The Promise of Maybes

The Promise of Maybes

By Audrey Hines McGill

tourettes

We walk into my two boys’ new school and check out their new classrooms. We meet their new teachers; I say hello, and then introduce the boys. I explain how we’ve recently moved cross country for my husband’s new job. But what I don’t tell these new teachers is that I’m secretly hoping for a new start, a reprieve from judging eyes and ignorant staring that made up much of my previous interactions with teachers and other parents at my children’s prior school. I wish my boys have more play dates and birthday party invitations. I dream of neighborhood friends and for my children to feel like they belong.

At this very moment, I also secretly hope my children’s telltale eye rolling tics don’t happen as we make our introductions. Just for a little while, I hope for a break from the explanations and the reciting of diagnoses.  For just a few minutes, I want my children to safely blend into the sea of students soon about to enter the classroom.

Since it is the dreaded beginning of the school year, it is time to inform yet countless more people of both of my children’s special circumstances. It is time to discuss 504 plans, IEPs, and special accommodations for their needs in the classroom. They have Tourette syndrome I will say. But how do I describe how Tourette syndrome affects them daily, while trying to sound as nonchalant as possible?  I can tell them my standard, “It’s no big deal. You probably won’t even notice the tics” intended to alleviate some of their fears as well as my own.

I can say they have verbal tics, otherwise known as a constant stream of strange noises, snorts, and grunting.

I can say their eyes roll around making it difficult to read or keep their place. I can say that my youngest son, only 7, struggles with Copralalia, which is the unwanted urge to say socially inappropriate words and phrases.

But I cannot say that my 7-year-old is so tormented by his Coprolalia that despite my constant reassuring and comforting, he is convinced he is a bad person.

I cannot say that on my darkest days, I am angry at the world, angry at God, and angry at the genetics that my children could not escape.

I cannot say that I constantly become overwhelmed with the inner struggle of wanting to hide my children and keep them safe from the world’s glare or let them go and trust that they will be okay as they set off bravely on their own.

What I cannot say is that I am terrified that suddenly one day the tics will overtake my children’s ability to find happiness and joy in their life.

What I am not allowed to say is that sometimes my children’s tics annoy me, but I am asking that as their teachers, to please disregard the noises and movements in the classroom.

What I really cannot say is that I am tired of the explanations, the quizzical looks, and even the rude stares my children receive as we try and assimilate into any social gathering.

What I know I cannot say is that sometimes I feel extremely selfish and wish that this burden wasn’t mine and my children’s to bear.  I wish for a reality much different than the reality we’ve been handed.

What I most certainly cannot say is the heartache of having children who by the very definition of Tourette syndrome, are considered Neurologically Impaired, sometimes makes me resentful. And now I am yearning for those carefree days before the words Tourette syndrome became a part of our lives and my daily fear for their future threatens to overtake my joy of living in the moment.

And so I reassure myself with maybes. Maybe everything will be different here. Maybe my children will find a place where they feel like they belong. Maybe I will. Maybe there will be a permanent vacation from the pity filled eyes. Maybe so many friendships will be made we will have to pick and choose playdates. Maybe my boys will be regarded for their beautiful big blue eyes and their senses of humor. Maybe their only noticeable characteristics will be their kindness toward others and their generous personalities. Maybe here they can just be little boys. Maybe here they can be recognized for more than their affliction’s definition. Maybe they can just love being 9 and 7.  Maybe here their stream of internal torment can absorb me instead.

So I smile big and brave and kiss them each goodbye as I tell them that I love them and that they will have a great day. I watch as they walk through their new classroom doors as the promise of maybes swells so big inside of my heart that I can barely breathe.

Audrey Hines McGill is a contributing writer and Northwest native living in Seattle, Washington. She is writing her way through life one paragraph and one cup of coffee at a time.

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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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My Only Sunshine

My Only Sunshine

By Amanda Rose Adams

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Recently I brought my children, who are eleven and twelve, to the dermatologist too, in hope that she could educate them about proper sun care.

 

It began as a small white spot above my lip, beneath my nose, less noticeable than my adult acne. The acne far was more frustrating and what drove me to the dermatologist. During my visit I did ask her about the spot. She shrugged and told me if it started to bleed to come back. The spot never went away but grew so slowly that when it finally started bleeding I didn’t realize how large or deep it had grown.

My dermatologist barely looked at my cracking skin and said, “It’s probably cancer.” I left that appointment with a bandage over my lip, while a layer of my spot went to the pathologist. It was cancer, specifically a basal cell carcinoma. The irony was that I never spent much time in the sun compared to my siblings or peers. I’ve never seen the inside of a tanning booth, and am not an outdoorsy person. Being so pale, I usually wore sunblock and hats on the rare occasions I was outdoors as an adult, but that was too little too late. As a parent, I’ve always stressed sun block and hats. My kids are both pale too, and neither has ever had a tan or serious sunburn. The burns they’ve had are extremely rare and relatively mild, but we live at high altitude and with every mild burn damage is done.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, “The two most common types of skin cancer—basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas—are highly curable, but can be disfiguring and costly.”

For several days after the nurse called to confirm my diagnosis, I was conflicted. I felt angry at myself for being upset about a cancer that wouldn’t kill me. Basal cell carcinomas can spread to the bone but are far more disfiguring than dangerous. My mother-in-law is a breast cancer survivor, and I lost my father to esophageal cancer. I felt like I was being a baby about my minor cancer.

Still, it was a cancerous growth and it was on my face. The Internet was not reassuring. Every photo I found of basal cell carcinoma or the Mohs surgical procedure to remove it, presented an extreme case of a “Carcinomas gone wild.” Nothing resembled my little white spot.

The day of my surgery, I learned that the little white spot was fairly deep, not to the bone, but deep enough that the doctor sent my cells to the lab three times before they came back clean and he could close my incision. This small spot left a hole that required over forty stitches to close inside and outside of my skin. The seemingly innocuous white spot was gone but I looked like I’d been mauled by a dog or gone through a windshield, and it took months for me to get any feeling back on the left side of my upper lip.

At the pharmacy, even with bandages covering my stitches I felt strangers stare and knew what they were thinking, “What happened to her?” The answer was too simple, too much sun.

Since my diagnosis in early 2013, I have an annual skin cancer check. This year, I’ve had three. The first was with my old dermatologist whose treatment of two suspicious growths failed to take. The second was with my new dermatologist who successfully removed what turned out to be a wart on my thumb and identified a scar tissue growth on my ankle. On my third visit she froze two suspicious white spots from the tip of my nose and on the side of my face near my ear. She called them “precancerous.”

The one on my nose seems to have disappeared, but the spot at my hairline is still bumpy. If it bleeds again, I’ll be back for my fourth visit and another biopsy. As a patient, this journey has been relatively minor compared to other medical issues in our family.

Recently I brought my children, who are eleven and twelve, to the dermatologist too, in hope that she could educate them about proper sun care. I’ve bought them daily moisturizer with SPF that the dermatologist recommended, but I’m usually at work before they are dressed and at their age I cannot be sure they’re using it. Forcing them to wear a hat is about as effective as it was when they were babies and dropped them out of their double stroller.

When I had my surgery in 2013, I rested a lot and kept the wound covered. By the time the stitches came out it wasn’t nearly as frightening. After two years and regular use of a silicone gel the scar isn’t any more noticeable than the little white spot that caused it. So, my kids don’t seem to even remember my surgery or the wound.

As I struggle to get my adolescent children to take their sun protection seriously, I wonder if I should show them my after photos since they don’t seem to remember what Mom’s face looked like. Maybe I should show them the before photo of the little white spot to show them how minor the carcinoma looks.

I can’t bring myself to show them the over the top photos of people whose basal cell carcinomas went unchecked until they were genuinely disfiguring, but part of me is tempted. As if the outrageousness of it would unsettle them like a driving school video of a car accident. It would probably be as effective. Thinking these things will never happen to you, even if they are heredity, is a right of passage for kids. So, I keep buying the sun protection, nagging, and taking them to the dermatologist. Maybe the knowledge will soak in before too much sun damage is done.

Amanda Rose Adams is the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Well Family, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at www.amandaroseadams.com.

This essay was originally published on Brain Child in May 2015

Photo: Alexander Shustov

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What Being Muslim Means To My Daughter

What Being Muslim Means To My Daughter

Muslim-girl-resizeBy Stephanie Meade

“I wish I could eat pork like Eryn!”

It’s a harmless statement really. My four-year-old wishes a lot of things. She wishes she could have a dog and a monkey, she wishes she could “buy” a princess (I explained to her you can’t buy people but left the discussions of slavery and human trafficking for a later date), a certain dress or a stuffed animal. Sometimes she wishes she could be other people or have other family members. But something in this statement felt a little like sandpaper on my skin and I couldn’t at first pinpoint why.

The month of Ramadan just finished—a time of spirituality and fasting from sunup to sundown—and I tried to fast like I always do but didn’t succeed beyond one day. The maximum I have fasted is 12 days, which made me feel like a superstar. But when you think Muslims are fasting for 30 days, my sense of accomplishment dwindles. The thing is, I’m not Muslim so I don’t even have to fast like my husband looks forward to doing every year. But I try—not because my husband wants me to (I had to put that up front as that’s what most people assume)—but because I like the holiday spirit it creates in our household, the togetherness. Our household has two sets of beliefs but each of our traditions is part of the same family canvas, blending seamlessly like a watercolor painting.

Before we had kids, my husband and I had decided to raise them as a balance of both of our belief systems. Even though I lacked a formal religion, I consider myself spiritual. But after the kids were born I changed. I felt strongly that being raised within a faith is beneficial, especially when you go through hard times in life. I always wished I had been raised with a strong sense of faith versus the nominally Catholic-but-never-went-to-church religion I grew up with. So Muslim became their predominant identity, with perhaps a trace of something else that doesn’t have a name, like when my daughter once told me between tears to say an “om” for her to calm down.

The thing about celebrating Muslim holidays in the West is they don’t feel much like holidays. You can’t pop over to Hobby Lobby or Michael’s and pick up some decorations or Islam-inspired crafting supplies while Ramadan-themed music plays in the background. As you go about your daily fast—tired, a little drained and just plain hungry and thirsty until the magical minute of sundown arrives, which in the summer isn’t until almost 9 p.m.—not many people understand why you would undertake such a practice. And when it’s Eid, the big celebration at the end of Ramadan, with presents, feasting, new clothes, social gatherings, candy for kids and holiday cheer, it’s just business as usual for most of the Western world. That part I’ve grown used to.  I should be more used to people’s surprise (putting it mildly) when I mention my husband is Muslim and we celebrate Ramadan. I don’t seem to fit their profile of what they think a woman married to a Muslim guy would be like. But that discussion, on stereotypes and Islam’s negative portrayal in the West, is not the one for today. But it’s not entirely irrelevant to my four-year-old’s innocuous statement about wanting to eat pork either.

For now, I know my little one’s proclamations of wanting to partake in foods outside her religion don’t mean much. She is secure in her Arab and Muslim identity and still protected at age four, just barely, by the paper-thin innocence of childhood.  When we were in Mexico recently boarding a plane, someone asked where she was from. “Morocco,” she answered, even though she was born and has lived her whole life in the U.S.  Boisterous and chatty, she tells strangers pretty much everything and anything on her mind, even stuff that makes us squirm a little, like yelling to our twenty-something neighbors over the fence that they shouldn’t be smoking.  She loves experimenting with different head scarves, likely because she adores our babysitter who wears one, and looks for any excuse to wear her fancy Moroccan dresses, putting together color combinations that make me sure I will be asking for her fashion advice in a few short years. Unlike her six-year-old sister, she brings up God a lot in her questions. While my six-year-old doesn’t talk much about God, she enjoys praying with my husband when it’s Ramadan.  She also loves singing Arabic songs and teaching them to her friends. But she identifies herself differently from her sister. “I’m English,” meaning American, (as she was making the distinction from speaking Arabic).

However, as they grow older in a society that regards Islam unfavorably, they will face questions, comments and likely even criticism. I hope the foundation we are building for them of confidence in themselves, pride in their heritage and an appreciation and love for many other cultures and religions will be their source of strength. I hope they will not just recognize that people are different and that’s what makes the world beautiful, but take confidence from that statement I regularly repeat. And with that confidence they won’t want to be anyone but themselves.

Stephanie Meade is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine for parents raising globally minded children.

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To My Son, Turning 8

To My Son, Turning 8

By Wendy Wisner

8

 I so desperately want to wrap him up in my arms. And I can’t. At least not in the way I used to.

 

When I turned 8 years old, I declared 8 my favorite number. I liked its loopy, curvy shape. I traced it on the roof of my mouth. I saw it everywhere, and in everything. Eight o’clock was my bedtime. School started at 8:00 a.m. I read Ramona Quimby, Age 8 cover to cover, thinking the book was written to me.

I thought everything was about me, really, and that everything could have a direct effect on me. If the kids on the playground got in trouble for exchanging Garbage Pail Kid cards, surely I was next (even though I was watching them from the other end of the playground). My teacher pointed to the graffiti sprayed on the door to our trailer classroom, warning us never to do such a thing. I was sure she thought I had done it. After all, my friend and I had played tic-tac-toe on the wall a few weeks before. We’d erased it, but still.

There was a looming, ethereal, obsessive quality to my thoughts and feelings when I was 8 years old. I’m sure it had something to do with my parents’ divorce, which I had shoved into the back of my mind. I thought it was my fault that my family was falling apart. But my main worry was that my teacher was going to get me arrested for vandalism.

*   *   *

Everyone says my son is just like his father, but I see myself in him—his tender soul, his need for love and approval. And because he is the first child I have raised, I fear for the little things that happen to him, and hope that we are doing right by him, making the right choices, leading him (without smothering, without neglecting) in the right direction.

As his 8th birthday approaches, I take note that he has a good life. My husband and I have a loving, solid marriage. He has a cute little brother, a nice group of friends, a small, nurturing school.

And yet. He is highly sensitive, as I was. If two children laugh at a picture he drew in class, he is certain that EVERYONE in the class is laughing at him. If he didn’t get a chance to shoot the basketball at recess, he is angry for the rest of the afternoon. He takes even the littlest things to heart, and doesn’t let go very easily.

At his school conference, his teacher told us that he is doing well in every area of school but recess. Apparently his sense of injustice on the basketball court ran deep—his teacher relayed a few stories of him lying on the ground, screaming and sobbing.

When she told me this, I could see him lying there, how alone and exposed he must have felt. I felt it in my own body. I wished desperately it had been one of those afternoons his little brother and I took a walk by the schoolyard, that I had found him there crying, scooped him up and brought him home.

And I wondered what had happened—or, really, what I had done—to make him so vulnerable to such meaningless things as basketball scores. Had my own 8-year-old fears somehow reached him even though his family life was far from falling apart?

*   *   *

When I relayed some of the stories about my son to my friends who have similar aged kids, they empathized. Their children were going through many of the same things: the social world around them magnified significantly, and rather suddenly.

Maybe 8-years-old is just like that, with different shades for different kids. Eight-years-old, the age almost precisely between early and late childhood. All ages after babyhood seem a little betwixt-in-between, though, don’t they? But there is something about this now, where I so desperately want to wrap him up in my arms. And I can’t. At least not in the way I used to.

*   *   *

At night, I lie with him as he falls asleep. The darkness melts everything away and we talk. Sometimes he’ll confide those twisted up feelings he has about his social life at school. Sometimes he’ll share the joys—a laugh at what one of his friends said, a game they made up. Sometimes we’ll cuddle for a few minutes. But not for long, usually.

His little brother is two. He curls right into my body. He fits there perfectly. If I leave the room, he toddles after me. He’s soothed simply by my presence.

My older son was like that once. Long ago, it seems.

*   *   *

On his 8th birthday, I want to tell my son how incredibly beautiful he is in his stretched out, lanky body—the moles that magically appeared on his arms and neck this summer, his widening jaw, his new, crooked teeth. His mind always racing, his gorgeous, fiery thoughts.

I want my son to know that his feelings matter, all of them, and I want him to feel them, really feel them, but learn to let them go a little, before they spiral out of control. I want him to know that he will learn this in time, as I did. I want him to know that even though I don’t always seem patient with him, I trust the path he is on.

And I want him to know that the fire that pushes him to the playground floor will one day make art, poetry, justice, peace. I want him to know that his fire is a gift to the world. And to me, always.

Wendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC).  Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, Scary Mommy, The Badass Breastfeeder, Natural Child Magazine, Lilith Magazine, and elsewhere; she blogs at www.nursememama.com.

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The First Disappointment

The First Disappointment

By Stephanie Sprenger

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

 

After months of begging, I finally caved. Eight years old seemed like a fine age to host our first birthday sleepover party; it seemed almost cozy, a pleasant contrast to larger birthday party adventures of years past. Maybe I was eager to re-live my own popcorn-eating, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”-watching, truth-or-dare-playing slumber party days.

My daughter was elated. Being the ultra-organized, hyper-planning apple from my Type-A tree, her sleepover party would not be a “go with the flow” type of event. Hours before the girls came over, she had fashioned sleeping stations in her bedroom, carefully mapped out with colorful blankets spread around her floor. On each station was a BFF necklace and an itinerary listing the sleepover’s events. Yes, an itinerary.

Four girls were attending, including the one child who rightfully claimed the official BFF title. The other three were girls from her class whom I didn’t know well. When I sent out the invitation, I offered parents the option of not committing to the overnight portion of the party—they were free to pick up their kids before bedtime. Only one family took me up on it—the parents of a shy child who was new to school.

The first half of the party was like an advertisement for “Girls’ World Magazine.” There was whispering, shrieking, dancing, Karaoke, pizza, cake, and nail-painting. For a group of 3rd graders, it was idyllic.

My mother and I cleaned up the kitchen to a soundtrack of laughter pealing from my daughter’s bedroom. Raucous dance moves shook the ceiling above me, and the girls’ singing nearly (sadly, not completely) drowned out the Kidz Bop CD that was blaring. My daughter was having a fantastic time. It was just what she’d hoped for, and as such, all that I hoped for as her mother.

After pajamas were donned and sleeping bags unrolled, I carried a tray of popcorn and M&Ms upstairs and tiptoed into the dark bedroom where the pre-bedtime movie played.

“Lindsay, your mom will be here in about half an hour,” I whispered, hoping she wouldn’t feel too badly about missing the rest of the fun.

At 9:30, the girls paused the movie and came outside to bid farewell to their departing friend. Lindsay’s parents pulled into the driveway as the girls hollered and swung from the tree swing, the porch light illuminating their grinning faces, nightgowns, and bare feet.

Returning to the movie, the mood was only slightly dampened by the decimated ranks. I sat in the kitchen, finally daring to pour myself a glass of wine, and de-briefed with my mom. “I think Izzy’s having a great time,” I said. A foreboding gong of doom may as well have sounded at that moment.

I heard a clatter of footsteps on the stairs. My daughter’s chagrined face poked around the corner. “Taylor wants to leave,” she whispered tearfully. I hastily rose to intervene, my premature glass of celebratory wine forgotten.

“Honey, we knew that was a possibility,” I reminded her gently. “She hasn’t had a sleepover before—neither have you. It’s hard for kids to be away from their parents all night. We can’t make her feel bad.”

It was after ten by now, and Taylor’s mom quickly arrived at our house after I called her. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” I assured her, waving off her apologies and discomfort.

“OK, girls, it’s time to get in your sleeping bags,” I announced cheerfully, trying to ignore the dark mood that had descended. The three remaining girls dutifully arranged themselves and their stuffed animals on the carpet.

“Mommy, will you sing us a lullaby?” my daughter requested quietly. “I think it will help us sleep.”

I of course agreed, snuggling next to my daughter and singing a few of her old favorites. The girls smiled and listened, and as I crept out of her bedroom, I felt downright smug. I was the best sleepover mom ever.

Ten short minutes later the next round of wails began. Another casualty was imminent—the girls were dropping like flies. But this time it was bad: It was Jessie, the best friend, who wanted to go home. Her slight frame was shaking as she sobbed, “I just—want—my mom. I want to go home!”

My daughter was borderline hysterical. “Jessie can’t go! She was supposed to stay all night! I was counting on it!” Her tone was frantic and I quickly ushered her downstairs before she said something that would hurt the feelings of the only guest still standing, something like, “Jessie was the only one who really mattered!” Which was, of course, what we were both thinking.

I handed my devastated child off to my mother while I hurriedly dialed Jessie’s mom and let her speak to her hyperventilating child. Meanwhile, the lone friend stood somberly by. There was no way she was going home. With a 20-year-old sister and 17-year-old brother, I got the feeling Abigail would probably spend the night at anyone’s house. She watched us impassively, knowing full well she was here to stay.

As Jessie packed up her belongings, sniffing quietly, my daughter sat in my lap and sobbed. My mom snuck downstairs to text my brother, a psychotherapist, to fill him in on our vicarious devastation and to perhaps beg for clinical reassurance that this event would not ruin her granddaughter for life. He was undoubtedly delighted to be included in the unraveling drama.

I consoled my bereft child, reassuring her that I knew how sad this was, how disappointing. I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.

And there it was—that one sentiment expressed all of my darkest thoughts and fears about raising children. I cannot bear the knowledge that they will ultimately be hurt over and over. It was my daughter’s first real taste of the disappointment that accompanies epic unmet expectations. It was her introduction to celebration let-down, and not just the Clark W. Griswold variety of mishaps and disasters, but the deeper, darker kind, the variety that leaves you feeling small, unimportant, and unloved. I knew it wouldn’t be the last time she cried on her birthday.

As a Gen X parent hell-bent on not succumbing to helicopter parent status, I am mindful that it is counterintuitive and harmful to shield our children from disappointment and failure. But on that one night, on her birthday, at the party she’d worked so hard to create, I wanted to. I wanted to make it perfect for her.

We dealt with the fallout as best we could. My daughter and her emotionally stout companion fell asleep, enjoyed a pancake breakfast, and swung in the sunshine waiting for the girl’s mother to pick her up. She was nearly a half hour late.

We spoke of it wryly, we persevered. Truth be told, the failed sleepover will go down in family lore as a story we will likely giggle about over shared bottles of wine in decades to come.

And although it was perhaps a valuable learning experience, I still offer this precautionary advice to mothers considering hosting sleepover parties for their eight-year-olds: Don’t do it.

Stephanie Sprenger is a writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.

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

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

Children’s birthday parties aren’t always easy to plan, especially the guest list. Do you invite the whole class or not? Rudri Patel thinks that you should, because promoting a philosophy of inclusion is the most important thing for young kids. Stacey Gill believes every family should be able to throw the party it wants, even if that means handpicking only a few friends from school.

 

I Invite the Whole Class to My Kid’s Birthday Party

By Rudri Patel

manycupcakesMy car slides easily into the designated school lane. I watch a set of girls and boys interact, laughing, swinging their arms, the boundary between innocence and knowledge still a blur. Third in the carpool line, I turn around and glance at the back seat as my ten-year-old daughter climbs in, maneuvering her backpack as she lands in her favorite spot.

My daughter’s words start to spill. “Momma, I didn’t get invited.”

The air is contaminated by her sadness.

“Invited to what, honey?” My voice is calm, though I cringe at the thought of her being excluded from anything.

“Jenny invited all the girls in the class to her birthday party except for Heather and me. I’m so sad. I thought I was her friend too.” She crinkles her nose, a sign—one I know well—­­­­­that tears will soon overpower her.

“It’s fine, sweetie,” I say. “I understand you are upset, but don’t let it get you down. It’s only a party.” I hope to distract her by turning on the radio, as Taylor Swift’s anthem of positivity, Shake it Off, blares from the speakers.

But she is immune to Taylor’s battle cry, and I feel powerless as tears run down my little girl’s face.  

*   *   *

As an introvert, I often breathe a sigh of relief when I am not invited to a large social gathering. I prefer connecting with a few friends who get me, rather than bulldozing through a crowd of people who may not remember my name.

However, what works for me does not always gel for my daughter and that’s the reason I don’t extend my preferences to her social life. Since the age of four, I’ve invited all of her classmates to her birthday parties, instead of handpicking just a few, because I am sensitive to the need for young girls and boys to feel included. To keep parties from being cost-prohibitive, I may choose to have them at home or I may select a venue where fun doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. I also might budget in other areas—having a less costly cake, for example, foregoing on goodie bags or incorporating simpler decorations. Teaching my daughter the philosophy of inclusion matters more to me than accessorizing a party.

Parties where everybody is invited allow girls and boys to play, talk and learn from one another. This act of inclusion might get a more introverted girl to stop hiding behind her mother and take a shot at the birthday piñata or it may give the boy who moved to a new school mid-year a chance to get to know his classmates. Inviting everyone to the party offers girls and boys the possibility of making new connections, of meeting a special friend they wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Our children spend the bulk of their time at school, interacting with their classmates for at least eight hours a day. When one of them chooses to exclude a few children from a birthday celebration, the message being conveyed is “you are not good enough to come to my party.” This does nothing to further an atmosphere of kindness in the class and only creates unnecessary negative feelings among students who will most likely be exposed to each other for years through the same school system.

When only a few kids are singled out from a birthday party, it is also likely the chatter about the upcoming event will infiltrate the classroom. This kind of exclusion may cause a climate of bullying, one that has the potential to intensify as children grow older. I want my daughter to understand there is room for all of us in her schoolmate’s lives, at least for now. Of course I know it won’t stay this way forever. As children mature, they will naturally gravitate toward certain friends. But at this young age, they are still forming their personalities, opinions, likes and dislikes—so why not include all the kids so they can have the freedom to get to know one another better outside the school?

I understand the view that at some point all of us are excluded from something and that this is a lesson children will eventually learn. But why does it have to happen when they are so young? Why not preserve some of their innocence and build our children’s self-esteem? A stronger foundation in their youth might teach them to be more inclusive in day-to-day interactions in the future, whether this means refraining from gossip, protecting another classmate from bullying or saying a kind word to a friend.

*   *   *

As soon as we get home, I hug my still distraught daughter and wipe away her tears. As I embrace her, I envision her own upcoming birthday party in my mind.

The invitation will go out to all of her classmates.

One of the best gifts a kid can get, whether it’s her birthday or not, is feeling wanted by her peers. This is why there is much value in learning how to make room at the party for everyone.

Rudri Bhatt Patel is an attorney turned writer. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Brain, Child, Role Reboot, The Review Review and elsewhere. She writes her personal musings on her blog, Being Rudri. She is working on a memoir which explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

 

I Do Not Invite the Whole Class to My Kid’s Birthday Party

By Stacey Gill

fewcupcakesWhen my kids were in elementary school I had a conversation with a friend who was planning her daughter’s birthday party. She wanted a simple party at home but lamented that she couldn’t fit all the kids in class in her house. She’d have to come up with something else. When I asked her why she was inviting the entire class to the party she said, “Well, you have to invite everybody.”

I looked at her pointedly and said, “No, you don’t.”

An entire class of first graders is a lot of amped-up six-year-olds to corral, keep track of and contend with, to say nothing of the cost. I understood the impulse to be inclusive and while inviting everyone is perhaps “nice,” throwing an enormous, extravagant party, especially for a six-year-old, was something I had no intention of doing.

This birthday party conundrum continues to be the source of much parental angst, but I’ve never particularly felt conflicted by it. To me the answer is pretty clear. Your party, your terms. No one has the right to dictate whom you can or can’t invite to your own kid’s birthday party.

Although recently some have tried. Schools are now stepping into the fray in an attempt to placate parents and avoid hurt feelings on the part of the students. Some are issuing policies that require everyone in the class to be invited to a student’s birthday party. I find this intrusion into family life not only rather unbelievable but completely out of line.

Of course I understand the desire to protect children from getting hurt, but a child’s birthday celebration is a personal, family matter, one no school (or any other entity) has any business insinuating itself into. The school is certainly well within its rights to set rules about distributing invitations on school grounds during school hours, but to tell parents how to run their personal affairs is overstepping its authority.

That’s not to say these matters shouldn’t be handled delicately or responsibly with consideration for others. But including everybody isn’t the priority above all else. The fact of the matter is children should be free to invite whomever they’d like to attend their celebration and not everyone is a friend. Not everyone is a pleasant child (or person). And, not everyone gets invited to everything. Pretending otherwise doesn’t protect or in any way serve our kids.

Back in preschool, my children’s school policy was that every classmate was referred to as a friend. At that young age the policy was understandable. It enforced the notion that everyone should be kind and treat others as you would a friend, even if not all children abided. But as my kids grew I didn’t feel the need to maintain the charade. I knew better and so did they. Kids are pretty perceptive creatures. They may not articulate it, but they are keenly aware of the social situations around them. The insistence that everyone is a friend despite actions demonstrating otherwise doesn’t fool them, and I’d rather speak honestly with my kids and help them work through any difficulties with classmates than gloss over problems or pretend they don’t exist. I’ve always taught my children they don’t need to be friends with everybody—not everyone has the same interests or shares the same views—but they do need to be polite and try to get along with the people in their class. That’s just solid life advice.

So when it came time to throw parties for my own kids in grade school, we planned the parties that made sense to us. Typically, they were small affairs. Both my children have winter birthdays so I’ve never had the luxury of throwing a backyard party or one at the town pool, where space and cost wasn’t much of an issue. We planned what I thought were appropriate, manageable and affordable parties, and my children invited the kids they were truly friends with, some kids from the block, some from school and some relatives. I made it clear that they were not to discuss the party at school. We never distributed invitations there: I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

It’s possible word might have gotten out about the party at school, but I did everything in my power to minimize that risk. My goal was to be realistic and practical and do what was best for my family, which I believe is every parent’s aim. If some of the children’s feelings were hurt in the process, that’s unfortunate, but it’s also a part of life. I don’t believe in shielding kids indefinitely from reality. Disappointments and frustrations are a part of that reality. We need to help our children learn how to deal with it.

Stacey Gill is an award-winning journalist, the mastermind behind the humor blog, One FunnyMotha, and co-author of I Still Just Want to Pee Alone, the third book in The New York Times best-selling series. Her work has appeared on such sites as The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, BlogHer, Babble, and Scary Mommy. For a good time, find her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

Do You Invite the Whole Class to Your Kids' Birthday Parties?

 

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

Happy Birthday Baby

Happy Birthday Baby

By Candy Schulman

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

 

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

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

Not this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

The Second Time Around

The Second Time Around

By Allison Slater Tate

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It’s not easier to watch a child grow up the second time around. It’s harder.

 

When we filed into the elementary school last May on the morning of fifth grade graduation, my husband and I didn’t need to be told where to go or what to do. We dutifully walked around the arc of chairs set up around the stage, saving only what we needed toward the back. We knew the seats in the front would already be gone, snatched up by early bird parents wielding cameras on their laps, their faces eager with anticipation. We were more excited to be close to an exit; we knew how hot the auditorium would get by hour two when that many people filled the room and the class photo slideshow was on song three of the soundtrack.

From the time I held the fateful pregnancy test in my shaking hand, I wondered what it would be like to have more than one child. Our firstborn had consumed us, especially me, the first year of his life—literally and figuratively. I had submitted to the tide of motherhood and let it take up every thought, every feeling, every physical twinge. How could I do that, but squared? It seemed unfathomable.

But my second son was nothing at all like my first, and my experience as a second-time mother wasn’t motherhood squared, exactly. Where my first seemed to come from the womb speaking in sentences after we survived the colic of his first six months, my second was a quiet, content, jovial baby who eventually needed years of speech therapy. I feared I would suffer the same extreme sleep deprivation with my second baby that I did with my first, but my second ended up being a completely different kind of newborn—one I didn’t know existed—and he slept in his own crib early and often.

My first two children continued to be completely different personalities and people despite being separated by only 21 months in age, one independent and assertive, one more reserved and shy, one literal and straightforward, a fan of math and science; one lost in his own world of make believe and imagination, an artist and a dreamer. We added two more children, another boy and a baby girl, later. They too are distinct individuals, none of them following in the footsteps or even on the same path as any of their siblings.

A lot of my experience of being a mother has been marked by firsts: first birthday, first day of school, first ER trip, first lost tooth, first cavity, first field trip, first sleepover, first time going to sleep-away camp, first elementary school graduation, first teenager. All these firsts have been daunting in part because they were firsts; they hit me hard when they happened because I had never experienced them before as a parent and didn’t know what to expect. So when my second child prepared to go through each one, I thought, I got this now. I’ll know what to do, how to react, how to prepare. This will be easier.

But I was wrong. Because for as much as I desperately wish parenting worked that way, it just doesn’t. The second time around, following hot on the heels of my first, has still been its own individual parenting experience. I thought it would get easier to say goodbye to footie pajamas; instead, it was tougher, because I knew it meant the true end of babyhood. I thought I wouldn’t grieve preschool as much the second time, but I did even more, knowing that now time would speed up through the elementary years. In fact, every milestone hits me harder. I know exactly what I am saying goodbye to with each watershed moment—though I am never sure what I might face next, because it’s always different in some way or nuance.

That is how fifth grade graduation crept up on me. I have four children now, and my days fly past me in a blur of drop-offs, pick-ups, practices, meals. I was so focused on my firstborn going to middle school that I didn’t quite process how quickly my second child was finishing elementary school, and with it so many wonderful elementary school things: field trips to the zoo and daily recess on actual playgrounds, class holiday parties with games of BINGO and 7-Up, endless supplies of FunDip Valentines, shoebox dioramas about sharks, kickball games. I hardly paid attention to the details of the final days of school last year. I knew the drill.

But sitting at the graduation, surrounded by first-timers tucking in their kids’ shirttails and adjusting their collars, I was surprised to find myself feeling overwhelmed and a little shell-shocked. When my first child went through all of it, it was daunting, but exciting. It was new. It was an adventure. It felt surreal. I was nervous about middle school, but also so curious. I wanted to see where the path led, what the baby I brought home so many years ago now would look like as an adolescent.

But with my second child, though I still embraced that same excitement and curiosity about what his own future would bring, I couldn’t help fighting off grief for the things I knew would be over now. It felt final. It felt real. He is no longer the baby of the family, but he was once. He was the second child that made my first baby look gigantic overnight in the way newborns do to toddlers. He was the second child that promised to always seem little compared to my first. But now he is no longer little.

I’m preparing now for my oldest child to graduate from middle school. We’re filling out high school registration forms and going to open houses and talking about course selection. My second baby, now 5’5″ and wearing man-sized shoes, is finishing 6th grade. He still has his baby face—his beautiful skin hasn’t met hormones yet, thank goodness.

I wiped tears away from my eyes that morning, realizing that it’s not easier to watch a child grow up the second time around. It’s harder.

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and a mother of four children ages 13 to 3. In addition to Brain, Child, her work can be found at her eponymous websiteToday Parents, Scary Mommy, the Washington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and the Huffington Post, among others. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

By Aileen Jones-Monahan

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

Things No One Told Me About Grief

Things No One Told Me About Grief

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.”

 

No one ever told me grief was so physical. I feel it in my bones, they ache. I feel it in my muscles, they are sore, as though I’ve run a marathon. The few times I have tried to run, I struggle to see the ground through my tears and my legs feel weak, my pace slow but my body screaming that I’m trying as hard as I can. I’m dehydrated from crying, from forgetting to drink enough water. I’m hungry but can’t eat, nothing looks appetizing. I haven’t slept all the way through the night since the day my daughter’s friend fell.

What is it for anyway? Who cares if I’m in shape or strong or feel the wind in my face? The child of my friend is gone, my daughter’s friend is gone. My 5k pace is irrelevant, sleep a luxury repeatedly interrupted by damp cheeks and a runny nose. Grief forms in a lump in my throat and lodges there, moving in uninvited. It fades and comes back and it is hard to swallow food, to force sustenance past the sorrow.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” No one ever told me that, either. Fear of how to respond, fear of how things will change, fear of fragility, fear of how to respond to my daughter’s grief while facing my own.

No one ever told me grief was something you owned (or does it own you?), something that settles in and takes up residence like the lump in my throat and the dampness around my eyes.

No one purposefully neglected to tell me these things about grief. Loss, pain, sorrow, heartbreak, they are all simply topics that aren’t discussed in depth and that are experienced in both unique and universal ways. To say: this is how you will experience grief robs it of the unique, yet to say: this is how we mortals experience grief is to give the gift of not being alone. How do we talk about things for which there are no words, in any language that can capture the whole of it? The pain of tragedy burns so deeply and transformatively that we pander around in art, movies, poetry, flowers, songs, essays, trying to grasp the unfathomable. That’s what tears are for, they are the words of the utterly crushed.

But now I have to talk with my children about grief, about endings, about things that cannot be changed. There are so many difficulties in life but the only thing that cannot, ever, be changed is death. For those with faith, there is hope of life after death but this is not the hope of a miraculous physical resurrection in the days before the funeral, before the burial. Death is final, the last word before eternity.

How do I talk with my daughter about her friend? She hasn’t wanted to talk about what happened or what she is feeling and thinking. She resorts to action in place of words and so I’ve been letting her light candles and stare at them, her eyes full of wonder, confusion, and sadness. She taped photos to her bedroom walls and filled the first pages of her Christmas journal with cutouts from the memorial service bulletin and notes on what their friendship meant to her. She found a small bag of gifts her friend had given her and buried it deep in her dresser drawer. She showed me some selfies they took together.

I’ve told her about how my body is reacting to this sadness, she knows. She sees me crying while I do the dishes or yawning in the middle of the afternoon after a sleepless night. She hears me talk about the messages passed between the adults involved. We share memories of her friend, pictures, words that feel both full and far too empty. I don’t know if, as my daughter grows and faces more loss, she will remember these discussions or her current sadness, she is only ten. She struggles to articulate what she is feeling. Later, she might feel like no one ever told her grief would be so physical, so close to fear, so inconvenient, so exhausting.

Though I don’t know exactly how to talk with her about grief and loss, we still talk. I tell her about the accident, I answer her questions. How is a body transported internationally? What happens at a funeral? What does her friend look like now? I don’t know how to answer all her questions but that’s what I say. “I don’t know.” This is one thing I want my daughter to know. When she experiences sorrow, now and in the future, it is okay to not know everything. It is okay to be surprised by what sadness feels like, or doesn’t feel like.

The friend who died lived in a different country and one day my daughter said, “I don’t miss her today because I didn’t see her every day. But when I go there to visit and she is gone, I think I will feel sad again.” The words had a question mark in them. I think she was asking, “Is that okay? To not feel sad now but to feel sad in a couple of weeks?”

This is another thing no one told me about grief but it is something we all know. There is no timeline, no proper moment to start or end the mourning. It becomes part of our days, woven into the sunrise and the dirty dishes and the photos on our computer screensavers.

C.S. Lewis also said, “To love is to be vulnerable.”

It is scary to raise my daughter to love, hoping she will stay tender and vulnerable, in other words able to be wounded. But this wounding love is also what makes us strong. In love we build friendships and communities and when grief takes our breath away, these connections step in and become our strength. We are so easily broken but when there is no strength to stand, the communities that love us move closer, tenderly gather the shattered pieces, and hold us.

No one ever told me that explicitly, either, but I think I’ve known it all along. That love both breaks and heals. Walking through loss with my daughter and sharing our grief is strengthening our relationship. Even though it won’t miraculously heal scars or close up black holes of loss, shared grief is what love looks like.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

By Cindy Hudson

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I never questioned the right my parents had to spank me, never felt abused, never expected things to change. So spanking my own daughters felt like something I was supposed to do, a responsible way to teach them right from wrong.

 

My three-year-old daughter glared at me as she lay stretched out next to where I sat on her bed, the sound of my slap to her bottom hanging in the air.

“You have to learn it’s not okay to bite your sister,” I said.

My daughter responded by lowering her chin and rolling her eyes before answering. “I’m cutting off your head with my eyes right now.”

I raised my hand again, wanting to hurt her, wanting to slap her into feeling remorse for what she’d done. A primal anger urged me to hit her hard, make her cry, show her who was boss. Frightened by the force of it I stopped, hand in the air. My breath came fast and shallow. For a few seconds we glared at each other.

Shaken, I slowly stood and walked to the door of her room. “You stay in here and think about what you did. You can come out when it’s time for dinner,” I said.

But I walked away knowing I would never hit my daughter again.

I grew up being spanked and until that moment accepted it as a reasonable form of punishment. My mom kept a yardstick handy by the stove so if my sister and I started pulling hair or pushing each other in the kitchen she had an extra three-feet to reach our bare legs or arms. While I don’t remember my dad ever using his belt to whip us, the threat often hung in the air. “Don’t make me come in there with my belt,” he’d say to the dark, warning my sister and me to stop arguing across the bed we shared.

The two of us were dramatic criers, screaming during a spanking and bawling hot tears after. In response my mom or dad, whichever one had doled out the punishment, would often say, “Stop crying before I give you something else to cry about.”

Everyone I knew got spanked. And everyone I knew realized the punishment was worse if you sassed or talked back to your parents. Like my daughter, my sister glared during confrontations. She stood with her legs apart, fists balled at her sides, eyes hard and angry. “Don’t you look at me with those eyes,” my dad would say. Even though my sister and I had fought moments before, I stepped between them to defend her. “Don’t spank her, I’m not mad at her anymore.”

I never questioned the right my parents had to spank me, never felt abused, never expected things to change. So spanking my own daughters felt like something I was supposed to do, a responsible way to teach them right from wrong.

While I read parenting books when I was pregnant and kept reading them for advice as my daughters grew, I passed over the sections on discipline, thinking I knew all I needed to know.

My eldest daughter turned out to be easy going, which reinforced my views. The couple of times I spanked her she cried and seemed contrite, even though I imagine her emotions hurt more than her diapered-bottom. We talked afterward about what she had done and why I spanked her, and her even temper quickly returned. I thought I was being a good parent, teaching her how to behave while doling out light physical discipline that fit her sensitive nature.

That self-assurance faltered as my youngest daughter grew old enough to act up. She often pushed me to the edge, wearing me down physically and emotionally. She climbed my body like I was a tree, grabbing the waistband of my pants, wrapping her legs around my lower limbs and pulling herself up, hand over hand, until she reached my shoulders. Frustrated at being confined in her car seat, she yanked chunks of her hair out as I drove down the freeway struggling to concentrate on traffic. She grabbed toys from her sister, her face defiant, daring me to respond. Now she challenged my assumptions about spanking.

Walking away from our stand-off in her bedroom, I headed downstairs to take my aggression out in the kitchen, furiously chopping onions and telling myself the fumes wafting up were causing the tears running down my face. Chopping gave me time to think, time to realize I didn’t want to be a mom who hit her children when she got angry. I didn’t want to teeter on the edge of the thin line separating discipline from abuse. “Don’t hit, use your words,” I told my girls when they fought with each other. Maybe I needed to start following my own advice.

Feeling calmer after prepping dinner, I went back upstairs to face my daughter, unsure yet of what I would say. When I walked through the bedroom door, my three-year-old glared up at me, still defiant, still cutting off my head with her eyes. I looked at her and in place of anger, I felt sorrow for her smallness, her vulnerability, her trust in me to love and protect her. Her trust that I would not hurt her.

Right then I knew I needed to apologize, to let her know I could be wrong sometimes, too, and when I was, I would work to set things right. I realized some would say showing weakness and uncertainty to your children is a mistake, that they need parents who are firm. But my heart told me different. I moved to her bed and sat down beside her.

“I’m sorry. I should not have hit you,” I said. “I didn’t like that you bit your sister, and I want you to know it’s not okay for you to do that. But I also know I should not have spanked you, and I won’t do that again.”

Her lower lip started to tremble and the tears I expected her to cry earlier came now. She buried her face in my chest, and I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her head.

Cindy Hudson lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, and her articles and personal essays regularly appear in parenting publications across the U.S. and in Canada. Visit her online at CindyHudson.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Scared By My Abuelita Amable

Scared By My Abuelita Amable

By Kelly Clem Ruiz

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I had always thought Abuelita Amable liked me. She had been nothing but nice during all of my years here.

 

Chicomuselo, Mexico, 2009

She was having trouble breathing.

My two-year-old was choking on the hard, round, drop of sugar she’d swiped from the counter when no one was looking.

While my husband was at work, I was with my two small girls at his grandmother’s house. The house was chocked full of family as usual. Two teenage grandchildren were doing homework at the kitchen table while another fed the dogs in the backyard. I sat with two of my husband’s cousins while several young children ran from room to room chasing after one another. Spanish voices echoed from the walls of every room and some more filtered in through the open windows from the street.  

With all the visitors milling about the house, I was the only one that seemed to notice the panic on my small child’s face as she desperately tried to take in air. I had no idea what to do. I tried frantically to dislodge the candy from my daughter’s throat while searching for the Spanish word for choking to ask for help. The word never came to me, but thankfully my husband’s cousin, Mariola, saw what had happened. She was used to taking charge and I was happy to let her do so. She knew what to do, and was calm enough to remove the candy.

The longest fifteen seconds of my life passed before the solid, sticky, pink treat popped out of my daughter’s mouth and hit the floor. She took her first big gulp of air. I hugged my child and sobbed uncontrollably.

That’s when all the commotion in the house stopped.

Every family member was staring at the spectacle. My little girl quickly recovered from and ran off to play with her second cousins. Her baby sister continued to sleep in the stroller by my side. Her little breath had never changed rhythm during the entire event.

I needed a moment to regroup, to breathe normally myself, and wipe away the tears, when my husband’s grandmother, Abuelita Amable put her hand on my shoulder. In my state, I hadn’t noticed that she’d left the room, but all of the sudden she was back by my side holding a glass bottle containing a clear liquid with bits of twigs and leaves floating around inside. The bottle looked like an aged vodka bottle, so old all the writing had rubbed away. Abuelita was asking me to drink from it. She repeated herself twice before I was able to understand what she wanted me to do. I tried to politely refuse.

I gently pushed the bottle away because she was already moving it toward my mouth.

“No thank you, Abuelita,” I whispered hoarsely. In my head I screamed, Give me a minute, I’m recovering from a trauma right this second if you didn’t notice! But I was too polite to speak those words aloud.

Abuelita would not take no for an answer. She kept insisting. To my complete surprise, she grabbed the back of my head and tipped it back with her left hand as her right hand poured some of the liquid into my unwilling mouth. No choice but to take a drink, I swallowed as little of the fiery potion as possible and looked up at her in bewilderment.

Apparently not satisfied with the small quantity I had consumed, Abuelita took a big gulp from the bottle herself and then, to my utter amazement, spit the liquid all over my body, spewing it through her teeth with such force it was like being hit by a garden hose on full blast. I was wet from head to toe.

Shocked, I sat as she continued to spit. She even pulled open the back of my shirt to let the spray hit more of my skin directly.

What chain of events in my life led me to this place where I was just spit on by an ancient, four-foot-tall Mexican woman?

My husband I had been living in Mexico for nearly five years, since our Kentucky wedding ceremony, without word from the US Immigration department as to whether they’d finally issue him permanent US resident status so we could resume our lives again in the States. Up until this point in our journey, I had always thought Abuelita Amable liked me. She had been nothing but nice during all of my years here. Now, I was in the twilight zone.

I managed to stand from my chair and walk a couple steps toward Mariola, my only hope of sanity. I raised my eyebrows in her direction and waited to see if she could offer any explanation for what had just happened.

“Amable believes she is curing you of the scare you just went through when your daughter was choking. Her belief is that a great scare can cause you damage. That liquid is the cure.”

Droplets of my grandmother-in-law’s spit fell from my jeans and T-shirt, leaving a trail across the floor of her front room. My child had almost choked to death and I was still emotional from that, let alone the absurdity of what had followed. Still a little confused and unable to respond, I weakly said my goodbyes to the family and even thanked Abuelita Amable while she rattled off words so fast in Spanish I could only understand snippets like “not good” and “this will help.” She patted me on the back and I could hear the squishing of my wet shirt in between our flesh. I hung the diaper bag on the stroller, told my little girl to put her shoes on and hop in and we strolled out into the night.

By the time my husband came home from working the late shift that night, I had put both of our babies to sleep and in bed was reading by flashlight, the overhead lights off so as not to wake the girls in our shared room. I kept quiet while he changed into his pajamas and crawled into bed.

“How was your day, babe?” he asked after a quick kiss. He settled his head down on the pillow.

“Your grandmother spit on me,” I said dryly.

He sat up straight and looked directly at me. “Oh no, did something scare you?”

Kelly is the author of On the Other Side, a memoir chronicling the five years that she and her family spent living in Mexico while wading through the U.S. Immigration process in hopes of an American VISA for her husband. Visit Kelly at: KellyClemRuiz.com.

Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

By Melissa Hart

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My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth.

 

At nine, I read a novel in which a boy’s beloved hound dog got mauled by a cougar—ripped open from breastbone to pelvis so that her entrails spilled out and festooned a nearby bush like Christmas tinsel as she attempted to follow her master home. That’s how I felt when my mother and her girlfriend left me on my father’s front porch Sunday nights, and I watched their VW bus disappear down the street for 10 days—like my entrails were cascading from my gashed abdomen, pooling in a pile around my white Keds.

And that’s how I felt 35 years later, watching my nine-year-old daughter say goodbye to her older sisters on our front porch after 24 hours of let’s pretend and coloring books and hiking trails while I wished their adoptive mother a safe journey two and a half hours back down the highway.

My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth. She didn’t miss the parent she’d hardly met. But her sisters with their identical timbre and diction, their shared love for dollhouses and hip hop, their shared trauma—these girls, she missed.

My husband and I adopted her from Oregon’s foster care system. Another family had adopted her sisters—one of them developmentally delayed—and couldn’t parent a third infant with significant medical needs. We agreed to an open adoption, to visits with them when time and schedules permitted. For several years, our meetings consisted of tentative hours at shopping mall playgrounds and children’s museums as we got to know each other, gradually lengthening into daylong playdates and this season, a sleepover.

They tell you that as a parent, you’ll experience all the ages and stages of childhood again vicariously through your kid. I never found this to be true until the moment my daughter stood out on our winter porch with the kitchen vent emanating smells of her favorite macaroni and cheese, and she told her sisters goodbye.

All at once, memory walloped me. The girls clung to each other with goosebumps raised on their skinny arms, called “I love you, Sissy!” with their breath creating smoke flowers in the crisp air. Then, two of them walked to their car and one of them stayed behind, and my insides spilled out.

 *   *   *

Every other Sunday in the eighties, when I stepped through my father’s door, I paused for a moment to take the temperature of the house. Almost always, he sat in his bedroom upstairs paying bills and listening to Vin Scully recap Dodger games on the radio. My stepmother stood in the kitchen describing for my younger siblings the new dessert she’d concocted from crushed Oreos and vanilla pudding or fresh Meyer lemons and cream cheese or bottles of stout poured into chocolate cake batter.

Alone, I sat on the carpet in my room and pillowed my head on the bed. No one came in. If I missed dinner those Sunday nights, if I shook my head at my stepmother, mute with sorrow, she returned to the dining room explaining my absence as “hormones.” I listened to my father’s overloud laughter and pressed my hands against my sternum, wondering how on earth to hold myself together for ten days before I could see my mother again.

Losing a family member over and over becomes a Sisyphean series of cruel small deaths. It would have been easier not to visit my mother every other weekend all the years of my adolescence. It would be easier not to see my daughter’s sisters, to let the girls get on with their lives 100 miles apart. But easy isn’t always optimal.

*   *   *

This winter on our porch, I left my daughter waving goodbye to her sisters in the car disappearing down the road. I went into the house and sat at one end of our big green couch, legs splayed inelegantly across the cushions, and reached for the warmest, softest blanket I could find. Then, I waited.

How do you help a child through grief and loss? The first few years, I met the moment of the sisters’ parting with a barrage of what I believed to be comforting distractions.

“Let’s go see a movie!” I told my daughter. “Let’s go to the trampoline park! Get ice cream! Go roller skating!”

She took my suggestions, mute, eyes wide and glittering as an animal’s when it’s in pain, and I congratulated myself for avoiding the chilly disregard of my father and stepmother. But last summer, after a playground visit with the sisters ended much too quickly, she hurled these words in my face: “Mommy, I don’t want to do anything!”

I heard her, and thought with a spinning head, what now?

The Buddhists tell us to sit with our pain, to make friends with it. Three decades ago, I sat with the loss of my mother surrounding me until I fell into bed exhausted. I think about what I wanted from the two parents with whom I lived—not space to process the transition as some obtuse child psychologist had counseled my father. Not even the whimsical desserts that my stepmother presented on her silver cake tray and I failed to recognize as reparation. I would have said no to a trip at the cinema or a game of Monopoly. I longed only for someone to say, “You hurt,” so that I could nod and push my insides back in and soldier on.

So this winter, I sat on the couch with a soft plaid blanket on my lap, and I waited. My daughter walked into the living room without looking at me. She closed the door against the 34-degree wind rattling our front yard cedar and wandered into her room.

I’ve failed, I thought. But she returned. Eyes downcast, she walked over to me and sat on the couch, straddling one of my outstretched legs. Then she crawled between them and lay against my chest. I covered her with the blanket and put my arms around her.

I couldn’t tell her it would be okay. Because it isn’t okay.

But if we can acknowledge that, not okay becomes more bearable.

My daughter and I sat there together on the couch for an hour and just breathed. She dozed a little in the warmth from the baseboard heater. I closed my eyes, as well.

For once, maybe I got it right. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there with her, the slippery tangle of our entrails surrounding us, and held on.

Sky Pony Press will publish Melissa Hart’s debut middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in April. She teaches for Whidbey Island’s MFA program in Creative Writing.

Photo: Andrew Pons/unsplash.com

All Mom and No Fun

All Mom and No Fun

By Sharon Holbrook

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I take parenting seriously, and I’m afraid that’s both my triumph and my failure.

 

The kids were at school when I grabbed the handful of papers lingering on the car floor. Oh, here was the family tree my second-grader did for Girl Scouts. I hadn’t seen it since she’d completed it, so I stopped to read the fun facts she’d jotted down about everyone in our family. “Adam likes to play Minecraft.” “Laura likes to draw.” “I like to read.” “Dad likes to dance with me.” And, the last one: “Mom likes to clean.” Oof.

I laughed to myself. I quipped about it in a Facebook status. I assumed she was just an 8-year-old in a hurry to scribble something down, because cleaning clearly isn’t my hallmark. (I actually don’t like to clean, and I’m afraid that’d probably be apparent if you popped in unannounced.)  Yet, her little offhand remark continued to roll around in my thoughts. Was that really how I seemed to her? Could she think of nothing that I enjoyed? Had I forgotten how to have fun? Was I destined to become one of those grandmas that’s impossible to shop for? “She just has no hobbies,” my children and grandchildren will say as they shake their heads sorrowfully and buy me sensible slippers.  

The thing is, I take parenting seriously, and I’m afraid that’s both my triumph and my failure. It’s my job to guide, to correct, to teach, to protect, to discipline. I do this job faithfully, but none of those things make me nor any other parent particularly fun.

A few weeks ago, at Christmas Eve Mass, we sat near a family with two lovely and spirited little girls in fancy dresses. The smaller girl, about three years old, wore a jaunty red bow in her long curls and matching party-perfect red tights and Mary Janes. She simply could not sit still, or even stay in her pew, almost certainly because she was amped up on the singular sparkle and promise of the night before Christmas. Each time she tapped her little feet into the aisle and bobbed and twirled, all of us nearby smiled indulgently, and even our jovial priest tried to stifle his amusement.  

That mom, though. While everyone else saw a charming, adorable preschooler, Mom saw a responsibility, a transgression, a mandate to correct. Her face was tense and unamused. I saw myself, not at that moment in church, but perhaps in too many other moments of motherhood.  

I’m sure my children have seen this face on me, and often. Pick up your coats, I scold again, because if I don’t they will certainly become everlasting slobs and nightmare college roommates. Take a shower-clear your dishes-use a tissue-where’s your fork?-wash your hands-pick up your socks. (Cleanliness does, in fact, seem to be a recurring part of my ongoing monologue. Points to the second-grader for noticing, I suppose.) Turn off the screen-do your homework-work it out with your sister-have you practiced piano? I’m forever monitoring, on high alert, trying to shape my three children into responsible people.  

Sure, we do lots of mom-kid stuff together, outings and camping and road trips and bike rides and nature walks and much, much more. Never, though, do I stop being Mom. See how we have the walk signal? I say to the child who won’t be walking to school alone for years yet, Always watch for the turning cars. They have a green light too, and they might not see you. I cannot turn it off, the instinct to impart and, I suppose, to mother.

That’s not a bad thing, of course, but it strikes me that I’ve probably been saving too many of my favorite pleasures for moments when the kids aren’t around. I go out on restaurant dates with Daddy, or watch movies or shows with him after bedtime. I get together with friends and laugh. I treasure my solo time doing Pilates while they’re at school or reading books in bed before falling asleep. I blissfully lose myself in my writing work. Although I’m a happy person overall, the kids are not there so much for the most relaxed, easy-laughing side of me.

Maybe I’ve just drawn too hard a line between on-duty and off-duty. When I’m with the kids, it’s a bit like I’ve punched the clock and I’m at work, mothering. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun at work—don’t all the best jobs have their fun side, and what could be better than working with these three amazing, silly, exuberant little people? They feel my love, yes, but they should also feel my joy. Not every moment—let’s be realistic—but in our house we could all use a little more lightness and laughter, from me in particular. More yeses.    

Yes, you can jump at the trampoline place and, yes, I will take my shoes off too and jump as high as I can with you. Yes, I will read you another book. Yes, how fun, let’s go out to lunch. Yes, I will try to listen, as carefully as my foot-dragging brain will let me, when you explain the latest Minecraft or Xbox thing. Yes, I will watch “Master Chef Junior” and “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” with you, instead of “just finishing up” in the kitchen. (There’s that cleaning again.) Yes, let’s squeeze in a board game before bedtime. Yes, I will help you play a little joke on Daddy, and yes, I will help you search Google for silly llama pictures to execute this joke.  (That last yes is proof positive, I suppose, that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.)

Years ago, when I was a swoony newlywed still trying to enjoy my new husband’s favorite hobby, I took up golf. Years ago, I also quit golfing because it turned out I spent too much time on the course swearing and thinking of the many, many ways I’d rather be spending five free hours. One bit of surprising wisdom, though, has stuck with me through the years. “You’re gripping too tightly,” the instructor told me, as I stood in the tee box with all my muscles tightly tensed, preparing to swing the club and blast the ball towards the green. “Relax your hold a bit, just swing smoothly, and the ball will go farther.” And so it was, incongruously, quite true.

I’m still serious about the responsibility of parenting, and I’m securely holding on to that part of me. At the same time, though, you could say I’m relaxing my grip a little as I swing. With any luck, we’ll sail a little higher and farther. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

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

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

By Sara Ackerman

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When she puts her small hand on top of mine I tell my daughter that it’s so interesting people can be all different colors. 

 

The night before the first day of school I lean over the curl of my three-year-old daughter’s sleeping body. She’s pulled off her sleep cap and one of her braids is bent backwards and wrapped around her finger. For as long as she has been able to grasp a chunk in her tiny fingers, she has fallen asleep twirling her hair. I unwind the braid from her index finger, press it in the right direction, and pull the cherry printed cap back on her head.

In the dark I lay out clothes for the next morning and right the sideways tumble of containers on her dresser. This includes what must amount to hundreds of dollars of hair and skin products tossed into an online shopping cart in triplicate in an attempt to compensate for styling skills I don’t have with money that I also don’t have. With tubes of styling pudding, bottles of olive oil lotion and vanilla conditioning spray, and tubs of coconut oil and curling butter, it is not always obvious whether I am about to groom my child or make a dessert.

As an amateur baker I once made a nine-layer, thirty five-pound wedding cake. You know what is harder to construct than that? A cornrow. At the end of the third page of the “cornrowing made easy” tutorial were the words “you now have completed one braided stitch.” Of one cornrow. The tutorial does not mention placing your child in an approximation of a headlock. It has to be implied. I cross my fingers and squeeze about eleven bucks worth of product onto my daughter’s hair.

“We talk about adoption everyday,” one blogger, also an adoptive parent, brags. I panic because there isn’t a single thing I manage to do every day other than lose my keys. “Talk with your child about race; Don’t be colorblind,” experts say. I know all this, but knowledge does not equal a competent execution, as I wade through a shelf of Beverly Daniel Tatum, a thousand Ta-Nehesi Coates articles, and a case of shea butter. Note: wading in shea butter is messy. Also not tidy: the following conversation. When she puts her small hand on top of mine I tell my daughter that it’s so interesting people can be all different colors. She stares blankly. “My hand is peach, and yours is brown.”

Yours is brown,” she answers. “Hmmm,” I reply, “It’s ok that we have different color hands. Your hand looks brown to me. My hand looks different. Like a peach color.”

“I want peach,” she says. “Also blueberry. I have banana now please?”

A year and a half earlier, my daughter and I were walking down a tiny street in Rome. A drunk man lurched out of a doorway and turned toward us. “What’s your name?” he slurred, and when my daughter, then a month shy of 2 doesn’t answer, he continued “That’s ok, I’ll just call you chocolate.” “That’s ok,” I answered, “I’ll just call you asshole.” “Hey,” he mumbled, “it’s just a joke.”

I did-I-do-the-right-thing-myself? for days. If I say he is an asshole for referencing my daughter’s skin color, then what am I saying about her brownness? Chocolate can be a compliment, right? But then, I reason, he was drunk. A stranger. White. Also, it was apparently a joke?

“Asshole,” my daughter repeated to the Colosseum and to Trevi Fountain. “Asshole,” she said to strawberry gelato, cobblestone, and Fiumicino airport.

A few months later in Penn Station, we climbed down an almost deserted staircase. My daughter stepped slowly, holding carefully to the railing. A woman walked down behind us. “You have to lift her up,” our fellow stairgoer insisted, and when I didn’t, she hissed at me, “bitch, whore, bitch, whore,” all the way down. At the bottom of the stairs she added, “You wouldn’t make her walk if she was the same color as you.” That night I googled, “making black children walk down the stairs.” It didn’t seem to be a thing. “Is it a thing?” I asked my friend Jackie. “No. That is not a thing. That is a crazy person.” Jackie is black but so was the stair lady. But Jackie is definitely not crazy and the stair lady might have been. I sided with Jackie. Then I googled “black children; stairs; racism.”

I read that by age three a child should know at least one color. Mine is nearly three and a half and can’t name one. Oh my god. What if my child is actually, literally colorblind? I search, “is my child colorblind?” The first hit tells me that color blindness is rare, but something conclusion-jumping parents regularly ponder when their three year old can’t identify colors. Guilty.

I point and name the colors of everything we see. “Red,” I touch her sheets, “blue,” I touch her plate, “brown,” I touch her skin. “Blue,” she shrieks pointing to her arm. “Orange,” she screams about nothing in particular.

I get a book about how all people have different skin colors. Most colors are described with food analogies, and the rhyme scheme requires more oral agility than Dr. Seuss. “You’re brown, like the cinnamon,” I say mid-page. “And I’m peach, like, wait, there are no peaches in this book. I’ll be here. The cookie dough page.”

“I’m blue,” my daughter says, “and” pointing at the illustrated ice cream sundae, “I want that.” She calls it the ice cream book. She demands the ice cream book nightly and then claims she’s blue. I imagine she plans it like this: ask for ice cream book, insist I’m blue, repeat.

After her first day of school I take my daughter to my work for lunch. I carry her down the corridor to the cafeteria, my long, straight ponytail swinging from side to side. “Your hair is shaking, mama. My hair is not shaking.”

“You’re right. My hair is shaking and yours isn’t.”

“My hair is pwetty?” she asks. “You got it,” I tell her. “Plus,” I add inhaling her braids, “you smell like a cupcake.”

That night, we snuggle in the gray armchair to read. I wanted to hide the ice cream book but it turns out I don’t have to because after ripping the end papers to shreds my daughter hides it herself. Reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? instead, my daughter places her hand over the bear’s body. “I’m brown, mama” she says. “That’s right,” I say, “brown and so beautiful.” She puts a finger on my arm, “You’re peach mama.”

“That’s right,” I reply. She turns her hand over to reveal her palm, light and pink and chubby. “I’m peach, also.”

Sara Ackerman writes and teaches kindergarten in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Illustration: gettyimages.com

Learning to Get Out of the Way

Learning to Get Out of the Way

By Jennifer Berney

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What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him.

 

For the six years that I’ve been a parent, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to enrich my child. When he was a baby, I hovered as he explored a toy xylophone, wondering if he might be a prodigy. As he grew old enough to talk, I wondered if, with a little coaching, he might be reading and writing fluently by the time he was four.

This is what good parents did, I figured. They helped their children identify their passions and then, through active instruction, they crafted them into geniuses.

About a year ago, I thought I’d found my opportunity when my son started dancing any time there was music within earshot. My partner and I had a blast watching him shake his booty across the living room, mimicking every kind of dance he’d ever seen. Within a week, I was on the phone with our local ballet school, asking them if my child was old enough to train. From what I understood, boys were a rare commodity in ballet. Clearly, my son would be the next Baryshnikov.

My son wasn’t certain that he wanted to take a dance class, but he agreed to visit the classroom with me on a Saturday morning. We sat together on the sidelines and watched a group of girls and boys his age move across the room like dinosaurs and elephants. I looked at him to see if he was inspired to join them, but his face remained blank. As they moved into formal instruction, practicing standing en pointe and demi plies, he leaned in and whispered “Mommy, I’m not interested in that.”

“Are you sure?” I prodded.

Though I gave up on ballet, I still waited for my moment to help him shine. That summer, I signed him up for a day-long painting class. He had agreed it sounded fun, but when the day arrived, he clung to me, not wanting to go inside the classroom. It was the sight of a like-minded boy in a Spider-man shirt—not the easels and paintbrushes—that helped him settle in. That afternoon, when I arrived to pick him up, the other children had painted skies, mountains, and trees. My son held up his canvas, smiling. Apparently he had started painting and couldn’t stop. He enjoyed layering color after color. The result: a canvas that looked like mud. This would not be going on our wall.

For a while after that, I laid off the courses and stopped trying to turn our time together into a curriculum. I accepted that my son, more than anything, liked to play Angry Birds and watch Spider-man on Netflix. He liked to be read to, to play with friends and build forts, and he didn’t care to go for walks. In short, his interests were unexceptional.

And then, about a month ago, my son began asking me for paper. I’d pull a couple of pages from my printer and he’d spread his markers across the kitchen table and fill the width of the page with sketches of superheroes and remembered scenes from movies. He found a sketchbook I’d bought for him a year earlier and began filling the pages systematically. Looking at my son’s sketches is like looking at a cross-section of his brain. There are lines firing like neurons in all directions, depictions of good versus evil, of the sun and the moon, his baby brother, and all of his friends. Taken together, the pages are his universe.

What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him. By definition, a passion is something that can’t be controlled. It’s not the thing that someone pushes you to do; it’s the thing you have to do, the thing that beckons you. That’s why it’s called your calling. It knows your name. It comes to find you.

For once I’m learning to hang back and let him do his thing. I bought a small set of pens that I thought might allow him more precision than the wide-tipped markers he’d been stuck with. But that’s it. I don’t correct the way he uses his pen. I haven’t signed him up for any more art classes. For the moment, I don’t want anyone to come between him and his passion—not me, not a teacher, no one.

As it turns out, my son is the one instructing me. I watch the way he gravitates to paper, the way he ignores any bids for his attention. I watch how the minute he completes one sketch he moves on to another. Lately, when I bring him a plate of toast in the morning, I usually find it untouched twenty minutes later as he continues to sketch Darth Vader’s cape.

“Why haven’t you eaten?” I ask him.

“I got distracted,” he explains.

Really, it’s the opposite. The daily tasks of life are the distraction. The work that calls us is what matters. It’s a lesson I try to teach myself daily when I find myself buried in the daily minutia of laundry, errands, preparing meal after meal. “What do I actually want to do?” I ask myself.

It was a quiet voice at first. It whispered, walk that trail to the beach, or blow off laundry and watch TV. The more I listen, the louder it grows. Write that book, it tells me. Not just on the weekends, but every single day.

With two sons now, I’m busier than ever, but that voice will not be ignored. On the best of days now you’ll find us in a house piled high with unfolded laundry, dancing and drawing and writing till we drop.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times Motherlode, The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Illustration: Harlan Shincke, the author’s son

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

By Barbara Brockway

After the initial joy of finding out I was expecting my first baby, a dark thought crossed my mind. This was in addition to all the concerns first-time parents have; will my baby be healthy, will I make a good mom, will I survive labor?

“I’m worried about the baby’s birthday being so close to Christmas,” I said to my husband, Matt. The December 19th due date was determined after an early sonogram, and declared to be extremely accurate by our doctor.

“Honey, I know how you feel about your birthday being right after the holidays,” Matt said, wrapping me up in a hug. “We’ll do things differently than your parents.”

“We have to always make a big deal out of the baby’s birthday, to not let it be overshadowed by Christmas” I said, thinking about a young me feeling hurt that my special day was treated as an afterthought.

“I promise,” Matt said, smiling a goofy expectant-father smile.

I secretly vowed to hold him to that, more importantly, to hold myself to that.

I had first hand knowledge of the disappointment that comes with having a birthday so close to the holidays. Raised in a small, midwestern town with no diversity, Christmas was my end-all, be-all of holidays, followed by runner-up New Year’s Eve. My birthday, coming on January 2nd, was at the tail end of this bacchanalia. After all the rich food, expense, and parties of the holiday season, who wanted to celebrate a birthday–my birthday?

As a kid, my presents were always wrapped in leftover Christmas paper, my birthday cake eaten begrudgingly by my parents on what should have been the second day of their New Year’s resolutions. My friends were no better. Amidst the excitement of returning to school after the long break and exchanging stories about what Santa had brought, they rarely remembered to wish me happy birthday. What should have been my special day was celebrated as a half-hearted afterthought or forgotten altogether.  

I pledged to do things differently for my child.

The weeks leading up to my due date flew by, filled with an ambitious home remodel, gearing up to turn over my job to a co-worker, and frenetic nesting. I stopped working on December 18th and picked my mom up from the airport on my due date.

“Any signs this baby is coming?” she asked as she happily clutched my big belly.

“The doctor says it could be anytime,” I replied. I unfurled a big list from my purse.

“In the meantime, let’s do some last minute shopping,” I said.

I dragged my mom around Atlanta the next few days, running Christmas errands and buying last minute things for the baby’s room. I delighted when someone asked me when I was due.

“Last Tuesday,” I’d say with a big grin. My mom and I loved the shocked responses. Inside, my worry grew. Each passing day meant future birthdays would be that much closer to the “big” day.

I took to walking around our neighborhood for hours, as walking was supposed to induce labor. Not one contraction. I ate spicy foods. Nada. On December 22nd the three of us walked up and down Stone Mountain. The baby didn’t budge. On December 23rd, Matt and I dined at Indigo, requesting the locally famous “labor table.” I kept the fingers of my left hand crossed all during dessert. I woke up the next morning feeling no different.

With each passing day I worried not only about the baby’s birthday being one day closer to Christmas, but about the health of my overdue child. The doctor started to talk about inducing labor.

On Christmas Eve, the three of us went to see the Live Nativity at East Rock Springs Presbyterian. Matt grabbed my gloved hand and held it in both of his. “You know, honey, at this point, I’m almost hoping the baby is born on Christmas,” he whispered.

My heart swelled as the tinny first notes of “Silent Night” strained through the outdoor speakers. “Me, too,” I confessed. “If it’s this close anyway, it might be better if it’s actually on the same day.”

We stared into each other’s eyes, grinning like two fools who didn’t know what was about to hit them.

At about 3am on Christmas morning, I woke with a start. Was that a contraction? I waited a few minutes. It was definitely a contraction. My heart pounding, I woke Matt.

He flipped on the light and started timing them. At about 6am, we took a two-hour walk around the neighborhood, reveling in the perfect quiet that is Christmas morning. I spent the day alternating rest with walking, squeezing in Christmas dinner, present opening and It’s A Wonderful Life.

At about 10pm we headed for Northside Hospital. Sweet baby Nicholas was born at 2am on December 26th, missing Christmas by two hours. And no, he’s not named after that Nicholas. My husband is Italian; it’s practically a requirement that every Padula family has a Nick.

Was I disappointed that our baby was born the day after Christmas? In retrospect it seems so silly. Once I locked eyes with my trusting, precious little soul all else seemed insignificant. I understood the meaning of unconditional love, and, as a faithful person, felt closer to God. I understood the fuller meaning of Christmas for the first time in my life.

Have Matt and I kept our promise of always making a big deal out of Nick’s birthday? We’ve tried to, although as the years have ticked on, we might be slipping a bit. Last year, we gave him the dreaded combined birthday and Christmas gift, an expensive GoPro camera that seemed too extravagant to be given for just one special day. Did Nick think he’d been ripped off? I’d like to think not, but I can’t really be sure.

One thing I am sure of is that my perspective on having a holiday birthday has changed. Gifts and celebrations aren’t meaningful, no matter what time of year, unless you’re spending them with loved ones. My favorite birthday memories now revolve around special times: ice skating, playing board games, or just watching a movie. No need for cake or decorations, just togetherness. Maybe keeping the focus on that should have been my objective for my son, instead of trying to create space and distinction between the two events.

As for me, If I’m ever asked about a favorite Christmas, how could I say anything but the day I spent laboring with my firstborn, and how could I say my favorite present was anything but my son?

Not a cherished family tradition or a perfectly wrapped gift, my favorite Christmas memory involves sweat, panting, excruciating pain, and, of course, a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.

 
Barbara Brockway’s work has appeared in The Maine Review, The Southern Tablet, Torrid Literature Journal, and elsewhere. She’s received writing awards from WOW-Women On Writing, the Chattahoochee Valley Writers, and the Atlanta Writers Club. Read more on her website: barbarabrockway.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

It Takes an Indian Village

It Takes an Indian Village

By Sharon Van Epps

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The day I left Delhi with my new 5 year-old-daughter, Didi, an Indian “auntie” I’d only just met issued a warning: Take good care of our child.

We’d been invited to attend a friend’s birthday luncheon mere hours before our departure for the US. The unexpected admonishment came from another party guest, a woman who’d never even seen Didi before but nevertheless felt the right to claim her. The woman’s message was clear: You are not an Indian, and this Indian girl will never truly be yours.

“Of course she will take good care!” my friend snapped in my defense. “You think this lady would go to such trouble to adopt an Indian child for some other purpose!”

I’d spent enough time in India to know that offering unwanted advice is a national sport, but still, the stranger’s words pricked. The truth is, in that moment I scarcely knew this little girl who stood beside me, bravely holding my hand. She was an Indian. I was an American. As soon as we boarded the plane bound for San Francisco, everything she understood about the world would disintegrate. We didn’t even speak the same language.

Adopting a child from another culture demands that you incorporate her culture into the identity of your family as a whole. My husband and I felt as prepared for this task as any two non-Indians could be. John had visited India multiple times, and I’d briefly lived in the southern city of Hyderabad. I had Indian relatives-by-marriage eager to be role models for our daughter. I’d even perfected my aunt’s recipe for yellow dal. Still, the list of things I didn’t know was long: Hindi, for starters. The Ramayana. Or how to make roti, or butter chicken, or gulab jamun. Most importantly, I had no idea how to tie a sari, a skill that I was certain that my new daughter would one day want to learn.

By the time Didi reached fifth grade, I’d mastered butter chicken but still couldn’t speak Hindi. Thankfully Didi had learned English, as international adoptees are forced by circumstance to do. With her elementary school graduation looming, she made an announcement: “I want to wear a sari to the grade graduation dance.”

I offered a million reasons why this was a bad idea. Saris are hard to move in. She didn’t own a sari. I wasn’t sure where to buy one. A salwar kameez (a long tunic with pants) or a lehanga choli (a skirt, blouse and scarf set) might be more practical. Most importantly, I couldn’t tie the sari for her, and I suspected I didn’t have the aptitude to learn. I can’t even tie a scarf more than one way.

“Get me a sari,” she said. “I’ll figure it out.”

And so I bought my then 11-year-old her first sari, a dress traditionally reserved for adult women in her birthland. Didi chose electric blue with silver embroidery, plus matching bangles, a necklace, electric blue heels, and a package of stick-on bindhis. Finding somewhere to shop in Silicon Valley wasn’t hard at all – I’d fibbed about that. A quick trip down El Camino Real in Sunnyvale put dozens of saree palaces at our disposal. We picked one at random, where the shopkeeper kindly explained how to wrap and drape while I filmed the tutorial on my phone, hoping her advice would be enough.

Once home, we consulted YouTube videos, but of course there’s more than one way to wrap a sari, and we both ended up confused. I asked my cousin’s wife, Priya, if she could help tie Didi’s dress the night of the dance, but she confessed that she wasn’t adept at wrapping herself — my cousin Gabe or her mom usually tied her sari for her, and besides, both she and Gabe would get home from work too late to help.

“Why don’t we ask Reya’s mom?” Didi suggested.

Reya, the only other Indian girl in the fifth grade, was a friend, but the girls weren’t especially close, though when they’d played in the basketball league together, Reya’s grandmother had once brought Didi a bag of sweet ladoo. Remembering that thoughtful gesture gave me the courage to approach Purvee, Reya’s mom, for some assistance.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Saris are really hard to wear. She may not be able to walk in it. I don’t even like wearing them.”

I agreed with her completely, and then I begged. Donning a sari meant something to Didi that she couldn’t fully articulate. Purvee relented, inviting us over to her house for a trial run, expecting that once she’d wrapped my daughter up, Didi would come to her senses. That didn’t happen, of course. Once draped in several feet of satiny blue material, Didi grinned and gleamed like a sapphire.

“This girl was born to wear a sari,” Purvee admitted. “Some people just have a knack for it.”

On the night of the dance, the girls got ready together at Reya’s house. Thanks to Purvee, Didi’s vision for the night came true.

A couple of years later, another occasion arose that Didi deemed sari worthy: my cousin Mike’s wedding. There would be plenty of Indians at this wedding, including Gabe and Priya, but they were in the wedding party and too busy to help Didi dress. My Aunt Allison volunteered her sister, who recruited her daughter, which is how Didi ended up getting wrapped by the cousin of my cousin, a confusing turn of events that felt culturally authentic. Cousin Robyn turned out to be the ideal teacher, patient and perfectionistic in terms of folding and refolding the pleats in the skirt. Once again, Didi looked beautiful and confident and the sari didn’t even unravel when she danced to Michael Jackson at the reception.

Last month, when an invitation to a Bat Mitzvah arrived, Didi again announced that she’d be wearing a sari, but not the blue. She wanted to go swathed in gold, wearing a dress she’d picked up on her first return visit to India, but getting her wrapped was more complicated now. We’d left California for Seattle, where we had no Indian contacts at all.

“I can do it myself,” Didi said.

This time, with more hands-on experience, the YouTube tutorials made sense, at least to her if not me. In the end, the golden fabric proved too slick to wrangle, but the old blue sari came through, and when Didi descended the stairs to depart for her friend’s celebration, she looked perfect – the beautiful and self-assured Indian American I’d hoped to raise. I’d been afraid that day we left India together that I would never be enough. Now I know. I’m not enough — what mother is? — but I’m also not alone.

“I’m so proud of you,” I said.

“The pleats aren’t quite right,” she replied, “but I’m okay with it.”

 

Sharon Van Epps is a writer, wife, and mother of three teenagers whose work has appeared in Redbook, McSweeney’s,  DailyWorth, Motherlode and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter @sharonvanepps

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

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“Why didn’t you tell me about the bomb threat at school?” eleven-year-old Brennan said when he burst through the door, before he’d even shaken off his backpack.

“Oh, honey, I didn’t know before you left,” I said. “I would never keep that a secret.”

With the violence in the headlines very much on people’s minds, our schools were suddenly the subject of an anonymous threat, sent late the night before to the local police department. While Brennan was upset that he’d had to learn about it from a friend, some parents were complaining that the district should have communicated more quickly and clearly with us, too. As it turned out, there would be plenty of opportunities to refine our information-sharing, because threats of bomb and gun violence against the schools continued for a week.

“It was so much better this time because they told us,” ten-year-old Liddy said, after the next threat. Her teacher had mentioned the situation and said police were in the building to help keep everyone safe. As distressing as it is that my kids can now compare the reactions of authority figures in such circumstances, their insights have something to tell us about how we can do better in the future.

Liddy wanted to talk about the threats, but not too much. She needed to be able to turn off the conversation. The person who handled this best, she said, was her afterschool program director. “Kaitlyn told us the truth,” Liddy said. “And she didn’t promise everything would be fine, but said it was her job to keep us safe. And then she said people could choose to stay and ask questions or go do an activity.”

Things that weighed on Brennan, along with hearing about the first threat from a rumor instead of a trusted adult, was seeing some of his classmates pulled from school by anxious parents, and worrying that the heightened security would mean missing recess. “We did get recess!” he said triumphantly, later that day. “There was a cop on the roof!”

The image pushed my heart into my throat. Liddy said the police presence was “like a wall of cops.” I had seen a few officers at drop-off, milling about and talking to the kids, and their presence felt less ominous than I’d feared. But in her sheltered experience, Liddy hadn’t experienced police in those numbers anywhere, much less at school. And they’re easily three times her size. Of course they felt, to her, exactly like a wall.

When the third threat came, my phone rang at six a.m., jolting me from sleep. I let Brennan hear the carefully formulated message after breakfast. He listened, and asked, “I’m still going to school, right?” I was glad we were passing on some kind of confidence. But just as he headed for the door to get his bike out from the garage, he turned back to call out a question: “Has there ever been a bomb threat when there was really a bomb?”

Dropping off Liddy, I saw a mom in a head scarf offer our weary-looking school counselor a hug. It reminded me that others’ experiences of all this ran much deeper than mine: parents who have to worry about their kids because of the all-too-real threat of bias and intolerance; families who have come here, to this very school, after leaving places where violence and trauma were a part of everyday life; and kids whose skin color alone means they might have a completely experience of law enforcement than my kids.

All week, I watched teachers and staff put their own safety concerns aside to manage kids’ distress and competing demands from parents and administrators. I was glad that the complaints I read on various parent listservs were balanced out by notes of gratitude, reminders that the person behind the threats could be one of our own troubled kids in need of support, and even a volunteer effort to deliver breakfast to staff at the affected schools. It was this sense of community that bolstered me the most.

My husband John and I shared the goal of keeping the days as normal as possible. But I still got a rush of adrenaline with each new update and phone call. I texted my sister about it one morning. In her line of work, this is familiar territory, and I wanted to get her take.

She wrote back that the kids would be likely safer that day than any other. With so much to worry about in the world, she said, we already have to decide whether we’ll ever let them leave the house at all. And then do it. She also said that parents should be grateful that they were told.

The kids want the very things we want. The right information. The confidence that people who care are doing all they can to keep us safe. And, ultimately, the knowledge that we’re not in this alone. Making sure that our kids get those things — that is something we can control.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at www.kdempseycreative.com. or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: gettymages.com

When Parents Can Have Some Fun of Their Own

When Parents Can Have Some Fun of Their Own

By Campbell C. Hoffman

Can grown-ups have fun? Can we play? Can I experience something akin to what my kids feel when they are bouncing on the trampoline?

 

If you want to see the face of fun, to know what it sounds like and looks like, just watch kids jumping on a trampoline. Santa Claus brought one for our family last year, and the kids still haven’t gotten bored with it. Their ragdoll bodies flop and fall, they squeal and scream. When I worry for just a second—is it a belly laugh or a broken bone—the laughter becomes contagious, smiles abound, and I know that my kids are having fun. Real, playful, uninhibited fun.   

As I wipe my hands with a dishtowel and throw it over my shoulder, I pause for a moment to watch them before I have to put an end to it, for now. I try to remember the last time I laughed like that, easy and carefree. I come up short. I begin to wonder if maybe my only way to know fun is to witness it in my kids. But does it even count, then, if it’s not actually mine? Maybe my days of fun were officially over, now that I’m a parent.   

“Ok, guys, time to come in to wash up for dinner,” I tell them, marching toward the trampoline.  

I help them with the zipper of the net, offer a stable hand as they climb out and march towards the house, grumbling about dinner, but still smiling with residual joy from their play.

I’m not even sure I know how to have fun anymore. At best, having fun seems outside of my grasp. At worst, it looks like more work. The circles of dishes, dinner, laundry, and lunch can be tedious and never ending. When it is punctuated it is either with the opposite of fun in worry and drama, or small meaningful moments that, though glorious, are not ripe with play and fun. It seems that the grown-up way of handling this lack of fun is to suppress the desire even to have any at all. If I can fool myself into thinking that I don’t want to have fun anyway, then I can’t be grumpy or resentful of all the things that displace fun in my life, can I?

There are countless things that hold me back from having fun, things like being too self-conscious, or the fear of being foolish or selfish, or worse, unproductive. Not to mention, so much of my job as a mother is risk assessment, which can be the nemesis to fun. So I wonder: can grown-ups have fun? Can we play? Can I experience something akin to what my kids feel when they are bouncing on the trampoline?

As parents, we are often on the sidelines of fun. We are the wallflowers at birthday parties, pausing in conversation to wave to a child who has reached the top of the slide. We are the ones that tuck sweaty hair behind ears and offer a drink of water. We are the ones who listen to the stories afterward, collecting these treasures and holding onto them for the kids, like souvenirs in a pocket for later, even noting their beauty and goodness. We stand in our places, safe and on guard, on this side of the line of fun. The un-fun side.

Last week, my son, Griffin, age 3 and the youngest at his cousin’s birthday party by a handful of years, was unsure about climbing the tall blow up slide at the bounce-house. He sought me out, wanting help, or company maybe. I looked at the other parents and felt sheepish about joining him—like I was breaking some unspoken rule: parents wave from the sidelines and leave the laughter and play to the kids. But my son wanted me (and truthfully, I was glad for the break of small talk with mothers I didn’t know). I smiled wanly, tucked my shoes into a cubby, and then, with his outstretched hand in mine, walked toward the bounce slide.

For the next 20 minutes I followed Griffin, climbing, scrambling, toppling, sliding, sometimes with him on my lap. It was real fun, physical fun, a deep tickle in my belly, a smile and even laughter that I couldn’t hold back. It was not just an intellectual understanding of blessings or goodness, not witnessing the fun of someone else, namely my children, but fun of my very own. By the time we were called in for pizza and cake, I was the one with the sweaty ponytail and a smile I couldn’t contain. I even compared brush burns with a few of the kids as we were ushered into the party room. I had crossed over, following the kids’ lead, from stoic parental responsibility into pure childlike fun.

My default posture of motherhood has been as the onlooker, arms crossed holding water bottles and jackets, at the ready to rescue and serve, but after the freedom of fun that I experienced at the birthday party, I realized that fun was within my grasp. I didn’t always know how to get there, but I was pretty certain my kids could show me the way. I started saying yes to that childlike sense of play. Yes, I’d love to jump on the trampoline. Yes, turn up the music and let’s have a pajama dance party. Yes, I’ll go down the water slide, too. Timidly at first, finding it work to choose yes, but the more yes I said, the louder and stronger I said it. I was saying yes to fun.   

This past spring I coached my oldest son’s soccer team. It was a slow yes, a reticent yes, to agree to this responsibility, and that’s exactly how I saw it: a task, a job. There is joy and beauty in watching our kids grow in strength and accomplishment; heart-swelling pride in seeing them try something new or work hard at something practiced. But as the weeks of the seasons ticked by, I began to feel myself having fun, playful fun, fun of my own, running alongside these first graders back and forth on the soccer field.

Our last practice of the season was a parents vs. team scrimmage. A handful of the parents showed up, and what happened was glorious: we had real playful fun together. Parents laughed as we tried to play this game, whiffing a ball, missing a goal, occasionally making a nice pass. The kids saw us, unpolished, unfettered, unproductive even, smiling joyously having fun of our very own.
Campbell C. Hoffman lives in Southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared at Brain, Child Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and Mamalode. She can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

By Allison Slater Tate

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I am missing the little boys who believed in reindeer food on the front lawn.

 

I cried in the Star Wars aisle of Toys ‘R’ Us at 10 a.m. this morning.

In a rare show of industry, I was trying to knock out the majority of my Christmas shopping in just one (painfully expensive) trip. With my four children all safely ensconced at their respective schools from middle down to preschool, I took my sweet time pushing my cart through the giant toy mecca, pausing at each aisle, carefully picking out candy canes and wands for stockings.

It felt indulgent and strange to actually give myself the permission to shop leisurely instead of bum-rushing my way through an online order—or, more likely, five online orders. I enjoyed picking up the toys and reading the boxes the way I obsessively did when I was a child; though I find the whole “unboxing” phenomenon on YouTube a little jarring, I understand why my 3-year-old daughter enjoys watching others open and play with toys so much, since it reminds me of how I was riveted to the Saturday morning commercials at her age.

I had made it through most of the store, and my cart was piled high with things for my youngest, who is my only girl—Calico Critters and Beanie Boos, Breyer horses and Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Paw Patrol figures and a Play-Doh kitchen I know she will squeal over—when I found myself in the Star Wars aisle. I was suddenly staring at a pile of lightsabers, red and green and blue.

Like a blurry video in fast forward, years flashed through my mind: all the other Decembers when I had walked through these same aisles, picking up Little People farms and Hexbugs, Hot Wheels tracks and Razor scooters. I remembered running my hands over heavy plastic playhouses, debating between massive Lego sets, searching for Thomas trains we didn’t yet own. I thought about 12 years of Christmas mornings, oranges in stockings, tiny, sticky candy cane fingers, nights of driving around neighborhoods with the radio station set to the Christmas music channel, the kids in their pajamas staring out the windows and admiring our neighbors’ handiwork. They were always ready to go home before I was.

And that’s when, for a few minutes, I just leaned against my shopping cart and let myself cry, right in the middle of Toys ‘R’ Us, amidst the Yodas and the Ewok dolls—not an ugly cry, not heaving sobs, but just a few tears—as I realized that those days, when I had little people constantly underfoot and Santa was definitely real in my house, are over. My oldest boys have grown out of toy stores altogether now. They’re not even that interested in the video games sold there; they now look to download more sophisticated computer games straight from the source. My 8-year-old, whether because of his personality, because he is a third boy and jaded by the knowledge he’s acquired through his brothers, or because 8-year-old boys are now somewhat more savvy and less into toys than they were in generations past, barely plays with traditional toys at all. And after a recent brutal grilling by the third grader, I am pretty sure the 3-year-old is the only one left who truly believes in Santa Claus.

So I cried, because I miss those little boys who so carefully placed the plate of cookies and glass of milk by our fireplace chimney and brought home sacks of be-glittered handprint ornaments from preschool and kindergarten. But in truth, I cried more because I miss those days that I used to just survive, and then only barely. I miss when my days were just chaotic blurs, ping-ponging through naps and playgroup meet-ups and hurtling toward bedtime every night. I miss them because now, through the magnifying glass of hindsight and the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, they seem so much simpler, even in their tedium.

My days have a different timbre now. No one wears diapers, no one drinks from sippy cups with a bazillion parts to clean. There are no naptimes to work around. Instead, there is homework and practices and school. My little girl still keeps me with one foot partly in the world of the toddler; she is my excuse for knowing what’s popular on Disney Junior, my reason for collecting picture books and acorns from the yard. But things have changed.

I am mourning the Christmas tasks I had just a few years ago. I am missing the little boys who believed in reindeer food on the front lawn. But even more, I mourn their mother—the younger version of me, who was able to immerse myself in the physical labor and emotional chaos of young motherhood, whose parents were still strong and hearty and not yet concerned with the trickiness of retirement and aging, who didn’t worry about puberty and high school transcripts. I miss the version of me who could spend naptimes baking dozens of Christmas cookies and whose biggest worry was making it to the preschool Christmas concert on time.

One of my friends often quotes George Bernard Shaw: “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.” As my children grow up and out of the routines and rites of childhood, I learn with them. I learn what each new stage means for them and for me as a parent, what the view from here now looks like and feels like. Yes, at first, it feels like I have lost something. I miss something. I mourn something. But even as I wipe a few tears off my cheeks, I know that this Christmas, when we are all piled around the tree again in our pajamas and bare feet—the bigger kids with smaller, fewer, and yet more expensive packages, the youngest with a plethora of tiny treasures to delight a preschooler’s big eyes—I won’t miss anything. Everything will be there, in new shapes and sizes: all the pieces of my heart.

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and a mother of four children ages 13 to 3. In addition to Brain, Child, her work can be found at her eponymous websiteToday Parents, Scary Mommy, the Washington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and the Huffington Post, among others. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

By Jennifer Berney

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The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.

 

At two years old, when my younger son began putting words together, his first complete sentences were all variations on a theme.

“Watch this, Mommy!” he would shout over and over as he frog-hopped across the living room floor or threw a ball into a hoop. When the action was complete, he always asked, “See that?” his voice crackling with pride.

Once my son had these sentences, he used them hundreds of times every day, and I thought about what it meant that he wasn’t saying “feed me” or “hold me” or “keep me warm.” The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.

Now that he’s approaching three he finds more creative ways to remain in my line of vision. When I make dinner he often struts into the kitchen, demands to be held, and then physically turns my head so that I must look him in the eye.

Because of both his age and personality, my younger son refuses to be invisible. But my older son, who is seven, can sometimes fade into the shadows. He spends hours sitting alone in his room building Legos, or lying on his top bunk reading comic books. In our house, he’s often a friendly background presence rather than a force to be reckoned with. Because his little brother steals the show so often, I often worry that I sideline him, that I don’t actively see him the way he needs to be seen. It’s easy work to tell my older son I love him, to hold him tight when he’s near, but sometimes those words—I love you—feel inadequate and hollow. Sometimes I suspect that to convince him of my love, I must first convince him that I know him.

Two weeks ago, his first grade teacher gave me the opportunity to see him with new eyes. It was parent-teacher conference week, and on the day of our conference my son and I walked to school holding hands. It was a rare moment for us, one where he and I could be alone together, free from his brother’s toddler antics.

When we sat down with his teacher, she laid out a folder of his work and told me, “Your son pays close attention to detail.” This wasn’t a thing that I knew about him, but once she pointed it out, I could see it everywhere. As we leafed through the pages of his folder I noticed how tiny and careful his letters had become. I noticed the way that, in his self-portrait, the sky was not just a line of blue at the top of the page—it actually met the ground.

But there were other things worth noticing in my son’s self-portrait. He had drawn himself not as a giant smiling face but as a tiny shadowy figure at the bottom of the page. I remembered a video I had seen years ago that demonstrated how much children’s self- and family portraits revealed about the way they saw themselves in the world. If my son, when asked to draw himself, could only summon something tiny, then clearly he needed some building up.

That night as he soaked in the bathtub, I dug through his school folder to retrieve a hand-drawn book his teacher had returned at the conference. “Will you look at this with me?” I asked as I sat on the bathmat and showed him his own work. He straightened his back to look over my shoulder. I pointed to every detail I noticed—the fluttering fins on the goldfish that swam inside a fish bowl, the disco ball he’d drawn on the page with the dancing canary. My son nodded and giggled, impressed with his own sense of humor. He pointed out details I had missed.

Once both of my sons were in their pajamas I kissed them goodbye and left the house—it was my partner’s night to put them to sleep, my night to meet a friend for adult conversation.

When I returned that night the house was quiet, dark except for a fake candle—a battery-powered tea light that flickered on the coffee table next to a glass of water. I thought nothing of it until later when I settled on the couch to read and I noticed the water glass was full. Between the water glass and the tea light was a tiny illustration. It was a picture of my son and me standing together beside a candle, holding hands.

Some part of me was humbled by son’s deep generosity. I wasn’t sure that a parent-child relationship was supposed to be so reciprocal. I had given him ten minutes of my undivided attention and he had returned my investment immediately. He had thought about me and my after-hours quiet time, had pictured me on the couch with a book reaching for a glass of water. I had seen him, and in return he saw me too.

I looked closely at the picture and considered it. The paper itself was tiny, but in this illustration both my son and I took up the full width of the page. Were we big or were we small? I couldn’t tell. I only knew for sure that we were the same size as the candle that lit us. It strikes me now that he perfectly captured the magic that happens when we witness each other, when we take the time to look and narrate what we see: we stand in the glow of that other person’s view, and know not just that we are loved, but why we are loved, and how.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

By Mandy Hitchcock

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Being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.   

 

“Cherish every moment!”  

“It goes by so fast!”

“You’ll miss these days when they are gone!”   

Parents hear these refrains from every corner these days, especially when their children are small.   

I know better than most how fast it can go, how quickly it can be gone. In 2010, my seventeen-month-old daughter Hudson died from a sudden, aggressive bacterial infection. If anyone were going to tell parents to cherish every moment with their children, you’d think it would be me.   

But what I really want to say is this: it’s okay if you don’t.   

In the early days of my grief, I felt a terrible resentment toward parents of young children, even close friends, as their children turned two, or potty trained, or graduated to toddler beds—I was so heartbroken that Hudson would never get the chance to reach any of those milestones. I didn’t want to resent my friends, but I did. I flinched at their Facebook photos, which showed an intact family enjoying a life I would never enjoy again. And now, five years on, I still flinch when I see a family with three living children like I should have, or my friends’ children all turning seven in the coming year like Hudson would be, all of them looking so grown, while Hudson will never be any bigger than the chubby-cheeked toddler I last saw lying on a bed in the pediatric ICU.

What I’ve never resented, though, are my friends’ frustrations about parenting young children. After my daughter died but before my younger children were born—during the long year when I was a childless mother—I often saw Facebook posts or listened to friends’ woeful stories about children who wouldn’t stop crying, or potty-training lessons gone wrong, or strong-willed toddlers refusing to do what they’d been asked. When I heard these stories, I’d first think that I’d give anything to be dealing with these problems myself. But the next second, I’d remember that if I were dealing with these problems myself, I’d have many difficult moments, too. I’d complain and express frustration. It was only when held up against the unimaginable crucible of the death of a child that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood might seem like they should not be so hard. The last thing I ever wanted was for any other parent to feel guilty for feeling frustrated or overwhelmed or short-tempered with their children—solely because my child was not here for me to experience those same emotions.   

Now, seven years into the journey of mothering small children, one dead and two living—Hudson’s younger siblings Jackson and Ada—I can say that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood are unbelievably hard for me. Are they as hard as losing my daughter? Of course not, but just because they are not hard relative to the death of a child does not mean that they are not hard in absolute terms. There are many moments when my kids can drive me to the precipice of fury, when I have to clench my jaw and speak to them through gritted teeth in order to keep myself from flying over the edge directly at them. And during those moments, it’s rarely the memory of my daughter that pulls me back from the brink—instead, it’s the small, warm body right in front of me, my child who, in his or her own exasperating way, is asking for my attention or my love or my help.   

My daughter’s death changed me, irrevocably, but it did not make me superhuman. It did not magically endow me with equanimity in the face of poop smeared all over the crib after my two-year-old decides to remove her diaper during naptime, or in the face of my four-year-old’s nonchalant but persistent “No” when I ask him to take his plate to the sink, or in the face of the rapidly intensifying shrieks of “MINE!” from both of them as they struggle over some suddenly coveted item that neither cared about until the other picked it up.

I’ve been so grateful when others have shared that Hudson’s story has changed how they look at their lives, and their relationships with their children. I say often that the only consolation I have after Hudson’s death is knowing that her life can continue to have meaning in the world that she loved. Sharing her story with others is one of the only ways I can still mother her, so I take great comfort whenever another mother tells me that she thought of Hudson during a frustrating parenting moment and found a way to pull her own child closer. At those times, it feels like Hudson’s spirit is somehow still doing important work.     

And I, too, am grateful to Hudson, every day, for pushing me to be a better, kinder parent. Her absence does help me better appreciate even the most mundane moments with her siblings. And being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.   

But life is also life. A healthy dose of perspective is helpful, but it is relative. There is little value in downplaying our feelings because we think someone else has it rougher than we do. Someone else will always have it rougher than we do. I survived my daughter’s death, but having to clean up poop smeared all over the crib (not to mention all over the child who did the smearing) is still really hard, right now, today, in this moment.   

Living in the moment means actually living in the moment, not taking ourselves out of it or stopping ourselves from feeling our feelings. Among the many things I’ve learned on this long road after my daughter’s death is that it’s not only possible, but totally normal, to experience deeply conflicting emotions at the same time. Extreme grief and extreme joy. Deep anger and deep love. Incredible frustration and incredible gratitude. Parenting both living and dead children at the same time is a constant lesson in that kind of emotional duality.

Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. Her essays also appear in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Teaching Our Children About the Meaning of Friendship

Teaching Our Children About the Meaning of Friendship

By Meagan Schultz

“See, bud, THIS is what friends do.” I tell him, returning to the conversation we started earlier. “Friends do nice things for each other, to make each other feel better.”

 

“Augie is my friend,” Silas says proudly one morning as we’re eating breakfast at the kitchen table that straddles the french doors to our back deck.

“Lucky you,” I say.

“And Finn, and Shay, and Ivy, and Matilde … ” he goes on, listing every kid he can remember in his nursery school.

“And what do friends do?” I ask him.

“Friends give hugs.”

“Oh,” I say.

“Friends kiss.”

I try to imagine him kissing all of these kids and my mind moves quickly to the email the school sent last week about the case of lice going around. I shudder.

He returns to his granola and berries, staring down at his bowl, determined to get the fruit on his Elmo spoon without using his fingers. He’s a righty, and today he props his left elbow on the table next to the bowl, resting his head on his knuckles. He’s half playing, half eating, and keeps glancing towards the family room where his train set still covers the floor from last night.

The doorbell rings and I leave him at the table to answer it. I return with a delivery from UPS.

“For me, Mama?” He asks, sing-songing the mama, as he does when he is excited. He expects all packages are for him after his birthday last month.

“Nope, this time it’s for me buddy.”

“No, MINE.” He bangs his little fist on the table, nearly knocking his bowl over, and shouts through clenched teeth.

“Oooooh, but look what’s inside,” I say, trying to distract his disappointment.

And it works. Suddenly his face softens into a smile, his dimples return. He lifts his eyebrows and his neck to see over the top of the box I’ve just set on the table next to him. He’s forgotten that it’s not his gift and sweet Silas is back.

“Look Mama, a cardinal,” he says, and points to a speck of red on the telephone wire that runs across the backyard and above the garage. And then he turns his attention back to the box.

I pull out a beautiful flowered gift bag with purple tissue paper hanging over the edge and read the card. His eyes focus first on the bag and then follow my hands as I open the envelope. It’s a care package from one of my best friends, someone I only talk to a few times a year, who lives across the country, but who knew I had been grieving. Two weeks earlier, I’d suffered yet another miscarriage, my sixth. This one came at twelve weeks after a miserable morning in the ER and a D&C that followed.

“Oh my goodness,” I say. “I can’t believe this. This is so NICE,” I say, my voice inflecting and emphasizing the ‘nice.’

He watches me quietly while I open each little tissue-wrapped gift inside the bag.

“See, bud, THIS is what friends do.” I tell him, returning to the conversation we started earlier. “Friends do nice things for each other, to make each other feel better.”

I realize I have a captive audience here; he’s put both elbows on the table now and is holding his head in his hands. So I slow down, unwrapping with wide-eyes and gasps as if—with each gift—I’ve discovered an oyster pearl the size of a golf ball. Socks, a bracelet, a candle, a notebook, a mug. He watches me silently, but opens his mouth slightly with each “oooh” and “ahhh,” mimicking my expressions.

When I’m finished, he slides out of his chair and onto the bench next to me, his little hands reaching for the candle, pulling it to his nose for three quick and shallow sniffs, looking a little like a hamster. I doubt he smelled the ollaliberry and tangerine, but he is satisfied and moves on to fondle the mug, intrigued by the heart shaped handle.

He spends the next half hour in the family room focused on rebuilding his train tracks. I know he is working hard because I can hear him breathing. I sit at the kitchen table with my coffee, finishing the morning paper. He talks to himself while he plays, in the high-pitched voices he uses for the stuffed friends he takes to bed each night. Every so often, I look up to find him staring at the bag on the table. I quickly look away.

“That’s SO nice,” he squeals, delighted with himself.

“OHMYGOODNESS, that was so NICE of you.”

“Thank you so MUCH.”

He’s trying out patterns, giving weight and prominence to the different syllables of gratitude.

He’s copying the melodramatic exaggerations he heard earlier.

He’s practicing for when it’s his turn to be a friend.
Originally from California, Meagan Schultz lives in Milwaukee Wisconsin with her husband and two young boys. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming on Write On, Mamas, Literary Mama, and Mamalode.

Photo: Getty Images

Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents: A Book Review

Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents: A Book Review

By Julie Burton

strengths-based-parenting-9781595621009_hrIn today’s world, so many parents feel the mounting pressure to not only “do it all,” but to be good everything they do. To top it off, doing it all often includes raising kids who also can do it all, and, of course, do it all well.

Thank goodness Mary Reckmeyer’s new book Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents offers an alternate approach for parents to raise happy, confident children who become joyful, fulfilled adults. Reckmeyer, Executive Director of Gallup’s Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center, gives parents permission to let go of the “all” and urges them to focus on discovering and nurturing their child’s innate talents, instead of trying to fix their weaknesses. Strengths Based Parenting suggests that parents need to embark on this journey along with their children in order to gain a better understanding of how to utilize their own strengths in their parenting, and to model this behavior.

Reckmeyer draws the reader in by presenting heartwarming stories about parents who utilized strengths based parenting principles. Take Steve, a boy who did not perform well in school, was bullied by his peers, and had trouble finishing projects that didn’t interest him. As it turns out, Steve had dyslexia that went undiagnosed for years. But Steve’s mother, instead of parenting him by the “deficit model” noticed that he loved photography and making movies. I won’t ruin the surprise and tell the last name of this boy and how he continued to use his strengths to become a very famous man,  (it’s in the book), but let’s just say, he has made some of the biggest blockbuster movies of our time.

As a mother of four, ages 21 to 11, I processed Reckmeyer’s anecdotal stories, interviews, research, and advice through the lens of my personal experiences. My son, a college freshman, despised writing all through middle school and his first year of high school. It didn’t come naturally to him, he did not feel successful as a writer, received low marks on his papers, and basically stopped trying to improve. While my husband and I nurtured his strengths (he currently plays college baseball and studies economics and Spanish), I did feel the need to address his issues with writing. With a tremendous amount of effort on my part, met with equal amounts of pushback from him, we worked on strengthening his writing, and he was very happy to become a strong and confident writer by the time he left for college.

While I agree with Reckmeyer’s strengths based approach as one method for parents to utilize in their attempt to help their child thrive, I think there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, how a person expresses them, and how they are interpreted. Chapter Two, “Can Weaknesses be Fixed?” gave me pause as I thought about my experiences with my own children. Over time, my husband and I realized that my son’s issue with writing was not that he was necessarily a weak writer, but his under-par writing stemmed from behavioral issues relating to frustration and defiance, which were blocking him from success.

Laurie Hollman, psychoanalyst and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence—Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, would most likely say that my husband and I used “parental intelligence” to help our son through these challenges. I only wish I would have read Hollman’s book earlier in my parenting journey, but it is not too late! Thanks to Hollman’s book, my two children who still live at home, and my two children who I parent from afar, will benefit from my clearer understanding of what parental intelligence means, how essential it is for a healthy parent-child relationship, and how to put it into practice.

To help parents like me clearly identify their own and their children’s strengths, Strengths Based Parenting contains two unique access codes (valid for one use only) that can be used to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 (for ages 15 and older) and the Clifton Youth StrengthExplorer (ages 10-14) assessments for free (you can also take these on-line assessments without the access codes for a fee). These assessments, originally developed by Reckmeyer’s father, Donald O. Clifton (now deceased), who was known as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology, are used to identify your and your child’s top “themes of talent” (top five for adults and top three for kids), which you receive in a report of the findings. Reading this book without having taken the assessments (although I do plan to do so and would love my kids to do so as well) was still worthwhile and provided me with some new, exciting, and useful information to add to my parenting toolbox. I was, however, a bit deflated when I realized that pages 89-329 (the end of the book) is the “Clifton StrengthsFinder” section, which contains the definitions, action items, and questions to consider for all 44 themes of talent that are included in the assessment. I found myself skimming through them, trying to figure out which ones sounded like me, my husband, my kids, and grabbing nuggets of helpful information when something resonated with me. Truthfully, I was craving more of Reckmeyer’s stories.

But my biggest take away from both Reckmeyer’s and Hollman’s book is inspiration. Spending the past several years studying motherhood and self-care for a forthcoming book, I believe that both of these approaches are empowering for mothers. While the authors do put the onus on the parents to be thoughtful, engaged, and aware, they provide manageable roadmaps for how to help you and your child be your best self.  

Julie Burton is a freelance writer, blogger, co-founder of the Twin Cities Writing Studio, a yoga instructor, and a wife and mother. Her first book, “The Self-Care Solution—A Modern Mother’s Essential Guide to Health and Well-Being,” will be published in May 2016.

“Mommy, Will I Be OK?”

“Mommy, Will I Be OK?”

By Sharon Holbrook

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I’d look around at a room of smiling, playful children, and wonder why mine was the only one crying and clinging to a parent’s leg. I had known my child—a bright, fun, and friendly 3-year-old—would love preschool. But I was wrong. “I missed you, Mommy, and I wanted you to hug me,” he cried as he tumbled into my arms at pick-up that first day. Though he eventually adjusted and enjoyed preschool, the separation troubles ebbed and flowed for years, tearing at both our hearts. Even in early elementary school, goodbye kisses came with a daily send-off question: “Mommy, will I be OK?”

I’d been blindsided that my bubbly, happy child was so different at school. I was used to knowing my child better than he knew himself. I had seen his laughter and inquisitiveness, and his friendly nature with kids his age. The child I thought I knew was comfortable, confident, and smiling.

What I didn’t know was what he was like when I wasn’t there, and as a first-time parent I had mistakenly assumed what I saw was what the world would get. But, no, the preschool world got a child with struggles I didn’t recognize.  

I ultimately became the mother of not just one but three children with sensitive natures, and with experience I realized the clues had been there all along. During library storytime, I always had a plump diapered bottom in my lap, and a sturdy toddler back leaned firmly against my chest. While other children clapped, laughed, sang, and danced during library storytime, mine always watched quietly from the safety of Mommy, thumb in mouth.

Even earlier, there had been the baby picture debacles. At home, my babies were deliciously round and smiley, perfectly photogenic. In the photography studio, though, with a bright light shining and a strange person making faces, each of them in turn cried and cried. One studio offered a free sitting and a small package of free photos, assuming that parents would snap up an armful when they saw the endearing results. I left with a free set of photos of a somber 1-year-old with tears in her eyes.

What was “wrong” with my kids, that they seemed to have a hard time with things that seemed easy for most other children? Had I done something wrong to make them so delicate? Now that I was noticing, I saw even more of what I had missed. My children were different: Preschool, babysitters, loud noises, and the doctor’s office. Introductory sports or classes, distant relatives wanting hugs, and mildly “scary” kid’s movies. When other kids might take on these things with gusto, for mine each situation was a source of overstimulation and distress, of tears and wanting to opt out and curl up in Mommy or Daddy’s arms.

An astute friend recommended The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, and the subtitle said it all: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them. Highly sensitive people are not disordered, this 15-20% simply have a personality that comes with a highly attuned nervous system, one that notices everything. Sometimes noise and busyness and unfamiliarity can be too much for a sensitive kid, as if the volume of the world is cranked too high. But sensitivity often comes with gifts, too:  notable empathy, kindheartedness, intelligence, creativity, insight, wit, imagination, and curiosity.  

Aron’s book told me what my children needed: Understanding of their temperament. Routine. Quiet play. Calm. A sense of safety. Parental patience in new situations. Encouragement to take on new challenges, which can feel unsafe to sensitive kids. Acceptance of their feelings, both positive and negative.

This was good news. There was reassurance that my kids would be OK, and that they would indeed learn to cope. Yet—I was the one who had to get them there. Their father of course, too, yes, but in those early years, I was undoubtedly the lead parent. I was at home full-time. I was in tune with the rhythm of their days, and the witness of their moments both grand and small. So, too, I carried much of the weight of how to get them from a fragile, tentative participation in life to confidence and resilience.

I understood, rationally, what my kids needed, but that didn’t always mean it was easy. I tried to respect their temperaments by not pushing too hard. At the same time, I knew they didn’t need coddling, either, and I wanted to avoid treating them as delicate, breakable souls. Figuring out how to translate this into practical, everyday decisions was an ongoing challenge.  

Should they learn to swim, for example? I decided that they must, that it was a safety issue and a nonnegotiable life skill. After much trial and error, and tearful children who one after another would not put their faces in the water, their (third) teacher and I found the middle line between pushing and coddling, and that line was years of consistency, patience, and encouragement. The last child, now 5 years old and in the water since age 2, is at last finding her way in the water after what feels like the slowest, longest swim lessons in history. (Actually, it’s been eight years of on and off lessons, starting with my firstborn.)

Some blooms cannot be forced like an amaryllis bulb on a winter windowsill. Some must instead plod in their own good time towards their natural season, though the winter may feel long. I knew this rationally, but I admit to impatience and worry and frustration along the way.

I’ve had to project a calm I did not always feel, since my sensitive, intuitive children would be sure to sense my own unease and pile it on to their own. More than once, I fought tears on my way down the preschool stairs after leaving a bereft child during a particularly bad period of separation anxiety. Once or twice, my voice shook during preschool parent-teacher conferences while discussing one or another of the children’s social-emotional development and resilience, and whether they needed an extra year of preschool. Though I am usually placid, at these times I felt their struggles physically, with tightness in my throat and a sweat breaking out.

My children are all in elementary school now, and, to my great delight, they are all thriving academically and socially. I still walk a line between respecting their sensitivity and resistance to certain things (none is a big fan of sports or risk-taking, for example) and pushing them out of their comfort zone so they can live in the real world without fear and fragility. I confess that even now I still sometimes feel a pang as I watch my kids’ occasional struggles with things that seem to come easily for so many other children.  

But I’m seeing those beautiful positive qualities of a sensitive temperament, like a daughter’s poetic description of a tree or a son’s tenderheartedness towards the weak and small. I’m also seeing an admirable toughness and independence in all of them, qualities that they’ve more than earned through years of struggle.

I’ve had to change along the way too, and that is perhaps the hardest part. I’ve had to understand, and accept, and resist comparison. Mostly, I have had to believe that along with patience and encouragement, time and natural development would give them the coping skills they needed to make their sensitivity an asset rather than a liability.

“Mommy, will I be OK?”

I’ll say again what I said back then: an emphatic yes. They were always going to be OK. We just had to believe it, to take our time, to walk the scenic route together. And we’re getting there.

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

Intensive Care: The Nurse Who Saw Us Through the Night

Intensive Care: The Nurse Who Saw Us Through the Night

I will realize, eventually, that six-year-old Brennan is her only patient. She is here just for him. And for us.

 

Machines and monitors whir in the dark, chilly room. It is like stepping into a vacuum. There he is, so small on the hospital bed. Unconscious or simply asleep, I don’t know. A white bandage covers the right side of his head over his ear, where surgeons operated on the fractured skull, the nicked artery that resulted when he fell down the basement stairs at a friend’s house, landing heavily on the concrete floor below.

Brennan’s eyes flicker open; enormous brown eyes in a pale, pale face.

“Brennan. Hey, Brennan,” my husband, John, and I whisper at his side. He turns to look at us. I want to pull him into my arms. I touch his hand. “Hey guy.” His eyes close again.

“He’s still coming out of the anesthesia,” the nurse says. “It will be awhile. He was out a long time.” Then: “Climb right up there, mom.” I stare at her. Tammy, her name tag says. She nods. “Go ahead.” And already I am flooded with gratitude toward her.

I begin pulling off my boots—the stupid red boots I bought a few days ago, a lifetime ago, when I was a person who could have cared about boots. Tammy hands me a set of scrubs to pull on instead of my skirt and sweater. “These will be more comfortable,” she says.

I will realize, eventually, that six-year-old Brennan is her only patient. She is here just for him. And for us.

With John’s help I climb into the bed and lie on my side facing Brennan. The sharp smell of antiseptic masks his familiar, salty, little-boy smell. My tears are still coming; for hours they’ve streamed down my face uninterrupted, but now I try to wipe them away before they seep into the sheets. Breathe, I think. Breathe.

There are conversations. He did well, they stopped the bleeding, cauterized the artery, evacuated the blood pooling in his skull. The CT scan looked good. He’s not out of the woods yet, the surgeon says. Brennan’s brain might swell from the trauma, or not. All we can do is wait. There are phone calls to make. My mother crying. A message left on my sister’s voicemail: Call mom.

My anxiety pulses along with the thrum and beeping of the monitors. The dark has receded. I can breathe. I am still riding this wave of fear, but I do not feel alone.

When you have a newborn, you are at first overwhelmed, and then, suddenly, you know more about him than anyone. The dozens of motions required to care for him become automatic, almost involuntary, like your beating heart and breathing lungs.

This is the way Tammy cares for Brennan. Checking his vital signs, repositioning him on the bed, administering different medications through the IV. A constant quiet vigilance and countless acts of caretaking that are almost invisible because she performs them unselfconsciously. She is young, maybe not even thirty. I don’t know if she has a family, children; she doesn’t talk about herself.

I don’t think I will fall asleep, but I do, at some point late into the night. Then I jerk awake, gasping. “It’s just me,” Tammy’s voice whispers from nearby, “Sorry.”

And later, another sound. Brennan coughing vomit onto the white hospital blanket. I sit up and hold him and Tammy is at his already at his side, supporting him. He does not fully wake up. She mops his face and lays him back down. She tells me to grab the corners of the pad beneath him and together we slide him to one side (“Ready? Lift.”) She effortlessly strips the blankets from around him and remakes the bed, swift and quiet, not even waking John, who is sleeping on a built-in cot behind the hospital bed and monitors. I can’t see him but I know he’s there.

She brings me a clean set of scrubs and I climb back in the bed.

“Is the vomiting from the anesthesia?” I ask.

“The injury,” Tammy says softly, and I close my eyes again.

She pulls a blanket over me. “I’ll be right here.”

Deep into the night there is some activity and conversation outside our room, after which one of the neurosurgical Fellows comes in—the young one, kind, who had stood beside me in the ER handing me tissues. He tells me we’re being moved. The beds are full and there is another patient coming in. He tries to frame this as good news: Brennan is in better shape than anyone on the floor.

Heart pounding, I am on my feet asking questions. Where will they take us? How often will they check on him? There is no step down unit, so Brennan will now be a regular patient. Instead of a nurse assigned to him—instead of Tammy—he will share a nurse who will check his vital signs every four hours. No, I think. No.

Not out of the woods yet. Those were the neurosurgeon’s words and I repeat them back to the Fellow several times. I say I want to hear from the neurosurgeon himself.

He steps out of the room for a minute and, in that moment, Tammy moves beside me, leaning down as she folds something and sets it on a chair.

“You’re doing the right thing,” she says quietly, never looking up. Her voice is a low hum, reaching out to me.  “You need to advocate for him.”

We manage to put the move off, a least for now.

When, hours later, they wake me again to move us to the surgical floor, the young neurosurgeon sits and explains all the reasons they believe Brennan is progressing well. He promises to check on Brennan himself, and says he will camp out in the room across from us for the night, if we need anything.

I don’t want to leave. But as we guide Brennan’s bed carefully through the halls to the surgical floor, Tammy tells me she is taking us to a room directly across from the nurses’ station. “Page them any time you need them,” she says. “For anything at all.”

As a team of people sets Brennan up in our new room I see Tammy speaking intently to the nurses; one meets my eyes and comes toward me to talk.

I look toward Tammy, wanting to say something more than thank you. But she is already moving away, on toward her next patient.

I move close to Brennan, not even considering sleep. I stare at him and listen to his breath sounds. I take in the long eyelashes someone commented on in the ER, the freckles standing out against his pallor. I look out the window of this new room, where it is still dark outside, not quite morning. The sun has not yet come up, but it will.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at www.kdempseycreative.com. or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

By Jennifer Berney

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This wasn’t the first time that someone had trouble understanding my son. Other grown-ups, charmed by his pronunciation, often chuckled and mimicked key phrases.

 

My son was four years old when he first expressed embarrassment about the way he talked. It happened one morning, as he played blocks on the floor with a friend and I sat in the background, reading. My son was narrating as he played, telling her that this giant tower was just part of what would become a “really cool world.” It was clear to me exactly what he was saying, but his friend just kept asking “What?” over and over, because all she could hear was “weally cool wowld.”

“I can’t understand you!” she said, giggling.

My son got up and sat next to me. He leaned in. I translated. “He’s making a really cool world,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, unfazed.

“Are you okay?” I whispered my son who was now resting his head in my lap.  

“I think—” he said, “I think it’s just that my voice is a little funny.”

This wasn’t the first time that someone had trouble understanding my son. Other grown-ups, charmed by his pronunciation, often chuckled and mimicked key phrases. My son might explain to an adult friend that he had dreamed about a red-eyed creature who chased him through the forest. “Is that right?” the friend might respond. “A wed-eyed kweecha, huh?” My son would look confused for a moment and then resume his monologue.  

“Oh honey,” I said now, drawing him as near as I could. “Your voice isn’t funny. You just have a hard time with the letter R. Lots of kids do.”

Some minutes later, he returned to his blocks. He built now in silence, no longer speaking of his really cool world.

Over a year later, our family doctor asked if we’d consider bringing him to a speech therapist. She acknowledged what I already knew: that most kids with a delayed R acquire it naturally before the age of seven. “But,” she went on, “you might consider whether it would help his confidence to address it before he starts kindergarten.”

I thought about how lately any time someone asked his name he would lean into me and whisper, “You say it.” At first I assumed he was simply being shy. “You can tell them!” I’d say. “Hah-lan,” he’d tell them, and inevitably the person would give him a puzzled look. “Hollin?” they’d say, looking to me for guidance. “Harlan,” I’d correct.

We met with the speech therapist the following week. She was a gentle woman, gangly and tall with long hair, who played card games with my son and sent him away with stickers. Under her guidance, he became an expert at distinguishing Rs from Ws. He could hear the difference between weed and reed, between walk and rock, no problem. But this didn’t mean that he could pronounce his Rs. Instead he paused at R words; he gave them his full attention and came out with a sound that wasn’t quite W, but was still quite far from a recognizable R.

After six months of speech therapy, his therapist wanted to talk to me about his progress. She had recently tried recording my son so that he could hear his pronunciation. He’d been enthusiastic initially, but when he heard his recorded voice, his face grew red and his eyes welled up. He insisted that the recording machine was broken, that it made him sound weird. “Wee-ahd.”

“We can keep trying,” she offered, “But he might just need a break.” As we left her office that day, I felt relief at letting go of this one thing—a small thing really, a single letter of the alphabet. I was hopeful that after a few months my son might find R on his own.

He didn’t. He started kindergarten and made new friends, and built elaborate structures out of Legos, and learned to read, and basically did all of the things that you would want a happy, healthy kindergartener to do, only he still didn’t like to say his own name, and if you asked him who his teacher was, he didn’t want to say “Mrs. Brown.”

At the end of the school year, my son’s class put on a recital and in the days leading up to the event, my son confided that he was nervous. “What are you nervous about?” I asked him. “What are you going to do?”

“It’s a suh-pwise,” he told me.

When the evening of the recital arrived, the gym was packed with at least sixty parents and siblings and neighbors and relatives. At the last moment, I remembered to stuff my pocket with tissues. My son stood on the front riser, dressed in his brand-new Minion t-shirt and freshly laundered shorts, his version of a fancy outfit. The whole class sang The More We Get Together, and then Mrs. Brown handed the microphone to the girl sitting at the edge of the front row. She spoke with absolute confidence: “My name is Hailey and my favorite thing about kindergarten is reading corner.” She handed the mic to the boy on her left. It wasn’t until he began to speak, that it hit me: my son was next in line. In just moments, he would take the mic and have to introduce himself to a crowd of near-strangers. My heart sped. My face flushed. My son took the mic, looked out at the crowd, and gathered his breath. I swear, he took forever to speak, but once he started he didn’t pause. “My name is Hah-lan,” he said. “And my favowite thing about kindahgahten is computahs.”

The audience clapped politely just as they had for the two proceeding children. No one else knew that my son was likely terrified, that they had just witnessed an act of significant courage. But I knew. I sat there with my tissues, snotty and teary and beaming, grateful in a strange way for that impossible letter R for teaching my son that it’s okay to say your own name, to claim what you love even if you can’t say the words perfectly.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

I Know You Had Surgery, But How is the Dog?

I Know You Had Surgery, But How is the Dog?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Pickles5One look at the dog and I knew that my surgery had been upstaged. 

 

This was going to be like any other road trip home from Wisconsin to pick up stuffed animals that had been accidentally left on the camp bus, except that on this one, I needed to tell my kids I had cancer. I’d been stewing on what I’d say for sometime, and being a writer, a fan if there ever was one of controlling the narrative, I had my presentation scripted. I’d kick off with, “This is going to sound worse than it is.” I’d wrap up with something like, “It’s no big deal.” In the middle, I’d drop the phrases, “a little bit of breast cancer” and “a little bit of surgery.” I’d be breezy. I’d be calm. And I’d be acting. Isn’t that so much of what mothers do? Spin-doctoring is not in the basic job description. But it should be. All mothers, at some point or another, will pretend the new hair-do isn’t hideous. Or the bloody gash is just a little scrape. Or the bi-lateral mastectomy and reconstruction will, for her kids, be just another day, only without their mother. I suppose these maternal charades fall into the category of the little, white lie. We mean well. We’re out to either make our kids feel better or ourselves look better so that in some therapist’s office somewhere down the line we’re not catching the blame for something.

My own mother, for example, in effort to introduce healthy foods, once tried to pass off fish as veal. She disguised the fish in breading so that it resembled her familiar veal cutlets. “Tonight’s veal is going to be delicious,” she told us gesturing, without pause, to the baking sheet on the counter. But then she put the “veal” in the oven, and the house began to stink. Like fish. Her cover was blown. We ended up at McDonald’s.

But where would we end up aside from a therapist’s office if my own cover was blown, if my daughters had to digest the full story of my bout with breast cancer, including the risks of surgery and my own fear? And so, I went to great lengths to ensure that during the weeks of my surgery and subsequent recovery, our house would run so smoothly that my girls, both 14, would barely know I was gone. There wouldn’t be a wrinkle in their routines, let alone their psyches. I arranged for dinners. I typed out schedules. I even sent the dog away to a sitter. As anyone who’s ever had a dog knows, if you are attempting to control a narrative, a dog in the picture is the last thing you need.

I went into the hospital. I came out. All with little issue, fanfare or expression from my daughters, which at the time—right up until the dog was in a fire at the dog sitter’s—I took as a sign of their strength, that they’d bought into my campaign of “It’s no big deal.” It didn’t cross my mind until, as I mentioned, the dog got stuck in a fire, that the absence of their questions and their stoic sweeping of floors while their mother sat motionless on the couch was, in fact, a charade, as well. They didn’t know how to handle the situation, I’m sure they’ll be telling their therapists, because their mother, who was plugged into Netflix, binging on Friday Night Lights and Norco, wasn’t giving them the words or the tools or the permission. In fact, they’ll tell their therapists, their mother was beginning to enjoy herself.

This was true. While a six-hour operation does seem like a ways to go for a little time off, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a part of me wasn’t enjoying the role-reversal. “There are many positives that come from cancer,” people all along my journey had told me. All along, I’d added the words, “assuming you survive,” in my head. But now, with the surgery behind me and drugs in my system, I was beginning to buy into this narrative, too. “It’s a blessing in disguise,” I told my husband. I was getting rest and our kids, who lacked in household skills, were gaining experience. “It’s a win-win,” I said from the couch as my children took in the mail and boiled the noodles.

Soon after I convinced myself of this, the house began to smell. Not like fish but like smoke. The dog hadn’t been burned, but he’d inhaled smoke for hours on end. My husband had collected him from the sitter’s while my kids and I, exhausted from pretending that everything was no big deal, were still asleep. When we awoke, there it was—a furry hole in my narrative—another patient on the couch. This one couldn’t open his eyes. Or wag his tail. Not only couldn’t he move, but he couldn’t breathe either. My first reaction was, of course, to curse the situation. One look at the dog and I knew that my surgery had been upstaged. Next to him, the beloved dog, I became as I’d been wanting to be seen: no big deal. Forget the research I’d done on how to talk to your kids about cancer, I was now scrambling to explain the term hyperbaric chamber, which is where the dog spent the next four days at a hospital in the hinterlands with my children and my husband at his side. So long to the mother being mothered. So long to the round-the-clock care. So long to the drugs, even, as I now needed to be lucid to care for myself. So long, too, to my charade. Our house turned to chaos. My own mother, who I’d forgiven for the “veal” incident, came over. She did the laundry and brought me food, while I murmured, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Only after the fact, after the vigils were held for the dog, the tears over the dog dried, the worry about the dog’s prognosis died down, could I see that the dog did us a favor. The dog himself had wagged the dog. He’d made me seem in relatively good shape, but more than that he was, as he always is, a diversion. He vomits on the car keys as we’re rushing to leave. He pulls the last piece of steak off the dinner table. He lightens the mood, relieves tension and makes us forget our concern of the moment, which on that day at that time, I know, was me. At least that’s the story I’m telling myself now.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

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The Happy Kid Handbook: A Book Review

The Happy Kid Handbook: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The Happy Kid Handbook coverAbout a decade before I became a mom I interviewed parents of young children as part of a large research project. We would talk for over an hour, sometimes two, and toward the end of our conversation I always asked, “What are your long-term expectations for your child?” The vast majority of the time most parents gave the same answer—one that I came to dismiss as “pat,” but now that I am a mother I appreciate much more. The answer? “I just want my children to be happy…”

If anyone understands this nearly universal parental instinct it is Katie Hurley, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of the just released The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. Hurley acknowledges parenting experts are sometimes part of the cause of our stressful world, a group of course to which she belongs, but her goal is to offer as much practical advice as possible.

Hurley draws on her own experience doing play therapy with a variety of children in California; she presents very little other research in the just-under 300 page publication. But her direct tone will appeal to those who like to read a book that sounds like a conversation with a friend. Most of all, her very do-able practical tips will provide parents a wealth of choices for picking the right activities or exercises for kids and families.

The Happy Kid Handbook is divided into two parts; Part I, “Raising Happy,” focuses on building seven specific pro-social skills and Part II, “Lessons in Coping,” looks at how to equip children to deal with the ups and downs of life. The seven skills emphasized in Part I include powerful play, understanding emptions, learning to forgive, building empathy, developing assertiveness, embracing differences, and cultivating passion. The first chapter in this section focuses on introversion/extroversion and I felt a bit concerned that this was the main focus of the book, since so many hone in on this distinction/continuum these days, but that is just a small component of The Happy Kid Handbook (Though it did yield a good quote that I have already been reminding myself of during the busy fall transition time, “Fair isn’t about everyone having exactly the same thing. Fair is about everyone having their needs met… Fair, as it turns out, is increasing your child’s happiness by figuring out who your child really is.”).

In all parts of the book Hurley is pragmatic, offering incremental tips, so you don’t feel overwhelmed, and concrete activity suggestions. For example, at the end of Chapter 1 she reminds us, “While the ultimate goal tends to be to raise independent, HAPPY kids, this is a goal best accomplished in stages.” In Chapter 7 I loved the apple picking exercise, to help children see and appreciate differences. I also loved Hurley’s suggested exercise in Chapter 10 about anxious kids and her straightforward explanation as to why a worry box works, “Kids love concrete strategies. When they can see it, feel it, and keep it nearby, it gives them a sense of control over the situation. A worry box is a great way to help kids put their worries away for the night.” Her practical attitude is reinforced in the suggestion to play lots of Chutes and Ladders as that will help kids build frustration tolerance—and this non-crafty mom was relieved that not every suggestion involves creating something physical from scratch.

The other major strength of The Happy Kid Handbook is in the way it frames stress. Hurley explains, “Many kids get to high school before they even understand the meaning of stress. They might experience it along the way, but because it isn’t talked about frequently in elementary and middle school, they don’t make the connections between what they’re feeling and what’s actually happening in their lives.” She urges parents to talk about all emotions, including stress, and to model self-care for children as a strategy for mitigating our stressful world.

Usually with parenting books like this, where the author is a practitioner-turned-expert with a particular point of view, the audience who reads it is often a receptive one. In other words, parents who might benefit from the advice or tips in a book are the least likely to pick it up and those who read it are already sympathetic to its message. In this case though I think The Happy Kid Handbook might reach those anxious parents and not just preach to the choir both because of the title, the cover art, and the overall tone. Because, after all, we all just want our kids to be happy, right?

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 The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World

My Son Lived

My Son Lived

By Nicole Scobie

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We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop.

 

Most mom friendships are formed because of a shared mutual experience, like two kids in the same daycare, the same class, or team. The moms get to know each other, first exchanging a few words at drop-off or pick-up, then warming up over a cup of coffee. Over time, they become friends. The shared experience of their children’s similar activity creates a bond that can last for years, as the moms watch their kids grow up together.

Natalie and I met that way, when my son Elliot was 5 and her daughter Zoé was 4 years old.

Our kids had shared the experience of cancer.

Elliot was diagnosed two weeks after starting school. A 6-inch tumor in his abdomen, multiple smaller tumors all over his lungs, making it stage 4. Zoé’s was in her bone marrow, requiring high intensity treatments.

Almost a full year of some of the hardest days (and nights). I held my son’s hand as he asked why this was happening. I talked to him about life and death, telling him how brave he was, while I was shaking with fear inside.

Friendships between two moms born this way are like no other — there are so many things that fall away when you’ve seen each other at your worst, at your angriest, at your most anxious and at your most relieved.

Bizarrely, despite the horrific situation we found ourselves in, the thing that drew us closest was laughing together. Nothing beats watching your child squirt a syringe of liquid at the doctor with another cancer mom there to witness it and laugh hysterically with you later. Laughing is great — I actually think laughter might just be the antonym of fear.

The downside of these friendships is that you now worry for another child. The burden is huge — knowing just how serious the situation is, feeling the fear because it is so bitterly familiar.

And then, the magic word: remission. No cancer left. Clear scans.

Both our kids entered the world of “normal,” where they could play outside with other kids again, where their hair started to grow back, where they, and we, were free of the hospital except for the regular three month checkups.

Natalie and I founded a non-profit organization together, to raise funds for research and help other families. One out of four children with cancer will die — we wanted to change that. We worked endless hours at it but still laughed at some of the ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Speaking in front of large groups, for example, something we both hated, became a regular thing. What a strange path our lives had taken.

And meanwhile, there were always those three month checkups, to make sure the cancer hadn’t come back. The stress of watching Elliot lying on that table, me standing nearby with a heavy lead vest on. The technician telling him over the intercom, “Ok now lie very still.” The table sliding through the scanner. “Now take a deep breath and hold it.” The table sliding back through the scanner. “Ok now breathe.” I’d exhale. “Now we’ll do it again, lie very still…”

And the wait until days later, when my husband and I would be escorted into the oncologist’s office to get the results. Scanning the face of the doctor and nurse for some sign. Relief streaming out of me like hot air from a kettle after finding out all is clear. No relapse. We were free to go, back in three months.

First thing out of the meeting with the oncologist, as we walked down the hallway and before we got to the hospital elevator, I texted Natalie. We were both thrilled, relieved.

And then, a few months later, I got Natalie’s message, when she was in the hallway of the hospital.

But it was not good news this time.

Zoé had relapsed.

The cancer was back.

You are expecting me to write that we cried together and supported each other, like close friends do in the movies. But we didn’t. We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop. And won’t help anyone get through what happens next.

We didn’t cry. We fought back. We rallied. We researched and learned about this cancer, about the treatments. When one treatment failed we were ready for the next. Up until that last day when Zoé had bravely endured a brand new promising treatment and her parents went in for the results to see if this time, it had finally worked.

And I got the message from Natalie. I can’t say what I felt. Empty, I think.

The cancer was still there. The scan showed a little 4-year-old body, full, from head to toe, with cancer cells.

We knew even before the oncologist officially said it that there would be no more treatments.

Zoé died in her mother’s arms two weeks after that text message. I spoke at her ceremony. I couldn’t face the audience so instead I turned and spoke to the big, poster size photo of Zoé on the altar next to the flowers and toys placed there. I thanked her for what she had given me, the chance to have known her, the friendship with her mom, and I thanked her for her laughter. Zoé laughed a lot too.

My son lived. Her daughter died. There was no logical reason for it to turn out that way. It just did. We got lucky with one and unlucky with the other. Despite it all, we are still close friends.   

Almost two years have passed. Elliot has checkups every six months now. I text Natalie right away, and she’s relieved.   

Our non-profit has grown and now funds critical research, and supports families while their child is in treatment. It’s what we always wanted. Even though things didn’t turn out how we wanted.

Nicole Scobie, mom to three great kids, one of whom is luckily in remission from stage 4 cancer of the kidney.

Author’s Note: Nicole and Natalie now run zoe4life.org, the non-profit organization that supports kids with cancer and their families.

Photo: Samuel Zeller

Just One Box to Define My Child

Just One Box to Define My Child

By Michelle Robin La

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My kids have told me they feel lucky to be unique, belonging to two cultures. At other times, they’ve said, “I don’t want to be half. I want to be one or the other.”

 

Name, address, birthdate. Those were easy questions to answer. I sat at a low table on a tiny chair in an elementary school classroom filling out forms so my oldest daughter, Trinh, could enter kindergarten in the fall. Then I got to the boxes. Check one. One? When the 2000 census forms arrived, I checked off multiple boxes for each of my three children to define their race. Which box should I check when my child fits into more than one category? White like me or Asian like her dad?

“Your daughter doesn’t look anything like you,” the owner of the photography shop said when he developed our family pictures. “It looks like you didn’t have anything to do with them at all,” a family friend told me. I had laughed away these comments. But when I was forced to choose one box in which to define my child, I didn’t want to justify these comments by checking a box I didn’t fit into. My dad had joked that because my husband was half Chinese and half Vietnamese, but three of my grandparents were Swedish, the kids were mainly Scandinavian. There wasn’t a box for that.

Despite our superficial differences in appearance, whenever I take my kids to school, the store, or a playground, no one asks if they are mine. Maybe it’s because we live on the West Coast, where interracial marriages are common, or because people mistakenly assume my children are adopted. Or maybe it’s because when a child runs to his mother for comfort on the playground, no one questions the bond. Well, there was my mother’s elderly friend who asked, “Where did you get your children?” When I told her I got them from inside of me, she argued.

I can’t remember which box I checked to enroll Trinh in kindergarten. I probably checked different boxes for each of my three children when I registered them. Trinh, on the other hand, showed no hesitation when her fourth grade teacher had asked which box to fill in on the standardized tests. “Asian,” my daughter said. I was surprised she was so definite. Do people always identify with the most unique part of them? Didn’t my daughter feel she was part of each? Was it the Asian last name? The coloring of her features? The rice we ate every night?

I asked my younger daughter, Emily, which ethnicity she identified with. “Asian, of course,” she answered. “My hair and eyes are brown, so I look it.” She laughed. “Besides, I’m smart—I fit the stereotype.”

I was happy for my daughters to have their own look, different from mine. I resembled my mother so much that people made a joke on her name and called us “Dot and ditto.” Although I take it as a compliment now, at the time, I just wanted to look like me. People used to think my daughters looked so much alike they’d ask Trinh about the smaller version of her they saw.

My son, Kien, looked uncomfortable during these discussions. When I asked what he considers himself, he said, “I’m not anything except me.” When Kien was a toddler, his wispy baby hair was a strawberry blond. I held it up to my own hair and it matched. Later it turned a light brown. People say my son looks just like his father. Now that my daughters are older, people don’t say they look just like their dad. But my friends say they see my smile or expressions in their faces.

My kids have told me they feel lucky to be unique, belonging to two cultures. At other times, they’ve said, “I don’t want to be half. I want to be one or the other.”

Back in Seattle, people thought of my girls as white because there were so many Asian kids, a lot of them their friends, who had both parents from Asia. But, when we moved to Santa Barbara, people seemed to think of them as more Asian because there were so many Caucasian and Hispanic kids but not many Asians. My husband says we’re all-American.

When the 2010 census came, I checked multiple boxes for all my kids. But when Trinh handed me the form for a college class she was applying to for the summer, she had only checked the “Asian/Vietnamese” box. “You can check ‘white,’ too,” I suggested.

Emily—my daughter who said she fits the Asian stereotype—has said people mistakenly refer to her as Irish or Japanese. After her trip to Europe with her grandparents, she became interested in that part of her heritage. We joined the local American Scandinavian Foundation and she’ll be Lucia in their Christmas festival this year. Emily started to check any box she could on forms: Swedish, German, Chinese, Vietnamese. When her AP exam results came, I noticed she checked “white.” Puzzled, I asked her why.

“I could only check one,” she said. “I usually check ‘other,’ but they didn’t have it. I don’t feel Asian because I didn’t grow up in an Asian country. Maybe if both of my parents had come here from Asia….” I told her that on her college application she can check both.

Like my husband, I can only check one box. So it’s interesting to see which boxes my kids choose and how their reasons for checking them change. Curious, I asked Kien which box he picks. “I usually check ‘Asian’ because most of our relatives are Asian.” When I told him his sister usually picks “other” he gave me a funny look. “If I could, I’d check every single box and say I’m human.”

Michelle Robin La is the author of Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands, the true story of her husband growing up in the Mekong Delta during and after the Vietnam War. She lives with her husband and three children in Santa Barbara, CA, and blogs about her culturally-blended life at michellerobinla.com.

Just Supporting a Detail That My Son is of Mixed-Race

Just Supporting a Detail That My Son is of Mixed-Race

By Wendy Kennar

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The fact that my son is of mixed-race, that my husband and I have had an inter-racial marriage now for sixteen years isn’t worth noting. Our skin colors are mere details not defining characteristics of who we are as individuals and as a family.

 

“So your son is mixed.”

The comment was made by a woman sitting next to me at a writing workshop. And although we were all writers, I was at a loss for words and didn’t quite know how to respond. I stammered something along the lines of some people think my son looks more like my husband, while others think he looks more like me.

For me, the fact that my son is of mixed-race, that my husband and I have had an inter-racial marriage now for sixteen years isn’t worth noting. Our skin colors are mere details not defining characteristics of who we are as individuals and as a family.

But then I’ll read something and realize with a start that our family is not only considered “non-traditional,” but up until 1967, would have been illegal as well. (The Supreme Court decision in June 1967 made it illegal for individual states to prohibit two people from different racial backgrounds from marrying.)

When we were dating, I did think about the differences in our skin color. I wondered what it would mean for our future children (a sign I really cared for Paul). How would we explain a white Mommy and a black Daddy? Would our child feel “too different?” But the more I got to know Paul, the less I paid attention to our racial differences.

I think my environment played a huge part in me acknowledging Paul’s skin color but leaving it at that — an acknowledgement not an insurmountable obstacle. I grew up (and continue to live) in Los Angeles where it’s possible to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell items from across the globe. My parents (now married for forty years) were of different religious backgrounds. And although they both faced family opposition regarding their decision to marry, they successfully blended their two belief systems for our family. My siblings and I grew up knowing that you could pray anywhere, you didn’t need to go into a special building. We grew up knowing that all people are supposed to do their best, be kind, honest, and hard-working. And I grew up with our own familial version of holidays — an artificial Christmas tree and a menorah, ham and potato latkes for Christmas Eve dinner.

However, during my childhood I don’t remember any of my friends celebrating both winter holidays. It was either Christmas or Chanukah, not both. And I wanted my son to feel a part of a larger group, knowing that he wasn’t an abnormality in any way. So before he was born, actually before I was even pregnant, I began building his library. Along with favorites such as Goodnight Moon and The Cat in the Hat, I went out of my way to ensure my son’s books reflected him and our family. I purchased Shades of Black, The Colors of Us, The Skin You Live In, and Black, White, Just Right.

In fact, the topic of race never came up until our son was in kindergarten and learning about Dr. Martin Luther King. Then he verbally acknowledged the differences in our skin colors. He commented that Daddy’s skin was dark and mine was not. He asked questions, wondering which section of the bus he would have sat in. (I told him that he would be considered colored which meant the back of the bus). He said it was so unfair that he and Daddy wouldn’t have been able to sit with me on a bus or eat with me at a restaurant. And I told my son that it wouldn’t have been possible for us to be a family back then.

We’ve talked about how the laws have changed because of brave people who worked hard to change them. And for now, the topic of race is a non-issue for our son. He’s more concerned about his loose tooth, his birthday, a class field trip. Race is there; it’s a supporting detail, not the main idea.

Yet, before enrolling our son in kindergarten, my husband and I had the daunting task of determining our son’s “primary and secondary race.” Up until that point, he was Ryan — not an African-American boy, not a Caucasian boy, just our boy. (His preschool forms hadn’t asked any questions about racial identity). But these forms needed us to make a decision, and my husband and I didn’t take the task before us lightly. We paused to reflect and discuss and consider.  Suddenly, we were feeling quite omnipotent, having a power we really didn’t want. In the Jewish religion (my mother’s religion), a child’s religion is the same as the mother. If I followed that doctrine, our son would be considered white. However, during the days of Jim Crow laws, if an individual was deemed 1/8 black, he was black, which means our son would be considered black.

And, ultimately it was our son who influenced our final decision. My husband and I remembered an incident when our son randomly commented that Daddy’s skin was dark and mine was peach. My husband asked our son what color his skin was. Ryan replied, “dark white.”  Ryan’s skin is darker than mine, but lighter than his daddy’s. And so we filled out the forms — “African American” for his primary race, “white” for his secondary race. (Those were the terms used on the school’s enrollment forms.)

Our son was born in 2008, the year the United States elected its first African-American President. The possibilities and the realities are continuing to widen. But, there will be people who make comments, “So your son is mixed,” that remind me that for some, we are considered a non-traditional family. That’s their issue not ours.

My son is used to diversity. We see it — yarmulkes and Indian saris. We hear it — Korean, French, Spanish. We taste it — crepes, sushi, tamales. Our neighbors include a Korean family, a Latino family, an African-American family, a white family, and a Polish/Indian family.

From my experience as a public school teacher and now as a parent, I don’t see one concrete way to define family. I acknowledge actions that define family. Helping each other.  Taking care of each other. Playing with each other. Being patient with each other. Laughing with each other. Showing love to each other. Establishing traditions.

The details: My son is of mixed-race. My husband and I are examples of an interracial marriage.

The main idea: We are a family.

Wendy Kennar is a freelance writer who finds inspiration in her son and from her memories from her 12-year teaching career. Her work has appeared in several publications, both in print and online. She blogs at wendykennar.blogspot.com.

The Day My Daughter Became a Woman

The Day My Daughter Became a Woman

By Beverly Willett

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The moment it struck me that my daughter had gone from childhood to womanhood.

 

According to my mother, I transitioned from child to woman when I turned 12, the day I started my period.

“You’re a woman now,” she said, explaining that my ability to conceive conferred this new designation on me. With this induction into womanhood, she told me that I now had the potential to create another human being inside myself, to this day the most mind-boggling mystery I know. And yet everyone I knew referred to the monthly inconvenience that went along with being a woman as “the curse.” That hardly made me feel like a woman. But I don’t recall an “aha” moment either when I realized I’d actually become one.

When my own daughters reached puberty I didn’t think about all this in the same way my mother had. We had the sex talk, of course. Thankfully, by then there were feminine products that made the monthly event feel like less of a curse, although I never referred to it like that in front of my daughters. At that age, in my mind my girls were also definitely still kids.

To my complete surprise, years later I had an actual “aha” moment with my youngest. It had nothing to do with her having reached a physical milestone. But at the moment it occurred I suddenly felt certain that I’d just witnessed her crossing over into womanhood.

She’d called from college last winter to tell me that she’d been chosen for the lead in the spring drama. To say that we were both blown away by her good news would be putting it mildly. I’d seen her tackle meaty roles in high school. But her portrayal of Martha in Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour would be her most challenging yet. And she was following in the steps of her older sister who coincidentally had been cast in the same role in high school!

The story is one of two young women who run a girls’ boarding school which is closed down after one of their charges starts a rumor the two are lesbian lovers. The gossip isn’t true, but the lies nonetheless destroy lives and careers. The play opened on Broadway in 1934, and was subsequently banned in several major cities. In 2011, it had a revival in London’s West End starring Keira Knightly.

Excited to see my daughter on stage again, I bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room.

A few days before leaving, I found an article online about the run. In the accompanying photo, my daughter appeared full-figured in a below-the-knee matronly dress, her usually long flowing hair swept off her face in a tidy demure updo. The physical transformation was so startling that one of my friends didn’t recognize her. I like to think I’d have known my daughter anywhere, but even I can’t be sure if I hadn’t known it was her when I’d first glanced. The female in print bore scant resemblance to the one who’d slept amid a pile of clothes for a dozen or more hours at a stretch over winter break.

But nothing prepared me for my encounter with “Martha” in the flesh.

After my plane landed, I checked into my B&B, grabbed a quick bite, and headed to the theater. I took a seat several rows back in order to avoid catching my daughter’s eye. My heart skipped when she made her entrance. She was poised and polished, as always, and in command. Some people find the play dated, but to me it was riveting to the end, the themes still fresh – the betrayals and heartaches, the struggle of building a dream only to watch it fall apart, the shock of forbidden love to every character in the cast.

The play crescendos when Martha finally confesses her romantic feelings for her best friend, feelings Martha only begins to identify after the lies have been unleashed. I watched the fright and overpowering nature of this realization start to dawn in Martha’s consciousness, spreading over my daughter’s face and body as they stirred in her soul. And as her tears began to gently flow on stage, so did mine.

By now you’re probably wondering whether this was the moment my daughter realized she was lesbian. But no, that’s not it. I already knew she wasn’t but, under the circumstances, of course I felt compelled to ask again. “No, Mom,” she said, as we shared a moment about our preference for the male species.

“You can tell me anything but lies,” I had assured her many times during high school, and again when she went to college. Indeed, my daughter had witnessed the crippling power of betrayal in my own life when I discovered my ex-husband’s affair. I only wanted honesty between us no matter what the subject. And indeed, after giving her the go-ahead, my daughter has told me things I wasn’t always happy to hear. But the unloading was usually a relief and undoubtedly brought us closer.

As I sat in the theater a few months ago, viewing my daughter through the lens of the imaginary character she was portraying, I no longer saw the child she’d once been. Instead, I saw and heard the woman my daughter had become, a person of empathy who so understood the power of truth deep within her own soul that she could convey the real life beating of the heart of another, even an imaginary character, as only a woman who possessed compassion could so convincingly do. And that was the moment it struck me that my daughter had gone from childhood to womanhood. That I had been there to witness it, in all its splendor and glory. And could be proud of the woman my daughter had become.

Beverly Willett recently moved to Savannah, GA. from Brooklyn. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Prevention, Family Circle, Newsweek and The Mid; visit her at www.beverlywillett.com and on Twitter @BeverlyWillett.

Photo: Ludovic Gauthier

Awake 

Awake 

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Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.

 

When you stop sleeping, really stop sleeping except for forty-five minutes or an hour at a time, your eyes have to work harder to focus. Your muscles feel like gelatin. Your hands shake. And when you haven’t slept, and the small vulnerable thing that is your few-weeks-old child settles on your chest, radiating warmth into your sore muscles, whispering tiny warm breaths onto your tired skin, it is really, really hard to stay awake.

Night after night, for Liddy’s first months, my husband and I took shifts holding her up straight and still, to minimize her reflux and let her digest the calories she so desperately needed. When my turn came, I would sit on the couch with my knees pulled to my chest and cradle her there against me, keeping her body, and mine, upright, trying to stay awake, praying she wouldn’t slide off onto the floor or press her tiny nose and mouth into me and stop breathing.

My sister Megan had diagnosed Liddy’s reflux before the doctors, hearing her pained gulps and grunts through the phone. Megan’s own daughter, Corinne, was born just ten weeks before Liddy; Corinne’s reflux was confirmed when she stopped breathing in her car seat and went to the hospital in an ambulance. So the girls shared the same illness, the same long nights. And Megan and I were on similar schedules, up every hour or two to feed, hold, and soothe. We held them for thirty minutes, an hour, or sometimes, for the rest of the night.

This was in the time before texting and smartphones, so first Megan and I tried keeping each other company through email. But it was difficult to keep Liddy upright and still while I typed, and the keyboard’s clicking and the blue glow of the screen made her restless. The murmurs of my voice relaxed her, though, so Megan and I developed a system. We set our cell phones to vibrate and kept them beside us through the night. We could call each other without the risk of disrupting our rare opportunities for sleep.

Our late-night phone calls came to resemble our childhood sharing a bedroom, whispering to pass the time when we should have been asleep. Even after our older siblings moved out, leaving us with our own bedrooms, Megan continued to stay in my room at night. Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.

When Liddy did sleep, I’d sometimes wake to a missed call message, then check my email to find a hastily written message right in the subject line: “HELP. Up all night no sleep.” Or, “To Liddy from Corinne. You up?” OR, “WAIT WAIT do not call. Cannot find cell phone and ringer is on.”

“Daylight savings time is going to screw us,” Megan said once. “We’re not frigging farmers.”

I burst out laughing.

“Stop!” she said. “You are going to shake her.”

We talked about the girls’ health, about our toddler boys’ antics, but mostly we spoke about mundane, silly things. But often, we just relaxed into silence punctuated by the girls’ shallow breathing as they relaxed into sleep.

“Is she asleep?” One of us would say, eventually.

“Yeah. I think I’ll try to lay her down.”

“Bye,” we’d whisper, and hang up. We’d release our finally-settled babies from our tired arms, and fall into our own brief sleep before it was time to start again.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at www.kdempseycreative.com. or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage/Having a Kid Strained My Marriage: Two Perspectives

Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage/Having a Kid Strained My Marriage: Two Perspectives

Having children together is a big step in any couple’s relationship and one that will invariably affect the dynamic between them. For some people, like Zsofia McMullin, the arrival of a baby can put a strain on the marriage. For others, such as Carinn Jade, the joint act of childrearing can pull a couple closer together.

 

Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage

By Carinn Jade

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My husband and I met in law school, both of us on the clearly marked path to becoming lawyers. We built our relationship on equal ground, walking parallel and in the same direction. With a healthy chemistry, complementary personalities and a similar vision of marriage, careers and kids, we felt confident as we moved swiftly towards our future together.

We were in sync, but we never learned to operate as a unit. This reality set in only after the outpouring of love and support that held us up during our engagement celebrations fell away, and everyone else moved on with their lives once the wedding was over. We knew we were expected to do the same, but we didn’t know how. We felt unsure and alone as the new entity of “married couple.” We dealt with those feelings of isolation in very different ways, causing our parallel paths to hastily diverge.

We broke the vows we’d made—love, honor, cherish, for better or worse—like naughty schoolchildren testing boundaries, and no one came to save us. When we arrived at the point of collapse, we faced one another with the daunting choice to stay together or divorce. On paper, it would have been easy to leave: we had been living apart, we had no children, we had absolutely no idea how to fix us. Yet neither one of us could do it. That visceral knowledge has proven powerful beyond measure. Surviving that period created some sort of invincibility shield that has protected us from everything else life throws our way.

Once our marriage was on solid ground, we dove headfirst into starting a family. While we waited for the baby to arrive, I soothed my anxiety with knowledge, reading dozens of parenting manuals. When our son was born, colickly and high maintenance, the books went out the window and we operated in a constant state of emergency. Our strategy was nothing less than all hands on deck. Our teamwork was shoddy, our interactions tense. But as our son grew, we grew, and soon the parenting machine ran without mechanical failures.

Our second child completed our transformation from individuals into a team. With a toddler and a newborn, we quickly learned to operate not only with efficiency, but with gratitude for the other adult in the room. My husband’s extra pair of hands provided the relief I needed after a long day at home, his office stories kept me sane amidst a sea of cartoon theme songs, his sense of humor kept me laughing when I wanted to cry.

Despite the fact that I’ve held full-time positions during my six years as a mother, our division of domain always remains shockingly traditional. I’m the lead parent and he’s the lead provider, but we manage careers, money, childcare and household chores together. It’s never easy or simple, but it’s part of our lives. We do all the cooking and cleaning and childcare by ourselves. We don’t have a bankroll to fund tropical island vacations. We are mired in the unsexy, mind-numbing details of domestic life, but our marriage thrives because we work as a team to set and achieve the goals for our family: we debate approaches to discipline, we budget for Legoland, we squirrel away money for higher education.

We do not share all marital responsibilities equally, but we maintain tremendous respect for one another. We treat each other with as much kindness as we can muster. We make no space for contempt and bitterness. We put all our effort into empathy and communication. At the end of the day, I suspect our marriage looks like so many that are strained. Many an evening we’ve gone to bed angry, exhausted and frustrated. But by morning’s light, we shed the tension like the cloak of night. We begin the day in the same bed, as part of the same team.

It helps that I think my husband is as interesting and entertaining as the day we first met. We love doing the same things, we enjoy the stories the other brings to the table, and our vastly different perspectives offer a wider view of the world than we could ever have alone. Do we annoy each other? Yes. Consider the other’s ways of doing things mildly infuriating? Of course. But after eleven years of marriage our initial chemistry has deepened into an unshakeable rapport. I’d rather spend my days with no one else.

Friends often want to know our secret to having a stronger marriage after kids. Sometimes I dip into my well of possible answers: live in close physical proximity to one another (think: Tiny House, or a 1000 sq. ft. apartment), find someone who shares your interests, pick a partner that makes you laugh. If you’ve got nerves of steel: bend your marriage until you find its breaking point and work your way back. But the truth is I don’t have a single ingredient that ensures a relationship will thrive, with or without kids; I only know the magic recipe is one you have to make together, even when the kitchen is a mess.

Carinn Jade is a mother, lawyer, yogi, writer and habitual non-sleeper. She tweets @carinnjade and publishes parenting essays on Welcome To The Motherhood, both in an effort to distract her from the novel her agent has in submission.

Photo: Somin Khanna

 

Having a Kid Strained My Marriage

By Zsofia McMullin

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The story I like to tell about how having a child strained my marriage takes place on the third day of our son’s life. We had just arrived home from the hospital with our tiny, precious baby. My parents were waiting for us with dinner and a house warmed against the snowstorm winding down outside. All I wanted to do was eat a bowl of soup and go to bed.

But we had bills to pay. As in, some of our utility bills were due soon and when my mom offered to help us, my husband immediately accepted and asked her to take them to the post office. But first, I had to write those bills—we’ve always done it this way, because my husband has horrible handwriting and is distrustful of online payment.

So there I was, ripped and bleeding and sore and so, so incredibly tired, writing checks to the electric company. I remember sitting there, thinking that this was absurd, that I should really just tell my husband to cut me some slack and deal with the bills on his own while I took a shower. But I think I was even too tired to do that.

Five years later, I am sort of able to laugh about this. But at the same time I know that first moment at home has come to symbolize how our marriage changed almost instantly when our son was born. All of a sudden, I had needs and wants and priorities that were completely different from what they were just mere days earlier. My husband’s world jiggled a little with the new arrival, but then it settled right back to where it was before.

I don’t want to paint my husband as insensitive, nor do I want to suggest that keeping our marriage strong is his responsibility alone. Clearly, there are two of us in this relationship, and if there is strain, we are both at fault.

But still, that discrepancy between how my life has changed since our son arrived, in the mind-blowing way it can for mothers, and how his life has stayed the same continues to be a fault line in our marriage. And yet, I have come think of it as a gift, as something unique that I carry as a mother, along with my stretch marks. My husband didn’t get those either, that’s just the way it is.

Before kids I was able to be more tolerant of my husband’s eccentricities and whims, I had patience for whatever “typical male” behavior would surface and just roll my eyes and then roll with the punches. I was a lot more forgiving with him—and with myself. Once our son was born, however, whatever grace or patience I had left me. What was once a cute, quirky personality trait that made me smile during our dating days, became a huge annoyance, a problem. My husband didn’t really change—I did.

Having a kid was not the first strain on our marriage. There was the usual tension during our newlywed years caused by not being used to living together, by not having enough money, by moving around for jobs and constantly compromising about careers and where to live. “We made it through those all right,” he said. “Having a kid is just another one we have to get through.”

But to me, this is not some kind of a race to clear hurdles. This strain feels more abiding. We will always be parents, our son a permanent fixture in our relationship, the third point in our triangle. We will always have differing views on how to raise him—we are getting better about negotiating those differences, but the conflict is there nevertheless. And frankly, I will always be a mother first, and a wife second.

We married pretty young—we were both 26. Looking back I realize I was too young to be able to determine what I would need the father of my child to be. At that point, there was just no way to imagine us as parents. The roles were too unfamiliar, too open to interpretation and circumstances. Sure, he is loving and tender and gentle and flexible and caring and understanding. But how could I possibly have known how he would react when I thrust a baby in his arms? I was surprised, for instance, that even bleary-eyed with exhaustion my husband loves order, that he is a disciplinarian and says things to our son like, “not while you live in my house.”

The truth is, we don’t know what life would have done to us without a child. The arrival of our son strained us, but it hasn’t broken us. We have good weeks and bad weeks, days when we can be patient and kind and forgiving and days when we can barely look at each other through our resentment and anger. It has been hard work to get to this point where we know that, although the way we express our commitment to our family is different, we are both motivated by love.

Our marriage has changed—I don’t know if I would call it a rift, but there is a separation there, a distance between who we used to be, how we used to be together, and how we are now.

Zsofia McMullin is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other publications. She blogs at zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.

 

Perfect Label

Perfect Label

By Mandy B. Fernandez

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She was crying, again, my daughter. Red-faced, scrunched up nose, piercing scream crying into my ear. Once Vivian began her fit, I knew it would be at least ten minutes before she’d stop. The noise from the gym could not overshadow my daughter’s tantrum. Other parents and children were now staring. Wailing and arms flinging, my two-year-old was not happy with my decision to move her to the side. She kicked and shouted her entire body spread across the bare floor, becoming even louder. I could not hold in my emotions anymore, my own disappointment for another failed mother-daughter outing. I sat down next to her and began to cry. Why can’t we go anywhere without this happening? Why can’t I comfort her or make her happy these days?

This kind of incident was happening about ten times a day, every day. I was exhausted. My two-year-old seemed exhausted too. I loved Vivian with my entire soul and being, sure. But I didn’t like her very much lately. Who was I kidding, I didn’t like myself much either.

A few weeks later was the play date I’d never forget, at the home of a mom I was just getting to know, with two other mothers and their kids. The other children seemed to play well together with the pretend kitchen, the puzzles and the games. My daughter, however, wasn’t interacting with them. She didn’t want the other kids near her, and she had trouble sharing toys. Vivian had several meltdowns as soon as we’d arrived.

The hostess of the group, a woman I had barely known, watched my daughter’s outbursts. Forty minutes into the visit she asked, “Has Vivian been tested for autism?”

I had several moments of panic… Autism? What? Because of a few outbursts from my child? I never responded to the question. The mom didn’t seem to care because she turned to the other guest and began a normal conversation with her, like what she had asked would have no lasting effect on me.

I looked at my girl—my beautiful, wild-curly haired daughter crying. There is nothing wrong you, with my child! This could not be true! Before I cried in front of the hostess and other mother, I gathered up our things and said we needed to leave for naptime.

With my daughter protesting, I struggled to buckle her into her car seat. And sobbed all the way home agonizing over that mom’s words. Could my child have a form of autism? No, that could not be. How dare she say that to me! She doesn’t even know my child!  Then I let her question seep in, and a sense of intense worry followed. Is there something wrong with Vivian? So what if she doesn’t like loud noises or tags on her clothes? Or that she’s not crazy about certain textures of foods. She makes eye contact. She smiles. She hugs. She’s perfect, a little quirky, but still perfect.

I called Jen, a friend of mine, a teacher, someone I trusted, that I felt truly knew my child. I replayed the scene for her. Jen said I should not listen to those crazy words.

“Don’t be ridiculous! Vivian is just fine. She’s played with Sarah with no issues. Maybe Viv didn’t like those kids or perhaps she was just tired.”

I talked to my husband. He too agreed. That I had overreacted to this woman’s ignorance.

Still I made the appointment with our pediatrician to have Viv examined. If for nothing else, for peace of mind.

“I do not think your child has a form of autism. She is particular and perhaps a bit quirky about certain things but Vivian is within the normal behavioral range,” Dr. Wolff’s told us after performing a series of written, oral and physical exams.

He added, “She will probably outgrow her sensitivity to sounds, and textures, but if you want another opinion, have her tested by the county.”

So we had Vivian tested. My husband and I watched as she spent close hours “playing” and answering questions, forming sentences and following directions. The testing lady scribbled notes onto her clipboard.

Vivian didn’t protest, or ask for a snack or even inquire about the bathroom during the assessment. Instead she was just a kid trying to figure out what this grown up wanted and how she could have a little fun.

A week later, we received the official test results. The academic and behavioral exams came back “normal” within the standard range.

I glanced at the notice, then tossed it in the trash. I didn’t need a piece of paper telling me what I had already known, deep down. No one was going to mislabel my kid.

To this day, over three years later, Vivian still has “quirks” as the doctor put it. She can control her feelings and does not have tantrums anymore. But she still doesn’t like loud noises, especially cries from her sister. She still insists on removing the tags from her t-shirts and dresses.

She is my perfect little girl. This is how I choose to label her.

Mandy B. Fernandez is a freelance writer living in Pensacola, Florida with her husband and two children. She writes creatively and professionally on topics such as education, business, creative arts, health, family life, parenting and natural foods. You can learn more about her at www.writtenbymandy.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

My Bikini Body

My Bikini Body

By Jennifer Berney

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In front of the dressing room mirror, I tried to decide between two versions of the same swimsuit: the one-piece or the bikini.

The one-piece resembled the swimsuits that both my mother and grandmother wore throughout my childhood, the kind of suit that safely covers the entire bottom, and ruffles at the hips, the kind of suit that knows how to keep a secret.

But the bikini—a modest two-piece that still secured me in important places—made me feel like a different person, one who loved her belly well enough to show it a little sunlight, one who didn’t need to hide. That was the person I wanted to be.

In the thirty-eight years that I’ve been alive, I’ve spent at least thirty-two of them looking down, sucking it in, wishing the fat away. The summer of my first grade year I would snack out of boredom and then do leg lifts on the floor of the living room, trying to burn off the calories I’d just consumed.

But no matter what I tried over the years, I never achieved flatness, and as I approached thirty my belly began to grow undeniably round. Each night when I stepped out of the shower and leaned over to dry my legs, the fat on my belly gathered and hung.

Two pregnancies simply sped the process my body had begun on its own. These days, weight-loss ads in my Facebook feed often feature a belly that looks alarmingly like mine, one that sags a bit over the waistline. Their message is clear: a belly like mine must be tamed.

I bought the bikini. It was the first I’d ever owned. The first time I wore it out, I was on a road trip with my sons. On a Saturday in July, after helping my kids into their swim trunks and life vests, I ducked into the motel bathroom, put the thing on, and looked in the mirror. Viewed from the side, I looked about five months pregnant. As I walked to the pool, I wondered how likely it was that another motel patron would ask when I was due.

As it turned out, we had the pool to ourselves. There were no other eyes to assess me. I could have relaxed, but I didn’t. Instead I stood around feeling awkward, trying to straighten anytime I stooped, to tuck anytime I sagged. My six-year-old practiced his cannonballs. My two-year-old splashed on the first step and pointed to the deep end.

“Do you want me to swim?” I asked him.

“Yeah.” He nodded.

I jumped in. I swam away from him, into the deep end, my arms spreading through the water, carrying me forward, my torso and legs floating and gliding, buoyant. I could hear my son’s voice behind me, reminding me “So deep, Mommy; so deep!” The pool was a small one. It only took me five strokes to reach the other side, but when I turned around, the look on my toddler’s face was unmistakable: it was the look of total adoration, the kind of love I’d spent a lifetime seeking.

My older son noticed and laughed. “He thinks you’re Aquaman or something.”

“Mommy, swim!” my younger son commanded me, over and over, until my fingers had pruned and I shivered. I wrapped myself in a towel and led the boys back to our room.

That night as I fell asleep in the motel bed, I remembered my son’s awestruck gaze and turned it over in my mind. I wondered how anyone could love me with so much enthusiasm. I thought about what he had seen in me—the same smoothness and the strength I felt while gliding through the water.

To my sons, I am not the sum of my parts, the balance that remains once you subtract all my physical flaws. My six-year-old doesn’t love me any less for my acne. My two-year-old doesn’t wish I’d lose twenty pounds. When they look at me they don’t assess me, they love me.

To assess and to love are, I’m learning, verbs that are mutually exclusive. To assess something is to step away from loving it, to decide—from a distance—what has value and what is worthless.

When you love something, you are right up next to it, inside it, you are it. When one of my children coughs my own throat tickles. In the middle of the night, when my little one calls for me and I settle beside him, our breathing finds the same rhythm. When my son watched me swim that afternoon he was all caught up inside the motion of me, the bigness of me.

If I truly wanted to love myself, I would take a cue from my kids and quit assessing. I wouldn’t look at my body with a stranger’s eyes, I would instead just inhabit it, feel the heat of the sun, the coolness of the water, the strength of my stroke. These are the reminders I will whisper to myself the next time I put on my bikini.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Intolerable

Intolerable

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At my son Carter’s last visit with his psychiatrist, he answered all of Dr. S’s usual questions: Was he sleeping? How was his mood? Did he see or hear anything that other people didn’t?

He answered her and as always filled in the gaps in conversation with chatter about his hobbies and his dogs. He told Dr. S about plans for his 13th birthday the following weekend, launching into an extensive list of the gifts he hoped to receive, but Dr. S has known Carter for a long time and has learned how to interrupt him gently to get the information she needs. At the end of the appointment, she ran Carter through a brief neurological exam (all normal), ordered labs (standard), and said, “Well, it seems like you’re doing really well, dude. I think you can come back in three months.”

Carter whooped. “Three months! Yes! Mom, can I have your phone?” and he charged out of Dr. S’s office and down the hall while he tapped at the phone screen, trying to connect to any family member so he could spread the good news.

I smiled at Dr. S, saying, “He’s never gone three months before.”

Dr. S returned my smile with her gentle one and said, “He’s come a long way.”

Once in the car, Carter called my dad, my mom, his own dad, then his dad’s mom. I don’t think any of the people he called were clear on what Carter was telling them, but they understood his excitement and congratulated him.

Elated as he was, I’m not sure even Carter understands how momentous this is. It’s true that he’s never gone three months between visits with Dr. S, and that Dr. S has been his psychiatrist for seven years, but what he doesn’t remember is that he’s never gone three months in his life without seeing at least one doctor. There were months when he saw multiple doctors and weeks when he had three or more appointments. There were days in his first six years when I drove him to more than one appointment as we tried to identify the causes of his frequent vomiting episodes, his sleeplessness, and his unrelenting terror. Later, there were weeks when I spoke to Dr. S every single day as we struggled to keep Carter out of the hospital and safe while he rocketed between suicidal depression and overwhelming mania.

I remember those years in the haziest of ways and if I didn’t have files overflowing with reports and assessments from doctors, psychologists, and schools, plus my own journal and blog entries, my memory would make everything smaller, more manageable. Carter screamed like a child afire almost from birth. He was beset by physical and emotional challenges whose causes we wouldn’t begin to understand for years, and the fear and sleeplessness we endured came within a breath of killing me and destroying our family. Carter suffered, and I suffered with him.

My primary occupation during that time was wishing. I wished that my child was well. I wished, if he couldn’t be well, that whatever was wrong was something visible and easy to identify so someone would name it and ease his suffering. I wished the unbearable and dangerous lives we were living would either improve or end because I couldn’t imagine continuing on for years as we were living then. I lost any hope I’d had that things would ever be better.

There is a suffering worse than one’s own, and that is to see one’s child suffer and be unable to help. When Carter was overwhelmed by rage or anxiety; when he was moaning over the pain of a migraine; when he was begging me to kill him or trying to throw himself from the car on the freeway; when he was screaming all the way to school from terror; when he clung to my neck and begged me to make him feel better; when he lashed out at me and demanded I let him kill himself; in every traumatic and terrifying moment I prayed God, put this in me. Take it out of him and put it in me and give my little boy life. The human heart can break, and break again, and again, and again, and eventually there descends a kind of numbness, which is a horror in itself because it seems to indicate the death of one’s empathy.

Eventually, we landed in the office of a developmental pediatrician who heard my concerns and understood the gravity of our situation. He prescribed medication to help Carter sleep and I am not speaking hyperbolically when I say that he saved our lives with those little pink pills. By the summer he turned six, it was apparent that Carter needed a higher level of care than a developmental pediatrician could provide and we were transferred into the capable hands of Dr. S.

The worst (please, I beg, let it have been the worst) was still ahead of us, but we have never since then been alone. Now that Carter has been relatively stable for several years, I have had some time to recover, and although I have a hard time remembering those impossibly difficult years, I know they changed me. I don’t recognize pre-2002 Adrienne. I am stronger in some places than I was then, and irredeemably broken in others. I’ve been refined by fire.

My family lives now with a tenuousness I couldn’t have borne before. When people ask me what I think the future holds, I can only shrug. Carter may live with us at home, or he might be killed by police who don’t understand his behavior and interpret it as aggressive. He might hold a job and live in a group home or he might take his own life, as so many people with his diagnosis do. He could stay fairly stable for the rest of his life, or he could go off his medicine and become acutely psychotic, maybe going to prison for some crime committed when he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I can’t predict and I don’t try. I do my best, in each day, to help Carter experience success and find some joy. That has to be enough.

Photo: Matt Benson/Unsplash

Catching My Breath

Catching My Breath

By Carla Naumburg

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She needed me to acknowledge her reality, her feelings and her fear. I couldn’t do it, because it would have meant acknowledging my own. I couldn’t do that either.

 

One.

One degree. That’s what the weather app on my phone reported one morning this past winter as I was rushing around, trying to get myself and my girls dressed and fed and out the door on time.

In my mind, one degree is much more than just uncomfortable. One degree is scary. My six-year-old daughter was diagnosed with asthma when she was about four years old. I also have asthma, and our impaired lungs don’t respond well to air that cold. Inhaled steroids generally keep our chronic coughs at bay, but memories of her asthma attacks, including an especially bad one at school last fall, are rarely far from my thoughts. So I came up with a different plan for drop-off on that especially cold day. Rather than making her walk with me from the parking lot into school, I would drop her off right in front so she could get inside quickly. Then I’d circle back around, park the car, and walk in to meet her.

When I told my daughter the plan over breakfast, she promptly burst into tears. She was scared. Even though I knew she would be fine, she told me she didn’t feel safe walking in by herself. She couldn’t identify why she felt that way, but I wasn’t terribly surprised by her response. Along with my problematic lungs, she also inherited my anxiety. As a result, she has a hard time with the anticipation of changes to our routine, especially when she can sense that I’m anxious too. Looking back, I’m sure she was picking up on my worries that morning, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

“I know you’re scared,” I said in a voice that was both harsh and weary. “But it’s freezing out there, and I’m worried about your breathing. I’m trying to keep you safe.”

“But I’m scared, Mommy. I don’t want to walk in alone. I want to walk in with you. Please, please don’t make me. I’ll wear my scarf over my mouth. I’ll walk fast. I promise.” Huge tears rolled down her face as she sat in front of a bowl of soggy Cheerios.

“I don’t care,” I snapped at her. The words came flying out of my mouth before I even realized what I was saying. “You’re not walking across that parking lot.”

The truth is that in that moment, I didn’t care about my daughter’s fear. I knew she’d be fine, if unhappy, in the few minutes it took me to park the car and walk back to her.

What I cared about in that moment was my own fear.

I know it’s unlikely that my daughter would have stopped breathing on the walk from the parking lot. The worst that might happen was shortness of breath, and she had a rescue inhaler at school. But just as my little girl wasn’t able to think logically about her fear of walking a few feet on her own, I was unable to think logically about what I was feeling.

I was scared she’d stop breathing, and I would do anything to make that fear go away, even if it meant triggering a similar anxiety in my own child.

For years I’ve dismissed the impact that multiple trips to urgent care and the emergency room with a croupy infant who grew into a wheezing toddler and asthmatic preschooler had on me. I told myself that my own history of coughing until I vomited and struggling to breathe had prepared me well to manage a child who had inherited my faulty respiratory system.

Then she had an asthma attack at school this past fall and all of that changed for me. In the past, we always had a plan, and I knew what was going on and what to expect. A barking cough meant twenty minutes on the front porch at 3:00 in the morning; the same cold winter air that could trigger an asthmatic cough often opened up her croupy airways just enough to avoid a trip to the emergency room. When she started wheezing, we went to urgent care if it was open, and the emergency room if it wasn’t. My illusion of control remained unchallenged until that morning when the phone rang and I heard a voice on the other end telling me, “We’ve called 911 for your daughter. Please hold.”

And then, nothing.

Instantly, I was on my feet, pacing the living room, my hand clenched around the phone, my eyes tracing the soft curves of the wood in our floor as my imagination went wild in those few minutes while I waited to be transferred to the school nurse, who was busy tending to my daughter.

Breathe. Breathe. Is she on the floor? Is her face blue? Breathe. Breathe. Are they pumping her chest? Can she breathe? What if she cant breathe? What if? What will I do? What will happen to our family? How will I survive? Breathe. What do I do now? What if my baby isnt breathing? How would I ever breathe again?

BREATHE.

As it turned out, she was O.K., and the school did an excellent job taking care of her. She had had an asthma attack in gym class and after taking her rescue inhaler, her blood oxygen levels didn’t come up as well as the nurse would have liked so she called 911. At no point was she unconscious or in serious danger. By the time I got to school, short of breath myself from running across the parking lot past the ambulance and fire truck idling out front with their lights flashing, my baby was weary and a bit frightened, but she was safe and breathing well.

Yet something changed in me after that 911 call. For years, my go-to response in times of crisis had been gratitude. Each time I caught my mind drifting into the world of “what-if’s,” I intentionally reminded myself how fortunate we were to have access to effective asthma medications, knowledgeable and kind medical professionals, health insurance and highly skilled first responders. Thank God, I told myself. We are so lucky.

This is all true, of course, but it’s not the whole truth. What I didn’t realize—what I never let myself realize—is that all of those late night trips to the emergency room were actually micro-traumas that cut into my already constitutionally thin skin and left scars that were small enough to go unnoticed, but sensitive enough to leave me feeling just a bit more vulnerable with each passing event. I knew on an intellectual level that parenthood could be traumatic, but I was too busy counting my blessings to see that my experiences were also scary and confusing and exhausting, even if they weren’t the worst things that could happen to a parent. Gratitude had become my false messiah, a practice I clung to at the expense of acknowledging the full range of emotions that welled up inside me each time my daughter got sick.

All of those feelings—the intense fear, the overwhelming sense that my daughter’s life and well-being are, to a larger extent than I ever thought possible, beyond my control, and the flood of gratitude—hit me on the day of the 911 call. But I never let myself take the time to notice and acknowledge them. Once again, I buried my pain and anxiety beneath a thick blanket of “thank god it wasn’t worse,” and tried to move on.

But some part of me couldn’t move on. And so I was left with this hard, tense kernel of anxiety and fear, ready to pop at the slightest hint of danger.

It popped on that one-degree morning, but I didn’t realize it until long after I had snapped at my daughter.

She needed me to acknowledge her reality, her feelings and her fear. I couldn’t do it, because it would have meant acknowledging my own. I couldn’t do that either.

And so I tried to yell it away.

It didn’t work, of course. It just hid the fear and anxiety under a layer of anger and silence. Nothing was released, nothing was transformed. Nothing was healed.

We’re both still scared.

And I’m still trying to catch my breath.

Carla Naumburg, PhD is the author of Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters (Parallax, 2014), and Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family (New Harbinger, Forthcoming). You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Warm Ink

Warm Ink

By Marie O’Brien

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“I want to get a tattoo,” says my 16-year-old daughter Marina.

Careful how you respond. Don’t talk too much, don’t be judgmental, don’t freak out, and don’t overreact. Just. Don’t. Feel. After countless conversations addressing her coming of age questions about periods, mean girls, God, sex, pregnancy and more, I have learned that listening with NO REACTION, while repeating what I’ve heard is the best route.

“A tattoo.” I drone in my best unemotional, non-committal voice. “So you want to get one?”

“A lot of kids are getting tattoos the second they turn 18,” she offers before I can tell her she’s not old enough and 18 is still too young.

Images of websites that beckon “Epic Tattoo Fails, click here!” are flashing through my mind as I struggle to repress the urge to expound upon tattoos with misplaced apostrophes and bad spelling.

Her deliberation continues. “And I wouldn’t have it in a location that’s easy to see.”

As if that would be the ticket to get me to say okay.

I start to tell her about poorly chosen tattoo locations and efforts to cover them during job interviews. I know I’m not supposed to react, but I can’t help myself.

“All of them,” I say as I curl my fingers to mimic quotations, “thought it was a great location at the time.”

Marina tilts her head in that way that says, “OK Mom, I GET IT.”

But her voice is conciliatory. “I know, I know. I’ve thought about that too. It would be somewhere that could easily be covered up—except maybe in a swimsuit of course.”

She persists. “And I don’t want anything trendy, I would think about it a lot before getting one.”

“Have you thought about it?” I ask.

She nods.

“What would your tattoo be?”

I don’t know what I’m expecting her to say, but what she says next makes my breathing stop for a moment.

She twists a ring on her finger and looks down.

“Two hearts linked together.”

And now I know where this is going.

“I want something to remember Matthew.”

The familiar lump catches in my throat.

Matthew is her twin brother that she never got to know—at least not in the way that we define getting to know someone. We gave Marina the ring the year before, engraved with two hearts linked. It reminded me of how at one time their hearts beat, side by side for 9 months, while bumping knees and elbows making space for each other.

She loved it.

Matthew and Marina came crying one-by-one into the world via C-section. We were told before the birth there was a heart problem with one of our twins, but doctors were going to do everything they could to save him. That day, excitement and innocent hope eclipsed my fear. As I lay on the operating table, I heard two hearty cries that buoyed my hopes and dreams. The nursing staff quickly placed Marina and Matthew in my husband’s arms. The four of us posed for a picture—my husband holding each baby, leaning close to my oxygen-mask covered face. Even his surgical mask could not hide the joy in his eyes. I didn’t realize at the time—that would be our only family photo. Medical staff swooped in and whisked brother and sister apart—Marina to a nurse’s arms, a warm sponge bath and swaddle in the nursery and Matthew to a lighted table, cold stethoscopes and probing tubes. He was quickly transferred to Children’s Hospital to a team of specialists. The hours ticked by, doctors came and went, the news, once hopeful, took a sharp turn the next day.

Matthew died 28 hours after saying hello to his twin sister, his family and the world. These memories of their birth come to me in a rush and tears prick at the corners of my eyes but Marina is waging a debate and is at the pinnacle of her argument.

“I wouldn’t get it right away; it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.”

I walk over to her and hug her close.

Matthew is permanently etched on me, on my soul, through my memories, however brief. Somewhere in the far reaches of Marina’s infant memories are his touches and his birthing cry.

As we hug, I am no longer bursting to share my opinion on tattoos. All my arguments have fallen away.

Perhaps she needs a retrievable memory—her own etching.

“You still have to wait until you are older,” I gently admonish with a smile, “but that sounds beautiful.”

Marie O’Brien is a freelance writer and recently started a blog (runnermomma.com) to share stories about her experiences as a recreational runner and full time mom of three teenagers. Her essays have been heard on Milwaukee’s Radio Show Lake Effect (WUWM-Milwaukee).

Photo: gettyimages.com

I Had A Boy

I Had A Boy

By Carrie Goldman

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I figured it would stop in about five years, when I no longer looked young enough to be adding to my family. It had started a decade ago, during my second pregnancy. First, a quick appraisal of my protruding stomach—taking in the small girl with pigtails already chattering by my side—and then the Question.

“Hoping for a boy this time?” asked the sales clerk, the customer, the grocer, the person in line, the passenger on the plane, the nurse in the doctor’s office.

“We’re not finding out,” was the standard answer I gave, which tossed the ball back into the other person’s court and usually fulfilled my conversation obligations.

The Question, I have learned, is built on automatic assumptions that society holds about a woman’s life, her path to parenthood, and her values, but rarely do those assumptions reflect my truth.

Our second baby was born, and she was another wonderful girl. The Question slightly shifted. People would see me with my two little girls, and ask, “Will you try for a boy next?”

“We are thrilled with our girls,” I would respond. I know The Question is born of curiosity, not malice, and that most people are simply trying to be friendly and make conversation.

But I began to notice the cultural bias behind the curiosity. I grew weary of the gender-based marketing that divides stores into seas of pink and blue and made a point of crossing into the boys’ section to buy superhero shirts and Star Wars toys for my daughters. I stacked little footballs and toy trains alongside princesses and jewelry kits. There are all different ways to be a girl and raise a girl.

When my girls were six and three, I became pregnant again. The Question came at me as soon as I began to show, sometimes in the form of a comment. “I hope your poor husband gets a boy this time!”

I would turn to my attentive little girls and tell them, “You girls are my world, and Daddy’s too. When people say things like that, it shows us how they think, but it is NOT how Daddy and I think.”

Our third baby was born, and we were overjoyed with another little girl. It has been almost five years since she arrived, and our family is complete.

Not a month goes by that a smiling stranger doesn’t comment on how I have three, count ’em, THREE little girls, asking if I will try for a boy next.

For years, I focused my responses on pushing back against the subtle stereotypes behind The Question. It was easier to channel my inner tumult on an external issue than on the additional reason why the question wrenched my heart, the silent response in my head. I had a boy. But something went horribly wrong when his kidneys formed, and he died before he got a chance to live his life.

That silent response erupted unexpectedly into conversation last week, when I was at Trader Joe’s with the trio, and a fellow customer watched my two youngest girls loading up a mini shopping cart with a crazy collection of foods.

She smiled at me and said, “Looks like you have some great helpers. Will you try for a boy next?”

Before I could reply, my oldest daughter said, “She had a baby boy that died and then she adopted me.”

There. There it was. I had a boy. The woman, poor thing, turned pink and beat a hasty retreat. My oldest daughter resumed grabbing cartons of berries. She piled them in the cart that her younger sisters were fighting over.

I tried to make reassuring eye contact with the woman, seeking to let her know that it was okay, that we are okay, but she had fled.

I wondered what led my daughter to speak up with that answer. Perhaps it was nothing more than the blunt honesty—a refreshing quality, really—that we find in children. Or perhaps she was seeking to validate her own place in the family, letting the other woman know that we do not need a boy anymore because we adopted her. Adoption and identity are complicated issues, and our oldest needs frequent affirmation that she belongs.

As we walked through the store, I thought about how simple and freeing my daughter’s answer was. In one sentence, she managed to dispose of the question that always stumps me. It felt good not to have to go through my internal dialogue before coming up with the right response.

It is difficult to reconcile the benign attempts of a stranger to make small talk with the intense thoughts that rush through my head. Do I commit a lie of omission in my response and deny the existence of that baby boy? It feels like a betrayal. Do I breach the unspoken rules of appropriate disclosure by responding as bluntly as my daughter did, thus forcing the other person into an awkward position?

I am not alone in this experience. I have two good friends who lost their first daughters and are now raising little boys. My sweet friends puzzle over how to answer the simplest of questions such as, “How many kids do you have? Think you’ll go for a girl next?” I have two more friends who, like I, lost baby boys and are now raising all-girl families.

The zigzagging of thoughts, the rapid internal dialogue, plays out again and again. I usually make a game-time decision to give a response that opens the door to new thoughts about the value of girls in society, because it does address one of my issues with the Question, while preserving my private pain. But every single time, a voice in my head says, I had a boy. But life is strange, sad and wonderful, and now I am the blessed mother of three phenomenal girls. This is my path.

Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. You can see her work at www.carriegoldmanauthor.com, including her new children’s chapter book, Jazzy’s Quest: Adopted and Amazing! co-authored with Juliet Bond.

Photo: gettyimages

Where We Go

Where We Go

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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I knew it would come back to haunt me. I knew that I would wish I had come up with a better, more personally truthful explanation to give my daughter, but at that point it was the best I could do, so when prompted to talk about where Daddy had gone a few days after he died, I took the easy route and answered: heaven.

It felt like such a moment of weakness. Even in the thick of the worst days of my life, I had always told her the truth.

I am a spiritual person, but I do not believe in God. I do not believe in heaven or hell, angels or demons. While my spiritual beliefs are still evolving, I do know that I believe in love, and positive energy (whatever form that may take, be it prayer, meditation, or simply good juju). I believe there is another aspect of our beings that is beyond the body, but I do not place my belief in God.

My daughter was barely three when her father died, however, and I was at a loss for what to say to her. Death and permanence are difficult concepts to comprehend at that age. After having the “Daddy is dying” talk, I wasn’t sure how much more I was capable of. A tiny part of me still didn’t believe that it was actually happening, that there was going to come a day very soon when my husband’s body would finally fail.

Almost all of the kids’ books that we had read together about death and grief talked about heaven, so she was at least vaguely familiar with the concept, and “heaven” seemed like an easy answer during an extremely difficult time.

Most people would probably struggle with the idea of wanting the love of their life to die, but I have been there and come through the other side. The day before he died, I told my husband he could go, that I loved him and that he could go. He seemed to know we were there briefly that morning and then he was gone again. He was no longer aware of the world, was in constant pain, and had not been able to speak, eat, or move in days.

I laid down with him in his hospital bed, my head on his shoulder and my hand on his chest, the way we used to lay together in the old days, and I gave him my blessing to die. I wanted him to die. The state he was in was not life. He was ready and I was as ready as I was going to be, and it seemed that all that was left in the meantime were varying degrees of suffering.

I called time of death the following night at 9:40 pm.

Fourteen months later at the dinner table, my four-year-old daughter asked me where Daddy went.

“I know it was the cancer that made him die,” she said, while spooning macaroni into her mouth, “but where did he go?”

I started explaining again how when some people die they get cremated and their bodies become ashes. I talked about how we had spread Daddy’s ashes in the places he loved most. This was a conversation we’d had many times before. She knew what had happened to his body, and it became clear that wasn’t what she was asking.

“But where did he go? Did he go to heaven?”

“Some people believe that when we die, we go to a place called heaven,” I said. “And Mama doesn’t believe in heaven, but she believes that Daddy isn’t hurting anymore, and that all he feels now is love.” She nodded.

“We’re always connected to Daddy through our hearts,” I continued, “because we will always love him and he will always love us.”

“We feel him right here,” she said, placing her small hand on her chest.

She was content with my answer and we finished our dinner talking about school, friends, and princess books, but I kept replaying the conversation in my head. Was I saying the right things? Was I giving the right answers? Did right answers even exist?

I don’t know how to explain suffering of that extent to my child, and I don’t know how to explain a religious place where the dead go that I don’t believe in. There will always be difficult questions, and I know that I often won’t have the answers, but I do know that I am doing the best I can.

I have seen and felt my husband since his death: in a sole firefly floating through our bedroom on a dark summer night; in a beautiful Luna moth clinging to a tree when I suddenly felt compelled to turn around mid-step on a trail; in a bottle of bourbon opened the night he died that inexplicably exploded while every other bottle in the cabinet remained intact.

Our daughter will grow up to develop her own beliefs about spirituality, religion, and death, and I hope she does plenty of exploring and inquiring in the process. It’s okay if she doesn’t end up on the same page as me, as long as she finds her own truth in the end.

In the meantime, I teach her about the good in people and about being kind to others. I talk to her about the wonder of life and about the beauty we can find in the world. I give her all of the love and energy I have to give, and then some more I didn’t even know was there.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury outreach coordinator, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in central Maine.  You can read more of her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

Photo: Kundan Ramisetti

Not Quite the Opposite of Spoiled

Not Quite the Opposite of Spoiled

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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“Is there anything else you guys need for camp?” I asked into the rear view mirror of my car. We were on our way home from toiletry shopping. Piles of white bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond covered my backseat. Amid the piles, sat my daughters. One of whom answered my question with, “I need sushi.”

I answered her with, “You need what?”

“Sushi,” she hollered, as if my confusion was simply auditory.

“I heard you,” I said. “I just don’t understand how ‘need’ and ‘sushi’ end up in the same sentence.”

“I won’t be able to eat it all summer,” she explained. “I need to have it before I go.”

Let me back up to explain that this conversation marked the culmination of a week long field day for my kids, a free-for-all of financially clueless thirteen-year-olds on the loose, making plans to go for lunch, to the mall, the movies, the amusement park, dinner. On one occasion, they even made reservations. All with a few taps on a screen and a click on the send button yet not an ounce of awareness as to the reality that not only did they need the assistance of parents to drive them to their destinations but to help fund them.

I’ve always known that I was going to drop the ball in some parental regard, and during the week between school and camp, it became evident that I had dropped the money ball. Clearly, I’d spent too much time over the years reading Charlotte‘s Web and Harry Potter and not enough time talking about taxes, return on investment and the value of a dollar. Not that I was unaware of these concepts, but I was hoping my daughters would pick them up by osmosis. Like I did.

Growing up, we never had formal financial programs like those Ron Leiber suggests in his book The Opposite of Spoiled, such as the Wants/Needs Continuum, which entails the charting of would-be purchases on a graph according to cost and something else. In our house, we simply had scare tactics.

“Money never burnt a hole in anyone’s pocket. Keep it there ’cause you never know when the banks are going to go bust,” my father, a child of the Depression, would tell us. He didn’t own a credit card, he didn’t miss a day of work and he didn’t need a Wants/Needs Continuum because to him, there were no such things as Wants.

My friends’ financial situations were as simple as my own. In middle school, we’d scrape together ten cents from the bottom of this backpack, a quarter from that, until we had enough money to buy an order of eggrolls at the Chinese place on our walk home from school. Two eggrolls split three ways. Who the hell even heard of sushi? We were, by virtue of our time and place, the opposite of spoiled.

But times have changed. My children are products of their time, and their time is filled with, well, products. Stuff abounds. As does access to it and awareness of it. My children’s estimation of their mother’s value of a dollar is diluted by Instagram, H&M and those God-for-saken Kardashians.

“Oh, we NEED antibacterial gel,” they said as they pushed through the aisles. They also “needed” Airborne, Boogie Wipes, nail polish remover pads, a hairbrush that magically detangles and defrizzes, a solar powered clock as well as a shelf on which to put the solar powered clock. I said yes to Bed and Bath products and no to everything Beyond. My daughters didn’t fight me on my decisions. I didn’t expect that they would. Neither of my two children are spoiled—they don’t ask for much, they don’t protest when the answer is no. But, they aren’t the opposite of it either.

I read The Opposite of Spoiled, hoping to center my girls’ perverted relationship to material things. But while full of great insights and ideas, I don’t have the methodological or mathematical skills to put them into place. If I did, I probably wouldn’t need the book in the first place. Take the aforementioned Wants/Needs Continuum. Even if I had fully visualized the Continuum (which I don’t doubt makes perfect sense) I can’t see it happening, at least in my house, where we barely have time to plan dinner. Generally speaking we buy on the fly as we dash between one activity and another. Not to mention, many of our “teachable moment” conversations occur in the car which is no place to start graphing.

I admit, it’s no place to start Googling either, but I did. In the Bed, Bath and Beyond parking lot, I googled the word “need” from my daughter’s iPhone (an oxymoronic act if there ever was one). “A need is a thing that is necessary for an organism to live a healthy life,” I read and then paused for the words to wind their way through the bags of junk and into their ears. “I don’t think that sushi falls under the umbrella of need.”

I tossed the phone back in my daughter’s lap and continued to drone as I drove, repeating cliches used by parents since the beginning of time, like “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” and “Super Loofah Body Scrubbers don’t buy happiness.”

After a few minutes they said, “Okay, Mom, we get it.” And I felt good.

Until yesterday when a letter arrived from my daughter—the same one who needed the sushi—explaining that she now “needs” return address labels for her letters. If you are wondering why she can’t address them with the same pen she used to ask for the labels, you’re not alone.

I thought one of the purposes of overnight camp was to bring it back to basics. Even Ron Leiber recommends overnight camp because camp reminds children of all that they have that they don’t need. He references air conditioning—but I’m thinking sushi. As far as all the stuff they don’t have that they also don’t need—I’m thinking labels—I guess I’m the one to remind my kids of that. And I suppose I’m also the one to remind them of all they don’t have that they actually do need—here, I’m thinking jobs.

I know two 13-year-olds who are free to babysit come fall. Message me, if you are interested.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

Image: dreamstime.com

An Ordinary Adventure

An Ordinary Adventure

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My co-worker was miserable about his ambivalence regarding children. His relationship with his girlfriend was getting serious, but she wanted to have kids someday and he thought a childfree life might suit him better.

I was 27-years old, a newly divorced mom of two very small children and quite enamored of those children. I was also exhausted by a life that felt relentless: I woke the children at 6 am on the weekdays, and they woke me at 6 am on the weekends. I drove them to daycare, went to work, went to my classes at the university, picked the kids up at daycare, fed-bathed-sang to them, and when they were asleep I studied until I was too tired to hold my head up anymore and I went to bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Do the laundry and cleaning on Saturday, go to church and do the yard work on Sunday, study in every available minute, try to blend parenting and schoolwork by reading Hamlet to my kids in between performances of Are You My Mother? and Green Eggs and Ham. I tried to shoehorn a bit of a social life into the few evenings the kids spent with their dad.

My co-worker, feeling like he was at a point in his relationship where he had to make a decision about children right away, was a little frantic when he asked me, “If I don’t have kids, will I be missing out? Will I be cheating myself somehow?”

I broke into laughter, which I regretted immediately. I could see that he was struggling with a major life decision and I didn’t want to make light of it, but the answer seemed so clear to me at the time.

When I pulled myself together, I said, “Yes, if you don’t have kids, you’ll be missing out. If you do have kids, you’ll also be missing out. Whatever you choose, you’ll miss out on some big, amazing things.”

“But you love your kids so much. The way you talk about them, it’s like they’re magic or something.”

“Oh, they’re magic. I didn’t know I could love anyone like I love them, but look: my relationship with their dad failed and leaving was agonizing because divorce is hard on kids. I wouldn’t trade them for any amount of money, but being broke with kids is a hell of a lot harder than being broke on your own. I don’t know; I don’t think you can really compare two lives this way.” I trailed off because I did adore my kids and never thought of them as burdens or mistakes, but it seemed a dangerous mental door to open.

*   *   *

When we were little girls, my sister and I would try to press our mom into expressing some hint that one of us was favored over the other, each of us hoping fervently that she was the one, the best one, the most important. Even now, when I call her, I respond to my mom’s hello by saying, “Hola, Mamasita! It’s your older, better daughter!”

The question we asked, to try to pry the secret of who was best loved from her, was, “If we were drowning (or burning, or being attacked by a bear, or otherwise being killed), and you could only save one of us, who would you save?”

Her unvarying response was, “I’d sooner die trying to save you both than make a choice like that.” The answer was not as satisfying as hearing that I was her favorite, but it was reassuring nevertheless. She wouldn’t choose me over my sister, but neither would she choose my sister over me. Inexplicably, she would choose us over herself, a thing I would not appreciate until I was newly pregnant with my first child and was nearly hit by a car in a parking lot. I slammed my fists down on the trunk of the car that was backing towards me, startling the driver into hitting the brakes, then screamed at her for almost murdering my baby (a seven-week fetus no bigger than a pinto bean) while my then-husband dragged me away.

I was pleased and surprised, and not a little relieved, to know of myself that I was capable of loving someone more than myself, but I never wanted to be the self-sacrificial mom. I didn’t hope I’d be the one who gave everything up, ignored her own needs, or let her life grow hollow while she fed the children everything about her that mattered.

*   *   *

My co-worker, still at sea and still trying to find his way to a decision about whether he would be a father someday, was frustrated with my inability to tell him if not having children would be a tragedy. He emailed me the evening after our conversations and said, “They bring out the best in you, right? Will I live my whole life, never being my best, if I don’t have kids?”

I couldn’t answer that question either, but I know that being a parent has showed me all the extremes of myself, good and bad. First I discovered my vast capacity for patience, and then I ran up against its limits. I found that I am a fierce advocate for my kids, and then I found that I may go too far before I knew what I was doing and sever essential relationships.

In short, my kids showed me my humanity. I thought having a child would make me something very different from myself: that I would know more, feel different, that somehow Adrienne as mom would be a new person entirely, with none of the challenges and maladaptive behaviors that plagued Adrienne as person without children. My children would be my redemption. As a mom, I would be worthier, better, nearly perfect.

*   *   *

Children should never be born with a job. It is unfair to conceive or adopt a child in the hopes that child will save a relationship, or be the person who finally loves us, or redeem us, or bring out the best in us. Those are enormous responsibilities to hang on a wee babe.

I had no conscious idea when I had my children that I hoped they would change me. It took years of self-reflection to understand that I had expectations of my children before they were born. Having a child is both cataclysmic and utterly ordinary, an experience that changes us in surprising ways, but never in all ways. Under the surface, I hoped having children would making me someone new, but I found (unsurprisingly) that once I had children I was still me, with kids.

I don’t know what my co-worker eventually decided. We were both students at the time, making the frequent job changes that some adult students make as our marketplace value shifts. I hope, whatever he chose, that he’s very happy, and that he remembers our talk as often as I do. When I feel like the worst parent ever, our conversation reminds me that my worst moments don’t tell the whole story of my life any more than my best moments do. I’m glad to know I’d rather die trying to save all my children than choose just one. I’m relieved that, in spite of my secret desire for my kids to save me from myself and the selfishness that lies beneath, I love them with an intensity that surprises me. Being a parent has showed me the worst of myself, but it’s also revealed the best in me. That doesn’t mean it’s better to have children than not, but it’s good to live a life in which I love some people with such ferocity it occasionally takes my breath away.

Photo: Olivia Henry

How to Survive the Night

How to Survive the Night

By Ashley Lefrak 

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9:36 PM

Walk your toddler back to bed for the twenty-seventh time.

Start reading on-line parent forums about what to do when a toddler keeps leaving his room after bedtime.

Read about people claiming to have solved this problem through the purchase of special sheets and fun tents! Read posts accusing these parents of either lying or having simple children. Read the sheet/tent parents telling the other parents to shut it about their kids’ intelligence.

Walk your child back to bed.

 

9:49 PM

Note the number of people publicly losing their minds online due to powerlessness in the face of toddlers. Commend yourself for not losing yours. Worry briefly about how you’d know if your mind were unraveling.

Read about those for whom calmly walking their child back to bed worked after two nights. Curse them loudly into the computer.

Read one woman’s post that says, “They grow up so fast cherish this time!” Admire her briefly. Accuse her of lacking an inner life.

 

9:45 PM

March your child back to bed.

Again.

Start counting something besides the number of times you, or your husband, have done this. Focus on the tiny hairs on your fingers or the not so tiny ones sprouting from your toes.

Don’t think too hard about toe hair and whether your amount is normal.

 

10:02 PM

Learn about people locking the door to their child’s room and wondering if it qualifies as child abuse and other people saying no it does not and still others claiming, “If you think it may be child abuse, it probably is child abuse.”

Notice your son, no longer standing in the doorway.

 

10:12 PM

Remember you have a husband. Attempt conversation with him unrelated to children or bedtime or exhaustion level. When this fails, contemplate his toe hair.

 

10:20 PM

In a sequence you can’t later recall, fall off your chair and realize you are asleep.

 

12:13 AM    

Startle-sit to the full upright position. Your baby has woken to find himself in the comfortable confines of his crib and is screaming as if someone just removed his liver with a soup spoon.

Try soothing him using the many methods you have devised. Listen to him wail and wonder what could possibly make anyone being held in the arms of a familiar, milk-scented giant this unhappy.

Imagine, for momentary comfort, that you are being held by a friendly milk-giant.

 

1:03 AM

When the only thing that gets the baby to sleep involves clutching him to your chest while bouncing in the dark, or spinning in a circle while rhythmically lifting your heels off the ground while trying not to fall, commend yourself. If you cried a little bit while bouncing or spinning, don’t worry. You will have another opportunity to not cry in less than hour.

 

2:12 AM         

Roll over. Grab your husband’s shoulder. If he doesn’t wake, start finger jabbing him directly in the rib cage.

If he still doesn’t stir, say something concise like, “Can you seriously not feel that?” If he still doesn’t move, there’s a chance he’s dead.

 

3:28 AM         

Have a delirious conversation with your partner in voices laden with misdirected accusation regarding whose turn it is to go to the baby.

 

4:32 AM         

Feel a sweaty palm, heavy as a wet towel, on your shoulder. Shove it away only to discover your toddler softly sobbing, clutching his arm to his chest like a wounded wing.

Walk him back to his bed. Stay with him until he falls asleep or you begin to drift off on the thin rug beside his bed indifferent to the feeling of your spinal column, disassembling.

 

4:50 AM         

Limp to the door while avoiding heel puncture from plastic toy anatomy strewn in your path.

 

5:20 AM

Tell the small child chanting, “Morning time! Want. Mine. Breakfast!” two inches from your bubbling saliva that it is, in fact, despite sunlight, still bedtime.

 

5:21 AM

Observe your toddler, bed height, exhaling CO2 directly into your mouth. Propose that he return to his room and make a tower out of his diapers, or play “eating breakfast” with his diapers, or any other task involving his diapers because you’re pretty sure he can reach them.

If he is still staring at you, give your voice the cadence of a new and exciting challenge. Ask if he wants to try something new and exciting. Come up with a developmentally inappropriate and therefore time-consuming task.

 

5:22 AM

When he says he “Don’t want to!” at a volume that explodes molecules formerly nestled in your brainstem, tell him he can do anything he wants.

 

5:23 AM

Contort yourself into an exaggerated “C” to accommodate the thirty-pound body now lying perpendicular to yours.

 

5:32 AM         

When the self-deception that you are getting anything approximating sleep ends, beg your husband to take the toddler to the kitchen. To Madagascar. Make wild and impractical promises in exchange for five more minutes of sleep.

 

6:12 AM         

Give the crying baby milk. Negotiate with him in your mind. I give you nutrients, you give me sleep.

 

6:19 AM

Briefly become a human hurricane powered by coffee strong as crack. Stay in motion or risk collapse.

 

7:02 AM

If you are waiting for a free moment, don’t. Go ahead and sit with the baby atop your thighs while trying to use the bathroom.

 

7:03AM

Prop the baby on a hip with one hand while jogging up your underwear with the other while flushing the toilet with your foot.

 

7:04 AM

Exit the bathroom to confront the mounting sounds of your toddler trying to speak over your crying infant trying to cry over your speaking toddler.

 

7:07 AM

Hide somewhere. Tell your toddler you are playing “hide and seek” but neglect to tell him what “seek” means.

 

7:12 AM

Overhear your toddler singing to the baby a lilting tune in his impossibly high voice about tinkle tinkle. About widdle. About tars.

 

Ashley Lefrak is a writer and photographer. Her work has been featured in n + 1 and The New York Times. She can be reached at alefrak@yahoo.com

Summer of Independence

Summer of Independence

By Zsofia McMullin

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It’s still weird, the silence in the house. I wander around the living room, puttering, putting away toys and books and crayons. I make tea and sit by the kitchen table waiting for the water to boil. I suppress the urge to peek out the front door, walk down our driveway and look across the parking lot to the grassy area where Sam is playing with the neighborhood kids.

It’s a recent development, this sudden burst of independence—last year, at four-and-a-half, he was too young to wander far from our front porch. But this year, it’s a regular occurrence. A couple of kids knock on our door and Sam swooshes past me to put on his sandals, standing still just long enough for me to smear some sunscreen on his neck and face.

He usually returns sweaty and muddy, with the names of new friends and tales of new adventures spilling from his lips, as he chugs ice-cold water and kicks off shoes.

We have our rules: You don’t go into other people’s homes. If you see a gun or anyone playing with a gun, you run home like a motherfucker (we don’t use that word, of course, but in my mind that’s how it goes.) You don’t get into anyone’s car. You don’t accept candy or food or drink without asking me first. You don’t help a stranger look for a puppy or a bike. You don’t go out onto the street.

*   *   *

I always believed that something magical would happen to me during the summer. It was during the summer that I read my first novel cover to cover on a balcony overlooking Lake Balaton in Hungary where we vacationed. It was during summer months that I learned to swim, ride a bike, walked to the grocery store by myself, went to my first rock concert. First time at a bar, first crush, first time holding a boy’s hand, first kiss—all happened during warm, perfumed summer evenings.

I always felt more grown-up once summer came to an end, as if all of my maturing and growing was limited to those few warm months. Once school started and my freedom was taken over by schedules and after-school lessons and homework, it was harder to feel that forward movement, that sense I was really changing.

I see that in Sam, too. We are not even halfway through summer and he’s gotten taller and stronger just over the past few weeks. His skin is darkened from the sun, his knees are scraped and skinned, and his body is filling out with muscles. In May he was a baby. In July he is on his way to being a kindergartener.

I watch him run off with his friends and wonder what kind of magic will happen to him this summer, the next, the one after that, and after that…

*   *   *

“You should take a bath by yourself. You are a big boy now,” my husband tells Sam and instructs him on how to wet washcloth, lather soap, scrub toes and ears. “But I want Mama to give me a bath!” Sam protests and I am right there with him. “What is this hurry with independence?” I ask, only half-joking.

Of course, he has to learn to bathe himself. But not yet. Please not yet. He still has baby thighs and soft skin. I can still kneel next to the tub and let the warm water from the washcloth trickle down his neck, chest, and belly. He still lets me wash his hair, the soft slope of his shoulders, his twig-like arms. He has tiny toes that look like shrimp and when I look at his knees it’s hard to tell what is a bruise and what is dirt.

I am already letting go of so much that it seems impossible to let go of more right now. Especially because he gives this time, this moment of closeness so freely, willingly, giggling as I tickle under his arms and at the bottom of his foot. I towel him off and put lotion on his sun-kissed skin, dress him in soft PJs.

Is there a simpler pleasure than a freshly-bathed, sleepy child?

*   *   *

The day camp where I drop Sam off is new to both of us. It came highly recommended, but I don’t know any of the camp-counselors or the other kids or parents. We get there early and the kids are already gathering on a large, open field.

Sam doesn’t hide behind my back as I talk to the camp counselor—what is she? Nineteen, maybe?—and I can tell that Sam likes her long, dark hair and friendly smile. I stand around for a bit, but Sam is already chatting with another little boy. “So, are you ready for me to go,” I ask after a few minutes. “Yes, go!” he says without even turning around.

I walk back across the field to my car and sit there for a moment, watching as Sam and the other boy chase each other with their bug spray bottles. I want to run back and say, “Be careful! Don’t get that in each other’s eye!” But I stop myself.

I drive off wondering if maybe I have done something right with this parenting thing, after all. Isn’t it a good sign when your child separates from you easily? Doesn’t that mean that he is attached to me, that he feels safe and confident? I think I read that somewhere.

I pull over and inhale my ice coffee to stop myself from breaking out in loud sobs.

*   *   *

During the summer I paint my toes rainbow colors, drink beer on the back porch, eat ice cream every night. I wear pants with elastic waists and slip into comfy flip-flops. I pick up Sam early from daycare so that we can hang by the pool or eat snacks and watch TV on the couch together. I make him lemonade with sun-shaped ice cubes. We stay up late, play with the water hose, plant flowers, eat tomatoes off the vine, roll down the car windows.

*   *   *

From time to time, Sam gets scared of his own independence. He hates the conflict of wanting to do things on his own—tie his shoes, ride his bike—and his inability—as of yet—to do so. “I can’t do anything! I am stupid!” he yells as he tries over and over again. He wants to roam farther afield—walk to Taekwondo class from my car parked a few doors down, ride the tilt-a-whirl alone. But some of these are just too scary, so he returns to my arms sad and disappointed.

That’s when I remind him of all the things he can do by himself, that he couldn’t do before: sit up, walk, talk, chew solid food, pee in the toilet, put on his clothes, make his bed, build with Legos, operate the remote control, play soccer with his buddies.

“It will come,” I tell him. And I want it all to come for him quickly. But I am also secretly thankful every time I have to zip his jacket, because when I bend down to do so he is just at the right height to bury his nose in my hair and whisper: “Mama, you smell so good.”

Zsofia McMullin is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other publications. She blogs at zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.

Photo: gettyimages

Place Between Special and Olympics

Place Between Special and Olympics

By Caurie Putnam

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Somewhere in the narrow swath between Olympics and Special Olympics you will find an athlete named Brady. Not Tom Brady or Brady Quinn, but Brady Putnam—my Brady, age 8.

Brady was born with a rare genetic, neurological disorder called hyperekplexia. Hyperekplexia means “exaggerated surprise” and that is exactly what I received when Brady was born. Upon his first breath he went into a prolonged startle, froze and turned blue. It was the first of hundreds of startles Brady would have every day until he began seizure medication to subdue them.

Anything could make Brady startle—a breeze, eye contact, a barking dog, an errant hockey puck hit by his older brother Brice. It was startling. He was startling.

He was also beautiful and strong.

Despite his medications—typically fatigue inducing—he never seemed to tire. Though he hit all of his milestones late, when he hit them, it was with full force.

I secretly wondered if Brady was the son of mine who inherited not just the startle gene, but the Big Time gene. His grandfather had played minor league baseball, his great uncle was a PGA pro, and his distant cousin was a quarterback for the New York Jets—a member of the elite quarterback draft class of 1983.

Yet, when it came time to sign Brady up for Little League and Timbits Hockey, his other gene—the startle gene and the developmental delays that went with it—overpowered his natural athleticism.

I’ll never forget how excited he was to get on the ice for the first time in his padded armor with his first hockey stick. He made it through about ten minutes of practice until the cold sent him into a prolonged startle. “Just breathe baby,” I whispered as I took his sweaty helmet off.

“Me done with it,” Brady said later, of hockey. “Me done.”

Brady was crushed ice hockey was not for him—neither was soccer or swimming or gymnastics. Little League is currently on the chopping block. My boy who has hit at least a single every time at bat this season recently had a prolonged startle in the outfield and had to be removed from the game. “What’s wrong with Brady?” his teammates asked.

It’s complicated.

Brady, who is in an inclusion second grade classroom, has had some luck with adaptive sports—sports modified for children with medical or developmental challenges. He plays adaptive lacrosse, which he loves. The coaches are understanding of his startles, his speech disorder because of his startles, and his need for frequent breaks. Yet, when Brady is “all there” he dominates the net. Sometimes it seems unfair. He is so good.

He did therapeutic horseback riding for years, but he reached a point where walking in circles with a leader was not enough to satiate his love of competition. “Me want to jump barrels,” he said. “Me want to be a cowboy.”

Sometimes during adaptive sports clinics my blonde, lithe, muscular Brady is mistaken for a volunteer—a child from a local mainstream sports team helping out the “special” kids. If you evaluate Brady purely on the force of his throw, the power of his kick, or the speed of his run you would probably make the same mistake.

If you get down on one knee and ask Brady his address or where the nearest bathroom is, you will probably get a blank stare if you get eye contact at all.

I grapple with where Brady belongs. He is clearly an athlete, but what kind of athlete?

One weekend in June, the 2015 Summer Games of the New York State Special Olympics came to our small, college town of Brockport, NY. Brady has been eligible for the Special Olympics since he was a preschooler, but I never pursued it.

With the state games in our backyard, I decided to bring Brady and his brother Brice They were immediately intrigued and we spent most of the weekend watching everything from the opening ceremonies to the closing ceremonies and all sports in between.

There were 2,000 athletes at the games and hundreds of volunteers. At times, I had problems identifying who was who. I had wrongly assumed the Special Olympics were primarily for children with Down syndrome—which Brady, even though he has the distinctive almond eyes, does not have. I was wrong.

The games, it seemed, were for children like Brady. These kids were awesome athletes! Their shot put throws, their moves on the basketball court, their speed in the pool. I don’t know what the majority of their diagnoses are or what is on their IEPs, but their passion, athleticism, and determination was very clear.

Brady wanted a medal, which I explained to him he had to earn by competing.

He understood and I suggested we ask one of the athletes if we could take a photo of her medal instead. He liked that idea.

A very nice young lady agreed to let us photograph her gold medal for swimming, but with one caveat—she wanted her ribbon for 5th place in the photo too. Brady saw me framing the photo with my iPhone and noticed I purposefully did not have the 5th place ribbon in the frame. Did he really want a photo of a place ribbon?

“Mom,” he scolded, “get the ribbon too.”

Brady got it. He got it even before I did. The love of competition, the love of sport—what drove this young woman, what drives him too.

As we were leaving the closing ceremonies Brady said, “Mom, me want to do this. Me want to do the Special Olympics.” I exchanged a look with his sage older brother—the one who would never be content with a 5th place ribbon at an ice hockey tournament—and he nodded in support.

“When we get home Mommy will send an email to the Special Olympics and sign you up,” I said.

My starling beautiful boy smiled.

Caurie Putnam lives in Rochester, New York with her husband and two boys. She is a columnist for the Democrat and Chronicle, blogger for The Huffington Post and stringer for Reuters. Find her on Twitter @CauriePutnam.

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

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

By Katy Rank Lev

katyrev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Should Young Girls Be Allowed to Wear Bikinis?

Should Young Girls Be Allowed to Wear Bikinis?

Yes!

By Daisy Alpert Florin

485204867-1My nine-year-old daughter, Ellie, is going to sleep away camp this summer, and the packing list calls for four bathing suits, but “no two-pieces.” While I understand the likely reason for this rule—one-piece suits might be more appropriate for active play—it still irritates me because it seems to imply that there is something shameful about young girls wearing bikinis, so much so that they are forbidden.

In our house, bikinis and one-pieces are both suitable choices for swimming. I have purposely not drawn a line between the two because I don’t want Ellie to think there is a big deal about choosing to show more or less of her body. Granted, a string bikini might not be the best choice for swimming or cannonballing into the lake. But a well-fitting two-piece suit that gives her room to play and can easily be pulled down for bathroom breaks—well, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

When Ellie was little, I dressed her in one-piece bathing suits simply because they fit her better. If she wore a two-piece suit, I discarded the top and let her run around in just the bottoms. Putting a bikini top on a pudgy toddler chest seemed impractical to me, but I didn’t have a problem with parents who did. For the most part, I think mothers (and it is usually mothers) have fun dressing up their daughters in tiny versions of their own clothing, be it skinny jeans or bomber jackets or bikinis. I did this to Ellie myself when she was small, but by the time she was four she would have none of that, and I had to respect her decision to dress herself the way that made her most comfortable.

I prefer a bikini to a one-piece suit because I like the way it looks on me, plain and simple, so why should I ask my daughter to do anything different? I trust her internal monitor to signal when something feels right for her, and when it doesn’t. I want Ellie to carry herself without shame, and telling her not to wear a certain article of clothing might suggest that there is something wrong with showing a part of herself. I think there is a fine line between modesty and shame.

When they were first introduced in the 1940s, bikinis—which take their name from the Bikini Atoll, a site of U.S. nuclear testing—were considered dangerous, explosive even. Early in their history, they were banned in several countries and declared sinful by the Vatican. This idea of female sexuality as wild and destabilizing might seem silly to modern sensibilities, but forbidding our young daughters from wearing bikinis seems to be an extension of that kind of thinking.

There is something about girls and their burgeoning sexuality that we as a culture—and as parents—still find threatening. We worry about our girls growing up too fast because we feel there is something scary about female sexuality, and watching them step into that murky landscape terrifies us, when it ought to be something to celebrate. But our daughters don’t stay little girls forever of course, so what’s the tipping point when wearing a bikini is suddenly okay?

Nine years old was the last time for a long while that I saw only the good in my body—its strength, beauty and possibility. At nine, I hadn’t yet started to judge my body against some external ideal. Puberty hit me hard and by thirteen, far from wearing a skimpy bikini, I went to the beach wearing an oversized t-shirt covering my bathing suit. Even then I can remember wanting to go back to the version of myself that still felt beautiful and powerful. Now, at 42, I wear a bikini all summer and try to do it with confidence; I hope it sets a good example for my daughter.

Watching Ellie move through the world without self-consciousness about her body brings me a bittersweet joy. I want to bottle that feeling so she can always access it, opening it every now and then for a whiff. Because I know it doesn’t last. The world is hard for girls that way.

But maybe if Ellie wore a bikini now, those two pieces would imprint on her somehow. Maybe by owning her body in all its glory now would help her bank some self-love for later on, for 13 and 25 and 42—for whenever she needs it. Maybe wearing a bikini now would help her love her body that much more for that much longer.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer, editor and mother of three. A native New Yorker, she lives, works and lounges poolside in Connecticut. 

 

No!

By Sharon Holbrook

159626626It was a beautiful, warm June day on our backyard deck, where we were celebrating my daughter’s birthday. She pulled a little flowered tankini out of one of her grandma’s gift bags, and Nana hastily announced, “It’s open in the back, but it’s not sexy!” I sure hope not. It was my daughter’s second birthday.

My mother-in-law already knew my feelings on this subject, and kindly respected them. I don’t care for bikinis, or any other “sexy” clothing, on little girls.

I’m usually hands-off about clothes, almost to an extreme. My daughters dig through their drawers and match or mismatch as they like. I don’t care if they wear pants or dresses or—as on one recent school day—a bandanna around the 7-year-old’s hair, an ankle-length flowered skirt over patterned leggings, and a brown velour bolero jacket inherited from her cousin. “You look like a fortune teller,” her older brother commented, not unkindly.

When I do draw a line about clothing, I like to have a good reason. Icy winter day? Must be warm from head to toe. Special occasion? Be respectful, and wear something a notch or two above the everyday. Dirty or damaged clothes? Just, no. Underwear showing, very short skirt, super tight leggings on the butt? Cover it up, because those areas are private.

Not surprisingly, bikinis don’t pass my modesty rules. Sure, we’re all wearing small, tightish clothes at the beach, because that’s just a practical reality if you want to move in the water. I don’t think anyone in their right mind wants to return to those awful bathing dresses of a century ago.

But a bikini takes it to another level, and its small size has nothing to do with practicality. A bikini is meant to emphasize the breasts, hips, and bare skin of a woman in a sexy way. That’s the whole appeal of it, and it’s why men are such big fans of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, right?

That focus on and sexualization of the body isn’t appropriate for girls. One could argue that it’s innocently silly when a toddler’s little pot belly pops out of a teeny two-piece. Adults laugh and wink and say, “Isn’t that cute?” Amid the attention, the little one learns to vamp for others, to entertain them with her looks, her body, and the way she’s dressed.

Instead, the longer we can protect girls from focus on and display of their physical selves, the stronger and more mature they will be when they meet the full reality of a world obsessed with their bodies.

Their round babyish selves seem to turn lean and leggy overnight, then rounder again with the buds of breasts and the swell of hips and, before we know it, their bodies are womanly in every way. We owe them clothing and modesty rules that are consistent over the years and don’t fixate on or show off their bodies at any given moment—that let their bodies just be their own.

When she’s four, it means we can allow her a little girl body, instead of imitating sexy grown-up clothes and pointing exactly to where she’s going to have boobs someday. She can wear simple, practical clothes that allow her to run, jump, play, and swim with ease.

When she’s eight or nine, it means she can still be a little girl, even if she’s entering puberty early, an increasingly common reality. It means we don’t have to burden her with why she suddenly shouldn’t wear a bikini top that emphasizes her budding breasts, when it was okay before, a conversation that might make her feel her perfectly normal body changes are somehow shameful.

Even when she’s fourteen, though my daughter might argue otherwise, it means protecting her from her own sense that her body is all grown up, and therefore she is too. Just because her body has sexualized does not mean she has the maturity to take on all aspects of her brand-new sexuality. Sure, like all women, she’ll have to learn to sift through the admiration and catcalls and come-ons. But she needn’t come out of the gate into that reality wearing a bikini.

Through all those stages, her body is just as it should be, a beautiful thing, neither to be flaunted for attention nor covered up by shame. And when it comes time for bikinis, if she’s someday interested, it will be when she herself has the adult maturity and sense to know — and handle — what a bikini says: “Look at me!”

Sharon Holbrook is a freelance writer, who lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio. Find more from her at sharonholbrook.com, and on Twitter @216Sharon.

Please join us TODAY, Thursday, 7/9, at 1:00 p.m. EST for our July Twitter party to discuss the issues. Remember to use the hashtag #braindebate

 

Photos: gettyimages

Where Did the Joy Go?

Where Did the Joy Go?

By Rachel Pieh Jones

joy1

My nine-year old came into the dining room this morning singing a nonsense song. She poured herself a bowl of generic corn flakes and then said, “Who doesn’t just love life? It is so wonderful. I love my life.”

“What’s so great about it?” I asked.

“I love the food, the way things are made (she patted the IKEA chair she was sitting on and then stared at her hand for a moment), the people I know. I love how hot it is.” It was 98 degrees already and my steaming cup of morning coffee made me sweat through my t-shirt. I kissed her on the cheek and squeezed her hard and wished I could bottle up that joie-de-vivre.

She went outside and discovered that the watermelon seed she planted beneath the air conditioner (where the water sprinkles out the back) had sprouted. She leaped into the air with her arms high over her head and her feet tucked up behind her (a move that in my adult world of aerobics is known as a tuck jump but to her is just childhood exuberance) and shouted, “It’s growing!” Then she knelt down beside the little green sprout and spoke in a hushed voice, her nose almost touching the plant, “It is just so beautiful.”

When did everything get so complicated and hard? When did I stop taking delight in a simple bowl of corn flakes or in the way the heat wraps around me like a blanket, like a hug? I hardly ever take the time to stare at the back of my hand anymore. I’m too busy working or packing school snacks or doing laundry. But I remember the thrill of staring at my bluish-purple veins, the long narrow bones, the creases and scars that mark my hand as mine. I remember feeling awe at the way my knuckles curled and straightened, at the feel of something fuzzy under my fingertips and the way the feeling registered as ‘dog’ in my brain.

I hardly ever let myself be flooded by love for the people in my life. Not just my family members but my friends and coworkers, the store cashiers and taxi drivers, school teachers and coaches. People who make me laugh, train my children, keep me safe. I don’t flip through images of their faces and breathe a silent, “thank you, I’m so glad you’re in my life.” And I certainly don’t shout to my daughter at breakfast that I am filled with happy contentment because of her.

But I should.

Oh, I know very well where all that joyful abandonment went. It went down the tubes of becoming a grown-up, of starting to notice what people thought of me (or didn’t think of me). It got sucked away by to-do lists and never-done lists. It swirled down the toilet of not enough sleep and broken relationships, unmet desires, and frustrated goals.

I want it back.

I can’t get rid of all the monotony of daily tasks or stress or pain in my life but I still have a hand with unique fingerprints and blood pumping through and a white gold wedding band that symbolizes something more, deeper, and better every year. I have food that nourishes me and that tastes good and maybe it isn’t all ‘foodie’ but it is enough and I can be thankful for that. I know people who are creative, hilarious, gentle, courageous and maybe they don’t all live nearby but I have the privilege of being known by them and I can be thankful for that.

The watermelon plant will most likely never produce an actual melon because it is pressing through earth that is more rock and clay than nourishing soil and even if it does, we are moving soon to a new house and won’t be here to see it. But it is growing now. Tomorrow it will have a tender new leaf and the next day another seed will sprout beside it and the leaf and new sprout will be beautiful.

And, I have a daughter who reminds me, with tickling bunny kisses, that the best way to live is to live with joy. With childhood exuberance instead of tuck jumps, with paying attention instead of being too busy. The best way to be joyful is to be thankful and the best way to be thankful is to take notice. To look and see, to enjoy and to say thank you.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

The Googly Eye

The Googly Eye

By Jill Christman

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 5.24.35 PMElla was not quite three on the afternoon of the googly eye. My husband, Mark, had gone to work, and Ella and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating avocado sandwiches.

Laying a finger aside of her nose, Santa-style, Ella looked me in the eye and said, “Mommy. My nose hurts.” She paused. “I have a googly eye in my nose.”

A “googly eye,” in our family lexicon, is a three-dimensional white eyeball containing a shiny black disc that jiggles around behind a transparent plastic cornea. That’s what makes it googly. (I Googled “googly eyes” and learned they’re also called “wiggle eyes” or “moveable paste-on eyes.”) Googly eyes are flat on one side—the paper side, the side used for gluing eyeballs of various sizes to paper, shells, and upside-down egg cartons to make monsters, crabs, and silly caterpillars. The other side, the googly side, is convex, like the surface of a real eyeball. The googly eyes Ella’s babysitter had brought over to stick onto funny monkey faces a few days earlier were big ones, at least half an inch across—not the kind of thing you’d want to have in your nose, especially if you were three and in possession of such a small nose.

I considered all this as I chewed a suddenly over-large mouthful of bread that had turned hard and dry between my teeth. Washing it down with a gulp of lemonade, I studied Ella’s face, her miniature button nose. How would a half-inch googly eye fit in that itsy bitsy nose? Pulse quickening, I mustered all my parenting skills to keep my voice level and calm. As with most circumstances involving human error, I began with denial. “What, honey? What did you say?”

She was watching me as carefully as I was watching her. Ella knew I had heard exactly what she’d said.

“Oh, Mommy,” she said, reading the panic under my act. She tossed her hair back in mock hilarity. “No! I don’t have a googly eye in my nose! Ha ha ha! I don’t. I was just kidding you around, Mommy.”

I didn’t know what to do. How did she even think to say a thing like that? I have a googly eye in my nose.

“Honey,” I said. “Do you have a googly eye in your nose?”

“No,” she said, glaring now. “I said I was kidding you around!”

I let it rest. Maybe together we could pretend this one out of existence. And really, how could Ella have a googly eye up her nose? That would be nuts. That would be a medical emergency. And furthermore, how would it have gotten there? Ella’s a smart girl. She wouldn’t be foolish enough to insert a googly eye into her nostril.

*   *   *

An hour later, I tiptoed into her room to check on her during her nap. She was snoring like a piglet. I put my face right up to her face as she lay on her pillow, cheeks pink, blond hair sticking every which way, cherubic as all get up. The snore really was more squeal than snore—and, was I imagining this?—the sound seemed to be coming from just one nostril. The right nostril. Yes. A kind of whistling wheeze.

While Ella slept and sang, I consulted a book. Foreign objects, Nostril. The book said to not, under any circumstances, attempt to remove the object at home using a pair of tweezers. Tweezers! I thought. Of course! What a good idea! I read on. The removal process was a delicate one and not only could a hapless, panicky parent with a pair of tweezers damage the delicate nasal tissue, she could also make matters worse by a) lodging the object more deeply in the nose, or b) actually pushing the object into the throat, which could cause choking. The thing to do, the book said, was to call the doctor. I considered a plan of action, contemplating the possibility that this was all in my mind, and waited for Ella to wake up. I leaned over her face and studied her nose. Was that a lump on the right side?

Meanwhile, Mark was still at work at the University. Talking about poetry.

*   *   *

When Ella woke up, I was waiting. She sat up and rubbed her nose. She whimpered and repeated her confession: “My nose hurts.”

I pulled a book light from a shelf and sat on the edge of her bed. “Okay, honey. I’m just going to look up your nose and see what I see.”

As I moved in with the light, I heard echoes of that fierce child from William Carlos Williams’s “The Use of Force”— the flushed and feverish girl the country doctor has to hold down, using a big silver spoon to pry open her teeth so he can see her throat. It’s not quite that bad, but Ella fights it. Just as the wild-haired, blue-eyed Mathilda refuses to reveal, and thus confirm, her diagnosis—diphtheria—Ella wants to hide her own disaster. “No, Mommy! I was kidding you around! I don’t have a googly eye in my nose! I don’t, I don’t…”

Swinging a leg over her little body, I pinned her forehead to the pillow with my left hand. Gently. Then I angled the thin beam of the book light up into her right nostril.

How do I describe what it was to look up into my preschooler’s nose and see an eye, a googly eye, staring back at me? Accumulating mucus had slicked the surface, giving the eye a shining, evil glint. Ella twisted under my hold and let out a squeaky cry. In this sudden burst of air, the eye shifted and the dark pupil rattled with a menacing shimmy. I wanted to scream. Holy shit. But good, calm, handling-things mothers don’t scream when they shine lights into their children’s noses, do they? Even if there’s someone there, staring them down? I blinked, and looked again. Crap.

I flicked off the light and released my grip on Ella’s forehead.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Okay, sweetie, there is a googly eye in your nose.”

*   *   *

I wanted to grab the tweezers and get the eyeball the hell out of Ella’s nose. But I restrained myself and walked steadily to the phone. I am no good in a crisis. I have friends and relations, quite a few actually, who work as nurses and doctors in emergency rooms. This is what they choose to do. Not me. I simply don’t possess the disposition.

I dialed Ella’s pediatrician. It was 4:00 p.m. Of course it was. The nurse explained that because it was so late in the afternoon, there was no time to squeeze Ella in, but she reminded me that the after-hours emergency pediatric care, PrimeTime, would be opening in an hour. If we got there early to check in, we might be able to avoid a long wait. “Don’t try to get it out your- self,” she said before I hung up. “Really. Don’t.”

I was so tempted. This whole ordeal could be over in 30 seconds. By the time Mark got home, it could be a funny story instead of a medical emergency. We would eat dinner. I would finish grading that stack of essays.

Lining up all the tweezers I had in the bathroom, I chose a pair with a satisfyingly tapered and blunted tip. What could it hurt? I turned them over in my fingertips. Glint. How tempted we humans are to follow one misstep with another. I could fix this, I thought. Yes, mistakes were made, but if I do this right, I could get us all out of this mess. In an instant, everything could be okay.

*   *   *

Tweezers in hand, I checked my watch and called Mark, who was just then getting out of class.

“She has a what in her nose?”

“A googly eye,” I repeated, and then I broached the plan with the blunt-tipped tweezers.

“No,” Mark said. “Jill. No.”

Now, at least, I had someone to be mad at for this mess. Now, thanks to Mark, the risk was too great, and I would not be able to make it all better. Plus, where had he been in our hour of need? “Fine,” I snapped. “Just come home then. We’ll be ready to go by the time you get here.”

With Ella, I remained upbeat. “Sweetheart! Come to Mommy so I can give you a nice hairdo!” My inflection was cloying, way off. Ella eyed me suspiciously and I imagined her third eye, rattling, sharing her disapproval. My own mother calls me “sweetheart” when she is feeling one of two emotions: annoyance or helplessness. Here, the false-ringing endearment contained nuances of both.

*   *   *

At PrimeTime, I answered all the receptionist’s questions with a straight face.

“Reason for visit?”
“She has a googly eye in her nose.”
“What?”
“You know, a googly eye. Those little plastic eyes you can glue on to make faces? A googly eye. I don’t know how long it’s been in there. And it’s pretty big.”

I wrote it that way on the form she slid across the counter to me: googly eye in nose. Later, on the bill, I noticed my description had been modified: foreign object/nasal cavity. Whatever.

*   *   *

The doctor’s name was unpronounceable, but the nurse recognized this and told Ella she could call him “Dr. Rock.” Dr. Rock was not a man of great humor, and so I tried to sit back and let the man do his work without too much intervention on my part, but his gravitas made me edgy. He shone his special nose light up into Ella’s nose. I can only imagine he saw the same thing I did. He flinched a tiny bit, mumbled something about taking a minute, and left the room. Dr. Rock didn’t come back. Long minutes ticked by.

“He’s looking it up,” I whispered to Mark. “He doesn’t know what to do.”

We read the same Sesame Street board book over and over, and Dr. Rock remained gone.

*   *   *

When he finally returned, two nurses flanked him. Shit, I thought, It’s going to take three of them? What are they going to do to her? What does he think is going to happen here? Can’t he just pull it out with a pair of tweezers?

Indeed, he had a pair of tweezers, albeit super-long ones with an astounding slanting beak. The nurses were giggling a bit. One of them asked Ella why she did it. “Did you think you were going to be able to see up your own nose?”

Titter.

Ella didn’t answer. She wasn’t talking. Sensing the fear in the room, she sat in my lap as rigid as a stone.

*   *   *

The actual extraction was scary. First, Dr. Rock gave Ella a tissue and tried to get her to blow out the googly eye, but in my limited observation, nose-blowing is a skill that develops wondrously late in children. Even at almost three, Ella always sucked in instead of blowing out. Besides, she wasn’t exactly in the mood to follow instructions. Dr. Rock glided in on his wheeled stool. He was verrrrry deliberate and careful with his long tweezers, but they let me hold her. They never made me hand her over to the grinning nurses. That would have really freaked her out. It took way longer than I thought it should. It was not over in an instant. There were many missed attempts. Dr. Rock had to wriggle the beak over the top of the googly eye and pull it down. This was a delicate operation.

Finally, out it came. The googly eye.
“Ugh,” I said, “it’s even bigger than I remembered it.”

Dr. Rock held the googly eye aloft in his needle beak, both for the benefit of the nurses and his own consideration. He looked at Ella. “So now you know that we never put anything in our noses or our ears.” I waited for the “smaller than your elbow” bit, but it never came. He plunked the googly eye onto a tissue and handed it to me. Ella, still snuffling, asked if she could take it home for her memory box. I agreed that was a good idea, and with the anxiety of our own situation abated, I quizzed Dr. Rock about the kinds of things he pulls out of kids’ noses. I thought he was going to tell me that he extracts something from a nose every week or so, but in fact, he said the things-in-noses visits averaged three or four a year.

“I would have thought it would be more,” I said. “What kinds of things do kids put in their noses?”

“Mostly vegetables,” he said. “Beans, peas, things like that. Also, little stones.”

He finished writing on the billing report and handed it to me.

“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever pulled out of someone’s nose?”

Dr. Rock thought for a moment and then said, “A high-heeled shoe.”

I gasped. “A shoe?!”

“Belonging to a Barbie,” he clarified, raising his substantial eyebrows. Still, he didn’t smile. Silly, hysterical mother who doesn’t supervise her kid well enough to prevent the introduction of foreign objects to the nasal cavity. Then he shook our hands and left the room.

For her trouble, Ella got a purple Care Bear sticker, which she stuck in the bag with the sticky eye—the googliness of which seemed intensified, or maybe, somehow animated for the time it had spent in a living body. Eek.

*   *   *

The next morning at breakfast, I asked Ella why she did it. What, I wanted to know, compelled her to stick that googly eye in her nose?

“I thought it would be different,” she said, looking sad.

Oh, I thought, yes! That’s it. Ella’s assessment explained a lifetime of my own biggest mistakes. I thought it would be different.

As a kid, when I jumped off the roof of the house with a garbage bag as a parachute, I thought it would be different. In high school, when I signed up for that course in trigonometry, I thought it would be different. Still in high school, when I climbed into the Jeep with the way-too-old-for-me boy who’d been drinking Blue Hawaiians out of a milk jug, I thought it would be different. Having survived and made it to college, when I stuck out my tongue and accepted the proffered tab of LSD at the Oregon Country Fair, I thought it would be different. Later, in graduate school, and certainly old enough to know better, when I traipsed after my girlfriend in the steaming, snake-infested Alabama woods at midnight to find a skinny-dipping hole, I thought it would be different. When I was laboring with Ella and I refused to let the nurse find a vein and put in a heplock, I thought it would be different.

*   *   *

In all of these unfortunate circumstances, before I stepped forward and entered my own mistake, too deep to extract my- self without feeling the pain or embarrassment or both of my own bad choice, I thought it would be different. I neglected to consider how hard the ground, how unfathomable the function, how drunk the driver, how potent and troubling the drug, how thick the underbrush, and how much a woman can bleed. What, then, had I wanted? How had I thought it would be different? Well. I thought the bag might catch the air and carry me, like a paratrooper or a butterfly, gently to the ground; I thought my mastery of sines, cosines, and tangents—Some Old Hippie Caught Another Hippie Tripping On Acid—might elevate me to another level of intellectual superiority in my high school; I thought the boy in the Jeep might think me adventurous and cool, and in return, would love me; I thought the LSD might take me somewhere beautiful, away from the stinking port-a-potties and patchouli of the dusty fair to a place of pure happiness; I thought the swimming hole would be right down the road, just five minutes, and that the Alabama moon shining on the water would illuminate everything; and I thought I would give my baby safe and natural passage into this world without drugs or intervention. On this last one, thank God, I got what I wanted—sort of—but I did have to receive a blood transfusion to counter what my doctors surely considered a grave misjudgment.

I thought it would be different. Of course. I wondered what Ella had wanted when she stuck that eye up into her nostril. What had her desired outcome, that different ending, looked like to her? “Different how?” I asked, watching her listlessly skewer a piece of waffle with a toothpick.

She couldn’t say. “I thought it would be different,” she repeated, as if that were all I needed to know, all I deserved to know. Maybe she thought the big googly eye wouldn’t slide so easily into her nostril, but would dangle humorously from the end of her nose and make everybody laugh. Maybe she thought she could stick things all over her face, as she and her babysitter had done to the monkey faces, and in this way become a kind of living craft project. Or maybe the giggling nurses were on to something. Maybe she thought if she stuck an eye up her nose she would be able to see the inside of her body.

Whatever the answer, Ella either didn’t know or she wasn’t telling, but what struck me as I watched her crunch down her apple slices was what she already knew about what we humans do when we mess up. Not even three, and Ella had known she shouldn’t tell. Her mistake would be her secret. How did she know that? Had we already modeled concealment for her? I gripped my coffee cup like a talisman, holding onto the lesson of the googly eye. I knew if I let that instinct for cover-up stick in my daughter, and deepen, the next big error would be mine to regret.

“Can I play now?” Ella asked. I nodded and she slid down from her booster seat, dutifully parroting Dr. Rock’s good ad- vice, using the not-so-royal “we” of adults talking to children. We NEVER put anything in our ears or noses.

Right.

But then, what if we could stick googly eyes in our noses to see the dark secrets of our bodies? How cool would that be?

Author’s Note: Seven years have passed since the googly-eye incident, and Ella is now a sophisticated ten-year-old with a six-year-old brother to keep an eye on. She has never forgotten Dr. Rock’s admonition about all that we must never, never put in our noses. (In fact, apparently she’s still peeved about his tone. “I was three,” she says now. “And Dr. Rock was talking to me as if I’d just committed some terrible crime. I was three! I didn’t know!”)

Jill Christman‘s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and in 2011 was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies.She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com.

 

Trusting Your Parenting Instincts: Two Perspectives

Trusting Your Parenting Instincts: Two Perspectives

Do you have a “gut feeling” that helps you make decisions about your children or do you rely on a mixture of logic, trial and error, and expert advice? Olga Mecking found that her maternal instincts were not all they were cracked up to be. Amanda Van Mulligen discovered that she parents best when she follows her own internal compass.

 

My Parenting Instincts Don’t Work

By Olga Mecking

woman-reading-bookWhen I was pregnant for the first time, I expected there would be a little voice in my head—a maternal “instinct”—that would explain how best to bathe, feed, care for my newborn and how to get her to sleep.

Throughout the pregnancy, however, the voice remained silent. I didn’t know what was or wasn’t “normal.” I didn’t know whether the pains in my abdomen meant I was having a miscarriage or whether they were simply a result of my body expanding to accommodate the baby. While everyone told me there was no way I would miss being in labor, I didn’t realize I was actually about to give birth until I arrived at the hospital and the midwife confirmed I was 9cm dilated. And, of course, I expected that my body would know how give birth (“You’re designed for it!”). It absolutely did not.

I felt like a failure, but hoped my parenting instincts would wake up once my daughter was born. When she finally arrived into this world, though, there was no inner voice to help me out, only her cries and my silent pleas for sleep. I felt alone and I was miserable.

I confided in an old friend. I told her that I thought the concept of a parenting “instinct” was a big fat lie. She said she believed that mothers usually knew what to do; they just had to find the courage to do it.

I felt clueless but slowly, and steadily, began to figure things out. I still remember the day my parenting instinct first presented itself. My daughter, maybe six months old at the time, was crying. She wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t tired, she had a clean diaper on. I cuddled with her but nothing was calming her down. And then I heard the little voice in my head, saying: “She’s too warm, take off her tights!” And that voice was right, the crying stopped immediately, as if by magic, after I undressed her! I felt so powerful, so wise, so knowing. Finally it seemed like I had a grip on the situation.

Since that voice established itself in my head, I assumed it would be consistently right. That’s what everyone was telling me: “Trust your instincts,” “You’re the parent, you know best,” “Follow your gut.” I started paying attention and the little voice was useful in some circumstances, but it completely missed the point in countless others. Over and over again, it told me to overreact when there was nothing to worry about, such as a stranger innocently smiling at my child. It also requested that I do nothing in cases when taking action would have been preferable. When my parents-in-law pointed out that my little girl could benefit from physical therapy, for instance, the voice told me that everything was fine. But it turned out the therapy was very much needed.

I’ve come to realize that the idea of a foolproof parenting instinct is a myth. It is not an inherent thing we all have that kicks in upon conception. Some mothers have to learn everything, slowly and painfully, through trial and error, through laborious research. And going with “your gut” will not always provide the best solution. We want to pretend it will, because that would provide a simple answer for all of the complicated issues our children face.

“You are the expert on your child.” I hear this often. And I agree: there are things I know about my children that no one else does, their particular likes and dislikes, how long it takes them to get used to new environments. But I don’t expect to know every ailment they have, or whether a delayed milestone is indicative of a problem or not, and that is why I consult an expert. Maybe there are parents who have it, that “gut feeling,” that “little voice” that predicts everything accurately about their kids. But I think the majority of mothers don’t and we choose whichever course of action seems most reasonable or logical at the time.

Nowadays, I don’t expect my parenting instincts to be right. Instead, I consider the possibilities, weigh the pros against the cons, find a solution that works and adapt or discard it if it doesn’t produce the results I want. I consult various voices, not only the one in my head. I ask family, friends, yes even strangers on the Internet, because the more information I have, the better I can understand the problem and find a fitting solution—not just a solution that “feels” right.

Olga Mecking lives in the Netherlands with her German husband and three children. Find her at: The European Mama .

 

My Parenting Instincts Are Usually Right

By Amanda van Mulligen

pregnant-woman-meditatingI’d been a mother for a few years before I learned to follow my instincts, to trust the gut feeling that shows up when it’s decision time. Becoming a mother illuminated how powerful and intuitive my internal compass is.

During my first pregnancy I had no idea what to expect of motherhood. I muddled my way through babyhood and toddlerhood with my first son. My shelves sighed under the weight of parenting books, full of conflicting advice which I tried to make sense of. By the time my second son was born three years later, I realized I was mothering instinctively; I merely dipped in and out of books or advice on the Internet. By the third baby, I was able to detect infinitesimal changes in the way my children breathed, how they smelled and in their emotional reactions.

I’ve been with my children since the minute they came into the world. I have watched them grow from helpless babies into increasingly self-sufficient young boys. Along the way I figured out that no one knows a child’s own version of normal better than his mother.

No matter which qualifications a professional holds, be it a doctor or a therapist, they come into a family’s life and take a snapshot of a child at a single moment in time. I, on the other hand, have a rolling film in my mind of every moment since my sons were born. While I have respect for the expertise of a professional with years of training and experience, I am confident that I am a qualified expert on my own children as well. I know things about them that no doctor or therapist could possibly know. When my instinct tells me a doctor needs to probe further, I have learned to trust that unconscious feeling.

I felt instinctively, for example, that a child therapist was on the wrong track with my five-year-old son. I sensed she was wasting her time with elaborate and costly tests to determine the root cause of his explosive emotional outbursts. My instinct told me that my son’s meltdowns were the result of his highly sensitive personality traits, that they were a part of his character and not an underlying behavioural disorder. I voiced my feelings quietly. We moved in circles for months, months of strain and stress on my family whilst a cause was sought. Eventually the child therapist declared my son free of any behavioral disorder and said he was, in all likelihood, indeed just a highly sensitive child. I learned then to listen to my instinct, to listen hard, and to honor my instinct with a loud, authoritative voice.

It is my instinct, guided by experience, that tells me when to push my highly sensitive son to try a new extracurricular activity, and when to leave him be. His former schoolteacher insisted we should give judo lessons a second chance, that it would be a good way to boost his self-confidence. While I agreed with her reasoning, I knew that the scenes in the changing room—the tears and the reluctance—would be as harrowing as they were the first time. Her advice was sound, but not for my child. I can see the limits of my children that are invisible to others.

I relied on the same instinct when I postponed enrolling my reluctant four-year-old son in swimming lessons. He’s eight now and as competent in the water as any of his classmates, despite his later introduction to formal instruction. Similarly, I trust my decision to acknowledge my son’s fear of being alone and co-sleep with him. My gut in this regard is to ignore the grim warnings from an online world of parenting doomsayers and to find my own path through, one that works for my family.

It’s not just because of my years of parenting experience that my instinct deserves to be listened to. It’s reaching the mid part of my life. I’m now in my 40s and I know myself better than ever before. Through learning that my children are highly sensitive I have come to realize that I am sensitive too. I understand myself.

Relying on my instinct doesn’t mean I don’t seek help from experts; I listen to the advice of others and will continue to do so. I don’t abandon all logic and reason: feeling something is not the same as knowing something. However, the best parenting advice I ever received from an expert is “follow your heart and do what works for your family.”

I am a mother who has learned to listen to the voice inside, whether it calls for caution or reassures that things will work out fine. I know by now to respect that feeling in my gut, to let my instinct take center stage, which is where it should be.

Amanda van Mulligen lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and three sons. Find her at:  Expat Life with a Double Buggy.

Marked for Life

Marked for Life

By Wendy Wisner

marked

“This is your birthmark. Your special mark. It’s part of you. It’s beautiful. And so are you.”

 

My two-year-old son is at a playdate. He and a four-year-old girl are playing at a toy kitchen. He’s at the sink; she’s crouched down, picking up some plastic cauliflower. She looks up at him, her eyes resting squarely on his neck.

“What’s that on his neck?” she asks me.

“It’s his birthmark,” I say.

My son looks at me with a faint glimmer of recognition. I have used the word “birthmark” before to describe that rough, pebbly brown spot on his neck. Every night before bed, I rub ointment on it to keep it soft. Every so often, I say, “This is your birthmark. It’s your special mark.”

Other than that, I rarely discuss it, and neither does anyone else, for the most part. His birthmark is certainly noticeable, however. It covers most of his neck. It’s coffee-brown, in the vague shape of South America. Perhaps people are too polite, or too uncomfortable, to mention it.

When my son was younger, he was too young to know what other people were talking about. But I knew the day would come that someone would point it out in front of him, and I knew that it would be another child. Far more children have asked about it than grown-ups.

“How’d he get it?” the little girl asks. There is no malicious intent whatsoever, and I’m not sure my son would pick up on it if it were there. But I begin to feel a little uneasy. And suddenly—madly protective of him.

I know this is the first of many encounters like this, and know that as time goes on, he will understand more of what is being said. I know that there may be children who are not as innocent in their questioning. Questions may turn into insults. Or worse—bullying.

And I am keenly aware that I will not always be there to answer the questions for him, to fold him up in my mama-wings, and fly him away from it all, back to the place where he is my perfect beauty-marked angel.

“He’s had it all his life,” I explain to the girl. I show her a beauty mark on my arm. “Does your mommy or daddy have a mark like this?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says, with some level of uncertainty.

“His is like that, only bigger,” I say.

The little girl seems satisfied, gets up, and walks away. My son looks at me for a second, brushes his finger along the length of his birthmark, and then wanders after the girl as she leaves the room.

*   *   *

I know that there are far more disfiguring birthmarks out there. I also know there are much more life-altering birth defects, and certainly life-threatening ones.

My son is normal in every way. He is bright, cute, and remarkably healthy. I have been concerned that writing about his birthmark could come across as overdramatic, hypersensitive, or self-involved. After all, his birthmark is an entirely cosmetic issue.

I also know that there are options for him should he decide to alter or hide it. Doctors have told us that surgery might lighten it. But it would take several surgeries, and results would not be guaranteed. As he gets older, he can wear clothing to hide it (though who wears turtlenecks and scarves in summer?) or use cover-up makeup (but he might feel self-conscious about that too).

One doctor said some kids don’t do anything, and just learn to accept the birthmark as part of who they are. I like this choice best, but the reality of living with a large birthmark as a child—as a teenager—might not be as simple and wholesome as the doctor described.

*   *   *

We didn’t notice the birthmark at first. We were in a daze, and he was a curled up, rosy-skinned newborn. We thought the light pink splotch on his neck was just another “newborn thing” that would fade in time. When he was about a month old, it darkened. We realized it was there for real, a part of his body.

The pediatrician said it looked like a port-wine stain (the kind that Gorbachev famously had on his head). Another doctor said it looked more like a hemangioma, a kind of birthmark that disappears on its own in early childhood. Both doctors recommended I see a pediatric dermatologist for a definitive diagnosis.

On the way to my first appointment with the dermatologist, I realized how much weight this diagnosis was going to have. If it was the kind of birthmark that disappeared in the first few years of his life, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But if it was the kind that would stay with him forever, it could be a very big deal. He’d be marked for life.

I flashed back to the times I was teased as a kid. The day the boys surrounded me at recess and asked if I stuffed my bra. The day the “in-crowd” formed a circle around me and told me I was “from another planet” because I wore tie-dye shirts and ate veggie burgers for lunch.

All of this seemed innocuous compared to what I imagined could happen to him. Children can be cruel without knowing it. Or they can be intentionally cruel, their own wounds and rage unleashed right before your eyes. It seemed to me that the world has gotten more unkind since I was a child, stories of bullying and violence in the schoolyard strewn across the news almost daily.

The dermatologist took out his ruler, measured it. My son pulled on the doctor’s Mickey Mouse tie.

“OK,” he said, “it’s called a congenital nevus,” a kind, crooked-toothed grin across his face.

“It’s not the kind that goes away,” he said. “It grows as he grows.”

*   *   *

It grows as he grows.

We have not decided when—or if—we will get the birthmark surgically removed. With no guarantees of success, it seems like too much to put his young body through. We will continue to grapple with it and reconsider as time moves on.

For now, we just continue the nightly ritual of rubbing ointment on his birthmark. As the months go on, we repeat the words more frequently, and add new ones: “This is your birthmark. Your special mark. It’s part of you. It’s beautiful. And so are you.”

Wendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC). She is the author of two books of poems (CW Books), and her writing has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Scary Mommy, The Mid, and Mamalode. Find Wendy at WendyWisner.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Utopia Lost and Value Reframed

Utopia Lost and Value Reframed

By Debi Lewis

DSC00432

Am I home because a woman should be home or am I home because, as a woman, economic forces guided me there?

 

Here is the utopian dream, masquerading as a concrete plan, which I formulated before my second child was born in August of 2005:

My well-paying, full-time flexible-hours technology job at a national nonprofit organization would continue as it had for the next year, after which I would begin a PhD program in writing at a local university (which happened to have on-campus childcare). I would fill my days with heady conversation and scoop my children up in the afternoon to eat ice cream on the campus lawns and return home to my husband—who would keep us afloat with his job in finance, the one he loved as much as I loved the idea of academia.

This plan never came to fruition.

My baby was born with a host of ambiguous medical problems. She was in the hospital with dangerous respiratory infections twice in her first four months, and her doctors gently and then less-gently told us that daycare would continue that cycle. She was considered medically fragile. By the end of the second hospital stay, which was five days long, we had decided she could not stay in daycare.

We did the math; if we hired a nanny, the cost per year would have been more than half of my salary. Our older daughter would still need to attend preschool, adding another several thousand dollars. My husband made more money than I did. It made more sense for me to leave my job. Our baby was five months old when I did.

My well-paying, good job had been my identity for five years. Prior to that, I’d been employed in one way or another for the previous fifteen years—starting in high school.

Suddenly, I had no income.

My husband was working, earning a salary that covered our expenses, though not as easily as when I’d been employed. I sat down at my kitchen table on that first day when my husband left for work—and I didn’t—and I cried. I was in my pajamas, and when I went upstairs to put on clothes, the baby still slung over my hip, I looked at my closet and realized that most of what I owned was business-casual.

Then I got a rejection letter from the graduate program to which I’d applied. The last piece of hope I’d had for an identity which declared to the world that this woman is making something of herself had vanished. Though there was hope that my daughter would outgrow her fragile state by the time the fall semester came around, I would have no fall semester to attend. Instead, I nursed, rocked, held, walked, medicated and worried over my constantly-sick baby. What just happened? I asked myself, over and over for months. I remained, for a long time, shocked to see what I thought I had become: bored and boring.

In the years that followed, I scraped together a new life, starting my own consulting business in hours snatched from naps and, as my daughter’s health improved, while she was in preschool. I now have new dreams—smaller dreams, always tied to my need to stay flexible for my children. With both of them in school these last few years, I work out of a local coffeehouse that sells scones delivered warm every morning. It has not been terrible; at times, it has felt like a close second to my original plan.

Still, I resent those early days, the burden falling on me and the perspective-shifting I had to do. I resent that, as a natural progression of being the one at home and being a woman, I’ve fallen into gender roles I never intended. I am the one who cooks. I am the one who shops for the organic berries and the mint Oreos, knows the children’s friends and teachers better, and manages the laundry. In a nine-to-five job that, inclusive of commute is really a seven-thirty-to-six-thirty job, my husband has become the one to pop in and “help out” with occasional rides to Hebrew School and play rehearsals, but the real burden of making sure everyone is where they need to be is left to me. It’s my job because, nine years ago, I left my other job to stay home with my sick baby, a baby I both loved fiercely and resented quietly.

How to unravel all of that? Am I home because a woman should be home or am I home because, as a woman, economic forces guided me there? What if my husband and I had made exactly the same amount of money? Would he be home? What if medical insurance covered at-home childcare for children like my younger daughter? Would neither of us be home?

I feel very lucky that we made it work, un-utopian as it felt to me at the start. As I struggle with what it means to be an at-home parent—even with my part-time consulting business—I have a partner willing to struggle through it with me, to talk about and name this arrangement for what it is: fragmented. My daughters are now thirteen and almost nine, and they see the juggling every day. I am in and of both worlds all the time—sometimes from the same spot in my kitchen, on the phone with a client and stirring the soup.

Now, most mornings, I walk to the neighborhood elementary school with my once-sick baby—now a thriving nine-year-old. In one hand, I hold hers. In the other, I hold the bicycle I’ll use to ride to the coffeehouse where I’ll work for much of the day. There’s dinner to prepare, and laundry to sort. Rides to give, and counters to scrub.

It is, in the end, a comfortable life. I am there for it all. Sometimes, on the playground after school, we even eat ice cream.

Debi Lewis is the mother of two daughters and blogs regularly at swallowmysunshine.com. You can find her essays at Brain, Child Magazine, RoleReboot, Mamalode, The Mighty, Kveller, and ChicagoNow. She is currently at work on a memoir about her younger daughter’s journey through medical mystery.

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

By Jennifer Berney

square wedding

“Ralph says that boys can’t marry boys,” my son said to me as I drove him home from preschool.

Ralph, who sported a buzz cut and freckles, was a longtime friend of my son’s. More than once I’d heard him voicing his mother’s opinions to an audience of four-year-olds, like the time he explained that babies took too much work and cost too much money. He delivered this news as I held my newborn infant.

“Well Ralph is confused,” I replied, glancing in the rearview mirror.

“He’s not confused; he’s wrong,” my son corrected.

It was July of 2013, just months after our own state had voted to allow same-sex marriages, and weeks after the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed. If Ralph or his sources hadn’t yet woken up to the reality of gay marriage in our state, they weren’t alone. I, too, hesitated to believe it. For straight people, a wedding was usually an event confined to a single day. But for my partner and me the process of getting married had been ongoing, continual, endless. Were we finally, really real?

When Kellie and I exchanged vows in 2003, there was nothing legal about our wedding. Neither of us dreamed we’d live to see the end of DOMA or—even more surprisingly—marriage equality in all fifty states, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to declare our love. And so, on a Sunday in August, we gathered friends and family in a circle on a friend’s green lawn. Our friend Queen, who wore a blue dress and red lipstick, opened the ceremony by informing our friends that they were a part of this commitment too. “By standing here today,” she told them, “you agree to be available to Kellie and Jenn, three months from now, ten years from now, anytime their marriage needs support.”

In that moment, more than any other, I reckoned with what it meant to be married: it was more than a private promise between myself and my partner; it was an intention declared, witnessed, and affirmed by those who loved us. Still, it felt significant that this affirmation did not extend into the world at large. On paper, as far as any lawyer was concerned, Kellie and I were simply roommates. I didn’t want this to matter, but it did. Any time I referred to my marriage, I was tempted to use air quotes.

Four years later, our state passed a bill allowing State Registered Domestic Partnerships to same-sex couples. It was a compromise of sorts, an option that was like marriage but with the most unromantic possible name. The legal rights that SRDPs conferred were significant: if Kellie landed in the hospital I could visit her; I could now get health insurance through Kellie’s employer. But there were also limitations: we couldn’t file our taxes jointly; I still couldn’t use the word “married” in the legal sense, and when we welcomed our first son into the world the following year, we’d have to spend over ten thousand dollars in legal fees to add Kellie’s name to the birth certificate.

Some of our friends who registered for SRDP status treated it like a wedding. They dressed up and threw grand parties. But Kellie and I were tentative. Hadn’t we already done the thing that mattered? When we went to the courthouse we treated it like an errand. Afterwards we went out for a glass of wine, but weren’t sure what to toast—bureaucracy? Separate-but-not-quite-equal rights?

I was seven months pregnant with our second child when our state passed a bill allowing same-sex marriages. I’d spent my pregnancy rooting for this bill for reasons that were largely practical. If the bill passed, and if Kellie and I could wed before the baby arrived, we could easily (and cheaply) add her name to the birth certificate. Instead of hiring a lawyer, we could simply fill out a few forms.

What I thought was our final act of marriage took place on our living room couch on January 6, 2013. Some friends were disappointed that we weren’t having a big party. “But we had our real wedding ten years ago,” I told them. “Remember? You were there.” Our friend Queen, who married us initially sat between us, and we re-read the vows we’d exchanged nearly a decade before. Two close friends had come to bear witness. They brought flowers and chocolate, and sat cross-legged on our floor. The baby, who would arrive two weeks later, turned and kicked me from the inside. Our first son was four and he kept interrupting. “Can’t we build a puzzle?” he kept asking our friends. “Can we watch a movie?”

Ten minutes later, we all crouched around the coffee table to sign the marriage license. In doing so, we finally completed the ceremony we’d begun ten years earlier.

Or at least I thought we were finished. Two and a half years later, on a Friday I would open my computer to see that the equal marriage map had gone green, that the Supreme Court had declared marriage equality a constitutional right. My breath would catch in my throat. I would try to call out to Kellie in the next room to share the news but discover that I was speechless. Our marriage would now be recognized in every U.S. state.

In the car that day, as I merged on the freeway, I continued to explain why Ralph might think that “boys can’t marry other boys.”

“There are still lots of places where men can’t marry men, and women can’t marry women. Some people just like to make rules about things that don’t matter.”

My son remained quiet, and I assumed he’d lost interest.

“Don’t you remember our wedding?” I asked him. “You were there. It was right before your brother was born.”

I thought that he might find some small joy in this, but instead a note of distress entered his voice. “You mean you weren’t married when I was born?”

“It’s complicated,” I told him. I kept talking on and on, trying to explain the logistics. But instead I should have told him what I, too, most needed to hear: It’s okay. It’s real. All of it. Our marriage, our family, our love.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Evolution of a Reader

Evolution of a Reader

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You start when he is two months old, you know it is important. All the experts say so, all the articles. Read to them, read to them incessantly. Do it early, the earlier the better. He seems like an alert baby, this one, wide-eyed and curious. The way he bats at his toys, the way he tracks your movements with a searching, soulful expression. Maybe all babies are like this, you aren’t sure. He is your first. You project onto him constantly—thoughts, feelings, skills—as if projecting will make it so.

Your mother sat with him when he was one week old, just home from the hospital, a sliver of a thing, and read him Pat the Bunny in that special sing-song voice you remember well from your own childhood. “Judy can pat the bunny,” she said, as your son stared into the middle distance, head lolling. “Now YOU pat the bunny.” She took the baby’s starfish hand, the nails still peeling from the wetness of the womb, and rubbed it purposefully against the fluffy bunny. And you couldn’t tell if it was ridiculous or adorable to be reading to a baby so new.

All the same, a couple of months later, you decide it is time to begin. Every night, every night without fail. Your husband gives the baby a bath, and then you coo at him, a steady stream of chatter as you stuff limbs into a sleepsuit covered with teddybears or rockets or stripes. You prop him up against you on the bed and read two books. Always two. Sometimes Brown Bear, Brown Bear. Sometimes Here Are My Hands. Sometimes you channel your mother and read Pat the Bunny with just the right intonations. You take it for granted that your son sits still at this age, that he tolerates the books without crying, when what he really wants is his milk. None of your other children will be so patient.

By the time he is one, he can pat the bunny on his own. He seems to understand you now, he has words himself, a bevy of animal sounds and an assortment of other babbles that mean something, finally. The floodgates of communication have opened; reading has become blissfully interactive. Your son loves books. You tell your family, your friends, anybody who will listen: “He loves books!” This makes you proud, as if it is evidence of an impressive feat of parenting or genetics. But of course he loves books, the shelves are lined with them, the house is strewn with them. Reading is your go-to childcare activity.

Over the next couple of years, your son becomes oddly interested in history. Or maybe it’s not so odd because you and your husband are both academics with a flair for the past. The chunky board books give way to early readers, to thinner pages telling tales of the Romans, the Greeks. But the Egyptians are his favorite. He loves the concept of mummies, he traces the Sphinxes with his still-dimpled finger. He becomes obsessed with Darth Vader, how Anakin Skywalker changed from good to evil. You read him endless books about it. He becomes obsessed with Jesus, even though you are Jewish, and you read him endless books about that too.

At some point, it is clear he is ready to read himself, but you don’t want to push it. Your instinct is that this process, this magical process, should happen organically. You talk about the alphabet with a concerted nonchalance, calling the letters by their phonetic names, because you are in the UK and this is how it’s done. M is not “em,” it is “mmmm,” as if the letter itself is edible, is utterly delicious. Your son is getting the gist of it, it’s a game to him. You, however, are newly overwhelmed by the mischievousness of the English language. Its absurd rules feel, all of a sudden, like inhospitable guests. So many exceptions, so many outliers. He can read “hat,” but how do you explain “hate”?

You breathe a sigh of relief when he starts school, that children go to school earlier where you live, and that you can pass off the task of explicating the idiosyncrasies of language to a trained professional. Your son comes home excited about the magic E, the way it makes the sound of the preceding vowel change, poof, just like that, and you think to yourself: thank god. He reads to you happily now, always out loud, in that halting, robotic voice most kids have at the beginning. When punctuation is optional, when the concept of “reading with expression” is a peak in the distance.

And then it happens. He starts to read fluidly and in his head to boot. It opens up a new world for him, an inner world. But it closes a door for you. His reading is a personal thing now, a private thing, he wants it that way. He is somewhere between six and seven, you can’t quite remember. You remember, though, that he read the whole series of Diary of a Wimpy Kid in quick succession, which left you considering what exactly he understood of the middle school dynamics. He is at that awkward age where his technical skill surpasses his emotional maturity and you are not quite sure what books to choose for him.

He likes to read, but he likes other things too. You can’t tell yet if he loves it, if he drinks in the words like you do, if reading is going to be that balm for what ails him, though you recall you weren’t a particularly keen reader at this stage either. He doesn’t seem to read to get tangled in the story, to step outside of himself. His penchant is for nonfiction still, for facts, for science. He pores over statistics in his football magazines. He studies up on Minecraft.

Just when you wonder if he will ever get the taste for fiction, he discovers The Hunger Games. He returns from the bookstore, clutching the first in the series, and he can barely stop to say hello as he marches up the stairs to crack into it. He becomes, almost overnight, what people call an “avid” reader. He devours young adult sci-fi, the more dystopian the better, while you fleetingly deliberate if the subject matter is too old for him. He asks to read The Fault in Our Stars. You hold him off. He asks to read It by Stephen King. You hold him off again. He picks up the books on your night table and inspects the blurbs; Station Eleven catches his eye. For the first time, you borrow one of his books and you actually enjoy it.

Your son is nine, closer to ten. You lie on your bed together, it is late afternoon. He stretches out on one side, and you are on the other side, the only sound between you is the pages turning. You reach across and take his hand. He squeezes back, not meeting your eyes, so engrossed is he in the story. You watch him for a second, resting your own book on your lap. He is long limbs and angular features, but just for a moment you get a flash of the baby he used to be, and it is Pat the Bunny in his pudgy hands all over again.

The 4 Gender Stages of Co-ed Twin Birthday Parties

The 4 Gender Stages of Co-ed Twin Birthday Parties

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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 I love twin birthday parties. Two-for-one.

 

I love celebrating my kids. I don’t love throwing birthday parties. I am not into complicated decorations, cute themes, or goodie bags. I like baking and eating cake. I like playing games and staging competitions. So, I love twin birthday parties. Two-for-one.

I have boy-girl twins. Once in a while I considered throwing two separate parties on consecutive days but that simply seemed too daunting and in the early years my twins shared friends. I prefer the utter chaos of one fantabulous afternoon to the never-ending exhaustion of back-to-back sugar highs. Two cakes but only one day of raucous fun. Two easily definable teams for game time. You know how people tell mothers of twins when we are pregnant with them that this is such a great deal? Well, when it comes to birthday parties, this finally pays off. My twins have had a total of twenty-eight birthdays but only half that number of parties. Score!

I have now quit throwing birthday parties for my twins. They can have sleepovers or can hang out with friends and we’ll have a family celebration on our own but no more big parties, they’re too old. However, in the earlier years even as we lumped all the kids together no matter their gender, I had a thing or two to learn about parties, kids, and especially twin kids and twin parties. One of the main discoveries was the four gender stages of coed twin birthday parties.

Stage 1: Gender Neutral, ages 0-7

These are the easiest years. Kids just didn’t care who is a boy and who is a girl. My kids shared all their friends and wanted to invite essentially the same kids. My son invited girls and my daughter invited boys. No difference. At the party, the whole group hangs out together. They play the same games, ooh and aah over the same gifts, take home the same prizes, cry about the same birthday sugar-induced concerns.

Stage 2: Gender Wars ages 8-9

Around age 8 my twins became hyper alert to who was a boy and who was a girl. Though they had always known, ever since that fateful bath when they both (as toddlers) discovered my son had something my daughter lacked, they hadn’t cared. Now? They cared big time. Boys have cooties, girls have cooties. Now, they play the same games but the teams are girls against the boys and the winning team is proof of that gender’s superiority. This is a great age for water balloon battles at the birthday party. There are separate invitations, separate goodie bags, separate cakes. Each gender is still interested in the gifts for both the boy and the girl, primarily so they can scoff at the others’ foolish gifts.

Stage 3: Gender Ignoring ages 10-12

By this age the cooties are gone. Calling out about cooties implies paying attention to the opposite gender and that is no longer cool. Now, there is such a thing as cool and cool includes the mandate to simply pretend ‘the other’ doesn’t exist. At this stage, the girls play games inside while the boys play games outside, and then they trade places. They no longer sing Happy Birthday to both twins and they no longer care about the gifts the other receives.

Stage 4: Gender Spicy ages 13+

Gone are the years of warring and ignoring. Enter, the years of attraction. A coed birthday party is the perfect place to check out the girls, or the boys. Now there are battles over who to invite or not to invite. “He likes her but she doesn’t like him so he can’t come,” my daughter might say. To which my son might respond, “Not his fault. Don’t invite her.” As the mom who prefers one massive party to two parties, I insist they work it out or don’t have any party. The invitations are negotiated and then the party begins and the eyes slide across the room, the flirting begins and mom decides no more co-ed birthday parties.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Terrified: When Anxious Kids Face Surgery

Terrified: When Anxious Kids Face Surgery

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He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t throwing a tantrum. He was in a state of life-or-death terror.

 

How terrified is a child who needs to control all things that happen to his body, when he finds out that he is going to a hospital and given medicine to make him go to sleep so deeply that he won’t wake up no matter what happens, and that while he sleeps a doctor will prop his mouth open and do surgery on half of his teeth? How much more afraid is that child when he finds out that neither his mom nor his dad will be in the room with him and that he will be there, unconscious and helpless, in a room full of strangers?

I’ll tell you how terrified: that child will be approximately as afraid as is possible. That child will turn pale and clammy, vomit repeatedly, succumb to a migraine, and stay awake most of the night screaming and begging his parents not to make him go. His fear will spiral so far out of control he’ll require two nebulizer treatments to ease the asthma attack caused by his fear, but he’ll have to pause those breathing treatments to run to the bathroom because his guts will be in revolt.

When I called ahead to the outpatient surgery center a few days before my son Carter, seven-years-old at the time, was scheduled to have his teeth fixed, I asked to speak to one of the prep room nurses. After I made sure she would be there the morning we were coming, I told her, “Carter has extreme anxiety disorder. He’s probably going to need a dose of Versed as soon as we get there. You’ll know him when you see him; he’s a little guy for his age with red hair. He’ll probably be screaming his face off.”

The nurse replied, “All kids are afraid of surgery, you know.”

I gritted my teeth. I did not say, no shit, you wizard. I said, “Yes, I know. I have three older children who have none of these issues, but Carter really will be more afraid than most kids.”

“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Jones. We can handle him. We’re used to dealing with scared kids.”

Unwilling to argue, I thanked her and hung up. When I recounted the exchange to my husband he said, “Hey, you never know. Maybe the nurse will turn out to be the first person he’s ever met who can talk him out of being afraid.” We laughed, bitterly. How many people have assumed they could force our son to pull himself together?

We arrived at the hospital and by the time we walked through the doors of the surgery center I was soaked with sweat. Moving Carter from the car, across the parking lot, though the hospital’s main lobby (with its throng of staring people), down several corridors, and into the surgical waiting area had been a workout no gym could provide. He kicked, bit, spat, flailed, and most of all, he screamed. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t throwing a tantrum. He was in a state of life-or-death terror. I’m sure that if we could have measured his stress hormones, the levels would have been comparable to a person who’s been run up a tree by a grizzly bear, only to find that grizzly bears can climb.

We entered the prep area and the nurse I’d spoken to the week before came right over to us. “He needs a dose of Versed right away,” I panted.

“Oh, I don’t know about that. Let’s see,” and she took Carter from me, who, in his flailing, caught her ear with a fist and knocked off her glasses.

She put his feet on the ground, knelt, grabbed his shoulders, and gave them a little shake. She put on a super serious, I-don’t-take-this-kind-of-shit-from-kids-like-you voice and said, “You stop that right now, young man. We won’t have any of that here.”

I was half hysterical by this time, frantic for someone to give my son some medicine to ease his panic, but also disgusted by this know-it-all-nurse (did she think that I don’t also possess a fierce, I-don’t-take-this-kind-of-shit voice?) and eager to watch her roll out everything in her bag of tricks before she finally had to admit I was right. I knew she’d get bruised, maybe even bloodied, in the process, and that every other patient in the prep area would be disturbed, but what were my options, really? She had the key to the med cart, not me, so I asked which bay was ours and I went to sit down in the chair by the gurney.

The nurse wrestled a still screaming Carter onto the gurney and told him to take off his clothes. When she let go of him to get a gown, he scrambled off the bed and bolted for the door. I let her bring him back, but his red face, covered in snot and tears, foiled my resolve to let her handle this her own way and when he grabbed for me I hissed at her, “Give him some Versed. Now.”

She wouldn’t. I assume she had her identity wound up in this process, something like I am a nurse who is very, very good with kids and I can always make them calm down before surgery because she was tenacious. He had torn the sheets off the gurney, bolted for the door three times, pulled the nurse’s hair, and bruised us both, but it wasn’t until he bit her that she sighed and went for the Versed.

She came back with the syringe of pink liquid and said, “This is a big dose. He’ll be asleep in ten minutes and then you can relax until it’s time for him to go back.”

I cracked up, and loudly. I couldn’t help it, since I was on the ragged edge myself after a nearly sleepless night and the horrors of watching my child in so much pain for hours. “That won’t put him to sleep,” I said.

“Oh, it’ll definitely put him to sleep. I’ve never had a child who didn’t doze off with this dose of Versed.”

“Then you’ve never given it to a child who was quite this afraid.”

“Well,” said the nurse, “We’ll just see. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

She returned in ten minutes to find my son wide awake, though much calmer. He let me help him out of his clothes and into the gown. He was willing to wear the cap to cover his hair as long as his teddy bear and I each wore one, so I tucked my hair into one and he even smiled a little. When the anesthesiologist came to insert his IV, he had to give Carter a little more Versed because he panicked at the sight of the catheter. “Wow,” said the anesthesiologist, “with this dose, he’s had the max safe dose for his weight. He was the one screaming out here earlier? I can’t believe he’s still awake.”

“He has severe anxiety disorder,” I said. “That Versed has to compete with a huge quantity of stress hormones and nature is always more powerful than medicine.”

“No kidding,” said the anesthesiologist. “If he has to come in again, you should call ahead and let us know about his anxiety disorder. We could meet you at the door with some medicine to calm him down.”

What’s A Mother Worth?

What’s A Mother Worth?

By Valerie Young

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Every mother saves her family thousands of dollars by performing services in unpaid domestic labor for free.

 

At first glance, family life in our private homes seems far removed from economic news in the business section of our newspapers and media outlets. Markets, profits, and the workforce belong in one world. Family dinners, carpools, and laundry belong in another. Transactions involving money are endlessly measured, analyzed, reported, recorded and publicly discussed. But making a place for people to live and grow, and creating the care required for them to thrive, does not. There is a rich irony here, as the original meaning of the word “economics” is household management. Strange, then, that we draw such a line between the consumption and production that takes place within our families, and what happens on the other side of the front door. What could we learn if we used business measures to determine the monetary value of a mother?

Our homes are all about the allocation of limited resources to satisfy multiple and sometimes competing demands. The management of a home, the provision of family care, involves consumption of goods and the production of services. When we look at motherhood through an economic lens, we learn valuable information about the costs and returns of investments we make. These investments involve money, certainly, but they also involve time and energy and effort. Raising children is one such investment. Its return is the fully functional, educated and tax-paying citizen, the productive member of society, which results.

From time to time articles appear estimating the value of the services a mother provides. Most such estimates are based on buying these services on the open market. This replacement cost approach tallies up the expense of paying somebody else to provide the transportation, cooking, cleaning, laundry, health care, child care, home maintenance and household financial services a mother performs for free. The total varies, of course, as the cost of living does from state to state, or urban versus rural areas. In recent years, the grand total has been placed at $113,586 by Business Insider, to $150,000 by The Independent. Salary.com says $118,905. So, every mother saves her family thousands of dollars by performing services in unpaid domestic labor for free.

Of course, it’s not free to the woman who’s doing the work. If she cuts back on her employed hours, or steps out of the paid labor force entirely, the value of the wages, benefits, and future social security payments she is surrendering, she is in fact paying an opportunity cost. This is another way to calculate the value of a mother, and the numbers this calculation generates are much higher than replacement cost. (Remember, domestic labor when done by another is poorly paid. Child care providers and direct care workers, the compensated form of domestic labor, are low income workers, and usually have no paid leave or paid sick day benefits at all to take care of themselves.)

Opportunity cost goes up and down depending on the education of the woman and the field in which she would otherwise be employed. Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood, estimated that a college educated woman gave up about $1 million in wages, benefits and retirement income if she had a child. Forbes worked out the opportunity cost for an elementary school teacher who stops working when she gives birth and came up with $700,000. In more general terms, it’s reasonable to go with an opportunity cost of at least several hundred thousand dollars all the way up to $1 million, as suggested by the experts at Babycenter.com. Clearly, if opportunity cost is the measure, a mother’s worth can skyrocket.

So, why do women make the choice to get out or cut back on paid work to raise their children? It can be the most costly decision a woman ever makes, and will affect her economic security for the rest of her life. There’s more than one reason, of course. I suspect many mothers just want to. So much of a child’s development, up to 90% of neurological growth, occurs in the very first years. The huge cost of child care may equal or exceed a mother’s income. We still labor under the cultural myth that the best caregiver for a baby is its mother, and it’s more socially acceptable for a mother to be the primary caregiver than the father. In 60% of two earner homes, the mother earns less than the father. If someone must assume the primary caregiver role, drafting the lower earner makes economic sense. US workplaces are notoriously inflexible. Lacking a middle way where caregiving and wage earning can be successfully combined, many women are backed into a corner and face an intolerable choice: either work for a living OR raise your children, but never both. Many women forge ahead with their careers, only to find that a country without paid leave, paid sick days, and discrimination against both pregnant women and mothers running rampant makes no allowance for their family obligations. They may then “opt out” of the work force, but in reality there is much less choice than the “opt out” label suggests.

What needs to change here is the attitude that running households and raising children is unskilled, unproductive work. Mothers make people, and people are the most basic economic element. Babies are consummate consumers. They grow to be producers – of everything! Without children, there is no economy, and no future. We know that the value of family care to elders saves public spending and, if compensated, would be worth around $450 billion a year. The US economy’s GDP for 2014 is estimated at upwards of $17 trillion. If mothers’ uncompensated labor – in birthing, nursing, and raising children, and the myriad activities that involves – were tallied up, estimates place its value at between 21% and 50% of GDP. Nancy Folbre, a Professor of Economics at UMass Dartmouth and frequent past contributor to the New York Times Economix blog, places a conservative estimate at 25% of GDP. So that means that mothers’ unpaid domestic labor actually adds between $4 trillion and $8.5 trillion to the economy. Every. Year.

Not only that – in tax dollars alone, the future taxpayers these women raise will contribute their taxes to our public coffers. Each mother, in addition to her own unpaid labor and the profits it brings to the economy, is responsible for another $200,000 going into the US Treasury in taxes collected from her child.

So, please, let’s not say we are “just” stay at home moms. Don’t think that our only contribution to society is our compensated work. We don’t deserve less, do less, or are worth less because we are mothers. In fact, we are the greatest producers in the entire economy. We must know our worth, and cherish our value in its totality. We must insist that ALL we do, both the compensated and uncompensated labor, be respected, accounted for, and valued in all our private and public interactions and institutions.

Valerie Young is a public policy analyst for Mom-mentum, a non-profit organization providing leadership, education, and advocacy to support mothers in meeting today’s personal and professional challenges. Formerly an attorney, Valerie now blogs about the effect of family carework on a woman’s economic security and advocates women’s empowerment at Your (Wo)Man in Washington, and covers policy news for Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.

Photo: gettyimages

 

Things Money Can Buy

Things Money Can Buy

By Sarah Winfrey

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He came home that Friday night to his heavily pregnant wife. That was me, the heavily pregnant wife. He made some comment about the layoffs at work. The layoffs we’d been promised at least twice would not affect us.

“Do you know who is getting laid off yet?” I asked. In passing.

“Well, I know one of them.”

“Who?”

He didn’t answer and I finally looked up from whatever held my attention so closely. I met his eyes and I knew.

“Me,” he said, though he didn’t have to.

We’d planned our entrance into parenthood with a meticulousness that, in retrospect, probably boded disaster. My husband had heard it was best to wait at least 2 years after marrying to begin trying to conceive, so as to consolidate our emotional bond. We did that.

We also planned which doctors we’d use, how we’d get to the hospital (with alternate routes in case of emergency or traffic), and which baby products were worth buying at a premium.

We had it all covered, everything but this.

It would have been one thing if he had lost his job when it was just the two of us, to scramble a little, to work part-time and freelance and live off our savings until we had something official again. Who knows? We might even have decided to take off and travel around the world, to pursue the thing we’d spent so many years dreaming about.

When I became pregnant, knowing our daughter grew inside of me and seeing her tiny heartbeat on the ultrasound, we began to dream new dreams. A home with a yard, family that lived close, and friends who knew us like family. And stability.

Stability is a strange thing to dream about. Most people pit stability against dreams, like you have to choose one or the other. But we began to dream of the things that meant her life would be safe: steady income, health insurance, and childcare such that she would know who was going to be there for her, and when, and why.

Of all the dreams that came along with that first baby, stability was the one we thought we’d be able to provide. And then we couldn’t.

With the loss of my husband’s regular income, we felt like we couldn’t give our daughter anything. This child, the one we would have given anything for, was going to come into a world where nothing was certain.

My dad worked for the same company, albeit in different locations, for my entire life. Even as a small child, I took it for granted that money would continue to come in, that there would always be enough for whatever I needed. Because the family could count on his steady income, I took things for granted that other kids didn’t even have.

I lived in a home my parents owned.

I got new clothes with the changing seasons.

I got to travel all over the country and try things like paragliding and snorkeling.

Was there privilege in that? Yes. But there was also stability.

Even when hard things happened, like when we moved three times in three-and-a-half years, life didn’t fall apart completely.

That’s what I wanted to give my baby.

Instead, I found myself afraid of the way she would grow up. What would it mean for her if we couldn’t buy her new clothes when she outgrew the old ones? What would happen if we never owned a home? If we had to forego something she really needed because of money?

After my husband lost his job, we tried to figure out what life would look like as we moved forward. We talked about income, about needs vs. wants, and we talked about dreams.

We found that some of the things we dreamed of giving her, the things that meant “stability,” centered on less material aspects of life.

“I want to teach her to ask good questions,” I told my husband over bottles of cider one evening. “And to know that the questions you ask in life are more important than the answers you get.”

He nodded. “I want her to know that we know her, inside and out. And to know that she’s always got people on her side,” he said.

“I want to love her well.”

I don’t remember which one of us said that, but it came from both our hearts.

That proved to be the first of many conversations about money and about what we want to give our kids.

We’ve talked, too, about what the loss of that job meant for us. Looking back, we see how not being able to provide her with financial stability threw us even further into darkness than the job loss itself.

But she brought us light too: loving our baby girl made our priorities clearer and helped us focus on moving forward despite our loss. Loving her still centers us, even when it doesn’t make sense of everything.

Just the other day, my daughter, that baby now a five-year-old, got angry with me because her brother got something new and she didn’t. I looked at my husband for reassurance.

“She knows she’s loved,” he said, like he’s said so many times over the years.

She knows she’s loved.

It would be nice to say that my husband’s job loss and our daughter’s first years helped us to refocus, to realize that loving our daughter would be enough. The truth, though, is more complicated.

We have loved her. We always will. And because we love her, we want to give her many things, including some that money can buy.

Still.

Always.

Sarah Winfrey helps moms who struggle with motherhood make peace with both their mothering and their struggle. She writes about mothering and spirituality at sarahwinfrey.com.

Dear Kindergarten Teacher

Dear Kindergarten Teacher

By Jennifer Berney

Teacher

Let me begin with a confession. When I signed up to visit your classroom on Fridays, it wasn’t because I wanted to help. I volunteered because I was curious. I wanted to see how my son had settled into kindergarten, if he had made friends, if he followed the rules, to make sure he didn’t spend the day hiding beneath the table or whispering to friends. I wanted to see you, his teacher, in action. Also, I thought that kindergarten on a Friday might be entertaining.

You didn’t disappoint me.

On the first morning, as I walked through your door, I was surprised to discover that you took attendance in song. “Good Morning, Kylie” you sang, “Good Morning, Rowan.” Each child heard his own name and replied by singing “Good Morning Teacher,” to confirm his presence. The children were so attentive, so organized and earnest, and their voices were so sweetly off-key that I couldn’t bear it. I kept stifling laughter and wiping tears as they gathered in the corners of my eyes. But you continued to lead them, unfazed, accustomed as you are to this hilarity and sweetness.

One afternoon when all the kids were tired, I watched you steer my son away from an impending meltdown. A friend had given him a sticker earlier that day, and he was convinced that it had fallen from his pocket and was now lost forever. He wasn’t crying yet, but I could hear the tremble in his voice from across the room, and I was certain that in moments he’d melt into a puddle on the floor. “Will you do me a favor and go check your cubby?” you asked him sensibly, as if he too were in a sensible mood. You engaged with the problem, but not the drama, and he followed your lead. Of course, the sticker was in his cubby. My son shuddered with relief.

On a different day, I watched as another boy, in tears, ran to you as if you were his own mother. You placed your hand gently on his shoulder and allowed him to take comfort for a moment before you lowered yourself so that you could learn why he was crying. He explained that a friend had taken over a toy that he had put down for a moment. “Well go tell Daniel how you felt about that,” you instructed him. I watched as these two boys had an intimate conversation in the corner of the room. Minutes later, they emerged and reported to you that they had fixed the problem.

I’ve seen you clip the tag out of one little girl’s shirt because she complained that it was itching her. Upon spotting you with a pair of scissors, another girl lined up behind her and asked if you would please clip a loose thread off of her shoe. “Anyone else need anything?” you asked the room, making light of how often your work is interrupted by a child’s immediate physical need.

Once, at the end of a game of polygon bingo, I heard you explain to all twenty-five of your students how winning doesn’t feel good if you’ve cheated. I’ve seen you teach them a line to help them cope with disappointment: “Aw, shucks, maybe next time.” You punctuate this line with a snapping gesture, and I’ve seen the children in your classroom mimic this unprompted after someone else has won at bingo, or been chosen as the next line leader. You’ve trained them not to cry, or scream that it’s unfair. “Aw shucks, maybe next time,” more than a few of them whisper, and then everyone moves on.

Under your instruction, my son has learned how to properly hold a pencil, and learned how to write legibly, first in capitals and more recently in lowercase. He has learned to write from left to right and to leave “finger spaces” between individual words. At the beginning of the year, he could make sense of a written word by sounding it out methodically. Now he reads full sentences, pages at a time; at night he climbs into his top bunk and reads himself to sleep with a headlamp. His transformation from non-reader to reader happened faster than I would have ever imagined. One night, in the midst of this transition, my partner wondered aloud how many kids you had taught to read over the years, and I marveled for a moment, thinking of the hundreds of children whose hands you’ve guided, your hand helping theirs fit to the shape of the pencil, the hundreds who have echoed your voice making alphabet sounds and reading sight words.

I’ve spent much of this year wondering how we got so lucky. My son is quiet and sensitive, but obstinate; he doesn’t like to be told what to do. I worried that kindergarten would mark the beginning of a long struggle, that he might hate school and cry every morning. But your rules and your kindness, your patience and your limits have helped him feel at home. The teachers that come after you, they don’t have to shine as brightly—he’s already formed his opinion of school. He likes it. Of all the jobs you do, from teaching kids subtraction to helping them tie their shoes, it strikes me that this one is most essential: you invite them to bring their whole selves, their best selves to the classroom.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.

Sleep Training: Two Different Perspectives

Sleep Training: Two Different Perspectives

Sleep deprivation is hard for all parents. But not everybody takes the same approach to a baby, even an older baby, who wakes up during the night. For Wendy Wisner, crying-it-out was not an option: she co-slept with her children and “waited it out” for the years it took them to sleep through on their own. Jessica Smock, on the other hand, believes babies should be actively encouraged to develop good sleep habits, and that sleep training, though difficult, can be best for the entire family. 

 

Why I Don’t Sleep-Train My Kids

By Wendy Wisner

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 6.15.21 PMWhen it comes to children’s sleep, I think the choices parents make are influenced—at least in part—by their own childhood associations.

When I was a child, we had a family bed: sleep was a shared experience, replete with elbow bumping, shuffling, sleep sighs, and minor snoring. I remember falling asleep next to my mom, sometimes next to my sister. Eventually, I asked for my own bed, but I always knew I could rejoin the family bed whenever I needed to. I never had a stuffed animal or security blanket. My parents were that for me.

As luck would have it, I married a man whose family also espoused a communal bed. So when our first son was born, he naturally joined us in ours. It made nursing a million times easier, and keeping him close minimized sleep disruptions. I was able to latch him on, and go right back to sleep. I’m sure the fact that I spent my childhood settling in and out of sleep with others nearby helped me feel comfortable with this arrangement.

Sleeping with my son wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of wake-ups, and even though I didn’t have to leave my bed to tend to him, my sleep was still fragmented, and I would wake up exhausted and depleted. At the four-month mark, I reached a breaking point. My son was waking hourly, all night long, and kicking me in the head. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I said to my husband, “I can’t live my life this way. I just can’t do it.”

I scoured the Internet looking for solutions. Most of the advice I found was something along the lines of, “Put your baby down, drowsy but awake, and then leave the room.” I hadn’t heard of sleep training or cry-it-out at that point—at least not explicitly—but I knew that if I took that advice, it would result in more crying than I was comfortable with. My son had already revealed his intense personality. When I did leave him alone in the room at naptime, he didn’t just fuss a little until I came to get him: he cried his head off. I wasn’t going to subject him to more than a few minutes of that.

So I waited it out. As an at-home parent, I was able to nap with my baby, cancel plans when necessary, and take my sleepy days slowly. I know mothers working outside the home don’t have this luxury, but I managed to slog through. Sleep got a little better, then a little worse, then a little better again, and I made it through the first six months. At that point, things became more bearable. I didn’t do anything differently; my son’s sleep patterns just changed, with stretches of uninterrupted sleep happening more often.

I soon began to take the baby out, and have my first conversations with other mothers, many of which cycled back to the topic of sleep. As a new, idealistic parent, I was appalled by the other moms’ tales of sleep training. A mom at the playground told me they were still crying-it-out after a month because it wasn’t working yet, and she wondered if the neighbors in her apartment complex heard the screaming. There was the mom at a birthday party who told me that her son had just recently started waking up again after he’d been trained a few months ago, and that they had recently survived a night of four hours of crying.

In that first year of motherhood, I became the classic, righteous attachment parent when it came to sleep training. I’d hold my pure, innocent baby close, and feel sick at the thought of leaving him in a dark room to cry for hours at a time. A baby cannot talk: when he cried, he was asking for my presence. In these early years, I was teaching him about communication and kindness; it seemed inhumane not to respond when he cried. I found articles like this, which demonstrated that excessive crying increased the cortisol (stress hormone) levels in babies’ brains, and this, which showed that sleep training could cause attachment issues.

That was eight years ago. I have two children now. My older son has slept blissfully through the night since he was just under three years old. My second son has recently started sleeping through at around the same age, though he still wakes in the early morning and needs to be soothed back to sleep. Having “waited it out” twice, I will say that it isn’t always rainbows. I have felt sick from exhaustion. Extreme sleep deprivation increases my anxiety and exacerbates my migraines. But most nights my children’s wake-ups were manageable, and I felt as well-rested as most parents of young children feel.

I haven’t changed the way I handle sleep with my own children, but the way I perceive other parents’ choices has changed. I have made friends with many loving parents with awesome kids who have done some sort of sleep training. I understand that not all parents want to attend to their kids in the middle of the night, and that having your child in your bed or in close proximity (which is the best way I know how to deal with sleep disruptions) is just not within everyone’s comfort zone. I also understand that not everyone has the right support or lifestyle to get through months of sleep deprivation.

I am also aware that there are different kinds of sleep training, and different kinds of sleepers. I still have a big problem with letting a baby cry for hours at a time (really, any more than a few minutes is hard for me to fathom). Even Ferber, the father of sleep training, never advocated for hours of crying at time. I think that most parents take a kinder, more measured approach to it, checking on their babies frequently, offering assurance along the way—at least I hope so.

Even so, it still breaks my heart a little (OK, a lot) when I hear about a baby who is sleep trained, especially when controlled crying is involved. I just want to rush to the baby, and place him back in his parents’ arms. I want to tell his parents to wait just a little bit longer, because it gets better on its own. It really does. And someday you might even miss those midnight snuggles.

Wendy Wisner is the author of two books of poems and her writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary Mama, The Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Full Grown People, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Why I Sleep-Train My Kids

By Jessica Smock

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 6.13.09 PMSleep training my son was hard. But not that hard.

By the time he was four months old, his sleeping habits were becoming more challenging for all of us. He was waking up more times during the night, becoming more difficult to soothe back to sleep, and napping less and less. My husband and I were exhausted. We fought constantly, and our son was cranky and overtired too.

When I mentioned our sleep issues to a few friends, I was given one name from each of them: Weissbluth. Like thousands of parents before me, I devoured Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. From Weissbluth, I learned about sleep associations, infant sleep cycles, wake times, nap schedules, patterns of sleep organization for newborns and older babies, and graduated extinction (“crying-it-out”). From there, I moved on to books by other experts in the field of baby sleep: Ferber and Jodi Mindell.

At that point, I had just finished the coursework for my doctoral degree in education and development. Immersed in the world of academia, it had made sense to me that because I was struggling with an issue I knew nothing about—solving and preventing baby sleep problems— I should turn to research from the experts: people who had devoted their lives to helping parents with this exact problem. Left to our own devices, what my husband and I were doing wasn’t working, that much was certain. We were all miserable. Consulting these books suddenly made me feel less alone. I now had hope.

Online I read some of the criticisms of sleep training—that it could cause long-lasting psychological harm, that it can impact the attachment bond between parent and child. But then I reassessed the sleep training research for myself. It was obvious to me that these critics were grossly overstating and misconstruing the research on infant stress responses. If you look closely at the studies many critics cite, you will see that they are specifically about the effects of chronic, severe neglect and abuse on the infant brain, not about the effects of a temporary stressor, like sleep training, in the life of a baby in an otherwise happy, loving home.

And a secure attachment bond develops over the course of months and years of sensitive and responsive interaction between parent and child. Attachment researchers state that a few nights of sleep training (and even periodic “retraining”) resulting in better sleep for everyone will do nothing to harm that bond. In fact, it’s quite possible that it may improve the bond once the parent and child are no longer suffering the effects of sleep deprivation.

So we did it. We let our son cry it out, using gradually increasing “check-ins” and then no checks at all. He cried for almost an hour the first night. Then less and less over the next few nights. In less than a week, he no longer needed to be rocked or fed to sleep and didn’t cry at all when placed in his crib awake at bedtime. From our video monitor, we witnessed how he learned to self-soothe: he discovered that he liked sucking on his fingers and sleeping on his stomach. Best of all, he now only got up once during the night to eat—rather than four, five, or six times—and woke up happy and babbling, not screaming, crying, and rubbing his eyes.

Three years later my daughter was born. Unlike my son, who was bottlefed from the age of six weeks due to severe milk protein allergies and who never liked co-sleeping, my daughter is breastfed. Up until she was more than four months old, I shared a bed with her, purely out of desperation. The only way that she would sleep more than an hour at a time was nestled in the crook of my arm, inches away from the breast. All the things I swore I would never do with her—bedsharing, breastfeeding all night on demand past the age of three or four months, rocking to sleep, holding her in my arms for naps—I have done. And still do on occasion.

At four months old we decided to sleep-train her as well. While this taught her to fall asleep on her own at bedtime, she continues to wake up inexplicably and inconsistently, screaming again for the breast or for my arms. We let her cry during the night, sometimes, for almost an hour. For two or three nights, she’ll wake up once for a quick feeding, but the next night, she’ll wake up four or five times and refuse to go back to sleep. Naptime is also a struggle.

Despite my daughter’s more challenging sleep habits, I still feel confident in our choice to sleep train her. Before sleep training, she and I rarely slept for more than one or two consecutive hours, and I found it impossible to sleep well in the same bed with a baby who demanded nearly continuous breastfeeding through the night. I was so tired that I was afraid to drive and had no patience for my four year old. Now she stays in her crib all night, and she falls asleep at bedtime without much fuss. My husband and I get at least a couple hours of time together in the evenings before she might wake up.

If my son was the hare of sleep training, my daughter is a tortoise. But that’s okay. Because helping our children to be good sleepers is just like any other skill that we teach our children. Some of our kids are fast learners, some are not. The goals of sleep training are not the same for every kid or family, and neither is the process. There is no one sleep training method that will work for all babies.

So we won’t give up. Sleep is too important. We’ll keep adjusting our expectations and methods as she grows, develops, and matures and is capable of more and more independence. We’ll continue to support her and love her, even if it that means leaving her alone to struggle a bit, every day and every night.

Jessica Smock is a former educator and researcher who earned her doctorate in educational policy last spring. At her blog School of Smock she writes about parenting and education and was the editor of the recent anthology, The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship. She lives in Buffalo, New York with her husband, son and daughter. 

Mom Blame

Mom Blame

By Katy Read

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 8.13.17 AMMy son was a couple of months old when he introduced the nightly practice that we came to call The Board.

It would happen at bedtime. The parenting books all said you should establish a soothing routine. I would sit in the gliding chair, turn the lights down, rock the baby as he nursed one last time. I might whisper a lullaby or run softly through Goodnight Moon (or, okay, flip through a magazine or watch ER). The idea behind this peaceful ritual was to send my son the message that it was time to relax and get ready to sleep.

He got the message, all right.

As soon as the lights dimmed and the gliding began, my son would pop his eyes open, fling back his head, straighten his legs, and arch his back. He would turn his tiny body board-like, rigid as a two-by-four.

It wasn’t the rocking, my singing, or even one of those gory surgery scenes on ER. By day, my son loved—indeed demanded, loudly, often in the middle of a store—to be held and rocked. But at night, he would resist it using the only weapon he had (besides wailing, of course, which he would deploy the moment

I set his board-like body into his crib). My son already was learning how to impose his young but steely will. He would not go gentle into that goodnight ritual.

The Board complicated our evenings. But putting babies to bed is always difficult—everyone knows that. Things would get easier, I kept hearing. Sure enough, a few months and many raucous bedtimes later he began sleeping through the night.

Boldly, I got pregnant again.

*   *   *

A few years ago, I discovered how different my views about raising children had become—different from those of other people, different from those I had once held myself.

I was gossiping over coffee with a group of friends, and the talk turned to one woman’s young nephew, whose recent behavior suggested some kind of problem.

“It’s just what you’d expect,” the aunt said, shaking her head, “the way he was raised.”

The young man, a gifted student, had dropped out of college and moved back home. He had no plans for his future. No job. No friends. Didn’t date. Rarely left the house. Slouched in front of his computer all day.

“No wonder,” the woman continued. “Janet was always so clingy and overprotective. When he was little, she wouldn’t even leave him with a babysitter.”

“Well, but you can’t put all the blame on Janet,” said another family member. “It’s Dave’s fault, too. He stood back and let her smother him.”

I hesitated to add my own opinion. The young man was not my relative. I didn’t have all the facts, and maybe it wasn’t my business. Once, though, when he was little, his family had brought him to our city for a visit. I remembered the parents walking through a hard rain to take their son to a children’s museum.

“Don’t you think it’s possible,” I finally said, “that whatever has caused this behavior, it’s not the fault of either of his parents?”

The faces around the table were frowning, skeptical, perplexed.

*   *   *

At one time, I might have reacted the same way. I used to see a kid with a problem, from a toddler acting up in a restaurant to an ashen-faced teenager begging for spare change on a street corner, and assume that the parents had screwed up. Spoiled the kid or neglected him, been too harsh or too lenient, allowed too much sugar or too much TV.

It worked the other way, too. If a child was cheerful and responsible, obviously his mother and father had raised him right. The parents were often happy to agree. Yes, well, we always made sure we set limits/were consistent/ate dinner together as a family.

I don’t make those assumptions anymore. Or, if I start to do so out of long habit, I catch myself. These days, when I hear a mom or dad boast about some parenting triumph or other, I have to restrain myself from asking whether their supposedly well-brought-up offspring might simply have been born that way.

*   *   *

It’s one of the enduring images of my older son’s early years. My husband and I still secretly chuckle about it, not just because it’s funny and cute—my children have said lots of cute things—but because it’s such a textbook illustration of the qualities that would come to define our son. Our laughter is affectionate, even a little proud, but it is tinged with frustration.

Picture him at three years old: sturdy, round-bellied, the size and shape of an elf. He stands in the kitchen wearing green flannel footie pajamas, curls flopping over his forehead, feet firmly planted like a tiny lumberjack about to swing his ax. He has misbehaved in some way, and my husband has warned him that if he keeps it up, he will be placed in time out.

My son glares up at his father from his knee-high level and points at him with a fierce pudgy finger.

“No,” he replies, his little elfin voice stern. “I will put you in time out!”

Struggling to suppress our amusement, we fail once again to grasp the implications. Toddlers drive everybody crazy, right? It will get easier, we keep hearing. Soon, soon.

*   *   *

Why do we so confidently trace the behavior of children, even of the adults they become, to the actions of their parents? Why are we so certain that fathers and mothers (let’s face it, especially mothers) have control over how their kids “turn out”? It’s a measure of how deeply these assumptions are embedded in our culture that the questions themselves seem almost absurd.

Sure, most people believe, theoretically, in some confluence of nature and nurture. But the nature part is invisible and baffling; even scientists have barely started to grasp the complicated machinations of our genes. Nurture is much easier to sift through for clues.

And, man, we are desperate for clues. Wondering about our own paralyzing shyness or obsessive neatness, we think back to what our parents might have done or said to make us this way. We draw a connection with our father’s aloofness, with our mother’s white-gloved insistence on keeping the bedroom tidy.

The sages who serve as our guides to human nature—philosophers, psychologists, novelists—have compared babies to unmolded clay, white paper, blank slates just waiting for their parents’ chalk. “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” asked seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. “To this I answer, in one word, from experience.” The importance of family environment in particular in shaping character was touted by early twentieth-century scientists. For those times it was enlightened, if a bit ridiculous, for behaviorist John B. Watson to boast that he could take some random infant and “train him to become any type of specialist I might select—a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even into a beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

These days most people, unlike Watson, would consider the difference between an artist and a doctor at least partly the result of talents and penchants. Career choice aside, though, the notion that humans are profoundly malleable—that a model upbringing produces a model child, that a child’s flaws reflect her parents’ mistakes—has taken hold, been culturally internalized, come to seem self-evident. The concept appeals to Americans’ faith in our endless capacity for improvement, in our confidence that hard work—in this case, raising children—pays off. Helping to popularize and legitimize the notion is the ever-growing parenting-advice industry. Desperate parents want suggestions for controlling their children, and a book that throws up its hands is unlikely to rule the best-seller lists.

The idea is entrenched enough to be satirized on The Simpsons. In one episode, Bart gets arrested and sent to jail, and a distraught Marge moans that she’s “the worst mom in the world.”

“It’s not totally your fault,” Homer Simpson consoles his wife. “All these years, I watched you turn our son into a time bomb and yet I did nothing.”

*   *   *

I started paying attention to the way other children acted. At our daycare center, I noticed that at the end of the day most kids simply walked out the front door. They did not have to be slung over their parents’ shoulders as they thrashed and screamed and kicked off their shoes. At the park, I saw toddlers riding serenely in their strollers, gazing at dogs and birds—not straining against the straps and howling to be freed, as if held hostage by a kidnapper. I observed kids quietly sitting on the sidelines at sporting events, kids waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, kids behaving as if they wanted—even strove for—adult approval.

What was especially mystifying was that the parents in these situations were rarely seen coaxing or scolding or bribing or cajoling or threatening or tricking or punishing to achieve this compliance. I concluded that they had already done all that work behind the scenes, using some carefully formulated mixture of discipline techniques to lay a solid foundation of obedience.

Obviously, I was doing something wrong, though it wasn’t clear exactly what. Should I impose tighter limits or pick my battles? Show more empathy or less? Loosen up or crack down? Be a drill sergeant or a therapist? And whichever course I picked, was I following it with unswerving consistency, or were there times—late at night, in the car, at a party—when I might be letting some slight human variability slip into my approach?

Seeking guidance, I combed parenting books, which assured me that my children’s behavior was well within my control.

“But how do you want your child to turn out? What will your child need from you in order to become the person you want him to be?” ask best-selling authors William and Martha Sears in The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child from Birth to Age Ten.

The books promised to make our lives easier with endless strategies for taming kids, from putting them in time-out to plunking them in soothing baths, from setting strict limits to offering multiple choices, from pasting stickers on a chart to counting 1-2-3, from gentle reasoning to the robotic suppression of my own anger (which many of the books warned would only reinforce the undesired behavior).

I tried the suggestions (except the soothing baths, grasping at once the difficulty of deploying this technique in the checkout line at Target) but could not manage to achieve the promised results. When I offered my son multiple choices (blue shirt or yellow? broccoli or carrots?), he would pick (c): None of the above. When I drew up a chart to reward obedience, he quickly found a way to beat the system—1) deliberately misbehave, 2) obediently stop when told, 3) receive another sticker—until I caught on to his ruse.

I would muster all my self-control, determined not to lose my temper, but my son was equally determined and far more ruthless. Sooner or later I’d blow and hear myself yelling. And that, all the books said, you must never, ever do.

In the books, time-out meant ordering the child to his room and keeping him there for one merciful minute per year of age, during which he would cool down and emerge ready to play nicely. In our house, time-out meant dragging my son shrieking to his room as he clung to walls and banisters, pinning the door closed with a chair or pulling against the knob with all of my weight while he battered against the other side like a starving wolverine. A handful of minutes in captivity would only enrage him further, so that a five-minute confinement for some minor infraction could turn into an ordeal stretching through the afternoon.

I used time-outs anyway, if only for a few minutes of raw-nerved peace and a sense that justice had been served. But they did not produce any detectable long-term change in anyone’s behavior. Except my own. Which was deteriorating.

*   *   *

I switched from parenting books written for the general population to books geared for a particular type of kid, manuals whose titles contained words like “spirited,” “challenging,” “defiant,” “explosive.” These euphemistic terms only hinted at my son’s complex character, which blended the qualities of a particularly indomitable two-year-old with those of a particularly self-assured teenager.

My other son, just seventeen months younger, was more cooperative, more even-tempered, more willing to acknowledge adult authority, more eager for approval, more readily repentant, more kid-like. Though they had been subject to more or less the same parental treatment, the boys were developing into different people. That should have been a clue.

But its meaning was obscured for a while by what the two boys, often mistaken for twins, had in common: energy, daring, a sense of adventure. Some kids are content to splash happily at the shore; mine weren’t satisfied unless the waves were lapping at their earlobes. Some kids hide behind their parents when strangers appear; mine would chat up passing pedestrians or the guy repairing the refrigerator. Some kids sit cross-legged and rapt during story time at the public library; mine would become loudly, theatrically bored and have to be taken from the room. While horsing around at a cousin’s wedding reception, they knocked over a potted palm that only a heroic dive by my husband—picture a man in a suit and tie, soaring Superman-style across a hotel party room—kept from crashing onto the wedding cake. I loved my sons, but most days with them were exhausting and exasperating.

This need not be so, people kept suggesting. Teachers, relatives, therapists, friends, and a few total strangers offered advice, solicited and otherwise, on how to discipline my sons, as if the boys were a couple of young mustangs who, in the hands of a skilled wrangler, could be broken. Listening to my stories, friends would ask “Well, have you tried … ?” as if the solution to years of struggle might materialize in a few seconds of reflection. Parents of mild-mannered, compliant children—kids who could be counted on to sit for hours, patiently coloring, while the adults chatted—would give tips for transforming my boys into easy kids like theirs.

The advice-givers were mostly polite, but their words held an implication with which I was already grimly familiar: I was doing something wrong. The proof was in the boys’ misbehavior itself, prima facie evidence that I was screwing up. If I were raising them right, they’d be fixed by now.

“Our kids used to try that kind of nonsense,” my father-in-law remarked. “We got them over it pretty quickly.”

“If you’d just resolve yourself to putting them in time-out whenever they misbehaved, pretty soon you wouldn’t have to do it very often,” a friend advised, as though my sons weren’t already sentenced to their rooms for part of just about every day.

“I see you’ve gotten stricter with them, and I like it!” said a teacher, thinking she was giving me a compliment, on a day when my sons capriciously decided to be more cooperative than usual.

After a while, I began to wonder how many of the advice-givers were really in a position to advise. Sure, most had experience raising kids. But none of them had raised my kids.

*   *   *

Behavioral geneticists—scientists who study the influence of genes on behavior—have for years been defying the philosophers, novelists, and even many psychologists by arguing that parents do not stamp personality on a child. Though in most cases the powers of nature and nurture are impossibly entangled, these scientists have attempted to tease the two forces apart by studying separated twins (who share nature, but not nurture) and adopted children (who share nurture, but not nature). Researchers involved in ongoing projects at the University of Minnesota and the University of Colorado, among others, claim their studies indicate that genes account for roughly half of a child’s personality—and, still more controversially, that the other half, though apparently shaped by the environment, does not appear to be much influenced by parents.

The Minnesota team found that identical twins raised as strangers in separate homes wound up just about as much alike as twins raised together from birth (and more alike than non-identical siblings raised together). In other words, although none of the twins’ personalities were identical, what differences existed did not seem to come from having different family environments. In similarly surprising research on adoptive families, the Colorado team found that adopted kids and the siblings with whom they were raised resembled each other in personality no more than would any two strangers plucked off the street.

This research suggests that whatever similarities we notice between typical children and their parents comes not from anything the parents say or do, but from the genes they pass along. In other words genes—not rules, habits, or role modeling—are why the children of avid readers become bookworms, why the children of aggressive parents become bullies, why the children of neat freaks grow up to keep the floor under their own beds dust-bunny-free. When kids whose parents smoke or abuse or divorce grow up to do those things too, the research suggests, it’s not because they’re mimicking behavior they witnessed growing up, but because they inherited their parents’ tendencies. Same goes for the offspring of responsible, careful, well-adjusted parents.

Many people are resistant to, even offended by, this idea. It seems to overturn everything we understand about families; it makes the hard work of mothers and fathers appear superfluous. Parents don’t matter?! Even many psychologists don’t accept the concept, and when you tell a layperson about it—I can vouch for this—you likely will see her stiffen, frown, and mount an indignant rebuttal.

Not that there isn’t room for argument. Perhaps the researchers’ methods are flawed, their measurement instruments clumsy, their conclusions premature. Anyone who has followed the recent dieting debate over fat and carbs knows that information isn’t infallible just because it comes from somebody in a lab coat.

But when I first heard about this research, I was intrigued. Maybe our belief that parents are responsible for molding their children’s characters is one of those flat-earth-type cultural assumptions that people of future generations will come to see as pitiably flawed. Maybe it will someday seem as absurd as the notion that mothers cause their children’s schizophrenia or autism, as doctors declared in the 1950s (condemning a generation of mothers to wrenching guilt and depriving their children of effective treatment). Maybe shaping personalities is not the most important aspect of parenthood anyway—how many of life’s other important relationships are measured by the degree to which one party unilaterally and permanently alters the other’s personality? Isn’t this, in every other case, usually considered impossible (note to self: don’t mention this argument to spouse)?

Some might see this as a shocking abdication of responsibility, but the thought that I might not be solely accountable for my sons’ behavior filled me with great relief.

*   *   *

Still, I might have shrugged it all off as so much esoteric theory if it weren’t for an experience I had, soon afterward, that demonstrated for me the realities behind the research. My epiphany occurred, of all places, in a shoe department.

I was alone in Marshall Field’s, checking out the sale items, relishing the vaguely guilty freedom of an afternoon with both boys in school and no pressing assignments or chores. My eyes fell on another shopper, a woman accompanied by her three small children. I felt a surge of empathy, knowing how impossible it was to get any real shopping done in the company of even one child, let alone three.

But then I noticed that the woman was strolling nonchalantly among the clothing racks, stopping now and then to hold a blouse up for inspection or to finger the fabric of a jacket. She looked about as carefree as I felt, sans the guilt. The trio of preschoolers followed her through the aisles like quiet little ducklings, the oldest one pushing the youngest in a stroller whose handles were taller than he was. Not one of the kids was whining with boredom, or begging for a snack, or running to hide inside a rack of dresses, or pushing the stroller on a demolition course into other customers’ shins, or scampering over to find out what it’s like to run down the up escalator.

The group reached ladies’ shoes, and without hesitation the mom strode in to check out the footwear. My mouth literally fell open as she began to try on sandals. Without being told, the children fanned out around her to watch. The woman examined one style after another, pivoting her foot this way and that, half ignoring her brood. Which she could easily do, because the kids did not once try to snatch up pairs of stiletto pumps themselves, put them on their own feet, and clomp around. They just stood there.

Ordinarily, witnessing this kind of scene, I would feel stirrings of envy and shame. How did she get them to act that way? Why won’t my kids do that? Is she a better mother than I am?

This time, though, those questions barely crossed my mind.

These children were so astonishingly docile that all at once I knew their behavior was not the result of any clever discipline schemes their mother might have employed. This woman had not coaxed, tricked, threatened, or beat them to get them to act like that. She hadn’t made her children that way. They just were.

And with that I understood something else: No technique or book or tip, no sticker chart or consequence or 1-2-3, not even the world’s most soothing bath, would ever turn either of my sons into that kind of kid. Those children and mine might as well have come from two different planets. They had different natures.

And once I figured that out, I began to comprehend a few other things.

*   *   *

The day my older son was born, I lay on the delivery table and watched his face as a nurse carried him over to meet me. He wasn’t crying. His eyes were wide and flashing about, his head swiveling, his mouth an awestruck O. He was taking in everything his newborn senses could absorb: the lights, the sounds, the cool air, the blurs of color and motion. He had no idea what all this stuff was, of course, but he did not appear afraid of it. He looked fascinated.

His father and I turned to each other, thrilled and terrified. “What do we do now?” we said.

Ten years later, we’re still wondering.

When your kids don’t act like the children on television or in books do—when they are not as fragile or malleable or angelic as you’d been led to believe all children are—you’re forced to shed the idealistic gauze through which you once viewed motherhood, cut the velvet bows, drop the pretenses. You give up hopes of languid picnics, of delicate sandwiches eaten cross-legged on a blanket, and make do with fast food on the fly at the playground. You let your kids pick out cheap Halloween costumes at Target rather than toil over hand-stitched outfits that you know they’d probably refuse to wear. You lose, early on, your high squeaky mommy voice and instead begin addressing your kids in the ordinary straightforward tone you use with adults, because you find that your kids respond best to frankness. You remind yourself, over and over, that the only time the word “good” means “easy” is when it’s applied to children.

Your romanticism dissolves, leaving behind a wintry clarity that, you discover, has a beauty of its own. No longer do you envision every moment of motherhood as rosy and wonderful.

But now, when something genuinely wonderful happens, you know to trust it.

Until my sons were about four and five, my husband and I considered having another child. I was sure raising three children was humanly possible—I had seen other moms do it. Eventually, though, I noticed that those other threesomes were usually the patient, obedient sort of kids. That settled it. My husband and I resolved to stop at two, and we made the decision final with a rummage sale.

On the day of the sale my older son sat with me in the front yard. I had promised the boys I would share the proceeds from their toys, and my son was eager to help move the merchandise. He spotted a small elderly woman gingerly examining an assortment of items from the garage, including the little vehicles that the boys had pedaled around the driveway before they’d graduated to bikes with training wheels.

My son sprang forward to assist. The woman told him she was shopping for something for a grandson. Polite but determined, my son guided her along with helpful questions. How old was her grandson? What colors did he like? Would he fit into this little blue convertible? Or maybe he’d prefer this fire engine? Did she notice that the ladders were detachable? Would she be interested if the price were a dollar lower? The grandmother beamed at the suave five-year-old salesman and asked him questions right back. They chatted amiably for a few minutes, and when she settled on the fire engine, my son offered to help her put it in the trunk of her car.

“Oh, he’s marvelous,” the woman said, glancing back at my son as she handed me money for the truck. She turned to me with twinkling eyes. “You must be a wonderful mother!”

Had I been honest, I might have told her I could no more take credit for my son’s ability to charm a stranger than I could for his capacity to drive his parents crazy. I might have confessed that his personality was unfolding in directions that, like it or not, I could only watch with helpless amazement. I might have held forth with my views about nature and nurture and parental influence or lack thereof. But just then, gazing at this smiling grandmother, I felt a blurry tingling in my eyes and a tightening in my throat and for a few long moments I could not speak at all.

Author’s Note: For years, the discussion of raising “challenging” children has been dominated by so-called experts, who have helped sustain the myth of a disciplinary panacea. Meanwhile parents, myself included, have hesitated to speak up, partly out of reluctance to publicly criticize our children, partly out of shame or confusion over our own presumed failures. The first turning point, for me, was realizing how many traits associated with the challenging child—determination, assertiveness, energy, curiosity, self-assurance, vitality—are prized when exhibited by an adult. The second was coming to see that, under the right circumstances, those traits can actually be pretty great in a kid. Recently, when interviewing the author of a particularly reprehensible parenting book, I mentioned that my sons were often difficult. “Would you like some help changing them?” the author asked patronizingly. “No thanks,” I said. “I’m not interested in trading them in for different kids.” The remark left him sputtering, but I meant it.

Katy Read’s essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in Salon, Working Mother, Real Simple, Minnesota Monthly, Chautauqua Literary Journal, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

The Underwear Metamorphosis

The Underwear Metamorphosis

By Mary Dunnewold

Barbie Underwear Final w pink

When I was a girl, my mother bought me “Lollipops” underwear, the kind that come up to the navel and bag a little in the behind. My sisters and I called it “big underwear.” It came mostly in white, occasionally in pastel solids, always 100% cotton. I didn’t like big underwear much, but I didn’t realize one had choices when it came to underwear.

In practical terms, big underwear is the best kind. It doesn’t creep up, fall down, or cause panty lines. It also makes great dust rags when the seams shred and the elastic wears out.

But one morning, while painstakingly experimenting with which of the three underwear openings her legs should go into and in what order, my four-year-old, Elena, asked me, “Mommy, why don’t you have any Barbie underwear? If you had Barbie underwear, we could look the same.”

“They don’t make Barbie underwear for grown-ups, honey,” I told her, wondering if that was true.

But she was persistent. “Do you have any Elmo underwear?” “Nope.” “Dora underwear?” “Nope.” “Little Mermaid underwear?” “Nope. I have mostly plain old white underwear. But I like your fancy underwear.”

She looked perplexed.

“But Mommy, why don’t you buy some fancy underwear too? Then we could be the same, and your bottom would be happy.” She finally got her legs in the right openings and did a little underwear song and dance to celebrate.

I went to my bedroom and looked in my underwear drawer. All cotton. Mostly white. A few beiges, a few faded pinks and blues. Hard to tell what was originally an uninspiring pastel and what just turned out that way in the laundry. No trimmings.

That night in bed I asked my husband, “Would you like me better if I wore fancy underwear?” He didn’t look up from his crossword puzzle. “You’re beautiful. I like you just the way you are.” I tried harder to get his attention. “Would you like me better if I didn’t wear underwear?” “Sure. What’s a three letter word for sister?”

I lay there for the next half-hour working myself into a state, ready to believe that his lack of attention resulted directly from my years of uninspiring underwear. If I wore underwear like Scarlett Johansson’s, he would never even pick up a crossword puzzle.

I’d worn big underwear most of my life. Sure, in high school, when I was 5’8″ and weighed 120 pounds, I wore bikini underwear, like most skinny high school girls. But it was always cotton and always white or pastel. I could wear bikini underwear because there wasn’t much to cover up, and I probably thought panty lines were enticing. In fact, high school boys seemed enticed by the mere suggestion, including panty lines, that girls wore underwear. My mother was still in charge of buying bras, so I wore plain, functional models since she wielded the credit card.

Then in college I became a feminist. Being a feminist meant wearing plain cotton underwear as a political statement. Cotton was the healthiest choice; it allowed air circulation and prevented infections. And I refused to pander to the patriarchal conception of what the female form should look like or be clothed in! This meant bras were out. I wore men’s white undershirts to keep warm.

This phase lasted for a few years post-college, until I was faced with the prospect of getting a real job. Real jobs meant real clothing: pencil skirts instead of jeans; snappy jackets instead of shapeless sweaters; actual shoes. Career women are seamless and don’t sag. So when I went to the store to buy underwear, I had a new reason to buy big cotton underwear: no one would take me seriously if I had panty lines. Bras were a must, but I had to ease back into them gradually, so I bought conservative, expensive models.

A few years into my career phase, I got pregnant. Pregnant women have few underwear options. Basically big, really big, underwear. Plain cotton is best (to avoid yeast infections). Bras were the same story. Bigger than I ever imagined. The easy access panels of nursing bras were a novelty, but were intended for the wrong audience. Besides, after the baby was born, nursing pads and baby stains killed any inclinations towards sexy.

Then came early motherhood. In those days, I could hardly remember the last time I changed my underwear, let alone care what it looked like. I sometimes lapsed into the no-bra look, but mostly because I couldn’t find a decent one to put on, not to make a political statement.

But here I was. Thirty-five, kids past toddlerhood, married for over ten years, and I’d never even tried on fancy underwear. I decided to start small.

The next time I was shopping, I causally slipped a three pack of black cotton briefs into my cart. When I got home, I sent the kids out to play, then went into the bedroom to try them on. I discovered I had picked up a package labeled “low rise briefs,” not my usual full coverage affair. They rose only half way to my navel. I felt wonderfully daring. I couldn’t bring myself to wear them with my white bra, though, so I shoved them into the back of my underwear drawer and returned to my usual white.

But that night I put the black “low rise” briefs on under my flannel nightgown. I felt like they were glaringly obvious, begging for notice even under the heavy flannel. I expected my husband to immediately drop his crossword puzzle and demand to know what had possessed me. If he noticed, he didn’t comment.

A few weeks later, while the kids were at school, I went to a department store and tried on bras. Lacy bras, silk bras, push-up bras, bras that somehow made me look like I was 22 again. I kept expecting the sales clerk to politely inform me that bras for women my age were over there and point to the rack of standard issue white armor. I chose a lacy black push-up decorated with a few pearls in front. I wore it home under my sweatshirt.

The next day, I wore the entire black ensemble under my jeans and t-shirt. To my surprise, nothing happened. My mother did not call to demand an explanation. I was not expelled from the PTA. I went around all day feeling like I had a terrific secret. I was sorry to take it off and put on my flannel at bedtime.

In the next few weeks, I made a number of covert stops in lingerie departments. I discovered tap pants, camisoles, teddies, chemises; matching bras and panties in shocking colors and elaborate florals; fancy embroidery; tiny bows. I acquired a small collection and began wearing them every few days. I cleaned out the worst of the washed-out cottons and put them in the ragbag.

I felt like a new woman. For the first time in years, it seemed, I was doing something because I wanted to, because it made me feel good. Not because I had to; not because it was practical; not because someone expected me to; not because I’d always done it that way and never thought to do it differently. I began to wonder, if I could change my underwear, what else could I change?

And one morning while Elena and I were sorting laundry, I noticed her examining a pair of lavender silk briefs with lace insets and a matching bra. “Mommy, whose are these?”  she asked, eyes wide.

“Those are mine, honey.”

“Mommy. Where did you get these?”

“At the store.”

“Can I have some just like them? Your bottom must feel like dancing all day when you wear these.”

Someday, I told her, maybe she could have some just like them. But to wear underwear this fancy, you have to be really grown up.

Mary Dunnewold is an attorney and writer from Northfield, Minnesota.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Taking the Plunge: Mom-fear Versus Kid-fun at the Water Park

Taking the Plunge: Mom-fear Versus Kid-fun at the Water Park

Liddy

It will be fine, I say, as if those words could push away their worries. 

 

“Mom,” Brennan says. “Are you going to chicken out?”

Liddy crosses her arms over her turquoise swim suit and squints at me accusingly through the glare of the sun, waiting for my answer.

“No way,” I say, with a forced smile. “I’m in.”

The three of us are pressed together in the brutal heat with dozens of people — adolescent boys, mostly, dripping with sweat and chlorinated water. Sun and sunscreen are burning my eyes and, as we slowly ascend the steep wooden steps, my bare feet are steeped in some muck I’d rather not consider. I peer down over the side of the waterslide steps at the miniature people down below, and my heart is going 60 miles an hour.

When I was eight or nine years old, I took my first turn on a real roller coaster and promptly threw up. I haven’t looked back. Until this morning, that is, when Liddy woke up crying in advance of our big trip to the Cape Cod waterpark featured in The Way, Way Back. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t want to go without Daddy.” I thought she just meant she’d miss John while he was stuck at work, until she talked about how, on our last trip to Water Wizz, I only rode the lazy river ride. How I read my book at the picnic table while John went on every ride with the kids, screaming and laughing alongside them.

So here I am at Pirate’s Plunge waiting for a signal from bored-looking ride operator indicating that it’s time to step forward, lie on my back and slide feet-first into the rushing water, then rocket down a fifty-foot drop.

I think about various scenarios that could get me out of this situation. A lightning storm. Vomit on the waterslide. A lost child who needs help finding his family. I search frantically for thunderclouds or a sobbing child. Nothing.

We wind closer to the top and the kids offer advice. Lie as flat as you can, Mom. Fold your arms like a mummy. Close your eyes. Hold your breath. Oh, and when you think the ride is over? There’s one more really big drop.

What am I doing? I am the mom who sits under the beach umbrella while my kids ride the waves. When camping involves a long hike into the woods with the gear on your back, I stay home. And when we had the chance to ride a flight simulator at the San Diego Maritime Museum, I sat out as my family whipped their way through 360s and Liddy screamed “Help me! I need a hairbrush!” into John’s ears.

A teenage girl takes her turn and I count — 1, 2, 3, 4 — getting to 30 before the operator at the bottom signals that she’s reached the end. I can take anything for 30 seconds, I think. Right?

I have plenty of time, while I’m standing here shaking, to think about all the occasions when I expect my kids to do something that scares them. Rolling up their sleeves for a flu shot or stepping on stage for a school performance. Or simply going to an unfamiliar place to meet new people can cause them no end of anxiety. It will be fine, I say, as if those words could push away their worries. Remember this feeling, I tell myself. Remember how it drills through you, how you’d give anything to escape.

But there’s no more time to think now. Brennan drops down with a grin and pushes himself off the side for extra speed. Then Liddy gets the signal and throws me a last pleading look — Do it! — before she drops down, face scrunched, and disappears. And then I am getting an unenthusiastic “thumbs up” from the bored ride operator and I crouch down, knees shaking, in my skirted mom-suit.

And then, I am flying, catching air. Freezing-cold bursts of air and water and I am terrified and thrilled and mostly, mostly terrified. My butt slams down on the base of the ride, and it’s done.

“Yeeaaaahhhhh!” I hear them before I see them, bobbing up and down as they cheer and laugh, both with me and at me. “Mommy, you really did it!”

I stand up shakily, gasping, with my suit twisted in all the wrong places. I catch my breath and wave at them. And I smile, knowing I’ve earned the right to watch from the sidelines next time. And feeling certain that, when they face their next time, whatever it is, they will have earned a pass, too.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

Faking Bravery

Faking Bravery

By Kristin Shaw

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Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large.

 

My mother made parenting look easy.

I grew up in the 1970s, when kids were shooed out the front door in the morning in the summer and expected back at dinnertime. My bike was my trusty steed, and my sister and I met our friends down the street for Barbie play time and races around the block. I didn’t have a cell phone, pager, or any other kind of GPS tracking device, and I don’t remember my mother ever worrying about it.

That is a testament to how well she managed her own anxiety; the anxiety I didn’t know existed until I was well into adulthood and learned that she had been actively managing hers with medication and exercise for several years already.

“Mom, how did you deal with not being able to reach us during the day?”

“I knew where you were.”

“How did you learn to let us go and be independent?” I asked her. I am the mother of a five-year-old little boy, and I get panicky leaving him at another family’s house for a playdate for a few hours. I have had to adjust, as I went back to work and traveling when he was three months old, but it was never easy for me.

I had to, she said. You had to learn how to grow up.

“I guess so. But didn’t you worry?”

I held my breath until you came home, she said, not entirely kidding.

Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large. I, too, fight the demons of anxiety, the pilot light ignited when I experienced postpartum anxiety after the birth of my son.

When he was born in the fall of 2009, it was smack in the middle of the outbreak of swine flu. My doctor told me to keep him out of the public and away from germs for a few months, and I did exactly that. I checked his breathing constantly. As he grew and I corralled my postpartum anxiety into something more diluted but still potent, I had to learn how to let him fall and learn on his own without my constant intervention.

My friend Cheryl is a family counselor in Texas, and she sees parental anxiety often. She is my anxiety sensei.

“Vigilance is inherent when becoming a parent,” she told me. “We develop keener vision, hearing, and reflexes, which enable us to better protect our tiny new ones. This level of vigilance can become too intense, crossing the line into anxiety. For those of us with a little extra imagination, the fears can take on a big screen-vivid quality which distracts us from the present moment.”

My “extra imagination” is certainly vivid. In The Lego Movie, which I have now seen dozens of times, the “Master Builders” see a 3D model of the object they are building on a virtual blueprint in their heads. When I see my son carrying a stick, I see that kind of 3D model, but my model ends not with a fully-built spaceship, but a vision of my son with a stick through his eye. My brain has turned into a set of Instagram filters all called various versions of “DANGER.”

One of my best friends has a son who is a week older than mine; we met when our boys were six months old. Her son is more adventurous than my son is, and he often chafes at the boundaries that have been set to keep him safe. He wants to scale, jump, and do things his mother might not be ready for him to do, and she has had to learn to let go of some of her own anxiety. It’s one of the things that has bonded us as friends; “I understand your crazy,” we tell each other, and we laugh.

While I work hard to bite back the words “Be careful!” to allow and encourage my son to stretch his boundaries, she has learned to let go. She told me that by holding him back and trying to keep him from doing things she perceived as too risky, they were both miserable. So she gave him more freedom and it’s harder, for her, but it’s easier in some ways, too, because he is proving he is capable.

“Dealing with your anxiety as early as possible can help you be a calmer, more focused parent,” Cheryl says as she coaches me to take a deep breath and loosen the reins. “Kids rely heavily on us to help them decipher what in the world is safe or dangerous. The goal is to be a concerned, safety-conscious person, while reminding yourself that no matter what happens, you are strong and resourceful. Your kids will see this, and have a better shot at a confident journey through life.”

Maybe being aware of anxiety and doing my best to manage it is a big step forward. Being cognizant of hovering tendencies and actively giving my son more opportunities to stretch within reasonable boundaries helps keep me on track. I WANT to give him as much free rein as makes sense. But it is extremely difficult for me as a mother with anxiety tendencies. It feels like trying to hold back a hurricane inside my head; I want to circle and hold him close to me and instead, I push the storm back down, deep inside, and put a smile on my face.

“Go ahead, honey. You can do it,” I say, while inside I am thinking, “Please don’t die.”

At this point, the challenge is not overcoming my anxiety completely, because that would require a brain transplant. It’s the not letting my son see my anxiety that I work so hard to conceal. He already has his own measures of anxiety, and whether I passed them to him through the umbilical cord or via his observations of what life looks like from my perspective, I feel guilty enough. All I can do is to fake as much bravery as I can.

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-producer of the Listen To Your Mother show in Austin. She was named a BlogHer Voice of the Year for 2014 and 2015, and has been featured at several national sites, including The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.

Photo: Breno Machado

An Homage to Mahj

An Homage to Mahj

By Francie Arenson Dickman

ARLINGTON, VA - JUNE 12:  Mah-jongg tiles are seen on a table of a sixth grade classroom during lunch break at Thomas Jefferson Middle School June 12, 2006 in Arlington, Virginia. A group of sixth grade students have been falling in love with playing mah-jongg, which originated from China that requires strategy; calculation, memorization and luck, since their teacher Sandy Tevelin introduced to them as a hobby at the beginning of the school year. Tevelin, a Jewish-American whose grandmother and mother played the game is now a member of a mah-jongg group, said the game has served as a good ice-breaker for her student who didn?t talk to each other to become good friends later.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Here it is, my mid-life crisis. I’ve been expecting it since I came home from school one day when I was about fifteen to my mother crying in the kitchen. She’d quit a job as an office assistant after only three hours which she’d spent running between the front and back ends of a mammoth copier feeding and stapling, until her blouse had sweat stains and she couldn’t breathe. “I’m too old for this,” she told my father.

A week earlier, she’d said the same thing about a stint in a gallery where she’d had to balance the books in a closet that she claimed doubled as a smoking section. My mother’s lost years—she’d eventually find herself at a mahjong table in California—coincided with my teenage ones, so her identity crisis was secondary to my own. Still, her struggle to move on as my brother and I grew up stuck with me, and as I sucked down Susan Faludi’s Backlash in my Women’s Studies classes and slugged through law school, I vowed that in this regard (and in this regard only, Mom), I would not be like my mother. My days would never be without definition. There would be no mahjong for me.

Yet here I am, thirty years later, with teenage daughters and unfilled hours if not at my feet than on the horizon. The writing is on the wall as much as it is on my daughter’s English paper that she had me read the other day, a story about a girl who gets sick at school. Her mother, when the school nurse calls, is playing mahjong.

“I don’t play mahjong,” I declared without finishing it.

“It’s a made up Mother,” she told me.

“Well you obviously got the idea from somewhere. There’s no such thing as fiction, really.” I told her she needed to change what the mother is doing at the time of the nurse’s call. “Maybe she could be finishing up surgery or her TED Talk.”

She grabbed the paper back. “Why do you care?”

Where do I begin? For starters, I would have hoped, after the years I’ve spent role-modeling what I like to think of as a feminist, can-do anything but math spirit, that she could have done better than mahj. “Have the words to Parents are People fallen on deaf ears?”

She says, “No, I just like mahjong.”

I’m sure she does. Over winter break, I gave in to my mother’s request to teach us and within rounds, my daughters were ruching like the best of them. My game, however, lagged behind due to an inability to commit to a hand.

The same inability to commit that’s driving my reaction to my daughter’s story. I care about what her fictional mother is doing because I don’t know what her real one wants to do as she and her sister move up and out. And my psychological clock is ticking.

“Don’t worry, you still have plenty of time,” my husband tells me. “Our kids are only 13.”

To which I tell him, like Sally told Harry after she found out her ex-boyfriend Joe was getting married, “But it’s there. It’s just sitting there. Like some big dead end.”

I’m not sure what, if anything, I can do about it. Hence, the mid-life crisis. If only it was the type that could be solved with a sports car. Or even a job. Most of my friends already have jobs. They counsel patients, they sell real estate, they run marketing campaigns, or like me, they sit at their computers and write. They are jobs that fill bank accounts and feed minds but for me, as for many of my friends, the shape of the day is defined by family. When the nests empty, I wonder, will our jobs have enough meaning to fill the void in a fulfilling way?

As I was writing this piece, one of those inspirational messages that I generally ignore crossed my screen and caught my eye. “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.” Therein, it seems, is the rub, the reason I question. After having had the privilege of working hard to raise kids, maybe most other jobs are just jobs. My mother should have applied for a passion instead.

But let’s face it, “finding one’s passion,” though all the rage these days, is a lot easier said than done. Especially if you want one that pays. And, even passions can pale in comparison to parenting. I am lucky enough to write every day. On a good day, I may even say I love it, but I love it between the hours of 8 and 3, when my kids come home, and then I love them more. So perhaps my problem isn’t that I don’t know what I want but that I don’t want to let go of what I already have, less of an identity crisis than a bad case of sour grapes.

With a touch of an ache to make more money, which leads back to my mother and my daughter’s ultimate question: “What’s so bad about mahj?” After I ranted to her that most women need to work for a living, she pointed out that my mother makes a killing at the table, which is true. Her winnings have been known to bankroll my kid’s wardrobes. In lieu of a higher purpose, it’s not a bad gig.

Ironically, however, due to my inability to commit, mahj may not be an option. So the pressure to re-purpose is really on. I suppose I could go back to school or to practicing law like Alicia Florrick of the “Good Wife” who left my hometown of Highland Park to restart her law career in the city and just last week was elected State’s Attorney. Although, as my friends and I discuss, unless you’re hired by the handsome Will Gardner, after eighteen years running your own show, having a boss may be hard.

So it’s tough. A Catch-22, a conundrum I wrestle with until the kids come home and then I put it off for another day, or maybe for the month if it’s May (heavy dance recital season) and then I might decide to enjoy the summer because I deserve a break—the whole family deserves a break—I’ll take it up later. In the meantime, I’ll drive the carpools, I’ll write my copy, I’ll try classes, I’ll try jobs, I’ll take up tennis or maybe mahj. And if I’m lucky, if I get a good hand (and I commit), one day I may find my place at the table—however I decide to define it.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

A Rundown of Tonight’s In-n-Out Dining Experience, For Your Entertainment

A Rundown of Tonight’s In-n-Out Dining Experience, For Your Entertainment

By Shawnee Barton

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1.  While I’m ordering, both my children disappear. I leave my card and instructions to “Just add some stuff” with a perplexed cashier. Then I fetch them out of men’s room.

2.  Dylan (my two-year-old son) runs laps around the restaurant.

3.  I stop him by enticing them both to try the ketchup pump. Charlie (my four-year-old daughter) is licking ketchup off every finger, lollipop style, within 3 pumps. So much for creative parenting.

4.  Back to the bathroom (women’s this time) to wash hands.

5.  I wrangle the kids into a booth. Charlie pretends she is drinking ketchup. It’s funny. We laugh until she accidentally spills the entire cupful down her shirt and pants.

6.  Dylan thinks Charlie’s idea of playing with food is a great new discovery. I see it in his eyes. While I am distracted with cleaning Charlie, he dumps another paper-cupful of ketchup onto the table and starts finger painting.

7.  A table of teenaged girls is looking and snickering. I think, “May you all have little devils and feel similarly defeated someday.” A sweet lady who looks like she’s had a hard life (or a bunch of kids) brings me a stack of napkins. It feels like one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.

8.  Everyone is momentarily calm and eating. I get in two bites between helping and refereeing (Dylan is in a phase where he wants all the food on the table. He doesn’t necessarily eat it. He just wants to own it). Charlie asks for a milkshake. I feel bad that her brother stole most of her dinner, so I give her my credit card. She gets in line to order. Dylan doesn’t want to miss an opportunity to play store with his sister, so he wriggles his way around my legs and out of the booth. Calm time is over, as is my dinner.

9.  Dylan grabs my card from Charlie and bolts across the restaurant, screaming this time. Before I can catch him, he tackles a “Wet Floor” sign and splats on the ground in front of two young guys who correctly guess his age. “Two, I knew it!” they say laughing. I smile, as in, “Yeah, isn’t this just hilarious!!!!”

10.  Dylan likes the spot on the floor he’s found, and he’s causing no destruction, so I let him be. Judge me if you will, but I needed a break. He begins entertaining the crowd with a series of down dogs—my own little Iyengar. A lady in line starts laughing out loud at Dylan. She apologizes. I can’t blame her. The whole thing is ridiculous. I feel ridiculous. I am judging me. The tally of crowd involvement is at 9 now.

11.  Charlie orders. The cashier looks and talks to me, even though I am 5 feet away and Charlie is standing right in front of him. It’s as if she doesn’t exist. I hate this for her and wonder if anyone has ever told him that kids are human and that most of them living in this country understand English.

12.  Plenty of milkshake drama.

13.  Dylan creates a new hobby of hiding salt packets in fake plants. When he’s bored with that, he begins a different game that I’ll call “Scale Mt. Booth.” This invites still another table into our drama since reaching the “peak” and throwing something—a spoon, a French fry, anything really—down onto that occupied table next to us is definitely the goal of the game. This, apparently, is my limit. I say, “I’m sorry,” to the saintly group, who hands me back a cold French fry instead of cursing me, and then, “Let’s go,” to my kids.

14.  Dylan takes off again while I’m trying to get our dirty-napkin-tower into the trash bin. Once the table is at a reasonable level of messy, I look up and see him releasing a parting shot—he chucks his little green Croc over the counter and into the kitchen. I run into the galley, grab it, apologize profusely (once again) to a stunned crowd, and carry him—one shoe on, one shoe off—underarm, as one would tote a squirming piglet, through the rain to the minivan.

15.  Somehow, amidst the chaos, Dylan managed to also drink Charlie’s milkshake. She understandably cries halfway home about this.

Shawnee Barton is an artist, writer, poker player and mom living in Austin, Texas. She is currently working on a book about embryos created through infertility treatment. Visit her online at ShawneeBarton.com.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

 

Big Grief

Big Grief

By Jenna Hatfield

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While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me.

 

I’ve known grief.

I’ve fought it off, angry and afraid in the same breath. I’ve wallowed in it, allowing it to wrap me up in its dark cloak of solitude. I’ve ignored it, pretending it away for a moment, for longer.

I thought the sudden loss of my grandfather and two of my husband’s relatives in quick succession felt unbearable. Different than the loss of my daughter to adoption, these beloved figures in my life were simply gone. I dreamed of my grandfather’s voice, of riding in cars with him as I did as a child.

But grief, as it does, ebbs and flows, and while I missed my grandfather, I felt whole again.

Until my grandmother, his wife, died last June.

I grew up on a farm with my grandparents. They lived just across the driveway for the first seven years of my life, and then down a great big hill when my parents built a new house. I spent my after school hours with my grandma, helping her start dinner, watching television, playing with her dogs. She made my formal dresses as I grew into a teenager, helped me get ready for proms, brought a suit up to college for an important event, and worked diligently on the decorations for my wedding.

Even though it should have occurred to me she would someday be gone, it didn’t.

My grandmother always stood as a strong, positive fixture in my life. Sure, she told me how my brown 1990s lipstick didn’t match my skin tone (she was right) and ragged on my nose ring and tattoos, but she lifted me up in so many other ways. She taught me to sew. She sent beautiful letters when I felt homesick in college. She sat with me in the hospital when I first became sick during my pregnancy with my daughter; her presence during that time calmed me then and soothes me now.

The final diagnosis of renal cancer caught the entire family off guard, but it wasn’t until I made it to the hospital the day before she entered hospice that I allowed myself to believe my grandmother was, in fact, dying. I held her hand in mine and knew she would leave us soon. Two days later, my grandmother passed away.

For ten months I’ve been waiting for it to get better, this grief and grieving, this loss of someone who mattered so much in my life. She too appears to me in dreams, sometimes with my grandfather and often times without. Recently we sat on her back porch and watched her dog chase chipmunks.

I miss those little things.

I cry when I make macaroni and cheese the way she taught me. I feel a heavy weight of sadness when I need help picking new curtains and she’s not there to call. I miss her so much some days I feel a physical pain.

“But she’s just your grandma. It’s not like she was your mom.”

I’ve heard it, and I’ve even whispered it to myself on hard days. My mother is still very much alive, dealing with her own grief of having lost her mother-in-law and mother just four months apart. Yes, my mother is still with me for what I hope is a long, long time.

While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me. In our weekly telephone calls as an adult, she offered me advice on dealing with fussy babies and stubborn toddlers. “You’re doing such a great job raising those boys,” she told me regularly. She listened, she comforted, she mothered.

While walking in the cemetery with my seven-year-old son recently, he asked a series of questions about life, death, and the afterlife. He talked of missing my grandmother, his Big Mamaw, as the boys called her. I let him talk and process, as I do every time we end up here, and added my own bits of understanding, sadness, and question-prompting.

“I just miss her. Like, I BIG miss her. You know, for BIG Mamaw,” he said, never missing a step.

I nodded, a bit too choked up to respond in the immediacy. I let the words he spoke hang over us both as we walked past gravestones of people long gone before either of us entered this world. I assume we all have someone—or even someones—we will Big Miss when they die. It matters not how directly they were related or if at all.

What matters, I suspect, is that we loved them in the first place. Learning to feel the presence of that love without the presence of that person slowly helps the grief feel less Big, what turns the Big Grief into just grief and the grief into missing and the missing into pleasant memories.

For now, I work on getting out of the Big Grief stage by allowing myself to feel, to write, to do what I need to do in this moment. She would be proud of me for that.

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

Photo: Breno Machado

 

Down With Birthday Gift Lists

Down With Birthday Gift Lists

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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I want my own kids to know that not everything they desire will show up in a pretty package on their birthdays.

 

I recently read that some parents are encouraging their children to fill out birthday gift registries. Even elementary school graduation gift registries. I’ve been in Africa now for over a decade. We don’t have registries in Djibouti for anything. And we don’t have elementary school graduations. At my afartanbax, essentially a baby shower for my youngest child, guests brought: nothing, sandals for me, fluffy dresses for my baby, packaged cookies, a black sequined coin purse, and a baby blanket. It was fabulous. I was thankful for each person who came. As a foreigner here, every single guest felt like a gift, the handful of wrapped gifts were simply a bonus.

I think this is the biggest mistake in using birthday gift registries. The gifts become the focus instead of the guests.

When my daughter is invited to a birthday party we go to the store or the market and find something she would like to give her friend. I don’t call the parents to ask for birthday gift ideas.

One reason is that toys are exorbitantly overpriced in Djibouti and we probably can’t afford what some kids want. I am sorry, your daughter might be my daughter’s best friend, but I will not pay eighteen dollars for a single Littlest Pet Shop dog. Your son and my son may have been friends since they were three years old but I will not pay twenty dollars for a Happy Meal-sized set of Legos. We have been known to give ping pong paddles, foam pool noodles, picture frames, glass kittens, battery operated fans, and simply bags of candy as birthday gifts. Sometimes all we can find in the store under thirty dollars is a ping pong paddle.

Another reason I don’t ask for ideas is that I don’t believe kids need to get every single thing they want or that they need to have previously wanted every single thing they get. Birthday gifts should have an element of surprise and unpredictability.

Birthday gifts should not satisfy a desire in the way of an obligation. By that, I mean that for some kids (or parents even?), writing a gift idea list is tantamount to receiving those items. They fully expect to get what is on the list. But gift ideas aren’t like grocery shopping lists. With a grocery shopping list the aim is to cross off each item, to get what one expected to get. Birthday gifts shouldn’t be required to meet that same level of expectation.

Birthday gifts should also have an element of personalized creativity. I prefer my daughter go the store, think thoughtfully about her options in reference to this specific friend and the amount of money available for this purchase, and make her own decision. Two weeks ago this resulted in bubble swords, a gift no child in Djibouti would think to ask for but now every kid at that birthday party wants.

I want my own kids to know that not everything they desire will show up in a pretty package on their birthdays. Truth be told, I do ask my kids for ideas, though usually I already know, and I do send ideas to their grandparents who ask me for a list. Since we live overseas and have limited packing and shipping options, I think this is helpful and can relieve the stress of worrying over weight and sizing and shipping and no option for returns. Even for families not living abroad, there are times and relationships in which it is of course appropriate to ask for ideas. But I don’t want the list to give my kids the impression that by writing something down they will automatically receive it.

I get it, that people want to give someone a gift that they really want. But I also want my kids to be authentically grateful that someone simply came to their party. They might have a friend who can’t afford a gift. No problem, please come and have a nice party. They might get two of the exact same item and here there are no returns. No problem, they can give the extra away.

To me, it all comes down to gratitude. If a gift feels, to giver or receiver, like an obligation, how sincere is the ‘thank you’ and ‘your welcome’? Gratitude shrivels if a child is disappointed because they didn’t receive what they expected or because they couldn’t find or afford to give what their friend asked for.

Some parents who love the birthday gift registry idea say they need it because it saves them so much time in their hectic lifestyles. Dare I suggest that eliminating the stuff might also save them time? That it might de-clutter their lives that are so hectic they have time to go and make a list for themselves but no time to go on a hunt for a thoughtful gift for their friend? Maybe we should all just live like Tolkien’s hobbits and give everyone else gifts on our own birthdays.

Not every desire in life will be fulfilled, not every good or even reasonable expectation will be met. Maintaining a thankful heart in all things is an incredibly valuable skill.

Perhaps, it is even a gift.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

The Last Easter Dress

The Last Easter Dress

By Stephanie Sprenger

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She wanted a little girl’s dress. And there were none to be found.

 

My oldest daughter regarded herself somberly in the mirror of the department store dressing room. She twirled dutifully as my mom and I gushed over her sapphire blue dress. Izzy didn’t look pleased. The dress was adorable, with a smocked bodice, a sleek, modern cut, and a skirt that was higher in the front than the back. A pattern of colorful, elegant butterflies adorned the fabric. Had the dress come in adult sizes, I would have bought one for myself. It was chic, stylish, and whimsical. She looked so grown up.

“I want a dress like Sophie’s,” Izzy complained, while her three-year-old sister licked the mirror. “Hers spins better.”

It was true. The ability of a skirt to fan out, ballroom-gown-style, upon twirling, was one of my preschooler’s prerequisites when selecting a dress. It was, in fact, the only prerequisite. Her closet contained hangers of forlorn corduroy dresses that went unworn due to their subpar performance when spinning.

My eight-year-old wanted a dress like that: a full-skirted number with ribbons and bows, one better suited for Easter Sunday than this discount retailer’s attempt at haute couture. She wanted a dress like I had in the 1980s, one that would have undoubtedly been accompanied by a stiff-brimmed Easter hat with a pale pink ribbon. She wanted a little girl’s dress. And there were none to be found.

Shopping for Easter dresses with Grammy had been a tradition; every year my mother happily would buy dresses for both of her granddaughters. Returning to our favorite clothing store, coupons in hand, we’d expected to find the perfect dress for the girls. After choosing a twirly dress for my youngest daughter, we had crossed an invisible line into the “big girl” area; as we perused the racks designated for sizes 7-16, it was clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore. This section of the girls’ clothing wing was a far cry from the precious offerings of the size 4-6x department, which showcased Disney princess nightgowns, comfy knit play-clothes, and ruffled swimsuits. Dismayed, we instead found selections that seemed more appropriate for elderly women, as well as garments resembling the tacky formalwear worn at a freshmen dance. Not to mention the ultra-short shorts that practically screamed “Stripper!” with their artfully-applied holes and frays and the occasional rhinestone smattering. To say the least, the pickings were slim; the butterfly dress had been the lone gem.

My mother and I were becoming anxious. If we couldn’t quickly find a suitable Easter dress in the older girls’ department, we would face the unwelcome possibility of hauling the children to the mall. Given the unauthorized mirror-licking, it was clear we were already shopping on borrowed time.

So we stood in the dressing room, fawning over my sophisticated-looking third grader, who reluctantly issued her consent to buy the fashionable blue frock. I sighed in relief and headed for the checkout. I should have known her heart wasn’t in it.

*   *   *

On Easter morning, my eight-year-old walked timidly into the kitchen as I whisked pancake batter for our breakfast.

“Mommy?” she began quietly. “I really like the dress Grammy bought me, but I don’t want to wear it for Easter today.”

I felt my blood pressure begin to rise. Noticing my daughter’s tearful expression, I quickly checked my righteous indignation.

“Why not, Izzy?” I asked, frowning slightly. “It’s so beautiful!”

“Well, I really want a dress that looks like Sophie’s. I don’t want a big girl dress. I have one in my closet that I really like,” she explained nervously.

A few minutes later, she brought the dress down to show me. I had never seen it before; it was a size 7-8 and apparently came at Christmas from her other grandmother in Texas. Resembling her younger sister’s dress, it had a halter neck, glitter sparkles, pastel flowers all over, a bright pink bow at the waist, and a full skirt, ideal for spinning. It was the perfect dress for a little girl on Easter.

“Honey, why didn’t you just tell us you didn’t like the blue dress that Grammy bought?” I asked, suppressing feelings of guilt and annoyance.

“I didn’t want to hurt Grammy’s feelings,” she confessed. “Will she be upset if I don’t wear this dress today?”

“If she is, that’s too bad,” I replied. “It’s your body and your choice. However, we are going to take the other dress back to the store. The next time you don’t really like a dress someone wants to buy for you, you can say, ‘No, thank you. I don’t want you to spend your money on something I don’t really like.’ I know that’s hard to say.”

“What if she’s mad at me?” my sensitive daughter worried.

“Protecting grown-ups’ feelings isn’t your job. It’s more important that you wear a dress that makes you happy today,” I replied, finding that I truly believed my words. “I should have realized you didn’t like the other dress enough—I tried to push you into buying it. I’m sorry,” I added, realizing that perhaps I had tried to force this mature style on my daughter before she was ready. She didn’t want a “big girl” dress like the girl next door whom she looked up to. She wanted to match her little sister, perhaps for the last time.

*   *   *

We sat outside blowing bubbles in the spring sunshine, and my father pointed out a caterpillar crawling in the grass. “Izzy, come quick!” he called to her. She raced over, squealing with enthusiasm and curiosity, and eagerly scooped up the tiny creature. Next April, she may not care about caterpillars in the grass, I thought grimly. Or having a special Easter dress. Maybe this is the last year she’ll believe in the Easter bunny.

I remember being in a terrible hurry to grow up; I longed to order off the adult menu at restaurants, to be given freedom to roam independently, to perm my hair and shave my legs. I stuffed dolls under my T-shirts to pretend I was pregnant.

Parents are frequently tuned in to how “fast it all goes,” forcing themselves to savor the fleeting years of childhood magic. But rarely do our children give a second thought to the transient nature of their youth—they’re too in the moment or dreaming of years to come. With this party dress, my daughter had been gifted with a flicker of wisdom to recognize the rapidly moving river of childhood. And as I have done many times since her birth, she wished to slow the flow, to pause time.

This Easter my daughter was not in a hurry to grow up. She twirled in her dress and held hands with her sister, whose outfit matched her own. I stopped caring about the wasted shopping trip and the possibility of hard feelings. I watched my little girl play under a tree in her Easter dress, covered in dirt and glitter.

Stephanie Sprenger is a freelance writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.

The Kitchen Is Closed

The Kitchen Is Closed

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And when all else fails, we hit the drive-through. Because I didn’t know that, on so many days, motherhood would feel tantamount to being a short order cook.

 

Children, damn them, they need to eat. Every day. Multiple times a day. It sounds simple enough, one of those straightforward facts of life. But there is nothing simple about my children’s relationship with food. They always want more of it, without ever quite wanting what it is that I have available. Their insatiable appetites and focus on certain food groups to the exclusion of all others is nothing less than an albatross around my neck. It is my Sisyphean rock. The meatball I keep pushing up the hill that rolls right back down again…uneaten.

I will never truly understand the plight of the parents of bird-like children. The ones who pick delicately, listlessly at the contents of their plates, before asking to be freed from the prison that is the kitchen table. The ones who skip lunch or “forget” to ask for a snack. In our house, “nack” was among the first words ever uttered and “nack time” has not once passed by unnoticed. Blood sugar levels plummet to precariously low levels if more than a couple of hours go by without a top up. Dinner is getting earlier and earlier. One of my kids asked me to make it at 3:45pm the other day.

My husband and I recently put up double doors between our kitchen and our living room as a way to stuff the dam of our children’s constant demand for food. For in the absence of a physical barrier, they have been known to swirl in and out of the kitchen at will, eddies of unquenchable hunger, no matter what time of day it is, no matter when they have last been fed (No, you can’t have”breakfast dessert”). Out of sight, the theory goes, and therefore out of mind, because if the little buggers so much as see snack-food or sweets, they need to have it. And if they aren’t allowed it, they start to beg. And then they beg and beg and beg some more.

The older ones ask nicely, imploringly, steeling themselves for my wrath, which comes quick and hot if we are in touching distance of a main meal. They even offer to make it themselves. Just a bowl of cereal, Mom, a slice of toast. I’ll do it myself, Mom, and I won’t spill the milk this time! The younger ones alternate tacks. Either they whine until they wear me down into a nub of spinelessness. Or they approach me tentatively and whisper in my ear, as if the softness of their voices and the especially cherubic cast of their eyes will sway me in favor of the need for a third pack of organic cheese puffs in a row.

Set meal times, you say, of course that’s the answer. Clear limits on snacks. Be firm, be consistent. Make them wait, build the appetite. If they are hungry, they will eat anything! Don’t give them choices! Oh I know the litany of rules and oh how I’ve tried. But I have too many children now and there are too many variables and some nights I end up cooking four different versions of dinner, where “cooking,” you would realize rather swiftly if you saw me in action, is a euphemism for “cobbling together.” I like to think of theses disparate dinners as variations on a theme, because then it at least sounds artistic.

My nine year old, who is as thin as a wisp, eats more and more sophisticatedly than the rest of his siblings combined—I want a REAL dinner tonight, Mom, not just baby things smooshed together! My seven year old’s love affair with bread products and peanut butter and jelly (PbJ crumpet, anyone?) is matched only by his aversion to sauces. One four year old used to eat everything, but now relays a laundry list of fastidious requirements, as much as I assure her that, if fruit and vegetables were meant to be skinless, they would grow that way. The other four year old eats more than he used to, but ingests at a snail’s pace. Have you ever seen a child take on a single meal in eleven discrete stages?

Once, in the face of dinners left barely eaten and mitigating pleas of I’m not hungry, I had two of my kids sign a contract that they would not, under any circumstances, ask for more food for the rest of the night. If they truly weren’t hungry, I reasoned, this was a legitimate approach. And if I could get it on paper, surely it would stick. It goes without saying that I underestimated the three year old. 45 minutes later, with the foolproof logic only a toddler can muster, he was begging for chocolate, because he “really, really likes chocolate.”

Reader, I gave him the chocolate, and all was quiet.

Don’t judge me, this is what I live for. The calm born of full bellies that descends upon our house like a warm blanket, once dinner has been served. The high I experience when the grocery shopping is done for the week. The promise of a refrigerator stuffed with a sufficient variety of food to ensure that nobody will be bursting into tears at the mere sight of their plate.

And when all else fails, we hit the drive-through. Because I didn’t know that, on so many days, motherhood would feel tantamount to being a short order cook. Because I didn’t know that my favorite four words, both literally and metaphorically, would become: The kitchen is closed.

Should A Parent Who Shares Joint Custody Be Allowed to Move Out of the Area?

Should A Parent Who Shares Joint Custody Be Allowed to Move Out of the Area?

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By Stewart Crank Jr.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.48.59 PMYears ago, my children lived with me half the time, and I shared in the responsibilities and celebrations of their life. We ate breakfast together; I took them to school; I celebrated their birthdays (on their birthdays) with them, woke up every Christmas with them, packed their lunch, and knew their friends. Although my ex-wife and I were finished, I remained firmly planted in their everyday lives.

Then, for reasons of her own, my ex-wife moved with our children seventy-five miles away, to another state. My lawyer told me that there was nothing I could do.

That was six-and-a-half years ago. Now I see my kids about once a month over a weekend and have gone as long as two months without seeing them at all. I know their friends by name and some by face, but only from pictures. I have spent as much as two-and-a-half hours (with traffic around Washington D.C., the metropolis planted between the kids and me) driving one way to see a play. I’ve watched the play, seen my children for five minutes, and then turned around to come home. Attending their events like this is difficult at best, and between work and the drive, sometimes impossible. Stopping by and grabbing them for dinner has become a four- or five-hour event versus a two-hour event. None of their friends has ever stayed the night at my house. This unfortunate situation is only bearable because the kids and I are very close despite our lack of time together.

As parents, our children should be our first priority in life. And study after study—published everywhere from the Journal of Family Psychology to Psychology and Health—has shown that the best possible situation for children and parents of divorce is to retain as much of the support and access that was in place prior to the separation of the family unit. It should be the exception, if not illegal, to take the children more than a reasonable distance from a willing and able parent. Ideally, parents would live right around the corner from each other, a bike ride away for the child.

When one parent moves away from the children or one parent moves away with the children, it creates an environment that is painful and challenging for both the children and that parent who suddenly spends less time with them. For any child, it is bad enough that the parents’ inability to maintain their commitments as husband and wife has left that child with two homes instead of one—placing a great distance between these two homes adds insult to injury.

With the advent of e-mail, social networks, and text messaging, many people may feel that the connection to our children can be maintained at any distance—and believe me, it does help keep us in touch. Yet nothing beats a parent and child’s walking down the street, hand in hand, or the ability to share in the day-to-day activities of doctor visits, school pickups, helping with homework, eating meals together, or simply being in their presence.

Children who have a distant or absent biological parent are statistically more likely to develop social problems like violence, drug abuse, and unhealthy sexual relationships. No parent out there feels this would be in the best interest of his or her child. And still, every day, divorced or estranged parents make the decision to place distance between a child and a parent.

It’s a selfish act—whether you are the parent moving the child away from the parent or the parent moving away from the child. The children are the ones who suffer the most. They have no control over the situation. They don’t have the coping skills that grown-ups do. The parents may claim good reasons for the move—and there are good reasons. People find better job opportunities; they move closer to family; they remarry. But I’d argue that it’s rare to find a reason good enough to trump a child’s need for his or her other parent.

My own father and mother may disagree with this statement because a big move is exactly what happened in our lives. I still have the letter my father gave me at Dulles Airport when I was ten years old, on my way to live in California. His letter confirmed his unconditional love for me, despite our impending distance from one another. It still makes me cry when I read it, twenty-eight years later. My mother, stepfather, sisters, and I moved from California to London, and my father to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It wasn’t a bad life at all—winters in London, summers at the beach—but not a day went by that I didn’t yearn for a more consistent relationship with my father. I often wonder how different my life and my choices would be had he not lived so far from us and had we spent more time together. I compare my own life with those of my half brother and sister, who were raised full time with him, and see a stark contrast in our lifestyles and our viewpoints. It makes me wonder if I would have found a calmer path in my own life had he been more present.

In recent years, even the courts have started recognizing that equal access is best for the children. In Florida, for instance, the court is legally obligated to order that parental responsibility for a minor child be shared by both parents, unless it is detrimental to the child. In Alabama, the law states that both parents have an equal right to the custody of their children. As our society evolves, we should see more courts shifting toward default laws that support joint custody. Terms like “equal access,” “shared parenting,” and “proximity” are repeated through the thousands of words I have read on this very subject. Laws affecting shared parenting rights are being scrutinized throughout the country.

Regardless of the law, we should all try to keep our children close to both parents. We should do this because we love our children deeply and want to give them the best odds of flourishing. Is there a purer motive than that?

Stewart Crank Jr. is a father and editor who lives in Virginia.

 

YES

By Sarah Clayton
Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.49.13 PMI handed my nine-year-old son’s violin over to his stepmother and, in that moment, felt my own heart slip out of tune.

“This is not a toy,” I said, knowing this sounded harsh, but I was too bereft to explain myself in any other way. I was delivering my two young sons, ages nine and eleven, to their father’s home in suburban Connecticut, five hundred miles from my own rural home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. They would be there for the next three years, and I would be the visiting parent, as their father had been for the first four years of our divorce.

In that short yet interminable moment of delivery and departure, I began to understand what the majority of fathers go through in divorces; in saying good-bye, they know they will see their children only in fragments of time, shards of days and hours. I had had the luxury of uninterrupted time with my sons since they were in utero. Now it was my turn to live with them in fragments.

And it was the right thing to do. After all, they are as much his children as mine, a fact often forgotten in divorce situations. Plus, my ex-husband was remarried, an event essential to my agreeing to let the boys go; I needed to know that someone would be there when they got home from school. The boys were also approaching puberty, and, unless a father is abusive or disinterested, boys need to cross that great bar into manhood in his presence. And all children of divorce, whether boys or girls, need to know their fathers as real people—complete with weaknesses and strengths and idiosyncrasies—and not just the Good Time Charlies children usually see during the short, weekend visit.

It wasn’t that I’d stopped loving the boys’ father when we separated; I simply couldn’t live with him anymore. We wanted different lives and couldn’t seem to find a compromise. But just because their father and I had different views on what we wanted didn’t mean the boys couldn’t enjoy both of us and both our worlds. It didn’t mean those worlds had to be around the block from each other, though.

Sometimes a parent’s needs trump a child’s when it comes to living arrangements. To be a successful mother at that time, I needed to regain my once imperturbable core of happiness. That meant getting as far away from my ex-husband as possible. To his credit, he was gracious enough to let me take the boys to England, the land of my mother.

The boys thrived there. By the time we left, three months later, my withdrawn older son, six-year-old Nicholas, sang a solo in the local school play. My younger son, Chris, renowned at four years old for his whiny nature, found his peace and became a delightful companion as we explored the fields and villages of Dorset. We all needed that break from the other world. And here on the banks of Chesil Beach, the boys got their mother back.

We moved back to Virginia, the land of my youth, when I learned that my father’s cancer was terminal. The boys’ father would come for a visit, and I’d fill my house with the food and wine he liked, then move out so he could have the boys to himself. It caused the least disruption in the boys’ routine and made it less stressful for him.

Then he got married, and it was time for them to leave me. I was eviscerated. They were thrilled. They loved their little stepbrother, and the minute we reached their father’s house, the three boys were off, overflowing with the joy of beginning life together. Heart unstrung, I was awash with worry: Would their father read them to sleep as I did? Would he keep Chris’s violin playing going, Nicholas’s running?

During those three years with their father, I saw the boys whenever possible. We’d head off to ski or to the beach, and once we slipped over the border into Canada to celebrate Nicholas’s thirteenth birthday. We had a ball, and I became Good Time Charlie. This was fun.

But it wasn’t necessarily easy. I went up for Chris’s first violin concert when he was nine. “Chris is an excellent violinist,” his conductor/teacher said. “But he would be even better if he remembered to bring his violin to school.”

I despaired. Why didn’t his father remind this uprooted child to take his violin to school? And why wasn’t Nicholas running? But I couldn’t deny it; the boys were thriving. I realized it didn’t matter that things weren’t done as I would have done them. They were happy to see me and happy to be with their father. In one great exhalation, I let go of my worries. Mothers, it seems to me, tend to think only they can raise the children. But fathers have every right to share their vision and talents, too.

When the boys came back to me three years later, they once again took to the mountains, swam the rivers, and reveled in the freedom of country life.

When their father called, they slipped back into their Connecticut world. They’d come to know their father as a three-dimensional person, just as they knew me, with all our faults and strengths. They had been immersed in and enriched by both worlds and both parents in a way they might not, had we lived closer.

Many people criticized me for taking the boys so far away from their father; many were in awe that I’d let them go live with him for that great length of time. But it seemed the right thing to do, and I’ve had to conclude, watching the boys turn into fine young men, now twenty-seven and twenty-five, that it is okay for parents to move away from each other after a divorce as long as they honor the other’s role as viable parent.

I’ve also realized that after divorce—after ripping apart the fabric of the family—it’s important for parents to first regain themselves. As they say in the airplane safety instructions: “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” Sometimes, it takes moving away to give both of you, ex-husband and ex-wife, time to put on your own oxygen masks and begin to breathe freely once more.

And, in the end, it was the boys, in growing up, who moved away from both of us.

Sarah Clayton, the mother of three sons, lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where she writes travel pieces and essays for The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and National Public Radio, among others. She also writes romance books.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

How to Potty Train in ONLY 15 MONTHS (or More!)

How to Potty Train in ONLY 15 MONTHS (or More!)

By Kristen Bird

humor series

 

(Note: The detailed method explained in this article works best for the Type A, control-freak organized and focused mother who encourages her toddler to throw a good old-fashioned tantrum express his/her emotions effectively. Regardless of your parenting style, this method can work for you!)

After seeing the nightmare success of my potty training regime, many of my friends and neighbors asked me to detail the steps I took when potty-training my now four-year-old daughter. I hope sharing my moments when I tore my hair out insights will help you achieve the same success. You too can potty train in only 15 months! My process includes three easy steps.

Step 1: Choose the Right Time

I was fortunate enough to experience this step twice. The first time was two months after my daughter’s second birthday. We stupidly thoughtfully chose a daycare that required potty training for a barely two-year-old, so this gave us the hardship and pressure incentive and motivation I needed to freak out encourage her every time she had an accident. It certainly helped that I was shooting hormones into myself daily blossoming as a woman as we embarked on our second round of IVF.

The second time I learned about the “Right Time” concept was two months after my daughter’s third birthday. We hadn’t quite mastered the potty training yet, so I despaired decided that the next-best perfect timing to “newly-pregnant mothering” was “post-partum mothering.” We’d just welcomed new twin girls to the house. What better time to harass nurture our oldest daughter and her aversion affinity to potty training? This proved to be our perfect storm situation.

Your situation may be different, but be sure to ask yourself, “Is this the Right Time?” Some examples of the Right Time for you may be after a major move, just before taking a new job, or at the beginning of an economic recession.

Step 2: Choose the Right Place

One of my most horrific special memories of potty training was the time I refused declined to use Pull-ups while at a dinner party at a friend’s house. After listening to ridiculous well-meaning advice from family and friends, I decided that Pull-ups would unfairly stunt my child’s fifteen-month potty training experience.

It seemed other guests at the party laughed at respected my decision until one of our single friends offered to leave, drive to Walmart, and buy Pull-ups. What kind of mother did he think I was? Never. I stood my ground even after my daughter peed all over my friend’s new white Pottery Barn rug.

Again, I understand that not everyone has this kind of frightening ideal situation. Your Right Place may be at the museum, at the movie theater, or even in your car on the way to somewhere “dressy.” Just be sure that you do NOT train in the comfort of your own home. Staying on your toes is one of the keys to our fifteen-month method.

Step 3: Choose the Right Potty Training Accessories

Gone are the ancient days of potty training with a child and a toilet. Now, you have a selection of items to complicate enhance your journey from wet to dry. Here are a few of my favorites:

*Mrs. Panda (or any favorite stuffed animal): Use a special friend to help your little one inaccurately learn what it looks like to pee on the potty. These special friends are also a great way to take out your aggression remind you of your unholy special day of training after your little one is fast asleep, wearing a diaper.

*Candy and juice: What better way to punish reward yourself and your little one for attempting a new skill than to hype them up on sugar? The extra stimulant will enable them to go more often all over your couch, thus giving them even more chances to try their new talent!

*Traveling Potty Seat: These colorful seats come in all colors and never become disgustingly covered in urine or feces. Dora, Thomas, Elmo, or even the Disney Princesses. Choose the face your little one would like to defecate all over!

*Thick Cotton Panties: These thick-lined panties not only let the pee leak out the sides; they also get extra-wet, reminding you and your little one of their continued inability opportunity to fail at practice potty training.

*Potty Watch: These devices provide an obnoxious memorable tune that will replay in your dreams. Every 15, 30, 60, or 90 minutes, you can hear the potty time theme song and fight with encourage your child to use the damn potty.

If none of these accessories sound like your cup of tea, no worries. Just visit your local money-sucking baby store and peruse a variety of unhelpful accessories.

I trust you have found the potty training method I underwent with my oldest daughter filled with warnings and “do-not-attempts” insightful and encouraging. And remember, if fifteen months seems too short, feel free to add a few months here or there. Not everyone can experience success as quickly as me. I would rather poke a fork in my eye than I cannot wait to practice these tried-and-true steps with my twins in just a couple of years though we may wait until they are ten years old to begin.

Kristen Bird lives near Houston with her husband, five-year-old daughter, and two-year-old twin girls.  She teaches high school English, and her work has appeared in The Galveston County Daily News and on LiteraryMama.com.

Illustration: dreamstime.com

The Continuing Disintegration of My Mind

The Continuing Disintegration of My Mind

By Carrie Friedman

liferaft

Flecks of my brain are starting to chip off like old paint. Is this just part of getting older, or what happens when one has a two year old and a one year old.

 

I threw a bag of trash into the washing machine last week. I didn’t realize it until after I’d poured in the Tide. Flecks of my brain are starting to chip off like old paint. Is this just part of getting older, or what happens when one has a two year old and a one year old and, thus, feeds one’s brain a steady diet of Sesame Street and Peppa Pig, with no time to dine on the newspaper or that Meg Wolitzer book from last year that’s been collecting dust since it was preordered on Amazon? I can’t be certain why, exactly, I’m losing it, but I am and I don’t like it one damn bit. I am becoming one of THOSE women—the kind who putters around instead of walking with purpose. The kind who constantly tells you to remind her to do something, or wanders into rooms and stands there, lost, asking aloud: “Why did I come in here?”

My husband feebly tries to make me feel better about my brain erosion. He has to lie to me and say it’s endearing because he’s married to me. He took that vow. No one wants to be married to a putterer or dodderer. No one finds this attractive, especially when the dodderer in question is a mere 37 years old.

But it’s getting worse: For a whole day I walked around thinking the late night comedian’s name was GEORGE Letterman because I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember his real name.

“I think I have a brain tumor,” I told my husband.

“No, you’re just tired,” he assured me, adding, “I still can’t think of the name of that thing that floats—”

“A floatation device?” I volunteered.

“No.”

“Lilypad?”

“No. It’s kind of like a tent?” he said.

“A boat?”

“No. It’s made out of the same material as a tent.”

After TEN MORE MINUTES of this, we finally arrived at the word Raft.

Fucking raft.

If we are going down, at least we are going down together, on our own fucking raft.

I once had a beautiful mind (not a Beautiful Mind, mind you). It was full of interesting nooks and crannies, fabulous contradictions: the same brain that stored memorized poetry and Chaucer (in Old English, obvs) also knew ALL the words to Notorious B.I.G.’s final album (may he rest in peace) and remembered every single phone number I’ve ever had. Once upon a time, I could calculate tips for waiters, think of witty comebacks on the spot, recite Annie Hall from start to finish.

Now, not so much.

I asked my husband this morning: “What’s 9 times 7?”

There are two things that make this question unacceptable:

1. I tested out of AP Calculus in high school, then CHOSE to take more math in college because I LIKED IT SO MUCH AND WAS SO GOOD AT IT.

2. I can’t blame fatigue anymore! Our children each sleep an incredible 12 hours a night! Uninterrupted! (To be clear, I am not upset about this. Only disappointed I can’t blame them for my shortcomings.)

Mama don’t do math and Mama don’t speak so good no more. Yesterday, while observing my daughters being nice to each other, I said: “Good sistering, girls!”

Sistering!

There are other examples too. Not neologisms that I am cleverly spouting off, but further evidence that I am not who I used to be. Here are other words I’ve unintentionally made up (and what I meant):

-Revisement (revision)

-Upsetion (anger)

-RandPauly (adjective to describe Tea Party republicans)

It’s a terrifying new frontier, this. Next up, no doubt: a Fanny pack and Med-Alert jewelry.

Now where was I going with this?

 

When she IS able to write in complete sentences, Carrie Friedman’s latest project is the blog What I DIDN’T Expect When I Was ExpectingShe has two small children, a couple of pets, and one awesome husband.

On Suitable Punishments for Your Child Other Than Murder

On Suitable Punishments for Your Child Other Than Murder

By Stacey Gill

humorseries

 

Don’t hassle me. I already have kids for that.

 

I’m writing this in desperation, in the hopes that I may glean some advice from the veteran mothers out there who have struggled and come through similar hardships, possibly even find an answer to a very troublesome question, one that has plagued me for years. This question has come into particularly sharp focus again recently, and I thought others in the wake of a lengthy and trying spring break may be grappling with the very same issue. My hope is that upon open discussion we will share our experiences and, ultimately, learn from other another, finally solving how best to handle this most difficult of situations. One in which you might want to murder one of your offspring.

I’m confiding in you (and Facebook) because I’m at a complete loss. I have no words for the rage-fueled frustration I feel at the hands of my children. I did, however, have many, many words on Facebook the other day, and since I have no intentions of writing them all over again in a clear, concise, coherent post, I’m just going to transcribe my Facebook exchange here. Don’t hassle me. I already have kids for that.

“What do you do when your kid swears all spring break long he doesn’t have homework then on the first day back to school you get a note from the teacher saying he didn’t do his homework?”

It was a cry for help, I’ll admit. I really didn’t want to have to kill my son. I was hoping for other feasible solutions to this vexing and chronic problem. And the people of Facebook had some mighty fine suggestions.

“First,” my friend, Erica, wrote, “the Xbox controllers go in the trunk of my car.” Wait. What? Trunk of the car? Like a mob hit? She continued, “The cell phone gets a new lock number that he doesn’t know, and I hide the remotes for the TV/cable box.” That ought to do it.

“We got the same call today,” she added. Oh, thank God.

I had considered the X-box. It’s my go-to toy, and I explained I was going to take it away, but, really, I blame my husband. He should know better than to take my son’s word for it.

I should probably note my husband posed the homework question to our son around 11:00 a.m. on Easter Sunday, an hour before guests were due to arrive. As I stood at the kitchen counter chopping vegetables, I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply and continued on with the prep work. I figured I’d check his assignment book later that evening, but it was a long day at the end of a long week at the end of a long life of kids bouncing off the walls for exactly 11 years straight, and I forgot.

Erica wasn’t done though. She had much more to say. “I never check grades online. I never even registered to have access.” Never even registered? I pondered in wide-eye wonder. I didn’t know you could do such a thing. Erica, did you ever know that you are my hero? You are everything I wish I could be.

Erica continued. “My stance is simple. He gets the grade he earned. I won’t intercede on his behalf. If he fails, it’s on him, and then he’s REALLY in trouble.” Oh, man, I wouldn’t want to be in that house when that goes down.

But, Erica, was onto something. Because, really, I like nothing better than swiping that Xbox control right out of my son’s unsuspecting hands when he’s incurred an infraction. Still, I’m telling you when I picked him up from school that day and saw the sad look on his little face from the hour-long test prep session he just endured following a long day of school, and I was driving him straight home to meet with the math tutor for an hour, I just couldn’t do it. I thought the Xbox penalty might push him over the edge. It could crush him because nothing, NOTHING, is more devastating to that kid than losing his Xbox. It’s pretty much the only thing he has to live for, and, I thought, 11 might be a little too young to break a person.

While my son certainly can be maddening, he’s genuinely a good kid. When he makes mistakes, they’re relatively honest ones. I know it may not seem like it in this case, but it’s true. When you ask him something like, “Do you have homework?” he checks with his brain and gives the first response that pops up. He’s not lying, per se, it’s just that his brain immediately thought “no,” and that’s what he went with. And being a kid, he doesn’t feel the need to check his backpack or assignment book or anything that might actually provide him with the correct answer.

Even on this account Erica weighed in with some solid advice. The whole problem, she noted, might stem from an innocent mistake on my part, one with an easy solution. Perhaps I was posing the wrong question. Perhaps asking when they will be doing their homework as opposed to if they have homework would be more productive. With just a slight alteration I could sidestep the whole tantalizing opportunity for deception and lies.

Good thinking, Erica.

So for now he gets to keep Xbox, but he’s sure to mess up again, and then I’ll be ready.

What would you do? Take away the Xbox? Confiscate all the Easter candy? Kill your kids? What?

Stacey Gill is the mastermind behind the humor blog, One Funny Motha, and co-author of the upcoming parenting humor anthology, I Still Just Want to Pee Alone.  Her work has appeared on such sites as The Huffington Post, BlogHer, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Mom365 and Mommyish. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Lumpy

Lumpy

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 2.11.21 PMOne minute we’re skipping through the sunshine, and the next we’re lodged in the belly of the diagnostic beast. It’s the x-rays that happen first—only we’re not actually thinking first because we don’t understand yet what’s ahead of us. We’re in the radiology department that’s just down the hall from our pediatrician’s office, which is the comforting medical equivalent of the girl next door: How bad can it be if they don’t even make you leave the neighborhood?

Still, I sit in the waiting room beneath the warm weight of Birdy, breathing in the summer smell of seven-year-old scalp between her braids, and I wonder if our lives are about to change. Is there going to be a before this moment and an after? The radiology order is sweaty in my fingers. “? mass in chest wall” it says, in busy-doctor scrawl. Four words and one dislocated punctuation mark: That’s what I have to go on, and so I go on it. The aggressively preemptive question mark followed by the word mass, which I hate: its evocation of neoplastic malignancy on the one hand, and of the Pope chanting through an incense-scented funeral on the other. Or that mystifying physics property that’s like weight, only different: The mass of the mass is equal to something squared divided by the extent to which we can spare Birdy, which is not at all. Q.E.D. The alliterative “malignant mass” I’ve heard a million times, but “benign mass” is suddenly not ringing any bells. Also, chest wall. “Fortress Around Your Heart,” that Sting song, plays in my head like a soundtrack: Is the fortress around your heart a good or a bad thing? I can’t remember. But your heart is kind of counting on your chest wall to protect it, I’m guessing; it’s not really supposed to have a mass in it. I’d be happier with “mass in kneecap” or “mass in big toe.” “The further away it is from your brain, the better,” my son, Ben, once consoled his grandmother, who was having a squamous-cell something removed from her shin. Indeed. But also the further away it is from your heart. My heart.

So far, approximately four minutes have elapsed, and I’m already deranged. It will be another two and a half months before they figure out what’s going on.

“Abigail Newman.” The radiology technician is holding the door open, and the use of Birdy’s given name, which nobody ever uses, makes me feel like she’s in trouble. Abigail Newman, you get in here this second! Did you leave this mass in your chest wall? I help Birdy off with her clothes while the technician clucks over the order. “You just don’t like to see stuff that’s unilateral like this,” she muses grimly, shaking her head. No? I concentrate on not bursting into tears by teasing Birdy about her outfit: a floor-length, floral-sprigged johnny with a little lead apron tied around her waist. “All you need is a bonnet and you’d look just like Ma Ingalls!” I say, and Birdy laughs, twirls, and curtsies, before sitting dead still for ten minutes so the buzzing machine can spy on her bones. Have we all heard the same urban legends? About spider eggs in Bubble Yum and how the lead apron is, radioactively speaking, like trying to stop a bullet with a piece of paper? I hate having heard that.

“Wow,” I say, looking over the tech’s shoulder as a series of images appears on her computer screen. “Look at all your strong ribs! I really see why they call it a ribcage! It really does look like a cage! Doesn’t it look like a cage? How fascinating!”

The optimistic patter of the worried parent! It is very exclamatory! And it continues further down the hall, where we’ve now been sent for an ultrasound after the x-ray has illuminated exactly nothing.

“I thought it was going to be bone,” the tech said, “but it’s not—which means it’s got to be soft tissue.” She tried to grimace at me sympathetically, but I looked away to better thwart her pessimistic contamination. Soft tissue. Oh, Birdy of the softest tissue! Soft tissue is the Kleenex nest she made for her tiniest bear in an old walnut-shaped nut bowl. Soft tissue is the Don’t squeeze the Charmin! meatiness of her luscious thighs.

“Wow!” I say instead. “We get to see all your insides working! That’s a lucky thing!” You see their innards before they’re born—that strange prenatal introduction to your baby via her black-and-white internal organs—and then, if you’re lucky, never again. “So, so lucky!” I say again.

And we are—we are lucky. The ultra-sound tech shows us her beating heart, the galloping wild horse of her life. But my Pollyanna muscle is strained and spent by the labor of good cheer. You know the tech can’t and won’t answer your questions, but still you can’t help yourself. “What do you think?” I say, trying to trick her with my chummy casualness. “See anything?”

“We’ll let the radiologist take a look,” she answers, all pleasant poker face.

We are sent back up the hall to wait, and our pediatrician finally calls us in and shrugs over the radiology reports. “They didn’t see anything,” she says—and I imagine for a moment that our collective hallucination has been swatted away by the empirical hand of science, like the finale of a Scooby-Doo mystery: Turns out those pirates had projected a hologram of a mass onto this chest wall here, which had us all fooled! “Which is good,” she continues, “but weird, because it’s not like there’s not something here.” Right.

The doctor and I take turns feeling Birdy up, and she giggles. I love this doctor. I love that two hours ago, when she was first checking out the bump, she’d been openly baffled. I love that she called in a couple of colleagues, and the tiny exam room turned into a kind of jovial chest-wall-mass party, everybody pressing on Birdy’s ribcage and expressing more curiosity than fear. I am already nostalgic for that time. “How long has she had it?” they wanted to know, and suddenly I wasn’t sure. Had it been in my peripheral awareness for a while? Maybe. But then I’d been smearing Birdy with sunscreen, and there it was for sure, the lumpy, insistent fact of it, like something pushed under her skin: a donut hole; a bottle cap; a clot of abnormally dividing cells. SPF fucking 45! My creamy ho-hum cancer precaution seemed, suddenly, malevolently, like a red herring.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Now, the doctor says the first thing that scares Birdy: “I think I’m going to send you guys to the surgeon.”

“Surgery?” Birdy’s alarm-wide eyes fill with tears, and the doctor is quick to reassure her.

“Just because they know more about this stuff,” she says. “Not because they’re going to operate on you.”

One cherry-dip cone later, good cheer has returned to Birdyland. “Dumb lump,” she says, and pats her chest affectionately with a sticky, pink hand.

Our appointment is scheduled for three weeks from now. In the endless interim, we see my brother and his wife, brilliant physicians both, who examine Birdy at my request. They are heartbreakingly gentle with her, and she shows off a little under the bright light of their attention. “I call him Lumpy,” she says, all casual-like, puffing out her little bare chest. “Because he’s so lumpy!” They are both dismissive—they agree that it’s likely some kind of a benignly anomalous growth spurt—and afterwards my relief coincides with a cooling and lightening of the summer’s hot, heavy skies.

We also see my parents. “Whatever you do, don’t mention it to them,” I badger Michael in the car. “We’ll tell them about it later, after it all turns out to be fine.” We are in their apartment maybe fifteen seconds before I blurt out, “Birdy has a lump in her chest. They don’t know what it is. I’m sure it’s fine.

We’re seeing a specialist. I don’t want you to worry.” I can’t help it. Their concern is the psychic equivalent of someone holding my hand during the scary parts of The Wizard of Oz. I feel like an asshole to worry them, but I’m glad for their company.

The surgeon, when we finally see him, has a kind of blustery masculine confidence that doubtless makes him a terrible person to date, but he is an excellent one to talk to about a mass in your daughter’s chest wall. We leave his office with an order for an MRI and a holistic sense of Birdy’s fineness: He is not overly concerned, he has told us, and I believe him. Only here’s what happens: Waiting, which we must do more of now, is the diagnostic equivalent of solitary confinement, corrosive of both spirit and sanity. The relief starts out vast and gleaming, like a serene expanse of turquoise sea. But then all the what-ifs—the troubling turns of phrase and outside chances—rise to the surface, until the likelihood of Birdy’s okayness is fully circled by sharks. The picture of health jigsaws apart into pieces—fragments that, held up one at a time, are impossible to interpret. “‘It’s probably cartilage,'” I quote the surgeon back to Michael, in the middle of the night. “‘But we just want to make sure there’s nothing inside the cartilage that’s making it grow like that.'”

Michael, who’s floating calmly at the surface of what’s most likely, which is that Birdy’s fine, says, “They just need to make sure.”

Right. “I’ll be shocked,” the surgeon has said, “if there turns out to be a malignancy.” This seemed good enough at the time—great, even!—but now I hate that he said the word aloud, even for the purpose of dismissing it. And the more time passes, the more I want to ask him approximately how often he’s shocked. For all we know, a dozen things a day shock him: “I’m shocked that nobody filled the ice trays!” “I’m shocked that we’re out of Special K!” “There turned out to be a malignancy? Well, color me shocked!”

There is also the fact that our MRI is not even scheduled yet. “You’ll get a letter in the mail with the date and time of your scan,” the surgeon’s receptionist had explained.

“Wait. What?” I had literally not understood. “Do you want to give me the number and I’ll just call and make an appointment?”

“It doesn’t work that way.” Her pinched eyebrows suggested my recalcitrance. You’ll get a letter in the mail.” I was frayed and fraying. These were the same people in charge of the magnetic resonance imaging of my child—but the telephone eluded them?

“Maybe they could send it by carrier pigeon,” I said to Michael in the middle of the night. “Or singing telegram.” When I called after a week, it turned out that the appointment-scheduler was on vacation; after two weeks, the letter-mailer was. I am unraveling so profoundly that I’m surprised not to see limbs fallen off and strewn around the house. “Maybe I’ll just go ahead and go to medical school and specialize in radiology,” I say to Michael, in the middle of the night. “To save time.” I finally wrangle the appointment out of them. We have two more weeks to wait.

“I’m not going to Google it,” I say to Michael in the middle of the night. “Don’t you Google it, either.” I get up and Google it. And here is my conclusion: People don’t tend to log onto the Internet to tell nice, boring stories about everything turning out just fine. My new get-rich scheme is going to be a web-site called www.itwasnothingafterall.com detailing people’s various diagnostic false alarms. “They thought it was a tumor, but it turned out to be just a piece of old Fiddle Faddle!”

Meanwhile, I can’t keep my hands off Birdy’s chest: I’m like a bad date, wrapping my arms around her and groping her on the sly. I daydream about Birdy’s illness and death, and experience an anticipation of grief that’s almost ecstatic in its clarity. I tell you this confessionally. In this twilight zone of waiting, I cannot stop imagining my own bereftness. So on top of everything else, there is my histrionic lameness to deal with.

Brave Birdy Bluebird is what they call my daughter at her karate class, and I think about this during the MRI. Have you had one? I haven’t, and so I have ill-prepared Birdy for it: the noisy, white and whirring tunnel that sucks her in and keeps her while she holds her breath for twenty-five courageous seconds at a time, fifteen times in forty-five minutes. Have you held your breath for twenty-five seconds? I haven’t, and I am doing it now, because I cannot stop trying to have this expe- rience for Birdy, and it is hard. This is your maternal empathy on crack. I am dizzy and smiling nonstop, like a crazy person. Birdy’s chin quivers at one point, and she says, near tears, “I think I might have breathed during that last one.” We are alone in the room, Birdy in the tunnel in a paper dress, me squat- ting to hold her hand, and the Muzak version of the Annie soundtrack stops long enough for a disembodied voice to buzz in: “That’s okay. We’ll try that one again.” Upon strict magnetic orders, I have removed my belt and earrings, but I keep picturing the metal fillings flying out of my molars into the tunnel, lodging in Birdy’s skull.

“At least nothing actually hurts!” I offer, lamely, moments before the tech comes back in with a dye-pumping, huge-needled IV.

“Whatever you do, don’t move while I inject you, or we’ll have to do all the pictures over again. Okay, sweetheart?” Across the way, they are wheeling in a tiny baby, pushing her into a different tunnel. It is not just us, I know.

On our way out, they give Birdy a coupon for a free ice-cream cone from the Friendly’s downstairs. “This is so lucky!” she says, thrilled, while they swirl her soft-serve, and I am so in love with her that I have to squeeze her and kiss the top of her head, even though it’s not enough. What I really want to do is shrink her down and stuff her into my mouth. I want to marry her. I want to buy her a present—I can see the gift shop across the hall—but then I wonder suddenly if we’re going to be coming here a lot, and if we’d better keep a trick or two up our sleeves just in case. I imagine wheeling Birdy down from the Pediatric Unit upstairs, watching her fondle the Beanies and choose one; I imagine her cheerful disbelief: “This is so lucky!” In the Friendly’s line behind us, a woman bursts into tears, and a man puts his arms around her. It is not just us. The MRI shows—wait for it—nothing. More precisely, either more or less than nothing. The radiologist, who has never once laid eyes on the flesh-and-blood fact of my daughter, actually thinks there may be more swelling on the other side of her chest—a suggestion that maddeningly defies empirical evidence. We are stuck in a world of robots making their robot pronouncements. Our surgeon, who is away on vacation, communicates to his reception staff that he wants us to do an ultrasound. Another ultrasound? Yes. We’ll get a letter in the mail with the date and time of our scan. It’s like one of those awful Escher drawings, and this one is called “The Moebius Strip of Medical Imaging.” We are driving around and around the diagnostic parking garage, looking for the exit sign, and we can never seem to leave the level we parked on.

Two weeks later, the ultrasound tech leaves the room for a second, and Michael says, “I guess they gave her the day off from high school.”

Her ponytail bounces, her gum cracks, and she speaks so, so kindly to Birdy. “Are you doing okay, sweetie?”

“I am! I’m great!” I watch the screen and strain to interpret it. I see the gently sloping landscape of Birdy’s chest; I see the tech compare the two sides, type in the letters “R” and “L.” I am mustering every analytic skill I have, as if what’s in front of me is a poem full of complex symbolic imagery: What does it mean? I don’t know. I don’t see anything that looks like a tumor, but I’ve never seen an ultrasound of a tumor, so how would I know? I studied semiotics in grad school, and here it is again: Signs can be radically unmoored from their referents; nothing could be something, something could be nothing; a spiking fever could mean a healthy immune system or leukemia; an absence of pain could mean longevity or imminent death. Is luck finite—like a bottle of water guzzled all at once? I don’t know.

Another two weeks later, we watch Birdy from the kitchen window—she’s bent over a patch of chives in my mother’s herb garden while my father’s riding mower, running and riderless, careens down a hill towards her. We have just met with our surgeon who reviewed the radiology reports for us and concluded that it was, as he’d suspected, a benign overgrowth of cartilage. “I am very glad there’s no tumor,” he said to us, and then, to the medical resident who was shadowing him, “I was very worried there was a tumor.” What happened to I would be shocked? I felt faint from the combination of relief and retroactive fear. I hadn’t even worried enough, it turned out! I had not fully understood the danger. “Cartilaginous exostosis,” is the official diagnosis: i.e., a lump. It might get bigger when she gets bigger; it might require a brace or surgical intervention; blah blah. It is not life threatening, and so I am filled with fondness for it. Lumpy! Only now I am running outside, screaming, and the tractor has already veered away and stalled in a patch of vinca under the maple tree. Birdy is standing in the sunlight, whole and unharmed. My father had stepped away for just a minute, it turns out. This is not the other shoe dropping. It is not tragic irony or doom or punishment for our interpretive failures. It is life, with loss woven into its very fabric. That’s just what there is.

Author’s Note: Oddly, I’m writing this note on the day of Birdy’s eight-year pediatric appointment—what I still like to call her “well-baby check-up”—and our doctor and I were able to exchange a few subtle, relieved signals over Birdy’s head about the fact of Lumpy’s having turned into what we call in Yiddish a nisht geferlach—no big deal. As my father likes to say, “There are very few true geferlachs in life.” Amen.

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

 

A Failure to Feed

A Failure to Feed

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

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When my child won’t eat, I feel like I’ve failed my most basic job as a mother.

 

I slid the pizza in front of my 6-year-old who eyed it suspiciously. It was softer than usual, not as cheesy—a gluten free version I’d had in the freezer for a while, but that doesn’t usually bother my pizza-obsessed child. He took one tiny bite then clutched his gut as though something were stabbing him from the inside.

“Oh, my stomach hurts so much.”

It was the fourth night in a row he’d complained of a mysterious and sudden stomach ache at precisely the moment he was expected to do something he didn’t want to do, including eat this dinner. He does not have a medical condition, or any food allergies; the stomach ache is his inarguable go-to for any difficult feeling.

The muscles in my jaw went rigid, my neck tightened with indignation. It’s not uncommon for me to make three meals in my three-person household—that big no-no in all the parenting books. If cooking for one, I’d probably live on steamed veggies and cheese. My husband and son, however, eat from the school of carbs and cheese. And here I’d made the thing my child professes to love more than anything else: Okay, it was lackluster, soggy pizza, but still: cheese, bread, sauce!

“My stomach just won’t let me,” my son insisted.

I couldn’t help it, I shot him the glare I usually reserve for public disobedience, and he shrunk beneath its withering weight.

The worst part is, I’ve read the parenting guides—I know that fighting with children over food is pointless, causes them to dig in their heels and creates tension and anxiety around meals that can affect their habits negatively into the future. I don’t want to fight, but something seizes up inside me at the same time, my own inner toddler righteously making a grab for power.

“Well, if your tummy hurts, you should go lie down,” I said curtly.

My son scuttled to the couch, where he prepared to turn on the show he’d been watching just before.

“No TV,” my husband intervened. He’d seen the set of my jaw, the stiffness of my shoulders. “You can read, play, or just lie there.”

I couldn’t even exhale properly. My whole body was livid with frustration. I was shot back to the days of my son’s infancy, when he’d cry me awake in the middle of the night only to refuse the breast, or fall asleep after minutes on one, leaving the other painfully engorged to the point of tears. When my child won’t eat, I feel like I’ve failed my most basic job as a mother.

Perhaps it also taps into a deeper issue, somatically clutched within my very cells from my own childhood: my mother, a drug and alcohol addict until I was 20, recalled in therapy days when, sweating and stuck to the bed with the illness of withdrawal, she could not tend to my most basic toddler needs: to eat. I’ve always been a person who will eat anything, perhaps because I didn’t always know when I would eat again.

My son’s refusal of food felt personal, a rejection of my ability to nourish him, and of the time I spent preparing that meal.

I took a deep breath. I couldn’t look at my son pouting on the couch without that frustration beating inside me. We’ve long had a flexible policy that after dinner if he’s still hungry he can help himself to snacks up to a certain time of night; we aren’t depriving, nor are we overly accommodating. But in truth, I know there’s a part of me as deeply punitive as my stern German grandfather, whose upbringing in a house of six brothers under the rule of a strict Rabbi father, set him up to give his own two sons little slack. Some of that rolled over to me from my own father, preoccupied with healthy eating that bordered on obsessive; he kept a bland, macrobiotic diet and strict mealtimes, ate all organic food long before it was popular or easy to find, and forbade me sugar.

There, staring at my son’s abandoned plate of soggy pizza, I felt my father, and grandfather too, who had lived at subsistence level in a Palestinian kibbutz, rise up inside me. Gripped by the urge to proclaim loudly, “You will not leave this table until you’ve eaten every bite. I would have killed to eat this at your age!”

But I’m not that parent. That’s the parent my husband described from his own torturous dinners. A father who raised his voice to threatening levels, terrorizing his sons into eating what they disliked.

I took as deep a breath as my tight lungs would allow and then released it. I could feel my son shooting me his baleful pout behind my back.

In a calm voice, my husband asked quietly, “What if we just let him get his own dinner? Pull a bunch of snacks onto a plate, so long as he sits with us?”

My inner dictator sneered and snapped its whip—that was too easy, this voice said, tantamount to teaching him that stubbornness wins. But my husband had shared the agony of being forced to eat what you don’t like, under the glare of an angry parent, and had grown up with an aversive relationship to food; I knew I needed to trust him.

What’s more, I have shared sympathy with my son over the way childhood is a time of constant powerlessness—of other people making decisions for you, telling you what to do, where to be and how to do things. And, of course, what to eat. I do remember the days of quivering, sauce-less vegetables my father insisted I eat, and my fixation with the candy at the 7-Eleven always denied to me that I snuck on the sly with stolen change, like a junkie.

“Okay,” I said at last, and forced my shoulders down an inch.

We broached the idea of making his own dinners with our son, whose stomach ache instantly went away. He leaped up from the couch, “Can I make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

I nodded.

“Will you help me?” he asked.

“The idea is that you will make it yourself if you don’t want to eat what I’ve made.”

“You won’t ever help me again?” his eyes filled with sudden tears.

“Of course I’ll still help you sometimes,” I said, softening some. “But tonight, I think you can handle it.”

As he grappled with the recalcitrant peanut butter from the bottle, clumsily slopped globs of jelly on his bread, muttering about how hard it was, I felt my own frustration drain with the leftover jelly down the sink; it’s hard not to be proud of a child’s efforts at self-care.

If I thought this independence was just a phase, however, he has proved me wrong. Even when exhausted after gymnastics class this week, he insisted on making his plate: carrots, salami slices, crackers and strawberries. When he’d filled up, he patted his belly. “I like making my own dinners,” he said. “I like to do things for myself.”

Beneath that swell of motherly pride and relief, I also felt a tug of grief in my throat, a sensation like fabric tearing slightly away from the lining of a jacket; as the mother of an only child, I’m aware more keenly than ever of the preciousness of this transition between interdependence and individuation. I need as much help as he does to foster those skills that will carry him through many more meals, and the rest of his life, without me.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld is a California mother of one, and author of 6 books, most recently: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence. She has written for: AlterNet,  DAME, Mom.me,  the New York Times, Role/Reboot, and more. www.jordanrosenfeld.net or @JordanRosenfeld on twitter.

Photo Credit: Diana Poulos-Lutz

You’re Beautiful

You’re Beautiful

By Kelly J. Baker

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“You’re beautiful,” my daughter says to a sixty-something waitress with a halo of wild gray curls. The waitress looks tired and worn. The compliment seems to take her by surprise, as if it unsettles her. She pauses, tentatively smiles, and murmurs a hushed “thank you.” When a five year old offers a compliment, you take it, even if it doesn’t resonate. You say, “thank you.” You smile. Maybe, you even offer a compliment back. The child says, “you’re welcome” with bright smile. Sometimes, she just nods and grins mischievously.

My daughter makes these pronouncements of beauty daily: at the grocery store, at her elementary school, in parking lots, in the street, in nature, and at home. She uncovers beauty in birds and squirrels, sunsets and cloudy days, the green grass and the autumn leaves, her toddling brother and smiling babies. Beauty appears everywhere as if waiting for her alone to identify it. She finds people, especially women, beautiful and never hesitates to tell them so. Shape, size, skin color, and age don’t matter. Beauty appears to her as inclusive and expansive.

There’s no stopping these declarations of who, or what, is beautiful. They erupt from her in a clear, singsong voice. Her excitement telegraphs through her inability to stay still. I cannot bring myself to try to contain them. The words emerge when I least expect them. She catches a cashier off guard. She shouts at teenagers walking in our neighborhood. She lovingly tells her grandmother, my mother, how beautiful she is. She compliments her friends, and they shrug off her words in the midst of play.

Many women appear stunned by her pronouncements unsure what do when a now six-year old offers a compliment seemingly out of context. (Is there a context for compliments? If so, my kid refuses to acknowledge it.) Others focus on her “cuteness” to return the favor, as if the compliment must be reciprocated. Some ignore her outright. She doesn’t appear to mind. Once she’s declared someone is beautiful, that beauty exists whether acknowledged or not.

I wonder what my daughter means by beauty. I want to ask her. I stop myself before I can utter the question because I’m afraid the question will change her. If I make her define why someone or something is beautiful, I fear I’ll make her question her visions of beauty. So, I don’t ask. Instead, I try to embrace her lesson of limitless beauty and apply it generously. I want her to keep finding everyone beautiful. I want to find everyone beautiful too.

My daughter also finds beauty in me, usually in the moments when I think I’m anything but. In the mornings before coffee, without my trusty under-eye concealer and the benefit of a hair brush. In the afternoons when my energy and patience are low, she tosses the compliment around haphazardly ignoring whether it landed. In the evenings while she snuggles close, she whispers, “You’re beautiful.” She touches my cheek or holds my hand. I hold her tightly, forcing myself to remember these fleeting moments and her kind words.

No matter how I look, she finds beauty. Glasses or contacts, yoga pants or jeans, make-up or none, I appear beautiful to her. She’s pronounced my beauty, so it exists.

Like the strangers she compliments, I’m often stunned by her words. I find myself at a loss of what to say. Most often I respond with a rushed “thank you,” but in trying moments, I hold back an exasperated “seriously?”—she finds me beautiful, even though I rarely think of myself in such terms.

Instead, I can enumerate my flaws, and the many features I dislike: my nose, crooked bottom teeth, chubby cheeks, and squishy tummy. I want to say I’m not beautiful, but I would never say this to her. This is my opinion, not hers. What I look like does not define who I am, I remind myself. This is not all of me. Yet, my disquiet with my appearance remains. This is my burden to bear, not hers, so I smile and offer my thanks. My daughter finds me beautiful, so I am.

I revel in her appreciation of beauty without judgment. I look for beauty with her. I point out what I find beautiful. I hope her visions of infinite beauty can make my definitions more expansive and forgiving. I attempt to ignore the cultural pressures that assert beauty is limited rather than limitless. She sees no limits to what can be beautiful. I hope she always does.

After listening to her declarations of beauty for over a year, what I realized is that “you’re beautiful” is more than a compliment. It is also my daughter’s way of saying “I see you.” For her, there are no flaws, just human beings. When she tells me that I’m beautiful as she holds my hand, she’s explaining that she sees me. “You’re beautiful” is “I love you.” These words become her way to articulate that I bring beauty to her life as we encounter the world together. I’m her mother, she’s my child, and beauty is all around us. I’m glad she points to beauty, or I would miss it because of my limits. She sees me, and I see her. She loves me, and I love her. She’s beautiful too.

Kelly J. Baker is writer, who lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her husband and two kids. She can be found online at www.kellyjbaker.com or on Twitter @kelly_j_baker.

Love Letters

Love Letters

By Lorri Barrier

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At age eight, my daughter has discovered the joy of written correspondence. She spends lots of time drawing, writing, taping, and decorating—compiling letters and small packages for a few select friends. There is even a package on my desk ready for “Cookie Swirl C,” a YouTuber she enjoys, whose fan mailbox is currently closed. My daughter checks Cookie’s website daily to see if there is a change in her mail acceptance status.

“Do you think this will go through the mail?” My daughter asks, handing me a slightly puffy envelope. I feel something plastic inside with sharp edges. The slightly jagged envelope was addressed to her friend Teagan, with the address line extending way too far to the right, but with all the correct information included.

“I doubt it,” I say. “It has to be smooth, or you’ll need one of those envelopes with the bubble wrap inside.” Once when I was a little girl, I tell her, I tried to mail a book to a friend, but it came back to me—damaged. My daughter runs off to her room to try to remedy the situation, or create something else.

Sometimes, if the packages are larger—a shoebox-size—I help her hand-deliver them. She likes to do this in stealth mode; we placed a package on her friend Sophia’s back porch for her to find as a surprise a few weeks ago, and tiptoed away giggling. (She doesn’t know it, but I texted Sophia’s mother to let her know the package was there.)

Her friends respond in kind. I opened our door to a surprise package once during the summer. I never heard a car in the driveway or footsteps on the porch. For my daughter, it was a little taste of Christmas. (From the elves, Sophia’s mother’s text told me, with a winky-faced emoji.)

I am not sure how this love of snail mail blossomed. My daughter is a child of the electronic age, perpetually plugged in at one end to an iPod or e-reader. The cord hanging from her ears connecting to a device is as much a part of her as her skin or hair. But each time I see her engaged in creating mail for a friend or opening something she’s received, I’m overcome by the act of simple sweetness.

I was always a prolific letter-writer. Any of my past romantic interests could recall the volume of letters I generated. I remember the excitement of receiving a long-awaited letter in return. One particular summer when my high school boyfriend spent several weeks in Europe, I clutched the lone letter I received in my hand, and walked to an isolated spot on my grandfather’s property so I could read the letter in a romantic setting. I imagined the sunlight filtered through the canopy of trees would infuse some magic into the letter, and it would be exactly what I wanted to hear, and not what I feared.

Sometimes the letters I received broke my heart.

Sometimes the letters I wrote broke hearts.

But broken hearts didn’t keep me from writing the next time, with equal intensity. A former boyfriend once confessed after the relationship ended that he hadn’t actually read all of every letter—it was just too much.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a letter to anyone. The passionate need to express my feelings in words is dampened by daily life. Email is easier, texting easier still. I no longer have as much to say, it seems. The kids, the job, the marriage—it is often an unexamined blur of activity.

I watch my daughter open a letter from her friend. She takes out several pieces of paper with drawings and short paragraphs written in various shades of marker. A few glow bracelets fall out of the envelope as well, and she smiles at all of it. Prolific correspondence may be a fleeting season in my daughter’s electronic life, but it is a beautiful, lush season.

“Mama, I’m going to put all of that back in the envelope and pretend I just got it and haven’t seen it,” she shouts, jubilant at the discovery. That’s the thing about letters. They can be revisited again and again. Even old letters retain a bit of the essence of what used to be on faded pages.

“I got your letter,” my future husband had said to me over the phone. He couldn’t see then how I blushed, knowing what I’d written but couldn’t say out loud. Finally, I received the response I’d been waiting for. The story of us begins with a letter, the story we are still writing, our daughter’s chapter open with a rose pressed to the page.

One of my favorite letters from my daughter is attached to the bulletin board above my desk—”I love Mommy for taking care of me when I’m sick and even when I’m not and I wanted to say Thank You!”—complete with a row of “XXOOXOO” on a folded purple (my favorite color) piece of construction paper. I imagine the intervening years may not include such tender exchanges, but for now, this is all I need to know.

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.” 

Illustration: canstock.com

Let the Children Play

Let the Children Play

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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“If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.” Peter Gray

Behind my childhood home was an open field. My dad cut a hole in our fence so all the neighborhood kids could climb through and go exploring. There was a creek way, way in the back, so remote it was on the other side of the world. Maybe half a mile away. I couldn’t see my house from beside the trickle of water. Even better, I couldn’t be seen by anyone at my house. There was also a massive hole that we called ‘The Hole.’ So big I could fit inside it with my two sisters and a couple of friends. So big we could cover it with cardboard and snow in the winter and sit up inside, scrunched down, sipping hot chocolate or chicken noodle soup from thermoses. So big an adult wouldn’t dare climb down inside. There was an old wagon wheel abandoned alongside a trail, surely left behind by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s contemporaries or settlers headed west. There were fuzzy green plants that made perfect diapers for Cabbage Patch dolls and that sometimes made our fingers itch.

I’m sure my memories of this field are all wrong. Now it is a bland corporate office and parking lot. But when it was wild, it was where I learned about nature and conflict resolution and patience and courage and how to tell a story. My younger sister might still believe the one about the settlers.

I’m also sure my parents accompanied us into the field at least a few times but I have zero actual memories of being behind the cut up fence with an adult. The kids in my neighborhood played kickball or bike racing in the street, we fought and quit and apologized and made up. We negotiated teams and when we got bored or when one team won, we headed to the field.

In short, we played. Outside. Even in winter. In Minnesota.

*   *   *

My kids tell me some of their favorite memories are of events of which I have no recollection because I wasn’t there. My son climbed over the wall around our house in Djibouti with his Congolese friend and they explored the house that was under construction next door. My daughter collected discarded French military bullets on chaperone-less hikes up a steep hill at the beach. My youngest daughter kneels on top of our wall, nestled into a sea of bougainvillea blossoms and bottles of her personally mixed ‘magic potions’, and spies on the Ethiopian guards who sit in the shade at our front gate. She doesn’t know what they are talking about but enjoys being higher than someone and the unique perspective her position grants of our street.

My kids have time to climb and explore and gather and observe because school ends at 12:45 and there are few extracurricular activities to engage in. I used to bemoan this lack of activities in Djibouti. If I wanted my kids to learn a skill, I had to teach it to them. My husband started the soccer club and coached it. I taught the kids piano, even though I don’t play piano. (This also taught them about minor miracles.) I taught them English, since their education has been in French. I ran the Sunday School program. My husband taught them how to sew and paint and build shelves and swim.

Locally available activities over the years? Intermittently: judo and tennis and dance. So, my kids participated in judo and tennis and dance when they could. But when school ends at noon and there is (maybe) an organized activity for one hour, they are still left with vast swaths of unscheduled free time.

What is a kid to do? They play. Unobserved and unguided.

I initially looked at the limited options available for my kids and saw a detriment, thought I had to teach them everything, thought that if an adult didn’t guide and instruct, my kids wouldn’t learn. But what if, in order to learn, they didn’t need to be taught? What if they simply needed to play?

Peter Gray says, “…playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.”

Kids need to build Lego mansions and create labyrinths out of pillows. They need to dress up, stage Nerf gun battles, and design soccer games that can be played even in miniature yards. They need to imagine they are kings and queens and serfs and astronauts. They need to solve problems, make rules, lead and follow and compromise. My kids chase butterflies, discover newborn kittens in the cranny under our kayak, learn how to use a magnifying glass to burn a hole in a leaf and how to fry an egg on the street in August.

Sometimes they will get bored if I don’t structure every minute of their day and I’ve decided that’s good for them. It is certainly not suffering for a kid to be bored. It’s essential to their development and I’m glad mine have time to get bored and to create their way out of it.

I can’t cut a hole in the solid cement block wall around our house in Djibouti like my dad did in our fence but I can cut a hole in my parenting and let the kids climb through, climb out. I can let them play.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

What Getting Them to School Really Looks Like

What Getting Them to School Really Looks Like

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“DON’T SAY A WORD!” the eight-year-old screams at me from the other side of the bathroom door, where she has been trying to put her hair in a ponytail while the clock ticks closer to the first bell.

The ten-year-old is at the front door with his backpack, playing with the dog. “You want to come with us? You want to come with us?” he repeats as the dog jumps and barks.

“Don’t get him riled up,” I say.

“You want to get riled up? You want to get riled up?” he says to the still-barking dog.

The bathroom door opens and she is frantic. “What time is it? Why didn’t you tell me it was so late?”

“She does have a point,” he says, and I can’t even tell if he’s being sarcastic.

I suggest, strongly, that he and the dog wait for us in the car. He leaves.

She grabs gloves, jacket, homework, backpack and stomps out the front door.

I open the car door and he is in the driver’s seat with the back reclined, feet up on the steering wheel, dog in his lap. “Can I ride shotgun?”

“Yes,” I say. “In two years. Get in the back.”

“Can I ride in the trunk?”

“First bell just rang,” I say.

He throws himself over the headrest into the back seat, kicking his sister.

“Ow,” she yells. “That was my FACE.”

“Sorry,” he says, like he doesn’t mean it.

We pull out of the driveway ten minutes before the late bell rings. We are one mile from school.

“I don’t get why I can’t ride in the Thule,” he says. “When Mitt Romney’s dog rode on top of the car was he in like a carrier?”

“Can you change the station?” she says.

I ignore her. The morning DJ uses the word douchebag. I switch stations to Taylor Swift singing Blank Space.

They yell at the same time. “No!” Yes!” I leave it on.

“Hey, remember that dude with the yellow hair at the assembly?” he says.

“He read that poem about bacon!” she says.

“That was hilarious.”

“I know, right?”

(Sounds of wrestling and laughing.)

“Guys! I can’t concentrate on driving.”

“Why is that car honking at you?”

“He’s not.”

“Were you honking at him?”

“No, I wasn’t honking.”

“Who was honking?”

“Guys, please!”

“The dog is drinking your coffee,” she says.

“Can I climb out through the window when we get there?” he says. “I can do it in like two seconds. I’ll totally clear it.”

“Yeah, right,” she says.

(More wrestling and laughing sounds. A screech.)

“GUYS, PLEASE!”

“Okaaaayyyyyy!” they say in unison.

“Is that clock a minute fast or just a half minute?”

“What’s a douchebag?”

“The dog is drinking your coffee.”

“Did I pack my library book?”

“Can Derek sleep over tonight?”

“That’s so not fair. You’ve had like two million sleepovers!”

“So what? You have, too.”

“I don’t want to have one. I just want you to not have one.”

“Whatever.”

“You have chocolate on your face,” she says.

“Yeah I get that a lot,” he says. “Mom, what’s an example of an NC-17 movie?”

“Why aren’t we moving?” she says.

“Why aren’t we moving?” he says.

“There’s a garbage truck in front of us,” I say.

“So, when we get the late slips, should we check off that it was because of traffic?” she asks. “Or oversleeping? Or that there was a family issue.”

Family issues, I think. Plural.

He says, “They really should have an option for ‘All of the above.'”

“The truck is moving,” she says.

“Why aren’t we going?” he says.

And then, we are there. We pull up just in time to hear the late bell ring. “Bye! Love you! Have a great day!” I say as they unbuckle and clamor out with the dog barking in protest.

Their overstuffed backpacks bob as they run. They are laughing.

The dog watches them and whines, missing them already.

“I know how you feel,” I say.

 

Photo credit: Megan Dempsey

The Twins and The Pendulum

The Twins and The Pendulum

By Andrea Lani

twinspendulum

It’s Thanksgiving morning. I’m in the kitchen making pies and my nine-year-old identical twin sons are in the living room torturing and murdering each other.

I blame video games and movies.

Stupify. Protego. Protego. Protego. Expelliarmus. Imperio. Rictusempra. Crucio. Crucio. Sectumsempra. Avada kedavra!

The boys have recently discovered they can download games on an old cellphone, and whenever the house falls silent—which is far too often these days, for a household of five—I find them squeezed together on the couch, heads bent over that silly little screen. This morning, I gave them a list of things they needed to do before they could have any screen time: play outside, practice their multiplication flash cards, read for half an hour, work on writing.

They did everything but the writing—their nearly wordless comics didn’t meet the requirement—and I nixed the game time and told them to find something else to do. Go back outside and make a snowman. Build Legos. Play cribbage. Anything, anything, but stare at that screen. They’ve decided to have a wizard duel—no doubt inspired by the five-hour Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows double-feature we indulged in yesterday, in celebration of my being let out of work early due to a snowstorm—and now blast each other with spells and curses.

With these two boys, there is a fine line between playing and fighting, the main difference being how long it takes for one of them to start crying. I have grown used to their near-constant wrestling, fake fights, and general rough-housing, only noticing when something breaks or when a friend is over and, as her sibling-less child plays with my boys, I see her visibly cringe with each crash and slam. Last summer, I attended a performance of Macbeth at a local community theatre, and, as Macbeth and Macduff, dressed in modern costume, threw fake punches at each other, I laughed out loud, despite the drama. The scene was exactly what I witness every day in my own living room, only less convincing.

There is a thing called a pendulum wave—a framework with twelve or fifteen heavy balls, or bobs, suspended in a row by incrementally longer strings—that is used to demonstrate principles of physics like energy, forces, position, and velocity. When the bobs are released together, they begin swinging in time, but soon break away into “quasi-chaos,” all of the bobs swinging in what appears to be wild disarray. After a few moments, however, the bobs align themselves so that each bob swings exactly opposite the next, like children on swings, one swinging forward and the other back, reaching their point of equilibrium at the same moment. Finally, the bobs break into the “wave,” like a crowd in a sports arena, each pendulum following the next in smooth, snake-like undulations.

The first time I saw a pendulum wave demonstration, I thought, that’s the twins! Like two pendulum bobs, sometimes my boys swing wildly out of sync. They call each other names (“turd nugget” being the current favorite), pick on each other, boss each other around, and, occasionally, they tumble together in a brawl. At these times all I need to do is send them into separate parts of the house. The two of them share a bedroom, ride together on the same bus, spend the day in the same classroom, attend the same daycare, and sit at the same dinner table—sometimes they need a break from each other. After five minutes alone, the friction usually calms and the quasi-chaos settles back into something resembling equilibrium.

More often, each pendulum will swing opposite the other, as the boys take turns being the difficult one and the compliant one. It’s like the Road Runner and Coyote punching out at the end of the day, but instead of working the same shift, they’re job-sharing. One day one boy hates dinner, slides out of his chair fifteen times while working on a single math worksheet, spends half an hour avoiding getting in the shower, keeps his light on long after bedtime. Meanwhile, the other gobbles his food, races through his homework, hops in and out of the shower, and is asleep by eight o’clock. The next day, or the next week (unlike objects governed by the laws of physics, my children’s moods are completely unpredictable) they switch.

As with the pendulum wave demonstration, things around here get most fascinating when the twins synchronize, like when, from different corners of the house, and apropos of nothing, they break into song—usually something by Weird Al or a bawdy tune handed down through fourth graders from time immemorial—one boy starting just a beat behind the other; when they invent an imaginary world and move through it as if they both can see the exact same invisible walls and buildings and creatures; or like now, while they point their wands at each other and fall down, petrified.

Of course, if they were real wizards with real wands, both of them would be dead by now and my living room blown to smithereens. But they’re not wizards, just two normal boys—as normal as you can be when you share the same DNA—a pair of pendulum bobs swinging through their days, sometimes crazily out of whack, and sometimes in near-perfect alignment.

Andrea Lani is a writer, public servant, and mother of three boys. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Orion, About Place Journal, Kindred, and Northern Woodlands, she is an editor at  Literary Mama, and she blogs at at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.

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I Have Kids Ten Years Apart/I Have Kids One Year Apart

I Have Kids Ten Years Apart/I Have Kids One Year Apart

There is no ideal way to space children. But a family dynamic can be dependent on how many years there are between siblings. Julie Bristol has three children, two of whom are ten years apart.  Debra Liese has three children, two of whom are less than a year apart. Their parenting experiences have been very different as a result.

 

I Have Children Ten Years Apart

By Julie Bristol

juliebristolExactly ten years, two months, two weeks and eleven minutes after my firstborn entered the world, my middle child assumed her perch on the family tree. My older girl was quietly enchanted with this new addition to our family. When I first placed her new sibling in her arms she beamed with pride, holding her gently and gazing endlessly at her tiny form. The first days were blissful as my older girl became a sister but, at two weeks old, the baby found her voice and began screaming. For hours. Every. Single. Day.

In trying to soothe my infant, suddenly my ten-year-old no longer had my full attention. And, as I was not willing to inflict a wailing baby on others, we could no longer go to many of the places that my older child loved to frequent, hushed places like Barnes & Noble with its world of exciting books, plush chairs and hot chocolate. One day I found her sobbing in the living room. She turned to me and asked desperately, “Mom, how can you stand this?” “The baby is sensitive,” I replied. “No! She’s just a brat!” It was clear my older daughter was beginning to resent the tiny usurper.

Yet as the baby grew, in between the screaming fits, she was bright and full of joy. My older girl could not help but to engage with her. And as a toddler, when she started to explore more of the world around her, her big sister sought out toys for her, tickled her tummy and toes, brushed her dark hair and raised smiles with tender kisses on her cheeks. Each week, when we took my older child to the stables where she worked and rode horses, the little one would tramp around after her in her ladybird wellies, listening intently as her sister told her about each horse, and explained what she was doing as she cleaned stalls.

It was heart-warming to see them play together—my oldest would run around on all fours, pretending to be a horse, with her younger sister perched precariously on her back, amidst gales of laughter. There were times when my older daughter grew tired of her younger sister’s attention, but the big age gap meant that the usual kind of squabbling and fighting simply did not occur. When she was unhappy with me, the little one would run to her sister—her ally. And whenever I spied them snuggled up together on the sofa, the oldest reading to the younger, I felt my heart become a universe of joy.

One of the loveliest things about having a large age gap was that all of the firsts remained firsts. I was truly amazed at each milestone with each child. I was able to fully indulge, unabashedly, each of my babies. What happiness for my older child to also witness those events, to delight in her sister’s progress; to be as much a part of helping teach her about the world as I. Being an older sister by so many years also helped my firstborn gain confidence, for she was so revered by her younger sister that she could not help but to feel important and valued.

With that decade between my children, I never had to leave my baby crying because my toddler needed me. I did not have to contend with breastfeeding an infant while negotiating a two- or three-year-old—with two children in diapers, two children potty-training, two children to settle into bedtime routines, two car seats, two sets of toys, two little ones sick, the terrible twos alongside the taxing threes. If I needed to have a quick shower during one of baby’s rare, quiet moments, her sister would watch over her. No concerns for me about a toddler trying to feed the infant buttons, or coins, or dirt from the plant pot, or poking her in the eye because she did not like her in a moment.

The relationship between my girls was, and is, incredibly special—the older to the younger part sister, part friend, part mother-figure, paragon of virtue. As adults, they are firm friends sharing a mutual, deep respect and affection for one another, the childhood hurts and resentments tucked away in a place of acceptance, and very much forgiven.

There is a gap of ten years between my first and second children, six-and-a-half between my second and third and, thus, a whopping sixteen-and-a-half years between my first and last children. Despite this, all three girls are very close. And having such large gaps allowed me to learn and grow as a mother at more leisure than those who have children close together. Some of the success within familial relationships is due to personalities, but having time and space were magic ingredients in our family. I would choose the same again.

Julie-Marie Bristol is a writer, mother of three, and is also a stained-glass and mosaic artist.

 

I Have Children One Year Apart

By Debra Liese

linked armsMy sister and I are not twins, but growing up, we were incessantly asked if we were. When we said no—though sometimes we also said yes, because what could be funnier than pretending you share more genetic material than you actually do—they’d say, with some incredulity, “but you may as well be!”

So you’re Irish twins, our inquisitors would exclaim, undaunted in their zeal for classification. Half Irish herself, my mother never warmed to the term. There was good reason for her aversion. Though the modern vernacular appears to refer benignly to children born in the same calendar year, the term originated in the 1800s as a derogatory slur directed at a surging influx of poor Irish Catholic immigrants. The invective was nasty in multiple ways; close-aged siblings were implied to be the result of scant birth control, education, and restraint.

My sister and I, at thirteen months apart, were technically not Irish twins. But, with an age difference of just under twelve months, my own children are.

These days, parenting op-ed pages are bursting with debates about the “best” possible age spacing, as if full control over the precise moment of conception is a luxury everyone enjoys. A two-year gap often gets the best showing, purportedly for striking a responsible balance between close-in-age cohesiveness and care-taking ease. In an era fanatical about planning, Irish twins are often assumed to be the result of impulsiveness or miscalculation, though children are born close together for all kinds of reasons, some of which are quite intentional. Rising maternal ages often compel women who want more than one child to hurry up and produce a second. For parents who plan to cut back on work during their children’s earliest years, but can’t afford to do so indefinitely, closely spaced births can help them to make the most of that time.

It didn’t take long for me to gather in those chaotic early days that my happily growing family inspired a kind of slack-jawed amazement or concern, the abject expressions of which I met with every time we’d set foot in public, which to be fair, was not often for at least a year. The writing was on the wall before my third pregnancy even ended. As if returning from maternity leave already pregnant was not laughable enough, when I attended my four-year-old’s school picnic with her baby brother balanced—gracefully, I thought—on my pregnant stomach, two other mothers walked past me murmuring, “That poor woman.” It was, I admit, a little disconcerting.

Not long after that picnic, my youngest daughter was born. A tough, sweet girl who seemed to intuit the need for cooperation, she was great at upending preconceptions about the difficulty of three children, and close-in age-siblings alike. She was, quite simply, a joy—which isn’t to say those years weren’t powered by a lucky brew of sleep deprivation and adrenaline.

No matter how you cut it, having two children within the same calendar year is no slight commitment. If mine were a result of an optimistic read of my own energy levels, they were also the result of my own childhood. I had every reason to be optimistic: My sister and I shared a closeness that was built as much on syncronicity of life-stage as it was emotional resonance. I have no memory of a childhood before she arrived, and life without her remains unimaginable. But others’ concerns regarding my own children’s spacing persisted well until we were out of the woods of joint infancy, when once again, strangers crowed “what a lovely family!” instead of gasping “how do you cope?”

The projected anxiety is an interesting mirror of our increasing tendency to view parenthood as an enterprise that should be less primordial and more a carefully orchestrated dance of timing around any number of factors, personal and professional. Space siblings too much, and you’re dragging a bored twelve-year-old to the playground. Space them too close, and you’re risking premature labor, robbing your children of the ability to revel in separate infancies, and forcing them to share everything.

Now preschoolers, my younger two simply look like boy-girl twins, an illusion that puts many questions to rest. And for certain practical purposes, they are twins. There were, inevitably, two in diapers, two in strollers, two, in a twist of ridiculousness, eligible to start kindergarten in the same year. Asking educators for advice on this particular issue, I’m more often than not met with baffled silence. It’s not, apparently, a scenario occurring with enough frequency to have inspired any policy at all.

And yet, a year of their own, both in school and other arenas, is something I’ve come to see they each need. The trickiness of raising Irish twins lies not in the many ways they are like twins, but in the ways that they aren’t. To the untrained eye, they are identical developmentally, their strawberry blonde heads bouncing along at the same level, their car seats traded for boosters simultaneously, even their meltdowns rising in twin volcanic peaks at the witching hour. The persisting fascination with all things matched makes the world eager to swoop them up in twin mystique, muse about shared languages and shoe sizes. And yet, they are in subtly different places on the continuum of childhood. Their growth is staggered when it comes to many milestones that are important to them: learning to read, riding a bike, saying a brave goodbye at the school door.

My twins-who-aren’t-twins no longer evoke concern for their mother’s imminent survival. They are newly capable of wonders like walking in a straight line at school pickups, and riding contentedly in a grocery cart. They attend (adorably) a mixed-age preschool, take care of each other when they cry on the playground, and fight over who gets to sit on my lap at breakfast, usually coming to a truce, teetering on their half to spear strawberries from a shared dish. Close and independent, the same but different, they will grow up answering a question I know by heart. Are you twins? Sometimes they answer yes and sometimes they answer no, but I don’t need to ask why. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Debra Liese works in scholarly publishing and lives in a country town with her husband and three children.

A Real Mom’s Resume

A Real Mom’s Resume

canstockphoto5572533By Mandy B. Fernandez

I have been both a stay-at-home mom and a work-outside-the-home mom. During my at-home stint, I was asked by others, “So, what do you do for a living?” When I answered, “I’m a mom,” I was often faced with sympathetic looks or simply dismissed.

Upon reentering the workforce and having to explain maternal gaps in my employment, I dreaded explaining my family priorities to a new company. Didn’t the hiring official know what I had endured just to be on time for the meeting?

After one particularly grueling interview process, I came home and completely re-wrote my resume to reflect what I really wanted to say about the work of being a mom. I grant any mother out there permission to borrow it. Please feel free to hand out the below document to your future employer or to the wise guy who asks what you do all day.

A Real Mom’s Resume

(Insert Your Name
And Address Here)
Phone: It is out of order, my kid threw the device in the toilet
E-mail: whyme@moms.me

Summary:
· Extremely organized since I manage two children, a husband, this household and a crazy pet
· Highly resourceful when it comes to restraining myself from pulling my hair out each and every day
· Dedicated to excellence in bringing up fine children (forget that incident where kid number one pulled that lady’s pants down, will you?)
· Possesses a positive mental attitude (for at least five minutes a day when I lock myself in the bathroom)
· Willing to learn and ready for increased responsibility, training and education (I’ve mastered the art of saying “no” under extreme manipulation and regularly manage a borderline dysfunctional family)
Goal: To work for an organization that allows me to escape my world and pretend I’m 22 years old, single and fifteen pounds lighter.

Technical Skills:
· Wipe butts
· Talk on the phone, burn dinner and help with homework all at the same time
· Read and do the voices of all animals in a book
· Type while completely ignoring my children
· Operate heavy machinery and build things (Have you seen the toys these days and the engineering degree you need to put them together?)

Education:
· Degree in Early Childhood Education (okay, not really but I’m raising two small children who haven’t killed each other. Shouldn’t that count for something?)

Experience:
Motherhood
October 2007 – Present: Position of Overworked, Underappreciated Mother

· Manage all personal affairs of the humans that came from my never-region
· Coordinate meals, teeth-brushing, illnesses, meltdowns, and bedtime stories
· Notify upper management (grandparents) when I absolutely need a break from the above listed items
· Record the number of daily tantrums for historical purposes (to throw it back in my children’s faces someday)
· Manage records retention program (throw out old artwork, doctors’ bills and expired coupons)
· Manage travel accounts and expense reports (trips to the grocery store, children’s museum, coffee shop, bookstore, etc.)
· Update filing system (photos of children that haven’t been updated in two years!)
· Coordinate all slobber and snot removal in the house, for kids and dog
· Supervise the details of all holidays, birthday parties and all the shopping that goes along with those events (except for Thanksgiving since I had a meltdown after the turkey fell apart and I burned the pumpkin bread)
· Balance checkbook and organize finances (eating only cheese and crackers until the next paycheck)
· Coordinate occasional opportunities to have a date with my husband (never mind find time for myself)
· Memorize cult classics known as Sesame Street, Elmo, Dora the Explorer, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and every Disney film known to man (what’s an adult movie?)
· Nurse every bruise, scrape, cut and fall that my children incur in my presence
· Defend the dark arts—monsters, thunderstorms and imaginary creatures that scare us
· You name it, I do it. Now do you really think you could hire someone else that would do a better job than me?

References: I have them. They’re just smeared with peanut butter and jelly right now so I can’t clearly make out the names and numbers.
I’ll look forward to hearing back from you. Thanks for the consideration.

 

Mandy B. Fernandez is a freelance writer living in Pensacola, Florida with her husband and two children. She writes creatively and professionally on topics such as education, business, creative arts, health, family life, parenting and natural foods. You can learn more about her at www.writtenbymandy.com.

Mixed Tape Of Shameful Parenting Moments

Mixed Tape Of Shameful Parenting Moments

By Susan Buttenwieser

mixedtape

Side 1

Making a behavior chart so three-year-old will put on her socks without having a meltdown.

Using the chart.

Chasing someone else’s toddler in the playground who stole your daughter’s beloved cracked turtle bucket and refused to give it back. Even when asked nicely.

Tussling with someone else’s toddler once you caught her, both of you gripping tightly onto the bucket handle.

Saying Duckie in front of people outside immediate family members.

Cruising the princess aisle in K-Mart. During work hours.

Purchasing princess bling.

Owning a Barbie after pre-child claims that you would never, ever let your daughter play with them. Or watch princess movies. Or dress up like a princess. And never, ever have Bratz dolls.

Owning so many Bratz dolls, accessories and clip-on shoe/feet that they fill a giant plastic storage container.

Walking down the sidewalk with your daughter dressed in a Barbie wedding dress, the only way she would agree to leave the apartment after long rainy day inside.

Tearing up at princess movies.

Tearing up when daughters wear matching Gap pajamas after their bath.

Tearing up at their dance performances.

Tearing up at everything.

 

Side 2

Shouting vagina on D train platform when pre-kindergartener asks what part of a woman’s body a baby comes out of, but then had trouble hearing the answer over screeching subway tires, even though the word was repeated six times.

Placing infant in Lost & Found milk crate on top of broken goggles and hair-laden bathing caps during Family Swim at the Y because strollers aren’t allowed in the pool area and older daughter needs supervision in the water.

Placing infant in laundry basket amongst dirty underwear and socks and ignoring her while cooking dinner, making brownies for school bake sale, helping older daughter with 100th Day of School art project which involves gluing 100 pairs of googly eyes onto 100 balls of cotton.

The six weeks of taking your toddler to the playground with her left arm in a cast.

One daughter hurling a full pint of milk onto pizza restaurant floor at the exact same moment that other daughter has sudden case of explosive diarrhea.

Every time they are rude in public.

Every time they are rude in private.

Every time they totally lose their shit.

Every time you totally lose your shit.

Every time you find yourself inside a Buy Buy Baby.

Allowing your daughters to eat Froot Loops, so unhealthy that Kellogg’s can’t even be bothered to use correct spelling, as if to speed up the brain-damaging process.

The many hours spent only in conversations with people under the age of two.

Losing the ability to speak to other adults.

Losing the ability to be an adult.

 

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. 

Photo: canstock.com

Through the Lens of Boyhood

Through the Lens of Boyhood

75

Within families we are one another’s collateral damage. But so often, we are the most tender collateral damage that anyone could dream of…

 

When my firstborn was an infant and the days opened like huge blank canvasses, pristine, challenging and monotonous, I sometimes shared advice I knew would become more difficult to deliver far enough in the future to be unfathomable. My infant son’s hands and arms danced in midair, like some exotic meditative exercise and I knew about every bit of saliva that dribbled from his mouth. Not only was independence unfathomable, I couldn’t really envision his ability to roll over or crawl, climb stairs or toddle. “Don’t drink and drive,” I’d tell him. Rather than respond, the unblinking baby boy stared at me. “Use condoms,” I’d counsel, “regardless of whether anyone asks you to do so.” He wriggled in my arms. “No means no,” I’d declare. “These are things you need to understand.”

If I glimpse a photograph of that wee babe, he seems simultaneously completely familiar and almost a stranger. So is the mother who held that tiny boy. Time is strange that way.

My third son is twelve now. His voice has lowered but not yet dropped. He’s moody (actually he’s always been moody; he’s moodier). On the brink of adolescence, I feel his attentions shift, and so I love when we connect and shrug it off when he’s grumpy and try extra hard to blend into the background when he and his pals get silly together so that I can drink in their exuberant, giddy energies. Last night, snuggled under a blanket, we watched Boyhood together. He reserved the right to leave and watch something that interested him more (The Walking Dead). And then, he got sucked right in. We both did.

Beyond the simple but mesmerizing idea that time passes, the film illustrates how our stories happen not just because of time’s march or personality’s existence; so much of who we become occurs in response to what happens to and around us. This family, through the frame of Mason’s boyhood unfolding, faces all sorts of bumps and disappointments and growth, and little bits of joy. We see that love is and isn’t enough and certainly falls short. We see that however much we love our children, to raise them isn’t easy and can be burdensome. We see these things, perhaps, because anyone who has been inside a family appreciates their truths.

For many of us, parenting feels active, a verb, if not a life choice. It consumes us. We harbor a hope that if we do things correctly—best diapers or food, careful words, the key classes and just enough benign neglect—we can ace parenthood and ensure our children’s happiness and success. That’s a myth, of course.

Regardless of circumstance, whether we’re too young or too old or too much in need of an education or a steadier source of income, life happens to us while we’re parents. We lose parents or our relationships fall apart. We fall in love again and even if the new loves work for us, the same may not be as true for our children. A job takes too much effort and we can’t focus upon our kids or we don’t have a job that’s absorbing and we focus too much upon our kids. Insert your story here.

We can do many things, but control our lives isn’t one of them. The thing Boyhood illustrates as much as anything else is that within families we are one another’s collateral damage. But so often, we are the most tender collateral damage that anyone could dream of—and so we can continue beyond the years of boyhood or girlhood or intensive parenthood—to search out what and who to love, and how to love. That’s what I couldn’t have begun to envision when I kissed the smoothest cheeks I’d ever put my lips to: the sincere sweetness of goodhearted failure. Even though we’re much more worn, every single one of us, rather than feel sad to know this, I’m grateful. If it’s possible, I feel more tenderly toward my children, m