My Son’s Dress

My Son’s Dress

By Jocelyn Wiener

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

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

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

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


“Your special firetruck PJs?”


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

Specifically, he needs it to twirl at preschool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A wry smile stole onto his face.

“A girl.”

“Is your sister a boy or a girl?”

“A boy.”

“What am I?”

“A wolf.”

“What is Daddy?”

“A bear.”

“What is Papi?”

“A troublemaker.”

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

But not just any dress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brain, Child (& Brain, Teen) are moving

Brain, Child (& Brain, Teen) are moving

CNF+BrainChild 3

Dear Friend of Brain, Child,

I’m writing today with some exciting news. After six years of editing and publishing Brain, Child and Brain, Teen I am pleased to announce that both magazines are now under the Creative Nonfiction umbrella.

This is an exciting opportunity for the Brain, Child brands to continue to make an impact within an esteemed literary organization. I’m also pleased to announce that I’ve joined Creative Nonfiction’s Editorial Advisory Board.

The Creative Nonfiction Foundation inspires and supports writers of true stories by providing publishing venues and educational opportunities for a diverse range of creative nonfiction writing and writers–and is most notable for the long-running and always excellent quarterly magazine, Creative Nonfiction.

The CNF team has already begun the process of transferring the Brain, Child website to their server (I apologize for the recent downtime of this site), and the magazines’ archives will be available on Creative Nonfiction’s website in the near future.

More exciting news and information about what this acquisition means for writers, readers, and fans of both Brain, Child and Creative Nonfiction will be forthcoming this spring.

To stay up to date, please sign up for Creative Nonfiction’s email list.

As always, thank you for your support of Brain, Child. It’s been my honor.

Marcelle Soviero

P.S. If you have any questions, please direct them to the folks at Creative Nonfiction (

The Healing Words of My Holocaust-Surviving Grandmother

The Healing Words of My Holocaust-Surviving Grandmother

IMG_5662 copyBy Estelle Erasmus

“I luff you, because you’re sveet like a piece of chocolate,” my Grandma Genia crooned in her thick, Yiddish accent, handing me a hunk of a Hershey bar. No exotic fare like Godiva for Grandma—she eschewed exports, even though she herself was one.

Grandma had suffered bitterness in her life. When the Nazis first invaded Poland, my grandfather wanted to stay and fight. She convinced him to take their family—including baby, Miriam, my mother and flee. Escaping into the forest, they made their way to Russia. Their siblings and cousins couldn’t get out, and perished in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. After the war, they lived in Israel and emigrated to the United States when my mother was fifteen years old. She married my father, after meeting at a college dance.

Grandma was dramatic. She wore her blonde hair in a bouffant and, despite her meager income as a dressmaker, and my grandfather’s as a tailor, donned a mink stole when dining out in Brooklyn, where they landed after the war. Though they were referred to by the derogatory term “Greeners”, (new to the country)  I thought of them as “Redders”. Red for the searing anger my grandfather displayed when he refused to accept reparation (he called it “blood money”) for losing his family in the Holocaust. Red for the beautiful lace dress Grandma made, that I wore to prevent a “Kenahora” (evil eye) from jealous people. Red for their fervent Zionism.

Perhaps because she had thwarted death, Grandma treated life like an adventure. I rode horsey on her back for hours. After I threw Jell-O on the wall in the midst of a toddler tantrum, Grandma celebrated as if I were a budding Picasso. At a Bat Mitzvah, she joined me on the floor, scooping up chocolates showered from a piñata, even though the Holocaust had long since transformed her into an avowed atheist.

“Family is de only ting dat matters,” she would say.

She confiscated bags of clothes her neighbors had marked to donate to charity without shame. In her mind, my family was the charity. I remember Grandma bent over her humming sewing machine, thumb protector on, needles in mouth. Hours later, after lifting a hemline, replacing plastic buttons with jeweled ones, shortening or removing sleeves, she had created fashion alchemy, transforming discards into couture.

Though I wore her creations until my mid-twenties, when she and Grandpa moved to Florida, her words had also created something far less tangible—my romantic destiny. “You haf to marry a Jew,” she told me when I started dating, and throughout my teen years regaled me with nightmare scenarios about distant relatives (I didn’t know and had never met) who were beaten by their non-Jewish, alcohol swilling husbands. It was a fate neither of us wished me to have. In addition to my “Greener” grandparents, my father’s parents were Orthodox Jewish, and my parents were Conservative Jews, so I faced strong cultural pressure to marry someone Jewish.

I tried hard to stay within the status quo—exhausting the limited supply of able-bodied men from the local temple, and on JDate, but my romances either fizzled or ended in heartbreak.

I dared not step out of my religion. My legacy was having my future marital life forcefully imprinted on me like the not-so-temporary tattoos marking the skin of the Jews who survived the Nazi’s concentration camps.

I met Werner in my forties and he was an unholy trifecta. He wasn’t Jewish, was the son of an Evangelist former preacher, and was visiting from New Zealand on a work visa. But he captivated me with his stoic, practical nature, so different than my own dramatic personality, and the way he took care of me, by acting as my gentle alarm clock, watching that I didn’t trip on curbs, booking sumptuous dinners on date nights, and remembering that I liked chai lattes during Starbuck runs. Though I didn’t cook, he did and we fell in love over slabs of steaks, cooked to my preference, medium well, paired with a bottle of Cabernet.

Despite my parents’ fears, nine months after we met we moved in together. Over the next year, Werner demonstrated his love for me, his professional ambition, and most important— how much he embraced my Judaism by participating in my cultural rituals. I loved seeing his patrician features framed by a yarmulke at the myriad bar mitzvahs and Shabbat dinners he attended with me, and adored watching him discover and devour my mom’s Hanukkah latkes.

With a nod to tradition, a year later, he asked for my dad’s blessing—and received it—before proposing.

We married but struggled with infertility. When I finally got pregnant I was nauseous all the time and wracked with fears of miscarriage.

“Kotvenu b’sefer he-hayyim” inscribe us in the Book of Life,” I prayed in temple on Rosh Hashanah.

Since I had married a non-Jew, would my Jewish prayers be answered, or would I be punished and lose my child? What would Grandma have thought of my betrayal? Would she have said the mourner’s kaddish for me over my choices?

Then, through my tears, I saw the prayer book (Siddur) I held, had a dedication in it from my mother to the memory of my grandmother. I forgot that my mother had given that commemoration. It was a sign. I let out the breath I didn’t even remember holding, closed my eyes and imagined Grandma’s voice telling me “family is de only ting dat matters,” and knew in my heart it would be ok. Grandma Genia’s love had left a permanent hug on my soul—and that of my unborn child.

When my daughter was born, while my parents beamed from the bema, we gave her the Hebrew name, Gavira ( ‘powerful ruler’) to honor the woman who had fled a war-torn country to save her family, which ultimately gave me the freedom to choose mine.

Author’s Note: Nine years later, my strong marriage and my smart, joyful daughter—who we are raising Jewish— are a living testament to Grandma’s prescient words. 

Estelle Erasmus is a widely-published writing coach, journalist, and former magazine editor-in-chief. She is an adjunct instructor for NYU,  teaches personal essay writing and pitching for Writer’s Digest and  can be found on Twitterand Instagram. Her website offers publishing advice and editor interviews.
Photo courtesy of Estelle Erasmus
Mirrors on Fire

Mirrors on Fire

33196275_10155609691792291_6728084935111868416_nBy Guita Sazan

It is not winter. Yet, the cruel icy winds are blowing in the burn unit of the army (artesh) hospital where I volunteer as a nurse’s aide. Mr. Azaree was not in his room when I arrived in the morning. The odors of his infected, scorched body, hydrogen peroxide, and antiseptics still saturated the room. Azaree, a sweet and whimsical 21-year old soldier was the victim of mustard gas. He had sustained third degree burns over 70% of his body. Blisters covered his inner lungs too. The scabs on his legs had to be shaved, scrubbed, and washed everyday. He cried, screeched, and begged to be left alone. The cleaning kept the deadly infections at bay. But his condition had deteriorated over the past few days. I run to the head nurse, “Was Azaree moved to the Intensive Care Unit?” The red pen continued gliding on her clipboard. She didn’t look up. “He died last night and joined the Army of Martyrs.”

I am nineteen. I assist in cleaning and dressing the wounds of young boys who have sustained horrific burns. Burns caused by chemical warfare that the Iraqi army used in its war with Iran. Initiated by Iraq in 1980 and lasting until 1988, the war left an estimated half a million dead and hundreds of thousands wounded and homeless.

Azaree with his mischievous brown eyes was a favorite of mine. I had to leave my shift early today. I wanted to be alone with my wounded soul. Stepping out of the hospital, I put the black chador over my head that was already covered with a big white scarf. The five kilometers walk home under the chador let my tears run in a private space.

The cloaking of the entire female body for modesty, hejab (covering), became mandatory for women of every faith in the Islamic Republic of Iran within one year after the revolution of 1979. Minority Jewish, Christian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and secular Muslim women reluctantly covered their heads loosely with colorful, thin scarfs. Often they were harassed by the “Ethical Sisters,” a band of radical Muslim women wearing thick, black chadors who policed neighborhoods in their white vans. Typically, the Ethical Sisters launched demeaning verbal attacks at women who revealed a lock of hair, wore bright colored scarves, red lipstick, or tight-fitting attire. They declared, “This country is no longer tolerating whores like you, shamelessly seducing our pious brothers who give up their lives for Islam.”

To the radical believers of Islam and those faithful to the revolution, the proper covering of the female body from head to toe with a long dress and a headscarf was a basic step in declaring the modesty and sanctity of women. Putting a black chador over an already covered body perfected the hejab.

I felt at home under the black chador. There my body found her solace and safety. Sheltered from the dirty, ravenous gazes of swaggering adolescent boys and vicious older men. The depth of black shamed them all. No color has a power or presence above and beyond black.

I held the conviction that my body and all its earthly desires were nothing but a shroud to my soul. Its delicate skin, voluptuous flesh, and citrus tang trap my celestial being. Faith is the ultimate color to wrap my existence.

Ten steps to the front gate, my feet palpitations pound the downhill street.  As I arrive at our house, my eyes habitually scan the street, hoping no one is watching me. The swift sound of pulling the chador off my head shreds the stillness of the afternoon.

Wrapping the chador around my right arm, in a flash I stuff it in my ragged book bag. I feared my parents, siblings, or the Jewish neighbors might catch a glimpse of my black chador.

Turning the cold iron key twice, the gate clicks open. The courtyard is layered with fallen leaves. All resting in their majestic death. It is not winter yet, but its scent has brushed over the leaves of autumn. As I walk into the courtyard, the crisp air and whiffs of kerosene fill my nostrils.

I walk through the courtyard towards the flight of stairs that takes me to the first floor flat where we live. Again, the smell of Kerosene! Its smell always made me feel nauseated. Though we had central heating in our new home, my mom brought out the kerosene heater in the fall to warm up the living room. It is not winter yet. It is too early to take out that heater.


As I walk up the stairs the stink becomes stronger. Up several more steps, its pungency is now getting into my eyes. The air reeks with a heavy odor. I struggle to breathe. An accidental spill? I wonder as I rush up the half dark staircase.

When I get closer to the entrance of our flat, long sighs and soft weeps mix with the stench of the kerosene-saturated air. Feeling dizzy and nauseous, my blurry eyes freeze.

Mahman (Mom) is sitting on her knees by the flat’s door next to a red kerosene container.  Her disheveled hair and blue housedress are soaked in the oily substance. She is squeezing a box of matches in her palm.

Her body is rocking back and forth. Her cheeks are covered with tears that have made tiny roads on her Kerosene covered face. “Khoda (God) take me, burn away this shame, Khoda let me die.”

She slaps her thighs over and over with an open hand. The flesh on her thigh is redder than her bloodshot eyes. “Let the (atash) fire bring peace to me.”

I kneel next to her, stuttering.“Mahman (Mom) what are you doing?!” I pull the matches out of her tight grip. Her shaking hand reaches to grab the matches out of my fist. I hold tighter.  I know far too well how in an instance her kerosene soaked body can incinerate. The images of the Army hospital flood my mind .

“Mahman jaan (dear Mom)  don’t (nakon), please nakon.” My jaw is now frozen.

“How can I witness my Jewish daughter praying like Muslims? Wearing a black chador? Making pilgrimage to Qom with radical Muslims? What is next? Marriage to an Ayatollah? I want to burn to death!”

I embrace her, kiss her head. The smelly oil soaks my lips and sticks on my tongue. But the unbearable disgust is the roaring guilt in my head.

“Mahman BeBakhsh, forgive me. I am Jewish, at heart, forever.”

“Then take this goh (shit) chador off your head! All our Jewish neighbors ask me – who is this Muslim woman in the black chador who comes to the house everyday?!”

Her fist lands on her head, hard . “What do I tell them? My child is a Muslim fundamentalist?!”

“Tell them I have chosen a meaningful life of service to humanity.”

“Stop with the empty slogans!” She is wailing, “You are setting this family on fire!”

“I wear the chador because I want to be allowed to teach in school, work in the orphanage, and tend to wounded soldiers. Only the people who follow the rules of the new Islamic Iran can do these things.”

“Your Baba (dad) barley survived a heart attack when you disappeared for three days. These Muslims will eventually force you to marry a Muslim boy. Then we will lose you forever!”

“I will never get married to a Muslim ever. I promise you with all my soul.”

Flames have now engulfed my soul. Who will burn and get buried?  My Baba’s heart, my Mahman’s flesh, or my “Divine calling” to save destitute beings?

Mahman has calmed down and I bring her to the shower. The heat and intensity of shower stream  compete with the tears we both shed and the pain that has seared us.

Author’s note: Mahman’s unwavering love and tenacious efforts to save me from radical Islam never ceased. She studied behavioral psychology and hypnosis, she turned to Zen and Hindu practices to change and cleanse my “distorted beliefs.” In her way she managed to burn her influence deep into my existence and all that my unconscious mind revealed to me decades later.

image1Guita Sazan is a Clinical psychologist,  22 years in private practice. She lives in Stamford, Connecticut with her husband and three children. She has written and given talks about Iranian Jewish Immigrant woman living in the United States.

Driftwoods Have Eyes

Driftwoods Have Eyes

Art Driftwood Have EyesBy Anne Ney

The Gullah say driftwoods have eyes.

I hear this on the TV from the kitchen sink where I am rinsing vomit from the emesis basin. David hears it from the couch where he shivers, nauseous and pale beneath an afghan, recovering from his latest round of chemo. We are alone, as we often are, mother and child in this island of a house at the end of the dirt road.

The television offers us another view of the world; today, Gullah-Gullah Island tells us driftwoods have eyes.

The show’s co-hosts, Ron and Natalie, banter in a Low Country cadence characteristic of their African-American community, rooted on the islands between Savannah and Charleston. These sea islands, like those where the Gullah originate, were settled by Ron and Natalie’s ancestors, enslaved West Africans brought to the Carolinas to coax indigo, cotton, and rice from the sea island marsh.

As they chat I try to imagine the anguish those Africans felt: proud freemen who were abducted, beaten, and chained into ships for the long middle passage. In the Americas they were often torn from those whom they loved.

But the Gullah had a saving grace. The Gullah, knowledgeable in sea marsh ecology, could make the island soil sing. And so their culture remained intact: isolated by waters, woven in a common tongue, and told in stories carried from the other side of the sea. Stories that were passed down like faith: one says driftwoods have eyes.

I dry the basin and my hands. My gaze drifts out the sink window onto the overgrown, February-sodden land. Our front yard, such as it is, ends at the wire fence this side of red-dirt road. Across the road, the swamp grows thick with scrub-oak and cypress. Loblolly and longleaf pines tower around the house.

Inside the wire fence is a Southern bayberry I pruned into a tree for David to climb, before his balance deteriorated and the brain tumor was discovered. I turn from the wintry gloom, round the kitchen corner, and study David listening to the Gullah story. Every day I worry that he will die. Every day I assure him that he is fine.

He is absorbed. His mouth purses in that serious way he has. His hands twitch as Ron turns the driftwood over for inspection. I think of all the times David and I have beach-combed, utterly ignorant of driftwood eyes. I wonder what those eyes see. What they have seen.

On the screen, Natalie’s box-braided hair peeks from her bright headscarf. Her brown eyes and skin glow against the canary-yellow cloth. Ron’s smile is as wide as the sea.

The driftwood’s bark has long since abandoned the heartwood, soaked clean by river and tide to expose its essence. Ron brushes powdery sand from the branch, bleached naked by sun and salt. He considers the driftwood’s beginnings. Maybe it came from Saint Helena, fallen from a live oak hammock where the long branches stretch toward the horizon.

Maybe it was wrested from a Low Country riverbank overhung with sweetgum, palmetto, pawpaw, and bay. It might have been lighting-struck or twisted off in a summer hurricane sweeping up the coast. Maybe it drifted from Africa.

Wherever it came from, it is a testament to its history. Its shape suggests its species, habit, and the conditions of its growth. Its scars and ragged ends hint at its demise. I think of Kahlil Gibran’s words, “For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”

Ron challenges Natalie to find the driftwood’s eyes. She exaggerates a frown and says she cannot see an eye in this wood he has plucked from Gullah-Gullah Beach. He chuckles warmly and enjoins her to look for the eye!

David tilts his head and scrunches his brow. His blue eyes bore into the screen.

In a moment Natalie exclaims, “I see it here! I see de eye!”

She points to a depression in the wood. David grins like a jack-o-lantern; his adult incisors erupt unevenly through his gums. His head is symmetrical and smooth. He sits up and says, “Mom! That driftwood has an eye!” The afghan slips to the floor as he leans and points. “See?”

A shiver runs down my back; the sun-bleached wood looks too much like a bone. I think about dead pirates buried along this coast where Blackbeard roamed. Do the dead also have eyes?

I cross the room and sit next to David on the sagging blue couch. I enfold his thin body in my arms and tuck his warm, bald, head under my chin. Natalie produces another piece of driftwood and hands it to Ron. He turns it this way and that; scrutinizes it from all angles. He says the eyes can be difficult to see. They may hide in plain sight but they are there: on bleached oaken arms, skinned cypress knees, amputated mangrove toeholds.

David fingers his cheek and studies the staticky picture. Natalie demonstrates the strategy of looking askance to find the eyes. Ron says she should look from a different angle, or soften her gaze to make them appear. But never give up. All driftwoods have eyes. David shouts, “I see it! I see the eye!”

Natalie finds it, too. Then Afro-pop music begins and Binyah-Binyah Polliwog, the Island’s human-sized peeper-frog, Ron, and Natalie dance and sing the closing song. I grab the remote and turn down the volume. David gives me an earnest, eager look. “Mom. Driftwoods have eyes,” he says. I kiss his bald head, run my fingers lightly down his cheek, and listen as he retells the story.

I wonder if the eyes exist in living trees: within the bayberry, swamp oaks, and pines that both isolate and contain us. Are they watching us now? Have they seen us splashing in the river as they slide quietly by on their way to the coast? Or do they only mind us after coming to rest long after riding the longshore currents that nudge the sea islands north, grain by sandy grain.

David finishes his story then says gravely, “Mom, we have to go to the beach.”

But it is February. The morning rain has given way to winter’s orange-tinted evening sky. In any case his blood counts are too low for us to venture into the world of germs. I say we’ll put it on The List in my cheerful matter-of-fact voice. “That way we’ll definitely know we’re going to go. But it’s dark now and Dad’s on his way home and what will he eat for dinner if we’re at the beach?”

David agrees to put it on the list then returns to the Gullah-Gullah sign-off. He never questions how or where I track these things to be accomplished. In fact, The List exists only in my heart as a running tally of possibilities. It is a hedge against forgetting, should he die, the shape that his hopes and dream once assumed.

Gullah-Gullah dissolves into the Nick Jr. afternoon lineup. I return to the kitchen to start dinner. Beyond the window, sunset rays pierce the scrub-oak branches across the road and silhouette David’s deserted bayberry tree. I think of Robert Frost’s Swinger of Birches with its boy who is

too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.


I try to picture David climbing farther up his modest tree than he has ever gone, up to where the branches are thin and flexible, up to where his tree can bear no more weight. Would the tree set him down again?

Or would his weight break the branch, send him tumbling into the earth, and cast the severed wooden limb into the swamp to be carried to the Ash Branch, into the Ogeechee, and out to sea. I calculate the river’s slow winding across the coastal plain, and the speed of the ocean current that flows around the sea islands before rejoining the Gulf Stream to circle the globe.

The limb would lose its leaves first. Smaller twigs would catch on river snags and snap from the main branch. The bark, now an extraneous skin, would slacken before floating away. Once the branch reached the ocean it would age into a whitened bone. It might drift for months, even years, before coming home to Savannah. It would surely have eyes by then.

The surf would entrain it and carry it toward the land, up the beach face, and into the wrack line where a boy might find it as he searches for a castle parapet, or a pirate sword, or an anchor to hold his kite string while he jumps waves. I imagine the driftwood’s expectant eyes, twinkling as the boy approaches its weathered knob of a body.

Would time and tide have erased the memory of its difficult middle passage, between the time it lived and the time it came to rest on that sea island beach? Would it remember how the boy had swung out too far and snapped it from a tree beside a wire fence across the road from a swamp?


At bedtime David wants a story. I choose Caveman Dave, a gift from my mother who likes the book because the protagonist has her grandson’s name, blue eyes, and blonde hair that I promise will grow back when the chemo’s done. I read to him in my growly cave-mom voice. “Caveman Dave lives in a cave. He’s not afraid. He’s very brave!”

David scowls and declares that he is not brave. Maybe he believes that cancer follows bravery instead of the other way around. That if he denies the first, the other will disappear on its own. Blue Bunny nestles under his arm. The lump beneath his Ninja Turtle jammie top betrays the permanent IV line, neatly coiled, bandaged and double-taped to his skin just above his heart.

“You have courage.” I remind him that courage means you face something even if — especially if — you know how badly it’s going to hurt.

Satisfied with this explanation, he leans back on his pillow and laces his fingers behind his head, a characteristic pose that belies his tender age. I think of the long scar, from the crown of his skull to his neck, raggedly crosshatched where sutures held the incision together until it healed. He gazes at the ceiling while Caveman Dave tussles with dinosaurs.

When the story is finished, David asks for his Guatemalan worry people, another gift from his grandmother. I find their house, a pill-bottle-size basket, and shake them into his small hands. Each one is no taller than my thumbnail. One by one he brings them to his lips and whispers his worries into their minuscule ears. We tuck them under his pillow where they will carry out their midnight task of whisking his cares away.

Night after night the worry people perform their magic. This, I think, is the power of story.

We snuggle until he is warm and drowsy. I kiss him goodnight and say that as soon as his counts are up we’ll go to the beach.


The drive to Tybee Island is a long hour through black-stalked cotton fields, acres of greening soy, and Savannah’s historic squares. From there we parallel the river for miles, crossing sinuous back channels and wide salt marshes that glint in the vernal sun. Water in these parts is restless. It empties the land, recycles the tides, and slowly transforms islands.

The beach is windy and cold. Surf jostles the shore where only ten months ago David played Tonka trucks, lazed in wide, warm tide pools, and built Batman sand castles. Today, white sea foam tumbles up the beach. I tell David it looks like snow, an item on The List. We stomp a few fluffy balls as they rush toward the dunes. He quickly loses energy.

But he has a mission and will not leave empty-handed. He picks up then discards unnecessary things: sea glass, broken shells, sun-bleached sand dollars, and ghost crab molts. When he finds what he is looking for he grins, turns, and catches my eye.


I will still have it twenty-five years later although the day David collects the driftwood I cannot know that. I cannot know that he will, in fact, die. I cannot know that one day the driftwood will sit in my office with other ghosts that my swinger of birches will leave behind. I cannot know that eyes will silently watch from the battered wood he now holds in his hands.


I had turned my attention away and was studying the horizon: for coming weather, or a sign that he was going to be okay, or affirmation that what is true — tumors, chemo, the way death hovers all around — is less important than how we frame our circumstances.

David brought me the driftwood and said I should turn it around, look at it sideways, soften my gaze, and let the eyes appear. At first I could not see them. He did immediately, of course, as though to emphasize they belonged to him. I remember how pleased he was in that moment of recognizance.

He exclaimed with great imperative, “Look Mom! Look at the eyes!”


I miss him still.

I miss telling him stories: that courage outshines bravado. That love transcends impossible odds. Stories to manage frightening days and worry people to banish those same fears at night. But his driftwood remains.

In life it became bent as though weighted at the thin, leafy end. It is cracked and pocked and freckled with bone-white barnacles. Its eyes sit higher than either its snout or long tail, which support the head from both ends. The snout is scarred where twigs were torn away. The tail was broken clean from the tree it once graced. Before he died, David pirate-patched one of its eyes with a purple plastic ring-pop scavenged from the wrack. Later, I tucked blue jay feathers behind its eyes, to give it ears. It has a roguish, carefree look.

The driftwood hovers on the shelf, just over my shoulder, in company with the stories that belong to us all. Stories to bear hearts over rivers and sounds. Stories to cross the most daunting of seas. Stories like faith; one is that driftwoods have eyes.

Anne Visser Ney is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and writer whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Ruminate, and The Crab Orchard Review. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Whiting Award. She has taught high and college science and currently teaches writing through Milspeak Foundation and Keep Saint Pete Lit. She holds an MS and BS in Biology from Georgia Southern University and an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

By Jenna Hatfield


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


Just over two years ago, I quit adoption.

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

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

And I’m better for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few months later, I quit everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Scott Boruchov




A Mother’s Garden

A Mother’s Garden

Art My Mother's Garden

By Sarah Bousquet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Opinion: Our Right to Buy Cookies

Opinion: Our Right to Buy Cookies

chocolate chip cookies in a cup on wooden table

By Jeanine DeHoney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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











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.


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.


“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)

Our Birthday Blog Series

200296650-001Happy Birthday Baby

By Candy Schulman

This year felt empty, her absence just another reminder that she was no longer our baby, hadn’t been for a long time.




theirbirthdayCelebrating Their Birthday

By Kelly Burch

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. 





The Cakes That Bind Us Im1The Cakes That Bind Us

By Susan Currie

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.




fewcupcakesDo You Invite The Whole Class To Your Kids’ Birthday Parties?

By Rudri Patel and Stacey Gill

Since the age of four, I’ve invited all of her classmates to her birthday parties, instead of handpicking just a few, because I am sensitive to the need for young girls and boys to feel included. 

Your party, your terms. No one has the right to dictate whom you can or can’t invite to your own kid’s birthday party.


izztbdaylistThe First Disappointment

By Stephanie Sprenger

I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.

Join the Great Debate

Join the Great Debate

silhouette 1B w wordsChildren’s birthday parties aren’t always easy to plan, especially the guest list. Do you invite the whole class or not? 

Please join us on Thursday, February 24, 2016 at 1:00 EST on Twitter to discuss the issue. Please remember to use the hashtag #braindebate. We look forward to hearing your views.



One attendee with win our Great Debate Bundle – Five print issues of Brain, Child with 5 debates.


Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

By Aileen Jones-Monahan


I wondered if part of my fear of the “tough guy” son came from a fear of this very disapproval—that a “tough guy” son, when he got old enough to really think it over, would be mad about having two moms.


The first time my son put on a tutu, he was almost four. We stopped in at a coffee shop, and while I lingered at the counter to rifle through the sugar packets, Matthew wandered over to check out the bin of gnawed-up kid’s books. The tutu was in a heap next to two sparkly pink shoes, as if shucked in a hurry. Matthew’s eyes lit up. He’d seen little girls in tutus zipping around the playground, but hadn’t mustered the nerve to ask for a turn. Now he hastened to pull the tutu up over his jeans, looking down at himself in delight.       

A part of me instantly relaxed. And I realize it was because I don’t find a child in a tutu the tiniest bit alarming. What I find alarming, is a child jabbing a plastic sword into another kid’s fleshy belly, shouting “Die! Die! Die!” Or a teenager lost in the folds of a dingy sweatshirt, only the tip of his oily nose visible when he slumps past you on his way to his den in the basement. Maybe tough guys in general.    

But when my partner and I were trying to get pregnant, I didn’t think about a full grown man—a potential “tough guy”—living in my house. I thought about, I don’t know, pajama bottoms with little ducks on them.  

But now the kid is real. If he draws a picture of half a bloody antelope—because the other part has already been eaten—we hang it up. If he grows up to play that game at the kitchen table where you jab a switchblade between your fingers super-fast, then I’ll have marks in my table. And maybe part of a finger. The point is, we’re stuck with him. And I hope he turns out to be gentle.

Sometimes I wonder—quietly, to myself—if not having a father in the house is the magic needed to avoid “the tough guy.” Maybe, because we spend so much time building fairy houses in the woods behind our house, it will never occur to my child to stomp up the stairs, yell at me to mind my own business, and kick his little brother. It’s not going to be from me that he gets the idea to plot the purchase of a motorcycle.

But then I think of my brother, and the hole he punched through his bedroom wall, and how he certainly didn’t “get” this from my father, who wasn’t even there, and I realize I’m not on the right track.

I sit down by the bookshelf, take a sip of my coffee, and settle my foot on my knee. “Does the tutu make you magic?” I ask, leaning forward, my face alight with wonder.

“Nope,” Matthew says. “It just makes me fancy.” He flounces up the sides and grins.

I allow myself, for a moment, to fantasize that he will always be this way. A little boy sitting on the carpet brushing the mane of his plastic horse, humming to himself, sounded nice. If no one ever told him ponies were supposed to be dinosaur meat, maybe he’d never figure it out.

But what was I trying to do here? Raise a wimp? At a birthday party earlier in the summer, Matthew had been quietly swinging on a tire swing when three boys his age came up and started spinning him. It didn’t seem mean-spirited, exactly, but when he started calling “Mommy! Mommy! Help me!” like a child being lifted off from the ground in the talons of a dragon, the boys tightened their circle—a little hungrily, I thought—and it occurred to me that maybe this was why parents tried to toughen their kids up. What would have happened next if I hadn’t been there to pull him off?

In my cousin’s family, she is the one who meets her son’s eyes in the rearview mirror and snaps “Stop crying,” and it is her husband who catches her sleeve and says, “Can you be more gentle?” It is good for me to remember the two of them. Because I think it is this very gender-expectation switcheroo that gives me the answer I’m looking for. Or, makes me understand that I’ve been asking the wrong question. I want to be thoughtful about how much aggressive behavior I expose my son to, not how much maleness.

Because of course there is my friend Debbie, who is married to a woman and cheers her son on when he torments snakes in the yard. We don’t play at their house anymore.

I set my empty coffee cup on the floor by my chair and watch Matthew plop down on a bean bag chair, the tutu bunched up around his tiny waist. “Do you want to make those felt finger puppets when we get home?” I ask. He sits up to grab one of the sparkly shoes and struggles to fit his foot under the strap. “Yeah.”

We recently found a book in the library with color illustrations of outfits worn by Victorian women, and we’d agreed it would be cool to glue together little puppets, so we could make them do things.

When we got home, Matthew ran upstairs to get the library book, and I pulled the art bin down onto the rug so we could get to work.

“This lady is going to sit and write some poetry later,” Matthew explained, rubbing his glue stick along the hem of the skirt he’d made, so he could press on a little strip of lace.

“Neat!” I exclaimed, feeling somewhat smug. If snake torture was in our future, it wasn’t here yet.

But as I watched him carefully trim the yarn glued to the puppet’s head, holding her at arm’s length to see that her hair was even on both sides, I caught my breath—because I suddenly realized I was enjoying this for an altogether different reason, and I instantly felt ashamed of myself. If Matthew kept this up: kept wearing tutus and making his dolls exclaim “These flowers smell wonderful!” then he would be…a bit of a gender variant. Just like dear old Mommy, who never giggled coyly when the boys talked about bikinis or minded holding frogs. We’d be up to the same tricks, and he could never turn to me as a teenager and say, “You’re not normal.” He couldn’t decide it was selfish of me to marry a woman, or wish I’d been straight, so he could have had both a mom and a dad.

I wondered then if part of my fear of the “tough guy” son came from a fear of this very disapproval—maybe it seemed more likely to me that a “tough guy” son, when he got old enough to really think it over, would be mad about having two moms.  

It’s not that I’m worried he’ll conclude not having a Dad failed to teach him something—shaving? Modulating a deep voice? No, what I worry is that he’ll get it all wrong and decide that I kept an entire person from him—a person who would have loved him, and knelt down to look in his eye, and explained things to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. Growing up thinking your mom knowingly kept such an important person out of your life—a person that kids all around you are running to catch up with—is awful to consider. Because of course that’s not what happened—he got that whole person, his other mom has been there every day of his life, kneeling down and looking him in the eye. He got his two parents, and I consider that lucky. I hope he will too. And I hope that when he’s a man, he’s not too much of a tough guy to hang out with his mother.

Aileen Jones-Monahan lives with her family in Western Massachusetts. For weeks now she’s been allowing her children to do things she herself was never permitted to do: take bed pillows into the backyard, plug-in extension cords, and draw on each other’s arms with “body markers” before school. Everybody seems fine.


Author Q & A: Joshua Gamson

We asked our Facebook fans to present questions we could ask Joshua Gamson, author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship. Here are his wonderful responses.


1. Since you write about your daughters have you decided at what age you will allow them to read your book?

We’ve talked about that some, since our older daughter (currently 10) wanted to read it right away. The content is adult enough that I think we’ll probably hold off until the kids are teenagers, and even then I suspect I’ll want to read it along with them, so we can discuss and answer any questions along that might come up along the way. That said, they know many of the basic facts of their own creation stories, and other details we will fill in for them in age-appropriate ways when they ask.


2. In Modern Families you describe different ways that families procreate (adoption, IVF, surrogacy, etc.). Do you find a lot of judgment in this world (for instance, between the groups or even domestic vs. international adoption)?

I have not observed a whole lot of judgment within the assisted reproduction scene. It sometimes takes a while for straight couples pursuing fertility assistance, and staff of fertility institutes and the like, to make sense of non-heterosexual people in their midst—the latter are confronting the logistical task of coordinating the various bodies but not the disappointment and sometimes even desperation that many straight people face when they are having trouble conceiving, and those are very different experiences. We’re all on the same roller coaster of trying to conceive a child, though, and that’s a big thing to have in common.

This is not to say that these alternative family-making worlds are devoid of judgments and social ranking. For instance, as I write about in the book, there’s a lot of class-inflected judgment of both egg donors and gestational surrogates by many agencies and also some intended parents: donors with higher education and certain physical characteristics more valued than others, and gestational surrogates stereotyped, as one fertility doctor put it to journalist Liza Mundy, as “not typical donor caliber as far as looks, physical features, or education.”

There’s another not uncommon tension within the adoption world, which I touch upon in another chapter, between people using or advocating open adoption (more common now in domestic adoption) of those using closed adoption (still common in international adoption); that can also involve judgment of others. Still, in the adoption world it appears much more common to find people supporting one another than criticizing each other’s family-making process. Most of the critical judgment, I think, comes from outside of these scenes rather than within them.


3. What do you see as the next frontier in reproductive technology?

The technological side isn’t really my field of expertise (though you can peruse research and news at places like the American Society for Reproductive Medicine), but it seems likely that the next big step is in uterus transplants. If this becomes technologically possible (the first live birth after uterus transplantation was in Sweden in 2014, and doctors are working on that in the U.S. now), that would mean that a woman without a functioning uterus might be able to carry and give birth to a baby. This also means that it is not entirely impossible to imagine that a male-bodied person could become pregnant—still very remote, and medically very complex and elaborate, involving pelvic reconstruction and the creation of a vagina, but at least imaginable. And for transgender women, born with male anatomy and seeking to change that to match their female gender identity, pregnancy would become at least theoretically possible. (Male pregnancy already sometimes happens, when transgender men become pregnant after transitioning to male from the female gender assigned to them at birth.) It sounds very sci-fi, but then so did “test tube babies,” gestational surrogacy, and embryo freezing when they first became technologically possible—and the same sorts of big ethical questions that emerged with each earlier advance in reproductive technology will have to be confronted with new ones.

Top 10 Books for Parent-Child Book Clubs with Tweens and Teens

Top 10 Books for Parent-Child Book Clubs with Tweens and Teens

Silhoutte of a Sparrow coverBy Lori Day

As the author of a book about mother-daughter book clubs, and as a parent who often read books with my daughter at home, I cannot speak highly enough about the transformative power of literature. My favorite part of sharing books with my daughter is having a discussion that begins with some aspect of the plot or the characters, and then watching it shift seamlessly to a discussion about something similar that is going on in her own life. Whether during our book club meetings or in private historically these were conversations that might otherwise have never arisen. In those magical moments, the awkwardness and resistance that often prevent kids from talking directly to their parents about things that really matter just melted away thanks to the distance a “fictional” story presented.

Sharing books with my child helped me understand her world and opened up crucial lines of communication when she was in elementary school—lines that remained open throughout her tween and teen years, and to this very day. The benefits of connection and exploration of identity accrue to parents and children of all genders and gender identities, whether they are in a book club with other parents and children or whether they simply read books along with their kids at home.

The books I chose for this list touch upon some of the universal experiences of coming of age, and provide plentiful conversation starters for parents on the difficult issues kids are navigating in today’s society.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (ages 8+)Talking points: Disability and empathy

Auggie Pullman, Wonder‘s protagonist, was born with a facial deformity that has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. But come 5th grade, he no longer wants to be homeschooled and desperately wishes to be treated like an ordinary kid, so he enters his local public school. The book begins from Auggie’s perspective, but soon pivots to include the points of view of other important people in his life.

This book is about bullying, but it is also about much more. It is about kindness and hope and the trials and tribulations of friendship under extraordinary circumstances. As Auggie’s family and friends wrestle with how to deal with his difference in an empathetic and accepting way, Auggie himself rises above his disability through a series of big and small moments so authentic to the journey of any child who must suffer inevitable wounds and derive strength from their remaining scars.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (ages 8+) Talking points: Female leadership and egalitarian gender roles

In the scorching summer of 1899, in a small Texas town outside of Austin, eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate is growing up in a well-to-do family as the only daughter sandwiched between three older brothers and three younger ones. As the Tate family rings in the new century, Calpurnia wrestles with what it means to be a girl in this era, and how to reconcile her mother’s aspirations for her to be a housewife with her own aspirations to be a scientist. Her close relationship with her grandfather is central to the book.

Set against a backdrop of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the story focuses on Calpurnia’s “evolution” into a budding young female naturalist who resents the gendered demands placed upon her to sew and cook and prepare for a domestic life she views as boring and monotonous compared to the excitement of studying nature and biology.

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis (ages 10+) Talking points: War and religious extremism

Eleven-year-old Parvana, like other girls and women in Kabul, is not allowed to go to school, go shopping, or even play outside since the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan. She spends most of her time indoors, stuck in her family’s one-room home. When Taliban militants take her father away, Parvana must cut off her hair and pose as a boy in order to support her family.

Like many girls and women oppressed by the Taliban’s regime, Parvana actually comes from an educated family. The changes instituted under Sharia Law dismantle the rights and quality of life females experienced before the Taliban gained control. Although now dressing in a chador (veil), Parvana’s feelings about the repressive Muslim regime she now struggles against are always clear.

This is must-read literature for American children who have grown up during the war in Afghanistan and are curious about the lives of the people there, especially the plight of females.

Seedfolksby Paul Fleischman (ages 10+) Talking points: Poverty, social struggle, and the need for human connection

In this short, spare, beautifully written series of vignettes, a blighted vacant lot is transformed into a community garden and brings together the surrounding group of neighbors who are strangers to one another. The neglected patch of ground begins to come to life under the care of one young girl and then becomes a magnet for a dozen others who live nearby, each contributing a different planting. Each vignette is told by a different voice—young, old, male, female, Korean, Haitian, Hispanic—all living tough lives in need of something that speaks to their hearts and gives them hope.

This is a very moving book that describes multicultural, hardscrabble urban life in a socioeconomically disadvantaged environment. It will help you talk to your children about what it is to struggle with the basics of surviving when you have limited resources, and the resilience that can arise in those circumstances when people come together around a common cause.

The Giver by Lois Lowry (ages 12+) Talking points: Individuality, adversity and resilience

This is a haunting story about a futuristic society where life is rigidly structured and contentment comes at the cost of conformity. Parents all have exactly two children—one son and one daughter. Children are medicated so as not to develop romantic interests and at twelve they are assigned a career that has been chosen for them by the Elders. Anyone who is disabled or old is “released” for the benefit of all.

The story centers on twelve-year-old Jonas, a model child whose life assignment is to become the Receiver of Memory. He is both burdened and enriched by the memories that are passed down to him during his training and he comes to see the hypocrisy of his community that has sacrificed creativity and individuality for order and predictability.

Parents who read The Giver with their kids will be able to discuss what it would be like to live without disease or pain or crime or wars, and whether such a utopia is actually in some ways dystopian, because without challenges and adversity and failures, we are not fully human.

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (ages 12+) Talking points: Social media and platonic boy/girl friendships

Who remembers those CD-ROMs you’d get in the mail from AOL in the mid-’90s, giving you 100 free hours of this new thing called the Internet? This is the setting for The Future of Us, featuring two best-friend protagonists, Emma and Josh.

When Emma logs on to AOL for the first time, she somehow stumbles through a
wormhole to the future, where she discovers something called Facebook and has no idea what status update, poke, or friend request mean.

She soon realizes she can glimpse her own future as a thirty-one-year-old woman, as well as the futures of her high school friends. Soon, the teenagers start to understand “ripples”—the things they say and do in daily life that have observable effects on what they see in their future lives on Facebook. Josh sees a happily married adult version of himself, while Emma sees an adulthood she is desperate to change. Along the way, Josh and Emma realize that it is better to live in the present, especially because the future they decide they want is with each other.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (ages 12+) Talking points: Bullying, individuality, and fitting in socially

Stargirl is one of my favorite books for tweens and young teens. It is as eccentric and enchanting as its protagonist, Susan “Stargirl” Caraway, whose unconventional life and worldview are at first mesmerizing to her classmates, but eventually backfire on her after she tries to conform, betraying her true self. There seems to be an element of magical realism in this book, although I’ve never heard or read anyone else express this same observation. The character of Stargirl is perhaps a metaphor for the inner tension all adolescents feel to some extent between going along with the crowd and daring to be unique.

This book addresses many important issues like individuality, bullying, bravery, diversity and acceptance. I’ve never read a book with a stronger message of nonconformity and staying true to who you are than Stargirl.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (ages 12+) Talking points: Bullying, the beauty ideal and self-actualization

Part Lord of the Flies, part America’s Next Top Model, and part Gilligan’s Island, Libba Bray’s fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek send-up of American girl culture, reality TV, and a beauty industry run amok is some of the smartest social commentary I’ve ever read in the YA Lit genre. Fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant are in a plane crash and find themselves surviving, Lost-style, on a desert island without make-up or cameras, and also without food, water, or shelter.

Their surreal adventures as they cope with their own human foibles without hairspray or the Internet are actually an interesting counterpoint to the descent into savagery seen among the boys in Lord of the Flies. For these beauty-obsessed “mean girls,” being cut off from civilization gives them the freedom from societal pressures to actually find themselves, and to come of age in a remote location where their appearance can no longer be the core of who they are.

Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (ages 12+) Talking points: Pressure on boys to prove bravery, and what it means to be a man

Written in 1941 and set in Polynesia, Call It Courage remains popular to this day. Fifteen-year-old Mafatu has had a crippling fear of the ocean ever since his mother drowned when he was a young child. His father is the chief of an island of seafaring people where courage is measured by a man’s ability to conquer the sea. Mafatu has had to endure teasing and ridicule his entire life. At 15, he can take it no longer, and sets out on a solitary journey by canoe in order to win the respect of his community. More important than that, he goes off on a quest to find courage within himself.

As coming-of-age stories go, this one is classic, especially for boys. Girl-oriented books like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie of the Wolves are classic survival stories starring brave girls who triumph in harsh circumstances. Parents who read Call It Courage with their kids can talk about what society expects of boys and girls as they “come of age,” how those things are similar or different, and how things are evolving.

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin (ages 12+) Talking points: LGBT relationships; issues of racial, gender, and socioeconomic justice

In this beautifully written historical novel set in Prohibition-era Minnesota, sixteen-year-old Garnet must go live with snobby relatives at a lakeside resort for the summer to escape a polio epidemic in her hometown. It is to be her last hurrah—a summer of fun before her final year of high school, after which she is to get married and settle into being a housewife. Garnet has a passion for bird watching and dreams of one day going to college and becoming an ornithologist, despite her mother’s more traditional plans for her. When Garnet gets a summer job in a hat shop, she meets the beautiful flapper Isabella, and they fall in love and begin a secret relationship.

When the author, Molly Beth Griffin, was asked in an interview why she chose to write a lesbian coming-of-age story, she explained that most books about LGBT teens focus on their “coming out” stories, but that this should not be the only type of book out there. The relationship between Garnet and Isabella involves many of the same joys and challenges of teenage love experienced by heterosexual couples, and she wanted to show that. The book also revolves around many important and interesting social and historical facts beyond the sexual orientation of the main characters; it delves into issues of racial and gender inequality, as well as the economic dynamics of the Gilded Age that led to the Great Depression.


Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture.