Our Birthday Blog Series

200296650-001Happy Birthday Baby

By Candy Schulman

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

 

 

 

theirbirthdayCelebrating Their Birthday

By Kelly Burch

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

 

 

 

 

The Cakes That Bind Us Im1The Cakes That Bind Us

By Susan Currie

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

 

 

 

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

By Rudri Patel and Stacey Gill

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

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

 

izztbdaylistThe First Disappointment

By Stephanie Sprenger

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

Happy Birthday Baby

Happy Birthday Baby

By Candy Schulman

200296650-001

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

 

It’s the first time I’m not sharing my daughter’s birthday in person, let alone on the same continent. She is studying abroad, drinking sangria in Seville. I’d imagined watching her get carded ordering her first legal drink, 21 years after 31 hours of labor. I’ve exalted in every developmental milestone—until now.

Alone, my husband and I toast to the six-pound-eleven ounce newborn who has evolved into an adventurous young woman. He still refers to her as “the baby” as in: “When is the baby coming home for spring break?”

Not this year.

On her first birthday she couldn’t yet walk. Birthday #2, while a music teacher played songs on his guitar for her friends, my daughter stomped her feet in my kitchen—overriding the music with a wailing, “I want a bagel!” I caved in, quieting her tantrum with carbs.

By four she was a pink partying ballerina who jeted gracefully one minute, exploded into a chaotic game of tag the next. Subsequent birthdays took over my living room with crafts projects. I’m still picking up confetti.

Then came years of sleepovers. Truth or Dare, late-night gab fests, cranky faces over breakfast pancakes. Guiltily I sent them back to their parents with sleep-deprived hangovers.

As a teenager, she went out with friends—no parents invited. We set aside family time before she dressed up and trotted off. In college, she was three hours away. My husband and I used her birthday as an excuse to save her from dreaded dining hall slop, to see if she dusted her dorm room (she didn’t), or ever did her laundry (dutifully once a week, even though at first she didn’t realize that bath towels had to be washed too).     

My mother never made a big deal about my birthday. She slapped together tuna sandwiches and invited a few neighborhood kids for lunch on our porch. No magicians, clowns, or gymnastics. The most extravagant bash was venturing to Jahn’s, the lure of free sundaes served with birth certificate proof. The first time I got carded.   

My 21st birthday, a surprise affair thrown by my grad school roommate, found me weeping in my bedroom because my boyfriend was breaking up with me. Nobody gave me a bagel to assuage my tears.       

The day before my daughter’s 21st, a new driver’s license arrived in the mail. Her official permanent ID no longer screamed UNDER 21 in bold letters. I texted her a photo. I skyped her, afraid she’d be too busy to talk on the actual day. Like a film director she narrated the panoramic view from her terrace, over cobblestone streets and terra cotta roofs.

“One of the world’s best ice cream shops is a short walk away!” she enthused.   

She sounded as innocent as the little girl I used to take to Ben & Jerry’s. We’d sit in a booth with squirming kids whose ice cream tumbled off their cones and had to be replaced, whose mouths had to be wiped again and again, who stirred their cookie-dough and sprinkles into revolting soup even though their mothers admonished, “Finish up. We don’t have all the time in the world.” They did; we didn’t.

“I want to be nine forever,” she once said, anticipating double digits as if eligible for Medicare. “Eighteen sounds so…old,” she claimed nine years later, mixed with the thrill of registering to vote. I’ve loved watching her leaps into maturity, sounding like a law school graduate one minute, a sticky tot the next. But this year felt empty, her absence just another reminder that she was no longer our baby, hadn’t been for a long time. There will still be tears to soothe and tantrums to forgive, but our on-call schedule will be greatly reduced.       

I was surprised yet pleased when she asked to speak again on the Big Day. It was 1:40 a.m. her time. We smiled simultaneously when her face emerged on my computer screen. Her hair was wet from a shower. “Squeaky clean,” I used to remark after giving her a bath.     

“You’ll remember this birthday for a lifetime,” I said.     

Nodding, she sounded melancholy. “It was awesome, but I face timed all my friends back home. It’s weird being so far away today.”   

I didn’t confess how unnatural it was for us too, how much we missed her but knew her separation and independence meant we’d done a good job as parents. As hard as it is to let go, it’s even more difficult to pretend we don’t still yearn to share every aspect of her life—but know we can’t. 

Instead my husband and I broke into an impromptu version of “Happy Birthday,” harmonizing off-key, jumping around like embarrassing parents, our images transported across the Atlantic. My daughter rolled her eyes but didn’t want our connection to end. Usually she rushed off, too busy to chat; tonight she lingered online. She threw kisses into the camera, and we reciprocated. After her image faded, all I could picture was my three-year-old blowing out her candles, as I knelt beside her tiny chair. She placed her palm on my cheek and stared lovingly into my eyes for one brief moment. Soon enough, I was wiping icing from her upper lip, as she protested and tried to escape my grasp.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Summer Camp For All Ages

Summer Camp For All Ages

By Candy Schulman

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 2.34.48 PMI missed Amy’s first day of sleep away camp. I was in Florida, registering my mother at a senior activity center, deciding if she needed bus service and watching an eighty something man flirt with her—while my ten-year-old daughter was unpacking for camp.

Ever since my mother’s heart attack, I’d been visiting her regularly. At the age of ninety she’d finally slowed down from a busy life of competitive golf and chiseling large alabaster sculptures. Juggling my marriage, child-rearing, and responsibilities as a college professor, I was often exhausted overseeing Mom’s care 1,500 miles from my home.

At first I didn’t think I’d mind missing my daughter’s first summer separation. She’d be gone less than a week, playing soccer on a bucolic boarding school campus. Her dad was driving her up to help get settled; I’d made sure her duffle bag contained everything she needed for six days—enough sweatshirts for a sub-zero plunge, when New England was encased in an unrelenting heat wave.

There are a number of “firsts” that every mother misses: a baby’s first tentative steps that occur while we’re at work, or a wiggly tooth eased out by a school nurse. Momentarily I cheered up when Amy suggested we buy matching journals, and write to each other when we were apart. I predicted that I’d run out of pages, while Amy would document each day with something succinct: “Camp was great.” Or I could write something terse myself, using her vocab: “Life without you sucks.”

Other camps have Web sites with updates and new photos of your child daily. Other camps have e-mail addresses to write to your child. (“Use sunscreen. Eat vegetables. Drink lots of fluids so you don’t get dehydrated and throw up on the soccer field. Love, your nagging Mom.”) But Amy’s camp is only six days­. Although I haven’t yet given in to buying Amy her own cell phone, two of her friends have brought theirs … do I dare call? Or is the whole point to allow your child to experience freedom, responsibility, and independence? I want to call so badly! All I’ve gotten so far is a message from Dad: “Tell Mom my room’s really cool.” I need to know more … would she shower in six days, or consider the daily swim in the pool an act of body cleansing?

On Day Two, after touring and approving Mom’s new Senior Camp facilities and programs, I fly home. Amy calls on her friend Emma’s phone. I lunge to hear her voice, proud that I’ve held off longer than she had.

“Hi,” I say, hyperventilating. “How’s camp?”

“Good.”

Silence.

“What did you have for dinner?”

“Pasta.”

“Lunch?”

“Pasta.”

Silence.

“What are you doing now?”

“Talking to you.”

“Anything else you want to tell me?”

Her voice picks up. “We had a ping pong tournament. I came in second. I had two killers a 12-year-old boy couldn’t return.”

Ping pong? Why did I pay so much money to send her to soccer camp?

“Gotta go.” Click.

On the way to bed, I pass her room. It seems stiller than all the times she’s been to sleepover birthday parties. I empathize with the zoo of stuffed animals on her colorful striped comforter … alone … lonely … abandoned. She’d asked me to watch over her Golden Retriever, a frail yet cuddly “lovey” named Puppy, who’s been in our family since Amy was born. She still sleeps with her every night. We’ve joked that she will take Puppy with her to college. Amy is only in middle school, but friends with older kids warn me how quickly time passes; before I know it we’ll be unpacking her and Puppy in her dorm for freshman year. I don’t want to miss more “firsts” than I have to, yet I know that the older she gets, the less we will share. I place Puppy on my night table, feeling foolish when I tell her, “Good night,” the way Amy always does.

*   *   *

After work on Day Three, I go to the movies, then meet my husband for a late night out. It feels luxurious, almost decadent. I almost forget that Amy is 175 miles away. My husband and I stop for gelato on the way home, like a couple on a date without babysitter curfews. Instinctively we glance at our cell phones and look up, alarmed, when we see two missed calls from the same number: Amy’s roommate’s cell. While we were enjoying our freedom, she was needing us. I dial quickly. No answer.

At home, a small almost quivery voice on my answering machine: “Hi Mom and Dad …. It’s Amy. I was just wondering where you are. I love you. Bye.”

It’s 10:02 p.m. Do you know where your parents are? I want to be there whenever she needs me—but the older she gets, the more often she’ll have to navigate the world without me.

I finally reach her at 10:18. “How’s camp?”

Pause. “Okay.”

“What’s wrong?”

“My ankle hurts.”

“When did it start hurting?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Does it hurt now?”

“No. Only when I put pressure on it.”

“Are you crying?”

“Of course not.”

Of course she is. “Did you go to the nurse?”

“I haven’t told anyone. But I bought some tape in the canteen and taped up my ankle.”

What kind of tape would they sell? Scotch tape? What does she know about taping up ankles? What if she’s sprained it, stressed it, damaged it? What if she’s sidelined for the rest of camp? I picture her, limping on crutches, duct tape holding together her sore joint….

I make her promise to see the nurse the next morning, and then do what any other parent would do: call the dorm mother, who has no idea my kid is ailing. Amy’s school reports always say: “She never asks for help when she needs it.” Tenacious on the soccer field, reluctant to report a serious orthopedic injury. Here I fretted she was going to have heat stroke, when the real worry is that she’ll come home in a full body cast. I lay awake half the night, convinced that freedom and independence are not a good thing … not for my little girl … not for me.

*    *    *

Day Four is interminable. The phone doesn’t ring until 10:04 p.m.—again via Amy’s roommate’s cell.

I grill her, but she says her ankle doesn’t hurt anymore. She talks again about what fun she’d had playing ping pong.

“How about soccer?” I ask.

“Did I tell you about the magic sponge? The coaches have a huge sponge in a bowl of water. Whenever we get too hot, they squeeze the magic sponge over our heads and it cools us off. Like magic.”

I need a magic sponge. Only fifty-one hours to go.

*   *   *

It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t have to pick up or tend to a child. Each day I accomplish twice as much as I usually do. I cook salmon with wild mushrooms for dinner—something Amy would never eat. My husband and I have a romantic dinner alone. Then we have a fight. About nothing much really, just your average, typical, marital spat that lasts no longer than the next morning, and is indicative of how stressed we both are—by the usual daily burdens of life, coupled by our only child being Gone.

“I don’t feel comfortable when she’s not under my roof,” my husband says, after we start talking again. He, who’s always lax. I’m the overprotective one. He’s the one who went to sleep away camp as a child; I’m the one who never left home until college.

“Why? What do you think could happen?” I imagine bears, disease-ridden mosquitos, her glasses shattering from a hard-hit soccer ball, broken permanent teeth….

“Tonight’s the dance,” he says morosely.

“She’s only ten,” I remind him.

“Much too young for that sort of thing,” he says, shaking his head. I don’t confess about the micro-mini skirt I let her pack for camp.

The phone rings at 12:23 a.m. Is it an emergency with my mother? Groggily my husband misses the call. There is a message on my voice mail, which I don’t hear until morning: “Hi you guys, it’s Amy. Um, we got back really late so I didn’t call you because it’s … like twelve now, but I’ll try calling in the morning. If I have time. I’m gonna fall asleep any minute, I’m so tired. G’night.”

*   *   *

During the four-hour ride to fetch her at camp, I recall my husband reporting his phone conversation with her while I was still visiting my mother. When she said, “How’s M—” he was certain she was about to say, “How’s Mom?” Instead she asked, “How’s Macaroni?” Her hamster. It reminded me of the time in preschool, when she drew an abstract “family portrait,” and she identified the blobs of color on the page: the huge splash of purple was “Daddy,” and, pointing to a tiny speck of brown marker all the way in the bottom corner, she added, “This is you, Mommy.” Was I just a speck of brown in her whole universe?

When I get out of the car in the parking lot, I see groups of kids emerging from the cafeteria. Searching for girls Amy’s size, I soon spot her, but am unsure what to do. At Amy’s age, being coerced into hugging your mom in public will be used against you, in countless future hours on the analyst’s couch. Her roommate leaps into her mom’s arms, but she’s a year younger. Coolly I approach Amy. Gingerly, without much oomph, she gives me a perfunctory hug.

In the car I tell her to put her seat belt on. She rolls her eyes. “Sleep away camp was great—no parents to boss you around,” she growls.

It isn’t until much later, when we are alone, that Amy sits on my lap like a toddler. She plays with my hair. “I missed you,” she whispers.

“I missed you too,” I say. “A lot.”

She gives me a light kiss on the cheek.

I extend the moment, holding my little girl on my lap as long as she allows. Soon enough, she’s off and running again. Away from me, then back to me. I would have to get used to it. And so would she.

Later that night I get a phone call from my mother, documenting her first week at Senior Day Camp. She loved Chair Yoga, enjoyed “Kibitzing with Cantor Jack” and the discussion “Imagine” Bladder Control Therapy, felt foolish playing dominos and bingo, missed progressive bridge because of a dental appointment to finalize her lower bridge, and absolutely hated the meatloaf and mashed potatoes at lunch. She’s a picky eater, just like her granddaughter.

Author’s Note: Similar to many mothers I know, I juggled raising my daughter with the growing demands of looking after my aging mother, who lived 1,500 miles from our family. I saw both humor an poignancy in the parallels they both faced. Even though I wasn’t always at their sides for all the important “firsts,” both of them filled me in on what I’d missed. I couldn’t always be physically present, but they learned to thrive in my absence.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Art: Michael Lombardo

Should You Tell a Close Friend When You Know Her Child Smokes/Drinks?

Should You Tell a Close Friend When You Know Her Child Smokes/Drinks?

By Candy Schulman

YES!

Debateicon“Make me a promise,” Lisa said the night before our daughters started high school. “If you ever see Hannah smoking or drinking, you must tell me. We have to tell each other.”

Hannah was Lisa’s younger daughter. Lisa had already survived raising one teenager. I was a novice: my first time jumping blindfolded into the unpredictable age between tween and empty nest.

Our daughters had once been playmates, sharing birthday parties and sleepovers. Then suddenly they grew apart, old enough to choose who they wanted to escort home after school. Lisa and I no longer chatted in the playground while our girls pushed each other on the swings. We could no longer orchestrate their play dates, but Lisa and I still had our own.

I agreed to tell Lisa if I ever saw Hannah smoking or drinking, believing it was the ethical thing to do. I just didn’t know how hard it might be, or even if I’d be able to keep my part of the bargain. I had smoked at a young age, and in retrospect I wish someone had persuaded me to stop before my addiction took hold—and as an adult suffered through withdrawal. Besides, today we know how dangerous cigarettes are, and mourn for strangers whose teenagers are killed by drunk drivers.

The issue grew more complicated when a group of ninth-grade parents arranged a meeting to discuss drug and alcohol use among adolescents. Our adolescents. Our adorable children, who just yesterday, it seemed, were hugging stuffed animals as they sailed into dreamland. It was frightening to face the topic, but I knew my daughter had been catapulted into a world where she had to navigate Physics and Calculus as well as peer pressure, booze, and pot. We’d all heard about unchaperoned high school parties, where Facebook and texting made it easy for groups of teenagers to congregate at whoever’s house was free of parents.

One parent, who had the wildest son in the school, waved a piece of paper in the air. She made a bold suggestion: “I want everyone to sign this pact. We must tell each other if we see anyone’s child smoking or using drugs. We’re obligated.”

This “pact” had been successful in her son’s school where she’d just moved east from California. Arguments exploded. We all had different values on the subject. I was thankful that my daughter was not on this boy’s radar or party list. She still spent weekend evenings baking brownies with her best friend. There is a wide spectrum of acceptability among parents when it comes to our children’s substance use. At this particular meeting, one European-born parent confessed to serving wine to her daughter’s friends when they came for dinner. And there were other parents, who still smoked pot themselves, possibly in front of their kids. Wouldn’t their alarms go off differently than mine?

Only a handful of parents signed the group pact; I wasn’t one of them. Lisa quickly took me aside and whispered, “We still have our own agreement, don’t we?”

“Yes,” I said, hoping I’d never have to oblige. Hoping she wouldn’t either. “I trust my daughter,” I added.

“Believe me, you’d want to know,” Lisa assured me. I came to agree with her—in spite of ambivalences surrounding privacy and the possibility of risking my daughter’s trust.

Our kids live in a more complicated social world than when we were teenagers. From R-rated movies to celebrity gossip where substance abuse is commonplace, our teenagers have seen more—and probably done more—than we can imagine. Without stepping over boundaries, we still have the responsibility as parents to keep them safe, and offer them help if they are in trouble.

I must confess I avoided looking at Facebook photos where Lisa’s daughter might be guilty of holding up those telltale large red plastic cups, toasting to her friends. As it turned out, Lisa was the one who had to do the unthinkable. Hannah’s friend started getting drunk and smoking pot a year after her mother died of breast cancer. Lisa picked up the phone and asked the father to meet her for coffee. She didn’t even know him well, but she told him what he’d been expecting—and ignoring—all along. He thanked Lisa for her honesty and concern.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Lisa told me.

“We’ve both been so fortunate,” I said.

“So far,” she said, nodding. “We still have our private pact, don’t we?”

“Of course,” I said. And hoped I’d never have to honor it … knowing that I would.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Salon, Babble.com, Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

 

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

NO!

debateicon2Full disclosure: I’m a fixer. Not the Olivia Pope variety, but I am the kind of person to whom adults spilled their lovelorn conundrums before I hit puberty. This tendency to be told things continued into adulthood. Once a friend confided an impending marital split two months before the spouse learned of the plan (yes, very awkward at school dismissal). So, I’d have thought by the time my sweet little kids garnered pimples and problems with love or illicit substances, I’d be the one to glean all the dirt. Given my moral compass, my desire for safety, and my fixer-leanings, I figured I’d be the one to call all the parents, too.

I’m not the person I thought I’d be. While the reason for this should have been obvious, somehow it wasn’t to me until I became a parent to adolescents. Here’s the thing: if my adolescent confides in me, I cannot betray his trust by calling his friend’s parents, even if I wish I could. That’s because I want to be sure the next time my adolescent is worried, he’ll come to me again. Might there be an exception? Yes. It’d have to be connected to immediate danger.

With two teens and a tween not so far behind, whether to tell seems so much thornier than I’d have imagined back when the incidents between peers were playground-centric. “He didn’t let me play on the team,” pales in comparison to underage alcohol consumption, drug abuse, initial sexual activity, or acts of self-harm.

I remember how charged—parent-to-parent—those early elementary school years were. Once, a kid intentionally spilled milk on my kid’s lunch; another time, my kid teased a classmate. There was the epic incident that involved some softened wax from cheese in a peer’s lunch having wound up in my kid’s very long hair. Whose fault that was never became clear. The apologies between kids remained equally murky. For the moms, a confusing, difficult round of “he said, he said” ensued as its own sticky mess between us. The conversation resolved well, if not easily. In retrospect, I think we were both stunned our boys might not have been entirely innocent and we were also surprised by how without simple answers the ability to support one another well—as fellow moms—became challenging, too.

That’s one of the things about the parenting of adolescents I find tough: we are, as parents, in it to protect our kids through what feels like—and is—a vulnerable, important, and volatile period. Through these teen years, kids change enormously. They are exposed to so much more than we wish at times and much less prepared for some of that than we wish, too. Often, they befriend new kids, and we don’t know the new friends’ parents well or at all. We don’t have the playground any longer as a place where we get to know our peers while our kids get to know theirs. In other words, add to these raised stakes lowered connectivity. And then, heap on pressure to protect their trust. We’re not talking is-the-tooth-fairy-real trust; this is can I trust you parent, to help me when myfriends engage in behavior that might not be okay?

Um, wow. No one mentioned any of this during childbirth class.

When my teen divulges some variation of what so-and-so’s done, inevitably, the lead up is “I’m worried because…” What I hadn’t anticipated is that those moments of disclosure aren’t simply confessional nor are they shared because my teen seeks a fixer.

Presented with a high-octane parenting moment, I do try to establish why my kid is worried, how imminent he thinks any danger is, how likely it is the kid’s parent knows orcould know what’s going on, what other adults know about this, and what I can do. I always offer, although it’s unlikely my fixer skills will come into play. I always emphasize that this isn’t my kid’s to fix—and that concern, like substance abuse or self-harm require a qualified adult’s attention (my go-to is the school’s guidance counselor). Is this irresponsible of me? Or am I responsibly parenting my child? I hope I’m being responsible enough to everyone. I do follow up with my kid to make sure an adult’s attention was enlisted. And I hope that when my kids need me, I’ll have built up trust enough to ensure I can be right where I need to be.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on Twitter-@standshadows.

Recipes to the Rescue

Recipes to the Rescue

By Candy Schulman

grandmothersEvery Sunday my alarm clock was the sweet smell of yeast dough rising, butter melting, cinnamon oozing. I’d dash downstairs to be sous chef to four-foot-eight-inch Grandma Regina. After observing the Saturday Sabbath, she adorned her baking uniform: a shapeless housedress, high-topped black shoes and stockings rolled beneath her knee. She had a comforting lap that had no beginning or end, and her fingers always smelled like sugar and butter.

Grandma Regina spoke six languages and came to this country in her teens. She was from Prussia, but all the borders had changed, so no one was sure if she was Polish or Austrian. She lived in our house during summers, escaping the Florida heat. Although I adored the coconut patties she brought me every year, I preferred her Sunday refrigerator, packed with rising dough balls in pottery bowls—soon to be transformed into rugelach, danish and strudel.

“Come,” she’d say, extending a spoon to me, the official taster of the sugary cheese mixture. “Is it good enough for mine danish?”

“I’m not sure,” I’d pretend, securing another taste.

Only Grandma could produce a perfect circle from the laborious process of rolling out the dough. “No waste,” she’d proudly say.

She let me spread walnuts for the rugelach and cut them into pizza-shaped triangle wedges, then curl them into crescents. My favorites were her coffee cake cupcakes with streusel topping.

Packing to return to Florida grew more difficult each year. Sighing, Grandma said, “Throw away mine baking pans. I’m too old to bake.”

My mother, whose idea of baking was opening the plastic wrap from Hostess Twinkies, stared sadly at the ancient baking pans. “I’m not throwing anything away. You’ll bake again.”

And she did, for almost a decade. One day my mother and I sat down with a pad and asked Grandma for her recipes.

“I have no recipes,” she insisted. “I can’t say how much yeast to add. It depends on the weather.”

“Your recipe is a bissel this, a bissel that,” said Mother, begging her to try just this once.

Reluctantly Grandma measured flour and eggs, while my mother transcribed onto index cards. After Grandma died at the age of 95 or 96 (she had no birth certificate), we tried to duplicate her masterpieces—but none of the recipes ever worked. We’d lost a cookbook of Eastern European pastries, but when I got married, I took her ancient muffin pan, slightly bent out of shape but full of sweet memories.

Although I was an improvement over my mother, I excelled at Toll House cookies and had a cake phobia—always worried I would overbake until the point of no return. Besides, working full-time and raising my daughter, who had time for elaborate baking projects? It was easier to pick up something savory from a local bakery.

My daughter Amy never met Grandma Regina, but I shared stories about the countless hours we’d shared maneuvering rolling pins, our hands dusted with flour. After showing Amy how to make cookies, she branched out on her own, first with simple achievements from kids’ cookbooks (zebra cake, a concoction of chocolate wafers and whipped cream) and progressing to perfectly layered birthday cakes—never once resorting to a supermarket cake mix. Other parents worried where their tweens were at night, but I knew Amy was at Talia’s or Monica’s house, baking brownies, risking only an occasional minor burn on her finger.

Eventually we tried to re-create Amy’s great-grandma’s recipes, following failed directions from my mother’s handwriting on the fading index cards I’d saved. They always bombed. One day when Amy was devouring baking blogs instead of writing a research paper for school, she came across a recipe similar to Regina’s streusel cupcake muffins. Amy tweaked it, creating the closest any of us have ever come to Grandma’s masterpieces. She made them with vanilla extract, a heritage classic, and also popped a mélange of berries into the mix for color and taste.

The aromas wafting through our house have transported me back to the basement apartment where my doughy grandmother demonstrated why it was a sin to ever step foot in a commercial bakery. Baking genes and recipes may have skipped two generations, but how comforting that my daughter has brought them back to us. She’s made her own version of rugelach and a decadent chocolate babka. Now I am the assistant to my daughter, holding onto the recipe index card my mother had scribbled upon, finally re-creating and savoring the tastes of my childhood—in a pan I saved from Grandma’s cupboard.

Cupcakes

6 TBS butter, softened

½ cup sugar

½ cup sour cream

¾ teaspoon vanilla

1 ¼ cups flour

1 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

 

Streusel Topping

¾ cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon sea salt

6 TBS butter

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Blend butter, sour cream, and vanilla with a whisk or mixer. Stir into the flour mixture, but don’t overmix. Mix the streusel topping in a separate bowl. Pour batter into muffin or cupcake cups. Sprinkle streusel topping on each. Bake 15-18 minutes at 350°.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies.  She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

This piece is a part of our What is Motherhood? Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?

 

 

Choosing Our Family

Choosing Our Family

By Candy Schulman

unnamed-1The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. -Richard Bach

In middle school my daughter was given an assignment to draw a family tree, a fun way to strengthen vocabulary in her French class. She had a pet hamster at the time, and her family tree renderings turned out to be furry and nocturnal, with tails. So was her best friend Nicki’s. No one was surprised. Each of our families were imploding, and our human family structures had shattered irrevocably. At the time, hamsters provided more family support than human relatives.

Madelyn met Nicki as an infant in a Mommy and Me class. We lived a few blocks away, and our families became instant friends, babysitters, weekend travelers. We bought matching outfits for the girls, and they slept over each other’s houses more than they stayed at home. They grew up with a unique friendship bond—more like sisters, without the sibling rivalry. When Nicki’s sister Hannah was born, Madelyn became a big sister too.

Every December we took off in different directions: Nicki’s family to celebrate Christmas in Ohio, ours for Chanukah in California. We reconvened every New Year’s, sharing a bottle of Champagne at midnight long after the girls had gone to sleep, snuggling next to each other in the same bed.

Madelyn was an only child and often asked to have a brother (never a sister). Later she changed her wish from “sibling” to “puppy.” But when she saw other friends who shared weekly Sunday dinners with nearby family members, she knew something larger than a puppy was missing in her life.

“Nicki and Hannah are our family,” I told her, even though she already knew. “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. We are more fortunate than many: we’ve picked friends who have become our family.”

Once when Madelyn became dehydrated and my husband was away on business, I alone had to do everything from getting Madelyn to the hospital to excessive worrying. In my haste, I grabbed the duplicate stuffed Golden Retriever she slept with every night (in case we ever lost the original). When the nurse was setting up a cot for me to sleep next to her hospital bed, I realized the real puppy was home. IV fluids had begun to work, and Madelyn was more aware than the nearly comatose five-year-old in the ER. She sobbed, begging for the only puppy who could coast her into dreamland.

I couldn’t call my family in California for help. So Nicki’s mother rushed over to the hospital on a frigid January night, fetched my house keys, went to pick up Puppy, ran back to the hospital, and generated the first smile Madelyn’s face since she’d gotten a bad case of flu five days ago.

That’s true friendship. That’s family. How many parents are lucky enough to have both?

Years later both of our DNA families began to splinter. Coincidentally, we were both going through disagreements with siblings about our mothers’ wills. Vicious arguments. Law suits. Tears. Families torn apart.

Nicki’s parents invited us out to dinner—without the kids. Before the entrees arrived, they asked if we’d be willing to be the legal guardian of both girls. “It isn’t possible with members of our family anymore,” they said. “And besides, you’re our family now.”

We were honored, yet apprehensive of the large responsibility. Of course we said yes. Who can turn down the needs of true family? And we loved Nicki and Hannah as much, if not more, than blood relatives.

A year later my sister and I were embroiled in a lawsuit over our mother’s will. She’d left me her jewelry, knowing I made less money than my sister did. And I’d been her main caretaker for the last five years of her life. My sister and I had never been close, and even though she lived near our mother, I was the one who spent every Chanukah and birthday with Mom when she was bedridden with dementia, while my sister was gallivanting around Hawaii with her boyfriend

Now we were adversaries in court, a heartbreaking process where my sister told lies about me to the judge and to my nieces and nephews. After our suit was over, I knew I’d never talk to her again.

It was my turn to invite Nicki’s parents out to dinner. They said yes, just as we had. That night I downloaded a legal document from the Internet, notarizing it the next day. My daughter had a new guardian until she’d turn eighteen.

Each year as Chanukah and Christmas nears, I shop for gifts for Nicki and Hannah the way I used to enjoy giving personalized presents to my sister’s family. Together we light the menorah. Madelyn never did get her own puppy, but she’s been crowned guardian aunt to Duke, Nicki’s English bulldog. She walks him when they’re away on vacation. She loves him as if he’s her family—even though he drools and snores.

We have an extended family too. Each year we spend Thanksgiving with Jill, whose son is Madelyn’s age. Last year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we cooked for a friend of Madelyn’s since preschool, whose Jewish father now lives in another state and whose mother was raised Catholic. Passover is always with Nicki, where the two girls have searched together for the hidden matzo. Sometimes we have holiday dinners with friends who don’t have children. John, a lifelong friend of my husband’s, is known in our house as “Uncle Johnny,” always interested in hearing details about Madelyn’s soccer games and knowing that she loves dark chocolate whenever he brings her a bakery treat.

Creating a family for our only child, we replaced the families we’ve lost through needless disagreements, but the grief for their absence is always there. No one can ever predict the surprising twists that can cause great distances, beyond geography, among family members. You do what you must to compensate for loss. Our family and holiday gatherings don’t look like they did when I was a child, but there is always plenty of laughter and hugs. Sure we have the occasional disagreement—but after all, we’re family.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies.  She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

My Adolescent Life

My Adolescent Life

By Candy Schulman

Adolescent Life ArtThis is how it feels to be the mother of a thirteen-year-old: every time we share a special moment together, I worry it’s the last one.  I’ve read Reviving Ophelia and commiserated with friends who have already endured tumultuous times with their teenage daughters. I can still vividly remember my own adolescence. The lies I kept from my mother…the make-up I bought with money stolen from her purse…the fury I felt toward her old-fashioned, restrictive ways…the acute embarrassment she could cause merely by just showing up in front of my friends…the fights we had—over everything: hemlines, homework, household chores, curfews, career aspirations.  I had my own secret life, albeit tame by today’s standards.  I told my mother almost nothing.  We were strangers by the time I was thirteen.

Today’s parents escort their children everywhere until almost driving age, it seems.  I was a latchkey kid making my own lunch at the age of eight. At thirteen, my daughter still has difficulty “unzipping” a banana. Our generation of parents will undoubtedly be analyzed, maybe even criticized, for micromanaging our children’s lives.  Adolescence, from the Latin adolescere meaning “to grow up,” no longer ends in late teens. New terms like “boomerang kids” and “emerging adulthood” have been created to define twentysomethings. Our kids move back home.  The cell phone, some claim, is the longest umbilical cord ever invented.

I began to let go of my daughter when she was three weeks old, nursing her and quickly handing her over to a babysitter, running out to teach my class and be home before her next feeding time. I let go of her when she was twelve, reluctantly allowing her to walk eight blocks to school with friends.  I have never punished or hit her, and sometimes remind her, when she’s sassy, that I had my mouth washed out with soap for far less offensive behavior.  Her greatest restriction is that I don’t allow TV on school nights and I limit her access to the Internet.  She has been allowed to make many decisions for such a young girl, whereas I was always told what to do (and more often, what not to do).  When I came home from school the day we selected instruments for seventh grade orchestra, my mother was horrified that I’d picked drums.  “We have a clarinet and a saxophone in this house, and you’ll choose one of those,” she commanded.  I hated clarinet and gave it up after a year.  Today if a child wants to play the drums, her parents would not only rush out to buy a set and welcome the noisy practice, but likely to take her for lessons at a specialty African drumming school.

We want to be our children’s “friend,” yet we can’t really be.  We have to say “no” and let our children separate from us—even rebel.  I “shadowed” Amy on the first day she walked to school, watching her from across the street.  One year later I still worry whenever she forges somewhere new on her own.  My mother used to say, “Come back for dinner” when we left to go who-knows-where?

It’s a different world today, but from the moment I learned from amniocentesis results that Amy was a girl, I tried to prepare myself for the time when she would reject me, even momentarily hate me.  Some of her peers have already started.  Every time I think Amy’s going to shut me out (there’s a DO NOT DISTURB sign on her door but she still leaves the door open), she lets me visit a little while longer.  I cherish the reprieve, knowing it’s temporary, believing I may have just a tiny bit of time left.

And I try to avoid tears when I call her on a Friday at school dismissal time, suggesting she meet me at a store where I’ve found a pair of jeans she’s been yearning for, and she brusquely barks into the cell phone I bought her: “I’m with my friends! Can’t talk to you now. We’re going for ice cream together.”  I stroll home through the park on a lovely spring afternoon, alone, the way I once enjoyed my private time before I had a daughter.  This is my new life, but I’m already grieving for the mother/daughter life I’ve left behind.  I sit in the park and listen to a folk singer’s free concert.  Who am I?  Where am I?  Where is Amy?

We go to Florida a few months after Amy’s thirteenth birthday, just the two of us.  My 89-year-old mother is ailing, and I take Amy to see her.  We used to stay in my mom’s apartment but now her live-in caretaker sleeps in the den where we used to camp out on vacations.  I book a hotel on the beach, and Amy thinks it’s cool to have beachfront breakfasts watching a line of lifeguards swim a half mile straight out into the ocean and back before taking their posts for the day.  We spend mornings visiting with Grandma, and have some time for ourselves on the beach as well.

We rent bicycles built for two, giggling as we try to steer straight on the boardwalk.  Become lost in long books under umbrellas staked in the sand.  We take nightly walks in the moonlight, avoiding the kissing couples we pass on the beach.  Amy shows off her seventh grade earth science knowledge, identifying the phase of the moon while she savors a chocolate ice cream cone.  We sit in the sand close to the shore and watch the waves break.

“You know,” Amy says, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer, like you, because I look up to you.”

“You do?” I say, surprised at my surprise.  I know she admires me, but lately she expresses embarrassment or distaste for my clothing, my fears, my singing, my mere presence.

“Of course I look up to you,” she says.  “You’re amazing.”

“In what way?”

“You’re kind to people.  The way you take care of Grandma.  The way you help your students.  Even strangers on the street.”

“That’s so nice to hear.”

She looks me straight in the eye.  “Mom,” she says, “when you take a sip of water, I take a sip.”

Joyously I try to hold onto her words as long as possible.  She bites into her chocolate sugar cone.  If this is our last tranquil moment together, then it is a great one.  We stroll back to our hotel, holding hands in the dark.  Amy takes the ice bucket down the hall to fill it up. We’re both very thirsty.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies.  She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

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