This Mother’s Day, Celebrate Somebody Else

This Mother’s Day, Celebrate Somebody Else

By Janelle Hanchett

Web Only Mother's DayI am the mother who missed your kindergarten graduation. I am the mother who was drunk the morning of the first birthday party you were invited to, when you were four years old, the one who made you wrap up a toy from your own room (apologizing and promising another, though I never did a thing), because we had nothing. I dropped you off wearing my sunglasses so nobody would see the red in my eyes as I watched you walk away, with a gift that wasn’t a gift and blond ringlets and fear.

I am the mother who let you go on a February morning, with your brother, into the arms of your grandmother, who was taking you “to the park,” but for good and I knew it, because it was cold and raining and February.

I let you go because I wanted to go back to bed. You were five. Your brother was 18 months and still nursing and you were older and still small.

I am the mother who spent two more years “finding myself,” so deep in self-obsession, sure this pill and this doctor and this drink would be the next thing to fix it, the thing to set me right, to make me whole. Back and forth, in and out of centers and hospitals and your house and no house, I stopped by occasionally as “mama,” felt sorry for myself, blamed everybody else and wrote letters.

You kept them in a box by your bed. A wooden box stuffed with all I had written, on napkins and notes and cards I bought in thrift stores.

Every single one.

With the little pictures I’d draw from wherever I was of trees and flowers and houses, and love notes to you, my daughter, “I’ll be home soon” and “I miss you so much” and “How’s kindergarten?” and “You’re the best daughter in the world.”

I meant it.

You kept them all.

Each one with its hope of life and family and all the things I couldn’t make but could draw, the few pathetic things I could draw, a little house with windows and grass and sunshine, what I wanted for you, for me, somewhere, drawn on the table in the “art room” of whatever hospital I was in, with the crayons for “art therapy,” before I went outside to have a cigarette and miss my kids and wonder.

One day in March four years ago I woke up and was dead, having been killed by alcohol I knew there was nothing left and it should be so, because all I was and all I had failed, was me.  So I left myself in bed and walked on with nothing to lose, with something I couldn’t see or feel but knew must exist, because others were living freely with the same disease, and they told me how to do it. And I did it.

And I found their freedom and my own, within.

So with no fight left, I found a way to live, to come back to you and life, and for four years I’ve been born, having not had a drink since that day. A family again, you and me and daddy and your brother and new sister – even though families like ours don’t end this way, having been torn apart by alcoholism. They fade into nothing like the ends of tiny streams in a dry land. Like broken branches of nothing scattered on a park green.

Or they become us, something else, experiencing some miracle that reduced it all to a box on your bedside table – to a piercing in my gut that comes sometimes, like Mother’s Day, when you hand me a card written in your hand, with the little pictures drawn and the words you want to say: “You are the best mama in the world.”

There’s a part of me that wants to give it back and it crawls down deep into me and begs you to give it to some other woman, some other mother, who didn’t leave and isn’t me, but why?

When I’m here and I am your mother.

I couldn’t possibly ask.

And so I just hold it and look at you and remember, the house and flowers and sunshine, the messages sent with the dying blood of a mother, now pulsing through my veins and yours, giving new life to the drawings that once lay dead on the page.

On our page, to be lived, now, my daughter.

On Mother’s Day.

And tomorrow.

Author’s Note: I didn’t write the story of my alcoholism for a long time, not because I was ashamed, but because I didn’t feel like I should be congratulated for taking on responsibilities that were always mine. I write about it now because it’s the truth, and it isn’t just a story of alcohol addiction, it’s a story of life and family and truth after failure, after obliteration. It’s the happiest story in the world. I found a giant, bursting life as I emerged from the darkest spot imaginable, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Janelle is a mother of questionable disposition to three children aged 11, 7, and 2. She lives in northern California with her kids and a husband who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. If you want, you can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, Renegade Mothering (

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Cancer Revisited

Cancer Revisited

Michael B-Day 3By Mary Ann C. Palmer


I was little, just five years old, alone in my bed, lying on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin; eyes wide open. The sharp scent of night seeped in through my bedroom window. I wanted my mother. But that was impossible. She had died a few months earlier and I was living with my Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe. My room filled with shadows. I couldn’t swallow; it was as if a hand was grabbing my neck. My heart raced, thumping hard against my back. My thoughts were shouting at me. Within minutes, I was swallowed whole by fear. I jumped out of bed and ran to Uncle Joe screaming.


“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said. But I knew I was awake. I knew it. This scene repeated itself. I would learn later that I was having panic attacks.

I practiced not crying over my mother. I practiced how to bury my feelings. The events, however, were stenciled in my memory, not fully formed, but etched there just the same.


I would sit on my mom’s lap; just the two of us on our living room sofa, she clapped my four-year old hands together and sang, “You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” I giggled and collapsed into her soft blue cotton robe. I nuzzled in as close as I could, inhaling the soft powdery scent of the skin on her neck. She must have just taken a bath because her hair was wrapped in a twisted towel. Then Nanny, my mommy’s mom, called me for lunch. I skipped into the kitchen.


I stood by the window in my brother’s room with my mom. She was dressed but wearing the twisted towel on her head that she always wore now. We watched from the fourth floor as my 8-year-old brother Gary, in his yellow slicker, walked out into the rain, down six steps–one, two, three, four, five, six we counted together–and then down the block on his way to school. We sang, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…” Just mommy and me.


Wandering into the bedroom I shared with my mom and dad, the crib I still slept in tucked behind the bedroom door, I looked for Poochy, my well-loved stuffed dog with floppy ears, but I couldn’t find him. I looked everywhere. I finally found him on my mother’s dressing table, right next to one of her bras. The bra looked funny to me, one side was filled with something. Why does mommy have wood in her bra, I wondered. Somehow I knew not to ask. So many things were secret now.


Aunt Anne, who’d been around a lot lately, had to leave before my grandma got here. “Will you be okay?” she asked my mom. Why wouldn’t she be okay, I thought. Aunt Anne left. My mom was sitting in my dad’s upholstered armchair in her blue robe and the twisty towel on her head. I sat on the arm of the chair to get closer to her. She was very quiet, and then I noticed tears rolling down her cheeks. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” But she didn’t answer; she just kept crying. Grownups aren’t supposed to cry. So I cried, too. I was scared, like when I was sure monsters were under my crib. But then my mom’s tears stopped. She put her hand under my chin and said, “Why don’t you go get your doll out of her carriage and show me how you can change her diaper.”


While my mom was sick, I spent more time with my grandma and her sisters. We went to Prospect Park and one day we even went to see the Statue of Liberty. After our outings, I remember opening the door to our apartment and looking straight through the living room to the bedroom to see the shape of my mother’s legs under the blankets through her partially opened door. I was always happy to come home to her. I loved my grandma and aunts, but I wanted to be with Mommy.


Dad lifted me, limp as a rag doll, out of my crib. My head rolled onto his shoulder. He carried me out to the living room. My brother Gary was already up, sitting in his pajamas on the floor, playing with his Legos. I was placed down next to him. My grandparents and a priest were sitting on the sofa. The priest went into the bedroom with my dad.

Gary and I played with his Legos. We made leprechaun houses out of the little white bricks. We made little cots for them out of folded pieces of paper. I didn’t see the leprechauns, but I believed they were there. Gary said they were. I wonder if he knew at 8 years old that if you catch a leprechaun he must grant you three wishes.

I would learn later we only needed one.


On my 5th birthday Gary and I were at Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe’s house. Even though my mom and dad weren’t there I was hoping I would have cake. Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe did a lot of whispering that day. Maybe there would be a surprise. And there was. That night all of my relatives came over—aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was late. “I’m five now,” I thought, “so I guess I get to stay up late.” I never had a birthday party at night, and never with so many relatives.   Everyone was dressed up, wearing black. My Aunt’s high heels clicked on the gray and white linoleum floor. The basement party room was smoky from cigarettes and cigars. Ice clinked in highball glasses. I pretended my Mary Jane’s were tap shoes as I made my way around the room. One by one, the adults wished me a happy birthday, then whispered something to each other.


The next day Gary and I were brought to stay with one of my aunt’s sisters; I didn’t know her but she and her husband were nice to us. Their grown-up daughter was there. She sold costume jewelry and she let me choose a ring from a big blue velvet tray. It was a long day. When we finally went home, I was surprised to see our living room filled with relatives, but the first thing I looked for were my mom’s legs under the blankets in her bed. She was not there and the bed was neatly made.

My father called me to sit on his lap. I asked him where Mommy was. “She went to heaven,” he said. I didn’t know where heaven was.

“When is she coming back?” I asked.

“She can’t come back,” he answered.

“Why not? I want to show her my new ring,” I said.

“If she comes back, she’ll be sick again. You don’t want that, do you?”

I knew it would be selfish to want my mom to be sick again. This was a big decision to make. I sobbed. The adults tried to get me to stop. “Look,” they said. “Gary stopped crying.” I tried to see reason in that, but I couldn’t. I shut down. I stopped crying. And did not cry again. “Look how good she is,” everyone said.


I wished my family had told me the truth. When I was old enough to read I found one of my mother’s funeral cards with my birth date on it. I realized the late night birthday gathering was not for me; it was for my mom. I still didn’t cry. So what should have been loss and grief morphed into fear and worry. I continued to have panic attacks. I worried about getting cancer my whole life, even as a child. Every little lump or bump was cause for alarm. And then I did get cancer, ovarian cancer, when my youngest child, Michael, was four. I became my mother, and Michael became me. But I thought I could do it better. I could protect this four-year old. I see now I was naïve. Caught up in my own fight, I didn’t fully see at the time what Michael saw.


At 37, I had surgery for what was supposed to be a benign tumor. It wasn’t. When I got home from the hospital I explained to Michael I had a tumor in my belly, and I had had an operation to remove it.

“What’s a tumor?” he asked.

“It’s like a little ball inside my belly that’s not supposed to be there.”  I explained that I had to take strong medicine to make sure I got all the way better and the medicine would make me feel sick.

I couldn’t use the word cancer. I would fall apart. I knew it was very important not to cry in front of Michael. My mom tried not to cry in front of me, but she did, leaving me frightened and helpless, too little to understand.


 I crept into the bathroom, holding the wall for balance, trying not to wake my husband Bob. The night was slanted, unfocused. I pulled myself up to the bathroom sink, balanced myself with one hand on the counter and adjusted my blue turban with the other. I looked in the mirror, half expecting to see my mother’s face gazing back at me. A wave of weakness passed through me; I needed to get back to bed before I passed out. I took small steps and deep breaths. I almost reached the foot of the bed when I collapsed. The fall at that point was almost a decision; I just didn’t have the strength to do this anymore. Bob rushed to me. I was still conscious, sprawled on the floor, and aware my turban had landed a few feet from me. Bob ran down the steps, returning with his mom and dad still in their pajamas, panic in their faces. Bob called ahead to the hospital, scooped me up and rushed with me to the car, his mother following with a blanket for me before she went back to the house. I was grateful she was there to take care of Michael. In the morning, she would tell him I went back to the hospital and get him ready for school. But I later learned Michael woke up first, padded up the stairs to my bedroom in his little blue feety pajamas to look for me, and I was gone. It wasn’t the first time.

I came home from the hospital that afternoon. I had been severely dehydrated, again, and was given IV fluids. Michael ran to me as soon as I got inside the house and hugged me with his whole body. His arms and body not quite enough, he wrapped one leg around me as well. He followed me upstairs, sat on the carpet in front of my bed and watched Ninja Turtles, his favorite show, while I slept.


A week later I had a fever. The chemo depleted my white blood cells, leaving me susceptible to serious infection. When my temperature reached 103; I called my doctor.

“Come to the hospital,” he said. “Enter through the emergency room and I will meet you there.”

It was early afternoon. Bob was coming to pick me up but I needed to make arrangements for Michael. Bob’s parents had gone back home to Clinton, NY, seven hours away. Michael would be home from nursery school soon. I called my friend Celeste.

“Can you take Michael?” I asked.

She always said yes. It was never even a question. Michael blended in easily with her five children. Five or six didn’t make a difference to her. But it mattered to Michael. “Mommy, I don’t want to be with Celeste. I want to be with you.”


I lay on the sofa watching Michael play as the late afternoon sun angled into the living room through our greenhouse, now empty. I no longer had the strength to tend the geraniums and spider plants. Hunched over on his feet and hands, Michael trotted around the living room. He occasionally scampered over and put his head on my tummy. I’d pat his head, and tell him he was a good little dog. He panted; I giggled. He was not just pretending to be a dog; he actually believed he was one. Michael embodied his fantasies; it was one of the things I loved most about him.

I waited for Eugénia and Ely to arrive, two of my best friends from when we lived in East Hampton. Older and nurturing, I looked forward to their company. When they arrived they were visibly alarmed by what they found: a too thin, exhausted woman laying on the sofa, a little boy playing at her feet. I was actually feeling pretty good that day, happy to be spending time with Michael. Eugénia immediately went to the kitchen to make me something to eat. Ely sat with me. As we talked Michael galloped in and out of the room, letting out the occasional bark. Our conversation faded as we focused on Michael playing, so obviously joyful, creating his own little world. Then Ely said, “Who knows how this is going to affect him.”


Eight months passed; it was time for my final surgery. I had prepared Michael over the past few days as best I could for the separation. The day I was due at the hospital I showered, dressed, adjusted my wig, and went downstairs to say goodbye. Michael was still sleeping. I woke him up. I didn’t want him to find me gone in the morning again.

“Michael, sweetie. I’m leaving for the hospital now.” He looked stunned. His eyes filled up as he clung to me.

“Why are you always in the hospital?” I held back my tears and told him I’d be home soon and in the meantime Grandma was going to take him to the Nature Center to see the owls. I knew from my four-year-old self that distraction only worked in the moment, but doesn’t touch the fear and anxiety. The talking we had done about mommy leaving hadn’t made any sense to him; only the visceral was real, the separation. Still, I thought, he can handle this.


The year ended. I survived. On a warm, sunny day in April, Michael turned five. His fifth birthday would be very different than mine had been. I gave him a black standard poodle puppy we named Harpo, who would become his constant companion for the next 15 years. We had birthday cake and he blew out the candles. Michael’s whole family attended the party—grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, not unlike all the relatives at my fifth birthday. But my birthday marked the end of my young life as I had known it. I would never see my mother again. Michael didn’t understand at the time, but he had what he wanted most for his birthday, the same thing I had wanted but didn’t get. Mommy.


Michael’s panic attacks started that summer.  From our front porch, I saw my husband running up the long driveway carrying him. They had been out for a walk, holding hands and scouting for dogs, Michael’s favorite pastime even though he had his own dog now.

“Michael’s hyperventilating,” he said as he ran to meet me. I looked at Michael, gasping for air, his eyes frantic, pupils dilated. I recognized the panic. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a paper bag.

“Breathe into this, Michael,” I said as I held the bag around his nose and mouth. He began to relax, his breathing slowed.

This would be the first of many panic attacks, the trigger obvious. I thought I had protected him. I did all the things my mother was not able to do: I had explained I was sick. I made sure he saw a child psychologist once a week. And I lived. Michael did not lose his mother.

But had I really protected Michael? He saw me rushed out of the house for emergency treatments. He saw me throw up in the kitchen sink because I couldn’t make it to the bathroom. He saw me wearing a turban on my head, just like the one my mom wore. He saw me lying on the couch for the better part of a year, and he saw the shape of me in bed, my legs under the blankets when he ran up the stairs to my room.

“Leave mommy alone. Let her rest,” I had heard his grandma say again and again.

Michael saw what I saw when I was four. I couldn’t prepare him for separation during a time of such intimate mother-child bonding. I couldn’t prepare him for the loss of routine, for the comfort of his mother kissing a scraped knee or lying down next to him at night to protect him from the monsters under his bed. Four-year olds can’t merge reason and emotion. I’m not sure anyone can.

Author’s Note: A child is born and we pray he or she will be safe and healthy and that we will live to see that child grow. We imagine a charmed life for this little boy or girl. A life free from harm and the traumas and mistakes of our own childhood. Then life happens. That is how the child really grows.

Mary Ann is currently writing a memoir about coming through life’s adversities with love, hope and spirit intact. “Cancer Revisited,” taken from that memoir, marks her first published essay. Mary Ann has worked as a book editor and tutor and currently is the owner of Synchrony LLC, a boutique agency specializing in web development and online marketing.


Young Love is Real Love

Young Love is Real Love

Couple Rear View Love Holding Hands Drawing Simple Line Vector Illustration

By Jennifer Berney

My seven-year-old son might be in love. I can’t tell you for sure because I’m determined not to ask him, and even if I did, I’m not sure that he could answer. But I can tell you what I’ve seen.

Yesterday afternoon, when I arrived in his classroom to volunteer, my son sat next to a girl—let’s call her Abby—a girl who I’ve been hearing about for months. My job was to bring pairs of children to a table in the hallway so that they could complete a special worksheet. I tapped Abby and my son, asked them if they were ready to join me, and when they stood up they were holding hands. The gesture seemed so natural, as if in standing up their hands had simply joined. They walked to the table this way in comfortable silence and as I trailed them I felt as though my own heart might burst. “Do you see this?” I wanted to say as we passed their teacher, but instead I bit my tongue.

I handed each of them a worksheet and a pencil. Their job was to write down the title of a favorite book and draw an illustration. Such a task would normally take my son five minutes, but on this day he could barely write three letters without looking up at Abby and launching into conversation. I’ve seen my son be distracted by friends before, but this was different. They weren’t making fart jokes and erupting in laughter. Instead, they spoke calmly and earnestly, their eyes fixed upon each other.

I can see why my son is fond of Abby. She has a quiet certainty about her. She has a serious face, but laughs easily. Yesterday, as she colored her illustration, I noticed she was wearing an R2D2 t-shirt. She makes declarative statements that I’m pretty sure send my son’s heart aflutter such as “My favorite book is Diary of a Minecraft Zombie.” When I witness their rapport, I find myself hoping that all of his future relationships might unfold as naturally as this one has.

Tim O’Brien in the short story “The Lives of the Dead” writes about a childhood friendship with a girl named Linda, who eventually dies of cancer.

Linda was nine then, as I was, but we were in love. It was real. When I write about her now, three decades later, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things.

I just loved her.

It takes all of my willpower—all of it—to not impose my adult yardstick on my son’s relationship, to not prompt him to officially declare his feelings. Yesterday, after school had ended, my son asked me to walk him to a nearby playground because he and Abby had schemed to meet each other there. As we put on our shoes, I nearly cried out “Do you have a crush on Abby?”

I knew there were so many good reasons not to do this. For one thing I am his mother, not his big sister. It’s not my job to taunt him. For another thing, I don’t want to send the message that any friendship with a girl must be a romance. But also, as Tim O’Brien suggests, by prompting my son to label his feelings I fear I will diminish them. I don’t want to do that. I want to leave room for this friendship to grow in every possible direction.

In spite of this clarity, I nearly asked him anyways, but by some divine grace my partner arrived home at that exact moment. The diversion allowed me to recover my willpower.

I think that so often we treat our children as adults-in-training; we see their relationships as practice relationships, their emotions as practice emotions. I think that sometimes we fail to notice that our children are already whole, that their feelings are as real as our own, that their desires for themselves are as important as what we desire for them. And, as Tim O’Brien suggests, adults are reluctant to acknowledge that children are capable of loving one another with great tenderness and depth.

I don’t mean to suggest that my son and Abby are eternal soul mates. I realize that this connection between them might easily shift or fade. But I do believe that my son might always remember Abby, that the spark between them at this moment might always be source of warmth.

And so, when it comes to my son’s new friendship, I try to keep my mouth shut. As he picks flowers for her in our backyard, I fight the impulse to gently tease him. Instead, when he holds the small bouquet beneath my nose, I breathe it in: rose, phlox, and lemon balm. “It’s a smell-bomb,” my son tells me. “It’s so good,” I say, remembering what it feels like when you first meet another person who feels so much like home.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, Brevity, 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.

Illustration: © gow27












Mother’s Day Kindness

Mother’s Day Kindness

Art Grocery bag

By Jill Christman

We are due to arrive at the baseball-themed birthday party for our six-year-old friend Spencer at 4:00 p.m., but it’s already 2:05 by the time my kids get their shoes on for an emergency trip to the grocery store to buy cupcake supplies. I know the precise time because nine-year-old Ella has chosen today to take notes on my every move and utterance in a pocket-sized spiral notebook like a reporter on her beat—or a really obvious Harriet the Spy. When I grab up cloth bags, my purse, and the keys, and lacking a free hand, use my knee to give 5-year-old Henry a nudge toward the door, Ella peers in from the front porch, cocks what looks to me like a judgmental eyebrow, and scratches a note.

“Is this for that economics unit at school or something?” I ask.

“No,” she explains, “I’m just making observations about you. About what happens when you go to the grocery store—because you don’t think you’re a good shopper. That’s my first observation.” Scratch, scratch.

Finally out of the house and in the driveway, I see a Paul’s Flowers van blocking us from a swift departure. This is a good thing and a bad thing. “Get in the car, kids,” I say. Of course, they don’t. They want to get a look at Paul. Where the hell is Paul?

“But Mom,” Ella says, pointing out the obvious, “are we still supposed to get into the car when there’s a Paul’s Flower truck behind us?” Then she flashes a sly smile, revealing she’s in on this secret. I should mention here that the children’s father is out of town, playing disc golf in Peoria, Illinois, despite the fact that in the thirty-six hours prior to his departure he’d been vomiting and feverish, muttering “I’m in hell, I’m in hell,” while I—having been required to come off my own cruise on the norovirus ship early in order to keep our children alive—well, kept our children alive. So the first time he was able to get up, he choked down a piece of dry toast and a spoonful of chicken soup, packed a bag of plastic discs and Gatorade, each in a rainbow of colors, and headed off down the road with his buddies.

At some point in his preparations—or maybe from the road—he’d rallied the good sense and wherewithal to dial up the flower shop. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

At long last—what was he doing in there? picking the flowers?—the man whom I assume to be Paul himself emerges from the van carrying an admittedly lovely Asian-inspired display with creamy yellow cala lilies emerging from a bed of orange roses. “It’s a little tippy,” the man says by way of introduction, and more than a little sheepishly, propping up a stick of bamboo with his finger. I’d need to confirm this with Ella, but by now, it must be 2:13. “Yeah, yeah,” Paul continues. “Sorry about that. You know, just as I was turning onto the road, I get a call from my buddy and I’m just turning on the road, just about to your driveway, and I pick it up and he says he’s looking for a new deep freeze, but I tell him I’m out on delivery and I can’t talk about deep freezes, but he found one he thought might be a good deal. . .”

I smile a baby’s breath sweet smile and attempt to pry the display from his thick fingers. “They’re beautiful. Thank you.” Taking a backwards step toward the door, still in a game of tug-o-flowers with Paul, I look at my roaming children and annunciate in clear eye-flash, head-flick, mother speak: Get In The Car.

“Yeah, yeah,” Paul says, taking another shot at the tipping bamboo with his finger. Refusing to relinquish his grip on his side of the arrangement and parting the roses, he directs my gaze to a layer of thick green foam sprouting flower stems like a bad hair transplant. “See there? See? If you just keep that foam damp they’ll stay fresh for you. Nice and fresh.” Close up like this, I notice the orange roses are a little brown around the edges of the petals.

“Great. I’ll do that,” I say. I give a sudden pull on my side and Paul’s big hands fall away. The flowers are mine. “Thank you so much. Have a great day. Kids, jump in the car now, please.” Even though I’ve already used the remote key to unlock the car, multiple times, I press the button again, for the punctuating effect of the muted beeping. The Car is Now Unlocked. Get Into the Car. Please. Now.

Paul takes a call on his cell, and then—praise heaven—his much-anticipated leave. I deposit the tipping, browning flowers inside the front door, snatch the mail from the box, and throw myself down into the station wagon. As I’m putting the key in the ignition with one hand, I flip through the mail with the other—Teavana tea catalog, two invitations to join the Poetry Society, one for me and one for my husband, something from the hospital, and another something from the IRS. I open the one from the IRS first. My attention is required, I read. If I fail to respond within 20 days, I read, bad things might happen. I needn’t resend a paper copy of my full return. In fact, doing so may result in a delay of the processing of my return. There is a form and some bolded telephone numbers.

From the back seat, Ella taps her pen on her notebook. “Mom. What are you doing?”

Henry pipes up. “Yeah. Daddy’s not here. What are you waiting for?”

“Daddy’s not here,” I repeat flatly. We’re not exactly being audited, I don’t think, but we’re not exactly not being audited either. Crap. I tear open the other envelope, from the hospital. It’s from the imaging center where I had my screening mammogram four days prior—crawling from my flu bed to watch in nauseating satisfaction as a whirring machine smashed my breasts between the glass plates while I wondered What kind of bra will hold them up after this devastation? There’s a problem with my left breast and I’m being called in for a return “diagnostic mammogram and/or ultrasound.” Again, the news is muddy. There’s a density. I should make my return appointment without delay.

“Mom!” Henry yells from the back seat. “I’m BORED.”

Bored? Oh, to be bored. I toss the mail on the pile of debris in the passenger’s seat, turn the key, and pull the stick into reverse. One word repeats itself in my brain on the one-mile stretch down to the grocery story: shit. In my head, I hear the mildly explicative stutter of a cold engine trying to start in winter. Shitshitshitshitshit. Shitshitshit.


When we get to the store Ella has a question. Are you going to need your iPhone in the store, Mom? Because I need a timer.”

“A timer?”

“Yeah, it’s one of my observations.”

My thumb presses the button on the front of my phone and it lights up, an image of my bright-faced children with a time-stamp on their heads. “It’s 2:27″—Fuck! 2:27! In what world am I going to get the shopping done, get home to frost the baseball-mitt-and-ball cupcakes, cut the strawberries and the grapes into the fruit salad, get the kids to finish the card, feed the dog. . . and get to the party by 4? “Not this world,” I say out loud.

“Not this what?” Ella asks.

“Never mind,” I say. “Come on. Unbuckle.”

Before we can even make it into the store, I am happy—truly happy—to see that our grocery store has beautiful, 3-gallon azalea pots in full bloom. Spencer’s mother’s cat has just died and I want to get her a memorial perennial. This is perfect. I hoist one with magenta blossoms, and some mud trickles down my shirt.

Ella is a thoughtful, slow-moving child on a good day, but on this day, recording my every move, she is yet slower. “What’s that?” she asks.

“An azalea bush.”

“Was that on your list?”

“Well, no, but it was on my mind to get something for Jackie to plant for Maya.”

“But it wasn’t on your list?”

“No. Not on my list. C’mon. Keep up.”

We’re in the store now and moving at a decent clip for a mud-smeared forty-something who may or may not have something wrong in the left breast she is now palpating surreptitiously under the inadequate cover of a pyramid of oranges and may or may not be in the initial stages of the audit she has always dreaded, not because she cheats—she doesn’t, let the record show—but because, shit, what a pain, and with two writers and two home offices, she always knew it was a risk. I realize I’m narrating this sad story about myself in third person as I scoop up my last item from produce—asparagus, on sale.

“Was that on the list?”

“No, but something for tomorrow night’s dinner was on the list, and now I think we’ll have asparagus and pizza.”

“Yum,” Ella says approvingly, jotting something down. “What time is it? How many minutes have we been in here so far?”

In the back corner of the store, behind produce, is the alcohol. I should mention here because Henry isn’t getting much air time that this is one of those days he wants to push the cart, veering off towards Bakery and randomly back toward the pita chips, so in the name of desperate efficiency, I’m doing that thing where I kind of hunch over the top of him like some kind of grocery cart beast to keep us on course. In this fashion, we careen into Wine.

“Got your notebook ready?” I say to Ella. “Mommy’s about to go off-list.” A lady in Cheese raises an eyebrow and gives me a strange look. Henry crashes the cart into an end cap of shiraz, but no damage is done—not this time, not yet—and I steer him away. “Stay right here,” I command. “Don’t move a muscle.” (For once in her life, Ella doesn’t add, “If I don’t move a muscle, I won’t be able to breathe, Mom.”) They wait while I pick out a nice pinot grigio. Ella makes a respectfully quiet note.


Powdered sugar (for the vegan frosting I haven’t made) and coffee (for the rest of my life) are both definitely on list, gaining me efficiency points with Ella, but losing me time in Coffee because a sweet elderly man wants to talk to me about coffee beans. He has questions about light, medium, and dark roasts and caffeine content that I simply cannot entertain even as I appreciate his curiosity about a very important food group. Wait. Is he hitting on me? Doesn’t matter. I feign oblivion (ahhh, sweet oblivion) and push on towards milk, the final item on the list, kicking myself for not just running in for the powdered sugar and fruit, and then coming back after the party for anything we didn’t need before the party, but we’re in it now.

“Time?” I say to Ella, now juggling both notebook and phone.

“2:53.” Scratch scratch.

Okay, okay. I’ve got this. We’ve got this. I’ve frosted approximately a million kid-party cupcakes in my mom tenure, and seriously, I can’t feel any kind of lump. I really can’t. One hand still fondling (could this have been what had attracted the questions from the old man in Coffee?) and the other guiding the Henry-powered cart monster, I steer toward the farthest corner of the store where the organic dairy products are kept segregated from the hormone- and preservative-pumped dairy products, because God forbid that milk could be with milk. Rounding the final corner with some difficulty, I stop in front of the bank of coolers where the organic milk has always been. For years. No milk. Every conceivable variety of juice and lemonade—strawberry, raspberry, peach—but not a single ounce of milk. My body drops into what feels more like a position for hunting prey on the savannah than one necessary for finding milk in a glass-fronted case: legs apart, knees bent and loose, both arms up, head and eyes scanning. Also, I’m mumbling to myself: “Milk, milk, milk. . . I know the milk is here. Where’s the bleeping milk?” I think my nose might even be twitching, as if I’m going to smell the milk and hunt it down where it hides. Honestly, at this point I’ve forgotten all about both children, but I feel certain Ella has extensive notes on this hysterical interlude. Mommy really isn’t a very good grocery shopper. She can’t even find the milk.


I straighten up, drop my hands to my sides, and try to look a little less crazy as I turn to face a grocery store employee in a red vest. He has a kind face and glasses.

“Ma’am? Can I help you find something?”

“Yes! I mean, yes. Yes, please. I mean, I’m a notoriously bad grocery shopper. Actually. . . “—I point a thumb out at Ella—”she’s taking notes on how bad I am, and it’s true. I know it’s true.” I feel a kind of genuine shame. I am a bad grocery shopper. There are just so many choices, and things are organized so strangely. My new grocer friend is really very patient and nice. He’s just waiting for me to finish. “Anyway, I’m looking for the organic milk. I could have sworn it was here in this case.”

He smiles sympathetically, and dare I say, in a validating way? “You’re right. It was here. We just moved it. Now the organic milk is over in Dairy with the milk.” Crazy. He gestures for us to follow and starts off around the corner, so he’s about ten feet ahead of us when the accident happens.


What happens next really isn’t Henry’s fault, and it’s not really mine either. Henry’s still pushing, providing necessary velocity, although maybe somewhat erratically, and I’m trying to guide the cart with one hand from the front, keeping an eye on the bobbing red vest. In the same moment that I notice our path is blocked by a 12-pack display of Corona, an island of blue, gold, and cream—La Cerveza Mas Fina—rising up between Frozen Foods and Dairy like a new land mass, an oasis beckoning those who want to slice a lime and imagine it’s time to hit the party boat, Henry kicks in with a burst of acceleration. I try to correct with a yank on the front of the cart, but I’m not fast enough. We take out the front corner of Beer Island, and it sinks into the sea with a tremendous clanking crash. Henry, Ella, me, the bespectacled Marsh employee in the red vest, all freeze.

We stand frozen in Frozen and we watch the island fall.

The Corona is contained in cardboard cases, so we don’t know how bad it is until the movement stops and we watch the urine colored beer seeping from the gaps in the corners, so much like sea foam, really, rolling across the smooth tiles.

I am the first to speak. “Oh no. I’m so sorry. Oh.” I am fixated by the spreading foam. How many bottles are broken? There’s no way to know. “Can I pay for these?”

The Marsh employee speaks next. His voice is so. . kind. “No, no, no. It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.” He is already pushing the foaming crates of the main aisle with his feet.

Henry is third. He grabs the seat of his pants and yells, “Poopy! Poop! I have to POOP!”

Ella says nothing and makes no notation. She looks pale and mortified. She’s at just the wrong age for the scene we are making.

In this moment, the nicest Marsh employee who has ever walked the aisles and I share a truly human look. He is not judging me. He wants to help me.

“Umm,” I begin. “Is there a restroom in here?”

He looks troubled and points. “It’s on the other side of the store. The opposite corner.” Of course it is.

“Thank you,” I say again. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he says gently. “It’s really okay.”

We start to run for it, Henry still holding a fistful of fabric right at the center of his butt. I am the only one pushing. The man straightens from the oozing pile of Coronas and shouts after us. “Happy Mother’s Day!”


Henry makes it. All the way from the other side of the store. He makes it! In the car, Ella asks for the time. “Three eighteen,” I say, “but it’s okay. We’re fine. We’ll be fine.” And then I start to laugh. I can’t stop laughing. The IRS, the scary mammogram, the foaming Corona—it’s all hilarious to me. That sweet, sweet man. Happy Mother’s Day to me. That’s right.

Ella and Henry both look worried, as if they always knew this day would come. Daddy’s out of town and Mom has cracked. “Here’s the thing, kids,” I say, starting the car, pulling myself together, and smiling back at their stunned faces in the rearview mirror. “I could be crying right now. This could be a totally different moment. If that man in the store had been mean to me when we crashed into that beer, or mad, or even just annoyed, that might have been it. I could be crying right now. But that’s not what he did. He helped us, and then he said Happy Mother’s Day. This whole moment could be totally different, but that man was so nice, right? You know what I mean?”

I take a breath. We’re going to a birthday party with our best friends! All the stress has left my body—the kindness, the sprint to the bathroom, the laughing fit. I hear how teachable-moment my mini car lecture sounds, but I don’t care. This is important.

Kindness changes everything. Kindness is a choice.


The next morning is actually Mother’s Day and as a treat to myself, I take to my bed with a cup of coffee and my laptop to write down some notes about kindness. Naturally, both kids are drawn in by the relative quiet. Nature abhors a vacuum. Henry comes armed with a punch balloon and starts thwacking it in the general direction of the sleeping dog. Ella crawls right up beside me to peek at the screen. She kisses my hair and wishes me a happy Mother’s Day. I am writing the scene in Produce and she reminds me about the asparagus.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if you put in there that while you’re writing this your five-year-old is using a punch balloon right by your head and your daughter is reading over your shoulder offering her critique?” I consider taking a moment to explain the term “meta,” but I want to get down the off-list asparagus. I keep typing. Ella’s not done. “Do you want me to type up my notes to include with your story? Wouldn’t that be cool? I could follow you around with a notebook and then you could publish your stories along with my notes!”

I go ahead and explain meta.

Ella presses her cheek against my shoulder and sighs. “I guess you’d better like writing if you’re going to do it for an hour every day.”

“I love it.” Thwack, thwack, thwack. What a good dog.

“Do you love it better when I’m not talking and there’s no punch ball?”

“A little.” We both smile. She gets me.


So were we late to the party? Yup. But not too late, nobody cared. I’d taken extra time to make cool red frosting stitching on the cupcake baseball. And my breast? First, never Google the term “nipple shadow.” It won’t make you feel better. But my breast is fine. The density was nothing to worry about, not even really a density.

The audit? Well. It turns out the government was under the impression they owed me $30,000 because of the large amount of money they believed I’d paid in advance taxes. Alas, I had paid no advance taxes. That must have been a different Jill Christman living a different life in an entirely different financial relationship with the federal government. I thought about all the things we could do with a $30,000 windfall—a trip to Italy, a new patio, a serious cash injection into the kids’ college funds. Then I wrote the IRS a note on their form and told them the truth. I dialed the bolded number and told the live-human-being IRS employee who picked up that line the truth also. I tried to make him see the humor in the situation, maybe make him laugh or smile a smile I couldn’t see, but he seemed not to be in the mood. That was okay. The IRS kept the $30,000 or located the right Jill Christman to whom the money belonged. I’m rooting for the latter.

Then, more than a year later, I was shopping in Marsh—back in Frozen, actually, looking for a vegan pizza for Ella, in no particular hurry—and I saw the man in the red vest, straightening up from a freezer case with his glasses askew, the lenses fogged.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he said back, and then quickly, “can I help you with something?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you something.” Ella wasn’t there to record my shopping deficiencies, but this moment was off-list. The barrier I was breaching, so small and necessary, felt off-kilter, out of whack, not a line to cross in the quotidian grocery store equation of human relations. Who brings up old business with strangers? Suddenly, I felt shy and foolish, an overly sentimental character in an essay of my own making, but I’d already stepped over. I pushed on: “You probably don’t remember, but over a year ago, I was in here with my kids—it was Mother’s Day weekend, actually—and we knocked over a stack of beer, some of them broke, it was a huge mess, and you were so nice. You were just really nice. You said Happy Mother’s Day. We still talk about how nice you were and I’ve always wanted to see you and say thank you. So thank you.”

He pushed his glasses up his nose. The lenses were clear now and I could see his eyes. Blue. Clear blue behind his clear lenses. Giving no indication of whether he remembered me or any details of our shared milk-beer-poop debacle, he smiled. “Oh,” he said. “Oh. Yeah. You’re welcome. I like doing nice things for people.”

I don’t know how else to describe his face—so nondescript in resting position, the kid in the corner of Algebra class who wasn’t a jock, but wasn’t a nerd or a burn-out either, the kid everyone found it easy to overlook, but grown up now, late thirties and still skinny—but in this moment, everything about his face was clear, open and shining.


Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks 2014), and essays in magazines and journals such as Brevity, Fourth Genre, Literary Mama, Oprah Magazine, & River Teeth. 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.


Taking My Children To A Rally In A Storm

Taking My Children To A Rally In A Storm

BJ Blog Photo

By B.J. Hollars

One Saturday in the midst of primary season, I, like any informed member of the electorate, performed my civic duty of buckling my children—Henry (4), Eleanor (22 months)—into the double stroller and wheeling us toward the Bernie Sanders rally. I did so in a near-blizzard.

Let the record show that this is neither an endorsement of Bernie nor blizzards, and in fact, after a lot of soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am anti-blizzard, especially when they strike in April when I’m expecting flowers.

Instead, that morning we were greeted with snowfall, a momentary whiteout making it difficult to determine just how far that Bernie line stretched. When conditions cleared it became obvious: it stretched forever.

Ahead of me, the line overflowed with the most rare of species—college students awake at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday. I tried to blend in as best I could, but something (maybe the double stroller?) pegged me as an outsider. In a good faith effort at parenting, I attempted to keep the kids warm by creating a cocoon, draping a blanket atop the stroller and tucking it around their legs. Every few minutes I’d peek inside to find Henry and Eleanor belting out their off-key rendition of the Daniel Tiger theme song in the hypnotic glow of the Kindle. Which is to say: they were having the time of their lives.

Meanwhile, the conditions outside that cocoon were less than ideal, and after a lot of highly visible teeth chattering and salvos for sympathy (“It’s okay children, just keep moving your fingers!”), a kind-hearted field worker took pity on us, offering hand warmers and a promise to get the kids out of the cold as fast as he could. He was good on his word, and a security pat down later we were in, taking our seats on the front row of the arena bleachers.

“OK,” I said, wiping the snowflakes from my watch as reality set in, “just another three hours till Bernie.”

There are only so many ways to kill time at a political rally and we tried all of them: peeking into the press room, chatting with the band, waving to the news anchors until they just stopped waving back. We talked to the people behind us, in front of us, all around us, and when that game wore thin, we even tried talking to each another.

At around 10:00a.m.—two hours till show time—the kids began to grow restless.

“Dad,” Henry whined, “I’m hungry.”

I reached into my pocket to unearth a half-eaten candy cane.

“Is it still good?” he asked skeptically.

“I don’t see an expiration date, do you?”

That candy bought us a good hour, at which point the sugar crash set in. I attempted to neutralize the situation by returning their attention to the Kindle, which they watched contentedly, while I watched the battery deplete at an alarming rate.

Stay cool, I thought, you got this.

And even if I didn’t, I figured that if my children—inspired by Bernie—attempted their own revolution, the secret service would have no choice but to come to my rescue.

Yes, things were looking up, right up until that battery died.

“Dad…” Henry said, “I’m still hungry.”

By this point Eleanor had taken the liberty of eating the granola bar belonging to the young woman to our left, and when that didn’t suffice, a woman six rows up read the situation perfectly and came bearing a bag of crackers.

In my mind’s eye, that woman wore a halo round her head, floating down from those bleachers to a crescendo of harps and sopranos. It was just what we needed just when we needed it, and by the time my ravenous children had worked through those crackers, our city’s favorite son, a Grammy-winning rock star, took to the mic to introduce the presidential candidate.

I’ll give Bernie this: he was punctual. And he knew how to get college-aged folks to cheer. What he didn’t know was how to persuade my young children to cheer at appropriate times. Instead, Henry and Eleanor provided a call-and-response to Bernie, hollering like a couple of tent revival parishioners taken by the spirit.

This, of course, was hilarious to precisely them and nobody else. By this point even the most polite progressives had begun to tire of us, and though they continued to brandish their tight, forgiving smiles, I knew it was time to take our leave. We retreated to the edge of the stage where I could stand, shush, and rock as appropriate—anything to keep them quiet.

Henry demanded my phone so I handed it over (“Right away, sir!”), and for the next minute, watched miserably as my 21st century child snapped selfies of himself. As the photos momentarily froze on the screen, I noticed a blurry rock star directly in the background.

Great, I thought, not only is my kids’ behavior ruining a rally, but we’re probably pissing off the rock star as well.

All of this might have been avoided, of course, had I better prepared for our adventure. Yet in my haste to give my children a memorable experience, I’d forgotten the basics: food, water, and backup Kindles.

Conscientious parents often exaggerate how bothersome their kids are in their own minds. Maybe there’s a chance everyone in that arena actually appreciated the adorable distraction my kids provided. Maybe…

But in the event we were as bad as I think (and I think we were pretty bad), allow me to offer a public thank you.

Thank to you the field worker who kept us from freezing, and to the woman who gave us her granola bar. Thanks to the angel with the crackers, the rock star with the patience, and the political candidate whose hearing kept him from hearing us. As a voter, I’m still undecided. But as a father, those people in that rally won my vote.

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit:

photo credit: Bill Hoepner



Why I Let My Kids See Me Naked

Why I Let My Kids See Me Naked

onsenBy Melissa Uchiyama

The majority of my friends’ children have never seen their parents naked. It is not part of the family culture. Kids may scamper diaper-less. Mommy may giggle at their talk of penises or “willies.” But most moms and dads will never be naked with them.

Once babies are through with nursing, they will probably never see their mother’s breasts again. If it happens, it may be later, accidentally, with a sense of shame or even derision. Her body is a mystery and she has zero interest in sharing it. This might sound healthy to some. But I don’t think it is.

I moved to Japan from America seven years ago, before I had kids. I learned about onsens, the public mineral baths. Here Japanese children grow up scrubbing their mother’s backs, walking from bath to bath, or showers to bath, with all manners of women. Girls see teenagers, mothers, grandmothers, all bodies with their different needs and ages, all bodies washed and soaked. There isn’t shame. It is healthy, a place where life and rich conversation occur, especially in the period before most Japanese homes had their own showers or baths.

It was my own visiting mother who convinced me to go to these baths for the first time. It took many jokes about needing a glass or two of wine, and five minutes to shake off my piled nerves, but soon I saw value in being able to relax, truly, in my own skin, and next to hers.

The truth is, growing up, I did not always respect my mother’s openness with her body, the way she kept the door open when she changed or went to the bathroom. I certainly did not approve when I noticed that she was bra-less under a T-shirt. Maybe the hateful derision crept in when I was a teenager, suddenly and keenly aware of my burgeoning sexuality. I didn’t see her openness within the context of community, or say, in the function of nursing a baby, or soaking in the waters of a centuries-old bath house. It is really only since being in Asia, and certainly since becoming a mother myself, that I have cleaned house in terms of my old beliefs about the body.

Living in Tokyo, my husband and I take our kids to the public baths sometimes but, more importantly, we have adopted its lifestyle at home. My daughter is five and a half and my son is almost three years old. It began when my girl was just an infant—after a baby’s first month, doctors and midwives encourage parents to bring her into their own bath. And this is what we did. We bathed with her, the special Japanese way, supporting her small neck, while gently folding her ears back to not let in any water. The other hand used a feathery cotton gauze to clean eyes, scalp, and all of those fatty baby folds in her impossibly soft skin. Both of my children learned to be comfortable in deep bathtubs very early on, also learning buoyancy and the weightlessness of trust. We never really used our baby tub.

There are many benefits to family bathing. Besides the efficiency, the demand for “quick changes” in a frenetic household, I don’t dread future talks about my daughter’s changing body. Through all the seasons of our bathing, questions and conversations come up, organically. She knows bodies change. She sees how my own body molds and adapts to pregnancy and postpartum stages. She knows breasts and nursing. She knows that girls and boys will grow hair. I won’t need four glasses of Merlot, a cartoon picture or diagram to express, through my embarrassment, what happens when humans age. I won’t flounder. At least, not as much.

Some of my best parenting moments happens in the bath. With the addition of our son, my kids better understand the differences between girls and boys. They are completely comfortable with biology, botany, the separateness of male and female. In this setting, with all of us getting squeaky clean together, we talk about big things, like personal space, and my daughter uses her voice if ever needed, to say: “No. This is my private part.” Both of my kids are growing up to understand boundaries and to respect them.

Children have their whole lives to access the multitude of widespread sexual images and beliefs out in the world. But this childhood with mommy and daddy, in a healthy, nurturing context, is the foundation I want for my family, a kind of bedrock of beauty and appreciation of the human body. Let’s not bring a shameful, sexualized belief into the home which doesn’t belong. Let’s not usher our little kids out of childhood before they are ready or developed for the things of young adulthood.

And no, we’ll not keep it up for longer than appropriate. Later the kids will separate, from us and from each other, as is natural. For now, anyway, there is freedom and joy. There is laughter. There are correct names for body parts. I don’t have to stay knotted up in a robe. I don’t have to wear three layers and a bra. I am free to show them my postpartum tummy rolls and say, “Yes” I’ll work on that later, but right now, I’m happy to just be. “They’ll see the transformations as all of our bodies grow.

Melissa Uchiyama is an educator, writer, and mother. She has contributed to Literary Mama, Mamalode, Cargo Literary Magazine, Kveller, and other sites, but this is her first piece in Brain, Child. Connect with Melissa as she blogs about the motherly and literary life on

Finding the Center

Finding the Center


By Dawn Erickson

“Let’s go to the swamp,” my son says. It’s not really in today’s plans but we go. We walk the railroad grade from our house to where it crosses a small seasonal creek. Here we slip off the grade and follow the creek to the swamp and eventually the park.

The swamp itself is some twenty acres of wetlands. Each time we visit we find some new thicket or channeled water to explore.  My son likes to leap from one grassy hummock to another, seeing who can make the most daring-crazy jump, seeing how far we can get into the heart of the swamp. We find that crossing atop beaver dams are good, and though we see blue herons, and kingfishers, eagles and salmon and big green tree frogs, we never see beavers.

On this day I tell my son not to expect much. It’s only just stopped raining and when I last walked by the swamp was more a river, with a mighty current. So I’m surprised we can go as deeply into the swamp as we do. My son leaps and jumps. Our dog leaps and jumps. We shimmy across narrow logs over deep clear water, or pools of muddy water, or water covered in a thick green slime. We watch the dog leap into water that leaves a luminous green sheen across her back, even after she shakes. It’s fun, my son says, to watch the dog run around. It is here while we are bumping along and laughing at the dog, that my son tells me about the party.

“There is a party today,” he says, as if talking up to some tree or a blank piece of sky.

“Oh?”  I say.

“I wasn’t invited,” he says. It’s not like he doesn’t get invited to parties. He is mostly well liked. Usually I’m surprised at how easily things roll off him, how he doesn’t get upset about slights or meanness. He is much more forgiving and patient than I am—more willing to think the best of people.

“Whose birthday is it?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry you didn’t get invited.” He shrugs his shoulder and says from across a small channel of water,  “It’s probably like his mom said ,he could only invite a few kids or something.”

“Yeah” I say. “It’s probably like that. It’s hard you know, you can’t invite everyone.” When I look there are tears in his eyes that I pretend not to see. “It must hurt though. It would make me sad.”

I want to hug him but I know he’ll pull away. So we talk more, from across the channel, about his birthday party and did he invite this boy. He did not. I remind him that it’s hard to know who to invite and we can only hope that people understand that you can’t always invite everyone.

It seems a small thing, a kid not invited to a birthday party. But I see the flash of pain pass across my son’s face. I know that ache. I know the pain of not belonging. It is real and universal. Whoever we are, whatever our age, exclusion hurts.

The swamp is actually a series of beaver dams but it is rare to actually see or even hear a beaver. And the dams themselves are grown over with grasses. Many times we think the beavers have moved on, but then we’ll see a fresh fallen tree or a stump carved clean.We find sticks gnawed and chiseled so smooth we take them home and place on our mantel above the fireplace. When I look down today I realize we’re walking on one of the old beaver dams. A long solid one covered over in a thick grass, except in places where the recent high water has eaten away the grasses and exposed a mishmash of sticks and mud waddle.

Many Native American cultures call beavers, or the habitat they create, the “sacred center of the earth.” Their dam building creates a place where life can flourish in all its extravagant diversity, the pools they create are a haven difficult for predators to reach and do harm. But more than that, wetlands are a place of repair and restoration. It is the beavers that set things right again, beavers that create or mend the center, create a place for the living to become strong.

I think of how the beavers protect themselves. How I come to this place because it offers me protection, it is home. The blackbirds and herons and beavers, are all reminiscence of my childhood home in the Midwest, the places near our house I would ride a bike to and hang out for an afternoon reading or sorting things out in my head, especially the mean girl middle school years, the years that loom straight ahead for my son. Those mean girl years stung, and still do. I’m still loath to admit the bullying and ostracizing that took place years ago. I feel a shame creep in, as if I deserved whatever was dished out, that what they said was true, all of it. It’s taken me twenty years of adulthood to recognize cruelty for what it is, to know it and name it, to take action against it.

That’s what I’m thinking when I realize the dog is running back and forth across the top of the dam, tearing into a big hump of mud. “It’s a beaver lodge!” my son yells. The dog jumps in the water, her muddied body disappearing underneath the mud and sticks.

“Look, look, look!” my son cries. He grabs me and nearly pulls me into the water as we teeter on the little narrow strip of beaver dam we stand on. I don’t look, instead I try to push my way past him to stop the dog, to put a leash on her and pull her away from the lodge, if it is one.

“IT’S A BEAVER!” he says, “LOOK!” And I look because he won’t let me past. My son has never seen a beaver before.

A stick is moving rather unnaturally. “There, see that stick?” my son says. “The beaver is doing that.” Then I see the beaver under the water’s surface. He glides silent and graceful, swims all the way across the pond before curling into some cubby hole we can’t see. We just see the brown and what we are sure is a wide flat tail.

My son walks toward the dog, calling her name now. It takes the two of us to pull her away from the water and get the leash on. Getting back across the dam isn’t easy. But we do and are relieved to see there is not much damage done and we start back home.

When we come up from the swamp and onto the railroad grade boys are running about off in the distance. It turns out the birthday party is at the neighbors. “Oh,” I say to my son. “Is this the birthday party, here at the neighbor’s house?  There are shouts and laughter and moms calling from up on the hill. Now I understand they must have all been talking about the party at school and on the bus ride home. The boys stand with their Nerf guns, shout back and forth, and run in and out of the trees. My son first tries to slow his pace and head back into the swamp, but when they leave he decides to speed up and try to say hello. But the boys go back into the trees and we guess up the hill.

“They probably went up for cake,” my son says. The kids are mostly younger kids and mostly all on the same basketball team but even though I know there’s no real reason he should have been invited, I know we both feel a little like outsiders.

And I know these boys aren’t bad kids; their parents aren’t unkind. They’re not bullies or and this is not all my fault or anyone’s fault, because there is no fault to be had here. It’s just another birthday and there will be other parties. There will be friends that come and go, and friends that might be there forever. There will be times my son is included and times he’s not, and there will be times he’s inclusive and times he’s not. But I fear these middle school years. I fear what my son might suffer. I fear the ways he’ll be influenced by his peers, that he’ll stop talking with me, that he’ll be bullied or bully. I want him to be strong yet compassionate. To be able to stand up to bullies, to say no when needed.

I do admire the beavers. I admire the way they protect themselves, the way they create so much for those around them while keeping themselves safe. And I like that I seek out marshes and wetlands where beavers live. I like that my son wanted to go here today, that it was here that he was able to say what was on his mind, that we could talk.

Maybe there is a reason we like it here. Maybe there is a lesson to learn. Maybe if we cross enough dams, or wander deep enough we might stumble upon an insight or two, get some ideas about creating our own place to flourish.

Author’s note: I sometimes think my husband and I spend too much time dragging our son from trail to trail, exploring and investigating cool spots or pretty places. But then these conversations happen and I realize this is where we all feel most comfortable and maybe that’s a good thing.

Dawn Erickson lives in a small town in the North Cascades Mountains of Washington State. She once made a living fixing trails for the US Forest Service before deciding to write about life with her husband and son. She has written for Literary Mama and Wanderlust and Lipstick. You can read more of her writing at







We Both Got Sick, But I Didn’t Die

We Both Got Sick, But I Didn’t Die

Sick-child-in-bed-006By Jennifer Moses

You can’t pee lying down on your back, which is something I’d never thought about before until, recently, I found myself marooned atop a bed pan unable to produce a single drop despite my bloated and distended bladder. I’d just had a hip replacement, and had someone come along and offered me a quick, painless way out of this life, I’m not sure I would have refused. I was on the young side for a hip replacement—and otherwise healthy and fit, and yet couldn’t fathom how I could survive the pain.

During those three post-surgical days in the hospital, I gobbled Vicodin, Percocet, Dilaudid, Tylenol. I peed and pooped in pans and pots, sometimes with only my elderly, Italian-speaking roommate in the audience, and other times—who knew? There was a whole world of orderlies and nursing assistants and cafeteria workers out there, in the hallway, just beyond the open door.

I was born pigeon-toed, and spent my first year or so in a metal brace designed to give me a more dignified gate. What followed were the usual childhood illnesses—flu, mumps, chicken pox, and many episodes of what my mother called “the whoops,” as in: whoops, gotta puke. And it was during this time that I realized—because it was glaringly obvious—that illness had its upside. In my case, it meant not only avoiding the terrors of school, but also being fussed over by my mother on the one hand, and our housekeeper, Mae Carter, on the other. I’d lie in bed while first one and then the other brought me Jello and soup, read out-loud to me, and best yet, let me listen to story-records on the family record player that they’d schlepp to my room. Danny Kaye. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Bill Cosby doing Fat Albert. Later the record-player was upgraded to the portable TV, and I’d idle my mornings away with an endless lineup of sit-com reruns.  And it would be like that, all day long, until, sometime in the late afternoon, paradise was shattered by the return, first, of my three siblings, and a few hours afterwards, by Dad.

Who said: “You’re looking better already! You’ll definitely be able to go back to school tomorrow!”

“But I’m sick. I have a temperature.”

Ignoring me, he’d continue: “You know what Brave Mister Buckingham would say, don’t you?” Of course I knew what Brave Mister Buckingham would say. I, along with my siblings, had been raised on Brave Mister Buckingham, a truly monstrous fable of said Mr. Buckingham who, as he goes about his day, suffers one physical calamity after another, until, by the end of the book of which he is the titular character, he appears to have lost most of his limbs. Nonetheless, after each attack on his person, he looks up and says: “THAT didn’t hurt!”

“THAT didn’t hurt!” my father would say. “You’re fine.”

And maybe I was, but that was hardly the point, now was it? Because the point, and something I felt that my father could never understand, was that I didn’t really belong out there in that rough-and-tumble world where Brave Mister Buckingham gets conked on the head by a falling safe and nevertheless bounces back up with a shit-eating, can-do grin. I did not belong in the world I was in; where swift, blonde athletic children routinely terrorized and humiliated slower, darker, non-athletic ones; where the prizes went to those who mastered their multiplication tables and fathers routinely disappeared to work not to be seen again until bath-time, or perhaps even later.

I liked it at home, in the sun, with my fairy-stories, my stuffed animals, and my mother.

There were any number of differences between the way my mother and the way my father saw and reckoned with the world, but the one that, I think, had the biggest impact on me and my siblings was that Mom believed that we could and would get sick, and that doctors could be useful in resolving matters of illness; whereas Dad didn’t. He’d lie for hours, flat on his back in the garage with spasm, rather than admit that perhaps he needed help or that something was wrong. And that’s because those with backbone, those with grit, didn’t succumb to something as trivial as illness or injury.

I have a fair number of friends who tell stories about going to school with 101 degree fevers, or taking out the garbage with a broken wrist, but on the whole these stories come from people who grew up in a home with either two working parents, or a single mom. A sick kid meant a missed paycheck. Then there are those whose parents just didn’t want to deal with the whining and sweat-soaked sheets. But it was a little different in our family, because in our version being sick didn’t mean missing a paycheck and didn’t pose an inconvenience. It meant a day home with our mother, who was fully up to the job of tending to a sick child. Because if ever there had been a woman who was born to take care of her children, it was mine.

Despite my inchoate longing to get something serious enough to merit sympathy, or even better, admiration—how I envied those lucky kids who came home from skiing vacations with a broken leg!—I never managed any real illness at all. Until, in the sixth grade, I did. I got an ulcer, and once it was identified as such, the rewards began to flow: unlike all the other kids, I got to choose my lunch from the teachers, lunch table, where they had such sophisticated offerings as cottage cheese and endless amounts of canned fruit cocktail; kids who’d formerly tormented me for my lack of athletic derring-do tiptoed around me, as if in silent communion; and at home, not only did my mother go around telling me how stupid she’d been not to have initially taken my complaints seriously (until she did, and took me to the doctor) but even Dad, I thought, felt contrite. At least he stopped talking about Brave Mister Buckingham.

Then, nothing. For years and years, I enjoyed blissfully good health. True, my first pregnancy was a drag, with morning sickness and full-bodied queasiness, bloating, and bouts of panicked terror as I contemplated the ridiculous fact that I, who was wholly unready for it, was soon to be someone’s mother. But the kid popped out all perfect and within a few months I was perfect too. So it wasn’t really until my second pregnancy, with my twins, that I got to be sick again, and that was because their idea of growing into healthy fetuses involved sending me into spasms of nausea and vomiting so violent that, towards the end of my first trimester, I landed in the hospital, badly dehydrated. Still, by the time I was allowed to return home, Mom had once again come to the rescue, providing me not only with help in the form of a woman named Cheryl whom she’d hired to look after me and three-year-old Sam during the long days when my husband, like my father, disappeared into Downtown Washington Lawyer World (when I say “hired” I mean “hired and paid for,”) but also with the treats of my childhood sickbed: chicken and dumplings; chocolate pudding; decorating magazines; and most of all, herself—Mom, in all her wonderful, glorious Momness. She simply knew how to nurture, how to say the exact right thing or keep silent or just look at me in the way that made me know that everything was okay. Night, night. Sleep tight.

Whereas several months later when I was eight months pregnant, Dad called one day to tell me that he and Mom were about to go to Maine for a two week vacation, and explain that, while they were gone, he expected me to water his flower gardens, in Virginia, about 7 miles away.

“But Dad,” I said. “I’m on bed rest.”

“Hmmph!” he said. “Stuff and nonsense!”

Naturally, the twins, born full-term and healthy, didn’t give rat’s ass that the blobs of warm softness that provided their mouths with that sweet juicy utter perfection had spent the past nine months alternatively praying for a miscarriage—please dear God anything to end this puking—and begging God to ignore that last one—and we all just kept keeping on with the usual minor scrapes and cuts, fevers and colds, until, nine years later, when the now-five-of-us were living in Glasgow, Scotland, during my husband’s sabbatical year (he was by then a law professor) I was diagnosed with breast cancer. By then, though, Mom had cancer also, only her cancer, which had been diagnosed years earlier, was a killer. Dad, in Washington, sent emails telling me not to let Mom know that I was sick, explaining (rightly so) that this was information that, if shared, wouldn’t be good for either of us, and additional emails telling me that, like many women of his acquaintance, I too would “bounce right back,” I had surgery, then six months of chemo, then a month of radiation, and it was behind me. By the time my mother died, in February of 2004, my biggest health issue was that I couldn’t stop crying.

And also, my hip hurt, and as the years passed, it began to hurt so much that walking became problematic.   Was it genetic? The result of my own bout with chemo? My decades of depression? Who knew?

My husband contends that I like to be sick because some small part of me still thinks that it’s only through sickness that I can get the attention I still crave, that sense of being a beloved child safe at home and under the watchful eyes of its doting parents. Or, in my case, parent—because my father was mainly at the office, and nursing wasn’t exactly his specialty.  Though I like to think that I’ve outgrown the little girl who’d pour Baby Powder on her face in the hopes that she’d look pale enough to miss a day of school, my husband isn’t entirely wrong, so much so that I was actually looking forward to my hip replacement, to what I was imagining as a vacation from trivia—there I’d be, lying in my hospital bed, blissed out on addictive pain killers, while my loved ones fussed around me, and sent me flowers. Which wasn’t exactly how it went down at the hospital, in part because my blood pressure kept bottoming out so I didn’t get to have enough of the really good drugs, and in part because, no matter what, the first few days after hip replacement surgery are nasty. My 84-year-old father, who’d sworn he’d be in the hospital to greet me when I swam up out of anesthesia, was felled by a stomach bug, though, not that he admitted it, and had to make do with phone calls that I was too weak to take and flowers. But once I was home, he and I started bonding over my recovery.

Me: “Guess what I did yesterday, Dad?”

“What’d you do?”

“I walked to the bathroom!”

“That’s my girl.”

“And this morning I walked without my walker.”

“You’re a champ.”

Or: “That bitch nurse kept me on a bedpan for forty minutes. I thought I was going to die.”

“Sounds dreadful.”

“But now I’m back and running Dad—the home health rigged up this old-person’s toilet set, so I can go any time I feel the need.”

“Now you’re talking! You show them!”

And so here we were, at 54 and 84, hurdling and hurtling back through the decades, spinning and tumbling all the way back, until we arrive, again, to the early 1960s, where the grass is always green, and the sun is always shining, and my beautiful young dark-haired mother confers with Mae in the kitchen over what to prepare for dinner, while at my end of the house I’m learning to walk and to use the toilet, only this time, instead of being downtown at the office with all the other dads, my father is at home, with me, in the Enchanted Pee Pee Forest, the same place where my siblings and our dog George and our several bunny rabbits and my own special family of stuffed bunnies live, in an endless round of snack time and clover-smelling time and nap-time and story-time.

“You can climb the stairs by yourself!” Dad says on the phone. “Wow! That’s marvelous!”

And what neither of us says is that, though Mom took every form of chemo available to her, that she spent years suffering from nausea, pain, various infections, loss of hope, bloating, emaciation, bruising, punctured veins, burning sensations, and sheer, raw misery, it did hurt, and she was never all right again, until, by dying, she slipped through her pain, and, leaving us, left us forever.

Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of Tales from My Closet, Visiting Hours, Bagels and Grits, and Food and Whine.  She’s also a painter.  She and her husband live with their two dogs and cook a lot for their grown children, who like to come by to do their laundry and get fed, in Montclair, NJ.




Motherwit: Story Time

Motherwit: Story Time

Nov 15 Moterwit Art

By Elizabeth Johnson

Scene: Large room with toys in the lower level of a library. Moms, nannies, and one dad sit on square cushions arranged in a circle on the floor; approximately 25 two-year-olds play, talk, stare, point, jump, run, trip, cry, and generally display the full spectrum of toddler behavior.

Kate: C’mon, Gwen, we’re blocking the stairs. Don’t you want to go in?

Gwen: No.

Kate: But you told me earlier this morning that you wanted to come to story time, remember?

Gwen: Remember?

Kate: So let’s go in and say hi to our friends.

(Gwen sits down on stairs).

Kate: We’re here for you, sweetie, not for me. (muttering to herself as she surveys the room) Definitely not here for me. Definitely not my idea of fun. More like my idea of hell.

Gwen: Mama, what’s your idea of hell?

Kate: What? Stop listening so closely! Would you rather go home now?

Gwen: Would you rather go in now?

(Kate and Gwen descend the remaining steps into the room. A mom stacking blocks with her son waves to them).

Kate: Gwen, say hi to Julie and Zack!

Julie: Zack, say hi to Kate and Gwen!

(Zack and Gwen look sideways at one another. Zack gets into a downward-facing dog pose. Gwen sticks her finger up her nose).

Julie: It’s so good for them to have this chance to socialize.

Kate: Absolutely. (winces as Gwen picks up a bracelet of bells from the floor and jingles it in her face) And think how great it will be when they’re in preschool and they have even more opportunities to socialize. We might not even have to do this kind of thing anymore!

Julie: Um, I don’t know what you mean?

Kate: Ha ha ha, nothing!

Julie: Zack and I love story time.

Kate: Absolutely. Love it.

Julie: This time when they’re young just goes by so fast.

Kate: So fast. I know.

Julie: Have you guys started trying for another one yet?

Kate: I don’t know, sometimes I think one is all I can handle.

(Julie stares at her).

Kate: Ha ha ha!

Julie: Ha ha ha!

Gwen: (pointing) Mama, what’s he doing?

(Julie and Kate turn and see that Zack has approached a group of boys who are stacking cushions into a tower. Zack picks up a cushion and chucks it, hitting one boy in the face. The boy starts to cry. Julie jumps up, apologizes to the boy’s nanny, and drags Zack away).

Julie: We don’t throw things when we can hit other people!

Gwen: He hit that boy.

Julie: It was an accident.

Gwen: It was not an accident.

Kate: (hastily) She’s in this phase where she likes to say the opposite of whatever you say.

Julie: Oh. How cute.

Gwen: How not cute.

(Librarian appears and counts the number of children. There are now 40. She looks at the ceiling and appears to say a quick prayer).

Librarian: It’s really wonderful that so many of you could join us today.

(No one hears her).

Librarian: (louder) This program is designed for fewer children so we’ll all have to be on our best behavior!

(A little girl runs into the wall and begins screaming).

Librarian: (shouting and waving her arms) Over here! Everyone come sit in a circle!

(The adults corral the children and get most of them sitting within a few minutes. The librarian begins reading a book. It’s difficult to hear her over the ongoing noise. Those kids not physically restrained by an adult soon begin wandering around the room. One girl starts singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider).

Librarian: (stops reading) Is this working? They seem a little restless.

Gwen: It’s not working.

Librarian: (closing book) How about we dance instead?

(Librarian turns on a CD. Music plays and a cheerful song instructs the children to engage in a variety of movements).

Kate: Can you flap like a bird?

Gwen: No.

(Song plays: Reach for the sky!).

Gwen: I don’t want to do it.

Julie: (dancing energetically) This is so fun!

Kate: Absolutely! (muttering) I could really use a drink.

Gwen: Mama, what do you use a drink?

Kate: I just said I need a drink of water! Do you want to keep dancing or do you want to go home and make lunch? You probably want to keep dancing.

Gwen: I want to go home and make lunch.

Kate: Well, if that’s what you want! Wave good-bye to Zack and Julie!

Gwen: Wave hello to Zack and Julie.

Julie: Are you sneaking out?

Kate: We’re sneaking out!

Julie: See you next week?

Kate: Sure! I’ll probably be crazy enough to come back.

(Julie stares at her).

Kate: Ha ha ha!

Julie: Ha ha ha!

Elizabeth Johnson is a freelance writer and mother of a three-year-old. She writes on parenting topics and for the children’s market.


Back to November 2015 Issue

What No One Ever Told you

What No One Ever Told you

Little Playing with House

Rebecca L’Bahy

Sometimes you feel a rage build up in you and it is only 7 a.m. You are feeding the dogs, the cats, making waffles, making coffee, making lunches, barking orders: Brush your teeth. Brush your hair. Get your shoes. Get your backpack. We’re late, we’re late, we’re late. You are so close to what you have been waiting for – three kids in school full-time. Your own brain-space. You sit and stare at a wall. There is a bird in your throat, a rock in your ribs. You avoid the kitchen. Sometimes the whole house. Drive around in your mini-van unsure where to go or what to do. Something is missing from your day. From your life. You should, you should…but you don’t. Then 2:30 comes too soon and your six-year-old wants to play house. How about a board game, you suggest. With a board game there is no pretending, there is a beginning and an end. She starts to cry. She wants to play house. Why won’t you ever play house? You yell something at her, something mean. She cries harder. You are her first love and you have broken her heart so you let her: the Disney channel, candy, salamanders in the living room. In the quiet, guilt. Look at her! Do you even see her? How she watches TV upside down in a headstand, her hair spilling out on the couch, her arms vulnerable as spindly tree branches? It isn’t until later, after the final push through dinner, and clean up, and the bedtime routine, after you collapse exhausted into her bed to cuddle that you see her: that hair, those arms, her tiny baby teeth. You were there when they came in. You were there when she chipped one on the driveway, and you will be there when they fall out one by one. You have always been there, even while you were thinking What if.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

Childhood and Society: A Book Review

Childhood and Society: A Book Review

By Julie Schwietert Collazo

Erickson cover againTwelve years ago, I was a graduate student in social work, eyeball deep reading the seminal texts of attachment and developmental theories—those ideas about how our infantile and childhood experiences set the stage (or not) for the rest of our lives and how we become (hopefully) mature adults. I could find something of value in every text, but so much of the writing was unnecessarily dense. There were some exceptions, but professors didn’t seem to give them as much weight, as if the readability of a theory was inversely proportionate to its value.

One of those exceptional texts was Childhood and Society, a book written by the German-born psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. First published in 1950 for a mainstream audience, the book nevertheless got picked up and added to developmental psychology curricula. Unlike so many of the parenting books of today, which focus on the adult’s philosophy and techniques, and how to apply these to kids, Erikson focuses on the child first. He suggests that if adults just understood the stages of human development better, they’d discover a parenting style most appropriate for their children.

Childhood and Society’s primary contribution to developmental theory is found in Chapter 7, “Eight Ages of Man.” There, Erikson lays out an idea that is remarkable in its lucidity and, in a way, revolutionary in its philosophy. He explains that human beings go through eight stages during the lifespan, and each of those stages presents us with a core need and dilemma that can frustrate our achievement of it. Resolve it, and we proceed to the next stage, well-adjusted and prepared for its challenge. Stumble or fumble, and we move forward with an earlier need left unresolved, a situation that’s likely to stymie our future efforts.

Though I wouldn’t go on to work with children, I kept Erikson’s book close at hand. It was plenty useful in my work with adults because his revolutionary idea was this: We never stop growing. It seems obvious enough, but other developmental theorists suggested that human growth “ended” when one made it through adolescence and stood on the threshold of adulthood. Even when I left social work, I found myself referencing Childhood and Society often, and when I finally had children of my own—three of them within five years—Erikson’s book enjoyed pride of place on my bedside table, thumbed through regularly, even obsessively.

This is especially true now, as my middle child approaches the age of two and has begun exhibiting epic tantrums, usually in public places. “What need is he trying to meet?” I ask myself, turning to Erikson to answer the question. The psychoanalyst is always there with a reliable answer, his Chapter 7 like a parental decoder ring. My two-year-old, he says, is entering a new phase, which he labels “Initiative vs. Guilt.” Erikson guides me into the folds of little Orion’s brain, inviting me to work on cultivating patience by empathizing wholly with me. This age is full of “dangerous potentials” (and I can imagine every single one of them as Orion flails, red-faced and raging, face-down on the sidewalk on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway). But, he notes encouragingly, “the child is at no time more ready to learn quickly and avidly, to become bigger in the sense of sharing obligation and performance….”

And this is precisely why I love Erikson so much: He is certain of his theory and the utility of its application, but he also acknowledges without judgment that shepherding a child into healthy adulthood is damn hard work, especially when you’re still working on yourself. He is empathic with both children and adults, seeming to offer warm encouragement: We’re all in this together. We need each other. We’ll be okay. Try to keep things simple… or at least don’t make them harder than they need to be.

It’s a message worth reading over and over again, which is probably why the most recent edition of Erikson’s Childhood and Society was published in 2014. Though other chapters of the book feel quite dated, especially the chapters about the childhoods of Adolf Hitler and Maxim Gorky, the core contribution of this book is evergreen, a welcome reminder and encouragement that we’re all really just trying to meet our needs the best we can and that to the greatest extent possible, we must be kind and patient with one another and ourselves in the process. Which is why I often gift this book to new parents, and keep my own dog-eared copy close at hand.

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a former psychotherapist. She currently lives in NYC where she is raising her three children while working as a journalist and writer. 

A Tale of Borscht and Love

A Tale of Borscht and Love

Borscht ArtBy Maria Danilova

On Friday nights, after our daughter has fallen asleep and before we indulge in our guilty pleasure of the week, the latest episode of “The Good Wife,” we begin a familiar ritual.  My husband shreds cabbage, chops carrots and slices onions. I peel potatoes and grate red beets. Standing side by side in the kitchen in our sweatpants, tired and sleepy, we make borscht.

Where we come from, Russia and Ukraine, borscht, a steaming hot soup made of red beets topped with a generous serving of sour cream, is as central to our cuisine as it is to life. Borscht is what a wife serves her husband after a long day’s work. Borscht is what a mother, any self-respecting mother, feeds her child for lunch. Where we come from, borscht is love.

In the bedroom, our daughter is asleep in her toddler bed, her blond hair strewn over her pillow, one hand hugging Mr. Pants, a stuffed brown bear clad in a green corduroy jumpsuit, who, as we later found out, in America goes by the name of Corduroy.

It was a wild idea to leave her toys and our life behind, in Kiev, and invest all of our savings to come to New York to become students, again, when other, more seasoned parents, are already putting money in their children’s college funds.

Behind, we left a devoted nanny, whose biggest flaw was that she loved children too much, my husband’s parents who were always happy to spend time with Katya, a pediatrician who would make house calls whenever she had a fever and a kindergarten where Katya sang Ukrainian songs. And of course, there was my in-laws’ country house in a small village outside of Kiev, where Katya picked strawberries from the garden bed, spent summers splashing in the local pond and drank the milk of the neighbors’ Maya the goat and Visilka the cow.

But last summer, we took one final dip in the pond, boarded a plane and twelve hours later found ourselves in New York, the center of everything, the capital of the world. This time, it was just us.

For the first several days, the only furniture in our New York apartment was two inflatable beds and a red carpet, given to us by family friends, so we ate our first meal – borscht – from soup plates on top of a large carton box fashioned into a table. Everything in our lives was changing, but borscht was still there.

We were ready and eager for the challenging academic life at Columbia University, but the biggest challenge turned out to be our lack of time, since with no help available we have to structure our studies around Katya. So our life is a series of sprints from the lecture hall, to the library, to her school, to the playground. We overlap for a peck on the cheek, one of us hands Katya’s small warm hand to the other and sprints off to the library.

That is why, on Friday nights we make borscht. With no time to cook between classes, we make one giant pot of soup that lasts until the following weekend. During the long week of lectures and homework assignments, I would worry about cracking strategy cases and deciphering financial statements, but my heart would be at ease about one thing – that my child is properly fed.

I remember a profound conversation about love I had, as it happens, with a complete stranger. Years ago, I was taking an overnight train from Kiev to Moscow, after visiting the boy who would later become my husband and Katya’s father I shared the train compartment with a middle-aged woman who had spent the weekend with her daughter and granddaughter in Kiev and was returning home to her husband in Moscow. She seemed like the kind of woman I wanted to be when I reach her age – attractive, fit, full of energy and content with her life. As we drank tea from thick glass tumblers sunk in metallic glass holders, an eternal tradition on Russian sleeper trains, I asked her whether she was still in love with her husband after so many years together. She looked at me like I was five years old and knew nothing about life. “Honey,” she told me in a school teacher’s tone. “Our love boat crashed in the shallow waters of everyday life. That’s just what happens.”

Ten years later, my husband and I were standing at the kitchen counter, slicing vegetables on a Friday night, dressed in baggy sweatpants.

“Cabbage,” I would tell him and kiss him on the shoulder. “Coming up,” he would reply.

This must be the very definition of the shallow waters of everyday life, I thought to myself, making beet soup while my more glamorous classmates were posting photos of their adventures in New York night clubs. Yet, our boat was sailing. We were standing side by side, making borscht for our child, half mine, half his, ours. This is love.

We were both raised in conservative Soviet families, where men would usually wander into the kitchen either by accident or to inquire when dinner will be served. The one exception my father made was preparing French toast on the weekends, while my father-in-law would usually be seen in the kitchen on International Women’s Day, a quintessential Soviet holiday celebrating alleged women’s equality on the 8th of March, that is, once a year. So our making of borscht together is a cultural revolution of sorts. What would my late grandmother say if she knew, I wondered. But for me, it is not about feminism or gender roles, it’s about love. All the more so because despite my devotion to the traditions of my family, the borscht recipe is my husband’s mother’s, not mine.

Growing up, I always wondered, as most girls do, what is love. How does it manifest itself? How do you know that it’s there? Is it your first date? Your wedding? The birth of your child?

I think I figured it out on a recent Friday night, cooking borscht in a big red pot, one of the first things I bought in New York. This is love.

In this borscht that we made together are all our joys and problems, big and small – the first English phrase Katya learned in the U.S. (ice-cream truck), a babysitter who announced on her first day that she was leaving us, the exams we dreaded, but did well on, Katya’s tooth that is hanging by a thread, while the Tooth Fairy hasn’t bought a present yet. And, of course, New York.

As the year was drawing to a close, in this constant maze of studies and sprints between the playground and the library, we still managed to go on a date. When Katya was in school and neither of us had lectures, we met at the library to sit in silence next to each other for an hour. He built algorithms; I struggled with assets and liabilities. We shared a salmon sandwich on rye bread, drank lukewarm coffee and exchanged whispers.

Soon, he blew me a kiss and took off – it was his turn to pick up Katya from school that day. It was sad to end our date so soon, but as I pored over income statements for my accounting class, I smiled. It was Friday. In the evening we will put Katya to bed and, after she falls asleep, we will watch “The Good Wife.” But before that, we will make borscht.

Author’s Note: It has been a year since we came to New York. Since then, my husband and I have both graduated from Columbia University and relocated to Washington, DC to start new jobs and resume our adult, non-student lives. Katya has come to love American food, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and French fries, and getting her to eat borscht now requires effort on our part. But my husband and I still try to find time to cook Russian and Ukrainian dishes for her, including, of course, borscht. 

Maria Danilova recently completed the Knight-Bagehot fellowhip in economics and business journalism at Columbia University in New York. Before the program, she covered Russia and Ukraine for the Associated Press for 11 years. Her work has also been published by Tablet magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, GQ and other outlets.

 Illustration: © Nataliya Arzamasova |

What a Summer Should Be

What a Summer Should Be

By Jennifer Berney


Because isn’t it true that on a warm summer evening it’s easy to like whomever you’re with?


When I was eight years old, in 1985, summer had long arms. I woke long after the sun had risen to a day that no one had mapped out for me. It was my job to map it, and so I read books, I watched TV, I put an album on the record player and spread out across the floor to listen. And when I got bored of all of these things, I cut through the neighbor’s back yard, walked two houses down, and knocked on my best friend’s door.

Our play dates were never arranged by parents or noted on the family calendar. Instead, they were spontaneous and sprawling: they often lasted for days. After an afternoon of play, as dinnertime approached, and the prospect of separating loomed, we inevitably begged for a sleepover.

My parents, who valued routine, were likely to say, “We didn’t plan for that.” But Alison’s parents—who had once been hippies and had an open door policy—were far more likely to say “Sure.” On one of these summer evenings their yes meant that I traveled with them to a party several towns away.

I had never been to a party that combined adults and children. When my own parents wanted to socialize, they hired a sitter and went out, or invited one or two guests over for dinner. So far the only parties I knew involved balloons, a small group of kids the same age, and a table for carefully wrapped presents, but this party was expansive. Grown-ups spilled out of the house and onto the lawn. Alison and I were instantly absorbed into a group of children. There were about a dozen of us, boys and girls of various ages, most of us unknown to one another. We never learned each other’s names, but we played together, easily, for hours. We played tag and red rover. We found big sticks and explored the nearby creek, balancing on rocks and swatting at mosquitoes. If we had gone to school together, we would have been in different grades and different social groups. At best, these other children would have ignored me at recess; at worst, they would have teased me for my bad haircut and crooked teeth. But that evening we were free from all of that.

Back at the house, grown-ups did whatever grown-ups did at parties. They drank and smoked strange-smelling cigarettes. They grilled meat. They sang and talked and laughed their loud grown-up laughs. By this time I was certain that my own parents were in bed, asleep.

When night descended, darkness drew us kids to the light of the bonfire, where each of us settled between the grown-ups we’d arrived with. On the long drive home, Alison lay across the back seat with her head in my lap while I tracked stars in the clear night sky.

As an adult, I’m surprised by how often I remember this party, which marked a rare moment in my childhood where time and social boundaries were fluid. I think of it every time we assemble on a neighbor’s lawn for a barbecue and my sons join games with children of various ages. On these evenings I note how the teenage boys are tender with the younger kids. They are skilled at adapting games of football and Frisbee to include my six-year-old who still struggles to catch and to throw, and my two-year-old who stands in the middle and lunges.

I think of this party when we visit a friend whose twin granddaughters jump up and down at the sight of my sons, and they all run wild together. They take turns sliding on the Slip n’ Slide. They sprint down the hill and do tricks on the swings. Away from school, my son feels free to play with girls who wear pink, and the girls in turn are happy to spend their afternoon with younger boys who can barely keep up. When children form packs, when their friendships leave the restrictions of gender and age, their play becomes timeless. There is magic in that.

The rest of our summer is often marked by the trappings of our era. We listen to audio books on the iPad, watch movies on Netflix. These days, the parents I know aren’t eager to let their children roam the neighborhood or swap kids for days at a time, and so I arrange play dates for my son via text message and mark them in their box on the calendar.

I’m fond of all our summer days, but it’s expansiveness I crave, the flow state of summer where time melts and boundaries blur, where we disconnect from set schedules and slip into our own rhythms of sleeping, waking, eating, where friends become family and strangers become friends. Because isn’t it true that on a warm summer evening it’s easy to like whomever you’re with?

I seek and savor such moments for my children—the barbecues and long afternoons on the lawn—because their school year is so often composed of compartments, of school days and home days, of dinner before dessert and two books before bed, of play dates and swim lessons and designated screen times. There is no greater joy for me than watching these edges soften, watching my children find their identities spread beyond their daily to-dos and into the wilderness of unstructured time.

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.

An Ordinary Adventure

An Ordinary Adventure


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

A Letter To My Children’s Future Therapist

A Letter To My Children’s Future Therapist

By Emily Nelms



Dear Future Therapist to my Son(s):

My name is Emily Nelms, and I am (insert either or worst case scenario, both children’s names here) mother. I understand that my son(s) has requested your therapeutic services, and feel it’s important that we get to know each other. Truthfully, I don’t expect our paths to cross for at least another 15 years. After all, my children are only eight and five years old, which means I have years of mistakes ahead before I screw them up badly enough to need your aid. So why take the time to write this letter now, long before its expected delivery? Well, as a mother with an additional full-time job outside the home, I am sure you can appreciate the need to scratch this inevitable task off of my “to do” list.

First, I want to thank you for counseling my child(ren) on what I am sure is a multitude of issues easily blamed on me. For what it’s worth Doctor, I readily admit that I was far from perfect. I wish I had been the type of mother who had it all together. The type that never let her children go to bed without brushing their teeth, took the time to create chore charts or remembered to hide the vegetables in the brownie mix. But sadly, that was not who I was. Instead, I was the mom who had a tidal wave of Sippy Cups fall to the ground every time she opened her car door. There was a lingering aroma of grape jelly that followed me, and I was surrounded, inexplicably, by the constant presence of cheese puff powder. So obviously, there was some room for improvement.

You see Doctor, despite having a supportive husband and years to plan, I just wasn’t prepared for how difficult this would be. What can I say? Exhaustion took over. Maybe it was all the time spent watching the same Disney movie over and over until I could recite every line. Or maybe it was the constant cleaning up of poop (and not necessarily in diapers). Whatever it was, motherhood took its toll. Do you have any idea how agonizing work heels are after having your feet impaled with the Legos scattered across previously scratch-free hardwood floors? Those unnaturally tiny torture devices are particularly painful when they take their aim in the middle of the night as you navigate your way through a dark house to comfort a crying child. And to be clear, all of this excitement was typical of a single evening.

Often, the evening before an important meeting at work was planned, or a big presentation was due, cementing my struggle to maintain the proper energy levels to get through either the next day. Although, if I’m honest, the searing foot pain did help to counteract the lack of sleep, creating an illusion of alertness in front of my coworkers. But my perpetual tiredness ultimately hit levels that not even my addiction to Red Bull could overcome. My work and home life became completely intertwined, with no relief from either. There was just too much to do, and there was not enough time to do any of it very well. My business suits always bore the stains of the goodbye morning hug ritual that I shared with my children before rushing out the door. I’m not entirely sure what caused these stains, but I choose to believe that it was remnants of soap left behind from when my kids washed their hands. It’s important to hold on to positive thoughts such as these. It was not an uncommon occurrence to reach for my Blackberry in a meeting, and pull out my kids Leapfrog instead. And then there was the time inclement weather caused the roads and schools to close, forcing the week long physical coexistence of my work and home lives, a disaster in the making. My fears were realized around midweek when my youngest son picked up the other end of a work dedicated phone line that I mistakenly thought I had put on mute. He loudly introduced himself to a meeting full of senior level executives, being sure to use both his first and last names so that no one could mistake whose child had hijacked the call. He was able to get his age out too before I ripped the phone cord out of the wall and rejoined the meeting via my cell phone.

So you see Doctor, there are two sides to every story. I mean, can you really blame me if, on occasion, I took the easier path in rearing my children? There were times when all I could do was plead with my boys, tearing up behind my already red-lined eyes to just sit quietly and watch TV, when I probably should have been reading to them instead. And yes, there was probably a time or two that I sent them to school with a dose of Tylenol to mask a low-grade fever. Although, even I must concede that the peanut butter cracker and popcorn was a poor dinner choice, even with the supplemental Flintstone vitamins. But how can I convince you how necessary it all was? I needed one, just one moment of calm and silence. Just a few seconds where someone wasn’t asking me to do something, fix something, or be somewhere. One glorious, beautiful minute of serenity before the next chaotic wave of life crashed down around me.

Now, I realize how all of this must sound to you. It’s not difficult for me to picture the disapproving look on your face as you read these words. How can it be, you wonder, that an educated, gainfully employed adult allowed her life to become so disordered? How could she lose control of her well-being, and at times her sanity just because there was a lot to do? Why wasn’t she more prepared? And I don’t know what to say except, I tried. Truly I did, and I hope I haven’t messed them up too badly. But, of course, you’ll be the judge of that.

All that said Doctor, I am sure you will agree that I should be allowed to present a defense for my actions or inactions surrounding any childhood grievances my son(s) may choose to bemoan. And it is to that end that I expect that this is only the first of many letters I will need to write through the coming years to ensure you have all the relevant facts. All I ask is that you keep an open mind. And if it’s not too much trouble, could you remind my child(ren) how much I love him/them and that I never stopped trying to be a better parent. Oh, and please discourage any ideas to write a tell-all book.

Emily Nelms lives with her husband and two sons in Mooresville, NC.  The stress of her career in the Financial Services industry contributes to her insomnia, which allows her the time to write. Follow her on Twitter @esnelms.

Photo by Scott Boruchov



WO Wings ARTBy Elizabeth Knapp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: A Book Review

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.57.19 AMSibling relationships are some of the most significant ones we have. While their emotional depth and complexity provide fertile ground for fictional explorations, we actually know very little about how we might improve these relationships. In her newest book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, clinical psychologist Laura Markham tackles this important topic by blending her experiences as a mother, parent coach, and researcher.

Many will know Markham from her 2012 book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. In that book she details three ways parents can create a peaceful family environment: 1) regulating emotions, 2) staying warmly connected, and 3) coaching instead of controlling to foster emotional intelligence. These three principles continue to lead in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, especially as they work together to develop empathy in kids. Markham explains:Empathy helps children develop self-regulation. When a child feels understood, he feels closer to his parents, so he’s more likely to accept limits and cooperate.” The argument is that you could easily swap the word “parents” for “siblings” in the above statement.

At the core of developing this empathy between children is the idea that how parents interact with each child individually—and especially how they discipline each one—shapes the relationships between children. In Chapter 2, one of the best chapters in the book, Markham draws upon research to explain how this works and she then translates this to everyday practice in our often chaotic households. She argues that we should not punish when children mistreat brothers or sisters, but rather set firm limits. The reasoning? From Markham, “As crazy as it sounds, that means they see it as YOUR job to stop them from attacking their sibling when they get angry, rather than as THEIR job to control themselves. When we set limits so the child feels understood, she ends up internalizing our limits—and taking responsibility for herself, even in the absence of authority figures.”

Markham is reassuring that all children will sometimes fight. In fact, this fighting is a good thing because it teaches us how to work out differences with others. This is particularly acute with siblings because, unlike with peers, there is no threat of an exit. For some number of years these little individuals must share a household. This is why, as Markham explains, siblings help kids learn to manage difficult emotions and smooth off the edges of early self-centeredness. In a line I would like to print out and hang in my kitchen, “Our goal as parents isn’t to keep things peaceful by settling our children’s differences. It’s to use the many daily conflicts that arise between our children as opportunities to help them create successful resolutions to their conflicts.”

If you only have a few hours to read, in between sibling fights, I recommend Chapter 5 (along with Chapter 2), which focuses on teaching conflict resolution and the role laughter can play in breaking the tension. In particular Markham discusses ten reasons kids bicker and how to resolve them in this chapter. Also for parents with younger kids looking to nip conflicts in the bud as much as possible early on, focus on Part 3, which contains tips on preparing a sibling for a baby through to the crawling and grabbing phase.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings provides lots of concrete suggestions to improve sibling relationships—note that my husband’s favorite is the thumbs-up to roughhousing—but all of these tips are very general. You won’t find passages focused on brotherly or sisterly relationships, the dynamics between multiples, or any other thoughts on complicated birth order patterns or larger families.

This drawback in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings is precisely what makes sibling research so difficult in general—there are so many different combinations and configurations and often not a very large sample size. A lot of factors come into play including biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology when we talk about siblings and it’s often hard to disentangle which factor has the most influence and hence which one to target.

In the end what Dr. Laura Markham does in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, and what more parenting writers need to do, is succinctly pick out the overarching aims, takeaways, and to-dos to benefit the greatest number of families. For this reason Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings is a solid addition to your parenting library. And I am looking forward to celebrating, thanks to some inspiration for Markham, our families first ever sibling celebration day this year!

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

Where Children Sleep: A Book Review

Where Children Sleep: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

020-20110712-KN-children2020-20110712-KN-children1At the end of the year I am always amazed by how much stuff my kids have. We celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, and then have two birthdays in January. To say the house is overrun with toys by then is an understatement.

Part of the reason the downstairs is chockfull of playthings is that I limit (or try to) bedroom space to sleep and reading, not playing. Based on bedrooms of twelve American children shown in James Mollison’s haunting Where Children Sleep, I may be in the minority.

Mollison’s coffee table book is one of the more thoughtful books I read in 2014—though in this case the images are sometimes more compelling than the written words. The book, published in 2010, is comprised of 56 diptychs. Mollison took portraits of the children, and then a picture of where they sleep, beginning in 2004 as he travelled the world. He also includes a paragraph on each child that includes their ages, where they live, their circumstances (school, siblings, etc.), their hobbies/how they spend leisure time, and what they want to be when they grow up.

The children in the book range from 4-17 and I have to warn you that the book starts sad (Lay Lay is an orphan in Thailand and all of her positions fit into a drawer) and ends sad (X is in a Brazilian drug gang and he moves around sharing sleeping space with other gang members). But Mollison’s aim is not to make you sad, it’s to make you think. He writes in the Introduction that a bedroom can be thought of as a personal kingdom; seeing it that way enables us to think about the places we sleep as they relate to inequality, along with the power of kids (or lack thereof) relative to adults.

Part of the way Mollison achieves this is by juxtaposing situations. For example, after the austerity of Lay Lay is Jivan, also four, who lives in Brooklyn. Jivan has his own bedroom and bathroom—a gorgeous boy’s room decorated by his interior designer mother. The room is full, but not cluttered, unlike the third child in the book, Kaya, a four-year-old in Japan who has thirty matching dresses and coats, shoes, and wigs. And then there are kids, like an unnamed four-year-old Romanian boy, who don’t even have their own beds, either sharing a mattress with other family members or staying in a dump in Cambodia. If you ever need a reminder, or need a way to show your children, how resources are distributed in vastly different ways across the world, you need only read Where Children Sleep.

I found it striking how many children sleep in communal environments around the world—from orphanages to training centers (a five-year-old in China training in martial arts) to religious instruction (a ten-year-old living in a monastery in Nepal) to a weight loss school (a thirteen-year-old boy in Pennsylvania) to cultural training centers (a fifteen-year-old in Japan learning to become a geisha). Mollison’s attention to alternative living arrangements is one reason why Where Children Sleep is a book you can examine, read, and discuss with your children. Children can be wrapped up in their own homes or rooms, and their friends who have similar experiences, but exposure to different situations can help your child learn more about their own lives and the larger world.

Of course, as Mollison admits, the book isn’t scientific. The children weren’t purposefully selected, they were simply children he found interesting in some way. He argues that the book isn’t part of a campaign, but the implications for inequality are too powerful to be accidental. Just as the pictures and descriptions can serve as a jumping off point for discussion about inequality with children, so can they serve as a jumping off point for reflection on our own goals. I noticed that many international children said they want to be doctors. I wondered what this says about the helping professions and why doctors are held in such high esteem as compared to teachers or police around the world. In what ways will the abundance my children are fortunate to enjoy impact their life goals?

Unfortunately Where Children Sleep is already out of print. While you can purchase a used copy in the usual ways online, it is pricey. Thankfully, Mollison has made many of the diptychs available on his website (though the Introduction and useful map included in the book aren’t available online). But there is a message here too—sometimes you don’t need a lot of new stuff to fill your bookshelves and bedrooms, you can also reuse or visit a library. Even that is a lot more than others have.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

Photo: Kaya, 4, Tokyo, Japan via New York Times/James Mollison

When the Raspberries Come

When the Raspberries Come

Rasberries growing on the bushBy Rebecca Altman

Seven years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child but didn’t know it, my husband and I planted three raspberry bushes.

They bore fruit the summer my firstborn was one. He toddled into the brambles and ate straight from the canes. One at a time, he stuck each berry on his pointer finger and let the juice run down his arms.

The following winter I was expecting again, and explained to my son that he would be a brother soon. Like many parents I struggled with how to make something as inscrutable as gestation tangible to a two-year-old.

I couldn’t tell him: in August. Nor did the concept of summer resonate. The regularity of seasons passing one to the next hadn’t been established yet.

The explanation that satisfied him, by which I mean the one that stopped the incessant question—when can I see him?—was this: when the raspberries come. I told him to watch the bushes in our backyard and when the fruit was ready, his brother would be born.

He ran to the window, but there was nothing to see. I had shorn the canes to the ground after their leaves dropped. Snow covered the dormant roots.

Eighteen weeks into the pregnancy, a fetal ultrasound found a swelling of the right kidney. It hadn’t formed correctly and would never work. I was moved into a high-risk obstetric practice for regular fetal monitoring. Each week, in the darkened exam room, I’d wait for the reassuring cadence of his heartbeat, more rapid and erratic than the steady rhythm of mine.

I would read the technician’s face, like she read the screen, the two of us searching for slight deviations from the norm.

*   *   *

Spring arrived, the first canes sprouted. My son and I wandered out to the raspberry bushes to check their progress. We watched as they grew taller than him during the long days of June and July. As the days shortened again and my belly swelled, they flowered and set fruit.

When the precariousness of my pregnancy felt unbearable, I found comfort in the raspberries growing as they should.

And then, as expected, they arrived at the end of August. And so did my second son, whose birth—and health—we celebrated with berries. We decorated his first birthday cake with them. And then his second. My boys sat underneath the bushes, the canes arched over their heads. They stripped them clean and then, grinning, emerged with berry-stained chins and t-shirts.

*   *   *

Until I had children, I had been out of touch with cycles and seasons, disconnected from the ecological system of which I am a part. But since I’d become a mother, I’d grown into the habit of juxtaposing our lives with the lifecycle of our raspberries. They had become timekeepers, steady and sure during the disordered days of early motherhood.

I began to wonder about other ways to ground us in our place and time:

When the trees bud.

When the acorns drop.

When the snow flies.

But the more I read about the ecology of eastern Massachusetts where I live, the more I discovered that the timing of seasonal events is shifting with a complexity as intangible to adults as a mother’s pregnancy is to a small child.

As we alter the Earth’s chemistry, some seasonal changes no longer sync with the expectations we formed as children about the order of things. Muddied, too, is our sense of seasonal weather patterns, of storms and when to expect them gathering on the horizon. And the very same industrial practices that disrupt ecological systems, scientists tell us may also be interfering with the basic functions of the human bodies—how our children think and grow, and even with our capacity to bear children at all. Uncertainty, it seems, is the new certainty from which we must build our lives.

I learned from ecologist Amy Seidl, author of Early Spring, that lilacs now bloom eight to sixteen days earlier than when I was a child. And when my children are grown, scientists predict they may bloom as much as a month in advance. Someday when the lilacs bloom, when the raspberries come could mean something altogether different. It’s a small shift in comparison to the catastrophic changes other communities face, but this giving way of accustomed seasonal rites signals larger changes that make me question the future. What will the world be like for my children, or their children, or their children’s children? The more I learned about, and witnessed, the changes already underway, the more I worried whether it was selfish to want another child.

But the summer my youngest turned three I was—to my surprise—pregnant again. The raspberries ripened early, small and pale. We ate them in July instead of August. It seemed strange at the time, and in retrospect, foreboding.

*   *   *

On the last night of August, my 36th birthday— when the raspberries should have been in full fruit—the pregnancy went dormant, just shy of the second trimester. It began as a cramp, a few stupefying spots. We had been out to dinner, about to take an evening stroll, when we rerouted ourselves to the hospital. There, the radiologist couldn’t sense life, only its absence. They sent us home. They told me: expect bleeding.

In what few stories other women shared with me, miscarriage was a noun, as in: I had a miscarriage. But no one described it as a verb or, for that matter, in a way that would have helped me understand what to anticipate. I sensed there would be an emotional component—how to let go of the expectations that accompany a pregnancy—and a biological one, and I knew little about either, most especially the latter. How does an expectant body reverse states? What should I expect now that I wasn’t expecting? I arrived at the wrong assumption that a miscarriage would be a withering, slow and solemn. Instead, I found it to be a violent uprooting.

For hours, my body heaved like labor. Each convulsion released fist-sized clots. I retreated to the shower. Blood splattered onto the glass doors against which my husband pressed his hands. This is natural, I told him, I told myself.

But bodies contain a finite quantity of fluid.

It was the unexpected taste of metal on my tongue that made me relent, that convinced me the miscarriage had gone off-course. We raced back to the hospital on vacant, after-midnight roads. Hours later, after another ultrasound, after fainting twice, after hours of waiting in my own blood, I was strapped to a table so the OB could harvest from me what my womb wouldn’t surrender. I left the next afternoon barren, barely conscious, in a body that had betrayed itself.

In the fallow weeks that followed, in the absence of cultural rituals around pregnancy loss, I read how other women have marked miscarriages and coped with the cross of guilt-grief that can accompany the unraveling of a pregnancy and other taken-for-granted certainties. With miscarriage, there is rarely a body to bury. But a friend told me to plant something, as she had done. I hadn’t even known she’d lost a pregnancy.

*   *   *

And so a month later, still white-lipped and disoriented with anemia, my mother and I went to a nursery. By then it was autumn. The sedum had turned burgundy. The nursery was emptier now that the growing season had passed and what plants remained had overgrown their pots and were discounted. She bought me a hydrangea and helped me drive it home. My father and now six-year-old son dug the hole to set it near the raspberries. In the act, I realized burial and planting felt like analogous transactions with the Earth, which receives what we put into it, and in turn, offers the solace that comes with the possibility that life can begin again, enriched by what has gone before.

After they placed the hydrangea in the ground, after I knelt down to pack soil around its roots, I looked up and saw the raspberries had borne a second batch of fruit. In the six years since we planted them, they had never fruited twice.

Maybe everything that happened that summer was the product of erratic fluctuations in fertility, perhaps it was a fluke, or happenstance, or a harbinger of disturbances in complex systems. I would never know, but I needed to find a way to live with the multiple, sometimes subtle, sometimes engulfing uncertainties that have become the hallmark of this era in which I raise children.

On that long-shadowed late September afternoon, after we finished planting, we filled our muddy hands with berries and went inside, thankful the raspberries had come back.

Rebecca Altman is an environmental sociologist. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network and sometimes teaches seminars on environmental health for Tufts University. Her recent creative non-fiction has appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.  She blogs at


Shorts Story

Shorts Story

iStock_000003843423SmallBy Tyann Sheldon Rouw

Early Thursday morning, I awoke to a shadowy figure leaning over my bed, wielding a big pair of black scissors. They weren’t scissors one used to cut paper. No, they were the scissors someone reaches for to finish a heavy-duty job, like cutting wire or a chicken carcass. In one hand, my 12-year-old son Isaac held the scissors, the sharp ends pointed down towards me. In the other, he dangled a pair of shorts. My eyes struggled to focus while I gave him instructions.

“Let me cut the tag off for you,” I said. For most people, the first task of the day might be turning off an alarm clock or walking into the bathroom to pee. For me, it’s occasionally cutting a tag out of clothing for Isaac, who has autism. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last. Tags irritate him. Literally. Tags must feel like sandpaper when they rub against his skin.

Still in a daze, I told Isaac it was too cold to wear shorts and watched him set the shorts on the couch in the living room. In typical fashion, he didn’t respond. Isaac struggles to verbalize his thoughts. After he was on the bus, I put the shorts back in his dresser.

A few weeks before, a friend had asked me if we would like some clothes her son had outgrown. I was grateful to be the recipient of such generosity, but when she asked what size my boys wore, I was lost.

All of the tags have been cut out.

After rummaging around in Isaac’s drawers, I found a couple of pairs of pants I’d bought at Target labeled size large. That would have to do.

It felt like Christmas when my friend dropped off two bags of clothes. Isaac was particularly happy when he saw the shorts and tried them on right away. He was pleased they fit. The new shorts were long athletic ones with the Nike swoosh, much more casual than anything Isaac owned. The way he strutted around the living room with his faint smile said it all. He had hit the jackpot.

Every Thursday afternoon, Isaac has respite time at the YMCA. He goes with a caregiver, Lacey, giving the rest of our family some much-needed down time. He never deviates from the routine. Never.

Isaac qualifies for respite services based on the severity of his disability. My sweet blond-haired, blue-eyed boy has gained a bit of functional language in the past few years, but it’s not always intelligible to new conversation partners. He suffers from anxiety. He is obsessed with opening doors, turning on water and controlling meal time at our house, such as who is eating when. He loves elevators and swimming pools. He is particular about listening to a certain song in the van as we turn onto a street near our home. He cleans dishes and watches his favorite TV show every night before bed.

For the past few months, Isaac has been “hanging out” at the YMCA during respite time — eating a snack, watching people and opening doors. He used to shoot baskets, hit the racquetball around, play foosball or walk the track, but lately he hasn’t done anything at all. I tried not to make a big deal out of it. As long as he was happy and didn’t cause problems for anyone or himself, let him be, I said.

Later that day when Isaac returned home, I asked Lacey how things had gone.

“It went well,” she said, as she came inside. “Did you know he brought his shorts?”

“No, we were in a hurry and I didn’t see what he packed,” I told her.

“Well, he changed into shorts, and then he went into the gym and played basketball with a group of guys,” she said.

“You played basketball, Isaac?” I asked, surprised.

Isaac didn’t respond.

“I love it when people are nice and let him play with them,” she said.

“Me, too,” I answered. I bit the inside of my lip when I felt the tears well up in my eyes.

I looked at Isaac, who was grinning from ear to ear as he took a bite of a fig bar.

Isaac doesn’t really play basketball. He’s a great shot, but dribbling up and down the court is not his idea of a good time. If someone passes the ball to him, he might not pass it to anyone else. He might take a shot or leave the game altogether and take the ball with him. He may just laugh hysterically as other players pass, dribble, rebound and score. When he’s interested in the game, however, he wants to be part of the group.

It occurred to me that perhaps he dug out those scissors and woke me up this morning because he wanted to play with the other guys. I bet he thought if he looked more like them – everyone wears these long athletic shorts – he could more easily join the group. Could it be?

I imagine a group of junior high or high school students looking his way and allowing him to join. I imagine him shrieking with delight when someone shot the ball and it was nothing but net. If the students are there playing most Thursdays, they have seen Isaac around. I’m sure Isaac had noticed them. If they’ve ever seen him shoot, they’ve likely witnessed him sinking three-pointers, even when he shoots underhanded, granny style. Although he’s not running the offense or making an assist to someone who can score, Isaac loves to play. He just does it his own way. It makes me smile. He has a lot to offer the world. People just need to take time to know him – and to include him.

I am reminded of a passage from The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, who is severely affected by autism and communicates through typing. The introduction states, “Naoki Higashida reiterates repeatedly that . . . he values the company of other people very much. But because communication is so fraught with problems, a person with autism tends to end up alone in a corner, where people then see him or her and think, Aha, classic sign of autism, that. The conclusion is that both emotional poverty and an aversion to company are not symptoms of autism but consequences of autism.”

Hmmm, so someone with autism might be excluded because of his communication challenges? Could it be that these people want to be included and don’t know how to get involved?

Isaac likes people when they understand how to interact with him. He rarely leaves his brothers alone. He is glued to my elbow most of the time. He sticks close to his dad. When his brothers are playing and interacting with him, he radiates pure joy.

Like everyone, he likes to be left alone at times. Who doesn’t? There are times when he doesn’t want to be involved, but at least we extend the invitation. Sometimes his anxiety about a situation doesn’t allow him to participate. We ask anyway.

Can he communicate his wants and needs to people he doesn’t know very well? Not usually. There have been many times he’s been at the YMCA, watching people play ball. Perhaps he has wanted to join them every time? Sometimes fetching a stray ball and refusing to toss it back to a player might be his way of saying, “I’ve got your attention now. Let me play, too.”

I was reminded of a flag football game a few years back in which Isaac’s twin brother Noah played. (Noah has autism, too.) As we were loading up the van to head to the football field, Isaac came outside wearing Noah’s football uniform from the prior year. While the game was underway, Isaac ran across the field and stood on the sidelines, happy to be there. He stood shoulder to shoulder with his brother and Noah’s teammates. I’m not sure Isaac wanted to play football, but that day he was dressed for the part. He was wearing the right clothes so he could belong, too. He was – at that moment – one of them. When he dressed like a football player and wore the basketball shorts, those actions communicated more than his voice ever could. He wanted to be included.

As I watched Isaac interact with his brothers in our living room, my thoughts drifted to the events at the YMCA. I am grateful to the guys at the YMCA who included Isaac, who decided they were not going to play a basketball game that was too competitive, so they could include the kid who was wearing the bright orange shirt and the new-to-him athletic shorts.

I hope they understood what an impact their kindness had on my son — and how happy we both felt when we realized he could belong, just like anyone else.

I need to grab those giant kitchen scissors and dig through Isaac’s dresser to find the other few pairs of shorts we were given. I have the feeling he will be wearing them again at the YMCA. I need to cut out the tags.

Tyann Sheldon Rouw lives in Iowa with her husband and three sons. Her work has appeared in various newspapers, and she is a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She is an autism advocate and blogs regularly at Follow her at @TyannRouw.

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What The Living Do

What The Living Do

By Emily Rapp

BC_FA2013_Final_layout“Is this your first baby?” Any woman who is visibly pregnant has likely been asked this question by strangers in the grocery store line, other expecting women at the doctor’s office, random passersby in the street.

Pregnant women are often asked deeply personal questions in public: if this is our first child; how far along in our pregnancies we are; if we’re having a boy or a girl; if we have a name picked out. However indelicate these questions might seem, to some degree they make sense. Pregnant bodies are a visible symbol of life andgrowth. People like to engage with women who are expecting to give birth to another human being, which is itself a way of altering the progress of time, of literally changing the world by bringing into it a new life and new possibilities.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I loved answering these questions. As a woman with an artificial leg, I have had a problematic relationship with my body for most of my life, and was accustomed to fielding questions like “what happened to you?” I was well acquainted with our culture’s prurient interest in bodies that are considered “different” or “strange” or “wrong.” When I was pregnant with my son, I felt that my body was doing something right and good in the world; “what happened to me” was no longer an incident of limb loss that required an in-depth explanation. Instead, I was about to be amother. I finally felt normal.

I am pregnant now with my second child and how to fieldthese questions from strangers has become much more complicated since the birth, and then the death, of my first child. My son Ronan died of Tay-Sachs disease in February of 2013 when he was nearly three years old. Tay-Sachs is an always fatal, rare genetic condition that robbed him of all his physical faculties—hearing, sight, movement, and eventually the ability to swallow and process food. Ronan was diagnosed at nine months old, when he was happy and smiling and seemed “normal,” yet he had failed to meet any of his developmental milestones. Some of my most heartbreaking memories are trips to the doctor’s office where a nurse took his pulse with a tiny finger thermometer as he giggled and baby-flirted with her. Many times I watched that nurse’s eyes fill with tears, because here was a doomed child, a sweet baby with red-gold hair and long, pale eyelashes and chubby wrists and ankles who would not live to be a toddler, and whose life would unravel in a devastating way. It is terrible to look at your child and think he will suffer and then he will die.

“How old is he?” people would ask me when I walked Ronan in his stroller on the walking path near my house in Santa Fe before he began to physically manifest the signs of his decline. When I told them they might say, “Oh, it goes so fast,” or “You’ve got so much to look forward to,” and “he’ll be walking and talking soon,” and I would wheel Ronan home, weeping and furious with a horrible raging sadness about the wrenching and ridiculous unfairness of the situation. Sometimes I told the truth. I’d say that he was dying, that he would never talk or walk, and brace myself for the response, if only because I wasn’t ashamed of my son and didn’t want to act as if I were hiding anything. This didn’t matter to Ronan—his cognitive abilities were stalled at a six-month-level before they deteriorated—but it mattered to me. At home I would pluck him from the stroller and hold him and cry and wonder why this was happening to me, how it could possibly be happening to such a sweet and innocent boy. The whole order of the world was reversed—babies dying while the parents lived on.

Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but to be entirely helpless as an unstoppable, incurable disease takes a child from you, to be told by a doctor “this child will die,” and then to witness the slow fade of personality and then the body, is a situation that on many days I did not think I would—or wanted to—survive. And yet I did.

My desire to have another child emerged just after Ronan was diagnosed. I wanted to plan for another baby right away. My husband, my supportive parents, many well-meaning friends all questioned this course of action. My therapist, too, cautioned me about having another baby. She warned me about the dangers of having a “replacement child.” I found and still find the idea of a replacement child odious and horrifying although it is a documented term. No child is replaceable. A child is not a couch or a job or a great spot for your next vacation. I was 36 when Ronan was diagnosed. I did not have the resources for the complex fertility treatments that my husband and I would have needed to pursue to make sure that our next child was not affected with Tay-Sachs (both parents must be carriers for Tay-Sachs to manifest, andthere’s a 1 in 4 chance that a child will have the disease when this is the case). When I met with the fertility doctor he cautioned me that the next two years were crucial if I wanted to have another baby. The literature I read online and in magazines assured me that it would soon be too late for me to get pregnant. I was facing the combined loss of my child and my newly formed maternal identity—the future seemed to me a skeletal, miserable existence, a shattered and frightening world.

The only people who encouraged me to have another child in short course were the mothers of other children with Tay-Sachs disease, who understood perfectly. Of course you want to feel life again, one mother told me. I began to argue with my therapist that clinical terms like “radical acceptance” of my difficult situation and “replacement child” were entirely divorced from real-life situations. I wanted another child, in part, to anchor me to the world, to the after life of living without my son, butI never thought a new child wouldreplace him. I would have to live through what happened to him, but did I ever have to fully accept it? What would that look like? Of course these were questions that nobody could or ever will answer.

Although my relationship with Ronan’s father did not continue, we parented and cared for our child until his death. When I look back on those two-and-a-half years of Ronan’s care—the seizures and suction machines and medications and finally, a feeding tube through his nose, it seems thunderous and unimaginable. And yet my imagination conjures up these images with ease and I remember and mourn him all over again. Ronan’s absence in my life is present to me—with varying degrees of force and sadness—every day, and this will be true for the rest of my life. The memory of what was lost becomes its own reality and then lingers. This is true of the leg I lost and it is true of anything precious that is taken from us, any loss that changes our lives on such an epic scale. I don’t believe that people “recover” from loss; we can only hope to absorb it in a way that still allows for daily moments of happiness. Even this is sometimes a struggle, but it is one worth engaging in. We press on. We continue to seek life and love and meaningful experiences. Otherwise, what are we doing?

I met Kent, my current partner, aftermy husband and I had already separated and decided to divorce, putting an end (I assumed) to my hopes of having another baby. At this time, Ronan was still alive but entering his period of greatest and most rapid decline. When it became clear to Kent and me that our relationship was one that we wanted to pursue for the long-term, we immediately talked about having a child together. Both of us were older (I was 38 and he was 58) and we both wanted to be parents, me for the second time and him for the first. I got pregnant four months after Ronan died, in the midst of deep grief but also fully supported and loved by a partner.

*   *   *

I took the first pregnancy test before dawn. When the stick read “pregnant,” I was gripped by euphoria, fear, guilt and surprise, all at once. I ran into the bedroom and woke Kent up to show him the results. All of the competing emotions rushed in: the impossible desire to hold my son again, in real time, with my own hands, to smell his hair and kiss his face and touch his skin; and the great hope that this microscopic, newly formed child in my body would live on, first in the womb, and then in the world. This child would replace nobody, I realized. Ronan existed, and this child would exist. Yet I still wondered: could I find full joy in this new baby when his or her half-brother had died?

A few days later I didn’t think I’d need to worry about it. My first ultrasound at six weeks showed a gestational sac with nothing inside: no heartbeat, no fetal pole, no signs of the beginning of viable life.

“Well, it’s a no-go,” the doctor said, asif I had planned a party that had suddenly been cancelled. “Probably a blighted ovum.” My friend, Elizabeth, who had come with me since Kent was out of town for work, switched off the video she’d been taking to show him the next day.

I blinked at the fuzzy screen, the great space waiting to be filled. Ronan had been driven away from my house in the funeral home van only four months earlier. I would never see him again. This baby had disappeared—but where? The doctor snapped off his gloves and began to make quick marks in my chart. “I see from your chart that your son has Tay-Sachs disease,” he said.

“He did,” I said, still on the table, undressed from the waist down and wearing the flimsy cloth robe. “He died.”

He looked up. “You must be Jewish,” he said.

“I’m not,” I said. The room was cold. My legs were cold. “People think Tay-Sachs is a Jewish disease, but it isn’t.”

“It is,” he said.

“It isn’t.”

“You must be Jewish,” he repeated. Ilooked at him and repeated that I was not.

Elizabeth, sensing my agitation and increasingly annoyed, said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I don’t think you can catch it from over here.” The doctor flushed red, said no more, and left the room. I never saw him again.

The next week I went to a different doctor, who found a strong heartbeat—a vigorous rapid thumping—and a baby forming just where it should be. Kent was with me, and when we saw the tiny form on the screen, we cried. Out of relief, disbelief, fear, happiness, and the idea of these feelings occurring simultaneously.

The pregnancy progressed smoothly, as my first pregnancy had. When I began to show and people began asking me if I was pregnant with my first child, I was determined to remember Ronan in my response, no matter how uncomfortable it made the asker. “No,” I replied. “I had a son and he died.” The conversation often stopped here, the narrative halted. When the questions first began I scrambled to make the awkward exchange a bit easier for the other person. “Sorry to throw that on you,” I’d say, smiling. But now I don’t. My new policy is: asked and answered. Or, as a relative of mine used to say, if you don’t want the answer, don’t ask the question. I don’t elaborate on how or why my first child died when some people go on to ask those questions (and they occasionally do); at that point I tell them that I prefer not to say any more. I don’t want to offer up the details of Ronan’s illness like the pieces of a tragic tale. But I want it to be known—to strangers, to everyone—that he was in the world, that he was fully loved, and that he was my first baby.

I believe that the real danger of having a child in the wake of child loss is the idea that the child who came first and was unconditionally loved will be entirely forgotten. This was an idea I could not and cannot bear. Ronan was singular even after his death. His half-sister will be singular as well, just as loved, just as irreplaceable. She is filling no space; she is creating her own, just as Ronan did, just as every child does. No person’s place is taken by another’s presence. I don’t believe a desire to have another child is a way of healing wounds, or a way of mitigating the great sadness of losing a child. This great joy and sadness can coexist, and in fact they must. This is the responsibility those of us who have lost children have to our living children: to remember. To make known to those we love and live with that each life has a precious place in the world and a significant purpose, no matter how short that life is or might have been.

These are uncomfortable thoughts for all of us, especially parents, because it is so painful to imagine the death of our children; we’d rather not think about it. In general we attempt to avoid thinking about death in this culture, and we pass this culturally sanctioned phobia on to our children. We think they can’t handle it, don’t know about it, but they do. They sense it. They’re humans. They know. It is our job to find an acceptable way to tell them; to make them understand the existence of death and life together. Years before I had Ronan, I met a woman who had framed her stillborn boy’s footprints and hung them on the wall between her bedroom and her living daughter’s. I thought that was just right; I thought that made sense. Death isn’t morbid or unseemly.It’s the inevitable end of any life.

To not discuss Ronan with my daughter, as I will one day,is to devalue both of them in some crucial and profound way. That said, it is not an easy story to tell someone. “Mom had a baby with another man before you were born, and that baby died.” I can see her, years later as a writer, trying to tell that story in a novel, in a poem, in some other book. To whom do these stories belong, and who is in charge of their safekeeping? This is not mine to decide. I can only tell my own truth.

What the living must do is remember.

Author’s Note: Writing about our children is a strange and necessary task as writers who are also mothers. When my son was sick and actively dying, I felt it was my duty to document his life in a meaningful way. I couldn’t save him, but I could save his story. After his death, I am still in the process of trying to make meaning from a situation that felt absent of all meaningfulness. Writing this piece invited me to consider again the strange ways in which chaos works, turning us toward joy and despair, and many times in unequal amounts. This idea of chance, luck, karma, however you name it, is one with which I have long been fascinated, and writing this reignited in me that intellectual interest.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Redbook, O the Oprah Magazine, Salon, Slate, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. She lives with her family in New Mexico.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

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The Day of the Condom

The Day of the Condom

By Ilonka Michelle O’Neil

white rose

My 13-year-old daughter comes out of our bedroom, holding the tiny square package with the tip of her index finger and thumb like it’s a stinky sock.

“Is this a condom?” she asks.

I look up, and sure enough, it is.

“Where did you find that?” I inquire.

“In Dad’s drawer,” she replies, her face half curious, half disgusted.

I don’t have time to consider why she’s snooping in her father’s dresser drawer. Game on. It’s a condom. I’m up to bat. Quickly I calculate it has to be a very old condom. My husband had a vasectomy years ago, and I am no longer fertile. And incidentally, why is he never home when things like this happen?

I take it from her. Judging from the look of the package it is old. It’s likely been in the back of his drawer for years, surviving several moves to several states, keeping his socks and tightie-whities company all this time.

Our 11-year-old son, never one to miss a juicy conversation sidles up to have a look-see.

The condom is in my hand. I pause for a second.

This is a teachable moment.

“Let me show you how they work.”

I tear the condom wrapper and gingerly and take it out, “You have to be careful not to tear it with your fingernails,” I mention casually.

Hmmm…. I glance over my shoulder around the kitchen. It’s a fine day to be out of bananas.

Raising my left middle and pointer fingers like a closed peace sign, I point out the reservoir tip as I begin showing them how to roll the condom down, over my fingers.

“You want to make sure it’s on right, and that it’s secure at the base.” I unravel the whole thing. “If not, it can come off inside the woman.” (Ask me how I know).

I am all business. I give it a nice tug at the bottom, to be sure it’s in place.

“This jelly stuff is spermicide. It kills any sperm it comes into contact with making the condom extra effective against pregnancy and some sexually transmitted diseases.”

“It looks gross,” my son says, wrinkling his nose.

They are mesmerized.

“You both need to know how to use condoms. It is mandatory. When you are older, much older, and start having sex you will always wear a condom. If your partner gives you a hard time about it or refuses, they do not really care about you.  It’s up to you to respect yourself enough to protect yourself.”

They nod.

“When you get married, or are in a serious long term monogamous relationship and are using other forms of birth control, or you are trying to have a baby ... then you can stop using condoms. But until then, always a condom. Every time.”

We’ve talked plenty of times with our kids about relationships and what to look for in a partner. How they should be treated with respect and how they should treat their partners with respect as well.

“So, we’re allowed to have sex, but not unprotected sex,” my daughter says.

“You’re not allowed to have sex right now, but when you are older you will likely have sex. And when you do, you have to wear a condom, yes.”

I add, “Save your non-condom virginity for your spouse.”

Inwardly I catch how much it sounds like a liberal’s version of a promise ring, or chastity pledge. I hope my children give my advice more merit than those attempts at stifling human sexuality generally receive.

They nod understanding.

My daughter says, “I think I’ll wait ’til I’m like, 20, to have sex.”

She’s a young 13, and though I know it could likely be before she’s 20, I tell her,

“Good plan.”

From her lips to God’s ears. Please wait.

I roll the condom off my fingers, and toss it in the trash.

“Never flush them,” I say as an after thought. “It will clog the toilet.”

Check. Check. They’ve got it. They walk out of the room, discussion over. They each go to their own separate spaces with lots to think about. I mean, a condom in Dad’s drawer?

Washing the rubber smell off my hands in the kitchen sink, I think about what just happened.

The whole thing took maybe five minutes.

Ilonka Michelle O’Neil’s work has been featured in Literary Mama, The Imperfect Parent, Cool Cleveland and various other publications including two parenting anthologies. She is author of the memoir Daughter of the Drunk at the Bar, and she blogs at

Check Box: WIC Mom or Non-WIC Mom

Check Box: WIC Mom or Non-WIC Mom

By Jennifer Schaller

DSCF6966Rushing to place my groceries on the conveyor belt before my two-year-old screamed in line, a store clerk, about to weigh my produce, asked, “Are these WIC?”  My incredulous eyebrows raised, I answered “NO” and kept piling my groceries before her.  I live in New Mexico, where we rank number one in childhood hunger for the entire nation.

More than once at more than one grocery store, clerks have asked whether I pay for my groceries with government assistance.  WIC stands for Women, Infants, and Children; it’s a federally funded program that gives pregnant mothers and children assistance with buying healthy food. This time my particular cashier answered my no with a shocked, “No?”  Annoyed, I responded, “NO,” making it quite clear with my tone that I wanted to jump over the counter and punch her in the face.

If she had asked me one more time, I would have let her have it: a tirade about how I worked hard, went to college, got a degree, two in fact, and then busted my butt gaining a professional job.  However, a tirade would not only vent my anger at this poor woman, but it would also let out the fiery rage I feel every time someone places me neatly in a box.  And letting an unsuspecting woman, however ignorant she was, really have it would make me feel like crap.  I strive to be humble—call it a byproduct of my single-parent upraising.  Sure, maybe I was on welfare as a child, but that doesn’t mean I can never move into a higher economic class using only my wits, stamina, and some college loans.

The cashiers are always strangers, so I assume they base their judgment of my financial need on my appearance.  I’m a dark skinned Latina.  There are other criteria that may make others believe I am in need of government assistance: I have more than one child, two to be exact, I shop in the middle of the day on weekdays because my work schedule allows this (not because I’m unemployed), and I live in a poor state.  In 2012, 53 percent of young children in New Mexico’s lived in single-parent households.  I suppose when a person adds all this up, I could be placed neatly into a box—the WIC mom box.  What does a WIC mom look like?  Apparently, she looks like me.  She may look like you.

The irony is that the cashiers who ask me this question are always Latina. During a different grocery shopping trip, when I handed a clerk my credit card, in a Spanish accent thicker than my grandmother’s, she asked, “EBT?”  EBT stands for Electronic Benefits Transfer, and it’s a debit card for welfare.  I had the urge to say “College?” in a snarky tone, but I didn’t.  Spewing anger at other people’s stereotypes will not change anything.  Hopefully my answer of “No” is enough to make someone think differently.  No is what I had to say to my grandmother when she told me at the age of twenty-five to start having kids before she died.  I wasn’t ready to be shoved inside that box of motherhood, not at twenty-five. I wanted to go to grad school.

While 30 percent of New Mexico children are considered poor, and 13 percent more live in extreme poverty, it’s not unheard of for a minority woman to attend college and obtain gainful employment, even if she has two small kids. I know government assistance is a direly needed entity for many children and families in my beautiful state.  When I was a child, my mom would go without food the fourth week of every month until the next allotment of welfare came, so my brother and I could eat. I learned from her experience.  Nearly thirty years later, I feel I’m still climbing out of someone else’s box—brown, black, or white; WIC mom or non-WIC mom.

Jennifer Schaller is a teacher who lives in Albuquerque with her husband and two children.  She usually has a pile of papers to grade and a small child’s nose to wipe, but every so often she ekes out time for writing, some of which has appeared in Brain, Child, Georgetown Review, Sonora Review, and This American Life.  

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The Day I Made Santa Claus Cry

The Day I Made Santa Claus Cry

By Michele Turk

Santa Art“Santa!” my brothers and I screamed, racing to answer the door on Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus stepped into our foyer and handed us each a red mesh stocking filled with sweets. But it wasn’t the presents that we awaited eagerly year after year; it was his presence; Santa right in our home in a small farming town in New Jersey. Santa knew us by name and sometimes even our ages, give or take a couple of years. It made us feel special.

He looked as authentic as any mall Santa with a perfectly rotund belly, except he had the shoulders and gait of a linebacker. It did strike us as odd, even as children, that after he emptied his meager bag of candy, Santa would sit down at the kitchen table with my father and drink Scotch. Their banter seemed familiar. We didn’t question their intimacy or the visits, or how Santa could take time out of his busy flight after dark on Christmas Eve. We believed.

Until the year I was 9-years-old, and poor Santa had so many glasses of Dewar’s he passed out on the floor of the family room in front of the fireplace. When my parents’ were in another room, my 6-year-old brother, Mickey, poked Santa’s stomach. Then Mickey climbed atop the protruding belly and began to surf. Santa didn’t budge. My oldest brother PJ, age 10, and I stared at Mickey jumping up and down on Santa’s belly; our eyes as wide as Cindy Lou Who. Then we all took turns jumping off of Santa’s belly and diving onto the brown shag carpet. We giggled, then howled with laughter. Then, in a daring act of defiance, PJ removed the white beard, revealing what we had long suspected; our annual visitor was my father’s older brother, Frank.

*  *  *

Uncle Frank lived in a trailer park in Vineland, about a half hour from our home, and on the few occasions we did visit him, usually on a Sunday drive, it was uncomfortable and awkward for everyone. His tiny mobile home was a fraction of the size of our three-bedroom ranch house, which seemed like a mansion in comparison. I didn’t understand how he could live like that, while we lived in such comfort just a car ride away.

Every Christmas Day, we joined my mother’s sister and her family for dinner at my grandparents’ house a block away. My grandmother set a formal table and even the children drank from Waterford crystal glasses.

My father was the son of a farmer whose mother died of breast cancer when my father was 6 and Uncle Frank was 8.  My father married the richest girl in town, my mother, and her mother did not approve of Uncle Frank or his lifestyle so Uncle Frank was never once invited to Christmas dinner or any holiday at her house.

“What a shame, what happened to him,” was all I ever heard my grandmother say, shaking her head as she passed bread around the dining room table packed with thirteen of us.

I remember feeling sorry for my dad because he spent every holiday with my mother’s family, but I never dared ask why we couldn’t squeeze one more around the table. I learned later that my father gave Santa a little gift every Christmas, and he “loaned” him plenty of other money over the years. I’m still not sure that made up for allowing him to spend Christmas alone.

When relatives looked at pictures of my uncle, without fail they shook their heads, and said the same thing:  “He was so handsome, what a shame, what happened to him.”

Even now, when I look at pictures taken at my parents’ wedding in 1961, it’s hard to believe that it’s the same man smiling back. It’s still a bit shocking to see the photograph of my parents seated in their car, with Uncle Frank, the best man, on the outside, leaning in. His movie star good looks and seemingly translucent blue eyes, vivid even in the black and white pictures, are what those older folks remember, not the aging alcoholic with a Kris Kringle belly that he’d become.

In my later years, I wondered, how Uncle Frank had turned into that drunken Santa impostor passed out on our floor. My father didn’t speak about Uncle Frank much, and they grew apart, but I think he loved him for the boy and young man he once was—an all-state football player whose college career was somehow derailed. He ended up working construction, never married and didn’t have any children.

I was a senior in college when Uncle Frank died of liver failure at age 55.. My mother always blamed “the bar,” a local watering hole my father and his brother owned in the 1950s. I think it had more to do with growing up without a mother. My father had been rescued by my mother, or more accurately, my mother’s father, who gave him a job at his insurance and real estate company. My parents created a family, one whose children believed in Santa Claus, but knew he’s a mere mortal who enjoys Dewar’s on chilly December nights.

*  *  *

After Mickey removed the beard, Uncle Frank woke up, and began to cry.

“They know who I am,” he said, over and over.

My brothers and I had no idea what to do. We looked at my parents, who were also speechless.

I felt immediate remorse, knowing we had ruined Christmas for Santa.

Michele Turk is a writer and writing instructor in Connecticut. She is co-editor of the new book, Ink Stained: Essays by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Class of 1992.


Learning Autism

Learning Autism

By Jennifer Smyth

Holly and Nick art 3The minivans and SUVs all arrived at once.  I held the screen door open as the girls bounced into the house. My daughter Holly had wanted a “Holly-ween” themed party for her 8th birthday and had invited the 12 other girls in her class. Since it was October, and school had just started a month before, there were a few new faces at our door.

One of those faces was framed by long brown hair that had wayward strands tucked behind one ear. Her name was Emily.  The large smiling skull on her purple shirt stood in contrast to her petite frame as she almost tip-toed through the doorway and into the foyer.  The last one to arrive, she was instantly enveloped by a throng of excited, screeching girls. Nick, my son, and Holly’s twin brother, was also jumping up and down with excitement, his arms straight and stiff all the way down to his wrists; his hands flapping wildly.

Although Nick went to a different school, most of Holly’s friends knew him from past parties and events. Their interest, curiosity or fear depended on their own personalities, prior experience with “a Nick,” or just the mood du jour. But he was a new experience for Emily. She took a step backwards and stared at Nick, who was a head taller than her and built like a linebacker.

“Emily, this is Holly’s twin brother Nick.” I said, kneeling down, keeping Emily to my left and shifting Nick to my right. And then knowing he was listening to me, despite the fact that his hands were still flapping and he didn’t make eye contact, I spoke to Nick.

“Nick, this is Emily. She’s in Holly’s class this year. Can you say Hi?”

Nick, completely wrapped up in the excitement of the moment, ignored my request and continued to jump and screech with glee.

I herded everyone into the living room, which was adorned with cobwebs and Jack-o-lanterns. Holly and Nick were having separate birthday parties and Holly had been involved in every aspect of the party planning, paying special attention to the décor. “Mom, it can’t be too scary,” she had said. Some of my friends won’t like that.”

Sure enough, we had to remove a dangling skeleton for one friend and a furry spider for another before getting down to the business of tossing bones into cauldrons. Emily was in the corner crying. Tiny little Emily, in a house she had never been to, with grown-ups she had never met and a boy who had very confusing behavior. I crouched down next to her, and saw Holly watching me from across the room.

“What is it sweetie?”

“I want to go home,” she sniffled.  She was looking over my shoulder, nervously scanning the room. When she saw Nick, she visibly tensed and cried.

“Is it because of Nick?” I asked. She nodded.

It would be disastrous if she left the party before it even started. My heart ached for my misunderstood son and for my super sensitive daughter who would internalize her shame and anger.  And perhaps worst of all, Emily would leave not knowing “a Nick.”

“Emily, please stay. We have lots of fun things planned.”

“I want to go home.”

“Emily, will you do me a favor? Will you be my special helper? You can stay right by my side. Will you try? If you still really want to go, I promise we can call your mom.” She nodded. I needed to show her Nick, not tell her about Nick. The scary skeletons and spiders could be removed, but Nick was permanent.

Although my husband Brendan and I were both home, we had enlisted the help of our niece, Amanda for the party. She had been our go-to babysitter for the last four years.  The girls would be vying for her attention. In addition to being “young,” Amanda had beauty and charisma that rivaled the Disney stars the girls worshiped, and more importantly, she was a Nick expert.

Amanda was kneeling down helping one of the girls tie her shoelace when Nick came running up from behind, crashing into her with a big laugh. I pretended not to notice as I asked Emily to help me get the toilet paper ready for The Mummy Wrap. Just keep her close. Let her take it in.

Nick was playfully flicking Amanda’s hair and anticipating her response. She finished with the shoelaces and then reached around and grabbed Nick into a half hug, half tackle while her fingers disappeared under his chin and he laughed his infectious hearty laugh.

In groups of three, the girls raced to be the first team to use all their toilet paper to completely mummify one member. While Emily was safe inside the winding spirals of two friends’ rolls, I waved Brendan over. “Emily is afraid. Can you keep Nick happy, but on the outskirts as much as possible?” I whispered. “I don’t want her to leave, it will be so upsetting to Holly.”

The only problem I could foresee was if Nick wanted me and only me, which happened sometimes. In that case, he would zero in on me like a drone set on its strike zone. He would relentlessly pull at my arm and make loud vocal demands, until I either gave in, or Brendan removed him kicking and screaming. But for the moment Nick was happily ensconced in the chaos of the party.

Once all the mummy wraps had been cleaned up, Emily and I led the giddy girls into the kitchen where those who dared stuck their hands into dark holes to feel zombie brains, witches’ hair and frogs’ eyes. The girls squealed with disgusted delight. Nick came bounding in, grinning ear-to-ear and shrieking before running back out. Emily barely flinched. She had her hand inside a hole, no doubt wondering about the authenticity of what was dripping through her fingers as she squished it.

The girls gobbled up the bread stick “fingers” dipped in pizza sauce before the graveyard cupcakes. As they ate, Amanda summoned them to the living room for Halloween Bingo. I was back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen, clearing plates and getting drinks, until all the appetites were satisfied and all the chairs were empty, including Emily’s. Yay Emily! I exhaled. She had scooted off with the other girls, no longer needing me at her side.

Nick ping-ponged in and out of the rooms, with various levels of excitement; exhibiting the same behaviors that were novel before and which were now “just Nick.” When the front door creaked open for the first parent collecting her chocolate faced, party weary girl, Nick came running. Danielle, who was a regular at our house said goodbye to all the girls, and then turned to Nick with her hand up, “High five?”  He high fived her as she left. When Emily’s dad came to the door, Nick came running once again. Nick and Emily were standing in the same spot where it had all begun a few hours earlier, but Emily wasn’t retreating. She was cautiously waiting. For what?

“Do you want to give Nick a high five?” I asked. She nodded. Nick smiled as she high fived him, and I whispered in her ear. “Thank you for staying. I’m proud of you”

That night after I tucked Nick in, I went into Holly’s room. She was sitting on her bed with a look that told me there was something on her mind. Her perfectly shaped lips didn’t turn up at the ends to smile and she had that lost-in-thought gaze, as if trying to solve a puzzle in her mind.

And then the invitation, “Mom?”

“Yes Holly?”

“There’s something bothering me. “

I had an idea where this was headed, but I waited.

“Emily was afraid of Nick at the party today.”

“I know sweetie.”

“It hurt my feelings.”

It had hurt mine too, but I didn’t tell her this.

“I understand, but remember, lots of people have never met “a Nick” before,” I said. “And Emily stayed even though she was afraid and by the time she left, she gave Nick a high five. That’s how things change, one person at a time.”

Holly pushed her long brown hair away from her face, and snuggled into her bed. I began to tuck her into her pink teacup-patterned sheets. She had outgrown both the color and theme of the sheets, but she hadn’t outgrown the ritual of being tucked in. First the sheet, then the blanket, and finally her down comforter. She would kick it all off before even falling asleep, but this was our ritual, and I would do it for as long as she would let me.

Jennifer Smyth is a work in progress. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with her wonderful husband and two amazing kids.

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For the Love of Horror

For the Love of Horror

By Wendy C. Ortiz

Two Kids at a Scary 3-D MovieThe first time my daughter was scared by an image in a movie she was nearly two. It was a short IMAX film featuring animated dinosaurs in a Chicago museum. Perhaps we were a little cavalier about the whole thing—it was 4-D, which meant the seats trembled and puffs of cold air emitted from seemingly nowhere to heighten the experience.

Then suddenly an animated T-Rex face filled the screen, its jaws snapping in front of our 3-D glasses. My daughter burst into tears. My partner and I hustled her out of the theater.

That day, and even a year later, she cultivates a love-hate relationship with T-Rex—wanting to replay the scene from that day when she cried, asking to dress as a T-Rex for Halloween this year. Now nearly three, she’s found a way to cope with something that once filled her with fear, and has made me consider my own relationship to fear and my love of being scared.

My fascination with horror may have begun when I walked past the hanging clown face lamp in my childhood bedroom and made the walk down the dark hallway to the living room, where, by the flickering light of the television, I could see my mother, reclined on one of the couches, watching “Movies ’til Dawn” in the dark.

“Movies ’til Dawn” did not always feature particularly scary movies but a sinister vapor seemed to float off the television and envelop me, especially if the movies were in black and white. For years I would associate these movies with the genre given after the title of the show, always in parentheses, in the TV Guide we consulted regularly: (Thriller).

My mother inherited her own penchant for thrillers and horror from my grandmother. I spent many summer days at my grandmother’s home in East Los Angeles cross-legged on her couch watching television shows like “In Search Of” with Leonard Nimoy and “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.” My Mexican grandmother had been raised as a Catholic, eventually taking a swerve into Pentecostal territories in her adulthood. She was full of dark and enchanting stories of the power of Satan in our world and what I had to do to avoid him. She spoke of nightmares she had, and the one where the black-hooded figure that levitated down the sidewalk always stuck with me. When the figure sneezed, she said, “God bless you.” This creature retorted, “That’s not what I’m looking for” and floated down the sidewalk away from her. She read her Spanish bible daily in an old black leather armchair. Jesús Cristo were the only words that came out crisp and intelligible to me as she read in her quiet monotone.

She introduced me to psalms and stories from the bible, but of course, there were some stories that stuck more than others. There was a natural bridge between the book of Revelation, with its freakish, many-headed creatures, and its moon and sea of blood, with the paranormal and mysterious presences featured in our regular television viewing: lake monsters, mysterious hoof-prints not belonging to any known animal species, and the murderous and possessed among us humans.

It didn’t occur to me that other children were shielded from such imagery. I watched “The Exorcist” at six years old, and my friend who was staying overnight hid under the covers of the pull-out bed in the TV room at the part where Regan, the possessed child, undergoes grueling medical tests. My friend fell asleep under the protective covers while I continued watching, using my hands as a shield when scenes became too intense. Luckily, it was the much edited television version, and not the uncut original, which I viewed, ecstatic, in a movie theater many years later in Seattle. Oh, that spiderwalk. Sublime in its ability to disturb, an image I still cringe at—then want to watch again.

In my parents’ house there was no bible, but there was an amalgamation of true crime books (my father’s) and grocery-store purchased horror and thrillers (my mother’s). The images on the covers—embossed skulls, illustrated blood stains, imposing residences with windows that looked like eyes and a mouth, presumably haunted—these were what I picked up to thumb through most often.

It wasn’t until I was twelve, visiting friends who’d moved from the San Fernando Valley to the just-starting-to-explode population of Palmdale, that I realized not every kid’s parents approved of these images. After a bicycle ride to a primitive little cemetery we found off an empty road where my two younger companions and I walked among the graves and told spooky stories to one another, I learned that this was possibly not “normal” behavior. My friends’ father asked us, in a certain tone, to not visit that cemetery again, and looked me straight in the eye when he said it, putting a mantle of responsibility for such abnormal behavior on my shoulders.

For most of my life I’ve been comfortable with what is dark, seeking it out, replaying it, until it has worn its terror grooves into my brain. It was not until my daughter came along that I started to think differently of it, question it, even decide not to partake—as much as I used to, anyway. In some ways I’ve seen my daughter as an antidote to the darkness I feel lives in my very tissue. This perspective, though, wishes away any potential darkness she might inherit or choose on her own.

The truth is, I don’t wish for my daughter to carry this torch of horror-love into her future. When I think of my own love of horror, I see the shadows of many scary life circumstances that made me feel at home in scary places. Alcoholic parents, a religious zealot grandmother, teachers who are sexual predators, men who will pull over when they see you at a bus stop and offer you a ride—horror movies were like a prelude, a distorted preparation for what life might bring. Horror feels familiar and even comfortable in my psyche. These are not the circumstances I envision for the little girl I’m raising.

It’s true that my daughter will find her own way, decide what she finds titillating and exciting. I like to imagine that I will be able to nurture whatever passions she strikes up with the world. And if she contains a seed with the love of horror, we can be conscious about germinating that seed, letting that grow even as we contain it, give it context and meaning in ways my family never did with me.

Meanwhile, I wait for the return of some of my favorite television shows—American Horror Story, Hannibal. I’ll continue to monitor the content of what my daughter watches on television and reads in the books we buy and bring home from the library.

Still, while I wait for next season’s terror-filled nights, I can trim back the overgrown ivy of my own love of horror, the inlaid stones of an imaginary cemetery under my feet, and keep that love—dark, howling, wild—contained.

Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014) and Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, 2014). She writes a monthly column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, Brain, Child, and other online and print journals. Wendy is a writer and marriage and family therapist intern in Los Angeles, and is co-founder, curator and host of the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series at the Good Luck Bar in Hollywood.

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

There Is No Limit

There Is No Limit

By Meriah Nichols

My parents both grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. A liberal area, with conservative (Chevron-refinery-working) parents. My mom was never a hippie, but has always been pretty open. Open in a conservative way, if that makes any sense? That is, go organic, believe in and practice reiki and the healing power of oils, homeopathy, acupuncture and all that good stuff. But use your own spoon! Don’t be naked! No premarital sex!

One of the things I’ve admired about my mom is her leading by example. She wanted a different life for us than she had. She didn’t want us growing up in the Bay Area – and so she and my Dad – both city kids! – started a sheep ranch. A sheep ranch! How fun and how huge.


What an impossible task, and how impossibly courageous!

What balls!


Then, after a rather brief move into town, she and my Dad decided to move to the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific to become Baha’i pioneers (- “pioneer” is a Baha’i term for missionary).

Fiji! Tiny island nation with enormous mosquitoes, big diseases and few jobs for foreigners!

Fiji! Tiny island nation with lovely people, strong culture and a lilting rhythm in life.

Fiji! Where swimming can be an actual form of transport! – where cockroaches fly and spiders smaller than a hand span are small.

Yes, Fiji. Pre-internet. Fiji, when moving there from California necessitated newspaper and micro-fiche searches for information, books and enormous leaps of faith.



We want so much for our kids, don’t we?

We want them to have what we wanted when we were younger, we want them to participate in life and enjoy every waking moment.

We want them to learn, grow, thrive.

We want their dreams to be sweet, we want the world to be kind to them.

I think we end up feeling that if we throw money at our bag of wishes and wants for our children, someone it will come to fruition.

If we buy the “best” toys, if we send our kids to “progressive” schools, if we clothe them in organic ware, if we pay for sports participation, camps, activities. If we spend time shuttling them to and from these scheduled things, if we arrange “playdates” with like-minded parents and friends, if we provide full-on “therapy” for our children with ‘special needs’/disabilities, if we all go to Music Together.


If we do all that, any of that, more than that, then our kids will learn, grow, thrive, have. The world will be kind to them, their dreams will be sweet.

But see, I – the kid who was dragged kicking and screaming to the tiny island nation of Fiji where there were enormous flying cockroaches, the tiny island nation where there is actual breadfruit, where prawns live in streams, where avocados are the size of American footballs – well, I don’t buy it.

I don’t.

I think all that “if-then” will buy gloss and comfort. Gloss and comfort can be really great things, so don’t get me wrong here, I’m not dissing it. But I am questioning it. I’m questioning how necessary it is, I’m questioning our cultural obsession with it because you know what? In Fiji – that tiny island nation where I’d sit outside after school with my friends and dip the mangoes we picked into a blend of vinegar, raw cane sugar and freshly chopped chillis – in Fiji nobody I knew had any of of all this and people I knew were content in a way I’ve never seen people in the United States content.

People in Fiji had time for relationships. People.

Us kids had time to just ride our bikes around and free play. Go swimming. Sit and eat mangoes.

Schools – we didn’t have textbooks in the schools I attended in Fiji – we’d all have notebooks for each subject and we’d copy out what the teacher wrote on the blackboard. We would submit our notebooks for checking and we’d be marked according to our penmanship and drawings (- because we’d draw out the skeleton and so forth). All of that writing was reinforcing every.single.thing we were learning.

Those schools in Fiji were far, far from fancy by American standards but coming out of them, I easily jumped two grades when we moved back to the US. Easily. Schools in Fiji are that good and schools here are that easy.


I look at the courage of my mother and I admire it. I admire what she did, the chances she took. Even knowing what I know now, knowing how some of those chances did hurt, I still admire that she did it at all.

Because now… well, now I’m faced with the same chance. My knees are shaking and I am experiencing first-hand how hard huge leaps like this can be. I thought it would be easier than it has been. I grew up in Fiji, right?! Giant flying cockroaches! I counted bugs at night on my mosquito net like other kids counted sheep. This should be easy.


I think of my Mom and how she led by example. She showed my brother and I how to grab life by the balls and really do the scary things. I want to be that way for my kids: I want to show them by my example – lead them by example – in a way that shuttling them to and from camp, school, progressive activity-upon-progressive-activity – never will.

I want to show them how to have courage in a world in which we can choose our destinies.


I want to show them that they can be and do whatever they want: that there is no end to the learning and growing in our lives, there is no limit.

That at age 40, my own mother graduated from University (- it took her 2 years for her BA! Working full time! Caring for two teenagers!). And at age 40, I am embarking on a massive adventure.

There is no limit.

The learning will never end.

The adventures will never cease.

We can choose our destiny.

We can be, do and achieve all that we truly desire.

There is no limit: Lead by example.


Meriah Nichols is a third culture kid, former missionary child. Deaf. Mama to 3. She is leaving soon to drive with her family from San Francisco to Argentina, along the Pan Am Overland. Follow their trip at With a Little Moxie (

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Two Days To Adoption

Two Days To Adoption

By Erin Howard

Ode to a Comfy Chair Art 2It had been a very uncomfortable two weeks.

For ten days I had lived out of a pop-up camper with my hubby, Phil, and our five-, four-, and two-year-old kids.  A pleasant family reunion went downhill as the temperature went uphill, topping off at 100 degrees for two days straight before we finally packed it in and left a day early.   The seven hour drive home turned into nine hours, then ten, then twelve, as the extreme heat broiled the camper tires until one popped.

At 10:00 p.m. we pulled into our driveway.  The kids were as charming as expected after twelve hours in the car and Phil and I wanted nothing more than to pry the necessities loose from the camper and ignore the rest until morning.  Wearily, I turned my key in the lock and slumped into the kitchen.

I have since used this precise moment to explain the definition of the word “ominous” to my children.  The cord to our Wii was lying across the kitchen floor.  A gaming cord in the kitchen? We hadn’t left a gaming cord in the kitchen.  It felt… ominous.  Had someone been in the house?

The answer to that, of course, on this day of the Murphiest of Laws, was yes.  11:00 p.m. and my preschoolers were watching TV at the neighbors’ house while my husband and I examined the damage with the police.  The robbers had broken down a kitchen door, stolen my husband’s laptop, pried our new flat-screen TV off the wall, and trashed our bedroom—even throwing over our mattresses.  I still take a fiendish delight in knowing that those robbers must have been sorely disappointed by our lack of valuables.  All they got was a roll of Chuck-E-Cheese tokens.

We spent the night at my parents.  The next day, sans kids for the most part, Phil and I contained the damage and finagled with the insurance.   Saturday passed—first night at home since the robbery.  Our five-year-old daughter had us check under her bed for “feefs” four times.  Sunday passed; the kitchen was full of power tools and loose drywall.  Phil’s Dad, a jack-of-all-trades/African-missionary (really!) would arrive early Monday to replace the kitchen door and patch the walls.  I craved Monday.  I craved the comfort of a familiar routine.

Monday came.  Work begun.  Routine established.  Relief sighed.  Four hours later, I got a call.  The insurance?  The police?  Of course not.  That would be too normal.  It was Sharon, our adoption social worker.

“So, all I need to know from you is, can you be ready in two days?”

It was noon on Monday.   Sharon, wanted us in Indiana, ready to parent a 10-day-old baby girl, on Wednesday.  Forty-eight hours!  But—Vacation!  Robbery!  Traumatized Preschoolers!

And, beyond all that, we weren’t technically finished with our adoption home study.  Sure, we’d finished our classes and passed our background checks, but we still needed to have our home visit and our one-on-one counseling session with our social worker.  I needed to track down at least one more reference and recreate our adoption profile because the original—an encapsulation of our family’s life and times that I painstakingly designed for our prospective birth mom—had been stolen when those pesky robbers nabbed my husband’s laptop.

How were we going to cram all of this in to 48 hours?  And prepare for a baby when we had thought it would take months to get a placement.  And move our family from Illinois to Indiana for a stay of unknown duration so that the two states could finalize their interstate paperwork?

I gripped the phone. I hadn’t made a sound.  Those words “can you be ready in two days?” hung in the air, awaiting my reply.

“We’ll be ready.”

That was it.  I didn’t know how we would do it, but we would do it.  After two adoptions and an unexpected biological child in less than five years, our social workers knew us well.  I’m an organizer.  My husband, Phil, is an improviser.  We were made for this challenge.  With our first adoption, we’d had seven days notice.  With our second, only four.  Now, just two.  It was as if we’d been training for this moment—like how you steadily decrease your times when training for a race.  We were at peak performance.  We could handle it, even if the circumstances were, well, let’s be euphemistic and say “less than ideal.”

Phil, who had been back at work for a whole four hours drove back home and by 5:00, we had rewritten the adoption profile, emailed references to our agency, verified our insurance for the new baby, notified our pediatrician, and arranged for housing in Indiana.  By 6:00, we were sitting calmly in our social worker’s office answering mundane questions about our parenting style and our philosophy on discipline.

Phil and I can be very efficient when we want to be.

The next morning was marked by periodic shrieks of “don’t touch that right now, we need to hurry to get ready for Miss Sharon.”  Oh heavens, I hoped Miss Sharon wouldn’t be early!  I was losing my cool, and it was the last thing I wanted our social worker to see.  Even though I knew by this point—it being the third time around and all–that our social worker was on our team and that she was absolutely not going to judge us on dust bunnies and dirty dishes, I so wanted to have it all together.  I wanted to be Super Mom.

For our two previous home visits, the house had been painfully clean, the children scrubbed and smiling.  It was a thin, artificial veneer over the chaos that surrounds every young family, but it made me feel good. This time, I couldn’t even fake it.  The house was full of that lovely post-vacation scrum of suitcases and dirty clothes.  There were power tools on my kitchen table and dry-wall dust stuck to the dirty dishes in my sink.  I draped sheets over the debris-filled sink and counter, piled suitcases in my walk-in closet, explained the situation to Sharon, and tried to forget about it.

Sharon, of course, had known us for over five years and wouldn’t have been fooled by any of that Super Mom nonsense anyway.  She checked the location of our cleaning supplies and medications, made sure we weren’t hiding any firearms, and mercifully did not look in the closets.  By 2:00, we were officially qualified to be adoptive parents.  Again.

That left us 22 hours to prepare for our new baby. I threw a load of baby toys and blankets in the wash and rifled bins of my older daughter’s outgrown clothes looking for the smallest newborn sizes I could find.  The new baby, whom we named Mia, was only 3 pounds 15 ounces at birth, and a lot of this hurry stemmed from the fact that no one expected her to be released from the hospital after only 10 days.  But Mia was a feisty one and, now weighing in at a whopping 4 pounds 5 ounces, she was ready to go home.  We had to have a home ready for her.

Wednesday, just after lunch, we set off—our minivan a jumble of kids, clothes, and camping gear. My brother had closed on a house in Indiana a couple of weeks before, but we would need to furnish the empty rooms with camp beds and folding chairs while we stayed for a week or more.  Since we hadn’t actually got around to unpacking the camping stuff from our vacation three days before, we were all set.  At least that part was easy.

Meeting Mia, and having all four of our children together for the first time, remains a shining, perfect moment in my life.   It was as if I had been holding my breath for two days, or even more, since the robbery maybe.  I didn’t even know one of us was missing, but now all six of us were together, just as it should be.   My whole family, safe and calm together.  I could breathe.

The three older children adored Mia and showered the terrifyingly clumsy affections of preschoolers down on her.  They looked like Great Danes hovering around a toy poodle.  They wouldn’t leave her alone, but she was so unbelievably tiny I was afraid they would squash her.  “Leave Mia Be” became such a frequent warning that that the new baby was nicknamed “Mia-B” before she had been with us a week.

We’d made it this far, it was now time to take stock of our resources.  I had made exactly one trip to the store since we found out about Mia, and I had apparently bought all the wrong things.  The words “4lbs 5oz” that I had read on the medical background forms didn’t translate to the reality of “4lbs 5oz” in my mind.  4lbs pounds is small.  Really, really small.  The Size-NB clothes and diapers I had hurriedly thrown into the back of the minivan weren’t going to work.  We would have to make do with the freebies from the hospital and adoption agency.  Two pairs of tiny footie pajamas.  A onezie proudly proclaiming “NICU Graduate”.  Half a package of preemie diapers.  It wasn’t much of a layette.

We weren’t doing that well on the “Baby Must-Haves” checklist that you find on all of those “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” websites.  It was pretty pathetic, really.  Still, after two days of continuous movement just to get to Indiana to pick up the baby, not to mention the two days of burglary clean-up, we were ready to ignore the inconveniences and finally focus on Mia. At least we had what we needed for Day One; we would worry about Day Two when it came.  On Day Two we realized that Indiana has Babies-R-Us, just like Illinois does. Imagine that!  It was a make-do or do-without kind of situation, and Mia didn’t seem to mind, so none of the rest of us did either.

My brother’s house had exactly one piece of real furniture in it—a 30-year-old tan recliner tucked away in the room what would be my niece and nephew’s playroom.  It had once belonged to my grandmother before winding it’s way through the family and ending up in my brother’s dorm room.

That one comfy chair, a much-abused former dorm chair, became the focus of our days.  Whoever was holding the baby got priority access.  My husband and I playfully sparred over feeding Mia, relishing the time with our newborn–and the accompanying benefit of sitting in that one comfy chair.  We would evict our older children (they were not immune to the chair’s attractions), then snuggle in with our tiny, skinny, nearly-naked baby.

In the evening, after getting our three older kids settled down to sleep on their improvised beds, the “winner” would hold the baby in that comfy chair.  The “loser” would pull up a folding chair and hold the laptop so we could watch Arrested Development on Netflix.  We slept on camp mattresses on the floor.  We cooked in borrowed pots and ate off paper dishes.  And, whenever we could, we snuck some cuddles in that one comfortable chair.

Of course, parenting a newborn and three preschoolers in a nearly-empty house is not exactly easy, but even at the time those days seemed very cozy.  We couldn’t go home.  We couldn’t go to work.  We couldn’t stress about the burglary and the repairs and the insurance.  We were stuck.  We were stuck in a place and a time where there was nothing to do but sit and hold the baby.  Maybe it was nothing but “dorm furniture,” but that one comfy chair, which periodically overflowed as all six of us tried to sit in it at once, was all that we needed.  After a few days, the older kids left to stay with their Grandparents for the duration, and it was even cozier with just the three of us.  Phil and me, bonding with little Mia…and the comfy chair.

Eventually, we were able to return home.  I decorated Mia’s nursery, moved in a gliding rocker, and folded a dresser full of preemie clothes.  I conquered that “Must-Haves” list in the end.  But from experience, I know you don’t really need all of those “Must-Haves” in order to have a good start with a baby.  You don’t need nine months to prepare.  You don’t even need to have a fully-furnished house.  It does, however, help to have a comfy chair.

Erin Howard is a stay-at-home-mom to four children from a combination of pregnancies and adoption. Her essays have been published in several adoption and parenting magazines.

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It Takes a Village

It Takes a Village

By Kim Siegal

IWO It Takes a Village Art sat on the living room floor with my one-year-old, three brightly colored balls atop a plywood box between us.  Perched on my elbows, I watched him raise that little wooden mallet as high as his tiny arms would allow and then bring it down with a satisfying thud onto one of the balls, sending the ball down through the box and careening across the floor.  He reeled at his newfound success at this baby-sized whack-a-mole game, giggling so hard at the commotion he had created that it nearly threw him off balance.  I happily retrieved the ball each time it went flying.

His joy was infectious.  I caught myself reflexively wearing one of those stupid love-struck grins, reveling in the purity and simplicity of his happiness, and thought, “This. This is it. Moments like these are why people have children.”  I almost couldn’t get enough.

And then we played the game another 10 minutes. And I had definitely had enough. The repetition had become simply tedious, and my mind wandered to other more stimulating things I could be doing with my time. Like the dishes.

Not only did I feel my mind starting to numb, but I felt trapped. I knew if I tried to escape, he would cry.   And, anyway, wasn’t this my job as a mother?  Shouldn’t I be enjoying it?  Or at least hanging in there for more than a few minutes?  How did I go from euphoria to bored, trapped and guilty in 10 minutes flat?

Perhaps my impatience was the result of living in our fast-paced, hyper-connected, Insta-Google-face-gram  world, whose myriad distractions were preventing me from being wholly present in any given situation.  Maybe all this was at odds with the slow pace of motherhood.  Even so, I had dreamt of these tender mother-child bonding moments from tweenhood on and was unsettled to find that they could become joyless so quickly.  I had the nagging sensation that my impatience was some kind of indication of my failing as a mother.  We’re made to feel communing with our children is the most natural thing in the world, fueled by the very spirit of motherhood, and so when boredom creeps in so does the guilt.  But is playing with our children the “most natural thing in the world?”

No.  Not really.


I learned this shortly after we moved from Boston to a small border town in Western Kenya – the kind with one main road flanked by small dukas (shops) and ramshackle hotels, cutting through a patchwork of small farms.  We moved to start jobs with an organization that studies anti-poverty programs and with a toddler in tow, the only non-African kid in town.

My first month was set aside for “settling in,” making sure our 20-month-old son was adjusting and finding childcare.  Each day I’d set out, hand-in-hand with our son Caleb, taking in our new surroundings.  We’d walk carefully on the craggy paths, making a game out of stepping over the stones while dodging oncoming livestock.  But generally, I was at a complete loss as to what to do with myself and my son for 12 hours of daylight.

There were no playgrounds and the concept of a “playdate” was as foreign as flavored coffee.  Typically, by 10 AM, we had already had four hours of coloring, reading books, building with blocks, putting together puzzles and I would grow increasingly panicked about staving off a meltdown.  For either of us.  It was around that time, we’d set out to explore our new town.  I wondered: what did local mothers do to occupy their own restless children?

The answers were not readily apparent on our walks.  I saw no other mother similarly looking to find entertainment for her child.  I saw plenty of children.  They would be playing with a makeshift soccer ball, cobbled together with plastic bags and string or walking together with jerry cans on their way to fetch water.   There were mothers all over the place but none visibly attached to these benign Lord of the Flies-like gangs of children, and certainly none directing their play.

The mothers I saw on these walks were often chatting with each other in the shade of a storefront overhang or plaiting each other’s hair.  Others were hidden behind walls, preparing ugali, the local staple, or washing clothes in large plastic buckets and setting them in the sun to dry.  I did see plenty of mom-child dyads — moms at the market with babies strapped to their backs and moms riding matatus (mini buses) with toddlers on their laps — but no mother appeared tethered to the whim of their toddler the way I was.  Their daily rhythms were set by an intertwining of chores and relaxing with other adults, and they seemed, at least from the outside, to be enjoying themselves.

We eventually found some remedy for our boredom with our morning visits to little Isaac and his mother.  Isaac was born the same week as Caleb and his parents owned a duka just across that one paved road.  While his mother was tending to customers and asking me polite questions about America, indulging my nascent Kiswahili, Caleb and Isaac would run around in front of the duka and play together.  They became quick friends despite the language barrier, and a ball or a couple of toy cars would keep them occupied for hours. Every once in a while a man would come along and scoop up Isaac in his arms and give him those universally fun-making rides favored by uncles everywhere.

“Is that Isaac’s uncle?” I’d ask.

“No.” Isaac’s mother would respond, settling the issue.

“But who….”

“Oh. That’s Fred. He just brings the bread twice a week.”

In fact, all of the customer and purveyors of their small shop seemed to know the family.  I don’t know if they saw it as a duty, a ritual, a pleasure or if they even thought about it at all, but each person would tease or scoop up little Isaac or give him rides on the back of their bicycle.  Caleb, as Isaac’s new playmate, benefited from this informal web of uncles and aunts too.  And I simply sat back and sipped my chai.


As my work start date approached, we found a woman to look after Caleb when I crossed the road to head to work.  Rukia was reassuring and warm and had already raised 4 children of her own.  She seemed to possess a protective instinct, constantly worrying if Caleb was stepping too close to a ledge or running too close to the road.   Of course, not having observed a lot of mother-child interactions, I was a bit nervous about how she would entertain him all day.  I showed her the toys, the crayons, the chalk, the books, and told her which ones he preferred most.   But I had no idea how she’d fill those long hours.

I got my answer that first day, when I came home from work to see 8 or 9 children playing happily in our living room.  Caleb was running around beaming.

“Mama mama!  Look see dat!” Caleb declared, pointing a tiny finger to an older playmate who managed to make something relatively sophisticated out of Caleb’s small set of Duplos.  The child looked over at me and smiled shyly just as another child rammed a plastic truck into his knee.  They both ran off laughing, Caleb giggling and following after them.

As happy as Caleb was to see me come home and to fall into the security of his mother’s lap, his face fell when his new playmates left the house.

It turned out I didn’t have to worry too much about how Rukia would play with my son.   Rukia saw it as her job to feed, bath him, find him playmates and make sure he didn’t fall on something sharp.  But not necessarily to get down on the floor and draw chalk pictures and do puzzles with him for the better part of a morning. She simply found people more suited to that task.

And that’s when it all came together: Maybe modern parenting is asking too much of mothers.  We’re their constant companions, playmates, disciplinarians, teachers and main source of affection.  We’re the entire village. It’s draining on us and probably not always the best for them.  Maybe it’s OK to spend more time tending to a mother’s other duties and even pleasures as long as there’s an extended web of loving pseudo uncles and a gaggle of mixed-aged friends to run around with.  It might even be better.

We’ve since moved from that small border town to the Provincial capital.  We live now in a compound of townhouses protected by a guard hired by the landlord.  But we’re still in Kenya, so the guard acts as a favorite uncle, taking my baby from my arms and kicking the ball around with the older kids; and the neighbor’s kids run freely in and out of our houses.

Recently, I came downstairs after my Saturday sleep-in to see my second son, Emmet, playing that same wack-a-mole game and delighting, just as his brother had, in his success. Just as before, I happily ran after that escaped wooden ball and relished in his wonderment at his emerging ability.  But when his interest started to outlast my own, I, without any guilt, left the room to make some coffee, confident that any one of the 3 neighbor children playing on the floor next to him would provide interest and distraction.  When I returned, coffee in hand, I saw Sylvanos, a 12-year-old boy who adores Emmet, carrying him to the window to point at the bright yellow weaver birds just outside.  When I returned, I could be a better, maybe even more playful, mother.

Kim Siegal lives in Kisumu, Kenya with her husband and 2 sons. She chronicals her experiences living and raising children in Africa in  She has written for the Huffington Post, Inculture Parent and is an editor and contributor at








By Dawn Friedman

fall2007_friedmanEvery morning I turn on Max & Ruby and sit down in the blue chair with the red cushion. My three-year old daughter grabs a little chair for herself and places it between my feet. I have a wide-toothed comb, a rat-tail comb, and spray-on conditioner. I also have a box of barrettes, cloth-covered rubber bands and little plastic snaps.

First I separate Madison’s hair into sections and spray it liberally with the conditioner. Then I use the wide-toothed comb to smooth the tangles from her curls. Next I use the rat-tail comb to make parts. Sometimes I divide her hair into a dozen little squares to braid. Sometimes I give her two fat pigtails down low behind her ears to leave room for her bike helmet. Other times I pull back the top and braid it to keep the hair out of her eyes and leave the rest down to froth around her shoulders. Depending on the style, our morning ritual can be as short as twenty minutes or as long as an hour.

My daughter’s hair is rich, chestnut brown touched with auburn. It bounces around her ears in silky corkscrew curls. It is the kind of hair that captures attention in the grocery checkout line.

“Look at that gorgeous hair!” the observer exclaims. “Wherever did she get it?”

They don’t really need to ask. Underneath that mop of glistening curls is a café au lait face. It’s obvious that she got her beautiful hair from her African American ancestors. But people ask this because I am white, and clearly there is some story to our daughter’s arrival to our family. “Where did she get that hair?” is a question that comes from white people. Black people simply say, “She has good hair.”

It’s what her birth mother said at one of her visits. “I hoped she’d have hair like this,” Jessica said, twisting a curl around her fingers. Our daughter’s first mom, with whom we have a fully open adoption, has kinky hair that gave her fits when she was a child and that she now wears in a soft afro. “She has good hair.”

“But isn’t it all good hair?” I said, quoting the title of a book on African American hair care (It’s All Good Hair) that’s widely recommended in transracial adoption circles.

Jessica snorted. The snort said, “Spoken like a white person.”

Madison is not tender-headed–she never yips in pain when my comb hits a snarl–but getting her to sit (mostly) still has been a matter of training. I started having her sit for hair time before she had much hair at all. We both needed the practice.

“Do you want braids today?” I ask Madison. “Do you want your dragonfly clips?”

“I want to wear it foofy,” she might say. She means in two fluffy ponytails. If her hair was in braids before we sit down to style, her ponytails will be soft ripples. If we mist them with water, the curls will bounce right back. Sometimes she wants twists, two strands of hair twisted around each other to make a sort of looser version of a braid.

“Like Rudy,” she says, because she admires Rudy’s hair on old Cosby Show reruns. For twists we might use tiny clasps called snaps at the end of her hair. We have flowers and jeweled hearts and little opalescent butterflies. Madison fiddles with them and by the end of the day her hair is still in twists but empty at the ends. I find the clips scattered around the house and I pick them up to put back in our barrette box. Replacing snaps can get expensive.

Our babysitter Jaime is a young African American woman with inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm who wears her hair in natural short twists, which she usually covers with a pretty scarf. Every morning she greets Madison by commenting on her hair. A neutral, “Look at your hair today!” means I could have done better. An enthusiastic, “Look at your pretty-pretty braids!” and I can tell I’ve done a good job.

I knew that this was her ever-polite way of guiding me while I tried to figure out the social mores around my daughter’s halo of curls. One morning I asked her outright how I was doing on Madison’s hair.

Jaime seemed relieved I had asked. She mentioned the products that would work best on Madison. She checked out my comb and cautioned me against over-conditioning.

“What about this?” I asked. My daughter has little flyaway wisps that escape around her face. “Do I need to do something to keep them down?”

“No, but if her hair was really nappy, that would look like a mess,” Jaime answered. She paused to cup Madison’s chin in her hand and tilted her head up to see her eyes. “But we know our children’s hair comes in all grades. We know that her hair just does that and it looks just fine.”

There are other words for nappy. There is “textured” or “kinky” or “coarse.” My black friends have instructed me not to say nappy because this is a word that in the mouth of a white person has the dim, lurid overtones of hatred.

“I can call a child’s hair nappy,” explained one of my former co-workers. “But you can’t. Don’t even go there.”

After we adopted Madison, one of my white friends asked, “Can you say it now?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. To make sure I asked a black friend. That’s when I learned the word “textured.”

When I took my daughter across the country to meet her extended birth family, I was nervous about her hair. She didn’t have much then, being only about fifteen months old, but what she had was a soft blur of curls. Left alone it was cute but messy and there was barely enough to style.

“Just get the parts straight,” said a black friend. “It’s all about having a good part.”

Now I practice parts the way I used to practice my tennis serve. I try to put style, grace, and accuracy into my daughter’s parts. If the line wavers at all, I comb her hair out and start again. I’m finally getting the hang of it and now I can make complicated parts at an angle to each other. I’m proud of my parts.

I’ll admit it, I was scared to adopt a daughter. Once we knew we would be adopting a black child, I read books about hair care and felt worried. I’ve never been good with my hands. I hate to sew and crochet; even writing a letter by hand makes me groan. How would I manage her hair?

Most of my white friends don’t understand the fuss. They have daughters with long hair or with short hair and sometimes they send them out looking like they’re wearing a bird’s nest on top of their heads.

“Well, she won’t let me get a comb through it,” they shrug.

One day I was talking to a white friend about Madison’s hair and about trying to figure out how to keep my daughter walking between two worlds with her head held high.

“I just want her to look right,” I said.

“She’ll look right because she’s your daughter,” my friend said.

I found her assurance well intentioned but frustrating. When my white friends argue that I shouldn’t “have” to adhere to black standards in styling Madison’s hair, they are refusing to acknowledge that this is a response driven by white expectations, created by a culture where the texture of black hair is considered a problem, an anomaly. When they say, “Would you do this for your biological child?” they ignore the fact that my bio son is white.

When my white friends’ daughters leave the house with uncombed hair they subvert ideas about shiny neatness and little girls. My feminist friends smile easily at their tangled-headed daughters playing princess. But this is not a privilege extended to children with brown skin. I know that my daughter–like any child of African descent, boy or girl–carries the weight of racism on her curls. The cultural image of the unkempt black child–of Buckwheat and wide-eyed pickaninnies–is part of a racist legacy used to argue that African American parents didn’t care for their children and that their children weren’t worth the care.

White people, like my friend, usually assume that my whiteness protects my child. It’s a dangerous assumption. My daughter cannot escape racism just because she is my child. I don’t want to send my daughter out into the fray without the visible respect of her mother. I do her hair to send the message that her curls are worth the trouble because she is worth the trouble. I’m telling the world that she is valuable and loved and protected.

None of this is a burden to me. I look forward to styling Madison’s hair every morning. I enjoy the closeness, the quiet focus of my mind while I sift through the barrettes. I mist my daughter’s hair with water and prepare to unknot the tender place at the base of her skull, the place that my black friends tell me is called “the kitchen.”

At the end of our styling sessions I always say the same thing.

“You look beautiful.”

“Thank you, hairdressing lady,” my daughter says formally. “Thank you for doing my hair.”

Then she’s off to go look in the mirror and I put the comb away.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

About the Author:  Dawn Friedman lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, son, Noah, and daughter, Madison. Her work has appeared in, Yoga Journal, and Greater Good. She was an editor at Literary Mama and blogs at


Mama Wants a Brand-New Job

By Katy Read

winter2010_readIn unexpected ways, the Great Recession has been good for Amy Stone. Oh, not the fact that her family has had to slash expenses: downscaling the cable and cell-phone plans, cutting back on restaurant meals, dropping their dental coverage. And certainly not the fact that her husband was laid off and, though he has a new job, is now making $50,000 less than he formerly earned.

But for Stone, the hard times have presented an opportunity to build a business doing work she loves to do: creating handmade baby gifts, ceramic baby hand and feet impressions, murals, jewelry, pottery—basically offering her artistic talents “to anyone who has an idea.”

Stone, a former FedEx executive who took a buyout to be a stay-at-home mother—she now has two daughters: one four years old, the other eighteen months—has an art degree. She put it to use about four years ago, when she began cutting, painting and renting out wooden stork-shaped “new baby” yard signs (having been inspired to improve upon a sign she received for her older daughter’s birth that was “absolutely ugly”). The venture grew slowly at first, by word of mouth. But after her husband lost his brokerage job, Stone decided to get more proactive. In January, she launched a website advertising her creations and offering an expanded line of merchandise.

“Now I’ve got so much work I can hardly keep up,” says Stone, forty, who lives in Byhalia, Mississippi. “I have people from all over the United States calling me asking me, ‘Can you do this,’ ‘Can you do that.’ And I’m one who has a hard time saying no, so I usually try to accommodate everybody.”

She doesn’t make nearly what she used to make at FedEx, but as a tradeoff for being home with her children and homeschooling her older daughter, “it all breaks even to me.”

For the chance for a parent to stay home and care for the children—to take them to playgrounds and the beach, to be there when they get home from school, to avoid the frantic schedules and frustrating compromises involved in balancing full-time work and raising children—many families willingly make sacrifices. Plenty of single-income families cheerfully forgo new cars, fancy vacations and other luxuries. But in the current recession, the worst in recent memory, those measures may not be enough. What once seemed like a reasonable and rewarding choice has forced many single-income families to rethink their decision.

Not all stay-at-home mothers are as lucky as Stone, able to monetize their talent and ideas in a pinch. But many are casting about for ways to improve their earning power. With spouses’ jobs threatened, investments and home values clobbered, and household budgets straining at the seams, mothers who have spent years comfortably at home have started brushing the dust off their résumés, or looking for ways to make extra income on their own.

Experts aren’t certain exactly how many stay-at-home mothers have returned to work, or where, or doing what. And although economic cataclysms can bring about long-term changes in social, economic, and political behavior, it’s not yet clear what the consequences will be this time around. “You can never be in the eye of the storm and know what’s happening,” says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University and the author of Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (1990). But the logical assumption that hard times might push at-home mothers back into the workplace seems to be supported by federal statistics, Goldin says. The number of women in the labor force, which includes women actually working as well as those just looking for work, has inched upward, suggesting that some women who had previously kept themselves out of the labor force (including at-home mothers), are at least trying to get back in.

“This recession has brought home to huge numbers of women that opting out is just too scary from a family finance point of view,” said Joan Williams, a legal scholar and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. “It has been a rude awakening and has dramatized for people the true economic consequences.”

Women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, now hold about half of all jobs. The recession, sometimes called a “man-cession” or “he-cession” because about three-quarters of those who have lost jobs are men, has battered male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing, whereas jobs in female-dominated professions like healthcare and education are stable or growing.

Though still digesting what women might gain from this new strength in numbers, some observers hope that it will finally prompt long-sought changes in both homes and workplaces that could potentially improve mothers’ lives. A national study of women’s status published in October, titled A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, examines various issues that complicate the lives of working parents—particularly those of mothers—and floats the idea that women’s increased representation in the workplace could spur dramatic societal change. Spearheaded by California First Lady and Kennedy clan member Maria Shriver, along with the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, the report argues that government and businesses should adjust policies to meet the needs of their women employees. The report also suggests that men are seeing, or at least at some point will see, the need to do their fair share at home, becoming equal partners with their co-breadwinners in household chores and childcare. Some commentators, including feminist leader Gloria Steinem, have noted that women’s mere presence in the work force may not be enough to spur these changes, but applaud the report for putting the conversation on the table.

Most mothers want to work, even if many would prefer part-time. A 2005 poll by the Institute for American Values demonstrated that, if given the choice, more than two-thirds of women would opt in to working, at least part time, while their children were young. The good news is that their contributions seem to be welcome; in a recent study conducted by Time magazine and the Rockefeller Foundation, majorities of both men and women said mothers are just as committed to their jobs as women without children, and just as productive at work as fathers. (However, the respondents seemed conflicted about how this might play out at home: Fifty-seven percent of men and fifty-one percent of women agreed that it is better for a family if the father works outside the home and the mother takes care of the children.)

With more women bringing home the bacon, families and employers may better appreciate the importance of women’s earnings, said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. “Policy makers are hopefully going to start taking seriously the need for workers to balance work and care—not just women but all workers.”

That would be great news for mothers who’ve felt unwillingly squeezed out of the workplace by policies that don’t accommodate the needs of families, according to Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (2007). In her book, Stone (no relation to artist Amy) interviewed mothers who “actually loved their jobs, wanted to stay in their jobs” but eventually left them because they found their demanding schedules made staying at work and raising children too difficult.

Much as mothers might need and desire more workplace options—flexible hours, part-time work, telecommuting—in tough times some employers conclude that they can’t afford to offer those things, possibly becoming even more inhospitable to parents’ needs, Williams, of Worklife Law, says. And employees, thankful to have jobs at all, are more afraid to rock the boat. So at-home mothers returning to work may find the workplace more hostile than it was when they left.

Indeed, Pamela Stone says, the recession might have changed the outlook of women like those she interviewed, forcing them to find ways to stick it out at work, a decision she says would probably be for the best. “Because it’s too perilous a time,” she says. “Based on where things are now, and what I know about some of the difficulties about returning to work, if you’ve got a job that you can make work, make it work.”

But there are some indications that workplaces are already becoming more flexible, not just to make moms happy but also to control businesses’ own costs. A study conducted in 2009 by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that eighty-one percent of employers have maintained the level of flexibility they offered before the economic meltdown, and thirteen percent have increased it, offering perks such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks, voluntary reduced hours, and phased retirement.

“Workplace flexibility is one of the hidden, strategic workplace management tools that has allowed employers to respond to many different ups and down,” said Lois Backon, vice president of the Institute.

Turns out such measures aren’t just a boon to parents and others employees who’d like to work fewer hours: They also help businesses cut costs, not to mention hang onto valuable employees rather than lay them off, Williams says. “One of the great problems in managing a recession is gearing up once it’s over. If you give everybody the opportunity to flex their hours and reduce them if they want … once the demand returns, you already have the people you need on staff.”

Those flexible options may be great for many parents, but mothers reentering the work force after years away may be reluctant to take advantage of them, for fear of seeming less than fully dedicated. New employees often feel they first need to prove themselves, said Melissa Stanton, author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-Tested Strategies for Staying Smart, Sane, and Connected While Caring for Your Kids (2008). Stanton, who has three children and lives in suburban Washington, D.C., is job hunting herself these days. She applied for one contract position that would have required her to commute into the city five days a week. When she asked to work from home twice a week, the employer declined, and she didn’t get the job. Now she feels she should have taken the job as it was offered, proved her value, and then asked for a partial telecommuting arrangement.

“That’s advice that was given to me by a woman who’s got a really great job that she can now do at home,” Stanton said. “You go in and you work your butt off, and for a year or two your children and your spouse need to know you may not be at home until eight o’clock at night, the kids might be in bed by the time you get home.”

But that kind of full-throttle work commitment is a pretty tall order for many mothers, still burdened with more than their share of housework and childcare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even employed married mothers of young children do two-thirds of the household work. Men have started doing more around the house, but still far from half, said Dianna Shandy and Karine Moe, authors of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family (2009). Despite all that women have gained in the workplace, the division of household chores can sometimes seem “like a page ripped out of a history book or something,” Moe says.

One woman the authors interviewed for their book, a woman who held an MBA from an Ivy League school (as did her husband), said that after becoming a mother she noticed all of the changes she had made in her life to accommodate her new role.

“And she looked at her husband, and he had not made one single change,” Moe says. “She said, ‘We’re like this 1950s couple, and I don’t know how that happened.’ “

Kathy Pape of Las Vegas has been frustrated with the division of work in her family. Pape left a job as a television reporter in Monterey, California, to stay home with her two small sons. But since her husband, a photojournalist for a television network, had his pay reduced, cutting the family’s income by hundreds of dollars a month, Pape has been helping make ends meet with freelance public-relations jobs. Now she works about forty hours a week (her husband works about fifty), but she still does all of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and shopping.

“I love my husband, but he doesn’t do any of that stuff,” says Pape, thirty-five. “He gives me the old, ‘I go to work every day, I’m tired.’ He has no clue how it is, none.”

Meanwhile, the recession also is limiting the extent to which families such as Pape’s can pay for conveniences and outside help with domestic chores. For example, Pape has had to cut back on both ready-cooked deli meals and babysitters. Lately, when she’s at the computer in the daytime her sixteen-month-old has started “pulling the bottom drawer of my desk out, standing on it, trying to hit the mouse, hit the keyboard,” so she does most of her public-relations work at night, when the kids are in bed.

Yet she’s glad to have the chance to be home with her kids, she says. “You only get that shot once, and then they grow up.”

Could the recession mean the end of the so-called helicopter parent, who feels obliged to monitor his or her child’s every move and schedule the child with wall-to-wall classes, sports and activities intended to ensure his success in school and later life?

Logic suggests that strapped parents are less able to spend either time or money on their kids. Indeed, Pamela Stone suggests, at-home mothers who have felt obliged to sacrifice jobs and financial gain on behalf of their kids might eventually decide that providing financially for one’s kids is also part of caregiving, and that financial decisions that jeopardize mothers put their kids at risk, too.

“I think that there’s so much in our culture that really puts pressure on working moms to quit—the guilt trip and the like,” Stone says. When it gets tough, it helps to “keep remembering that the vast majority of moms are working.”

But hyperparenting may not die out so easily, says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (2008). After all, overprotective parents usually act that way out of anxiety, and a recession certainly doesn’t help to allay anxiety.

“Anxiety doesn’t follow logic,” she said. “Anxiety has been ratcheted up in the recession. Parents are even more worried about the future of their kids. … It filters into a style of parenting that you have to be more vigilant, you have to monitor, there’s no room for a mistake. Perfection becomes the goal.”

Marano said that when she speaks to groups of parents, people in attendance seem more anxious than ever. For example, she says, some parents feel it’s even more important now for kids to get into competitive colleges. So they are “hiring tutors for this, tutors for that, are much more eager to see their kids on travel teams so the kids could get onto the varsity team.

Even in the best of times, re-entry in the job market can be tough for mothers who have been at home for a while. Experts say they already face various stigmas and assumptions, from ageism to the suspicion that they’re not sufficiently committed, dependable, ambitious or capable. In a 2007 study by psychologists at Northwestern, Princeton and Lawrence Universities, researchers measuring public perceptions of different groups found that “housewives” were perceived to be approximately as competent as elderly and mentally retarded people.

Jennifer Piehl has faced this uphill re-entry battle firsthand. For more than eleven years, she was a mostly full-time at-home mother to her three children, taking a few jobs as a tutor but rarely working more than a few hours a week. Being at home gave her the flexibility to get extra help for a son who has a hearing impairment.

Now, though, she is getting a divorce. Although she and her husband jointly made the decision for her to stay home, it is Piehl who is paying a steep and personal price for it. At thirty-eight, she has little means of supporting herself aside from whatever she winds up with in child support and alimony.

The financial inequities between Piehl and her soon-to-be ex-husband are stark. He earns more than $100,000 a year as a project manager for a large company, and hopes to buy out her share of their 3,100-square-foot house. Piehl earns $60 a week (at best) when she can get private tutoring jobs, plus whatever child support and spousal maintenance her husband winds up contributing. She will have to pay for her own health insurance. Her husband has urged her to buy a condominium, but she doesn’t want to do that because she can’t count on a steady income over the life of a mortgage. “My spousal maintenance doesn’t last thirty years. My child support doesn’t last thirty years,” Piehl says. “When my oldest turns eighteen, which is only seven and a half years from now, I start losing money. I can’t bank on getting remarried.” Instead, Piehl has moved in with her parents in a suburb outside Milwaukee.

Piehl has begun looking for a job, but having sent out more than fifty résumés, she’s been called for only a handful of interviews. Though she has a master’s degree in education, she has never taught full time, which she fears makes her appear simultaneously overqualified (teachers with post-graduate degrees get higher salaries) and underqualified. There’s no question that her years out of the full-time work force have placed her at a serious economic disadvantage.

She is hardly alone. According to recent numbers, getting hired is more difficult than ever for almost everyone. According to Boushey, the economist, thirty-six percent of unemployed workers have become so discouraged that they’ve dropped out of the job market altogether for at least six months, the highest percentage since World War II. (The previous peak was twenty-six percent.) The employment picture varies from one industry to another, Boushey says, but statistically speaking, for every available job there are 6.3 people actively seeking work. In other words, someone applying for a job can expect, on average, more than five competitors—particularly dismal odds for those with gaps in their work history.

“For mothers, with that kind of competition, it kind of makes my stomach drop a little bit,” Boushey says.

Meanwhile, some mothers have found themselves opting out involuntarily. Margot Diamond, once a fast-track executive has been an at-home mother since she was laid off a year ago. Although she has made the most of her chance to take her two girls to activities, help with their homework and fix healthy meals, she wants to go back to work. So far, she can’t.

“I graduated college in 1987, and I have never seen an economy like this one,” says Diamond, a former product-development executive in suburban Dallas.

She has been laid off before, but other times she was able to get back to work fairly quickly. Recruiters courted her; big companies flew her around the country for interviews. This time, the phone isn’t ringing; the two hundred and fifty or so résumés she has sent out have generated only a handful of interviews.

“Somehow, whatever worked before is just not working this time, because no one’s hiring,” she says. As time goes on, she worries that employers will question her absence from the work force. “I know it’s more understood now, the way the economy is. Still, a year is a year.”

She’s willing to take a pay cut. In fact, Diamond, who once made more than $90,000 a year, has applied for unskilled retail jobs at the local mall—at Coach, J.Crew, Ann Taylor—without any luck. Which might be just as well, she acknowledges, considering that those jobs entail less-than-ideal hours and wages.

“Do I want to work on Saturdays and Sundays and not see my husband and kids, for eight dollars an hour, which is going to get taxed?” she wonders. “Or should I be providing value for my family?”

Author’s Note: I’m recently divorced after working very part time for many years. So I’m looking for a steadier paycheck, and can more than empathize with the women in this story facing their own financial predicaments. Much as I’d like to have found better news for all of us, it still seems too soon for much optimism. Frankly, in many professions, it sucks out there these days. But I’m inspired by people like Amy Stone, and other women I talked to, who look at the tough times as an opportunity to remake their lives—maybe even in a way that suits them better than what they would have chosen under easier circumstances.

The other great thing about looking for work in a recession is that you don’t feel lonely. It’s yet another reason for mothers—working full time or at home with children or somewhere in between—to stick together. Whatever our employment status, we all know the difficulty of trying to squeeze in all of our responsibilities, and maybe find a shred of time here and there for ourselves.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2010)

About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.

The Importance of Keeping Ernest

The Importance of Keeping Ernest

By Susan Vaughan Moshofsky

Keeping Ernest Art“Can I bring home Ernest, Mommy?” four-year-old Reed begged. “For the summer?” Ernest, the preschool class turtle, for the whole summer. I loathe reptiles.

Reed clung like a barnacle when I dropped him off at preschool and melted down when I finally peeled him off. Keeping the turtle might ease Reed’s re-entry to school next fall. Plus, he’d earn celebrity status. I nodded.

“Here are his worms,” Teacher Lynn handed me a small plastic tub with tiny holes in the top. She smiled at the grimace on my face. “Keep it in the refrigerator or they turn into beetles.”

Lynn also suggested outings for Ernest in our back yard. “He likes the fresh air,” she explained. I wondered how she could tell.

Only a mother desperate to help her shy child adjust to school would keep a turtle that’s been the preschool pet for twelve years. And this isn’t just any preschool. People put their babies on the wait list in utero for this one. These parents pay attention. So Ernest’s stay had to be perfect.

First I had to find a safe spot for his aquarium-style tank, away from our slobbering, curious Labrador Retriever. My choice: the kitchen counter. Yes, Ernest lived near my stove, and yes, turtles carry salmonella. Let’s just say if I can keep worms in my refrigerator, I can have a turtle on my countertop.

I congratulated myself for being such a great mom. (Look! I let my kids keep pets I can’t stand to touch!)

Two weekends later, my husband Brett helped Reed scrub the tank while Ernest took a stroll on the kitchen floor. I practiced my deep breathing exercises. The task done, Reed and his older brother Ryan gave Ernest his first backyard airing.

While Ernest’s tank dried in the sun, he lumbered through the flower garden, neck outstretched, enjoying the fresh air. Ryan and Reed kept an eye on him. But since he moved at — well, a turtle’s pace — they checked on him in between slides down the hill. I planted some perennials. Rachel, our teenage daughter, lay tanning on the deck. Life was good.

Good until Ryan hollered, “Where’s Ernest?”

“What do you mean, ‘Where’s Ernest?'”

“I can’t find him, Mom. He was here just a minute ago.”

Choking back vomit, I ran to the flower bed where Ernest had been. No turtle. Get a grip, I thought.

“Well, he can’t be far.” I barked orders to all three kids. “Rachel, establish a perimeter; Ryan, check the inside of the dog’s mouth…” We scrambled through flower beds, peered under bushes, combed the hillside. Even the dog sniffed around.

An hour later, still no trace. Turtles don’t leave footprints or make a sound. And Ernest’s coloring was the perfect camouflage for our wooded backyard.

“Rachel,” I begged my daughter, “Call Petco. See if they sell box turtles.” She ran inside to make the call. Ryan and Reed pulled ivy. I made silent bargains with the Almighty.

“Mom,” Rachel called down to me from the deck. “I called them. We can’t get one.”

“What do you mean, we can’t get one?”

“They said it’s not legal to sell box turtles here, Mom!”

There I stood, knee deep in plants I had yanked in our frenzy to find little Speedo. I pictured myself lugging Ernest’s empty cage back into the classroom. I pictured wide-eyed children peering into that empty cage. I imagined Reed’s expression as the children pointed stubby fingers at him — the turtle loser.

My husband came back from his run and saw us razing our freshly landscaped garden. “What’s going on?” he asked.

Gesturing with dirty hands in a pose reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, I wailed, “We lost the pre-school turtle!”

Brett’s expression told me it was time to call the teacher.

“My first concern is the kids,” Teacher Lynn began. “This will be the first real loss for some of them. We’ll have to tell them the truth.” As she paused, I realized just how deep a pit of bile had collected in my stomach. She asked if Reed was worried and suggested I emphasize the fun Ernest might be having on his adventure. “But the little guy has done this before: one summer, he was gone for three months and turned up in a neighbor’s yard,” she continued. Now you tell me, I thought. “You may find him yet,” Lynn reassured. I hung up, feeling ill. I had to do something.

I called Reptile World, described our hilly area and asked if a turtle could survive there. “He’ll have nutrition and hydration. He might winter over just fine there,” the reptile expert told me. Winter over? The return to preschool was less than two months away.

We printed up flyers: Lost Box Turtle. Answers to the name of Ernest. Size of a teacup saucer. Reward! Many neighbors, some I’d never met, fought smiles when we knocked on their doors, brandishing the flyer.

“I’m really worried,” I said to Brett later that night. “Could we rent some heat-seeking infrared binoculars to help us find him in all the brush?”

Brett bit his lip. “Sue, honey, Ernest is cold blooded.”

The summer passed. The first few weeks, Reed and Ryan filled Ernest’s food dish daily with strawberries, worms, and grapes and set out small water dishes around the yard. But gradually, their daily backyard searches gave way to twice-weekly searches.

If I talked about Ernest, Reed murmured happily, “He’s in the backyard on an adventure, Mommy. Now I get to keep him for always!”

Soon it was September, time for the back to school open house. Filled with dread, I sneaked in and stood by the coffee, trying to hide my scarlet E. Lynn took me aside. “Two boys asked where Ernest was. Before I could answer, one of them remembered that Reed took him home for the summer.”

I gulped, speechless. Lynn nodded. “I’ll be letting the parents know a little later tonight. But I won’t tell which backyard he was in,” she winked. My coffee tasted like mud. I walked to the classroom meeting like a condemned woman.

I tuned out Teacher Lynn’s welcome back talk. But I sat bolt upright when she added, “I have some other news. Ernest has gone missing. He was in a backyard and just wandered off.”

The room was as quiet as a turtle cage. My face grew hot. My scalp prickled. I realized I might as well spill the beans since a four year old had already figured out the truth.

“The backyard where Ernest wandered off,” I began in a small voice, “was mine. We are the ones who lost him.” When I got to the part about the flyers we printed and the infrared binoculars, my voice trailed off.

There was a silence, then a chuckle. “Let’s take Sue out for a glass of wine. She’s had a rough summer,” a couple of moms sympathized. Another mom blurted, “I’m just so glad I didn’t volunteer to take him!” And then everyone in the room laughed out loud.

And the preschoolers? How did they deal with it? A few really missed him. But mercifully, Teacher Lynn didn’t point them out to me. According to Reed, no one noticed Ernest missing — but then Reed believes Ernest is roaming the woods behind our house and we get to keep him forever. Who knows? He may turn up yet.

Author’s Note: I live with my family in Portland, still hoping that Ernest may someday waddle back into our wooded backyard.

About the Author: Susan Vaughan Moshofsky’s work has appeared in The Oregonian, Seattle’s Child, and Portland Parent. She teaches English at an IB World School in Beaverton, where she has used her own stories to teach her students the rigors and joys of writing and rewriting.

Photo credit: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / ALong

The Snip

The Snip

By Kate Haas

TheSnipThe grandmotherly woman with the Minnie Mouse lapel pin doesn’t blink an eye when we ask for the video. She coochie-coos the baby strapped to my chest, then leads my husband and me past shelves of health books and racks of earnest pamphlets, over to a small, curtained cubicle in the corner of our HMO’s Wellness Resource Center.

“Here you go,” she says with a professional smile, plucking our request from a nearby shelf. We step inside, draw the curtain, and insert the videocassette. We’re ready.

Well. One of us is ready, anyway. He presses play.

The screen brightens and a scene of suburban domesticity appears. Imagine Brad and Janet, the naïve protagonists of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, ten years later. Brad, still geeky, wears tan, too-short swim trunks that expose his skinny white legs as he splashes in the backyard pool with his two wholesome, blond daughters. Janet, her hair now showing a touch of bleach, turns from her seat under the patio umbrella to gaze adoringly at her husband. We hear Brad’s nasal, whiny voice-over: “For Janet and me, vasectomy was the right choice.”

Inside the darkened cubicle at the Resource Center, my husband and I giggle. We are here because, before granting a man an appointment to see the urologist—much less allowing him to take the irrevocable step of curtailing his fertility—our HMO requires him to watch a video about it.

So, with our seven-month-old second—and last—child squirming in our laps, we watch Brad and Janet walk into the doctor’s office to discuss the big V. The physician (henceforth referred to as Dr. Toupee) smiles reassuringly at the couple from behind an imposing desk as he explains “the procedure.”

“Doctor,” Brad inquires diffidently, glancing at Janet, “will this have any effect on our, ah, sexual intercourse?”

Dr. Toupee clasps his pudgy fingers together and assumes a grave expression in acknowledgement of the seriousness of Brad’s concern.

“Not at all,” he reassures. “There may be a slight reduction in the amount of fluid contained in each ejaculation, and the ejaculate will no longer contain sperm, of course, but your experience of intercourse will be unchanged.”

Janet nods, trying to look worldly, as if she hears the word “ejaculate” used as a noun on a daily basis. Brad gives her a tight smile. Bruce and I giggle some more.

The camera follows Brad to the doctor’s office, where he arranges himself impassively on the medical equivalent of a La-Z-Boy recliner. The nurse covers him with a blue drape. Dr. Toupee approaches with a syringe.

“Now you’ll feel just a little prick…” he says blandly.

Bruce and I are beside ourselves. “Oh my God, did he actually say, ‘little prick?’ ” I gasp. We feel like a couple of ninth graders watching a sex education presentation.

On screen, Brad makes it through the surgery, walks gingerly out to his car, and goes home to sit stoically on the couch with an ice pack. In the final scene, the family is relaxing in the tastefully appointed living room. The kids play while Brad and Janet nestle on the couch, beaming at each other in a manner that makes it clear they’ve got no problems in that department. We get the message: vasectomy is No Big Deal.

Except that it is.

Our two children frequently overwhelm us. We can imagine all too well another round of diapers, nursing marathons, sleepless nights, and the constant vigilance of life with a toddler. It’s a vision that makes us tremble. So why do I feel ambivalent at the prospect of permanently closing the door on our fertility?

It doesn’t trouble Bruce in the slightest. “I would have done this years ago if I hadn’t met you,” he reminds me. And it’s true; when we met, my husband had no intention of having children. Ever. That we are the parents of two is a tribute to marital negotiation and compromise.

I refrain from asking if he’s glad now that he didn’t get the snip back then. We are in the thick of things with two under five and there are days when I know exactly what his answer would be.

I have those days myself. The days when my patience is stretched so thin I start to wish I were a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child fundamentalist instead of a supposedly pacifist Quaker. The days when the frustration of not being able to do what I want, when I want, tempts me to get in the car and leave. Adding another child—another baby—to our family is unthinkable.

But I do think about it. The few times we’ve been careless, and each time my period is late, a flicker of anticipation stirs in me. I imagine the thrill of being pregnant again, the pervading excitement and expectation of those nine months, the drama of birth. (Conveniently, I don’t dwell on the next eighteen years.) Is all of that really over for us?

“Maybe you’d get your curly haired girl this time,” Bruce teased on one of those occasions. “Little baby Rose,” he sighed, evoking the vision of a daughter named after two great-grandmothers—a vision that vanished with the birth of our second son.

“What are you getting all mushy about?” I demanded incredulously. “You know you don’t want another. Do you?”

“Well. It would be exciting, having you pregnant again,” he admitted. “That big belly growing … another birth, seeing the baby come out, watching you be so strong.” We smiled at each other, remembering, and then he shook his head. “But the minute that baby was in your arms and nursing, you’d realize it was all a terrible mistake.”

He was right. Still, I was surprised that my husband had articulated my ambivalence so astutely. Although pregnancy made me feel more like a grumpy, avenging angel than a powerful fertility goddess, I savor the thought of giving birth again. Because really, is there anything else that comes close?

My first son’s birth took place in a haze of exhaustion. There were raised voices shouting, Push, push, push! There was pain. There was an unbearable burning sensation. And then, though I have no memory of his emerging, a gangly baby was being held up in front of me.

When my second son was born, three years later, I was more with it. This time all present had strict instructions not to yell “Push!” at me. This time I actually felt the baby—hard and soft and slippery all at once—slithering out through me. Two years later, I can still mentally summon up the exhilaration of that moment—the triumphant realization that I had just pushed a human being out of my body and into the world. I had never been more proud of myself.

I want to do that again.

Sometimes I fantasize about how it would be. After two hospital births, this time I might have the baby at home. No bumpy car ride with the contractions four minutes apart. No nurses coming around to hook me up to that damn monitor. This time I would remember to prepare the right, soothing music mix. Gregorian chants, ethereal guitars… I stop myself before this scenario gets too groovy. Some aspects of the way I labor would undoubtedly remain the same. To be strictly honest, I would probably be yelling at everyone to just shut up for the love of God, the way I did the last two times. But that would be fine.

It’s not going to happen.

Bruce will get the snip, my toddler will wean, and this exhausting phase of our lives will give way to the next one. I won’t imagine a next birth because I’ll be certain there won’t be one. If my period is late, there will be no half-terrified, half-thrilled consultation of the calendar. I’ll finally sort though those boxes of little hats and sweaters on the basement shelves. I can’t quite picture it, but we’ll move on to being parents of school-aged children. Homework and soccer practice are as foreign to me now as diaper-changing used to be, but I’ll figure it out.

Recently, Bruce and I brought a meal to new parents in the neighborhood. We cooed over the baby. I couldn’t wait to be asked to hold her. How light in our arms she was, how delicate and perfect those little fingernails! But in the car, on the way home, there was a palpable sense of relief, of escape, of better them than us. We laughed giddily, like trekkers who are finally descending the mountain.

I don’t want another child. But I look at myself in the mirror sometimes, at my belly that has sheltered two babies, at my breasts that have nourished them, and it’s strangely sad to think that never again will I feel the invisible dance of a baby kicking inside me. That from here on out, my body won’t be called upon to sustain anyone but me. That this phase of my life is ending.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for physical independence. I won’t miss being woken nightly by a toddler’s sleepy demands to nurse. I can’t imagine feeling nostalgia for the nausea of pregnancy, or the fatigue of new motherhood. My maternity clothes? Long since passed on to friends.

And then, of course, there’s the sex. Bruce and I may have mocked that cheesy video at the HMO, but we want the same thing Brad and Janet wanted. These days, sexual encounters are either triumphs of strategy or brazen acts of defiance against Morpheus. Fighting our way through the chaos and fatigue to reconnect can be exhilarating, but often enough it’s easier not to make the effort. A marriage that has weathered the pressures of two active children needs all the spontaneous passion it can get.

Graduate school, full-time work, and family life take a lot of a man’s time, and for the year and a half since we watched that video, getting on with life has pretty much precluded “the procedure.” But with the degree finally in hand, my husband has made the appointment. The seven-month-old baby we brought with us to the HMO that day is now over two years old and has become a playmate to his brother instead of an unwelcome interloper. Watching our boys race down the street hand in hand or put their heads together over some scheme, we see how far we have traveled. And with each milestone reached, it’s easier not to think about starting the journey over.

I’m ready.

Author’s Note: Shortly after completing this essay I was at the park, sharing intimate details of my life with a near stranger, as we mothers often do. Nodding toward a cluster of women with young babies, I confided—perhaps a bit smugly—that since my husband’s surgery, all of that was now over.

My new acquaintance pointed to her kindergartner. “Meet ‘Over,’ ” she said. “You mean…?” I stammered. She nodded. Her second child had been conceived eight years after her husband’s vasectomy. “I love this kid, don’t get me wrong,” she told me. “But have your husband tested yearly. No one told us that. Now it’s my personal little crusade.”

Note has been taken.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

About the Author: Kate Haas publishes Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood and other adventures. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and the Toronto Star. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school English teacher, she is currently an editor of Creative Nonfiction at Literary Mama. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her website is

Art by Clover Archer

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Extreme Family Flying

Extreme Family Flying

By Rebecca Martin

Extreme Flying ArtI recognized the woman approaching me in the baggage claim in Los Angeles from when I’d seen her six and a half hours earlier in the terminal in New York. Back in New York she had glided through the crowd to the Business Class line, a tall exotic model-looking type, with a dark curly halo of hair and a slight glossed pout hanging below monster-sized black sunglasses. She looked perfectly composed, even with the small infant hanging off her front from a baby carrier. Beside her was a daughter of about four pulling her own suitcase and behind her a pack mule of a husband pushing a stroller with a baby carrier and carrying four or five carry-on bags covered in designer initials. Six hours later, she still had on her shades, but instead of looking chic and serene, she looked disheveled and weary.

“Did you do this yourself?” she asked me, pointing at my children. “Oh, yeah,” I said, downplaying it. Then she turned to her husband, still laden in designer bags, and said, “she flew from New York with three kids by herself!” She then turned back to me and added, “You’re amazing!” “Oh, thank you,” I said, and then looking down at my five-year old, Johnny, holding my hand and at Maeve, three, and James, one in the stroller, I added, “but, these guys were really good” as if they deserved any credit. It is a response I have rehearsed to give a sense of humility, because I hear that I am amazing for flying solo cross-country with three kids all of the time and what I really want to say is, “Yep, I am pretty incredible.”

I don’t do much else that is dazzling, like run marathons or scale mountains, but three times a year I fly with my three children from Connecticut, where I live, to California, where I grew up and my parents still live. I am an average person, until you see me at airport security. In one motion, I can remove three pairs of crocs and my own shoes, pull my electrical devices from the one bag I am carrying, place the bag on the belt, and collapse my double stroller. It is a move worthy of an instant replay. It should be named after me. I so relish this ability and the others that get me through the six hour trip, that flying with three children has sort of become my extreme sport—complete with rigorous judging. I secretly score other people I see flying, shaking my head and deducting points at solo adults who fill four bins at the security belt or parents who pack multiple bags but cannot produce a wipe on demand.

I award myself points for not needing the assistance of others—not that we are often offered much assistance. To other passengers just the sight of me so outnumbered in the terminal seems to foretell imminent disaster. As we wait and James engages in his usual pre-boarding sprints across the waiting area, chubby arms flapping at his sides, I have noticed people gesturing toward us nervously and whispering. I imagine they are saying, “Yikes! That child does not look like he could sit still for five minutes!” or “I hope we don’t get stuck sitting near them,” or, “that mother must be insane.” But there are the rare good Samaritans—they are always grandmothers, who express their fear that their own children might be stuck in my position one day—and once or twice my bladder has forced me to accept one of their offers to hold a baby for a moment.

I don’t have to fly without help. I have a husband and parents who can occasionally fly with me, but I would have to make the trip less often. Besides, help is not always what one would hope. “Was I supposed to be watching him?” My Dad said to me after James took a header into the aisle. My husband has been known to enjoy the onboard film. Once, when James was just three months old, I took a babysitter: it was heaven, but that is a luxury I cannot afford. Besides, flying without her, is like working without a net—there’s the exhilaration factor. It’s like my Everest, but how many people do that six times? And I do enjoy the praise that it inspires from other people. I may not be the mom who hosts the best play dates or be president of the PTA, but I can fly.

I engage in no doping—for myself or the kids. We fly chardonnay and Benadryl free. I cannot risk slowing my reaction time—my daughter Maeve can wiggle to the floor and dart down the aisle in a split second—and I have heard that a kid could have the unintended response to an antihistamine and end up jumping her way across country. Also, I need to be at my sharpest; my mastery lies in my recall of the location of all of the family restrooms in JFK and LAX, being able to easily grab hold of the two fully charged DVD players and three sippy cups in my single carry-on bag and to pick up matchbox cars with my toes. I am not saying that things always go smoothly on the flight, but they have never been so tragic that I have had to drown my sorrows.

When things get hairy and I am pulling a screaming child up from beneath the seat in front of us or holding someone’s legs still to keep them from kicking the chair in front of them for the hundredth time, I do as any sports psychologist would recommend, and use mental imagery to keep me going. I go to India, where I have never been, and not to some ashram where I meditate myself out of my body, but rather to an image of traveling third class across India with all of my children. I have even looked it up. The train trip from Mumbai to New Delhi is over 16 hours. If the mothers of India can endure that, then I can make it to LA in Economy Plus.

And in my favor, as always in motherhood, is that I have no choice but to go on and that, like all experiences with my children, when I look back on the trip the time seems short. I wonder if other endurance athletes feel the same way.

Of course, I do not really fly with my three kids for the feeling of pride I take in being able to do it, nor do I need to outdo myself. I have no plans to attempt a solo transoceanic flight—the equivalent of a quadruple axle. I just want to get to California, where I am able to collapse into the bed my mother makes for me. With the time change, I wake up at dawn. This last trip, the June Gloom slowly receded from the beginnings of mountains outside the window. The lushness of winter that can make the hills of Southern California look like piles of moss was already drying out to reveal the scattered cactus and the prickly leaves of Live Oak that reach up from narrow canyons. It was worth the trip. I love Connecticut, but this is my landscape and I want my children to know it, I thought and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I did not have to get back on a plane for two weeks.

Author’s Note: I waste an inordinate amount of time feeling like a pretty shabby parent. Even when I suspect I have done good, I immediately refer myself to my most recent mothering snafu, be it forgetting that the bus comes home early on teacher conference days or overcooking the nut-free spider cookies for the school Halloween party. But so many people are really in awe of my ability to put myself in a difficult situation from which there is no escape, i.e., boarding a plane with three children, that I decided to let myself enjoy this small triumph and ponder just what makes me so fantastic.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in, Literary Mama, StepMom and She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.


Minus One

Minus One

By Elizabeth Uppmann

“Is this your only child?”

I am pushing a grocery cart with a toddler in it. The old lady is throwing me the gentlest conversational hook: the opportunity to talk about my children. Some mothers are happy to have this kind of conversation; some just tolerate it. Me, I want to drop through the floor, fake a seizure—anything to escape the knot of tension and nausea that is forming in my throat.

I have to decide if I’m going to say I have two children or three children. The fact is that I don’t actually have three children anymore. Gabriel, my middle child, died of pneumonia in November, 2000. So our family now consists of my two girls, my husband, and me. The factual answer to the supermarket lady’s question is two, but the emotional answer is three. Still three. Always three.

MinusOneI don’t know how many times I have gotten stuck between two and three—in the bank, at the pharmacy, at the school carnival. Each time, I try to find the best way to juggle the truth, my emotions, and the other person’s expectations, but no matter which number I choose, something almost always goes splat before the conversation finishes.

Two is the more straightforward answer, especially with strangers in public, where conversations are too brisk and bare to contain the hugeness of three. But when I once tried two, I discovered it wasn’t the easy way out after all. It was horrible. It was like trying to cure a hangnail by cutting off my hand. The nausea came on full-bore and I spent the rest of the day in the bleak and grimy hole of guilt and regret, feeling I had denied that Gabriel ever existed. The emotional fallout wasn’t worth it, just to save some stranger from a few awkward moments.

So instead I do a little tap-dancing. I say something like No, I have two other children, a girl and a boy, without mentioning that one is in school and the other in the cemetery. If I’m lucky, the conversation ends there.

But sometimes my good stranger presses on, bored and jolly and pleased to be making a connection: And how old are your other two? Well, how old is a dead child? I could say three and a half, the age at which Gabriel died, or I could give the age he would be now if he had lived. Progressing his age makes me realize how much the years have galloped away, but keeping his age static makes Gabriel recede into the background, like a traveler left behind at a motel. Neither answer feels right.

At this point I usually opt for the truth. I try to be gentle. Well, my little girl is eight, and my little boy (looking the person directly in the eye) would have been five this year, but (I tilt my head slightly and smile a rueful smile) he died. I am always careful to say the he died part loudly and clearly, since it’s not what the supermarket lady is expecting, and there’s nothing worse than a couple rounds of He what?. He died. He what? He DIED.

I always wish I could make it easier on people. I hate for them to think I draw them in only to spring this trap on them. If only supermarket ladies weren’t so persistent! It’s like watching someone stride gaily into a tar pit. My tar pit. Don’t go in there, I think. You’ll be sorry.

Because now, of course, the lady has to say something back. For me, the best kind of reaction is to acknowledge that what I shared was a loss, and that loss hurts. In short, the best response is I’m sorry, to which I can say Thank you and then change the subject.

There are other kinds of reactions. People sometimes say wow or huh, their eyes shifting uneasily to the floor. Someone once lifted her eyebrows, looked away, and said a pinched little oh. I was sharing too much. Another time, an acquaintance walked into my tar pit and then blithely walked back out again. “That’s right, your husband told me about that,” she said, as if we were discussing a softball game.

Are these people callous, or am I expecting too much? I don’t know. People should probably be kind to grieving mothers, if only to shore up some cosmic goodwill for the inevitable day when they, too, will grieve. But usually they just want to get away, and why not? There’s no upside to prolonging the encounter, only a potentially embarrassing sob-fest. I know that. I know that my grief doesn’t do anyone any good. It does not increase the gross national product or help the homeless. It’s an invisible wound that takes forever to heal, and healing requires the kindness of strangers—tired strangers, stumbling strangers, strangers who are stitching up their own wounds. People can’t always be helping me with my troubles. People have lives.

Well, most people have lives. Gabriel doesn’t. To me he is still a person, but he is not alive, and that is the root of all this difficulty.

Perhaps a year after Gabriel died, I read an essay in which the writer said her greatest fear was of her son dying. This, she said with great conviction, was the one event she would not survive, the one barrier she would not be able to cross. I admire this writer, but this passage gave me a sour feeling. Sometimes the worst happens; sometimes it happens to you. Then what? Would she really perform the obligatory suicide? Or was this just one of those reckless, superlative things we say, like a dare, to try to express the enormity inside our chests? “Damn the torpedoes! You shall know the extent of my love!”

But then I realized that obligatory suicide might come in different forms. A friend once told me about a woman who brought up her dead son in every casual conversation, ten and eleven and twelve years after the fact. My friend thought this was evidence of deep psychological problems, but I believe I understand that woman. Perhaps she made a promise to her son, or to herself, that she would keep his memory alive no matter what—no matter how much time had passed, no matter how tired or hurried she was, no matter how rudely the other person treated her. If you met this woman and got suckered into hearing her story, it would almost certainly be awkward and unpleasant to get away. You would probably think she was some kind of crank. But she might also be some kind of hero.

And what about my obligatory suicide? What did I choose?

At first I didn’t think I was choosing anything. In the early months after Gabriel died, I thought I was dumbly getting up every morning for no good reason. Actually, I wondered whether putting one foot in front of the other was stupid, immoral even, in the face of so much evil and loss. The world that was my son was gone, along with the smell of his hair, like dusk in summertime. Gabriel was a handsome fellow with exquisite taste: kiwifruit, salmon in dill sauce. My little gourmet. How could I continue to live in the world that had taken those things away? But I had always gotten up in the morning, and choosing a new approach seemed harder than just doing the same old thing.

And then, because I had wanted another child for a long time and because I wasn’t getting any younger, my husband and I chose to have a baby. We named her Lucia, which means light—as in “at the end of the tunnel.” In the rush of parental duty and joy, I forgot about obligatory suicide for days at a time, though I didn’t forget about Gabriel for a minute.

When I look back at those days, I finally understand that I made a choice without realizing it—that I had actually been choosing all along. I chose, simply, to go on. I limped away from obligatory suicide, away from its necessity and attractiveness. I did this knowing that Gabriel deserves as much sacrifice as any mother’s son. I simply couldn’t fulfill that motherly suicide pact. Sometimes that feels like a failure. But I believe I can love him more than life itself and still love life.

Lucia is now three and attending the preschool Gabriel attended, where his teacher has a picture of him on her windowsill. The kids sometimes ask who that is. “He’s my brother,” Lucia says offhandedly. They require no further explanation.

As for my two-versus-three problem, it gradually wore away, like paint on a stair. The all-defining nausea decreased bit by bit as the months went on, and eventually I came to realize that I could talk about my two live children without mentioning my dead one and without imploding from guilt.

Nowadays, when a little old lady asks after my kids, I choose whether to share the secret that is Gabriel. If she passes my instantaneous screening test—if I get a good vibe, if she seems capable of handling the sticky web of feelings surrounding the death of a child—then I might tell her. Or I might not. I’m picky. I usually tell only people who matter to me or who might matter to me in the future. I’m partial to young mothers and elderly people, folks attuned to the reverberations of the beginning and end of life. But it’s okay, now, if a stranger walks away never knowing that I used to have a little boy and that he’s gone. He’s still mine. I’m keeping him safe.

I have, however, begun performing one tiny public ritual in Gabriel’s honor: I make it a point to acknowledge the losses of others who are brave enough to speak of them. I was recently sitting across the lunch table from a new acquaintance, an elderly lady with magnificent white hair. She told the group, with careful control, that her husband had died some months earlier. I didn’t wait for the appropriate pause in the conversation: “Rita,” I said, “I’m sorry you lost your husband.”

She looked at me, a little surprised. Then she said “Well, thank you. He was quite a guy.” She leaned back in her chair and looked off to her left, almost as if she expected to see him there, as if she couldn’t help but look for him. Then she shook her head and smiled. “He was quite a guy.”

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

 Art by Caty Bartholomew

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