Motherhood is a Relationship

Motherhood is a Relationship

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Once upon a time, way back in The Olden Days, when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark, the Cold War was just ended, and Rodney King was wondering why we couldn’t all just get along, I wanted to have a baby.

So have a baby I did, and less than two years later I had another, and while I wasn’t naïve enough to think that raising children would be easy, neither did I recognize the potential for gut-wrenching agony in the whole enterprise.

Thank God I didn’t know then what I know now.

I was young and insecure and married to the wrong man, so it’s not like I started parenting strong, and I felt all the social pressures that many new moms feel: am I doing enough? Have I given them the best? I loved my kids deeply (they were very easy to love), but I was tormented by anxiety over whether or not I was a good mom, in spite of the fact that they were healthy and happy.

I experienced no real counter-pressure to this angst. The books, magazines, and websites that would deliver new messages about good enough parenting hadn’t begun to show up, and I wasn’t strong or self-aware enough to intuit it myself.

Here’s the problem: I thought of mothering as an endeavor, a thing to do. Growing up as I did in the wake of Women’s Liberation, I heard pundits talk about whether women should have paid employment or stay home with their kids. Gloria Steinem said that every mother is a working mother. Oprah said stay-at-home-moms are the hardest working people in the world.

So there I was, in a cracker box house with two breathtakingly wonderful babies, and I figured those babies were mine to keep perfect or destroy. I could do a good job, or I could botch it.

Raising children is, like life, nothing if not complex, and during 1997 I went from married, stay-at-home-mom to working, college student, single mom. I was wracked anew with anxiety over my kids’ well being. I felt guilty over divorcing their dad, and even guiltier over being relieved at the end of that ugly, painful marriage.

In the meantime, I enjoyed my work and loved my classes. In choosing courses and writing papers, I was drawn to topics of motherhood over and over again, and as I read fiction, poetry, memoir, and sociological research, I examined my own experience of mothering and being mothered.

In all that examination of motherhood, I started to see both my mom and myself, and our maternal roles, in new ways. Mothers serve children, but mothers are not their children’s servants. There is work involved in caring for and raising children, but motherhood is not really about the work.

My best memories of my mom, and the times when I knew I was at my best as a mom, had to do not with the work of mothering, but with our relationships. When I came in from school and told my mom how my first boyfriend had gone out and found himself a new girlfriend without informing me, she was aghast and furious (the best possible response) and sat next to me on the couch, passing me a nearly endless succession of tissues while I cried. When I was four, she did my hair up in rollers at my request. After she took the rollers out she brushed my hair hard and said, “Oh, this isn’t good at all. You’re very glamorous but you don’t look like my little Adrienne like this,” and I felt special and extraordinary because my mom liked me best the way I was.

Likewise, with my own children, the best experiences have been the ones when we’re together without an agenda: reading stories with wacky voices, deep conversations on long drives, impromptu dancing in the kitchen, or lounging in bed with our dogs.

Motherhood has lots of work attached to it, of course. There is school registration to do and clarinet lessons to be arranged and soccer cleats to buy. There are books about discipline to be read and decisions to be made and the endless harassing of children to clean their rooms, come home by curfew, and empty the dishwasher. If there is a child with special needs in the mix, there is infinitely more work to be done.

Even with all that work, motherhood is first and foremost a relationship, and how lucky for us, that we get to know these people we brought into our families. I have never met people more fascinating than the ones who call me mom.

Twenty years into this thing we call motherhood, I’ve had lots of time to contemplate my reasons for becoming a mother when I was so very young and unprepared for it. Some of those reasons were selfish or morally ambiguous and aren’t nice to consider, but the motivation at the bottom of all of them, the one that came from my best self, was this: I was curious. I wanted to know what my children would be like, who they would be in the world. I wanted to experience the kind of relationships motherhood would bring.

There has been more pain in motherhood than I could have contemplated, and I’m convinced that, had I known, I’d never have done it. Thank God I didn’t know, because the world without these people who are my children would be a much emptier place. My relationships with my mother and my children are at the center of my life, and good relationships are the foundation of a good life.

I wouldn’t trade any of them.

Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style [nopointsforstyle.com].

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Losing A Child Who Was Not Mine

Losing A Child Who Was Not Mine

Two People and Their Shadows Walking Down Cobblestone Street

By Joanna Laufer

In a Texas hospital room, my husband and I met her: the birth mother who had asked us to be the parents of her child. She had just given birth to a baby girl. We stood by the hospital bed eager to hold the baby, who was still in the hallway nursery. We knew, before we flew to Texas from New York, that this was the birth mother’s condition of our adoption going through. “I need to see her in the arms of her mother,” she said.

Meeting each other for the first time discharged something deep in us, awkwardness and confessions we didn’t even try to hide. My husband and I gushed out our gratitude, our promise to devote our care and love; she reciprocated with her gratitude, her plans for college and a career. We were raw, open, strangers linked in the most intimate way. She told us, almost apologetically, looking sheepish and crushed, that her boyfriend – the father of the child – hadn’t shown up for the birth.

“Who does this?” she asked me, as if we had known each other for years. “Am I pitiful if I call him?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Maybe he’ll even call you.”

I had no idea whether or not her boyfriend would call. I wanted to say something consoling, and this seemed to put her at ease. Those few words, and others that flew out later, were words I would come to regret.

This had been a recent and rushed adoption match. We had made a connection with this birth mother, through an adoption agency, a week before she was due to give birth. Paperwork had been faxed and over-nighted to us, which covered only the basics. We knew each others ages – she was 20, we were in our mid-thirties at the time – and we received the birth mother’s medical history. The agency had sent her photos of us clipped to a letter we wrote about the love and good life we felt we could give to a child.

We had one phone interview, which seemed to go well. She said she chose us because she saw we love children from the photographs of us hugging our nieces. Photos of the two of us in a rowboat in Central Park convinced her that we’re happy and close. She was sure about choosing us after reading that we’d provide a good education and nurture a love for the arts. She even liked the design of the paper we wrote the letter on, the swirl of pink colors along the border. We’d been advised by the agency to pick paper that would be enticing and stand out. We were told that this would actually make a difference.

“Should I even speak to him?” she asked, and then started to sob. “He’s actually an amazing guy.”

I nodded. I told her I’d give him a chance to explain. I added that it was wrong and unfair that she’d given birth alone, but seeing their baby being born might have been too painful for him to face. “Despite what it looks like right now,” I said, “He might still be that amazing guy.”

She seemed comforted by this, which is what I had hoped for her to feel but, again, this was something and someone I knew nothing about. All my husband and I knew about her boyfriend was that, included in her plans, she wanted to have kids with him in the future.

My husband and I had spent our 20s and part of our 30s sometimes wavering, sometimes adamant about putting our careers before having a child. Once the desire grew strong and we weren’t able to conceive, we went through a year of tests, ovulation kits, and seven months of artificial insemination. Though we felt a great loss, each month, not conceiving a child, we declined fertility drugs and extensive treatments. We weren’t invested in having to have a biological child, so adoption was a choice we welcomed. We cringed when hearing concerns from well-meaning people, their comments about the risks of raising a child with unknown genes and unfamiliar personality traits. We heard a litany of adoption stories gone bad, sensational ones seen on the news, about birth parents returning and kidnapping their children.

We dismissed these warnings as best as we could. We argued that when it came to genes, including ours, there were never any guarantees. As for kidnapping, we went on faith that this wasn’t in the cards. We had all agreed to a closed adoption.

I was dying to hold the baby and kept looking for the nurse. This was a huge moment for my husband and me. We were finally close to becoming parents and to putting a tough adoption process behind us. Just as past or recent breakups are topics to avoid on first dates, we didn’t mention the hardships with prospective birth mothers before her. One woman had a miscarriage. Another woman we had gotten attached to left her premature infant in the hospital and couldn’t be found to sign the consent forms.

A nurse wheeled in the baby on what looked like a changing table. She had thick black hair with a little clipped-on pink bow. I couldn’t take my eyes off her face, her precious oval yawn. My desire to pick her up was excruciating to restrain, but this was the first time her birth mother was seeing her, too. “Do you want to hold her first?” I asked.

She stayed consistent with what she had requested all along, to see the baby one time only, and only in my arms. “No,” she said. “Just you.”

Holding a child you are going to adopt, even for only a few seconds, is different than holding someone else’s child. My heart opened instantly. I held her head gently against the nook of my throat. I kissed her and she flinched. “That’s a kiss,” I told her. I assumed it was her first. She fell asleep in my arms.

I looked up at the birth mother. It seemed too clinical, at this point, to think of her as birth mother. As she watched me hold the baby she had just given life, her heart opened instantly, too. She was crying, but attempted to stop. Crying was replaced with something like prayer. She kept saying, “I want her to have,” and “I’m grateful she’ll have,” before filling the sentence with her priorities for the baby: two loving parents, self-esteem, a good future without needing welfare. She took a deep breath and nodded, finding strength from these words. Then she said them again to the baby.

She asked not to be called or considered mother, or the alternatives: first mother, natural mother, or real mother. She said it would be unfair and misleading to the baby, and to me. She didn’t mind the woman who gave birth to the baby. I thought she deserved something more, though I’ll admit I was relieved. Being called adoptive mother made me uncomfortable, too. I wanted to love, raise, protect, and nurture my child. If she was the natural or real mother, who was I?

I held the baby close. I inhaled her sweet smell. My husband leaned into me and put his finger in the baby’s tiny hand. I placed her, fast asleep, into his arms.

We had started preparing to bring the baby to our hotel the next day, and home with us soon after. Texas law required us to wait 24 hours, from the time the baby was born, before the adoption consent papers could be signed. We had already bought formula, receiving blankets, onesies, wipes and diapers, and a pink and white stuffed lamb rattle. We’d rented a car with a car seat and had a crib set up when we checked into a residence hotel. As we were leaving to go back to the hotel, her cell phone vibrated. “Oh my God,” she said. “Thank God.”

She made a hand motion requesting we stay, while she answered the call. She tearfully told her boyfriend (mouthing “thank you” to me first) that she would give him a chance to explain. We listened to her listen, sensing where this was heading. Not because we heard anything her boyfriend said or could tell much from watching her face. We sensed where this was heading because our deep-down fear, as adoptive parents, was that we didn’t earn or deserve a child that was handed to us, no matter how much we wanted a child. We could tell ourselves that we’d leave the next day with a daughter that was ours, but we knew she’d also always, in some way, be theirs.

If it had gone the way it was set up to go, nothing and everything would have changed. She would go on to college as planned and would forever carry on her shoulders that she had a child she didn’t keep. Instead, her boyfriend came to the hospital after we left. When our social worker went to her room with the consent papers the next morning, she brought back only a note. It said: Thank you. We held the baby all night. We’re both really, really sorry.

We called her room several times, but no one picked up. We then went on autopilot while handling loose ends. We returned the baby book our social worker had given to us, a gift for clients to record memories and milestones. My husband called our family and friends, who’d been waiting to hear good news. We returned the car seat to the airport at Dallas-Forth Worth. We barely spoke on the plane ride home.

I imagined what I might have said if she’d answered the phone. It might have been something pleading, urging her to reconsider. Or something stoic, forcing myself to say that she and her boyfriend should follow their hearts if they wanted to raise their child. I actually tried to talk myself into believing that this was true. I moved through grief and anger, seeing, as never before, that being told you were “chosen” didn’t come without a price. You can be un-chosen, without warning, and without a say. A child who is adopted also comes to know what being “chosen” means. If someone chose you and really wants you, someone else out there didn’t or couldn’t.

As soon as we returned to New York, I closed the door to the room we’d set up for the baby. Yet some nights, I found myself walking inside. I’d sit on the rocking chair I had pictured myself rocking her on. I spent many hours there hoping her parents would change their minds. It was a strong desire and one I struggled with, knowing that what I wanted was in no one’s best interest anymore, that I would become her mother only if, after finally coming together, her family would be broken apart.

Three weeks later, after another rushed adoption match, we were back in Texas. The hospital had a room set up for us to sleep in, before the consent papers would be signed. My husband and I knew, discussed, and weighed the risks. The birth parents still had time to change their minds in the morning after we’d have been with the baby all night. It was pain we didn’t want to feel again, but we knew we’d regret declining if this was our child. We agreed, for the sake of what could be our daughter, and what did turn out to be our daughter, that it was a risk worth taking.

We have learned through time that adoption, our greatest gift, is also hard to get right. We might have gone overboard making sure our daughter felt that our ties are as strong as blood ties. That she is our heart and light. Instead of telling her we chose her, we said families form in different ways and ours was meant to be. Whether she fully understood this or not, when she was 9, she told this to a friend and her friend accused her of lying. We were at Parents Observation Day at The Alvin Ailey Dance School, where she studied ballet and West African dance. Most of the kids in class were African American, and my daughter, a pale-skinned, blonde-haired girl, wearing a West African lapa while she danced for the parents, could pass for looking like me.

“You’re not adopted,” her friend said. “You look like your mom.”

I told her friend I was flattered she thought I looked like my daughter, and my daughter and I both smiled. But what I didn’t say, before her friend walked back to her parents was, “Yes, we did adopt her.” I was proud that we did and never hid this fact, but sometimes I just didn’t want the questions and stares. Sometimes I didn’t want to be reminded that she might look like someone in a family that isn’t ours, one that might long for her and wish they would have changed their mind, or might have moved on and tried not to look back. That, despite our fierce love, there’s a missing piece for her, an identity involving blood and birth that we are unable to give her.

At times, I wonder what became of the baby we didn’t take home. What had once been unbearable for us we could now be grateful for. A family was born that day, one we weren’t meant to be part of, and it led us to our daughter. She is 23 now, no longer looks like me, and is finding her own way to make sense of her story. As we have had to make sense of ours.

Joanna Laufer is the author of the book Inspired and of short stories and articles that have appeared in various publications. She lives in New York City with her husband and adorable cat. www.joannalaufer.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ten Picture Books that Will Always Stay on my Shelf

Ten Picture Books that Will Always Stay on my Shelf

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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.

Doppelgänger

Doppelgänger

Doppleganger ARTBy Erica Mosley

Shel was half way to the car before she realized she had the wrong kid.

Half way! Of course when she told her husband about it later she did not say “half way.” She told him she was just gathering her bags and yelling goodbye to the other moms when she looked down and saw she was holding Ethan Penderton’s hand and not Milo’s. She did not tell him she’d gotten through the door, into the parking lot, and half way to the car with a boy who was not their child. She did not tell him about how she ran back, red-faced, clutching this doppelgänger, or about how shocked she was when she slinked into the gym and saw Ethan’s mother, stooped over her phone, oblivious to the error. Nor did she tell him about the look Ethan Penderton gave her when she released his small hand, the way he stood there, at the free-throw line, calm and grinning. He hadn’t spoken or pulled away, and she wondered how far he would have allowed himself to be taken.

She told Nathan none of this. Instead she presented it as a joke, after Milo was in bed and after Nathan emptied into her glass the bottle of Cabernet they’d started two nights before. It was too cold because it had been in the refrigerator, and it was beginning to turn. She drank it anyway. She said: “Hey, so I almost brought the wrong kid home today.”

Nathan snorted. “I believe it. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before, all those peewees running around in matching uniforms.”

And then it was over. Just a laugh, an amusing anecdote told over a bottle of wine. Nathan moved on to the dumb thing his boss said about turkey bacon and they never spoke of Ethan Penderton again.

Shel would never tell him how frightened she’d been, how ashamed that she’d been unable to recognize her own child. Yes, the gymnasium was a dizzying jumble of five-year-olds, one big blur of red and white jerseys. And yes, Ethan’s hair was similar to Milo’s: sandy blond with the faintest hint of curl on top, where it was longest. And yes, she’d been on her phone with the chiropractor’s office when she grabbed Ethan’s hand by mistake, and yes, she’d been in a hurry because the post office closed in fifteen minutes.

And yet, she told herself, not really listening to Nathan’s story about the turkey bacon, none of her excuses cut it because at the most crucial moment she had failed. She had grabbed the wrong child.

Nathan turned on the TV to check the weather. Shel carried her glass to the computer room and lingered over the last sip while scrolling her news feed.

There it was: the viral video she’d shared that morning, the body wash commercial. A row of mothers—each with perfect hair, white teeth, wedge heels—stood side by side in a sunny meadow. One by one their blindfolded children, arms outstretched, wandered toward them and felt the hands, the hair, the noses of the mothers until each found his own. The bond a child has with his mother is so strong, touted the body wash company, that he can pick her out of a crowd using only touch and smell.

Shel had cried at the video earlier, had tagged each of her mommy friends, had stirred the oatmeal feeling inspired, had dressed Milo slowly, savoring the milky-sweet skin of his wrists and his gangly toes and his fresh-from-sleep smell: fabric softener laced with sourness, like a lemon turning to vinegar.

Now she hit “refresh” and watched the video again. And again. Watched each boy and girl stagger down the row, sniffing ponytails, feeling for familiar fabrics. Did she see something, on that fifth, sixth, seventh viewing? Just the hint of doubt in the eye of the mother on the end of the row, the fear that her child would not be able to find her?

Shel thought back to the gymnasium.

After releasing Ethan she had found Milo on the bleachers, stooped giggling over his friend’s iPad. “Time to go,” she’d said, and he’d hopped up, still giggling, oblivious that he’d almost been left behind.

He never noticed she was gone.

On the screen in front of her, five blindfolded children sought out their mothers. And hers hadn’t even missed her.

Shel sat her glass on the computer desk and tiptoed into Milo’s room. He slept. He wasn’t a snorer, not yet, not like Nathan, but he tittered with every other exhalation. She sat gently on the bed, careful not to wake him. She bent her head over his, buried her nose in his sandy blond hair, breathed him in. Deeper and deeper, breathed him in.

Erica Mosley lives in the Missouri Ozarks. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Austin Review’s Spotlight, and elsewhere. Check out her website at ericamosley.com or follow her on Twitter: @ericamaymosley.

Child, Please: A Book Review

Child, Please: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Child, Please cover art (1)“Honey, please.”

“Carston, PLEASE.”

“Carston Friedman, PUH-LEASE.”

With a three-year-old in my house I find myself using these three escalating statements fairly often. According to Ylonda Gault Caviness I ought to add “Child, please,” to the repertoire… Though more often than not I should actually be saying those words to myself and not to the children.

Caviness recently released Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself. The book could, sadly, not have been more timely. Just before its release Caviness wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times that went viral—”What Black Moms Know“—after the Baltimore riots. The piece describes her reaction to worries about college admissions (when your child is in preschool), the “Mommy Wars,” and Toya Graham, the Baltimore mom who gained nationwide attention after grabbing her rioting son and smacking “him upside his head.” If you liked the Times article you will also enjoy Child, Please, though it does differ from the book.

You might expect Child, Please to offer advice on raising kids today, and while the book does so it comes in a different guise than other parenting books you might know. Caviness has really written a motherhood memoir; stories about raising her own three children and her relationship with her mother form the story’s scaffolding. The major narrative arc traces Caviness’ early experiences as a pregnant woman and takes us through her pregnancies (including miscarriage) and how they affected her relationship with her own mother. The forays into her mother’s past bring up issues of region in America, class, and of course race. Caviness deftly weaves this cross-generational mothering story together with her strong and entertaining voice. It’s her mom’s hard-won pearls of wisdom that form the advice part of Child, Please.

Take for example Chapter 3, “Don’t Start Smelling Yourself,” likely the most evocative chapter in the book. Caviness pulls no punches writing, “White parents are punks.” She goes on:

Before you go and get yourself all offended, I hope you realize I’m sharing this information only out of love. The way I figure, if we want to know the crazy thoughts whites have about black people, all we have to do is watch Fox News. But you poor white people have no way to get the 411. If you tried watching BET, you’ve probably already been led astray, because, honestly, not that many black folks have as much sex as the average hip-hop star….It’s a scientific and well-researched fact that blacks and whites operate under a different set of expectations—a different set of goals—when it comes to parenting. Many black parents believe that obedience and respect for elders are the main measures of a kid raised right—which explains why you’re more likely to see a black child get yoked in public if he acts out. I don’t think most white parents place as high a premium on compliance (duh?). Instead, they rank things like confidence and autonomy high on the scale of ‘good kids.’

Definitely entertaining and assertive with lots of truth. But here, and in other places in Child, Please, I found myself hungering for more about the “scientific and well-researched fact.” Describing those findings and using them to bolster the wisdom and experience of Caviness’ family would have taken the book to another level. Similarly, given that Caviness was a parenting editor for several years I found myself wondering if she thought articles directed at black moms significantly differed from articles targeted at Jewish or Korean moms. Caviness has access to various databases that could have showed just how crazy some white moms might be for peeling a pea (full disclosure, I had never heard of this before reading it in Child, Please!) and it would have made for a different contribution alongside the memoir and folk wisdom.

Nonetheless, the larger cultural message of Caviness work is so important and rings out loud and clear. For instance, also from Chapter 3:

Black people love their kids, for sure. But historically we never had the luxury of thinking them precious. Special? Yes. There is a big difference. We don’t see our kids as anything akin to fine china, not to be disturbed or broken. In fact, given our druthers, most black parents would chose to ‘break’ their kids before someone else does… We fear that if we wait for our kids to simply outgrow such childishness, they might suffer at the hands of authority, especially those men in blue. Authority, with its billy sticks and handcuffs and black robes, has not been kind to us.

Beyond her writings on race the best parenting advice from Caviness, via her mother and mother’s friends, has little to do with children. Instead it has to do with taking care of yourself as a mother and as a person: “They taught me that, first and foremost, you have to love on yourself. And that doing so was not an act of selfishness, but an act of strength and wisdom and fortitude. This modern habit of mothers, almost bragging that they’ve no time to take care of themselves, no time to care for themselves? It’s not cute.”

During the summer we often think we will have more time, even though we often end up with less. So do yourself a favor, go get that pedicure you’ve been putting off, or head to the beach for an hour or to all by yourself. But don’t forget to bring a book when you do—child, please.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Buy Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself

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.

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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.

Anecdotes of a Girl

Anecdotes of a Girl

By Jacqueline Maria Pierro

WO Anecdotes of a Girl ART

My Father

It is the dead of winter yet my bedroom window is wide open to a black sky devoid of stars and compassion. Frigid. I’ve removed the screen and pulled back the curtains allowing full entry should Peter Pan find my house and fly me away, enveloped in fairy dust to the Never Land. As I watched the dawn creep upon the dark, my tears fell cold upon my cheek: Peter wasn’t coming. I have only one visitor that night; another visit in which I had to stare with empty eyes at the room’s hideous skin—my posters of innocence were obnoxious now, the cotton candy paint I’d picked out in Home Depot was ugly now. I guess I was ugly. Well, not to him. But I wished I was ugly to him, or plain, or just his kid—the kid that you play softball with in the front yard and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to at night and maybe build stuff with, like clubhouses or go-carts. I wasn’t that kind of kid though; I am the one who he visits at night, who he makes keep his secrets and then they turn into my secrets.

 

As my reality becomes unlivable I start to read an endless amount of books. When Peter failed to find me I decide to read about Narnia. Soon I was crying silent tears and waiting for Aslan to roar in and let me bury my small face in his glorious fur. Then I read the Bible and prayed for Jesus, God, Mary, Joseph, any one of the Apostles to appear in a sort of diaphanous manner, speak in magnificent echoes and carry me away on a song to Heaven. Then I read Sybil and tried to convince my psyche to formulate new and stronger personalities to compensate for the frailty that I felt. I was shattered inside yet my skin stayed together holding it all in; I was both the captor and captive of the particles which bound me together. Stuck and lost within endless walls and secrets.

 

He brought me home presents in his briefcase. I ran down my long block on my skinny legs anticipating his arrival each day. Or I peered out the window and counted cars, trying to guess how many would pass before I would see him stroll down our street in his business suit. His briefcase always held some sort of treat: a cool pencil, stickers that smelled when you scratched your nail across them, a small set of magic tricks. One evening when I was twelve he came in my room after work and opened his briefcase to give me my treat. It was some sort of lacy red panty and bra set. He said I could wear it for him if I felt comfortable enough, like maybe when my mom wasn’t around or something. I took it and crumpled it into my drawer as far back as it would go and sometimes when I caught a glimpse of it I would feel sick, like I was going to pass out or like I couldn’t really breathe too well. I think I just hated that thing. On a Tuesday when no one was home I took it out of my drawer and tried it on and looked in the mirror. And then I felt like I hated myself.

 

As I walked home from school that day when I was 12 I felt this overwhelming urge to just be normal. And then I saw him standing at the end of our driveway with this smile on his face saying he was happy to see me. I wasn’t happy and I told him that I wanted to be normal and that I wanted him to just stop. To just leave me alone and to love me, but in some other way that doesn’t make me feel bad. He nodded his head slowly and said that he understood and he was sorry, he would never do things to me again, but that of course our relationship would change and he couldn’t be that nice to me anymore. He said he would have to treat me like shit because I obviously didn’t love him and that I better not say anything to my mother.. So I told him that he could treat me like shit then. I walked inside and that began the next few years of him not being nice to me. I guess I was just a disappointment so it was easier to call me names or hit me when he was angry.

 

When it was warmer out I started to find freedom in running away. I left my house with a backpack full of books rather than clothes. I ran to fields of broken glass whereupon I could escape into tales and legends and words and pages; the words danced and sang to me—they were my elixir, soporific and hypnotic—they gave me temporary amnesia. Some days it was raining and my clothes stuck to me in the most uncomfortable way and I just couldn’t go back to that house to change and maybe open my drawer and see that ugly lacy red thing that he wanted to see me in.

 

Home was just an illusion that I clung to but I wasn’t going to go there because he was there. Often I watched the night silently turn to day in some random house or another; I was almost 14, the secrets that I had inside had devoured my spirit. So I wandered. I played chess with those old guys in Washington Square Park and explored Manhattan; I could feel its pulse beating under my feet and I had to write the skyline in words, ascribe letters to each smell, to the cacophony of sounds that somehow made sense, and to the faces. I walked across the George Washington Bridge to the familiarity of New Jersey and was drawn to the walkways along the Hudson River where I would sit and write what I saw from afar. But I wanted to go home. To make microwave popcorn and sit in my cozy chair and watch TV shows and see my family. I knew he would be there; I had never told so I was the bad one—the black sheep, the runaway. The difficult child.

 

When I was 14, I told my mother. It just came out, my mouth was moving and I heard the words but I didn’t feel like I was actually telling her everything; it was more of an uncontrollable spewing of words. Oh, her face. In my wanderings my eyes had seen the unspeakable, things that a child really shouldn’t have seen (was I ever a child?) but her face—that is an image that I can never escape. Shattering (I knew how it worked) starts on the inside and sometimes it slowly permeates the skin so one can actually see the blood drain to make way for the anguish which takes up so much space. I have crushed my family with my truth and soon the cop cars and lights and the guilt and embarrassment in his eyes made it all real. I ate Frosted Flakes as they led him out in handcuffs. They had disgusted faces.

I never saw him again.

Author’s Note: Ironically, shortly after the completion of this essay, my father tried to contact me. Throughout my life I’ve felt this strange, little desire to communicate with him; however I’ve come to realize that I was actually craving to communicate with an “alternate version” of my father. But there is no alternate versionhe is that man whom I’ve written about; he exists on these pages and not in between the lines. And so I don’t think I can pick up that phone call.  

Jacqueline Pierro is a student at Columbia University in the City of NY and single mother to three amazing children. After graduating in May she will continue work on her novel in progress.

 

 

Wings

Wings

WO Wings ARTBy Elizabeth Knapp

This is a story about the one who was brushed aside, the cancer child’s sister…

Four years ago on Valentine’s Day, my four-month-old daughter Molly was diagnosed with infant leukemia.

Four years ago on Valentine’s Day, my older daughter, then four years old, came home from preschool with her first bag of Valentine’s Day cards, brimming with happiness. She kicked off her boots, shrugged out of her puffy winter coat and before I could remind her to hang it up she spilled her many, lovely valentine cards out onto the hardwood floor, rifling through them to show me certain ones.

Then she noticed that her aunt and cousins were there. She noticed her baby sister was sleeping, her head lolling on my shoulder, instead of watching her with wide-awake eyes. She noticed that I wasn’t smiling.

“What’s wrong, Mommy? Look at this one! It’s made from a doily and it has my name on it! And why are my cousins here?” She fired questions at me.

I passed Molly to my sister-in-law and knelt down to be at her level, my heart breaking as I stuffed the cards back into their paper bag without looking at them. “Something’s wrong with Molly. She’s very sick and Daddy and I need to take her to the hospital. We might be gone all night. But you get to have a sleepover with your cousins tonight! Won’t that be fun? You can bring your rolling bag.”

She looked at me dubiously. “Can I at least show you my valentines before you go?”

Tears welled up, threatened to drip down my cheeks. I pushed them away and told her that I couldn’t look at them right now because Daddy and I had to leave right away, but I knew her cousins would be thrilled to sort through them with her. That I would look at them as soon as I could.

We went upstairs together to pack pajamas and a change of clothes. Her special stuffed lamb, Little Lamby, was to ride in the bag with the valentines. We packed her toothbrush and no-pull hairbrush. I took Molly back into my arms, kissed my reluctant and teary older daughter goodbye and watched from the window as she trudged out to the car with her cousins.

This could be a story about my baby who had cancer, but it’s not. There are other stories about that, stories about her scars, about how she almost died twice and then didn’t. Stories still to be written about the days, weeks and months during which we vacillated between fear and hope, dread and desire, boredom and anxiety. Stories that are so filled with horror I wish they were not mine to tell. I wish no one ever had to tell them.

This is a story about the one who was brushed aside, the cancer child’s sister, the one who went to preschool one sunny Valentine’s Day filled with the promise of a party and came home to have all her beautiful cards stuffed back into their drab paper bag. At least it had her name on it, looped in fancy letters: Amelia.

Amelia: my first born, my copper-haired firecracker. Amelia, who threw me into motherhood, introducing me to depths of patience, rage, love and joy I never knew existed. Amelia, who cried for ten months straight until she could crawl. Then, finally able to explore her world on her own terms, stopped crying and began to speak.

At the time Molly was diagnosed with cancer, Amelia was obsessed with fairies. She begged me to read books about fairies again and again and again. She drew fairies and wanted me to cut them out, demanded I talk for them so she could ask them questions. After being in the hospital with Molly for two days and two nights, I knew I had to go home to Amelia. But how do you explain leukemia to a four-year-old? How do you tell your daughter that her sister is just about as ill as a person can get and still be alive?

I made up a story about the fairies. Once upon a time, I told Amelia, there was a family of fairies: a mom, a dad and two sister fairies. One day, the baby sister fairy became very sick. Something happened and her body couldn’t make healthy blood anymore, and all fairies know that if a fairy can’t make healthy blood she gets very, very ill. The baby fairy had to go to the fairy hospital. The doctors at the hospital had to give her special medicine that seemed to make her even sicker but actually, they hoped, would make her better. It was red, and they had to put it directly into her blood.

The baby fairy sister, stuck in the hospital with all this medicine that was supposed to make her better but made her body feel terrible, lay around all day with her wings drooping. The mom and dad fairy were always fluttering over to the hospital, worried about the drooping wings and also worried that their big girl fairy would think they didn’t love her anymore when, in fact, they loved her so much their hearts ached every time they had to leave her. It turned out that the only time the baby fairy’s wings didn’t droop was when her sister fairy was visiting. So it was very, very important that the big sister visit her as much as possible, because all fairies know that you can’t get better if you have constantly drooping wings.

I had to stop here because I was crying too hard to continue.

The weeks that followed developed into a pattern. My husband stayed at the hospital Thursday to Sunday, and I was there Sunday to Thursday. Here is what Amelia remembers about that time. When I was home, we slept together at night, she and I. I had to wake in the middle of the night because, as a breastfeeding mother away from her baby, I needed to pump milk for Molly. Amelia, so in tune with my rhythms, would wake with me and follow me downstairs, the steady whoosh-pop sound of the pump lulling her back to sleep, slumped next to me on the couch.

On switch days, when John and I swapped duties, Amelia would usually come to the hospital, too. Molly’s eyes would light up when her older sister came into the room. Amelia learned quickly to be mindful of the IV lines. She got to know the nurses and the child life specialists, where the art supplies were kept and that the patient kitchen was always stocked with popsicles and ice cream. Sometimes the two of us would explore the hospital, tunneling through dark hallways and popping out in unexpected places. One cloudy spring day, we found our way a secret garden surrounded by towering hospital walls. On warm days, when Molly was well enough to leave her room, we took her with us, her IV pole bumping over the walkway.

After Molly came home, Amelia learned to live with uncertainty. Any fever in a cancer child is cause for a trip to the emergency room. Which also means trips to the emergency room for the sibling. Bringing Amelia with us meant that we loved her just as much as Molly, that she was an integral part of our family, too important to be left behind. Trips to the ER were an adventure for her and she was a distraction for us. As a cancer child, Molly had top priority in the ER but once we were in a room, there was lots of waiting and wondering and sitting around. Amelia’s presence cheered up Molly and made it impossible for us to sink into our own gray worlds of worry and fear.

Once, Amelia received a trophy from an organization that supports siblings of kids with cancer. It still sits in the center of her bureau. “AMELIA,” it reads, “SUPER SIB TO A CANCER KID.” And even now, four years later, when asked what makes her special she replies, “My sister had cancer.”

I have to believe that my thoughtful, serious firstborn baby has learned things—about compassion, about rolling with the punches, about finding your place when the world is not about you—that she may not have learned had her sister not had cancer. She played with kids in the playrooms with smooth, shiny heads like her sister’s, kids in wheelchairs whose cheeks were swollen from long-term steroid use, kids whose IV poles clattered after them wherever they went.

This story began with the cancer child because when you have a child with cancer their sibling, heartbreakingly, comes second. Their valentines will sit unappreciated in their bag. Their own plans for the day will be swept aside when their sister wakes in the night with a fever.

The year Molly had cancer, I recycled Amelia’s crumpled, forgotten valentine bag without ever looking at the cards inside. This year, four years later, Molly went to her own Valentine’s Day party and came home with her own paper bag, a fancy “Molly” scrawled across the top. She turned her bag upside down and the cards fluttered out on the floor. My two girls sat together, admiring the cards, their heads touching, blond hair mingling with orange. Watching them, I could see their wings humming happily behind them.

Author’s note: Molly is almost three years off treatment and remains cancer-free. She delights in provoking her big sister in a myriad of ways. Amelia is a curious and thriving second grader who, despite said provoking, continues to champion her little sister in every way.

Elizabeth Knapp lives with her family in a small town in Vermont. When not enjoying the antics of her two young daughters, she can be found writing, gardening and wandering the woods and fields around her house.

Friday Morning Sing

Friday Morning Sing

 

Friday Morning Sing-1I have heard and forgotten a lot of sermons in my life, but one has stuck.  It was about the power of the Sabbath in modern times, and how dividing our lives into sevenths was an old but effective strategy for keeping life manageable.  The pastor asserted that seven days was essentially the Goldilocks of life rhythms—enough time to fit in competing priorities, but not so much time that procrastination flourishes.

Thinking about the Sabbath as not just a single day for rest but a measurement for balancing life has been especially helpful to me in these early years of motherhood.  While a given day may not provide the time I need for a certain priority, each week provides windows of opportunity for the things that matter most.  There is time for work and play. Time for family and friends.  Time for thinking and action.  Time for togetherness and solitude.  Time for exercise and, yes, even time for rest.   Weekly calibration and accountability help me make sure I’m never too far out of balance in any one area.

Fridays are an important part of my weekly cycle.  There are all the obvious reasons to love Fridays—the looming promise of the weekend, the salty popcorn that accompanies movie night, the ability to stay up late because it isn’t essential to set an alarm for the next morning. In addition to all this, Fridays also provide my weekly dose of singing.

Every Friday morning the children at my son’s school meet first thing to raise their voices in song.  Parents and siblings sit scattered amongst the children and clustered on the fringes as Mary K strums her guitar or plays the piano.

The songs range from silly (“I like bananas because they have no bones”) to serious (“Question anyone who tells you who you should hate”).  There are songs about pizza and songs about making a difference with peace and compassion.  There are lyrics that are nonsense and lyrics that capture great truths.  The kids sing songs that honor nature and life and the power of intention alongside songs about betting on the ponies.

When the kids sing about a twig on a branch and a branch on a limb and a limb on a tree … I ride a wave of nostalgia back to summers spent singing camp songs of my own.  When the kids sing about the power of light in darkness I am filled with hope for the future and comforted by the promise of a new generation.  Mostly, when they raise their pitchy little voices I am filled with joy. Hearing a group of children sing with gusto and watching them sway while they claim to be “feelin’ groovy” is just so much fun.

At the end of each Friday Morning Sing session, the kids are sent off to their classes with a few rounds of “Happy Trails.”  It is the perfect song to capture the promise of another respite to come. Another time to gather, to rest, to acknowledge truths big (we can make a difference) and small (bananas do not have a skeletal system).

It is the promise to meet again for this Sabbath of sorts.

Photo by Suesan Henderson

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Of Princesses and Queens

Of Princesses and Queens

By Campbell C. Hoffman

0826131538cRenee and I make our way through JoAnne’s Fabrics, pushing our shopping cart through the Halloween displays and aisles filled with scrapbook supplies. Griffin is with us, too, giving me that toothy grin from his perch wrapped around my belly in a carrier. Today, we’re on a mission. Renee is starting preschool, and kids are given a blue school bag meant to last through swapping of art projects and important papers, mittens and hats and library notices. They are encouraged to make this bag their own by decorating it, also helping kids recognize their blue bag hanging with all the other blue bags in the line of cubbies. Two years ago, when Grant first began school, he picked out patches for me to iron on. Now it’s Renee’s turn.

“I want sparkles!” she has told me, numerous times now. Each time, I’ve smiled and told her we’ll see what we can find.  I’m not much of a sparkles girl. I cringe a little at the thought of sparkles that will brush off of the bag, leaving trails of pixie dust in our wake. But this child leading our shopping cart, my little girl-smushed-between-two-boys, is a sparkles girl. If it’s shiny and bright, she’ll take it. At my mother’s house she has a special stash of cast-off costume jewelry.  She likes the weight of the gold around her neck, the twinkle as it shifts in the sunlight.  At her friends’ houses, she knows where to find the plastic high heels, and she won’t take them off until it is time to go home. Sometimes I think she wants to be a princess.

The thing is: I don’t want her to be a princess. I want her to be a queen. Queens, who actually rule the kingdom, and have power—female power. Doesn’t she know she can have the strength of a queen, and not just the fluff of a princess?

I may not be a sparkles gal, but I never want Renee to think that she can’t be one. I want her to have her own style, find her own skin and be comfortable in it. And that starts with me.

I’ve inherited much from my mother, and one quirk that runs thick is her knack for editing children’s books while reading aloud.  Oh, I’m sure most parents do this on some level, but usually it’s because it’s a bit too long. Her editing had more to do with content, often with a sociological bent. In this house, we like a book from the Little Golden collection The Good Humor Man written in the 1950s.  There is a part in the book where the Good Humor man is ringing his bell, calling everyone out for ice cream, and “mothers leave their kitchens, and the daddies leave their lawn mowers” as they run to greet the good humor man. But every other time, I switch it up, and stick the daddies in the kitchens and the mommies out there getting some fresh air cutting the grass.

At first, the kids just thought this was funny. Grant, especially, is pretty keen on the memorized words of a book, and doesn’t like the narrative to stray from what he knows is on the page. So he would laugh, and correct me. But as I’ve continued in my madness, we’ve had conversations about this: about the daddies and the mommies and all the things that both can do. Because as silly as it is, this one little line of an old book, I want my kids to hear: you each, boy and girl, can chose to do anything, be anything.

As much as I want to show Renee that she can be a strong girl who doesn’t need to be rescued by any prince, I want Grant and Griffin to know that they don’t have to be princes. They don’t have to fall under any particular constraint of how to be a boy. This summer, as we traded in sneakers for flip-flops, Renee asked me to paint her toenails like mine.  I said yes, of course, and sat her on the lid of the toilet, cupping her chubby feet in my hands as I carefully stroked out purple to match my toes. It didn’t take long before Grant decided he wanted his toenails painted, too.  How much do I really believe what I’ve been telling these kids?  If I am adamant that Renee have every opportunity to try on life, than shouldn’t I offer it equally to her brother?

So, yes, I painted Grant’s toenails, too. I want him to know he has choices. He is one of only a few boys in his gymnastics class, and his best friend at school is a girl. Grant sees the masculine physicality of his dad wrapped up with the tender love he gives so freely.  A man who is not afraid to declare his love, and speaks these words often.  But he shows it, too: in the way that he serves this family, every day working hard out in the world, and then coming home, to wrestle, play catch, to wash the dishes and fold laundry.  Because that’s how it is in this house — girl, boy, man, woman — we all pitch in.  We all bring something to the table; it’s not divided down the gender line.

Sometimes I feel this overwhelming pressure to understand my own sense of being a woman in order to parent through this well.  To make peace with the choices I’ve made, and thankful that I have choices.  To recognize what it is that I bring to this table, and celebrate it, too.  I want them to see me work hard, and to watch me enjoy the benefit of doing just that.  My kids are still young.  They have years to decide how they want to be, male and female.  They will try on different costumes, versions of gender, maybe find one that fits better than the others.  But I see it as my job to make sure that they are offered all of those outfits.  I guess that means that I can’t take the princess dress out of the closet, but I will make sure that the queen is in there, too.

Later that evening, I stood over the kitchen table smoothing the iron over the blue school bags, attaching the chosen patches. Her name is bold in white letters, bordered with orange flowers and silver stars underneath. There are butterflies on the front of the bag, and flip-flops on the side. The American Flag in heart shape is there, too, for good measure.  I smile, because I see her in these decorations, and though secretly I’m glad there is nothing sparkly on this bag, ultimately I know that it was her choice, not mine. Queens can wear sparkles, too, you know.

Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. Sometimes she writes about it here: http://tumbledweeds.wordpress.com/

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Motherhood, Defined

Motherhood, Defined

 

aubreyhirsch_motherhood definemoth·er·hood  (muth’er-hood’)

noun

1.  the state of being a mother; maternity.

 

2.  the qualities or spirit of a mother.

 

3.  mothers collectively.

 

4.  more laughter; more tears. Everything is deeper, brighter.

 

5.  having someone who knows you in new ways, inside and out.

 

6.  the fallout from this eight pound, four ounce bomb that leveled your old life.

 

7.  the way your heart tracks the number of miles between you and your child.

 

8.  paying close attention to where things fall when you drop them. You never thought you’d spend so much time          tracking down those little plastic barbs that hold tags to clothing.

 

9.  keeping him safe.

 

10.  playing with toys again. You’d forgotten how fun play-dough can be.

 

11.  making sure you always have milk in the house.

 

12.  making sure you always have enough energy to smile.

 

13.  dishes. So many dishes. And laundry; the dirty socks multiply and spawn. Where do they come from?

 

14.  being warmth, food, home.

 

15.  reading the same books over and over again; singing the same songs over and over again; picking up the same toys over and over again.

 

16.  you never thought you’d baby-talk him. It embarrassed you when other mothers did it. Why not just talk to your kid like a normal person, you thought. But now you know why. He likes those lilting tones, the wideness of your eyes. And you’d do anything for one second of that smile.

 

17.  diaper after diaper after diaper.

 

18.  knowing you’ll be the first person to disappoint your child. But you’ll also be the first person to make him smile, make him laugh, give him love and comfort.

 

19.  finding other people’s babies cute for the first time.

 

20.  learning to cook, or at least, assemble.

 

21.  a new first every day.

 

22.  after your parents, your sisters, your friends, a rotating cast of boyfriends, and your pets, you thought you knew all the different ways there were to love. But then, here is something completely new. You get to learn how to love all over again.

 

23.  taking care. Your baby is small and squishy. Everything you do leaves an impression.

 

24.  understanding a secret language, so that when your baby says “baa” you know he wants a spoon.

 

25.  some days you count the minutes until you can put him down for the night. Then, as soon as he’s down, sleeping peacefully in his crib, it’s all you can do to keep yourself from waking him. You miss him so much.

 

26.  instinctively knowing just how high your child can reach.

 

27.  getting more colds, more stomach flus, more hugs, more kisses.

 

28.  finding your limits: the least amount of sleep that will get you through a month; the ceiling of your happiness.

 

29.  new courage; new fear.

 

30.  growing a second heart and letting it out into the world.

 

Showing Lola Brain, Child

Showing Lola Brain, Child

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

“WHAT?!?”

“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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On Nitpicking and Co-Parenting

On Nitpicking and Co-Parenting

By Carley Moore

FFIR Image 1“Where did you get that?” I stared at my ex-husband as he affixed a headlamp to his forehead and our five-year-old daughter wriggled off her shirt and settled into his office chair for what had to be the millionth hour of Angelina Ballerina.

“Duane Reade.  Jealous?”

I nodded.  I was impressed.  Not to be outdone, I offered, “I bought coconut oil and tea tree oil which we can melt together and slather on after we pick.  I also brought my hair dryer.  I’ve heard they can’t take the heat.  Oh, and new hair clips to section off the hair.”

“Mama, is there candy?”

“You can eat whatever you want.”  The only way to get a five-year-old to sit still for an hour or two of nitpicking is to stuff them with sugar and cartoons.

M. rummaged around in the brown shopping bag of lice treatment products her dad and I had been toting back and forth between our apartments for the last week, and pulled out a bag of cherry hard candies.  She scratched her shoulder and returned to the mouse dance drama that was unfolding in the English town of Chipping Cheddar.

This was our second lice battle.  I’d found them crawling around on M.’s head before Christmas and spent a disgusted six hours shampooing and combing the still kicking lice out of her hair on a Saturday night.  M.’s dad was out of town and after I was done, I went into my bedroom, shut the door, and cried for a quick minute.  I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, like I feared being a single mom would feel in the months before my separation from M.’s dad.  This time, the school called her dad, and he called me since it was my day.  We agreed to get supplies and meet up later to nitpick.  When I arrived at her school, M. had been quarantined in the nurse’s office with at least twenty other kids.  Instead of speaking to the school nurse, I was greeted by a lice-removal salesperson, who was charging parents $1000 to comb through a child’s hair and de-louse the apartment.  He thrust a flyer into my hand, and turned to one of his employees.

“She’s got live lice, right?”

“Yep,” the young woman didn’t look up from the hair of one of M.’s classmates as she deftly parted it with two small sticks.

M. buried her head into my leg and cried.  I wanted to cry again too, but I didn’t.  I’d learned that in my five years of being of mom—if you’re a good parent, mostly, you don’t get to cry.  Or you do it later, on your own, with a glass of wine or with a friend or for a quick minute in the bedroom while the Backyardigans are dancing the two-step.  There was something so galling about the cold practicality of the lice removal salesman when I was hoping for the folksy comfort of a school nurse.  Do public schools even have nurses anymore?  I haven’t met ours yet.

A week later, I found out from another mom in my daughter’s school that she actually paid over $1300 to have her daughter combed out and nitpicked.  Neither M.’s dad or I have that kind of money lying around, and if we did, we’d probably spend it on summer camp or three year’s worth of school clothes or half of a shitty used car.  I get that parents need help, and that many of the parents at my daughter’s public school can afford these treatments.  Nitpicking and lice removal are big business, especially in cities where infestation is common and there are a lot of middle-class overworked parents.  I found several articles about Orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn who had become professional nitpickers after dealing with their kids’ lice.  One has put six of her nine kids through college by nitpicking.

Nitpicking, I’d learned was a very particular kind of hard focused labor.  It reminded me of the kind of feminine precision work I’d failed at growing up:  needlepoint and quilting.  You needed good eyes, and really good light, and you needed to care.  “Don’t drop the stitch,”  I heard my mother saying gently over the hoop of a sampler I’d botched.  “You have to follow the pattern,” my 4-H teacher sighed into the soft light of her Singer.  I was too impatient to be much of a seamstress.  I refused to use the seam ripper on mistakes, instead insisting that I had my own vision, one that included dropped and crooked stitches.  The results were shoddy and embarrassing.  I usually stuffed them under my bed or threw them out altogether.  As an adult, when I saw a quilting show of the African-American quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama, I understood the difference between improvisation and mistake.  Intention.  Vision.  Belief.  My daughter’s kindergarten teacher calls a mistake that turns into something viable, a “beautiful ooops.”  As a young girl, I knew only patterns and rules.  I wanted to be an artist, to improvise off of a mistake, but I couldn’t make the leap.  Mistakes were to be ripped out.  They were not a riff to extend.

Staring at my daughter’s teeming, bug-infested head for that first comb out, I knew I had no choice.  I had to remove every last bug.  It was tedious, precision work that we were too broke to pay anyone else to do.  The nits are the size of a grain of sand, and you have to look on almost every hair follicle.  My daughter’s hair is fine and long, and as her dad and I have taken to calling it under our breath “louse brown.”

M.’s dad and I have been separated for a year.  We are slowly heading towards mediation and a divorce.  We are friends, we talk or text most days, and we are co-parenting.  M. spends half of her time with each of us.  He is an excellent dad, and my dear friend.  I miss him a lot.

When you Google the words “nitpicking” and “women” most of what comes up is relationship advice.  The top hit is, “Want a Happy Marriage?  Don’t Nitpick.”  As I learn the true meaning of nitpicking, I think now about the ways in which I nitpicked M.’s dad when we were married, especially in those last two very hard years of our marriage.  I suppose we picked at each other, or I picked and he withdrew.  We both felt so wronged and so misunderstood!

You’re bossy.  You’re very detail oriented.  You like to be right.  You cross all of your t(s).  You can’t let it go.  You have to have it perfect.  You always get your way. I’ve heard phrases like these from parents, friends, and even-well meaning colleagues.  I suppose my ex hurled one or two of these at me too, and I’m sure I deserved it.  They are code for nitpicking, ball busting, acting the part of the difficult woman.  The nitpicker is a good foil, a scapegoat for larger struggles around relationships both at home and in the workplace.  And I admit too that I can be difficult and disappointed and exacting.  But I’m also funny and sexy and smart!  I may pick nits, but I am no longer that nitpicking wife—maybe I never was.

The last year has been hard on us all.  M. is adjusting to living in two apartments, and to the loss of married parents.  M’.s dad and I are mourning our marriage and learning how to live as single adults.  But I see in our relationship of late, in our shared quest to rid our daughter’s head of vermin and our resistance to getting fleeced out of money we don’t have, some core beliefs about co-parenting that are at the heart of my new favorite parenting book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce by Deesha Philyaw and Michael D. Thomas.  I was drawn to this book because of its tagline, “practical advice from a formerly married couple.”  Wow, I thought.  They’re divorced and they managed to co-author a book!  I’ll buy that!  In their introduction, Philyaw and Thomas define successful co-parenting as “any post divorce or post-separation parenting arrangement that (1) fosters continued, healthy relationships for children with both parents and (2) is founded on a genuinely cooperative relationship between the parents.”  They urge co-parents or divorcing couples that are considering co-parenting to put the kids first and to remember, “It’s not about you.”

And so for the two weeks, M.’s dad and I have come together to nitpick.  We have two metal combs now, and though we can not both fit around the small circumference of our daughter’s head, we keep each other company, we make jokes, and we divide up the sections of her head.

“I’ll do the bottom, if you do the top.”  He clicked on his headlamp.  M. scratched at her shoulder again until it was red.

I suppose I write this essay as a wish to return nitpicking to its original lice hunting origins.  Nitpicking is precision work, often relegated to wives and mothers, but it needn’t be so.  M.’s dad is actually better at getting the nits off of her hair than I am.  His vision is sharper and he has a firmer pinch.

Carley Moore is a poet, novelist, and sometimes blogger (www.carleymoorewrites.com).  Her debut young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles, was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2012.

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Who Knew Having Young Children Would Hurt So Much?

Who Knew Having Young Children Would Hurt So Much?

elbow sketch w grayDear children with your sharp elbows and poor depth perception,

I’ll forgive you birth, because that was supposed to hurt. “A necessary evil,” I think they call it. I’ll even forgive you your freakishly large heads, disproportionate as they were to my slender, girl-like hips. I never expected a baby the size of, well, a baby (with a head the size of, well, a cantaloupe) to emerge from one of the orifices of my body and leave it unscathed. But those were the war wounds I was prepared for, at least in theory: the contractions that sent me into a fit of curses through the epidural; the stitches and swelling and stinging in what used to be a happy place; the three-inch incision across my abdomen, still numb to the touch.

No, what truly took me by surprise was all the pain that came next.

Like the time I first put you to my breast. I looked into your wide, grey eyes and smiled serenely as I shoved your face into my inflated balloon of a boob. And then almost shrieked out loud as you clamped on with gusto. Ah the beauty of Mother Nature! I couldn’t feed you in those early weeks without curling my toes and digging them, fiercely, into the fibers of the carpet, so as to concentrate on anything other than the throbbing, sandpaper-against-silk sensation emanating from my red-raw nipples. Before you, would I ever have guessed that the words “blood” and “nipple” could sit together in the same sentence, without a hint of irony or metaphor?

Breastfeeding was when the shoulder and neck pain started. The hunching, the 45 minutes cramped in an awkward position, because I’d rather endure the discomfort than run the risk of breaking a decent latch. All the while that pesky hormone, “Relaxin” (I mean: who’s relaxin’ here?), is coursing through my veins, the one that makes a lactating woman’s joints loosen up and essentially turns her body into a ticking time bomb of injury. Injury sustained from, oh I don’t know, carrying the weight of a sack of potatoes around for 14 hours a day. I won’t name names here, but I’m talking about you, baby number two, who spent at least three months of your life taking “naps” whilst strapped to my chest in a contraption that made me feel like a kangaroo, except without the benefit of such an ergonomic design.

And then you got bigger and heavier and there was the lifting, all the lifting. Into the crib, out of the crib. Into the high chair, out of the high chair. Into the car seat, out of the car seat, which requires that lethal twist of the spine at the end. My lower back has never been the same. (Shout out here to my twins, because doing everything twice took an extra special toll on my lumbar region). I would try to bend my knees for support, the way the massage therapist coached me, but how exactly do you bend at the knee as you yank from his playpen a prostrate, spaghetti-limbed toddler the heft of a small elephant? Oh I longed for the day when I wouldn’t have to lift you so much and then it came and I offered a silent prayer to the attachment parenting gods.

Happy times, you could climb into your own car seat now! But you could also climb all over me. I became, at once, a human jungle gym. Little elbows dug themselves expertly into my boobs, an ideal spot, apparently, from which to gain enough leverage to smack your forehead against mine. Fat feet planted themselves on my lap, bouncing up and down, up and down, and, whoops, that’s my pubic bone you just landed on with your heel. No, no, my shins are not for tightrope walking. How, oh how, was it always that the sharpest, boniest bits of your body would magically find the most vulnerable bits of mine?

As you got older, the games became more sophisticated. “Let’s play hairdresser,” you squealed, raking sticky fingers through my hair and pulling it out at the root along the way. “Let’s play doctor now,” you cried, as you thrust the thermometer into my ear and it occurred to me that maybe I would actually end up in the Emergency Room after all. “Let’s look at a book,” you suggested and I exhaled a sigh of relief. But how quickly I learned the cardinal rule of parenting young children: never let your guard down. For in your hands, even reading could become a contact sport. Like that time you caught me in the corner of the eye with Goodnight Moon. The “Goodnight mush” page still has a smear of my blood on it.

Over time, darling children, I’ve come to see that your affection for me knows no bounds. And I mean that quite literally. Sometimes your eager kisses are accompanied by teeth. Sometimes your sweet caresses leave scratch marks down the side of my face. And sometimes your hugs, your wonderfully enthusiastic hugs, Knock. Me. Over. The old clichés are true. Love is an assault on the senses, they say. Love hurts, they say. You know what I say? Some people’s love hurts more than others.

(Gentle) hugs and kisses,

Mom

 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Cleaning Thoughts On All The Stuff—Where Past Meets Present Meets Future

Cleaning Thoughts On All The Stuff—Where Past Meets Present Meets Future

10302745_10152280145048387_2901251374802006728_nI’m guessing that the birthday party Saskia attended in the fall, a trip to the local Build-a-Bear workshop, was a once in a lifetime experience for her. A small group of her pal’s besties got to go there, and they had a fantastic time (I stand in awe of his moms for both idea and follow through, by the way). I had never taken her to the mall. In fact, I had no idea Build-a-Bear existed around here. Her big white bear is sweet and loved. The house-slash-cardboard box her big white bear travelled “home” in and spent two days in the dining room, a few more in the playroom and the winter in the front hallway. I sent the box-slash-house to the recycling, because it’s spring, and because there was another empty box in the front hallway, and because I have declared this goal: a less cluttered house.

Saskia ended up in the barn before the day the recycling and trash get picked up. The box has returned into the house, just as far as the mudroom. While she’s in school today—recycling and trash pickup day—the box will disappear.

Odds are, she won’t ask about the house. Odds are, if she does ask, and I can’t “find” it she will cry. Odds are if I kept the box, er, bear’s house, she’d never actually play with it again. Sometimes, in the name of a clearer house, darlings have to go—and not only hers.

We hosted a graduation party for two beloved friends and babysitters over the weekend, and because we live in a little city that boasts just about the best ice cream on the planet, we served ice cream. I pulled our two ice cream scoops from the kitchen drawer. One of the moms brought a couple more ice cream scoops along. My husband sought a particular ice cream scoop. He asked after it. It was one of the two ice cream scoops I’d tossed during operation-make-the-kitchen-drawers-shut.

I used my mom gesture, the shrug. He used his annoyed-gesture, the hands on hips. We stood there, deadlocked.

“I can get another of that particular scoop,” I told him. “That’s a holiday gift waiting to happen.” While I’d saved a couple of baby bibs for visitors, the last remaining pile of them disappeared. “I also tossed extraneous cheese graters, including a broken one, big spoons no one uses, and frayed dishtowels,” I reported.

“Did you throw out any favorite dishtowels?” he asked, anxiously.

“I threw out the ones that are so holey as to be non-functional,” I replied. I pulled the drawer open. “You’ll see we still have dishtowels.”

He lowered his hands from his hips and scooped ice cream with the inferior scoops. The party was lovely. We had plenty of dishtowels for post-party cleanup. The big white bear watched over everything (okay, it didn’t; it’s somewhere, but you get the idea here; it could have watched over everything because I didn’t toss it out).

Additionally, last week I went through a few large boxes of kids’ art. I tossed old homework sheets scattered in the pile and most of the art. I took not very good photographs of some—and made a good-sized pile for the flat files in my husband’s office at his behest. I was glad not to toss absolutely everything. It is nice to know the “darlings” are safe.

For the box to go, though, was the most helpful. I want to free up enough space in the house to reinvent rooms. I imagine the playroom’s eventual shift from play space to homework and hangout space and possibly guest room, too. I hope to leave fewer dust traps about, especially given that three out of six family members have asthma.

But there’s longer term thinking at work, too. Eventually, we might leave this house—and I don’t want every piece of kids’ art or every book read or unread during their childhoods to wait for me to sort through then. I won’t necessarily remember the important ones. This won’t happen for a long time; the kids are 18, 16, 11 and 6.

If we head to a smaller dwelling someday, I certainly won’t be able to keep everything in this big house. I don’t want my kids to have to upend themselves from whatever they are doing to sort through all that childhood stuff (assuming they’d be willing to do so). I remember how much work it took for my mother’s parents to leave the house where they resided for four decades (and how much of my aunt’s time went into that move).

I can’t know what we’ll do or even whether we will move someday in a future I can’t imagine yet. I don’t know whether any of our three sets of parents will move—or how we’ll deal with all of their stuff, the precious and the excess, a word for which you can exchange to mean Build-a-Bear box. All I do know is that I’ve spent many hours and days (with great help I’ve paid for and key spousal assists) to get stuff out of our house, the precious and the metaphoric Build-a-Bear boxes, the good and bad ice cream scoops. My reward is a house that’s begun to breathe again. I hope there’s a reward for the someday grown kids, too.

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Fighting Words

By Elissa Wald

My daughter’s trouble began with the word Mommy. One day I noticed that her name for me had become prolonged, so that it sounded like “Ma-ah-my.” And I guess it was wishful thinking, but at first it seemed as if she were nursing the word, drawing it out on purpose, perhaps out of pleasure.

This special rendering of Mommy went on for a few days before another development surfaced. Charlotte began to repeat the first syllable of whatever she had to say: “I-yi-yi want to go outside.” I thought nothing of this either. Every excitable child sounded like that sometimes.

Then the repetitions became more frequent, sprinkled throughout her sentences. Two or three echoes each time, with not much notice on her part. “Are you hearing this?” I asked my husband. “This speech pattern?” He didn’t, and then he did. We consulted What To Expect: The Toddler Years, and right in the section corresponding with her age, there was a paragraph or two about stuttering. It was very common, the book reassured us, for children her age to experience a period of some disfluency. I told myself not to let my family history distort what was going on here. Her repetitions were few and brief; she was in no apparent distress; it was just a little hitch that she would surely outgrow.

And then came the moment during story hour, just before Charlotte’s bedtime. She was asking for one of her Frog and Toad books when I finally understood exactly where we were. “Fr … fr … fr …” she said. “Fr … fr …  fr …”

She stared at me as she tried to talk. She was wide-eyed, as if something had her by the throat.

“Fr … fr … fr … fr …”

I held her gaze without flinching, even as I waited to be able to breathe.

Stuttering is a mysterious affliction that even the most informed experts don’t understand. The disorder affects more than three million Americans, about one percent of the population. Long thought to be a manifestation of psychological and emotional issues, it is now recognized as a neurological phenomenon with a genetic component (about two-thirds of people who stutter have at least one other relative with the impediment). Stutterers are usually fluent when they whisper, or sing, or impersonate another voice, or speak in unison with other people. They rarely stutter when they talk to animals or to themselves.

In my mother’s family, stuttering has surfaced in every generation as far back as we can trace, affecting her great-uncle, one of her maternal uncles, her cousin, her son (and my brother) Eric, and now her first grandchild. Because of my brother’s lifelong struggle with his speech—which is still with him at the age of thirty-nine—I grew up as a witness to what stuttering can do to a life. I know about the fear of introducing oneself, ordering in a restaurant, picking up the phone, or being called on in class. I know about the weeks or even months of dread that may be inspired by having to deliver a spoken presentation.

While growing up, Eric was resourceful in the ways that stutterers usually are. When his fourth-grade class put on a pageant portraying the history of Pittsburgh—our hometown—Eric imitated the speaking style of sportscaster Howard Cosell while reciting his part about the Steelers. Whenever we went out to eat, he would avoid attempting a hard “c” by asking for a Pepsi.

“We don’t have Pepsi,” was the usual response. “Is Coke okay?”

“Yeah.”

He never went so far—as so many stutterers have—as to order something he didn’t like, or to incur major inconveniences, for the sake of word substitution. In his memoir Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words, Marty Jezer describes buying train tickets to Hartsdale rather than his true destination of White Plains, because the letter “w” was his nemesis: “There were no buses or taxis from the Hartsdale train station, but walking four miles home was preferable to stuttering in front of the ticket seller.” Jaik Campbell, a stutterer who does stand-up comedy, once joked that he was performing for the British Stammering Association when a would-be heckler yelled out: “You’re sh … you’re sh … you’re quite good.”

Eric also never went to the lengths that other stutterers have described in order to avoid speaking. “Often I would make myself physically sick so that I wouldn’t have to talk to or be around people,” prominent zoologist and wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz has confessed. “Once I stabbed a pencil through my hand and had to be taken to the hospital so that I wouldn’t have to read in front of the class.”

Still, there was the time Eric was trying to order in a diner, unable to get the words out, when the waitress sighed with impatience and stalked away. There were the phone calls he made, in which he couldn’t respond to someone’s hello and the person who’d answered would hang up, thinking no one was on the line. There were the taunts on the playground: “W-w-what’s wrong w-w-with you? W-w-why can’t you t-t-talk?” There was the time that even a friend—angry after losing to Eric in a basketball game—called him a stuttering monkey.

And there is also one of my worst memories:

My brother and I were with our grandmother at a McDonald’s in Florida. I was eleven and Eric was nine. We had brought our trays to a table when my brother asked me to get him one of the little packets of salt that they kept behind the counter.

“Why can’t you get it yourself?” I asked.

“You go and get it,” my grandmother told me.

“Me?” I said. “He’s the one who wants it. Why do I have to get it for him?”

“You go,” she said again.

I turned to Eric. “Why can’t you get it yourself?”

“Forget it,” he said.

“No, tell me. Why can’t you?”

“Why are you being this way?” my grandmother asked.

“Being what way?”

“Why are you being mean?”

“How am I being mean? If he wants salt, why doesn’t he get it for himself?”

“You know why,” she said.

“No, I don’t.”

“You know he doesn’t want to ask them for it. Because of his speech.”

I looked at my brother in surprise. (I don’t know how to explain, even to myself, the fact that I was startled at that moment. How could I have failed to understand what his reluctance was about?) He was glaring at me and his eyes had filled with tears. He had to take off his glasses to swipe them away. His little paw was grubby and left faint smears of dirt on his face

After my daughter started to stutter, nearly everyone I knew felt compelled to tell me, “Well, it didn’t hold your brother back.” And certainly that’s true. Eric is now married to a lovely and accomplished woman with whom he has a beautiful son. He is respected and successful, a pediatrician and intensive care specialist, and I believe he brings a special integrity and compassion to his work. Though he puts in long hours and is often exhausted, I have never heard him speak to a child without empathy or warmth. No one would have guessed the words that came to him in response to a young patient’s recent remark.

“You talk funny,” the boy told him.

Yeah, well, my brother refrained from saying, that’s not as bad as having Crohn’s disease, you little bastard.

Because of Charlotte’s physical agility, her intrepid nature, and her ready joy, I had assumed a certain social ease would always be hers. That notion has since deserted me, along with certain traits I’d thought inherent to her character. Within days of beginning to stutter, my little chatterbox seemed to go silent. She no longer prattled in the car, no longer supplied the words she knew in familiar books, no longer tried out every new word she heard me say. Suddenly the most commonplace parental request—”Can you say please?”—was laden with danger. (“P-” she began gamely, the last time I tried that. “P-p-p-…”)

What had been the most empowering part of her life—her ever-increasing speech skills—has become something that frustrates and inhibits her. It’s as if her small body has already betrayed her.

Soon after her speech became affected, I picked Charlotte up from preschool and found a bright orange envelope in her file folder. Inside was an invitation to a classmate’s birthday party. Charlotte had been invited to plenty of parties in the past, but never before had it occurred to me to do what I did then, which was to glance through all the other children’s folders—twelve in all. There were only two other orange envelopes among them. And suddenly I found myself in the midst of an anxious little analysis: Okay … it’s not that they invited every kid in the class. Not even close. And we’re not friends with his parents either. So he chose her; he must have. And standing there, I was overcome by a rush of love for this child. A rush of gratitude, even—gratitude to a three-year-old. Of course this was not only pathetic but far from rational: These kids were too young to discern anything amiss in one another’s speech. But somehow it felt like reassurance that Charlotte would continue to be invited, to be included. I went shopping for the birthday boy the very next morning and spent too much on his present.

Most websites devoted to stuttering post a list of famous people who have struggled with the disorder. When Charlotte joined their ranks, I looked these people up and read about how stuttering had affected their lives. A fairly reliable pattern emerged: early on, stuttering was a source of pain, humiliation and inhibition. The famous person was teased, bullied, silenced, estranged. Then an art form or other calling presented itself—usually as an antidote to, or reprieve from, stuttering—and transcendence was achieved. Stuttering is usually cited as the most essential part of this alchemy.

“I was in a play and when I got onstage I stopped stuttering—I couldn’t believe it. I realized that the reason the stutter stopped was because I was acting.” (Bruce Willis)

“The written word is safe for the stutterer. The script is a sanctuary.” (James Earl Jones)

“Animals were the only things I could talk to as a child.” (Alan Rabinowitz)

“I felt so strangulated talking that I did the natural thing, which is to write songs, because I could sing without stammering.” (Carly Simon)

“It’s a funny thing to say, but even if I could, I wouldn’t wish away the darkest days of my stutter. [It] ended up being a godsend for me … the very things it taught me turned out to be invaluable lessons for my life and my career.” (Joe Biden)

“Scatman” John Larkin, a jazz musician and poet who stuttered, referred to his creative shift into scat singing (a vocal art form comprised of random syllables, nonsense words, or no words at all) as a process of “turning my biggest problem into my biggest asset.”

It would seem that as a culture, we are deeply invested in this particular narrative. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that everything happens for a reason; that every problem is an opportunity. Those in whom I confided about Charlotte responded much in the same way.

“Maybe she’s meant to do something really introspective, like writing, and this is the experience that will draw her inward,” one of my closest friends suggested. (If an axe had been handy, I might have split open her skull. Writing? A fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Inward? This is my boisterous little spirit, who loves to make noise.)

“I’ll just say—without trying to downplay the difficulties stuttering will create for her—that our troubles and strengths are usually interlinked,” another wrote in an e-mail. This insistence—that the affliction and the gift are inextricable—is reflected even in songs about stuttering, even in jokes:

Everybody’s sayin’ that the Scatman stutters,

But doesn’t ever stutter when he sings.

But what you don’t know, I’m gonna tell you right now:?That the stutter and the scat is the same thing.? (“Scatman” by John Larkin.)

A man asks his doctor, “C-c-can you c-c-cure my s-s-stutter?” After a thorough examination, the doctor says, “I’ve discovered the problem: your penis is too big. If you’ll consent to have half of it removed, your stutter should disappear.” The desperate man agrees to the surgery, the operation is a success, but a few weeks later the guy’s back in the doctor’s office. “I can talk with no trouble now,” he reports, “but my wife and my mistress have both left me. I want you to reattach what you cut off.” The doctor replies: “F-f-fuck y-y-you.”

A scene from the week that Charlotte started to stutter:

It is the middle of the night, and I’ve been awake for hours. I’m in bed beside my sleeping husband, staring at the ceiling. It has been a terrible day. Charlotte had trouble with almost every word she said. I’m picturing her in some future schoolyard, surrounded by jackals. Tears are sliding down my face and into my ears.

This isn’t the worst thing; I know there are far worse things. But I’m heartsick and afraid. I can’t bear the thought of other kids making fun of her, the idea of her singled out and set apart. I feel as if I can’t draw a deep breath and can’t get warm. I’m trembling beneath every extra blanket in the house.

When people attest to having received a divine message, they usually describe it as happening during moments like this. I’m not a believer, but in the deep of this night I find myself overwhelmed by a desire to pray. The only way I can ease into the endeavor is to think of it as an exercise: If I were a person who prayed, what would I say? For that matter, what kind of God would I seek to address? Not some omnipotent magician who might lift the curse—that’s so far afield for me that prayers of this nature would feel worse than useless. But what about just … some source of otherworldly sustenance … some current of gentleness and love, to be accessed on Charlotte’s behalf? I lie there trying to visualize this presence and the closest I can come are the faces—some living, some dead—of the kindest and best people I’ve ever known. I try to hold their images in my mind, but they blur and fade and burn out. Before long, I’m left with only a sense of their collective essence, but it occurs to me that I’m not cold anymore. And then toward four a.m., a message does in fact present itself, like a lone hold high on a rock wall, and I close around it and cling for all I’m worth.

The whole world is hurting.

It would be hard to explain the comfort I took from this idea. It went beyond misery’s love of company, beyond an inventory of the ways that others have it bad or worse. It was more like a sudden and visceral conviction that stuttering did not truly place Charlotte outside of anything. In his song “Scatman,” John Larkin says, Everybody stutters one way or the other. It’s not an insight that adversity and suffering are inevitable, no matter who you are; this is something we all know. But like the fact that one day you’re going to die, it’s one thing to know it in the abstract, another to wake alone in the middle of night and know it in your bones.

My parents used to tell my brother that everyone had problems and struggles and pain, whether it was apparent or not. This seemed like just another lie that adults not only told but appeared to believe. Well, I recall thinking, maybe a few other kids do, but most don’t.

It occurs to me that I know better now; that in fact, the reverse is true. There might be a few kids who are truly (and temporarily) untroubled, but most aren’t—and undreamed-of grief can lodge beneath a faultless surface.

I think of the seven-year-old son of my former boss: The boy might have been a poster child for Aryan supremacy. Once I overheard his father talking to him on the phone. You’re a pussy, he told the kid. You’ll never do the right thing.

And there’s the situation related by my friend Amy, who has chosen to maintain an open adoption policy for her two grade-school-aged sons, Samuel and Matthew. Samuel’s family of origin is eager for regular involvement in his life, but Matthew’s biological mother refuses contact with him. Matthew is tall and good-looking and plays several sports. His birth mother’s ongoing rejection of him is a deep and secret sorrow, of which his classmates have no clue. In fact, he looks so much like Amy that no one would even guess that he’s adopted.

I remember a classmate of my own, from middle school: a talented actress even then, with a flair for comic roles. I didn’t find out until well into adulthood that her father committed suicide when she was in the third grade. He hanged himself in the basement, and she was the one who found him.

Then there are the children whose parents are divorcing, or fighting every day, or just mired in separate miseries. Kids with parents who are gone, or sick, or just terminally preoccupied. Children of alcoholics and drug addicts, kids who are abused and neglected. Driving around, listening to the country music that dominates the airwaves where I live, I hear songs about orphans, unwashed and unwanted children, dirt-poor and hungry children, cowards of the county, boys named Sue.

The whole world is hurting.

My husband and I spend a lot of time reading the current stuttering literature, which tells us there are things we can do to help Charlotte. We can slow our own speech as much as possible, pause often, take turns talking and refrain from interrupting. We should try to do all this not only in conversation with Charlotte, but even with each other when she is present.

These changes, it must be said, do not come naturally to me. I talk too fast; everyone has always said so. I cut in when other people are speaking. I ramble and rant.

We consult a speech therapist, who confirms that these changes are difficult, and that they won’t happen all at once. She suggests that we start by trying to implement them for just five minutes a day.

There are other efforts we can make as well:

Hold her gaze while she’s talking, even when she’s having trouble, despite any temptation to avert your eyes.

Resist the urge to supply a word for her, or finish her sentences.

Listen to what she says, not how she’s saying it.

This last directive is startling, and I wonder what would happen if I tried to heed it in every interpersonal exchange. What if, say, I could listen to a friend’s relentless stream of self-promotion and instead of hearing him say that he’s the greatest, I could hear that he needs affirmation more than he does his next meal?

With the therapist’s advice in mind, I decide to try this for just five minutes a day. The effect is immediate and profound. Right away it’s less manifest that people are power-hungry and greedy and obnoxious and hostile, and more apparent that the whole world is hurting.

On that list of famous people trotted out by the stuttering community, there is one man without a whiff of gratitude about him, and that is John Melendez of The Tonight Show (formerly known as Stuttering John during his time with The Howard Stern Show). In a wildly ironic inversion of the usual scenario, Melendez was one of Stern’s many interns when he was chosen—sight unseen—by the master provocateur to conduct celebrity interviews. (“He stutters?” Stern said. “Hire him.”) Stern was delighted by the possibilities posed by a stuttering interviewer: the tension inherent in every exchange; the idea that celebrities would be afraid to look heartless by snubbing him; its consistency with the “freak factor” that is the show’s trademark.

“Stuttering’s a great defect for radio,” Stern mused on the air to Melendez the day the latter joined the team, “because obviously, we have a guy with no arms or something, no one can see it and … only we enjoy it here in the studio, but stuttering … we always wanted a stutterer. I mean … you’re priceless!”

And Melendez did not disappoint. While on camera, he peppered dozens of celebrities with insulting questions, asking Oliver North if he’d ever had a nightmare where his penis got caught in a paper shredder, Gennifer Flowers whether she would be sleeping with any other presidential candidates. To Imelda Marcos: “If you pass gas at home in front of others, do you blame the family dog?” And to supermodel Claudia Schiffer: “Who’s smarter, Christie Brinkley or Forrest Gump?”

I’m not sure why, among the dozens of other famous people on these lists, Melendez was the one who mesmerized me. Maybe it’s that my brother’s experience of stuttering is the only one I’ve witnessed intimately, and his main response to it seemed to be anger, and John’s chosen line of work was arguably an angry thing to be doing. Or it could be the fact that Melendez is one of the only celebrities who has stuttered mightily in the public eye. Those who identify stuttering as a gift tend to do so in fluent voices; they are usually the ones who have “conquered” the disorder, at least to the extent of controlling it on camera.

On Melendez’s website, along with his bio and blog and event calendar, is a list of tips for stutterers. Over the past several months, I’ve seen many such lists, without much variation among them. But Melendez offers tips that I haven’t read before:

“Know in your heart that whomever you are talking to is no better than you.”

“Laugh at it, let people make fun of it … don’t let it define you, it’s something you do, it’s not who you are.”

And perhaps the one that is most interesting to me: “Get angry in your mind when speaking.”

Late one night, researching Melendez online, I stumble across an interview he did for a radio program called Stuttertalk. Has every parent of a child with a “challenge” flashed on their own version of this fantasy? Let’s find a place where everyone stutters; let’s move there immediately. This channel creates an illusion that there is such a place: Let’s call it The Isle of Stuttering. Everyone on it stutters: the moderators, the guests, the voices on the promotional clips. As on any other radio station, there’s a little riff where a succession of guest stars introduce themselves, saying some version of: This is J-j-joe Blow, and you’re l-l-listening to Stuttertalk. Most dramatically, one woman says, “This is…” and more than ten tortured seconds elapse before she is able to say her name. In this interview, the show’s two stuttering hosts talk at length with Melendez. Listening in the dark to three stuttering voices feels a little surreal, even a little eerie, as if I’m standing in the shadows beside some house on the Isle of Stuttering, eavesdropping beneath the kitchen window.

Toward the end of the interview, Melendez is asked whether he has ever used his stutter to help him pick up women. He seems truly bewildered by the question and says no, if anything it has been a hindrance to picking up women.

The next query, by now, seems inevitable to me.

“John, do you think of your stuttering as a gift? H-h-has it been a gift in your life?”

“A gift?” John repeats. His tone is half incredulous and half uncertain, as if he suspects he has heard wrong, or maybe the host is putting him on.

“Yeah,” his interviewer persists. “A gift.”

No,” he says. “I think it’s a handicap. The truth is, if I could trade in and say, you know, let’s start again, and I’ll be twenty-three again and … here’s my choice: I could be Stuttering John, or I could just speak fluently and go on in my life the way that I would want to—I would choose speaking fluently.”

Ah, I think. Finally.

Having said all this, let me say as well that I wouldn’t choose John Melendez as a role model for Charlotte. And I’m glad that so many inspiring people have wrested something redemptive from their struggles with stuttering.

But I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe every problem is an opportunity, or at least, an opportunity worth the price. And I think that stuttering is unmitigated misery for the majority of those with the disorder. The truth is that if I could choose either happiness or greatness for Charlotte—not that they’re mutually exclusive, and not that the choice is mine—but if it were up to me, and it could only be one or the other, I would want her to be happy. I don’t have any reason to doubt that she’ll eventually be all right. But I want her to be happy now; I want her to have a happy childhood.

Of course, this isn’t up to me either, at least not past a certain point.

Whenever I’m asked whether I see the proverbial glass as half empty or half full, I like to say—truthfully—that I see it as half empty and half full. And so I take a certain satisfaction in this same equivocation from the collective stuttering community. I’m glad that Joe Biden and his ilk are there, and I’m glad that John Melendez is there. And I can even concede that stuttering has already offered me some benefits as a mother: a different way of speaking and hearing; a deeper apprehension of the fellowship of suffering; the understanding, finally, that the point of parenting is not to forever keep adversity at bay for one’s children. The point, I believe—one of the most important points, anyway—is to help one’s children feel at home in the human family.

Not long ago, my husband said something that—in its very simplicity and self-evidence—seemed to me as lovely and wise as anything I’d ever heard. “We will do everything we possibly can to make this go away,” he said. “But if it doesn’t, then we’ll live with it.”

If Charlotte ultimately feels that there’s no silver lining to stuttering, if it offers her not a shred of transcendence, I want her to know that’s all right. And if, on the other hand, she comes to regard it as a gift—one that was given to her for a reason—I devoutly hope I’ll have the grace to stay out of her way.

Someday, in any case, she’ll have made her own way with it. She’ll tell me how it is. And I’ll be listening.

Author’s Note: Although my brother’s struggle with stuttering was a part of everyday life within our childhood home, he and I didn’t talk about it very often. Writing this essay gave me a chance to ask him intimate questions about this very formative experience. I know that it wasn’t easy for him to revisit some of the territory we covered, and I am deeply grateful for his thoughtful and candid answers.

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Cul-de-Sac

Cul-de-Sac

By Lorri Mcdole

FA 06 Cul de Sac ArtWe’d eaten all the salads and burgers and cookies—alone deviled egg sat quivering in a puddle of melted ice—and had run out of things to say to the people who live just around the corner. The annual block party finally over, we smiled and waved as our stranger-neighbors dragged their lawn chairs out of the middle of our cul-de-sac and down to their own.

Then the rest of us pulled our chairs up on the grass, got out the portable fire pit and frozen Margarita buckets, and left our children—three-year-old Haley, five-year-olds Ryan, Alex, and Tanner, and eight-year-olds Alaina and Shayna—to play in the street.

Which isn’t as bad it sounds. One of the reasons we live on a cul-de-sac is to give our kids a relatively safe place to play. Cars don’t speed by on their way to somewhere else because they really can’t get there from here.

But just because our neighborhood is a mecca for little kids doesn’t mean that our kids stay little forever. Once upon a time they cuddled close—for stories, songs, the sound of our voices—but now our children run around wild, tempting fate as if they’re as lucky as cats. They have the knack, mostly, for avoiding bicycle headers and slipping through tight spaces in the nick of time, but they’re also still small enough to be misplaced, run over, grabbed under the arm like a sack of potatoes and made off with.

And the mothers, what of us? We call on God—we pray, cajole, would seduce Him, if we could—but mostly we sit empty-lapped, older by the minute, wives telling tales around the fire.

But some families live on these circular blocks long enough for their kids to grow up and get driver’s licenses. And sometimes—like when the teenaged neighbor is driving home from his job at Safeway and his gaze is diverted by a friendly fire—the illusion of safety is the real danger.

I was playing a board game with my kids on a dark winter night when there was an insistent knock at the door and then a long stuttering ring of the bell. Our cul-de-sac is more like a commune than a collection of single-resident houses, with kids flowing freely through open doors in summer and pounding on doors and bells in winter.

But this time it wasn’t a kid, it was Darcy, the mom next door.

“You haven’t seen three little kids, have you? A third grader— Elizabeth?—and two younger brothers, maybe four and five years old? They went out to the mailbox and never came back.”

I knew which family she was talking about, but they were new to the neighborhood and I hadn’t met them yet.

“When their mom went to check, they were just …gone,” she ended lamely. And then she threw her arm out like an amateur actor, pointing to the top of our cul-de-sac ‘T’.

I ran out to the sidewalk and saw two police cars, the mailbox, and a woman sitting on the curb, rocking back and forth with her head in her hands. One of the police officers walked over to peer in the mailbox, as if one or all of the kids might be hiding in there. I felt like I was watching the Amber Alert play out somewhere far away on the 10 o’clock News.

But here was Darcy, whom I knew too well to ignore, asking me to help her stop the lava-like dread that threatened to wash away our world. Our fingers in the dike, we stood silent, trying to disown the same thought: we’d gotten lucky. Our own children were safe and sound, this time.

We found out what happened the next day. Tired of waiting for their mom to get off the phone and take them to Bingo Night at Sierra Heights Elementary, the three kids had gone out to get the mail just as their dad pulled into the driveway. They were so excited to see him and so upset about missing Bingo Night that he decided to pack them into the car and take off. He called and left a message, the story goes, which his wife somehow didn’t get.

What we, the other mothers, are still dying to ask (but can’t because we still don’t know the family well enough; can’t because the question is stuck in our throats like in a bad dream) is this: Is there life after your children are swept from the face of the earth, even if, by miracle or just everyday magic, they reappear?

When my daughter was three months old, I gushed to my mother about the Diaper Genie, a contraption that seals off disposable diapers in a smell-free container. I’ll never forget the shock on her face, the hurt in her voice.

“You’re using disposable diapers? It used to be my favorite thing, washing and drying and folding all those little white diapers for you!”

Mom smoked during each of her three pregnancies; raised us on starch, sugar, and fat; and allowed us to go to the corner store for candy as soon as we turned six. Every summer morning she sent us out to play with the neighbor kids and counted herself lucky if we didn’t come back till dinnertime.

This was during the 60’s and 70’s, long before anyone worried about spending time (quantity or quality) with their children; before they knew to worry about nutrition or safety. Like my daughter, who’s perplexed by Ms. Hannigan in the movie, Annie (“But she’s an adult, she has to love kids,” Alaina says), everyone assumed that to have children was to love them, and to love them was to do for them. They took it for granted that nothing bad would happen to us when we were “out there,” and mostly they were right.

Today, no matter where we live, our kids seem targeted for terrible things, like they really are accidents waiting to happen. And we, the adults, the used-to-be-young? Shocked at getting older, we skate at the frozen edges of our children’s innocence and often end by falling into the soupy middle.

Like me, reading the mail on my front porch one day and trying not to register how fast and close together all of our kids were riding their scooters and bikes. I make mine wear helmets, but how can I get them, in concert with the other kids, to appreciate a speed-to-proximity ratio that would at least lessen the chance of bloody knees or elbows or worse?

The thud, when it came, was quiet, and I only registered it because of my daughter’s yell: “Mom, Tanner got hit by a car!”

Trailing cell phone, bills, and magazines, I ran down to where our street opens up on the rest of the neighbor- hood and saw a man getting out of a blue pickup, surrounded by our swarming children. Tanner was picking himself up off the street.

Over the next few minutes the man and I, both shaking now that the tragedy had officially morphed into a near miss, reconstructed the scene for each other: he’d been backing out of the driveway that leads to the house behind our neighbor’s, had stopped to look for cars and kids, and then heard the terrible sound once he looked away. Swiveling around, he saw the horrified faces of a bunch of kids and me running wildly at them all. For a brief moment, he forced himself to face the worst—that a child was under his truck.

But luckily he’d been stopped when Tanner, who hadn’t been looking where he was going, barreled into him. Luckily the thud wasn’t something he rolled over.When people ask whether we plan to have more children, I joke that the only person I’d add to our family of four would be someone named Watch This!, whose sole job would be to obey this command from my children each of the 5,000 times it’s uttered in a day. Or a person called Find This!, who would spend all day looking for the one tiny plastic toy needed for some game.

But in the middle of the night, when my real fears and desires loop endlessly through my mind, what I really crave is a guardian angel. Not the garden-variety, God-sent angels of my childhood (whom I credited for keeping me safe even as the Fire and Brimstone Church I grew up in taught me that it was up for grabs whether I would, actually, be saved), but a cut-and-dried 21st century secular angel. A mercenary who’ll keep my kids safe, no matter what God or anyone else has in mind.

Someone who could be there, say, on that late August evening, just past dusk, when five-year-old neighbors Ryan and Alex were thrilled to have the run of the cul-de-sac. It was their favorite thing, doing something nearly “under the law,” as they called playing in the street in the almost-dark.

Their parents, talking around the fire pit to the other moms and dads, were like the soft-focus pictures of Jesus at church: they promised safety, but from a distance.

Their backs to the wind and their ears filled with their own screaming laughter, neither boy knew a car was bearing down on them. But we knew. Tuned as mothers are to these things, we rose halfway off our seats at the just-discernible hum of the car and then sank back down, relieved to see it was just Nick, the responsible, Safeway-employed teenager from next door, who was rounding the corner.

By the time we realized that Nick’s eyes were glued to our fire at the side of the road and that he was nervously stepping on the gas instead of the brake, it was too late for anyone but God, or some kind of angel, to do anything.

What He or She did is this: had us yell, in terrified symphony, “No, No, No!” Had Ryan and Alex suddenly realize that they didn’t want to be under the law or under the ground. Had the boys want, more than anything else, to be ensnared by the flailing arms of their mothers, to be engulfed by the fire-lit ovals of their mouths. Had the boys cross the street hell-bent for leather in an irreproducible sort of geometry, one of them just in front of the car, and the other just behind.

Author’s Note: “Ryan’s on the cliff of the stairs!” my daughter, Alaina, used to yell when she was four and her brother was one. Too many times I’d round the corner just in time to see him rolling, end over end, to the landing. But kids are resilient—he left teeth marks but no teeth in the wall—and most of their scars won’t show until later.

Lorri Mcdole lives in a suburb of Seattle with her husband, Greg, and their children, Alaina and Ryan. She worked as a technical and marketing writer before having children and has published in Pacific Northwest and Common Ground. This is her first publication since becoming a mother.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

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On Wearing Makeup

On Wearing Makeup

Girls fighting w goodie bags w grayMy daughters—Rebecca, 7, and Elissa, 5—spent a good portion of a recent Sunday morning fighting about a pale pink Hello Kitty lip gloss. Neither could remember who had received the treasured prize in a goody bag last year. Eventually they brought the debate to me, which I entertained for a total of one minute before I came to my final decision: Nobody would be keeping the lip gloss.

“First of all,” I said, “I’m tired of you two arguing all the time.” Then I paused, put on what I considered my best this is an essential life lesson face and spoke softly so they’d have to lean in to catch every word. “And don’t forget,” I added, “you’re beautiful just the way you are.”

They seemed satisfied with those words and with my solution to save the lip gloss for when they are older, which any parent knows is code for, I threw it away. Still, I’m left wondering at what age they will be old enough for makeup. Ages 5 and 7 is an obvious “no” in my opinion, but I’m curious if I’ll know when it’s time to say yes.

It’s important to note that I’m not an anti-makeup person, which certainly influences my thoughts on the matter. I don’t think that eye shadow is the root of inequality nor that mascara causes promiscuity. To be perfectly honest, I love makeup. I probably love it a little too much. My gift to myself every year on my birthday is to walk into a department store, or even better, one of those smaller makeup-only stores that have cropped up everywhere over the past few years. I sit down in a chair by the counter and let a makeup artist have some fun with me. Usually I end up looking as if I’m staring in a Broadway show where people paying $100 for terrible seats would still be able to see my face from the back of the theater. But that doesn’t bother me. I simply put half the amount on when I’m applying the products at home, and it all works out as makeup should. That is to say, it improves my look a little, but doesn’t appear like a costume or a disguise.

None of this provides the answer to what my stance should be on my daughters’ desire to add a little of this and that to their faces. Somebody gave Rebecca a Barbie-themed makeup kit last year when she turned 6. “When can I use it?” she has asked every few weeks since that day. “Not for a very long time,” I always respond, no closer to a specific answer more than a year later.

I remember my mom’s simple advice on the subject when I was in fifth or sixth grade. “Once you start,” she warned, “there’s no going back.” She pointed out that when you’re used to seeing color on your face, you end up looking like a corpse when it’s bare. She was absolutely right, but she eventually succumbed to my begging. I don’t remember the exact details, but I know there was a Clinique counter involved and the words “a natural look” were tossed around just like they have been every time I’ve purchased makeup since (despite everyone knowing that “natural” is more successfully achieved with no makeup at all).

The first Clinique item I owned was the gateway drug of the beauty industry—a satiny lip gloss in a long, skinny silver tube that I carried around like it was made of gold. By the time of my Bat Mitzvah in 1989, I was already wearing eyeliner and the blush in the green Clinique case that came with a little applicator brush inside. Those three items—lip gloss, eyeliner, and blush—and of course a fourth thing in a tube to help cover the pimples, were the extent of my makeup kit until about my freshman year in high school when the brand MAC was all that anyone wanted to discuss. At that point I graduated to a cosmetic bag complete with special brushes for everything, including for eyeliner, and little pots of various shades of eye shadows. The only product my mom refused to buy me was foundation, which she swore would make any acne situation significantly worse. She was probably right about that, too.

A few years later when my friends and I were done with MAC, we moved up in the world to Bobbi Brown, Trish McEvoy, Nars, and other very fancy brands. (I admit, we lived in a fancy suburb.) I loved when my grandmother would take me through the beauty department at Neiman Marcus. When the saleswoman tried a new lipstick on me, Grandma Pauline would insist on buying two. “One for home and one for your purse,” she’d tell me.

I’d be happy for my girls to have a similar positive experience and feeling about makeup that I’ve enjoyed. Meaning, if they decide they’re into makeup, I want them to have fun with it, but not feel like they need it or as if they’re being bamboozled by the industry. At the same time, I don’t think they need to feel like less “serious women” for wanting to partake. It’s a tricky bit of self-esteem and self-control to achieve, but I think it can be done.

Truthfully the biggest challenge my girls will have in the makeup discussion will come from their old-fashioned dad, who doesn’t think we should let them even consider it until they’re 18, which is also when he thinks they’ll be old enough to get their ears pierced and to start dating. I can’t decide if life would be better or worse for our girls if we lived in a time where waiting that long for any of those milestones was remotely realistic.

What do you think?

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds

By Kate Abbott

iStock_000010984123SmallI had the Zoloft. I needed to take it. But I was still standing in my kitchen the day after seeing my nurse practitioner, holding a pill so small I could barely feel it on my palm. How could this pill be strong enough to pull me out of this hole I couldn’t get out of on my own? This tiny pill, I thought, was stronger than I was.

I wanted to take it. But I also hated to take it and admit this was a problem that I could not fix on my own. Taking the pills could save me. I wanted them to save me. But at the same time, it would mean admitting, finally, completely, that I needed them to be myself. To be who I used to be. If I could even be that person anymore.

Almost every part of me knew I needed to try this. Following my nurse Lynn’s carefully written instructions, I positioned one small pill on a paper towel, then found my tiniest, sharpest knife and quartered the pill, sending some dust specks falling onto the paper towel. I held one quarter in my palm, barely able to feel it. It was about the size of a single Nerd candy. I was desperate for this tiny piece of pill to help me, but I was certain it couldn’t do much of anything at this size. I put it in on my tongue, sipped juice, and couldn’t tell if I’d swallowed it. I stood in my kitchen, listening to my son Henry drink his own juice in the high chair, watching me and kicking his feet. I didn’t want to move just yet. Stupidly, I waited for something to happen. I knew it would take a couple of weeks to feel any effects. I knew this dosage probably wouldn’t do anything. But the part of me that wanted to resist the pills was also hopeful they might work. Happy pills, right? Did they make me instantly happy? I feared that and wanted it desperately, too.

Henry knocked over his juice and started crying. I got a dishtowel and went over to sop it up. He flipped his spoon out of his mashed sweet potatoes, sending them flying onto the floor, the walls, and me. I laughed at myself, at the whole situation, and wanted to cry. They weren’t working yet; they weren’t going to cure me today.

I took my carefully quartered pills for 8 days with no bad effects. Every morning I thought, Maybe today will be the day it will all change. The day I will change. But I didn’t feel all better. Then I noticed I was able to take a shower a couple of days in a row and even get dressed. Was it working? Was that my newfound hope at work, or was there something chemical going on already? While I wanted to be skeptical and not get suckered into some placebo effect, I was feeling better; and when I could be outside with Henry and not feel utterly exhausted and angry and sad, when I could see it was another couple of hours until Brad would be home and I wouldn’t collapse in total despair, I did not care if this was a placebo effect or not. I just cared that I was starting to feel better.

I progressed through the weeks to taking one whole pill a day. And then one morning, I woke up and thought it looked like a nice day outside and maybe Henry and I would go in our little backyard and look around at our plants. We hadn’t been out there in so long. I wandered over to the window at the back door, and it was like I was looking at someone else’s yard. The patio we’d built had weeds taller than Henry growing up through every space between the paver stones. The plants I’d collected over the years looked dry and dead, even though it was spring.

How had this happened so fast? I thought. And then it hit me—it hadn’t happened fast at all. The weeds had been slowly growing since the summer. The plants had been slowly dying since the summer. For eight months. I hadn’t even looked at them really.

I scooped up Henry, both of us in our pajamas. Henry giggled on my lap and I actually giggled back at him, grinning at his smile, at his gums and his two perfect little white teeth. I looked at him in astonishment. I felt like I hadn’t seen him in a long time.

“Where have you been?” I said. He blinked at me.

“Mom-om-om,” he said. “Mom” had been his first word, a couple of months ago. I had felt unworthy then.

“Yes, I’m your mom-mom-mom.” I bounced him. I saw him. He was a baby, but almost not. He had a full head of blonde hair now and it was getting long. He was chewing with his sharp little teeth and his hard gums. He was looking at me and I was seeing it.

That is when I knew I was getting better. I could see him and the plants and the weeds and the sunny day outside. I saw my toenails with some purple polish I’d been motivated to put on last week. I saw my pajamas, not matching, but also not what I would be wearing all day anymore, either. I realized that each day that week, I’d been having longer “good” times. Today, maybe the good times would even be longer than the bad times.

We went out to water plants. I cared about my poor neglected plants and my poor unseen baby and my sad attempts at motherhood. I wanted to dig up dead things and pull old weeds and plant new seeds and I wanted to start everything over again. And even if it was just pulling weeds, I hadn’t wanted to do much of anything in a long time. Starting with the weeds was just fine with me. We both couldn’t wait to get our hands dirty.

Kate Abbott recently completed the postpartum depression memoir Walking After Midnight, where a version of this essay appears. Her YA novel Disneylanders was published in 2013. She lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and tiny parrots.

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Wedding China

Wedding China

By Anne Sawan

wedding chinaI took down my wedding china this morning. I pulled a stool over to the cabinet where it is hidden safely away on the top shelf, climbed up and carefully took it all down: the smooth, ivory plates with the ruby borders, the dusty, cut-crystal wine glasses and the tarnished silver forks, spoons and knives.  I took them down and stacked them all by the kitchen sink and after I finish writing this I am going to wash them off, polish them up and get them ready to be used tonight. Why tonight? Because it’s Monday.  Because it’s Monday and we are having lasagna and salad for dinner. Because it’s Monday and my kids will get a kick out of having their milk poured into fancy wine glasses. Because it’s Monday and after dinner my kids will pull out their notebooks and calculators and start their homework. Because it’s Monday and for the twenty-three years I have been married I have only ever used my wedding china twice. Twice.

I remember the first time I ever used it. It was our first wedding anniversary and I made my new husband a “Chinese” dinner using some sort of pre-bottled sauce that I poured over a few pieces of pieces of chicken and a frozen vegetable mixture. As the gummy concoction sat and simmered on the stove, I proudly set our tiny, second hand kitchen table, taking out two settings of the china, filling the sparkling glasses with red wine and neatly placing the silverware by each plate; and then we celebrated.  We celebrated with cheap wine and gluey chicken over sticky Minute rice in a tight, four room, drafty apartment we had rented above a noisy dance studio, across the street from a busy twenty-four hour gas station, and it was grand.

We’ll do this every year I thought.  But we didn’t, we forgot. We forgot how wonderful it was and went out to eat on following anniversaries because for some reason we thought we should. Because eating in a fancy restaurant seemed better, more grown up, and so our wedding china sat, unused, packed away, waiting for a more deserving occasion.

The second time I used my china was years later, when I hosted Thanksgiving in my now bigger, not so drafty home. I was nervous that day, nervous about the turkey being too dry, the stuffing being too bland and my precious china being chipped or broken.  So, when the kids all gathered around for the feast with their wide eyes and sticky fingers, I smiled politely and quickly handed each one a paper plate, hoping to avoid dropped dishes and shattered glasses; and after dinner, when everyone had finally left, I washed, dried and carefully inspected each piece of fine china before placing it all back up on the shelf; relieved my precious dishes had somehow made it through the celebration unscathed.

Then, this past week my parents who have been married for fifty-four years finally decided it was time to move out of their home. The home they have lived in for forty-five years.  The home where they raised their large brood of children, keeping them safe and warm and sending them off one by one to find their way in the world.  It is a house that is now too big for only two people, it needs a lot of work, upkeep… it is just time.  So, as we sat around the other day, drinking coffee and discussing the impending move, what they will take with them, and what they will have to leave behind, my mother mentioned her wedding china. “I need to take my wedding china. You know… we never even used it.”

“Never?” I said in disbelief (as if using mine two times in twenty three year was so much better than never.) “Why you should be eating off fine china every night! You’ve earned it! Forget getting new plates, use your china!”

My brother chuckled. “I’ve never used mine either,” he said, the pain of his still recent divorce barely hidden beneath his deep laugh.  We paused momentarily and then laughed together as he described the therapeutic relief he might feel if he were to perhaps make a nice, gourmet meal, use his wedding china and then throw it piece by piece onto the floor, smashing those plates into tiny shards, then sweeping them all up and up and throwing them all away.

And so, as we sat there as a family, reflecting on the things that have been, and the things that are still to come, I thought, about my wedding china, tucked away, and I thought, what am I waiting for? Some ultra special occasion? Some momentous event deemed finally special enough for a certain plate or a particular glass? How silly.  The special moments are right in front of me everyday; eating cereal in front of the television on a lazy Saturday morning, sharing a bowl of mac and cheese in the afternoon after school, sitting on the front porch together and savoring a cold glass of beer after the lawn has been mowed.   Aren’t all of life moments special enough to be served on china?  Perhaps, I thought I had misunderstood the function of these dishes.  Fine china shouldn’t be locked away, protected from the bumps and bruises of life, it should be used everyday, to celebrate the life that has been made together, for better or for worse, and if it gets broken or chipped, then so be it.   So be it.

So, that’s why I am using my wedding china tonight. Because it’s Monday, because we are having lasagna, because my sticky fingered kids are special enough, and because the truth is, no one gets through this life without a few cracks.

Anne Sawan is a mother to five wonderful and aggravating children. She also is a psychologist and an author, having articles published in Adoptive Families Magazine, Adoption Today and several children’s books published by MeeGenuis. 

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Idle Threats

Idle Threats

WO Idle Threats ArtBy Lorri Barrier

My daughter is difficult.  I don’t say this to her, but I feel the weight of it as I bend to pick up the contents of my purse, which she just dumped on the floor. She asked to use my iPod, and when I said no, her anger attacked quickly and sharply, like a coiled snake.  I look into her eyes as she stands over me, little blue springs wound tightly, too tightly.  “That’s it,” I say calmly.  “You can’t go to the sleepover tomorrow.” She struts off to her room and yells back at me, “I will go tomorrow! I will!”

This is a familiar path for us, and I dislike walking it.  It is not my nature to be heavy-handed, yet my seven-year-old daughter demands it of me. The hours between this evening and tomorrow evening will be an emotional bundle of push and pull.  I know without question that her will is stronger–I have always preferred a Zen approach to life, but she insists on pushing me out of my comfort zone again and again.

She begins the following day asking if she can go to her friend’s house that night after all.  I remind her that I told her no, remind her that she yelled at me the day before and dumped out my purse.  She smiles as if this is funny.  “I know you will let me go, Mommy,” she says with certainty.  “You’ve forgiven me before.”

By midday, I’m worn thin. I’m beginning to second-guess myself, thinking that perhaps the punishment is too harsh for the crime.  I actually want nothing more than for her to just go to the sleepover and give me some peace. But if I relent now, my word is worth nothing. Even though the weather has been terrible lately, I think it will be best for us both to get out of the house.

She walks beside me quickly, past the barn, through the old gate, down the hill toward the creek.  It is the first clear day we’ve had in nearly a week.  The fields are saturated and sloshy.  My daughter and I both stop and stare, gaping at the swollen creek. “If you don’t let me go, I’ll jump in!” my daughter blurts.

A breeze lifts my hair. There’s a hint of spring in the February chill.  The sunlight glints off the water and I have to squint.

“I mean it,” she says again and looks at me sideways, her arms crossed.

I stand still, unsure of what to do.  I don’t think she understands the gravity of what she’s saying.  I know she wants to say the worst thing.  The thing that will make me change my mind. I look down into the water, the color of rust at its deepest.  Usually, this is an easy crossing.  Hop one, two, three on large rocks and we’re on the other side. Today, the crossing rocks are nowhere to be found; water spills over the banks and into the pasture. What was a pleasant waterfall, a hidden fairy place, is transformed into a  torrent.

“It looks deep,” I say to her, as calmly as I can muster.  “It’s been raining a long time.”  I am deliberately motionless–she is a skittish animal, and I don’t want to frighten her toward her threat.  I worry that one wrong move from me and in she goes.  Her arms remain crossed.  Her body stiff. “It’s probably cold,” I add, wishing I’d brought a jacket.  We stand in silence a few more moments, neither of us moving.  My daughter is pouting, but she doesn’t lunge forward. Finally, I shrug and walk up the hill away from her.

It takes tremendous effort to turn my back on her,  even though I am angry. I am reasonably sure she will not jump, as much as I’m sure the squishy earth really is solid beneath my feet.  Still, I am her mother.  As I walk, I imagine I hear the splash of her body and her muffled cry against the rush of water.  I see myself running, getting there just in time to pull her soaking and coughing from the creek.  I also imagine getting there too late, and the horror of pulling her lifeless body from the twisting current. I have to look back.

She’s still there at the edge, now squatting, turning over muddy stones and throwing them in.  I sit down at the top of the hill and tell myself she lost privileges for bad behavior. I can’t give in. It was her choice, and now the consequences are in motion.  Even if those consequences are deeply unpleasant for me as well.   There will be other sleepovers.  There will be other good times.

My son has come outside, he trudged toward her. He’s only slightly taller than she is, though he is two years older. He yells up at me, “Mama!  She’s going to jump in!”  I shrug my shoulders, feigning indifference. I lie back in the wet grass, exhausted from the drama.

“Mama!”  He yells again.  “She’s putting in her feet!”  I hear her squeal and laugh, yes, it’s cold.  I close my eyes and breathe deeply, feeling a bit of tension release.  Soon, I hear both of them running up and down, rocks splashing against water, happy sounds.  Sounds of forgetting, sounds of being present in the moment, the way only children can be.

When my daughter was a toddler, we uncurled her angry little balled fists and said, “Hands are not for hitting.”  We thought it would just take time, but we were still doing it when she was three and four.   At five, she kicked her door so hard during a tantrum the knob went through the drywall. I covered the yawning hole with a collage of family pictures–smiling faces masking the evidence of her anger.  Her oldest brother nicknamed her “Tiny Terror,” though she’s not so tiny anymore.

Years of dance have made her solid and muscular.  Years of defiance have made her iron.  I remember the spring she had strep throat just a few days before her dance recital.  I took her to the doctor, and he asked me if she’d take pills or a shot.  “Give me the shot in my leg,” she said, answering for herself.  She barely flinched, and then danced a day later on a bruised leg I knew then (if I hadn’t known before) that she was made of something far different from what is at my core.  She has always been a tornado, a lightning bolt, a surging storm.  She summons her powers easily, without hesitation.  And this isn’t the first time I’ve thought, guiltily, that if she’d been my first, she’d be my only.

I tell myself that her temper will serve her well, if she can only learn to reign it in a bit. She is everything I want to be when I need to stand up, speak my mind, and not back down.  But not now, I think. Dammit, not now.  I want to tell her to save it, save this passion, for when she needs it.  Save it for when it matters.

I sit up, my back damp from the grass.  They have moved from the creek’s edge to a copse of trees.  They are busy in play, jumping, laughing, enjoying the day

“I have to go home,”  I yell to them. “I’m cold.”

“Awww” they say in unison, but run toward me, red-faced and out of breath.  She is carrying her wet, glittery pink shoes in her hands, barefoot in winter.

Barely a minute passes before she asks, “So, can I go now?  I’ve been good!”  I have to laugh to keep from crying.

Later that night, she makes a bed on the floor of her brothers’ room.  I sit reading in the quiet, and unbidden, the tears come. Great wracking sobs of release.  I wake her, or perhaps she wasn’t asleep.

“Mama, why are you crying?” she asks in earnest.  I am sobbing too hard to answer.  She climbs onto my lap and drapes her arms around me.  “You are a good mommy,” she says.  I hear her, but I don’t believe it.  I am plagued by thoughts of what I could have done differently years ago.  This is the psychic work of mothers: try to make sense of things, navigate through the mistakes, create a better reality. I want a rewind button, a replay view.  I want to analyze everything from the day she was born to the present, and see where I first went wrong.

I wonder what memories she will retain of these troubled times, these angry outbursts and the outrageous pageantry surrounding them.  What images will be painted inside her of who I am, and what we are together?  I think of the images now embedded in my psyche: the rushing water, her blue, glaring eyes, the chilly breeze tangling her dark blonde hair, her stiff body poised to jump, the moment I turned and walked away, trusting nothing but my instincts that it would not end badly.  I sigh and hold her close, letting her fall asleep on me like an infant, chest to chest, her heart in sync with mine.

Lorri Barrier lives with her husband and three children in Mt. Pleasant, NC.  She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  Her previous essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,”  “The F-word,” and “Unplugged.” 

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When You Drop Me Off, Are You Going to Leave?

When You Drop Me Off, Are You Going to Leave?

 

dempsey“How many more days until my soccer camp?” Brennan asks, every day. I cringe inwardly but pretend enthusiasm.

Months ago, he heard about this camp and begged me to enroll him. The opportunity for him to run and play at a park all week with other four-year-olds sounded great idea. I signed him up.

Then I ran into my neighbor, Craig, whose son Drew would attend for the second year.

“You know about this camp, right?” Craig laughed. “It’s kind of…sketchy.”

“Sketchy?”

“Well, it’s run by this crazy bunch of kids from England,” Craig said. He described them as “clueless.” He repeated the work “sketchy.” But, he said, Drew loves it.

 

Sunday

 

Brennan sits on the living room floor, struggling zip up his backpack. “You are going to bring me there and then leave, right?” he asks, beaming.

He appears long after bedtime, too excited to sleep. I tuck him in again. He rolls onto his side, hugs his stuffed gray kitty and smiles at the wall, imagining…what?

I am kept awake, too, imagining less happy things. What was I thinking? An unfamiliar camp at a huge city park, with a bunch of strangers? He’s barely four.

I look over the camp information and realize I forgot to pick up a copy of Brennan’s immunization record. A sign that I shouldn’t be sending him — or some kind of subconscious sabotage.

I’ll have to convince the coaches to let me drop him off and return with the form at pickup. But I fantasize they’ll send him home with a little clap on the shoulder, saying, “Maybe next year, mate. When you’re five.”

Monday

The park sits on a buried landfill framed by a towering housing development and four-lane highway. Waves of kids shriek and run across the turf on their little shin-guard clad legs, pulling at each other and tripping over soccer balls.

Brennan tugs me toward the field, eyes huge with excitement. “Now you leave. And I stay by myself.”

“You stay with your coaches,” I say. But he is already running ahead of me.

I spot a guy of nineteen or twenty swinging a clipboard. “I’m called Paul. Who’ve we here, then? Master Brennan. You’re a big man of four then, eh?” Beside Brennan’s name on the attendance list is a highlighted, glaringly unchecked “medical form” box. I prepare to plead my case, but Paul cheerfully strikes a bold line through the box.

Brennan is wearing an Italian soccer jersey and Paul grabs him by the shoulders. “All suited up, are you? Ready to play some football then?” He spins him around to read the back of his shirt. “Buffon!” he yells as Brennan cracks up. “You’ll be taking care of us then, eh, Buffon?”

Brennan’s coach, a wiry kid with glasses and black curls, is leading a group of preschoolers in a game where he appears to play some kind of British pirate-monster, threatening and growling at kids as they scream, claw and jump at him. Before I can say goodbye Brennan takes off and is absorbed by the pack. They move away, yelling and pummeling the coach with their tiny fists.

Dragging myself toward the parking lot, I spot Ruth, whose daughter Sivan is Brennan’s age. Enviably unflappable, Ruth is the opposite of me. But she says, “I don’t know about this place. Look at that little guy wandering off over there and no one’s even noticing.”

We watch the boy hop around the edge of the field. Then someone waves to me from among the trees — Craig, spying on Drew.

I walk over to him and he shrugs and laughs in an I-told-you-so kind of way. We watch for a few minutes before he says, “Okay, I’m going to stop being an overprotective parent and go now.”

“Me too,” I lie. “See you later.”

Brennan’s group moves across the field. Something in the grass catches his attention and he stops and kicks at it, then squats down to examine it more closely. His group keeps going. He sits down and, within a few seconds, he is enveloped by a different group of kids just as his group blends into a mass of older kids. But then a pony-tailed teenaged girl runs back for him. I see her reach out her hand and they run across the field together.

I leave.

At pickup, kids run all over, tackling each other, taking off to find the bathroom or climb a tree. I spot Brennan: red-faced, exhausted, happy.

“Bye, Buffon,” the curly-headed coach calls. I make a mental note to put him in the yellow Italian jersey all week.

On the drive home, Brennan smiles out the window when I ask about his day. All he says is that he needs to wear a green t-shirt tomorrow, because he is going to play for the green team.

Tuesday

“Right when you drop me off, are you going to leave?” Brennan asks

“Yep!” I say. And really, I plan to. But dark clouds are rolling in and the park has no shelter. I sit in my car in a nearby parking lot until a crack of thunder sounds. Rain falls in a thick curtain. I call Ruth to tell her I’ll take Sivan.

The rain soaks through my clothes as I run to the field. Kids huddle under trees as the coaches try to organize them and call parents from cell phones. One boy sobs as a coach asks, “What’s your name, mate? What’s your name?”

“I’m taking Sivan,” I shout to the ponytailed coach.

“Who?” the girl asks.

I point. She half nods, half shrugs and moves toward some older kids who are wrestling in a puddle.

Brennan, Sivan and I grab hands and run. They are drenched and laughing as I buckle them into their seats.

“Did you leave today?” Brennan asks as we sit in traffic in the downpour. “Was I there by myself?”

“Yep,” I say. “Hey, guys, what’s the name of your soccer coach?”

“Who?” Brennan asked.

“Do you know, Sivan?” I ask.

She looks at Brennan, widens her eyes and shrugs. And then they both laugh as though I’ve said something hilarious.

Wednesday

I will stay for just ten minutes. I peer through the bushes. The ridiculousness of the situation falls on me in its full weight. I am hiding from a four-year-old.

I spy Brennan’s group moving toward a cluster of trees with their bags. Sivan’s eyes immediately find me and she raises an arm to wave. I duck but then give in and wave back, embarrassed. But Brennan is oblivious. He is bringing up the tail of the group, dragging his red backpack through the dirt behind him as he shlumps along heavily in the heat. He plunks down next to Sivan and says something to her, and they laugh together.

I leave.

Thursday

Brennan’s temperature is 102.3.

“Can I still go?” he asks, and cries when I shake my head.

I feel sick myself, with guilt, like I have somehow willed this.

In the afternoon, our babysitter Tasha comes by. She picked up her sister from the camp and mentioned to the coaches that she would be seeing Brennan.

She holds out a huge bag of stuff: Soccer balls, t-shirts, water bottles. “Those guys were so nice! I told them Brennan was sick and they were like, Oh, poor little guy, and they just kept bringing me stuff.” Tasha seems unaware that their attention might have actually been captured by the fact that she is a tanned, twenty-two year old knockout in a tank top and shorts.

A year later

Brennan still talks about soccer camp all the time. Even though he was only there a few mornings, the experience made an impression. This summer, he’ll go to a real, reputable day camp where he’ll swim and hike and play soccer, too.

Maybe I’ll hire Tasha to drop him off. She’ll make more of an impression on the counselors — and both they and Brennan are sure to admire her when she walks away.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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These Are Not My Beautiful Children

These Are Not My Beautiful Children

By Virginia Woodruff

IMG_4070.JPGI was not someone who was meant to have three children, a house, a husband, a job and two cats.

In my pre-child life I wasn’t known for being organized. I moved every two years and often lived off of credit cards. A friend got in the habit of telling me things started an hour earlier so I would (maybe) show up on time.

I slept under piles of clean laundry, selecting my outfit the next day from the nest of clothes. I ate dinner—usually cold ravioli, sometimes cereal—in the bath with a wrinkled book.

I lived outside the world, confused about how people went about their lives of ritual and routine. Working in the cubicle. Making the money. Investing the money. Buying the house. Changing the diaper. Driving the minivan. It all didn’t make sense to me.

I wallowed in melancholy, taking long walks at night and watching people through windows as they watched TV, my own “little-matchstick-girl-out-in-the-cold” routine.

Mainly, I was scared, so I protected myself. I thought deeply and felt sensitively but shut people out of my intimate life. If I had a stance, it was “arms crossed.”

When I held my first child, my arms uncrossed. You can’t love something that much without some of it trickling over to the rest of the world. With his help, I became a fully manifested human who is both more alive and more tired than ever before. But mostly: open.

I didn’t know when you had a baby you crossed a river into another country, a country of mothers. Now I feel an instant connection to any other woman with a child. We know. It’s like a secret society. And I finally belong.

Seven years into parenthood, life is busy and hectic. I don’t have time for reflection, much less ennui.

But sometimes, when I stay up late reading the biography of honest, hurting David Foster Wallace, or when I pass the framed pictures of our smiling family dotting the hallway, I catch myself disbelieving.

Do I really have 600 Facebook “friends” with whom I share every nuance of my life?

Do I really have 2,000 digital pictures waiting on my phone?

Do I really wash, fold and put away the clothes of five humans, only to have to do it all again?

Do I really sob while reading blog posts about children with cancer?

Do I really drive a minivan to arrive (mostly) on time for school pick up every day?

Do I really spend weeks researching winter camps, spring break camps, summer camps and family vacations?

Could this possibly be my life?

And then, someone spills hot chocolate and someone punches someone in the face and someone wants to talk—again—about Minecraft.

There’s nothing like children to keep you bouncing along.

When I was a teenager my mother used to say, “I can’t believe you’re my daughter” after she watched me walk home from the school bus stop. It was meant as a compliment, but I didn’t understand. I thought it separated us—I was nothing like her.

Now I know what she meant. When I look at my kids, with their intricate worlds and sure sense of justice, I can’t believe these wild-with-life creatures are my offspring. It is just amazing.

And now I know how those through-the-window families did it: step by step. They did it because they had to. They did it just to keep their worlds turning. Turns out there is no magic to being a productive citizen, or having a fireside family, just hard work.

When I feel myself skirting that familiar existential territory—”Is this my beautiful life?”—I say: Don’t think. Just keep going, keep doing, keep swimming along.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if every morning I spring up smiling to meet the reveille of young voices. And there are nights when I sit too long at the dinner table because I dread the routine that follows—I can’t wash another head of hair or read another story. There are times when I miss my old spontaneous life.

But I don’t miss the aloneness.

Virginia Woodruff founded the website Great Moments in Parenting, a SXSW Interactive Award nominee. She lives in Austin with her husband and three kids.

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Swinging Lola

Swinging Lola

Lola SwingingWhen you were pushing your daughter on the swing, you forgot about the rent. You forgot about your taxes and your credit cards and the broken towel rack in the bathroom and the hangnail on your right index finger. You forgot about work and working out and the bad dreams you’ve been having about a wicked pack of oil slicked witches chasing you through an endless concrete maze lacking both entrance and exit. From a pop psychological perspective, you were not a symptom of your issues. You were not abandoned. You were not the victim of a God fashioned after the constraints imposed by your drunk and raving stepdad. Your inner child was not wounded. You were not hounded by the sense that you’re not okay or good enough or worthy of love. Nor did you smother yourself with positive self-talk about all your admirable qualities and the good things you deserve. You did not obsess about, or feel compelled, to have a drink—just one drink, to take the edge off. Indeed, you forgot you had an edge. From a less conventional perspective of our psychopathologies, you were not possessed by demons or haunted by ghosts and you weren’t the numinous vessel through which bloodthirsty gods of war erupted, blindly seeking power and vengeance. You forgot to worry about the future’s uncertainty. You forgot to dwell in the muck of the past. You even forgot to remember that your car was low on gas.

Come to think of it, when you were pushing your daughter on the swing, you forgot about yourself entirely and, in the ecstatic release of this blessing, you forgot you were even a you at all, that such an odd little thing called you existed. Where did you go? Pay attention. Because here’s where it gets interesting and twisted. When you were pushing your daughter on the swing, some vaster You, the great big You that, indeed, contains you and everything else, but frequently—too frequently—gets imprisoned by your persistent identification with It, freed Itself from your unusually imperial dominance to inhabit the perspective of your daughter and, as a result, you forgot yourself in the service of this You that loves only to wander through the exotic forests of otherness.

And you were swinging! As the chains binding you to the swing set moaned with their predictable creaking like the bones of the very old, you were swinging, wildly to and fro, screaming Higher, Daddy, higher, screaming WHOO, and laughing. You were swinging and your long yellow hair sailed behind you like a superhero’s cape and the big yellow sun hung in the perfectly blue sky like a painting that sought only to explore the magic of juxtaposing a vivid yellow circle on a vast blue canvas. You forgot that math was hard and that school was a drag and that it’s becoming more and more difficult to navigate school’s social demands. Some girls are mean. Some girls are nice. Who are you? You forgot that your parents are divorced and how confusing it is to somehow be a member of the same family while blurring into the scenes of two new families. You forgot about your big brother, how much you admire and despise him. You forgot that your dad always goes to those meetings and you don’t really understand why but you’re glad he does. You forgot you spilled mustard on your blue dress and that you can’t find your hairbrush under your bed or anywhere and you even forgot that your braces make your whole mouth sore.

Come to think of it, when you were swinging, you forgot about yourself entirely and, in the ecstatic release of this blessing, you forgot you were even a you at all, that such an odd little thing called you existed. Where did you go? To the mountains! As you reached the highest point of your backward arc, you swooped forward and, freed from yourself into some vaster You, you were a bird launching into the air and flapping your wings, trafficking with airplanes and clouds, thinking big thoughts as big as the sky. Look at you! You can fly anywhere, anywhere at all, but the city and all its cold angled concrete and people bore you to death so you fly to the mountains where the rock is red and yellow and as constant as hope. You belong in the mountains. The mountains are home. For only in the mountains do you fit like a carefully built nest in the branches of a humble tree. You feel free in the mountains. There, you can finally relax and sing and, unafraid of men with guns and other predators, forget yourself. Come to think of it, as the idea of yourself as a bird gives way and blurs into your surroundings, you yourself are the entire range of red mountains covered in blue sky and we, too, are all of this.

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Debate: Are Kids’ Consumer Trends Worth Fighting?

Debate: Are Kids’ Consumer Trends Worth Fighting?

Yes, protect them from themselves

By Beth Kohl

debateyesconsumerWhen I grew up, in the seventies and eighties, I consumed my fair share of pop culture. Yours, too. From my Happy Days T-shirt—a leather-jacketed Fonz with his thumbs cocked out to the side, the word Ayyyy drawn out beneath him—to my various hairstyles, including bangs like a cresting wave, wacky asymmetrical bobs revealing a buzzed under-layer, and the tail that I would dye different colors for seasonal effect. I dug my looks, had fun playing around with them, and ignored my mom, who preferred my hair longer, flatter, and pulled back in a headband or ponytail. I kept on experimenting, chopping my hair, changing its color, and piercing my ears until I’d exhausted the entire lobe. Indeed, this is what kids do. It’s what they’ve always done.

But times have changed in a ways that make it far riskier to butt out and let our kids experiment freely with the trends of the day. We’ve become a consumerist culture: a brand-coveting, acquisitive, and celebrity-obsessed society. And the celebrities we obsess over have clothes that are much sexier than Molly Ringwald’s flapper-inspired schmatas—shorter, sheerer, and lower-rising—making this a particularly sticky issue for little girls who often naively stumble into dangerous, adult terrain.

I am the proud (and mostly laid back) mother of three daughters, three future adolescents and, someday, women. We are a hand-me-and-then-me-down family. My eldest daughter gets the new stuff, but only those items that pass my longevity litmus tests. I look for classics; Levi’s, vintage-style blouses fashioned from quaint floral fabrics, and brightly colored T-shirts with no lettering on them, the better to let the wearer shine through.

For the longest time (six years to be exact), my daughters unquestioningly wore what I picked out, ate much of what I offered, no matter how raw or cooked or orange or green, and played with “brick and mortar” type toys—Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys and sock monkeys, classic amusements from my own childhood.

Suddenly, however, I’m getting flak. My first grader, Sophia, no longer thinks pretty, classic, comfortable or unique are adequate attributes for school wear. (Weekends are a different matter entirely. She’ll happily spend two days wearing any old thing in her closet, proof to me that this is about a mob mentality.) But Monday through Friday, she wants to wear what her stylish peers wear. Short jean skirts, sans tights, sans leggings, camisole tops, cropped sweatshirts and Crocs, those round-toed rubber clogs punctured with lima-bean-sized holes that serve as holders for the charms to be acquired and collected and displayed and compared.

Sophia also wants virtual pets and computer games, an iPod, and a cell phone. I tell her no, not yet. I remind her that one day she’ll have a job and be able to purchase just what she wants and to dress like the whore of Babylon, if that is what pleases her. (What’s a whore? Who is Babylon? she wonders.) But until then, I’m not ready to have her retreat into a world of insularity and simulated connection.

A parent needs to choose her battles. It seems silly, misguided, puritanical and a downright bad strategy to nix everything that smacks of trendiness. Certainly, some of the trendiest items are harmless in and of themselves, their popularity largely based upon practicality or because they’re so darn cute. And at some point our children naturally feel the need to separate from us, to establish their own identities. A good parent cannot, should not, force her tastes on her children forever or prevent her children from evolving. But it is incumbent upon parents to take a good, hard look at the trends and decide if an item’s ubiquity proves its harmlessness.

Buying into trends enforces a couple of unfortunate effects. First, owning brand-name stuff is a form of crass elitism if the goal of ownership is the brand rather than the item itself. (That, as far as I can understand it, is the very point of trendiness.) Second, limits are healthy for our children, lending them a sense of security and their parents a hedge against over-indulgence. Third, once our kids enter this fray, wearing or owning these trendy things, they’re a part of a competitive mob, comparing who has the most Webkinz or whose Crocs have been most pimped. They end up a member of the hierarchy, whether the coolest, least cool, or, worst of all, an invisible member of the group.

Finally, many of the trendsetters our children see in the media, particularly the current crop of female ones, make a virtue of drugs and extreme diets, of trashy clothes and trashedness, of a dangerous precociousness beyond fashion. And even if you’d never consider buying your children designer bags or clothes like Britney’s or Lindsay’s, these styles filter down to the places where we shop, and acquiring these items only fuels the market for them. Manufacturers, and the parents who blindly buy their products, are creating a preoccupation with style and, more damaging, looks.

Our children need to foster deeper connections than a shared brand of dress. I’m not suggesting that most children are mature enough to analyze their affinities and determine which are worthwhile. I also know better than to assume every kid is a natural-born leader with an evolved sense of personal style. Certainly our kids should be allowed to experiment, just as I was. But just because my kids don’t have the same exact brands as other children, just because their parents know better than to allow them to wear suggestive clothing or T-shirts extolling shallow, soulless pursuits (“I Live to Shop” spelled out in rhinestones) doesn’t make them outsiders. It shows they are respected as potential independent thinkers, even if I have to do a little of that thinking for them right now.

Beth Kohl lives in Winnetka, Illinois with her husband and three daughters. She is working on her first novel.

 

No, buying is a learning experience

By Heather Annastasia Siladi

debatenoconsumerWhen I was seventeen, my friend at work got a beautiful tattoo on her thigh. I mentioned to my father that I was thinking about getting one also, of a little poison arrow frog. The tirade that followed lasted for at least an hour. I was threatened with everything from grounding to eternal damnation. My dad took a passing impulse, one I probably would have forgotten about by my eighteenth birthday, and turned it into my sole mission in life. I researched local tattoo artists, drew my own tattoo, and yes, I still have my poison arrow frog today.

It was one of the most satisfying purchases I had ever made.

I understand, and share, the concerns of many parents about the extent to which consumerism can grip our children. As I write, my nine-year-old son, Cole, is spreading a Bionicle poster across my desk and explaining which one has the most armor and agility, which one glows in the dark, and how they’re all available at Wal-Mart for the shockingly low price of $8.99.

I realize he’s being manipulated by a toy company, and I tell him that.

There are issues that go hand-in-hand with such fads that we as parents must address, like financial responsibility and peer pressure, but we have to separate consumerism from the others. If a child expresses views that are contrary to her family’s values through clothing and music purchases, it’s not the purchases that are the issue, but her views.

My younger brother likes to throw around the word “pimp” when referring to something cool and extravagant. That coat is pimp. One day, when my boys were in the first grade, my son Connor came home and mentioned that he and a friend were playing pimp at recess. After a few questions, I quickly learned that neither boy had the slightest clue what a pimp was, and they were referring to acting cool. I sat both my boys down and explained that a pimp was a bad man who hurts women, and neither of them has used the word to mean “cool” since.

I realize these conversations are much easier with a six-year-old than with a sixteen-year-old. Often, sixteen-year-olds will deliberately listen to music and wear clothes that make their parents uncomfortable because they are trying to establish an identity separate from their parents. But flipping out when teens push your buttons will probably only make the situation worse.

Companies are not going to stop marketing products to our kids, and the musicians we hate are not going to stop making CDs, so I choose to think rationally about what my options are and how I can best influence my kids to make good decisions. I also work at resisting the temptation to think of my children as extensions of myself; they are their own people with their own tastes.

My goal as a parent is to allow my kids to find their own path through life by letting them make personal decisions about how they want to dress and with whom they want to socialize. Of course we should step in when kids are in danger of crossing the line in what’s appropriate or safe (and I consider sexy clothes on young teen girls a safety issue), but we should otherwise give kids space to explore their world and find their place in it, even if it means allowing them to feel the sting of regret when they blow their allowance, or letting them get caught up in the latest fad.

Music is a good example. Parents should enforce spending limits on CDs and volume limits on headphones, but when a parent flips out and says, “You can’t listen to that,” not only is she making her child want the CD more, she isn’t respecting the child as a human being.

When kids get wrapped up in a particular band or genre of music, it’s because that music is speaking to them and inspiring them in some way. Most music, no matter how incomprehensible to an outsider, is made by talented artists who put a lot of work into creating it. If a child feels a deep connection to this music (even if that connection is being used by corporate interests to encourage purchases) the child will feel violated and resentful if a parent steps in and forbids the music completely.

For the most part, I think we can relax. If we have been good role models, exposure to consumerism, sexism, racism, and all the other isms isn’t nearly as dangerous as we fear it is.

If, several years from now, one of my boys comes home from the mall with a pro-pot T-shirt, I’ll know it’s time to sit down and have a talk. But we won’t be talking about where he got the shirt or how much it cost; we’ll be talking about the message it sends and why he thinks it’s appropriate to plaster it across his chest. Just as they needed to gain practice and confidence to walk or ride a bike, they need to become responsible consumers with the help of a guiding hand that is getting ready to let go.

Heather Annastasia Siladi is a freelance writer, wife, and mother of twin boys, Cole and Connor.  Read more of her work at: http://heatherannastasia.blogspot.com.

Brain, Child (Summer 2007)

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Irony—and a List

Irony—and a List

IMG_2615Here’s irony: the moments we click as humans—friends, lovers, parents, children, or siblings—often occur when we find the person to discuss the thing we can’t talk about, or at least the thing we cannot talk about easily. The courage to speak a truth less often discussed is very powerful. Intimacy emerges from the sharing of secrets. Good parenting requires us to take on the topics and feelings and experiences where we find discomfort, because being present is not possible if you can’t remain present for the hard stuff, the quiet, and even the secret.

Much as there are “goods” to be discovered when we share our genuine feelings, we so often shy away from the topics that matter most to us, the ones that could—potentially—forge for us strong bonds. It would seem as if we’d crave meaningful connections and so we’d do anything in hopes of creating them. We don’t, though.

How we seem to work in actuality is that we’re worried about taboo topics’ impact. What if by bringing them up, we are impolite? What if we sound stupid or mean or entitled or naïve or totally messed up? What if the person on the other end of hearing our story rejects us in some way? How do we bring our voices to subjects that no one wants to face or that we think people will only be interested in for the gossip factor? This is especially hard when we want or need to speak about our truths without hurting the people close to us.

I’ve been thinking about the things I wish I could talk about more (even write about more) and why these issues matter. As a mom and partner, daughter, and friend, I know that my willingness to address things less often discussed will only make me feel more grounded and more whole once I get past the fear of vulnerability. As a writer, I know that sometimes my best work lies in the places I’m most afraid to commit to on the page. A friend of mine, who’s a photographer, advised me: “Always take photos of someone crying and always take a photograph of someone telling a secret, because those moments are intimate.”

She’s right; those moments of intimacy translate into strong images. They are strong because intimacy is powerful. We wouldn’t want to only live in gut-wrenching confessional mode. We need more than one note to sound like ourselves, so I am not advocating for all-confession all the time. But sometimes I wish I could challenge myself to take more risks of this nature.

Here’s a list of some things I hope I dare to address more, and model talking about well (as in, directly, authentically and with some graciousness and poise):

Puberty (mostly, with my kids)

Sex (mostly with my husband)

Issues surrounding growing older and caring for parents if they need that (mostly, with my family, especially my parents and siblings)

Middle age, as in the physical and emotional changes (mostly, with my friends and my mom and my spouse)

The moments no one admits to like when you just don’t enjoy your kids or your spouse or your life (you love them, but it’d be nice to find someone really accepting to hear you complain without judgment or vilification of the people you love)

Big-ticket fears from climate change to illness to war to failure

Money

Jealousy

Success

Self-doubt

Boundaries

What to do when friendships get challenging (other than walk away, mostly to friends I find challenging)

Privilege

*   *   *

Recently, I’ve begun to schedule a phone call-slash-debriefing with a friend every couple of weeks, about life and work (by life, I think I mean family). We’ve known each other a long time and can lay our challenges out without hesitation.

In big ways and small, this unearthing of what’s often deliberately left unsaid helps. It’s amazing how the chance to share—brainstorm, support, and problem solve and hold each other’s anxiety—lightens the sense of burden we sometimes feel when worn down and buoys us both. Given that I wonder why I’m so afraid sometimes to speak up.

I hope that going forward I can summon my courage. I hope I can do more than make a list like the one above; I hope I can use the list as my guide.

What are some things you hope to address more?

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Not a Scary Story

Not a Scary Story

By Kimberly Ford
summer2011_fordFrom where I sit most afternoons, on the second-floor library of my son’s new middle school, I can look out the bank of windows to the outdoor courts where Will practices basketball with his sixth-grade team. Will’s coach recently said, with a note of surprise in his voice, “You sure are one tough kid.” The coach may have been surprised because my eldest loves nothing more than math and reading. He thinks for long stretches before he speaks, an angelic look on his face. But put the kid in at point guard and you’ll rack up a couple of fouls for the good guys.

But then, this kid is surprising in a lot of ways. One Monday afternoon, a few months ago, Will and I—his younger sister and brother home with a sitter—piled into the car to see our beloved Dr. Greene. Will had been thirstier than usual. He’d been waking up to pee—five times a night. Dr. Greene is seventy-one. I’ve known him since I was four. He is levelheaded and calm and charming. I assumed this Monday would bring a little chit-chat, Dr. Greene in the bow tie he always wears, before something like, “Waking to pee? How about no liquids after seven.”

Instead, after Dr. Greene had asked about me and the kids and about Will’s basketball season and what he was reading, my favorite doctor sighed. He sat back in his chair and said, “Kimber, there was sugar in the urine sample.”

Which is when you have the first inkling that your life is going to change and that your kid’s life is going to change. You look at your twelve-year-old, who’s sitting on the high examination table looking very tall and very large but still kicking his size-nine feet like he’s six years old.

Your son asks, “What does ‘sugar in the urine sample’ mean?” and you feel sick because you can’t answer that question, and you don’t know how Dr. Greene is going to answer it, and given that your boy is sitting right there, you can’t ask the questions you want to: about longevity, about life expectancy. At this point, Dr Greene explains to Will that this really only means that he’ll have to have some blood drawn. It’s Dr. Greene who sends the order and who tells Will that sometimes sugar in the urine means the pancreas isn’t doing its job. It’s Dr. Greene who squeezes your shoulder on your way out and smiles, and it’s Dr. Greene who does not say what you want him to, which is that your firstborn is completely fine.

Dr. Greene, in fact, calls less than half an hour later, just after you’ve walked through the door and into the kitchen and begun browning the ground turkey for the tacos.

“Kimber,” he says. “Sounds like you’re cooking dinner. Are you cooking dinner?”

“Yes,” you say. “Tacos,” as if this is important.

“Here’s what I need you to do.  I need you to go into another room where you can be alone for a minute.” And because adrenaline makes your hands and feet and scalp tingly, and because this does not sound good, you walk not into the dining room where the kids might hear you over the TV they’re watching, but upstairs and, for no good reason at all, into your youngest son’s bedroom.

There, Dr. Greene tells you that Will’s blood glucose level is 906. Nine-hundred-six means nothing to you then. Even when Dr. Greene says in a clear, calm voice that normal is about one hundred, the numbers mean nothing. Your pediatrician’s tone is what makes your hands and arms and shoulders start shaking. You stand there, and your knees also begin to shake when Dr. Greene tells you that you need to take Will to the hospital. Right now. You are standing with the phone pressed to your ear, wearing a slim gray skirt and high heels, and when he says he’s already arranged for a bed, you realize that a skirt and heels are not at all what you need for a night in the hospital. As he says, “Bed 302” and “North Wing of Packard,” you kick off your heels and unzip your skirt. There in your youngest son’s bedroom, the one with the dormer windows and the low, angled ceiling, you stand shaking, thinking that yoga pants are what you need for the hospital. You pull down and step out of your skirt and underwear. Dr. Greene repeats “302” and “North Wing” as your husband opens the door to your youngest son’s room. Your husband’s eyes widen. You are standing there with the phone to your ear, visibly shaking. His expression grows quizzical, a little alarmed maybe, as he stares at you, there, in your black sweater and nothing at all from the waist down.

But here’s the good thing. Your husband, Bill, heads back downstairs to tell Will, per Dr. Greene’s last instructions, to stop eating anything he happens to be eating. You follow in your black yoga pants and your black sweater, you and your husband ready to tell your three kids that actually, you need to head on over to the hospital. You worry there will be wailing and crying and small ashen faces. The amazing thing? Your three kids seem to think this is … exciting! Will, who is sitting at the breakfast bar and who feels totally fine, grins at you, curious, like this is some kind of joke. Your daughter, your worrier, gapes from you to your husband and then to her older brother who pretends, then, to faint. Will slumps over onto the countertop, his sister yelling, “That’s not funny!” and you laugh, and your husband laughs, and your worried daughter laughs along with you because this is actually very funny.

And here’s another good thing. It’s clear from the beginning that both of you—both mother and father—are going to the hospital. You need to be there—both of you—for your son, and for each other. So you do what you need to: You think of your mother, who lives two miles away but who is a psychotherapist working eight to eight, six days a week and who is not available on short notice. You do what you’ve never done before: You call her office, and when you get her machine you hang up and call a second time, a third, then again. You imagine her seated in her wing-backed chair across from the little, red answering-machine light that flashes at an incoming call. Your mother might take you for a desperate client who can certainly wait until the end of the current session. She might think you are the most persistent of solicitors. Instead, your mother excuses herself to the client seated on the couch. She crosses the room and picks up the phone, and you say, “Mom?” and she says, “Hi. I’m here with a client,” as if to underscore that she is not, in fact, available. You say, “I’m sorry, but we have to take Will to the hospital. I need you to come over here.” Of course, you could have called a neighbor. Any number of friends would have been more than happy to help. But your younger children will be less worried with the grandmother they adore. You will be less anxious if it’s your mom who is with them. Neither you nor your husband will have to come home in the middle of the night to relieve a friend who has kids of her own at home, and you’re sorry about the client, but the client will just have to understand that the night has come when you’re about to drive your kid across town to the hospital, and the client will just have to accept the fact that the people you love are going to step up.

The nights in the hospital—there are three—are long. That first night, no fewer than four endocrinologists will explain the situation: The pancreas makes insulin, the hormone that allows the body access to the glucose it needs to survive. Your son’s pancreas is no longer producing enough insulin. What they tell you, each in turn so that you can maybe just begin to understand, is that you will essentially have to become your child’s pancreas to gauge needed amounts of the hormone and to deliver those hormones to keep him alive.

It will be nine o’clock, then ten, then eleven, and you will not think, until days later, of how the idea of going to the emergency room used to sound so terrible because it always seemed like something that had to be done at night. The emergency room seemed awful because you, for one, are exhausted by nine. You are almost always asleep by nine-thirty.  The idea of leaving the house after dark means not getting into bed on time, which means not being able to wake up before the kids the next day to enjoy that perfect hour alone, just you and your coffee.

At some point around two-thirty in the morning, though, when your son has been given insulin and his blood glucose has dropped to 506 and he has finally fallen asleep, you will not feel tired in the least. You will feel the need to step out into the hallway. Not because you actually need to check something on your phone, which is the excuse you’ve made, but simply because you need to step out of the room. You will walk into the hallway, and there will be your nurse, a young woman with pretty, dark hair named Erin who has had Type-1 diabetes since she was a kid and who seems healthy and kind and empathetic and who has just had a baby of her own, which instills hope that your kid might have a normal life and that Julia Roberts’s premature, post-partum demise in Steel Magnolias is not the fate of every single person with this disease.

Erin smiles at you in a way that says she understands exactly what you’re going through because, in fact, she does. She asks if you’d like a cup of tea, and you didn’t know before you stepped out into the hallway, but you do want a cup of tea. When Erin leads you to the alcove stocked, especially for parents, with graham crackers and saltines and the tea and the coffee you will absolutely need five hours from now after you’ve gotten no sleep, the little alcove and the comfort of such an empathetic person seem like a miracle. Erin says, “Can I do anything else for you?” and you shake your head and say, “No. Really. Thanks.” Then she says, “This is hard. It’s really hard. But he’ll be okay,” and you believe her.

It’s actually a little harder to believe Erin by the next morning. Not because you haven’t slept at all, but because your son starts to feel bad. It turns out that in some kids, when insulin lowers blood glucose from a life-threatening 906 to a more normal 68, the process can be uncomfortable. Your poor kid spends the whole first day in the hospital vomiting.

One of the things Bill and I learned that first day is that when you are diabetic and verging on ketoacidosis—when blood is overly acidic because the body has begun to digest its own fat stores—vomiting is not good. After Frosted Flakes and apple juice and sugar-free root beer went down and came back up, after several hours of Will throwing up yellow bile, an IV was put in his arm and he was finally able to sleep. By the end of the first twenty-four hours, he kept down half a cup of Rice Krispies. Then a soft white roll. Which meant it was time to begin what we needed to do—master the understanding and management of an extremely complex disease (there would be an exam!)—before we would be allowed to leave the hospital. I have a B.A. and an M.A. and a Ph.D. Never before had I been such a good student. By the second morning, Will and Bill and I were calculating the number of carbohydrates in the foods Will liked to eat, measuring his current blood glucose, drawing up insulin from glass vials into syringes and injecting it into the skin of his belly so that our son might have the exact amount of insulin his body needed to release glucose from his bloodstream into his system.

At some point in the high-stakes studying and care-giving and the large-scale acceptance we were having to undertake, I got a headache. I needed Tylenol, and they had it in the gift shop. I dreaded the trip. The children’s hospital gift shop, I was sure, would be horribly depressing, full of carnations and baby’s breath, Mylar balloons and mawkish greeting cards for critically ill children. Instead, its shelves were lined with colorful books and wooden toys and an array of art supplies that rivaled our local toy store. In the middle was an enormous display of stuffed animals that reached all the way to the high ceiling. Will is the only one of my three children who has ever liked stuffed animals. It always surprised me when a kid who was so athletic and so cerebral would get so excited about the stuffed raccoon my parents gave him for his sixth birthday or the plush bunny in his Easter basket when he was eight. I walked around and around the display, taking out animal after animal to feel the fur and to be certain the eyes weren’t too sad. All the while, I was sure that my twelve-year-old son would think this was stupid. He had just started middle school, his feet had just grown two sizes larger than mine, no one had dared give the kid a stuffed animal in years! Finally, I chose a fox with a velvety body and a wise face whose smile was heartening without being goofy. I swallowed my Tylenol at the cashier stand without water and hustled back to the room with a cup of tea in one hand and a glass of water for Bill in the other, the fox tucked casually under my arm.

Will sat forward from the raised back of the bed. He held both hands out. “Awww,” he said, and actually laughed a little. “Is that for me?”

I nodded. Bill handed the fox to Will who hugged it to his bare chest.

“He’s so soft,” he said.

Bill asked what he was going to name it, and Will said, “I don’t know. Maybe Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox sounds good.”

And I realized that just as Bill and I were beginning to fret about our son’s growing up and leaving us forever, just as he’d started to think maybe it wasn’t that cool for us to pick him up on campus or that certain colleges across the country sounded interesting, this disease would mean more communication and more understanding among the three of us. Diabetes meant we would get to hold him a little closer for a little longer.

*   *   *

Not that any of what we learned in the hospital felt like anything other than torture. Case in point: shots. No one likes shots. The idea of my son having to inject himself four to five times a day, every day, for the rest of his life, seemed like more pain than I could comprehend.

Enter my sister. When Bill and I called my mom, who cancelled her clients for the next three days, my mom called my sister. My sister, who lives forty minutes from us, on the other side of the San Francisco Bay, packed up her one-year-old, cancelled the nursing shift she was supposed to work the next day, said adieu to her husband, and came to stay with Aidan and Quentin until Bill and I could get home. Once Will had begun to feel better after that long first night and Bill and I had begun to understand hypoglycemia and lipohypertrophy and ketoacidosis, I decided it was time to run home to see my younger kids.

Who meets me at the doorstep but my sister, the nurse practitioner.  In her hands are the syringes and vials of saline she’d bought at the pharmacy. With my giddy younger son and daughter at her sides and her own toddler on her hip, she announced that we were going to “inject each other!” My eight-year-old, full of nervous laughter, was so animated that he had a hard time drawing up the saline, but the kid had surprisingly little trouble popping the syringe into my belly. My daughter giggled through a self-injection. My mom—doubled over with laughter—poked the needle right into her stomach but was so keyed-up that she yanked it back out instead of holding it there for the requisite count of five, which seemed—to my little ones—like the funniest thing their grandmother had ever done.

My mom and I have always been close. My sister and I have always been close. On the drive back to the hospital that second day I had a good cry. Not because I was sad, but because I was moved. The three of us had been drawn, by my son having developed a disease, that much closer.

Of course, with this kind of medical situation, there are plenty of tears, and not all of gratitude. You will cry, and your kid will cry. And this—watching your twelve-year-old cry—is harder than measuring out strawberries on the new kitchen scale you buy because you want to be precise about the number of carbohydrates that you need to “cover” with exact dosages of insulin. The tears come, we have found, on Sunday nights, the eve of a new school week, or on the last night of winter vacation when we are all reminded—by a new beginning—that Will’s diabetes isn’t going away.

The sadness, though, is balanced by moments like the first day back to school after Will was discharged. The first day back, of course, happened to be the basketball team’s end-of-season party, replete with the cupcakes and juice that Will and I needed to attempt to “calculate” and “cover.” The team gathered around a picnic table, Coach King just beginning his commentary on the season, my son back with his gang. When he took out the small, black nylon case holding the blood glucose monitor, the other nine boys grew still. He pricked his finger then squeezed it with the other hand, waiting for a large enough drop of blood to collect. In that moment I worried that Coach King had slowed in his comments. I worried that Will was embarrassed by all the staring. I thought maybe he should have checked his blood glucose level over by me, away from the table.

At which point there came, “Cool!” from the boy next to him, one of his best friends. Will grinned at Rory. He wiped his finger on his friend’s navy blue uniform, and Coach laughed, and the boys laughed, and Will beamed. He might have ended up the happiest of them all, once he and I realized that we’d overestimated the number of carbohydrates in the snack and had injected too much insulin. His blood sugar had gone low enough that my son—none of his teammates holding it against him in the slightest—was the only player who had to have a second cupcake.

So, no, I never imagined, when my eldest child graduated from elementary school and started at his new middle school down the street, that I would be on campus every day at 11:50 to help him count the number of carbohydrates in his lunch and inject the exact dosage of insulin. I would have been angry if you’d told me last year that the novel manuscript I was close to finishing was going to be tabled for months while I became an expert at managing a complex disease I barely knew existed before Dr. Greene’s phone call. I would have been full of dread at the number of nights you told me I’d have to spend waking up to check two a.m. blood sugars. I might have been resentful if I’d known the number of days I would have to rush back to school because Will had run out of testing strips or felt “low” and the nurse’s office was locked and he thought he’d left his monitor in the art room but the art room was locked, too, and could I please come over with the spare monitor?

What I wouldn’t have known last year, because I was worried about my children in only the most abstract and dire of ways, was that there is real joy and real satisfaction in sitting here on the second story of the library. Being at my sixth-grader’s school every day was never the plan. But where I sit now, spending all afternoon at school even three months after he was released from the hospital because the baseball season is upon us and there’s no way to know how a new sport will affect his blood glucose levels, I get to watch my son walk back from the cafeteria, talking and joking with friends. I know Will better than I might have, because of his disease. I know his friends better because they come into the nurse’s office at lunch with him and they wave to me and they call me by my name and ask if they can have a roll of the Smarties they know I always carry in my bag in case Will’s levels go too low. These are the same boys who noticed one morning that Will was talking fast and slurring a little and walking “kind of funny” and that maybe he should check his blood glucose. When the number was a dangerously low 38, they were the ones who had him eat some of the candy he always carries in his pockets, one running for the nurse while the others walked him into a nearby classroom until Will showed he was fine again.

Will’s diagnosis on November 30 meant that I got to ask, on the last afternoon of spring break, “So, think you’re ready to do lunchtime injections on your own?” At which point I felt a surge of affection and love—not what I thought I would feel—when he said, “Actually I think I still need you.”

What I didn’t know last year, but I do know now, is that when the reality you don’t want becomes yours, there’s plenty of good to be had.

Author’s Note: Seventeen months after diagnosis means that life is a lot easier. I am no longer at school every day, but I make plenty of drives over when Will’s blood sugar is 389, or his pump site has been yanked out during soccer or he has run out of testing strips. Seventeen months out, there is still plenty of worry and time spent calculating and administering medication, and there are still tears.

I was, however, lucky enough to recently become VP of Research for the Greater Bay Area Board of Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the leading funder of research toward finding a cure for Type-1 diabetes. What my role gives me is direct access to hope. I pass this hope on to Will almost daily.  Last fall I passed some of it along to his new friend, eight-year-old Owen, who, when I asked how long ago he had been diagnosed, said:  “Eight months, three weeks, and … six days.” Just last month I passed that same kind of hope along to eleven-year-old, newly diagnosed Carter. When I told him that JDRF was going to find a cure, Carter spoke to everything you need to know about the real difficulties of Type-1 when he said, “Please, please hurry.” 

Updated Author’s Note: When I heard that the inimitable Brain, Child was going to feature “Not a Scary Story” four-and-a-half years after Will’s diagnosis, I got pretty fired up.  I would write a quick comment about how much EASIER life is.  My eldest is SIXTEEN, a sophomore soccer player who is thriving. Still, two nights ago I checked Will at 1:47 a.m. for the second time that night to find his blood glucose was 38.  I could not have been more worried racing down the stairs in the pj bottoms I sleep in, panicked at the question of how long he’d been so low, at whether or not he was going to seize, of what I would do if I got back upstairs and he was non-responsive.  He hasn’t been 38 since the afternoon I wrote about in the “Story.”  He ended up being just fine . . . after three blood glucose checks, at half-hour intervals through the night;  and more than a little worry on the part of his mom.

Kimberly Ford”s fiction, reviews, and essays have been published in The Believer, Redbook, Mothering, The Threepenny Review, and Brain, Child. Her best-selling non-fiction book, Hump: True Tales of Sex After Kids, was published in 2009. Her short story “Generation” was named a Recommended Story in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2008.

 

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

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Debate: Is Rewarding Kids a Good Parenting Practice?

Debate: Is Rewarding Kids a Good Parenting Practice?

 

No, it’s the wrong message

By Kathy Gillen

debatenogifts“It won’t hurt much,” I told my two-year-old, Paige, as she waited for her immunizations. “It will be all done real fast.” Part of my statement wasn’t a lie.

Later, in the car, Paige examined her Pooh Bear bandage. Her tears were gone, and the trauma seemed to be fading. I was still shaken. But I knew just how to ease my pain: produce a little magic. “We’re going to go to the toy store,” I told Paige, “and you can pick out something because you were so brave when you got your shots.”

As the stiff plastic packaging and wire ties were removed from the new baby doll, delight filled my daughter’s face. The doll traveled by her side … for about a day. Paige never mentioned her doctor visit and soon abandoned the doll for her play kitchen. Later, as I tidied her room and placed the doll in a basket with other toys, I wondered: Did she deserve a treat? Pain is a part of life. Should she receive gifts or a lollipop for enduring her day, for growing up, for eating beans?

I continued to struggle with my reward system for a long time as Paige faced rejection from the neighbor kid, tackled a pile of cooked spinach, and lost her status as an only child as we added new siblings every other year.

When does behavior deserve a reward? After Pilates class, I used to treat myself to a Starbucks mocha. A pedicure is a treat I justified because I hauled sandals and swim noodles and beach towels to the pool all summer. And if I finished folding my laundry and put it all away, I decadently lay on my bed and got lost in a novel. But how would I teach my children that not all struggles end with a Crunch Bar or new Mario video game, when I often rewarded myself for enduring small inconveniences?

My answer came with my fourth child. Merritt had a degenerative, genetic disease. She would never develop beyond her present infantile state. Not even a side-by-side refrigerator or fresh family-room carpet would work on this hurt.

My mom friends tried to soothe me. Homemade dinners and certificates for massages were well-intentioned and appreciated, but when you win the horrible-things-that-happen-to-kids lottery, there is only so much a roasted chicken can do.

Still, the rewards kept coming. “You deserve it,” became a phrase used over and over by my well-intentioned friends. I bought into the mentality, too.

We desperately want life to be fair. We want goodness and love and great schools and healthy children for everyone. And when we realize it won’t be fair, we’re quick to offer rewards for pain. It’s easy to offer our children gifts and treats in exchange for their hurts. It seems the obvious thing to do, to try to take away their troubles.

When we act is if parenting produces hardships soothed only by rewards, then we model entitlement. Moms, of course, do deserve a break, dinner out, a kicking new outfit, and anything that helps self-esteem, but we need to set parameters for our rewards. If I had continued to rely on treats to help me cope with the daily chores of raising a special-needs child, then I would set a poor precedent for my children’s ability to handle adversity. And it isn’t just the demands of a handicapped child that can wear me down. If my kids see me fleeing the house for a mid-week shopping spree and I tell them, “I deserve some time alone,” then I’m teaching them that inconvenience is a reason to max out the credit card, or worse, that they are causing me grief which can only be fixed with a trip to the mall.

The doll I gave to Paige after her shots only taught her that the unpleasant parts of life will be rewarded. Well, sister, there will be a lot more unhappy times than a couple of shots. What will I do when she struggles with homework? Give her ice cream? When her first love breaks her heart, will I buy her a designer handbag? If her number one college pick sends her a thin letter, should I send her to Paris?

I don’t want my kids to be like dogs, anticipating a treat each time the cupboard of disappointment opens. I want to empower them to face adversity, solve problems, and understand that a positive attitude can be the quickest way to gain their equilibrium. Nobody wants hardship for a child, but amazing, life-altering joy can be found in even the dark corners of life. Teaching kids to embrace hardships without the aid of rewards can be the difference between understanding life and just muddling through it.

I recently heard of a girl who, while in the hospital with a rare kidney condition, decided to tell the people who sent her gifts to instead donate the money to an organization helping AIDS orphans in Africa. A child who is able to see beyond her own suffering and understand greater pain is rare. Children are self-focused, and when they are in pain they expect all of their parents’ attention and love. But in a society where parents try to cushion every blow their children receive, we need to teach our children that love doesn’t have to come wrapped in a brightly colored cardboard box or scooped into a cone.

Pain shouldn’t always be alleviated. Some of our children’s greatest lessons will be learned through their struggles. My compassion for others and gratitude for each new day has intensified through my own pain. Sure, I could have done without a few of those horrific months, sitting in labs, hospital rooms, and doctors’ offices while searching for answers. But my kids might have perceived Merritt as a hardship if I had rewarded myself with a new car or diamond tennis bracelet. Instead they see her as a special girl who doesn’t get ice cream after therapy or baby dolls after the doctor but lots of hugs and rounds of Itsy Bitsy Spider.

Do I deserve a break? Sure, I need time to myself, to regroup and relax. My kids need to see me having fun. But I hope they see me enjoying life, not rewarding myself for living it.

Kathy Gillen lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and four children.

 

Yes, parents have the power

By Renée Hill

debateyesgiftsThere is a conversation I have had with my mother many times since the birth of my first child four years ago. The basic outline goes like this.

I didn’t have a lot of theories when I first started rewarding my son for his good behavior. The fact was, his birthday is in December—the same month as Christmas—and by late spring, I wanted to get the kid some new, age-appropriate toys. I thought it would be a bad precedent to set, if all he had to do was ask for them. So I started tying the acquisition of new playthings to his behavior. Voilà: My practice of rewarding his good behavior was born.

We’ve been chugging along like this for years now. He got M&Ms during potty training, plastic dinos after vaccinations. He gets new games for his Gameboy after good report cards and jaunts to the bookstore after a week’s worth of saxophone practice. When school lets out, we take a vacation.

You can call it bribery. I call it, “Hey, kiddo, I’m proud—let’s celebrate.”

I know the arguments against what I’m doing. The kid will come to expect rewards for any little thing. He’ll become an insufferable brat. His expectations of the real world will be unrealistic. He’ll grow up and be unable to handle his adult life, all because a well-meaning adult (me) taught him that life rewards good behavior, jobs well done, hard work.

But, jeez, it’s not as if he’s been sequestered in a bubble the span of his formative years.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a child, I was well aware of all the ways my small world was unjust. It wasn’t fair that I got my glasses broken in dodgeball, or that the richer kids seemed to be the more popular ones. It seemed arbitrary that we had to ask to use the bathroom at school, or that we could only get two library books at a time. It seemed cosmically wrong that, while a bunch of us girls were talking during class, I was the one who had to sit out recess.

These days, they don’t play dodgeball anymore (sorry, optometrists!) and you might get a note home from the teacher when some social situation goes awry. But, really, in the course of a childhood, hundreds of injustices are visited upon our kids. Small ones, we hope. Invisible to us, probably. But it happens to my kid, your kid, every kid. That’s the way the world is.

What I don’t understand is how we collectively got the idea that home is supposed to simulate the big, bad world. Why, again, are we supposed to try to mirror the reality that rewards aren’t necessarily handed out equally, or at all? It seems to me that the goal of any home should be the opposite: to offer a respite from the daily grind of the world’s uncertainty and injustice. I want my home to be the place where my son can expect unconditional support, where his efforts go rewarded, and where his biggest fan lives.

What I’m creating in our house, I suppose, is more like an ideal world. Here, there is compassion, in the form of making banana bread together when someone’s had a rough day. In our house, if you’ve worked to the best of your abilities and accomplished a goal, you might get a new CD. If you do something kind, someone takes notice, and there might be a trip to the ice rink in your future.

In many ways, my rewards system is more realistic than expecting the boy to find his work rewarding in itself (remember learning the times tables?) or hoping that he can find a vein of altruism to mine. Because, as imperfect as the world is, most of us adults work for the reward of money. We’re capitalists, after all. But I’m careful, in rewarding him, to give bonuses for effort, not his innate qualities like his handsomeness or athleticism. Besides, he can suss out what’s subjective mama-love (you’re so gorgeous!) and what’s genuine pride in his accomplishments.

My son will someday be an adult in this dog-eat-dog world, and with any luck, he’ll have a measure of power. He knows the great feeling of getting a reward. And he knows—because I’ve made it obvious—that I’ve gone to some effort to reward him when I get him a new gizmo or celebrate with a special outing. He’s learning that grown-ups—whether they’re parents, teachers, or bosses—have the power to reward. They should use it.

Renee Hill is a freelance writer. She’s currently at work on a collection of essays.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

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Family Affairs

Family Affairs

From Brain, Child (Fall 2009)

By Meagan Francis

fall2009_francis_ringFour-year-old Charlie has no idea—yet—what transpired between his mom and dad late last year.

Stationed overseas while her husband was on active duty in Iraq, Charlie’s mother, Stella, began to notice her husband, Tom, becoming distracted and disinterested. A picture of her husband sitting with a young woman on his lap on a mutual friend’s Facebook page aroused her suspicions, and the constant texting and e-mailing when he came home on a break confirmed them. Finally, Tom admitted he’d been having an affair with another soldier and said he was in love with her, though he claimed they’d never had a physical relationship (something Stella doesn’t believe).

As she watched the effects her husband’s withdrawal was having on her son, Stella got angry. “Tom was so disengaged that Charlie started wanting nothing to do with him,” she says. Before the holidays, Charlie’s class was working on a project to send deployed dads a “Christmas hug”; a paper outline of the child’s arms on a piece of paper. “Charlie sat in the time-out cubby all day, refusing to participate,” Stella says. Because Charlie is speech-delayed, Stella explains, figuring out what he’s thinking can be a challenge, but after some questioning, Charlie came out with it. “All done with Daddy,” he said.

Lonely and confused, Stella began spending a lot of time with a longtime male friend. Then, while recounting the story about her son’s school to him, Stella found herself thinking, “My marriage is over.” Soon afterward, things between her and her friend got physical and she began a brief affair of her own.

Stella and Tom are hardly unique—infidelity is one of the oldest of human stories. Chances are good that even if infidelity isn’t part of your own life story, you’re hearing about the affairs of your friends or neighbors or watching it unfold in the life of a public figure. The chatter surrounding an affair almost always seems to focus on what it will do to the relationship under stress—the adult relationship, that is. Will they or won’t they stay together? Can he forgive her? Will she walk?

But what about the children? When they figure into the discussion, it’s almost always as an aside. When the Monica Lewinsky story was breaking, the national discussion was about Hillary and the state of the Clintons’s marriage, with far less attention paid to how the scandal might be affecting Chelsea. Ditto John and Elizabeth Edwards, who have three children, or most recently, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his wife, Jenny, who have four.

Or take the saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin of the TLC show Jon and Kate + 8. When news emerged that impossibly laid-back Jon—arguably the more likeable of the couple—had had an affair, public sentiment seemed to shift. Sure, the show’s most rabid viewers thought that Kate was still bitchy and controlling, her hair had gotten utterly ridiculous and who did she think she was with the huge sunglasses, fake tan, and designer clothes anyway … and yet … she’d been cheated on. The viewing world seemed to divide into two groups: those who thought Jon was a cheating bastard and worried that those eight kids would grow up in a broken home, and those who thought Kate had brought it all on herself and needed to give up the public life before she drove Jon further away and wound up raising eight kids by herself.

What nobody seemed to be asking was what affect the affair itself would have on the kids. Even if Jon and Kate had stayed together, news of Jon’s infidelity had been splashed across tabloid covers and blogs for weeks. There’s no way the kids can stay sheltered from that forever. So what happens when they figure it out? And what lingering effects might have haunted them even if the marriage had lasted?

Even if you’re not in the public eye—if you’re a Stella or a Tom, say—there are plenty of questions to be asked. Will your little Charlie one day be blaming you in therapy for mishandling the whole affair? Is there a right way or a wrong way to explain infidelity to children? Does it make a difference to the emotional health of the children if they’re told of the cheating right away or kept in the dark? Are they affected differently in the long run if Mom and Dad reconcile or eventually split? And, given how widespread a phenomenon this is, we have to wonder: Why is there so little research on the effects of infidelity on children?

*   *   *

Recent studies from the University of Chicago indicate that one in ten Americans (twelve percent of men, seven percent of women) will have an extramarital affair in their lives—and those are among the most conservative estimates. Researchers at the University of Washington recently found that twenty percent of men and fifteen percent of women under age thirty-five say they have cheated, while twenty-eight percent of men over age sixty say they have cheated. (The actual numbers are likely to be higher, sociologists say, because people tend to lie about sex.) While it’s equally difficult to pin down what percentage of people having an affair also have children, one recent survey provides an eye-opening clue. In a poll of thirty thousand mothers conducted by Cookie magazine and AOL Body in May, 2008, thirty-four percent of respondents admitted having an affair since giving birth to their kids, and more than half (fifty-three percent) said they’d considered an affair.

Thanks to The National Center for Health Statistics, we know how many people marry and divorce each year. And the short- and long-term effects of divorce on children have been tracked through longitudinal studies like the one performed by psychologist Judith Wallerstein, a former senior lecturer at the School of Social Welfare at The University of California, Berkeley. But when it comes to how children are affected by infidelity per se, the research is conspicuously scanty.

Ana Nogales would like to change that. Nogales, a family therapist in Southern California, has watched the effects of infidelity on her patients for years. To synthesize what she was seeing, she designed a study of eight hundred adults whose parents had been unfaithful. In June, she published the study as a book, Parents who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful.

What emerges from the survey is a mixed bag:  Some of the long-lasting effects of infidelity on the respondents are what you’d expect, while others are more surprising. Nogales’s respondents skew heavily female—eighty-four percent women compared with just sixteen percent men. (This may be because women are more expressive, Nogales says.) Many more respondents (seventy-three percent) report that it was their father who was unfaithful; only sixteen percent report a mother’s infidelity. About fourteen percent of respondents report that both parents had an affair.

Three quarters of the grown children of adulterers report that their relationship with the unfaithful parent changed as a result of that knowledge. The same percentage report feeling betrayed and even more said they felt angry with or hurt by the cheating parent’s actions. Eighty percent report that their attitude toward love and relationships was affected by their parent’s infidelity. About the same percentage say they now feel that people regularly lie. More than half of respondents are afraid of being betrayed by a partner, and more than two-thirds say they have a hard time trusting others.

Yet almost ninety percent of adults who in their childhood experienced the infidelity of one or more parents still believe in commitment, and nearly eighty percent report that they believe in monogamy. Whether they can carry through with those beliefs is another story, though; forty-four percent report having cheated at one time or another.

*   *   *

All this data seems to mean something, but what, exactly? Nogales is the first to admit that her survey isn’t scientific: Participants are self-selected, and it’s likely that the people who feel most affected by a parent’s cheating are the first to get in line to fill out a questionnaire about it. Participants assess their own mental and emotional health, further adding to the subjective nature of the study. There’s also no comparison data and so no way to know whether adults whose parents cheated are any worse off, emotionally, than kids whose parents stayed faithful. We all screw up and fail our children in some way. Is infidelity statistically worse than our other failings?

Many questions linger on the perimeter of the data. If the parents stayed together, did the infidelity continue? If the parents split, did the offending parent stay involved in the kids’ lives or did he or she disengage? Was the cheating a one-time event or chronic? How did the kids find out, and how did the parents treat one another during the crisis? In other words, did the affair lead to family dysfunction, or did family dysfunction come before the affair? How long ago did these marriages and these affairs take place and in what kind of socio-cultural environment?

In Nogales’s study, fifty-eight percent of marriages survived the infidelity. (National averages may be higher; a recent study of 1,084 people whose spouses had affairs found that seventy-six percent were still married to the same partner years afterwards.) Whether or not the parents divorce after an affair is discovered changes the way kids react to the affair, according to Nogales, but neither outcome is all good or all bad: “When the parents didn’t divorce, the children were better able to trust, but felt more shame and had a harder time forgiving,” says Nogales. “When the parents did divorce, the children had a harder time trusting, but an easier time forgiving. They saw the relationship as something in the past that had come to an end.”

Eighty percent of survey respondents reported that their relationship with the cheating parent changed when parents divorced. Nearly that many—seventy-two percent—reported that their relationship changed with the cheating parent when the parents stayed together. There was no significant difference in the relationship with the betrayed parent, whether or not the parents divorced.

Though those questions aren’t answered via the survey responses, the book is full of personal stories that shed some light on the various ways infidelity plays out in the family.  And from those stories and the conversations I had with people who’ve been there, I learned that the effects of infidelity are as individual and unique as the families themselves.

Take, for example, Jennifer Canzoneri, a twenty-seven-year-old mother in Roanoke, Texas, whom I spoke with recently. Jennifer was not merely a bystander to her dad’s infidelity; she was made an accomplice of sorts. When she was about seven, he began taking her and her sister to dinner with a “friend” of his who worked in his building. “I guess he assumed we wouldn’t catch on,” she says. “We caught on. But as a kid, it’s kind of hard to wrap your brain around what your suspicions really mean.” The infidelity continued. Eventually, Jennifer’s mom and dad split and her dad remarried; he later broke up with her stepmother while he was in another relationship.

Jennifer says the affair made her have some trouble trusting people. “I won’t cheat—I can say that with much certainty—and I won’t stand to be cheated on,” she says. “But trust is difficult. I look at my husband, who’s nothing like my father, and sometimes wonder if he’s keeping things from me. He’s open and honest and has given me no reason to doubt him, but as a child of infidelity, you doubt and fight insecurity.”

Again, not surprising. But digging deeper into Jennifer’s past indicates that it may not just have been her dad’s cheating that affected her so strongly, but the way it played out in her family.

“My sister and I told my mom [about the other woman], and, sadly, we tried to defend him. I remember my mom wasn’t surprised, which saddens me a lot in hindsight,” she says. “The woman we met wasn’t his first mistress, and my mother knew of them all. She stayed with him, she looked the other way, and she didn’t demand that he stop cheating or lying. He convinced her she wasn’t worth being faithful to and so she never said she was worth being faithful to. I needed to see, through her actions, that no woman should allow a man to cheat on her. I didn’t see that.” Jennifer tells me that it took much therapy for her to be able to trust, and even now, she finds divorce devastating: “When I see friends go through it or even some random celebrity couple, it physically affects me.”

With that kind of fallout at stake, it’s understandable that a parent might try to keep an affair completely removed from the kids. “In the military, with so many spouses on active duty for much of the year, there are women who have boyfriends practically living with them—picking the kids up from daycare, even—while their husband is gone,” says Stella. She opted out of that kind of arrangement when her own affair began, trying hard to keep Charlie in the dark. “If I wanted to see [the other man], I got a babysitter and went out. My kid was not around.”

Stella and her husband are attempting to stay together, mostly for Charlie’s sake, and she says they have no plans ever to tell their son about their infidelities. “I think adultery always has been and always will be around, and it’s separate from your kids,” she argues.  “There’s this feeling that once you get married and have kids everything is supposed to revolve around the kids. Honestly, I think that’s why some women have affairs—to have some kind of life that’s outside of the cocoon. But I think it can remain very separate. It depends how it’s all handled.”

*   *   *

I can see her point. After all, we don’t involve our children in our sex lives. Why involve them in our affairs? Is it ever appropriate for them to know all the ins and outs of our marriages?

My own parents split up when I was about five, and soon after, my dad moved across the state to live near a former female co-worker. Within a couple of years, the two were married. (They later divorced.) When I was in my late teens, my mom told me that my father had cheated on her with my to-be stepmother. I remember being remarkably uncurious about it, never asking if she had proof, or why she would believe such a thing. In my subconscious, I probably knew that it was true, but as it was all in the distant past, I didn’t have to grapple with the “what does it all mean?” questions. So I chose largely to ignore this tidbit of knowledge and went right back to worshipping my father.

Now that I’m an adult and see things with clearer eyes, I suppose I could confront my dad and ask if it’s true. I’m sure he’d deny it; I’m not so sure I’d believe him. But at this point, what difference would it make? In hindsight, I can see that nothing is black or white. My dad’s purported affairs weren’t a rejection of me personally (my mother was not an easy person to live with—hell, I left her, too, moving in with my dad at the age of thirteen). My dad is a fallible human being. Mistakes were made.

But if I’d been told about his actions at the age of, say, eleven? I’m not so sure I’d have had the same confidence in my view of human nature or clarity to see my parents as they really are.

Nogales would argue that I’m kidding myself. On some level, kids know about affairs even when they don’t know the actual facts, she says. For that reason alone, honesty is always the best policy. “If you keep lying to your child, the child will have more and more problems,” she argues. “You don’t have to give details, but you have to ask your child if he or she has any questions and respond with the truth.” Even if your child doesn’t exhibit signs of knowing about an affair, Nogales believes they should be told.

That position strikes other family dynamic experts as extreme. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem, a family therapist in Burlington, Ontario, thinks children should be told about affairs—but on a need-to-know basis only.

“High stress comes from having a lot of responsibility and little power,” Belleghem argues. “Giving children information that they’re powerless to do anything about increases stress.”

On the other hand, if a child has a sense that something is off, it’s important to validate that knowledge, she says. When kids see something that doesn’t fit into their idea of the world—for instance, they think “Daddy loves Mommy” but then see Daddy kissing the neighbor—they need to know how to make sense of it, says Bellenghem. “When they learn that their perception was right, they say ‘Whoa—what I thought I saw, I really saw!’ It builds their confidence and self-trust.”

Bellenghem suggests that while childhood might not always be the right time to spill the beans, the time will come eventually. Let’s say an affair happens when a child is three, and the parents work through it and agree to stay together. Should the child grow up with the knowledge that one of his parents cheated on the other? No, she argues, but it could be shared when the child has reached young adulthood and is grappling with relationship issues of his or her own.

Emily Brown, Director of Key Bridge Therapy & Mediation Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment (2001), says about affairs, “In most cases, it needs to be part of the family story in some way. It’s not a secret, it just hasn’t been shared yet.”

And if this is the route you’re going—if you’re going to explain the complexities of an affair to your child, it makes sense to have a good grasp what exactly was going on in your own marriage. Why did it happen, after all? Brown, a frequent media commentator on infidelity, has identified five types of affairs, each with its own kind of motivation and potential fallout.

“Conflict avoiders” are the “nice” people who are too afraid of abandonment to resolve their differences directly, she says. The marriage erodes, and so they look outside the marriage for intimacy. “Intimacy avoiders,” Brown says, communicate via intense fighting, and often both partners wind up having affairs. “Split Self” affairs happen when people are so intent on doing their marriage “right” that they deprive their own feelings and needs, and end up getting those needs met in a long-term, serious affair. “Exit affairs” happen when conflict avoiders are looking for a way out of a marriage, and use an affair as a way out. And finally there’s the sexual addict, for whom sex is a compulsion more than a choice.

Within those five types, there are even more differences: serial cheaters and those who have a single, brief affair; those who involve their children and those who work hard to shield them from it. There are cheated-on parents who stand up for themselves and those who allow the infidelity to continue without taking action. There are couples who have mostly respectful, peaceful relationships in which affairs happen and couples who never cheat but scream and throw things at each other. The kids involved can be anywhere from not-yet-born to adults (sometimes, a child is actually a product of the affair, which throws a whole new wrench in the works). But whatever the details, they matter. When it comes to explaining matters of the heart, context is everything.

*   *   *

Like every other issue we face as parents, there’s the ideal, and then there’s reality. No one (well, almost no one) goes into a marriage expecting to cheat or be cheated on—it’s no surprise, therefore, that so many parents find themselves muddling through the aftermath. And whether they get everything out in the open right away or put it off for a later date, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to fumble and fail.

But they’ll also have lots of opportunity to try again until they get it right. Because whether you’re talking with a child about drugs or sex or God or infidelity, no single discussion shapes his or her understanding of the entire topic.

At least that’s what Stephanie, a thirty-five-year-old mother of two from Virginia, is banking on. Last winter, while she was struggling with depression and the demands of caring for two closely spaced young children, Stephanie’s first love showed up on Facebook, and the two reconnected. “I told myself I was just catching up with an old friend and gaining some closure, but I knew I was heading into dangerous territory,” says the attorney, who wrote about her affair on her blog, lawyermama.com. “This was a man I had never entirely gotten over; someone I had always loved.” On a business trip to Chicago not long after, Stephanie got together with the man, Mark, in person, and that meeting sparked a five-month affair.

When she returned, Stephanie’s husband figured out something was up right away; the two of them separated but eventually reunited. “I guess you could say that I came to my senses,” she told me. “Even though I was in love with two men, I realized that I had to make a choice. I chose my family.”

The children don’t know about her affair … yet. At only three and four, Stephanie thinks they’re too young to really understand: “Hell, even most adults don’t understand.” But she admits that she learned the hard way how perceptive even little kids can be. “During a car ride with my three-year-old, I was on the phone with Mark, just chatting, but I guess there was something in my voice,” she says. “When I hung up, my son asked me, ‘Mommy was that Daddy?’ I said, ‘No, sweetie that was Mommy’s friend, Mark.’ He was quiet for a while, and then said, ‘But who is he? Is he Daddy?’ After that, I never spoke to Mark on the phone with my children in the room.”

Since the affair is out in the open—and on the Internet—and both families involved know about it, Stephanie figures it’s just a matter of time before her children find out what happened. But whether the news comes from a gossiping cousin or Google, Stephanie and her husband are prepared for the discussion they’ll have one day. “We’ve agreed we’ll talk to them about it together and tell them as much as they want to know,” she says. “We plan to tell them that marriage is really hard work and sometimes we make mistakes, but we’re a family first and foremost and we did everything we could to keep it that way.”

*   *   *

Perhaps the reason there’s been so little research on the effects of infidelity on children in the past is simply due to adultery’s secrecy and the difficulty quantifying an experience that’s largely individual. Studying divorce, by contrast, is easy: Either a couple is divorced or they are not. The life cycle of an affair is a much more nebulous concept. We don’t like to talk about affairs in public to begin with; we certainly don’t want to admit to having had one (or several). We even have a hard time defining an affair: Do you have to go all the way? What about emotional affairs? Internet affairs? Sexting?

Maybe the definition doesn’t matter. Bellenghem is quick to point out that it’s the dishonesty—not the sex—that makes infidelity damaging to kids. “Having an affair isn’t just betraying the spouse, it’s betraying what family is about,” she says. “And a family is usually created on the premise of monogamy.” In open marriages or cultures where infidelity is the norm, Bellenghem suggests that sex outside of marriage wouldn’t have as devastating an effect, precisely because it wouldn’t catch either parent—or their children—by surprise.

It’s that surprise, shame, and confusion that often leads parents to deal with the infidelity in a way that’s not necessarily best for their kids. Trying to normalize or cover up the situation to the kids, the betraying parent will often either deny the obvious or—worse—bring the children into the “secret” (outings with mommy or daddy’s “friend”; keeping secrets from the betrayed parent). As for the cheatee? “Usually the parent who’s betrayed goes through a period of obsessing and questioning, and is unable to stop thinking about [the affair],” says Brown. “There’s no way the kids don’t hear that.” Trying to help children deal with the confusion of the family upset in a healthy way may be easier said than done when a parent him- or herself is in the throes of pain and feelings of rejection.

If there’s a silver lining to the often grim reality of living through the aftermath of an affair, maybe it’s the opportunity to get a little more real with their kids about the realities of marriage: the fact that marriage is messy, takes a lot of work, and sometimes, the people we love the most will disappoint us in ways that are both simultaneously shocking and clichéd.

Author’s Note: When I was growing up, secrecy and privacy reigned supreme in families; now, the cultural norm seems to be shifting rapidly toward total disclosure. When it comes to infidelity and kids, I wonder what that will mean for everyone involved. Less shame and isolation, perhaps, but also the potential for an unhealthy dose of TMI. Presumably, it’ll be good for today’s children that we’re more honest than previous generations of parents, but I hope it’s something my kids won’t have personal experience with.

Meagan Francis has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere. Her website is thehappiestmom.com.

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Hansel and Regrettal

Hansel and Regrettal

By Sara Levine

winter2010_levineOne day the old witch hobbled out of her gingerbread house and found a boy and girl standing at the lollipop gate, staring at the colored icing and the peppermint candies studding the window shutters. Hungry and dirty, they’d no doubt been wandering in the woods for days. Good, the witch thought, who was half-starved herself. She gave them a moment to take in her appearance: the red eyes, the bulbous nose, the hump. The girl shrunk a little. The boy’s attention was fixed on the house.

“What’s it made of?” he asked.

“Sugar and spice and everything nice,” she answered.

“Real sugar?” the girl replied. “Or corn syrup?”

“Children, you must be starving! Break off a piece of the window!”

But the children stood with their hands in their pockets.

“Pry a shingle from the roof,” she said. “Do you like marzipan?”

They shook their heads. They’d never tried it.

“Poor children! Come in, come in.”

She sat them down at her table and offered them pancakes, caramel apples, jelly doughnuts. They wouldn’t touch any of it. This one was bad for the heart, they explained; that was packed with calories; those looked good but weren’t what their stepmother called “growing food.”

“Do you eat this food yourself, Old Mother?” Gretel asked, her forehead creased with worry, as the witch brought out a nutmeg maple cream pie.

“Not very much,” she answered, thinking of the tender morsels children made. “But I make sweets for the children who pass through the forest.”

“They must have terrible teeth,” Hansel said.

Prig! thought the witch. Probably their muscles had been subjected to long, vigorous exercise, and their meat would be stringy and tough.

“My little ones, you’ve got to eat something.”

The children looked doubtfully around the cottage. “Do you have any purslane?” Hansel asked at last.

Oh, to hell with fattening them. She’d eat them as they were. You take what comes to you; you appreciate; you don’t complain.

“Children, go and sit on the bread paddle,” she said, “and tell me if the oven feels hot enough to put the bread in.”

They looked at her warily. “We never eat white flour,” the girl said. “It has a higher glycemic index…”

“All I’ve offered, and you won’t help me with one little chore?” the witch said.

“But we don’t know a thing about ovens,” Gretel said. “When you heat food over 116 degrees, you lose the nutrient value.”

“Actually,” Hansel said, “enzymes degrade at a temperature of 106 degrees. That’s why Stepmother prefers raw food.”

The witch rolled her eyes up to the meringue-covered ceiling. These awful, difficult children! She could bake them for an hour, and they’d still be tough.

“Listen,” she said, “if you round the house and head west you will come to a patch of blueberry bushes you can eat from.”

The children stood, their faces flooded with relief. They thanked the old woman and bounded out the cottage door.

Goodbye, tainted meat, the witch thought. Only after she closed her graham cracker door did she remember the ogre. His house was a mile from the berry patch, and he loved nothing more than to gobble up wandering children. He’d been a good neighbor these last three or four hundred years. Should she warn him about the meat? The witch had hobbled as far as the gumdrop doormat when she stopped herself. Probably she was over-reacting.

Brain, Child (Winter 2010)

Sara Levine is the author of the novel Treasure Island!!! and the short story collection Short Dark Oracles. You can read more about her at sara-levine.com.

Little Snakes: By Catherine Newman

Little Snakes: By Catherine Newman

Little Snakes.jpg“Hibernaculum,” Birdy says again, patiently, after I shake my head at the unrecognized word. “It’s a place where all the snakes are waking up.” All the snakes is not a phrase I’m in love with. Especially followed by waking up. I must shudder visibly, because Birdy laughs. “I know!” she says, and pats me. “It sounds so terrible! I thought the same thing. And it is. But it’s amazing.”

Because this hibernaculum, to which a teacher has taken my daughter’s class, is within walking distance of our house, Birdy, her older brother Ben, their father, and I set off through the woods. It’s early spring, some scraps of ground thawing darkly, some still patchy with ice. We will experience this cold-blooded waking nightmare ourselves in just a minute—but still we pepper ten-year-old Birdy with questions. How many snakes are there? “Fifteen?” she says, making a little más-o-menos sign with her hand. “Maybe fifty? I’m not so great at estimating.” What are they doing? She shrugs. “Just, kind of, being snakes.”

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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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Guilt Trip Into the Woods

Guilt Trip Into the Woods

By Martha Nichols

spring2010_nicholsLast summer, my husband and I wrestled with where to take our seven-year-old son for vacation: Someplace wild and natural? Or a few days in New York City? Part of me longed to spend a week at the beach; we could turn off the computers, we could spend all day outside, we could commune with nature like poets or saints, or at least wiggle free of the media snake for a few hours. It would be good for our son, Nick, I told myself dutifully, even if I knew he’d rather listen to my iPod.

The Big Apple won out. We arrived in New York on a warm July day and headed straight to Times Square after dinner. Staring up at the ten-story movie ads, scrolling numbers, and cartoon characters, Nick danced as if the sidewalk were on fire. He gazed in wonder, like all the other tourists, many sitting in lawn chairs on one closed section of Broadway. He begged to go back to Times Square every night, and we did. My husband and I loved it, too, and more surprisingly, we loved our son’s response.

Maybe I was wrong to choose the asphalt jungle over the forest primeval. I’d always assumed that nature was better for my child than anything else. Oceans: beautiful, good. Giant M&M’s leaping on flat-panel displays: ugly, evil. But after witnessing Nick’s delight in Times Square, I began to feel not so much wrong as barraged by a dire message at every turn: Your child is being damaged by a lack of contact with nature. If you don’t fix it now, he will turn fat and fearful; he’ll be rudderless, adrift in a sea of enervating boredom.

My son is not a glassy-eyed blob tethered to a screen. He’s an enthusiastic dynamo, and his love of manga and anime and digital cameras and computer games and PowerPoint to create his own stories has made me question if nature has become his generation’s version of castor oil. Is it really true that Nick and all other children are in a state of natural crisis? Or is this just another round of Oldsters versus Youngsters, with boomer oldsters re-claiming a familiar refrain? These kids today are going to hell in a hand basket.

*   *   * 

Front and center in the movement to call kids back to nature is a book by journalist Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. Published in 2005, it was followed by an expanded paperback edition in 2008. That same year Louv received the Audubon Medal for, in the words of the National Audubon Society’s website, “sounding the alarm about the health and societal costs of children’s isolation from the natural world.” Louv is now the chairman of the Children & Nature Network, an organization that he co-founded in 2006 and which was sparked by his book. The nonprofit based in Santa Fe, with its “news service and portal” website, is devoted to promoting nature programs around the country and kicky slogans like “No Child Left Inside.”

Louv’s manifesto is deceptively calm in its early sections, almost sad, as if he knows he needs to reel in skeptics like me. In it, he argues that children are rapidly losing the free-roaming experience of outdoor play. Kids now know a lot about global warming, but few can name what birds they see in their own backyards. They’d rather stay inside, watching nature on TV, and for Louv, that’s a disaster.

His crusade is far from a lonely one. Since the publication of Last Child in the Woods, a mini-boomlet of nature activity books has appeared, including I Love Dirt!, Nature’s Playground, and The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids. The Children & Nature Network promotes everything from the Children in Nature Action Plan created by the National Park Service to learning gardens in Buffalo schools. (According to the website, “C&NN has identified over sixty regions that have either launched or are assembling grassroots campaigns to connect children with nature.”) Each book and campaign and after-school program urges parents to expose their kids to the great outdoors; each tap-taps away, creating yet another anxious drumbeat, hectoring us about what we’re doing wrong.

No parent believes kids should sit in front of a computer 24/7.  But I can’t help but feel irked by the hyperbole in statements like, “To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen.” And I object strongly to the assumptions behind Louv’s message. As a feminist and white adoptive mom of an Asian son, I’m disturbed by the belief that what’s “natural” is always best for kids. This feels like ’60s nostalgia—the kind that wishes women’s liberation and the Internet hadn’t ever come along to mess things up.

In addition, the back-to-nature movement demonizes its perceived enemy—the siren song of high-tech leisure options—to an unrealistic degree. A number of studies funded since 2006 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have found that children’s involvement with digital media is not just passive and addictive. Whether they’re creating photo collages and videos, hip-hop mixes, blogging their own stories, or modifying the rules of video games, kids can become empowered creators online. They’re not only sexting and aping celebrities.

The more I examine the work of Louv and his brethren, the less I’m persuaded that when boomers share stories of magical childhood times in a tree, “their cultural, political, and religious walls come tumbling down” as he claims. I just don’t believe that wonder can be reduced to one essential experience any more than motherhood can. And perhaps most disturbing for environmentalist moms and dads, I’m discovering that the nature movement—green and forward-thinking as it appears at first blush—looks an awful lot like a conservative message cloaked with some liberal fig leaves.

*   *   *

Last Child in the Woods isn’t telling a new story, but at the beat-me-whip-me level it’s an undeniably compelling one. Louv covers plenty of well-documented bad news, including the rise in childhood obesity, ADHD diagnoses, and electronic addiction.

Like most of my parent peers, I feel guilty—a lot. Every morning, when there’s barely enough caffeine in my system to cope, NPR seems to pummel me with stories about why our multi-tasking, Internet-chained pace isn’t good for kids.

“Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a study released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in January, presents an impressive array of data to demonstrate just how media-immersed children have become. Most shocking finding: Kids consume media an average of seven hours and thirty-eight minutes a day, “almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day,” writes Victoria Rideout and her co-authors, “except that young people use media seven days a week instead of five.”

Whether nature is the only solution is the question.

I’m certainly on board when Louv says we need to teach children to be responsible stewards of the Earth because of the daunting environmental issues before us. He takes some of his best shots at gray-haired groups like the Sierra Club that until recently have done little to reach out to children, assuming kids are “extraneous to the serious adult work of saving the world.” He’s sharply critical of condo associations and other planned communities that don’t allow kids to stray from manicured paths or playgrounds, let alone construct tree houses in “off-limits” areas. Louv charts how suburban open space has both shrunk and become overly protected—what he calls “The Criminalization of Natural Play.” A 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture report predicts that from 1982 to 2022, for example, forest acreage will decline by fifty percent.

Louv, a former columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, presents reams of research. He throws in caveats, too. “Like many parents,” he admits on page one, “I do tend to romanticize my own childhood.” Then comes the hook: “Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.”

His simplest arguments for how to address this “radical change” in nature awareness are the most profound. Kids don’t need to explore pristine wilderness; big cities include plenty of living things, too. He says children are often more captivated by “the mysteries of the ravine at the end of the cul de sac” than by a trip to the Grand Canyon. Louv’s “special place” as a child “was a ditch,” he writes, “dark with mystery, lined with grapevine swings, elms, and tangled bramble.”

It’s an appealing vision, one that doesn’t require adult direction or expensive programs. Louv’s personal stories are evocative, and I’m convinced his two sons benefited from fishing with their dad or scrabbling up desert canyons. But his tone can quickly shift to the annoyingly proscriptive. He’s got a mountain range of advice for parents:

Encourage your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or pesticide-free garden…. Together, keep a journal; encourage your child to describe, in words and pictures, that tattered bumblebee staggering across autumn leaves…. Later, at home, she can color the drawings and press a flower between the pages….

It sounds so orderly, so PC (don’t forget that “pesticide-free garden” for bringing the bugs to your kids rather than one of those dubious ditches from the 1950s). It’s like a lavishly illustrated picture book marketed to parents rather than kids: Mom and toddler study leaves together or share a hot chocolate after exploring the woods.

The thing is, I’m his audience. I, too, climbed the big pine tree in our backyard when I was a kid; my favorite book for years was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. I loved our late-night family trips across the Mojave Desert, Dad still worried our clunker Dodge would overheat, me in my undies, whipped by hot wind through the open windows. Initially I was drawn to Louv’s call for immersion in the natural world. Yet long before I finished Last Child in the Woods, I wanted to chuck it across the room.

*   *   *

When I think about what my son would do with such nature activities, I have to laugh. He’s never been one to draw daisies in a journal if I suggest it. Instead he’d sketch a jousting tournament or a new comic strip, no matter how much I burble about the veins of a leaf. Or he’d rip the leaf apart—which for Louv might be just the ticket for a young naturalist—except that what fascinates Nick is the landscape inside his own head.

Of course some children enjoy pressing flowers. My son’s idiosyncrasies only illustrate that kids are passionate about a variety of things. But as with so many journalistic trend stories, Louv employs a largely anecdotal approach to make a bigger claim: that all children need nature—and if they don’t get the version he prescribes, they will be less joyful and alive.

Louv and fellow believers like Todd Christopher, author of The Green Hour, present themselves as valiant nature warriors facing a horde of technology Visigoths. What’s needed is nothing less than a new movement “to heal the separation of childhood and nature,” as Christopher writes in his preface. His idea is that families should spend at least one hour a day outside. On his own website, Christopher describes himself as co-founder of the National Wildlife Federation’s Green Hour campaign and its former director of online media (The Green Hour got its start as a website). The National Wildlife Federation is also home to magazines like Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard.

The Green Hour is an attractively designed activity book stocked with nature facts. The activities themselves—make your own bird feeder, observe the clouds—are nothing new. What is new is the polemical introduction. The intended audience seems to be hypothetical moms who’ve only seen trees on TV. The activity instructions are written for both parents and children, the assumption being that adults should participate and shepherd things along. Yet the language has a grade-school science rah-rah tone. Lines like “Did You Know? Green leaves get their color from a pigment called chlorophyll” feel patronizing to me.

The Green Hour, like Last Child in the Woods, manages to up the anxiety level for parents while exhorting us to get over our fears of poison ivy and ticks. In “the world that flashes by on the screen of a television, computer, or video game,” Christopher writes, “the real danger … lies in how quickly children can be seduced into passivity and inactivity, their senses bombarded, overwhelmed, and ultimately diminished. Most sadly, it is the sense of wonder that seems to be first to go.”

Based on the Kaiser studies, it’s clear that children are immersed in media at record rates. But the fear this engenders in baby boomer breasts and the impassioned attacks it inspires go unexamined by Christopher or Louv. It’s just as easy to become a worried, hovering parent who nags kids to enjoy nature as it is to be the stereotypical achievement-oriented “indoor” helicopter. The only difference is the focus.

Parents must communicate their own joy and enthusiasm about nature to children, Louv maintains. To calm us competitive types, he argues against perfectionism in teaching nature to kids. A fellow parent, he’s even sympathetic: “Parents already feel besieged by the difficulty of balancing work and family life. Understandably, they may resist the idea of adding any to-dos to their long list of chores.”

Yet some parents simply may not enjoy camping or mucking in the garden or a “green hour.” Maybe we’re into updating our status lines with five hundred digital friends. Bookworms like me can read nature books to our kids (another Louv-approved activity), but the message here is that if you don’t like such nature-centric activities, you’d better ask yourself why and get religion.

“[T]he generations do not go to nature to find safety or justice,” Louv writes breathlessly at one point. “They go to find beauty.” I read this as an aesthetic choice, not an intrinsic truth. Many early religions were undoubtedly inspired by the natural elements at their wildest, and pulpits and temples around the world link nature with spiritual transcendence. But while awe of nature may go back to our ancestors in caves, “nature” can mean a lot of different things to different people, especially in the twenty-first century. Sure, nature is basic to all humans—and yet cities are basic to humans, too, along with our linguistic abilities and works of art.

*   *   *

The underlying conservatism of nature believers means they’re so set against technology they often can’t see how to use it to promote their cause. This inevitably pits the generations against each other. Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation, who directs its program on media and health, emphasizes that Kaiser is “simply documenting” media use by children, not pronouncing against it. On the positive side, she told me in a recent interview, “Kids just love media. It’s entertaining; it’s fun; it’s relaxing; it’s soothing. It can expose kids to parts of the world and society that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”

Rideout’s tone is cautious rather than apocalyptic. “Media use can just kind of add up without you really noticing it,” she notes, just like a parent who has been there. The Kaiser study indicates that when parents put a few rules in place, media consumption by kids goes way down. Children with no televisions in their bedrooms watch much less TV, for instance. Media is also defined very broadly by the Kaiser researchers as everything from music and books to video games and TV, which puts the findings in a less grim light.

The point is that parents can influence their children’s choices without rejecting all the media goodies. But nature believers make almost no concessions to technology. They employ the abstinence language of other conservative parenting movements, assuming that saying no is the way to go, and if you don’t say no, your children will be lost forever in the virtual storm. They end up conjuring the same old bogey people: Those kids are out of control! Do you know where your child is tonight? Father knows best.

In some ways, it’s ironic that The Green Hour began on the Web. The book includes only the briefest mentions of using media devices to record nature sounds or a GPS system to play a tracking game. Christopher relegates nature-related websites to supplemental source boxes, separate from his activity text. Even Louv is more enthusiastic about kids using a digital camera to record their experiences outside.

Yet there are positive ways to frame the impact of media on contemporary family life. “In con­trast to the generational tensions that are so often emphasized in the popular media, families do come together around new media to share media and knowledge, play together, and stay involved in each other’s lives,” writes cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito and her co-authors in the white paper “Living and Learning with New Media.” The paper summarizes the findings of the MacArthur-funded Digital Youth Project based on interviews, questionnaires, and observations of hundreds of children and teens. The project findings also appear in their 2009 MIT Press book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out.

Nature evangelists tend to pooh-pooh such alternate interpretations. Rather than acknowledging that there are multiple answers to problems like childhood obesity and boredom, Louv and others view nature as the best solution to a vast array of social ills. Their alarmist language is a signal that the real message is about parental control instead of engaging children on their own terms. A nature journal, for example, might be more enticing if kids could collage pictures and distribute their writing online. Of course that may not sound like the unstructured, free-roaming play Louv holds so dear. But neither do the nature activities in books like The Green Hour. Kids should roam freely, these writers seem to say, but only in parent-approved natural landscapes.

Back-to-nature claims are most suspect when they promote fear of where children go in their heads—or what they’re learning—while immersed in new media. That’s not to say parents should shrug their shoulders at Internet porn. But many digitally inclined educators claim we’ve reached a “profound moment” in the use of media by both children and adults, given that almost anyone can go to a public-library computer to self-publish and distribute content online. Though only a “teeny fraction” of kids are actually doing creative work with media, Rideout notes, “When kids take capabilities into their own hands, it’s thrilling to see the potential.”

Ito’s youthful hangers, messers, and geeks often create their own virtual worlds, be they landscapes with kid-oriented cartoons or new music that few parents can tolerate. Yet such virtual worlds don’t necessarily cause glazed eyeballs, passivity, and an inability to connect with others. Ito describes a case study of anime “fansubbers” who insert English and other subtitles into Japanese cartoons and distribute them online, working solely for the satisfaction it brings to millions of anime fans around the world.

Learning by trial and error is another skill touted as a special benefit of kids playing in the great outdoors. It’s not a stretch, however, to think such tinkering can involve building a backyard fort or fiddling with HTML code. According to Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, gaming and technological expertise in general often give children a sense that “I can solve problems my parents can’t solve—I’m teaching adults how to do things.” Such “self-direction” threatens adult authority; parents back off for the wrong reasons, freaked by the technology. But as Lenhart points out, kids get to fail constructively with video games in ways they aren’t allowed to do in school.

As far back as 1993, David Sobel, a nature advocate and education researcher, had his finger on why kids need retreats away from prying adult eyes. In Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood, Sobel writes that the children in his study “expressed a need for privacy, independence, and self-sufficiency. Through making their own places, children start to carve out a place for themselves in the world.”

It’s possible these special places today are online tree houses, with far more room for messing around than a physical nook. I’d even venture that children may roam through virtual landscapes for the same reasons we used to spend all day outside away from mom and dad, taking bikes down a hill we called “Dead Man’s Curve.”

*   *   *

Nature believers go beyond saying that immersion in nature will add richness to children’s lives; they also argue that it can be uniquely therapeutic. While it may seem intuitively obvious that kids who play outside are less obese, there’s little hard data to back up claims that nature in itself melts off pounds. Certainly playing outside can raise a child’s physical activity level, give kids more free time, and cut down on TV watching. But whether you need nature to get more exercise or free time is not at all clear.

One especially suspect pseudo-scientific explanation pops up in The Green Hour. In a “Did You Know?” box, Christopher writes, “The negatively charged hydrogen ions in sea spray may be to thank for the happy, relaxed feeling we get at the seashore. Those ions neutralize harmful free radicals in our bodies and help to stabilize our levels of serotonin—a brain chemical associated with sleep and mood.” His source? An article in the Daily Telegraph, a conservative English newspaper, which doesn’t attribute any research for this nugget. Flinging around words like “serotonin” makes it sound valid. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s snake oil. Some people also believe the thundering waters of Niagara Falls increase one’s libido—so should we keep our underage children out of earshot?

Louv, a more critical synthesizer of research, acknowledges that to date there’s not much empirical evidence for the benefits of nature to children. (To be fair, there isn’t much evidence for technology’s impact on children’s lives, either.) When it comes to nature’s therapeutic effect on kids with ADHD, for example, he notes that the research “is in its infancy, and easily challenged.” Yet that doesn’t stop him from talking about “Nature’s Ritalin” or coining the phrase “nature-deficit disorder.”

The most suggestive studies of nature’s impact on attention in children that Louv cites come from the University of Illinois’s Human-Environment Research Laboratory. In a 2001 study, Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan turned up definite correlations between the time ADD kids spend doing “green activities” and more focused attention afterwards. Yet this study was based on 96 questionnaires filled out by parents, not direct observations of kids by researchers.

In another study, Taylor and her colleagues found that the amount of greenery inner-city Chicago girls can see from their windows makes them more self-disciplined and able to delay gratification longer. (They didn’t find a similar link between green views and self-discipline in boys.) After a two-sentence gloss of the findings, Louv leaps to a more sweeping claim, stating that even such minimal exposure to nature will help a girl “do better in school, handle peer pressure, and avoid dangerous, unhealthy, or problem behaviors.”

Pundits do this all the time, of course, highlighting whatever fits the story. That doesn’t mean Louv’s advocacy is necessarily a cynical manipulation. He clearly cares about his subject. But the problem in political terms is that scarce dollars for enrichment programs flow to topics that get the most hype.

“[T]his ‘get them out to the woods’ movement is at least a century old,” writes Patrick Boyle, editor of Youth Today, in recent e-mail correspondence with me. “[O]rganizations … have been trying to get urban kids out of cities for their physical and mental health for ages. It was the premise of the Boy Scouts of America. It was also a main idea behind the National Youth Administration started by FDR. … There has always been an assumption that this is a good thing, and lots of anecdotes from adults about how much they valued such time as kids. You’d have a hard time measuring the impact of such a thing.”

As Youth Today, a national trade paper about youth services, has been documenting for years, assessing the long-term benefits of any program is dicey. And when Louv praises recent projects like IslandWood in Washington state’s Puget Sound, he doesn’t seem to recognize that a glitzy “outdoor learning center,” underwritten by software magnates, competes for dollars with other youth agencies.

Many would make a case that what kids today need—particularly at-risk kids—is caring adults, whether they’re looking at lizards together, acting in a play, taping videos of their neighborhood, or playing basketball. In fact, there is a growing body of research to support the importance of mentorship through organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters. Martial arts schools also claim some of the same benefits for children as Louv ascribes to nature: self-confidence, self-discipline, a quiet mind. For Louv, however, nature supports all things good, be it finger-painting or meditation.

*   *   *

There’s no question that modern children have been affected by the lack of open space for play, notes Steven Mintz in Huck’s Raft (2004), a history of childhood in America from colonial times to the present. But Mintz also makes clear that the days of yore weren’t always golden. He opens by contrasting nostalgic notions of Huckleberry Finn dawdling down the Mississippi with author Mark Twain’s “real-life mid-nineteenth-century Hannibal,” which “was anything but a haven of stability and security. It was a place where a quarter of the children died before their first birthday, half before their twenty-first.” Subversive Huck, arguably an icon for natural living with dirty hands, isn’t soothed by nature. As Mintz notes, this fictional boy has been likened by critics to an abused child or at-risk youth; he’s even been called an ADHD sufferer.

Over the course of our country’s history, Mintz says, the biggest shift for children has been “a marked increase in diversity.” That includes an unmatched level of affluence for some, yet a dramatic increase in childhood poverty for others. One of the main myths Mintz debunks “is that childhood is the same for all children, a status transcending class, ethnicity, and gender. In fact, every aspect of childhood is shaped by class,” he writes. This is a far more nuanced interpretation of what’s happening to kids, and the changes may not be all bad.

Today’s nature evangelists like Louv make token nods to economic and cultural differences but mainly in service of helping the underprivileged get the nature faith. Louv knocks the trend toward including “race-relations and other cultural/political programs at camps.” He writes, “These are important discussions in a democracy, but childhood is short.”

Not that short.

Nowhere does the nature faith reveal its retro foundations more than in its avoidance of debates about social change. You could say this is just a matter of values or funding priorities. Nature versus Multiculturalism. But what I find insidious about eco-child talk is its liberal, inclusive guise. Extolling Nature with a capital N reinforces a largely white, privileged value system that doesn’t emphasize kids’ connecting with other people. It effectively turns a whole lot of social and political inequalities invisible.

To believe that nature is an elemental truth is to deny that love can jump across biological or tribal boundaries—that adoptive families, for example, form bonds that are just as natural as those made by sperm and egg. It’s to ignore how mutable identity is for an Asian adoptee like my son or for teens creating MySpace profiles or for immigrant children who exist in different worlds at home and at school. If you follow this thread under the rational-sounding surface of Last Child in the Woods, we’re right back to real women birthin’ babies and the rest of us female workaholics being the reason for “the end of natural experience,” as Louv puts it.

When it comes to gender, there are glaring omissions in Last Child in the Woods. Mintz and countless other social commentators have remarked on the march of women into the work force since the 1970s. Yet in Last Child in the Woods, there’s not one mention of the women’s movement. Louv always refers to “parents.” At times, he mentions two working parents or single parents, but rarely does “mother” appear except in “Mother Nature.”

In a book that’s all about children, this is a telling gap. The particular challenges facing working moms have been excised. It may seem politically correct not to blame women for the loss of those relaxed and playful days of old. But in not naming this social trend and its legacy, Louv skirts a forthright discussion of why family lifestyles have changed. He would never say that working mothers should ditch feminist goals and return home for the sake of their kids. But as with every so-called contemporary parenting crisis, the usual suspects are left holding the bag.

Take stranger danger. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” Louv exhorts. “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature.”

Fear, worry, hovering—when these labels are leveled at “parents,” they’re not very subtle code for female. Leaving aside the question of whether little girls and boys felt the same degree of freedom in the ’50s and ’60s, how we’re supposed to stop feeling anxious when young children are out on their own is never really explained.

For parents who need more time with children to spur them towards nature, Louv offers this bromide: “Sympathetic employers can help.” Right. Then he adds, in an almost offhand way, that some parents opt to stay at home to help their kids, “either with home businesses or in the traditional stay-at-home role.” Again, just who those parents are, and whether they have the economic means to live by a canyon or near the woods or even want a suburban existence that implies a long commute, remains unexplored.

Any form of intensive-parenting advice—and Last Child in the Woods is as intensive as it gets—comes down to a lot of work on the part of adults. These days, both moms and dads are putting in the hours. But ignoring the fact that women do the majority of childcare, and by extension much of the staring at stars and nature journaling, doesn’t make the inequity go away. And praising the benefits of kids’ roaming outside on their own yet shaking a fearful finger at the virtual worlds those kids might also want to explore strikes me as one whopping contradiction.

*   *   *

“Girls have really taken to opportunities to being creative online,” says Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center. She and other observers note that teens are energized by finding an audience online without adult gatekeepers. “It’s a really powerful incentive to create,” Lenhart says, “to have their words heard in a public space.”

“I don’t think that the Internet is such an evil it needs to be doled out in tiny bites,” she adds. “We need to be careful about expecting children to be just like we were. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad.”

For Louv, though, childhood is broken and needs to be fixed. Nature is bedrock reality, our “biophilia” is hard-wired, and “the child in nature is an endangered species.” The societies we construct are chump change compared to Mother Earth. Louv quotes one oceanographer as saying, “Reality is the final authority; reality is what’s going on out there, not what’s in your mind or on your computer screen.”

For me, a ’70s girl who fantasized about Paris and London, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and gender-bending, reality in this reductive sense was never the final authority. As a kid, I spent plenty of time wandering the California hills above my suburban tract. But my brother and I also holed up at home on many summer afternoons, taping our own science-fiction radio show. The script included immortal lines like “We are the Phabians from the Planet Phabia! Third planet from our star!”

Louv would nod his head in earnest approbation; we were indulging in unstructured play. But I think he’d also say the hills got our creative juices flowing, when in reality we were more influenced by Star Trek re-runs and David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

In my case, reading The Lord of the Rings was a signal event, too, one I remember far more vividly than camping trips. Louv also extols J.R.R. Tolkien’s Rings saga; he rightly notes that Tolkien’s vision was driven by the devastation of two world wars and the Oxford don’s mourning for the disappearing English countryside. Yet for Louv, the trilogy’s main value is in its nature descriptions.

Personally, I never cared much about the Hobbits or their simple way of life. It was the epic battle between good and evil, that very small hero walking right up the slopes of Mount Doom. It was the immortal Elves I loved; yes, they lived in magical trees or other super-saturated natural landscapes, but these were the imaginary realms of Maxfield Parrish and the Pre-Raphaelites, not of John Muir or Foxfire Book hippies.

*   *   *

There’s nothing like an actual living, breathing child to bring a parent up short, to turn what seems to be the best advice in the world into mush. Standing in Times Square that warm July night, I knew my city mouse was thrilled by life.

I see many good reasons for worrying about pollution, shrinking wilderness areas, and corporate control of media. But the back-to-nature movement, like all parenting movements, has political and social ramifications. Whether conservatives are wearing pinstripes or all-natural fabrics, the bottom line is that they don’t want the world to change. The proof is in the way they dismiss anyone with a different take, especially the next generation of storytellers, those darn kids who aren’t interested in describing their parents’ world.

I don’t believe children need nature more than all the other things we’re supposed to be giving them. It’s not that I think we should start trashing the nearest national park with our SUVs. I remain an ardent environmentalist, hiker, and birder. Yet my own romance with nature does not mean my son needs to feel the same attachment—or that a different attitude will doom him and his entire postmodern generation.

It’s not an either-or proposition: nature versus technology; country versus city. You can have both landscapes in your life and go everywhere your imagination leads. Nature is certainly one road to transcendence, and it can be a powerful tonic. Take, for instance, the opening lines of an essay, “The Sense of Wonder,” by pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson:

One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in the rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy—he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me.

Her lovely essay, which first appeared in a women’s magazine in 1956, underscores in a few paragraphs what Louv takes almost four hundred pages to argue. Carson’s main point is that adults can renew their own joy by observing a child in action. “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children,” she writes, “I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life….”

Stoking this wonder, whether inspired by bright city lights or the pounding surf, really does seem the greatest gift we give our children. Nature isn’t the only source of wonder: We could talk about the connections children make with other people, whether by blood or the mysterious meshing of shared passions. We could talk about why exploring great cities can induce a sense of wonder, too.

In Times Square, what attracted Nick most were the street artists who drew caricatures. All those we saw were Asian, and he ran from one to the next, watching carefully when one formed a whole face by starting with the nose. He sat for a drawing of himself, amazed that anybody could capture him in just a few lines.

Although I haven’t learned more about nature since the arrival of Nick, his wonder at the most unexpected things has sparked me. We are both talkers. We love our own ideas; we like to flail at the conventional wisdom. Here is my Asian child, not born of my body, his dark eyes taking in ninja cartoons and clouds scudding across the Halloween moon with equal awe. With my blue eyes, there’s nothing natural about how we came together. But I’m awed by what he’s found.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: Nick has just turned eight, and I confess I sometimes worry about him being swallowed by the media maw. I’m worried about my own digital immersion, too. I blog away, he itches to get on the computer, my husband succumbs, and we all try to find some screen-time balance. Last night Nick asked if I knew what a Webkinz was. “Yes,” I answered cautiously. “I’m designing a website,” he said next. I knew this was a fantasy, but I played along. It would have “games and stuff,” he added when Annoying Mom pushed. But more than that, Nick and a friend had been inspired by the stuffed animals they’d sewn in their after-school program. “We decided to call them Stichkinz,” my son said.

Am I wrong for finding this clever? A handmade toy facsimile of a tiger (without a tail) rethought as a web creation? I’ve never been very literal-minded. Before dinner, sometimes we hurl blankets at each other like the anime characters who “bend” water and earth in The Last Airbender. It’s our family version of a green hour.

Martha Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization based in Boston. She also teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School. Her son is now twelve and obsessed with Magic: The Gathering and first-person shooters, although he consents to mountain climbing on occasion.

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Glass Half Full

Glass Half Full

By Katy Read

From Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

fall2011_read“We Get It, You Hate Your Kids,” snapped Jezebel, an online pop-culture blog for women, last January. The headline’s sharp tone was startling—somewhat out of character for the staunchly feminist site that often defends women expressing unconventional or unpopular views.

Not, apparently, if they’re negative views about motherhood.

“It seems like nowadays you can’t open a magazine without someone smugly declaring what a letdown parenthood is,” writes Jezebel‘s Sadie Stein.

The post was in response to a London Daily Mail essay in which a writer, frustrated by her difficult three-year-old, confesses (in a tone more guilty than smug) to occasional flashes of dislike for the boy. To Stein, this was merely the latest of “a regular bonanza of reluctant fathers (and) discontented moms.” Specifically, she cites Ayelet Waldman’s 2009 memoir Bad Mother and “every parent on TV, from Modern Family to Real Housewives.”

Enough already, Stein writes.

“[D]oes anyone think parenthood is all roses and sunshine? As someone planning on having kids soon, I feel far more aware of the inconveniences, sacrifices and indignities than the bliss.”

Stein’s annoyance with disgruntled parents appears widely shared. Criticism, especially of mothers who complain, comes not just from traditionalists but from progressives and feminists—that is, people who might normally be expected to support women frustrated with their roles.

“Why are Moms Such a Bummer?” asked Hanna Rosin of Double X, a women’s blog on the left-leaning website Slate, in 2009. Rosin pointed, again, to the example of Waldman’s book, comparing it unfavorably to a more lighthearted memoir by a dad.

“You and I both know that parenting has its joys and agonies, etc.,” Rosin wrote. “So why is it that in the public forum, it’s become routine for mothers, in particular, to self-flagellate?”

Or why, wondered Emily Matchar, can’t more modern mothers be like cheerful Mormons? In an essay on the also left-leaning Salon, Matchar describes herself as a “childless overeducated atheist feminist” who has become enthralled with blogs written by young Mormon mothers.

Unlike typical “mommy blogs,” which “make parenthood seem like a vale of judgment and anxiety, full of words like ‘guilt’ and ‘chaos,'” Matchar writes, upbeat Mormon blogs “help women like me envision a life in which marriage and motherhood could potentially be something other than a miserable, soul-destroying trap.”

Is it coincidence that actual motherhood is still in the future for both Stein and Matchar? In any event, Matchar’s essay struck a chord. Eighteen thousand readers recommended it on Facebook.

As if to counter this morass of motherly moodiness, a host of books have recently popped up to assure readers that, contrary to what they may have heard, raising children can be a pleasant experience.  They speak to working mothers (Cathy L. Greenberg and Barrett S. Avigdor’s What Happy Working Mothers Know: How New Findings in Positive Psychology Can Lead to a Healthy and Happy Work/Life Balance, from 2009) to at-home mothers (Rachel Campos-Duff’s Stay Home, Stay Happy: 10 Secrets to Loving At-Home Motherhood, also 2009) to mothers willing to call themselves housewives (Happy Housewives: I Was a Whining, Miserable, Desperate Housewife—But I Finally Snapped Out of It … You Can, Too! 2006), to mothers in general (Meagan Francis’ The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets to Enjoying Motherhood, published this year).

Written in a somewhat different vein, Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You’d Think (2011) has been getting media attention lately. Caplan argues that parents make their own job unnecessarily difficult. If they’d cut themselves some slack, he insists, raising kids would be more enjoyable—so much so that couples should consider having more children than they’d planned.

At the same time, however, other observers contend that it’s still rare and socially risky for mothers to admit any discontent. Laura Kemp, writer of the Daily Mail essay that triggered the Jezebel piece, presents it as a foray into forbidden territory.

“Among the mums I know, such fierce negative emotion is never spoken of,” she writes.

In last year’s The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood, psychiatrist Barbara Almond argues that maternal ambivalence—simultaneous feelings of love and hate for one’s own darling offspring—is quite normal. But it provokes such intense societal disapproval that it remains mostly stifled.

“The negative, or hating, side of maternal ambivalence is the crime ‘that dare not speak its name’ of our time,” Almond writes.

So which are we: A culture in which mothers hesitate to voice misgivings for fear of social reprisal? Or one so inundated with maternal kvetching that onlookers are understandably tired of it?

Either way, the question seems new. Not long ago, the public’s image of parenting must have appeared considerably simpler.

*   *   *

Shortly after my sons were born in the mid-1990s, I became aware that almost everything I heard, saw or read about being a mother failed to mention one important aspect of the experience: Sometimes, it sucks.

My family lived across the country from other relatives and friends with children (local friends, for various unconnected reasons, were mostly childless). With few nearby role models, I looked to pop culture as a guide to my new life stage. What I found was oddly discomfiting.

Everywhere I turned—books and movies, bumper stickers and TV commercials, celebrity interviews and mass-emailed inspirational stories—mothers and offspring appeared to glide through the world wearing beatific smiles and bathed in a pinkish, soft-focus glow. Mothers were generally seen shouldering their responsibilities gracefully, relishing their roles, free of self-doubt or resentment. Children were adorable angels. Caring for them was enjoyable and fulfilling. At worst, the occasional bout of misbehavior might provoke a flash of frustration or annoyance, quickly soothed with a soak in a Calgon bath or vented in Erma Bombeck-style wisecracks.

Huh? My sons were certainly adorable, but “angels” would be more than a stretch. Caring for them was lovely … er, sometimes. As for the other times, I tried to shrug them off with nonchalant Bombeckian humor, but privately the strains of caring for two high-energy, strong-willed, demanding beings often left me with frustration no bathtub would soothe, unless maybe it were filled with gin.

Hard as it is to believe now, the idea that motherhood was not always idyllic was rarely heard back then. As far as I could tell, motherly malaise was practically unknown.?Why couldn’t I achieve seamless contentment? Either something was wrong with me, something was wrong with my children, or I had stumbled into Stepford.

“What about Anne Lamott?” you may be wondering. Lamott’s Operating Instructions, a frank and funny 1993 memoir about her son’s first year, certainly acknowledges the darker side of mothering. Reading it might have gone a long way toward assuaging my insecurities. A friend even sent me a copy as a baby gift. But for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to opening it (too busy reading baby-care manuals, I suppose). Nor was I aware, at the time, of a few landmark scholarly books about the complexities of the maternal experience, including poet Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1976), psychologist Shari Turner’s The Myths of Motherhood (1994) and sociologist Sharon Hays’s The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996). These books didn’t get discussed on the playground benches, at least not the ones that I frequented.

My eventual savior was Rachel Cusk. Her A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (published in 2002 in the United States, 2001 in the UK) chronicles “the anarchy of nights, the fog of days” with her first baby. Dry and scathingly unsentimental, the British novelist eloquently captures the deep and complex love she feels for her daughter, but also frankly describes sleep deprivation, alienation from typical motherhood culture, a sense of entrapment, breast feeding that left her “gloomy as a cow.”

It was stark and unusual for its time, and some readers found A Life’s Work bleak. The New York Times reviewed it favorably, yet noted that as “a serious female writer,” Cusk had risked “career suicide” by writing a memoir about motherhood.

To me, the book was cause for celebration. Here was evidence that I wasn’t the only one experiencing contradictory feelings, some of which had seemed unacceptable.

Other mothers—and writers—must have noticed the dearth of three-dimensional portraits of motherhood and decided to do something about it. There began a slow but steady stream of memoir, fiction, journalism and cultural criticism about the demands of childcare itself, about mothers’ second-class social status, about mothers coping with shifting identity. They included Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It (1999). Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued (2001). Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It (2002). Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (2003). Susan Douglas’s and Meredith Michaels’s The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined All Women (2004). Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (2005).

These books are still relevant, insightful, and eye-opening. But it’s hard to convey from today’s vantage point how pioneering they felt back then, how refreshing their messages. Reading them, I could relate for the first time to bored 1960s housewives, setting aside their mops to flip through The Feminine Mystique. We shared some similar frustrations—unrealistic demands, glorified drudgery, culturally enforced conformity, social isolation—except that our focuses had shifted from spouses and households to children. As my foremothers felt socially compelled to pretend not to mind waxing floors or picking up their husbands’ strewn socks, so I felt required to pretend to enjoy playing with action figures on the floor with my six-year-old.

These new messages were heralded as breaking news. The New York Times in 2002 ran a story headlined “Admitting to Mixed Feelings about Motherhood.”

“After two decades in which boomers managed to make children the raison d’être not only of their lives but of the culture at large,” Elizabeth Hayt reported, “another version of motherhood is beginning to seep out, with some mothers speaking up—in the impassioned tones of those breaking a taboo—about the drudgery of child care, the isolation of the playground and their loss of identity.”

Beginning to seep out. Breaking a taboo. That’s how revolutionary complaints by mothers were considered less than a decade ago.

Hayt quotes feminist author Naomi Wolf: ”Motherhood is supposed to be this gauzy, pastel-painted, blissed-out state that has no depth or complexity. That is the socially acceptable picture in the mass market. But women have discovered that the cultural mythology surrounding motherhood has nothing to do with their lives. Women are hungry for the truth. They want to know they’re normal when they feel overwhelmed, lonely, isolated or ecstatic.”

Say it, sister! That’s exactly why I found those books so comforting.

But the books were not universally praised, even back then. Many saw them as exaggerated, whiny, self-absorbed, silly. Some critics dismissed the problems discussed, mostly by middle-class mothers, as trivial compared to those of women in more oppressive cultures or disadvantaged classes, as if no problem deserved mentioning if there was someone else with a worse one.

“[I]t is, like so many ‘problems’ of twenty-first-century life, a problem of not having enough problems,” wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in a 2004 New Yorker review of motherhood books.

Though more familiar these days, motherhood writing is not noticeably more welcome. The difference is that now, in addition to finding fault with individual books, critics complain about their multitude.

Even Rachel Cusk—my onetime hero, author of A Life’s Work—piled on in a 2009 interview. Asked what she thinks of the “slew of mommy memoirs” that followed her own book—once again, poor Ayelet Waldman’s book is dragged in as an example—Cusk resoundingly trashed them:

There’s definitely this strand of “I’m going to be really honest and say I don’t love my children” or “I’m incompetent,” ha ha ha. It’s an old form that repeats itself. I’m sure it’s dishonest in one way or another, although I can’t put my finger on why. People write—”I drank like a fish when I was breastfeeding” or “I didn’t sterilize the bottle,” and of course you know they did nothing of the sort.

There are people who are genuinely in crisis, who are alcoholics, say, and can’t cope with a small baby, or who are truly psychologically vulnerable and are a genuine threat to themselves or the baby. But that’s not who is writing the “bad mother” memoirs. When I wrote A Life’s Work I didn’t just set out to say every single thing or reveal my failures or flaws. I made very strict decisions about the kinds of things I would say so that they had a larger purpose, and got to something bigger, more universal. It doesn’t console anybody to know that Michael Chabon’s wife loves him more than her children [Waldman, who is married to esteemed novelist—and fatherhood memoirist—Chabon, notoriously confessed in a New York Times essay to loving him more than she does their children]. This kind of memoir writing is a toxic, and dishonest form of writing.

Why do you think these memoirs have proliferated?

I don’t know what to make of it. I remember a good writer, a literary person, wrote one of these and it made me so angry. It was so dishonest, and it’s exactly this lack of honesty that makes the culture of motherhood so treacherous to navigate.

Here I’d like to attempt an authorial analysis of Cusk’s vitriol, to try to explain what she means by sweepingly condemning an entire genre into which her own book could reasonably be considered to fall, why she fails to state any objective differences between her book and others, why the interviewer (again, it’s Slate’s Hanna Rosin, the writer who just a month earlier had wondered why mothers are “such a bummer”) doesn’t ask her to clarify.

I’d like to do this, but I can’t. Frankly, I’m mystified by the whole exchange.

One thing is clear, though: Women who write about negative aspects of motherhood open themselves to disapproval ranging far beyond the literary merits of their work. More than with any other nonfiction genre that comes to mind, critics tend to question the validity of the writers’ intentions, their sincerity, the appropriateness of their even expressing their views.

All of which would seem to both contradict and underscore psychiatrist Almond’s point. Over the past decade, maternal ambivalence has finally been daring to speak its name. In return, it frequently is told to get itself back into the closet.

*   *   *

Bryan Caplan does not slam motherhood memoirs in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kid. In fact, he gives no indication he’s aware of their existence. But he seems to have heard their message, at least in part.

If raising children was once seen as rewarding, in Caplan’s view it is now widely assumed by both mothers and fathers (as well as their still-childless counterparts) to constitute an endless treadmill of hard work, dirty diapers, and sleepless nights.

“When asked, ‘Why don’t you have as many kids as [Americans] used to?’ both men and women respond with groans,” writes Caplan, an economist at George Mason University. “To be brutally honest, we’re reluctant to have more children because we think that the pain outweighs the gain.”

Think again, Caplan cheerfully advises. While he doesn’t offer to abolish dirty diapers, he brings news he expects to even more comprehensively alleviate the toil of child rearing.  It’s this: Parents can’t really control what kind of people their children will become. All attempts to mold our kids one way or another are bound to be futile, he says, so don’t bother trying. We’re off the hook!

Caplan draws heavily on ideas that Judith Rich Harris presents in her breakthrough 1998 The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, a book Caplan credits with getting him to start “thinking seriously about parenting.” Harris is a former textbook author; like Caplan, she is not a professional child psychologist. That may have helped her think outside the box, since child psychologists (especially those who write books themselves) often have a vested interest in convincing parents that their actions are extremely important. But Harris found evidence that nature, not nurture, explains most family resemblance, a conclusion drawn from behavioral studies on twins and adoptees.

Twins studies isolate the effect of genes; studies of adoptees eliminate it. By doing so, they overwhelmingly indicate that parents’ practices have little to no effect on their offsprings’ eventual health, intelligence, happiness, success, personalities, or values. They challenge the familiar assumption, for example, that if you read to your child she’ll grow up to enjoy reading. In fact, if you like to read yourself, chances are she will, too. Or not. Either way, you don’t have much control.

Caplan fills more than a quarter of his book with support for this theory, detailing study after study. As a bonus, he offers statistics showing that parents need not fret excessively about their kids’ health and safety; childhood mortality rates have plummeted to a fraction of their 1950s levels.

If you can’t hope to mold your children to your liking, and they’re probably not going to die, Caplan argues, then you might as well sit back and enjoy yourself.

“This knowledge should inspire every parent,” Caplan writes. “Raise your children with love, control your temper, and enjoy family time. They’ll appreciate it when they’re children and fondly remember their happy home when they grow up.”

Oh, Bryan Caplan, if only it were that simple.

Let me first state that regarding nature and nurture, I’m completely in Caplan’s camp; with me, he’s preaching to a devoted member of a tiny choir. For years, I wanted to carry a copy of The Nurture Assumption around in my purse so that I could pull it out for anybody—from in-laws to fellow grocery-store patrons—who might question my own parenting approach. I have examined some of those twins and adoptee studies, interviewed scientists involved, written articles about their work. I also have been embroiled in numerous debates on the subject, attempting like Caplan to convince skeptics—i.e., almost everybody—who understandably bristle at the counterintuitive findings, widely perceived as implying that “parents don’t matter.”

Although Caplan presents his case adroitly and supports it with mountains of research evidence, experience tells me it’s an uphill battle. But I applaud him for making the effort, because if parents could relinquish the belief that they have both the power and responsibility to turn their children into brilliant students and model citizens, they’d shed a substantial chunk of the guilt and self-doubt that modern parenting typically entails.

Why do moms “self-flagellate”? Because they’ve been taught that kids pay a long-term price for their parents’ ordinary mistakes. They don’t. Because they think they’re to blame for their children’s flaws. They aren’t.

But guess what. Admitting you can’t control phenomena that nevertheless significantly color your emotional well-being and day-to-day life is not necessarily a ticket to relaxation. Even armed with twins studies and mortality stats, I have not experienced parenting as the carefree romp that Caplan promises.

Sure, much of it has been wonderful. However, not to get all whiny mother on you, raising children remains an often complicated, frustrating, and stress-inducing enterprise, involving many kinds of challenges.

These may include—to pick a random handful— financial strains, sibling rivalry, troublesome content in video games and other mass media, children with disabilities and disorders, children who break rules or laws, children with academic difficulties (even if you don’t hope to mold a star scholar, it’s hard to shrug off a report card dotted with D’s). And even if you understand that kids are safer than they were in the ’50s, just try going peacefully to sleep when your sixteen-year-old has the car, was supposed to have been home an hour ago, and isn’t answering his cell phone.

Caplan often mentions how much he fun he has as a parent. As of the book’s writing, he has twin babies and a seven-year-old. Cynical readers may wonder if he will still be this cheerful when the kids are teenagers.

And I couldn’t help noticing that you don’t hear much about Mrs. Caplan’s take on all this. The author does hint, at one point, that he and his wife aren’t always in total accord.

*   *   *

Although The Monster Within was published just last year, author and psychoanalyst Barbara Almond does not agree that complaints about motherhood have reached a cultural tipping point and have now become excessive, obvious, old hat.

On the contrary, she contends they’re still very much taboo.

“The concept of maternal ambivalence and its forbidden quality has been explored by various writers but still remains highly unacceptable in our culture,” she writes. “It is one of those societal problems that fill us with outrage and horror, even as some part of us secretly understands its normality.”

By “maternal ambivalence,” Almond means simultaneously loving and hating your child. Though that might sound shockingly aberrant, she assures readers—based on her clinical practice, her research and her own experiences as a mother—that it’s a normal emotional state, usually harmless, universal and pretty much unavoidable given that the legitimate needs of mothers and their children are often in direct conflict. You want five minutes alone in the bathroom; your three-year-old feels abandoned. You want to relax with a book; your nine-year-old needs posterboard for the science project due tomorrow. In fact, maternal ambivalence can actually serve constructive purposes, she says, leading mothers to closely examine their relationships with their children and helping children understand themselves as separate individuals (therapist talk, perhaps, for “Get your own damn posterboard.”).

But contemporary culture exacerbates normal ambivalence, Almond says, placing higher demands on mothers even as it dismantles the support system on which we used to rely. Modern mobility has geographically separated parents from relatives who once helped with child care; divorce generally leaves a larger burden on mothers.

Yet standards for adequate parenting have not relaxed—on the contrary, they’ve increased.

“[A]s the conditions of mothering become more difficult, more is expected from mothers, and mothers, in turn, expect more from themselves,” she writes. “Perfectionistic standards of child care in every area—feeding, sleep, play, emotional and intellectual development—prevail.”

No wonder mothers are ambivalent. But the biggest problem isn’t the ambivalence itself, in Almond’s view, it’s the guilt and shame that stem from society’s prohibitions against expressing it.

“I believe that that today’s expectations for good mothering have become so hard to live with, the standards so draconian, that maternal ambivalence has increased and at the same time has become more unacceptable to society as a whole.”

More unacceptable? Well, you wouldn’t know it, would you, given all those books and articles by disgruntled mothers? Or wait—does the fact that those books are often met with scorn and skepticism simply prove Almond’s point?

It’s tempting to see the backlash against parental complaint as some sort of cultural correction, to assume that the pendulum has culminated its decade-long swing in one direction and is now heaving back the other way.

But maybe it’s more accurate to say that both trends—the original backlash against Stepford mothers and now the backlash to that backlash—are happening simultaneously, feeding each other, continually bouncing off each other. Cultural constraints lead mothers to complain, which draws societal condemnation, which makes mothers feel even more stifled, which provokes further complaint … Even this article itself could be seen as complaining about complaining about complaining.

So maybe a more accurate metaphor is not a single giant pendulum but a Newton’s cradle, one of those mesmerizing desk toys from the 1970s. It consisted of multiple small pendulums, a row of metal balls dangling from separate strings in a frame, in which a swing and strike on one side causes a swing and strike on the other and back again. Get it started and the two sides clack back and forth, back and forth, feeding off each other’s energy, endlessly clacking away.

Author’s Note: If I were the conspiracy-theory type, I might imagine a sinister plot behind efforts to keep mothers from complaining. After all, mothers perform the lion’s share of unpaid housework and child care—and pay a steep economic price for doing so, on average making less money than fathers or childless people and suffering from a higher rate of poverty. What better way to keep mothers from rebelling against those circumstances than to discourage them from voicing any objections? It’s ingenious: convince women through cultural conditioning that mothers are blissfully content—or ought to be, anyway—and penalize those who contradict that image by lashing back with criticism dripping with contempt.

Luckily, I’m not a conspiracy nut. So of course I don’t seriously think that the writers and publications I quoted in this piece, whom I respect, are in cahoots with opponents of reforms that would make mothers’ lives more manageable (universal health insurance that would make part-time work more feasible, for example). Still, it’s worth asking why the reaction is so swift and harsh—why the outrage? where’s the threat? what deep, dark fears are being tapped?—when a mother dares to mention the empty half of the glass.

Katy Read’s essays have appeared in Salon, More, Real Simple, AARP The Magazine, Working Mother, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis with her two sons.

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Finding Mars

Finding Mars

BC_FA2013_Final_layoutBy Virginia Holman

Bad news usually came through the phone, so Marie was unprepared to receive it in the Walgreen’s, face to face with her daughter’s landlord. She was waiting in line at the pharmacy counter, where she was picking up three months’ worth of medication for herself and Jimmy, her husband. There were at least five pharmacies that were closer to home, but Marie chose this one because she didn’t want folks in town knowing her family’s business.

There was Jimmy’s Glucophage and Coumadin and some cholesterol drug (he’d had a minor stroke seven years ago); she was also picking up Atenolol for her bumpy heart, as she called it. Sometimes, the rhythm would shift from its usual light beat to a chaotic tempo that felt like a bag of groceries had split open in her chest and things were tumbling out of the bottom too fast to catch.

Today, she would also receive her first bottle of Buproprion, which Dr. Khira had prescribed at her annual physical last week after she’d ticked the box for depression. She’d hoped he’d ask her about her sadness, but instead he’d handed her two weeks’ worth of free pills and a pharmaceutical brochure—an effective dodge, she supposed—that enabled physicians to avoid speaking at length to their patients.

In essence, he’d handed her a picture book. First there was a fair-haired woman in a gray kitchen, holding her head. Then there was a brilliant yellow pill. Finally, there was the same woman wearing pastels, lipstick, and tossing a ball with two children. Marie had looked at Dr. Khira, ready to speak, but instead smiled a smile that was more a reflex, a simple revelation of teeth, than an expression of her true emotional state. For the smallest of moments, he’d appeared bewildered. Good, Marie had thought. Welcome to the club. Then, because she knew how much doctors valued compliance, she’d put the prescription in her purse.

Now, as Marie waited in the interminable line at the pharmacy, she recalled reading that so many people took these drugs traces were present in the drinking water. Why, if the whole world was happier on medication, shouldn’t she surrender? She’d taken five days’ worth of the sample pills and noticed, if nothing else, that she felt a bit more awake.

“Mrs. Moore, I was just thinking about you!” Wade Thayer, her daughter’s landlord in Cedar Grove Apartments, stood beside her wearing a lime green polo shirt with a flashy swordfish embroidered over the chest pocket. He was a big man, tall and thickly built, and Marie was amused to see him pushing a dainty blue plastic cart full of discounted batteries, light bulbs, and cheap plastic children’s toy sets. One was a princess set with a tiara, a synthetic blonde ponytail, and a hand mirror. “I stock up after the holidays,” he shrugged.

“Grandchildren?” asked Marie.

“No, no. I like to give out little things now and again to the kids at Cedar Grove when I collect the rent, make repairs.”

Wade’s voice was soothing, deep and mellow as whiskey. She wondered idly what his hands might feel like in her hair, on her waist. Marie felt her shoulders relax. Then, all at once, she realized that Wade was rather handsome, that she was at least twenty years older, and that she hadn’t been distracted by another man in so many years she couldn’t begin to count them.

Wade tilted his head at her, as if he knew what she was thinking.

“Hey,” he asked, “how’s Edna doing these days?”

“Enda,” Marie gently corrected him. “We gave her my mother’s name. Irish.”

“Enda, yes. That’s nice. Old-fashioned.”

“We spoke by phone last week. You’ve got your rent?”

“Yes, yes.”

“She sounded fine. She’s doing better.”

“Well, good.” He sounded genuinely pleased. “So, she’s working?”

“Enda, yes. She’s got a little job helping out at the Gulfstream at lunch and dinner. Not waitressing, of course. Some- times she buses, but mostly she handles the dishwashing. She says she enjoys it.”

Wade laughed. “I can see that. Don’t tell my Julie, but I like doing the dishes, too.” Marie offered a smile. She’d never met Julie, Wade’s wife.

“Well, see, the reason I ask about Enda is that I’ve been bit worried for her health—since she’s taken to wearing that wig.” Marie blinked. “Wig?” She felt her throat constrict.

Well, you know, when you see a wig or a scarf on a younger woman, you automatically think—well,” he lowered his voice, “you know.”

Marie forced out a breathy little laugh. “I can assure you, Wade, that Enda doesn’t have cancer. She’s just—Enda. One month she’s a redhead; the next she’s a blonde. Why not a wig?” She waved her hand through the air and her metal watch unclasped and flew from her wrist. Wade fetched it for her.

“May I help the next person in line?”

“Good to see you, Wade.”

The cashier retrieved Marie’s prescriptions and rang her out. Several fliers were stapled to the outside of her bag: one page had her name in bold black letters at the top and the word Buproprion, also bold. She folded the bag so no one could read it.

Wade Thayer was still lurking around the pharmacy section, leaning on his shopping cart with his tanned, sandy- haired forearms, waiting for her to finish. She’d hoped their conversation was over; now she saw there was more. He motioned her over to the shampoo aisle.

“Mrs. Moore, Marie, there’s something else. I don’t know how to say this; I’m just going to say it. Enda’s been in the dumpsters. I’ve been out twice this week after folks called. See, it distresses the other residents. And, of course, they worry for her, too. Does she have everything she needs?”

“What do you mean, in the dumpsters?”

“I’m sorry to tell you this. But she’s been outside, wearing that wig and rooting through the trash.” Marie felt her heart lurch. “I was out there today and told her she had to stop. She stormed off to her apartment. She took a few bits with her: a child’s shoe and a bag from Bullock’s Barbecue. I know she’s got food; why does she want that? I tried to talk to her, but she won’t answer my calls and refuses to open the door. I was going to phone you this evening, but,” he spread his hands wide, “then here you were. Here you are. How about that?”

“I think you’re confusing her with someone else, Wade,” she said. “I don’t doubt the wig, but dumpster diving? That doesn’t sound like Enda at all.”

“Mrs. Moore—”

“Of course, I’ll check in with her, just the same. It’s been a couple weeks.”

“Oh, I’m sure that would help.” He squeezed her shoulder, his college ring sharp on her collarbone.

Marie fled the store but sat for a long while in her parked car. The winters were mild along the North Carolina coast, so unlike her childhood home in Ohio. It was shirtsleeve weather today, in January. Marie ran her hands along the nap of the upholstery until she felt the hairs on her neck settle down, until her eyes ceased to sting. She wished she could open her mouth and bellow her fury at Wade Thayer. He was concerned for his investment, she thought, for his interests—not for Enda. She watched as Wade exited the store with a bit of bounce in his step, his burden offloaded.

*   *   *

Eighteen months ago, after nearly two decades of what Marie had thought was a sad yet peaceable estrangement common to families, Enda had appeared at their house like a stray animal: dirty, trembling, her long hair tangled and matted so badly that it had to be cut. She’d been living in Memphis, and had been beaten by one of the men she’d dated, though Marie doubted people called it that anymore. The livid bruises that ran from the outside of her wrists to her elbows bloomed huge and alarming, but the ones that made Marie weep were the small faded blue and green fingerprints on Enda’s upper arms, along her neck. The bartender where she worked washing dishes had been her salvation: Enda said he’d taken her to the bus station, bought her ticket, packed her food, and gave her his methadone for the long trip home.

The fee for Enda’s residential rehab was four times the cost of their first home. At first, Jimmy had refused to pay, arguing that “the girl had to be responsible for her own mess.” Marie had to remind him that though Enda was a thirty-seven-year-old woman, she’d never held a job with benefits or insurance. Jimmy relented, though he cashed in Enda’s unused college fund to cover the bulk of treatment.

“Don’t expect me to keep funding her forever, Marie,” he’d warned.

“No one,” Marie told him, “has asked you to do anything forever.”

Their conflict regarding Enda calcified. Marie felt, as the rehab center did, that Enda had an illness, a mental illness, in addition to her former substance abuse. Jimmy believed Enda had some “issues” that included malingering and taking advantage of his ability to pay for her needs.

Since Enda’s return from rehab, she and Jimmy had coiled away from each other, and meaningful conversation ceased. The night Enda arrived back home, Marie dreamt the small skeleton of a bird had lodged beneath her heart. Once awake, the pain knotted in her chest. Marie had no idea what her dream meant, but it reminded her of how, as a young woman, she’d once aspirated a fishbone at a family reunion. It had stuck in her throat so she could not speak. She couldn’t recall the extrication, but remembered as she’d choked, no one noticed. She’d felt wild with panic, but at the same time, she’d felt embarrassed, afraid she’d ruin the party.

*   *   *

Marie decided to stop by Cedar Grove on her way home from the pharmacy. There were eight apartments in each unit: four on top and four below. Last summer, Wade had installed white plastic rails along the landings that would never need painting. The roof, a patchwork of new and faded shingles from the tropical storms and nor’easters that passed through each year, needed tending. The stairs and landing were covered in Astroturf.

Marie pushed the plastic button on Enda’s door. A bell chimed inside. She knocked on the door with the heel of her hand.

“Enda! It’s Mother. Are you here?” Marie didn’t know Enda’s schedule, except that she usually didn’t work until later in the day. Her antipsychotic, if she was taking it, kept her groggy for a couple hours each morning. Marie fished Enda’s spare key from her purse but hesitated a few long seconds. She worried that she’d walk in on something she’d rather not see: Enda in bed with a man, drugs, or Enda muttering to herself, the way she did when she was off her meds. Then she thought of Enda in the dumpster and unlocked the apartment.

The fierce smell of ammonia met her. Marie had opposed the cat for exactly this reason. Enda barely cleaned up after herself. Cleaning up after the cat was unlikely.

“En-da!” she sang, so as not to alarm the girl. “Nomad!” The cat came out from under the sofa and stretched its hind legs before coming to where Marie stood.

“Hey, there, nasty thing,” Marie stroked the cat’s silky head. The door to Enda’s bedroom was open. Her sheets were huddled in a pile in the center of the bed. It appeared she slept directly on the mattress.

The apartment, which Marie and Jimmy also funded, was essentially two rooms: a modest bedroom and a living/dining area. A tiny pink-tiled bathroom was located between the two.

“Enda?”

Marie pushed open the bathroom door. When she flipped on the light, a palmetto bug slipped behind the mirror. The ceiling around the shower was lightly speckled with mildew. There was no sign of a wig.

She scooped the litter box, put the waste in a plastic grocery bag, and left. Enda was not at the dumpsters. When Marie tossed in the bag she forced herself to open each bin and look inside, just to be sure.

*   *   *

She arrived home at dusk. Jimmy stood on the back patio, talking on his cell phone. The brick walls were so thick, reception in the house wasn’t possible. She tapped on the glass door but he couldn’t hear her. They were both considering hearing aids. Once he was at the right angle to see her, she waved the bags at him so he would know she had returned.

Jimmy finished his conversation and she watched as he carried an empty oyster cage to the shed. This season, he planned to restore ten thousand oysters to the cove. He’d built a special shed for this purpose, and there were three chalky mountains of recycled oyster shells on the west side of their property, along with a used Bobcat.

Marie removed her watch and rings, set them in the kitchen windowsill, and washed her hands. She took two tuna steaks caught during Jimmy’s deep sea weekend last fall along with two ears of corn from the freezer. Jimmy was proud of their thrift; she knew he’d note at dinner that the whole meal had cost them next to nothing. Marie wouldn’t point out the $70,000 boat and the thousands of dollars in equipment and fishing gear, all of which Jimmy meticulously maintained. Though they could more than afford it, these were their only luxuries. They carried no credit cards, and no debt. Jimmy managed the money, except for the eleven hundred dollars he deposited each month in Marie’s household checking account. Their land, inherited from his people and passed down through generations, had swelled in value from fifty thousand to nearly two million dollars in the last two decades. Their regular investments had increased as well and rivaled their real estate wealth. Even so, they still carefully considered each expenditure, clipped coupons, bought store brands, never travelled. Both had grown up without, as they qualified it. They knew the same fickle wind that raised them up could also demolish them in an instant.

Marie poured herself a half glass of whatever white wine had been on sale that week and emptied Jimmy’s beer into a frosted mug, just as she’d done nearly each night they dined together during their marriage. These day-to-day routines had once seemed to her like mindless habits. Of late, they’d become the only small comforts she had—those she could rely upon herself to create.

Jimmy was sullen during their meal. She expected him to be irritated that she had run late, and had prepared a story about stopping by his mother’s grave to replace the plastic flowers. She hadn’t expected him to pout. Then, to Marie’s surprise, he apologized.

“Time got away from me,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” He looked genuinely aggrieved. “I didn’t mean to make you wait on supper.”

She was flustered, but touched by the naked emotion on his face. “It’s fine. I was late too,” she said, hoping he’d ask her why. Then, to fill the silence, she asked how long once he installed the reefs it would take their cover to recover. Jimmy had dredged for decades, so he could moor his boat at home instead of at the marina. Later, the marsh began to die, and their water with it. Forty years ago, they would swim on summer nights, and the water they disturbed would shimmer, silver and alive. Marie remembered it like a romantic film she’d once seen, with someone she could barely recall.

*   *   *

The next morning, Marie sat on their dock, smoked her morning cigarette, took her pill, and thought about Enda and the wig. Marie decided Enda was concealing something. Perhaps, Marie thought, Enda had bumped her head. No, more likely she’d badly permed her hair, or dyed it blue—that would be like Enda. Marie figured that if she offered her daughter a trip to the salon, she’d be able to see what was beneath the wig.

Jimmy was beside the boat shed, putting on his waders.

“I think I’m going to drive into town today,” she called out to him. “Help Enda with some shopping. I don’t think she works on Thursdays.”

He sighed. Then, lumbering in his stiff waders like a man slogging through mud, Jimmy made his way to where Marie sat. “She won’t be at work; she doesn’t work any day, now.”

“What are you saying?”

“She’s been fired, Marie. She hasn’t been to work in six days. Six days! She hasn’t even been in to get her paycheck. George from the Gulfstream called the other day asking if he should mail it here. She told him she was moving—to Mars!” He waved his hands in the air.

“Mars Hill Apartments, maybe?” Marie said.

“Enda made it clear to George that flying to Mars was the only way to get away from the terrorists at her apartment complex.” Something inside Marie slipped. She felt her body as something beside her, heavy and substantial, yet foreign. “I’m sure there’s a reason,” Marie said, though she knew better than to hope. “Let’s go by there and talk with her.”

“You talk with her.” The lenses of his glasses flashed bright and opaque and his mouth trembled. The combined effect made it appear that he was weeping, but his voice was quiet, as it was when he was enraged but trying to maintain control. “When you do, you tell her she pays her way now. There will be no more money.”

“Oh, Jimmy.”

“You can’t save her, Marie. Give her money and this will just keep happening.”

“What will she—”

“She’ll be forced to figure it out, just like the rest of the world.”

“She can’t. It’s not a choice for her.”

“Of course it’s a choice; give the child some credit. You want to give her money? Then get yourself a job and give her all your money—she’ll get no more from me. Jesus, I knew you’d get sucked in again. That’s why I didn’t tell you last week.” She felt herself return to her body, only now it felt like a trap.

“You knew she was in trouble last week?” Her voice emerged thin and squeezed.

Jimmy reddened in his fury. “Marie—”

“Come with me today, please,” she whispered, “Come look at your daughter.”

Jimmy took a breath and shook his head. “The best thing that could happen—for her, for you, for me—would be that she just—goes away.

“?Marie’s chest burned, as if her breath had been knocked from her. “Please.”

“I can’t,” he said, and gripped his forehead. “It’s so much worse when she’s in our lives.” Marie stifled a flash of rage and turned away. “We will never stop being heartbroken,” he continued. “Don’t you see? That’s our forever. I just want some peace. We’ve only ever known that when she’s gone. I’m so tired, Marie.”

Marie gripped her knees to her chest. The oily smell of the marsh was on the breeze. She stared out at the cove. A gull on the dock flipped its head back, unhinged its red maw, and gave a tinny laugh. “What kind of person says that, Jimmy?”

“I want our lives back. If that means she goes away, and we never see her again, well, I can find a way live with that.” Marie knew this was true. But since Enda’s return, Marie had not wished to return to the peaceful life Jimmy thought he had lost. What she longed for was her daughter’s return to health.

Marie stood to face him. “I’m leaving now to see Enda. She’ll need her rent and allowance money.”

“I won’t be taken advantage of any longer,” said Jimmy. “Maybe you can afford to fly to Mars with her, but I can’t.”

Marie started back to the house, but he tried to catch her hand. “Don’t you dare touch me,” she growled.

Jimmy shook his head, and then walked into the fifty-degree water, nearly to his chest, to retrieve his oyster trays.

*   *   *

When she first truly understood that Enda would always need their help, Marie had taken a small guilty solace in the situation. She felt her public identity in old age was now clear: to tend her damaged daughter. But she hadn’t been prepared for how the antipsychotics left her beautiful, red-haired daughter fat and lethargic. It was no wonder Enda hated taking them. Now this business with the wig, and picking through the trash! Marie just wanted it all to stop, for Enda to come to her senses, return to work at the Gulfstream, and need a reasonable bit of help to get by—the occasional run to the grocer’s or doctor’s. Yet each crisis further eroded Enda’s ability to function. She never fully bounced back. Marie knew Enda’s only hope was to stabilize, as one of the rehab counselors said. When Enda was in rehab, Marie thought stability would arrive when Enda stopped taking street drugs. Marie now understood the counselor meant that Enda’s mental illness had to stabilize as well, and that had proven tricky to diagnose and treat.

Enda’s psychiatric diagnoses, from four separate cities, listed her alternately as schizoaffective, manic, suffering PTSD and, in the notes from the twenty-bed backwater hospital in rural Oklahoma, simply “exhausted” and “emotionally labile.” The counselor at the rehab center said that, though she’d shown symptoms of a variety of psychiatric conditions at different times, a formal diagnosis mattered little. The bottom line was that Enda was periodically psychotic—with or without crack, or meth, or heroin—but the street drugs made her psychosis exponentially worse. Still, Enda had managed to stay clean, live alone, work, and consistently take her psychiatric medication for six months, allowing something like a normal rhythm to return to her days.

*   *   *

Before Marie started the car to go to Enda’s, she called Bella’s salon and made two hair appointments. Then she looked in her wallet. Sixty-seven dollars in cash, one BP gas card, and her household allowance checkbook which, because it was the fourth week in the month, held a mere $229.40. Enda was going to need money if she was indeed moving to Mars Hill, and more than she had here. Perhaps Jimmy was right. How much were they expected to give? For how long? As Marie drove, she came to the conclusion that Enda simply had to contribute more. Maybe, she thought, if Enda had more obligations, more hours than she’d had at the Gulfstream, she’d do better. Once Jimmy saw the girl was doing that, Marie thought he’d soften about continuing to help her financially.

When Marie pulled in to Enda’s apartment complex, she was ready to do battle with her to keep her safe and where she belonged. Wade’s truck was there. Marie hoped that she could get in and out without speaking with him. She was halfway to Enda’s apartment when a sheriff’s car pulled into the lot. Marie saw now, down the landing, that Enda’s door was open. A current of panic surged through her body. Wade emerged from Enda’s apartment. Marie heard a noise like shouting. “Thank God you’re here, Mrs. Moore. I talked to your husband yesterday evening, after all this happened. I told him she couldn’t stay. She can’t stay, Mrs. Moore. Not like this.” Marie heard glass breaking, then music.

She ignored Wade and walked into the apartment. The television was on full blast. Enda, however, was sitting quietly on the sofa, wearing a pink t-shirt stretched too tightly across her bosom. Perched atop her head like a coonskin cap was the pale blond wig. Enda didn’t look up. Nomad was curled on her chest, aggressively purring.

Marie took the remote and muted the volume.

Fern, Enda’s county social worker, a tiny slip of a woman, came out of the kitchen with a steaming mug and set it on the table. She patted Marie’s arm, then went to greet the sheriff.

“Enda, honey,” said Marie “what’s going on?

“I can’t talk with them here,” Enda whispered, and looked to the door where Wade, the sheriff, and Fern had gathered. Marie marched to the door to close it, but Fern quickly stepped inside. She looked minuscule compared to the men, and Marie understood that was why Fern always wore lumpy sweaters and coats—to give her the appearance of bulk.

“Give us a minute, gentleman,” said Fern. Then she closed the door and locked it.

“Thank you for that,” said Marie.

“Mrs. Moore, she’s refusing the hospital right now. There’s a women’s shelter nearby that can take her, but she’s not interested. It may be too late, it usually fills by noon. Maybe you could convince her to go home with you? Until I can locate other housing?”

“I don’t understand. So what if she’s been in the dumpsters! Is that grounds for eviction?”

Fern’s eyes grew wide behind her glasses. “I don’t know anything about that, Mrs. Moore. Off the record, I was called because she has been harassing the neighbors. She thinks they are all with Al Qaeda. She’s been leaving them notes. Yesterday evening she was involved in an altercation. No one is pressing charges, but—”

“I know them from before,” Enda said thickly. “They look different, but they are spying on us.”

Marie lowered her voice. “You know her father won’t have her at home. Maybe a hotel?”

“Mrs. Moore, I think that’s not very likely in her state.”

“Well, I could book her room. I guess I could stay with her, if she needs it.” After Marie heard herself, she felt ashamed of her reticence. “I mean, if she’ll let me.”

“I have a friend on Mars who escaped Al Qaeda. I’m going to live there too.”

“Oh, stop it!” Marie yelled at Enda. “You are not going to Mars! That’s your illness talking.”?Fern rested her hand on Marie’s arm.

“Mars is the homeless encampment—it’s what people call the camp.”

“I thought you said she was refusing shelter.” Marie followed Fern to the kitchen.

“Mrs. Moore, Mars isn’t shelter. It’s just a wooded area, where the people camp. It’s—”

“Oh my God. Why can’t you take her to the hospital?”

“She’s not a danger—to herself or anyone, really. Even temporary commitment—it’s complicated. We can only intervene under certain circumstances. Choosing to be homeless isn’t one of them. Arguing with the neighbors isn’t either.”

“But she’s delusional.”

“Maybe so. Even if she is delusional, that’s not grounds enough for emergency commitment.”

“If you can’t help, why are you here? What earthly good are you?”

Fern’s eyes reddened at the jab. “I’m her caseworker.”

“I’m her mother!” Marie laughed. “This is absurd.” Marie understood Fern had compassion but no power. Right now, that made her useless.

Marie returned to the living room and knelt in front of Enda to catch her eye. For the first time she saw Enda had a small pink duffle bag packed, tucked alongside the sofa. Her red Converse high tops sat beside them.

“Enda,” she said mildly, careful not to let her tone upset the girl, “when are you leaving?”

Enda shrugged.

“I’d like to get you a couple things, honey. Can you wait a while?”

“Mr. Thayer is threatening to evict her today at noon, Mrs. Moore.”

“No. That’s not going to happen,” Marie kept looking at her daughter. “He can’t evict her on such short notice. It’s not legal.”

“It’s easier than you might imagine. Especially with her recent behavior. “

“I told him I am going,” Enda said. “I was going before he told me I should leave. I’m just saying good-bye to Nomad.”

Marie looked at her watch—it was 10:15. “Fern, you tell them if they so much as talk to her or make a move to put her on the street, I’ll—” Marie cast about for a viable threat. “Why, I’ll sue them blind,” she said, aware she sounded more like a television actress than herself. “Enda, Mother is just going out to get you a few things. You wait here. Promise me.” Enda nodded. Her head was bowed, her fat bottom lip jutted out the same way it had when she was six years old and headed to her first day of kindergarten.

“Now, tell me where Mars is, exactly.”

*   *   *

Marie was surprised how close the encampment was—to nearly everything. Her favorite Italian restaurant and her dental office were less than a mile away. So was Enda’s apartment, as the crow flies. To get to Mars, Marie simply parked at Sandy Creek Shopping Center, the upscale shopping mall. There, she crossed a large weedy lot behind the new sixteen-screen cinema and traveled a mere hundred yards down a narrow beaten path through the trash pines. She’d envisioned Mars as a state park, but it wasn’t like that at all. There were tents, some with filthy carpet remnants draped on top, some with blue tarp. The stakes were rusted. A few had clothes lines strung between trees. She walked lightly, fearful of surprising someone. She’d left her purse in the trunk, but her jewelry was still on. She twisted her rings around to conceal the stones, as if that would prevent her from harm.

“Hello?” she called. “I’m a friend of Fern’s. Is there anyone here?” Marie counted twelve tents, some in such a state of disrepair, torn and moldy, that they couldn’t be occupied. One however, had affixed a small cedar wreath to the entrance. A fire area was in a small clearing, and there were sooty melted plastic bottles in the center. Then Marie heard a rustling in the leaves, and she spooked, hurrying back along the path, her mouth dry. Her foot snagged on a fallen branch.

“Hey, lady. Lady!” A young boy ran up to her, from the direction of the camp. He wore blue jeans and a puffy brown jacket. “You’re a friend of Fern’s? Did she send you with the tickets?”

“What? No. I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about tickets.”

“Oh.”

Marie noticed the child looked rumpled, and had a large cowlick on the side of his head, as if he’d been napping.

“Do you live here, young man? How old are you? Ten?”

The boy licked his lips, which were badly chapped. His mouth had a livid red ring around it.

“Why are you here?” he asked. His face, despite its youth, hardened as he studied her.

“I—well, I know someone who wants to live here.”

“No one’s supposed to know.”

“What? That you’re here?”

“My mom and dad will be home soon. We didn’t have school today.”

“OK,” said Marie. She scanned the woods. Was someone waiting to grab her? Was this just a set up?

“They’ll be back from work around five. My mom works right there.” He pointed to Sandy Creek Mall. “Bill, my stepdad, he installs carpet. His boss has a white Silverado with heated seats.”

“Do you need anything?” Marie asked. “Do you want me to ask Fern about the tickets?”

“No! Please don’t tell her you saw me. I’m allowed to. Sometimes they let me stay here with them. Please don’t tell. I don’t want to live with my aunt.”

“Do you like it here?” Marie asked, then immediately regretted it. What sort of answer did she expect?

The boy dragged his foot through the pine needles. “Don’t tell Fern. But if she gives you the tickets, you bring them back, OK?”

Marie was breathless by the time she got back to her car. She dialed Jimmy. When he didn’t answer, she left him a long message. She could understand his desire for Enda to disappear from his life, but she felt certain he wouldn’t want this. Within minutes Jimmy texted her.

His message read: Let her go.

For a few long seconds, the world around her seemed to blur and melt. Marie thought she’d go mad. But she didn’t. Instead, her thoughts quickly focused. There was no way that Enda could move to Mars with only her pink duffle bag. Where would she sleep? Then Marie saw it: Sportsman’s Paradise. In a mere fifteen minutes, Marie bought a camp cook set, bottles, plates, two weeks’ worth of freeze-dried food, a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and wet wipes. Marie studied the scruffy bearded salesman. Was he homeless?, she wondered. He recommended fuel for the stove, eco-friendly toilet paper, and a rain poncho. He opened and packed everything for her in the oversized backpack, and attached the bedroll below. She wrote him a check for $876.23. It would be days before it bounced. Marie felt Enda would be OK for a few days or longer. Jimmy could be persuaded. Yet, as Marie rushed back to Cedar Grove, with the backpack in the trunk, she wondered if any action by Jimmy could truly alter Enda’s course. She was refusing shelter and medical help because she couldn’t think clearly. And she  wouldn’t be able to think clearly without treatment.

Enda stood in the parking lot of Cedar Grove, her small pink duffle bag tucked under her arm like a football, when Marie returned. Wade and the sheriff were gone, but Fern remained.

“They left when Enda said she was vacating anyway,” Fern said. “That way Wade isn’t formally evicting her.”

“Fern is taking Nomad while I’m gone. Don’t worry, Mom.” Enda wrapped Marie in her arms and leaned her whole heavy body against Marie. “Fern knows how to take care of pets.”

Marie buried her face in Enda’s neck. Her daughter smelled of cigarettes and grape bubblegum. Enda rocked her side to side, and the blond wig slid between them. Marie reached up and cupped her daughter’s head. Beneath the wig there was no bad perm or dye job, and no head injury. The only thing it had covered was her daughter’s disheveled hair. Her baby girl’s hair, graying.

“Enda, honey, wait. I’ve got something for you.” Marie took the back- pack out of the trunk. “I bought everything you’ll need for Mars. Cookware, a sleeping bag, there’s a small coffeemaker, and bags of freeze-dried dinners. Turkey tetrazzini, mac and cheese.”

Enda started walking toward the field just across the way. Marie dumped the backpack on the landing and walked beside her daughter. “Enda, let’s go stay at a hotel. It will be fun.”

“I’m going to Mars. Once I’m there, I’ll send a message.”

“Please, take the backpack.”

“Mom, no!” yelled Enda. Then she stumbled, and kicked a soda bottle from her path. “God!”

Marie quaked with fear. She’d never felt so forlorn. Right then she remembered how she used to nurse Enda to sleep when she was first born. How Marie had marveled at her baby’s tender arms, her glossy red mouth, and fat auburn curls Enda had been born in the spring, when pollen hung thick on the pines and the

air smelled fresh and green. Those early days with her baby, Marie had felt whole, complete in the world. Never had there been another time like that.

Fern gently approached. “I’ll check on her, Mrs. Moore. Most times this is a temporary situation.”

“What happens now?” Marie whispered.

“I go down to Mars each week, Fern said. There’s a sandwich shop near the mall where people go at the end of the day. The manager hands out food. He’s not supposed to, but he’s kind. Sometimes people agree to the hospital or shelter after a while on the street. Enda’s been briefly homeless before. In Oklahoma. This isn’t new to her.” Homeless. Marie hadn’t known.

Marie looked at the backpack, that massive bundle she’d discarded on the stoop, and sat down beside it. Then came the tears. Her sobs felt torn from her, but there were fewer than she expected. When, at last, she was done, Marie positioned herself in front of the backpack, slid her arms through the straps, and clipped the harness around her chest. Then she pulled herself to her feet and trudged across the field toward her daughter’s dimming shape.

Virginia Holman is the author of Rescuing Patty Hearst (Simon & Schuster), a memoir of her late mother’s untreated schizophrenia. It was a Barnes and Noble Great New Authors Selection, and received the Outstanding Literature Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She’s published numerous essays and articles, and her work has been reprinted in the Pushcart Prize, Reading Critically, Writing Well, and broadcast on This American Life. She has also served as a Carter Center Fellow. She teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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The Pleasure Principle

The Pleasure Principle

By Elizabeth Roca

Pleasure PrincipleYesterday I bought the biggest pomegranate I have ever seen. My children and I were in the produce aisle at the supermarket. The baby, Camille, sat in the shopping cart’s seat, clutching an onion she had inexplicably demanded to hold, pointing and weeping until I gave in and handed it to her. Three-year-old Jonah was in the basket, looking at a book and nudging aside my groceries with his sneakers. Jonah’s twin, Lily, danced beside me, holding my shopping list and a pen. I was thinking that I shouldn’t bother buying fresh vegetables, because they rot in my refrigerator drawers faster than I can cook them, when I saw it: a pile of pomegranates stacked in a wooden crate, resting just below the pears.

My daughters like pears; I put a few in a plastic bag and tied it shut. Then I lingered, gazing at the pomegranates. I hadn’t eaten a pomegranate since my children were born. They take too much time. These were enormous, like big, bright-red softballs, and they looked to be in good condition, smooth and unblemished. They cost $1.99, which in my Washington, D.C., suburb is a decent price. Greed stirred in me.

I felt around among the pomegranates until I found one that was firm and taut-skinned, holding the promise of fresh, sweet juice. I tucked it on my cart’s bottom rack to keep it out of range of Jonah’s feet and wended my way through the store, piling the cart with milk and yogurt and cheese and bread and pasta sauce and veggie burgers until I almost forgot the pomegranate was there. Almost but not completely: I took care not to crush it with anything heavy, and I kept the thought of it in the back of my mind. My treat for the evening.

My mother was the person who taught me to love pomegranates, as she did avocados, artichokes, carambolas, kiwis, and other exotic fruits and vegetables. These were not common foods in the New Jersey suburbs, where I grew up, in the 1970s. She was a California transplant and retained many tastes of that mellow climate.

My fourth-grade classmates looked askance at lunchtime when I opened my brown paper bag and drew forth an artichoke, nicely steamed and wrapped in plastic, with a dab of mayonnaise in a Tupperware container on the side. Their bald questions—”What the heck is that?”— caused me some embarrassment, but not enough to stop me from peeling off the artichoke’s leaves, dipping them in the mayo, and scraping them with my teeth. Ah, bliss.

It occurs to me now that the foods my classmates found so weird were fun to eat, unlike the workaday apples and pears my mother usually put in our lunch bags. She brought home fresh coconuts and my brothers and I knocked out their eyes with a hammer and a sixteen-penny nail (there were three eyes in a coconut and three of us, so we each had a turn), drained the milk, then smashed in the coconut’s shell and fell to gnawing the dry, oily, delicately flavored meat.

While a coconut required brute force to eat, a pomegranate took a lot of fiddly fingerwork. My mother showed me how to quarter the pomegranate, pushing a sharp knife through the leathery rind. Inside it was packed with small seeds held in sections by a thin whitish-yellow skin. The seeds were the most lovely color, a deep, translucent red, with the white pit visible in the center, like a pebble seen through clear water. To loosen the seeds’ mutual embrace you had to bend back the rind and peel away the papery skin. Then you wiggled each seed until it broke away from the rind. Sometimes I ate them one at a time, and sometimes I collected a small handful and threw them in my mouth all at once. Either way, the seeds burst under my teeth, filling my mouth with thin, sweet, slightly astringent juice. It was a complex, meditative project. I spent happy, quiet hours at our kitchen table, sunlight shining in the little window behind me, peeling and crunching and wiping my red-stained fingers on a paper napkin.

Much of what we learn in childhood we learn through food, and much of what I learned about food I learned from my mother. I learned, to my regret, that men and children eat dessert while women do the dishes— but in the world of my childhood such a practice was commonplace. My mother did her best. She did very well at showing me and my brothers that odd food is something to be enjoyed, not feared, and that a fresh fig, for instance, is a thing of beauty, a reason for celebration.

I am a product of my own time, and I shudder to think what my children are learning from me about food. That women eat dessert with the men and children, then sidle into the kitchen and eat a second helping standing up at the counter. I hope that I am also passing on some of my mother’s adventurousness. My childhood lessons—that weird produce is our friend, that the funny-looking thing on the store shelf might be the best thing I ever tasted—has led me, in adulthood, to purchase such things as kumquats, Jerusalem artichokes, celery root, and jicama. Few elements of life are so constant and so potentially colorful as eating. It makes sense that we should explore every variation available to us.

Many of the foods that seemed unusual in my childhood are no longer considered strange. Artichokes are still more exotic than, say, broccoli, but they appear on my supermarket shelves often enough. New mothers are urged to mash avocados and feed them to their babies for their valuable unsaturated fatty acids. I tried this, but all three of my babies hated avocado so much my husband and I began calling their characteristic grimace “avocado face.” Their taste has not changed, at least in that area, so last week when my mother came to visit at lunchtime, bearing an avocado along with her usual low-cal frozen meal, we only had to divide it two ways. We drizzled it with Italian dressing and forked it up slowly, murmuring with pleasure over the rich, silky flesh.

I thought of my mother last night when I started cutting up my pomegranate. It was much too big for one person to eat, and I wished she were there to share it with me. It split under my knife with a fresh crunch, and crimson juice ran out on the plate. The seeds gleamed like wet rubies.

My husband is English, and although he grew up eating such oddities as trifle, Yorkshire pudding, and Marmite, the uncommon fruits of my childhood were not available in his hometown, a bedroom community midway between London and Cambridge. He’ll politely eat an artichoke if I set it before him at dinnertime, but he doesn’t much care for them. He shrugged at my offer of a pomegranate quarter. “They’re kind of a pain to eat,” he said, proving that some tastes must be acquired in childhood or not at all.

My path is clear: to indoctrinate my children into the eating of exotic produce while they are still young enough to play with it. With this in mind I called Lily, the most adventurous of my eaters, and showed her the pomegranate. “What you have?” she asked. “Lily try this?” I gave her a seed. She rolled it around in her mouth, then bit into it. Her face assumed an expression of dismay, and she spat.

But this morning in the organic market she picked up a Japanese sweet potato. “Lily buy this?” she asked. “Sure,” I said, and she heaved it into our cart.

At home I sliced the potato and steamed it. It had white, sweet, slightly mealy flesh, more like that of a roasted chestnut than the familiar American sweet potato. It was delicious, and I was the only one who would eat it. Lily shook her head at it, and Camille took a nugget and smashed it between her fingers. As for Jonah, he shrieks when served anything that isn’t lime-flavored yogurt or banana bread.

No matter; it was a beginning. Something about the potato’s gnarled shape and red-brown skin had appealed to Lily, and she had claimed it as her own. This is what I want for my children: That they not be shy about claiming pleasure for themselves, that they seek and find the uncommon delights of this world.

Author’s Note: I am fascinated by the ways in which we use food as a means of communication, and also by the simpler ways we use it for entertainment. Recently I left a steamed artichoke on the kitchen counter to cool, thinking with happy anticipation that I would eat it for lunch the next day. I returned later to find Lily standing on a stepstool, scraping artichoke leaves with her teeth like an expert. Denuded leaves were flying everywhere. It wasn’t quite the entertainment I’d had in mind when I cooked the artichoke, but it was funny nonetheless. I think I’m well on my way to having at least one weird food eater among my offspring.

Elizabeth Roca’s work has appeared frequently in Brain, Child. She lives with her family in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Brain, Child (Fall 2005)

 

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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Should You Let Your Child Quit?

Should You Let Your Child Quit?

NO

By Delia Lloyd

Debate_A_v2 for webLike many parents these days, I’m guilty of raising two classically over-scheduled children. We race from piano lessons to craft club and from soccer matches to chess tournaments. And there’ve been more Sundays than I’d care to admit when I’ve been relieved to discover that the swimming pool has flooded so we can’t make it to swim class.

But I always insisted—to myself, if not to others—that my kids’ busy lives were a reflection of them, not me. They were curious. They were energetic. And if they had lots of interests, my job as a parent—within reason and budget allowing—was to enable them to experiment with those interests and see which, if any, developed into a true passion.

Until the day my 11-year-old son, Isaac, came home and told me that he didn’t want to play the violin anymore. And suddenly, I had to dust off my parenting playbook and revisit my assumptions about how much of what my children do is about what they want vs. what I think is good for them.

I concluded—along with my husband—that there were certain things I just wasn’t going to allow them to quit.

I’m not necessarily proud of this decision. I’ll never forget the time when the two of us were on vacation in our early 30s (pre-kids), lounging by the swimming pool, when we overheard a father get into the water with his daughter to work on her front crawl.

“That was two good strokes and one bad stroke,” he shouted. “Do it again!” My husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads. “What a nightmare!” we whispered to one another. “We’d never do that to our kids,” seemed to be our tacit bargain. What a difference eleven years makes.

As soon as my son announced that he was “tired” of violin and wanted to stop playing, I realized that there was no way I was going to let him quit.

Part of it was how I felt every time I heard an adult friend lament about the day she gave up playing the piano … the violin … the flute … the clarinet. “If only my parents hadn’t let me quit!” was the common complaint. Isn’t hating your musical instrument part of growing up?

I was also worried that as my son grew older and showed more of an interest in— and aptitude for—soccer, his well-rounded, inquisitive nature might be sacrificed in the name of sports. Precisely because sports are cool and violin—well not so much. I feared that he might emerge from adolescence a one-dimensional adult.

It was also around this time I read Michelle Obama’s list of parenting rules for her daughters. These include having them play two sports each, one they picked and one she chose for them, precisely because she wanted them to learn how to work harder at things they found difficult.

I imagine that some people who read the First Lady’s list might have questioned that rule. But I found myself agreeing with Mrs. Obama. There’s a real value in old-fashioned perseverance. And with all the talk of “life skills” these days, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for children to start learning the value of commitment early on, even when they find something onerous.

I’m not saying that I make my kids follow through on every single thing they’ve started. French lessons for my daughter came and went. My son was excited by drama for awhile. And then he wasn’t. But he’s been playing violin for six years now and he’s actually pretty good. To give up now would be to turn his back on a huge investment of time, money, and effort over the years, all for something I’m fairly certain he’ll regret, if not now, then later on.

I guess I’ve come around to the view that there’s a certain “eat your spinach” quality to parenting. (For the record, I also make my kids eat their vegetables.) As parents, we aren’t always right, but we are there to help our children see the value in things that they might not be old enough—or mature enough—to appreciate in the moment.

I hope I’m never as overbearing as that man in the swimming pool all those years ago. But I also hope that one day my kids will thank me for not letting them give up too easily.

Delia Lloyd is an American journalist/blogger based in London. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s She The People blog, and blogs about adulthood at Realdelia.

 

YES

By Kristen Levithan

Debate_B_v2 for webThis fall I did something I never thought I’d do before becoming a parent: I let my child quit.

I’d signed my son up for preschool soccer after he had enjoyed his inaugural season last spring. Danny had liked being on the team, sporting his canary yellow jersey, and giving piggy back rides to his teammates, even though he generally showed more interest in trying to climb up the net than in putting the ball into it. When the time came for fall registration, I asked him if he wanted to play again and he enthusiastically said yes.

From the first practice, though, I could tell that things weren’t going to go well. Danny was uncharacteristically aggressive with the other kids, dribbling the ball into them and tussling with them when the coach turned away. When the games started, he began each one excitedly, cheering for his teammates and hustling to keep up with the action. But then something would set him off—an accidental trip, a misunderstood direction from his coach, or a goal for the other team—and he would collapse into tears, march to the sideline, and sit out for the rest of the game, inconsolable.

The same scenario played out the next week. And the week after that.

At first, I refused to entertain the idea of allowing him to quit. Like many of us, I was raised to finish what I started. I didn’t quit soccer, even though it held no appeal to me. I finished games of Monopoly, no matter how interminable. I blanched at the idea of sending the wrong message to my son, of turning him forever into a shiftless fly-by-night.

But then I realized that my reluctance to let Danny quit had a lot more to do with me than it did with him. I was embarrassed by the thought of explaining my decision to the coach and then pacing the sidelines for the rest of the season—my other son was on the same team—wondering what the other moms were thinking of me. I was so busy doing what I thought a good parent should do and worrying about other people’s opinions that I forgot to think about what was best for my son.

When I finally stopped to talk to him, I began to understand why soccer was rubbing up against every vulnerable place inside of him. We danced around issues of perfectionism, frustration, and anger and, though I still don’t know exactly why Danny went from a kid who liked soccer to one who hated it, I knew that quitting was what we were going to do.

Ultimately, I believe that letting Danny quit taught him to listen to his gut and to speak up for himself. It signaled to him that, even at five-and-a-half, what he thinks and how he feels matter more to us than blind adherence to a theoretical principle. And I hold these lessons in as high regard as I do the ones on perseverance and commitment that I worried he was missing.

Allowing Danny to bow out of soccer mid-season also underscored my belief that childhood should be about exploration and experimentation, about letting kids test their wings while we’re still around to catch them if they fall. Giving our kids the option to quit celebrates the idea that they should have the chance to try out new things without the expectation that every new thing will fit.

In the end, letting our kids abandon activities that don’t work gives them the chance to try other things that might. For Danny, that thing turned out to be swimming. He’d loved his swimming lessons over the summer and asked to try them again this winter. With the soccer debacle fresh in my mind, I was reluctant to enroll him in another organized activity: would this just be another $50 down the drain?

But on the first day of lessons, I knew that swimming was a better match for my boy, for now. He waved to me as I headed for the door to the waiting area and then paddled over to join his classmates, a purple pool noodle tucked under his arms. At the teacher’s request, Danny dipped his head under the water and came up for air, a wide smile on his face and droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes. His laughter let me know that he—and we—were in the right place.

Kristen Levithan is a freelance writer and mother of three. She can be found online at mothereseblog.com

Brain, Child (Spring 2013)

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Guilty as Charged

Guilty as Charged

By Bridget Kevane

summer2009_kevanehpOn Saturday, June 16, 2007, I was charged with endangering the welfare of my children, a criminal charge that, in the city where I live, Bozeman, Montana, can lead to imprisonment in the county jail. The Montana Code 46-16-130(3) states that a parent can be charged with this offense if she “knowingly endangers the child’s welfare by violating a duty of care, protection, or support.”

Typically, prosecution is pursued when an adult supplies a child younger than eighteen with drugs, prostitutes the child, abandons the child’s home, or engages in sexual conduct with the child. A violation of duty of care is described as cruel treatment, abuse, infliction of unnecessary and cruel punishment, abandonment, neglect, lack of proper medical care, clothing, shelter, and food, and evidence of bodily injury.

I was charged with this crime because I dropped my three children and their two friends off at the Bozeman Gallatin Valley Mall.

*   *   *

Bozeman is a small town known for its quality of life, striking physical beauty, easy access to the outdoors, and great public schools. It is also known as a safe community. The mall is considered a family place where kids trick-or-treat in October to escape the cold, and groups of children meet friends, shop, eat and see movies. It is a popular activity both during the long Montana winters as well as the summer months.

The mall is a safe place. There are no signs posted at the mall saying that children cannot be left unattended. No child has ever been kidnapped or molested at the mall. And yet, I was charged as a criminal for dropping children there without my direct supervision.

My oldest daughter, Natalie, and her friend, were both twelve at the time, going into seventh grade. The girls, who had known each other since they were three years old, had attended a babysitting class sponsored by the local hospital for girls eleven and older. The class teaches CPR, infant care, responsible behavior and more. They both also had enough experience babysitting other people’s children that I trusted having them supervise the other kids at the mall—Ellie, eight, Matthew, seven, and my younger daughter, Olivia, who was three.

An outsider, or someone used to a bigger, more crowded way of living, might be shocked to know that I left children that young in the care of two twelve-year-olds. But these kids were a pack. They grew up together in a neighborhood full of children. They walk to and from their local schools together, play together, and frequently spend time at each other’s homes.

My husband and I are particularly good friends with two families that live near our home. We parents depend on each other for support and mutual child care as much as our children depend on each other for friendship. As our kids have grown older, an implicit agreement has formed among us: Our children will wander to each other’s homes, and it is our job to informally supervise them and keep each other aware of their whereabouts. As we all live within less than half a mile from each other, much time is spent going from one house to the other, to the park, or walking around the nearby university, where I am a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies.

So when the older girls asked if they could go to the mall that Saturday, I said yes, if they took the younger kids with them. On that particular day, I was exhausted. The children wanted an activity, and I wanted a couple of hours of quiet and rest.

Why was I exhausted? I have three kids, a dog, a cat, a hamster, and a fish named Oscar.  I have a husband who had started his own company and was working on weekends. I teach classes, write books and articles, and am chair of my department. I love my job, for one reason because it has given me the flexibility to be home for my kids every day after school. I oversee violin, swimming, and art lessons; I drive my kids around; I think about what I can make for dinner, and I wonder how early I can get to bed. In other words, like many mothers, I work two jobs, and sometimes that catches up with me.

I’ve come to look differently on my exhaustion that day, now that all this has taken place. I made a choice, and I believed it was the right choice: I let my daughter take over. I gave her a responsibility so I could have a break.  I had no reason to doubt my daughter. I believed then and continue to believe today that the girls were aware and responsible enough to handle their younger siblings.

*   *   *

The plan was for the kids to have lunch and walk around a bit. I told the older girls the rules. They could not leave the younger kids unsupervised. They could not make a ruckus. They had to behave. Olivia, the three-year-old, had to stay in her stroller. When I called my husband and the other mother to let them know the plan, there was no hesitation on their part. My husband was at his office down the street from the mall, less than five minutes away. I would be at home with my cell phone, and my daughter had her cell phone in case they wanted to be picked up early.

I dropped the group off at roughly one forty-five p.m. and said that I would pick them up at four for the barbeque we were going to that night. It was to be an afternoon activity, as simple as that.

About an hour later, my husband, who was home by then, received a call from the police telling me that we had to come down to the mall immediately. My first thought was that the kids had made a scene, that they had knocked something over, that they had run about recklessly. We jumped into the car.

When I walked into the mall, the children were all in an enclosed security office behind a glass wall, smiling, eating candy, and talking to a security guard and some Macy’s employees. I smiled and waved to them, relieved that everything appeared fine.

That feeling was quickly about to change.

As soon as we entered the office, I was confronted by two Bozeman city police officers. One told me that what I had done was completely unacceptable in his opinion and that he was going to arrest me for endangering the welfare of my children. I asked him if there was a mall age limit that I was not aware of. He told me to be quiet. I tried to explain to him that I had faith in my daughter’s skills and in the safety of the mall, and that I was not an endangering parent. As I tried to keep talking, desperate to clear up what was obviously nothing more than a huge misunderstanding, he warned me that if I “went crazy” on him, he would handcuff me right in front of the children and take me away to jail for the night. He said he had called child services already. They would either arrive at the mall shortly or get his report and be visiting my home this week to check in.

My husband tried to reason with the officer, emphasizing that this was a first-time mistake and asking if we could be set free with a warning, some lesser charge. But the officer simply kept repeating that what I had done was a crime.

I was completely stunned, unable to grasp what was unfolding right before my eyes. I sat down, scared, exhausted, and confused, and didn’t utter another word. We were allowed to take the children home, but I was told I had to hire a lawyer and appear in court on June 21.

As we drove home, the younger kids chattered about their adventure, oblivious about what had just transpired. My husband asked some pointed questions, and details began to emerge: Olivia liked the candy the store employees gave her and said the ladies were nice; Matthew said the employees asked strange questions; Ellie wondered why all the kids had been taken away to the Macy’s office.

Natalie and her friend, both visibly shaken, were mostly quiet except to say that they had not been allowed to call us. I sensed that they understood the bigger implications of what had happened and were not only worried about repercussions but also about their first encounter with the police. “Are we in trouble?” Matthew asked. No, we replied. Then he asked, “Are you in trouble, Mommy?” The question lingered in the air without an answer.

Guilt, a nagging feeling that always resided somewhere within me as a working mother, began to surface. Was I a bad mother? Had my judgment been so completely off? The two police officers, so much younger than I, had been so certain that I had committed a crime against my own children. They had not a shred of doubt. Maybe they were right; maybe in my at-times-frantic daily juggling act, I had lost the ability to care for my children. I had been discovered! My children would be taken from me! And how was I going to explain this to my friends, who had entrusted their children to me? Shame, guilt’s partner, took root as well.

When we arrived home I went straight to my room and lay down on the same bed on which, a few hours earlier, I had hoped for a couple of moments of peace.

*   *   *

Details of the incident became clear later. The kids had gone into Macy’s after lunch; it was to be the final stop of the afternoon. Natalie and her friend decided to try on some shirts and left the three younger kids in the purse section by the cosmetics counter—which, it’s true, was against the rules that I had laid out for them.

While the girls were in the dressing room, some Macy’s employees spotted the three younger kids and called mall security. When Natalie and her friend returned less than five minutes later, all the kids were taken away to Macy’s administrative office where they were held until the arrival of the city police. The kids-who were now being treated as victims of abuse-were not allowed to use their cell phones to call me, because I was now considered a negligent mother.

In making their decisions, the mall police and city police relied upon the statements of four Macy’s employees who worked the cosmetic counters, though it became clear later in written statements that some of the workers were not even in the store at the time, and that others had badly misestimated the younger kids’ ages to be two, three, and four (rather than three, seven, and eight). The rest of the employees’ stories vary wildly in time, place, and their perception of what actually happened.

At any point in the course of events, the Macy’s employees, the mall security guards, the police, or the city prosecutor could have chosen to view my decision to drop my children off at the mall as an innocent moment of faulty judgment. They could have slapped me on the wrist, or warned me, “Don’t do that again,” or settled for any number of lesser charges. After all, there is no law in Bozeman against dropping your children off at the mall.

But instead my actions were considered criminal neglect, “violating a duty of care.” Why? As the pretrial procedures dragged on, I began to feel I was caught in a culture war, or perhaps several wars—town vs. gown, native Montanan vs. outsider, and working mother vs. working mother.

The city attorney made no secret of the fact that her own parenting choices informed her decision in backing up the police officer. She told my lawyer in their first meeting that she also had a daughter and would never have left her at the mall. She also said she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their “heads are always in a book.” Her first letter to my lawyer ended on a similar theme: “I just think that even individuals with major educations can commit this offense, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education.” Despite the fact that Montana professors are among the lowest paid in the nation, and that undoubtedly the prosecutor has a law degree herself, she nevertheless categorized me as someone trying to receive special treatment.

My lawyer and I came to understand that, more than anything, the city attorney wanted me to plead guilty, to admit that I had “violated a duty of care.” She wanted me to carry that crime with me for the rest of my life, a scarlet A that would symbolically humiliate me, teach me a lesson, and remain etched in my being.

I now realize that her pressure—her near obsession with having me plead guilty—had less to do with what I had done and more to do with her perception of me as an outsider who thought she was above the law, who had money to pay her way out of a mistake, who thought she was smarter than the Bozeman attorney because of her “major education.” This perception took hold even though I had never spoken one word to her directly. Nor did I ever speak in court; only my lawyer did. I was visible but silent, and thus unable to shake the image that the prosecutor had created of me: a rich, reckless, highly educated outsider mother who probably left her children all the time in order to read her books.

And that’s how I became defendant Bridget Anne Lieb (my married name), charged with a crime by the State of Montana, Case no. TK-07-03739.

*   *   *

The prosecutor was right in one respect. I am an outsider. My parents—my father born in Iowa from poor Irish immigrants, my mother raised by Russian Jewish parents in a small town in Wisconsin—left the United States in the late Fifties, never to return. I was born in Italy and raised in Puerto Rico, one of eight children.

As kids, we were frequently left to our own devices, with the older children often left in charge of the younger ones. In many ways, I raised my youngest sister, walking her around the neighborhood, taking her to the local neighborhood store, and more. My mother was certainly around quite a bit, but many times she was not able to attend to all eight of us, each about a year apart, each with our own separate needs and demands on her time. She, like many mothers, believed in the power of allowing her children to gain independence by depending on themselves. Although I cannot speak for my siblings, I certainly believe that I derived not only a sense of independence from this practice but a sense of confidence in my ability to manage and make my own decisions.

During the months between my arrest and the deferred prosecution agreement that my lawyer eventually worked out, I began to feel that I was being reprimanded for allowing my daughter to develop that sense of responsibility, and, equally important, to come to the realization that sometimes failure is the best teacher of all. Certainly, she had failed when she made the decision to walk into that dressing room, and had the police not intervened, I would have been angry with her, and she would have known that what she had done was wrong. We both would have gained experience. Instead, we got caught up in the legal system and wound up learning a different, sadder lesson: that self-sufficiency is shrinking in today’s culture.

I saw this illustrated in the parenting class I ended up taking as part of the deferred prosecution agreement. Listening to the questions from the other parents (all of whom were there voluntarily, as far as I could tell) it became clear to me that there’s less room than there used to be to parent by instinct and to trust oneself, as my mother did. Our culture has attempted to find a prescription for parenting, and many people want to believe in the prescription rather than in making their own daily judgments.

At every turn, the parents in the class asked questions that I believe they could have been able to figure out on their own. Should I leave my child in timeout for less time if he yells out “I’m sorry”? Should I not give my child dessert if she doesn’t finish her meal? Should I let him play with his food or take it away when he does that and not give him any more? Should I let my child cry for twenty minutes or thirty? Should I close the door when my child goes to bed or leave it open? Should I tell my child I am angry or give her the silent treatment? Please tell me how to raise my children.

I, on the other hand, had trusted my own instincts and trusted the way I had been brought up when I made my decision on that fateful day: It was fine to drop the kids off at the mall. Did I learn from this? Absolutely. I learned it’s not okay to drop the kids off at the mall, not in Bozeman, Montana, anyway. But I also learned that I am more fiercely attached than I realized to my way of parenting. My temperament, my juggling, my choices: I would not let someone tell me how to raise my children.

*   *   *

Had I been willing to plead guilty, the whole case would have been settled in a month, with a fine of roughly eight hundred dollars and a permanent record. Instead, I chose to plead not guilty, causing the case to go on for more than a year and cost us thousands of dollars. I found support for my decision from my own mother, whose simple statement was the only one that made sense to me during the whole year: If I did not defend myself, she told me, no one would.

My lawyer gave the prosecutor many options to choose from for punishment, ranging from hundreds of hours of community service to taking a parenting class to admission of a mistake. But he could not give her the guilty plea that she so wanted.

I love my children. I would die for them. I have done my best as a working mother, balancing raising them with my job, making sure that I am home when they return from school, being with them on a daily basis. I am by no means a perfect mother. I get angry, I yell, I can be sarcastic, short-tempered, and inaccessible. Yet my children know I love them. They are safe and secure with me—and, I still believe, they are safe and secure in places I allow them to go without me, their friends’ houses, our neighborhood, and, once, the mall.

I got through the year during which the case dragged on quietly, not sharing with anyone what had happened—not only because the judge had placed a gag order on the case, but also because I felt a deep, deep shame. Here I was, someone who had been successful for almost thirteen years raising children and having a job—indeed, someone who was admired by others in this balancing act—and I was being accused of failing.

The exhaustion of being a working mother while trying to raise a wonderful family had caught up with me. At times, I found myself thinking that six months in jail might be just what I needed.

*   *   *

In anticipation of my impending trial, my lawyer set up a mock jury in a conference room at his firm. My daughter and I were called to the witness stand and asked to describe what happened to the best of our knowledge. My lawyer thought the four mock jurors would come quickly to a decision. They ended up discussing and fighting over the case for what felt to me like an eternity.

The jurors were meant to be representative of a broad spectrum of parents in Bozeman, which they were—but they also turned out to illustrate a microcosm of the parenting culture wars. At stake was what constituted good parenting and whether or not I was guilty as charged. We could hear their loud voices from the office’s kitchen where we were waiting.

I finally was called back in with my lawyer. What followed was one surprise after another. First there was the Montana rancher who practically guffawed when he heard the charges against me. At twelve years old, he told us, he was cutting wheat on a tractor and independently working a farm. There was the child therapist who was appalled yet forgiving. There was the father of one who was unforgiving, and there was the older homemaker who was oddly angered by my statement that I considered Bozeman a safe community. “There was a murder here last year,” she exclaimed.  In the end, the mock jurors told me that if I wanted to win a real trial, I’d have to cry and show remorse, or at least show some emotion.

Two things happened at that moment: I realized that I was so guarded about the incident that no true emotion was showing, not to strangers or to my friends or even to my husband. And I realized I could never go to trial. My lawyer worked out the deferred prosecution agreement, and I began my service.

At first I felt angry about the show the mock jurors had wanted me to put on, but I now realize that the only way to truly explain my story is through an emotional lens. I do feel guilty about what happened. Not because I committed a crime according to the legal definition, but because no parent has confidence that they have been completely successful, ever.

For all the times that I was not the “good” parent, I am guilty; for all the times that I did not respond perfectly to my children’s needs, I am guilty. For all the times that I’ve not given them enough of me, I am guilty. For feeling constantly torn between so many daily demands, trying to make it all work, but knowing that I sometimes fall short, I am guilty.

But of knowingly putting my children in harm’s way by letting them go to the mall alone? Not guilty.

Author’s Note: I finished the rewrites of this essay on Mother’s Day, 2009. I welcome the irony. On the day where mothers are celebrated nationally, I was writing about being a bad mother.  But in the end, I was a bad mother who defended myself and finally found the strength to realize that I am proud of my mothering instinct, mistakes and all.

Bridget Kevane is chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and a professor of Latin American and Latino Literature at Montana State University in Bozeman. She was born in Rome, raised in Puerto Rico and has lived in the United States since 1983 in New York, Los Angeles, and now Montana.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

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Concert

Concert

By Carol Paik

Paik_ConcertMy mother announced that she was about to give her last solo recital, at Lutkin Hall at Northwestern University. “I’m sixty-six,” she said. “I don’t feel like doing this any more.” She told me this months in advance, to make sure that I—and perhaps more importantly, my two children, her grandchildren—would be able to attend. Meredith and Jonathan were four and six years old, and I thought about what it would be like for them to fly all the way to Chicago and then sit through a full-length piano concert at night. It didn’t sound promising. But if this was in fact going to be their grandmother’s last recital, I wanted them to see it.

So we traveled from New York City to Evanston, Illinois, on an unseasonably warm November Friday. Evanston is a place of significance in my family’s history, but an unfamiliar place for me. My father and mother met at Northwestern as undergraduates, my mother on a full piano scholarship, my father studying engineering. Not far from the hotel where we were staying were the practice rooms where my father used to study lying underneath the grand piano while my mother worked the keyboard above his head.

We arrived at the hotel around four o’clock, the children were hungry and tired, and I was beginning to think it had been a bad idea to come. Then I spotted my father across the lobby, just as he spotted us. He and my mother had flown in from Boston the day before. He grinned and hurried over, taking Meredith up in his arms.

“I thought you’d be getting in about now,” he said, squeezing Meredith until she protested. “I came down to look for you.” (“Ants in his pants,” I could just about hear my mother mutter.) He sat down and the children draped themselves over him.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“Resting upstairs,” he said. “She wants me to bring her a hamburger at five o’clock and then the rest of us can go out for dinner.”

I had almost forgotten these pre-concert rituals. Before a concert, my mother likes to eat, but just a little bit of something to keep her energy up. (“Something high in protein, nothing with milk or onions.”)

“We should probably go soon, if Mom wants her hamburger at five,” I said.

“There’s plenty of time. There’s a Burger King around the corner. It’ll take two minutes to get there, two minutes to get back.”

“It’ll take more than two minutes, Dad.”

“Alrightalright,” he said. “Five minutes to get there, five minutes to get back.”  (I could picture my mother, eyes rolled to heaven. “Have you ever seen such a stubborn man?”)

 *   *   *

On our way back from Burger King, Meredith asked if she could bring Grandma her hamburger, so just outside my parents’ room my father placed the small cardboard boxes in her hands. He quietly unlocked the door for her and sent her into the dark. He and I waited outside, listening.

“Hi, sweetheart,” I heard my mother say.  I realized she thought it was my father who had entered, and that I was hearing the way she speaks to my father when no one else is around. I was surprised by the softness of her tone.

“Sweetheart?” she repeated when no one answered. Then, “Oh, Meredith! Come here my darling! What a wonderful surprise!”

My father and I went in and opened the heavy hotel drapes. My mother was sitting on the edge of the bed with Meredith on her lap, looking happy and calm. Not tense with energy the way I expected her to be. She reached around Meredith to give me a hug.

“Hi, darling,” she said. “I like your hair that way.”

I hadn’t combed my hair since that morning, but I knew why she’d said that. There was a story behind it. When I was in college, in an all-out effort to please her I once told her that for her next concert I would wear whatever she wanted. She bought me a high-waisted, blue and pink flowered dress with a hemline below the knee—the sort of dress no one older than ten or younger than sixty should ever wear. I wore it, fairly confident I wouldn’t see anyone I knew at the concert. I also permitted her to curl my hair. I felt ridiculous, but I was proud of myself for being mature enough to bend a little for my mother’s pleasure. Then, as we were about to enter the auditorium, she turned to inspect me and her face fell.

“I guess your hair really doesn’t hold a curl,” she said.

I had turned to my father then and demanded the car keys. He fished around in his pocket and handed them to me, and I turned and walked out of the hall. I spent the recital in the car, amid the shreds of my newfound maturity.

After the concert, she said she had no idea I would be so hurt by such a comment. She hadn’t meant to be critical, she said. Since then she has only bought me black clothing and routinely compliments my hair. She herself often wears the blue and pink dress and it looks quite nice on her.

I thanked her for the hair comment with a kiss. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

She shook her head and groaned theatrically. “The Rorem is my nemesis—twentieth-century music really isn’t my bag. I’m so glad this is my last solo recital. It’s just too much work! I want to spend that time with my grandchildren! Come, Meredith, would you like to see my gown?”

Meredith nodded, and my mother led her to the closet, where a new shell pink gown was hanging in its plastic bag. During my childhood, in the weeks leading up to a concert, my mother would be focused on her practicing to a point near frenzy, but the concern about what she was going to wear would linger just beneath, occasionally spiking up and sending her to rifle frantically through her closet—and, once I grew to be her size at about age eleven, my closet as well. Sometimes, as a last resort, she’d make a grudging trip to Filene’s Basement. She always came up with something that met her criteria: it had to be dressy enough to show respect for the hosting organization; it should sparkle a little for a festive note; its sleeves had to cover the wobbly underside of her upper arms. It also had to cost next to nothing, for she would never willingly spend money on a dress she would get so little use out of. She would decide that the black wraparound skirt I had sewn in Home Ec and sequined top—eight sizes too big—from the church rummage sale fit the bill. I remember, in particular, clunky silver lamé platform sandals that she got for half price because her size, four and a half, had been used as the floor sample. The dignity, bordering on smugness, with which she always carried herself, no matter what her outfit, confirmed my belief that she and I would never agree. But when I saw the lovely fairy-princess-pink gown she had bought for herself, now that she and my father had more means, I wondered if for all those years her smugness had masked disappointment.

“My dress is pink, too,” said Meredith, delighted. In fact, her dress was almost the identical shade. The bond between my mother and my daughter surrounds them like a force field. They even look alike: large brown eyes, small noses, and mouths that form thin lines with downturned corners when they are displeased. Occasionally, when Meredith was an infant and I was holding her in my arms, she’d look at me in a certain loving yet measuring way and I’d be struck by the impression that I’d given birth to my mother. They understand each other at a deep and strange level. “I always know exactly what she needs,” my mother often says. “She doesn’t have to tell me.”

My mother and I never shared that sort of understanding. She seemed, on the contrary, to have a particular knack for dwelling on irrelevant details of the story I was telling, dismissive of things that mattered to me while praising me for things I cared nothing about, offering “constructive criticism” when what I needed was support. For instance, it was my father, not my mother, who took me shopping when I was in high school and quietly bought me Levi’s jeans when my mother said the ones from Fashion Barn with elastic waists were perfectly fine. As for Meredith—sometimes I felt uncertain how to approach her, standing there with her little lips turned down at the ends. How do I show her how much I love her without annoying her? Did my mother ever feel that way about me?

“Tonight will be a fitting swan song,” said my mother. “Did you know that when I was in college I gave my senior recital in the same hall? Charlotte Gackle and I gave a joint recital. And she’s coming tonight, can you imagine? Of course, she has changed her name. No soprano should be called ‘Gackle’!” She laughed. “But anyway, it’s a nice close to my solo career, I think. Full circle.”

*   *   *

I have seen photographs of her senior recital. They are black and white, so I can’t tell the color of her gown, but from the way its folds catch the light I can tell the fabric had a sheen. I know it was handmade, either by her mother or by her sister-in-law, who also sewed her wedding dress. My mother is seated in the photograph, slender, obscured from the waist down by a large bouquet of roses that are darker than the dress. She always took her glasses off for photographs, and she smiles at some point to the left of the camera, glamorous and blind.

My mother’s relationship with the piano began when she was a very small girl. She remembers playing the piano in her grandmother’s house in Seoul, and she remembers playing the piano on the boat that brought her and her family across the Pacific Ocean to the United States in 1940. When they finally reached Chicago, there was a piano in her new home, or more accurately, in the church that occupied the top floor of the small brownstone where they were to live. On weekdays my mother’s father peddled trinkets to factory workers, but on Sundays he was the minister of that church. The top floor was heated only on Sundays, and during the long Chicago winters, when my mother needed to practice, my mother’s mother walked in a semi-circle around her holding a small electric heater.

My parents were married in June, 1957. “Everyone got married after graduation,” my mother says. “That’s just what you did.”  Within three years they had two sons, and they all lived in student housing in Palo Alto, California, subsisting on my father’s fellowship while he earned his Ph.D. There was no room for a piano, even if they could afford one, even if she had had the time to play it.  After my father received his doctorate, they moved to Massachusetts, where I was born. We moved to Chicago, and then back to Massachusetts, when I was almost three; my parents decided this would be our permanent home. They were able, finally, to acquire a Baldwin upright and my mother began to play again. I had to go with her to her lessons. Her teacher was an ancient French Canadian lady who spoke accented English and lived in a townhouse filled with fragile items. I sat as still as I possibly could in a corner of the music room, but invariably Miss Giguère would sigh and tell me I had to sit somewhere else.

When I started school, my mother began teaching piano at home. She also began to arrange performances for herself. At the public library fundraiser. At the retirement home. Accompanying the church choir. Soloing with the high school orchestra. Any time she saw an opportunity to give a recital, she snatched it up. Performing gave her exposure, she said, and the exposure brought her more opportunities.

“I had to decide what I was going to do,” she told me recently. “And I realized I only knew how to do one thing. I knew how to play the piano. It’s not that I love it so much. But it’s the thing my parents labored so hard to give me, and it’s the only thing I know.”

*   *   *

We needed to let her get ready. “I’ll see you in just a little while, darling,” she said to Meredith, who nodded, took my hand, and came away without any protest. I wasn’t so understanding when I was young. I was already older than Meredith when my mother began to give concerts again, but I remember disliking the oddness of dinner being served by Dad, the percussion of high heels on the floor above our heads, the sight of my mother coming down the stairs two to three inches taller than normal with a hairdo like a helmet and lipstick like a warning.  She would help me into my tights in a distanced, careful way, and she would inspect us all, her mouth turned down, looking right into our eyes and licking her thumb to stick a stray hair in place. She would inspect my father, too, and question him about the status of the tape recorder and whether he had tested the batteries, making him defensive and impatient.

But now she saw us off cheerily without even asking what I was planning to wear, without admonishing my father to come back in time to take her over to the hall. We left to find my husband and my son, and I found myself looking forward to the evening, looking forward to hearing my mother play.

When I was young, and even when I was not so young, I disliked going to her concerts.  I particularly dreaded the aftermath. I would be relieved that it was over, and there were usually some cookies and juice on a table. But there would be a large crowd of well-wishers around my mother—old friends, colleagues from one of her piano associations, as well as complete strangers. She greeted each one with smiles and warm conversation—she never knew when someone who could advance her career might show up. I would want to go to her, but I knew that if I got too close she would introduce me to everyone and I hated that. My father and my brothers and I would stand around at a safe distance. It would be late. We would be tired. Finally, we’d gather up the freshest of the roses and get into the car.

And then she would ask us:

“What did you think?”

I knew there was something I was supposed to say, that there was a right thing to say, but I didn’t know what it was and neither did my father or brothers.

“You did very well,” my father might try.

“That doesn’t mean anything!” she would snap. “What did you think, Carol?”

“I thought you sounded very good,” I might offer tentatively.

“Which piece did you like best?”

“I don’t know. I thought they were all nice.”

“Oh!” she would groan. “Were you paying any attention at all?”

And we would ride dumbly home, where she would be unable to sleep and would sit up at the kitchen table long into the night.

*   *   *

After a quick dinner we dressed and walked the short distance to Lutkin Hall. As I watched my father striding ahead with the children, I noticed that he was not carrying the tape recorder. He had brought it dutifully to every concert I could remember, a dense black rectangular box that wheezed as it recorded. Because of the tape recorder we always had to sit close to the front, but not so close that my mother might be distracted by some slight misbehavior glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. But there was no tape recorder tonight. I assumed the old thing finally gave up the ghost and they had not been able to bring themselves to replace it, unwilling as they are to read instruction manuals. Once we reached the hall, my father seemed quite free about choosing his seats. In fact he changed seats, with the kids in tow, more than once.

Finally, everyone was seated and the house lights dimmed. After a pause, the stage lights went up dramatically, the side door opened and my mother stepped out in her pink gown. She walked briskly to the piano, placed one hand on its side, smiled graciously and inclined her head. I used to think it was funny, when I was a child, seeing her act that way. My children clapped and clapped. She sat down before the piano, half-rose, adjusted the bench a bit, sat, looked up to a spot on the far wall and began the Beethoven.

When I was a child I never knew the composers or names of the pieces she played, but I knew every note by heart from listening to them so many times. She practiced at night after we had gone to bed, after her long day of teaching recalcitrant students, making dinner, and otherwise providing for the needs of three children and a husband. Night after night I would lie in the dark and listen. Just as I would begin to drift off to a particularly lovely part I would be jerked awake by a wrong note, or a garbled passage, which would be followed by an abrupt stop and then several laborious repetitions of the offending phrase. Each repetition would jerk me awake anew. Because of this nightly conditioning, each mistake she made in a concert was almost physically painful to me. The other result of this conditioning was an unfortunate and much unappreciated tendency to fall asleep during her concerts.

But I had left home twenty years ago. I didn’t know this Beethoven. As usual, she was playing new repertory. Although I discerned a few falters, they caused me no distress. The children, taking their cues from their grandfather, held their applause between movements.

The second piece was a Chopin barcarolle, followed by his Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. Chopin has always been my mother’s favorite composer, and she is at her best with him—her affinity for this music obvious from the fluidity of her movements. Gradually I stopped listening for mistakes. I did what I always used to do at her concerts to help me stay awake—squinted at the stage until it became just bright light and two shapes, one large and black, one pink and animate, together producing sound yet disconnected from it.

*   *   *

When I was about six, someone who ran a prestigious piano workshop heard my mother play. He approached her after the recital and encouraged her to apply. My mother was very excited by this man’s attention, and she spent days carefully preparing her application and a tape. A few weeks after she sent it in, she received a letter from the workshop organizers. The letter said they were very impressed with her tape, but, unfortunately, one had to be twenty-five years old or younger to participate in this workshop.

“Isn’t that hilarious?” she said, holding the letter. “That man must have thought I was younger than twenty-five!” We all laughed, for it was a very funny idea. We sat down to eat lunch.

I saw it first, a pinkness spreading from the tip of her nose.

“Mom?” I said, just as she began to cry.

“Twenty-five!” she sobbed. “He thought I was twenty-five! Can you imagine?” My father squatted by her chair and put his arms around her, but I knew there was nothing he could do to make her twenty-five.

*   *   *

By the time I left home for college, my mother had made a name for herself in our town and the surrounding area both as a performer and a teacher. She couldn’t go to the grocery store or the post office without someone stopping her and asking, “Aren’t you Wanda Paik?” She had performed twice with the Boston Pops Orchestra, once under the great Arthur Fiedler himself. After I left home, she continued to expand her repertoire. My oldest brother joined the Foreign Service and she gave concerts at the embassies  where he was stationed, adding international performances to her résumé.  Her students, who now came to her from all over the state, regularly won contests and prizes. They kept in touch with her into their adulthoods, crediting her with changing their lives.

But: “Never be a musician,” she would tell my brothers and me. “It’s a life of drudgery. Most musicians have to teach tin-eared children day and night or else play at parties where people can’t hear you and put their drinks on the piano top. And for what? After all that drudgery, they’re too exhausted to play the music they want to play. So what’s the point of that? I’m so lucky, because I can choose my students now, and I can play whatever I want. But I only have those choices because I married Dad, and he’s such a good breadwinner.”

*   *   *

After the intermission she played the Rorem barcarolle and toccata. She used the sheet music for the Rorem—something she rarely does at a recital. “When you play twentieth-century music,” she had said, “it’s a good idea to put up the music just so the audience doesn’t think you’re making it up as you go along.” But in this case I knew she needed the music because she didn’t entirely trust her memory. I knew these pieces were a reach for her, almost as foreign to her nature as rock and roll. But she has always chosen to play, along with Chopin, pieces that make her reach.

As she began the final piece, a Bartók suite, I wondered about the tape recorder. This was her last solo recital, she had said. I would have liked to have a recording for my children. I would have liked to have something to remind me, something solid I could hold in my hand. We don’t have any recordings of her concerts, for the tapes my father so diligently made had never been intended for posterity. They were for her edification. In the days following the concert she would play and replay the tape, biting her lip over the worst parts, holding her breath through the best. Eventually, after she had wrung all the information out of it, she would reuse the tape.

There was one practice tape of hers that we kept for a while. On it, you could hear her practicing, and in the background the little sounds of my father and my brother playing chess. From time to time you could hear my brother, in his nine-year-old treble voice: “Cheap! Super cheap!” Then you heard him say, a little louder, “Oh, that was so cheap!” Then there was a banged chord and a clatter and my mother’s voice, shrill: “Get out of here!” We called this tape the “Get Out of Here” tape, and we saved it because it never failed to make us all laugh. But even that was gone now.

I was afraid that once she stopped playing I wouldn’t be able to remember what it sounded like. With no recording, my memory would have to suffice. I became a little panic-stricken and tried to listen harder. Perhaps if I somehow listened harder now, I would be able to keep it in my mind. I wanted the music to continue, for as long as it continued it could speak for itself and I wouldn’t have to try to find a way to describe it.

But eventually the music stopped, and everyone was clapping. My mother bowed, exited, returned, bowed again. Someone ran up the few steps to the stage and handed her a bouquet of red roses. My mother disappeared through the side door.

I took my children by the hand and we hurried up onto the stage and after her so we could get to her before the well-wishers. We rushed through the stage door and found her in a small room with a little square table. When she saw us she dropped the roses onto the table and knelt down to gather the children in her arms.

“I think you were great,” I told her.

Author’s Note: Now that I’m a mother who’s trying to be a writer, I finally have some appreciation for my own mother’s struggle to fulfill both domestic responsibilities and personal aspirations. Her energy, determination, and relentlessly high standards are inspirational to me. Not surprisingly, the concert described in this essay was, in fact, not her last. Five years later she’s still going strong.

Carol Paik lives with her family in New York.  Her essays have appeared, among other places, in Brain, Child; Tin House; The Gettysburg Review; Literal Latte; Fourth Genre; and Full Grown People.  More of her writing at www.carolpaik.com.  

Brain, Child (Spring, 2006)

Our Social Experiment

Our Social Experiment

By Paige Schilt

fall2010_schiltLast Christmas, we decided to splurge and spend a few nights at a fancy beach resort. From the moment the clerk ushered us into the “VIP check-in room,” I knew we were in for an adventure. Our five-year-old son, Waylon, plunged head first into a butter-colored club chair. “Honey, please keep your shoes off the furniture,” I said, feeling my class insecurities creep up like a slow and annoying blush.

“But, Mama, I’m a seal.” He rested his front flippers on the marble floor.

I scanned the clerk’s face, hoping for the knowing look that tells you you’re in the presence of Family. Nary a blip on the old gaydar. His eyes were resolutely glued to his computer screen.

My wife, Katy, was not helping. Early that morning, she’d loaded up our vacation baggage. Then she’d navigated the car through hectic holiday traffic. Now she slouched in the chair beside me, tattooed arms folded across her pecs, head tilted back in a caricature of repose. Mirrored sunglasses shielded her eyes. She was ready for a nap.

I gamely answered the check-in questions, keeping one eye on Waylon, who was maneuvering across the floor on his belly. Like his parents, he was clad in black. His t-shirt was emblazoned with an electric guitar and the words “Toxic Waste.” I wondered what the clerk made of our tousled entourage. Perhaps he thought that only the truly rich and famous would be bold enough to despoil the Sand Pearl Resort with such dishevelment. Did he think we might be rock stars?

Apparently, he sized us up and designated us “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

As in, “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Schilt, we hope you enjoy your stay.”

“The bellman will get those bags, Mr. Schilt.”

“Can I get you some ice, Mrs. Schilt?”

Thus registered in the hotel’s central database, we seemed doomed to pass the remainder of our holiday as hapless characters in a comedy of errors.

*   *   *

When Waylon was three years old, we started trying to include him in the ritual of holiday gift giving. “Waylon,” I began, “what do you think Mommy would like for Christmas?”

“Trains,” he said, without missing a beat.

“What do you think Grandma would like?” I persisted.

“Trains.”

“What do you think we should get for Auntie?” By this time I was just testing.

“Trains.”

Waylon is a boy with a single-minded passion for wheeled vehicles. When he got his first train set, he didn’t sleep for three nights. Eventually, in the kind of problem-solving that emerges from intense sleep deprivation, I found myself napping on the couch at three a.m. while Waylon navigated Thomas the Tank Engine around the track.

By the next Christmas, Waylon’s allegiance had switched to cars, but gift-giving was still largely an exercise. With lots of not-so-subtle encouragement from his parents, Waylon strung some necklaces for friends and family, but he hadn’t really developed the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and desires. Most of his handiwork looked like a random aggregation of begrudgingly selected shapes and colors.

Ironically, the one bright glimmer of hope was the necklace Waylon made for my sister, an old-school goth with a penchant for black tights, ripped crinolines, and creepy Victorian bonnets. When he sat down to make Auntie’s necklace, Waylon carefully selected the darkest and most macabre beads in his little craft kit. Heartened, I consulted my childrearing bible, a tattered copy of Touchpoints, which reassured me that empathy—the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and feelings—develops along a slow and uneven trajectory.

*   *   *

One day, not long after Waylon made his aunt a gothic necklace, Katy and I were stretched out on the couch of our couples therapist’s beigely appointed office. (We jokingly refer to our therapist as Guru—partly because of her preference for New Age shawls, and partly because we truly believe that she is brilliant, compassionate, and wise.) On this particular day, we were talking about parenting (our favorite easy topic), and I happened to mention some of Waylon’s ideas about gender.

Guru’s normally unflappable exterior betrayed a hint of concern. As her eyebrow arched upward, I moved defensively to the edge of the couch. Guru asked a follow-up question. And then another.

“We’ve always talked about my surgery,” Katy explained. “He knows that I never felt completely like a girl and that I changed my chest to be more comfortable in my body.”

“He has his own vocabulary,” I added. “He calls Katy a ‘boy-girl.'”

Our therapist seemed most concerned about whether Waylon believed that his own gender and sex might be malleable. According to psychoanalytic timetables, core gender identity is supposed to be consolidated by two or three years of age. Were Guru’s pursed lips suggesting that we were in danger of derailing our child’s development?

Part of me felt defiant, wanting to challenge the whole notion of static gender identity. Another (irrational) part of me was sure she was going to call Child Protective Services the moment we left her office.

Queer people have been told for so long that we are not fit to be parents. It’s impossible not to internalize some of the shame that is projected onto us, especially when it comes to our culture’s most hallowed idol, the family. So I felt the sting of my therapist’s troubled look. But I also understood that her reaction was rooted in the assumption that what’s normal is natural and good.

As queer parents, our gift is to remember all the coaxing, coercion, and even outright violence it takes to make normal gender development seem inevitable and desirable. By the logic of that trajectory, we did not turn out okay—yet we that we turned out okay. If we can hold onto this contradiction, if we can resist the shame, we can forge new family values that affirm gender diversity as a precious blessing.

*   *   *

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson likes to refer to gay and lesbian families as an “untested and far-reaching social experiment.” For Dobson and his ilk, the essence of the good family is adherence to gender roles: Men and women have certain natural strengths, which are divinely ordained to complement each other. In this view of history, the blueprint for family gender roles was spelled out in Genesis and remained virtually unchanged until the lesbian baby boom.

But contrary to what the promoters of traditional family would have us believe, queer people are hardly the first to tinker in the laboratory of gender development. Back in 1962, Katy’s mother was determined to produce a baby girl. Donna and her husband, a small-town Texas football coach called Big Phil, already had two strapping young sons. But Donna yearned for a soul mate, a confidante, a fashion plate. In a word, she wanted a daughter.

This was before the advent of routine prenatal ultrasounds, but Donna was undaunted by the lack of reliable information about the sex of her fetus. A hardy optimist with a penchant for bullet bras and blond wiglets, Donna put her faith in the power of positive thinking. She taped a picture of a baby girl to the Frigidaire. She tied pink ribbons to lampshades and chairs, where she could see them as she dusted the end tables and vacuumed the dining room.

In order to enlist the help of the community, Donna threw a “Think Pink” shower. Her friends served pink cake and adorned Donna with a pink corsage. They brought pink presents. Hand-smocked dresses with tiny petticoats were laid in the dresser in the nursery, which was (of course) pink.

When the due date finally arrived, Donna had a bad case of pneumonia. She arrived in the delivery room heavily drugged. The family doctor, an unassuming sadist named Grundy Cooper knew how badly Donna wanted a girl. “Oh, he looks real good, Donna,” Grundy teased from behind the modesty curtain that bisected her upper and lower halves.

“Shut up, Grundy, she is not a boy,” Donna growled.

After the final push, Donna shouted, “Let me see her genitals! Let me see her genitals!” Grundy took his sweet time, holding the baby upside down, delivering the breath-inducing spank, and finally placing the tiny body on the scale where Donna could see it. When the fluorescent lights reflected off the shiny steel cradle of the scale, Donna’s drug and hormone-addled eyes noted two things: a vulva and a hazy white halo.

“She’s an angel, Phillip,” she said to her husband, who had been hastily summoned from the waiting room. “She’s an angel.”

*   *   *

Nine years later, my own parents were speeding toward the hospital in their purple Volkswagen beetle. Mom was breathing “hee, hee, hoo” as the contractions came closer together. She’d planned a natural birth, without drugs or modesty curtains; she very nearly had a natural birth without a hospital. By the time the car pulled up at the emergency entrance, she was too far along to sit in a wheelchair. She had to waddle into the delivery room on her own. Nurses rushed my father into a gown so that he could fulfill his duties as labor coach.

Although my parents’ milieu of Lamaze exercises and hippie cars may seem worlds away from Donna’s East Texas, my mom and dad had at least one thing in common with Donna: a determination to shape their child’s gender identity and expression. But while Katy’s mother dreamed of birthing a tiny beauty queen, my parents aspired to raise the next Bella Abzug.

Instead of frilly dresses, my parents gave me a pink plaster plaque that said “Girls Can Do Anything!” They bade me goodnight with the affirmation, “You can grow up to be the first woman president.” And they bought me the Sunshine Family dolls as an antidote to the bimboesque influence of Barbie.

The Sunshine Family lived in a cardboard craft store, complete with a spinning wheel and pottery kiln. Sunshine Mama (whose name was “Steffie”) wore a calico maxi-dress and a baby on her hip. Her barefoot feet were realistically flat. But Steffie’s half-inch waist and candy floss hair were pure Mattel fantasy. In my imaginative play, her husband, Steve, worked the cash register, while she pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. Despite Steffie’s hippie accessories, the horizon of her liberation was circumscribed by marriage and motherhood. My parents’ good intentions were no match for the internal contradictions of mass culture.

Thus, although Free to Be You and Me was in heavy rotation on my plastic ladybug record player, I grew up convinced that marriage or the convent were my only possible destinies. By the time I was eight, I had already concluded that I was too brunette and substantial to inspire romance. I regret to say that I did not indulge in proto-lesbian fantasies about convent life, but rather viewed the nun’s habit as a badge of failure, a kind of scarlet V for unwanted virginity. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series consoled me with the thought that a strong work ethic might make me worthy to be some man’s wife.  My solitary twin bed was the site of vivid fantasies about scrubbing his shirts on a tin washboard.

*   *   *

On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the mid-’60s and a joint. I think Katy guessed that my feminist consciousness was going to need expanding if we were to swap childhood stories in the way that new lovers do. She’d dated enough women’s studies majors to guess that “the cultural construction of gender” would be my mantra, the magic words that were supposed to save me from the depressing determinism of biology as destiny and the one-size-fits-all essentialism of universal sisterhood.

Savvy as she was, she could hardly have anticipated the intensity of my views. I leaned fervently, incontrovertibly toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If anyone spoke to me of gender as something innate or remotely natural, I did the intellectual equivalent of covering my ears and shouting “la, la, la, I can’t hear you!”

In my heart, I believed that acknowledging a biological component to gender was a slippery slope that would land me right back in front of that washboard, scrubbing collars.

Now, in reel after reel, I discovered Katy at two, three, and four—already miraculously masculine, already chafing like a football player in frilly dresses, already looking dejected when she unwrapped yet another doll from underneath the Christmas tree.

Suddenly, the whole notion of nature vs. nurture ceased to make sense. Her pintsize Texas swagger was culturally correct—and a total violation of the prevailing gender system. It was incongruent with biology—and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.

The highlight of the home movie festival was the moment when Little Katy appeared in buckskin hunting jacket and coonskin cap. She posed next to the Christmas tree, clearly delighted by her freewheeling duds, but she was distracted by a large, rectangular package in the pile of presents. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.

Having grown up with the peaceful Sunshine Family, I was hardly used to celebrating childhood gun ownership … and yet, I found myself strangely un-horrified. There was something undeniably liberating in her joy, something that forced me to reach beyond my usual knee-jerk reactions. Maybe it was the pot. Or maybe I was falling in love.

“Dude,” I said, “this is blowing my mind.”

*   *   *

Just before our trip to the beach last December, we went to Target to find a gift for Waylon’s friend Laila, whom he’s known from infancy. As I was hefting Waylon into the cart, I asked him what he thought Laila would like, fully expecting him to list his latest vehicular obsessions.

“Umm, I think … Barbie.”

Has ever a parenting moment been more bittersweet? I hugged him and showered him with praise for thinking about someone else’s feelings.

Privately, I was imagining my white, blonde, blue-eyed son delivering a Barbie to his brown-skinned, black-haired girl friend. It looked like a tableau with the caption “Gender and Imperialism.”

Luckily, at that moment, Katy arrived from parking the car and settled the matter with a quick phone call to Laila’s aunt. It turned out that Waylon was right; Laila was expecting a Barbie Dream House from Santa. And she needed furniture. Relieved that we would not bear the responsibility of introducing our young friend to Barbie, I followed my family to the toy aisle, where we proceeded to ponder tiny pink bedroom sets.

*   *   *

A few days later, we were installed at the fancy beach resort. It was beginning to dawn on me that two hundred dollars a night buys an alarmingly frequent level of personal contact. The entire staff seemed to be connected by walkie-talkie; as we passed from reception to the lobby to our room, we were repeatedly greeted as “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

Although her identity is somewhere between genders, Katy is quite content to pass as male in such situations. It’s her voice that usually gives her away. That evening, in the time it took for the waiter to unpack our room service order, she had gone from “Mr. Schilt” to “ma’am.” We joked about it on the way home, imagining a one-woman show called “From Mister to Ma’am.”

Not to be left out of the joke, Waylon said, “Yeah, he didn’t realize that you were a girl-boy,” in a tone of five-year-old comic exasperation.

“Wait, I thought you called Mommy a ‘boy-girl,'” I said.

“No, that was back when I was only thinking of myself, so I always put ‘boy’ first. But now I’m thinking of other people,” he explained.

Sitting in the front seat, I felt my heart swell.  It wasn’t just because Waylon was giving Katy a precious gift of recognition. It was because he was so proud of his ability to consider someone else’s feelings.  He is compassionate.  He is kind.  As far as I’m concerned, this social experiment is turning out just fine.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: This past Mother’s Day, Waylon made a homemade card for my mother. It read: “Dear Meemaw, when I am with you, a door in my heart opens like never before.”  I was a bit taken aback by the heightened diction, but I remembered that his first-grade class had just finished a unit on poetry.  “Did you hear those words in class?” I asked. “No,” he answered, “my heart told it to me.”

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

Paige Schilt is a writer and activist from Austin, Texas. Her blog, queerrocklove.com, chronicles the adventures of a gay, transgender, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South.

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.

It Gets Better

It Gets Better

Letter to My Teen Self ArtDear Me,

You know how you feel when you see the “Runaway Truck Ramp” sign on the highway? Like there must be an eighteen-wheeler barreling massively behind you, on the brakeless verge of destroying your beautiful, doomed life? You can picture the tiny, rosy-cheeked children screaming, clinging to you, since you are, of course, riding in the back with them the better to distribute string cheese and hand-holding and the occasional contorted breast, bared and stretched towards somebody’s crying face, but only if they’ve been crying for a long time. About to be crushed—all of it. But runaway truck also feels like a metaphor for something—for you, maybe, with your impulse to careen off alone to Portugal or Applebee’s, just so you can sit for five unmolested minutes with a sandwich and a glass of beer. Just so you can use the bathroom one time, without having a concurrent conversation about poop with the short person who has to stand with a consoling hand on your knee, looking worriedly up into your straining face. Later, it won’t be like that. You’ll see the sign, and the nearby gravelly uphill path, and you’ll think, “That’s a good idea, for the runaway trucks.” Also, you will shit alone.

You know how you know by heart the phone number of the Poison Control Center? Because the children, your constantly imperiled children, like to eat ice melt and suck batteries and help themselves to nice, quenching guzzles of cough medicine? You won’t know that number anymore.

One day, the children will eat neither pennies nor crayons nor great, gulping handfuls of sand like they have a powerful thirst for sand, sand, only sand. They will no longer choke on lint and disks of hot dog or fall down the stairs, their heads making the exact, sickening, hollow-melon thump that you knew they would make, when you knew they would fall down the stairs. They will still fall out of trees and off of trampolines. They will still scrape their elbows and knees and foreheads, and you will still be called upon to tend to these injuries. And you will be happy to, because they so rarely need you to kneel in front of them any more, to kiss them tenderly, here, and also here. Rest assured, though, that there will be ongoing opportunity for the knelling likelihood of doom and destruction. Ticks will attach their parasitic selves to the children’s scalps and groins; rashes and fevers and mysterious illnesses will seize everyone, and you will still go on a Googling rampage of “mild sore throat itchiness coma death.” The kids will still barf with surprising frequency—but competently, into tidy buckets, rather than in a spraying impersonation of a vomit-filled Super-Soaker on the drunk frat boy setting.

You know how you see germs everywhere? Every last microbe illuminated by the parental headlamp of your OCD? One day you won’t. One day you will handle doorknobs and faucets and even, like a crazy person, the sign-in pen at the pharmacy. In a public bathroom, the children will no longer need to touch and/or lick every possible surface. Seriously.

You know how you’re tired? So tired that you mistake talking in an exhausted monotone about your tiredness for making conversation? You won’t be tired. Or rather, you will sometimes be tired, sometimes rested, like regular people are. You won’t have to blearily skim the passage of the novel you’re reading, where the protagonist lies down on her soft bed, between crisp, clean sheets, your own eyes filled with tired, envious tears. You won’t daydream about rest and recumbency, lawn chairs and inflated pool rafts and white hotel comforters. You won’t look forward to the dentist, just so you can recline alone for forty heavenly, tartar-scraping minutes. One day, you will once again go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. You will sleep as much as you want to. You’ll actually be shocked if you don’t get to, if a child is ill or can’t fall asleep, even though now you lie wedged into various cribs and cots, night after night, still as a button, while a small somebody drifts off and snaps awake gropingly and drifts off again. “How did we used to do it?” you will say, and your husband will shake his head and grimace. You will no longer be constantly scheming to lie down, tricking the kids into playing another round of “Sick Patient,” so you can be dead on the couch while they prod you therapeutically with plastic screwdrivers and the doll’s bottle. “I’m still not better,” you mumble now, but you will be. You really will.

One day, you’ll be sitting on the couch with your husband, reading the Sunday paper, and around the time you’re getting to the book review, you’ll think to ask, “Are the kids still sleeping?” And he’ll shrug without putting down the sports section. The kids might be sleeping, or they might be reading in their beds, playing with Legos, stroking the cat, bickering gently, resolving their differences. And you will be awake, even though you don’t have to be. I swear it on a stack of attachment-parenting books. Speaking of the newspaper: You will one day climb back into bed with the heavy wedge of folded sections and an unspilled mug of hot, milky coffee. You will even do the crossword puzzle—and all the puzzles you’ve been saving. It’s okay—I know about the newspaper that still arrives constantly, either because you’re in denial amount the way you recycle it unread, or because you cannot recall your account password and don’t have the intelligence or emotional resiliency to figure out how to cancel your subscription. But still you tear out the Sunday crossword and stuff it into your bedside table with this crazy idea that you might get to it later. And you will. You’ll open the drawer one evening (to ferret out some birth control, no less) and you’ll find the archaeological evidence of your optimism: hundreds of puzzles spanning a sizable chunk of the early millennium. And you’ll lie around doing them in a kind of ecstatic trance, practically eating bonbons and weeping with happiness.

You will have time to run and bike and do yoga and floss and have sex. And sometimes you won’t, but it won’t even be the children’s fault. It’s just that you’re lazy. Or doing a crossword puzzle.

You know your body? How it’s like baggy, poorly curated exhibit about reproduction? You know how your weaned bosom looks like a cross between a pair of used condoms and Santa’s sack, on the day after Christmas? All empty and stretched out with maybe one or two lumpy leftover presents that couldn’t be delivered? It will all get better. The bosom will never again look like a bursting gift-filled bag of awesome, that’s true. But it will look less harrowed by motherhood; the breasts, they will tighten up a bit. All of it will tighten up a bit and be yours again, to do with what you will. For example, your husband won’t gesture to you at a party after you’ve been nursing the baby. “What?” you mouth back now, sticking a fingernail between your teeth. “Spinach?” And he shakes his head and points at your front, and you look down to see the elastic top of your tank top, and how your left breast is hanging over it. That won’t happen any more. But it’s true that some of your many nipple hairs will turn gray.

Even though you’re older, though, you’ll actually be less hunched! One day, whenever you arrive somewhere, you will simply get out of the car and walk inside! You won’t be permanently bent over to deal with the car seat/seat belt/shoes/socks/sippy cups/diapers/turd on the floor. Why, you wonder, does so much of your current life take place below you? (It’s because the kids are small.) One day infants and diaper bags and hemorrhoids and boobs won’t be hanging off of your person like you’re a cross between a human mobile and a Sherpa and a performance art piece about Dante’s Inferno. The flip side is that there will be fewer cuddles. Lots still, but fewer. For example, every morning you will have to kiss your twelve-year-old good-bye not on the school walkway, but in the bushes before you get there, like you’re sneaky, chaste teenagers.

You know all those things you thought would be fun with kids, but secretly kind of aren’t? Going to museums, making biscuits, watching the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies, ice skating, swimming, singing in the rain—how they all end in tears and pooping and everybody needing to be rocked to sleep in the sling? All those things really will be fun! You’re just doing them too soon because you’re bored of HI-Ho Cherry-o and the diaper-smell Children’s Room of the library and those hairshirts of conversation about would you stay partners with Daddy if he turned into a mosquito and was always buzzing around and stinging everybody but had his same face? One day, you will watch Monty Python and The King’s Speech with the kids, instead of Arthur’s Easter Egg Surprise and Caillou by Mistake Draws on a Library Book, and you will hardly believe your good luck. At the dinner table, you’ll talk about natural selection and socialized medicine. You’ll arrive at your campsite, and the children will carry wood and play beanbag toss, rather than cramming pinecones and beetles into their mouths before darting into the road to get run over by a Jeep. Your vigilance will ebb away until you actually take for granted how it feels to sit with a beer in your hand, looking unworriedly up at a sky full of stars with a lapful of big kid.

They will still believe in fairies. Sort of.

They will buckle their own seatbelts and make themselves toast and take their dishes to the sink instead of flinging them to the floor like the drunk, tyrannical fathers from Irish novels. They will do most, if not all, of the important things that you worry they’ll never be able to do, ever, such as following the pendulum of your finger with their gaze and wading in the neighbor’s inflatable pool and riding the merry-go-round (phew!). Speaking of merry-go-rounds: The years will start to fly by surreally, the seasons recurring like you’re captive on a deranged carousel of time. The dogwood will bloom, it will be Christmas, the dogwood will bloom again, the children will start middle school. That is how it will be.

They will stop doing most of the annoying things that you worry they’ll always do: They won’t sob into their cottage cheese for no reason, or announce guiltily, “Floss isn’t for eating,” or make you sing the ABCs like a lullaby, no, not like that, like this. They won’t ride the wheeled xylophone around the house like it’s a skateboard or lick spears of asparagus before leaving them, mysteriously, on the couch. They won’t talk about poop all the time. Kidding. They will still totally talk about poop all the time!

Not to be all baby out with the bathwater, but they’re also going to stop doing some of the things you love. They will learn that the line from “Eleanor Rigby” is not actually all the lonely peacocks. They won’t squint into the darkness and marvel at the moon beans, or hold their breaths when you pass the gravetary. They will no longer announce odd questions into the darkness of bedtime. “Mama, mama—how do cats turn into old cats?” And you will no longer sigh and say, “Time.” But they will be funnier on purpose. “Is that a robin?” your daughter will ask one day, pointing to a bird hopping along the hedge. When you say no, “Robins have red breasts,” she will say, “Plural? Breasts?” and use two index fingers to pantomime a bosom. They will make you laugh all the time, and they will make you think, and they will be exactly as beautiful as they are now. But with missing and giant teeth instead of those minuscule rows of pearls you so admire.

You know how you secretly worry that this is it, that it’s all downhill from here? I know you do. The children will turn into hulking criminals; their scalps will turn odorless; life will just generally suck. You lie in bed now during a thunderstorm, two sleeping, moonlight faces pressed against you, fragrant scalps intoxicating you, the rain on the roof like hoof beats, heartbeats—and the calamity of raising young children falls away because this is all you ever wanted. You boo-hoo noiselessly into the kids’ hair, because life is so beautiful, and you don’t want it to change. Enjoy it, do. But let me tell you—you won’t believe it, but let me—you will watch them sleeping still and always: the illuminated down of their cheeks, their dark puffs of lips and dear, dark wedges of eyelashes, and you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.

Author’s Note: When Ben was three weeks old or so, sobbing in the front pack at the natural foods market while I fantasized about killing myself with an overdose of patchouli, a woman leaned in close to say, “Enjoy this. It’s such a fun age.” Then her head all but spun around, green vomit spraying from her mouth, when she added, “It’s all downhill from here.” So, I just want to be clear here that I wrote this piece not because I didn’t love having babies and toddlers swarming around for years and years, but because I loved  it so much that I was always paralyzed with terror about it ending. “Just you wait,” people have been saying doomfully to me for years. So I wanted to say it to you: just you wait. It gets even better. 

Brain, Child (Summer 2012)

Skate Park

Skate Park

By Carrie Mesrobian

winter07_mesrobianI go to the skate park to relax. I bring my nephews and their friends, and while they drop off the ramps and grind the rails and furiously attempt to ollie, nose-manual frontside pop-shove-it casper slide, impossible-out on their sticker-plastered skateboards, I crochet, sip soda, listen to public radio on my headphones. I leave my daughter Matilda at home with my husband and let my mind wander, with the sun on my face, free of housework, yard work, phone calls, clutter. As far as kid duties go, it’s a good gig.

Today we’re going to the skate park over by St. Anthony Park, a few neighborhoods away from ours. In the car I’ve got my nephew Sid and his friend Joey. They’re both nine years old, fourth graders, and both sport shaggy blond hair and narrow, thin bodies. As usual, Sid carries his glossy eight-ball helmet. His mother—my sister—insists that he wear it. Both boys are wearing long t-shirts and pants that drag over their skate shoes, which also drag and scrape against the asphalt.

Both boys endlessly catalogue and compare the skate shoes everyone else wears. They bicker back and forth like an old couple: Do they sell Etnies at the Hot Spot? Or Zumiez? Do they sell stickers there? Geoff Rowley decks? Would Rodney Mullen go to Zumiez or the Hot Spot? Definitely the Hot Spot. Zumiez is a chain store in the mall.

Rodney Mullen is Sid’s hero. He can do a 540 shove-it, double kickflip, a nose manual impossible-out, a nose manual darkslide, double caspers and varial heelflips. He is known as the king of freestyle skating and his favorite place to skate is atop picnic tables. Rodney Mullen can flip a skateboard under his feet and land on it, teetering on the deck’s edge. In 1980, when I was in first grade, Rodney Mullen turned pro and skated for legendary skateboard maker Powell Peralta. In 1980, Sid’s parents were in fourth grade.

“St. Anthony’s is better than New Brighton,” Joey tells me with the sharp-eyed certainty about everything skate-related he and Sid share.

Whatever. Here we are. The boys burst out of the car and run ahead of me.

Since I’m not Sid’s parent, I don’t feel obliged to watch every skateboard trick. Besides, Sid is now too cool to ever ask me; he is quite conscious of the older boys who are sometimes hanging around, the ones who aren’t made to wear helmets, the ones with tattoos and pierced ears and heavy hooded black sweatshirts.

The Black Hooders. That’s what I privately call them. Last week at the New Brighton skate park, I saw one of them tamping a pack of cigarettes against his palm, which should have outraged me. The signs at all the skate parks we visit clearly state, “No smoking, drinking, drug use, profanity”—your basic list of swimming pool rules. But I can remember being fourteen years old and slapping a new pack of cigarettes against my own palm, an act filled with pleasure and anticipation. I remember having watched a girl named Kalli do the very same ritual before opening a pack and I imitated her because she was sharp and savvy in other deviant ways. Still, I wish those Black Hooder boys would not smoke in front of younger kids.

I lean back on the park bench and sigh. I listen to a cooking show on public radio while keeping a lazy eye out for my charges. The St. Anthony skate park is right behind a police station. I take comfort in that, figuring if the Black Hooders show obvious signs of delinquency or if someone hurts himself, I’ve got backup.

Today, I see no Black Hooders. Which is good, in a way, because watching my nephew navigate around this kind of kid fills me with an uneasy nostalgia. When I was just a few years older than Sid, I was a boy-crazy fiend for the Black Hooder type. Their quiet, unimpressed manner was such a challenge. I was desperate to make them notice me, to get the attention of boys who barely looked up even to dismiss me. Not all of them were skaters, but they were all on the fringe of acceptable behavior. They smoked Camels and drank Jack Daniels and bought and sold pot and swiped their moms’ cars and played in bands with stolen amps and guitars. They wore their hair shaggy over their faces, and long in the back. The kids today would call that style a mullet. I’ve always loved boys with long, shaggy hair.

Shaggy hair like Sid’s and Joey’s.

Who are now scrounging up change for the soda machine. I step to attention and hand over some dimes from my coin purse. I ask them how it’s going.

“Didn’t you see that manual I did?” Sid asks. “From off the piano?”

“Uh, no, I missed it,” I say, feeling like a fraud. “Could you do it again?”

I take off my headphones and pay attention now. I watch both boys drop in from the biggest ramp and perform various kinds of twists and flips into the middle, shorter ramp, which I guess is the “piano.” As they wipe out and their boards fly from under their feet, I start surveying the rest of the group.

There is one older boy who is shirtless and covered with tattoos. He’s lanky but with whips of muscle everywhere. He smiles at Sid and Joey and asks them if they are all right when they fall down. Okay, Tattooed Shirtless is nice. Then there’s a taller kid with a strange body shape who waved to me when I made eye contact. I’m not sure if the taller kid is a boy or a girl—the body shape is unrecognizable under the baggy clothing. The face is clean and smooth, but the hair is short. But then again … are those boobs under that shirt? Or is it just a slightly chubby boy? From the standpoint of pity, Gender Confused earns my approval immediately, because he/she has obvious vulnerabilities. Plus, Gender Confused is alone; Tattooed Shirtless has a buddy talking to him from the sidelines.

Thus begins my rally for Gender Confused. I think of how scary and painful it is to be teased and ostracized. As a female, I can relate to being embarrassed and ashamed of my body. I imagine skateboarding as the savior of Gender Confused, a rebel activity in which he/she seeks solace from a cruel, conformist world.

I locate Sid and Joey in the middle of a clutch of boys their age, none of whom look the skateboarder part. These younger boys have short haircuts and jock clothes and look like they’ll be frequenting sports bars in another fifteen years. One of them is yelling snottily and the rest are giggling like fiends, showing a lot of pink gums, hollering. Sid and Joey stand by them, grinning and talking. Instantly, I am annoyed.

This is the boy who was The Enemy for me as a young girl. He’s the Anti-Black Hooder, the Class Clown Boy who tormented other kids by heckling, by seeking too much attention, by noticing too much detail. Class Clown Boy yelled mean jokes and snapped bra straps. The Class Clown boy ran with a pack of human laugh tracks, stalking those with unusual plumage. Thanks to my adult status, though, I’m no longer fearful of the Class Clown. Conventional, respectful of authority and status quo, the Clown is only as powerful as his cackling cohort. If they mouth off to me, I can stand up, hands on hips, and deliver a shrill smackdown. Instant Adult! (A move that could send Sid into orbit with embarrassment.)

So now I am sure the hateful Class Clown and his friends are mocking Gender Confused and this worries me. I am concerned for Gender Confused and wondering if there’s anything I could do or say that might let him/her know I am not an asshole like the Class Clowns. When s/he skates past me, I wave. I get a nod and a hello back. Okay, good.

Still, I am bothered by Sid and Joey’s apparent alliance with the Class Clowns. I resolve to underscore to them the evils that beset the paths of the Cackling Cohort. Perhaps Tattooed Shirtless will set a better example for everyone at the skate park before my pent-up indignation makes me do something dramatic.

I am puffed up with self-righteous annoyance by the time Sid and Joey, sweaty and ruddy-faced, come to tell me they want to go.

As I pull out of the parking lot, Sid and Joey tell me that another kid offered them some pot.

“WHAT?!!” I hit the brakes. “Pot? Who?”

They give me a pitch-perfect description of Gender Confused.

“You mean the one that you couldn’t tell was a boy or a girl?” I say.

“Uh huh,” Sid says. Then he and Joey giggle.

I am shocked at Gender Confused’s betrayal. I waved at that kid! I felt bad for him! Or her! Goddammit!

“How do you know it was pot?” I ask.

“Because he…” Joey stammers, “…I mean, she…”

“It!” Sid tosses in helpfully, which makes Joey collapse in laughter.

“‘It’ asked us if we wanted a hit,” Joey says.

A hit? While they snicker about pronouns in the backseat, I frantically review all my cumulative marijuana knowledge. Yeah, sometimes we called it taking a hit. Then I wonder if it wasn’t some new other drug. I want to ask the boys more detailed questions—Was it a pipe or was it like a cigarette? What did it smell like?—but I don’t know if that is an appropriate Drug-Free America line of questioning.

The car is stifling. The seat upholstery is scratchy and I can feel sweat dripping down my back into my butt crack. I am a thirty-one-year-old mom driving around two fourth grade boys who have just been offered marijuana by a gender-confused teenager and I’m not sure what to say.

I rush through my thin knowledge of child development, a semester of educational psychology. Um, are fourth graders still using either/or thinking? Are they in an authority-testing phase? Should I bolster their self-esteem in an effort to keep them immune from drug abuse? Do I attempt to foster empathy by explaining Gender Confused’s possible rationale for getting high, his unfortunate situation in an oppressive, binary-gendered world? Where are they on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Uh, maybe not.

Do I tell them the reality, that skateboarders don’t tend to grow up to be Sunday school teachers? I sigh. I know which route I’m going to take. I’m not sure it’s right.

“So, what did you do?” I ask, trying to seem cool.

They tell me how they and some other kids—the Class Clown brats—said no to the offer. The Class Clowns, in turns out, were actually making fun of Gender Confused because of the pot-smoking, not the indiscernible gender.

Great. The fucking Class Clowns are the heroes.

I tell the boys the next time we go to the skate park to let me know if someone offers them drugs.

“Why?” Sid asks. “Are you going to say something?”

“I won’t embarrass you,” I say. “I’ll just tell them that if they have any brains, they won’t smoke pot right behind the cop shop.”

It’s the light-hearted route, my usual schtick. This is my role in Sid’s life: Wisecracking Aunt Who Occasionally Swears.

I know that no matter my approach, at age nine, Sid and Joey are independent souls. At age fourteen, they will be independent souls who might experiment with cigarettes, drugs, or booze. I realize, against the evidence supplied by Frontline documentaries and lurid news reports, that I honestly believe that this experimentation is natural, even desirable. I recall cracking beers behind the grocery store before high school football games. I see myself illegally buying cigarettes from Dirty Ed’s Superette. I remember coughing and choking on pot smoke in my friend Becky’s car one winter night before a school dance. I see those events as plot points in the story of my life. Some people I know who smoked pot turned out to be losers. Some of them are now in middle management at big corporations. I am unable to manufacture an alarmist, mother-hen reaction.

As I cruise past at thirty miles per hour, I see people in their driveways washing cars, in their yards mowing grass, standing on the sidewalk chatting with neighbors. It’s a beautiful day, and I am one of those neighbor-people, going to home to wash, mow, chat. But I also want to stick my head out the car window and holler.

I feel sorry for Gender-Confused!

I would probably smoke pot, too, if I were him or her!

I think Tattooed Shirtless has a hot body!

Furthermore, those little giggling fuckers who probably are A students and star athletes? If my daughter brings one home, I might be slightly disappointed! Hoo Rah for the outcasts and for flirting with disaster!

And, yes, as a matter of fact, I am somebody’s mother!

Sid, Joey—and my own baby, Matilda: You might be extremely good and law-abiding or you might be much cleverer than your parents and I were. The former will keep you safer, and the latter is the only way you won’t get caught. Chances are that you won’t be either/or.

Though I am in charge of you, I remember what it feels like to be young. I still haven’t figured out how to mix those two together.

Did you know that sometimes I still dream about that first cigarette I had every morning before school, the last few puffs I had before the last few stoplights and then the school parking lot, where I had to stealthily crush it out on my heel, then toss it out the window?

Damn. I remember. And even then I knew better. We all know better.

Brain, Child (Winter 2007)

Carrie Mesrobian is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. Her writing has been featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Calyx and other publications.

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The Leaf Scientist

The Leaf Scientist

By Diana Renn

Fall leafs seamless background.When my five-year-old’s invisible friend first showed up, I thought he was the ideal houseguest. Quiet, polite, he kept to himself. I hardly noticed him at all. When he visited, he typically showed up for dinner.

His presence was announced by a placemat my son drew for him, with pictures of his food—gourmet meals I did not have to cook. When he was done, the placemat got recycled. He left no mess. What’s not to love?

The invisible friend had a name. Leaf Scientist. The name was also his occupation. He first blew in around late September, when the leaves were beginning to turn.

A turning point was occurring within our house, too. My son was leaving behind his preschool days, becoming a more active member of our household. “Give the five-year-old child some household responsibilities,” a developmental chart reminded us at the pediatrician’s office. And so our son was dutifully learning a household chore: setting the dinner table. He learned where to set utensils on either side of a plate, and how to fold a napkin into a triangle. And then one day he set four places rather than three.

I thought he was just enjoying the task, or adding an extra place setting for practice, but he insisted it was for a guest.

“Who?” I asked him.

“Leaf Scientist,” he replied. “He’s my invisible friend.”

I grinned. Our shy son had been slow to make friends, of both the flesh-and-blood and the invisible varieties. So my husband and I were rather tickled that this new friend had dropped by.

And as invisible friends go, this guy was great. As we got to know him better, we discovered he had a whole personality: quirky, thoughtful, and curious. Leaf Scientist, we were informed, studied leaves. Through my son, he made pronouncements about recent changes observed in leaves, and predictions of changes to come. Over the next few weeks, we had many entertaining dinner conversations on the topic of leaves and trees.

I began to see my son in a new light. And with awe. This was no longer the toddler who banged a spoon on a table or pushed cars around his dinner plate. This was someone you could have an actual conversation with. At a dinner table.

Our whole family dynamic, our way of relating to each other, was also changing. I could see the approaching end of the dinnertime tantrums and disciplinary actions. I was grateful to Leaf Scientist for ushering in this new era of family bonding.

As the leaves fell, samples and specimens started coming inside, accompanying Leaf Scientist’s visits. Leaf Scientist and I had words over this, through the mediation of my translator son. Fascinated as I was by our guest’s area of expertise, I preferred not to dine with dead foliage, especially when small insects crawled out of its leaves. Leaf Scientist disappeared for a few days, and I worried I’d scared him off. My son briefly returned to banging the table with a spoon and pushing cars around the dinner plate.

But one day the placemat appeared again, with a plate of magic marker food, and no dead leaves. The friend was back. And so were our pleasant dinners. The house felt a little bit fuller.

I liked that full feeling. We are a family of three. Generally, my son is okay with not having a sibling. While he’s interested in his friends’ siblings at play dates, he comes home expressing relief that he does not have to share toys or fight over TV shows. He does not have to share his parents.

My husband is also fine with being three. I get where he’s coming from. I really do. He has two grown daughters, twins, from his previous marriage. And he is currently the breadwinner in the house. He is shouldering the bulk of the bills. And he’s older. He’s enjoying his “surprise” son, but he is done bringing more people into the world, thank you very much.

I admit, I always feel a twinge of resentment when people call him a “father of three.” I am, forever, a mother of one.

When we got married, my husband and I had agreed to have one child together. We even discussed it in counseling. I said I was fine with one. And I was. I wanted to write books, and I knew that having more children would make writing harder. He cautioned I might change my mind, that women often felt the need for a second after they had the first. I assured him that would not happen to me.

As it turned out, he was right. Something changed with the birth of our son. I experienced a powerful, emotional and biological impulse to have a second. I wanted to do this great ride again, and to create a bigger, fuller family. I marveled at what my body was capable of, and I loved being a mother. My heart had room for more.

Intellectual reasons bubbled up too. I had a sibling myself, a younger sister. Because of our age difference—seven years—we were not close growing up. In my fantasy family, my son would have a sibling two years younger, and they would grow up close, always having each other to lean on.

My husband and I had recurring hard conversations about the second child over the next few years. We had conversations that were emotional and conversations that were logical, intellectual, like lawyers making their respective arguments. To one of these discussions I actually brought a file stuffed with documents and data. I may have drawn up a spreadsheet.

But finally, at the age of forty-one, I accepted that having one more child would actually damage our marriage. Having another baby might have been the best decision for me personally, individually, but it was not the best decision for our whole family. My husband, in his fifties and with the end of his working years in view, did not want the financial responsibility of another child and the worry about financing college for a fourth kid. In turn, I had to face the reality of my own limitations: my lack of patience, my lack of nearby family to help out with childcare, and, as a freelance writer and editor, my own limited income. We were not rich celebrities who could outsource childcare and move to a mansion. We were a middle-class family with an age difference and finite means.

My heart was still pleading, but logic won out. I started donating the baby gear and selling off nursery furniture that I’d never use again. I threw myself into my writing and realized my dream of publishing a novel. And I devoted myself to my son, grateful that we could now afford to send him to an excellent school and enroll him in enriching activities. With a second child, he would not have had such opportunities. I knew that.

Despite the rationalizations, at odd times I’d still feel the pang of the phantom child, that missing fourth family member. One of those times was when setting the table. Having grown up in a family of four, it felt natural to me to put out four place settings.

Maybe that was why I was so quick to hand that chore off to my newly responsible son. I felt, too acutely, the palpable absence in that fourth chair. The lack of symmetry bugged me.

Throughout the fall, leaf scientist, strangely enough, came to fill that chair. I enjoyed seeing my son set out real utensils and cups for him. The invisible friend began to feel less like a houseguest and more like family.

“How’s Leaf Scientist today?” I’d ask my son.

“He’s doing great!”

“Where is he right now?”

“Finishing a TV show in the other room. He’ll be in for dinner.”

My son would report on Leaf Scientist’s research and recreation at odd times of day, so naturally, that it came to feel as though there really was a fourth body occupying the house. I looked forward to the Leaf Scientist reports.

Leaf Scientist hung around well into the winter. Even after the autumn leaves had been mostly gathered up and swept away, Christmas trees held his attention. There was still much to study and discuss. His placemat appeared at the table.

And then, one evening, it didn’t.

I asked my son if he forgot to set it out.

“No,” my son said. “Leaf Scientist has left.”

“But he’ll be back, right?”

He shook his head. Then he suddenly turned to me, his eyes brimming with tears. “He blew away,” he told me. “He’s not coming back.”

As quietly as he had entered our lives, Leaf Scientist had apparently vanished.

No goodbyes. No explanations.

My heart beat a little faster. I swallowed hard. I took my son into my arms and held him close.

“Spring is around the corner,” I whispered into his hair. “He’ll be back. There will be plenty more leaves to study.”

“He will not be back.” There was something different in my son’s voice. Sadness mixed with surety. He was processing feelings, experiencing loss. He was also accepting a truth.

I watched as he let the tears fall for a minute longer. Then he went into the other room to play Legos.

I sat down in the dining room next to Leaf Scientist’s empty seat, bewildered by the onslaught of my son’s complex emotions—and my own.

Was that the end of my son’s era of invisible friends? It had happened so fast. He’d turn six in a few months. How long did kids have invisible friends, anyway? My son had made so many new friends in Kindergarten. He talked more of real boys and girls these days.

And then another realization stabbed me. There would be no comforting myself with words like, “Oh, that was a fun phase; I can’t wait to see what the next kid’s invisible friend will be like.”

There was no next kid.

There was no next kid’s invisible friend.

Developmental phases like this would flare up fast and blow out like birthday candles, never to be relived through the experience of a sibling.

I thought I’d dealt with this second child issue. Maybe I hadn’t. Or maybe, on some level, I’d always be dealing with it, and that’s what I had to accept.

Intellectual acceptance and emotional acceptance are not the same things. It may take years before they dovetail. Or they may not dovetail at all. Maybe all of us hit a point where we’re left with our own invisible friends: the children we might have had, the dreams that weren’t realized. What’s in our own empty chairs? What fantasies must we relinquish?

I’d been hiding behind Leaf Scientist instead of truly dealing with my emotions and moving on. When Leaf Scientist wasn’t visiting, I was hiding behind other things. Like work and busyness. It was time to find ways to process my emotions about the size of our family instead of letting my resentment fester.

It was also time to start filling that fourth chair with other things. Maybe real-life people. Cousins, nieces, nephews. Grandparents, neighbors, friends. We could start inviting actual human beings for dinner, filling the chairs with folks we could all actually converse with, instead of indulging in our son’s fantasy life.

All of this could be a start toward letting go of resentment and accepting all the great things I already had. Including my one wonderful family. Opening the door to take down the dead Christmas wreath, I whispered a silent thank-you to Leaf Scientist for once again ushering in a new era. “Goodbye,” I whispered. A breeze sent some crunchy old foliage skittering down the sidewalk. I smiled and imagined our invisible friend quietly bowing and taking his leave.

Author’s Note: This essay surprised me. What began as a light-hearted, amusing sketch about my son’s invisible friend turned into a deeper exploration of our family’s size. I had no idea the two things were connected until the writing was well underway. Writing the essay was an important step in my coming to terms with this issue, and learning how to focus on the reality of my family. I am now looking forward to the next season, wondering what fresh surprises it may bring for my inquisitive son.

Diana Renn writes contemporary mysteries for young adults. She is the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine featuring writing for and by teens. Diana’s essays and short stories have been published in a variety of magazines, including The Writer, Writer’s Digest, YARN, and Literary Mama. A Seattle native, Diana now lives outside of Boston with her husband and young son. Visit her online at www.dianarennbooks.com.

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Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

winter2011_newman“So socialism means that everyone shares everything?” My seven-year-old daughter is trying to understand why I refer to our cooperative summer arrangement as “Socialist Friend Camp.” “And why do you always say it that way?” She means Slavically.

I sigh. “It’s hard to explain,” I say, and it’s true. The accent is only part of it; really what I want to do is move through my suburban life in full Karl Marx costume, complete with bushy grey beard, bushy grey hair, and Communist Manifesto. Somebody somewhere is probably marketing that costume and—irony!—profiting handsomely from it. O, the world!

The world. There has never been a more catastrophically extreme divide between the rich and the poor: While the wealthy evade taxes and install TVs the size of flattened hearses, twenty-seven thousand children die daily of preventable causes—even though there’s enough to go around, there is. But it doesn’t go around. At America’s biggest companies, the CEOs earn over five hundred times what the average worker does. It’s easy for me to point my revolutionary finger: There. Bazillionaire! Bad. But what about right here, in my warm, comfortable house with rooms galore and cupboards lined with food? “In a second I would give it all up, I would, if that’s the direction the world was headed,” I say, and I mean it. But when the children say, “So let’s,” I sigh. I barely have time to nag my husband to mow our lawn; the fomenting of a movement and then the actual moving feels beyond the scope of my bourgeois energy level.

But sometimes it feels a little devastating, the sweetness we cultivate in our children, our insistence that they share their Zhu Zhu Pets and Laffy Taffy. Why even bother teaching them the values of sharing and cooperation, when our national ethos is the hoarding of food and medicine, land and resources, like the good capitalists that we are?

Congratulations! we’ll say when they turn twenty-one. Now you can start drinking legally and stop behaving ethically! Maybe we’re just helping them get all that pesky sharing out of the way so it doesn’t burden them later, when they’re clambering over each other towards the teetering heights of personal wealth.

Did you see that Simon Rich piece in The New Yorker a while back? It was called “Play Nice: If adults were subjected to the same indignities as children…” and the part that made me laugh out loud was this:

Lou Rosenblatt: Can I drive your car? I’ll give it back when I’m done.

Mrs. Herson: I’m sorry, do I know you?

Lou Rosenblatt: No, but we’re the same age and we use the same garage.

Mrs. Herson: No offense, sir, but I really don’t feel comfortable lending you my car. I mean, it’s by far my most important possession.

Brian Herson: Mom, I’m surprised at you! What did we learn about sharing?

Mrs. Herson: You’re right . . . I’m sorry. Take my Mercedes.

And it’s funny, it is. Grown-ups sharing! But isn’t it even more comical to imagine the opposite? Kids treating each other the way grown-ups do? Pimping out the labor of their peers, CEOing the babysitting and lawn-mowing to exploit each other for profit? Some kids unfettered in their wealth and greed, piggy banks overflowing, while other kids, the ones doing the actual work, can’t make a living wage? Ha ha ha! Oh, right, it’s not actually funny. I hate to become the embodiment of finger-wagging bummerhood, but seriously—is sharing the real indignity?

*   *   *

“From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” My kids are learning the Marxist formula, like good little card-carrying Socialists. But it doesn’t help that I am, as always, fuzzy on the details of my political passion. For instance: card-carrying, which, for some reason, I have always pictured more like Hallmark than ID. Because I am a Socialist / What’s mine is yours, you get the gist… I don’t mention to the kids the sexistly troubling fact that Mrs. Marx was likely stabbing platters of sliced bratwurst with toothpicks and pouring endless glasses of vodka for the meetings of the real Socialists, who were, of course, men.

Besides graduate school—where I T.A.ed a Marxist Theory class, pet-sat cats named Lenin and Trotsky, and found myself frequently flattened beneath various anvil-style monologues about dialectical materialism and commodity fetishism—everything I know about alternatives to Capitalism I know from the Woody Allen movies Bananas and Love and Death. Also from growing up in the age of Cold War propaganda. Remember how Nadia Comaneci’s gold-medal floor routines were interspersed with footage of her parents waiting greyly in assorted sleeting bread lines? My own Russian grandmother seemed to spend the 1970s making borscht and sending relatives home to the mother country with suitcases full of jeans. “You vill sell, yes?” The poor Communists didn’t even have jeans! Those glum kerchief-headed kids, waiting denimlessly for their heavy Soviet loaves.

Whose joke is it that Socialist recreation consists of waiting in line for tickets to the toilet-paper line? I want my kids to maintain their optimistic vision of utopian justice, without misleading them about the fact that there aren’t such great examples of it in human history. Or at least, none that I can explain very well. Sweden, for example. Besides the making meatballs and the becoming supermodels, what actually goes on in Sweden? Do they stand in IKEA lines for their national allotment of Smorssgläben side tables in birch? I have no idea. Beyond the better maternity leave, healthcare, and some kind of national right to blondness, I don’t know much. Which doesn’t seem to dam the stream of opinions pouring from my political face hole.

*   *   *

“Let’s play Proletariat Revolution again!” my red-diaper babies beg. “You be Hegel. We’ll be the alienated workers.”

“Not until you finish your turnip porridge,” I say, “and scrub the community toilets.” If only. We get out Monopoly like good citizens, so that we can learn about private property and screwing everybody. “You’d be able to get rich,” I explain to my losing children, “if you weren’t already so poor!” Suckers. Actually, Monopoly is dull compared to Acquire, a game from which Ben has learned the terms “corporate merger” and “majority shareholder”; playing it brings out the slum lord in everybody, all of us cackling and rubbing our hands together like evil flies. On principle, we also play Harvest Time, which is gentle and cooperative: We help each other hurry our crops into the root cellar before winter comes, but it is so frankly dull that we end up with our foreheads on the table, groaning, even while our little daughter is offering us some of her corn and carrots because she’s got more than she needs.

The kids talk about what they would wish for if they could have anything, distinguishing between just-for-being-selfish wishes (our own personal soda machine with soda in it that you would actually let us drink) and the real wish you would wish if you only had one wish (justice). “If you had limitless money,” Ben always prompts me, “then you could get the stuff you want and still buy everyone everything they need, right?” He pictures stacks and stacks of million-dollar bills, glad-handing his way to health and happiness for all, even as the Coke dispenser is being installed in our new billiards room. I explain that a radical redistribution of wealth is more complicated—more like beads moved around on an abacus than extra rows of beads added onto it—but it’s not what I actually picture. Justice: a cool hand smoothing the forehead of our feverish world.

*   *   *

“Oh, please,” I say aloud to the radio. “Obama’s not enough of a Socialist.” People are always quick to remind you that communism has never worked. And, sure, Cuba, China, the Soviet Union: too little fun, too much corruption—plus the executing of everybody who wasn’t already incarcerated. But what about Capitalism? It does seem to sleet less now in Eastern Europe, what with everyone’s access to bright pastels, the denim trousers without borders. But it’s hard to argue that capitalism is working exactly. Unless your goal was rich countries profiting off the backs of poor ones; unless your goal was freedom for the wealthy to run the endless Möbius-strip treadmill of paycheck-to-mall meaninglessness. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of crap you don’t need and also the Pottery Barn lidded baskets to store it all in. I’m glad I’m not, say, a serf—but at least with Feudalism, nobody was tricked into thinking that anyone could be king if they only worked hard enough or got a basketball scholarship.

*   *   *

Across the table from me now, Ben is eating a piece of blueberry crumb cake and showing me his fifth-grade homework. “It’s a compare and contrast chain about ‘Wakaima and the Clay Man,'” he explains, “which is a story about a lazy rabbit who makes an elephant do all the work on the farm. We’re supposed to show how it’s like a real-life situation.” He has described them as the fable version of factory owners and exploited workers. I have never been prouder. Workers of the world, unite!

“Why are you writing about it?” Ben asks pleasantly, crumbs spraying as he leans over to look at my computer screen. “I’m writing a piece about talking to kids about capitalism,” I tell him, and he says, “Wait, what’s capitalism again?”

Oh.

This is probably where I should mention that Ben’s life goal is to own the world’s biggest casino. And also, you know, to promote justice. “When really rich people come and lose money,” he explains, “I’ll give that money away to an organization.” The Robin Hood of Las Vegas!

I’m not really surprised. It must be confusing to be the child of such a split-personality family. On the one hand, we have a young mother living with her baby in our guest room, and we get our Patagonia fleece hoodies at the Salvation Army. On the other hand, we send our kids to (wince) private school and plant peonies. We pick through bunches of organic kale when the world is full of people who aren’t eating at all—when across town from us, there are mothers picking through outdated cans in the food pantry, and across the world from us there are mothers rocking dying babies. What if my own children were ill in my arms, stilled by malnutrition or malaria, and I looked across the globe and saw people like us, in our cozy New England cape house, with our shoes for every season and our compost heaped with uneaten food? I don’t know what to think. It’s not right, living this way. It’s not fair. We teach our kids to share because we know it’s the only way to thrive, all of us.

In his 1949 paper “Why Socialism?” Albert Einstein, of e=mc, proposed eliminating the “grave evils” of capitalism via “a planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

I’m no physicist, but that kind of relativity? I get it. I do.

Author’s Note: At some point I was sitting around with friends, and we were drinking wine and yelling at our kids to share something fairly—jelly beans, I think. And then we were killing ourselves laughing, imagining training them from an early age to be good capitalists. (Which is, of course, the piñata model of distribution.) We were maybe a little drunk, but it triggers something deep, teaching kids fundamental values that aren’t always embraced by the broader culture. And honestly? This piece—it’s hard to put out there because I’m confessing such a profound hypocrisy. That line about my kids going to private school, for example—I deleted and retyped it a dozen times. I have good intentions; I’m selfish; I crave justice; I seek comfort. I judge myself harshly, but I hope you won’t judge me. I hope.

Brain, Child (Winter 2011)

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One in 1.3 Billion

One in 1.3 Billion

By Chris Huntington

summer2011_huntingtonOur family endures a weird celebrity. It doesn’t come from being unusually good-looking or accomplished, but just from being odd to look at. My wife, Shasta, has eyes the color of faded denim. She’s four foot ten and only weighs about a hundred pounds. Her tiny hands are pale as eggshells; sunlight is something she likes to read about. On the other hand, because my maternal grandparents emigrated from Guangzhou and my paternal grandparents were Hoosiers, I have a thin, vaguely mongrel appearance one might associate with the Tajik people or the Uzbeks. Shasta’s grandmother, a true New Englander, once asked her why I was so swarthy. Our son, on the other hand, is the color of milk chocolate. He was born outside Addis Ababa and is one member of a new generation of Ethiopians raised abroad. Together, we are an odd trio.

Dagim is a happy human cannonball, a three-year-old lion with a tiny Afro. He spins like a dervish with his fingers fluttering to music only he hears. Some days, he says he’s going to stay little like his mommy. Some days he wants to get big like me. A month ago, we were walking to a hill we could see in the distance, and he wanted to know if I could carry it home for him. He seemed surprised when I said no. He climbs me like a tree; this morning he declared he was cold and tunneled his forehead into my neck. He let me carry him to our back door. His eyes were closed against my chest, and I felt fragile with happiness.

Yesterday, one of my new co-workers came by the apartment. His wife, who is expecting, rubbed her waist and told Dag she had a baby inside. “We’re going to give our son a baby sister,” she said.

Dag repeated this story five times after the couple and their boy left. He also told one of his stuffed animals, “I don’t have sisters. I just have friends.” I could see Dag’s brain considering the new possibilities. He wanted to know if he had ever been behind his mommy’s belly button. He was wondering if he was going to get a baby sister. The words for the questions were lining up to come out, though they never quite made it. I could see Shasta doing calculations of her own. She was preparing her voice, her sad eyes rehearsing; she doesn’t want to sound sad when she answers. I want to interrupt them both, stop the conversation. I want to tell a different story of our family. One that doesn’t start with the word “No.”

One time in the airport, we passed a husband and wife and their four kids, all of whom had beautiful teeth and golden Viking hair. Shasta said, “That family looks like a chess set designed by Abercrombie and Fitch.”

“What are we?” I said.

“We’re not a chess set,” she said. “We’re action figures.”

I was forty years old when I became a father. Shasta was thirty-two. We had tried for years to make a baby the old-fashioned way. High school guidance counselors always warn that it’s horribly easy to get pregnant. But it wasn’t easy for us. We discovered that, unlike the rest of our species, our particular DNA was completely uninterested in preserving itself. We applied to adopt from China. Half my family came from there; I felt a kind of invisible connection—a red thread around the world—but then, that didn’t work, either. We were put on a list that was at least five years long. I borrowed money from my parents, and we saw a fertility expert, a skinny man who once walked past me without a glance as if I were an empty armchair in his waiting room. And then we found this little boy living in an orphanage in Addis Ababa. He didn’t have anyone. He needed us. We needed him.

Until recently, we lived in Indianapolis, and we stood out a bit there. We now live four hundred miles north of Hong Kong where we stand out even more. I took a job teaching in Xiamen, one of the fifty or so Chinese cities with more than two million people. (A friend of mine is fond of saying, “You know that guy who’s one in a million? Well, there are a thousand guys like him in China.”) We moved to Xiamen for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I was suddenly unemployed in a recession. My wife and I also thought that maybe it would be good for Dag if he weren’t the only one who felt different when we walked down the street. If all three of us were equally unlike our neighbors, our three-year-old wouldn’t have to bear the weight of it all by himself. In retrospect, we might have misjudged what it would mean to stand out in a place where the buses are filled window to window with shiny, straight black hair.

We’ve had strangers here step forward to ask if Dagim is our son. If Shasta’s alone, the stranger will ask, “But his father is black, right?”

Shasta always smiles, “No, not really,” or, “Well, he likes Sade.” Then she continues grocery shopping or whatever she’s doing.

I hesitate when I’m asked if Dagim’s mother is black, not wanting to disrespect either my wife or Dagim’s birth parents. But I usually say no, his mother is white. After all, we’re a family, and Shasta is his mother. But sometimes people follow up with the comment, “But his face is not like yours” and wait for an explanation.

I’m not sure what kind of explanation they expect. Do they expect me to act surprised? To say my wife has cheated on me? To announce that Dagim is an experiment? I stare back, and people smile and blink. Without guile. They’re not trying to hurt my feelings. These are old women who sweep the street with tree branch brooms. Or they’re young people who have no idea that their T-shirts are nonsense (“Bad Groundwater” or “Big Onion Boy”). Or they’re men who lived through the Cultural Revolution only to turn fifty and find the NBA logo on their Tsingtao beer. I think we get asked questions because people are honestly perplexed. One person told me that because many Chinese have heard that Barack Obama had a white mother, the idea has spread that black people can be born to white people. From their perspective, they are suddenly standing on the bus next to a thirty-five-pound Kobe Bryant. Can I explain it?

We hardly know how to explain it to ourselves. We’ve told Dagim the simplest version of the story. Adoption experts have told us that when Dagim asks about his birth family, we should tell him how his birth mother loved him so much, she gave him up. She wanted to keep him, but she was too poor, in one of the poorest countries on earth. There just wasn’t enough money or food to go around. But it seems to us that someday Dag is going to say, “People don’t give up things they love. You love me, and you’re not giving me up,” or he’s going to look at Time magazine and see pictures of poor people clutching babies in floods or wars and instead of feeling compassion, he’ll feel hurt that someone who looks like him let him go.

We’ve been told that if he ever wishes he could have been a baby inside my wife or wishes he was the same color as us, we should say something along the lines of, “We don’t wish that because then you wouldn’t be you, and we love you the way you are—which is perfect.” But the fact is, sometimes I look at him sleeping and I wish my skin were the same beautiful brown. I don’t like being different from him. I wish he could look up and see his face in mine. I wish that we could walk into an Indiana Denny’s together and he would not be the only person of color outside of the kitchen. Sometimes I feel as if this hurt, this longing, is something we need to share. Other times, I think I should just keep it to myself. But why do Chinese people on the bus think I want to talk to them about it?

When we were preparing to move to China, family and friends constantly joked about how we were sure to come home with a little girl, as if Chinese babies were stacked like bags of rice in giant warehouses. Americans associate China with adoption, but Chinese people themselves don’t. In a country of 1.3 billion people, the loss of some six thousand orphans a year is not immediately visible. My Chinese teacher, who has worked in the expat community for years, was ready to argue when I said that a lot of Chinese girls were adopted into American families. When I opened a website, she pulled the laptop from my hands. “Lucky girls,” she said finally, handing it back. It was a ridiculous thing to say about abandoned children, but to be fair: My teacher was taken by surprise. In China, grandparents may raise grandkids while parents work in factories, but adoption, especially from Africa, is not something normal people do. They’re not allowed. There wasn’t even a legal statute for domestic adoption until 1992, and this required that the adopting parents be over thirty-five years old and have no other children. The common observation is that the Chinese government has suppressed its domestic adoption because it believes if couples are allowed to give up girls for adoption (in order to try again for a boy), this will undermine the population control policy. My wife and I struggled to expand our family, but for over a billion people living around us, it’s apparently so easy that the government made one child the legal limit for each couple. Childless families here struggle in their own ways, but they do not turn to adoption the way Americans do.

Adoption here is essentially impossible except perhaps in a paperless way by extended family. Our Chinese neighbors must know or suspect Dagim is adopted, but the knowledge is uncertain and mysterious because a Chinese version of our family could not exist. I don’t think there is a single Chinese family who has adopted from Ethiopia. We’re treated at times as though we came from another world, but I suppose we did.

After moving from our house in Indiana to an apartment in Xiamen, Dagim struck up a friendship with the neighbor’s blackbird. The bird greets anyone on our porch with either dead-on mimicry of the neighbor clearing his throat or the words “Ni Hao!” That’s about all the Chinese Dagim knows; it means “hello.” Dagim thinks of China as “where pandas live” and “the Great Wall.” He sees China as endless bowls of noodles and busy chopsticks and rice. Some days, Dagim likes kung pao chicken.  Some days, he doesn’t. For Dagim, China is also a place where strangers approach him on the bus to pinch his kinky hair. Ever since we got here, Shasta and I have promised ourselves that we would show Dagim a China that he can love.?A colleague told me that he was going to take some people to see panda bears. “Take us,” I said.

I’m not a naturalist at heart. I love the world, but I haven’t slept outdoors much since I became an adult. I knew, however, that there were fewer than a thousand panda bears left in the world. I wanted to show Dagim some pandas from a few feet away. A part of me felt that if I could do that, then maybe someday Dagim’s children would look at him like he’d touched a dinosaur. I wanted to give him that, just in case everything else about moving to China turned out to have been a mistake.

When we arrived at the preserve, the Chinese officials in charge insisted we watch a documentary about the animals we were about to see. We learned that pandas are solitary, spending most of the year without even seeing another panda, and when they come together to mate, they are spectacularly unsuccessful, even in the wild. The documentary went into great detail about the artificial insemination that scientists used to keep the species alive in captivity. “Hmm,” my wife said. “I like pandas. They’re a lot like us. They’re ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous?”

“Well, they make easy things hard for themselves, but they don’t bother anybody.”

“The easy way,” I said, and I rolled my eyes. “Who would want to do things the easy way?”

“Right,” my wife said. We watched some more of the video. The pandas, unlike every other bear, limit their diet to bamboo, which means they need to eat about forty-five pounds of the plant every day. Shasta laughed. “Oh, come on. They’re impossible!”

“They’re beautiful. They’re black and white and live in China,” I said. “They’re absolutely us.”

This is what I want to tell Dagim when he asks about a pregnant woman’s waist. “Anyone can make a family that way,” I want to tell him. “Anybody. Except us. And panda bears. And stars. Stars just appear. Sometimes they fall to earth. That’s our family, Dagim. That’s absolutely us.”

Author’s Note: After I wrote this essay, my family, by chance, shared a Chinese taxi with a woman of color from South Africa. She asked Dagim about himself, and he spontaneously told her he was born in Ethiopia and that we’d adopted him when he was little. I’d never heard him tell the story before; he was leaning off his seat, overflowing with happiness. As we said goodbye, Dagim raised his fist and said, “AMANDLA!” just like Nelson Mandela, and the woman rushed forward to kiss him. “How did you learn that?” she repeated, and I was blind with pride.  

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

Chris Huntington taught in the American prison system for ten years before moving to China with his family. His is the author of the novel, Mike Tyson Slept Here. His essays about family and adoption have been anthologized in Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting and This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. His website is chrishuntingtononline.com.

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Square Pride

Square Pride

By Kathy Leonard Czepiel

Square Pride ArtMy neighbors’ teenage daughter thinks I am square just because I have never heard of her favorite TV show, The O.C. And, okay, I may have said something about her beautiful, backless prom dress. Something like, “I never could have worn a dress that revealing in 1982.” (We were wearing floral print dresses that looked as if they came off the set of Little House on the Prairie.) She just smiled politely, but I knew what she was thinking.

All right, all right, so I’m square! Big deal. I grew up square; to deny my squareness would be to deny my cultural heritage. In my twenties, I’ll admit, I drove some big, fun circles around my squareness, in my second-hand Nissan Sentra wagon. Now I’m married with two children, and not only am I nouveau-square, but lately I’ve begun to feel Square Pride.

I realize this may be hard to believe, especially for all those who remember the annoying, stupid, or downright humiliating things their own square parents did to them. Like having to wear a snowsuit until you were in fifth grade that went swish-swish-swish when you walked and plastic bread bags in your boots to help them slip on and off more easily.

My parents did that stuff, and more. They have four certifiable ninety-degree angles apiece. My father, for example, sings show tunes in the car, and not just when he’s alone. A favorite game of my brothers and mine in our adolescence was to tell my father the title of a current song—for example, “Our House” by Madness—and let him butcher the lyrics for us. Our house / in the middle of our street became, Our house / in the middle of the road / where cars and trucks will hit it. / Our house is in the street / not the sidewalk, not the lawn. My father also has the squarest occupation in the world. He’s a Protestant minister, which made me hopelessly and irreparably square by association. My mother, a retired elementary reading teacher (note the second-squarest profession), didn’t teach me how to apply makeup because she hardly wears it herself. She sewed matching outfits for us when we were kids. I distinctly remember her wearing a swimming cap with a chin strap and big, floppy rubber flowers glued to it.

My parents, because they were square, never let me go to PG-rated movies, wouldn’t buy me the Grease album (too risqué, and Barry Manilow wasn’t much better, singing about “making love”), wouldn’t indulge my passionate desire for designer jeans because fashion is pretty much meaningless, and made me go to bed halfway through The Waltons because bedtime was bedtime. My parents drive at or below the speed limit, barely know the difference between a cabernet and a chardonnay, never swear in front of us (even though we’re all in our thirties now), and, although they were only in their twenties when the Beatles showed up, were among those who thought they needed haircuts.

My parents have also been married for forty-three years, and every full-blown argument I call recall happening in our house was between us kids and them, never between the two of them. They can hold an intelligent and interesting conversation on a wide range of subjects—politics, religion, history, literature, education. They live in Woodstock, New York, which is about the least square place you can live in this country. They both distinguished themselves in their careers as people whom others came to respect and admire for their intelligence, courage, patience, and selflessness. And they raised three children who look forward to visiting them.

All this is not to say that growing up with square parents was easy. Despite the little annoyances, life was great in elementary school, but throughout junior high and high school I found myself in an often unbearable position. I was mortified by my parents’ squareness, yet, at the same time, appalled by the ridiculous things my classmates did simply because everyone else was doing them—a reaction which, of course, came from having been raised square. So it’s no surprise that going away to college felt like being launched into the beautiful, wide-open sky, where no one knew a thing about me.

The fun began when I landed in a freshman dorm that, in a moment of what must have been administrative insanity, had been plunked down in the middle of the hard-partying fraternity quad. Sophomore year I lived in the Arts House, and from there I set off on the road trip of my twenties, which took me through Europe, New York City, and the undiscovered back streets of my home territory. It may have been a wilder ride for my parents than it was for me. I’m sure they feared I had broken through the guard rail and plunged into the abyss when I moved in with my boyfriend three hundred miles from home and stayed for a year and a half, but I survived that fall to ride a few more hairpin turns, some of them more fun than others.

The proverbial road trip ended with a real one. I married a guy with a ponytail and a pickup truck, and a couple of years later we drove west to spend a few years in Denver and the Rocky Mountains. While there, we became parents ourselves, but squareness didn’t re-enter my home right away. When it did, it came not through my parents two thousand miles away, but through a beloved day care provider and my new job teaching high school. Donna, who cared for our older daughter, insisted: “If you don’t teach her to be respectful now, when she’s sixteen she’ll grab your car keys and take off.” I was teaching sixteen-year-olds for a living, so I heard this loud and clear. I had already taken a position of authority at school, wasting no time becoming The Teacher after my first day, when my sophomore boys stood on their desks and screamed and pounded their chests. Now, apparently, I was going to have to take a position of authority at home, too. I was going to have to become The Parent.

I was probably destined to be a square parent in the end. After all, how many of us, whether we admire our parents or not, have managed to sever all ties and create brand new parenting styles of our own? But I don’t think I could have been a proud square parent without my twenties. I imagine I would have been always craning my neck, wondering whether I might have missed something. My parents and I still disagree on a few of the finer points (snowsuits, bread bags, driving big circles around one’s squareness), but there’s no doubt that we were drawn with the same ruler, though I’d like to think of myself as more of a parallelogram.

Eventually, my husband and I came back East to settle down and raise our children within driving, rather than flying, distance of family. It’s no accident that my husband was behind all this. The longer we are married—eleven years now—the more he reminds me of my father and my brothers. Today we uphold square rules similar to those of my parents. For example: You can’t wear flip-flops (or, as our three-year-old calls them, “thlip-thlops”) out of the house until you’re five years old. Before that age you’re likely to trip all over yourself, and, at any rate, you shouldn’t wear a fashionable item of clothing if you can’t pronounce it. And it’s sneakers only on the playground, or you’ll fall and crack your head open. You can’t go to PG movies at the age of seven even if Hollywood is marketing them to you. And you can’t have a later bedtime because, if you do, you’ll be cranky tomorrow, and anyway, we need a couple of hours to ourselves, thank you. Nail polish? You’re three years old! Oh, all right, but not until you can keep your fingers out of your mouth.

A few years ago, I even found myself objecting to a production of Grease at the high school where I was teaching. Why would you want to immerse those young actresses in a story in which the happy ending is the result of a girl’s allowing her friends to turn her into something she isn’t in order to get the boy she likes, who’s already interested in her for who she really is? That’s supposed to be a triumph? I like “You’re the One that I Want” as much as the next person (I’ve even been known to sing it in the car), but please!

It seems to me that what being square is really about is having your own compass, one that isn’t drawn to popular opinion, so that you don’t become Sandy letting her friends mess with her looks and her love life. What’s hot and what’s not is constantly changing, but if you’re square, you prefer stability. When you do make a change, you’ve usually thought it through carefully. You expect it to stick. And whether you’re conservative or liberal, you’re likely firm in your principles—which is why, once in awhile, you might actually find yourself on the leading edge of social change instead of resisting it. My father, for example, repeatedly preached against the war in Vietnam to a mostly hawkish congregation long before public opinion began to sway in an anti-war direction.

This kind of fortitude plays itself out as steady, predictable parenting, probably the greatest gift my parents gave me. Their seemingly boring constancy gave me the confidence that I had solid ground under my feet so I could eventually go out and see the world without fear that the ground would shift beneath me.

The hardest part of being square is dealing with the fact that many of my current friends and acquaintances have only known me as square. One day not long ago I wore a funky old pair of cowboy boots to work. “I love your boots,” a colleague said to me. It was clear that she was surprised to see them on me. When she heard I’d bought them while living in Manhattan, she was downright shocked, and my heart sank. Do I really seem that square?

Still I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m committed to being the same steady, predictable base for my girls that my parents were for me. It’s not so hard; I never cared much about the whims of the world anyway, and once in a while, when our convictions tell us to, we square parents even get to be risk-takers.

My parents were. In 1982 (year of the prairie prom dress), I was sixteen years old, and they figured it would be the last summer for a big family trip before I abandoned them. They had always wanted to take us cross-country, but money was very tight. Still, carpe diem! My parents spent their entire life savings on a used motor home, and we embarked on a six-week cross-country adventure to places chosen by each member of family.

After we got home, there were several tense weeks. The market of people in our small town looking to buy a used motor home at the end of the summer was tiny. But in the end, a buyer came through, and my parents nearly replenished their savings. I was old enough to realize how close they had cut it, how seriously they took that vacation—and, by, extension, how seriously they valued our time together. It wasn’t their most practical move, but it was one of their greatest.

As adults, my daughters will no doubt remember the cool stuff I wouldn’t let them have and the dumb rules I stood by. But, just as I have, I think they’ll come to understand why. Maybe someday they’ll even find themselves doing some trapezoidal parenting of their own.

Author’s Note: I didn’t ask my parents to read this piece until it was accepted for publication. I sent the essay to them via e-mail, and then I waited with some anxiety. I wasn’t sure whether they’d be offended or flattered or both. They replied the following day. My mother admitted her swimming cap was “pretty silly” and wrote, “My square parents drilled it into my head that no hair was to be left in the pool. Why didn’t I question that it was okay for the men not to wear caps?” This made me wonder how far back through the generations our squareness goes. My father wrote, “What is the difference between cabernet and chardonnay?” He also pointed out that he does speed if he’s late for a meeting, and he’s done eighty-five in the California desert (where that’s the speed limit). Then they started forwarding this essay to other family members. That is such a square thing to do.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster), named one of the best books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, Brain Child, and elsewhere. Czepiel teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Learn more at her website, http://kathyleonardczepiel.com.

 

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The Elegant Undoing

The Elegant Undoing

By Amber Scott

SU 13 Art Elegant Undoing 3-1The praying mantis turns its head. No, wait. The story doesn’t start there. The story starts with a black sky and distant stars and the orange glow of the light over our patio. The light envelops a small gecko on the outside of a window, its body rendered nearly translucent as it darts within the circle of light, gobbling up tiny bugs. I should be shepherding my daughters off to bed by now, but Madeleine, my 6-year-old reptile enthusiast, has had a rough day and the sight of the gecko has revived her spirit. “Can I try to catch the gecko?” she asks, and she might as well have been asking for permission to be happy. “Five minutes,” I tell her.

She bounds outside and I lurk near the back door, carefully, trying to remain hidden so she doesn’t know I’m watching her. And there. There is the smile I was waiting for. It comes as she tilts her head up, that particular determination shining in her brown eyes as she zeroes in on the now-still gecko. The line of her upturned mouth curls into her cheeks and it is the loveliest line I’ve ever seen because I know that it mirrors a certain peace within her, a contentment. That’s a rare smile these days now that school has started and we have found ourselves in the deep, unfathomable waters of first grade. Where Madeleine, with her isolating shyness and inability to pick up basic social cues, is having a hard time. It seems like every day brings a new story, something to puzzle over, to worry half to death, and today’s was buried deep into the lining of her pockets, so reluctant was she to pull it out. “I pushed and punched a boy. I had to defeat him,” she explains. Why, we ask, and all she can do is sigh. “I don’t know,” she says, and she truly doesn’t. It’s an itch, a nervous tic; it’s rain. She has no control. She gets a feeling and turns it into action, absent of thought. These things happen.

The only time I don’t worry about this kid is when she’s in her element, which is literally in the elements. When she is less Madeleine and more Other, or maybe exactly Madeleine, a wandering spirit among towering maples, the swirl of a river eddy, a little girl rustling through thick underbrush, scaling tall hills and flying down them on the other side. Every day is a new discovery: geckos, snakes, beetles, anoles, skinks, butterflies, moths, shiny rocks, leaves made remarkable by virtue of her simply noticing them. Her room is filled with mementos of a world she only visits but wishes she could live in forever. Containers filled with dirt and pebbles, bits of bone, long casings of shed snake- skin, shells, dry brown magnolia leaves, tangles of dried grass.

I watch her as she climbs up on the windowsill, movements so slow and measured that the gecko doesn’t seem to notice she’s there. Until it does. She darts up, hand outstretched, and the gecko scurries higher, just out of reach. Madeleine is disappointed, but still smiling.

And then, as she comes around to the back door to re-enter the house, I hear her exclaim. “Mom! Come see!”

I open the door and Madeleine is standing right near the porch mat, pointing to the side of the house. There, clinging to the weather-stripped paint, is a brown praying mantis. I step closer, and the praying mantis turns its head.

I’m stuck there because watching a praying mantis turn its head is an experience. Because they turn their heads and suddenly you feel unsettled. This bug knows more than I do, I thought. Bug. What a funny thing to call this creature. This is not a bug. It is a being. A sentient thing.

The praying mantis is still, and it is staring at us while we stare at it. I’ve seen green praying mantises before, but never brown like this one. It’s such a dull brown it looks like the husk of a healthier mantis now sleeping under a leaf or building an egg case. Half of one of its forelegs appears to be missing. This is concerning because a praying mantis needs its forelegs to hunt and eat its prey. “I think it’s hurt,” I tell Madeleine, pointing out the leg, and steel myself because I know what’s coming.

“We have to help it,” Madeleine says.

I knew she’d insist on it, and the words I’d prepared—we have to let nature take its course—fizzle on my tongue. We have to help it, she says, because of course we do. This is a truth I feel deep in my bones because if Madeleine has taught me anything at all, it’s that we are no better or worse than these weird little beings. To Madeleine, all things exist on an equal plane. To Madeleine, a cockroach is precious. So we’ll help the praying mantis if we can. Of course we will.

Once inside, though, it becomes clear that the praying mantis is not actually missing half of its leg. Instead, the bottom half of its leg is stuck folded and twisted in the “prayer” position. It doesn’t look like anything we can help. Google tells me that the praying mantis probably had a bad molt. I imagine the molting process, when the mantis starts to know, in the curious way that insects and animals know things, that it has grown out of its exoskeleton. Some ancient synapse fired and the mantis set about the arduous process of sup- porting its own growth. It seems like this should be easy, a no-brainer, but for this guy, something went wrong.

And now, plainly, it can’t hunt or eat, so it will die. That’s it! Its life is over prematurely because it was just going about what nature called for, following a script encoded in its DNA. And it just seems so achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, what nature can do to a thing. An entire being. It or me or you or any one thing in the universe.

But Google also tells me it’s possible to hand-feed a crippled praying mantis if one is so inclined. There is even a video demonstrating the process, and I show it to Madeleine. “So that’s an option,” I say to her. I wonder if I can convince my husband to do the feeding, but he is horrified when I try to explain it to him over the phone. “No way,” he says. I can practically see his shudder. “That’s disgusting!”

It is disgusting. I won’t do it either, I decide. But then I find myself watching this strange, mysterious insect inch its way up the habitat we’ve housed it in, reaching up for the overhead light. The habitat, a glass terrarium carefully landscaped with dirt, pebbles, plastic greenery, and even an underground tunnel, has been home to all kinds of wildlife. Two anoles, caught outside and returned to the yard after a few weeks; various house geckos, snared from around drainpipes and windows framing our home; click beetles captured after a trip to the park; and even two emperor hackberry caterpillars found during a walk—they cycled into chrysalises and butterflies in the duration of a week and were released the day they were hatched.

I wonder if the habitat feels even a little like home to the mantis, or if it can sense the various lives that have passed through the glass confines. The mantis hangs from the screen below the UVA light bulb casting white light into the tank. Its deformed leg wavers once in the air, as though to grasp at something, and stills. Again it turns its head to watch us watching it, and I think: maybe.

A day passes as I consider what to do with the mantis. I check on it, concerned with its suffering. Was it suffering? Should we have left it outside to let nature take its course? The mantis doesn’t move much, but when it does, its crippled leg sometimes gets stuck around the other leg, behind its head, in the foliage.

Madeleine, meanwhile, is carrying the weight of school and all its bewildering social interactions heavy on her shoulders. She yells and rails, shakes branches and coils and clenches her muscles like a snake tightening on its prey. She shrugs off concerned hugs and glances. Sometimes it feels like she would tear down the walls in furious rips if she could. The only smiles come when she is considering the weight of living things in her hands: the gently clasped anole, the snared gecko. The grasshoppers and katydids plucked from the grass in our backyard. And the mantis. “I’m going to name it Adorable Face,” Madeleine says, pressing her nose to the glass of the habitat, watching the slow, careful way it climbs.

And there is what convinced me to try feeding the little guy. All of it: its name, her smile-lit cheeks, and even the wall-rattling frustration that she lurches around the house like a medieval weapon. Because it’s achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, the ancient synapses that sometimes misfire in my daughter’s brain. Faced with an emotion that skews even slightly into negative territory, her coping mechanisms are all wrong. She turns feral, tamping down tears and literally baring her teeth, hissing and clawing at anyone near. And in those moments, her deep brown eyes go impossibly dark and sad and sparking with fear. Like she’s observing from somewhere inside while her body goes haywire, while bad thoughts and feelings hijack her actions. Later, the helpless sobs as she struggles to explain.

Helping Madeleine is hard. Teaching words for feelings, guiding her away from being afraid of those feelings, into accepting them. Into communicating. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But helping the mantis is easy. Food, water, shelter. So I tell Madeleine, against the pressing certainty that the mantis is going to die anyway, that we can try to feed it if she wants to help.

Madeleine retrieves a squirming, writhing cricket and hands it to me. I hold its lower body between two fingers, and it flails and flails. Madeleine braces the mantis gently in her hands and holds it out, brushing its head against the cricket’s waving antennae. And the mantis gets to work, mandibles tearing off legs and slurping them down with little fanfare. Its jaws find the cricket’s abdomen and begin pulling at the flesh, bit by bit. For a brief moment, I make myself watch, to see what Madeleine is now staring at with an incomprehensible look on her face. The inside of the cricket looks soft and white, pillowy even. The mantis pulls up tufts as it eats, maw working steadily. As gross as it is, there is also a strange grace to its ruthless chewing, head moving just so, legs attempting to do what is basic nature, reaching out to hook into the prey.

I only watch for a brief moment, and it’s too much—too much for the both of us. We shriek and groan and yuck and look away and our hands shake, but the mantis manages to get a little meal out of it. He doesn’t finish the poor cricket, so we return both to the habitat. The mantis crawls for a green branch and the cricket hobbles across the dirt, twitching feebly. I feel a strange mix of horror and fascination. It was disgust- ing, sure, but we also got to hold the essence of nature in our hands. We got to see it up close, in great detail. Like prying open the back of a clock to see how the gears turn. Beyond observing the existence of something, we were seeing its true function. We were watching the way of the world. Ugly and hard, oddly elegant and true.

Even still, when Madeleine decides that we did the right thing, and that we should make sure to feed the mantis every day, I am not so sure. My stomach churns at the thought, but I tell her I will think about it.

Madeleine strings together a few good days at school, and while we slog through our daily routines, the presence of the mantis weighs on me. I am loathe to let it go, knowing that it will certainly die, likely without ever leaving our backyard. I imagine finding it dead on the ground, or worse, Madeleine finding it dead on the ground. She’d bring it to me with her arm outstretched, face sad, and I’d be hard-pressed to know what to say to her. That’s what happens in nature sometimes, is the patented response, but it doesn’t seem enough in cases like this, when you’ve invested so much in something.

On the fourth day of mantis ownership, I know we have to make a decision, but the point becomes moot when I find the mantis lying at the bottom of the habitat, its pale brown body nestled into the dirt and leaves. It is not moving, and I feel a strange grief well in my chest, a dawning sense of dismay. I reach in to take the mantis out, and it moves just a little. And this is even worse, holding this small, dying creature. “Aw, no, little mantis,” I say to it, and its body twitches. This is awful, awful. Madeleine wanders in and wants to know what is wrong with it. “It’s dying,” I tell her, and she wants to know why. I remind her that we had known it would happen, but it doesn’t seem right somehow. It wasn’t supposed to die on our watch. We were the ones who would do right by it. We would make its life better by virtue of being in it. We had hoped.

As Madeleine gets closer, I hold out my open palm. The mantis’s body flicks in small, twitchy movements. And then, horror of horrors, a tiny white larva comes squirming out of the mantis’ abdomen. Another follows. And another.

And another.

And so many more. I drop the mantis with a small shriek and the husk of its body flits to the floor. The larvae scatter. “Are those its babies?” Madeleine wants to know, a hopeful note coloring her words.

And no. No. I wish. “A parasitic wasp must have laid eggs in the praying mantis,” I tell her. “Those are the baby wasps.”

We watch for a second, with revulsion on my part and mute fascination on Madeleine’s. She leans in for a closer look and so do I. Tiny black dots, muted and fuzzy around the edges, are visible just under the milk-glass bodies of each larva. Their brains? The whole of their nervous systems? They’re just so small, so non-wasp, it’s strange to imagine that full-fledged winged creatures would come from these things. What complicated potential rests in those little black spots! Whole lives crawling from the desiccated shell of our mantis. Nature is good at that, finding growth from death. Birthing a peculiar new kind of hope from the decay of an old one.

Still, I am sad for the mantis and eager to put the whole episode behind us. And so there is really no elegant ending to the story of the mantis. I sweep up its carcass and the larvae and toss them together into the backyard with a quick, unceremonious sweep of my hand. They will crumble into the dirt the way that nature unravels all dead things, and we’ll move on.

On the way back into the house, Madeleine’s head is bowed and her steps are slow. I brace myself for her reaction. This is a girl who wept when classmates at school smashed ants into the sidewalk near the playground. The same girl who can shrug when her snake eats a mouse: “It’s sad for the mouse, but good for the snake. It’s just part of nature,” she tells me while I worriedly monitor her reaction.

She still doesn’t speak, so I ask her if she’s okay. She considers the question and finally answers. “I wish we would’ve kept the baby wasps,” she says, her brown eyes as deep as the richest soil, like wet bark after rain and all the best bits of autumn. “Wouldn’t it be neat to watch them grow?”

I think of those larvae and the creatures they will become. No, it certainly wouldn’t be neat, I want to say, but looking down at my unfathomable daughter, I feel a rush of tenderness. For this girl who some days is sweet and some days not, but is always breathtaking, the very living wonder of discovery. What a strange, biting joy it is to be her mother.

And the answer is easy, then. “Yes,” I tell her, and I mean it with my whole heart.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Madeleine I have learned all sorts of beautiful, harrowing, and fascinating things about nature. And while I am probably better off not knowing about the giant water bug’s hunting and reproductive habits (for example), I am forever grateful to her for connecting me in a very immediate way to the stuff of life, from disturbing to amazing and everything in between, both in the natural world and within the walls of our home.

Amber Scott lives in Arlington, Texas, with her husband and two daughters. As an undergraduate, she was nominated for a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Since then, her poetry has been published in local literary magazines. She is a communications writer and editor for the University of Texas at Arlington.

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Bored Again

Bored Again

bored_again art“Mama, isn’t pucely the puceliest pucely you ever did puce?”

Pucely—a derivative of pussy—is what our seven-year-old daughter calls the cat. She is in love with the cat. (“Oh my God!” she cries, rushing at houseguests with the cat in her arms, her nose buried in his fur. “You have got to smell my pussy!”) Now she is lying on our couch on her back, bare-chested in shorty pajama bottoms. She appears to be watching the ceiling fan. “Isn’t he, Mama?”

“He is.”

“But isn’t he the very puceliest?”

“The very,” I say. “Do you want me to help you find something to do?”

“No.” She scratches her mosquito-bitten ankles. “I don’t want to do anything.” At least not anything but gurgle in the back of her throat a long, low sound that’s like a cross between growling and gagging.

I used to make the exact same sound. I also used to make a different sound using a lollipop that I sucked vibratingly against the side of my cheek. And one through my trumpeted-together lips, cheeks puffed out, that sounded like a grass whistle being blown by an elephant, but softly. “Mom, she’s doing it again.” I drove my older brother crazy—but no crazier than I drove myself, so it seemed fair enough.

My husband and I laughed recently when the Mad Men mom—with her comically retro exasperation—says to a restless child, “Only boring people are bored.”

Indeed. And also: Bored people are boring. It’s the behavioral equivalent of humidity: a vague clamminess that drapes itself around you like a cloak knitted from the damp wool of torpor. Bored people complain and make weird mouth sounds and memorize the Sears Wish Book like they expect to be tested on it. (Training bras, page 23, Barbie Styling Head, real pretend make-up sold separately, page 60.) Also, there’s the nausea. I don’t mean it in some kind of Sartrian existential way—just that my memories of childhood boredom are often twinned with my memories of feeling like I might barf.

For example: the record player. Home with the flu, my brother and I would sprawl on the living-room floor while the Beatles’ Red Album turned around and around the hi-fi; we lay back-down on the carpet or cheek-down on the wood; we watched the dizzifying vinyl; we studied the liner notes, like British-Invasion scripture that we already knew by heart. We had a comprehensive mental catalogue of the lyrics, even if we didn’t understand them. (Did you know, for instance, that “Norwegian Wood” is about something less like the Scandinavian forest I’d always pictured than like birch IKEA bookcases? Me neither.) It was the only record that we had, and listening to it was not the background to what we were doing; it was what we were doing.

“Love Me Do,” “Paperback Writer,” “Day Tripper,” “Eleanor Rigby.” (Was her actual face in a jar by the door?) To hear those songs even now is to be plunged into a kind of queasy ennui born of repetition crossed with both tedium and illness. Bang bang Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon my head—but dully.

And then there was the car. Road trips meant a single sickening piece of original-flavor Trident and listening to my parents listen to the metallic top-of-the-hour news jingle. (Dee dee di-dee dee. “1010 WINS news. You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world.” Deedle-y dee dee, deedle-y dee dee.) If it was raining, you could lean your cheek against the glass to watch the drops gather and skid, gather and skid, the boredom itself gathering up into a kind of carsickness that occasionally had to be barfed out the window.

Boredom is like a fever dream, like the way you feel staring at the wallpaper’s repeated pattern while you lie sweaty in your sickroom, listening to the clinking silverware and muted laughter of life happening elsewhere. Bored thoughts flap around like a fish on the deck of a sailboat that’s going nowhere in a windless bay. “But sometimes it feels good to be bored, right?” I ask the kids now.

Ben says, “I think if it feels good then that’s not boredom. It’s the difference between wanting to not do anything, which is nice, versus there not being anything you want to do, which is being bored.” Boredom is that agitated space between relaxation and action: Dialed down, it can become a pleasant kind of inertia or meditative stillness, where it feels good to sit quietly with your own thoughts; cranked up a notch, it can produce creative release. But that middle place is the boredom itself—restlessness with no movement. A dull and desperate longing for something else, something more or less.

It’s a strange kind of luxury, boredom—a luxury full of loss. Read the Little House on the Prairie books with your kids, and you just can’t help envying the absence of boredom: They are simply too busy starving to death and having a fire-baked potato explode in their eye and chasing locusts off their crops to experience a moment’s ennui. The kids like to imitate them: “We each got an orange and a wooden button, and it was the best Christmas ever!”—but they envy the inherent meaningfulness of Laura and Mary’s lives, these pioneer children who were never stuck at a birthday party sticking foam die-cuts to a visor with tacky glue. Even my own childhood now feels quaintly creative. We did not have endless bags of rainbow-colored chenille stems to bend and discard; we had my dad’s actual white pipe cleaners, and you could take just enough to shape a pair of glasses—five—before he’d notice them missing. We had rubber bands and tinfoil and 101 Uses for a Dead Cat, which I read while laughing Fiddle Faddle out of my nose.

Which is not so different from my kids. Ben can spend an entire day reading Far Side comics in his pajamas or picking Brandi Carlile songs out on the piano. Birdy eventually thuds to the carpet for her cat-talking, fan-watching stupor, and is motivated by this act of gravity to get out the colored pencils and draw a picture of her Care Bears jigsaw puzzle. Then she builds a Lego battleship. Then she wanders outside to arrange bark and moss into a house for the fairies, which she situates next to a toadstool “in case it rains and they need an umbrella.”

I am not trying to sound like one of those crafty-mama blogs that makes you want to kill yourself, the kind you bookmark one day because you think that putting out a wooden bowl of felt gnomes sounds like a good idea (“felt gnomes?” you add vaguely to your to do list), but then you unbookmark it the next when you realize that the bowl is supposed to get refilled every morning with a different inspiring and wool-based activity and it is just too fucking much to deal with. And yet. You do have to learn boredom, learn to live with it, to manage it with the power of your own mind, without recourse to video games or bungee jumping or sniffing glue or starting a nuclear war or date raping your roommate’s girlfriend. The most dangerous people we know are the least able to sit still, to be inside an absence of motion: they are the most inclined to leave their families, to be addicts, to keep the TV on twenty-four hours a day, to kill themselves. But to manage boredom quietly? That’s one of life’s great skills: to allow its nothingness to resolve into wonder, imagination, illumination, or mindfulness, like a blurry picture that focuses suddenly into beauty. It’s a kind of inoculation against catastrophic restlessness.

Also, it prepares you for having kids: what to expect when you weren’t expecting your whole life to turn into Waiting for Godot, with Godot himself turning out to be almost as boring as the waiting. Captive under a nursing baby, you call upon all your car-tripping skills, all your floor-lying practice. The baby poops and cries and spits up in your hair, and it is all one big long meditation, half way between tedium and franticness.

(“Wake me if I actually do anything,” Ben said recently, watching a very long video we’d taken of him as a newborn, kicking microscopically on his changing table.) The baby wants to play Candy Land and Hi-Ho! Cherry-O and some weird zoo game where you’re both dying dolphins, and you breathe in and out slowly through your nose and notice the way the sunlight is catching the down along those ripe peaches of her biceps. The baby wants to read Maisy’s Bedtime and Maisy’s Morning on the Farm and Where is Maisy? and your brain threatens to contract and shrivel into a dried pea rattling around your skull, but instead you inhale the baby’s summer-smell scalp that is pressed fragrantly against your face, (Also you occupy your mind with estimating Lucy Cousin’s net worth.) The baby wants you to sing the ABCs, but like a lullaby, no not like this—here she warbles like Katharine Hepburn calling to loons on Golden Pond—like that, yes, again. Again, Mama. Again. And you sing and you sing and her darkly lashed eyes flutter and close, the beloved rose of her face open and slack in sleep.

The baby, bored, wants first to clobber you with her berserkness (“Booty dance, booty dance, booty dance shakes a booty in your face!”) and then to talk boringly about the cat some more. “He’s pretty Pucely, right, Mama?”

“Please, honey.”

“I know. But Mama?”

“Birdy?”

“What if Pucely forgot that he hadn’t pooped yet? And then he pooped on your face!”

“Yup,” I say. “That would be something.”

“Right?” she says, excited. “Right? What if he pooped right on your face!

“Do you need me to help you find something to do?” I ask again, and she says,

“No. I’m pretty busy.”

Author’s Note: “Do you think a piece about boredom is going to be boring?” I asked Michael as I was working on this, and he said, “It depends how boring it is.” Hm. “I don’t know,” I said. “It might be boring. But is it weird to be so nostalgic about boredom?” I asked, but he had already glazed over. I am boredom personified, it turns out. Hallelujah.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

Bus Rides

Bus Rides

By Christine Pakkala

School Bus ArtWhen the second-grade class comes out, I immediately see Lulu’s blonde head among the brown, floating like something lost and bright at sea. I recognize the turquoise sleeveless top she hated at the store but I bought anyway and the stained khakis she insisted on wearing, instead of the skirt with the matching turquoise flowers.

It has only been an hour since I waved good-bye to my daughter at the bus stop, but I am absurdly excited to see her again. I signed up to chaperone all the field trips, but as the teacher gently said, “All the parents need a chance.” Now is my chance, and my heart knocks around like a teenager in love.

“Line up,” the teacher says. “Children, line up.” Although she doesn’t tell them to find partners, everyone does. Janna clutches the hand of Madison, Anna wraps her arm around Sophia, and so on.

And there is Lulu, staring up at the clouds, absolutely alone. Her brow is furrowed in that way I recognize: she is concentrating hard. Cirrus, cumulus, stratus, she told me the other day, naming the kinds of clouds.

My heart tightens like her shoelace knots I tied this morning. It hurts to see her like that, turning her gaze from the clouds and heading to the school bus alone. Damn it, Lulu! I want to yell. Grab a hand.

But she doesn’t hold anybody’s hand, and she doesn’t have her arm draped around anyone’s shoulder. She climbs up the bus steps, and I have to follow although the yellow school bus fills me with dread. It reminds me of journeys I would rather forget—but I can’t, now that I’m her mom. Her very presence in my life is a constant reminder of my own girlhood.

I know her Westport, Connecticut, childhood is very different from mine. Her parents are married, her sheets are clean, her dogs are purebred, her refrigerator is full, and she is bathed and read to and adored. But I can’t help it. My intention is to let the past be over there—in Idaho—while I’m safe over here on the East Coast. But it keeps rushing in.

When I was Lulu’s age, I hated riding the bus, where all the kids paired up in the seats made for two. It seemed to me that school buses were lawless places where kids could be just as mean as they wanted to be and no one would care. And I was an easy target. I was the new kid in town, over and over again.

First, divorce, then drinking, then trouble making payments forced my mom and stepdad to keep moving us until we ended up in a run-down trailer court on the outskirts of Asotin, a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town on the banks of the Snake River. When school started, the yellow bus screeched to a halt in front of the trailer court manager’s unit, kicking up dust. In the pocket of my yard-sale cords was a round plastic token for the free lunch. I walked down the aisle embedded with dirty pink circles of gum and squeezed past the shoulders hanging off the seat. There was no place to sit.

Trailer trash! Some kid shouted it out, and lots of kids laughed. As the bus pulled away from the manager’s trailer, as I stood there, hot and dizzy in the aisle, all eyes on me. The bus driver made a U-turn, so I had to hold on to the seat or lose my balance. My fingers brushed the shoulder of a girl.

She said, Ooh, cooties.

I looked back to the front of the bus, helpless and panicking. I wanted more than anything to just sit down. The bus driver caught my eye in his rear-view mirror. He slammed on the brakes, metal shrieking.

Sit down! he yelled. With his armpits ringed with sweat, he stood up and bellowed, Move over. Finally, some kid (striped shirt, big collar) scooted over, and we lurched forward to Asotin Elementary.

But that was me—not Lulu. So why can’t I let her be a girl who chooses to stare at the clouds instead of grasping a friend’s hand?

On the bus, Janna and Madison whisper to each other; Anna and Sophie try to get their window down. Lulu marches past them toward the back of the bus and finds a seat. I slide in next to her and wrap my arm around her. I kiss her cheek once, and, when I go for the second kiss, she leans away.

“How has your day been so far?” I ask her.

She leans her forehead into the window and stares out. To me, it is the posture of melancholy. “Good,” she says into the glass.

“What did you do?”

“Mom, we were only there for an hour.” She sighs and looks out the window.

I look around the bus. I wonder if I’m coming down with something, it hurts so much to breathe. Maybe it’s allergies, this tightening around my chest.

As the bus roars to life, the children’s chatter grows in competition with the motor, and we make our way to Bridgeport. We pick up the children’s “Buddies” at school there. Bridgeport is the town that neighbors Westport. It was once prosperous but when the factory jobs left, so did the prosperity.

As these children file onto the bus, it occurs to me that I have more in common with these Bridgeport kids than I do with my own daughter. Their childhoods are ones without a lot of money to cushion them.

Yet every girl has perfectly groomed hair, tied back in buns or ponytails. I imagine their moms combing their daughters’ hair early in the morning, then tying it into frothy buns. It makes me remember that no matter how bad things got, my mom would always make me sleep with big plastic pink rollers. In the morning she would take them out and spray my hair with Final Net. She’d tie up my curls with fat, bright yarn and send me off to meet the bus. Even hungover, she would do that. Even if my stepdad beat the crap out of me with his belt the night before, I still looked good on Picture Day.

Looking at these Bridgeport girls with their gleaming hair, I feel compassion for my own mother for the first time in years. Trying to make order when there was none; trying to take care of me in a way she knew how.

After touring a museum with their Buddies, the children file back on the bus. This time, the teacher instructs them to sit with the Buddies. I find myself in a seat with the other mother. After saying hello, I turn and see a little girl from Lulu’s class sitting with her Buddy.

“Hi, Madison,” I say, smiling sweetly at her.

She looks very bored, very hot.

“Hi,” she says grumpily.

Her Buddy, Bianca Sofia Rodriguez, according to her nametag, gazes in another direction.

I’m happy that the Buddy system broke up the real buddy system, happy that everyone is suffering.

And that makes me feel a little ashamed. I turn back to face the front, and the bus jounces along. I’m not a proper grown-up. Proper grown-ups don’t want revenge—not against other children, anyway. But the stronger emotion prevails: I sit there thinking of Lulu, alone at recess while the Madisons and the Sophies play fairy games. I want to fight them, and the ones I can’t get to now: the Heathers, the Tiffanys, the Jennifers that made my yard-sale, drunk-Mom childhood miserable.

Madison suddenly yelps.

“My Lip Smackers!” she cries. “I dropped it!”

The panic in Madison’s voice is familiar. I dropped a small bottle on the bus once. It was amber-colored glue.

I bought the glue for myself with the Christmas money that my real dad gave me. When school began again, in January, I carried the glue in my coat pocket, feeling for it when some kid said, “What’d you get for Christmas, retard?” All day long, I kept it in my pocket, and when I felt lonely, I help the bottle in my hand, under my desk.

On the bus ride home, I got a seat next to the window and held it up to the weak January sunlight. I watched how the sun made it orange. The bus hit a pothole, and I dropped the amber-colored glue. I was on my hands and knees looking for it, when the bus pulled up to the trailer court. The kids were laughing, telling me to get up. Somebody kicked me in the butt.

Get off the bus! You’re going to make me late for my shows! the kicker yelled.

Did I say already that when I held it up to the light, it changed color? I wished more than anything that I hadn’t let it go.

The parent next to me jumps up and, after glancing under a few seats, grabs the Lip Smackers, triumphantly handing it back to Madison.

I hope that for all these kids, that what is dropped will be picked up. What is lost will be found. What is broken, mended. I hope that they never need magic glue.

We get out at the Buddies’ school in Bridgeport. It’s a modern building, but huge, housing kindergarten through eighth grade, unlike our smaller K through 5 school.

We troop to a cafeteria to eat lunch. I suppose the idea of sharing a meal is to build a community, but it doesn’t work that way. First of all, each kid from Bridgeport gets the free lunch (although they don’t have to hand over the plastic token like I did). Their lunches are, of course, identical: a bologna and cheese sandwich, an apple, milk, and cookies. All the Westport kids open their paper bags filled with too much food—a great variety of organic applesauce, sandwiches, clusters of grapes.

The children eat in absolute silence. Lulu has a Starbucks fruit salad, an Odwalla juice, organic chips, and a fresh bagel. I watch her carefully as she eats it, watch each bite of apple that goes into her mouth, each grape.

I turn my attention to her Buddy sitting next to her. In Spanish, the Buddy asks a boy from her class if he is going to use the mayonnaise packet. He hands it to her with a smile, and she opens it and squirts it onto her sandwich. I watch this little girl enjoying bite after bite and remember how hungry I used to be at Asotin Elementary. I ate every bite of my free lunch. My favorite was the chicken-fried steak that came with a dollop of mashed potatoes, limp green beans, and a roll that was golden brown and tasted like butter. The lunch lady gave me seconds on the rolls when she had them to spare. I hope this girl had breakfast. I hope she’ll have dinner, too.

Finally, the silent lunch is over, and the Westport kids say goodbye to the Buddies. We troop out into the sunshine, and all the alliances re-form as we wait for the bus, Madison with Janna, Sophie with Anna.

“Do you want me to sit next to you, or do you want to sit next to a friend?” I ask, hating myself for still wanting to yoke her to another child.

Above me, on the step, Lulu turns, her wide blue eyes considering me. She leans toward me, cups her hand to my ear and whispers, “Is it okay if I sit with Riley? She doesn’t have a friend.”

I nod.

“Are you sure, Mom?” Lulu asks.

I nod again.

“Come on, Lulu,” someone bellows from on board. Lulu turns without another word and jumps up the step.

I am so struck dumb by this realization—that all the time I was worrying about her, Lulu was worrying about me. I climb on board, see her sitting there with Riley, the two of them talking. The bus lurches forward.

“Lady, take a seat,” the driver says.

Author’s Note: The great thing about writing an essay is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The same cannot be said for the issue I write about in this essay. I had that moment of clarity on the bus, but I still have to fight the urge to pack Lulu too many snacks and ask her a couple dozen questions after school every day. She caught on pretty quickly to a trick I picked up in a parenting magazine: If you want to know how your kid is doing at school, ask them what they did at recess. Now her answer is standard: Nothing.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

Christine Pakkala’s essays have appeared in Salon, Serendipity, and Ladies Home Journal, among others. Last-But-Not-Least Lola is her chapter book series debut, published by Boyds’ Mill Press. She lives in Westport, Connecticut with her husband and two children.

Natural (and Unnatural) Selection

Natural (and Unnatural) Selection

spring2010_newmanI’m talking to the kids about the Galapagos Islands because it’s Darwin’s birthday. “No it’s not,” my partner, Michael, interjects. “It’s the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.”  Whatever. I am in love with evolution, but what exactly happened out at Galapagos I’m less clear about: Dinosaurs turned into Komodo dragons, which sprouted legs and crewed the S.S. Beagle? Something. I attend to ideas in passionate—if brief—flurries of attention; I can be aghast over a headline I’ve misinterpreted in a newspaper story I haven’t actually read. “They’re replacing school nurses with robots!” I might cry, indignant, and Michael will say, “I think that’s just an article about MIT graduate students.” Oh.

“Distraction is adaptive,” I explain to the children. “If I did only one thing at a time, your lunchboxes would be packed every day with air and then you’d never survive to reproduce now, would you?”

No. They would not. Biologist Ernst Mayr summarized Darwin’s theory this way: “Individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection.” Force open your rusted-over junior-high-school mind, sift through your Duran Duran memorabilia, and call this up. Remember? No, not the smooth and wrinkled peas—that was genetics (Doesn’t “Mendel’s Peas” sound like a vegetarian deli? Or maybe a Hungarian garage band.). Keep sifting. It’s the other thing—the pale peppered moths on dark trees getting picked off by the birds. Remember? Or has “survival of the fittest” kind of blurred into “Manifest Destiny,” and now it gives you a bad white-people-giving-away-free!-small-pox-blankets feeling to recall it? It’s not like that. Nor does survival of the fittest really have a fitness component—it doesn’t mean that your daughter’s ropey and muscled karate instructor will thrive to birth a million babies like a sea turtle while you, with your giant corduroy thighs rubbing together with a shkrrr-shkrrr sound (I’m just imagining here) will drop immediately dead; it’s more like genetic calisthenics. Which is why the term “reproductive success” has nothing to do with foreplay, Tantric ecstasy, or simultaneous climaxing. It’s about whether particular traits help a particular organism live long enough to produce offspring. Your husband could do you from behind while you were bent over to sort the Tupperware drawer. And if you got pregnant and passed along your organizational skills to your offspring? Evolutionary Bingo! Reproductive success.

But for now, the kids and I stick to our conversations about various visible traits and how they might be adaptive, and let me say this: If you live in the world as a student of natural selection, you will never be bored. The children study the eyes of animals to determine if they’re predators or prey. Prey have those nervous side eyes, usually with the big nervous ears, twitching and swiveling all around to see who’s coming to eat them and from where; picture a bunny, a mouse, Bambi’s dead mother. Predators’ eyes stare out from the front of their heads. “The better to chase you with, my dear,” ten-year-old Ben says in his best Big Bad Wolf voice, even though we humans are predators, too (except for maybe your one cousin with the nervous side eyes whom you feel a strange urge to chase).

We stroke our pussycat and analyze him for adaptivity: fur to keep him warm, of course; whiskers to avoid bumping into nighttime doorways; and what about purring? We don’t know. “It makes you want to take care of him,” Ben hypothesizes, which is so totally true. I picture the kittens turning on their irresistible little motors, the mother cat thinking, “Oh, fine,” and rolling over to expose her rows of exhausted teats. I picture my babies smiling up at me at the exact moment I was contemplating how discreetly to rid myself of them; I picture myself weeping instead, spilling over with love, and yoinking a milky boob from my nightgown. They’ve actually studied this—the way babies’ smiles trigger massive hits of dopamine and oxytocin in their parents, biological and adoptive both. Street drugs could kill you, but nature’s drugs might just keep you alive.

“Being cute is adaptive,” six-year-old Birdy says, as if reading my mind. She’s thinking still about the pussycat, but I’m thinking about her: the big eyes, the helpless littleness, the wobbly dependence.

I kiss her plummy cheeks and say, “It is.”

“So is being beautiful,” Ben says, hair falling around his face like dark silk, his lips the color of berries. “Like the male hummingbirds.” We watched one at the feeder all summer: a head sleeked over with emerald feathers, the neck banded in iridescence. I’m sure the girls were going crazy. I picture the scarlet cardinal seducing his fawn-colored mate, male peacocks fanning the riot of their tails, the hot crimson wattles of a cock. Why the human equivalent is a boozy grin from a barstool remains a mystery. At least to me.

But sex is a big part of it, right? All the pleasure-rigged engineering that keeps the species from extinction, all the stinky snatches of body hair like so much pheromonal quicksand, the blood rushing hither and yon in its tumescent quest for continuity. “Enjoy it,” I like to tease Michael, nudely. “I’m going to be done with this after menopause.” If it were adaptive for us to have sex for our entire lives, would our coochies really dry up like that at a certain point? Is Viagra an adaptive invention—everyone’s grandpa running around with a four-hour woody? I don’t know. I don’t understand the relationship between technology and nature. Because as it is, I never feel more special—in the species sense—than when I’m ovulating. That pull towards sex then? It’s pure animal survival. Michael is always thrilled, if a little daunted—that growled “fuck me” emanating adaptively from the very throat of my DNA.

Of course the danger here is that evolutionary arguments, rather than remaining the grand, analytical riddles that they are, get mustered to justify various patterns of domination: Women should suckle everybody; gay people should concede the barren hydraulics of their coupling; pregnancy should end in birth. Gender inequality; the Defense of Marriage Act; threats to Roe v. Wade. Danger, danger, danger. That’s why you have to get kids with the program, and get them there early and inarguably.

“Clearly,” I explain, “we’ve adapted to the point where, whether we’re gay or straight, we understand how to have or not have babies, which is the most healthy thing for human beings.” Reproductive technology is adaptive for replicating the species; reproductive freedom is adaptive for women’s health and population control. It makes perfect sense to the kids, in the same way that justice and helping other people also makes perfect evolutionary sense to them. (We see where rugged individualism has gotten us: a world of drowning polar bears, slave labor, illness, the bogglingly unjust distribution of wealth, of poverty.)

“Also karate,” Birdy says. “Karate is totally adaptive for girls and women because it keeps you”—here she kicks her leg out and aiiiiiiis fiercely—”safe.” Indeed. Mostly, though, we speak not in philosophical abstractions, but in the interest of solving an endless series of evolutionary logic puzzles. Maybe it’s the way other families talk about God: We are awestruck. Milkweed blows far and wide, a botanical Don Juan, we conclude. Acorns thunk straight down beneath the sheltering oaks. “They must grow better if they’re close to their moms, ” Birdy theorizes from my lap. A pomegranate stuns us, its seeds packed together like a ruby-filled auditorium. “Maybe it attracts the birds so that the tree can get them to poop out its seeds all over the place.” Probably it does.

“Poor berries,” Ben sighs. “They didn’t plan on the sewer system, all us humans just flushing their seeds down.” I picture—but don’t mention—the related phenomenon of jizz-soaked teenaged Kleenex, like so much potential life sneezed away. Ben thinks for a minute, toilets flushing over his head like light bulbs, then asks, “What about poop?”

I laugh. “What about poop?” It’s a favorite topic of conversation.

“Why does poop smell bad, do you think?” When I lob over the classic parental Why do you think poop smells bad? he says, “Probably so you won’t eat it.” We picture an entire race of sickened people dying off, their poop smelling like Rice Krispie Treats.

But really? Evolution is nature at its most enchanted: the beaker of science fizzing over with magic. It is logic and mystery, life and death, the omniscience of a god, but without the burning-in-hell morality. Without any morality at all, actually. Ben, considering our resident swivel-headed, night-vision barn owl and the big-eared, nose-twitching mice, muses, “Nature just lets them duke it out. They both adapted for what they need—chasing or getting away—and then they just do their best.”

And so do we, given that we are programmed to be here and then not—to die one day, despite how ferociously attached we may be to life. At the top of a fire tower, after a gorgeous and vigorous hike, Ben wondered recently about death. “It’s funny,” he said. “I mean, it’s obviously adaptive for the species as a whole for people to die. Otherwise you’d just have, like, a bazillion people everywhere, fighting over everything. But then, how did nature select for death? Because dead people? They were dead. They couldn’t exactly pass along the dying trait.” Holy necrophilia. Although he’s more right than he might know: Programmed cell death is one of the least well-understood biological traits; cells don’t have to die, but they do.

“Whoa,” says a fellow hiker, a stranger to us, raising his disturbed eyebrows at my pretty, pink-cheeked son. “Deep.”

When I ask Ben what has prompted this revelation, he says, “Being kind of tempted to jump off the fire tower.” Oh. “But then knowing I would die if I did. I guess it’s adaptive for me personally to not want to die.” I guess it is. I think about teenagers everywhere, the danger that their will to thrive will ebb treacherously away. And I cross my fingers and send up a kind of evolutionary prayer. We may be programmed to desire that our offspring live to reproduce themselves—but it just feels like love.

Author’s Note: I love the idea of Lamarckism: the so-called “soft” theory of evolution that allows for acquired characteristics to be passed on to offspring—a theory that gets regularly debunked and resurrected. I like to willfully misinterpret it to mean that my children, born of two half-Jews, will pass on a genetic love of frying latkes in bacon grease. My father likes to willfully misinterpret it to explain the impatience I inherited from growing up in an impatient household. “Your mother—always craning her nosy head around,” a giraffe probably said to his kid at some point. “You get your long neck from her.”

Brain, Child (Spring 2010)

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Weighing Down Our Children: The Battle Against Obesity

Weighing Down Our Children: The Battle Against Obesity

By Dawn Friedman

WO Weighty Matters ArtWhen I was ten or eleven years old my parents sat me down to tell me that I was getting too fat. I don’t remember the details—I know it was summer, I know it was just before bed, I know we were in the family room—but I do remember my intense shame and the way my vision tunneled, as if I were looking through the wrong end of binoculars. I remember that I left the room differently than I entered it, as if my parts were strung together wrong and I didn’t know how to operate my arms and legs.

My parents’ loving intervention did more harm than good. I became more self-conscious and less likely to want to be physical in the world. I was afraid people were secretly judging me. This led to chaotic eating in my teens, when I alternately starved, binged, and exercised my way into a perfect size eight but could never believe what I saw in the mirror. My thinking around food became distorted. I lost my ability to know when I was hungry or when I was full or what I wanted to eat. In my mind, there was food that was good for you and food that tasted good but I didn’t know how to manage either.

In my twenties I met my husband and slowly I put weight on by eating regular meals again while my exercise routine became more realistic. Today I am fat and forty and still struggling (but closer) to finding peace in my own skin.

I revisit those childhood feelings of disequilibrium more often since I became a mother 15 years ago and particularly since I became the mother of a daughter whose pediatrician wanted to put her on a diet at three months old. At that well-baby check-up almost eight years ago it was clear she was growing at the top edges of the standard height and weight charts.

“A lot of parents think it’s easier to stick a bottle in her mouth than attend to their child’s emotional needs,” she told me, while I stood stricken. “But you’re not doing her any favors in the long run.”

I often think about that moment. I think how fortunate it is that my daughter is adopted. It’s easy for me to see her birth mother in her and to accept and value the size and shape of her birth mom’s body. If she had been born to me, I think I would have accepted the doctor’s condemnation without question. I am used to thinking that my body is wrong; if my daughter had been born with a body that mirrored mine, I don’t think I would have had the fortitude to challenge the doctor’s thinking.

As it was, I left the appointment in tears but decided to meticulously track her formula consumption to see if I was indeed using food as a proxy for care. My records proved that I wasn’t. My daughter, who we were feeding on demand, seemed to know exactly how much food she needed. Although the amount she was taking in wasn’t enough, according to the standard nutritional charts, to sustain growth, she kept on growing. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ feeding guidelines recommend two-and-a-half ounces of formula per pound of body weight; my daughter was taking in about a half that.

We changed doctors. My daughter continued on her growth curve, always at the top of the pack, a place she continues to stand today. At age eight, she is strong, confident and healthy. Now, however, I see her—and children like her—facing a new kind of danger. In a social climate where larger bodies are increasingly suspect, kids like my daughter are becoming public targets of disapproval, discrimination, and overt disgust.

According to The National Center for Health Statistics, childhood obesity has risen alarmingly over the last thirty years. According to a 2007-2008 survey, nearly thirty percent of children and adolescents aged two to nineteen years are overweight or obese, meaning their Body Mass Index falls in the eighty-fifth percentile or above. The BMI scale for children takes age and sex into account. Toddlers should have more fat than teenagers and girls generally have more fat than boys. What our nation’s numbers say is that our children are getting fatter.

This is a tremendous cause for concern among healthcare leaders and social activists, including Michelle Obama, whose “Let’s Move” campaign is aimed at helping children be thinner and healthier. According to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005, our children are unlikely to live as long as their parents and grandparents due to increasing numbers of them developing “adult diseases” like Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

The pundits aren’t entirely sure what’s causing the rise in those diseases among children. They have theories: Ours is a go-go-go society, where no one seems to have time to cook anymore, let alone time to sit down for a meal. We are drowning in high fructose corn syrup, our schools don’t have time for recess, and our kids don’t have safe places to play after school.

Parents come in for a large portion of blame. In January 2012, the polling group Poll Position surveyed more than 1,100 adults by telephone, asking them their opinion of the causes of childhood obesity. More than one in three (thirty-four percent) attributed childhood obesity to a combination of poor parenting and poor food choice. An additional twenty-nine percent attributed it to poor parenting alone. Twenty-four percent cited poor food choice as the cause, four percent labeled childhood obesity a disease, and nine percent offered no opinion. All told, more than sixty percent polled placed the blame partly or totally with parents.

And among parents, mothers are seen as particularly at fault. This past January a study published in Pediatrics looking at participants of the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a project of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found a link between mother-toddler relationships and teenage obesity. Toddlers who had warm, nurturing, stress-free relationships with their mothers were less likely to be fat teens.

How has our nation responded to the news that our children are getting larger and their disease profile appears to be worsening?

In Georgia, the state holding the dubious honor of ranking second in childhood obesity, according to the U.S. Heath Resources and Services Administration, there has been a concerted media campaign aimed at raising awareness. Last fall, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta began sponsoring a $25 million Strong4Life campaign, airing television spots and plastering billboards with stark and gut-wrenching ads.

In the ad titled “Bobby,” the scene opens on an empty room containing only two folding chairs facing each other. A severely overweight woman walks in and sits in one chair. Bobby, her overweight son, perhaps ten or twelve years old, enters and sits down in the other. “Mom,” he asks, plaintively. “Why am I fat?” His mother puts her head down in apparent shame. A single drum beat sounds and the screen shifts to white lettering on black. “75% of parents of overweight kids ignore the problem,” it reads. “STOP SUGARCOATING IT, GEORGIA.”

The other ads in the campaign are much the same, warning parents that childhood obesity leads to diseases like Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. One spot shows a little girl choking back tears where she talks about being teased; in another, a boy tells us he doesn’t like to play with other kids. “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid,” proclaims the tag line.

Such an uncompromising treatment of the topic has come in for criticism as well as praise. To some, the ads are effective consciousness-raising tools. To others, they are a form of state-sanctioned bullying, which lays the groundwork for ostracizing fat kids.

Despite high-profile campaigns like Georgia’s, some health professionals believe Americans are still under-informed about the issue. Dr. David Katz is founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, dedicated to the investigation and prevention of chronic disease. He is also editor in chief of Childhood Obesity, a peer-reviewed medical journal. Katz argues that the U.S. is a culture in denial about the seriousness of childhood obesity.

“Type 2 diabetes is not fine, heart disease is not fine,” Katz tells me during a phone interview. “What we’ve got to get better at doing is attacking the problem but not attacking the people who have the problem.”

Katz points to research published in the journal Pediatrics in March 2006 that demonstrates how deeply parents are in denial about the state of their children’s bodies. Parents of overweight children are often overweight themselves. According to the research, these parents accurately describe their own weight, but then usually assume their children are lighter than they are.

Doctors aren’t necessarily on top of things either, he says. A December 2011 article in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine  showed that more than three-quarters of pediatricians aren’t telling parents when their children are too fat.

“Knowledge is power,” Katz says. “This is about empowering people to do something. Clearly the answer is not to ignore the relevant information.”

Katz has dedicated his career to helping “bend the obesity trend” in America. He is the senior medical advisor at Mindstream Academy, “a co-ed health and wellness boarding school” for obese teens founded in 2010 in Bluffton, South Carolina in 2010. He has also created a proprietary food scoring system called NuVal designed to help people lose weight. He has founded the Turn the Tide Foundation, dedicated to creating “a modern world in which eating well, being physically active, remaining lean and enjoying robust good health all lie along the path of least resistance, and are simply routine.”

Besides the medical pitfalls connected to childhood obesity, Katz is concerned about the psychological well being of fat kids. While he agrees that no child deserves to be bullied for his or her weight, he also believes a bias against obesity “is really a reflection of our society at large.” Fat people are at a disadvantage, he notes. Fat women, in particular, experience “diminished opportunity in the workplace, being paid less for the same job [and] they advance less rapidly.”

“All the kids I’ve interacted with [at Mindstream Academy] bring stories of persecution that range from a certain degree of unhappiness to suicidal thinking,” he tells me; children at the school are in an “existential crisis.”

“They are asking, can I fit into this world the way it is? Can I live? Can I function? Can I be happy? Every day they wrestle with those questions and most days the answer is no.”

This is the argument in a nutshell: Fat kids are miserable. They would be less miserable if they were less fat. Therefore we need to help fat kids lose weight.

In an enlightened age where we are having (mostly) reasonable discussions about transgender kids, anti-racism, and bullying in general, this attitude stands out. Rather than promoting tolerance, the accepted approach with obesity is to tell fat kids that they’re the ones who need to change.

The rationale for this approach lies in our belief that being fat is a choice. Katz’s Turn the Tide foundation reduces the obesity crisis to a simple formula: “We gain weight when too many calories in exceed too few calories out.” In other words, fat kids (and their parents) have the basic tools to change their bodies. If they change their bodies, they will be healthier and happier, in part because they’ll be more acceptable to the world at large.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Leaving aside the existence of food deserts—parts of the country where low income people don’t have access to fresh food—and whether or not pizza is a vegetable or if schools should house soda machines, the mechanics of weight loss and weight gain are a much more complex dance of genetics, hormones, environment, and behavior than the “calories in, calories out” argument would have us believe.

Most adults already know this: When we do manage to lose weight we usually put it back on. The same is true for kids. In a 2003 study published in Pediatrics examining the relation between dieting and weight change among preadolescents and adolescents, researchers looked at 16,000 children and found that tweens and teens who diet actually gain more weight than those who don’t. In fact, if you want to create obesity in a kid, put him or her on a diet. This is especially true for young women who diet, this and related studies show. Girls who diet gain more weight than those who don’t regardless of how fat or thin they were in the first place. So parents who panic at the first sign of weight gain in a child might be setting that child up for more struggles with weight down the road, not fewer.

Katja Rowell is a family doctor in Saint Paul, Minnesota, who left her medical practice to become a feeding specialist in private practice after her daughter was born. When she was in medical school in the late 1990s, she tells me, the sum of her nutrition training was a half hour on breastfeeding and a lunch-and-learn lecture from a nutritionist whose recommendations leaned toward processed, low-fat foods like “lite” cheese and low-sodium canned soups.

With that training under her belt and buoyed by conventional wisdom, she confidently gave parents advice about feeding their kids. When patients came in worried about their children’s weight gain, Rowell told them to monitor their kids’ calories and limit their access to food. When the children didn’t lose weight, even though the parents swore they were following her instructions, “I assumed they were lying,” she says.

It wasn’t until her own daughter was born in 2005 that Rowell realized that she knew what to feed her but not how. She started researching medical studies.

“There is actually a lot of data showing that overall lean and fat kids don’t eat any differently,” Rowell says. “There’s this bias we have. I had it, too. I used to see some fat kid walk by with a Starbucks drink with a bunch of whipped cream and think, ‘Oh my gosh, what is that parent thinking?’ What I didn’t see was that his skinny brother was drinking the same thing.”

Rowell began studying under Ellyn Satter, a therapist and registered dietician in Madison, Wisconsin, creator of the Division of Responsibility theory in feeding. In it, parents choose when and what to serve and children choose how much to eat. This means that Mom or Dad can put fried chicken, mashed potatoes, a green salad, and carrot cake on the table and their son or daughter can choose to eat however they like. A plateful of chicken. Carrot cake before the salad. A little bit of everything—or nothing but cake. Satter’s theories are based on her own research into the literature of nutrition combined with observation and forty years worth of work as a therapist and dietician.

When given access to a variety of foods, Rowell says, kids will make good choices—not at every meal, maybe, but if parents can nurture their children’s intuition, it will all even out at the end. On her blog, thefeedingdoctor.com, she writes about kids who turn away ice cream or overeat sugar cereal one day and then ask for oatmeal the next.

Rowell argues that the obesity epidemic doesn’t exist in the way we’re hearing about it. Old growth charts and misunderstandings about how healthy kids grow fuel the alarming statistics.

“Yes, there are more kids on the extreme high-end,” she says. “But if you look at the data, in the last ten years it’s actually been pretty stable. Kids and adults have gotten both bigger and taller and our longevity has increased as well during this time period.”

Current growth charts are based on the smaller, shorter people we used to be, Rowell says. As a result, more children appear to be in the upper percentile. Rowell asserts that the charts as a whole need to be moved up a notch to recognize our new normal. Children grow by fits and starts; bouncing around the percentiles is typical for healthy kids. When doctors and parents panic because a child has jumped from the seventy-fifth percentile to the eightieth and they respond by putting that child on a diet, they are interfering with what is likely the child’s natural way of growing.

“Kids will do these periods of incredible growth and they’re often preceded by weight gain,” she explains. “Sometimes kids will gain weight and kind of look a little bit softer and pudgier. Woe is the kid who shows up [for a check-up] right before their height spurt.”

While the Center for Disease Control report that our rate of obesity, based on 2007-2008 numbers, is stabilizing, they disagree that the charts should be adjusted or that we ignore what Dr. Katz calls, “the canary in the coal mine of chronic disease.” After all, health risks for fat kids are real, right?

That’s trickier to ferret out than you might think. The problem is that even the scientific literature is stuck in a chicken-or-egg discussion about behavior and results. Fat children are at higher risk for diabetes and hypertension, true. But it may be that obesity is a symptom, not a cause, of those diseases—and not always a reliable symptom at that. Some obese people get Type 2 diabetes and some do not. Some obese people develop cardiac disease and some do not. An October 2011 white paper, “Adult Obesity in Manitoba,” published by the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, reports that obese people did indeed use more health care services than did the normal and overweight population but that the difference was very small.

In other words, you cannot look at anyone, fat or thin, and know for certain the state of his or her health, say the size acceptance activists. There are fat children who are strong and healthy and active; there are thin children who don’t eat right or get enough exercise. Not all kids with diabetes are fat and not all fat kids have diabetes. So instead of discussing the healthcare costs of obesity, perhaps we ought to be talking about healthcare costs of behaviors—like eating poorly and not moving enough—that can be, but are not always, correlated with obesity.

That’s not to say that there are no fat people who should consider the benefits of weight loss. Yoni Freedhoff is a family doctor and founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, as well as an author of the blog WeightyMatters.ca that discusses obesity in North America. His goal is not necessarily to help his patients reach their dream weight but to help them improve their quality of life.

“Dieting—under eating and over exercising—that doesn’t work,” he says. “The reality is that to navigate this world from a healthy perspective requires skills that are less intuitive. We try to provide that support here and if the consequence is weight loss, good for them, but that’s not the focus of our office.”

Some of the skills Freedhoff is talking about are learning to cook, eating out less, and creating an exercise routine. Don’t get him wrong; he’ll help you lose weight if that’s what you want. But his primary goal is to get patients to see the bigger picture. Healthy lifestyle changes might help his clients reach and maintain just a five to ten percent weight loss. That’s usually enough to see marked differences in any obesity-related health problems.

If that approach marks Freedhoff out among his weight-matters peers, so does his clientele: He is adamant about not treating children in his clinic.

“Weight management is hard for insightful adults,” Freedhoff says. “[Children have] developing frontal lobes, the pressures of adolescence. I have concerns about programs, especially those that target younger kids. Children don’t have a lot of personal choice about their lifestyles. That’s why I’d rather only exclusively treat the parents and teach them healthy lifestyle changes, which may or may not help them lose weight.”

I recently spoke with Echo Leigh, a mother and photographer in Munford, Tennessee, who is struggling to figure out the healthiest way to raise her four kids, who have very different body types

“Three of them are skinny,” she tells me. “But my oldest daughter is a little bit overweight.”

Jaiden is nine years old and in the fourth grade. Leigh says that she is perhaps ten pounds too heavy.

“She’s always been a little thicker,” Leigh says, “I feel guilty, especially because she’s getting to the point that she’s noticing. I wish that I could take that pain away from her.”

Leigh wishes that her children’s school would help her figure out how to helpJaiden. Instead, she feels like they make her job harder. Jaiden has recess twenty minutes a day and P.E. class once a week. For a month last year, she participated in the Coordinated School Health curriculum sponsored by the local health department. Leigh doesn’t know much about what Jaiden learned in the program because Jaiden wouldn’t talk about it, except to say that she hated it.

And then there are the school lunches.

“It’s disheartening to see that this is what the federal government says is healthy for my kid,” Leigh says. “It’s a chicken fajita with a really soggy tortilla and greasy chicken. And cheese, oh my goodness gracious, with nachos.”

Leigh used to pack lunch for all of her kids (she even has an abandoned blog recording her attempts at making adorable and healthy Bento-style lunches) but, like most of us, sometimes she’s just too busy.

I identify with Leigh. She says she worries about her own weight, and while she tries not to talk about it too much in front of her kids, sometimes she does. She knows she should cook from scratch more often and exercise more but she’s busy and sometimes she falls short. The night I talk to her, the family is eating a frozen boxed dinner and she feels rotten about it.

“It was three dollars and I fed four of us and I’ll have leftovers,” she says. “But I still feel guilty for feeding my family something out of a box, truth be told.”

She says it’s hard not to treat her children differently because of their different body types.

“Is it nature or nurture?” she wonders. “I always try to figure it out. We try not to draw attention to it but we can’t hide that some clothes aren’t fitting her properly anymore. I was taught that you eat what you are given, you clean your plate, but now I kind of struggle. I don’t want them to waste food but …”

She trails off and sighs. “I have one really picky, picky eater and one that’ll eat everything. Everybody’s different. We don’t mind if so and so wants to eat extra helpings, maybe five frozen waffles, but then the other one you think, maybe she should stop at two.”

I can feel Leigh’s push and pull, wanting to raise a daughter who is healthy in both body and spirit and unsure of how to do this.

“There are worse things in the world than being fat,” she tells me. “I mean, she could be a serial killer.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to obesity, most people have an all-or-nothing attitude. Not long ago, I went out to eat at a buffet with a couple where the husband kept up a running commentary about the food choices of the fat people around him.

“Look at that, she’s going back for more,” he said, indicating one particularly corpulent woman. “And she’s getting cake this time, too, Lord Almighty.”

I sat silently, acutely aware of my own fatness. How could I defend this woman when my body made it clear that I didn’t know how to eat, either? That’s the thing about being fat or having fat kids or worrying about being fat or worrying about having fat kids: Every meal is a potential battleground. When we’ve internalized the values of a culture terrified of obesity, a piece of cake is never just a piece of cake.

Most of us don’t really know how to feed our kids. Theoretically, we do, sure. We know that whole wheat is better than white bread and that we should offer our kids an apple when they come home hungry and that having them help us in the kitchen is supposed to make them open to trying different kinds of food.

But in practice it’s a whole lot harder. Like Leigh I have one child who is a picky eater and one who is not. Trying to put something on the table every single night that everyone likes and that is healthy and fits our budget is my Waterloo. Throw in the ominous warnings about the obesity epidemic and sometimes I am so overwhelmed that I feel paralyzed. No wonder Leigh sometimes just throws a Banquet frozen meal in the oven and calls it a night. My version of that is ordering pizza.

That brings us back to Katja Rowell, the feeding specialist who thinks the obesity epidemic crisis is blown way out of proportion. The cornerstone of her feeding practice is the belief that children, when given the opportunity, can return to a place of eating competence.

“Eating competence” is a term that describes the ability to eat well instinctively. It’s the power to eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and to enjoy your food without guilt or anxiety. Competent eaters sometimes eat too much or eat too little but overall their diets balance out with their caloric needs. We are all born competent, intuitive eaters, but, needless to say, most of us don’t stay that way.

When I think about the Division of Responsibility approach and feeding kids I am reminded of Erma Bombeck’s definition of a sweater: “Something you wear when your mother is cold.” Most of us feed our children when we are hungry or because the clock tells us to. We deny them seconds on spaghetti until they eat their broccoli. We fret about leftover Halloween candy and birthday excess. The Division of Responsibility frees us up from this. Theoretically, we can trust that our kids will put on sweaters when they are cold and put aside the fun size candy bars when they’ve had enough sugar but only if we let them make mistakes along the way. That means sometimes leaving their coats at home or letting them overeat birthday cake. It also means that grabbing a frozen lasagna or ordering a pizza occasionally is no big deal. Life happens. We don’t always have time to mince onions.

“The number one hallmark of a competent eater is that they feel good around food, there is no angst and anxiety,” Rowell says. “They come to the table, they see what’s there and they can participate in a relatively pleasant family meal.”

But they can only feel good around food if we do. They can only eat without angst and anxiety if we’re not wringing our hands over them or trying to talk them into seeing food the way we want them to see it.

“If you tell the kid, okay, it’s corndogs for lunch, they’re much more likely to eat then if you say it’s a healthy corndog,” Rowell says. “The psychology we’re bringing into it, it screws kids up.”

She tells me about a poster she saw in a classroom. It featured a big picture of a delicious looking cupcake with a big slash through it. The legend read: THIS IS A NO SWEETS ZONE. Staring at the poster all day sets up a craving and addiction message for the students in the classroom, Rowell says. She tells me about a six-year-old child who broke into a neighbor’s house to get to food the little girl wasn’t allowed to eat at home.

“The woman found this little girl on the floor drinking juice boxes and emptying out Ritz crackers and cookies,” Rowell says. “I think a significant portion of kids who are denied so-called forbidden foods never learn how to handle those foods and that’s how you end up with a six-year-old bingeing at the neighbor’s house.”

Linda Bacon is an avid believer in competent eating. A nutrition professor in the biology department at City College of San Francisco and an associate nutritionist at the University of California, Davis, she is also the author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight.  First published in 2008 and now in its second edition, Health at Every Size is considered the bible for activists who want to reframe discussions about obesity and health. Health at Every Size—or HAES—proposes that everyone has a natural set-point weight. Some of us are naturally, healthfully bigger and some of us are naturally, healthfully smaller. HAES argues that if we focus on making healthy changes such as eating more vegetables or taking more walks, our bodies will be the sizes that they are meant to be. Some people will lose weight when they start practicing HAES and some will not; it’s most definitely not a diet book.

According to Bacon, eating too much or for the wrong reasons is actually a part of eating competently; we are human and fallible and always learning. The difference between the competent, intuitive eater and someone who does not trust her ability to intuitively monitor her own food intake is that the competent eater doesn’t beat herself up afterwards. She eats more sometimes because the food is delicious or because it’s a party or because she’s feeling a little down, but she works to tune in to what’s going on for her emotionally and physically so that she’s making decisions in harmony with her body. Nurturing herself in all ways is the goal.

Competent eaters can be fat or thin or somewhere in between. Different bodies naturally have different set points, something the discussion about the obesity epidemic doesn’t acknowledge, says Bacon.

Kathy Kater calls this the “denial of biological diversity.” Kater is a psychotherapist in St. Paul, Minnesota specializing in eating disorders.  She’s the creator of the book, Healthy Body Image, published by the National Eating Disorder Association which outlines a healthy body image, eating, and fitness curriculum targeted to children in grades four to six. Over the thirty years she’s been in practice, she’s seen the age of new patients steadily drop. It’s no longer unusual for her to have eight- and nine-year-old girls in her care.

It’s important to understand, she says, that it’s not just fat children who are negatively impacted by our war on obesity; thin children are growing up afraid of becoming fat, too.

“It just breaks your heart when you see these kids and some of them are chubby little kids and some of them are skinny little things and all of them have the same idea about fat that it’s just about the worst thing that could possibly happen. Kids are told that the reason to eat well and go out at recess and run around is so you don’t get fat. That message is delivered just that directly.”

In other words, say the Health at Every Size advocates, kids caught up in the current frenzy of the obesity epidemic are too often targeted with messages that demonize fat rather than promote health. This has several nasty side effects, they say, such as demonizing fat people and creating an atmosphere of fear and loathing around food.

For a child whose neurobiology is primed to develop an eating disorder, these messages can be deadly. Harriet Brown is the author of Brave Girl Eating (2010), a memoir about her eldest daughter’s struggle with anorexia.

“Kids are developing eating disorders younger and younger,” Brown says. “The numbers are not so much rising as that the ages are dropping down to eight-, nine- or ten-years old. Even kids who are five and six are learning this language. I think that’s a direct consequence of that pressure to be thin and not fat. Research shows that preschoolers now show a very strong preference for thinness.”

We need to take back the word fat, Brown says, and use it as the descriptor it’s meant to be.

“If I say to a friend in a casual way, ‘Oh, I can’t shop in that store because they don’t make clothes for fat people,’ my friend often rushes in to tell me I’m not fat,” Brown says. “But it’s just a descriptor to say that I have more avoirdupois than you do. Fat stands for so many things, as a negative. We need to reclaim it.”

Ragen Chastain wants to do just that. She’s a dancer, educator, writer, and activist who blogs at DancesWithFat.com.

Chastain’s father started criticizing her weight when she was still a preschooler. At the same time, “he made fun of me if I tried to do anything healthy,” she recalls. Chastain stayed active anyway. In high school she was a cheerleader, danced, and participated in team sports, but she was still heavy. A family friend sat her down at seventeen and asked her if she really wanted to start college overweight. Wasn’t college the chance to start a whole new life? So Chastain started dieting. She spent eight to ten hours a day working out, fueled by a mere eleven hundred calories. She lost weight but finally she collapsed “in the most dramatic fashion” while running on a treadmill. She was hospitalized with an eating disorder.

“I started to gain weight really rapidly because I’d tanked my metabolism [by dieting],” she says. The doctors were concerned about her weight gain, which is how she ended up being told that she needed to lose weight while still hospitalized for an eating disorder.

(This reminds me of an anecdote Harriet Brown writes about in her memoir. Her daughter had just been diagnosed with anorexia and was about to have another test. The medical technician, making small talk, compliments Harriet’s daughter on her thinness. I tell Chastain this story and she sighs. It’s all too familiar.)

Over the next few years, Chastain ran through a long list of diet plans—Jenny Craig, Medifast, Quick Weight Loss Center—which she now sees as a continuation of her eating disorder. She tried lifestyle changes and formal eating plans but continued to gain. Eventually she enrolled herself in an inpatient program, featuring a menu that actually offered less food than she was eating just before she was hospitalized. Despite the low calories, she was still gaining a pound a week. She decided to leave. “I was paying a lot of money to gain weight,” she says drily. Before she left, however, an employee brought her into a small room with motivational “Don’t quit!” posters and handed her a binder full of pictures of fat women.

“She said, ‘You might not know it, but this is what you look like, and these women are destined to be alone,'” she told me. “It was a revelation. I realized that I didn’t have a problem with their bodies. I didn’t have assumptions about who they were or what their lives were like. I thought ‘If I can appreciate their bodies, couldn’t I do that for myself?'”

Chastain went home and made a list of every single thing she liked about her body—its capacity to breathe, its strength and stamina. She began to exercise for the love of it instead of to lose weight. Every time she had a negative thought about her body she went back to the list and consciously chose a positive one to replace it.

“I started looking at the diets I’d done and realized that I was using weight loss as a proxy for healthy behaviors. If I want health, why wouldn’t I focus on health? My body would work itself out.”

The result, Chastain says, is that she’s healthier now than when she was dieting.

“I am type 3 super obese, you can’t get fatter than me on the obesity charts but you can’t get healthier than me either. My numbers are in the exceptional range—blood pressure, blood glucose. I have better numbers than my doctor. I can do the splits; I can press a thousand pounds with my legs. I do interval training at the level of a professional athlete.”

Chastain regularly speaks at schools about health and physical activity. During the question and answer periods after her presentations the children often ask her if she ever wants to lose weight so people won’t make fun of her. “I say no, I just want people to stop treating me poorly.” She tells them, “It’s really dangerous when we start to say that the solution to teasing is to make the person teasing you happy.”

“I get a lot of e-mails and stuff that make me cry. Like the one from a little girl that said ‘I’m twelve years old and I can’t lose weight but it never occurred to me that I could still be happy.’ ” She recalls another little girl who wanted to dance but told Chastain her father said he wouldn’t enroll her in dance classes until she lost weight.  “Here’s a little girl being kept from movement. We’re keeping health away from them. Let’s not pretend that our singular standard of beauty is the same thing as health.”

Bloggers who write about fat politics have a name for people who write hateful comments under the guise of compassion: concern trolls. They don’t just exist online either. In real life, they’re the people who will stop a fat person in the buffet line at a party and say, “Should you really eat that? I’m just worried about your health.”

Concern trolls may be doing more than hurting people’s feelings. Peter Muennig is a researcher and assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. His work focuses on the intersection of health and social justice. According to his research, health risks associated with obesity are caused in part, he writes, by “the psychological stress induced by the social stigma associated with being obese.” In other words, perhaps the Strong4Life ads in Georgia aren’t practicing tough love so much as they’re endorsing a cultural mindset that is actually causing the very problems it purports to be fighting.

According to Muennig’s research our anti-fat climate may be hurting our children far more than the weight they’re carrying. Perhaps we could do more to improve their health of every child by modeling greater acceptance of size diversity. As Linda Bacon says, “What we know is that self-hatred is never a healthy motivation for change; people take good care of things that they like.”

“Everybody has assumptions about what somebody’s weight means,” Bacon says. “It’s not that we’re saying that health habits are unimportant. We just believe that focusing on changing someone’s weight doesn’t necessarily change their health.”

So why do we continue to make weight a proxy for health? Bacon believes that our culture frames obesity as a health issue as a way to make discrimination acceptable and to avoid a discussion about social injustice.

“Our culture is really based on unfairness,” Bacon tells me. “Weightism is not much different than racism.”

“Thin people are getting hurt, too,” she says. “What we see when we look at healthcare is that nobody gets good treatment [in this climate]. There are a lot of thin people that have the diseases we tend to blame on weight but there’s an assumption that because they’re thin, they’re okay. They get the message that what they eat doesn’t matter because they’re thin enough so they don’t have to worry about it.”

I ask Bacon if she has hope that society can change, that we can become nuanced in our discussions and silence the concern trolls. She is silent then she says that she thinks Health at Every Size thinking will never be mainstream because there’s no money in it.

“Who would need mascara if you believed your eyes were beautiful without it? Even cars are sold on the idea that they will make you appear sexy and attractive to other people; first they have to make you feel inadequate. Everyone has a stake in our self-hatred.”

Author’s Note: My daughter is eight now and she has, like most girls her age, become more aware of her body. She is taller and bigger than anyone else in her homeschool classes and sometimes she feels self-conscious about it. We often talk about the lack of body diversity we see on television and we talk about the way the media uses our bodies to try to convince us we need to buy what they’re selling. I have also learned to call myself fat without flinching, using it as the descriptor it’s meant to be, because I know that it’s a word that’s already been lobbed against my daughter as an insult.

“Some people have straight bodies,” she says, using her made-up euphemism for skinny. “And some people are round. I have a round body. I eat a variety of foods and I run around a lot, I ride my scooter and I jump on the trampoline. That’s just how my body is supposed to be.”

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

Dawn Friedman is a therapist in private practice in Columbus, Ohio. Her website is dawnfriedman.com.

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Black on the Inside

Black on the Inside

By Dionne Ford

fall2008_fordMy daughter has decided that she is white.

With her butterscotch skin and thick copper-colored curls, it’s easy to see that white is only half the story. Her father is white, with his Irish grandmother’s freckled skin and red hair and his Finnish grandfather’s long limbs and blue eyes. I am black, cocoa-colored like my grandmothers from Arkansas and Mississippi. I want Desiree, as a biracial child, to self-identify, to not let others box her into some container too small to hold all of her.

I just never considered that she might not identify with me at all.

I liked it better when she worked in tones. When she was four and heading off to preschool, she compared us to the colors in her crayon box. She was peach, Dad was pink, and I was brown. The kids in her school were an amalgam of different colors, races, and religions, with parents of varying sexual orientations, and I happily sent her off to its cocoon of otherness. That’s why we moved to Montclair, N.J., in the first place. According to the New York Times, it was the best place for interracial families to live in the U.S. I felt comforted when we first moved that here, we would all fit in.  Color would not be an issue.

Then on our way to preschool one morning, Desiree asked why I call myself black when I’m not black like the SUV that was idling in the drop-off line in front of us.

“That’s just how people of our race, of my race, have described themselves, or have been called by other people, um … ,” I stammered before she lost interest and started singing along with the Music for Aardvarks tape.

What had kept me clinging to the term “black” long past puberty? It was defiance, really, an attempt to rail against black as bad and evil and to redefine the color and with it others’ perceptions of me. It helped that I was never one to follow the crowd. When people started wearing black plastic bangles like Madonna, I promptly threw mine in the trash, and when people started following Jesse Jackson’s lead in calling ourselves African American, I clung to the abandoned black term even tighter. Like my daughter, I was trying to decide for myself.

For both of us, this is tricky business. My daughter’s innocent question that day was the harbinger of more complicated things to come.

One night, we read Black Is Brown Is Tan about an interracial family made up of the same parts as ours. I said something to Desiree about her looking just like the little girl in the book, same curly hair and brown eyes, though the girl’s skin was darker.

“I don’t look like her, Mommy. She’s black,” my daughter said.

“Well, she’s part black, and so are you,” I said.

“No, I’m not.  I’m white. Just look at me.”

The horror I felt must have registered on my face because she quickly smiled and added, “I know I’m black on the inside ’cause I was in your belly, Mommy.”

That seemed much worse, like an inverted Oreo. I was always called Oreo growing up because of my white insides—the words I used, the music I listened to, the honors classes I took in school. Those things didn’t seem to match my brown skin. Unlike the cookie, there was nothing sweet about that nickname.

Was my daughter already divvying up people into categories the way her school teaches her to sort the food groups? I was her age, about five, when I became aware of my skin, how it sometimes made people treat me differently. Had racism somehow leached into her psyche from the few TV shows she’d been allowed to watch, or from attitudes at school, making her equate white with desirable and black with problematic? Would it persist and lead her to identify solely with the more privileged choice, the white choice, the one that doesn’t include me?

The whole thing made me long for my grandfather, a very fair-skinned black man. I remember asking him once if he was white because his skin was like a cloudy pearl, his pitch-black hair straight as a pin. He stared me down from behind his Coke-bottle glasses then told me I ought to know better than that.

“I’m a black man,” he said, like it was simple math.  If he were still alive, he could tell my daughter that he was so fair because his grandfather was a white man who owned the pecan plantation where his grandmother was enslaved. He would say how he pretended he was white when my dad was little for better pay at his grocery store job.

He could sit my daughter on his lap and tell her with his Louisiana drawl, “Look here, I’m black, and so are you.  It doesn’t matter what you look like. It matters what blood you have in you.” I imagined that my grandfather’s easy embrace of his blackness could help Desiree embrace that part of herself just as easily.

When I was a kid in the seventies, to call yourself even half white, no matter what you looked like, was to disparage your blackness. It implied that being black was something to be ashamed of. Even pretending was looked down on—my mom gave me a good yelling at once for draping a towel over my head and swinging it back and forth then asking her how she thought I’d look with blonde hair and blue eyes.

For good or for ill, “one drop of blood” used to mean you were black regardless of appearance. How times have changed. When Tiger Woods came up with the word Cablanasian to encompass all of his parts, I cheered. I supported changes to the 2000 census that would better serve my interracial family by letting us check all the categories that apply to us. I’m disappointed that Barack Obama identifies himself primarily as black and not biracial, but he’s from my generation, not Desiree’s, so I understand.

In my parenting especially, I try hard not to get tripped up by old ideas. If my daughter decides to be a boy for the day and tells everyone to call her Liam, I pass no judgment. When she insists on wearing open-toe shoes in the winter, I tell her to throw on some socks and I roll with it. My daughter is afforded more choices than my grandfather was, and ideally this is what I want for her—choice. But this insistence that she is “a little white girl” digs a hole in me. It seems to point out that the stigma attached to being black is still intact.

My husband gently reminds her when the subject comes up that she is both black and white and that this is a good thing. He tells her about his Finnish grandfather who was a cowboy and reminds her of the tractor ride she took at my grandfather’s farm in Arkansas. On MLK day this year, he extolled the virtues of Dr. King and asked what she’s learned about him. She sang us a song about him from her school’s assembly and told us he was peaceful and tried to help black people get their rights.

“You know what else?” she says. “You guys wouldn’t have been able to get married if it weren’t for Martin Luther King.”

We nod at her intention, tell her that in some states our marriage would have been illegal. I take her comment as a shift in her thinking toward embracing her black part, too. So, I take the plunge and ask her how she sees herself now that she’s a second grader.

“I’m white. I don’t want to be black. It’s too hard.”

I whip the eggs I’m scrambling with too much gusto, splattering yolk and whites onto our Corian countertop.

“You’re white and black,” I say, resisting the urge to shake this truth into her before the world does. “What do you mean it’s too hard to be black?”

“You can’t sit where you want. People treat you bad.  I’d rather be white. They’re treated better,” she says, her bright brown eyes averted, avoiding my gaze.

“Black people can sit where they want on buses now. Things have changed.” I silently curse the MLK day celebration and its thorough depiction of all the inequities blacks suffered and reconsider for the thousandth time whether we should join Jack and Jill, an eighty-year-old social organization for black kids. Pro: She’d meet more black kids. Con: She’s not entirely a black kid.

“I know things are different now,” my daughter says, “but still, it just seems easier to be white.”

From the mouths of babes.

For a second I am disappointed that she already knows this, but then, wiping up the gooey mess I’ve made, I remember my friend in junior high telling me I wasn’t really black because I was smart and didn’t live in the projects, and another friend in middle school who cautioned me to stay away from their dog because her father had trained it to attack black people. In a way, I feel affirmed. My daughter already understands something that most people who aren’t dark-skinned never comprehend: that it’s harder to be black than it is to be white in this country. Her understanding gives me hope.

She starts to recount the latest episode of Hannah Montana so I know she doesn’t want to talk anymore, and I know better than to push it. When she’s done talking, I kiss the baby soft hairs on her forehead and tell her that I love her and that I’m a part of her no matter what she calls herself. Still, I lift her chin and spread my arms wide so she has a good look at the pink sleeveless tee shirt she bought me for Mother’s Day with the Japanese symbol for “mother” painted across my chest.

“Come on,” I say “How hard does it look to be me?”

I know this story won’t end here. As my daughter grows, so, too, I suspect will her concept of herself. And as she makes different groups of friends, they’ll ask her to choose. Maybe on certain days, she’ll feel white, on others, black, on others both, the way now she sometimes insists she’s a boy, or an alien princess, or a movie star. All I can do is keep her connected to all of her sides, gently reminding her that she is both black and white, inside and out.

Author’s Note: When I called my big sister recently to talk about this essay, she informed me that when I was about six I declared that I wanted to be white. “You were tired of the girls in the neighborhood”—one Asian, the other biracial -“making fun of your skin and hair,” my sister reminded me. Hmm. I guess my daughter does identify with me after all.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

Dionne Ford is an award-winning journalist whose essays have appeared in the New York Times and Literary Mama.  She’s at work on a memoir about her family’s history which she blogs about at findingjosephine.com.

Talking Smack

Talking Smack

By Johanna Bailey

spring2009_bailey“Let’s leave the kids at home and meet up for a drink sometime!”

Every time I join a new playgroup, there’s always at least one person who suggests a girls’ night out. I’m never sure exactly how to respond. Do I say that alcohol gives me a headache? That I’m on medication and can’t drink? That I’m allergic? Or do I say nothing at all and just hope that they won’t notice when I order orange juice at the bar?

The truth is, I’m an alcoholic and heroin addict in recovery. Eight years into my sobriety, it doesn’t get any easier to say that out loud.

Even more troubling is what—if anything—I say to my son, Nico, and when. He’s only three. When he asks why I don’t drink wine like daddy, I explain to him I don’t like the taste, just like he doesn’t like the taste of corn. And that’s all the explanation he needs. Right now, Nico’s idea of partying involves lots of balloons and short people running in circles screeching. It’s going to be a while before he’s ready to hear about my history of substance abuse. But I know that time is coming.

For better or worse, the days are gone when people would simply sweep the dicey parts of their personal pasts under the nearest rug as soon as they became parents. No longer can we just leave a few pamphlets on the kids’ beds and assume that we’ve done our job in talking about drugs and alcohol. No, today we’re supposed to talk to our kids, the experts tell us. We should be open and honest about everything from drugs to sex to the death of a family pet. And this makes sense to me. Certainly I would never want to travel back fifty years in time to try and morph myself into some sort of a June Cleaver of a mother.

Nevertheless, I still can’t help but wonder if, in my case, being completely honest with my son is really the wisest option. On the contrary, I’m terrified that by telling him about my past, particularly regarding my heroin use, I’ll only be increasing the chances that he’ll end up experiencing the same problems that I did.

One morning sometime during my junior high years, my stepfather sat with me at the kitchen table and talked about some of his more harrowing experiences with drugs. I sat there transfixed as he told me about the night when he found himself lying facedown in a forest in the rain after binging on whiskey and cocaine.

Given the fact that he was talking about it over waffles, it didn’t seem to me that whatever he’d experienced had done him any lasting harm. He had a family and a nice house, and soon he’d hop into his Saab and head off to a good job. Rather than serve as a warning to stay away from drugs, as he had intended, the story merely tickled my curiosity. I, too, wanted to spend a cocaine-fueled bacchanalian night in a forest, albeit in dryer weather.

By that age, I’d already noticed that alcohol played an important role in our house, both for relaxation and celebration. My parents were not alcoholics, but they did drink. They were the only ones on the block who did. That’s because I was raised in Salt Lake City, a land dominated by Mormons, a group of people who don’t even possess coffee machines, let alone corkscrews or shot glasses. It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots. People who drank were free-thinking liberals who stayed away from oversized hair bows and minivans (aka “Mormon movers”). People who did not drink were conservative goody-goodies. The men in the latter group all had Ken doll haircuts, and the women had a penchant for wearing floral headbands. Most importantly, their children did not invite me to their birthday parties.

My parents were honest about their own youthful transgressions, which ranged from my stepdad’s coked-up nights of excess and regret, to my mother’s single puff off a joint in 1969. In my adolescent mind, that made my step-dad credible and my mother clueless.

What any of it had to do with me, however, was beyond the scope of my imagination. The teenaged “It won’t happen to me” mentality was deeply etched into my mind. So I ignored my parents when they warned me that the high incidence of alcoholism in our extended family meant it was very likely I’d develop substance abuse problems myself if I weren’t careful. After all, it was one thing to know that I may have a predisposition for addiction, but another thing entirely to see that Suzy at school had been smoking joints for months with no apparent ill effects other than having eyes that resembled a couple of glazed donuts.

And then there were the mixed messages. My parents told me that I wasn’t allowed to use drugs or drink, but, like many of my friends’ parents, they tacked on an addendum: If I did “somehow happen to find myself” in a situation where I couldn’t safely drive home, I should definitely not be afraid to call them for a ride. The way I interpreted this was, “We don’t want you to do it, but we expect that you might anyway. If you do, we’ll be disappointed, but we won’t permanently chain you to your canopy bed.”

So I went to parties, drank, and started experimenting with drugs. Did I worry about getting in trouble? Sure. But I worried more about winding up as a twenty-one-year-old Girl Scout who was still selling cookies in a pair of perfectly creased polyester pants, which was my mental image of anyone who didn’t drink or do drugs. We sinners had to band together, and if that meant pounding ten cans of the three-percent-alcohol beer sold in Utah supermarkets to get a buzz, I was all for it. For me there was no middle ground. If you didn’t party, you might as well head down to the Mormon temple and prostrate yourself on its well-manicured front lawn.

My stepfather never became either an addict or an alcoholic, but I sure did. In that light, his story hit far wide of the mark in terms of its intended effect. Do I want to open up to Nico some day and risk the same thing happening to him?

My hesitations about sharing my past were reinforced even more when I read David Sheff’s book, Beautiful Boy, about his son’s crystal meth addiction. In the book, Sheff agonizes over whether or not he made a mistake in telling his son that he himself had used drugs, including crystal meth. He proposes that in some instances, it can actually do more harm than good when adults tell kids about their past substance abuse: “It’s the same reason that it may backfire when famous athletes show up at school assemblies … and tell kids, ‘Man, don’t do this shit, I almost died,’ and yet there they stand, diamonds, gold, multimillion-dollar salaries and cereal box fame.”

Even Barack Obama admitted in his 1995 memoir that in his youth he drank and used drugs. Obama has stated since then that his purpose in revealing his past was to show young people who have problems that it is possible to make mistakes and still recover. An admirable sentiment, but what about those kids who haven’t tried drugs? Is the knowledge that their new president used to get drunk, smoke pot and snort cocaine really helpful? Or might it just make them think that they, too, can mess around with drugs and alcohol for a few years before going on to become successful and famous?

I’m not running for president, and it’s not likely that my face will ever grace a box of Wheaties, but my life is pretty good considering the foolish decisions I made in the past. The negative consequences—the devastation of those that loved me, the loss of self-respect, the years of depression, and the humiliating memories—all of those are almost impossible to verbalize in any way that would be enough to convince Nico not to follow in my footsteps. The fact is that I was supremely lucky—lucky that, unlike so many others, I was able to put down the drinks and the drugs and move on with my life without any long-term serious consequences.

Still, I wouldn’t wish my experiences on my worst enemy, let alone my beloved child. Is there any way to say this to Nico without it sounding like just another cliché?

I decided to do a bit of investigating and to talk to some experts in the field of adolescent substance abuse. My first stop was Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. “Of course you have to tell him about your history!” he exclaimed. He went on to tell me that as an alcoholic and addict in recovery, I have “a very powerful voice and a credible message.” Pasierb also said that although I don’t owe my son a “blow-by-blow summary” of everything I’ve done, I still need to be honest with him about my drug use. “Teenagers have a big bullshit filter, so if you lie to them, they’re going to know it. Basically, honesty is the best policy.”

After speaking with Pasierb, I headed to my local library, where I plowed through as many books on the subject of adolescents and substance abuse as I could find. In the end, it appeared that most experts agree that parents should be truthful about past drug use but that they don’t need to go into every last detail. Exactly how many details one should reveal, however, is up to the individual.

In the 2002 book Just Say Know by Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder, and Wilkie Wilson, the authors warn that the decision of how much to divulge must be taken very seriously. They urge you to use caution when discussing your past drug use with your kids.

Okay, but what does that mean?

Should you tell a teen about your own drug experiences? No single answer will work for everyone. … The most compelling reason to avoid sharing your own drug history is that it conveys a kind of permission: “You did it, so what’s the big deal?”

But they follow that advice up with this observation:

On the other hand, some would argue that coming clean about your own causal drug use can promote a sense of honest communication between you and a teen. Maybe so. But remember that kids and adults don’t always interpret things in the same way.

Ambiguous advice such as this is typical throughout the literature on talking to kids about drugs. Tell them, but don’t tell them everything. Tell them, but be very very careful how you tell them. Tell them but only when they’re ready to hear it.

Obviously, I’m not going to tell my son when he’s in elementary school about the summer I literally burned through my aunt’s entire spoon collection cooking up heroin. But when will he be ready to hear that? Does any kid ever need to hear that about one of their parents?

There are at least a couple of experts out there who share my fears about revealing past drug use. In a July 2008 article in Ebony, psychologist Dr. Michelle R. Callahan recommended that parents not volunteer their drug history to their children, at least until they become adults (or very close to it).

“Chances are that your children will hear your confession of your drug use, take one look at your success, and determine that doing drugs didn’t slow you down one bit,” she writes. “You look good and you live well, so in their minds how did drugs hurt you?” Even John Walters, then director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, had suggested that parents keep the truth about past marijuana use from their children, saying to a group of Louisiana parents in 2002, “They’re your kids, not your confessors.”

I’m aware that, as an addict in recovery, my situation is unique. I know that I can’t necessarily follow the same rules as everyone else when it comes to talking to my son about my drug history. But what rules should I follow? Most of the advice out there is aimed at either people who fooled around with drugs in their youth but never developed a problem, or at people whose addictions directly affected the lives of their children. I was an alcoholic with a serious drug problem, but I’d been clean and sober for five years by the time my son was born, so I don’t fit into either category. This means I have an entire life to reveal—or to hide.

Steve Pasierb told me that I have a “powerful message” for my son—but will its power help him or hurt him? Addicts come from all different kinds of backgrounds and families, and although studies have shown that parents are the most important influence on whether or not kids abuse drugs and alcohol, in many cases being a good parent just isn’t enough.

The more I’ve toyed with the idea of not telling Nico about my heroin addiction, the more I realize that I don’t really have a choice. I want to be able to talk with him freely and openly about drugs, something I know I wouldn’t be comfortable doing if I had to lie or omit the truth about my own history. But more than that, perhaps the most important reason I have to be honest isn’t so much for his benefit as for mine. One of the reasons I got sober in the first place was so that I could stop lying. The idea of having to lie for many more years to the person I love most in the world is inconceivable.

My own parents weren’t able to keep me from becoming an addict, but they were able to help me to get sober. If we hadn’t had an open and honest relationship to begin with, I don’t think that would have been possible. I pray that it won’t ever get to that point with Nico, but if it does, at least he’ll know exactly where he stands, and that I’ll be standing right there with him.

Author’s Note: It wasn’t until my son was born that I started to comprehend the heartache that my addictions caused my parents. My mother had always told me that I would never realize how much she loved me until I had my own child. Now I understand what she meant. This is the most personal thing I have every written, yet at times it felt as though I were writing about a fictional character. When I remember how my mother cried when I told her about my heroin use, however, I know that this was me. I hope it will never be my son.

Brain, Child (Spring 2009)

About the Author: Johanna Bailey lives with her husband and two sons in Barcelona, Spain. Her website is www.johannabailey.com.

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The Fur Berry Dilemma

The Fur Berry Dilemma

By Lara Strong

spring2010_strongIn Hungary, where I have lived for ten years, most schools operate with tight budgets. As a result, there aren’t a lot of toys or books in the classrooms for kids to play with or look through during breaks. In the States, the “bring-your-own lunch” concept exists; in Hungary, kids are allowed—in fact, encouraged—to bring in their own toys.

This has never caused much of a problem. My eight-year-old son has always relished the morning ritual of choosing which toy to bring in: Should it be a Lego dinosaur? How about Playmobil pirates or some tiny, plastic animal figures? Now that my six-year-old daughter, Sara, is entering first grade, she is already eagerly anticipating this practice—a stuffed unicorn, perhaps? Maybe a pretty pink pony?

I’ve rarely had an opportunity to witness what happens when my kids actually arrive at school, but I imagine how it goes each morning. They set down their backpacks, take off their jackets, and change into the indoor slippers required in most Hungarian schools. Then they produce their toys. There are lots of oohs of admiration, squeals of excitement. Exchanges are made, deals struck—if you let me play with that at recess, you can play with this and then after five minutes we can switch—and on a really lucky day, My mom says we can swap as long as we swap back tomorrow.

As Sara’s first year in elementary school progresses she spends much of her time talking excitedly about who has what, and long minutes are devoted each morning to carefully selecting her toy of the day. “Tekla likes ponies,” she’ll say, “so I should bring this blue pony with the sparkles, and then maybe she’ll let me play with her white Pegasus with the golden reins, unless Flora brings her mermaid with the sequins, because then I would want …” Occasionally she mentions, “We learned a new letter today” or “We started adding double digits.” With an approving nod, I encourage her to divulge more about her school day, but her response is inevitably “And Athena brought in a ballerina Barbie …”

One day not long after Christmas, Sara comes home chattering eagerly about a new toy that has made its appearance—something that apparently stands out from the now mundane ponies, mermaids, and Barbies.

“It’s a stuffed animal that can transform into a fruit and even smells like a fruit,” she explains excitedly. “A Fur Berry. And there are four, maybe even five different kinds! And Tekla has one, and so does Flora, and Anna, and …” She stops her speech and looks at me expectantly.

“Well that’s great. Lots of Fur Berries, lots of opportunities to make swaps.”

But she’s shaking her head as if I don’t understand. I turn and face her. She is not eager or excited as I first thought, but agitated. In fact, her big brown eyes are blinking hard, fighting back tears. “No, Mommy,” she says with a hint of desperation. “Everyone has a Fur Berry—don’t you see?—everyone but me.” I may have been slow on the uptake, but now the message is clear. Swapping isn’t enough. A Fur Berry is not a toy one merely obtains on exchange for just a day or two at the most. Its importance lies far beyond its transient entertainment value. It will earn her social cachet, and it’s vital that I as a parent understand this. But somehow, I find myself unable to accept Sara’s urgent need for this fuzzy, pastel-colored plaything.

Days go by, however, and the Fur Berry is the only topic she’s willing to discuss, and always with the teary eyes. Eventually she does concede that, okay, not everyone has a Fur Berry. Only the girls. And well, not all the girls either, only a few. But they are the girls that matter. They are the girls who decide who is in and who is out.

My husband and I are dismayed. She’s only in first grade, yet peer pressure and the tyranny of cliques have already reared their ugly heads. Sooner than I expected, I find myself recalling my own painful struggles of early adolescence. I was never a popular child, introverted and bookish, awkward and unfashionable. And this last quality, my lack of style, was the most problematic. I was sadly aware of how popularity was connected to wealth, and that material possessions could impact one’s social standing: all my clothes came from the Sears catalogue, while many of the other girls were wearing trendy stone-washed Guess jeans. “A waste of money,” my mother would say, “and totally unimportant.” But I remember the looks of scorn on my classmates’ faces.

Painful as it was, however, I knew then as I know now, that the lessons my mother was teaching were important. A person’s value could not be measured according to the number of designer labels hanging in the closet. As my mother reminded me repeatedly, friends and social groups were chosen based on shared interests or personal qualities such as a sense of humor or intelligence. Whether someone had the latest velour V-neck pullover was of no consequence. “We don’t buy things just for the sake of popularity!” she’d say.

In a rare moment, even my Hungarian mother-in-law, who tends not to agree with any of my ideas on childrearing, concurs. She grew up under communism, raised her children under communism, and while she despises totalitarianism, she is also disgusted by the creeping materialist culture. “There was never much to buy in those days,” she explains, “so we never had situations like this Fur Berry business. All you could get were the same Czechoslovak paper dolls, East German toy cars, Yugoslav jeans. What was the status in that? Nothing. It was better that way. Now,” she says shaking her head and waving her hands, “everything comes in from the West. Everyone has to have what everyone else has got. A terrible waste.”

I sigh, knowing the two moms are right. Everyone knows materialism is running rampant these days, even in Hungary. With the economy in crisis, the environment in peril, the evils of wanton consumption discussed on every television talk show, the need to resist is more important than ever. I look at Sara blinking back the tears and know that I have to remain steadfast. There’s no time like the present to instill in my own daughter good, solid values. What better place to start than this basic tenet: Material possessions don’t matter, but how you make your friends does. Who could argue with that? I say to her firmly, “No, you cannot have a Fur Berry. You don’t need it, it’s totally unimportant.”

A couple of weeks later, I pick Sara up at school early. A group of little girls are sitting happily in a circle rocking pale-colored stuffed creatures that smell of strawberries, plums, and peaches. Occasionally the girls cast derisive looks back at those few little girls outside the circle who do not possess these strange-looking animal-fruit hybrids. I even hear one girl utter, “I’m not playing with you if you don’t have a Fur Berry.” I feel a stab at my heart and do my best to recall my mother’s words (“a waste of money, totally unimportant, we don’t buy things just for the sake of popularity!”)

But I look again at my little girl, who’s visibly upset. It’s different when you see the hard, real consequences of your decisions played out before your eyes. What does Sara really understand about good, solid values, the right method of choosing friends, or the irrelevance of our material possessions? All she knows is that she is on the outside looking in. All she knows is that the bear-cum-peach is more than just a toy, but an entrée into the coterie of the privileged, her social savior, an assurance that tomorrow she will have someone to play with.

As days pass, she informs me of more and more classmates whose moms have succumbed and purchased them Fur Berries. The number of girls on the outside is slowly diminishing. I begin to see that the story of the Fur Berry is not going to end where I had assumed. Sara is not going to join the ranks of the non-Fur Berry girls and discover those kids—the witty, intelligent ones my mother talked about—who might become her best friends for life. Instead she is coming home each day feeling increasingly isolated.

My opposition to peer pressure and materialism begins to feel less stalwart. What would happen if I did buy her a Fur Berry?

She would certainly take pleasure in the toy itself. This is a point I have resisted considering, since it runs so strongly against my anti-materialist stance, but it’s true: Having nice stuff feels good. My mother-in-law might argue that in the Hungary of the 1960s and ’70s, people didn’t care about material possessions, but then again, maybe her memory is not exactly perfect. After all, communism wasn’t an overwhelming success, and, when given the opportunity, Hungarians had shed it as quickly as possible. I’m sure an evolutionary biologist would probably tell us pretty much every human on the planet is vulnerable to the lure of nice, cool things and their social perks. Sara is experiencing an anguish that is almost universal. The little girls in a first-grade class in Budapest are no more immune to this pull than any child in any American classroom, or any adult for that matter, perhaps anywhere. After all, communism failed because it ignored basic human nature. Even my mother-in-law acknowledges this.

My mother never did buy me the Guess jeans, but one afternoon as I’m contemplating the whole Fur Berry dilemma, into my head pops an image of me at twelve or thirteen. I’m sitting on a school bus, wearing a pair of purple Sassoon corduroys. Yes, designer pants. How could I have forgotten those? I bought them with my own pocket money. Those pants were so elegant and smooth, the legs and pockets fully lined, the corduroy soft and lush like the down of a baby chick. How well I remember them now!

In those pants, I was transformed—no longer the Sears-catalogue ugly duckling, but a radiant swan. I still had a dog-eared copy of These Happy Golden Years under one wing, my flute case under the other, but as I headed toward early-morning band practice, I discovered a new sensation. Airiness. I was rising high into the sky, far above the pedestrian fray. The petty comments, the mundanity of junior high school life seemed so small, like the tiny little specks of cars and trucks you see from the window of an ascending airplane. Triumphant and indomitable, I was soaring.

As wonderful as those corduroys made me feel, however, they were in no sense a social entrée for me, any more than the Fur Berry would be for Sara. The Sassoons did not lead to automatic acceptance in the popular girls’ group. What divided me from them was never those superficial differences—jeans, blue eye shadow, and pierced ears—but a different temperament, a different orientation. I loved books, handicrafts, and quiet contemplation, and disliked parties, alcohol, and all team sports, especially those involving a ball. In retrospect, my mother’s message about what really draws people together, or keeps them apart, was confirmed by my having the cords.

Still, having those pants empowered me. I was a girl who could wear a designer label just like the others. In this way, the pants had lost their power as a tool of social tyranny. The playing field was now even, if perhaps only temporarily. In my set of peers I was among equals, and my lifestyle was of my own choosing, not foisted upon me as a result of some kind of social or material inadequacy. While the designer pants hadn’t necessarily made me wiser, they had given me a much-needed boost in self-confidence.

A Fur Berry might do the same for Sara. My mother-in-law would surely disapprove of my acquiescing, and my mom, too. But how liberating it can be to do something that others might not approve of! After all, how many times a day do I utter the word “no,” to my kids? More times than I can count. I am constantly fighting against their basic human desires—their love of sugar and staying up late, their captivation with TV and any other kind of moving image, their pleasure in potty talk, and enjoyment of overfull bathtubs with bubbles overflowing. I am constantly trying to contain their yearnings in a tiny little box of decorum, good, solid values, and healthy habits that will help them build character, avoid illness and obesity, contribute to society, save the environment, and ensure a successful career and a happy marriage. It gets tiring sometimes. And what happens when it risks the self esteem of a six-year-old child incapable of understanding the virtue of controlling her desires.

At that moment I realize, my mind may not be made up, but my gut is. I stop weighing the pros and cons, and with the feel of those Sassoon corduroys swishing against my legs, I plunge on ahead, certain now of what I am going to do, even if I am not at all certain that it is right.

When I pick Sara up at school that afternoon, we head straight to the toy store. She chooses a furry yellowish, pinkish ball that opens into a bear and has the essence of apricot. Her eyes light up as she dangles the fruit from its string handle, then pops it open into a round-headed bear with floppy arms and legs. She squeezes it lovingly, her eyes brimming with gratitude and relief. I recognize the feeling as she dances down the street, swinging her Fur Berry. After weeks of trudging heavily along, she is carefree, light, and airy, equal to her peers; her destiny is in her own hands. What’s more she has something that just looks good and feels nice to cradle in her arms. She runs, she jumps. She is soaring.

Author’s Note: Shortly after this article was written, Sara’s teacher called a general meeting for all parents. Fur Berries were at the top of the agenda. Shocked by the numerous stories of Fur Berry-induced stress so many of us had to share, we parents took a vote, and Sara’s class became the first in her school to restrict bring-your-own-toy to Fridays only. A second (unanimous) vote banned Fur Berries once and forever from class 1/A. Where Fur Berries had been a dividing force among our children, they became a uniting force among us parents.

Sara is now in second grade. Fur Berries are still banned in her class, and no new toys have since bewitched any of our kids quite the way Fur Berries did. But if one ever does, I hope that we parents will be ready to join forces again.

Brain, Child (Spring, 2010)

About the Author: Lara Strong teaches English language and culture in a bi-lingual high school in Budapest, Hungary, where she has lived for the past fourteen years. She’s a member of the Budapest Writers’ Workshop, an informal group of amateur writers. Her work has also appeared in Literary Mama.

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Endgame

Endgame

By Hilary Meyerson

spring2009_meyersonI am a conscientious parent. To prove it, I’m setting my kids firmly on the path to mediocrity. I want them to strive for the goal of fair-to-middling in a wide range of activities. I want them to be spectacularly average.

This can be problematic for me, trying to raise children who are not the best at anything. My six-year-old daughter, Harper, just finished kindergarten, and is still in that golden age when anything is possible. She has art and music and playtime and fun every day. But my eight-year-old son, Henry, like his second-grade classmates, has already begun to identify at what he is “good” and “bad,” and the bad is to be shunned at all costs.

If you’re “bad” at reading, by all means, give that up. Is math hard in second grade? Write it off, you’ll never be good at it. Art? Music? Writing? It’s the same. If you’re not excelling at it by six, it’s probably too late. As for a working definition of what it means to be “bad” at something, just ask any kid: It means that someone else is much better.

Still, good parent that I am, I shuttle my kids after school to various enriching activities: swim lessons, music, soccer. At these extra-curricular endeavors, I can see the weeding out has begun, as kids begin to improve exponentially at their chosen activity.

Henry plays violin. He asked for lessons when he was four. One day in preschool, the father of a classmate came into class and played for the class. Not a professional musician, but rather a fifth-grade teacher who played for fun in the evenings. My son was enthralled. After this musical introduction, he insisted he wanted to take lessons. I found this hard to believe, not having one musical impulse myself, but almost a year later he was still talking about it. I found him a teacher. I tried to be casual about his lessons, but secretly I was envisioning him as an adult, headlining famous music halls, thanking me for nurturing his early passion, as I sat teary-eyed in the front row. I like to think all parents have this insanity with their eldest.

Fast forward three years. Suffice it to say, Henry is no Itzhak Perlman. After several years of listening to his performances, informal monthly affairs in his teacher’s tiny living room, I’m pretty sure we should not count on music scholarships for college. There is usually one student who dazzles the audience, who is so lost in the music I feel I am intruding on a private moment just by listening. Then there are those miserable souls who stand up and saw away at their tiny instruments, torturing the slimmest of tunes, while looking miserably into their parent’s video cameras, their eyes pleading for a swift death.

Henry is neither. He usually volunteers to go first, probably to get it over with, though he isn’t particularly nervous. He does a serviceable job at his piece, accepts his accolades with a smile, and eagerly heads for the cookies and juice. He helps the little ones set up their stands, offers encouragement on their renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and is slightly in awe of the teenagers who play after him.

He practices most mornings for about twenty minutes. He enjoys his lessons, probably because his teacher is one of those rare individuals who really gets kids, and knows that learning a difficult instrument is about more than music. Some days he gripes throughout his practice when he has a hard piece to practice; occasionally, he’ll ask me to buy him the sheet music to a song he heard somewhere or sang in school. I buy it and hand it to him without comment, and he learns it for fun. Last Christmas, it was “Frosty the Snowman,” and he played it every day for weeks until we begged him to play something else. He has never asked to quit.

Recently, another mother asked me what my endgame was for Henry’s violin playing. That was the word she used—endgame. I was stymied. I babbled some nonsense about the value of learning an instrument, but it wasn’t until later that I really thought about it. It’s clear he’s not going to be a famous soloist—the old joke about practice and Carnegie Hall is inapplicable. I never thought of an endgame. I’ve heard that our local high school and middle schools have decent music programs, and I’m pretty sure he’d enjoy playing in an orchestra.

“But what if he gives it up after high school?” the endgame mother asked me. “Wouldn’t that bother you? All that money for lessons down the drain? All those years?”

After high school? I can’t possibly think that far ahead. What about the now?

My daughter, Harper, took gymnastic classes when she was in preschool. She loved it all, the leotards and tumbling, but the zenith of the class was trampoline time. I have a photo of her in mid-bounce, her hair flying up around her, the look of sheer joy and delight on her face that makes those childhood photo ops priceless.

Then, when she was four, she was invited to join the “developmental team,” the very first rung of the competitive gymnastics ladder, a six-hour-a-week commitment.

Much has been said in the media of this specialization of kids, particularly in sports. No longer do kids play with a neighborhood soccer team in the fall, community center basketball in the winter, Little League in the spring. The pressure is to pick a sport and excel at it—kids work with baseball coaches and trainers all year in preparation for the all-important spring season.

The gymnastics coach looked over Harper’s small form critically, saying it was late to be joining, but there was still potential. Barring injuries, she could peak at fourteen. We signed her up for soccer instead. Where, I am proud to report, she is a very mediocre soccer player. But she is the best daisy picker on the field, and is having a great time.

When I express my opinions on mediocrity, I invariably get the “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” argument. Wouldn’t you rather have your kid be really good at one thing, than decent at many? But what makes anyone think we have a choice?

I think it is monumental hubris to assume we can mold our kids to be superstars at anything. It’s not like we get a form to fill out when we enroll them in school, as nice as that would be. Imagine the discussion: “Honey? Has Junior had his chicken pox booster? Check. Do we want full-day or half-day kindergarten? Full. Do we want him to excel at one subject, or be competent at many? What’s that? One subject? OK. Which box should we check – there’s math, science, reading, art, sports … wait, the list is on page two, we can only pick one …” It doesn’t work that way. Our job isn’t to make them a résumé; it is to make them happy, well-adjusted people who can choose their own callings.

I also think it is galling when parents expect far more of their kids than of themselves or their own peers. It is a gift to excel at one particular thing. But how many of us can say we’ve reached the pinnacle in some discipline, or even come close? How many can say they have a passion that they pursue to the exclusion of all others? Sure, there are those who identify so closely with a hobby or pursuit that it encompasses much of their lives. And this is a gift indeed, to be an avid rock climber or quilter or Scrabble player or cyclist and to have the time and resources to pursue it outside of your breadwinning life. But think of your twenty closest adult friends. How many can be summed up in one word? How many would want to be?

This past weekend, my husband and I performed one of those duties I consider part of toiling in the trenches of parenting: attending the spring dance recital. Our daughter takes beginning tap and ballet. For this experience, we pay the (hefty) class fee. To participate in the recital, we pay another (large) fee, for the costume and program. Finally, we must purchase (expensive) tickets to watch our daughter in her three-minute routine, and then sit for another hour to watch the rest of the dancers. The dance studio is popular, and has ten shows over one weekend, twelve acts per show. Dancers and parents file in and out of a high school auditorium like so many sheep.

The shows, like the class schedules, are dominated by the younger dancers. There is class after class of three- and four-year-olds participating in something optimistically called “Creative Pre-Ballet.” The littlest dancers perform (and I use the term loosely) with their instructor on stage with them, modeling the routine.

One step up is my daughter’s age group, able to perform alone on stage, but with their eyes focused on stage left, where their instructor dances the routine with exaggerated movements in the wings to cue them. Harper tap-tap-tapped her way through “You Can’t Hurry Love” with her classmates, all of their eyes riveted to the wings where we could see the occasional foot or hand of her instructor, dancing behind the curtain. We cheered and clapped as our daughter took her bow, and resignedly settled in to sit through eleven more acts of other people’s children.

After the little ones were done, the intermediate classes took the stage: a smaller number of awkward middle schoolers cringing their way through their routine, looking anywhere but the audience. Then the lithe and graceful high schoolers, those few girls who had specialized in this endeavor for their childhood years, performing an intricate dance they had choreographed themselves, their careful blank expressions perfect imitations of every supermodel in every magazine as they gazed out at some unknown point in the distance.  Finally, after creeping increments of years in the ages of the dancers, at least a twenty year gap: The Beginning Adult Tap class was brought to the stage.

The MC of the show, a dancer’s father pressed into service after years in the audience, had been doing a fair job—until this act came on. He seemed flummoxed as to how to introduce this unusual group. It was quite a different demographic, following wave after wave of tiny tots in dance shoes the size of Milano cookies. His introduction went something like, “Let’s give the next act extra applause, because, well, they are going to need it! This is, um, Beginning Adult Tap. Can you believe it—how nervous must they be?”

Despite the painful introduction, or perhaps because of it, I was intrigued. When the curtain opened, there were twelve fully grown adults, eleven women and one man, dressed simply in red shirts and black pants. The music was cued. They began to dance.

I recognized at least three of the women, other mothers I knew from the playground or school activities. Of all the acts, this was the only one that was fully engaged with the audience. Eyes forward, big smiles, contagious enthusiasm. Their number began slow, their music a classic rock song we all knew from the pre-kids days. It picked up, the dancers gaining speed, as most of the audience unwittingly mouthed the words.

As I watched them tap in perfect unison, I thought about these dancers. They all have jobs, families, car payments, grocery shopping like the rest of us. They’ve all obviously done something else with their lives before taking this tap class. But for whatever reason, six months ago or so, they went and signed up for a beginning tap class and showed up the first week with a brand new pair of clackety shoes. Then they showed up for class once a week, despite the demands of jobs and children and other responsibilities, and practiced. Then they performed for an auditorium full of parents, people deciding whether their little dancer should go to the next level or perhaps try karate. Just because it would be fun.

As their dance led up to a thundering finale, a wild, exuberant finish that brought down the house, I recognized the look on every one of the dancers’ faces, damp with perspiration. It was the same one Harper had in midair above the trampoline, in that long-ago gymnastics classes—sheer happiness. They were enjoying that moment.

And suddenly I had an answer for the mother who wanted to know the point of all those violin lessons. This is what I want for my kids. I want them to take time away from the responsibilities of daily living, to do something that they really enjoy, without worrying if they will be the best at it, or will receive recognition or kudos for it. I want my son to take out his violin every Christmas, as his own kids groan, to play “Frosty the Snowman” yet again, because it’s tradition. And maybe take it to his kid’s preschool and play for a delighted bunch of four-year-olds.

Endgame, indeed.

Author’s Note: Here’s the final irony about those tap dancers: They were fantastic. This ought to be a heartwarming story about the middle-aged women (and man) who had the guts to flub their way through a few dance steps, enjoying themselves despite their obvious shortcomings. But it didn’t turn out that way. They were good. Really, really good. For those brief moments on stage, they were not moms or dads or doctors or firefighters or whatever they did offstage. They were dancers, in perfect unison, dazzling the audience, their joy evident for anyone to see. Maybe they were hoping to just become mediocre, but in truth, they were nothing short of magnificent.

About the Author: Hilary Meyerson is a Seattle-based writer and editor. She is the editor and social media strategist for Outdoors NW magazine, a regional outdoor recreation publication. You can find more of her writing at hilarymeyerson.com. She’s pleased to report that her kids are turning out happily average, but more than average happy. 

Brain, Child (Spring 2009)

Mothering from Afar

By Katy Read

Kim Voichescu was running into conflicts with the staff at her sons’ school. Sometimes she was kept from seeing her kids’ records or picking up her boys after school. She suspected that people there might secretly doubt her qualifications as a parent. One day, a school secretary came right out and said it to her face:

“Well, you’re not a real mother.”

Voichescu is a real mother, but she doesn’t live with her children. She doesn’t have physical custody of her two boys, now ten and thirteen, but she does share joint legal custody with their father, and that entitles her to access their educational records and to other parental rights.

For Voichescu, who has spent tens of thousands of dollars and years in court fighting to get physical custody, the secretary’s comment was a pin against a big balloon of pent-up frustration. Now, a year later, Voichescu can’t remember exactly what she said to the woman, but clearly recalls it left the secretary gaping wordlessly.

“I wish I could relive it and put it on the Internet where it would live as one of those speeches for all eternity,” recalls Voichescu, thirty-four, of Diamond, Illinois, a project manager for a civil engineering and land surveying firm. “It was one of those occasions when you walk out of a place and you feel like a shining light is upon you. [The unspoken prejudice] had been undulating under the surface for so long that I couldn’t pinpoint it. But she actually said it.”

The suspicion that people secretly doubt their fitness as parents haunts most noncustodial mothers—even loving, caring, law-abiding mothers who’ve always acted in their children’s best interests.

Their worries are not unfounded. As a society, we don’t quite know what to make of mothers who don’t live with their kids. Whether it’s expressed openly or not, society still tends to assume that the mother is the parent mainly in charge of caring for children, and the one best equipped to do it well, the one to whom most of the responsibility rightly falls. A father pushing his child in a stroller draws charmed smiles—Wow, what a great dad, helping out!—from people who wouldn’t look twice at a woman behind the stroller, just doing her job.

When parents are separated or divorced, it’s often assumed that the kids live with her. If the father lives in a different household or is out of the picture entirely, it may not be ideal, but it’s not unusual. Sure, we’re no longer surprised that some children of divorce pack their bags and shuttle between parents every other week. But when the roles are completely reversed—when Dad has the kids and does all the domestic duties and Mom lives somewhere else—the old gender stereotypes come rushing back into play. People wonder what went wrong. They assume the noncustodial mother must have deserted her children or had them taken away. Did she hit them? Leave them home alone while she went bar-hopping? Leave them in order to “go find herself”?

If those thoughts actually don’t go through your mind when you meet a noncustodial mother, you can bet that the fear of what you’re thinking probably is going through her mind. Rather than face odd looks, intrusive questions, or rude remarks, some noncustodial moms say they keep their kids’ photos off their desks at work, avoid mentioning their children, and wonder when to break the news to new acquaintances that they are, in fact, real mothers. They often suffer guilt, confusion, sadness, and depression.

“You can’t believe the discrimination and bias that people have toward you,” says Voichescu, who now carries around laminated copies of her custody papers wherever she goes. “It’s like you are an alien.”

Noncustodial mothers like Voichescu might feel like cultural oddities, but they are actually far from alone. There are about 2.2 million noncustodial mothers in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Census records. The reasons women live apart from their children are many, of course, including a move, a job, family preference, a prison sentence, or a court order. Some noncustodial mothers live near their children; some live in different cities or states or countries (the last group includes women who come to the United States from other countries to work as nannies or maids in order to support children they’ve had to leave back home).

Some women retain the right to share physical custody of their children, even if they choose to live elsewhere and not exercise it. Some share legal custody—that is, they retain the right to make decisions on behalf of their children, even if they don’t live together. And some have neither.

Some see their kids frequently; others rarely. Some have good relationships with their children and their children’s fathers, “other mothers,” or legal guardians; others find that hostile former partners have turned their children against them. And, yes, some actually have behaved in ways that caused the court to deem them inadequate parents: committed a crime, abused drugs, abused or neglected their kids.

The number of noncustodial mothers is increasing, in part because family courts have moved from always assigning custody to mothers toward deciding what works best for a particular child’s situation, whether it’s having the parents share custody or assigning it to one parent or the other. But many noncustodial mothers live apart from their children willingly, because of a job or school situation, because of individual relationships or preferences within the family, or for other personal reasons.

Even among these ostensibly voluntary arrangements, made privately or informally within families, some situations are actually “a little more gray,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who conducted a pioneering study of noncustodial mothers in the 1980s. For example, he says, a woman might say, “I divorced my husband and I need to earn more money and I can’t do that if I have [to pay for] child care. My husband happened to start his career ten years sooner, while I was home taking care of the children. He has more job flexibility; he can pay for a babysitter.” In cases like that, the mothers gave up custody willingly, Greif says, meaning they didn’t fight in court. “But it’s sort of unwilling, based on the roles of men and women in society,” he says. “Men make more than women. He gets to reap the benefit of that.”

As for women unwillingly separated from their children by court order, there, too, is a lot of gray. Their status may mean that they willingly signed over their rights for various reasons, or it may mean they lost the legal battle with their children’s father. When there is a dispute over custody, parents don’t always enter a courtroom on equal footing, financially or otherwise. Some women—especially former stay-at-home mothers who did not have a career or separate finances—can’t afford lawyers and lengthy court fights. Ginna Babcock, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Idaho, who has studied noncustodial parents of both sexes, says many women lose custody “essentially by default.”

Even women who can afford the legal costs may face disadvantages in court, Babcock explains. If the father has a new wife at home, some judges reason that if a mother works full time, her child would have to go into daycare, while the father’s new wife could provide a presumably more stable home environment, she says. “In other words, many of the women in my study ‘couldn’t win.’ “

Janet, thirty, would recognize that feeling. She says her ex, who physically abused her, comes from a prominent family and has friends in the court system in their small Midwestern community. He forced her to hand over custody when their daughter was just two months old, grabbing Janet by the neck and brandishing papers for her to sign, threatening that if she didn’t, she and the baby “will never leave this house.” She has spent six thousand dollars trying to regain custody of her now six-year-old girl. Recently, her new husband was laid off, her own hours are being cut, and she’s running out of options.

“It’s a game, and if you don’t have the money, you’re going to lose,” says Janet, who asked that her identity be concealed in order to protect her daughter. “When mothers don’t have custody of their children, it doesn’t mean they were negligent or that they didn’t care about their kids or that they didn’t want their kids all the time. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of who’s got the better attorney, who’s got the better connections.”

The history of child-custody policy is one of flip-flops. Before the Industrial Revolution, children were expected to contribute to the family’s income and thus were seen as a form of property, says Diana Gustafson, author of the 2005 book Unbecoming Mothers: The Social Production of Maternal Absence. Fathers, who generally provided their financial support, were assumed to have the right to their custody. After the Industrial Revolution, the outlook started to change. Children’s rights were given more attention, and mothers came to be seen as “naturally more able to nurture,” she says. That gave rise to the “Tender Years Doctrine,” a legal concept from the late nineteenth century that presumes that during a child’s “tender” years (generally, up to age thirteen), children belong with their mothers.

“There were exceptions where the mothers were judged to be so unfit that they weren’t able to care for the children,” Gustafson says. “That’s where a lot of the stigma of not having care of your children comes from. Because it was seen as natural for mothers to take care of their children, there’s something unnatural about you if you can’t.”

In recent decades, the overriding concept in child-custody cases has shifted from the Tender Years Doctrine to the “Best Interests of the Children” doctrine, a newer legal concept in which decisions about living arrangements are based on children’s individual situations, theoretically without regard to the parents’ gender. Family courts still have tended to favor mothers as the primary caregivers, says Jill Miller Zimon of Cleveland, a lawyer and social worker who has worked on behalf of families and providers involved in the court and social service systems. That attitude is changing, however, as a result of evolving gender roles, employment patterns, pressure from fathers’ rights groups, and other social developments.

But society hasn’t fully caught onto the fact that the term “noncustodial mother” no longer suggests, as it once might have, that the child was forcibly removed because of the mother’s inadequacy.

“Clearly that’s not the case anymore,” Miller Zimon says, “but there’s not been an effort to really change the image of that.”

If mothers who lose their legal rights to their children discomfit us, what emotions do we reserve for intelligent, loving, competent mothers who voluntarily choose to live apart from their children?

“Society expects a mom who basically ‘abandons’ her children to sort of slink off guiltily, and the hero single dad to come in and save the day,” says Rebekah Spicuglia, twenty-nine, an articulate, affable New York media manager at a nonprofit media-advocacy organization who happens to not live with her son, eleven.

When Spicuglia, who writes the NonCustodial Parent Community blog (ncp-community.blogspot.com), relinquished physical custody of her son about nine years ago, it wasn’t against her will, and she is not fighting to have him live with her.

Though she may face less overt prejudice than noncustodial mothers who have “misbehaved,” her situation confounds society’s collective assumptions even more deeply. “When you’re a mom and your kids don’t live with you, there’s a look in someone’s eyes that you can see a mile away,” Spicuglia says. “They’re wondering why. Were you on drugs? What did you do? The imagination goes crazy.”

When Spicuglia meets new people, she has learned not to mention her son, not right away at least. At twenty-nine, she has spent much of the past decade living and working among students and young professionals, where the subject of children doesn’t often come up. Spicuglia waits to mention it only when she has time for The Explanation: the tale of how her son lives in California with her ex-husband because of a series of decisions Spicuglia made as she progressed in her education and career. She seems to feel obligated to clarify: “There were never any issues of me being a bad mom or anything like that.”

“Once you tell someone you’re a mom, they want to know what school your child goes to and they want to ask all the kid questions,” she says. “I believe that in general, people are very understanding. But I think that because this is something most people don’t think of or haven’t heard of, it’s just something that needs to be explained. For a long time, I didn’t have the energy to explain it to people. It took me a long time to really own it.”

As with most such stories, hers is not particularly short or simple. Spicuglia, who lived with her own divorced dad when she was a kid, got pregnant at seventeen. She married her son’s father, a co-worker in a restaurant in Santa Maria, California. He lived among his large Mexican family, which she describes as “so incredible in all its beautiful traditions, people everywhere, relatives just loving each other and lots of great food.”

When their son was about a year old, Spicuglia’s husband returned to Mexico to deal with some immigration red tape, and their son accompanied him. Spicuglia had been taking community college film classes; while they were gone, she moved to Los Angeles to work as a production assistant.

When her husband returned, the couple moved back in together, but soon realized they “wanted different things” from life, she says, and decided to split up. Spicuglia was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley. She left her son with his dad’s family while she waited for family-student housing. At that stage, both parents assumed the boy would live with his mother.

Unexpectedly, a year and a half went by, during which time Spicuglia worked, attended classes, and visited her son as often as possible. When her name reached the top of the family housing list, she called her ex-husband to tell him. He announced that he had changed his mind: He now felt the boy would be better off living with him and his extended family, rather than be placed in daycare while Spicuglia attended school.

“It was a huge shock for me,” she says. “This was not what I’d wanted, not what I had ever expected to happen. But I was faced with a decision to either challenge this in the courts or I could reexamine the situation from a more objective and loving standpoint and try and see if what his father was saying was true. Maybe that is a better place for him to be. When I looked at that, I realized that his dad had so much more to offer than I did.”

Spicuglia retained shared legal custody, got her degree, and moved to New York, where she remarried a couple of years ago. She does her best to keep up with her son’s activities long distance, although, like Voichescu, she has run into problems. School officials have left her off of her son’s emergency-contact information, neglected to send copies of the report cards, and have made her get authorization from his father to release records although legally she isn’t required to provide it.

“The school system is not set up to include noncustodial parents in any way, even though legally noncustodial parents have the right to equal access to educational records, to make decisions for their children,” she says. It’s ironic, she adds, that although educators know that parental involvement is important for students’ academic success, “I’m out there begging to be part of my son’s education, and I’ve hit roadblocks and apathy at every turn.”

The worst moment was when she discovered inadvertently that her son had been seeing a school counselor for a year, visiting once a week to talk about problems. Though Spicuglia was in favor of the counseling, she was upset that no one had notified her about it. She called the counselor, who had to get permission from the boy’s father in order to talk to her.

“Which is crazy! I’m not a bad person. There’s no reason for this,” Spicuglia says. “It may sound like a small thing to some people, but until you actually go through it, until you’re actually told that they have to get permission to talk to you about your son…”

The counselor told Spicuglia, “I didn’t even know if you were in the picture.”

Which made Spicuglia wonder what the counselor and her son could have been discussing; she stays in the picture of his life as best she can. They see each other during school breaks and hold video chats on the computer in between.

It’s not easy. In her blog, Spicuglia writes about her delight over having the rare opportunity to answer her son’s history questions during a visit (reminding herself to tell him to call anytime with questions), and about the tears shed by both mother and son when they parted in the airport.

“He was eager to get into line, but that always rushes our goodbyes too, as we can’t keep everyone waiting,” Spicuglia wrote in her blog in January. “So we hugged and kissed, and I was asked to step aside. As he waited by the gateway to the plane, his back was turned to me, and I called [to] him …  When he turned, there were tears in his eyes, which set me off too, but that was it, and he was escorted away.”

Later, she wrote, “The quiet has descended … a house once full of laughter and tears (he will never forgive me for making him do his reading and math over what he sees as VACATION!) is now silent.”

Remaining in the picture can be a challenge for noncustodial mothers, if only because it’s hard for many mothers to define where the frame begins and ends. In a society where even residential mothers can feel that they’re never doing enough, many noncustodial mothers suffer from a sense of inadequacy for not meeting their own expectations of themselves.

In her research of noncustodial parents, Ginna Babcock was struck by the difference between fathers and mothers. She writes, “The most dramatic finding for me was in how precisely each and every father in my study was able to articulate a definition of ‘a good noncustodial father.’ He (1) paid child support regularly, and (2) took full advantage of his visitation rights. These two qualities defined the good noncustodial parent for these men.”

But if fathers were able to define “in pragmatic and attainable terms” what would constitute fulfilling their responsibilities, the mothers were not, she reports. “When they tried, the definitions were amorphous and far-reaching—basically describing a woman who is physically present, providing emotional support to her children every day, which is difficult for even the residential mother.”

Child support was not part of the mothers’ definition of adequate noncustodial mothering. (Many noncustodial mothers do, in fact, pay child support, just as fathers do.) And visitation was mentioned only in the broader context of “being there for my kids when they need me,” Babcock writes.

As a result, many of Babcock’s respondents felt that, by definition, they could not be good mothers. “There were many tears, and the response always was, ‘How can I be if I am not there?’ I heard stories of mothers missing their child’s first steps, first day of school, first prom, getting their driver’s license, and many of the other special days in a young person’s daily life,” she writes. “Because of the high expectations mothers had for parenting, their perception of success as a noncustodial mother was almost impossible, regardless of how much they wanted to succeed.”

Bethany Gilmore, who lives in New York, gets together once or twice a month with her daughter, eleven, who lives in Mississippi. But it never feels like enough time to either one of them.

“Over the past ten years, I feel like I’ve missed so much of her life,” says Gilmore, twenty-eight, who works as a senior accountant.

Gilmore gave up both physical and legal custody when she entered college in Nashville. She has since regretted giving up those rights, but has been told by attorneys that it’s hard to get custody back unless the father can be shown to be unfit. So she hopes that she and her daughter will be able to live together once her daughter is old enough to make her own choice. “It’s too hard to be without her. We’re so close. She’s going through puberty, and she can’t really talk to [her father] about boys and cliques in her school, so she just feels more comfortable talking to me. I hate being away from her.”

The feeling goes both ways: Children may hate being away from their mothers, too. But does the damage go beyond simply missing their moms? Are the children of noncustodial mothers any worse off—emotionally, developmentally—than children of noncustodial fathers?

These children often are as aware as their mothers that they are in unconventional situations, and may have to face the same sorts of questions about why their mothers aren’t around, the same assumptions about why she lost custody or chose to leave, the same stigma except from the other end.

Traditional psychology tended to demonize mothers for “abdicating their so-called natural responsibilities,” Gustafson says, just as it demonized fathers who failed their financial obligations. (As usual, those traditional judgments were cast along gender lines, with moms being chastised for perceived emotional lapses and dads for financial failures.) If the children had behavioral problems, the blame was often placed on their mothers’ absence, often to the point of disregarding the quality of their fathers’ parenting. Such assumptions were so pervasive that, according to Gustafson, they shaped the way questions were asked and findings interpreted.

But more recent and more nuanced research indicates that other factors play greater roles in predicting a child’s well-being than which parent is present or absent, Gustafson says. The ability of the caretaking parent, regardless of gender, to do the job well is paramount. Other factors include those that also affect kids in two-parent families: household income, parents’ level of education, the safety and stability of the physical environment where in which the children are raised, whether the parents’ relationship is conflicted or respectful, the supportive social network, the mental and physical health of the caretaking parent, and so on.

“When all factors are in place to support healthy child development, maternal absence doesn’t necessarily equate with damaged children,” Gustafson says.

And because studies show that absentee mothers tend to want to stay more involved with their children’s lives than absentee fathers, she points out, their lack of custody often does not translate into lack of contact or participation.

Mothers who share legal but not physical custody of their children have often had to toughen up as they get in the habit of asserting their parental rights, which include the right to access their kids’ educational, health, and other records, and to have an equal say in decisions made on behalf of the child. Some aren’t even fully aware of what those rights entail.

“For a long time I didn’t assert my rights because I felt like I was imposing” on school staff, Spicuglia says.

Educators and health-care providers are often no better informed about what the law requires, and may throw roadblocks up as a result of this ignorance, says Miller Zimon, the social worker. “Maybe there’s a need for a public campaign to show the face of the twenty-first-century noncustodial parent,” she speculates. “Or even to start looking at the language again and figure out what’s best to denote this relationship of involved parents who share or have arranged custody when it has nothing to do with abuse, neglect, or dependency.”

Kim Voichescu doesn’t think she’s ever been as fiercely determined about pursuing a goal as she has been in asserting her rights as a noncustodial mother. She is in the midst of a long, expensive and emotionally draining court battle with her ex-husband, to whom she originally signed over physical custody in the days when her job was far more demanding than his. She is now trying to reverse that decision.

Meanwhile, her tangle with the school secretary and subsequent letters to the superintendent has led to a change in school-district policy ensuring that both parents see any documents filed with the schools. Along the way, she has overcome initial intimidation and learned more effective ways of handling judges and court procedures. Perhaps not coincidentally, she has become a martial artist and a kickboxer, and is working on an economic degree with the ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer.

“The frustration told me that’s what I want to do,” Voichescu says. “I want to help other ladies, so they’re not fucked over like I was.”

Author’s Note: When I told a friend I was working on an article about noncustodial mothers, she asked, “Are you hearing a lot of really sad stories?” Well, sure, it can be sad to live apart from your children, but I knew that’s not what she meant. She meant, “Are you hearing stories about drug abuse, and child mistreatment, and other terrible events that might lead to children being seized from their mothers?” I explained that women in such situations are a minority among noncustodial mothers. But I also understood that the term itself seems to imply past transgressions—it struck me that way at first, too.

Meanwhile, one of my own children had been begging to return to the city from which we moved last summer, in another state, where his father still lives. He missed his friends, his school, his old neighborhood. That move isn’t practical for now, but it’s possible that at some future time my son would go live with his dad. That’s how easy it would be for me to become a noncustodial mother. Well, not easy maybe—probably kind of sad, in fact -but definitely free of transgressions.

Brain, Child (Spring 2009)

About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.

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.

Taken for a Spin

By Katy Read

Art Taken for a SpinThe headlines, naturally, gave me pause. Here was yet another way for me to screw up as a parent.

“Warm but Watchful Parents Can Keep Kids from Heavy Drinking,” announced a headline in U.S. News & World Report in June. A new study, the magazine went on to say, suggests that parents “have a lot of influence when it comes to preventing their child from developing a heavy drinking habit.”

Two sociologists at Brigham Young University had surveyed five thousand adolescents and found that the ones who didn’t drink heavily were most likely to describe their parents as warm and nurturing, and also diligent about monitoring and discipline. Teens who drank more than four drinks at a time, the researchers found, considered their parents either less warm, less strict or both.

The results of the BYU study were widely publicized last summer, with news media across the country presenting it as evidence that good parents can prevent their kids from getting drunk—and the reverse, that bad parents were to blame for kids’ partying. “Trying to prevent your teen from binge drinking?” CNN asked. “A new study suggests you might want to consider your parenting style.” “Parenting attitudes and actions can make a big difference in how much and how often a teenager drinks,” explained the Los Angeles Times. As for parents who get it wrong, the title of a New York Times blog post said it all: “Driving Your Children to Drink.”

Now, I have never smelled alcohol on either of my teenage sons’ breath, never noticed them slurring or staggering, never detected any sign that they’ve imbibed. But like many twenty-first-century American parents, I am programmed to respond to this sort of news—yet another scientific study warning of yet another way parents can wreck their kids—with a stab of worry and self-doubt. I try to keep track of my high schoolers’ whereabouts, I really do. I supply them with cell phones, grill them on their way out the door, conduct covert fact-finding missions thinly disguised as pleasant chitchat. My sons, to their credit, are pretty good about checking in—most of the time.

But my powers are limited. I have stopped short of having GPS trackers embedded in their molars or, like the father of one of my own high-school classmates did years ago, tailing them in my car with the headlights off. A cell phone gets left in a jacket pocket, and we’re all rendered incommunicado. Also, not being telepathic, I often have to take them at their word. A kid might claim he’s at Subway getting a sandwich, but how can I know he’s not really knocking back shots in a dive bar using a fake ID? For all I know, my surveillance web has holes through which a drunken elephant could rampage.

And what about this “warmth”—the other factor that reportedly determines whether a child will wind up sprawled in a gutter, guzzling from a paper bag? Sure, I would describe myself as warm with my kids. But the study’s measure of “warmth” was not based on the parents’ evaluations, or even those of objective researchers, but on the teens’ assessments of their elders. How would my sons rate me? Would “warm” be the adjective they’d reach for, even after that argument last week over the computer?  Had I not, on numerous occasions, been informed that I am the Worst Mom in the Universe? Should that description alone send me digging under their beds for empty bottles? Should we all just get in the car and head over to rehab right now?

Whoa. I needed to calm down.

I decided I’d better take a closer look at the study. And when I did, I discovered that it followed a familiar pattern, one I’d seen time after time before. As usual, once I realized how the study was conducted, my initial defensive panic—that kneejerk insecure-mom response I reflexively feel—turned to profound annoyance. The BYU study sounded like a lot of other research I had seen publicized over the years, research that supposedly proves that something parents do or don’t do (or do or don’t allow their kids to do) is responsible for some result in their kids. Think of all those reports suggesting that letting children watch TV causes problems ranging from obesity to attention-deficit disorder. Or the ones—including, most recently, a study out of Columbia University this fall—declaring that eating dinner with your kids can prevent them from taking drugs. Or the ones that, just this past November, warned that sending more than one hundred twenty text messages a day puts teens at risk for worrisome behaviors ranging from unsafe sex to drug and alcohol abuse (guilt for which rests, presumably, with whoever pays the cell-phone bill).

These findings sound plausible enough. They come from respected scientists associated with prestigious institutions and are reported in major news media. As a modern parent, you’ve probably heard of plenty of these studies yourself over the years. After all, they not only make the news, they’re also the seemingly reliable basis for recommendations dispensed by parenting manuals, parenting magazines, parenting experts on TV. They’re the foundation, in other words, of a large part of the information churned out by the massive parenting-advice industry (almost sixty-nine thousand products on Amazon alone), that fount of reassuring, empirically substantiated wisdom to which so many of us turn for help navigating the mysterious mine-filled maze that constitutes modern child-rearing.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that these studies are widely misinterpreted, misrepresented and misunderstood. The news reports, the experts’ advice and even our own grasp of what this parenting research means—a large part of it is undermined by a common logical error. It’s a simple error, an elementary one really, but its presence in these reports not only casts some doubt on what the articles and manuals and experts are telling us but can render their message virtually meaningless and even potentially harmful. The error: They confuse correlation with causation.

“Correlation does not imply causation” is a lesson you might recall from Psych 101 or some other introductory science class. Though it’s a well-known principle, it gets disregarded all the time, especially in stories of this sort. It seems that when one is told that one thing rises and falls in proportion to another, the temptation to conclude that A causes B is nearly irresistible, even though the reality could be that B causes A—or that some other factor, let’s call it C, affects both A and B. This logical fallacy runs rampant throughout media reports about scientific research on human behavior, especially those involving parents and children.

Let’s say a study finds that teenagers who watch a lot of television also tend to score poorly on the verbal sections of their SAT exams, an example that Alan Reifman, a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University, uses hypothetically to illustrate the logical fallacy. Can you conclude that watching TV causes weak language skills? No. A correlation does not point to a cause, even if—and here’s where it gets tricky—it makes perfect sense that rotting your brain in front of Jersey Shore would erode your ability to get through Moby Dick.

Conforming to intuition, as we also learned back in school, does not ensure accuracy, even when something sounds really, really plausible. In this case, the cause-and-effect could quite possibly go in the other direction—maybe those who struggle with reading, unable to relax with a good book, are more likely to pick up the remote. Or a third variable could affect both sides of the equation. Maybe lack of exposure to books paves the way to both low scores and TV viewing.

The correlation could be the result of any of these factors, some combination of them, a complex back-and-forth interplay between them, or something else altogether. The point is that there’s no way to know from the correlation alone. Still, one can imagine the headlines: “Study: Boob Tube Turns Teens Illiterate.” Or, since the media love to point the finger at parents, “Switch Off TV or Doom Kids to Flipping Burgers.”

In the BYU study, the researchers found a correlation between adolescents with certain kinds of parents (at least, kids who described their parents in certain ways—a potentially significant difference) and heavy drinking. Having spotted what I gathered was this predictable error in the media reports on the study, I asked scientists who are familiar with conducting behavioral research whether I was on the right track.

“Can you clearly conclude causation from those results? No, you cannot,” says Scott O. Lilienfeld a psychologist at Emory University and co-author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior (2009). “They definitely fall short of showing that parenting influences kids’ drinking.” This confusion between correlation and causation is everywhere, Lilienfeld confirmed. “In media reports it’s really pervasive. In research, it’s better than it used to be [but] I still see it a lot in journal articles.”

Of course, it makes sense that good parental practices could set kids on course to “just say no,” while bad parenting might lead to a “sure, why not?” On the other hand, the reverse is also plausible—that “the drinking causes the parenting” so to speak, notes Reifman, who co-writes Alan & Bo’s Correlation & Causality Blog (correlation-causality.blogspot.com/). That is, perhaps hard-drinking teenagers don’t tell their parents where they are and what they’re doing, which would hinder the parents’ ability to monitor them. Maybe the kids get drunk and ignore their ringing cell phones.

Or, again, some third variable could account for both the monitoring and the drinking. Suppose the tendency to act responsibly is, like many behaviors, genetically influenced. In a family in which both generations shared this hypothetical “responsibility gene,” the parents would responsibly perform their supervisory duties and the kids would responsibly eschew underage alcohol abuse. In families that lack the gene, well, maybe the kids raid the liquor cabinet while the parents go out bar-hopping. (Alcoholism, thought to be highly heritable, might also explain both neglectful parents and hard-drinking teens.) Or the third variable could be something even less obvious. It could have to do with the family’s computer habits or the size of their community they live in or something in the water. All we know for sure is that, whatever the cause or causes might be, the study did not prove them.

And yet, here were all news outlets claiming that it did, often in large fonts. “Utah Study Says Parents Can Curb Teen Binge Drinking,” proclaimed The Salt Lake Tribune. “Authoritative Parents Better at Preventing Kids’ Binge Drinking, Study Finds,” blared the Toronto Globe and Mail. Even the London Telegraph picked it up: “Strict and Loving Relationship Key to Stopping Teenagers Going Off the Rails.”

At best, the reporters softened the message by sprinkling a “may” here or a “suggests” there. None that I saw explained that there wasn’t enough evidence to support a causal conclusion, or offered other possible interpretations of the data.

It’s not hard to imagine why the media likes spinning cause-and-effect tales out of thin air. First, many journalists are not particularly science literate. Also, although in most good studies the scientists will write caveats (as, in fact, the BYU researchers did) indicating that the data aren’t conclusive and that other explanations are possible, these tend to appear near the end of the research articles, following a lot of technical stuff, and don’t always find their way into the media stories.

Most important, probably, is that a headline proclaiming that “X Causes Y!”—especially if it’s something surprising or alarming to average readers—is going to send a lot more coffee spewing across the nation’s breakfast tables than “X and Y Found to Be Positively Correlated,” which sounds dry and technical and persnickety—even if, inconveniently, it happens to be accurate.

In fairness to the oft-maligned media, though, the error doesn’t always originate with their reports. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered that most of the news accounts of the BYU study were simply rewrites of a press release deceptively titled, “Teens and alcohol study: Parenting style can prevent binge drinking,” put out by the university and almost certainly written by non-scientists. So the misleading stories were not entirely the result of journalists being irresponsible. (Lazy? Possibly.)

But interpreting a correlation as evidence of causation is apparently so tempting that even scientists, adept at statistical analysis and other sophisticated empirical methods, can fall into the trap. One of the researchers, Stephen Bahr, a professor in BYU’s College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, is quoted as saying that parents “can have a significant impact on the more dangerous type of drinking.” Can you blame journalists who see that for concluding that, well, parents can have a significant impact on the more dangerous type of drinking?

In their article about the study, published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Bahr and co-author John P. Hoffmann don’t come right out and fault parents for teen binging. They are careful to describe their conclusions, most of which matched the hypothesis they set out to test, with careful phrases like “the data suggest” and “appear to be” and “are consistent with our hypothesis.” Near the end of the article the researchers acknowledge, in rather technical terms, that although they believe the parenting causes the drinking, long-term studies would help pin it down.

I called Stephen Bahr to ask if he thought the way his research was publicized was accurate.

“That’s always a problem in scientific research, knowing what’s the cause and what’s the effect,” Bahr said. Scientists “give the best estimate that they can, but they have to be aware of other possible interpretations, and that’s certainly the case here.”

What about his press release quote, the one that says parents have significant impact on dangerous binging? Bahr said he and Hoffmann “felt comfortable in drawing that conclusion,” because other, previous studies have suggested as much.

Actually, though, in their report they describe those other studies as a mixed bag, noting that while some studies show parenting practices can deter teenage alcohol use, others have found that “parenting practices have little impact.” They cite a few examples of both groups. Interestingly, one of those they list in the latter group (studies that show little impact) was a study co-authored twelve years ago by Hoffmann himself. Hoffmann and his fellow researchers wrote an article in 1998 titled “Family, Religiosity and the Risk of Adolescent Drug Use” for the Journal of Marriage and Family. The researchers surveyed 13,250 adolescents about their families and drug habits, looking for correlations. According to their findings, “parental monitoring … had relatively weak effects on adolescent drug use.”

Some correlation-causation leaps are so obvious they’re funny. You can amuse yourself by making up your own. Think of any two situations that tend to go hand in hand, and then invent headlines that ignore the obvious reverse causations or third variables. “Taking Umbrella to Work Causes Heavy Rainfall.” “Mothers Who Buy Nursing Bras Wake Up in the Middle of the Night.” Even the satirical fake-news website The Onion recently got into the game: “A New Medical Report Warns Getting Screened for Cancer is a Leading Cause of Finding Out You Have Cancer.”

Most real-world examples are more subtle, though, and it’s easy to see how people wind up connecting nonexistent dots. In “The Importance of Family Dinners,” a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, the authors describe finding that teenagers who frequently eat with their families are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol or marijuana. (The center has conducted versions of the survey six times over the years.) So far, so good—a simple correlation. But in the report, Joseph A. Califano Jr., the center’s founder and chairman, takes that correlation and runs with it, claiming that “parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children. …Simply put: frequent family dinners make a difference.”

“Nothing in their data support such strong inference,” says H. Harrington (Bo) Cleveland, an associate professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University and co-blogger with Reifman on the correlation and causality blog. While it’s always possible family dinners do help reduce kids’ drug use, “to suggest that these data provide convincing evidence of this proposition is not responsible. In the case of this study, frequency of family dinner may be a proxy for myriad unmeasured family, child, and parent characteristics.”

Heck, maybe rule-abiding teenagers are simply more likely to be home around dinnertime. The family-dinner fallacy is literally a textbook example of confusing correlation with causation, Reifman says, noting that the CASA studies are used in Research Methods in Practice, by Dahlia K. Remler and Gregg G. Van Ryzin, to illustrate the problem. Yet meanwhile, the value of deploying dinners as drug prevention has received widespread popular attention and seeped into the public’s consciousness. Google “family” “dinner” and “drugs” and you’ll get more than 1.2 million results, many of them with blunt titles along the lines of, “Family dinners keep teenagers off drugs.”

Causal interpretations, it seems, are a hard habit to kick. Maybe discussing the differences between correlation and causation around the dinner table would help.

“Scientific thinking does not come very naturally to most people, and people’s beliefs often color and skew their interpretation of data, so they come up with something that seems plausible to them,” Lilienfeld says. “Belief bias really influences the way they see the data. Students will get it right in the exams, but when they see an example where the causal link seems plausible or believable they’ll forget everything they’ve learned.”

Jon Mueller, a psychologist at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, has noticed that, too. To help students master the distinction, he has collected a long list of links to correlation-causation mixups from newspapers and magazines and posted them on the Internet. “Sexual Lyrics Prompt Teens to Have Sex,” one headline announces, based on a finding that music on kids’ iPods is correlated with their tendency to fool around. (Either that, or teens interested in sex are more enamored of sexy songs. Or something else entirely.) “Study Says Lots of Candy Could Lead to Violence,” based on a finding that children who eat excessive sweets are more likely to commit violent crimes when they grow up. (A third variable—impulse control, anyone?—might explain both.) “Housework Cuts Breast Cancer Risk,” based on a correlation between hours women spend cooking and cleaning and their breast cancer rates (a finding that, if the study weren’t headed by a woman, I might attribute to a conspiracy of lazy husbands).

Of course, it’s important to remember that a given cause isn’t necessarily incorrect. For all we know, sexy songs do lead to steamed-up car windows, candy does breed psycho killers and housework does create an invisible shield that keeps cancer at bay. There just isn’t enough evidence so far to warrant drastic action like confiscating the iPod, hiding the M&Ms or, God forbid, scrubbing the kitchen floor.

Our tendency to jump to causal conclusions “may just be very deeply rooted in the way our minds work,” Lilienfeld says. That makes sense, he notes, from an evolutionary perspective. Say one of our ancient ancestors ate a strange new berry and then got sick. The two events might merge in our ancestor’s mind, even if they were entirely unconnected. Still, if the berry was harmless, avoiding it in the future probably wouldn’t hurt. “A false positive—that is, seeing a causal connection that isn’t there—is not necessarily all that dangerous” in such a case, Lilienfeld says. “Better safe than sorry.”

If, on the other hand, our Pleistocene Era forager were to dutifully remind herself that correlation doesn’t imply causation and continue eating the berries, she might wind up on the floor of the cave with Xs for eyes. Come to think of it, I’ve always suspected that our tendency to gag at the very thought of whatever we ate just before coming down with the flu was the result of some similar protective physical reflex, as if even our bodies confuse correlation and causation—literally, at the gut level.

Given how much ordinary parents rely on parenting manuals written by “experts,” on web and magazine articles quoting “experts,” on TV interviews with “experts,” it’s unsettling to realize how easily experts’ studies are misrepresented, and how much of the scientific research guiding our everyday parenting decisions may be limited by insufficient data or tainted by invalid interpretations.

Studies about parenting and child behavior are particularly vulnerable to this sort of misreading, for a number of reasons. For one thing, most parenting studies suffer from another, somewhat related, flaw: They have no way of distinguishing between nature and nurture, to eliminate the possibility that a correlation between parents’ practices and children’s behavior is influenced by their mutual genes. Does spanking children make them more aggressive, or do the kids inherit aggressive tendencies from their aggressive, spanking parents? Do parents who read to their children encourage them to enjoy reading, or do both generations share a genetic tendency to love books?

“Parents who are biologically related to their children can pass on characteristics to their children through genetic mechanisms, and these associations can appear to be environmental,” Cleveland says. “Researchers are not as concerned about this as they should be.”

Teasing apart nature and nurture in behavioral research can be difficult or even impossible. Scientists have tried to isolate the two by focusing on either identical twins raised separately (who share matching genes but different environments) or adopted kids and their siblings (who share similar environments but different genes), subjects that allow the researchers to more confidently attribute characteristics to either nature or nurture. But the supply of such subjects, especially separated twins, is limited. It’s much easier to study biologically related families, because there are so many more of them.

“And because of that, if you weigh research by volume, there’s going to be more studies that have this flaw than studies that don’t have this flaw,” Cleveland says. The existence of a large body of research pointing toward a similar conclusion—even if hampered by this limitation—sounds awfully persuasive, even to people who are well educated and scientifically sophisticated. “They hear, ‘Most of the research finds this.’ That tends to be a very reassuring sentence.”

Another potential pitfall in child-rearing studies is our tendency to take for granted that, when it comes to parents and children, all the influence goes in one direction. Parents are the adults in charge, so we assume they’re shaping kids’ behavior, not the other way around. Yet, when you stop to think about it, it’s not far-fetched that a child’s nature could affect how the parent responds. For example, an aggressive child could anger her parents more frequently and thus receive more spankings than do her milder-mannered peers. A child who really loves books will probably beg his glassy-eyed parents to read to him more often than a kid who is happier playing with action figures. If adults affect how children “turn out,” kids affect how adults “turn out,” too.

Reporting on the BYU study, for example, disregarded that possibility. The media and even the researchers seemed to assume that parents fully control how they monitor their kids, that all they have to do is pay closer attention. But a study conducted in Sweden in 2000 challenged that assumption. Researchers there found that parents’ knowledge of teenagers’ whereabouts came mostly from the kids themselves, and that the kids most likely to engage in delinquent behavior were least likely to keep parents informed. It’s tempting to interpret this as proving that kids who get in trouble try to hide it from their parents, except that—heh, heh—that would be confusing correlation and causation. (See how sneaky it is?) Suffice it to say that parents don’t necessarily hold all the cards.

“We conclude that tracking and surveillance is not the best prescription for parental behavior and that a new prescription must rest on an understanding of the factors that determine child disclosure,” the Swedish researchers wrote.

Still another possible factor is that audiences want news they can use in their own lives. (This may help explain why health-and-fitness news is another topic highly vulnerable to this problem.) Kids up to no good? You don’t want to hear a bunch of blah blah blah about correlated variables. You want to know what action to take, ASAP, to get the little troublemakers in line. Switch off the TV, play classical music, feed them leafy greens, sign them up for gymnastic lessons, become warmer and more watchful … whatever the scientists say works must be worth a try.

“We like to think that behavior is easily malleable,” Lilienfeld says. “We have a kid who’s misbehaving and think, ‘Oh, if I just do X, Y, and Z, I can turn my kid around.’ “

A lab coat exudes a lot of authority for many of us educated, enlightened, concerned modern parents, says Peter N. Stearns, author of Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America (2003). For about a century, parents have increasingly turned to scientists—or at least, people presenting information they claim is validated by science—to tell us how to raise our children.

Nineteenth-century parenting advice commonly took the form of moral and religious guidance, says Stearns, a historian and provost at George Mason University. The early twentieth century brought the development of pediatric medicine and healthcare improvements that sharply reduced child mortality rates. Once parents came to accept that medical science could improve children’s physical health, Stearns says, it was a short step to extending similar trust to those who promised to improve their young psyches. Parents became increasingly reliant on presumed experts’ recommendations regarding everything from dispensing discipline to assigning chores to boosting self-esteem.

Modern parents’ insecurities have multiplied along with the sales of parenting manuals—one might say they’re correlated, and honestly it’s hard to tell which has caused which. We often live too far away to turn to older relatives for counsel. Our kids grapple with influences—from the Internet to energy drinks—that unnervingly haven’t stood the test of time. In the absence of other guidance, advice that comes stamped with the seal of scientific approval can seem reassuringly infallible (while also sending the disconcerting message that raising children is too tricky to be left to nonexperts).

Children are complicated and scientists are human, Stearns says. Scientific claims may be based on insufficient evidence, inadequate databases, insufficiently considered alternatives.

“It’s not usually fraudulent, it’s usually well-intentioned,” Stearns says. “But it often turns out to be grounded in something other than the most objective science. One of the ways we know this is by the way scientific recommendations have changed so much over time. The fluctuations are fascinating, but they partially undermine the claims.”

If you’re a scientist trying to figure out how a parenting practice affects a child’s behavior, you know that some kinds of studies are better than others, but that all have their drawbacks.

Let’s say you want to conduct a survey and look for correlations. You can narrow the causal focus by designating control variables—other factors that might influence the results but that you aren’t interested in studying—and keeping those constant as you measure the results. The problem is that you can’t control for, or even imagine, every possible variable. In analyzing teen drinking, the BYU researchers controlled for the kids’ age, gender, parental education, and several other characteristics. But they didn’t control for genetic influence—they didn’t eliminate teens who were biologically related to their parents—so they can’t discount the possibility that shared genes help explain the link between watchful parents and abstemious teens.

A longitudinal study, in which you look in on your subjects at intervals over an extended period, can help you draw somewhat more confident conclusions. Finding a correlation between “before” and “after” events—for instance, if you notice that kids monitored closely as children are less likely to binge drink as teens—might indicate a causal relationship. Still, the danger remains that other circumstances, such as genes, can influence both the earlier and later situations. Besides, longitudinal studies are demanding and expensive. Sometimes researchers will mine other people’s massive longitudinal studies for data—but they have to hope that the studies asked the questions they’re interested in researching, or something close.

Your best bet for getting a fix on cause is to do an experimental study. Take a group of people and randomly divide them into two groups. Assign one subgroup, but not the other, to do something (or better yet, to rule out the possibility that doing nothing at all has effects of its own, assign them both to do something, but have one group do a more relevant something—a sort of active pill vs. placebo approach). Then compare the two subgroups to see if the assigned action led to any different results. With the groups randomly composed, the laws of chance theoretically eliminate any skewing by outside variables that would affect one group more than the other.

Interestingly, one such randomized study, conducted in 2009 by the University of San Diego, suggested that parents can exert some control over their kids’ drinking. Parents with children heading off to college were divided into two random groups. One received a simple alcohol fact sheet. The other received A Parent Handbook for Talking with College Students about Alcohol, a guide designed to facilitate discussion of alcohol-related issues, including alternatives to drinking and avoiding high-risk situations. Female students whose parents received the handbook were less likely to become drinkers as freshmen. (Male freshmen were not, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear, though the researchers speculated it might have involved the fact that the participating parents were mostly mothers, and such interventions have been found to work better when the parents and kids are of the same sex.) Although the difference “was modest, it is encouraging,” the researchers wrote in an article that, like the BYU study, was reported in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

The problem with experimental, randomized studies involving real-world parents and children is that they can be ethically prohibitive, especially if the action being researched is potentially damaging. To study the effects of spanking, for example, “it would be totally unethical to have a random subsample of parents spank their child at the behest of the researcher,” Reifman points out.

Why do researchers even bother looking for correlations, if they don’t show cause? Is it pointless to look to them for clues on how human beings behave? Many researchers would say that their value lies in opening a dialogue, in providing fodder for further study. Seth Roberts, a psychologist in Beijing and professor emeritus at the University of California, went so far as to write a blog post in defense of erroneously interpreting correlations. Roberts argues that no research method is capable of proving cause and effect beyond a shadow of doubt. Any given set of data is open to multiple interpretations. A variety of approaches is needed to close in on truths. Despite their inability to prove cause-and-effect, he implies, correlations can get people to start looking in the right direction.

“I shed an invisible tear whenever I hear ‘correlation does not imply causation,'” Roberts writes.

I don’t mean to pick on the BYU study. It’s just one recent example, no worse than hundreds of others, of research being interpreted in a way that vastly oversimplifies intricate interpersonal relationships. Maybe that’s unavoidable. Maybe scientists, facing various practical restrictions, will always be forced to oversimplify. Maybe the media, faced with the need for a 24/7 stream of punchy headlines, will always be forced to oversimplify.

But we, the members of the audience, don’t have to oversimplify.

I’m not saying we should throw the baby research out with the bathwater, turn to dart boards or chicken entrails for parenting advice, instruct scientists to take their clipboards and shove them where the structural equation modeling don’t shine. And I’m certainly, absolutely, positively not saying that we should blow off our parenting responsibilities. Keeping tabs on our kids may or may not be a surefire way to prevent them from binge drinking. (Hint: It’s not. Remember my old classmate whose dad would tail her with the headlights off? Let’s just say she managed to get her cup filled at the keg nonetheless.) It just makes sense, as a parenting practice, to try to keep track of our children’s whereabouts. Not to mention treat them warmly.

But then, how often do studies and media reports steer parents toward any really outrageous child-rearing action? If you were to scrupulously put research suggestions into practice, you’d read to your kids, avoid spanking them, limit their TV and candy, have dinner with them, pay attention to them—and it’s safe to say, even in the absence of proof from a randomized study, that they wouldn’t suffer any irreparable harm. Even dumbed-down conclusions and ill-founded prescriptions usually leave the kids just fine.

If only the same could be said for us parents! Held responsible for the behavior of others who may be openly rebelling against us, badgered to take action that’s not always feasible, blamed for causing whatever flaws our children, like all mortals, will inevitably exhibit … the sense of always falling short probably prompts more than a few of us to seek psychological help ourselves. The guilt and anxiety that all this stuff generates might help explain that spate of recent research showing that people with children report being less happy than people without. (And note that, for a change, those findings weren’t generally presented as having any obvious or simple causal explanation. On the contrary, the media engaged in baffled speculation about why parents would be disheartened by an enterprise that our culture insists should bring nonstop bliss.)

Stearns, the historian of parenting, said he recently saw a Dutch study that found that seventy-seven percent of parents worry, almost on a daily basis, that they’re inadequate. “Parents vary, so I don’t want to oversimplify this myself, but there are a lot of parents who are very vulnerable to statements from the outside world that they’re probably doing something wrong,” Stearns says. If most of us are beating ourselves up all the time, “That, frankly, is not healthy.”

One way to ease up on the self-doubt is to scrutinize stories about new scientific findings, keeping an eye out for interpretations that don’t seem fully supported by the evidence. Recognize that complex human relationships don’t easily lend themselves to tidy little “if X, then Y” summaries. Remember that parent-child interactions can be a two-way street, each side leaving its mark on the other. Look for alternative explanations, keeping in mind that sometimes other variables—option C and possibly D, E, F, and beyond—aren’t immediately obvious.

Bottom line: Question authority. Even authority wearing a lab coat.

Author’s Note: I can’t remember now exactly when or how I became aware that many of what we assume are scientifically verified, immutable child-rearing truths are actually based on research that, though perhaps sound in and of itself, is widely misunderstood and appallingly misrepresented. What I can tell you is that the discovery brought a wave of relief.

Is that because I felt I was off the hook from worrying about my kids? With some of those science-backed assumptions at least partly debunked in my mind, could I stop fretting about my sons’ TV watching, their video-game playing, their high-fructose-corn-syrup eating, their texting and IMing and Facebooking, their downloading of music with inappropriate lyrics, their lusting for expensive shoes and electronic devices, their early ignoring of basic personal hygiene replaced in their teen years by a pursuit of personal hygiene so zealous that it noticeably ran up my water bill? Oh my gosh, if only!

Unfortunately, all the same worries remained. The measure of relief came from my newfound understanding that the parenting experts, however confident and telegenic they might appear in their articles and interviews, really weren’t any more certain than I was about how to deal with this stuff.

And knowing that, admittedly, has led me to relax, just a little. I not only allow my kids to watch TV and eat sweets and skip dinner-table gatherings, but sometimes even all three at once. And if they wind up serial killers with self-esteem issues and poor flossing habits, I’ll know that I am possibly to blame because of my parenting misdeeds—but not necessarily. Remember, the evidence is a mere correlation. Not to mention, in this case, anecdotal.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2011)

About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.

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.

The Village

 

Synergy - Many People Turning in GearsI was talking with my sister on the phone, the sort of chit-chat you carry on when you live hours apart and still want your lives to intersect as much as possible. Jill was telling me that my niece was going to attend a birthday party on Friday. “They’re going to take a limo and get their pictures professionally taken.” My niece was ten years old.

“Are you serious?” I was picturing the sort of sleepover-with-pizza parties my son had been attending.

“Oh, they don’t mess around up here,” Jill said.

I paused, thinking that, where I live, this sort of over-the-top party would definitely cause a stir. “Jeesh,” I said. “If people threw that kind of party here, I’m pretty sure we’d make them feel like assholes.”

That’s when I realized: There is a “we.”

It wasn’t the “we” of our household’s parenting unit, or even the “we” of my circle of friends. It was the “we” made up of the parents of my son’s classmates and friends.

When my son was in kindergarten, his elementary school welcomed the student body and their families by hosting a potluck—we were all instructed to bring a dish that reflected our family’s ethnic or cultural heritage. (In hindsight, we could have gone with a loaf of white bread.) As my husband and I stood by the jungle gym, making small talk and balancing paper plates of pasta salad and spaghetti and lo mein, I surveyed the crowd. It occurred to me that, for the most part, these would be the same people we’d see for the next thirteen years. The parents who volunteered to help the second-graders construct gingerbread houses would someday guide the sixth-graders to the right audition room for all-district band. The father who sat silent and stoic at every Little League game would appear, silent and stoic, at every sporting event from here on out. The gregarious grandma and the annoying flirty mother and the father who thought very highly of himself and the sweet mother who supplied gelt each Hanukkah and the shy one who looked as if she’d rather be undergoing experimental surgery than be there and the bemused stepfather who was doing all of this for the second time … most of them, I realized, would be there in June 2017 when our kids graduated. The date shimmered so far in the future that it felt as if I’d be spending a lifetime with these people.

Although I’ve certainly become friendly with some of them over the intervening seven years, most of these parents aren’t friends of my own choosing. Sure, we have some things in common besides our children’s ages—we all chose to live in this particular city, in this particular part of the city, for example—but, in the same way that their children once called me “Caleb’s Mom,” I think of them primarily in relation to their kids. I don’t even know many of their first names.

But here I was, thinking of us as a tribe, a peer group, a cohort. I was thinking of us as the very sort of group that, upon hearing that another parent went a little nuts with a birthday party, might raise an eyebrow, make a remark in confidence, make it clear to our own children that this should, in no way, affect their expectations of their own party. Is it possible that we’re more intertwined than it seems at first blush? Is it possible that other parents influence our own parenting?

Thanks to a huge body of studies in psychology, sociology, and economics (as well as the spate of Malcolm Gladwell-style books they’ve spawned), we know more and more about how people connect with and influence one another, even unconsciously.

We know, for example, that humans mimic each other. Mimicry is how babies learn to evolve from little hunks of cuteness to functioning members of their species. (Consider the face you make when you feed a baby a spoonful of mushed fruit.) It’s how animals communicate—if I have a scared look on my face, you get the message tout de suite that there’s something (a stampeding bear, a stalking lioness, a known cannibal) coming up behind you. But in the world most of us live in now, mimicking each other has become a way to spread empathy. Our emotions are contagious.

We also know that behaviors can be contagious. In her 2006 study, “Is Having Babies Contagious?” Princeton University economist Ilyana Kuziemko looked at data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a government-funded study that has collected economic, health, and social data from almost nine thousand families since 1968. She found that if your sibling—or more specifically, your sister—had a baby in the past two years, you’re thirty percent more likely to furnish that baby with a cousin. (If your brother has a child, there’s no effect on you.) The “contagion effect,” as it’s called, is strongest when the first child is born and weakens with each subsequent baby—by the time the fifth niece or nephew comes on the scene, siblings aren’t influenced either way. Kuziemko theorized that siblings might have children within a couple of years of one another for a variety of reasons: to share information while it’s still fresh, to provide their children with a cousin around the same age, to share resources like strollers and other baby accoutrements.

It’s not just fertility, of course, that’s contagious. Scholars have found the contagion effect in a whole passel of behaviors, including quitting smoking, getting a mammogram, dropping out of school, voting, getting a divorce, and, disturbingly, committing suicide. The way the behaviors spread varies. Some are fairly simple, like the face-to-face transmission of one family member’s bad mood throughout the house until it’s a five-alarm crankypants situation. Some are fairly simple, though sort of astounding, like large-scale mass psychogenic illnesses (MPIs, or what they used to call “hysteria” in the olden days). MPIs explain why huge segments of schools can suddenly be struck by an unexplained rash with no biological cause, which is exactly what happened in the wake of the anthrax scare of 2001. Then there are those strange instances where people who don’t have any contact with each other still make their marks on each other’s lives.

Nicholas Christakis first noticed this when he was a hospice doctor at the University of Chicago, fifteen years ago. One of his patients was a woman with dementia. As Christakis recalls in a public talk in February 2010, “She was being cared for by her daughter. And the daughter was exhausted from caring for her mother. And the daughter’s husband, he also was sick from his wife’s exhaustion. And I was driving home one day, and I get a phone call from the husband’s friend, calling me because he was depressed about what was happening to his friend. So here I get this call from this random guy that’s having an experience that’s being influenced by people at some social distance.” That’s when Christakis became interested in the idea of social networks. (And by this, I mean actual social networks, not online ones a la Facebook, which are mostly made of “weak ties.”)

Today, Christakis is an internist and social scientist at Harvard. With his longtime collaborator James H. Fowler, a medical school professor and social scientist at the University of California, San Diego, the pair have co-authored Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do, which highlights some of the studies that they’ve conducted, as well as ones that others have published, all on how people influence one another. “Social networks have properties and functions that are neither controlled nor even perceived by the people within them,” they write. Like The Wave making its way around a stadium at a ball game, they write, a network “has a life of its own.” Graphed out using a computer program, their networks look something like Tinkertoys for math geniuses—tons of wheels (people) with spokes connecting some of them (friendships). From this vantage point, the researchers can spot clusters of various phenomena affecting the individuals within the network.

Like happiness. In one study Christakis and Fowler used data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has been collecting info from its participants—now twelve thousand of them—since 1948. They mapped out the relationships between one thousand twenty people and colored the graph according to each participant’s reported level of happiness. They found that within the network, there were clusters of both happy and unhappy people, and that the unhappy people were more likely to be at the edge of the network (meaning they weren’t as connected). Christakis and Fowler write that even after they accounted for outside factors—birds of a feather flocking happily or unhappily together, say, or happy people all participating in an event that caused happiness—they determined that being connected to a happy person makes you fifteen percent more likely to be happy yourself. Curiously, being two degrees away from a happy person makes you ten percent more likely to be happy, and being three degrees away makes you six percent more likely to be happy. After that, the effect stops.

Also using the Framingham Heart Study, Christakis and Fowler looked at the so-called epidemic of obesity, this time taking a sample of a little more than five thousand people. The pair mapped out the obese and the non-obese using body mass indexes of the participants. As in the happiness study, they found that—even after controlling for outside factors—over time, obese people tended to be clustered with other obese people, and likewise for the non-obese. And, as in the happiness study, they found that being connected to an obese person—up to three degrees—increased a person’s own likelihood of becoming obese. (Unlike the happiness study, though, it didn’t seem that a person’s BMI tended to make them more connected or less.)

Why would obesity be contagious? In Connected, Christakis and Fowler chalk it up to several things. The first is behavorial imitation—you see your friend enjoying her Zumba class, and you sign up, too. They also explain that norms change. “When many people start gaining weight, it can reset our expectations about what it actually means to be overweight.” What’s more, they write, a person could be a “carrier” for obesity, even if she’s not obese herself. Say you have two friends who don’t know each other, Christakis and Fowler explain. One has recently put on some weight. You think she looks just fine—she’s still her own awesome self, just with an extra twenty pounds on her bones. You don’t necessarily change any of your own behavior—you exercise, you still eat healthy—but when second friend starts, say, bagging out on the exercise you do together, you don’t push her. In this way, your first friend’s BMI affects your second friend’s BMI, even if they’ve never met.

Connected is full of these Dude-this-kind-of-blows-my-mind studies. But there is precious little research that tackles the sort of parent-on-parent influence I was thinking about, and the book doesn’t address parents specifically. (The exception is a reference to a c