Sometimes, I Yell

Sometimes, I Yell


Young beautiful woman doing yoga indoors.

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

By Diane Lowman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
































Sexuality on Campus

Sexuality on Campus

A eight years old school girl close to the schoolyards

By Mary E. Plouffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The End of Toys

The End of Toys


By Sharon Holbrook

We bought my son’s dresser when I was pregnant with him, my eldest. The blond-wood dresser matched the crib, and it used to have a changing pad attached to its top. My son does not know this, nor do I plan to tell him, because 10-year-old tweens do not want to think about their diapered past. But I remember. Not so very long ago, the dresser’s six drawers used to hold tiny onesies, diapers, and piles of carefully folded receiving blankets.

On his 4th birthday, my son entered his Lego phase headlong, catapulted by a construction vehicle Lego set from Grandpa. He insisted on keeping that first instruction booklet, and every one of many that came after, and I relented. We found a place in the dresser that had been vacated by the diapers and blankets that my big preschool boy no longer needed, and that became the Lego instruction drawer. His t-shirts and shorts and socks, still tiny, did not require the use of every drawer.

Now my son is almost as tall as I am. We wear the same size shoe. Sometimes, I do a double-take at the laundry basket – is it my husband’s, or my son’s? His clothing, like him, is getting bigger and bulkier. It spills out of his drawers or sits on the top of his dresser, where I place the folded clothes for him to (eventually, hopefully) put away.

He needs that dresser drawer now. Now and then I’d ask, “Can you let these Lego instruction booklets go? You never use them.” Invariably, the answer had always been an adamant “No!” Until now.

His room, to my eyes, is a mess. It’s a different sort of mess than it used to be. There’s that dresser that barely closes. There are books haphazardly spilled on the floor near his bed, and lone socks are always sprinkled around the room. Rainbow Loom bracelet and art supplies are scattered and piled this way and that. Earbuds peek out from under the bed. But where there used to be Bey Blades and cars and light sabers, there are now no toys.

Every week, it’s the same dance. “Clear your floor, buddy. We have to vacuum.” He has dust allergies, and I use this to bolster my fight for sanitation. “But Mom. I don’t have room on my bookshelves. I need a bigger bookshelf.” Maybe, I say. But first we need to stand the books up straight and perhaps let some of those books move on to someone else. Then we’ll decide. To my surprise, he says yes. He wants my help going through them, too, which I am happy to give.

We pull out the A to Z Mysteries and Magic Treehouse to pass on to his second-grade sister. The tundra and desert and all the other biome books that he loved when he was 5 (and that I still love) get set aside for his kindergartner sister. My packrat is suddenly ruthless. “I just don’t like that one.” And, “that science book is outdated.” He should know better than me, I guess, since he now reads about the periodic table for fun. Into the out pile they go. On the bottom shelf lies a big colorful hardcover, The Lego Ideas Book. It was a Christmas gift when he was 6, and he pored over it for many hours over the years. “I’m done with that, Mom,” my 10-year-old says. “I’m think I’m done with Legos.”

Just like that. “OK.” We’re done with the bookshelf now, and I stack the castaways neatly. “What do you think you want to do with them?” He shrugged noncommittally, with a bit of melancholy about him. Or was that me with the melancholy? I had guessed my 10-year-old was heading this way. Years of single-minded devotion had gradually faded into increasing detachment. The giant bin of Lego in the playroom had been gathering dust like a lonely, outgrown lovey. Sometimes I catch a whiff of restlessness about my son. He’s abandoned the kind of all-in imaginative play that his sisters still adore, and longs to replace it with the things of teens – screens, social media, video games, freedom. He is only 10, I think. I am almost 11, he thinks. I try to hold him in this middle zone, and he strains against me.

I tread carefully. “Do you want to let the Lego instructions go? Should I get a recycling bag?” He surprises me with his certainty. We begin. The recent ones are on top. They are less familiar to me, because for the last few years of Lego, my son assembled them on his own. “Oh, I loved this one!” I barely remember the Star Wars set he’s talking about. He’d tear open the box and work doggedly at the dining room table from start to finish with a kind of focus that is now reserved for Minecraft.

We get a little deeper in the dresser drawer, a few years back, and I become part of the journey. “Mom, do you remember this castle?” he asks me, and I do. “Didn’t we build this one in the basement in the old house?” I answer, and the memory of that place and time floods back, right down to the annoyingly dim lighting in the corner where we’d set up a plastic folding table so my Lego-obsessed boy could have a place of his own to build.

FullSizeRenderNow he’s found a Lego Atlantis booklet. “Oh, Nana got me this one! I wanted it so much that Christmas!” I remember building it side by side. It was a big one, and it took a long time. We had great fun doing it.

My 8-year-old pops into her brother’s room now, and seeing what we are doing, chirps, “Aw! Old memories are the best!” Before I can savor the truth of that, or the charm of her young wisdom, my son has answered quickly and evenly. “But they have to go.” They do, right? I’ve been suggesting it for years, after all. But emptying the drawer is going fast, like a fast-forwarded reel of film through the last six years, and suddenly my son seems more ready than I am. I swallow this, though, and I echo his readiness. “Yup, I guess it’s time.”

“And, oh, this fire truck! You had to superglue the ladder on, Mom, because it wouldn’t stay on.” I remember this, too. “You were so frustrated that it kept falling off! Remember,” I reminisce with him, “we were in the dining room at the old house, and Grandma was there, because Daddy and I were leaving the next day for our anniversary trip?” He does. That was when he was 4 ½. We are almost to the bottom of the pile, and he is unmoved by the fattening Trader Joe’s bag of recycling. I cannot say the same for me.

At last, on the bottom, is the very first booklet. It’s that 4th birthday construction vehicle set, the one that started it all. We both gasp with excitement. We really did it together back then, my early-30s mama hands showing his chubby preschool fingers how to snap together the bricks for the first time. “Oh, Mom, I loved this set! Can I keep just this one for the memories?”

Oh, yes. Yes, you can, my boy. And when you outgrow even that, because you will in the finger-snap of a few years, I’ll take it and I’ll tuck it away.

I’ll keep it for the memories, too.

Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. Her work also appears in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. You can find her at and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook. Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.


An Almost Friendship Between Two Boys

An Almost Friendship Between Two Boys

shadow of a boy with mother at a wooden fence

By Emily Cappo

The T-shirt was simple: solid black with the words “Pauliestrong” written across the chest in bright red.

“C’mon, put it on,” I said to my 11-year-old son Matthew.

“I really don’t want to,” Matthew replied.

He was usually an agreeable kid, so his resistance didn’t make sense to me. I explained that Paulie was having a tough time and we needed to show our support. I kept pleading with him until he finally burst out crying.

“I just don’t want to be reminded of that time,” he admitted.

I immediately let it go, realizing that I hadn’t been sensitive to how Matthew understood all too well why Paulie needed support.

Except then a few minutes later, Matthew picked up the shirt and put it on.

“Okay, let’s do this,” he said.

I smiled and acknowledged his sense of empathy and ongoing resilience.

I had it all planned out in my head: Matthew and Paulie would meet, form an immediate bond over what they had in common, have play-dates and be best friends. Matthew was 11; Paulie was 10. We lived 20 minutes away from each other in neighboring towns. Their paths would never have crossed if it were not for my friend Julie who lived around the block from Paulie’s family.

As soon as Julie heard the news that Paulie was diagnosed with a rare type of pediatric cancer, she called me, knowing I’d know how to support to his family since Matthew had been diagnosed 2 ½ years earlier with the exact same type of cancer. Suddenly, pediatric cancer – and this particular type of sarcoma – didn’t feel so rare anymore.

Without hesitation, I told Julie to offer my contact information to Paulie’s parents if they wanted to reach out and talk to someone who had navigated this crisis. I had hoped to help them feel less alone – because no one really understands what it’s like to watch your child undergo treatment for cancer unless you’ve been there. And no one understands that the only thing worse than having cancer yourself is if your child has it. Only a ‘cancer parent’ knows how upsetting it is to helplessly stand by as your child rides out days of nausea because he refuses to swallow pills to control it. Or, how a ‘cancer parent’ has to put on a happy face as their child is about to experience his first MRI. I wasn’t sure Paulie’s parents would want to talk to me because sometimes families are private or overwhelmed or don’t want to compare notes, but Paulie’s mom emailed me immediately.

Over the phone, she was lovely and honest and didn’t hold back. I was awed by how calm she sounded. I wondered if I appeared that way during the early weeks of Matthew’s diagnosis. Our first phone call was an hour and a half and I’m sure I could have talked to her all night. Before we hung up, I reassured her that she could call me anytime about anything. I heard from her again a few weeks later because she wondered if I had any suggestions on foods that Paulie might be able to stomach since he was rejecting almost everything. We had similar challenges with Matthew and I was eager to offer suggestions and support.

Although the two phone calls solidified my connection to Paulie and his family, I knew it was more than that. I was invested. I barely knew this family and yet, I cared so much about them. At the hospital, where Matthew and I still went for his check-ups every month, we saw a lot of the same kids each time we were there. Yes, they all had been or still were in treatment for cancer. But, that was all we knew. We didn’t know their names, where they lived, or their specific diagnoses. I’d always smile and say hello to the parent accompanying their child and we’d exchange that unspoken greeting of relief that our kids were sitting in the waiting room, rather than in a hospital bed upstairs. But, other than that, our connection ended there.

I only had one instance where a mother of one of the children in the waiting room sat down next to me and started chatting. Her son recently had part of his leg amputated, and yet this mom was more concerned with getting him ready for baseball season. After sharing with me what type of cancer her son had, she outright asked me for details on Matthew’s cancer. I knew I couldn’t hold back after she had been so forthcoming, so I told her. And, she began to rattle off statistics to me and reassure me that I shouldn’t worry. I was glad Matthew had his earbuds in and couldn’t hear her. Instead of appreciating a fellow cancer mom reaching out, I was hoping the nurse would call us inside soon so I could escape the intrusion.

But, with Paulie’s family our context was different. They reached out to me. I didn’t push myself upon them offering unsolicited advice, or at least I didn’t think so. And I certainly didn’t spew survival rates at them. I tried to be a good listener and only offered my opinion if asked.

I was grateful I could follow Paulie’s progress over their Facebook page, a closed group they set up to keep friends and family informed. Unfortunately, Paulie’s treatment was not going as smoothly as Matthew’s did, but his case was more complex and required a more aggressive protocol. Paulie had several unscheduled visits to the hospital, including one on Christmas Eve that lasted until New Year’s Eve. Despite these setbacks, Paulie’s parents were relentless in their hope and faith and even mustered the strength to start selling the “Pauliestrong” t-shirts to raise both Paulie’s spirits, as well as money for pediatric cancer research.

Before I snapped the picture of Matthew in the T-shirt, I asked him how he could show his support beyond just smiling. He shyly gave a two thumbs up. After we posted it, Paulie’s mom posted a reply to us with the comment, “we can’t wait to meet you” underneath a photo of Paulie giving a two thumbs up in return.

Right then, I could envision their friendship growing out of that first introduction over social media. I pictured them having play dates, then hanging out through high school, maybe even going to the same college. And I didn’t picture this just because they both had the same type of cancer. I imagined their friendship blossoming because they were both sweet, gentle boys who also liked Star Wars and sports. And, I pictured it because I needed to see them both in the future, after they had kicked cancer’s butt.

Finally, a few days into the new year, Paulie’s dad posted something positive: the chemo was working! The comments poured in with “woo-hoos” and “hoorays” and cheers that this would be their year. But then the following morning, another post appeared pleading for prayers, except this time it sounded much more urgent than ever before.

It doesn’t matter what specifically happened. What matters is that this young boy was taken from his family way too soon. I debated whether to attend the wake, since I had never met Paulie or his parents in person. But then my emotions won. I knew I needed to hug them both, despite the possibility of an awkward moment. Except there was no awkwardness. Paulie’s mom gave me a warm greeting and hugged me right back. As we talked, she held my arm and thanked me for our support. When I greeted Paulie’s dad, he too gave me a sincere hug and recalled an email exchange we had had about the intolerable, hard to sleep on hospital chair-beds. They were both poised and genuine and it made me wish I knew them before their child was diagnosed.

When a tragic event like this occurs, a very common response is, “there are no words.” But, I couldn’t accept saying that. I knew I needed to find some words to attempt to comfort this family. And I found them in pictures. The pictures that Paulie’s parents had posted on the Facebook page during his treatment. In every single photo, Paulie was smiling, whether it was from a hospital bed or at home. I knew I wanted Paulie’s parents to know that I noticed that. The fact that he was always smiling meant one thing to me; that Paulie felt safe and brave, knowing his family was always by his side. Doesn’t every parent want their child to feel secure even in the most difficult of circumstances? Paulie’s parents clearly gave him that gift, until the very end of his too short life.

At the wake, Paulie’s mom had said to me, “I wish you could have met him.”

“Me too,” I squeaked back between tears.

Although Matthew and Paulie did not have the opportunity to meet in person either, I know Matthew won’t ever forget him. And neither will I.

Emily Cappo is a writer and blogger at Oh Boy Mom (, she has recently completed a memoir, “Hope All Is Well,” which chronicles mid-life loss, re-connection, and revelation.

For more information on Paulie’s story and childhood cancer, visit


Fiction: Boy Trouble

Fiction: Boy Trouble

Two boys playing at the indoor amusement park

by Andrea Lani

This story begins with a Pop-Tart. No, not a Pop-Tart, but, as you explained to the teacher, the principal, the deputy sheriff, the sheriff, and two muzzle-faced State Troopers, an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. Definitely not a Pop-Tart. Perhaps the story does not begin there anyway. It could have started six years earlier, with a pair of Duplo-sized Lego blocks, on the day one square Duplo, attached to the bottom of one rectangular Duplo, was clasped in the dimpled hand of your sweet babe and pointed at you with an accompanying, “Blam-blam!”

And yet, the story may have begun two years before that, when one of several million of your husband’s sperm, having squirmed its way through the labyrinth of your fallopian tubes, united with your freshly released egg and conferred its genetic material, including that gun-toting Y chromosome, through the otherwise-impermeable shell. Then again, this story may go back tens of thousands of years, to your ancestors squatting around a campfire, discussing strategies for the following day’s woolly mammoth hunt, while little boys ran around the camp, picking up sticks and jabbing them at imaginary mastodons, in the guise of their friends and parents.

In any case, because you are the mother of four boys under the age of eight, you had quit worrying about imaginary weapons some time after that first shocking, heartbreaking incident in which your child turned to you from the Lego table where he stood, looking like the Christ child in a Renaissance painting, with his golden curls and round cheeks, and mowed you down with two pieces of primary-colored plastic. By the time your fourth male child was born, you had resigned yourself to the fact that boys turning any remotely L-shaped object into a firearm was as inevitable as their making fart sounds with any remotely concave part of their bodies–armpit, inside of the elbow, back of the knee, ear, neck, palm of the hand, bottom of the foot. One time, they performed the “William Tell Overture” with body farts. Even the baby got into the act, blowing big, wet, noisy bubbles with his pursed lips.

But let us get back to that toaster pastry and the Tuesday morning on which you oh-so-blindly placed it into your oldest son’s PVC-free insulated lunch bag. Tuesday, riding on the frantic heels of Monday, finds you both less organized and less well-rested than the previous day. You had closed your eyes after your husband left for work, intending to doze for five more minutes when, half an hour later, you leapt from the bed, wide awake and aware that it was nearly seven o’clock. When you rushed into the boys’ room to wake up the two oldest, you saw your three-year-old squatting in the corner, his face red and scrunched in concentration. Forgetting your initial mission, you scooped him up and dashed into the bathroom. As you yanked down his training pants and set him on the toilet, two warm, moist turds rolled out and landed on the bath mat. The day rolled downhill from there.

By the time you hustled the oldest two out of bed and into semi-clean clothes and had fed them a breakfast of bread heels with jam, you had no time to make their lunches, and, since you had made every excuse you could think of–the baby was teething, the floor needed mopping, you had to catch up on laundry–to avoid grocery shopping on Monday, your kitchen was woefully devoid of anything with which to make said lunches. So you resigned yourself to letting the boys eat the school-cooked lunch of shepherd’s pie–pink slime and all–rationalizing that they would take one look at the oily glop and subsist off of a carton of milk and a spoonful of fruit cocktail, thus negating concerns over mad cow disease and e-coli. To make up for your maternal negligence, and because you were also out of fresh fruit for snack-time, you rummaged in the back of the pantry until you found the box of organic toaster pastries with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling, which you had stashed there for such an emergency, and stuffed one foil-wrapped package into each boy’s backpack as you kissed them on their way out the door and onto the waiting school bus.

Two hours later, you had cleaned the shit off the bathroom floor, bathed your three-year-old, changed and fed the baby, tidied the kitchen, straightened the living room, and written a comprehensive grocery list. You were feeling like a model of domestic efficiency and ready to brave the grocery store with your two youngest children in tow when the phone rang. It was the school secretary. Your oldest child had threatened another pupil with a weapon and you needed to come to the school immediately.

What kind of weapon could your seven-year-old possibly have gotten ahold of, you wondered? You pulled open the utensil drawer. The sharp knives appeared to be accounted for. In the boys’ room, you tiptoed over Legos and Beyblade parts and turned a slow circle in the middle of the room, trying to see if anything was out of place, wondering how you would know if anything was out of place. Your eyes lit on three wooden swords, tucked hilt-up in the dress-up bin. They were not the culprits.

Your three-year-old had been following you around this whole time, saying, “What are you doing, Mommy? When are we going to the store? Why are you in my room?” The baby, riding on your hip, was starting to fuss. He whapped his fist on your chest and whimpered. You sat down to nurse him and sent the three-year-old to sit on the potty, then you loaded them both in your mini-van (the one you could no longer avoid succumbing to once the fourth baby was on his way), and drove to the school.

The town where you live is not so much a town as a scattering of houses–modulars, capes, trailers, old farmhouses–tossed like a handful of dice along directionless roads. Your children’s school squats in a clearing along one of these roads eight miles from your home. An exhausted slab of yellow brick, it had exceeded its expiration date twenty years before your children were born, but considering your fellow townspeople’s allergy to tax increases, it will no doubt continue to draw students into its weary hallways long after your grandchildren have mastered their ABCs.

The school secretary directed you to sit on one of the chairs lined up along the dingy white-painted cinder block wall outside of the principal’s office, chairs designed to accommodate children the size of your weapon-wielding son. You nestled your right butt-cheek into the cradling embrace of the molded plastic, letting the left one hover in the air, propped the baby on your hip, and tried to encourage your three-year-old to take a seat on one of the other chairs. But he was too busy jumping up to try and reach the banner hanging across the hallway, displaying the school’s motto: “Aim High.” This was another mystery you had discovered about boys: their insatiable urge to make contact with objects much higher than themselves. You had never understood this behavior, when the boys in your high school jumped in the halls, scraping their fingertips against the acoustical tiles, and now you have a houseful of males climbing on the back of the couch, trying to transfer their grubby fingerprints onto your white ceiling. For now, they are too short to reach it.

A squat woman in a corduroy jumper, your son’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Greene, shuffled down the hall. She looked as weather-worn as the old school building. Budget cuts had resulted in a reduction in teachers and a consolidation of classes. Mrs. Greene now had to contend with twenty-four second- and third-graders, most of whom appeared to suffer from some form of attention-deficit disorder. You had been into your son’s classroom once, thinking it would be fun, or at least virtuous of you, to read to the students on a Friday afternoon. The experience had been like being rubbed with meat juice and placed in a room full of Jack Russell terriers on meth. Ever since, you had found excuses for not going into the classroom whenever the teacher called. The baby would have a mouth like a shark if he actually grew a tooth for every time you told Mrs. Greene he had been teething.

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said, addressing you by your husband’s name, which you did not adopt on principle, believing at the time that by retaining your own last name, you would retain your own identity. She opened the door to the office and said, “We can wait in here.” As you hoisted yourself and the baby out of the tiny chair and herded your three-year-old in behind her, she added, “Mr. Peacock will be with us shortly.”

You cannot hear the teacher’s and principal’s names together without thinking of the board game “Clue.” Normally, you busy your mind pegging other teachers as Miss Scarlet or Colonel Mustard, but on that day, your brain leapt straight to lead pipes, revolvers, and candlesticks, and you wondered out loud what sort of weapon your child had wielded that day. You refrained from asking if he had been in the ballroom or billiard room.

“You sent your son a Pop-Tart for snack today,” Mrs. Greene said

“An organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust,” you corrected her. Had he gotten high off of the all-natural, real-fruit sugars in the filling and gone berserk, rolling his poster of the water cycle, which the two of you had painstakingly put together late last Thursday night, into a club and beaten other children with it?

Mrs. Greene pursed her lips and blew air out her nose. “You are aware of our school’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons?” she asked. You nodded your head, although you were not aware of this policy. However, at the beginning of the year, you had signed a form confirming that you had read the school handbook, and telling the truth now would prove that you had lied then, and somehow it seemed worse to have lied on paper, with your signature, than with a slight incline of your neck.

At that moment Mr. Peacock walked in, greeted you by your husband’s name, and waved both you and Mrs. Greene into a pair of straight-backed wooden chairs which were at least sized for someone who had lost all of their milk teeth. He looked even wearier than Mrs. Greene. If your sons’ reports of their classmates’ behavior were any measure, this was likely the third or fourth disciplinary conference Mr. Peacock had held already that morning.

“I’m sure Mrs. Greene has informed you of this very grave situation,” he said.

“Not really,” you replied.

“The Pop-Tart,” he began, and you corrected him, wondering if your son had slipped a razor blade into his organic toaster pastry when you weren’t looking, or had perhaps molded the foil wrapper into a shiv and started a prison riot in Room Seventeen.

“We take violence,” Mr. Peacock said, pausing to extract your three-year-old from the Zen fountain sitting on a table beside his desk, and handing your dripping-wet child to you, “and threats of violence, very seriously.”

You merely nodded your head, because who wouldn’t agree with that, and, with one arm around your baby, who was growing fussy, and the other around your three-year-old, who was squirming to get at the lamp cord plugged into the wall near your chair, you could scarcely think, let alone form sentences. Also, you wanted Mr. Peacock to get to the point and tell you what horrible deed your son had committed, so that you could go home and find him a psychotherapist.

“Today at snack time,” Mr. Peacock intoned, “your son bit his Pop-Tart–“

“Organic toaster past–” you began, but he held up his hand and cut you off.

“Bit his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and pointed it at a fellow classmate,” he finished.

You waited for the rest, but Mr. Peacock folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair, lips pursed with finality.

“And?” you asked. When did the shiv come in?

“Zero Tolerance, Mrs. Sheffield,” he said.

You shifted the three-year-old so that you could clamp him with your knees and propped the baby up on your shoulder, patting his back to try and quiet him.

“I’m sorry,” you said. “These kids are making so much noise. I missed the part about the weapon?”

“Perhaps this would refresh your memory,” Mrs. Greene said, holding a copy of the school handbook open in front of you.

“Section 7.6.9. Weapons Policy,” the page read. “Any student who brings a Gun onto School Property will be immediately Expelled and the matter will be Handed over to Law Enforcement Authorities.” The writer’s enthusiasm for capital letters continued down a full page that dealt with knives of varying size and function, blunt instruments, brass knuckles, and even shurikens, nun-chucks, and various other Ninja weaponry.

“But,” you said, not entirely sure you grasped the situation. “It wasn’t a gun. It was an organic toaster pastry.”

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said. “If you look at the definition of ‘Gun’ in Section, you will see that it includes ‘simulations.'”

You smiled, thinking that perhaps they were playing a joke on you, or maybe you had stumbled into a bad reality TV show. You looked around for hidden cameras. But when your eyes settled Mr. Peacock’s face, your smile dissolved.

“But what could he possibly do to hurt someone with a toaster pastry?” you asked. “Rot their teeth? Give them diabetes?”

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mr. Peacock said, “this is not a laughing matter. We take these situations very seriously, especially after the tragedy in Connecticut.”

“But,” you said, your brain aching with the effort of following his logic, “that was a deranged man with high-capacity assault rifles, not a child with a snack of dubious nutritional value.”

“That is really not the point, Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Green said. “Zero tolerance is zero tolerance. If we make an exception for a Pop-Tart gun, what next? Water pistols? Cap guns? Air rifles? Bazookas?”

“We are going to have to suspend your son from school until we decide how to handle this matter,” Mr. Peacock added.

“What do you mean, ‘handle this matter’?” you asked.

“Expulsion is not off the table,” Mr. Peacock responded.

“Expulsion?” you repeated. “Are you kidding me?”

“We have an obligation,” Mr. Peacock replied. “Under the Federal Gun Free Schools Act, to protect students in this building from others who pose a threat to the overall safe learning environment. My hands are tied, Mrs. Sheffield.”

By now the baby was whimpering and clawing at the front of your blouse, and your three-year-old had squirmed so that he was dangling upside down, his pants pulled halfway down from the effort of trying to escape the vise-grip of your knees, exposing his Jake 7 underwear, and you just wanted to get the hell out of this office.

“Please, can I see my son?” you asked. You would take your kindergartener home, too, and homeschool your children. Perhaps un-school them. Show up these brainless bureaucrats by raising four independent-thinking human beings who didn’t need a handbook to tell them what’s right.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Mrs. Sheffield,” said Mr. Peacock. “He’s been taken to the sheriff’s office for questioning.”

Your head felt like an animal was trying to claw its way out through your skull as you sputtered out a “What?” hoping you had heard incorrectly.

Mrs. Greene tapped the handbook.

“Law Enforcement,” she said. “That’s the policy.”


After buckling the now-wailing baby and your still-damp three-year-old into the van, you punched the address for sheriff’s office into the GPS device your husband had given you for your anniversary. As you pulled out of the school parking lot, the supercilious British woman inside instructing you to “turn right,” you dialed your husband’s work number. When his voice mail picked up, you left him a terse but pointed message that you needed him. Now.

Inside the sheriff’s office, a woman with a thick, dark braid and a shiny “Deputy” badge on her brown uniform led you into a small, cluttered room. The prisoner sat on a swivel chair, using his legs to push against the desk and spin the chair around. He stopped when he saw you on his next pass.

“Hi, Mom,” he yelled. “Check it out!” He raised his left arm as high as the handcuffs that shackled him to the chair’s arm allowed.

“Oh my God,” you shrieked and ran to him. With the baby in one arm and your three-year-old grasped by the wrist with your other hand, you managed to half-hug your firstborn child with your elbows, then turned to deputy.

“Why is my child in handcuffs?” you demanded.

“After the incident with the Pop-Tart gun, we needed to hold him while the sheriff completes the charges and a judge sets bail,” she said.

Your three-year-old climbed into the chair with his brother and wriggled his wrist into the loop of handcuff fastened to the chair’s arm. “Now we’re both in jail,” your oldest son yelled and he spun the chair, kicking the backs of your knees with each revolution.

“It was not a Pop-Tart,” you clarified. “It was an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. And since when was there a law against biting food into a gun-like shape? I believe you are violating my son’s First Amendment rights, as well as his Second, Fifth, and Thirteenth.”

“Want Pop-Tart,” your three-year-old hollered from the spinning chair. When you left the house that morning, you had given him a toaster pastry as well, hoping it would tide him over through the school visit, but it was now past lunchtime, and you sensed the first tremors of a low-blood-sugar-induced meltdown.

A man who looked like a Doberman Pinscher in a uniform walked in the door, his eyes on a piece of paper in his hands.

“Okay,” he said. “Charges are obstructing education.”

“Excuse me,” you said. “Why are you charging a seven-year-old?”

“Pointed a Pop-Tart gun in class,” he said, holding up three fingers and ticking off his list. “Threatened violence. Obstructed education.”

“It was not a–” you began. “Never mind. But, seriously, what kind of violence can a seven-year-old commit with a bit of crust and jam? And the incident, if you can even call it that, happened during snack-time. There was no education taking place at the time.”

“Tell it to the judge,” he said, as if he stayed up late watching reruns of old cops shows.

“Please, release my son.” You pointed to the boys spinning and laughing like stoned college kids. “Can’t you see how distressed he is?”

“Sorry, lady. Gotta wait for the Staties,” he said. “School violence situation we always bring in the State Police. Should be here any minute.”

“My son is not violent,” you said, as your three-year-old shrieked for his brother to stop the chair. When the chair didn’t stop, he wiggled his wrist out of the handcuff and punched his brother. Your oldest son punched back with his un-cuffed hand, and your three-year-old cried so hard he threw up what was left of his toaster pastry in a stream of purple foam down the front of his brother’s shirt. Your oldest son screamed and kicked his brother, whom you scooped up the under the armpits with your free arm. The baby, who had been resting his head against your shoulder, half-asleep, became agitated with this disturbance and started to cry.

“Sorry, lady,” the sheriff said. “Gonna have to ask you to leave.”

Realizing that crying, vomiting children may constitute the world’s best agent of civil disobedience, you planted yourself with two of your three howling offspring onto the only other chair in the room.

“I’m not going anywhere without my child,” you said. “And we need food and water. And I need to make a phone call. We’re allowed one phone call, right?”

The sheriff twitched his head toward the door and deputy exited as you pried your phone out of your pocket and tried calling your husband again. You held the phone with your shoulder, bouncing the baby with one arm and patting your three-year-old on the back with the other as you left yet another message, pausing to make sure the recording picked up their wails.

When the deputy returned, she tossed three dusty bottles of Poland Spring water and several packets of oyster crackers onto the table, and drew the sheriff aside. The boys tore into the packets and even the baby quieted down when you gave him a cracker to gum. But you knew you had only gained a temporary armistice. Your children had eaten nothing but toaster pastries since breakfast, you had eaten nothing at all, and you were all in desperate need of protein-based nourishment.

You chugged from one of the bottles, putting thoughts of corporate takeover of public water supplies out of your mind, and tried to overhear the deputy and sheriff’s hushed conversation. You only caught words like: “DA,” “election,” “land mine,” and “ten-foot pole.”

After a few minutes, the sheriff walked over, unlocked your son’s handcuffs and said, “All right, we’re going to drop the charges. This time. But I’m going to have to warn you about the use of weaponry on school grounds…”

As he spoke, you gathered up water bottles and half-eaten packages of crackers. You stuffed them in the diaper bag, lifted the baby to your shoulder, and turned to gather your other two children as two burly men in blue uniforms and black hats walked in. If the sheriff was a Doberman, the state troopers were Rottweilers.

The sheriff squared his shoulders and said, “We were just wrapping up here.”

One of the troopers gave him a curt nod, then looked down at your oldest son, “Heard there was an incident with a Pop-Tart at school today,” he said.

“Actually,” you began, “it was an organic toaster past–” you trailed off at the look he shot you.

For ten minutes, he lectured your son on firearm safety, bullying, and avoiding violence. Your son’s mouth gaped as he gazed at the huge men standing in front of him, their legs wide, hands on their hips. Meanwhile, you strategized the remainder of your day. You had never made it shopping, your refrigerator was still as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, and the last place in the world you wanted to take three fractious children was a grocery store. On the way to the sheriff’s office, you had passed a gas station with a sign out front advertising, “Best Pizza in Town.” It was undoubtedly true, considering it was probably the only pizza in town. You would stop there on the way home and pick up a pepperoni pizza, and whatever else the kids asked for–Doritos, root beer, real Pop-Tarts–nitrates, genetically modified organisms, and high fructose corn syrup be damned. Afterward, you would collect your kindergartener, who will be sitting in the principal’s office after school lets out. He will probably have wet himself and Mr. Peacock’s guest chair by the time you get there, because he refuses to use public bathrooms. You smiled at the thought.

“Any questions?” the trooper asked your oldest son after he wrapped up his speech.

“Yes,” your child replied. “Can I see your gun?”

Author’s Note: I feel a mounting sense of outrage every time I read a news story about a kid being suspended or expelled or arrested for a toy gun or a toast gun or a finger gun. This story arose from that rage and the absurdity of a society that criminalizes children’s make-believe but refuses to address real gun violence.

Andrea Lani is mother to three sons who have fashioned guns out of everything from crayons to grilled cheese sandwiches. She lives in Maine where she works a tedious day job, teaches nature writing and journaling classes in her spare time, and writes on the sly. You can find her at

Calamity Ben

Calamity Ben

WO Calamity Ben Art

By Laura Jackson Roberts


Fear Itself

“Abnormally fearless,” the doctor tells me. “Your son is abnormally fearless.”

I’m sitting in the pediatrician’s office listening to the sounds—howls, mostly—coming through the walls from other examining rooms. Somebody’s getting a shot. Abnormally fearless. I can see my reflection in the mirror on the wall. She’s nodding and she looks a bit concerned. Is her mouth twitching just a bit? She stops looking at me and blurts: “Yes! See how he’s on that stool, trying to reach that electrical outlet? That’s what he does all the time!”

The doctor sees and he’s smiling, but it’s not a good smile. Almost frozen on his face, it’s hiccupping somewhere between pity and regret.

I pluck two-year-old Benjamin from the wheeled stool as he spins around, and tuck him under my arm like a suitcase. He kicks his legs. “My husband and I don’t know what to do.”

The pediatrician is a good doctor. He helped us in the past, when Ben needed a rabies shot after a bat encounter. He’s going to help us now.

But when he opens his mouth, he stammers. “Just….just….” He stops, regrouping.

Now my own mouth opens in anticipation, because the advice is coming. I’m going to be able to breathe again, to sit on the toilet without worry that I’m missing an electrical fire or a mauling. The floods will stop. And the structural damage. This beautiful man is going to give me the gem for which I’ve been digging. I don’t have to live like this, because there are men like him, who have framed diplomas on their walls and stethoscopes in their breast pockets.

The smile on his face evolves into a genuine grin. “It’s probably going to get worse. Just keep him alive.”

Ben is my second child. A number two always surprises, because they never follow in the footsteps of their older sibling. Like many second children, Ben is a fun-loving attention-seeker who is far more outgoing than his Type-A brother, Andy. Andy is thoughtful, reserved, and loaded with common sense. Ben hasn’t a drop. In fact, he shows a startling lack of fear.

The word “fear” comes from the Old English word “fær,” meaning “calamity, sudden danger, or peril.” Babies are born with two: loud noises and falling. These applied to Ben for a few months, but he soon morphed into a ballsy doppelganger. While Andy never stood on the kitchen table—it was the place for eating—Ben didn’t see it that way. To him, the table was not a facilitating tool for consumption, but a challenge worthy of Mallory and Irvine. He climbed because it was there, and moved ever higher, ever closer to danger.

My husband and I would not understand our tiny creation for many years.


Pub Crawl

“Was it dark beer or light beer?” asks Poison Control.

I am so ashamed.

Ben is nine months old and it is a bright April day in the hottest year we can remember. His chubby legs are utterly delicious and he has reached that splendid explosion of personality a parent waits for. He babbles in his own language as he practices his hop-along crawl. And he’s achieved the pull-up.

The beer bottle was in the cup-holder of a plastic Adirondack chair. Ben sat in the grass around me, poking at dandelions and eating bugs, and this was okay because I was an experienced parent who didn’t get riled up over minor things. But I did have to pee, and Ben couldn’t go far in the ninety seconds it would require, so I ducked into the house. When I emerged, still pulling up my pants, I caught sight of my son. He had pulled himself to his toes, leaning against the seat of the chair. The beer wobbled as his sausage fingers reached. And then, as I stared, his hands found the bottle and he tipped it to his mouth. But he didn’t spit out the bitter brew.

My baby swilled that beer like a fat little frat boy.

The voice of Poison Control Guy breaks through my recollection. “Ma’am? Are you there? Was it a light beer or a dark beer?”

“It was a Corona.” I am holding him now as he tries to squirm away. He smells like a brewery. His onesie is soaked and the front of his diaper has absorbed all of the liquid that spilled down his round belly. Ben is alternately sniffing and licking his palms, and every few seconds he stares down at the beer bottle and strains to reach it.

Poison Control Guy says, “Oh, good!” with audible relief. “If it was a Guinness, you’d be on your way to the ER right now.”

“Oh.” I can think of nothing else to say. My infant has a taste for pale ale, and this wasn’t on my preparedness list today. “Is there anything else I should do for him?”

“Watch for signs of drunkenness.”

I stammer. “You…want me to watch my baby for signs of drunkenness?”

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

I watch Ben. He lurches. He drools. He slurs his words. He takes a few tumbles. He is either drunk or a regular, sober baby. I can’t tell. Have I averted disaster or invited it in?


An Episode in Which…

It’s noticeably quiet, but the rational part of my brain tells me that shit can’t possibly be going down because I’ve only been out of the room for the length of time it takes to pull a toothbrush out of the shower drain with a pair of tongs. Ben has done this before, so I’m a self-taught expert. The key is to visualize the angle of the trap and if I’m lucky the bristles will be at the top. Crap. I’m not lucky today. The bristles are down in the trap, but I get it out anyway.

Double crap. It’s my toothbrush this time. What is that? Slime? Can I just dip that in alcohol and keep using it?


I recognize the sound of a twenty-five-pound body on the landing in the kitchen. How did he get downstairs? I follow the sound, but he’s perfectly safe and…

Why are his hands blue?

Why are his lips blue?

“Ben, what is on your hands?” He looks at them, then at me. “Ben! What is on your hands and mouth? Were you playing with something blue?” Food coloring? Magic Marker? 

“Ben! Why are you blue?” I’m certain he’s going to show me a blue marker, or maybe an open baking drawer. It’ll be cute—there will be flour on the floor and maybe some little blue food coloring handprints around the kitchen.

But the kitchen is clean.

While I’m having a frenetic moment of worry inside my own head, he toddles off into the living room. He sits on the floor next to the fish tank, where I have been tending to a pair of angelfish who are suffering from a parasitic infection. Fish medicine is blue.

Benjamin’s mouth is blue. I see the boxes he’s dragged over to use as a stool. I see the discarded squeeze bottle. The child-proof cap has been gnawed off.

Toxic! In case of ingestion call a poison control expert and seek immediate medical attention.

Poison Control Guy is kind to me again. More importantly, he doesn’t remember me. He has a gentle tone, which somehow eases my physical anguish but can’t quite touch the mental component, the reality that my child guzzled fish medicine while I was in the bathroom with a set of kitchen tongs trying to un-wedge my toothbrush which that same child shoved into the drain.

I’m instructed to hydrate Ben, to dilute the poison. He should be okay, but I must watch closely for vomiting. Poison Control Guy calls me back in an hour, and again in two hours, to check on the boy.

The UPS guy asks me if Ben has eaten a smurf.

All babies have escapades. A tumble down the stairs ends in maternal and infant tears, or a swallowed substance triggers a frantic call to poison control. But as the tiny human grows, he learns that putting things into his mouth results in a bad taste and a belly ache. Ben either never learned or never cared, because he was abnormally fearless. Something inherent and primitive was missing: the fear.

But Benjamin is fearless. He won’t preserve himself.

It’s up to me.

Can I get a punch card for this?

The West Virginia Poison Control Hotline is 800-222-1222. I have it on speed dial in my phone, and posted in the kitchen, and the bathroom.

“Poison Control. How can I help you?” he asks.

Oh my God. It’s the same guy. This is his full-time job. He sits in a chair and answers the phone every time I call him.

I hesitate.

“Hello?” he says again.

“Uh, yeah.” I have to think fast. This is my tenth call. There was the beer and the bleach and the fish medicine. There was the Comet and the toothpaste and the Resolve Carpet Foam. There was the child-proof Tylenol, and the little packet of desiccants in a new shirt pocket that specifically said “DO NOT EAT” in bold letters. They should have rewards points for frequent callers. Nine poisonings and the tenth is free.

I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t leave booze and bleach out on the floor. In fact, it was quite the opposite: they were behind closed cabinet doors, with child-proof locks. They were six feet up in the air. They were supposed to be safe. But they weren’t. They weren’t safe from the tiny tornado. His fat fingers worked at those child safety locks, or broke them completely, and he climbed like a mountain goat. From the toilet, to the sink, and up on tiptoes to the top of the bathroom cabinet. And today, while I was speaking with the lawn tractor service man…today was not my fault. The tractor guy left the dirty oil filter out, right on the ground.

“What’s the child’s name?”

Poison Control Guy is going to recognize me.

“Aye. The lad’s name is…Scott.” Oh damn. I’ve affected a Highland brogue so as not to be detected. “The wee one tossed back a bit of motor el from the lon trahkter’s el felter.”

“He drank from a used oil filter? Oh no. How much did he swallow? Do you know?”

“Weel, it’s on ‘is lips and his got a bit on ‘is tongue.”

“Alright,” he says. “I’m going to need you to hydrate him thoroughly. Motor oil is toxic, but it sounds like he probably spit most of it out when he got a taste of it. Hydrate him and watch for vomiting and fever. I’ll call back in an hour to check on him.”

I promise that the lad will be hydrated and monitored. And I wonder how this has happened again, his tenth poisoning, when I have tried so hard to be vigilant. Rather than proving myself worthy of the sacred title of “mother,” I have revealed my ineptitude time and again. The task of raising this child has proven me to be a failure. It seems my arms just aren’t long enough to keep him safe.


Curious George Flips a Switch

We had ribs for dinner last night, and the kitchen isn’t so clean. In fact, my husband put rib bones in the garbage disposal, and it sounds like the engine on a Piper Super Cub about five minutes after it’s crashed into a barn.

I’m flummoxed by the rib bones, which have splintered into shards now, and have begun to work their way into the mechanism of the disposal. Luckily, my wrist is narrow enough to reach down into the hole and fish these wretched little time-wasters out, piece by piece.

I can hear Ben. Trains. Living room. He’s alive.

When I think I’ve retrieved all of the rib bones, I reach under the sink and turn on the garbage disposal. Horrible noise. Damn. More bones. I turn it off and find another piece. Turn it on. Horrible noise. The pattern continues as I turn the disposal on and off repeatedly. When it stops sounding like mangled metal, I’ll know it’s clear.

I’m feeling around for that last rib bone when I hear the grinding. It seems I hear it before I feel it, and then my fingers blaze with scarlet pain. Thankfully, evolution has given humans quick reflexes. I pull the hand out and stare at it for a few milliseconds before I release the scream. It’s a long scream, a primal scream. It’s the scream of a hand in the garbage disposal, a thing of horror movies and unimaginable what-ifs.

And while I’m screaming, there is Benjamin at my feet. He’s crept up quietly beside me, and he’s watched me turn the disposal on and off and on and off. He’s seen the switch. And he’s gone for it. His hand is frozen on the switch, and his face is frozen in horror. When he hears my scream, he jumps as though there are electrodes in his butt cheeks. Then he too begins to scream. We’re both standing in the kitchen, looking at each other, screaming. For a brief moment I swear that I see a hint of fear.

As my adrenaline tapers off, so does my howl. And then I begin to yell. Ben falls apart, running from the room as fast as he can, tripping over the dogs’ water bowl and upending a potted plant. Dirt spills out everywhere, mixes with the water, and congeals to a soupy sludge. On the uneven floor it all slides to the west and runs under the refrigerator. I can hear him sobbing in another room.

I stare at my hand. It’s still there. It’s actually still there. Oh, it took a hit—it’s purple and gnarly-looking, to be sure. A few of my fingernails aren’t so much damaged as they are gone. Lucky for me, garbage disposals are designed to grind, not to slice. We all imagine they slice, but there are no blades. Just grinders. I’ve been mashed like a Yukon gold.

He tried to mutilate me.

This thought settles into my head for twenty seconds, and though I can still hear him bawling, I don’t think I can move. I continue to stare at my hand. Ten fingers. Holy shit. I carried this child for nine months, I gave birth to him and loved him. I let him barf on my shoulder and now he’s tried to de-finger me.

Finally, I’ve got the wherewithal to wonder where he has gone, and I find him in the next room, crying toddler tears of regret in the corner. He comes to me with a soaking face and wails, “I’m sorry Mommy, I’m sorry I did that!”

I tuck my flaming fingers into the folds of my shirt and use my good hand to wipe his tears. The horror which flickered across his face evolves so quickly into remorse that I’m not sure it was there at all.


The Little Engine That Had No Choice

At the park, I chat with a woman supervising her three-year-old daughter. Our kids run from slide to rope ladder to swing. We follow them, conversing, knowing we’ll never see each other again. I am tired, deep in my heart. The weight of being Ben’s caretaker is putting knots in my shoulders. It feels like keeping suicide watch in a room full of firearms, and my safety record sucks.

Eventually, the woman asks me the question I’ve been expecting. She tries to be casual. “So, what’s that on his head?”

“That bruise shaped like a pear? He fell.”

Every child falls, and boys do it with aplomb. “It sure is bluish,” she says. “Glad he’s okay.” She looks at me out the side of her eyes. “How’d that happen?”

I don’t sugar coat my answer. “He launched himself down the stairs.”

“Oh.” There’s a pause. She looks hard at my son, who is climbing the rope ladder in his bare feet—God knows where he’s put his shoes. Her daughter stands on the ground and looks up as Ben hangs on with one hand and leans backwards over the abyss. At least there’s a rubber mat on the pavement.

“My daughter sometimes jumps on the new couch. It makes me nuts. Is that…stair-jumping thing….is that something he normally does?”

“Yes. It is.” I want to say something about Ben’s pediatrician and the abnormally fearless, but I don’t.

She bites the inside of her lip. “Is he still in diapers? I think I smell something. Maybe it’s my kid.”

Was I really going to have to do this? “No, it’s his shirt,” I reply.

This woman can’t contain her curiosity. Not that I blame her. “His shirt?”

“He found a bottle of deer repellant and sprayed his shirt a few times. It was in a bag on the backseat. I bought it at the garden store and he reached it from his seat on the way over here. You should smell my car.”

She gapes.

“It’s dried blood and putrescent egg solids.” I add, and grin because it’s so damn vile.

She’s repulsed. And she’s starting to think it’s time to get her kid away from mine. Up on the apparatus, Ben lets out a howl and holds his thumb. I coax him to the edge beside the fireman’s pole and he throws himself into my arms. Something electrical shoots up my back and I grunt hard. This child is breaking me down. My vertebral column is giving up.

My new acquaintance approaches me. “Is he okay?” she asks. “What’s that on his thumb? Is that a rope burn?”

Oh great. This, now?

“No,” I answer, deciding to being honest. “That’s a regular burn. He got up on the counter and made himself toast in the night.”

Under my breath, I mutter, “I’m just trying to keep him alive.”

On our way home, I wonder what special combination of genes came together to form this unusual child. His father and I are prudent, logical first-borns. His brother worries constantly about things like an escaped bull on the playground, and a colony of flesh-eating ants nesting in his jack o’lantern. Andy is always on alert. The boys have an unequal distribution of fear, with none left for the younger. My husband and I are paying the price for our roll of the genetic dice. We’ve created abnormally fearless, and now we have to raise him.

Now we have to save him from himself.


The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Ben is on that spinning stool in the doctor’s office again. He’s going to make himself sick. He knows how to vomit on command, so it won’t be a taxing performance. And he’d love to be able to show the pediatrician the extent of his intestinal pyrotechnics.

Kids are howling in the next room. I hear a tired mother’s voice. Ben is no longer on the spinning stool. Crap. He’s on the scale. It’s broken. He actually broke the doctor’s scale. Am I going to have to pay for that? Maybe they won’t notice.

I’m sitting on a chair in the little room, staring at myself in the mirror. My reflection just looks back at me. She looks like me from last year, listening to the abnormally fearless diagnosis for the first time. It doesn’t yet thunder in her head like a mantra, like a warning. On her side of the mirror, she’s still wondering how to fix it, rather than how to accept it, as we do on my side. I miss my own fearlessness, but it no longer fits my body, no matter how many times I try it on. Everything about motherhood worries me now.

Perhaps when we begin a parenting journey for the second time, we’re all abnormally fearless. With the first child, we battle. We slay the dragons of ignorance and sleep deprivation. We triumph and find patience and earn our smug-parent stripes, imagining how easy another child will be. But each child is a blank slate, one who pays neither mind nor homage to his predecessor. And my reflection doesn’t know this. She’s sitting there wondering why the Andy-rules don’t apply to Benjamin. How can she tweak this little blonde problem, this tiny boy, so that he fits into his proper place, where she can steer him along with one hand?

Benjamin won’t be steered. The only hands on the tiller are his own. I’m in the boat, but I’m sitting up front, and I just can’t get control. Do I claw my way to the back and take over, or do I keep a watchful distance? Would it matter to Ben what I tried to do either way? Is my only job to stay the course?

I don’t know how to raise this child.

Ben’s poking around in the garbage can. He pulls out a discarded tube of….ew. Lube? Is that rectal thermometer lube? Christ on a kayak. I snap at him, haul him out of the rubbish, and mentally prepare my questions for the doctor.

When he walks in, he’s a new face, a new partner in the practice. Damn! He’s going to think I’m a delinquent. Our other doctor gets it; he knows I’m trying. He told me to keep the kid alive and I need to see him so I can stand up and point at the little garbage weasel and shout, “He’s alive! You told me to keep him alive and I did and now I need you to tell me how much easier it’s going to be!”

The new pediatrician is ridiculously handsome. I watch Ben receive an examination. I watch him jump up and down and tell the doctor his name and his dogs’ names and where he goes to preschool. And I watch him begin to swing from the broken scale in the corner while the doctor takes notes. It makes a wretched clang and I pull Ben off, because it’s time to receive my assurances that this is just about over. I’ve put in a solid year of life-saving duty, of vigilance. I’ve dropped the ball many times, but the boy is in one piece and there’s minimal scarring and no major head trauma. Almost all of our pets still have tails and we’ve developed a healthy relationship with our plumber. Ben even has his own Facebook fans. They call him “Calamity Ben.”

“Do you have questions?” the doctor asks.

I take a big breath. “Last year the other doctor told me that Ben was abnormally fearless and that I just had to keep him alive. I’ve been trying and he’s still diving off of furniture and picking up snakes and throwing knives. He’s not afraid of falling or traffic and he takes off his life jacket and throws himself in the pool. I keep calling Poison Control. It’s been a year from hell. Is he going to stop soon?”

This pediatrician doesn’t bat an eyelash or miss a beat. He flashes me a Ken-doll smile.

“Keep him alive for another year,” he chuckles, and touches my shoulder. “You’re doing fine.”

Author’s Note: I’m often asked if Benjamin’s stories are the truth, and I reply, wearily, that they are. As of this morning, he has a black eye on the left side of his face, permanent marker on his nipples, and no desire to live gently. For some reason, I was chosen to be his mother. He and his brother are the loves of my life.

Laura Jackson Roberts lives in Wheeling, West Virginia with her husband, Shawn, and sons, Andy and Benjamin. Recently published on Matador Network, she is an MFA student at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, focusing on humor in nature.

Comments from Strangers Upon Seeing My 3 Sons Out In Public This Week: An Annotated List

Comments from Strangers Upon Seeing My 3 Sons Out In Public This Week: An Annotated List

By Katy Rank Lev


You are a busy woman!” Heard 2 times, both from men, one a passerby on the sidewalk and one, the cashier at Costco, where I purchased $346 worth of diapers and string cheese. These men are right, of course. I feel busy and astounded each time it takes 17 minutes to buckle my sons into my minivan, which I also filled with gas at Costco. Without comment from bystanders.

Wow, you’ve got your hands full!” Heard from countless droves of strangers, mostly women, often in parking lots, sometimes in stores or doctors offices or museums where I am using my foot to kick open a door and loudly instructing my five-year-old to then hold the door open for me so I can back in with our stroller full of sons. Where I sometimes have to shove the commenter out of the way in order to bustle inside an elevator whose door is about to close with one of my young sons inside.

Sometimes, actually, my hands are empty despite this comment, because I’ve got the baby in a sling and the big sons are crouching to stare in wonder at particles of rock salt.

That’s a lotta boys!” Heard from one woman, shouting from the driver’s side window of the school bus she stopped in the middle of the road in order to speak to me as I pushed all three of them up the hill from the school bus stop in my very large stroller, all of us singing “Everything is Awesome.”

Do you need help getting out to your vehicle?” Heard from the blessed, blessed grocery bagger at Whole Foods, who carried my bags to the car while I carried the children. He loaded my grocery bags into the back of our minivan while I forced stiff, protesting bodies into car seats. He lingered just long enough to see my prolonged exhale as the last buckle clipped into place.

He really should be wearing gloves, or a hat. Or at the very least not pajamas.” Zero people in zero stores, even on days where the temperatures never broke double digits, which represents a 100% decrease in such comments since the arrival of the third son. Only in tallying this list did I realize what relief I feel to no longer hear comments about what my children are not wearing.

Ya tryin again for your girl?” Heard from one man in the cereal aisle of the grocery store as we both reached for the multigrain Cheerios, on sale this week. Since the moment I was visibly pregnant with my third son, I’ve been bombarded with comments about the gender distribution of our family. The streak of Y chromosomes intrigues strangers so desperately they seem unable to refrain from comment. Generally on the very edge of panic, I cannot fathom keeping another child safe, nor can I muster any sort of response.

Which one is making all that noise?” Heard from one sort-of-smiling man, working at Target, where my sons are sobbing from the mega-cart that enables me to seat and buckle all 3 of them securely even though I cannot steer around corners on our mad dash for two dozen eggs, which will last our family 4 days. They weep in stores because it takes us so long to do anything at all, and we’re always, always out of bread.

Make sure they wipe their feet.” Heard from one elderly couple selling their home, who fibbed on their listing and said their laundry room was a 4th bedroom. Our realtor tells us the space is technically a bedroom because it has both a heat vent and a door. Though the house is too small for my family of sons, I smile both because they did wipe their feet and because I can imagine them climbing happily around the wooded back yard.

You remind me of a little Russian lady counting all her monkeys in a cartoon.” Heard from one very earnest woman in the halls at school as I took census, trying desperately not to lose track of the carpool kid whose hat matches every other kid’s hat. We just made it inside before the bell, having run from our parking spot two blocks away. With a child in each arm, I feel the burn of my muscles more acutely than my confusion regarding the meaning of her observation.

You guys must be going crazy in this weather.” Heard from one woman, on the morning of the umpteenth day our rhythm was disrupted by a school delay for sub-zero temperatures. I smile and think that crazy isn’t quite the right word to describe what it’s like cooped up with these sons, who ricochet between building ships from cardboard boxes and peeing on each other in my bed.

Can I help you?” Heard from one woman, who gave up her spot behind me in line at Target when she saw my toddler sobbing because he’d spilled his popcorn, because the Chapstick was not blue. Is it possible she saw the creep of my embarrassment over the cacophony? Was it obvious I’d run out of ways to soothe him?

I drove by and saw you, with that baby strapped to you while you were getting your other boys in order, and I am straight up in awe. Praise hands!” Heard from one woman who just moved in down the street, who said so on a day I was home alone with my tiny sons for 13 hours and really needed to read it.


Katy Rank Lev is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her three feral sons inspire her work covering parenting, women’s health, and family matters. 

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

LadybirdsBy Banks Staples Pecht

They call it a loveliness when thousands of ladybugs gather.

Humming tunelessly in my kitchen, I unpacked the bag of gardening supplies we had just bought at the nursery. I smiled at the small cellophane bag teeming with fifteen hundred live ladybugs. My children had insisted I buy them instead of plant spray to control the aphids in our back yard. “Enough ladybugs to colonize an average yard,” the bag promised. Placing it on the counter, I walked across the kitchen, through the back door and onto the porch to pot our new lemon tree.

Several minutes later, the back door opened.

“Mom, look!”

Kyle, five, came onto the porch and held out his hand. My stomach dropped as I saw what was crawling on his palm: one ladybug. Kyle’s dark eyes squinted with pride and delight as he admired his six-legged prize through wire-rimmed glasses.

“Look Mom! I have three!” Evan, Kyle’s twin, followed in quick pursuit with arms outstretched, his ivory cheeks turned pink with excitement as three ladybugs crawled up his forearms.

Oh no.

“Guys, where’s the bag of ladybugs?”

Kyle and Evan looked at each other and then turned toward their bedroom.

“Mom, I found this on the floor. ” My eight-year-old daughter, Martie, walked out holding the now empty cellophane bag. One straggler climbed out.

“Cute!” She coaxed it onto her index finger.

Between them, Kyle, Evan and Martie had five ladybugs. That meant one thousand, four hundred and ninety-five ladybugs were missing.

Oh, NO!

I sprinted to the boys’ bedroom.

The floor of their room undulated with the ebb and flow of hundreds of ladybugs scurrying out of the big bowl into which, in an effort to be “careful,” Kyle and Evan had emptied the bag. Ladybugs crawled on the walls, the furniture, even into the boys’ bunk beds.

My hand flew to my mouth as I screamed. Then, I began to chuckle. The chuckle grew into a giggle, then into a deep belly laugh, because this was not supposed to happen.

My little boys were supposed to die.

Five years earlier, on a Saturday morning twenty-five weeks into an uneventful pregnancy, the contractions began. Kyle and Evan were born that night, limp and tiny, into a world of medical emergency. Two neonatal teams intubated my sons, and life support machines restarted their hearts. Kyle and Evan each weighed little more than one and a half pounds, each only one-third the size of the chicken I had roasted earlier that week for dinner.

Three hours later the neonatologist visited our hospital room and described a parade of horribles I could not imagine, but that my pediatrician husband, Ben, knew well. If they survived the first twenty-four hours… If they survived the first seventy-two hours… If they survived long enough to endure a months-long stay in the neonatal ICU… If they survived at all.

If they survived, their chances of engaged, purposeful lives were virtually nil.

If they survived, their chances of severe impairment were almost certain.

Martie, two years old, lay in the hospital bed next to me while the doctor spoke. She looked up with a smile and offered me the half-eaten chocolate Santa the nurse had given her. I took a bite, but the chocolate tasted bitter. I held her close and kissed the top of her head.

If they survived.

Kyle.  Evan. The names Ben and I had settled on just that morning were now written in magic marker on name cards that hung above translucent unfinished people attached to countless tubes, wires and monitors. Colorful paper name cards told me these foreign babies were my sons.

Ben put his strong hand on my shoulder. It had never failed to comfort me before.

If they survived.

“You may touch him with one finger, Mrs. Pecht,” the nurse told me, the first time I sat at Evan’s bedside. I cried so hard I was thirsty.

Beeeeeeeeeep. Four days after the boys were born, a monitor across the room turned black as a baby boy died in his mother’s arms. Ben and I sat with our motionless sons, who languished on life support in their incubators. Ben’s shoulders hunched. I took his hand while he stared at Kyle’s monitor and willed it to stay lit. Doctors and nurses, healers never inured to the death of a child, mourned with a family in crisis. I swallowed my own vomit, my worst fears coming true for a kindred family.

Where is God in all of this? I raged.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

The fly trapped in the fluorescent light banged against the glass. Kyle and Evan were three weeks old. It was almost Christmas. I sat on the faded green sofa in the hospital waiting room and pretended to read a year-old magazine. Ben sat next to me, staring at the flashing lights on the plastic tree in the corner, and chewed the cuticle of his right thumb until it bled. Behind the closed door a surgeon with grown-up hands opened our sons’ two-pound bodies, spread their ribs and clamped off leaks in their hearts.

The fly in the light fixture fought on, desperate for survival.

If they survived. 

Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue,” the Hawaiian singer sang soulfully from the car radio on my way home from the hospital, a week after the boys’ surgeries.

It was the song we had decided to play at the funeral if they died.

I couldn’t imagine life without them.

I couldn’t imagine life with them.

I pulled over and sobbed onto the steering wheel.

Kyle and Evan were five weeks old when I first held them. Two nurses and a doctor managed all of their tubes and wires. My heart burst open when our skin touched.

If they survived.

Brushing my teeth one night I realized that, for the first time since their birth seven weeks earlier, I hadn’t cried that day.

“Either things are getting better or you’ve lost the ability to feel, girlfriend,” I said to the woman with the bloodshot eyes and frothy lips staring back at me in the mirror.

I sure hope its the former, I thought. I rinsed my mouth and drove back to the hospital.

When they survived.

Four months and two days after their birth, Kyle and Evan came home. They had developmental delays and required endless medications and daily therapy sessions. Some days they felt more like high-stakes science fair experiments than my children. I ached with fear for them.

When they survived.

We had been home only five months, and already Ben and I were breaking.

“Banks, I don’t even want to come home at night, and it’s not because of the kids, it’s because of you!” Ben shouted as he slammed the front door on his way to work.

I saw myself in the mirror over the fireplace: a harridan in a stained robe, a crying infant on one hip, another in a bouncy chair and a three-year-old drawing with her yogurt on the breakfast table. A woman who was once an optimist with plans and a burgeoning legal career, now angry, sad and resentful.

Ben, my husband, my lover, my closest companion, had become my punching bag.

“Please come back to me,” I whispered as his taillights receded.

When they survived.

Martie started preschool, paddled around at swim lessons, went on play dates and to ballet class. Inquisitive and engaging, she needed and deserved her parents. We were spent but pretended well, for her sake.

“You know I love you, right, babe?” I said and closed my eyes, feeling Ben’s warm hand on my hip as his thigh covered my naked belly for the first time in weeks.

“We’ll get through this, Banksie,” Ben murmured, kissing the base of my collarbone.

How? I wondered.

When they survived.

“If you want him to learn, you have to push him until he’s about to quit and let him fail and keep trying,” the physical therapist said. Kyle, two years old and struggling to walk, had fallen off the low balance beam a dozen times already that morning.

Kyle looked at me with tear-stained cheeks, his breath ragged. I yearned to jump up and help him but I sat in my chair, hands clenched.

“One more time, Kyle,” the therapist said with an encouraging pat on the beam.

Kyle squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and got back up.

“One foot in front of the other, buddy!” I choked out, my throat thick, thinking how much this advice applied to my own life.

When they survived.

Kyle and Evan graduated from therapy and started a special enriched preschool. They learned to ride tricycles and played with their seven-year-old sister. Their development was delayed and we still agonized, but Ben and I started to breathe for the first time in years.

When they survived.

“How come we never got divorced through all this?” I asked Ben on the way home from the beach earlier that ladybug summer, when the boys were five and Martie was eight.

“We were too tired,” he said with a wink. We laughed.

When they survived.

“Ben!” My voice was shrill with panic as I stared at the loveliness of ladybugs populating the boys’ room. Ben ran in from the backyard.

“What the…? Martie, grab me the broom!” he commanded.

Martie sprinted to the hall closet as I snatched the bowl, still half full of ladybugs, and carried it to the yard, dropping it on the lawn. Wiping ladybugs off my hands and arms, I hurried into the house. We swept load after load of ladybugs into dustpans and emptied them into the bushes. We shook out rugs and flicked ladybugs from toys. The boys sucked up ladybugs one by one with handheld bug vacuums they had received as gifts the Christmas before.

Ben caught my eye.

In that moment, that crazy moment that in any other story would have been a catastrophe, we realized that Kyle and Evan had survived. We realized that they had more than survived, they had thrived and were able to wreak good, old-fashioned little-boy havoc. In that moment, for the first time since the day of their birth, we were no longer afraid.

We started laughing, hard, amid a loveliness of ladybugs and the shocking ordinariness of five-year-old mischief that never should have happened.

When we survived.

Before Kyle and Evan were born, life was a series of ipso factos that suggested that the universe handed out reward and punishment like Halloween candy. Kyle and Evan’s birth destroyed any certainty Ben and I had invented for ourselves and left only questions. Are control and security nothing more than illusions, even acts of hubris? And if that’s true, how do you find the strength to keep going when you cannot keep safe the people you love, when the terror is so overwhelming you can taste it in the back of your throat? Where do you find the courage to keep loving when the very act causes unthinkable pain? Perhaps the answers to these questions lay not in the controlled order I once thought I knew, but in the gorgeous chaos, and this exquisite, relentless connection that impels us to show up, always, regardless.

Fearless love. Ferocious love.

The next morning, as Martie, Kyle and Evan watched T.V. before breakfast, I lifted the lid off the coffee maker. Out crept a ladybug.

“C’mere, little guy,” I said as it crawled onto my finger. I walked across the kitchen, opened the back door and let it fly.

Author’s Note: Kyle and Evan are now eight years old and about to finish second grade, where they pore over books about knights and pirates, concoct explosive science experiments and engage in any game involving balls, dirt, or bugs with equal enthusiasm. We are still in touch with their therapists, doctors, nurses and special ed teachers, who will forever hold permanent keys to our hearts. Ladybugs continue to play a leading role in our family story; recently, Martie, Kyle and Evan spent hours rescuing hundreds of ladybugs trapped in the ice of a frozen California mountain lake. I am grateful.

Banks Staples Pecht lives in Ventura, CA, with her family, a Swiss mountain dog named Bella, two Dumbo rats named Oreo and Ice Cream, and Ninja, the Betta fish. When not writing, working as a lawyer/consultant/executive coach, caring for her three children or staying married, she can be found singing competitive barbershop and being beaten by her children in Wii bowling. This is her first published work.

Raising Elvis

Raising Elvis

By Allison Gehlhaus

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 3.42.29 PMI am a real New Jersey housewife. I tell my girlfriends that we could start our own show, the Real Tired Housewives. A show without huge earrings or catfights but with a lot of driving and packing of lunches. A lot. I have five children. When I say this (actually, mumble it) people’s mouths drop open, and some mixture of awe and repulsion twitches across their faces. Wow, they say. I can feel them calculating. They do not know whether to bow down in reverence or call for a psych exam. And then comes the part that I really hate. Four girls and one boy, I say.

I wait.

“Is the boy last?” they always ask.

They get this hopeful smirk on their faces, like they have caught me. Like I kept on having kids, until I got a boy. As though the girls were obstacles on my way to getting it right. The Holy Grail, a son. “No,” I answer, with a thrust of my chin. “He’s the fourth.”

That boy, my fourth, is now twelve. His name is Henry. He loves me. Oh no, he hates me. Loves me, hates me. He’s twelve.

*   *   *

It’s been an eye-opening twelve years. A time to examine some preconceived—literally—notions regarding the raising of boys and girls. Especially my own. I had been stunned and hurt by the comments I heard after the birth of our daughters. The nurses at the hospital told me that they hear a lot of women apologize to their husbands after giving birth to girls. Seriously. Right in the labor room. One nurse said, “Don’t they realize that it is the man who determines the sex of the baby?” Another quipped, “So maybe the men should apologize.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when visitors would say, “Maybe next time,” with a dismissive wave at our little pink bundles of joy. Or, “How soon are you going to try again?”

My brother-in-law actually said, “Three girls. That’s the pits.”

He’s lucky to be alive.

“Another girl? Is Hank mad at you?” a neighbor asked.

And when I answered, “Yeah, my husband’s furious, he’s kicking me out next week,” she didn’t even flinch.

And yet: No one was as shocked or as happy as I was when the doctor held up that baby boy in the hospital.

“I feel like I won the lottery,” I said to Hank.

I’d had three miscarriages after my three girls and before Henry’s birth. I had been flush with grief. I was delighted with my family but had wanted more children—not necessarily a boy or a girl, just another baby. When my body didn’t cooperate, I was stunned, but also ashamed. It’s a feeling my obstetrician said that many women confessed to, but that he couldn’t understand. It had been a terrible time, trying to mother my three daughters with the joy they deserved while being sick with the loss of those unborn babies. Finally having a healthy baby made me gleeful.

But still something nagged at me. People were now treating me like I had finally done something correctly. Did I secretly agree? Was I that big of a jerk?

“It’s about time,” I heard again and again. “Oh, your husband must be thrilled.”

So even while I was telling myself that I was just happy to have a healthy baby, I was thrilled to have a son. Finally. A small voice inside me yelled, You patriarchal hypocrite, as I floated and gloated through the aftermath of his birth.

*   *   *

That aftermath, though, was so thick with sexism that we all noticed it. My girls began to feel assaulted. The line they heard people say to me most often was, “Thank god your husband finally has a son to take over the family business.”

Our business happens to be an amusement park on the Jersey Shore. My daughters and I tried to make jokes about it, anticipating the comments and our snarky comebacks. We began to say, “Yup, the king was born. We’re nicknaming him Elvis.” Our oldest daughter, Meghan, then twelve, finally looked at me one day and said, “What? He’s got a penis so he gets the boardwalk?”

“Right on, sister,” I said, “We never said that. You’re the oldest. Girl or boy, we don’t care, if you want to run the business, knock yourself out.”

Meghan eventually wrote her college essay about how all this made her want to study business to help with the boardwalk. Even if she was a girl. She left the word penis out, for which I was proud.

*   *   *

I had told my friends that I was not going to be one of those mothers who shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys,” while their three-year-old sons beat each other up in the park. There would be no guns. Nor was I going to instantly label him as tough, while my girls were sweet. I had three brothers. My father’s preferential treatment of them had infuriated me growing up. I had read Gloria Steinem. I took sociology of gender in college. I was determined to raise this boy to be a peaceful, loving, non-rock-throwing kid who would grow up to be a fine man, as comfortable in the kitchen as he was in the boardroom. I had standards.

And yet, just last week, we were all cleaning up after dinner while my son was in the other room, killing Nazi zombies on Xbox. My daughter Emily looked at me and said, “Do you realize that your son, never, ever cleans up anymore?” Yikes, I thought—she was right. How did I let this happen? My husband was right in the trenches with us, scrubbing away. Annie, our nine-year-old, was sweeping the floor. My twenty-two-year-old daughter Shannon was clearing the counters, and Henry, aka Elvis, was on the couch, shooting and blowing up people. I had screwed up. I had let myself veer off the path of equality. I had become one of those mothers—one of those “boys will be boys” mothers.

I yelled into the other room, “Hey, get in here—just because you have a penis, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from cleaning up.”

I showed him.

*   *   *

Although I never intended to treat my son differently than my daughters, the reality of who he is, this particular boy, has forced me to. As Shannon said to me, “He is an alpha male with a different operating manual than we have. You need to chill.” And while I can see that my daughters have some stereotypically masculine qualities and my son some female ones, I’ve come to believe that I do need to chill. Even a mother with the best intentions has to concede to gender differences.

I could see this early on. Henry turned Barbie dolls upside down and made slingshots out of their legs. He flushed dollhouse furniture down the toilet. When he was four, I heard him calling me, and when I went down our long, narrow hallway I couldn’t figure out where he was. Finally, I saw him. Flush to the ceiling. He had scaled the wall. His feet were on one side of the wall, and his hands on the other.

“Jeez,” I said, “at least put some pillows on the floor if you’re going to act like Spiderman.”

I never had to utter a sentence like that to my girls. My daughters never asked me to go to the hardware store so they could design and build their own air soft guns. I’ve never said to them, “Wow, that revamped bicycle pump gave you a great amount of pressure.”

Nor have daughters ever called me and asked me to buy potassium nitrate on the way home from work.

“What do you need that for?” I said to Henry after he did exactly that.

“I’m making something,” he mumbled.

“I’m worried that the FBI is going to show up on my doorstep one day because you’ve researched the making of something,” I whined.

“Chill,” he said. “I don’t want to blow anything up, I just want to make my own smoke bombs. They’re harmless.”

The truth is, I don’t really know how Henry turned out to be, as a friend called him, “A boy’s boy in a house full of women.” I have tried over the last twelve years to tease out what is nature and what is nurture. Sometimes I think he is a lot like my father and brothers, and of course Hank, all strong, take-no-prisoners kind of men. It could be also that I am simply comfortable with that kind of male and thus subconsciously encouraged his “boyness.” Or maybe Henry was determined or destined to be who he is no matter what.

Will boys really be boys?

As I try to figure this all out, I am watching the caveman my son evolved from.

Henry grunts instead of answering me. He will knock things off the counter when he is mad. He runs with a pack of boys whose rules of hierarchy astound me. One time in the middle of an argument when he was ten, I said to him, “Instead of throwing my books on the floor, why don’t you say, ‘I get mad when you won’t let me buy a bb gun.'”

He doubled over laughing. “Yeah, right,” he said, kicking my door on the way out. “Like that’s ever gonna happen.”

Once when we suspected our contractor of stealing, we arranged a meeting to confront him. Henry spent three days designing an intricate pulley system so that when the guy opened our door, a small rubber ball hit him in the forehead. He was six. He makes me wish I bought stock in vinegar and baking soda. He plays sports with a ferocity that borders on scary.

As his mother, I find myself also adapting to the changes in our own little ecosystem. Do I love watching him shoot Nazis, design weapons, climb walls? No, not particularly. Am I happier shopping, gossiping, or cooking with my girls? Yup. But it shouldn’t be about what makes me happy. Or comfortable. Although I wrestle with all this, I do strive for some sort of balance between what Henry needs and I need. And that changes day to day.

Hank and I argued once about the way my son threw his best friend out of our house. Just told him to leave. This boy’s mother and I are good friends.

“Your problem,” Hank said, “is that you don’t understand boy world.”

Anytime a husband starts a sentence with “your problem is,” you know you’ve got big problems.

“I have three brothers. I understand way more than you think,” I said.

“Raising a son is different than having brothers,” he said.

“Duh,” I said, because I am such a grown up.

“He should apologize,” I said. “There had to be a better way to handle it.”

“He’ll figure it out,” Hank said. “It’s dog-eat-dog out there. Who’s strong, who’s not backing down—it’s a whole different ball game than with the girls.”

What I should’ve said to my husband was that at least with the girls, I understood some of the ways my daughters and their friends worked out their conflicts—by talking behind each other’s backs, alienating each other, and other similarly lovely tactics. Regrettably, I’d even participated in those kinds of tactics at one time or another.

Instead I said, “Thanks a lot Darwin, I’ll keep that in mind.”

It took months to work out. Henry held his ground, even when the other boy got everyone at the lunch table to get up and move, leaving him alone. There were parties where only one of them was invited because of the rift. Eventually, though, they became friends again when they both played on the school baseball team. Neither one had backed down; they respected each other for it. And most importantly to my friend and me, no punches were thrown.

It was excruciating to watch. Boy world.

*   *   *

We are in a restaurant, or an airport, or at the beach. Someone comes up.

“This was exactly my family growing up, four girls and one boy.”

“How’d the boy turn out?” I always ask, exposing my weakness and not caring.

“He’s great,” they usually answer. “He makes a fine husband. He really understands women.”

And this is the other worry. Besides keeping him alive, I know that someday, some woman is going to be his wife. So when he yells at me that he can’t find his basketball jersey and it’s all my fault because I do the laundry, I go from zero to sixty. I am doubly mad. Triply. I think of his wife. I don’t want her to be burdened with a man who thinks women are his servants. It can get messy, this raising of sons.

*   *   *

Of all the parenting advice I’ve read, the one sentence that has kept me going is from psychologist Haim Ginott: Treat your children as though they are already the people you want them to be. I love this; it encourages you to reinforce the qualities you desire, while subtly ignoring the ones you wish would disappear. This is big-picture parenting, the kind that acknowledges the power of the language we use about and with our children over time. And every now and then, a situation arises and you realize, with a quiet kind of awe, that your children actually are the people you want them to be.

This past Memorial Day, while I was working at the counter at one of our food stands, a customer left without paying. It was ridiculously hot that day, and crowded, and our whole family was working. That was the third time someone had stiffed me in an hour, and I was angry. “Where is that guy?” I asked, steaming mad, looking around.

Another customer pointed to the bar across the way and said, “The guy in the plaid shirt? He went in there.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Henry leave our stand and walk into the bar. A twelve-year-old walks into a bar. He came out a minute later, walked to our cash register, and put a twenty in. He nodded at me, didn’t say a word, and went back to filling up the ice machine. Good boy, I thought.

About half an hour later a woman came up to the counter, apologizing for her husband. “He said you were mobbed—he swears he would have come to pay you later.” She shrugged like she wasn’t so sure she believed him. “But I have to know: Who is that kid, the one that came over?”

“My son,” I said, nervous. “Why?”

“He just came up, kind of quiet, tapped my husband on the back and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but you owe my mother money.’ “

I looked over at my son, who was now sneaking up behind the grill guy, trying to put ice cubes down his shirt.

She smiled and said, “You don’t got to worry about that kid.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” I said.

Author’s Note: Why do I love the story of Henry walking into the bar? Why is it this story I tell? Because it lets me choose from it a combination of qualities that I want my son to have: strength, loyalty, empathy, respect, sprinkled with a dose of good humor. All things that I would want to foster in a good human being. Girl or boy.

When I told Henry that I had written an essay about him, he said, “Of course you did—I’m a fascinating character.”

Allison Gehlhaus’s fiction has appeared in Mothering, and an excerpt of her almost finished memoir, Tough Little B*tch, appeared in Booth. “Raising Elvis” is her first published essay.

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

Rated M for Middle School

Rated M for Middle School

By Chris Fredrick

Sound travels from the basement up the stairs to the kitchen. I can hear our son because he yells into his headset microphone. “So, what are you using?” Then he pauses, and laughs. “No, I mean are you using Bad Juju or Thunderlord?” I catch myself smiling, wondering, How does a thirteen-year-old interpret Bad Juju? I hear our neighbor’s muffled response over the speakers, then gunshots in the background. Our son shrieks, then laughs again. I shake my head and try to focus. I need to scrape something together for supper.

I began my journey into the world of video game parenting when our son started middle school. At first, I resisted the purchase of a gaming system outright. Being outside its world, it was easy to believe what I’d heard: that play violence leads to real violence. Plus, it was hard to ignore the blame hurled at video games in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. The idea that we would somehow offer him up to “violence” terrified me.

But on the other side of my abstract concerns was our son’s reality. We had just moved to a new city and a new school. He had left his trusted friends and needed to begin again. It was a lot to ask of anyone. And it felt larger, somehow, to ask it of a small boy on the threshold of middle school. “The boys at school talk about all these things I don’t understand,” he said.

He studied. He reasoned. He pleaded.

I decide supper can wait a few minutes. I tiptoe partway down the stairs and see him engrossed in play. His eyes are intense. “I just need one more. I just need one more. I just need one more.” He is off the couch, jumping up and down. “Aaaaahhhh! You just got downed!”

Once we bought the system, the change happened quickly. His free time was no longer where I felt it belonged, with his books, science kits and the Star Wars Clone Turbo Tank he’d built out of Legos. He was drawn—body and soul—to the aura of Xbox.

My worry went into overdrive. “You won’t play on Live, right?” I asked with unflinching naiveté. Playing on Xbox Live meant playing online, where he could chat with players anywhere, of any age.

“Well, yeah. That’s the whole point. If a friend hosts a party, I want to play.”

I vented to my husband. “What about the hackers? Or the stalkers… or the pedophiles?!” My husband thought I was overreacting. But, to me, our son seemed vulnerable, especially when I saw him alongside the younger versions of himself. When he was in preschool, his teacher pulled me aside and told me she thought he was mute. In elementary school, I went out of my way to describe him to his teachers as shy. But when they nodded too casually, I added, “Not just shy, but sensitive and conscientious.” It was my please-don’t-yell-at-him code. He has always been small for his age. We’d enrolled him in several sports, hoping one might stick, but every sport made his tummy hurt. “I’m too nervous,” he’d said.

I watch him groan, hands in the air. He yells into the mic, “I was hoping you would kill the oracle so I could get the relic! But what happened?” He holds his head in his hands, and I feel an urge to hug him. But then he rallies before I have time to react and he is back in the game.

After we bought the Xbox, our conversations shifted to the kinds of games we would buy for the Xbox. I thought Just Dance or the Star Wars game seemed good. But he had other games in mind, games his new friends played. They all had an ESRB rating of M. I gritted my teeth, knowing that games rated M were for a mature audience and included blood, swearing, nudity and sex to varying degrees of realism. They weren’t recommended for anyone under seventeen. “How about this rule,” I suggested. “You can have any T-rated game you want.” T stood for “teen” and was sort of the PG-13 equivalent in the gaming world.

He looked at all the T games and said he couldn’t find one that was any good. Good to me meant wholesome. Good to him meant high quality gameplay and fun. “I’ll pay,” I added, trying to sweeten the deal. Then he hauled out the reviews in GameInformer magazine. In his mind, games with good reviews in GameInformer were the only ones to consider. I followed his arguments and eventually agreed to Assassin’s Creed. He’d been reading me various game summaries and its story line sounded more interesting than the others.

His first favorites were Assassin’s Creed 3 and Borderlands 2. (I’ve been told the numbers are important.) Then there was Dishonored and Gears of War 3. Even the titles made me cringe. But our son worked hard. He researched them all, telling me their plot lines and promising to skip the optional scenes that involved brothels. Night after night, I followed him downstairs and watched him play the Assassin’s Creed 3 campaign. I paged through the guidebook while he learned the controls. The game’s storyline was a series of framed memories; the historical detail and graphics were phenomenal.

Several months later, early in the Dishonored campaign, he ran up the stairs breathing hard. “The weepers!” he exclaimed. The game had rat swarms and plague-infected weepers who walked around like zombies. He paced back and forth in the kitchen, torn. He wanted to play the campaign—badly—but he was scared. For a moment I saw him as the second grader who couldn’t go down to the basement unless I held his hand. After a few minutes of pacing, he collected himself. Then, defiantly, he sank into the weeper-filled darkness.

Some days I felt like the Xbox was an alien force that had invaded our perimeter and was poised to attack our foundation. But, more and more, I remembered how our son had connected to Star Wars. It wasn’t an accident that he owned the Clone Turbo Tank and not the Millennium Falcon. When he was six he loved Darth Vader. At seven, he loved General Grievous. He was drawn to characters of intrigue, not necessarily because they were dark but because they were interesting. So it made sense that he tended toward games with interesting characters and compelling story lines. He played Black Ops 2 when his friends played it, but he preferred Borderlands 2. While they are both shooter games, Borderlands is open world and role-playing, set on the planet Pandora.

It wasn’t long before our son made a friend on Xbox, someone who lived in a different state but shared his love of Borderlands.

“You didn’t tell him how old you are, or where you live, did you?” I asked.

“Mo-mma!” He groaned. “Of course not.”

Along the way, I gradually loosened the reins. A big part of that change came when I read an article in American Psychologist called “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” in which the authors argue that the majority of research on video games has focused on its negative impacts. It goes on to summarize research that has shown the benefits to people who play video games in cognitive, motivational, emotional and social measures. Reading the article made my chest swell with emotion: it quantified and articulated what I’d seen happen for our son. Some of his best friends are the ones he meets online. Most often they are friends from school, but not always. I’ve seen his fear and inhibitions replaced with confidence and poise.

The study also said that making a sweeping assessment about video games is like saying the same thing about food. There is so much variety and complexity, and the industry is changing all the time. Extending the food analogy, a good video game is highly complex and forces its players to think and act quickly. In other words, violent shooter games like Grand Theft Auto are the broccoli and spinach of gaming.

Our son is in eighth grade now. When I see him wearing his headset and virtual hip waders, I know that the best argument for video games is the one he never made. In this dark but open world, he isn’t shy or small. He plays with the same intensity he once had for other toys. He researches. He earns armor and uses teamwork. Sports can’t deliver this to him, but the Xbox does.

The game he’s playing now is Destiny. He’s made it level 27 in a relatively short time, which I’m told is pretty good. It’s similar to Borderlands 2, but in its highest levels it requires him to recruit his own team of six. He also collects obscure relics on different planets.

I quietly turn to head back up the stairs. I still need to cook supper. But then I hear him say, “Way, way, wait…” I think he is talking through the headset, but then I see he is looking at me. “I’m looking for spirit blooms,” he says with a smile.

“Can I join you?” I ask.

“Yeah. I think you’ll like them.” He unplugs his microphone. “When you find one, it glows on the inside… then it sort of opens in your hand.”

I walk down the stairs and sit next to him. We can order pizza. Right now, I want to see a spirit bloom.

Chris Fredrick lives in the Milwaukee area with her husband and their two middle-schoolers. A work-from-home mom, she writes between client projects, loads of laundry, CC meets and band lessons.




WO Colorblind artBy Emma Kate Tsai

I had no idea what he’d look like.

I only knew what I could find out with a wave of a wand. Gender, length, amniotic fluid. But it didn’t tell me what everyone wanted to know: Would he have my hazel eyes, my Chinese father’s olive skin, my mother’s blue eyes, my husband’s red hair, or the blonde hair Mom once had? I didn’t know the answer to the questions the Chinese half of my family didn’t have the grace not to ask: Would he look like them or white like my mother? Of course, I look like neither.

“Do you think he’ll look Chinese?” Toni, my oldest stepsister, asked me over lunch when I was four months pregnant.

I had just announced that my first baby would be a boy. Every one of their dark-topped heads bobbed up and down, as they let out the breath they’d each been holding. My three stepsisters, their spouses, my stepmother, my father. All Chinese. (My stepmother and her family from Taiwan, my father from China.) As if to say, boy = good. I was sitting next to my father on the leather sofa, my stepsisters spread out around the living room, cross-legged on the pearly bamboo floor. Their heads were bowed, long, straight black hair cascading over bare shoulders. Shih-tzus clicked their nails on the floor around them.  My own short hair is the darkest brown it can be. Visually at least, I look the part. My skin isn’t too white, my eyes more brown than blue. I’m half-Chinese, but to them, since I’m not all-Chinese, I am basically not Chinese.

I looked over at my father. He was wearing that polite smile that told me he was barely listening. Baba, as I called him (Chinese for Dad), met Toni’s mother, Ines, in a Chinese drama club. My mother—a beautiful brunette with blue eyes and freckled skin—he met at university, shortly after setting foot on American soil. From their union, I, my twin sister, and my brother were born. Half-Chinese, AmeriAsian, mixed breed. Whatever you want to call us, we are only part Chinese. Richard, my fiancé, is all white.

I know what Toni wants to hear: that I will have a Chinese-looking boy. My father doesn’t care, or so I lead myself to believe. A traditional Chinese man he may be, but he’s not a traditional Chinese father. He never pushed me to marry a Chinese man, or to marry at all. When I first brought Richard home, he liked him because he was friendly and respectful, and treated me well. Not a single word was ever said about race. But then again, he could hardly argue with something he’d done himself.

I give a non-answer, filling the silence with truth. “I don’t know.”

“Well, you don’t have that much Chinese, really, anyway,” she says. “Only half, right?”

Her words sting, cutting my otherness from me. Baba doesn’t respond, only clucks his tongue a bit at a joke that isn’t all that funny. My father is stout and muscular, his skin brown against my own, his black hair makes mine look caramel. His big eyes remind me of melted chocolate, so dark his pupils get lost in them. My eyes are hazel, a color created by my particular genetic inheritance. Baba’s nose is wide and flat, while mine is flat at the top and narrower at the nostril, an exact blend of my two halves. My high cheekbones and full lips come from my mother. Baba’s lips are little more than two plumped-up straight lines. He could never wear a mustache well with a mouth so slight. What would my son get? Mom’s Marilyn Monroe mouth? Baba’s big eyes? My hybrid nose? Or would he bypass my side altogether and come out as All-American as my husband? The Chinese can be facially stereotyped, but what features define an American?

I’ve always called myself half-Chinese, never half-American. I wear my father’s Chinese name and so I have always had to come up with an answer for why I look American but have a surname no American can pronounce.

I wait for Toni to say something, to accept my mixed heritage, to withdraw her judgment and offer some sort of apology. Instead she just stares at my father, as if he doesn’t look Chinese at all, either.

“Yeah,” I say, “he’ll probably just look like a regular ole white kid, blonde hair and blue eyes.” I feel defeated, as if my son is already here, denying my maternity and culture. Toni nods slowly. I have confirmed what she already believes.

Later that night, I tell Richard about Toni’s question. He laughs.

“Of course he won’t have blonde hair. Brown is the dominant gene.” I Google genetics, trying to figure out the probability. It is too much science, and my pregnant brain can’t make the calculations. When I try to picture my son in my mind, I can’t. I only see a fuzzy outline. No colors. Chinese is what I have, what’s different from Richard, what makes me stand out. Will I vanish within recessiveness if my son makes his entrance looking far less different than I always have?

Soon, I find out for myself. Five months later, Oliver arrives after twelve hours of labor and pushing. About a half hour after the countdown starts, the head nurse announces, “I see dark hair!” Her exclamation is a cheer, one for my team.

“Really?” I breathe. Dark hair means Chinese. Dark hair means me.

But when Oliver emerges completely, he proves us all wrong. The nurses roll up my sweaty, bloodstained nightgown and place him on my belly, and he looks up at me and stares. I stare back and get lost in eyes that are not my own, blue eyes that should belong to a character in a story.

They are not the murky newborn blue many babies are born with. No, Oliver’s blue could be a Pantone color, a gradient created by a graphic designer. Not a placeholder for brown or hazel, but my mom’s blue, and my husband’s. After five minutes or thirty—I have lost all sense of time—the nurses scoop up our baby and take him for his first bath. When they wheel him back in, we stand to greet him and see it: blonde hair. Mom’s blonde, the blonde she was born with, the blonde Richard was born with.

My baby is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy.

When my father comes to see Oliver nine hours later, he laughs. “He looks just like you!” he says to Richard. My husband beams. I nod, as if it was my joke too. Our baby boy looks just like his daddy. It is like I am not even there. My dad leans over Oliver and whispers, “So, so beautiful.” He never stops saying it. Not that day, not the next week, not for several months. Even when he isn’t saying the words, you can see them in the way he gazes at our child. As if he’s afraid Oliver is a mirage that might disappear if he looks away. Is it because of Oliver’s fair skin and eyes? Is white more beautiful to my Chinese father than whatever I am? Has that been the reason why my father has been so uninterested in me, why he’s now so interested in my son? Why my mother came and went, then came and went again? I don’t look enough like either of them. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, someone neither parent can attach to.

A couple of days later, my stepsisters come to meet the new baby. Their feet have barely crossed the threshold when the declaration is made. “He looks just like Richard!” Toni says, and her words are echoed by the others. “He looks so…WHITE,” Georgette informs me, as if I needed to be told. My white fiancé holds my white baby, while I sit in the corner and eat a Chinese meal of rice, bok coy steamed with garlic, and roasted salmon. I watch as the other within me—my Chinese family—surrounds my two men, protecting them from the outside world. From me. As if he is Richard’s baby, and I just happen to live here. I stare at Oliver in the center of their circle, who now feels so far away. They have turned him into a question of either/or and forgot all about how Oliver came to be. I don’t care what he looks like, why should they? Why does it have to be a competition? Richard vs. Emma, White vs. Chinese.

“Look, I did all the hard work,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

“Well,” Georgette says, “maybe he’ll look like you later on.” Then, as if on cue, Oliver starts to cry. I steal him away and mount the stairs to feed him. As soon as I place my nipple in his mouth, he stops crying and I start, my family’s words reverberating in my heart. It is just one more way my Chinese heritage has subjugated me. The meals and parties and holidays I sat drowning in my father’s foreign tongue, the family from Taiwan he chose over his own, spinning tales in Chinese that his own children couldn’t understand. The mispronunciation of my name every single year in school, the “what are you?” questions, the Chinese boys who tried to date me then gave up, the American men who wished I could cook Chinese food. Can’t Oliver just be whatever he is without the label of Chinese or white?

Color was masking everything, in his case. His blonde hair and blue eyes distracted viewers from the shape of his eyes—Chinese, like mine—and the shape of his nose. If you looked hard enough, you’d see him for what he was: a quarter Chinese.

It wasn’t just my family who was colorblind. It was everyone. Out in the world, I felt like his nanny, his nursemaid, anything but his mother. I would force Richard to take my picture with Oliver positioned just so, hoping to catch a shot of our complementary features, offering the world evidence that he was part Tsai, part me. Here, try to say you don’t see any resemblance.

It would be four months before Toni finally says, “He looks more and more like you.” And more than that before everyone else agreed.

When we are out together now and someone gives Richard claim to Oliver’s face, Richard does his best to turn a sole proprietorship into a partnership: “He has Emma’s nose.” Usually he is met with a quizzical look, as if he is speaking a foreign language. In fact, he is: he is speaking Emma, and all they know is Richard. It is the Chinese in me, in Oliver, they don’t see. The very reason Oliver looks the way he does is because of my mother’s American heritage and mine, not in spite of it. You’re just seeing color, I want to shout, there’s more to us than that. But am I talking about Oliver or about myself? Am I really asking others to see me as something more than the sum of my parts?

That majority ruling pulls at my heart more than the pain in my abdomen or the pulsing in my nipples after a long feeding. It’s a feeling that lasts longer than the days Oliver cries for hours without a pause, or pees all over the bathroom walls. All of that lingers in the background, as Oliver smiles and erases the identity theft of the immediate past. This feeling of disconnectedness from my child—in the eyes of the world—comes back again and again. They are subjecting him to a label that does nothing but segregate him. From me.

Eventually, Oliver becomes a part of the world, his own person, even though he’s only seven months old. He looks like Oliver, a growing boy who could be something out of a Precious Moments catalogue, with his round nose, huge eyes, and a lower lip that he likes to tuck in. As his hair comes in, it appears to be different shades of dark blonde and red—reminiscent of Richard’s hair, but not identical to it. His face has the delicate roundness of a baby’s. He has a tiny belly, unlike Richard, and long legs, very much like the both of us. Now and then, someone will say he looks like me; now and then, someone will say he looks nothing like me. In his very own way, Oliver has become more about Oliver, and less about us, and that’s what we had wished for all along.

Emma Kate Tsai is an editor and writer in Houston, Texas. She has been published online and in print, including an essay entitled “Chinese-American Girl: Drinking from East to West” in the anthology Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, and the lead essay in the self-published anthology Loving for Crumbs entitled “Spell of Starvation.” Emma has an essay upcoming in Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, pending from Seal Press, and is currently at work on a memoir that focuses on identity through the lens of an identical twin.

Photo: Lesley Shone


Adoption Day

Adoption Day

By Ellyn Gelman

Adoption Day ArtThis is a happy day, adoption day. Kenton is dressed in a navy blue jacket and tie.  A solid, average size ten-year old boy, his light brown hair is cut short.  A small cowlick forms a circle in the center of his forehead.  My father, his new Pappaw, has spent the morning teaching Kenton to tie the knot in his new plaid tie. Kenton seems itchy with excitement, ready to be adopted.  I hug my soon-to-be nephew and breathe him in.  He smells like boy, a mixture of fresh grass and dirt, like the earth, if the earth used hair gel.

“Are you excited?” I say.

“Yeah, I wanna go now.”

“It’s almost time.”

Kenton came to live with my brother John, his wife Leslie and their two daughters, 19-year old Casey and 16-year old Emily, nine months ago.  He was a pre-adoptive child.   His birth mother’s parental rights were in the process of being severed by the court.  He carried all ten years of his life in two small laundry baskets.  His most treasured possessions: a four-leaf clover, a small dried up starfish and a piece of white quartz all secured safely in a zip-lock sandwich bag.  He asked my brother John and my-sister-in-law Leslie two questions when he arrived.

“Do I still have to be called a foster kid and can I play on a football team?”

I am sitting next to Kenton in the waiting room designated for family court.  I feel nervous, courtroom nervous.  It is the same feeling I get when a police car is behind me and I haven’t done anything wrong. Kenton holds a multi-colored Mylar balloon tied to a small gift bag.

“Who gave you the balloon?” I ask.

He points to a pretty young Asian woman in a beige dress with black high heels, standing by the door.


“Her name is DSS?”

“No” he says pushing me with his shoulder “DSS is a company, that’s my case worker.  She gave me a VISA gift card too.”


“Do you wanna know how much.”


“Fifty-three dollars and sixty-seven cents, weird right? It’s money left over from foster care, weird right?” he says, looking confused.

“Well, I guess they could have rounded it to an even fifty-four dollars but hey, it’s ‘found money’ right?  You get to spend it however you want.” I say.

“Yep.”  He shrugs and walks away toward my mom, his new Grammy.

I am struck by the casualness of this conversation.  Case-workers, DSS, foster care.  Kenton talks about these things like my children talk about a coach or a teacher.  My children think visitation means grandparents are coming, not supervised weekly visits with mom.   Kenton’s words make me sad but this is what he knows. He has been in the foster care system for most of his life.  He is a study of innocence lost, detoured by sharp turns, rough surfaces and shadowy tunnels.  Yet he is resilient, eager to trust this newly paved road of love and permanence.

I am one of seventeen family and friends present to witness the adoption of Kenton.  My mom and dad have traveled from Florida to be here.  We sit together in a large waiting room.    It is divided down the middle; forty plastic brown seats face forty more plastic brown seats.  We are early, a bit fidgety and in our attempt to be quiet, we are whispery loud.

I think about Kenton’s birth mother.  How she sat in this same room waiting to sign the papers that would end her parental rights to her only child. The ache in her mother heart must have been unbearable.  Did she feel guilty, hopeless, sad, afraid?  She is an addict.  The system has given her years to get clean.  It has given Kenton at least four foster homes.  This last thought makes me angry.  I don’t know how long it should take, but ten years is a lot of childhood.

Kenton’s case is called. “This has to be a record,” the judge notes as all seventeen of us file into family courtroom number nine.  The judge wears a casual beige suite and looks a little like Mel Brooks.  We sit on two long pews in the back of the room.  Kenton sits between my brother and sister-in-law at a long table. The judge sits facing them on their right, the adoption caseworker and attorney for the state on their left.  Kenton looks a little smaller now; his shoulders rise just above the table.   His hands are folded neatly.   From the back he is a mini replica of my brother, both hunched forward in matching navy blue blazers.  John and Leslie are sworn in.

The proceedings take an hour.  All the paper work has been signed in advance but must be reviewed. The case-worker and the attorney for the state stand and recommend the adoption.  The judge addresses my sister-in-law, Leslie.

“Has Kenton done anything in the past nine months to make you change your mind about this adoption today?”

“No” she says with quiet confidence.

He addresses my brother John.

“Tell me how the past nine months have been for you.”

“Well, it has been a fun journey so far,” John pauses, “and, I’m looking forward to the rest of it.” he laughs and smiles at Kenton.

“Do you both swear to raise Kenton for all intents and purposes as your natural born child?”

“We do.”

“Kenton, tell me, what have the last nine months been like for you?”

“Um,” he repeats John’s words, ” Well, it’s been a fun journey.”

The courtroom erupts in laughter.

“You not only look like your Dad, now you talk like him.”   The judge smiled.

More laughter.

“Kenton, mom and dad have made some promises and they can’t take them back.  Do you promise at all times to obey your parents?’


“Do you promise to always love and honor your parents?”


“And” -it seems the judge is winging it now-“do you promise to always make them proud?”

“Uh huh.” Kenton says.

“Your parents will be proud of you no matter what, but you should always work hard to make them even prouder.  Do you want me to grant this adoption Kenton?”


“Well, I do believe this is a match made in heaven,” the judge says. He pauses and stares at the inscription In God We Trust on the wood paneled wall in front of him.  Then he signs a few more papers and the adoption is complete.  The details of Kenton’s first ten years – the years between the hoping and the coming true – are in a file that will be sealed by the court today.

“I wish I was born in your belly,” Kenton says to his mom on the way out of the courthouse.  She stops and pulls him close.

“Even better, you were born in my heart.”

Satisfied with the answer, he turns and jumps up on his new big sister Casey.  She piggybacks him to the car.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.

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Birch Whisperer

Birch Whisperer

By Debbie Hagan

iStock_000027977692SmallAbove the black pines, above the rock crags, above the frozen streams I soar.  Eyes shut, I am armless, legless, bodiless, weightless—a spirit cut loose, suspended over treetops. My nostrils fill with the sparkles of mountain air, and miraculously this lifts me so I’m floating higher and higher to a sunnier, more joyful place.

A sharp jerk and I awaken to realize I’m in a chairlift scaling the side of Sugar Loaf Mountain—ascending 1,400 feet. From a small cable, I dangle with my fifteen-year-old son who wonders why we’ve stopped. A pile-up on the off-ramp? A ski patroller loading a gurney? A mechanical failure? I look to the tiny cable that holds our enormous weight, and I think it’ll start in a minute. It always does.

I look to my son. Icicles dangle from his blonde chin hairs. He’s strangely stiff, his ski gloves iced to the restraining bar. I consider poking him just to be sure he’s okay. Then fog rises behind his goggles, and I know at least he’s breathing.

“Are you having a good time?” I ask.

I listen for that Mickey Mouse-high, ever-chipper voice that used to beg me for one more ryn.

He grunts, and his frozen face expresses what his lips can’t seem to say, Yeah right, Mom, I’m lovin’ this—freezing my ass off, sitting in a God-damn metal chair blown about by a Nor’easter.

Two more runs, I tell myself. Then I’ll let him go back to the condo, play his video games—whatever makes him happy. I just want this to be fun.

Then my heart sinks. I see poking out of his left ski glove, his hospital wristband, the one he wore four days ago in the psych ward.  I try to think of something happy, like the time we raced down the slope to see who would end up in the lodge first. We’d hockey-stopped almost simultaneously, defrosted over mugs of chocolate, and then laughed at our whipped cream mustaches. It was fun, wasn’t it?

Now I take my fingers from my gloves, roll them into fists, and think, Oh God, when will this chair ever start?  I can’t stand this endlessly waiting. Finally, I explode, “I see you’re still wearing your hospital bracelet.”

Instantly I want to take this back.

Connor stares at me.

I expect a snide remark, but he just lifts his shoulder. “I don’t know why I wear it. My name’s worn off.”


Minutes drag by. More silence, more waiting. We dangle as I stare at the ground—at least 100 feet below. So close, but so far.

“How long are we going to be stopped?” Connor asks as if he thinks I have a hotline to the lift tower: Let’s see, one minute, thirty-two seconds.

The truth is I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, or even within the next thirty seconds. I hope. I wait. I guess. But nothing is certain. There’s nothing to do, but sit here in the cold and wait.

Suddenly the chair lurches, and we’re moving—skimming above trails cut by skiers and rabbits whose prints crisscross as if they can’t decide where to run.

Another minute passes, and I see the off-ramp—and I feel confident, just fifteen seconds and we’ll be free. I push up the restraining bar, which groans as it hits the back of the chair and gives us a good shake. I organize my poles, straighten my skis, and imagine us turning around the bend, sailing down the ridge, flying in the face of all our worries, letting them blow right over us.

But the chair stops again. We bob up and down. I grab the side. There’s fifty-foot drop in front of us.

My eyes shoot to my son.

He doesn’t appear scared in the least. In fact, he looks as if he’s caught up in a dream, staring down at the gnarled birch branches. I follow his gaze. The dark, wind-twisted limbs look like devil fingers curling towards us, coaxing us down.

Connor leans slightly forward, and then cocks his head as if he’s trying to hear them whisper.

He asks, “Do you think I’d be hurt if I jumped?”

Debbie Hagan is a freelance writer with more than 500 published articles and columns, she is also a Manuscript Consultant at Grub Street in Boston, Massachusetts.

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My Super Man

My Super Man

By Daisy Alpert FlorinIMG_3335

Oliver, my four-year-old, hung his Batman backpack in his cubby, a still point amidst the chaos of preschool drop off.  He was wearing a Batman t-shirt with removable cape, a Spiderman sweatshirt and Justice League sneakers.  Underneath, he wore his underwear backwards so the picture of Iron Man was facing forward, inviting what I can only imagine was a wicked wedgie.  After hanging up his backpack, which held a Spiderman lunchbox and water bottle, he headed toward his classroom clutching a book we had made by stapling together pictures of Spiderman from the Internet like a talisman.  As I watched him walk away, his sneakers lighting up with each step, I wondered what exactly was going on with my youngest son.

Oliver’s fascination with superheroes began about a year and a half ago, shortly before he turned three.  What started out as a mild interest in Spiderman, Superman and Batman quickly expanded to include all superheroes both major and minor.  His collection is vast, added to by well-meaning family members and friends: toys, books, clothing, games, a piggy bank, dozens of figurines and–the crown jewel–a silkscreen canvas of a dozen superheroes purchased at great expense by Grandpa.  Oliver subscribes to a superhero magazine, and we’ve borrowed every book and video from the library numerous times, renewing them again and again and returning them only with great reluctance.  Along the way, he has acquired an almost encyclopedic knowledge of all things superhero: costumes, superpowers, alter egos, villains, even the alter egos of the villains.  He knows the difference between DC Comics and Marvel and can list the members of the Avengers, X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

And then there are the costumes, colorful, synthetic bodysuits with velcro closures that make the transformation complete.  (If you pay extra, you can buy the “muscle version” in which strategically placed foam inserts give your preschooler a bulging six pack and pecs.)  Oliver knows wearing costumes to school is a no-no.  “When I come home, can I put on my Captain America costume?” he often asks me on the way to school.  And sure enough, as soon as he gets home, he will pull the costume on over his clothes, a look of relief on his face, like slipping into a hot bath at the end of a long day.  I have taken him on errands in full Batman attire, inviting smiles and comments.  “Hey, Batman,” a clerk at Costco once said as we walked past.  Oliver grabbed my arm and pulled me toward him.  “He thinks I’m Batman!” he whispered.

When I let him, Oliver loves nothing more than to scroll through images of superheroes on the computer.  Then he begs me to print them out so he can tape them to his walls.

“Don’t you think that’s scary, Oliver?” I asked him one night, pointing at the picture of Spiderman battling the Lizard that hung over his bed.  The Lizard’s claws were sharp and his muscled limbs burst through the seams of his lab coat.

“Nope,” he said.  “Remember, Mom?  I’m not scared of anything!”

Was that really true?  When I taught preschoolers, I often told parents who worried about the aggressiveness of superhero play that this kind of play was normal because it helped children feel safe in a world that is constantly revealing new dangers.  But while I understood this intellectually, I worried about my own son.  Was his world so scary?  Had I done something to make him feel nervous or insecure? When my daughter, Ellie, went through her princess phase, I had similar worries about the extent of her identification with these pampered damsels in distress.  Would she grow up with unreasonable expectations of what she could be?  But in hindsight–Ellie, now eight, rolls her eyes at princesses–I see that much of my worrying was for nothing and that as much as it irritated me at the time, I actually missed the phase.  Would Oliver outgrow superheroes one day as well, trading them in for more dude-like passions like skateboarding and fantasy football?  Perhaps.

But one night, while reading Spider-Man’s Worst Enemies for the umpteenth time, I wondered what I was worrying about.  Dressed in Batman pajamas, Oliver snuggled close to me as I read, his strawberry blond hair shining in the light of the reading lamp, his thumb planted firmly in his mouth.  “Anyone who hurts people or breaks the law is Spider-Man’s enemy,” I read.  “As long as Spider-Man is around, his enemies will never win!”  So maybe Oliver will never outgrow superheroes and become a guy who goes to Comic-Con dressed like the Green Lantern.  Maybe he’ll also grow up to be someone who believes in justice and in the power of good over evil.  I looked down at my son, his cherry brown eyes framed with soft eyelashes curved like commas, and reflected on what amounts to my parenting philosophy: What’s the worst that could happen?

Daisy Alpert Florin is a staff Editor at Brain, Child. She lives and works in Connecticut.

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Mothering Through Two Brain Surgeries

Mothering Through Two Brain Surgeries

By Maria Richmond

Brain Tumor ArtThe symptoms snuck up on me—slowly, steadily. A numbness that started in my arm, and eventually reached my legs, then turned into full body numbness in bed each night. One minute I felt fine and the next, I felt like I was trapped in a stranger’s body. I didn’t recognize myself anymore.

I was living a good life in Orlando, Florida with my husband and two beautiful boys; Alex and Caden, then, ages 3 and 5. There were always things to do in Orlando; theme parks, lakes, beaches, and playgrounds. I spent every day playing with my boys, going on fun excursions and adventures.

Until my symptoms grew worse.

“Are you okay, Mommy?” they’d ask, when they’d see me holding my head or grabbing onto the back of a chair for balance. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m ok, guys,” I’d tell them.  “Just a little tired.” But I wasn’t tired. Something else was going on. I knew it.


A month after the symptoms started I found a neurologist.  Dr. Arning didn’t know why I was going numb, getting dizzy, or having bouts of mental confusion. He sent me for an MRI. The morning of the MRI Alex and Caden sat with me in the quiet waiting room. “Bye, Mommy,” they said as I followed the technician.

When it was over, the technician told me the doctor would call if he saw anything. My thoughts shuffled: Saw anything? Oh no, do I have cancer? What will happen to my boys?

Dr. Arning called the next day. “You have a brain cyst,” he said. “come into my office in the morning” In his office Dr. Arning explained something called a Cisterna Magna —a Posterior Fossa Arachnoid Cyst. “These things are normally asymptomatic and don’t cause problems,” he said.  Ok, I thought, a cyst is not a tumor, but it was a brain cyst, and from what he described, a very large one at that. And I was already having symptoms, plenty of them, so I was not asymptomatic. All I could think about as I left the office was what would I tell my boys?

At home, Alex and Caden sat playing Legos on the living room floor. “What’s wrong Mommy?  Are you ok?” Alex asked.

“I’m OK,” I said. “I just have kind of a boo-boo in my head.”


Over the weeks, my symptoms grew worse. “Can we go to the park today?” my boys would ask. But by now, even a short trip to the park was too much and I didn’t feel comfortable driving, especially with my boys in the car. So more often than not, I’d say, “Sorry, guys, we’ll go soon but not today.” I felt terrible always saying no. Terrible.

Over the following weeks, I searched for another doctor, who specialized in brain cysts. I found one who immediately told me I would need brain surgery. I thought only of my husband and boys, a deep pit in my stomach, what if I don’t survive?

The night before surgery, Alex and Caden stood next to me in my bedroom as I packed, “We have something for you,” Alex told me. He handed me a small black notebook and turned to a page to show me his handwritten note: “Don’t worry, Mom.  God is with you.” I buckled under his tenderness, marveled at how grown up he was, and so calm. The boys didn’t seem worried. I told myself if they weren’t nervous why should I be? But I didn’t want this to be the last time I saw them.


After I woke up from surgery, as soon as I was able to, I called Alex and Caden. They bombarded me with questions; “Are you OK now, Mom?” they asked. “When are you coming home?” “Did it hurt?” They wore me out but it felt good to be answering them—because I could. Because I was still here.

When I got home from the hospital a week later the boys greeted me as I walked in the front door.  “Did it hurt?” Alex asked. “Can we see where they did the surgery?” I showed them the scar, “I’m OK now,” I said hugging them, reassuring them.

“Can we go back to the park again now?” Caden asked.

“Yep,” I said.  “Soon, we’ll be going all kinds of places. My brain just has to heal a little.”


Things went well for a while.  I gradually gained strength, and ventured out more and more. But about four months later, the headaches, numbness and mental confusion returned. I was back to being homebound. I saw the look of disappointment on Alex’s face—I could hear his thoughts, I thought your surgery was supposed to make you all better.  I was no longer better.

I had a second surgery to get a shunt put in my head — directly into my cyst. It would help keep the fluid draining and the cyst from building pressure. At least we hoped. I was gone again for a week.

As I recovered at home from this second surgery I tried to balance motherhood with umpteen doctor visits, and countless days of not feeling well. I was unable to be the kind of mom I had hoped and planned on being. It was taking a long time to get back into “mommyhood.” Things were now officially beyond difficult.

Often I was too sick to tuck Alex and Caden in. I’d have to say goodnight from my bedroom across the hall. Guilt settled in. I felt like less of a mother when my boys called from their beds, “Goodnight, Mommy. We love you.” I’d sink into the sheets and make wishes for myself and for the kids. I wished for my life back. I wished to be better.

But the shunt wasn’t relieving the pressure, so sometimes Alex and Caden would ask “Why are you crying, Mom?” Caden sometimes thought he had done something wrong, and he’d apologize, “I’m sorry Mommy,” he’d say.  “I didn’t mean to.”

“You’ve done nothing wrong honey,” I would reassure him.  “Mommy is just sick.”

I spent my days at a new doctor’s office. This new doctor didn’t know why the shunt hadn’t worked, and he didn’t seem to want to figure it out. His treatment was to turn my shunt down at each visit so more fluid would drain out and relieve the pressure. But this approach did not work.


When I said goodbye to my boys again, they were scared. “When are you coming back?” Alex asked. I knew I didn’t look good, my speech was slurred, and this time we had no idea how long I’d be gone. “Can we come with you?” Caden asked. My husband and I made the 8-hour trip back to the hospital where I’d had my surgeries.

As I lay in my hospital bed again, I worried my boys would forget the kind of mom I had been—that I used to be. I was sure when they grew up all they’d remember about their childhood was how I was sick all the time. They’d no longer remember going to the park, to Disney and Sea World, and all the fun things we did. Instead, their memories would be of being lugged to constant doctor appointments, waiting in the sterile hospital, and watching me recover from surgeries. I didn’t want them to have only those memories. I wanted them to have good memories of us as a family —fun times. But those dreams and thoughts were getting doused more every day. “I’m sorry,” I told my boys in my mind. “I’m sorry I’m always sick now.”

During this hospital stay the doctors determined that the shunt had been over-draining for many months. Too much Cerebral Spinal Fluid had been pulled off my brain and had essentially, let my brain dry-up.

Yes, my brain was drying up, to the point where it was no longer floating – a condition known as sagging brain, and my sagging brain had then caused my brain stem to fall into my spine. I needed more fluid back around my brain before it went into shutdown mode. The doctor turned the shunt pressure back up to allow more fluid to collect around my brain. This would put me out of the “danger zone.” Hopefully.

But there were no guarantees that my brain would ever float back to its normal position, or that this would get rid of all of my symptoms.

This had been, by far, the most frightening and devastating of all the hospitalizations, but I went home a few days later, and once again, there was the big homecoming.

“Are you better now?” The boys asked when we pulled in the driveway.

“I sure hope so,” I told them. “I’m planning on it!”

Months would pass before I’d feel even a little better. And although I was able to eventually be a mom again, I was not the mom I had hoped I’d return to; I was a long way from being the mom I had been years before, before my brain cyst. I would have to search for a long time to find some new normal that my boys would remember, with some joy.

Author’s Note: Alex and Caden are 14 and 12 now. Although there are times I feel like I have missed chunks of my boys’ lives while they’ve been growing up, I remind myself to be grateful for having the privilege of being here.

Maria McCutchen Richmond lives in North Carolina with her two boys. She has been writing for many years; and for the past three years, she has been freelancing and writing articles for the web. She is an activist for those with brain cysts, speaking out and trying to help others by starting a following for arachnoid cysts on, starting a blog on, writing articles about the condition, and educating others about this rare brain disorder.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.