Ten Picture Books that Will Always Stay on my Shelf

Ten Picture Books that Will Always Stay on my Shelf





















By Marcelle Soviero

I began collecting picture books well before I had children, not board books, but the odd-sized hardcover books with beautiful illustrations and stories that enthralled me. There are ten I have listed here that has moved me before I was a mother and long after I was a mother. Many were introduced to me by my best friend, Susan, and together we introduced them to our children, often combining a read-aloud with an associated “story” craft. My five children are past picture book stage, but these books, ever-so-worn from rereading, will never leave my shelves.

All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan, Illustrated by Michael Wimmer (1994)

On the day that Eli is born, his grandmother holds him up to the window to see the beauty of the land around him, and his grandfather cries and carves his new grandson’s name into the barn rafters alongside other family names. As Eli grows older, he discovers that each member of the family has a special place that he or she loves best, a place that “makes all the difference” in the world. In sharing these places, they celebrate their connections to each other and to the land that sustains them.

Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams (1986)

Young Bidemmi draws a sequence of pictures all involving people “eating cherries and spitting out the pits.” She tells captivating tales as she draws– a large man in the subway is “so strong… he could carry a piano on his head.” And of course he is holding a little white bag with cherries in it. My children loved to repeat the words “eating cherries and spitting out the pits,” I think yours will too.

Dahlia by Barbara McClintock (2002)

Meet young Charlotte, mud cake maker, tree climber and wagon racer. One morning she gets a package from Aunt Edme. Inside she finds a doll. A frilly doll. Charlotte immediately warns the doll that “we like digging in the dirt and climbing trees. No tea parties. No being pushed around in frilly prams, you’ll just have to get used to the way we do things.” To Charlotte’s surprise, she and Dahlia the doll become fast friends. Although outings with Charlotte have changed Dahlia’s appearance, Aunt Edme is pleased to see Charlotte has given Dahlia plenty of fresh air, excitement and love. A good lesson learned for girls and boys alike.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982)

As a child, Miss Rumphius promises her grandfather that one day she will do something to make the world more beautiful. Never forgetting her words, as an adult she finds a special way to add beauty to the earth. “All that summer Miss Rumphius, her pockets full of seeds, wandered over fields and headlands, sewing lupines. She scattered seeds along the highways and down the country lanes. She tossed them into hollows and along stonewalls.” Be sure to have a handful of seeds ready as you read this one as your child may be inspired to sow flowers in every crack and crevice of your neighborhood.

Mudpies & Other Recipes for Dolls by Marjorie Winslow, Illustrated by Erik Blegvad (1961/1986)

You won’t cozy up and read this one cover to cover, but you will take it outside often with your little one. Just holding this cute little book in your hands will help you recall the outdoor adventures of childhood. Enjoy the wonderful mix of recipes ranging from “Daisy Dip” to “Crabgrass Gumbo.” All of which use only the finest ingredients from outside. This book always inspired my children to make up new recipes to “bake in the sun for the fairies.”

My Mama Had A Dancing Heart by Libba Moore Gray, Illustrated by Raul Colon (1995).

In this story about nature and life, a ballet dancer recalls how she and her mother would welcome each new season with an outdoor dance. “And we’d go into the eye-blinking blue air, with mama leading in a leaf-kicking, leg-lifting, handclapping, hello autumn ballet.” The gentle spirit of the mother and the love this child, now a woman, has for her are palpable. I gave this book to a friend who lost her mother and had recently become a new mother and she said, “I didn’t know a picture book could be this powerful.” Indeed.

Sophie’s Masterpiece: A Spider’s Tale by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Jane Dyer (2001)

Sophie is not an ordinary spider. She is an artist. When she ventures into the world and into Beekman’s boarding house, she weaves wondrous webs that go unappreciated. At Beekman’s she tolerates being swatted and called names but is determined to spin webs as her gifts to strangers. She grows older and her last masterpiece, a spun blanket for a baby, is one that readers of all ages will not forget. This book meant so much to my daughter Sophia when she was young that she came home with her pictures from school all month and said “Mommy these are my masterpieces.”

The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brombeau, Illustarted by Gail Demarcken (2001)

A feast for the eyes and the heart, The Quiltmaker’s Gift celebrates the spirit of giving through a fable-like story about an old quiltmaker who transforms a greedy unhappy king with her quilts. “Some said there were magic in her fingers. Some whispered her needles and cloth were gifts from the bewitched. And still others said the quilts really fell to the earth from the shoulders of angels…” The subtle message – it is better to give than to receive – is told in a vivid patchwork of pictures.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)

Young Peter one day wakes to the wonders of a new world. The first snow has fallen and in it Peter finds magic and limitless possibilities. The day of snowmen and sledding leaves such an impression that when Peter wakes up the next morning and the snow still blankets the city, he wants to “do the whole day over again.” Read this one with your brood when you’re stuck inside on a snowy day.

When Lightning Comes in a Jar by Patricia Polacco (2002)

An annual backyard reunion becomes the backdrop for family traditions (Aunt Bertha’s meatloaf with hard boiled egg in the middle) and stories (Aunt Ivah and Aunt Adah compete for who can tell the best tale). The narrator, Trisha, now grown, remembers the year a new tradition was started. “A small burst of starlight puffed out into the grass. Then more and more drifted out of the carpet beneath our feet, ‘fireflies’ we called out. We grabbed the jars and the dash was on to capture lightning and put it in a jar.” Share this one with your little person on a summer night.

Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child, and the author of An Iridescent life: Essays on Motherhood. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Brain, Child Turns 15

Brain, Child Turns 15

BC 15 GroupOur Literary Salon

Seventy-five guests joined Brain, Child’s 15th Birthday party in Wilton CT where our editors and writers read from their work.

(Left to right: Front row) M.M. Devoe, Krista Miller Farris,Nan Richardson, Rebecca Martin, Marcelle Soviero, Jaqueline Maria Pierro,

(Left to right: Back row) Susan Lutz, Ellyn Gelman, Mary Ann Palmer, Estelle Erasmus, Elizabeth Matthews, Randi Olin, Susan Buttenwieser, Aline Weiller



Tracy Mayor Brain, Child 2015 Writer Hall of Fame Winner

Tracy Mayor Brain, Child 2015 Writer Hall of Fame Winner

Tracy_Mayor_54_BWWe are so happy to announce that long time Brain, Child contributor Tracy Mayor is the winner of our 2015 Writer Hall of Fame award.  -Marcelle & Randi

By Aline Weiller

Meet Tracy Mayor—Brain, Child Magazine’s 2015 Writer Hall of Fame Winner. Tracy has contributed essays, humor, and feature articles to Brain, Child for 15 years. In fact, her piece, “When Moms Go Bawd,” which chronicled her inability to stop swearing in front of her kids (especially in Massachusetts traffic), was published in Brain, Child’s inaugural issue in 2000. In her writing, and in real life, this Boston-based mother writer tells it like it is, with humor, finesse and flair.

Tracy’s writing career began with her two boys’ childhoods, 15-plus years back, and continues today. But making room for her writing has always been challenge. At first, the all-consuming caring for young children was the culprit and now, Tracy’s writing competes with a full-time job as a writer/editor, an aging dog, and the continued parenting of a teen and young adult.

“I struggled to find time to write (and read, and exercise, and watch TV with a pint of ice cream in my lap). The bottom line is there are always going to be other demands on your time, very compelling demands; no matter how old your kids are, you still have to make time for what you want to do—and then do it.” Sage advice from an accomplished author, journalist and award-winning essayist (Tracy won an esteemed Pushcart Prize for her Brain, Child essay “Losing My Religion.”)

Talking with her recently, Tracy said, “her favorite Brain, Child piece ever” was “Armageddon Mama: Parenting Toward the Apocalypse,” which was published in March, 2013. It begins with a tale of powerless, post-storm living with a husband, dog, tween and teen then segues into the full-on anxiety-laden parenting in the ’00s, driven by wars, epidemics, recessions and terrorism.

In addition to her work for Brain, Child, Tracy has penned Mommy Prayers (Hyperion, 2010), a humorous manual for new mothers. Tracy’s work has also appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Child, Self, The New York Times’ Motherlode blog, Rumpus and Salon.

When asked to give advice to new mom writers, Tracy is frank. “Don’t wait ‘until’ something happens—until your baby sleeps through the night, until he’s potty trained or she’s walking; until they’re in pre-school or elementary school or away at camp or driving or off at college.”

Tracy also suggests mastering what she termed “the art of the micro-nap”—where she slept for 10 minutes on her babies’ bedroom floors (without a rug, pillow or blanket), only to catch a second wind, crawl out to her home office, and have “40 or 50 glorious minutes to write!”

“I literally wept when my younger son gave up his afternoon nap. I felt like a piece of my identity had died. One way or another, you can find those little moments,” said Tracy.

She continues to publish in Brain, Child Magazine, to the delight of its subscribers—and worldwide audience alike. Look for her next piece titled, “The Gap Year” out now, in our annual special issue for parents of teens.

When reflecting on her body of work and 15-year relationship with Brain, Child, Tracy fondly cites the unmatched support.

“The editors and the readers have your back. At Brian, Child it’s not about clicks or ads or tweets or any kind of metric; it’s about writing essays and humor and reported stories that connect us as parents and make us feel less alone. I don’t know if Brain, Child made me a better writer or editor so much as it made me a better parent,” said Tracy.

Tracy now holds a full-time job as the Features Editor at Computerworld.com, where she tweets tech topics @CW_Tracy and lifestyle, culture and parenting thoughts and views at @mommyprayers.

Join us in our salute Tracy at Brain, Child’s 15th Anniversary Party on May 21, 2015 in Wilton, Connecticut.

Read more of Tracy’s Work:

Single Mom Stigma: Alive and Kicking

Revising Ophelia

Brain, Child Celebrates 15 Years

Brain, Child Celebrates 15 Years

Randi and Marcelle 201504FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Public Relations Contact:

Aline Weiller, Wordsmith, LLC

203.216.0985; wordsmithllc@optonline.net



Brain, Child Magazine Hosts Literary Salon May 21, 2015


April 27, 2015 (WILTON, Conn.) — Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers (www.brainchildmag.com) will host its first “Literary Salon: An Evening of Conversation and Community” on Thursday, May 21 at Cobb’s Mill Inn (www.cobbsmillinn.com), 12 Old Mill Road, Weston at 7:00 p.m.

Featuring the editors of Brain, Child and some of America’s leading writers, the Salon is in celebration of Brain, Child’s 15th anniversary. Mothers, subscribers and writers from Fairfield County and beyond are invited to this “Evening of Conversation and Community.” The event will feature short readings, prizes, giveaways and a special price fixe menu. Admission is free and the event is open to the public. Walk-ins are welcome, but reservations are strongly encouraged. Please RSVP via e-mail to marcelle@brainchildmag.com by Friday, May 15 with “RSVP” in the subject line.

Owned by Erielle Media LLC based in Wilton, Connecticut, Brain, Child, founded in 2000, is a multiple award-winning literary magazine dedicated to motherhood. Each issue contains personal essays, fiction, poetry, news, cartoons, debate, book reviews and an in-depth feature story. Contributors have included Cheryl Strayed, Ann Hood, and Barbara Kingsolver.

“Our readers refer to us as ‘The New York for Mothers,'” said Marcelle Soviero, President of Erielle Media and Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child. “I am honored to work with such wonderful writers.”

An award-winning writer, author of An Iridescent Life: Essays on Motherhood, writing instructor, and mother of five, Soviero purchased Brain, Child in 2012. Since then, the magazine has expanded to include digital issues, e-books, a vibrant website and social community and its award-winning blog, run by Weston-based Managing Editor, Randi Olin.

The event will honor Tracy Mayor, the 2015 inaugural recipient of Brain, Child’s Writers’ Hall of Fame Award. Mayor is a Boston-based writer/editor who has written dozens of essays and feature stories since the magazine’s inception. In fact, Mayor’s piece, “When Good Moms Go Bawd” appeared in the magazine’s inaugural issue, and her feature story “Losing My Religion,” won a Pushcart Prize.

“As a Brain, Child writer I’ve had the honor to connect with so many amazing writers whom I admire. I’m grateful for the warm, talented community of contributors Brain, Child has fostered over the years,” said Mayor.

The magazine will also announce its partnership with a joint project of the “New York Says Thank You” (NYSTY, http://newyorksaysthankyou.org/) Foundation. Founded by Jeff Parness in the wake of 9/11, NYSTY fosters the idea of “Paying it Forward.” The Foundation’s Stars of HOPE® In-A-Box program (http://starsofhopeusa.org/) empowers children to transform communities impacted by disaster through artful messages of HOPE. Brain, Child is proud to be the launch partner for Stars of HOPE ® In-A-Box.

Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, a division of Erielle Media LLC, is an award-winning literary magazine whose mission is to connect women of different backgrounds and circumstance in a non-judgemental community based on the best writing available today. Brain, Child is available by subscription at www.brainchildmag.com and on newsstands.


Photo Caption: (Left to right) Brain, Child Magazine’s Editors, Randi Olin of Weston and Wilton’s Marcelle Soviero, will host their first “Literary Salon: An Evening of Conversation and Community” at Cobb’s Mill Inn, 12 Old Mill Road, Weston on Thursday, May 21 at 7:00 pm. The event will feature readings, refreshments, prizes and raffles. Admission is free and all are welcome. To RSVP, e-mail marcelle@brainchildmag by May 15th.

Photo Credit: Aline Weiller



Perfect Gift: Mother’s Day Bundle

Perfect Gift: Mother’s Day Bundle

SU 13 Cover FinalWe’ve selected four of our favorite issues, tied them with a bow and made them available for Mother’s Day. These four issues include essays, features and stories by some of your favorite Brain, Child writers as well as new talent, including Dawn Friedman, Katy Read, Zahie El Kouri and Margot Page. Topics range from raising a child who loves nature, to becoming mom to a foster child, to putting down roots far away from home.

Four back issue, tied with a bow, Sale. $20 includes shipping.

FREE eBook with Purchase of Our Special Issue for Parents of Teens ($8.50 Value)

FREE eBook with Purchase of Our Special Issue for Parents of Teens ($8.50 Value)

Purchase our Special Issue for Parents of Teens

and Receive a FREE eBook ($8.50 Value)


BT 15 Cover web copy low resPeanut Butter and Naan Cover














Special Issue for Parents of T(w)eens

This issue features essays ranging in topics from teen friendships, teens and technology and teen/parent relationships, plus hard decisions, addiction, and bearing witness. Also includes a special section featuring essays on every age from 13 – 18.  Featured writers: Catherine Newman, Tracy Mayor, and new fiction from Ellen Lessor. Not to be missed.

Peanut Butter and Naan

Peanut Butter and Naan is Jennifer Magnuson’s hilarious look at the chaos of parenting tweens against a backdrop of malaria, extreme poverty, and no conveniences of any kind—and her story of rediscovering herself and revitalizing her connection with those she loves the most.

Excerpt: It’s odd driving along like this on a Tuesday, heading to the world’s most famous monument. I should be at a PTA meeting filled with overzealous volunteer moms who rabidly sink their teeth into the task of raising their children with the bloodlust fueled by latent bitterness over left behind careers…. Instead, I have left all five of my kids in the care of my husband and several people who scarcely speak English on the Bay of Bengal, over a thousand miles to the south of me.

Your eBook will arrive within 24 hours of your purchase.

$10. 80 pages. Free shipping.




Showing Lola Brain, Child

Showing Lola Brain, Child

showinglola“Come upstairs, Lola Blue. I have something for you.”


“Well no don’t um—get all excited about it. I mean, it’s for you and all, but it’s the kind of something that you just sort of keep and put away and maybe look at from time to time like your purple volcano stones from Maui.”

“Cool! Let’s see!”

Upstairs, Lola sat on my bed and I handed her a copy of Brain, Child, Volume 16, Issue 2, a literary magazine for thinking mothers. On the cover was an animated image of two young people from behind, holding hands, and they both have cell phones in their pockets. (If, by chance, you wanted to ORDER this magazine, you could click here and we could definitely make that happen.) Lola did her best to feign interest in the magazine but it was a far cry from purple volcano stones from Maui.

“Just—uh—you know, flip through the pages a little bit,” I instructed. “Figured there might be something in there you might find interesting.”

She leafed through the pages, humming, skimming titles and checking out the art work (was that what she was supposed to find interesting? who knows? dad’s not being especially direct with this particular “something special”) until page 54 stopped her cold in stunned recognition. What the hell? It was her.

“It’s me!” she exclaimed on the border of a question, looking at me, amazed, and then back again at the full page black and white image of herself in a magazine. “The Poetry of Math?” she read the title, wondering what it meant, “And it’s by you! You, Daddy, in a magazine! And me!”

“Yeah,” I said and sat next to her. “I write about you and your brother on the Internet all the time, but this is different, hey? Here we are, out in the world, in print. Is that pretty cool or is that pretty cool?”

“It’s way pretty cool!” She smiled, turned the page, and read “{OUR KIDS} + (the FUTURE) = Anything. You write so crazy, Daddy. What’s that even supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know, little girl. I just scribble things down about you kids and hope that maybe one day you’ll check them out—like when you’re 20 or something—and maybe they’ll mean something to you. And then, maybe when you’re 30 or 40, they might mean something else. Hell, I’m not even sure half the time if I know what they mean and I’m the guy who writes it. But I do know this much for sure. Sometimes, you kids mean more to me than anything I could ever tell you. I could never explain. So I just try to write it down and see what happens.”

“Like how?”

“Like how what?”

“Like how do me and Jay-Jay mean things you can’t explain?”

“Sweetheart. I just explained to you that I can’t explain and that’s why I write—”

“But, Daddy, this IS writing. It’s not like we’re having a real conversation. This is an essay on the Internet.”

I felt weird. Dizzy. Like drugs, or colors. “Whoa,” I said, “this conversation just went all meta-essay. Do you know what that means?”

“That the writing no longer seeks to deceive the reader by representing a transparent reality but, rather, becomes conscious of itself as writing while exploring and articulating its limitations.”

“Yeah. You’re pretty bright for a 10-year-old girl.”

“I have a really strange dad. So, anyway, how? How do me and Jay-Jay mean things you can’t explain?”

“Okay, it’s like this. Sometimes you and your brother will just… DO something. Like, anything. And I can’t just say ‘Wow, Lola, that was really awesome the way you brushed your hair,’ because, even though that’s what you did, that’s not what it meant. See? What it meant is what I can’t explain.”

“Well, what did it mean?”

“Are you even listening to me? I don’t know. Nothing, maybe? It’s like there’s this world, you know, and it’s spinning in a circle and whirling around the sun, in circles, going nowhere, and there’s all this war and sex and reality television and people—it’s the people, I think—the way we’re trapped inside the narratives of our own stories as if they’re, like, realer than they really are and I’m the same way, just living my life, oblivious, consumed, selfish, and then all of a sudden­—WHAM—you’re brushing your hair or Jaydn opens a window and I can’t believe there’s such a thing as any of this or you and I get—like—stunned without a tongue so I write things like ‘Lola brushed her hair free of tangles and rubies as Jaydn opened the window to get some fresh dreams. My children are made of tulips and stardust. Nothing in the world is what anything seems.’ Do you see? I can’t explain. I can’t—”

“Shhhh,” she spared my lips. “Hey, Daddy? Can I keep this? The magazine?”

“Of course you can—yes. I wrote it for you.”

“You will always be the candles on my eyes’ windowsills.”

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Reader Q&A: Lisa Beauvois

Reader Q&A Lisa Beauvois ArtEach week we talk with one of our readers, here’s what thinking mother Lisa Beauvois of Baltimore, Maryland has to say.

Tell me a little bit about your family…

We are a family of five living in Baltimore, Maryland. My husband grew up in Yorkshire England; I grew up between France and Texas – and we met in Puerto Rico – so there are a lot of different ideas and languages floating around our household. Our eldest, Ella, is seven years old. She’s our quiet, pensive, artistic one and is presently crazy about theater. Kaitlyn, four years old, is a whirlwind of energy and full of quippy remarks and who occasionally settles down for a nice snuggle. Patrick, our two-year-old son, is a train and truck aficionado – which we didn’t realize until his second birthday when he received a collection of matchbox cars as a gift. Up until that point we thought he was happy playing the mannequin for the girls’ dress up parties! He’s making up for lost time and now only talks about trains, trucks and automobiles, and he talks a lot!

Why do you subscribe to Brain, Child? (e.g. What does the magazine mean to you; how does it compare to other magazines you read?)

I subscribed to Brain, Child about five years ago when my eldest was three and I finally had five minutes to read something other than brief articles about ‘how to get your kid to sleep!’ A dear friend, Brigitte, originally told me about the magazine. We both savor each issue, wait impatiently for the next – and discuss the articles at length while waiting. Even the articles that seem to have nothing to do with my present life end up speaking to me and opening my eyes to the diversity of parenting ideas and creative solutions to challenges.

Brain, Child does not compare to any other magazines I subscribe to. When you announced your final issue two years ago – my fellow Brain, Child readers and I researched all sorts of parenting magazines in an attempt to find a suitable replacement. We scoured websites and perused the library shelves for similar writing. Slate, The Huffington Post (parenting section) and some Wall Street Journal articles provided short-term relief but since these were all online, I felt the loss of holding a quality print magazine that would help me connect to my kids and family. A real magazine I could take to the bath and read during my soak.

What is your favorite Brain, Child essay, story or feature?

My very favorite parenting article of ALL TIME was Catherine Newman’s It Gets Better (Summer 2012). That article made me cry tears of laughter and sadness at the same time as I recognized myself in the author’s younger self. It gave me such joy for the future. I made at least twenty copies and gave it to all the women in my mom’s group and my closest friends with kids. Brilliant.

I also loved Katherine Ozment’s feature article on sibling rivalry (All My Children, Winter 2012). It was awesome – fantastically researched, but also gave me practical ideas – that work. In the same issue was Barbara Dara Cooper’s haunting story of the pain she and her family suffered when faced with her daughter’s eating disorder. Excellent. My eldest daughter is 7, I’ve never had an eating disorder, yet Ms. Cooper’s writing left me feeling I had been there with her. I was edgy all week after reading it. I kept thinking about how hard the mom tried to help. Heart wrenching. I still wonder how things worked out for them.

I also love the debates – always come away feeling like I can clearly see both sides of the issue. And I immediately flip to the last page for Motherwit when I get my issue. Hilarious!!

What would you like to see more of in Brain, Child?

Brain, Child always provides me with different viewpoints, ideas, methods to approach this crazy mothering journey we are on. I always feel more centered, more capable after reading your articles. They open me up to so many new ways of looking at things – and they carry me through the moments of self-doubt – until the next issue hits my mailbox and I can get my ‘fix ‘! The only thing I would change about Brain, Child is to have it come out more often. That way there would be less time between issues and I could feel a little better about the parenting decisions I make daily – and not have to wait so long for the reassurance that I’m doing OK.

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The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

By Rachel Pieh Jones

WO Teens Leave Behind ArtMy teenagers don’t live at home anymore and every time they go back to boarding school, every time they check-in under the Kenya Airways sign at the airport, I think, “How can something that is so good for them hurt me so deeply I can’t breathe?”

A silver brush filled with tangled long blondish-brown hairs rests on the IKEA shelf in my bathroom. The hairs are not mine, I have curly hair and never use a brush. There are more shoes at the front door than the three people in the house could ever wear. Candy wrappers are stuck to car seats and there is a load of salty, sandy laundry in the bathroom from our beach campout two days ago.

I walk around the house the day after my twin teenagers return to boarding school and pick up the things they have left behind, like brushes and towels and off season clothes. I fold bed sheets and tip mattresses against the wall so rats or cockroaches don’t take up residence over the next three months. I scrub toothpaste dribbles from the sink and scoop up still-damp bath towels. I rearrange books and replace game pieces from Settlers of Catan.

I pull open the refrigerator door to take inventory. They devoured fruits and vegetables, my fresh baked breads, cereal, cheese. They left dirty dishes in the sink from the quadruple batch of brownies we made yesterday, wrapped in aluminum foil, and packed into plastic buckets for the trek back to school.

Henry likes to drink out of the glassware, so there is a clear glass balanced on the edge of the kitchen counter. Maggie likes to use the teacups she puffy-painted with friends years ago, even though the puffy paint has mostly peeled off. She left one on the table and a damp ring is forming around the base.

They left behind sandals that no longer fit rapidly growing feet, t-shirts so beloved they are torn nearly to shreds, swim suits that they won’t wear in Kenya, far from the ocean that we drive by every day here in Djibouti.

Here in Djibouti, here at home. They still call Djibouti home but since seventh grade they have spent more of their time at the school in Kenya, the vast expanse of Ethiopia stretching between our borders. Every time they leave, at the start of each term after a month or six weeks home, I walk through the house and put back the pieces.

The last time they returned, after summer break, the flight left at 3:00 a.m. My husband drove them and they left behind their little sister, sleeping upstairs. I stood at the front gate and waved until the car turned the corner even though no one could see me in the dark. Then I leaned against the door frame and cried for a while, went upstairs to kiss Lucy on the cheek, and tried to forget that in the morning there would be only one cereal bowl stuck with dried milk to the table, not three.

The days following Henry and Maggie’s departures are foggy, slower, thick. The family members left at home start to shift; we rearrange our relationships with each other. There is less cooking, less laundry, less cleanup. I can return to writing projects that languished, friendships I’ve ignored, and organizational projects I’d only dabbled in during their vacation.

Lucy straightens her bedroom, she likes it more organized than Maggie does and Lucy carefully refolds her clothes and returns Littlest Pet Shop toys to their proper storage boxes. She stuffs the play clothes back into the basket and I am filled with gratitude that Maggie, though thirteen, still plays dress-up and tea party and giggles with her sister, their time together now precious not annoying.

Lucy moves squashed ping pong balls out of her path and rides Henry’s RipStick around the tiled porch. He, too, knows the time with his younger sister is special and he left behind the echoes of hours spent wrestling and hitting one another with padded sticks.

My husband, Tom, doesn’t change his schedule as much as I do while the kids are home, as a university professor, PhD student, and director of our organization in Djibouti, he doesn’t have that flexibility. But now there are fewer arms and legs flying around the living room during wrestling matches, fewer arguments over Wii remotes, fewer heated debates over Arsenal football versus Liverpool.

As I clean up the things left behind and as we transition our routines from life with two teenagers in the house to life without them, I recognize that they have left behind something much deeper and foundational, much harder to pick up and put back together.

They left behind a mother who feels like a failure, like an almost-empty-nester at thirty-five years old which is far too young, in my opinion. No matter that this is what Henry and Maggie want, no matter that they are thriving and excelling at this school more than they ever did at the French schools in Djibouti. No matter that this expatriate life has given them the gift of being loved, of having a home, and of belonging in at least three countries.

No matter that they are smiling, that the ‘I’ll miss you mom’ and the ‘I love you’ are sincere but the eyes are already turned toward school and friends. No matter that I knew from the moment I gave birth via vaginal delivery and c-section on the same day that wise motherhood choices are rarely the easy ones. Thirteen years later that scar is still sensitive, these twins left their mark.

The feeling that I have somehow failed them, or failed as a mother, flow from the lie that choosing boarding school means I have stepped out of the parenting role. But what I know, deeply, is that choosing boarding school is made everyday from that exact parenting role. And while the tears flow out of the feelings, the conviction and the strength to step into the next three months apart flow out of the knowing.

Because these teenaged twins also left behind a mother who knows she is a good mother. This choice isn’t me failing at parenthood, it isn’t me handing off the responsibility and gift of my children to someone else, it isn’t separate from my role as a mother. This choice of sending our children to boarding school is part of our parenting, it is what being responsible for the gift of these teenagers in our context and in our family and according to our needs and values looks like. It is me being the best possible mother I know how to be. And because it breaks my heart and leaves me crying against doorframes and into pillows and at stop signs, it feels like failure.

But just because something hurts doesn’t mean it is bad, wrong, or failed. This is, perhaps, one of the biggest things my teenagers leave behind. And I hope it is something they also take with. The realization that life won’t be easy, comfortable, or pain-free and the confidence that this is okay.

I am the kind of mother who used to look at a skinned knee and say, “Look at your beautiful blood. Let’s clean it out and get back on that bike as soon as possible.” I never imagined I could shelter them from pain and struggle, from what the world will bring to bear with force and grief and aggression. But I can create a shelter, a place for them to spread Legos out wide and to wrestle their little sister and wear clown wigs, a place for them to bring their messes and their gut-busting laughs, a place out of which they can gather courage and experience grace.

Now, with my heart in shreds and knowing that yes something that hurts this bad can be a good thing, I watch my husband drive the kids to the airport. Or, I watch them push their suitcases through security and I hold my hands over my grief and say, “Look at my beautiful teenagers. I want them to stay with me forever. Go with courage, go with grace.”

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

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