the one I lived in. The world in which mean, loutish boys who could throw a ball received the acclaim of peers and teachers, while bookish, uncoordinated girls like me were (at best) objects of pity.

Having to throw a ball around when I could have been happily reading a book made me grumpy and miserable. But after twelve years of sports-induced misery, I escaped to college— and just like that, it was over. It was hard to believe at first but gradually the reality sank in: No one was ever going to make me run, jump or throw a ball again for the rest of my life.

As the years passed, unmarred by forced basketball, dodge ball, or even badminton, I mellowed somewhat on the sports issue. With the wisdom of age and experience, I was willing to concede that not everyone who enjoys sports is a mindless adherent to all that is worst in American culture. Some of these people, I now understood, actually find athletics as vital to their happiness as reading is to mine. Some of them are my friends.

I did not, however, expect to give birth to one of them.

At first, there was no cause for alarm. Simon, my older son, was just as attracted to all things beautiful as he was to chasing a ball. After he spent the summer of his fourth year wearing a dress, I figured my future involved schlepping the kid to and from play rehearsals and cheering him on at debate team events, a prospect I relished.

I don’t recall exactly when I realized that my younger son didn’t seem destined for the life of an introspective poet. It could have been when, at fifteen months, he hurled himself down the playground’s twisting tube slide—the same slide Simon didn’t venture on until the age of three. It could have been right after he turned two, when a stranger watching my uncannily agile little boy maneuver around the climbing structure asked, as so many had before her, with an awestruck expression, “Is that your kid? How old is he?” By the time Nate climbed onto a bike (without training wheels) at age three and took off down the sidewalk with the confident balance of a pro, I could no longer deny what was perfectly plain to everyone else: this child was a born athlete.

My older son’s delight in books had thrilled me. “That’s my boy,” I thought with pleasure, when Simon begged for one more chapter of The Trumpet of the Swan. It was the thrill of recognition. He was my boy, after all. I had never doubted that my children would inherit my love of literature. My husband, a biologist, took it for granted that they would be at home in the woods. (They were.) My husband is as indifferent to sports as I am, so watching Nate in action fascinated us both. How had we produced this astonishing little dynamo?

More disconcerting than Nate’s athletic abilities was the pride I felt as I watched him climb, pedal, and race his way through life. I could hardly take credit for Nate’s physical fearlessness, yet I was absurdly pleased each time someone complimented me on it. I did my best to conceal this. “Yeah, well, God only knows what he’ll be up to at sixteen,” I’d answer wryly, shaking my head as Nate hurtled past on his Razor scooter. Isn’t he amazing? I wanted to shout. But how could I? Hadn’t I scorned this sort of thing my whole life?

Perhaps it’s precisely because Nate’s action-oriented nature is so foreign to me that it captivates me so much. How can I help rejoicing in the fact that my child possesses something so uniquely his own? I never expected my kids to be carbon copies of their parents, of course. But that one of them has a talent for athletics is delightfully exotic. Watching Nate’s intent, joyful expression as he does anything physical, I feel like the discoverer of some foreign land. And maybe, I’ve started to believe, living on its borders will be pretty interesting.

That thought isn’t always easy to maintain. Lately, parent after parent has been prophesying my future with “a kid like that.” “Just wait till soccer practice starts ruling your life,” they say, knowingly. In the view of these seasoned parents, soccer practice and its accompanying, weekend-devouring games are simply a force of nature, like a tsunami; there is no option but to be sucked under. Even a mother I knew to be a fellow reader could offer no mitigating vision of the future when I protested that this wouldn’t be happening to us.

“Yeah, I thought the same thing, back when I was a vegetarian who read books all weekend,” she told me. “And then I had these boys. Now I’m eating hot dogs at the games and organizing the practice schedules.” She laughed merrily, as though this transformation from bookworm to soccer mom was simply one of life’s delightful ironies. I shuddered. I love my son, but watching a weekly soccer game—even with him in it—has all the appeal of an afternoon at the DMV. (Will the other parents despise me for reading on the bleachers?) Of course, it’s possible that a similar transformation will occur in my case, too. Could it really be as simple as: My Child + Soccer = I love watching him play? I suppose I’ll find out.

Still, the prospect of soccer momhood troubles me far less than the thought of how sports culture may affect my son. Sure, I enjoy the sight of Nate careening around the neighborhood on his bike and scooter. But when I picture him in a uniform, on a team, I flash back to high school and its rigidly segregated hierarchies. What if loving sports turns my son into a jock? Someone who looks down on everyone not similarly gifted? Someone who—God forbid—doesn’t like to read? It may well be true that team sports build character. But the characters of the male athletes at my high school were all pretty much the same: arrogant, entitled, and—how to put this—less than literarily inclined.

My husband has three words for me whenever I go on one of my tirades about the conformist tribal rites of Little League and the dreadful possibility of raising a mindless jock: Get over it. Growing up in our household, Nate will know full well that kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, and wielding power wisely are more important than winning any soccer game.

Of course, there are those people—several of my friends among them—who claim that sports can be the ideal venue to transmit these very values. The part of me still mired in adolescent hostility toward high school jocks wants to argue this notion. But the rest of me, the part that really knows better, can’t help conceding that my friends are right. I’ve heard their stories, after all: the fidelity to teammates, the sense of justice acquired through learning about fair play, the satisfaction of working toward a shared goal. I may have found P.E. unpleasant and pointless all those years ago, but I realize that my experiences are just that: mine. Many of my friends credit participation in sports with everything from shaping their characters to preserving their mental health, and I have no reason to doubt them. (Didn’t books do the same for me?)

As I listen to them, I realize that I want what they are describing for Nate. Not sports, necessarily, but something they and I shared, readers and jocks alike: a passion.

I’ve long believed that I’m a reader because I was raised by readers in a house full of books. But it doesn’t always work that way. I have reader friends whose parents kept the TV on all day and barely read to them. They found their way to the library, just the same. Perhaps our love of reading, like Nate’s apparent talent for athletics, is more a gift than anything to do with our upbringing. I don’t know whether Nate’s love of physical activity will be the thing that sustains him over the years or whether some new passion will be revealed. Whatever it turns out to be, that joyous dedication to something is what I really want for my son.

I see it in him now. I watch him speed his scooter around a corner, his body leaning effortlessly into the curve, his face intent and deeply happy. I recognize that expression; I’ve sensed it on my own face often enough while reading. It’s the look of someone absorbed in what he loves, caught up in the unselfconscious enjoyment of his powers, a simple moment of transcendence.

Author’s Note: At the skate park recently, a teenager watching Nate in action turned to Simon. “Your brother’s a rad little dude,” he told my seven-year-old, admiringly. I’ve sometimes wondered if Nate’s natural derring-do might ever be a source of tension between him and his more cautious older brother. But Simon reported this compliment excitedly, obviously thrilled to be addressed from on high in skater lingo. I was thrilled on his behalf.

Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Subscribe to Brain, Child

 

 

Quiet Riot: Celebrating Introverted Kids in an Extroverted World

Quiet Riot: Celebrating Introverted Kids in an Extroverted World

By Margret Aldrich

QuietRiotThe bus is four minutes away, and I’m crouched next to my reticent five-year-old, Abe—the King of Quiet and my favorite fledgling introvert. With my arm loose around his waist I talk to him about the sticky 85-degree August morning, the blue jay making a racket in the elm tree above us, and what to expect at his first day of kindergarten. (Oh, that. No big deal.)

Other kids from our block, already sweating from the early heat, mill about the bus stop, chatty and boisterous. But not Abe. He is silent, sandy blond head tilted down to study an anthill and his Keens. He sneaks a peek or two at the bigger kids but doesn’t interact with them or acknowledge the parents who giddily ask him “are you excited?” His expression is unreadable, hiding whatever thoughts about school are motoring around his ever-busy little mind. But as the bus rumbles closer, he raises his luminous light-green eyes and leans his forehead close.

“Rhinoceros kiss,” he says so only I can hear it, giving me a hint of his playful half-smile.

This kiss—a smooch on his proffered forehead, right where he imagines a rhinoceros’s horn would be—is his favorite kind. As good-natured and rambunctious as Abe can be (when in familiar territory), he’s always been hesitant about getting a peck on the cheek or lips. He was hesitant about a lot of things that intruded on his personal space or made him feel like the center of attention. (And don’t even think about forcing him into a conversation with Great Aunt Mattie at a family reunion.)

“He’s shy, huh?” says another mom, fanning herself with a newspaper, and I answer like I always do: “Oh, it just takes him a while to warm up.”

The big, bright school bus pulls to a stop by our corner, and when the door screeches open, it sounds like there’s a rave going on in there. Children are raucously talking and laughing, vibrating in their seats like caffeinated honeybees. Was I really sending my introverted kid into this hive of rough-and-tumble preschoolers, knockabout fifth graders, and everyone in between? Was I really tossing him into an unfamiliar routine and a classroom of strangers? He might be perfectly fine. Or he might spend the entire school day in silence, wooden and closed-off; a door with no key.

I smile and give Abe a reassuring squeeze. No Big Deal, I try to exude—for both of us. Snatching him up and abandoning the school bus for my good-old Jetta station wagon was sounding like a better and better idea.

“Have fun at kindergarten!” the more-experienced bus-stop mom shouts to him as he lines up behind the other kids. He glances at her but doesn’t respond; waves, stoically, to his dad and me; then gets to the business of climbing onboard, strapped to a dinosaur backpack as big as he is.

Innies and Outies

We’ve all heard the term, but what, exactly, is an introvert?

When in new situations, introverted kids hang back, unwilling to jump right in with the rest of the group, and they can seem timid or unfriendly to people who meet them for the first time. But introverts aren’t antisocial or lacking self-confidence. They simply need enough calm and quiet to balance out the hustling, bustling activity of their everyday lives.

In her book The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, Marti Olsen Laney describes the difference between what she calls “innies” and “outies” this way: “I think of introverts as energy conservers, like rechargeable batteries that need ‘down time’ to restore their reserves,” she says. “Extroverts are energy spenders. Their motto is ‘Go, go, go.'”

Introversion—a word first popularized by psychologist Carl Jung (himself an introvert)—typically appears at a young age. A six-year-old named Lily, for example, might be talkative at home but clams up, tight as a lunchbox thermos, when the grocery store cashier asks her a question. Miles, a preschooler, might cling to his mother’s leg for the first hour of a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, until he feels comfortable joining the fun. Fourth-grader Julia may seem like an observer in social and academic circles, even though at home she’s engaged in everything from baking muffins to breaking ground for a backyard archeological dig. And Josh, a seventh-grader, may mention only one or two close friends, even though he’s well-liked by his classmates.

All of these traits are in contrast to extroverts. They are charged up and chatty, expressive with their words, facial expressions, and body language. They join in activities readily and consider everyone a friend. They thrive on action and activity, and if they don’t have enough, you’ll soon hear the phrase they always carry in their back pocket: “Mom, I’m bored.”

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies the ambivert. This individual enjoys the best of both temperaments: comfortable with rowdy occasions but equally able to treasure a peaceful day at home.

Neither the introverted or extroverted personality is better than the other—they’re simply different, points out Dawn Friedman, a family therapist based in Worthington, Ohio.

Friedman knows of what she speaks. Her household includes a smart, funny 16-year-old introvert named Noah, who displayed a few innie quirks from the get-go: “He liked preschool,” says Friedman, “but after the meager two and a half hours, he was done. He wouldn’t talk on the way home, and he’d be a little fragile for the rest of the day.”

As he got older, Noah—a handsome boy with tousled dark hair—intuitively developed ways to nurture his inner introvert. “His best friend was a fantastic kid who never ever wanted to be alone—totally high-energy extroverted,” Friedman says. “We’d be in the middle of a playdate and Noah would suddenly stand up and say, ‘I need to be alone now’ and would go to his room and shut the door. His friend would stay and chat with me until Noah came out ten minutes later, ready to play again.”

“What I like about Noah’s introversion,” she continues, “is the strength of his friendships and his ability to not fall into things that don’t interest him. He’s not one to succumb to peer pressure. Introverts tend to be thoughtful and intuitive, too, and he’s always been a particularly thoughtful, genuinely nice person.”

But as a parent and therapist, Friedman recognizes that introversion comes with real challenges. “The world is built for extroverts. Very often introverts are taught to fight their introversion—to suck it up and go glad hand people, try to be popular, have lots of friends—and that’s not the introverted way,” she says. “So when I get a child in my office who is clearly struggling in part because of her introversion, a big part of our work together is psychoeducation about introversion. Most of them are so relieved to find out that they’re perfectly wonderful, healthy people who just don’t happen to fit the currently popular mode.”

Like the mom at our bus stop, most people think of introverts as shy, but experts say introversion and shyness are not the same thing.

“Introverts don’t necessarily have a fear of social interaction, nor are they necessarily uncomfortable with social interaction—they just enjoy having time to themselves,” says Greg Markway, PhD, psychologist and coauthor of Nurturing the Shy Child. “Too much external stimulation or social activity wears them out.”

In contrast, shyness involves a degree of behavioral inhibition. That is, shy people might avoid going to a party because they’re afraid of what others think of them, while introverts might stay home because they prefer solitary pursuits. Shyness, accompanied by self-doubt and the anxiety of being judged, can be achingly painful, while introversion isn’t. And shyness isn’t hardwired—introversion is.

The shyness stigma is hard for introverted kids to shake off, though, especially when every adult they meet calls them shy. “It’s important not to pin a general label on kids,” says Markway. If you do, they might start to believe it, losing confidence and settling into the expectation that they don’t need to speak up. Introverted children can be shy, certainly, but the two traits don’t always go hand in hand.

The Nature of Introversion

My husband and I often wonder: Did Abe inherit our quiet-loving characters, like other kids inherit their dad’s nose or mom’s red hair? I call myself World’s Most Social Introvert, enthusiastically lunching with friends or swapping stories with colleagues at an industry happy hour, but quick to feel wrung-out if I overbook my calendar. My husband is an introvert in his own right, too—what they used to affectionately dub the “strong, silent type.”

While “nurture” certainly plays a role in shaping our children’s personalities, and experts generally agree that cautious parents are more likely to raise cautious kids, there is strong evidence that 40 to 50 percent of an introverted temperament can be chalked up to biology and a genetic, high-reactive personality.

A study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of California at San Diego, and Yale Universityin 2008 focused on one particular gene—RGS2—which may be indicative of introversion. “We found that variations in this gene were associated with shy, inhibited behavior in children, introverted personality in adults, and the reactivity of brain regions involved in processing fear and anxiety,” explained lead author Jordan Smoller, MD, ScD, director of the psychiatric and neurodevelopmental genetics unit at MGH’s Center for Human Genetic Research, in a press release.

Additional research into the biological nature of introversion has turned up lots of fascinating fodder over the decades. Scientific reports have shown that introverts appear to have greater blood flow in the parts of the brain that deal with planning and problem solving, for example, and they display more activity in their cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain, which regulates attention, thought, memory, and consciousness.

In the mid-1960s, scientists at Cambridge University discovered that introverts are physically more sensitive to things like food, noise, or social contact and have a more active reticular activating system, the area of your brain that responds to external stimuli. They famously illustrated this with the simple but striking “Lemon Juice Test“: When introverts received a sour squeeze of lemon juice on their tongues, they salivated much more than extroverts.

Katie Holley, a mom and marketing guru from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, has seen firsthand the depth of sensitivity introverts can have. In most ways, her blond-haired, blue-eyed son, Max, is an average second-grader who plays baseball, enjoys rock-climbing, and collects Pokemon cards. He loves school and works hard to get good grades. But he can be intensely sensitive, both emotionally and physically.

“In preschool he would hide under the chairs until circle time,” Holley says. “Now, as a second-grader, he’ll wait to be asked to join a game on the playground rather than just jump in. If he doesn’t get asked to play, he tells me nobody likes him.”

For Max, physical sensitivities manifested as stomachaches, but going gluten-free has helped. “He is also sensitive to how clothes fit and feel,” says Holley. “He likes things to be soft.”

Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has hypothesized that certain physical traits correspond to introversion. Blue eyes, allergies, and fair skin—like Max’s—as well as thin, narrow faces in men, are all signs of high-reactivity, he speculates.

In one of Kagan’s studies—this one focused on personality—he discovered that when babies were given new, unfamiliar toys, they responded quite differently. Some infants showed signs of distress, while others reacted with interest, immediately reaching out for the new toy. Kagan called these temperaments “inhibited” or “uninhibited.”

While onlookers might gravitate toward the freewheeling, uninhibited child who happily grabs the new teddy bear or truck, both responses are valuable. “It’s important to keep in mind that neither response is superior to the other,” Markway reminds us. “Think of it this way—the world needs some people to be more cautious, and others to be risk-takers.”

Quiet Kids in a Loud World

Our cautious, thoughtful introverts indeed help make the world go ’round—and in wonderful ways. They can be respected leaders, like Barack Obama; forward-thinking innovators, like Bill Gates; sports virtuosos, like Joe DiMaggio; or administers of peace, like Mahatma Gandhi. They can follow in the footsteps of Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Steven Spielberg, Charles Darwin, Fredric Chopin, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Buffet, or J. K. Rowling.

Introverts, who make up at least a third of our population, have a storehouse of positive qualities: They are smart and creative; independent, trustworthy, and responsible; empathetic and conscientious. And, slowly but steadily, introverts’ quiet strength is being recognized as a trait to be respected—and celebrated.

In 2012, Susan Cain‘s book QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, became a bestseller and her TED talk on the same subject went viral, getting more than 8 million views on YouTube, and counting.

“There’s so much that’s special about introverted kids,” Cain told me in a phone interview. “They have quick and ready access to the riches in their heads. They’re imaginative. They’re great at inventing games with their friends. And they are fiercely loyal friends, much more interested in forming close friendships than being part of the bigger, more gregarious group.”

Intriguingly, Cain points out, “Introverts are often passionate about one, two, or three specific things.” I can see this in my kindergartener, who is obsessed with rocks, ocean life, and Minecraft. Alison Krupnick, of Seattle, Washington, recognizes this focus in her bright, artsy daughter Melanie—an athletic 14-year-old with an equal appreciation for bawdy teenage antics and sophisticated, subtle humor.

“One of her hallmark personality traits is that when she’s interested in something, she throws herself into it,” Krupnick says of Melanie. “For years she was obsessed with Lord of the Rings. She went through a strong Harry Potter phase. And she’s currently a huge fan of Dr. Who.”

This kind of intensely-focused interest can, in fact, serve introverts well later in life, Cain says: “As adults, they become leaders in fields that they are truly passionate about, unlike extroverts, who can pursue leadership roles just for the sake of being leaders.”

And as Cain notes in her book, passion can have extraordinary results. “Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions—from the theory of evolution to van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer—came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there,” she writes. Without that innovative, self-searching passion of introverts, we would have never seen the theory of gravity, The Cat in the Hat, or Google.

Despite all the hidden gifts that our introverts hold, it can be difficult for them to be heard in a society that prizes bold expression over thoughtful contemplation and Honey Boo Boo over Harriet the Spy.

“Since our culture values the outgoing, parenting and advocating for the introverted child can be challenging,” says Markway. “For example, the quiet child can be misunderstood. Because of a more reserved nature, the quiet child may be viewed as not putting forth complete effort in school or participating enough in class discussions. I have heard of other kids seeing the quiet child as stuck up or aloof for not talking more.”

At best, an introverted child is a bit misunderstood. At worst, his or her future can be affected by the perception of others: “I remember reading about a teacher who gave a quiet high-school student a poor recommendation for college,” Markway continues. “The teacher felt the girl would never make it as a doctor because she was so quiet. This view didn’t appear to match the reality of the girl’s abilities—she had a strong academic record, participated in numerous activities, including being an officer in student government, and was popular enough to be prom queen.”

For parents of introverts, this is our biggest fear: That we know how special our children are, but others don’t. “Parents want their children to be recognized, not for the parents’ sake, but so that the world will see who their children are,” Cain says.

The Extroverted Classroom

Amy and Keith Goetzman of Minneapolis, Minnesota—parents to innies Everett, nine, and Wyatt, seven—saw their boys flex their introverted muscles in both social and school settings from an early age.

“As Everett and Wyatt turned into toddlers and then preschoolers I became aware that like me they didn’t like big crowds, loud crowds, or people with aggressively outgoing personalities who got in their faces,” says Keith. “Sometimes an extrovert adult we met would try to ‘entertain’ them by being loud and goofy, offering a high five, or something like that—and they would greet these adults with a stone face, completely unimpressed. Sometimes the adult would be clearly put off, like, ‘What’s wrong with your kid, mister?'”

Wyatt chose not to speak a single word his first year of preschool; and every few weeks, Everett simply packs up and leaves his third-grade classroom to escape the masses. “He had a preschool experience that foretold this,” Amy says. “One day in the spring, we walked into the classroom, he stopped and watched the swarm of loud kids freaking out, then lifted his hand to wave, said, ‘Bye bye,’ and walked back out.”

Because schools are designed, in large part, for extroverted, team-based learning, finding environments that fit an introverted kid’s style isn’t always easy. After a few disappointments, the Goetzman family ended up happy at a Reggio Emilio-based preschool and a Montessori elementary school, which they feel allow more freedom for individualized and independent learning.

“At one conference, I asked the teacher if we should be concerned that Everett seemed to play alone a lot,” Amy remembers. “The teacher paused for a moment, then said, ‘It’s fine. Our society needs scientists and mathematicians and writers and philosophers too.’ They just got it. I nearly cried in gratitude.”

Today, more schools understand the need to nurture all kinds of kids—both introverts and extroverts—and are experimenting with innovative tools to do so. Many campuses, for example, respect that some students need downtime to bring balance to their busy days, and they alternate interactive sessions with quiet periods. This kind of scheduling is supported by a 2002 study out of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, which showed that introverted adults were more likely to get tired at work and greatly benefitted from taking breaks.

Other organizations have a warmer, fuzzier technique (literally): Groups like Paws for Reading, Puppy Dog Tales, and Tail Waggin’ Tutors bring trained therapy dogs into classrooms to sit with students, one-on-one, and help them practice their reading-aloud skills.

For many introverted kids, reading a story to a gentle, friendly dog takes away any apprehension, says Joyce Bristow, volunteer for Paws for Reading, a California-based program that uses dogs from pit bulls to Chihuahuas, mainly in Pre-K through third grade classes. “The dog doesn’t care if the reader gets a word wrong—it’s nonjudgmental. The program does amazing things for kids’ confidence.”

Tail Waggin’ Tutors, a national program, has seen similarly positive results. “We’ve had many success stories over the years,” says second-grade teacher Jennifer Paley of Van Corlaer Elementary School in Schenectady, New York. Paley notes one girl who was especially affected: “She had never spoken in school—to friends or teachers. On her first day with a dachshund named Ruby, she read beautifully and fluently. For her, Ruby was able to break through, allowing her voice to be heard. That’s the power of this program.”

In a different approach, technology is also helping introverts flourish. Social media can be a powerful platform where introverts shine, and a recent study from Australian academics Michael Cowling of Central Queensland University and Jeremy Novak of the South Cross Business School shows that Twitter can encourage hesitant students to participate in class. When lecturing teachers used Twitter as a ticker bar at the bottom of their PowerPoint presentation, for example, reticent students were more likely to ask questions. Though Cowling and Novak don’t foresee tweets replacing hand-raising, it’s interesting to imagine what the future middle school, high school, or college classroom might look like.

Despite movement toward more embracive education, some teachers are adamant that all students learn to speak in class, loud and proud, whether they’re shy, an introvert, or an extrovert. And for some good reasons. Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher at Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, and author of a forthcoming book based on her Atlantic article “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” grades her students on both written work and verbal participation—a skill she believes is vital to their future success.

“Part of my job is to teach my students how to persuade, how to argue for their own opinions and points of view,” she says. “We live in a demanding world, a world in which kids—and adults—have to speak up from time to time. I want my students to feel comfortable speaking up and demanding the rights and respect they deserve.”

A Quiet Lesson

Even though we live in a loud world, there are simple strategies to help our young introverts feel more at ease while remaining true to their quiet sensibilities.

Susan Cain rebuts Lahey’s more stringent approach, advocating that introverts can have successful schooldays without being pushed too far out of their comfort zones. She suggests that teachers wait five or ten seconds after asking a question before calling on students, giving all the kids a chance to think about how they might answer. Teachers can also create supportive, small groups for students who are wary of talking in front of a larger audience.

We, as parents, don’t need to change our kids’ personalities (and we wouldn’t want to). We can, however, give them a few pointers to help better negotiate an extroverted society. Remind young intoverts to smile and look others in the eye, Cain offers. Mention that when joining a large group of kids, it’s helpful to find the friendliest-looking child and approach him or her first. Praise them for trying new things. And model outgoing behavior, perhaps by striking up a conversation with another parent at the playground or by inviting friends over on a regular basis.

At home, parents can help innies thrive by establishing household routines that make it a secure, warmly predictable place to be. Establish relaxed, unrushed mealtimes, since introverts can be slow eaters, and keep healthy snacks around if you have a “grazer.” Remember, also, that although introverted kids like to swordfight with their siblings and play games with their parents, they also benefit from a quiet place of their own where they can refuel, whether it’s a bedroom, a clubhouse, or a quiet corner of the family room. (Think of it as a charging station. We replace a million batteries in our kids’ remote control cars and electronic gadgets—why not in them, too?)

Above all, parents can support introverted kids by appreciating their unique contributions and respecting what interests them—and what doesn’t. “Reassure your child that they can be excited about different things, and that’s OK,” Cain says.

But, as empathetic as you might be, don’t assume that your son or daughter can’t join with his more extroverted friends in basketball games, school plays, and choir concerts. “There might be introverts who are reluctant to participate, but then they enjoy it. Deciding whether to push them or not is really more of an art than a science,” says Cain. Be ready to help them slowly ease into a role that may feel uncomfortable at first.

“If you decide to push,” Cain says, “just make sure your kids have a longer runway before they take off and fly.”

When Abe finished that first day of kindergarten a year ago, I sat with him on our couch, shared a bowl of pistachios and pretzels, and gently nudged him to tell me how it went, so curious—and a touch apprehensive—to hear what he thought of his new world.

With some prompting, he told me the details of his day: what animals lived in the science room (a lizard, rat, and chinchilla!), what he ate out of his lunchbox (none of the carrots!), and the size of the toilet in his class’s bathroom (tiny!). He cheerily showed me his new folder, which would hold his homework, and a story that he had started writing about a kangaroo who decides to go on an adventure. I gave him a proud hug, and he leaned in for a rhinoceros kiss.

“And how was the bus ride this morning?” I asked, “It looked like fun. Did you feel happy, excited, scared…?”

“Oh, no, Mama,” he assured me. “I wasn’t scared once. Not the whole day.”

This matter-of-fact pronouncement surprised me, and made me realize that I had a long way to go to understand introverted children, including my own. I was still learning that they could be self-confident, if quiet. That they aren’t necessarily terrified of a classroom of kids, overwhelmed by schoolwork, or defeated by a busy afternoon (though they will appreciate some peace when they get home). I was still figuring out how important it is for introverts to rest and rejuvenate, and how many problems this can solve or avoid.

It takes time to learn all of an introvert’s secret gifts—there are lots of them to discover. Luckily, we have our kids to teach us.

Margret Aldrich is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis in a household that is three-quarters introverted. Her four-year-old son, Asher, is an unapologetic extrovert and the unofficial spokesperson for the family. She’d like to thank the parents who shared stories about their rock-star introverts and Jane Campbell, the kind and insightful kindergarten teacher who helped make Abe’s first year of school a happy success.

Brain, Child (Fall 2013)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Secret Baptisms and Other Forgivable Sins

Secret Baptisms and Other Forgivable Sins

By Monica Crumback

secretbaptimsMy daughter recently carried home that common curse of the preschooler—the fever virus. This made for a rough week and one particularly trying night. That evening, after doses of ibuprofen, she remained wet-headed, scarlet-cheeked, and pie-eyed with incomprehension. Her pink princess pajamas were wilted and sticky. My husband and I followed the temperature-taking schedule, and we planned for awful contingencies in worried whispers. When, at long last, we poured our sodden, spent girl into bed, I told her I’d ask Jesus to make her better. On hearing that, David’s eyes grew as wide as our daughter’s.

Although the face of a famous, long-haired bearded guy hangs in a state of perpetual laughter just above our daughter’s bed, our little house rather distinctly lacks a direct line to his ear. In truth, we’d never thought to have one connected. It’s not that we’re not good people, decent people, moral people, Christian … well, I guess we can’t claim that last one. Until we had Sophia, this was barely a point of consciousness for us.

Very early in my pregnancy, my mother-in-law gave me the gift of a hooded baby towel. It was lovely and soft and yellow. We didn’t know yet if Sophia was to be herself or our would-have-been boy, Henry. My mother-in-law is etiquette-savvy and always quite carefully appropriate in matters like color-to-gender agreement. She was also, on this day, careful to tuck a tiny pamphlet (brochure? mini-manifesto?) on raising one’s child in Christ into the fold of the towel. I remember seeing it, discreetly pretending not to have seen it, and covering it again with great haste. Oh my, I thought. Already?

In fairness to my mother-in-law, she had already cut me a good deal of slack in the Christ-Her-Lord category. When I met David at a Lutheran college, I was in the infancy of my feminism. He was studying to be a pastor. As our relationship became serious, we reconsidered our circumstances and remade our choices. We were still very nice young people when we left, just a lot more liberal and a lot less Lutheran.

We were married three years later before a judge. Four years after that, David became a lawyer. The transition was jarring for his mother in some ways but not so bad in others. Sure, a pastor for a son may seat you closer to the altar, but a lawyer impresses the ladies at the potluck. So slack was cut—until we had Sophia.

She was born in the usual way—meaning a horrible, extended, botched, vacuum-assisted hospital delivery. Her reception by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends was also standard in its statements of joy and its pronouncements of her being a miracle. I accepted all of this and even agreed. Babies, before they become sleep-depriving, nipple-biting, in-hair-puking monsters, seem quite miraculous indeed, even to a skeptic like me. We named her Sophia Bella, and it seemed to stick well enough without the meeting of water with forehead.

Well enough for us, that is. As I have since learned, once a baby emerges from one’s vagina, she enters not just the world but a family, lying in wait. Ah, sweet child, may the wind be always at your back.

We brought our baby home. She grew and thrived. Sure, David and I were both working at least two jobs apiece, but Sophia was warm, clean, and clothed (color-appropriately, I feel moved to add). I was breastfeeding to the absolute exclusion of bottles (she refused to take one). Months passed.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, secret discussions commenced amongst the female contingent of my husband’s family. By all measures, we were doing right by Sophia physically. But what about her soul? They may have even said her immortal soul. I don’t have a transcript to reference. The exact wording doesn’t really matter. What they proposed to do, according to our well-placed in-law source, was baptize our child behind our backs. Yikes and Holy Shit indeed (even though they would really mind my saying that). The heathen mother is always the last to know.

The news that a clandestine sprinkling had been in the works came to me secondhand via my angry husband, and the fury that immediately overtook me was, well … Biblical in scale. I think I was angry mostly because I should have seen it coming. There had been clues. My husband had, after all, been studying to be a pastor in no small part to please his mother with whom he had always had a complicated relationship. Sophia’s yellow towel had, after all, come with a pamphlet directing us steeple ward for guidance. Up until this point, we had been, to our minds, indulgent of their many hints and nudges meant to get us back to God. When his aunt presented us with a beautiful, if entirely inappropriate, handmade christening gown, I believe we even succeeded in passing off our stunned silence as speechless awe. We had been told she was buying us a swing. A secret baptism, though? I mean, Jesus!

It’s not as if my husband and I had never thought of baptism. This was way too sticky a subject to have simply slipped our minds. Growing up as we did in families that practiced Christianity—to varying degrees—we still spun toward it when the going got harrowing. That’s exactly where I’d been spun by exhaustion and a raging case of oh-God-no the night of my daughter’s fever. My pious promise to Sophia surprised my husband. We are often amused at this ability of ours to be born again and then perish (so to speak) in five minutes flat. We find these moments to be seldom and fleeting and fun. They probably also point to the inappropriateness of either or both of us ever having thought of entering a parsonage.

But the thought of that secret baptism was in no way amusing. After all the years of treading lightly through a fraught relationship with David’s family, this was the moment when it all collapsed, when we couldn’t help but think our position as parents was in danger of being usurped. The night we found out, I watched David pacing the floor, saying, “This is it” over and over again with deep conviction and watery eyes. I stayed mostly silent, slouched on the couch, chin in hand. I had little left to say; I’d run out of bravado. That was the worst moment, thinking about their disregard for our wishes for Sophia, the disrespect for our skills as her parents, and the betrayal of our beliefs in how to raise her.

The next day, we were all over the place. Being too weary at breakfast, we didn’t even bring it up. By lunchtime, though, we had revived and were having a good laugh, picturing the family matrons gathered around a mixing bowl in the dark with our daughter, a shameless pastor, and a teaspoon full of water. But then dinner rolled around, and we were back at “This is it.” “It” as in “They will never lay eyes on our girl again!”

And then, right before bedtime, we watched Sophia as she listened to her grandparents’ voices on the phone. She was beaming and squealing and, well, loving them.

Well, damn it.

But could we just let this slide? Could we, really, when there was already so much residual tension over our having jumped off the pastoral track and gotten married in a courtroom instead of a church? Or would there now be open bitterness and derision between us and people we loved and who we knew loved us and our new daughter? People we had always known we had disagreements with? No. It would be a lie to say that we never thought of using this last straw as a fuse, enabling us to finally blow apart a difficult relationship. We did think about it, but we could never quite bring ourselves to light it. As uncertain as I am about where I stand in relation to Christianity or what it represents, I am positive about where I stand in regard to going through life with suspicion and malice.

My dad’s parents died long before I was born, so I always had only the one set of grandparents. I’m sure my mom’s parents did their best, but they couldn’t be four people. Sophia had the full complement, and I wanted her to know them all. She was a lucky girl. Really, I still thought so. And so did my husband, who was carrying a lot of heavy love for every single person in the wretched scenario. Besides, try as we might, we couldn’t imagine an instance in which saying, Just where the hell do you get off? would make us better parents. So we didn’t say it.

As far as I knew, David’s mother had no idea that we were wise to her scheming-for-salvation ways—and still hasn’t. They don’t really make a pamphlet that says, So you were thinking of secretly baptizing my child, huh?—nor is there really an appropriate occasion on which to hand her a towel with said pamphlet tucked inside. With no subtle way to tell her to back off, we simply chose not to.

Even so, I will admit that this isn’t exactly a bygone. My husband and I simply limit our rants, which are more seldom of late, to our own private audience of two. Of course, there is a slight chance that someone in the extended family may find out we know about The Plan. If that is the case, I will say simply, Yes, we know, and when will we see you next for dinner?

Our way of coping was to make our choices and stick by them. While we’re not ashamed of the clay we come from, we of little faith still revel in our freedom to choose different, fresher, more philosophical, and less sanctified material from which to form our daughter. Sophia is four years old now, and, yes, a print of Jesus hangs in her room. It had been a gift from David to his grandmother, a deeply religious woman, to help her through the death of her husband. When she died, it was returned to us, and Sophia asked to have it in her room.

Why not? Our little girl understands Jesus as living in the sky and loving her and everyone else. She understands much the same about the Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu, to name just a few. She has passed long hours in her short life flipping through her father’s old religion texts to admire the big, bright pictures. Nowadays, this activity often brings up questions that combined sound like this: Why is he crying or dying, blue or bleeding, wearing that or naked, glowing or burning? We answer when we know and consult the text when we don’t. This is good enough for now. We are doing our best to give her a childhood filled with choices. Later, she’ll be at liberty to add her own finer details, like churches and sacraments, whatever her development and tastes should indicate. And while we can’t predict later, we will always tell her that she is loved, loved, loved. And that love, even when it stumbles, presumes, and conspires, is itself divine.

Author’s Note: A while ago, during a visit with his parents, David and I inadvertently overheard his aunt telling his mother that she had missed an opportunity to “get Sophia to church.” She had been on speakerphone when she said it, obviously not realizing that we were there, too. David quickly boomed a “Hello!” to his aunt. The subsequent look between him and his mother might have been hilarious had it not been so painful.

To the best of my knowledge, Sophia remains unbaptized to this very day. This is something I am neither proud nor ashamed of—it’s a mere fact. Her dad and I agree that should she one day choose to be baptized, we’ll be there, front pew center. I’ll even leave a space for her grandmother.

Monica Crumback lives in Michigan with her husband, daughter, and three cats.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

All the Other Kids

All the Other Kids

By Carol Paik

page53image4288I first noticed that my son Jonathan was a nonconformist when he was very small. He was not yet walking, so he must have been younger than eleven months. At that time, I was so starved for adult companionship during the interminable days at home with my baby that I had joined a “support group” of other new mothers. We gathered each week, and in the interstices between changing diapers, nursing, and wiping up drool we would take desultory, desperate stabs at conversation. The fact that I voluntarily joined such a group is a revealing measure of the depth and breadth of my need. I’ve never been much of a gatherer.

We took turns hosting the group. Typically the hostess would serve a snack and spread a blanket of some kind over her living room rug to protect it from spit-up and coffee and we would sit around its perimeter. Or perhaps, now that I think about it, some people spread the blanket not to protect the carpet from the babies, but the babies from whatever was on the carpet. I myself spread the blanket to protect the carpet. Jonathan was not a “spitter,” but some of these other babies were. “Spitter,” by the way, is not a term that does justice to the thing it is meant to describe. “Spitter” suggests that the child referred to produces small, discrete units—droplets or blobs—of liquid. In fact, from the slack mouth of a “spitter” gushes a volume of smelly tan stuff that does not seem capable of having gone in there in the first place. You really don’t want that on your rug.

One day I noticed one of the babies crawling over to a plant. As it was neither my home nor my plant, I watched the child with some detachment. A crawling child was something of a novelty to me because Jonathan never crawled properly but hitched himself around on two hands, one knee, and one foot. The other mothers said his hitching action was “so cute!” But I thought I could tell by the relief with which they then regarded their own children’s symmetrical scooting that they didn’t think it was cute at all; they thought that it was bizarre and that I should be pretty worried. Frankly, I’m sure I had the same look of relief when other people’s babies “spat.” I began to suspect that whatever we mothers were providing for each other might not exactly be “support.”

The baby crawled over to the plant and reached a fat, damp, ill-intentioned hand out towards the low-hanging leaves. Another baby looked over, noticed the first baby reaching for the leaves, and crawled over to join in. As I watched, one by one, all the other babies crawled over to the plant. I waited for Jonathan to notice and hitch himself over, too. He continued to play with his toes. Eventually he looked up and gazed at the activity in the corner. He watched for a while and then went back to his toes.

That evening, I described this episode to my husband.

“Well, why would he want to do what the other babies are doing?” he asked. “Why would he be interested in some plant?”

Perhaps it is no great mystery why our son is this way, given his genetic composition. With one antisocial parent he might have had a chance, but not with two.

I also noticed Jonathan’s nonconformist tendencies during his weekly music class. It was called “Music Together,” and every week I cursed myself for having paid money to sit in a fetid basement and sing “Eensy Weensy Spider” with accompanying hand motions in a group. Surely, if one felt an irrepressible urge to sing “Eensy Weensy Spider” and do hand motions, one could and probably should do it in the privacy of one’s home, free of charge. And in fact, Jonathan and I often sang songs at home, and that was kind of nice.

But I had found myself the victim of a strange phenomenon: the tyranny of parenthood. Into the beaker of your weary and defenseless mind is poured, in equal parts, your desire to do right by your child and your fear of doing wrong by him and being blamed by him and everyone who meets him in years to come. Some regular old peer pressure is spooned in, and sprinkled on top are all the grudges you hold against your own parents for not doing enough for you. Then you agitate everything all together until the toxic mixture slimes up the parts of your brain that are meant to produce rational, independent thought. Where I had once kind of liked to think of myself as different from the crowd and where I had learned to accept and even embrace my discomfort with what I regarded as mindless group activity, I now feared that I was pro- claiming my individuality a little too energetically and at my child’s expense. It’s fine to be an individual and a loner, but suddenly, when applied to your child, “individual” and “loner” sound like euphemisms for “outcast.” So I dragged myself and my son to Music Together.

At Music Together, we sat in a circle with a few other mothers with uncombed hair and a lot of put-upon “caregivers.” (“Caregiver” is late twentieth-/early twenty-first-century Upper West Side speak for “nanny.” I always wonder if the children should then be called “caretakers.”) The Music Together teacher led the group in songs that we were expected to know because we had been given tapes of the songs at the outset so that we and our practically inanimate lumpish children—who, in some cases, couldn’t even sit up—could “practice” at home. Halfway through the class, the teacher, with a beneficent expression, brought out a duffel bag and shook plastic instruments from it onto the floor. At the sight of all that colorful plastic, the other babies slithered over to the pile and drew out rattles or shakers or strings of bells and proceeded to clonk each other with them or wedge them into their mouths and take them out again, dripping wet, or shake them with gestures ranging from gently idiotic to frenzied. Jonathan sat on my lap, his brown eyes reflecting bewilderment and regret over how he had ended up in an insane world with nothing but a weak, easily manipulated mother to protect him.

I realize one might argue that it was not Jonathan’s antisocial tendencies that became evident at Music Together but my own. In my defense I’d like to point out that I sang the songs, I shook the rattles—he did not. I confess, though, that before long I became a Music Together drop-out. Being the child of a drop-out will no doubt have some detrimental long-term effect on his development, but it was becoming clear to me that I was defeating my own lofty socializing goals: no matter how enthusiastically I shook the little rattles for him, I was sure he was too sensitive not to discern that I hated being there.

At that point, I was able to laugh about his isolationist proclivities. They were kind of charming, just as a crooked baby tooth can be charming because you assume that one day a strong, white, straight-edged adult tooth will take its place. Also, when Jonathan was twenty-two months old, Meredith was born, and he exhibited his affection for her early on. He was plainly capable of establishing a connection with another human child, so I wasn’t concerned about his lack of interest in his peers. But then he started school.

We chose his nursery school with great care. The school we chose declared, most comfortingly, in its mission statement: “We believe that all creation is sacred; each member of the school community is respected as a unique individual.” “Unique” and “individual” were exactly the words we were looking for—they seemed to shimmer there on the brochure. But in spite of the school’s commitment to the Individual, once Jonathan was there, it was difficult for me not to view him against the backdrop of what struck me as disconcertingly homogenous community behavior. Here were the fifteen other three-year-olds in Jonathan’s nursery school class, skip- ping past me on a hot June day in bright stripy t-shirts and cargo shorts, laughing, singing tunelessly, shoving each other. There was Jonathan at the end of the line, perfectly solemn, with his hooded sweatshirt zipped up to his chin and the hood up.

And here was I, in spite of myself: “All the other kids wear short-sleeved shirts when it’s 85 degrees.” I had always believed that I would never start a sentence with all the other kids. But there was that oily substance gumming up my brain.

Jonathan looked at me. “They do?” he said.

“Yes, they do. Aren’t you hot?”

“No,” he said.

“I’m cold. Freezingcold.”

“You look hot,” I said.

“Well, I’m not.”

“You cannot possibly be cold.”

“Well, I am.”

How did I end up with Bartle bythe Scrivener for a son? I could make him, I thought. I could exercise my stronger will or, at any rate, my larger body. I could tear off the sweatshirt, force his little arms into an adorable stripy t-shirt while screeching, “Why do you have to look like a weirdo?” But the kid said he was cold. Did I really know better? Or, the more difficult question: Was his physical comfort really the issue?

Along with school came the torture of birthday parties. The parents of the birthday child would rent out a gym or a basement or some other empty and indestructible play area around which the children would race, trying to fell and then kill each other. Boys, in particular, would stomp on each other with both feet and wrestle each other to the floor with their hands around each other’s throats. The party organizers would take the situation in hand and organize a game of dodge ball. At one party I saw Jonathan settle down, cross-legged, to watch the game. He seemed content, so I just watched him.

“Hey, buddy, what’s your name?” a well-meaning organizer called.

“Jonathan.”

“Come on, buddy, don’t you want to play?”

“No.”

And then I felt terrible, seeing him sitting there. Suddenly he seemed alone, an outsider. I walked over to where he sat.

“Sweetie, if you’re not having fun, we shouldn’t come to these parties,” I said to him.

“I am having fun,” he said, looking up, surprised.

“You don’t look like you’re having fun.”

“But I am.”

The adults in charge of the party were clearly discomfited by his refusal to participate. At this party, the hired party assistant was so determined to make him have fun that he took his hand and dragged him out into the dodge ball arena. Jonathan promptly got hit by a ball and that’s when he became unhappy. He came back over to where I stood and asked, “Why do people think it’s fun to be hit by a ball?”

“Do you want to go home?”

“No, I want to watch. It’s fun to watch.”

“Okay, you can watch.”

“Why did that man keep calling me ‘Buddy’? I told him my name is Jonathan.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

By the end of the party, as always, I was catatonic with frustration and some other feeling I couldn’t quite name that came over me whenever I saw my son sitting by himself on the side, a feeling that was partly hot, partly sick, and resulted in an over- whelming desire to buy him ice cream, which he doesn’t even like that much. I couldn’t decide whether to blame the world, him, or me. Then, as we were leaving, Jonathan took my hand, smiled up at me, and said without a hint of irony, “I had such a great time!”

“Are you trying to make me lose my mind?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not in your best interest.”

“I’ll take him to parties from now on,” my husband offered after one look at me when we got home.

On the other hand, Jonathan and Meredith both love adult parties. They mingle, they chat. I asked Jonathan why he seems to have such a good time at adult parties but only sits on the side at kids’ parties.

“Because grownups don’t shriek and run around throwing things and pushing each other down,” he said.

“Well, for the most part, anyway,” I had to agree.

When Jonathan was in first grade, his teacher expressed some concern about his recess behavior.

“He doesn’t play with the other kids,” she said.

“Does he seem unhappy?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “But you know, in a few years, the other children won’t be so accepting. Maybe you could have a talk with him,” she suggested.

I tried. “Do you play with the others at recess?” I asked him.

“Why would I want to play Killer Ball?” he answered.

I told him, “If you want to play, you can just ask the other kids. I’m sure they’d let you.”

“I’m sure they would, too,” he said. “But I don’t want to.”

I asked him until I knew I was being a pain in the ass, and then I forced myself to stop asking. I didn’t want him to think he was supposed to want to play Killer Ball.

I decided to ask the opinion of a psychiatrist whose name I got from the school.

“He doesn’t interact with other children,” I told him. “He does fine with adults, but he won’t speak to kids his own age. Plus, he won’t wear shorts.”

“He won’t wear shorts?”

“No, or short-sleeved shirts. Is there something I should be doing differently?”

The doctor asked me some more questions, about my pregnancy, about doubts I had about my parenting, and then looked at me thoughtfully.

“Your son sounds just fine,” he said. “He exhibits some oppositional behaviors, but they are all well within the normal range.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m glad to hear that.”

The doctor sat back.

“Now,” he said. “Would you like to talk about your own anxiety?”

The children have recess on what is called the “playdeck.” At that time, Meredith’s school day ended at 12:30; I’d pick her up and then the two of us would go to the park until it was time to pick up Jonathan at three. One afternoon I arrived early to fetch her. Her class was still at lunch, so I wandered into her empty classroom and, gazing idly out the window, noticed that it overlooked the play- deck and that I could see Jonathan’s class at recess. Quickly, I crouched to avoid being observed and waddled over to the window. There was Jonathan, watching his classmates hurl balls at each other. But as I watched, a couple of other children came up to him. They stayed for a moment or two each, asked him questions, it looked like, and it looked like he answered. Then they returned to their game. He didn’t look unhappy. He didn’t look excluded. His classmates seemed to treat him with affection and respect—how could they not respect someone who so obviously didn’t care what they thought? For the next few days I made a habit of arriving early so I could spy on the playdeck. And then one day I heard some bigmouth girl shout, “Hey, Jonathan! I can see your Mom! Why is she all hunched over?” and that was the end of that.

On Jonathan’s third grade report card his teacher wrote: “Jonathan is never involved in peer conflicts”—high praise, until you take into account the fact that he’s never involved in peer anything. He received the highest marks in all subjects but two: French and Music. I asked him about these.

The music teacher wrote: “[Jonathan] sometimes shies away from participating fully in music. I hope that he will become comfortable enough with me and the class to participate more actively in all aspects of music this year.”

“I like music class when he teaches music,” said Jonathan. “But he wants us to do all these dumb body movements. How is moving around in some ridiculous way helping us learn about music?”

The French teacher wrote: “Jonathan is focused, attentive, and applies himself seriously to his tasks. However, he is still reluctant to speak up and he is uncomfortable playing unfamiliar roles in improvisations.”

Jonathan said, “I hate skits.”

“Well, okay,” I said. “but … ” and then I realized that I used to hate skits too. I truly believe that one of the greatest things about being a grownup is that I never have to do things like skits. Everybody attributes Jonathan’s non-participation to shyness, but I know it isn’t that. I myself was shy. I would never have done anything to draw attention to myself, and I certainly would never have dreamed of refusing to do a skit. Jonathan, by this definition, is not shy.

“Well, okay,” I said. “In a few years, they won’t want you to do skits and body movements, you’ll just sit at your desk and conjugate verbs and stuff. All right? Until then, can you just do what the teacher asks you to do?”

“Well, I’ll try,” he said. He really is a good boy. “But I’ll hate it.”

In October, we engaged in our annual School Photograph Battle. Every year, everyone else’s children smile for their school photographs. Everyone else’s children.

“Just smile, for God’s sake,” I said to Jonathan. “It’s not that hard to smile.”

“It takes forty-seven muscles to smile,” said the little pedant.

“Look, think of the poor photographer,” I tried. “It’s his job, all day long, to take pictures. He needs to make them look nice so people will want to buy them. Just give him a break.”

“I’d smile if there was anything to smile about,” said Jonathan. “It’s easy to smile if something’s funny. But he just tells some stupid joke that’s not funny at all.”

“At all,” Meredith chimed in.

“Why should I smile when there’s nothing to smile about?” Jonathan asked.

I couldn’t think of a good response, so I tried being honest to see how it would sound.

“I want you to smile because I’m afraid that if you don’t smile, then everyone who looks at the yearbook will notice that only two children in the whole yearbook aren’t smiling, and that those two children have the same last name, and then they’ll look in the cross-referenced last name index and find out that those two children are mine, and then they’ll wonder what I do to you at home to make you so glum.”

“Oh,” said Jonathan. He mulled that over for a moment. “But we aren’t glum. So why would they think that we’re glum?”

“Because you look glum.”

“No, I don’t,” he said. “I look the way I look when I’m not smiling.”

“Never mind,” I said. “Fine. Don’t smile. See what I care.”

“Why should they smile?” asked my husband helpfully that evening. “It’s an annoying American thing. Americans think children are naturally happy. The English think children are naturally miserable.”

Would I prefer it if my children obediently stretched out their mouths in insincere grins? I realized that in all the photos in the newspaper of children who have been abused—scalded or starved or beaten to death—they always seem to be smiling. Beaming, even. So I should know better than to believe in those smiles. But a photograph of a smiling child is something you can hold in your hand, something you can show the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

When the photos came back from the photographer, all the class pictures were posted in the big glass cases right by the entrance. I took a quick surreptitious survey. Many stretched-out fake smiles, many deer-in-headlights. My two didn’t stand out so much. In fact, their individual portraits turned out very nicely. Jonathan looks dignified and Meredith’s mouth is a little wavy line that makes her look as if she’s making up her mind about some- thing. I ordered many copies and distributed them to the relatives.

Every February the children’s school holds an event called the “Gospel Breakfast” as part of its recognition of Black History Month. The mother of one of Jonathan’s class- mates, a dynamic and widely respected black minister, leads the assembly, which also features performances by the school’s brass band and spirituals sung by all the children. Two years ago the kindergarten class was taught to sing “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” but here is where “Recognition of Black History” collided head on with “Respect for Jewish History,” and now the kindergartners learn “This Little Light of Mine” instead.

So this past February the whole school and a large group of parents crowded into the gym, which looked like a quintessential American grade school gym, with navy blue pads covering the lower walls and basketball backboards cranked up to the ceiling. The band was playing, with much volume and little tune, and the Reverend was swaying. You could see her enthusiasm beginning to spread through the crowd.

“Let’s see you put your hands in the air!” she encouraged. People laughed and began to do as she said. But suddenly, in spite of my genuinely warm feelings towards the Reverend and the people gathered there, I began to feel unhappy.

“Feel that rhythm!” the Reverend said. Her arms were in the air, and the mostly white parents, singing, followed her lead and waved their arms back and forth. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I had the sinking feeling that I often have in such gatherings that I am the only person on the planet who doesn’t know how to have a good time.

All three hundred-odd students did little derivative dances, which involved a lot of kicking as well as arm-waving—all the students, of course, but two. Two students stood perfectly still with their arms by their sides, quietly absorbing the scene with wide eyes. I happen to know that both those children possess a great deal of rhythm. But they revealed nothing. They were not standing near each other, so a casual observer might not have made a connection between them. They couldn’t see each other, so they weren’t imitating each other. They weren’t enacting some secret pact; the impulse to not participate was born independently in each. But I could see them both.

Suddenly I became aware that only one adult in the audience was not waving her arms. And at the same moment I felt an overwhelming pressure. What should I be demonstrating for my children? Should I stay still to show solidarity? If I chose that route, wouldn’t I be dooming them not to feel the rhythm? Wouldn’t everyone think—especially me—those poor kids, they just don’t stand a chance with such a stodgy, self-conscious, and mean-spirited mother. Maybe there was affirmation and protection to be found in the crowd. If so, I wanted that affirmation and that protection for my children, and I would do any- thing to get it for them. I forced myself to raise my arms and sway. I lifted the corners of my mouth into what I hoped resembled an expression of easy good humor, in case my children were watching me for cues (which they weren’t). I feared for my children because they’re braver than I ever was or ever will be, and even though I knew that waving my arms wouldn’t help either them or me—still, I waved them, just in case.

Author’s Note: It has already been a couple of years since I wrote the first draft of this piece. My son is now thriving in fourth grade, with a wonderful teacher and a great group of classmates, for which I am helplessly, sappily grateful. One of the many reasons I wrote this piece was to try to convey that feeling of helplessness. You can never be absolutely certain you’re doing the right thing for your child, nor do you know whether anything you do actually affects his or her development at all—but of course, that doesn’t stop you from trying.

Carol Paik lives with her family in New York.  Her essays have appeared, among other places, in Brain, Child; Tin House; The Gettysburg Review; Literal Latte; Fourth Genre; and Full Grown People.  More of her writing at www.carolpaik.com.  

Brain, Child (Summer 2005)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Nothing

Nothing

By Joni Koehler

dreamstime_s_40258674I found this game on the Internet. The object of the game is to find three or more of the same colored squares together and click on them with the mouse. If you click, they disappear and make room for other squares to pair with their red, blue, yellow, or green teammates. Each level has more squares, goes faster, and is harder to complete.

I have been playing the game all summer, moving the mouse back and forth at a leisurely pace during the early levels, growing more and more frantic with the mouse as the game intensifies until, at level nine, I am clicking the mouse button in a nonstop motion, arcing the mouse back and forth across the mouse pad. When I lose, I take a deep breath and start over, glad to be back at the beginning, where it’s easy and things move slowly. At the beginning, I don’t have to think, and that is the real attraction of the game.

The game does nasty things to our computer, downloading data miners every couple of minutes. My husband, who knows a thing or two about computers, says that the miners could ruin our computer, that we can’t afford to buy a new one, that I really should stop playing the game. I know he’s right, but the risks have been worth that luxurious feeling of thinking about nothing. If I had to take stock, here are the contents of my summer:

Thinking about: nothing.

Doing: nothing (e.g., watching TV, playing video games).

In my brain: nothing.

What I want to accomplish: nothing.

What I have actually accomplished: surprisingly, more than you would imagine.

Two things startle me. The first is that I have been able to keep up this sort of vacant existence for so long. I said goodbye to my sixth-grade reading students seven weeks ago, and I usually rebound from the need to vegetate much, much sooner. If boredom doesn’t drive me, then outside forces take over. The kids need to be driven to baseball practice, the eaves need painting, someone wants food, or I need to work to prepare for the next school year. All of it is important and necessary and my role in life, and normally after a week or two, I plunge myself into the minutiae of daily life without resentment and with a renewed vigor. This summer, I’ve done all the feeding and the driving and the schoolwork, just as I always do. But I haven’t been there.

The entire time while I was shopping for my son’s baseball cleats, my mind was skimming across the abyss, hoping we could hurry up and finish so I could catch Intimate Portrait when we got home.

At our summer in-service about poverty and diversity at school, I was daydreaming the entire time about what my strategy would be if I were a contestant in The Amazing Race. See, before I went, I’d study all the maps in the whole world and learn how to talk to taxi drivers in three or four Romance languages and a couple of Asian ones, too. I’d make my husband drive places fast, and I would practice navigating from the back seat. We’d drive in downtown Houston during rush hour to practice being civil to one another in high-stress situations. We would be the nicest couple ever to compete and would not do one mean or cutthroat thing to the other people. We would win the million dollars with the power of our preparation and winning personalities. I went to the trouble of daydreaming only to keep myself upright in the chair.

The second surprise is that nobody seems to notice my mental absence. We’re in the car driving to the orthodontist, and my son is talking about dove hunting season, and I’m saying “Uh-huh” periodically, but I’m not listening at all, and he doesn’t know the difference. I lie across the bed and listen to my husband discuss his job, and I barely keep up. He has to ask if I’m listening once or twice, but I don’t think he realizes that even when I’m looking straight at him, even when I am asking pertinent questions, I’m not there.

He never comes home from work at the end of the day and says, “It looks like you sat around all day and didn’t do anything. Is this how you want to spend your summer?” I lose my planner, which I refer to as my brain, and nobody thinks it is odd that I have lost my brain. Nobody says, “Mother/Wife/Daughter, how very odd that you would lose your brain. You usually have your brain together.”

And then I get mad. I tell my husband I’m sad. I tell him I feel disregarded. He says sorry. He makes the kids say sorry. But it’s all a ruse. My anger is a façade; I’ve wielded it to keep them from seeing that I want to do nothing, think nothing, and have nothing to stop me from doing nothing, including people. It’s easy to lash out, because I’m the mom, and they are afraid to call me on it.

My mom can loaf with the best of them. She can spend a whole week doing nothing but eating Wheaties and reading romance novels, with an occasional change of clothing to make people think she is moving around more than she actually is. She can play penny poker with a six-year-old for half a day. If I were playing penny poker with a six-year-old, it would be something. I would have to concentrate to keep from losing my temper and to keep people from knowing that I am not especially patient at poker or six- year-olds. But she is patient at both, and for her, it’s nothing.

She tried to teach me the art of blankness for a lot of years but had never been successful. It isn’t that I’m a bad student. I would have loved to pass the course, but she’s not the only one from whom I inherited traits. The familial penchant for obsessive compulsive disorder, though somewhat muddied by my mother’s coolness, has manifested itself in me as a type A personality with a side of anal retentiveness. So, technically, I knew how to do this “nothing” everyone kept talking about, but in practice I had spent very little time doing it. And I can now admit that for many years I only acted the role when it came time for nothing. Maybe I was still, maybe I was quiet, but on the inside, I was lying on a sunny beach with a scantily clad Viking lad. But now, I’m doing it. And I’m doing it for a lot longer than necessary. I could compete with a corpse.

Mom can dip into nothing at the drop of a hat, stay there for fifteen minutes, and return unblemished. That is her normal pattern. Over the years, though, there were times when I witnessed a prolonged retreat. She pulled into herself during times of extreme stress. When her sister died, she was mentally absent for a year or so. She did the chores, but every spare moment was poured into a Harlequin romance. She read hundreds of them, with the bad grammar, the identical plots. Their mindless drone kept her afloat in the aftermath. It was how she handled her grief.

I usually need a week or two to recover from the previous school year, and I am now five weeks past that deadline. There is a possibility that events of the last year have prolonged my coma. I could add a week of bone idleness for the unwanted changes at work that will add hours to my workload. Two weeks for the letter in the mail saying there is a nodule. A nodule and we would like to take another look before we remove both of your breasts and leave a cavernous maw in their place. Another week for when they sent the next letter saying sorry for the inconvenience, but there is nothing wrong with your breast. The technician thinks she may have dropped an olive from her lunch into your titty pictorial. Add a week for that phone call from my daughter in the middle of fifth period. “My best friend tried to kill herself and I had to stop her.” A day, no two, added on for the trip to the mental hospital, following in the wake of the red ambulance that carried her friend kicking and screaming to that unfamiliar place. My daughter’s frightened eyes, wide and so young. What does that add up to? Almost seven weeks. Three days short.

The other three days? There was extra stress because of the graduation. Have to have the right dress, send the invitations, plan the parties, the thank-yous, the college visits, the imminent leaving of your first child.

The imminent leaving of your first child, off to college, where she will almost certainly forget the way home. Where she will shush off to Vail on the first Thanksgiving with a kid named Rick, while we at home mourn her passing. The day I watched the Real World marathon for eight straight hours in my pajamas, did that have anything at all to do with the imminent leaving?

Am I trying to hold time at the end of my arm because I am afraid, terrified actually, that the wake of her absence will fill with … nothing?

I’ve done everything right. I worked all year to own my feelings, to acknowledge that the last homecoming parade, the last high school volleyball game, the last report card were sad to me. I have done my crying. My husband and son have not done theirs—and will not until she is gone—and I figured I would get a head start so I can help them through it. This is what a good mother does.

But I don’t feel up to helping them. I wonder if it is possible to die from having your kid go off to college. I have friends whose kids are in college. They don’t look dead, but they could be sort of half dead. Maybe all those gray-headed people wandering around the country in RVs are really half dead from their kids leaving. Maybe they sit on far hillsides with powerful telescopes and watch Junior at the office. “Mom,” Dad will say. “Come quick! He’s about to make his presentation!” It’s possible.

Maybe I’ll be the first. Only nobody will know. The local newspaper will write an article about my untimely demise. It will say:

“Joni Koehler died today. The cause of death was heart failure. Her husband stated that Joni was playing a computer game when she gave a sudden cry and collapsed on top of the keyboard. ‘They really should make level nine easier,’ said the stricken widower.”

There is a ring of being pregnant again to all of it. My emotions are all over the place. My daughter and I are walking through the mall, and I say I have a headache, and she says, “Just do what I do and don’t allow yourself to get a headache, because like I never succumb to the folly that is illness.” And I want to have this baby already. I want her out. She’s a bowling ball in my gut. Then, we’re walking through the store looking at bedspreads and I tell her, “That is a dependable bedspread right there. You can use it on your own little girl’s bed. It will last you a long time, so it’s worth a few extra dollars,” and I just want to throw myself on the floor and beg somebody to give me a little girl because I don’t have one anymore. It hits me in a startling wave like morning sickness, and I have to concentrate very hard on the E! True Hollywood Story to look like a normal person, not a forty-four-year-old woman clinging to the sales clerk’s leg, howling about babies.

Her leaving isn’t the only hard thing. It is the change in my role. From the moment she left my womb, my existence as Joni took a back seat to my existence as Amy’s mom. Society saw me that way, and so did I. It was difficult to go from being the one with the beautiful body to the one with the slack tummy and the oversized breasts that spewed milk without my knowledge or permission ten times a day. I grew into motherhood with grace. I endured the days when six of the seven bodily fluids ended up on my clothing, the telephone didn’t ring once, and I lay in wait for my husband to come home from work so I could follow him all over the house and talk and talk just to keep my head from exploding. I talked to my children, I read to them, I praised their childish creations, and I watched hundreds of ball games in which I had no interest. My children have turned out happy, reasonably intelligent, and well adjusted. However, they are about to turn out, both of them, and her leaving has reminded me of this.

I think it used to be enough that a woman raised her children. If she survived child rearing, society didn’t expect much more. She was then free to let her chins multiply and watch squirrels from her front porch. Now I think I’m supposed to do something else. When my son leaves in three years, I will be three years away from my fiftieth birthday. If Oprah and Maya Angelou are any gauge, I’m supposed to celebrate this new age and start sprouting wise pronouncements. I am supposed to grow into another role altogether, one where I know myself, lower my body fat, and achieve something worthwhile in my own right. Only, I don’t know anything about this “new” woman, and sometimes I feel the same sort of wide-eyed fright that I felt when I held my daughter in my lap for the first time, and she looked at me so helpless and trusting. I’m staring down the teeth of a waterfall, and I’d rather not.

So I go to my bedroom, because it’s Amazing Race time. Amy comes in and lies on my bed and we watch together. The contestants race to Russia, where they have to play hockey, drink vodka, and eat two pounds of caviar. The skinny women have great difficulty with the caviar; they say they’re sick and can’t possibly finish. They roll in agony on the floor and cool cloths are applied. The bowling moms suck that caviar down; they’ve smelled and tasted worse than this, endured worse than this. They leave their skinny counterparts in the dust. Amy turns to me and says, “You could do that, Mom.”

“You bet I could, but when Dad and I go, he’ll do all the eating. He’ll eat anything.”

“No, you and I should go, Mom.”

“Okay,” I say.

The contestants reach the pit stop for the day. The older Internet dating couple is last and they get eliminated.

“You’ll have to get in shape, though,” she says.

“Yeah, I will. I can do it, too. But you’ve got to be smart to win this game.”

“Yeah, we could win.”

And we do, every day. I’m sad that she’s leaving but I know it will be okay. I’ll get into shape and jump back into my life, and get smart, and learn the new languages I need, and read the maps, and sometimes we’ll still run the race together. We are the new women, she and I, and we can conquer hockey, whip caviar, and slay vodka. We can even beat level nine, if we want to. And that would be something.

Author’s Note: My daughter is now in her second semester of college. I will not lie. At first, I was glum; I was teary, prickly even. Now, I’m adjusting. Writing this piece was somewhat prophetic. My body fat is lower, and I am determined to accomplish something in my own right. I’m back on the

Joni Koehlerlives in a South Texas town. She is a sixth-grade teacher at the local school, a wife, the mother of two children, and an aspiring author.

Brain, Child (Summer 2005)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Normal

Normal

By Marie Myung-Ok Lee

IMG_1024On Saturdays I drive to another state to take J, my three-year-old, post-cancer, autistic son, to the Happy Trails Stables, a facility for hippotherapy for mentally and physically disabled children.

I found out about Happy Trails back in another life—before I had J. As a child, I’d made a promise to myself that I would always try to do some kind of volunteer work. When a friend with a child who has cerebral palsy mentioned the stable, I thought, Aha! The perfect volunteer job. I had shown quarter horses as a child, and my skills could help severely disabled children. Noble and yet secretly indulgent of my addiction to the smell of horse manure.

The idea simmered on the back burner for years, but I never got around to actually calling Happy Trails. Miscarriages, pregnancy, an on-again-off-again writing career, my father’s suicide, and a few other things got in the way—and now my son is one of those riding children whom I once envisioned with a mixture of pity and compassion. And I’m no brave horse-wrangler—I’m just a mom, planting my boot on the side rails, watching the parade of children go by.

Happy Trails is the Platonic ideal of a stable. You enter it via a winding drive that passes woods and rolling sedge fields. There is a barn, an arena, and an outdoor riding ring surrounded by a weathered whitewashed fence—it can’t get any more quaint. Happy Trails even has its own art gallery displaying oil-painted renditions of its bucolic splendor.

What is different from your average stable is a long wooden ramp leading up to what looks like a stage set up in the arena, so that children of varying abilities can mount their horses. Wheelchairs can be pushed up the ramp. The tack room has a neat row of bridles with the horses’ names—Kimmie, Paint, Thor, Gus—but also a row of pediatric helmets hanging next to thick web belts with handles, as well as an assortment of textured rubber balls and other tools used for physical therapy. On a table sits an issue of Equine magazine next to a splayed catalogue of “mobility tools” for the differently abled: foam blocks, chew-toys, full-body wheelchairs, and an assortment of braces—unsettling in their scope and variety—to buttress hypotonic (low muscle) children into a semblance of sitting or standing upright.

When J and I arrive, I put J’s helmet and belt on him. Part of J’s disability involves his extreme dislike of doing anything anyone wants him to do, and so the next phase involves me and his therapist dragging forty pounds of kicking, biting, and screaming J up the ramp and onto the back of his horse, Kimmie, who amazingly ignores the commotion.

The smallest children, like three-year-old J, do not use saddles but instead hang on to a metal steering wheel attached to what looks like a giant canvas luggage strap circling the horse’s middle. The children wear web belts around their middles so that the “side walkers”—an adult volunteer and the therapist—can hold the kid on the horse, while a third volunteer holds the horse’s lead.

Kimmie is a placid gelding the gray-white color of old underwear. In all my years of being a serious rider, I have never seen such unbeautiful horses as I have here. Swaybacked, knock-kneed, strange mixtures of breeds, like the stumpy pony who looks unmistakably part draft horse. These mounts have no wild oats to sow; they are all at least fifteen years old. Gus, the one who is so sway-backed that he looks like some kind of camel, is purportedly fifty years old, which would translate to about 130 years in human age.

They come to Happy Trails in a variety of ways: Most are donated or plucked from the dog food factory line to retire to a nice life of working a few hours a day and then spending the rest lazing in pasture. The horses must have an even, plodding gait and unflappable personalities. As a test, a trainer gets on their backs, screams, flails, falls off—does everything short of shooting a gun. The horses that remain unmoved are accepted.

I think J secretly loves riding, but he is big on what the therapists call “counter-control.” For example, during his Skinner-based therapy, when we reward him with edible treats, he often hands the treats back—after spitting on them—to show us he can’t be bought.

So no matter how much he really enjoys riding, the fact that we are making him do it has to be acknowledged first. As he tantrums up the ramp, J tries to pull off his helmet, kicks at me and the therapist, and reaches over and yanks the patient Kimmie’s mane. (Horses actually have no nerve endings in their hair’s roots, but J doesn’t need to know this). What the therapists have learned to do is to toss J on like a sack of potatoes and start running off the minute J’s little butt hits Kimmie’s back. J has no recourse but to hang on for dear life.

Kimmie trots off. J screams with rage, tiny hands clinging to the steering wheel. But there is a flash of happiness in his eyes. A moving roller coaster! He loves it, truly.

In the lingo of therapists, riding a horse challenges balance, bilateral movement, and cross-midline skills (e.g., moving your right arm to the left, which requires a surprisingly complex brain action), skills that the able-bodied take for granted. For children who have never walked unassisted, being atop a moving horse actually allows them to experience the rocking pelvis sensation of human walking.

J has motor delays, likely stemming from the trauma of his spinal cord cancer, and could use some of that cross-midlining. The therapists also assure us that hippotherapy will help him with his relationship skills, since many autistic children end up bonding with their mounts. And it has the further benefit of being fiscally therapeutic for Mommy and Daddy: we spend more than twenty thousand dollars a year out of pocket on his various therapies, but our state Medicaid, though collapsing under the weight of drastic budget cuts, shells out the ten dollars a week for this.

During our first sessions, I was so consumed with getting J successfully atop his horse, and then bursting with pride to see my little guy bouncing atop Kimmie—what a good seat! just like his mommy!—that I was oblivious to my surroundings, the other children, the other parents. But then the therapists started taking J for little trail rides around the farm, leaving me behind with nothing to do but watch the other kids going ’round and ’round the indoor ring.

My initial impression was that the whole enterprise was a Flannery O’Connor story accompanied by Diane Arbus photos. The bucolic setting, the misfit horses, the impossibly deformed and damaged children. Some kids, like J, scream. Others jibber-jabber. There is also a silent rider, who is microcephalic, adult in size but still able to wear those tiny pediatric helmets.

There’s the family whose daughter (seven? nine? twelve?) is in a full-body wheelchair, her limbs the texture of overcooked spaghetti. I always admire the aplomb with which the father or mother—they seemed to switch off—manages to get their daughter ensconced in the wheelchair, grab their Dunkin’ Donuts coffee out of the van’s cupholder, and wheel to the tack room. One day I saw that the mother had added a baby on her hip to the whole load, and I thought, Wow, that’s nice, at least they have a healthy daughter. Then when I came closer, I saw that the baby had floppy limbs encased in plastic braces, much like her sister’s.

There is also a father and son who have the session right after J’s, so as we finish up, we often see them unloading. The boy, about twelve and quite large, has some kind of mobility problem, but he doesn’t use a wheel-chair: His father hugs him around the armpits from behind and the two of them “walk.” They do this every week, stubbornly, lovingly, insistently. I can’t help wondering what will happen as the boy grows larger—he’s bordering on the obese—and the father weaker. This center will not hold.

Unlike my friends, who spent their pregnancies cupping their hands on their bellies and smiling knowingly, I was tormented during my pregnancy by visions of deformity. The very opacity of my skin over my womb only added to my anxiety. Anything could be growing in there, I thought.

As a child, my physician father tried to get me interested in medicine by bringing home medical texts from the office. I became fascinated with one, Gross Malformations of the Human Anatomy. I could spend hours poring over the pages, cataloging the endless ways things could go haywire in the process of a sixteen-celled blastocyst actually growing, dividing into muscles, bones, organs, skin.

Being at Happy Trails was not unlike seeing the strange wanderings of my mind somehow realized in front of my face. The visual trauma was different than being in the oncology ward, where every child has a chemo stent in his neck, or at J’s autism school, where every kid is staring off into space and making bizarre noises. Here on display is the full wild range of disability and damage: brain injury, malformed limbs, genetic deformities.

One day I spotted an older rider—she had some wrinkles along with obvious mental retardation—and I wondered what she was doing at Happy Trails. Then I saw a much older, much wrinklier couple—her parents—and realized that yes, she is someone’s child, and yes, as these children grow, their deformities will grow along with them. I can’t help being curious now when I see someone new at Happy Trails—what are these riders’ disabilities, and are they physical, mental, or both?

It didn’t take long to find out. Some of the parents look bored out of their skulls and seemed happy to converse with a scruffy Korean-American woman who looks twelve years old. (I am often mistaken for J’s babysitter.) They talked strangely freely of their children’s disabilities and confirmed my suspicions that many of the physically handicapped children have mental problems as well. And here I thought we were such singular victims of bad luck, a child with cancer and autism.

I hesitated over revealing too much in return. There’s a part of me that wants the world to know how much J has suffered—spinal cord tumor at eighteen months, endless painful surgeries, full-body casts and wheelchairs, and now the pain of autism—so the world will be “nice” to him. But at the same time I have a fierce faith that he will recover, and so I don’t want him to be burdened with the history of being the cancer kid, the autistic.

When the parents spoke of their children’s disabilities, I was happy to listen. But when confronted directly with their offspring and their shocking deformities, I had to consciously force myself to act “normal”—i.e., making eye contact but not staring too little or too much, because I know too well how I feel when this is done to us.

But after a few weeks of putting on this careful act, a strange thing happens: I find something in my brain softening and shifting and I start seeing so-and-so’s kid only as so-and-so’s kid. Not to sound too Jerry Lewis, but I start seeing the child and not the disability.

It is the brain’s instinct to normalize, basically. Good and bad things alike. My husband said that his high after being granted tenure at a great university lasted exactly three hours, and then it wasn’t exciting anymore.

After hanging around Happy Trails long enough, the families become familiar as well. Coming from three different states, they are mostly upper-middle-class and educated, typical of people who have the time and skills to seek out such esoteric therapies, basically the same kind of folks I deal with every day in our college town. We talk about meaningless things, the weather—which is always changing, this being New England—as well as about things that matter. How cuts in spending are affecting special education. About new medical procedures that our children have to undergo. Occasionally, of progress.

And it starts feeling good in its own odd way, this mundanity.

“You got enough room, Al?” one of the fathers calls as he moves his car, knowing that Al needs extra elbow room to haul out his enormous son. This casual consideration—not the condescending, you-poor-people, special-needsy politeness but just nice everyday politeness—is rewarding to us all. As Al parks and then struggles with uncorking his gigantic son from the car and then does their plodding tandem walk, a scene that would certainly draw popeyed stares anywhere else, the rest of us chitchat. For us, it’s just another Saturday at Happy Trails.

I used to wonder how they convinced the people in Gross Malformations to submit themselves as models. The photos are uniformly stark, wholly unflattering black-and-whites. The subjects, when their faces are shown, stare off without a trace of emotion—no happiness, rage, shame, anger, or pride. They wear no clothes, no identifying markers except for their deformities. What would be in it for them? I wondered. I doubted they would go home and tell their friends, Hey! I’m appearing in this book called Gross Malformations!

But I remember when I started imagining the people—webbed hands, gaping cleft palate, an unclosed abdominal cavity through which small intestines poke out like polish sausage—back in their lives, back at home with their “gross” malformations. There was probably an altruistic sense that they were helping the cause of medicine. But maybe also a sense of belonging—there’s no reason to be embarrassed over being naked and showing off one’s deformity when everyone else was naked and showing off, too. The more the merrier.

And we, too, welcome any and all to our select society. With our cups of coffee and cars with the handicapped placards hanging off the rearview mirrors instead of graduation tassels, there we stand with our jagged, battered hearts in the middle of life, our lives, lives about which the Buddhist in me says simply: They are what they are. And, just the way I imagined the models for the Gross Malformations book did, after our sessions are over, we pack up our kids—wheelchairs, crutches, braces, damaged brains—and head back into the world with all its grimly fixed judgments, all the while contemplating, What is normal, exactly?

Author’s Note: J now seems to prefer bulldozers to horses, although he occasionally speaks fondly of Kimmie. We have come to the conclusion that autism is a biological disorder of the immune system triggered by environmental factors and thus, his cancer and autism might not be a case of lightning striking twice, but may actually be intimately related, and we are pursuing treatments in this direction with so far small, but significant, improvements.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is writing a novel about and OB and the future of medicine (forthcoming in 2015 from Simon & Schuster). Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Slate, Salon, and The Atlantic. She teaches creative writing at Columbia. You can find her on Facebook.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Not One of Those Mothers

Not One of Those Mothers

By Kate Trump O’Connor

Not Your Mother WI08The late afternoon sun spills across our table in the corner of the café, near the window. I’m going to confess something very important to you, so ignore the hovering waiter and lean in close.

I never thought I could do this. I never wanted to do this. I never, ever would have chosen this for me, for my one and only life, for my son’s one and only life. This? Mentally and physically handicapped? No way.

I lean over my coffee to emphasize my words as you clutch your cup, uncertain. I confess, before Thomas, my world was largely untouched by disability. Shamefully, I went on with my life, unaffected and unconcerned, and I never had to face my own ignorance. It was easy enough to turn my head the other way.

Then, one beautiful June day, I was forced to face it—and the face it wore looked just like his older brother’s, with smooth round cheeks, a tiny nose, and the deepest brown eyes.

*   *   *

Thomas arrived three weeks early on a sunny Friday in June. After an uneventful pregnancy, my early labor was a surprise, though not worrisome. We made it to the hospital with just enough time to drug me up, something for which in hindsight I am extremely grateful. Not for the physical pain of delivery—as a second-born, his birth was quick and almost too easy—but for the heart-wrenching pain and grief that came after.

Dr. T. is a calm and gentle man. He broke my water, saw meconium, and calmly explained that he would keep the baby from crying until he had suctioned our little one carefully and thoroughly. So when they rushed our new son (another boy!) across the room and huddled around him, we weren’t alarmed. Dr. T. betrayed nothing while, as I now know, he and the nurses worked to resuscitate my baby. I was too giddy to notice as ten, then fifteen minutes passed.

“He’s having a little trouble breathing, so we’re sending him to the special care nursery,” my doctor explained. I remember thinking that it was okay, that it was not a big deal, that these things happen all the time.

Then they brought Thomas to me for the first time, pink, swaddled, and crying. As I took him into my arms, he looked up at me and stopped crying. His dark, solemn eyes stared into mine, and we knew each other without question.

I had no idea, as I handed him back to the nurse for his trip to the special care nursery, that our brief minute together would have to sustain me for the unbearable weeks to come.

Maybe we should have been more concerned in those first minutes and hours. Maybe instead of making giddy phone calls and rejoicing in our new son’s birth, we should have been preparing ourselves. There were warning signs. His initial Apgar score was five. When I finally held him and said, “He looks just like his big brother,” my OB replied, “He does?” Only much later did I realize why he sounded a little surprised.

Hours passed. I was moved to my postpartum room, and still we waited to see him again.

*   *   *

I have to stop here for a minute. If I plunge ahead into the next chapter, you’ll pick up your coffee cup and hold it forgotten for long minutes, staring at me wide-eyed. It’s vital that I get this right so that you don’t do what we all want instinctively to do—put distance between my life and yours.

It’s not personal, I know. But as soon as I say anything, your imagination will stand at the mouth of that dark tunnel, the one my husband and I found ourselves hurtling down when Thomas came into the world. You’ll shake your head to clear the vertigo. Not your path in life. More power to me, but you could not imagine it.

I understand. Before Thomas, given the choice, I’d be leaning over your shoulder looking at some other mother with that same sense of sympathy and awe. “How do you do it? You’re amazing,” we’d echo in unison to that other mother who, but for the grace of God, the universe, Mother Nature, and random chance, could be us.

That other mother (who is not me, if only for one minute) sits a little apart. When she talks about her kid, there’s a certain look in her eyes, like she’s seeing something we don’t. She deals with so much, this special mother of a special child. She speaks a foreign language—of sats and meds, of OT and ST, of IEP and inclusion— that you don’t want to understand. It’s so hard and she’s such an amazing woman to deal with it all, and you know that you wouldn’t have the strength to do it.

You mean this as a compliment, this admission of weakness.

It’s not. It’s the verbal equivalent of throwing salt over your left shoulder. It’s a fervent and silent plea, Don’t pick me. I’m not one of those mothers. I’m not strong enough, I don’t have enough faith, my heart isn’t unselfishand radiantly kind. And what—oh, surely, I am the shallowest mother on earth, another reason I can’t be chosen—what will he look like? And will I be able to love him, truly love him?

You wish desperately to believe what we all say: Special mothers are chosen. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Even more, we seek to find ourselves lacking, wishing for the first time to come up short and prove ourselves unworthy. If God or the universe doesn’t give us more than we can handle, and I know I couldn’t handle this, then I’m safe.

I know all of this makes you uncomfortable: my child, the future you can’t or couldn’t have imagined for yourself. For your child. Two years ago if I had been told that at two days old, instead of being discharged home with me, my baby would be put on a lung bypass machine that circulated the blood out of and back into his body; that at two and a half months he would have open heart surgery; that at fourteen weeks old he would come home from the hospital, alive but fragile, with a feeding tube and an oxygen tank; that instead of holding him warm to my breast, the tiny infant I’d felt kick and roll inside of me would be nourished by the milk I pumped five times a day for months—if you had told me all of this, I would have said, Nope, can’t do it, find someone else please.

And if I had been told that my newborn son would be disabled. And if we’d known the first gift we would receive after his birth would come from the chief geneticist at the big-shot hospital, a book titled Babies with Down Syndrome? Certainly I would have paled and looked around. Me? I can’t be the mother you intend for this child. Surely you mean someone else—someone who hears all this and doesn’t turn away in fear. A woman who instead hauls out her breast pump, grabs a medical dictionary, calls the local early intervention program, and gets down to the business of mothering her special child.

Call the waiter over, I think you need a refill. I can see you’re still skeptical. You won’t let go of your certainty that somehow I am a different breed of mother. I know you’re wondering, so I will tell you. No, I didn’t get all the prenatal tests. No, we didn’t want to know. Yes, we chose the uncertainty and accepted the risk. We never really imagined our baby would be born anything but healthy and perfect.

Now, after all I’ve told you, I must concede: I am a different kind of mother. (“Ha!” you cry. “I knew it all along!”)

But let me explain.

Thomas is twenty months old now. At night I sit by his crib and watch him sleep, mouth open, the sleeve of PJs exposing too much wrist because he’s growing so fast. His pudgy hand rests on his baby-blue sheet, the one with the owls. His dark blond hair, exactly like his brother’s, curls in a cowlick over his smooth forehead. His plumpcheeks are covered with white medical tape, which holds the oxygen tube tight in his nose. I glance at the display on his oxygen saturation monitor, the numbers holding steady at 100 where they should be, the bar of green LEDs rising and falling and rising again with his every heart beat. Nearby, my husband stirs in his sleep. The baby is still in our room so we can respond when his alarm goes off, signaling a drop in his oxygen levels. It’s easier than stumbling down the long hall. I should be sleeping, too. Yet I sit and watch Thomas sleep. Because I can. I know when he wakes in themorning, he’ll pull off the oxygen tube (he needs it only when he’s sleeping) and greet me with a loud good-morning babble. His big brother will come in, asking to go downstairs and watch cartoons. “Bring Tommy down, too,” he’ll say, because to my amazement, after all we have been through, they are as close as brothers can be.

If you had told me two years ago that this child would come into my life, I would have wished I could be the mother you thought I was, but I’d have known deep down, and most ashamedly, I was not.

And if you had told me about the woman and her eight-year-old daughter who rushed up to us in the grocery store and said, “Is this your baby? He’s so cute,” I would have looked at you sideways.

And if you had told me that I would sit here today by Thomas’s crib and say that on most days I don’t think much about his having Down syndrome, I would have said you had a fantastic imagination.

But the truth is, whoever or whatever force is in charge of baby placement didn’t see anything in me that is not in every one of us—the capacity to love our children beyond measure and reason, beyond diagnosis and fear, beyond uncertainty and self. I wasn’t picked to be Thomas’s mom because I am special; I was made special because I am his mom. When I took him in my arms for the first time and gazed into his eyes, I saw only my beautiful, perfect son.

So I settle back in my chair here on this side of the café table. It may be hard and unyielding some days, it may wobble a bit when I lean, but it is my seat at the table. I don’t want to trade places. Because what you can’t see from your seat on the other side is the breathtaking view I have gazing out over your shoulder.

Author’s Note: Since Thomas’s birth, I have struggled with the moral and ethical issues surrounding the increasingly early prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. I do not want to impose on the personal choices of others, and yet I do not want fear—the fear of differences and the fear of our own inadequacy—to make life and death decisions for us. We are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. That’s something Thomas, with his determination and persistence, shows me every day.

Kate Trump O’Connor is a writer, photographer, and artist who lives outside of Boston with her husband, two sons, and twin daughters. Her website is ktoconnor.com.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Cul-de-Sac

Cul-de-Sac

By Lorri Mcdole

FA 06 Cul de Sac ArtWe’d eaten all the salads and burgers and cookies—alone deviled egg sat quivering in a puddle of melted ice—and had run out of things to say to the people who live just around the corner. The annual block party finally over, we smiled and waved as our stranger-neighbors dragged their lawn chairs out of the middle of our cul-de-sac and down to their own.

Then the rest of us pulled our chairs up on the grass, got out the portable fire pit and frozen Margarita buckets, and left our children—three-year-old Haley, five-year-olds Ryan, Alex, and Tanner, and eight-year-olds Alaina and Shayna—to play in the street.

Which isn’t as bad it sounds. One of the reasons we live on a cul-de-sac is to give our kids a relatively safe place to play. Cars don’t speed by on their way to somewhere else because they really can’t get there from here.

But just because our neighborhood is a mecca for little kids doesn’t mean that our kids stay little forever. Once upon a time they cuddled close—for stories, songs, the sound of our voices—but now our children run around wild, tempting fate as if they’re as lucky as cats. They have the knack, mostly, for avoiding bicycle headers and slipping through tight spaces in the nick of time, but they’re also still small enough to be misplaced, run over, grabbed under the arm like a sack of potatoes and made off with.

And the mothers, what of us? We call on God—we pray, cajole, would seduce Him, if we could—but mostly we sit empty-lapped, older by the minute, wives telling tales around the fire.

But some families live on these circular blocks long enough for their kids to grow up and get driver’s licenses. And sometimes—like when the teenaged neighbor is driving home from his job at Safeway and his gaze is diverted by a friendly fire—the illusion of safety is the real danger.

I was playing a board game with my kids on a dark winter night when there was an insistent knock at the door and then a long stuttering ring of the bell. Our cul-de-sac is more like a commune than a collection of single-resident houses, with kids flowing freely through open doors in summer and pounding on doors and bells in winter.

But this time it wasn’t a kid, it was Darcy, the mom next door.

“You haven’t seen three little kids, have you? A third grader— Elizabeth?—and two younger brothers, maybe four and five years old? They went out to the mailbox and never came back.”

I knew which family she was talking about, but they were new to the neighborhood and I hadn’t met them yet.

“When their mom went to check, they were just …gone,” she ended lamely. And then she threw her arm out like an amateur actor, pointing to the top of our cul-de-sac ‘T’.

I ran out to the sidewalk and saw two police cars, the mailbox, and a woman sitting on the curb, rocking back and forth with her head in her hands. One of the police officers walked over to peer in the mailbox, as if one or all of the kids might be hiding in there. I felt like I was watching the Amber Alert play out somewhere far away on the 10 o’clock News.

But here was Darcy, whom I knew too well to ignore, asking me to help her stop the lava-like dread that threatened to wash away our world. Our fingers in the dike, we stood silent, trying to disown the same thought: we’d gotten lucky. Our own children were safe and sound, this time.

We found out what happened the next day. Tired of waiting for their mom to get off the phone and take them to Bingo Night at Sierra Heights Elementary, the three kids had gone out to get the mail just as their dad pulled into the driveway. They were so excited to see him and so upset about missing Bingo Night that he decided to pack them into the car and take off. He called and left a message, the story goes, which his wife somehow didn’t get.

What we, the other mothers, are still dying to ask (but can’t because we still don’t know the family well enough; can’t because the question is stuck in our throats like in a bad dream) is this: Is there life after your children are swept from the face of the earth, even if, by miracle or just everyday magic, they reappear?

When my daughter was three months old, I gushed to my mother about the Diaper Genie, a contraption that seals off disposable diapers in a smell-free container. I’ll never forget the shock on her face, the hurt in her voice.

“You’re using disposable diapers? It used to be my favorite thing, washing and drying and folding all those little white diapers for you!”

Mom smoked during each of her three pregnancies; raised us on starch, sugar, and fat; and allowed us to go to the corner store for candy as soon as we turned six. Every summer morning she sent us out to play with the neighbor kids and counted herself lucky if we didn’t come back till dinnertime.

This was during the 60’s and 70’s, long before anyone worried about spending time (quantity or quality) with their children; before they knew to worry about nutrition or safety. Like my daughter, who’s perplexed by Ms. Hannigan in the movie, Annie (“But she’s an adult, she has to love kids,” Alaina says), everyone assumed that to have children was to love them, and to love them was to do for them. They took it for granted that nothing bad would happen to us when we were “out there,” and mostly they were right.

Today, no matter where we live, our kids seem targeted for terrible things, like they really are accidents waiting to happen. And we, the adults, the used-to-be-young? Shocked at getting older, we skate at the frozen edges of our children’s innocence and often end by falling into the soupy middle.

Like me, reading the mail on my front porch one day and trying not to register how fast and close together all of our kids were riding their scooters and bikes. I make mine wear helmets, but how can I get them, in concert with the other kids, to appreciate a speed-to-proximity ratio that would at least lessen the chance of bloody knees or elbows or worse?

The thud, when it came, was quiet, and I only registered it because of my daughter’s yell: “Mom, Tanner got hit by a car!”

Trailing cell phone, bills, and magazines, I ran down to where our street opens up on the rest of the neighbor- hood and saw a man getting out of a blue pickup, surrounded by our swarming children. Tanner was picking himself up off the street.

Over the next few minutes the man and I, both shaking now that the tragedy had officially morphed into a near miss, reconstructed the scene for each other: he’d been backing out of the driveway that leads to the house behind our neighbor’s, had stopped to look for cars and kids, and then heard the terrible sound once he looked away. Swiveling around, he saw the horrified faces of a bunch of kids and me running wildly at them all. For a brief moment, he forced himself to face the worst—that a child was under his truck.

But luckily he’d been stopped when Tanner, who hadn’t been looking where he was going, barreled into him. Luckily the thud wasn’t something he rolled over.When people ask whether we plan to have more children, I joke that the only person I’d add to our family of four would be someone named Watch This!, whose sole job would be to obey this command from my children each of the 5,000 times it’s uttered in a day. Or a person called Find This!, who would spend all day looking for the one tiny plastic toy needed for some game.

But in the middle of the night, when my real fears and desires loop endlessly through my mind, what I really crave is a guardian angel. Not the garden-variety, God-sent angels of my childhood (whom I credited for keeping me safe even as the Fire and Brimstone Church I grew up in taught me that it was up for grabs whether I would, actually, be saved), but a cut-and-dried 21st century secular angel. A mercenary who’ll keep my kids safe, no matter what God or anyone else has in mind.

Someone who could be there, say, on that late August evening, just past dusk, when five-year-old neighbors Ryan and Alex were thrilled to have the run of the cul-de-sac. It was their favorite thing, doing something nearly “under the law,” as they called playing in the street in the almost-dark.

Their parents, talking around the fire pit to the other moms and dads, were like the soft-focus pictures of Jesus at church: they promised safety, but from a distance.

Their backs to the wind and their ears filled with their own screaming laughter, neither boy knew a car was bearing down on them. But we knew. Tuned as mothers are to these things, we rose halfway off our seats at the just-discernible hum of the car and then sank back down, relieved to see it was just Nick, the responsible, Safeway-employed teenager from next door, who was rounding the corner.

By the time we realized that Nick’s eyes were glued to our fire at the side of the road and that he was nervously stepping on the gas instead of the brake, it was too late for anyone but God, or some kind of angel, to do anything.

What He or She did is this: had us yell, in terrified symphony, “No, No, No!” Had Ryan and Alex suddenly realize that they didn’t want to be under the law or under the ground. Had the boys want, more than anything else, to be ensnared by the flailing arms of their mothers, to be engulfed by the fire-lit ovals of their mouths. Had the boys cross the street hell-bent for leather in an irreproducible sort of geometry, one of them just in front of the car, and the other just behind.

Author’s Note: “Ryan’s on the cliff of the stairs!” my daughter, Alaina, used to yell when she was four and her brother was one. Too many times I’d round the corner just in time to see him rolling, end over end, to the landing. But kids are resilient—he left teeth marks but no teeth in the wall—and most of their scars won’t show until later.

Lorri Mcdole lives in a suburb of Seattle with her husband, Greg, and their children, Alaina and Ryan. She worked as a technical and marketing writer before having children and has published in Pacific Northwest and Common Ground. This is her first publication since becoming a mother.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Debate: Are Kids’ Consumer Trends Worth Fighting?

Debate: Are Kids’ Consumer Trends Worth Fighting?

Yes, protect them from themselves

By Beth Kohl

debateyesconsumerWhen I grew up, in the seventies and eighties, I consumed my fair share of pop culture. Yours, too. From my Happy Days T-shirt—a leather-jacketed Fonz with his thumbs cocked out to the side, the word Ayyyy drawn out beneath him—to my various hairstyles, including bangs like a cresting wave, wacky asymmetrical bobs revealing a buzzed under-layer, and the tail that I would dye different colors for seasonal effect. I dug my looks, had fun playing around with them, and ignored my mom, who preferred my hair longer, flatter, and pulled back in a headband or ponytail. I kept on experimenting, chopping my hair, changing its color, and piercing my ears until I’d exhausted the entire lobe. Indeed, this is what kids do. It’s what they’ve always done.

But times have changed in a ways that make it far riskier to butt out and let our kids experiment freely with the trends of the day. We’ve become a consumerist culture: a brand-coveting, acquisitive, and celebrity-obsessed society. And the celebrities we obsess over have clothes that are much sexier than Molly Ringwald’s flapper-inspired schmatas—shorter, sheerer, and lower-rising—making this a particularly sticky issue for little girls who often naively stumble into dangerous, adult terrain.

I am the proud (and mostly laid back) mother of three daughters, three future adolescents and, someday, women. We are a hand-me-and-then-me-down family. My eldest daughter gets the new stuff, but only those items that pass my longevity litmus tests. I look for classics; Levi’s, vintage-style blouses fashioned from quaint floral fabrics, and brightly colored T-shirts with no lettering on them, the better to let the wearer shine through.

For the longest time (six years to be exact), my daughters unquestioningly wore what I picked out, ate much of what I offered, no matter how raw or cooked or orange or green, and played with “brick and mortar” type toys—Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys and sock monkeys, classic amusements from my own childhood.

Suddenly, however, I’m getting flak. My first grader, Sophia, no longer thinks pretty, classic, comfortable or unique are adequate attributes for school wear. (Weekends are a different matter entirely. She’ll happily spend two days wearing any old thing in her closet, proof to me that this is about a mob mentality.) But Monday through Friday, she wants to wear what her stylish peers wear. Short jean skirts, sans tights, sans leggings, camisole tops, cropped sweatshirts and Crocs, those round-toed rubber clogs punctured with lima-bean-sized holes that serve as holders for the charms to be acquired and collected and displayed and compared.

Sophia also wants virtual pets and computer games, an iPod, and a cell phone. I tell her no, not yet. I remind her that one day she’ll have a job and be able to purchase just what she wants and to dress like the whore of Babylon, if that is what pleases her. (What’s a whore? Who is Babylon? she wonders.) But until then, I’m not ready to have her retreat into a world of insularity and simulated connection.

A parent needs to choose her battles. It seems silly, misguided, puritanical and a downright bad strategy to nix everything that smacks of trendiness. Certainly, some of the trendiest items are harmless in and of themselves, their popularity largely based upon practicality or because they’re so darn cute. And at some point our children naturally feel the need to separate from us, to establish their own identities. A good parent cannot, should not, force her tastes on her children forever or prevent her children from evolving. But it is incumbent upon parents to take a good, hard look at the trends and decide if an item’s ubiquity proves its harmlessness.

Buying into trends enforces a couple of unfortunate effects. First, owning brand-name stuff is a form of crass elitism if the goal of ownership is the brand rather than the item itself. (That, as far as I can understand it, is the very point of trendiness.) Second, limits are healthy for our children, lending them a sense of security and their parents a hedge against over-indulgence. Third, once our kids enter this fray, wearing or owning these trendy things, they’re a part of a competitive mob, comparing who has the most Webkinz or whose Crocs have been most pimped. They end up a member of the hierarchy, whether the coolest, least cool, or, worst of all, an invisible member of the group.

Finally, many of the trendsetters our children see in the media, particularly the current crop of female ones, make a virtue of drugs and extreme diets, of trashy clothes and trashedness, of a dangerous precociousness beyond fashion. And even if you’d never consider buying your children designer bags or clothes like Britney’s or Lindsay’s, these styles filter down to the places where we shop, and acquiring these items only fuels the market for them. Manufacturers, and the parents who blindly buy their products, are creating a preoccupation with style and, more damaging, looks.

Our children need to foster deeper connections than a shared brand of dress. I’m not suggesting that most children are mature enough to analyze their affinities and determine which are worthwhile. I also know better than to assume every kid is a natural-born leader with an evolved sense of personal style. Certainly our kids should be allowed to experiment, just as I was. But just because my kids don’t have the same exact brands as other children, just because their parents know better than to allow them to wear suggestive clothing or T-shirts extolling shallow, soulless pursuits (“I Live to Shop” spelled out in rhinestones) doesn’t make them outsiders. It shows they are respected as potential independent thinkers, even if I have to do a little of that thinking for them right now.

Beth Kohl lives in Winnetka, Illinois with her husband and three daughters. She is working on her first novel.

 

No, buying is a learning experience

By Heather Annastasia Siladi

debatenoconsumerWhen I was seventeen, my friend at work got a beautiful tattoo on her thigh. I mentioned to my father that I was thinking about getting one also, of a little poison arrow frog. The tirade that followed lasted for at least an hour. I was threatened with everything from grounding to eternal damnation. My dad took a passing impulse, one I probably would have forgotten about by my eighteenth birthday, and turned it into my sole mission in life. I researched local tattoo artists, drew my own tattoo, and yes, I still have my poison arrow frog today.

It was one of the most satisfying purchases I had ever made.

I understand, and share, the concerns of many parents about the extent to which consumerism can grip our children. As I write, my nine-year-old son, Cole, is spreading a Bionicle poster across my desk and explaining which one has the most armor and agility, which one glows in the dark, and how they’re all available at Wal-Mart for the shockingly low price of $8.99.

I realize he’s being manipulated by a toy company, and I tell him that.

There are issues that go hand-in-hand with such fads that we as parents must address, like financial responsibility and peer pressure, but we have to separate consumerism from the others. If a child expresses views that are contrary to her family’s values through clothing and music purchases, it’s not the purchases that are the issue, but her views.

My younger brother likes to throw around the word “pimp” when referring to something cool and extravagant. That coat is pimp. One day, when my boys were in the first grade, my son Connor came home and mentioned that he and a friend were playing pimp at recess. After a few questions, I quickly learned that neither boy had the slightest clue what a pimp was, and they were referring to acting cool. I sat both my boys down and explained that a pimp was a bad man who hurts women, and neither of them has used the word to mean “cool” since.

I realize these conversations are much easier with a six-year-old than with a sixteen-year-old. Often, sixteen-year-olds will deliberately listen to music and wear clothes that make their parents uncomfortable because they are trying to establish an identity separate from their parents. But flipping out when teens push your buttons will probably only make the situation worse.

Companies are not going to stop marketing products to our kids, and the musicians we hate are not going to stop making CDs, so I choose to think rationally about what my options are and how I can best influence my kids to make good decisions. I also work at resisting the temptation to think of my children as extensions of myself; they are their own people with their own tastes.

My goal as a parent is to allow my kids to find their own path through life by letting them make personal decisions about how they want to dress and with whom they want to socialize. Of course we should step in when kids are in danger of crossing the line in what’s appropriate or safe (and I consider sexy clothes on young teen girls a safety issue), but we should otherwise give kids space to explore their world and find their place in it, even if it means allowing them to feel the sting of regret when they blow their allowance, or letting them get caught up in the latest fad.

Music is a good example. Parents should enforce spending limits on CDs and volume limits on headphones, but when a parent flips out and says, “You can’t listen to that,” not only is she making her child want the CD more, she isn’t respecting the child as a human being.

When kids get wrapped up in a particular band or genre of music, it’s because that music is speaking to them and inspiring them in some way. Most music, no matter how incomprehensible to an outsider, is made by talented artists who put a lot of work into creating it. If a child feels a deep connection to this music (even if that connection is being used by corporate interests to encourage purchases) the child will feel violated and resentful if a parent steps in and forbids the music completely.

For the most part, I think we can relax. If we have been good role models, exposure to consumerism, sexism, racism, and all the other isms isn’t nearly as dangerous as we fear it is.

If, several years from now, one of my boys comes home from the mall with a pro-pot T-shirt, I’ll know it’s time to sit down and have a talk. But we won’t be talking about where he got the shirt or how much it cost; we’ll be talking about the message it sends and why he thinks it’s appropriate to plaster it across his chest. Just as they needed to gain practice and confidence to walk or ride a bike, they need to become responsible consumers with the help of a guiding hand that is getting ready to let go.

Heather Annastasia Siladi is a freelance writer, wife, and mother of twin boys, Cole and Connor.  Read more of her work at: http://heatherannastasia.blogspot.com.

Brain, Child (Summer 2007)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Relieving Myself

Relieving Myself

By Heather Caliri

winter2008_caliriI attended the new playgroup with the best of intentions—intentions that included not yelling at the participants.

It started out well: Lucy, my daughter, gamboled over pillows while the two mothers who organized the Elimination Communication (or EC) group talked. They’d brought props: a plastic ice-cream bucket, a tiny white potty, articles, a book, their supportive husbands. And trump cards: their tiny, crawling, diaperless babies.

Besides the organizers, I was the only one actually practicing EC. As the two women shared with the six others how connected they felt with their babies, how much more hygienic and healthy EC was, I looked around at the wide-eyed newbies.

I wanted to yell, “Don’t believe them! Your whole life will revolve around your child’s urination! You’ll drive yourself insane!”

Instead, I stayed quiet, concentrating on keeping Lucy from choking on Mr. Potato Head’s face.

*   *   *

A few years ago my husband, Dyami, and I watched his brother and sister-in-law try EC with their second child, Ava. Their first child had gone the conventional route, using disposables until he potty-trained.

But Ava was diaperless from birth. My in-laws suspended her tiny bum over their sink. Sssss, they said as a cue, and presto-chango, she peed; once or twice a day, she pooped, too. They kept her on absorbent towels in bed and used a bowl in the bedroom at night. By the time she was walking at a year, she’d toddle over to her little white potty and relieve herself.

There were some chancy moments, like the time I held Ava when she was only a month old. “She’s really sweaty,” I said. Evelyn, my sister-in-law, laughed. “That’s not sweat,” she said.

And there was the time that Evelyn asked me to keep an eye on Ava in the living room. Ava made a few complaining noises. When I looked up, there was a snake trail of poo on the carpet.

Despite those misses, Dyami and I were intrigued. “Elimination Communication” sounded a little cute, but we liked the idea: learn our child’s rhythms rather than depend on diapers. We borrowed Evelyn’s EC book, Diaper Free, and read about the environmental benefits: no disposable diapers clogging landfills, no cloth diapers using water. The author pointed out that in countries like China and India, diapers are rare. And we were impressed that Ava never had to be conventionally potty-trained; instead, she grew up with a sense of her elimination needs and how to meet them.

But the clincher was what my brother-in-law Jamie told us when we asked whether it was worth the hassle. “Absolutely,” he said. “We didn’t have to scrape poop off of her butt several times a day. It was worth the few misses for that reason alone.”

So, in the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, we read a book called Diaper Free!, bought a little red potty, and prepared to try it for ourselves.

*   *   *

It didn’t start off as I’d visualized. Once Lucy was born, Dyami was the first to attempt to “communicate.” He stripped her diaper off, cradled her bum over the sink, and made the cuing noise, “Sssssss.”

We waited. “Sssssss,” he said again.

No pee. No poop. The only thing his attempt produced was a fussy baby.

After that, I gave up on trying for a few weeks, guiltily putting the cloth diapers on her. I had absolutely no sense about when she might soil one of them.

I reread Evelyn’s EC book like a bible, hoping for clues.

I joined an EC group online, hoping to learn by osmosis.

I e-mailed my sister-in-law. “I’m not feeling super-confident,” I said.

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” she e-mailed back. “You’re in the early days. Everything in our culture is telling you to put a diaper on her bum. Remember, you’re a maverick in the Western world.”

I’m a maverick, I told myself. I liked the sound of that.

I didn’t mention to Evelyn that we’d never actually gone without putting a diaper on Lucy’s bum. It would come with time, I thought.

Finally, I read in the forum that babies usually pee after they wake up. Aha! I thought. It made sense: After all, I peed after I woke up. After her next nap, I tried the sink again. “Sssss,” I said. Lucy went slightly cross-eyed, shifted her weight, and a tiny fountain of pee spurted from between her legs.

She was two weeks old.

I was hooked.

*   *   *

Elimination Communication is about trying to gauge your baby’s patterns, signals, and preferences, and facilitate her being able to pee and poop outside of a diaper—without punishments or rewards. The people who brought the EC philosophy to the U.S. had traveled abroad, or were from other cultures; diapers, they saw, weren’t necessarily synonymous with baby care. They felt that sitting in urine and feces for extended periods of time—or for any period of time—seemed pretty unhygienic. How much better would it be to eliminate the middle man (the diaper), and send the waste straight down the toilet?

Of course, for a newborn, a gigantic, noisy toilet can be scary (as I discovered the first time I held Lucy over it, only to be rewarded with instant screams). The bathroom sink, on the other hand, has a drain, a faucet to rinse off poopy bums, and a handy mirror to check progress and entertain the baby. After a few days, I got over having one of our two bathroom sinks serve as Lucy’s toilet, and kept a bottle of Windex handy when I did get grossed out.

But I’ll be honest with you: Hygienic or not, EC is a lot of work, especially at the beginning. It seemed as if every fifteen minutes, I was undoing Lucy’s diaper, taking her to the sink, and hoping I’d guessed right that time.

I caught my first pee after reading a list of “Golden Potty Rules” on the EC forum online:

1. Potty when sudden fussiness strikes.

2. Always potty before leaving anywhere.

3. Always potty upon arrival anywhere.

4. Potty on waking up from sleep.

5. Potty after an accident.

6. Potty upon getting out of the bath.

7. Always act on sudden random potty thoughts.

I’d expected all this pottying to be hard. On the forum, members likened EC to paying cash, instead of credit—pay now or pay later. I figured my hard work would pay dividends when I was through with diapers at a year and a half or earlier.

What I hadn’t expected was that I’d reap dividends on the front end. I was pleasantly surprised. The hype was real. I felt connected to my baby in a way I hadn’t imagined. She’d fuss, I’d take her to the bathroom, and she’d pee, visibly relieved. When she couldn’t fall asleep, I tried a potty break : Usually it settled her. Our laundry decreased dramatically, from a load almost every day to two a week or less.

We were mavericks. We were trailblazers.

Sometimes I felt superior. At Lucy’s first visit to the pediatrician, I took her to the bathroom several times while we were waiting. The nurse kept offering to hold her. I didn’t quite know how to explain that Lucy was the one using the toilet.

When the pediatrician came in, she noticed the cloth diaper and said, offhand, that we must be doing a lot of laundry.

“Not really,” I said. “We have her pee and poop in the sink instead of in the diaper when we can.”

She blinked a couple of times, then laughed. “Well, it’s not as if she can tell you she needs to go.”

I smiled in amusement. No, Doctor, I thought. That’s exactly what she does.

But sometimes EC got us into trouble. I decided to pee Lucy in the middle of a walk, and chose a secluded-looking half-wall outside of a local apartment building. I dropped Lucy’s trou and held her close to the stucco.

The only problem was that I hadn’t noticed that the wall faced the rental office. Apparently, the manager had a really great view of my alternative parenting technique. After a minute, said manager came out, a nicely coiffed blond woman in khakis.

“What are you doing?” she asked, sitting on the half-wall.

“Letting my daughter pee,” I said. Lucy was about three months old.

“Doesn’t she have a diaper?”

I patted the prefold on the grass beside me and used my best I’m-not-crazy voice. “See, in China and India they don’t use diapers.”

She nodded, clearly now convinced I was crazy. “Do you live around here?” she asked.

I pointed over the hill, then realized she meant in her apartment complex.

Question: Would it have been better if I were a resident ? Or better that she not know where I lived?

“I can leave if we’re bothering you,” I said, bracing myself. Suddenly it occurred to me that people get arrested for public urination.

“No, no,” she said. “I was just worried. I saw you take off her diaper and didn’t know what you were doing.”

Surprisingly, she didn’t call the cops (or Child Protective Services). She just wished us a good day and left.

It still amuses me to imagine her dinner conversation that night.

*   *   *

Being a trailblazer is tiring. On good days, I was a renegade, a virtuous environmentalist who could read her daughter like a book. But on those other days, the days when Lucy didn’t pee or poop in the sink, even though I spent half the day holding her over it, I wondered where my fabled connection with her had gone. I couldn’t tell: Was it her not being able to pee on-cue? Often, food allergies—or what I thought were food allergies—seemed to play a role in “bad” days. I’d eat dairy, or wheat, and the next day, Lucy would poop a foul-smelling, dark green liquid, pee every five minutes, and squirm from painful gas. Or was it me? Had I not tuned in enough or paid enough attention? What if I’d gone five minutes earlier? Or held her just a bit longer? Was it that we used diapers (unlike the true believers)? That I’d eaten wheat/dairy/soy/wine/peanut butter? Or was it just—normal?

And then there were those Golden Potty Rules. If you do the math, following the rules I’d found on the EC forum meant I was taking my daughter to the bathroom all the time. Which is one way to catch pees but is also a way to go insane. Often I’d spend five minutes holding her over the sink when she didn’t need to go. Perhaps it would have helped if I hadn’t been reading the EC forum all the time, increasing the likelihood of those “sudden random potty thoughts.”

I wish I could say that being in an online community and talking to other ECers helped. It didn’t. I never participated in my EC forum much, though I lurked. Every few hours, I tuned in, searching for clues. I read about “potty-tunities” and “nakey-butt” time. Waterproofing solutions for bedtime, travel tips, training pants, in-laws. Food allergies, aiming tips for boys, ECing through the stomach flu. “Graduating” from diapers, EC and daycare. EC full-time. EC part-time.

The posts that always riveted me were those about “potty pauses.” In the dreaded potty pause, the child would suddenly refuse to be held over the potty. No matter if they needed to go, they wanted no part in the process. Parents who didn’t keep diapers on their babies started having carpet and upholstery serve as diapers. Parents who thought their child had graduated from diapers put them back on.

I read about potty pauses like some people read the obituaries.

Two posts in particular soured me on the forum. Both were tirades (the writer’s words, not mine) by one of the most frequent posters. “There is no such thing as a Potty Pause,” she wrote. “You are failing to adequately adapt…You need to get more creative, more aware, more with the flow, and change your mind set .”

“It’s not that EC is hard,” she wrote the next day. “It’s that…you got a kink in your think.”

Some of me knew what she meant. Really, EC isn’t supposed to be about potty training. It’s not supposed to be results-oriented. EC is about better hygiene, connection, and communication.

The problem was that I am results-oriented. I like communication and connection as much as the next parent, but I also like convenience. And hygiene is all fine and good, but did I mention convenience?

Her comment about EC not being hard just pissed me off. She said all it took was a paradigm shift. Well, I hadn’t spontaneously produced one, thus far. And I refused to feel guilty about anything else.

I changed my settings so that the forum’s e-mails didn’t come directly to me—I’d have to go online to read. Which I haven’t done since.

Not reading the forum was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Turns out being a renegade makes me paranoid. I thought community was what I needed, but instead, community (for me, anyway) just turned EC into a giant pissing contest. I did EC looking over my shoulder, hearing the voices of the “successful” ECers critiquing my technique, second-guessing me, and making me feel inadequate. Perhaps if I’d participated more in the forum, put my fears and inadequacies out there, rather than just lurking, I’d have found comfort rather than judgment. Or maybe if I’d held Lucy over the sink just a few more minutes…

*   *   *

It wasn’t me going crazy that opened my eyes to how crazy I had gone. It wasn’t even the forum. It was Lucy.

Lucy turned eight months old and decided it was time for our very first potty pause.

Day One: Take Lucy to the bathroom. She screams. Quickly take Lucy away from the bathroom, fumble with the diaper while she screams and flails. Take Lucy back to whatever she was doing.

Three minutes later, she poops in her wool hand-washable diaper cover. Since I hadn’t invested in the more expensive fitted diapers (why would I, when we were doing EC?), the poo dribbles down her leg and stains the cover and the carpet.

Day Two: Lather, rinse, repeat. Literally: I washed those diaper covers every day, then hung them to air-dry overnight, only to have her poop in them the next morning. Crazy? Yes. But I kept thinking , Surely this is the last miss.

Up until this point, I rarely missed Lucy’s poops. Pre-potty pause, I bragged about this. “I almost never change poopy diapers.”

One thing I’ve learned as a parent: It’s not a good idea to brag about how you’ve figured out your child, unless you enjoy eating your words.

After Day Three of the pause, I realized Lucy wanted to go to the potty even less than I wanted to take her. And I didn’t want to take Lucy to the potty at all. I didn’t want to see a potty. I didn’t want to think about signals, or pauses, or communication. I wanted to keep a diaper on her and forget I’d ever heard about EC.

That’s when I decided to go to a real live EC support group I’d heard about it from a local midwife and went, figuring some community might make me feel better.

We all know what happened next: I was left choking down my screams while trying to make sure Lucy didn’t choke on Mr. Potato Head.

After the playgroup, I decided not to take Lucy to the bathroom if I didn’t feel like it. Period. At the beginning, that meant I just didn’t take her. I didn’t even change diapers unless I felt like it (until she started getting her first diaper rash).

After a break, though, I started taking her after she woke up, as long as she didn’t protest. Then it was just when we were out and she fussed but wouldn’t nurse. Dyami took her on the weekends when he was home.

Throughout these lazy days, I kept telling people how badly EC was going, how I’d pretty much given up. Until one day I realized we’d gone the whole morning without wetting a diaper.

Turns out we’d started practicing again without my noticing.

Despite what the experts, the latest parenting fad, or my own perfectionism would have me believe, I can’t control my daughter. Trying to live up to an ideal just pitted me against Lucy—and made me feel like a martyr.

But once I threw out the rules, I realized EC worked fine—when I made it work for both of us.

Today at a restaurant, Lucy kept squirming in the sling. I excused myself and took her to the restroom. The faucet was a clay pitcher set into the wall; the sink a brightly painted ceramic basin. When you moved a lever, the water poured out of the pitcher’s mouth into the sink, a never-ending stream. Lucy played happily with it, relaxed, and relieved herself.

It was as easy as that.

Believe me, we’re both relieved.

Author’s Note: After avoiding the EC playgroup for a while, I decided to go back. While I chatted with the other moms, I mentioned writing this essay. Unfortunately, I realized I was afraid of what they would think only after other moms asked to see it. A few days later, I e-mailed it out and waited nervously for responses. To my surprise, they said they could relate. It goes to show: My sense of isolation was self-inflicted.

Heather Caliri is a writer based in San Diego. Her work has appeared at Skirt! Magazine, Literary Mama, and BlogHer. She crafts essays each afternoon while her two homeschooled kids watch Disney Jr. Get her free e-book about post-perfectionist Christianity on her blog, A Little Yes.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

Subscribe to Brain, Child