This is Ten

This is Ten

WO This is Ten Art 2By Lindsey Mead

This essay is excerpted from Brain, Child’s book, This is Childhood Book & Journal.

I spent my teenage summers at a wonderful, rambling house on the Massachusetts shore with several families. There was always a tangle of children and we got in the habit of going for swims after dinner. One summer, there was phosphorescence. I have never forgotten those unexpected, bright swirls of light, otherworldly, as blinding as they were fleeting

Ten is like that. Ten is phosphorescence. Ten blazes brightly and vanishes so quickly you wonder if your eyes are playing tricks on you.

Ten is a changeling. In my daughter’s mahogany eyes, I see the baby she was and the young woman she is fast becoming. In one moment she’s still a little girl, clutching her teddy bears before bed, and in another she is a near-teenager, dancing and singing along to Nicki Minaj. She oscillates between wanting to bolt for the horizon of young adulthood that she can see and wanting to shrink from it, nestling instead in early childhood with me.

Motherhood has offered me more surprises than I can count, but the biggest one is how lined with loss it is, how striated with sorrow. I am blindsided, over and over again, by the breathless rush of time. For every single thing that will never come again, though, there is a dazzling surprise, a new skill, a new wonder, a new delight. All of parenting is a constant farewell and an endless hallelujah wrapped together, but ten feels like an especially momentous combination of the two.

Ten is evanescent, liminal, unquestionably the end of something, and just as surely the beginning of something else. As my daughter noted, in tears, the night before her tenth birthday, she will “never be single digits again, ever.”

The only thing ten wants more than her ears pierced is a dog. She still laughs uproariously as she flies down a sledding hill, but she also shrugs nonchalantly at the top of a black diamond slope before turning down it and executing perfect turns, her duct-tape-covered helmet a blur of color against the snow.

Ten wears tall Ugg boots I can fit into and impossibly long yoga pants that I mistake for my own when I am folding laundry. Ten organizes her crayons in rainbow order, and I can see the alphabetized spice rack that lies ahead.

Ten swings masterfully across the monkey bars, dribbles a soccer ball all the way up the field and scores, and plays good enough tennis that we can play actual games. Ten loves board games and Club Penguin, and the door of her closet is covered with posters of Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift. When will these girls be replaced in her affection by boys, I wonder? I hope not too soon.

Ten is streaks of brilliance in the dark sea, whose provenance is unknown, which vanish as fast as they appear.

Ten sat on my lap this week, her toes brushing the floor on either side of my legs. I ran my fingers over a temporary tattoo of a shooting star on her arm, and thought: that is what ten is. Ten is a shooting star. An explosion of light and kinesis that will never come again. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Ten leaves heartfelt, tear-jerking notes for me on my pillow, professing her love, devotion, and thanks. Ten sometimes walks icily away from me at school drop-off, refusing to turn around, angry about something.

Ten is sensitive and easily bruised, confused by the startling meanness that can flare in other adolescent girls, desperate to be liked. Ten is alternately fragile and fierce.

Ten is vehement attachment and lurching swipes at separation. When ten grows up, she wants to be a veterinarian, a mother, and a writer. In the “about the author” section of a book she wrote at school, she said that the author took five years to write the book, because she was also raising her children. Ten doesn’t miss a single thing, and what I do matters a hundred times more than what I say.

Ten kneels in front of the “fairy stream” at a nearby park, breath drawn, and I swear that enchantment still brushes past her, like her heroine, Hermione, running by under the invisibility cloak. Ten caught my eye last Christmas when she said something about Santa, conveying in a single look that she knew he wasn’t real but that she didn’t want to ruin it for her younger brother.

Ten is the child who made me a mother, my pioneer, my trailblazer, walking hand-in-hand with me through all the firsts of her childhood and my motherhood. Ten is grace. Ten is my amazing Grace.

Anne Sexton said, “I look for uncomplicated hymns, but love has none.” Ten is a complicated hymn, a falling star, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in time, an otherworldly flash of green gorgeousness in the dark ocean.

Author’s Note: I studied English in college, and wrote my thesis on poetry and motherhood. After graduation, however, I took a sharp turn into the business world and stayed there for many years. It was watching my children, finally—particularly their here-now stubbornness and simultaneous persistent reminder of time’s passage—that prodded me back to the page. Many things about parenting have surprised me, but none more than how unavoidably bittersweet it is. “This is Ten” is one of many pieces I have written about my daughter and son in an attempt to remember the small, mundane, yet blindingly beautiful details of their (and our) everyday lives.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives outside of Boston with her husband, daughter, and son. She graduated from Princeton with an AB in English and received an MBA from Harvard. Her work has been published in a variety of print and online sources. She writes regularly at A Design So Vast.

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Advice from My Daughters Upon Their Graduation

Advice from My Daughters Upon Their Graduation

High school graduation hats high

By Francie Arenson Dickman

“Focus on how you want to feel when you’re finished.” My daughter texted me these words of advice—a tip I assume she acquired from her time spent dancing on stage—minutes before I took the stage for a show I was recently in called, ironically, Listen to Your Mother. I’d had no problem writing the essay I was about to read, but reading it aloud to hundreds of people terrified me. As I stood in the wings, waiting to hear my name, I marveled at my daughter’s maturity. But just for a moment, because that’s all it took. Not for my name to be called but for my daughter’s next text to roll in. “I need a haircut.”

With that, the wisdom of my daughter was superseded by that of Lisa Damour, author of Untangled; Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. “Teenagers,” she tells us, “are totally competent, until they’re not.” How I love this line. It’s a reminder—if not a wake up call entirely—because I have a tendency to rush to judgement. My girls are fourteen years old, almost fifteen, they are about to graduate 8th grade. Yet my presumption is still that they are my children and I am the adult, therefore I advise and they listen, I know more and they know less. When clearly, this is not the case. They have whole subsets of knowledge and ability and insight that I lack. Not only did my daughter advise me before I went on stage, but my other daughter dressed me.

“You can’t wear that,” she said when I came into her room to check myself out in her mirror wearing an outfit I thought was proper performance attire.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s a dress. You don’t wear dresses.”

I, in the role of the teenager, said, “But I’m sure all the other women will be wearing dresses.” (They weren’t.)

She, in the role of the adult, told me that I had to feel comfortable on stage, I had to feel like myself. After this, she outfitted me. She even layered my necklaces. Then, her sister came into my bathroom to do my makeup. “I don’t know how a 47-year-old woman could get this far without knowing how to do makeup,” she told me. (I can and do, for the record, apply theirs.)

Also for the record, I should add that they had an easier time dressing me than they did themselves. Their process of finding graduation dresses smacked of insanity. If your UPS packages arrived late for several weeks last month, I apologize. We were monopolizing the delivery trucks. It was embarrassing actually but, as I kept reminding myself, they are teenagers, and teenagers are totally competent, until they’re not.

There is no surer sign of competence than the ability to recognize another’s incompetence, which my kids surely can because I got a self-help book for Mother’s Day. You heard me right. My fourteen-year-old gave me a book called something like How to be Badass because, as she explained after I looked at her cross-eyed—in a who’s guiding who sort of way—she didn’t like my attitude towards getting my book published. She told me I needed more badass.

On the very first page of Untangled, Damour explains that when it comes to raising teenage girls, our default setting is fear and our expectation is trouble. “If you are reading this book,” Damour writes, “someone has already remarked about your daughter, ‘Oh just wait till she’s a teenager!'” This is true. I got this line the minute I started to cart them around in the stroller. “Cute now, but just wait til they’re teenagers.” My mother told me several years ago to take a deep breath and hold it for the next ten years.

I’m not saying the expectation is unfounded, as evidenced by the ill-timed haircut request or the 4,000 dresses ordered for graduation. But I admit that the stereotype and my natural tendency to anticipate the worst has unfairly undertoned my parental assumptions. Much the same way my skeptical mindset about getting my book published has been colored by word on the street that the publishing industry, much like the parenting one, is brutal.

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I was great when my girls were younger, when they were four and spent mornings around the kitchen table and my job was to read and teach and theirs was entirely to listen.    I’m good at the molding and the shaping. It’s the next part, the letting go, the sending of my projects off into the universe and trusting that they’ll fly that trips me up. And so I keep hanging on by talking and teaching and lecturing and advising even though I know and Damour confirms that I am “wasting my breath.” When a teenager nods her head with glazed over eyes, she’s not listening. She’s simply wearing her “veil of obedience.” I imagine that my daughters’ veils are well worn. And they’re only fourteen. Apparently mothers, too, are totally competent until we are not.

Being a badass, according to my Mother’s Day present, doesn’t mean being tough, it means being brave, acting despite your fear, and trusting in the universe to give you what you need. Indeed, at least on occasion, it does. I was—what do you know—preparing to give my girls a bunch of advice upon graduation. Instructions for how to proceed in the next phase of life. Instead, they gave it to me.

So I will sit in the audience as this time my daughters take the stage, in the dresses they picked, in the make up I’ve done, in the hair that’s been cut, and I will graduate, too. I have four more years with my girls, my girlfriends, under my roof. Why don’t I just take a page from their book, and focus on how I want to feel when I’m finished.

Francie Arenson is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her work at:

This piece was originally published in Brain Child in June 2016.



Her Canvas, My Son

Her Canvas, My Son


By Terry Cox-Joseph

His eyes, blue to ocean’s depth, stare from canvas, perfect brush strokes with perfect white highlights, perfect lashes, innocence, precocity. I wish I had painted that portrait.

The artist’s brushstrokes kiss the canvas the way I kiss my son’s forehead as he sleeps. She strokes the canvas the way I stroke his hair, caress his cheek.

My son is real. He is mine. He is flawed, something deep within his brain, axons miscommunicating, frontal lobes overworked, chemicals too high or too low. It has taken years for us to teach him not to hit when he’s mad, not to kick holes in the walls, not to spit. He has no buffer for impulse control, no “stop” button. We have hired tutors to teach him at home what he should have learned in school. Still, on many days, he comes home with a notebook blank as his stare.

Her canvas depicts a fantasy child. She gave away the real child, she told me once, sent him back to some institutional cement world. Who would hold him, I wondered? Who would caress his forehead? Who would love him? How could she do that?

As much as I have hated my son, I have loved him. From the moment I first saw him held in his birthmother’s arms, bundled in hospital green and white, a silly, warm, hand-knit cap pulled over his brow, I wanted him. The weight of him in my arms, the softness of his black hair, the tight grip of his fists that defined him. My husband, our daughter, and now, our son. Our family was complete.

The artist’s adopted son lit matches, dropped them on her carpet, lied, covered his lies with lies. Just like my son. He lit matches behind the couch, then dropped them on the wood floor in panic. He lit them in his room, too. Our therapist suggested sitting on the lawn with a bucketful of water and 1,000 matches and making our son light them until he was fed up with it. He only made it to 85 before my husband called it a day, satisfied that this was a lesson learned.

The other artist dismissed him after he rifled her purse for coins. My son went through my purse, too, when he was 14. I learned to hide my purse, even while I was sleeping. But he snuck behind my bed, behind the headboard. He stole my credit card. Stealth seemed wired into his movements. He bought online gaming points. Before that bill arrived, he slid the credit card from my purse not three feet away while I was sprinkling ginger on chicken stir fry. Amazing, his sleight of hand, sense of timing. He shocked us with his audacity, lack of boundaries, ability to thieve without remorse. Once the credit card was cancelled, he figured out how to use his cell phone to buy gaming points. I didn’t know you could do that.

If only he had directed this ingenuity toward school work.

When we disassembled the computer, he smashed two chairs and nearly shattered my eardrums. My heart had already been broken. Only the hope that this was an addiction held me to him. Surely, he hadn’t stolen out of malice. We could make it through this, too.

Her son lied to make her hate him, to prove he was unlovable, proved she couldn’t love him, proved he was a discard, proved he was right, couldn’t, shouldn’t love anyone because all people were liars, he was just one more liar, anyone who told you they loved you was a liar so why tell the truth to anyone? Lying is survival.

Clinically, it’s called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). I call it mental illness and a bruised heart. I call it a process. I have no idea if my son has RAD. I think he’s got Asperger’s and a mood disorder, definitely anxiety issues that send him rocketing past the ozone layer if he senses too much emotional pressure, too much homework, too harsh lights, too much sound, too many transitions. How many times have I slammed on the brakes when he has kicked the back of my seat during a tantrum, cracked my favorite CDs, pulled my hair in the middle of an intersection? How many times have I wanted to open the car door and throw him out right there?

Black markers streak foul words across my son’s walls, X’d out sentences replaced with exclamation marks, wrestlers’ names, and football scores. They mar the pale blue clouds that I once papered his room with in the fantasy world I prepared. There are holes bashed into drywall that my husband I and deliberately never repaired to prove a point, if anyone remembers what the point was the day our son threw a toy truck through the wall. We never repaired the screen, either, the day he whaled a baseball through the inside of the window, shattered the glass into glittering reminders of chaos.

My canvas is never blank. It is never complete. My brushes harden in dried linseed oil and turpentine because I’m checking the toothpaste on my son’s toothbrush, making sure he’s reached those back molars instead of lying and smearing toothpaste on his front teeth with his finger and then reassuring me by exhaling in my face. I check to see if he has scrubbed his face, taken his medicine, sprayed bleach on the mattress to mask the odor of urine for the millionth time. I check his closet for the smell of urine, worried that he may have awakened in the middle of the night again and confused it with the bathroom.

I remind him to put sheets on the bed, turn out the light, and wonder if he’ll plead, “cuddle,” so I have an excuse to snuggle next to his warm back, rub his shoulders, rest my cheek against his neck as his breath keeps pace with the crickets chirping outside. Or if this time, he’ll inexplicably rage, kick me in the jaw as I bend down to kiss him, scream “GET OUT!”

He wonders why I haven’t painted him as much as I have painted his sister, who poses for the camera naturally, chooses perfect lighting that brightens her hair like spun gold, who tilts her shoulder just so, bends to pluck a daffodil, knowing that hers is a world of beauty and charm, and everyone in her orbit is captured by it. I tell him that he won’t sit still long enough to be photographed, won’t sit still to pose for the canvas, scowls when I suggest a pose. I don’t want to paint scowls. I tell him that he broke my last camera, stepped on my canvas in the back of the car, threw my paint across the room. He doesn’t understand the connection.

I have taken pictures of him climbing trees. Exploring the yard in his diapers. Climbing on all fours inside a fiberglass turtle at a children’s museum. I will save these for reference and paint these canvases when he’s grown, when he’s in school, when he’s got a girlfriend, when my paints are inventoried and fresh and my canvases are stacked neatly against the wall. I will paint him when he has grown into another world, the world of order and reason, and even if he hasn’t, the world that someday slots time into compartments, chunks of time that I can claim for my own. Because without this belief, without this goal, I cannot make it through the day. There must be a “someday.”

I will paint him with an overbaked smile, wearing a Hawaiian straw hat, face so close to the camera that he leaves nose prints. I will paint him with wild, loose strokes, shouting colors, globs of paint, because a calm, blue-eyed little boy, staring wistfully through a rain drenched window is not who he is, and I wouldn’t want to paint a stranger.

He is mine, and like an unfinished canvas, I will complete this task. Not all paintings are pure joy. Not all are effortless. I have problems with perspective, and occasionally stumble with foreshortening. But I can always come back to it with a fresh eye, a good night’s sleep and a full stomach.

Imagining my son in some faceless institution is too painful to bear. A hospital stay, yes. A special needs camp, absolutely. But to send him back, to open the fluffy New Parent Package with such desire and fervor and love, and then slam shut the lid and send him back is unfathomable. Therapists, teachers, parents, doctors are part of our team. My husband and I could not do it alone. My son cannot do it alone. But together, we can.

The other artist spews accusations with disgust, fires words like paint splatters: “He stole from my purse!” I asked her if she’d taken classes on adopting older children, if she’s heard of RAD.

“No. What difference would it make? I will not put up with that.”

I feel my heart snap shut on her, just as she closed hers toward her son. There is a finality, a certainty I feel, knowing that while being an artist defines me, I am not solely defined by it. It is one of many roles. I am more than that. I will not be satisfied with less. I will not turn my back on an unfinished canvas. I will study it, learn from it, correct it and in the end, I will take joy in it.

Some paintings are perfect. Some are hyper-realistic, traditional, each stroke so perfectly placed, so studied, so measured, it is like a photograph. The light falls perfectly, the angles are measured with precision. But some paintings are fraught with stress tempered by freedom, a tension of line, juxtaposition of secondary or tertiary color that otherwise would not have occurred in a traditional piece. That is where my artwork differs. My canvasses may never be as perfect as hers, but they will be painted from the heart, yanked from my soul, squeezed fresh from the tube and the palette with vigor and resolve. Where she craves perfection, I crave depth. If I have to, I will dig my fingernails into cadmium red, cobalt blue, viridian and sienna, and smear them where they need to go.

Let the artist keep her perfect portraits. Mine are messier. They are real.

Author’s Note: Raising my daughter was so easy. My son, however, is the proverbial square peg in a round hole, but with strapped on explosives.  Writing and art are my outlets. “What do other mothers DO when they’re at the end of their ropes?” asked an artist friend. I don’t know. But my son is now 19 and no longer lives at home. Take a deep breath and enjoy. 

Terry Cox-Joseph’s essays, articles and poetry have been published in Dog Fancy,  Entrepreneur, and Virginia Builder, among others.

Art: Mary Ann Cooper



Losing Winnie

Losing Winnie

11024684_854780187922320_708784403179556261_oBy Robin Lentz Worgan

I pick up my 14-year-old daughter, Winnie, at school after her play rehearsal. She slides into the car crumpling empty granola bar wrappers with her foot. I begin my daily mantra of questions: “How was play rehearsal? …Did you meet with your math teacher? …Is Sarah feeling better? Win…Winnie, stop texting and answer me, please.”  With her neck bent forward and long blond hair hanging down, a natural tent is formed around her virtual world.   This is our usual routine for our 25 minute ride home every day, unless of course she has something to ask me about her upcoming social plans, and then there is an immediate conversation to make sure they happen.

After my final pleading: “Damn it, Winnie! Put down the phone so we can talk,” she looks up at me. Her lips, pursed one over the other like Lincoln logs, slowly unfold into a slight smile. “Mom, I’m going to Allen’s house on Friday, OK?” I take a deep breath knowing that Allen may be a boy she likes and that she often wants to go to different boys’ houses instead of her girlfriends’ and also knowing that I prefer her to hang out in a co-ed group. I respond, “Oh, we might go out to dinner Friday.” Out of nowhere, Winnie, usually light and dreamy by nature, glares at me with her crystal blue eyes and barks, “You always try to control my life. You would let me go if it was a group. “

We continue to talk in a strained manner. I am not ready for her instant anger and I am trying to calm her down by telling her that I know right now she does not understand all the things I do to protect her, but before I finish she bursts in and says, “You know I hate you and I have hated you since I was… about 8-years-old.” Winnie then turns her head straight as we slow to a stop light. Before I know what is happening I hear her open the car door and say “Let me out. I’m outta here.” My heart is beating fast as we are on a main road. A car slides up next to us and I convince her to close the door for a moment. I immediately lock all the doors. We are on our way to a doctor’s check- up. She turns to me and says, “I’m not going in to the doctor. I’m leaving.” Dazed, I call my husband and ask him to meet us at her appointment. As we drive along and circle the doctor’s office parking lot twice, I feel my heart dangling from my chest, her words radiating throughout my body.

My husband comes and calms her and says he will take her to the doctor. I drive home gripping the steering wheel tighter and tighter needing to control something. As I walk in my older son sees I am upset. He is the one who used to say, “I hate you!” and then storm out of the house. He hugs me close and says, “You are a good mom. She’s just going through a phase.” That night I sit in the bathroom and cry. I cry because my little blonde haired, zany Winnie who used to wear a blue hat every day is growing up; I cry because I feel disconnected from her thoughts and feelings; I cry because I think about a game Winnie and I used to play every day after preschool. She had named it Danny and Tommy. We used two wooden figures and a bunch of wooden animals. We would set up all the animals within other blocks like they were in a zoo and then she would be Danny and I would be Tommy and we would visit the zoo and have adventures. We played it every day. I cry because her needs were so simple then: Lunch and a game with mom and then a nap, but now I am not so sure what she needs. I cry because I gave up my career to be home with my children. “Mom” has been my main identity yet I don’t feel like a good mom right now.

The next afternoon I invite Winnie to sit by the fire and talk with me. We sit cross-legged across from each other. I am hoping for a peaceful conversation, but she still has streaks of loathing in her voice when she says, “I just want to leave here. I am ready to be on my own and I want to travel.” I explain to her that travel is a great goal and that many people want to travel and that she will have plenty of time to travel later after school and college. I even bring up the idea of a gap year to fulfill her wanderlust, but we are just not connecting in our communication. She skips to her next argument and points out that I make her hang up her cell phone every night before bed and do her computer homework at the bar in the kitchen and that none of her friends’ parents make them do that, and, that when she does something wrong in her social life, I get too involved. She sits up straight and looks at me, no through me, and says, “I just want to make my own mistakes and make my own life choices. I don’t need you.”

Winnie repeats again that she does not like me. I can tell our conversation is not going anywhere and I want to end it. I decide to tell her the story I told her every night until she was about 10-years-old and stopped asking for it. “Win, when you were born, I had lost your older sister, Margaret; she was stillborn, and so when the doctor put you on my chest and I felt you breathing and saw your pink cheeks, I burst into tears and clasped my hands in prayer and said, ‘Thank you God ‘over and over again because I felt so, so lucky to have you. So you may hate me right now, but I will always love you because I am your mother and mothers always love their children, no matter what. “

I leave her and go in to my room to take a break from this mess. I know I will react and yell at my other children for anything they do because I feel vulnerable after my conversation with Winnie, so I shut myself up in my bedroom and open up my book, Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan and begin to read. I read to calm down. It takes me somewhere else away from my problems. As I read, tears drip onto my page, but I keep reading for a while. I know I should make dinner but I am not ready to resurface into my life. After about 45 minutes, Winnie comes in red eyed, hands me a note written on notebook paper, hugs me and leaves. She has never been one to talk about her feelings or tell me about her day at school. She did not cry at her beloved grandfather’s funeral a few months ago though all her siblings did.  I read her note, “I have so many emotions inside of me. I don’t know how to communicate them. I don’t hate you. I love my family. I don’t really want to leave. “

The next night I decide to ask Winnie for an art lesson. She has just spent several nights sketching amazing pictures of Adam Levine and Kurt Cobain. I cannot draw at all. We decide I will draw a mermaid. I expect her to give me simple directions for drawing a mermaid. I am waiting for concrete directions like “First draw this line,” instead Winnie begins by telling me about light and how the act of drawing all has to do with finding the point of light. She shows me the point of light on my page. She also says, “Mom you always draw what you think you see, but you are supposed to draw what you really see. Don’t guess what the side of the chair looks like, draw where it curves on the one side. Don’t guess the shape between your eyes and your pencil. Draw what you see.”

After the lesson, my picture is ready for the trash. I do not understand the light and I cannot see the way Winnie sees. I lie in bed that night and begin to think that maybe I see Winnie the way I want to see her instead of how she is. I put on a fresh set of lenses and drive her to Allen’s house the next night. Winnie texts the whole way there, not talking, except when she gets out to turn and say, “Thanks for the ride, mom.” (She smiles). I think I see a 14-year-old that needs lots of protection and is going to a boy’s house by herself and is impulsive because she has ADHD, but what I really see at that moment is a happy, artistic teen girl who loves her mom and is trying to figure out her path. I wave to Allen’s mom and drive away.

Robin Lentz Worgan is a second grade resource teacher and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in ADDitude Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She is also the author of Journaling Away Mommy’s Grief, 2010.  She blogs about loss on her book website at

Art by Linda Willis

The Decision

The Decision

mother and two daughters playing on the beach at the day time

By Francesca Grossman

My childhood stairs were carpeted red with little black flecks. The rug was threadbare in places, and I spent hours every day pulling the little wiry strings back to reveal more wood. The stairs always squeaked as they do in old houses, so that later, as a teenager, I knew exactly which side of which step to avoid when I snuck out to meet my boyfriend in the dead of night.

I felt most comfortable on those stairs, perched on the small landing exactly three stairs from the top, where upstairs became downstairs and daytime became nighttime.

I floated down those stairs once; I can still feel the flight in my flesh, the ultimate little girl freedom dream when life had yet to leaden me. That night of the floating dream, I ended up pouring a glass of milk in the kitchen, the cold white liquid overflowing the tall glass, spilling on my hand and then the linoleum floor, waking me up.

One winter afternoon when I was about seven, my father came back from the hospital after having surgery on his hands. He had arthritis, and it was bad enough that he had to “fix his thumbs” in my mother’s words. All I remember was he disappeared rather suddenly, and was gone at least a week.

It was a Saturday morning, and I wore a flannel nightgown with a lace collar and elastic wrists I would pull until they ripped and stretched. I wore my nightgown all day on the weekends, feeling the freedom of a day without pants.

My father was a gorgeous man. Still is. Tan, thin, one part Cary Grant, one part The Man with the Yellow Hat. His mole, black and distinctive, sat right on his cheekbone, below his left eye. When he walked in the front door, which was directly at the bottom of the stairs, my mother had to help him take off his coat. She had driven him home. His thumbs were wrapped in white braces wrapped in Velcro to render them immovable.

“Hey, CiCi,” he said.

“Hi, Daddy,” I said, and came down the stairs from my perch, not knowing whether to hug him in case I would hurt him.

“Miss me?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I missed you,” he said, and ran one finger under my chin, feeling the soft skin there. The Velcro scratched my neck, but I kept that to myself. He kissed my head.

He went into the kitchen to talk to my mother and I stayed in the foyer, the black marbled linoleum cold under my feet.

A little later, after he went upstairs to rest, I crept up after him and sat again on the stairs, slowly inching my way toward his room. The door was closed and no light shone through the crack at the bottom. I reached the doorframe and sat outside. The old floor was hardwood and splintery, and I arranged my nightgown so that I wouldn’t sit directly on the prickly bits.

At first, I thought my father had the TV on. Long low moans punctuated by hiccupping sobs filtered through the doorjamb.

Then it hit me—my father was crying.

I had never heard my father cry before, though I would hear it again in the years to come. But on this day in my childhood, I had never even considered my father crying a possibility. He was a mostly happy man who only seemed to ever get upset when I woke him up from a nap, or when my sister and I would pretend to run away, filling our knapsacks with stuffed animals for dramatic emphasis.

My mother was always the anxious one, the rule maker, the one who checked the stove twice before we left, even though she hadn’t used it that day.

I didn’t know what to do. I scooted closer to the white, peeling door and held my arms wide and flat. I pressed my face up against it, and closed my eyes, smelling the old paint. I stayed there, hugging that door, for a long while, knowing that I couldn’t go in, but not willing to leave.

My narrative on love, marriage and parenting was tight and exact. Everyone in my family met young, married young, and stayed together until they were old. I grew up with parents and grandparents all who were still together and (mostly) happy. The people in my family loved their children fiercely. There was never a doubt in my mind that my parents would do anything for me or for my sister, anything at all. I never wondered if they wanted me, I never felt as though I didn’t fit in the family. There still is no doubt in my mind about that. If I call, they come. It has been tested more than once, even in my darkest days. That’s it.

I think, as a child, my understanding of this kind of love made me feel protected and safe. As I grew up and moved away, I set a goal for myself: give myself to other people, especially my future children, with a feverish protection of love.

So when I heard my dad cry from pain, or I saw my mom anxious and worried, or any sliver of doubt made its way under my fingernails, it unwound me. It shook me to see them shaken, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. What I decided on was probably the worst way to deal with anxiety: stomach it all and not let the unraveling show.

In a sense, it was this self-magnified promise of parental love and safety that rooted something in me that was both good and bad: a deep need to echo my childhood, and an even deeper fear that I wouldn’t be able to.

As long as I can remember, I have been a hopeless maternal. I would mother my friends, my pets, my sister and my stuffed animals. I wanted to be able powerful, multitasking, strong. Like my own mother.

My mother put us before herself at every instance. There was never any doubt in my mind that my sister and I were the best things that had happened to her. There was never any competition with friends, or work, or life, really. As I look back, I realize this may not have been the healthiest reality for her, but for us, it was paradise. And it was the way I learned what motherhood meant—giving everything, all of myself, to everyone else.

Every summer, still now, my family rents a cottage on a beach in Cape Cod. The house is tiny and sparse, but the beach is expansive, spectacular, ours.

Almost every day, we would walk down to the completely desolate part of the beach, about a half a mile from the eighty stairs that took us up the dune and back to our cottage. There was clay that made itself from the water and the sand and the wind and we would paint it on ourselves with our fingers, sure it would do something magical to our skin and soul.

My mother, sister and I were painting with the magic clay when a gust of wind blew by, whipping sand into our faces. My sister got sand in her eyes and she burst into tears. Later in life, my sister’s eyes would get her into or out of anything she wanted, but back then, a child of four or five, they got in her way. Catlike, huge, taking up half of her face, they were quick to catch pinkeye and seemed to always be irritated by something.

“Get it out, get it out,” my sister shrieked, holding her little balled-up hands against her eye sockets, hopping on one foot to the other. I had closed my eyes in time, my seven- or eight-year-old self much more sandstorm savvy. Plus, my eyes were a much smaller target – relatively normal sized, and plainer than my sister’s.

“Stop, wait, stop!” my mother exclaimed as my sister jumped around in agony. We had nothing with us, no towel, not even a tee shirt.

“It hurts,” my sister cried.

My mother paused.

“Ok, hold on.” She kneeled on the sand next to my sister. Her red bathing suit wedged up her bum but she didn’t move to pick it; she was working. The tan line on her rearend made a perfect “V.”

My mother pulled my sister’s head close to her face.

“Here,” she said. And she put her lips right up against one eye, and then the other, licking her eyelids.

“Ew,” I said, but quietly.

She did it again, slowly, making sure to get the sides of the eyes too.

“Ok, now try to open.”

My sister opened one eye slowly, blinking rapidly, then the other. She looked around.

“It’s gone,” she said.

The awe I felt watching my mother lick the sand out of my sister’s eyes was palatable. That was the kind of thing that big love makes. That was motherhood. My mother was a master of motherhood. She put us first always. She’d lick the sand from our eyes.

In that moment, as I watched my mother heal my sister, I knew I needed to have children of my own someday; even then, I wanted the ability to come up with a solution out of thin air. I wanted to love my children with that kind of thick, unconditional, and obvious maternal love. And I’ll be honest: I wanted, of course, to be loved with that kind of awe too. I wanted, I still want, I think, the kind of gratitude that my sister had for my mother in that moment. Her mommy stopped her pain.

I was twenty-nine and had just had surgery to remove my thyroid and the cancer had grown. I was also sick with Crohn’s disease and a peripheral arthritis that brought me to my knees. I was stricken with insomnia and used that time to internally obsess about whether it would be selfish to have a baby in my state, to the point where it’s all I could think about. It was taking over every inch of my headspace, and I was slowly starting to drive myself crazy. What would I do with my life if I didn’t have children? What would my husband do? Would he leave? Should he leave? Should I leave to save him that choice?

There’s no clear prognosis with Crohn’s. Usually, hopefully, it was possible to get it under control and live a long, happy life. Doctors, patients and the internet showed me the gamete of other dire possibilities. Since then, I have heard more varying and optimistic versions. But it’s also very possible that my life could be spent in and out of hospitals, having numerous surgeries, living with very little energy and a low quality of life. Even if I never got worse, living a life I had been living—having to be within a ten-foot vicinity of a clean, private bathroom, hiding my depression from my friends, having a difficult time walking, standing up, sitting down, lying down, turning over—wasn’t a great indication of the life I would lead in the future. I could get better, sure, but what if I didn’t? What if I got worse?

My doctors had told me that the Crohn’s was an indication that I had very severe inflammation response, and the thyroid cancer was just one more confirmation that my immune system was severely off kilter. When foreign agents entered my system, my body tried to kill them. Why would that not happen with a fetus? Why would my body spare those new cells when it won’t anything else?

Also, this disease (and my other autoimmune maladies) was genetic. My father suffered from several ailments, as did my grandmother. What right did I have to pass that on to an innocent child?

I kept overthinking, bringing myself into reality: What would I do if I had children, but I couldn’t care for them? What if the cancer comes barreling back? What if I was too tired to help take care of them? What if my husband, Nick resented how much work of a burden he had to shoulder?

My mouth felt coated in cotton and tasted like play dough. Some of my prescriptions came with a side effect of dry mouth, and the aftertaste of the pills was always salty and surprising. I grabbed the water bottle by my side of the bed and took a long swig.

I knew Nick was sleeping, but I started talking to him anyway.

“What if it doesn’t happen, or maybe worse? What if it does happen but then I kill it?” I said.

“You are not going to kill it,” Nick said sleepily, as if he anticipated me waking him up with that thought. He sighed, turning over to face me.

Our bedroom had one big window right next to the bed. I stared out of it in my insomniac nights, watching the trees. The phone lines and their birds turned from black silhouettes to 3-D as the morning arrived. Pinks and oranges painted the sky. Clouds swirled above the buildings and the trees. It was so big, that sky, it made me feel like I could believe in some sort of God.

“What if I can’t take care of one?” I asked again.

“Well, I think you can, but I know what you’re saying,” he said.

The sunrise was blocked by the building across the street, but I got up and climbed onto the windowsill to peer around it, trying to find the sun.

“We could just try,” Nick said from the bed.

“Yeah, we could.”

I searched the sky for the answer to the real question: could I live with not being a mother? Could I live without giving birth? Could I? Could I really be like my mom on that day on the beach, ready for anything, giving it my all? Or would I be like her in different ways, ones less strong?

We are not supposed to remember things before we are four, but I do, down to the feel of the wallpaper.

I remember my mother, deep in her bed with her socks on, sticking out. She never wore socks, so I remember it surprised me. Her heels were always cracked, like mine are now, and though she perpetually tried to soften them, with creams and gels and special razors, in the summer they immediately toughened up, calloused and yellow and split as soon as she set foot on them. There was nothing wrong with her skin; it was just the way she was put together.

When I was about twenty years old, my mother told me that the best thing she learned in therapy during that period was that at a certain point you get to choose if you want to stay miserable. I’m not sure when that choice happens. After all, we can live inside of sadness for a long time before we see the choice as real.

I remember my father looking for me, I could hear him call, and I realized after a moment that my mother didn’t see me. She was sleeping, maybe. She had been in bed for days, maybe weeks, though at age two I should not have been able to remember anything like this, especially not the feel of time.

It was summer. The big fan in the attic was whirling. The air was heavy and hot. I sat on the coarse bright red and white rug on the floor of my parents’ room and looked at my mother’s face. It looked creased and old, though she was just over thirty. Her long dark brown hair spilled over the side of the bed but a thin piece stuck to her cheek with what I realize now was a glue of dried tears.

Something was different about my mother then. She was skinnier than I remembered, weaker. Her fingers were bare, her plain thick gold wedding ring sat on the mirrored tray on her dresser next to the perfume she didn’t wear anymore.

I heard my father again, this time closer.


He came into the room and scooped me up. My bare legs burned on the rug from the quick movement.

“I lost you, for a second,” he said with a laugh because he didn’t mean it, or didn’t want to scare me, or something.

“Daddy,” I said, reaching up.

He had me on his hip, which was not really a hip for holding children—bony and sharp. His dog tags, actual dog tags because he thought it was funny to wear them, bumped up against an old Talmud pendant in sterling silver in the jingle that always told me he was there.

He perched me again on the other side, and then went over to my mother’s side of the bed, the left side, or the right if you were in it. He looked down at her, and just for a moment, lost his perpetual smile. The jungle wallpaper behind him became 3-D and I reached out my hand over his shoulder to touch it. It was rough, like real leaves, which at the time I imagined it was.

He took the little piece of stuck hair and pulled it gently off my mother’s cheek, placing it back on her head and holding it there.

“You need anything?” he asked, which surprised me because I thought she was sleeping.

“No,” she answered quietly, not opening her eyes. Not sleeping.

He nodded and turned away from her, back towards me.

“Should we get a snack?” he asked me, nuzzling his face into my neck, feeling the underside of my chin with one finger, as he always did.

I don’t remember nodding, but we went to the kitchen anyway for our usual snack of three cookies on a plate washed down with some ice cold milk.

That night, staring out the sunrise, Nick tucked into bed, arguing with me about my chances at motherhood, I realized something. At different times in my life, both my mother and my father were sick in some way. This is true for every child, I suppose. My mother had some times of sadness, like I do, and my father suffered the kind of severe genetic inflammatory disease I have been dealt. He has thyroid disease, and severe arthritis, and stomach problems, at times. I cannot know if the way I see the world is natural or nurtured. I imagine some of both. But I know what love is. And it is bigger than illness, in all its forms. It busts through.

The kind of love my parents have for me and my sister is fiery and absolute. It’s as small as the circumference of our four-person nuclear family and as big as the blue September sky. I have never doubted it for a minute and I can only hope that someday, someone will trust my love like that; that I will be that love that shines through any of my illnesses; that I will be strong enough.

Years later, we are on the beach, the same beach that my family has been going to all my life, the same eighty steps down the bumpy dune from the cottage at the top. I am with my family, my children, and Nick. Theo and Brieza and I are walking towards the surf. It is colder than usual in July, and the waves are rougher than they usually are on Cape Cod.

Nick is perched in a chair out of the way of the water, dressed in a bathing suit and a sweatshirt, holding the rainbow umbrella he just put up with one hand, but having a tough time keeping it still.

My son and my daughter play ahead of me, both only in bathing suits, neither of them cold. I pull a Little Mermaid towel tight around my shoulders, but follow them to the foamy break.

The wind kicks up. Sand whips around us and I throw my towel out against it.

My daughter laughs, but my son cries. He kneels, holding his face in his hands.

Immediately, I know what happened, and I know what to do. I run to him, lift his five-year-old head in my hands, tilt his chin up and peel his balled up fists from his eyes. I lean down and lick the outsides of each of his eyelids, one by one. He is surprised, but doesn’t squirm away.

“Better?” I ask. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah, Mama. I’m OK.”

There is a thin line between having it all and losing it all. It is on that line I balance. I used to think the beat of my life was uneven, stopping and starting with the poison of sickness. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like the beating has been pretty steady all along. I can’t do this, I must do this, I can’t do this, I must do this. And on and on.

Nick and I have landed in our life. It’s not settled, it never will be. We have two healthy children I thought we could never have. We have jobs, we have a home. We are well more often than we are not. We have an old cat that likes to find the square of sun on the edge of the bed. We battle chronic disease.

I used to wonder what would make me whole: what pill, or man, or relationship, or therapist. Now I think it isn’t about adding things to your life to become whole, but instead it’s about taking them away. Like my fear. Like my vanity. Like my need to be healed. Maybe, if I unfurl myself so that the palm of me is naked to the world, and I am here, in my body and in my life, in my remission, then I can finally be complete. Right there is freedom. Right there is absolution. Right there is grace. Right there is me.

Francesca Grossman’s work includes contributions to The New York Times Motherlode, Drunken Boat, Brain, Child Magazine, Ed Week/Teacher,, S3 Magazine, and Interview Magazine. She graduated from Stanford with a BA and MA in Education and from Harvard with a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, with a focus on writing education and improvement. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband Nick and two children, Theo and Brieza.











Thirteen, Now and Then

Thirteen, Now and Then

Art Thirteen 1

By Christine Green

Last week my daughter asked me to help her edit and revise some poems she wrote for class. The theme was a rather advanced one: the Bosnian refugee experience. She is anxious and a little sad by nature, and I sensed her nervousness. I didn’t want to upset her so I chose my words carefully. Usually, when I help her write, she becomes prickly and uneasy, quick to be offended by any suggestion I make. But not this time. She listened as I critiqued and nit-picked and corrected. She even smiled, I think.

She worked on the poems for the next couple of hours despite the fact that there was no school the next day and the rest of the family watched a movie and ate popcorn and dozed on the couch.

I read her poems the next morning. I don’t ask permission and felt a little ashamed about that. They were good but sad and dark. I was proud and confused and heart-achy. She can channel so much sadness and beauty in just a few lines of eighth grade poetry. Her melancholy and anxiety transmutes to art that is incandescent. This child, this girl-woman, is such a different animal than I was so many years ago.


Art thirteen 2Thirteen, 1986: I am small, much smaller than most of the girls in my class. My white uniform shirt falls limply against my chest. I don’t need a bra but wear a trainer because you can see right through the flimsy polyester. Knees, knobby and sharp, poke out from underneath my plaid skirt. I wear my hair short, which was a huge mistake. My thick, straight tresses look best when I leave them long. But a picture in some glossy magazine convinces me to cut if off. I look weird.

I am reading books I’ve taken from my father –Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant and Saki. My science teacher catches a glimpse and asks if I really understand what I’m reading. I do understand and tell her so. She believes me, and I tuck the books away feeling embarrassed but not entirely sure why.

I may be smart, but I am naïve beyond words. Once I am asked to light the candles on the class Advent wreath. The idea of lighting a match terrifies me and my natural anxiety peaks to panic. When the flame ignites, I hastily drop it… right on the pine wreath surrounding the purple candles. The teacher looks at me with disbelief. It is clear that she—and the rest of the giggling class—think I am ridiculous for not knowing how to light a match. I feel ridiculous. But my soul is all air and water. My head is filled with Ideas and Notions. My heart is somber and easily bruised. I am quick to cry, and am continually scared of the world. I can’t even use the stove at my house. I rely on others for heat.


She got an A on those poems as I knew she would. But I worry about all that sadness. It’s a sadness tinged with anger, confusion, and anxiety. She is too young to be so somber.

This makes me think that the coming years will be hard, much harder than I am ready for. Already we can come at each other with an intensity that startles me.

I cry. She yells.

Water. Flame.



Thirteen, 2014: She is fire through and through. She can light a match, of course. And she can bake bread and walk home from school alone. She wears black and doodles on her sneakers. She hates gym class and is a voracious reader. Books litter her room and I often find them tucked in her bed sheets and even in the laundry basket. No magazines, though. Fancy fashion spreads hold no interest for her. Instead she studies Shintoism and researches the ins and outs of cardiac surgery. The affairs of the heart fascinate her on every level. She thinks about heaven and death and loss and takes on the sorrows of the world. Those sorrows are tinder for a blaze of anger that glints in her hazel eyes when she tilts her head.

She talks back and mouths off and teases her little brother. She has perfected the eye roll and slams doors in such a way as to shake the whole house.

Sparks fly.

She is so hot headed at times I want to douse her in cold water. Occasionally, when she is walking in the snow, I watch the steam rise from her heart and finger tips and the tip of her nose. I watch it rise into the ether and mix with the stars.

Christine Green is a freelance writer and columnist in Western, NY. She also organizes and hosts a monthly literary reading, “Words on the Verge,” at A Different Path Art Gallery in Brockport, NY. She is a Californian at heart and dreams of once again living near the beach.

photo credit: Courtney Webster

Marching Along The Path of Joy

Marching Along The Path of Joy

ART Marching Path of Joy

By Rebecca Vidra

Getting pregnant at 40 was not in my plans. Not even in my wildest dreams. I already had two daughters, who I managed to keep alive and mostly happy for 10 and 8 years, respectively. My career was finally recovering from my ill-advised “I can work full-time without daycare” years and I felt like I was finally reclaiming my own identity.

And my marriage? It was about to end. Or so I thought.

It was on a sailing trip in Spain that I found out that I was “embarazada.” My husband and I had taken the trip, our first significant vacation away from the kids, under the auspices of work (as professors, we were checking out potential study abroad programs). I viewed it as our last chance to renew our commitment by choice, not just because of the economic or logistical constraints of marriage.

My husband says he knew that I was pregnant before I did. I was in complete denial that I could be carrying a stowaway.

I remained that way – in shock – for the first several weeks of my pregnancy, asking myself if I really wanted to go through with it. I searched the web for stories by women like me – middle-aged and facing an unplanned and, honestly, unwanted pregnancy. Finally, my husband suggested that we take the “path of joy” and have this baby.

For him, the decision was about the baby. For me, the decision was about us.

As the weeks went by, I started to experience little flickers of excitement, often followed by huge pulses of worry and regret. I started a list of things I was not looking forward to – preschool birthday parties, pumping at work – and started a much smaller list of potential baby names.

Throughout my pregnancy, as I oscillated between excitement and fear, I could not fully admit my dread, that I would not be able to mother this child with unconditional love and attention. How could I do it all over again, this time while coping with 2 soon-to-be-teenage girls? How would we be able to do the work necessary to strengthen our marriage, while having a needy baby to care for?

And there was this, the question that kept me up at night: could I really find it within myself to be in love with my husband all over again, when it seemed so much easier to leave? For months, I felt as if I were bracing for a big wave that I knew was going to knock me over hard.

Véla was born in my bedroom, on a warm spring day. The midwife did not arrive in time, leaving me to birth my baby with the help of my husband and doula. I reached down to deliver her and pulled her to my chest, as if by primal instinct. I felt that intense panic of protectiveness that all new parents experience as I wondered if she could breathe on her own.

Then, her tiny eyelashes – little sticky curled wisps – blinked open. And it was at that moment, watching her arrive into this world, that I knew I could do this all over again.

In the photos taken right after the birth, the baby and I are in focus. You can see streaks of milky vernix and blood on her head and my hands. In the blurred background, my clearly relieved husband is crying as he reaches for us. For me.

Today, my sleep-deprivation is highlighted by crow’s feet around my bleary eyes. I don’t have the same energy for decorating a nursery, or chronicling her every move on a blog, or endlessly searching for the best preschool. I am not worrying about every little thing, though I do worry that I am not worrying enough.

There must be some gray area between obligation and love, a space for the choices we make out of both. Having a baby is hardly a prescription for saving a marriage. I get that. It certainly was not a magic wand or even a soothing balm for ours. I’m realistic about this, yet it also re-oriented me to what love looks like on most days: doing the dishes, shuttling the kids to dance practice, not asking why I didn’t manage to take the garbage out (again).

This “path of joy” is not a forced march or a romantic wandering journey. It doesn’t always feel joyful. It is crowded by our busy schedules and minor arguments. We navigate over bumps of annoyance and around curves of “what-ifs.” I think, though, that I am able to celebrate the small moments of joy more fully now that I am not looking for the exit ramp.

And when I feel the now familiar twinge of regret, I look at Véla’s tiny eyelashes and remind myself to focus on the small steps on this shared and unpredictable path of joy.

Rebecca Vidra lives with her husband and three daughters in the oak-sourwood forest of North Carolina, where Véla (named after the Spanish word for “sail”) just celebrated her first birthday..

Photo Credit: Kallyn Boerner


What I Wanted For My Daughters

What I Wanted For My Daughters

By Patrice Gopo


Because society calls girls sugar and spice and everything nice. And turns their rainbow to pink, magenta, and wisps of purple.

Because we sell them glossy magazines with headlines like, “Get Your Best Bikini Body,” “Look Cute All Summer,” and “What No One Tells You About Your First Time.” Because we give them bendable dolls that look nothing like the bodies they will grow.

Because there are contests that reward them on the curve of their hips, the lack of flab in their thighs, the way they spin in ball gowns and bathing suits.

Because we teach them to be smart—but not too smart.

Because we decide that if they can crack glass ceilings, they must. Not just for them but also for the ones who follow. We forget their shoulders can buckle under this burden.

Because we teach them being fearless is spending a day without make-up or posting their postpartum pictures. Because we tell them they are beautiful even as we diet and exercise and give up dessert. Because we ignore them when they ask, “How can I be beautiful when the most beautiful woman I know doesn’t think she is?”

Because society says they can have it all.

Because they are berated for not leaning in to their careers. And for not staying home with their children. Because we pity them for not leaning in. And we pity them for not staying home.  

Because we tell them that to lean in, they need to adopt an assertive spirit, embrace strong ways. But if they are too assertive, too strong, if they ask for fair treatment or stand firm for equal pay, we label them “spoiled” or “brat” or both.

Because we say they need a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Because we teach them to hide in their relationships and tolerate the unacceptable for far too long. Because when they wonder why marriage is passing them by, we tell them they should fix themselves up, stop being so aggressive, lose a little weight, hide their degrees, quit expecting perfection.

Because we train them to be the caretakers, the nurturers. Because we never tell them that their broken bodies and emaciated lives can heal no one.

  • *   *   *

Because my mother has always called me beautiful. Because she gathered glue, ribbons, and lace and made hair bows to slide against my scalp. Because she taught me how to pull the bed sheets taut and make diagonal folds before tucking the fabric beneath the mattress.

Because she read my graduate school entrance essays.

Because she didn’t wait for an unknown wedding and instead gave me new pots and pans when I moved into my first apartment. Because she suggested I end a relationship. Because I got upset with her for making that suggestion, but now I’m grateful.

Because she never showed me how to apply mascara or chop up a raw chicken. Because after the birth of my firstborn, she scented my home with the aroma of roasted meats and savory gravy. Because in those quiet hours of new motherhood, she held my soft baby while I slept.

Because she wipes the streaks and smudges off my windows and calls me when I’m sick.

Because her conversations cradle advice, suggestions for improvement, tips for life, but I still know I make her proud.

  • *   *   *

Because I was once a girl. Because I am now a woman.

Because I imagined my daughters sitting on a stool between the curve of my legs, their elbows pressing against my thighs while I unraveled their braids.

Because I wanted to teach them to crack eggs in metal bowls and find the derivative of a quadratic equation. Because I wanted them to discover the satisfaction of feeling a perfect thrift-store sweater snug against their bodies. Because I believed they could learn to create gorgeous phrases from the music of an ordinary day.

Because I kept my deep red, hard-covered Introduction to Chemical Engineering textbook, believing their fingers might one day rub the dusty spine, read the title, and know they could become that too.

Because I stay home and fold fresh laundry, pull duvets over crisp sheets, stir fragrant pots of soup, and stand in my bare feet sweeping the floor. Because at nap time I hold my warm toddler to my chest, brush my lips against her forehead, and touch her hair with the tips of my fingers.

Because I called one laughter and the other miracle.

Patrice Gopo‘s recent essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Gulf Coast, Full Grown People, and online in the New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in North Carolina with her family.

Photo: Daria Nepriakhina | Unsplash

What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

By Liz Henry


Read fast, read slow, read however you’re going to read, but live your life outside the little circles demanding all the ‘right’ answers.


“What would you consider a successful future for this student?” The question comes with checkboxes for college and technical school, high school and a blank space for me to expand upon my thoughts. I skip it and keep going.

It seems odd I’d be asked to whittle down my 12-year-old’s future into one sentence within a packet to be scanned by a computer. But then again, finding a link between not reading so good and prenatal vitamin intake during pregnancy is like turning a hair dryer on and calling it a key factor in global warming. When it comes to the success or failure of our children, it’s always the mothers who face the firing squad of empty bubbles demanding a filled-in answer and other people’s opinions.

As I make my way through the packet of questions from my daughter’s middle school, I can’t locate the answers. What age were her first words? First sentence? First steps? I remember bits and pieces, I didn’t keep a detailed log or scrapbook. I was in college, when she was a newborn. I was twenty-one, forgive me.

I know for sure she was almost walking by her first birthday, but crawling was steady and reliable so she was prone to do that. There were two cakes and almost a hundred guests at her first birthday party, this I remember. The tiny, free cake from the grocery store was for her to sink her hands into and make buttercream gloves. The adults nibbled on massacred Sesame Street characters in primary colors.

I haven’t thought much about what I want for my daughter beyond what she wants for herself. When she was young, her father and I would drive her to the soccer field, softball diamond and basketball court; before that he lifted her high in the air and sang terrible songs with women in paisley bathing suits at the YMCA so she’d know how to swim.

My daughter hated sports. She’s not a fan of competition; we figured this out later, and didn’t push her because what would be the point? She’d be playing to make us happy, and we only had her in sports because that’s what you do in the suburbs when you have children—you make them play even if they aren’t very good and don’t particularly like it.

She does love swimming, we got that right.

I don’t know what the future holds for my daughter, so how could I possibly write it down when she just turned twelve? Right now her favorite heroine is Ripley from “Aliens” and there doesn’t seem to be an end to Build-a-Bear extorting us. A few years ago, she was obsessed with “Titanic” and I read her the books, we watched the movie, bought the Blu-Ray and I took her to the theater to see it in 3-D. And then we went to an exhibit of Titanic artifacts where we were both humbled by the sadness of lost lives and chilled to the core after touching a block of ice the size of a paddle boat.

Yesterday “Titanic” was on TV and she didn’t want to watch it. That’s the thing about watching your child grow up, the last day of once beloved things never comes with a celebration, they end before you know it, and you’re left with the memories.

The question, however, demands an answer and leaving it blank seems neglectful. I check off high school and college, and technical school. I write, “I would like for my daughter to do whatever makes her happy and sustains her lifestyle.” The implication: do what you like, kid, try and fail. Go and live! Don’t send me a bill.

“Today at school we were talking about what color we would be if we could be colors,” she tells me. “Purple, that’s my color. It’s my birthstone and the color of royalty.”

“Ah,” I say.

I know the royalty part isn’t a big deal to her, but it doesn’t hurt to have something aristocratic associated with her birth.

“Mom, what color do you think I am?”

“I think you’re a rainbow,” I say. “I know that’s all the colors, but when someone sees a rainbow they stop and look because it’s unique. A rainbow rarely happens, but when it does, it gives people a lot of joy. That’s you.”

I know as a mother I’m supposed to say these things to encourage my daughter, but my words don’t define her. Or, anyone else.

Fuck it, I want to tell her. Read fast, read slow, read however you’re going to read, but live your life outside the little circles demanding all the “right” answers. The only test my daughter needs to pass is the one she’s written for herself. Have I made myself available to the ones I love? Do I bring them joy? Have I made myself happy, first? If my daughter can do these things, she’ll be successful.

Liz Henry’s writing has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post and she’s a contributor to The Good Mother Myth from Seal Press. Follow her on Facebook.


Blue Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair

Blue Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair

By Angelique York


To most people, she is a young person with great hair. To the right person though, that hair whispers that she could be a sprite from a mystical valley, here to bring goodness and joy.


Little girls stare and smile. They wave and laugh. Their small faces fill with expressions of wonder and delight as they look and turn away, and look back again.

Perhaps they see a fairy from a faraway place, or a pixie escaped from a magical island. She could be a princess visiting from her kingdom in the mystic mountains. Or perhaps she is a mermaid from a distant ocean, somehow walking on land. It’s hard to tell who she might be, especially for the smallest of the small, but they clearly recognize that she is someone special and they are momentarily in awe.  

My 22-year-old daughter’s hair has been bright pink, deep purple, and a blue so dark and rich it was almost black. But none of the colors has attracted as much attention as the current one, a green the shade of tropical seas with highlights of turquoise and lowlights of azure. As the thick and softly waving tresses cascade across her shoulders, it reflects the sun in shimmering rays like a sparkling lagoon, yet gives the impression that there is more, like the unknown depths of the ocean.

Little boys look with wide eyes. Little girls squeal and point, telling their mommies to look too. Sometimes the mommy agrees that here is a magical being incognito, a princess out of her ball gown and crown, instead wearing cargo shorts and a tee shirt to blend in with the crowd at the amusement park. They allow that a pixie might take time away from sprinkling dust to go shopping at the mall, or an enchanted creature might grab a bite to eat with her family at a local restaurant. These mommies understand the importance of the fantasy and encourage it. Here is the image their child has seen in movies and read about in their picture books. They affirm that yes, this is what magic looks like. Here it is, in person.

A little girl, maybe three years old, looked at my daughter, smiled, and threw herself into her arms, hugging her tightly. Her mother was horrified. She apologized and was embarrassed that her daughter would simply embrace a stranger. My daughter just smiled and told her it was fine. Although caught by surprise by the uninhibited display of affection, she understands her role as ambassador for all things fantastical, all things wondrous, all things we wish we could see but never will. Unless someone is willing to be that for us.

She loves the looks and comments from the children. I tell her she should carry a wand or a bottle of fine glitter, just in case someone needs a wish made. She laughs. Other than her hair, she looks like most any recent college graduate. She is fair skinned and dark eyed, a beautiful and approachable young woman. Quiet and reserved, she allows her hair to speak for her, an expression of her creative heart and her artistic soul. To most people, she is a young person with great hair. To the right person though, that hair whispers that she could be a sprite from a mystical valley, here to bring goodness and joy.

Childhood moves quickly. The opportunity for a little one to glimpse someone who might be a figure from their favorite DVD or bedtime story is rare and unique. What pleasant dreams that child might have that night, or on nights to come. The vision might linger in their mind and become a wonderful story to tell their own children and grandchildren someday. Will they remember the mermaid they met on the train, or the gem in human form who smiled back at them in the grocery store? Maybe that will remain a wonderful memory to call on when things are difficult. Or maybe it will stir them to write their own story, or paint a beautiful picture. It might inspire them to find the cure to a disease, or solve an environmental issue, or build an incredible machine. That moment of magic could be the beginning of understanding that the impossible might just be very possible—if you believe it can.

Mothers ask my daughter questions. Do you do that yourself? Do you go to a professional?  How long does it last? Clearly there are many supportive parents willing to ask the questions for their own daughters who want colorful hair. She is delighted to explain that she has a professional who does the initial coloring, but she keeps it up herself. She graciously gives out her stylist’s name and phone number.

Teens approach to tell her they love her hair. Guys tell her it looks cool. Young people who appear to be otherwise shy are unafraid to talk with her. Her hair is an icebreaker, a conversation starter. Adults comment, too. She gets the occasional sideward glance or look that states the giver clearly does not agree with her choice. Some scoff, or roll their eyes. She ignores the negative, instead enjoying wearing her hair as an accessory that can be changed any time she likes.

Other adults tell her her hair is fun and pretty. They say they would wear their hair brightly colored, if only they could. Perhaps as grown-ups, they are too self-conscious. Or perhaps they are held to an employer’s dress code that forbids anything other than a natural color. I encourage my daughter to do what she chooses, now, while she can. Cut it, color it, curl it or straighten it. Change your mind and do something different. It will grow back.

She had no idea when she started coloring her hair, first with streaks and tips of blonde, then with highlights of blue, then with an all-over color from a world of fantasy and imagination, that she would stir the hearts of so many. I’m pleased that something she does just for fun has given joy to children and reassurance to parents. My daughter has fully embraced the responsibility that comes with appearing to be an ethereal being. She is unique and amazing, a quiet reminder to those who see her that the magic and wonder of our dreams might be found in the most common of places.

Angelique York is a Dallas-based freelance writer and mother of three. An essayist and former newspaper columnist, she is currently writing a memoir.

The Day My Daughter Became a Woman

The Day My Daughter Became a Woman

By Beverly Willett


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Ludovic Gauthier

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

The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy

The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy

The-new-Chinese-style-modern-Chinese-palace-lantern-carving-ornate-chandeliers-sheepskin-lamp-lights-work-lights copyBy Mai Wang

Jing Jing was lying on the couch when she heard the scream. Mama had invited some friends over for Sunday night poker, and Jing Jing was stuck at home listening to the adults fight between the highs and lows of their game. Now Jing Jing pressed her hands to her ears. The scream sounded a bit like a wolf’s howl, one of the American wolves Mama always warned her about. Better stay inside, Mama liked to say in Chinese, in this country animals eat the kids who play outside. Jing Jing looked over at the adults and almost rolled off the couch. It was her mother who had screamed. Now the other adults sat with their cards lying face down on the table and their cups full of cooling tea. Their eyes were all fixed on the Year of the Tiger calendar hanging from the wall. Her mother threw her cards on the table, and that’s when Jing Jing knew she had lost the round.

Mama noticed her and glared.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?” she asked. Jing Jing’s 10 pm curfew hadn’t changed for years, even though she had just turned twelve. Luckily, Mama was more forgetful on poker nights.

“It’s too loud, Mama,” Jing Jing said. Her mother could be scary, but nowhere as scary as her father got when he was in a bad mood. “I can hear it through the wall.”

Every Sunday, Jing Jing used the same excuse to stay on the couch instead of going to the bedroom where her father was asleep. She hated poker, but what she hated more was the cramped bed she shared with her parents. She slept in a dip between their two pillows, and every night she tried to edge away from her father’s side. When her father slept he made loud whale sounds through his nose—they were even worse, Jing Jing thought, than the sound of his farts.

 On Sunday nights, her father went to bed early in order to get away from her mother’s guests. If he wanted to see so many Chinese people, he always complained, he could just go back to Beijing. Jing Jing wondered if all the men there were as noisy as her father, but she knew that asking him would earn her a kick in the butt or a slap in the face.

Jing Jing almost giggled at the way Mama looked now, as if someone had forced her to drink a bottle of dark rice vinegar. Mama was already gathering the cards and clearing the teacups off the table. She poured the remains of one teacup into another, and when the cups clinked together they made an angry sound. The way she was rushing, no one would ever guess it was her night off—she could have been back at Imperial Garden working the lunch crowd.

“Can’t play with someone watching me all the time,” Mama mumbled as she stacked the teacups in a tower. “Jing Jing, maybe your bad luck is infecting me tonight.”

The last thing Jing Jing wanted to hear was how she had ruined the game. Ever since Jing Jing chipped her tooth on a radiator at the age of three, Mama had been convinced that bad luck haunted her footsteps. None of the lucky amulets that Mama forced upon her—the red silk string, the fake gold rabbit, the jade lion—could stop Jing Jing from tripping on the stairs or skinning her knee on the sidewalk.

“Don’t blame me, Mama,” Jing Jing protested. “I haven’t done anything bad.”

She got up from the couch, filled with the sudden urge to gaze up at her mother’s sweaty face. Without the makeup Mama wears to work, Jing Jing realized, she looks a lot older. Jing Jing made her way over to the table, where the adults were sitting in a circle of her mother’s mismatched garage sale chairs.

“Let Jing Jing stay. She’s not bothering us,” Auntie Su said.

Looking at Auntie Su up close made Jing Jing feel funny. Auntie Su was much younger than her mother. She was wearing a pair of frayed jean shorts and a tight t-shirt that spelled out the word “Baby” in glittery letters and revealed a strip of her stomach. If Auntie Su were a student at Jing Jing’s school, she would get detention for violating the dress code.

“Come on, it’s still early, and I’m playing well,” Auntie Su insisted.

“Game’s over,” Mama said, shaking her head.

Maybe Mama was mad about losing the round to Auntie Su, but no one seemed to notice. The women made no move to pick up their purses, and the men were still ashing their cigarettes into a chipped bowl.

“I might as well tell everyone while you’re still here,” Mama said. She paused and started fanning herself with a card. The small breeze she created stirred the stray hairs framing her face. Some part of her was always moving, even when she was standing still.

“Boss says I have to work the Sunday dinner shift starting next week,” Mama announced. “No more poker night for me.”

“Wait a minute. What are we going to do on Sundays?” Auntie Su said. “Without you, Mrs. Zhao, there’s no game.”

Mama shrugged and returned the cards to their cardboard box. “At least this way I can earn back the money I lost to you tonight,” she told Auntie Su.

“That’s pocket change,” Auntie Su said. “Come on, sit down and we’ll play one more round. You might win it all back.”

“No can do, it’s closing time,” Mama joked in English, repeating the favorite line she gave to customers who arrived a minute too late at Imperial Garden and demanded a table. She yawned as she looked at her guests.

“I feel like an old grandma,” Mama said, switching to Chinese. “Why did you all let me play for so long?”

The Chinese residents of the Big Yard called Mama “Lucky Hands” because she drew the winning hand in their late night poker games week after week. Mama always encouraged her guests to stay until they could barely tell a jack from an ace. She liked to keep them hostage with pleas of “one more round” until the watermelon seeds were gone and the tea was cold. She didn’t let them go until she had won enough coins to pay for a week’s worth of laundry tokens and Fantasy 5 lottery tickets.

Tonight, though, Mama’s full house had been beaten out by Auntie Su’s straight flush in the last round. The adults tallied the score as they gathered their belongings. It was the first time Mama had lost a poker game since anyone could remember, and Jing Jing heard the adults whisper that her luck had run out.

They were all traitors, Jing Jing decided, and Auntie Su was the worst one of all. Suddenly it occurred to Jing Jing that Auntie Su might have cheated. Jing Jing stared at Auntie Su to see if she could find out the truth.

Auntie Su had come to America to become an engineer, though she didn’t look like one. She was the only woman Jing Jing knew who wore mascara and red lipstick every time she left home. Jing Jing had listened to her mother gossip about Auntie Su over the phone, how all the bachelors in the Big Yard wished she didn’t have a husband back in China so they could marry her instead. “Makes you want to be her age again, doesn’t it?” Mama had joked. Still, Jing Jing thought, her mother was much prettier if you took Auntie Su’s ugly perm into account.

Jing Jing circled around the table and stopped next to Auntie Su.

“How much money did you win?” she whispered in Auntie Su’s ear.

Auntie Su counted her stacks of quarters one by one.

“$20.75,” she said. “Not bad for my first time winning.”

“Wow!” Jing Jing said. “That’s a lot.” Unlike her friends at school, Jing Jing didn’t get an allowance. Twenty dollars and seventy-five cents was more money than she had ever handled at one time.

“Do you know what you want to buy with your money?” Jing Jing asked.

“Maybe I should deposit them in the bank,” Auntie Su said. “What do you think?”

Jing Jing didn’t answer Auntie Su. She wondered how much money her parents had in their bank account. She had seen them fight often enough to know it couldn’t be much. Mama kept a cash box under the bed to store her tips, and Baba had taken money from it to buy a TV from the pawnshop down the street. To this day, Mama still refuses to watch the TV. “Your father has yet to earn back the money he wasted on that thing,” she told Jing Jing.

Mama was still in the kitchen rinsing the last of the teacups clean. Jing Jing was ready to join her when the bedroom door opened.

Baba stood in the doorway without his glasses on. Sleep had shrunk his eyes into small red beads, and he wore a thin undershirt covered with old stains. Jing Jing wished she could grab his moth-eaten robe from the bathroom and throw it over his shoulders.

Auntie Su was re-counting her coins and didn’t notice Jing Jing’s father. The other adults waved to him, but no one asked him to join them. Everyone knew he didn’t like guests and never played cards. Now he noticed Jing Jing hovering by the table and glared.

“Don’t you have school tomorrow?” he said.

“School just ended, Baba,” she said. “I already told you it’s summer break.”

“In China, kids never talk back to their elders,” he replied. “Everyone knows that.” His eyes scanned the room. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Su?”

Auntie Su glanced up from her quarters. “Yes, that’s true,” she said.

Baba cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. His hands fell down to his sides, and he kept standing there and staring at Auntie Su even once she turned her attention back to her coins. An absentminded look grew on his face. It was the same look he had when he was watching a TV show he really enjoyed.

Jing Jing was relieved when Baba returned to the bedroom. She vowed not to tell Mama that he had appeared in his underwear in front of all the guests. Her parents were already arguing too much these days. Late at night, after they thought she was asleep, they would hiss back and forth about the prospects of a job—any job—for her father. He was always promising that a new job was right around the corner, but nothing ever seemed to turn up. Mama told Jing Jing that Baba had been a big, important professor back in Beijing—that was why she had married him in the first place—but now she couldn’t rely on him to earn a single cent. Her father blamed his poor English as the reason he had dropped out of his PhD program. Her mother called it an excuse, and Jing Jing secretly agreed. If he could watch people talking in English on TV, then he could learn how to read, write, and speak it too.

Poker Chips

Now Auntie Su was staring at the spot in front of the closed door where Baba had stood. There was a filmy look clouding the strange woman’s face. For some reason her eyes made Jing Jing think of a cold, dead fish.

That night seemed to go on forever. By the time the other guests were gone, Jing Jing was half asleep on the couch, and Auntie Su was sitting alone at the table. Jing Jing wondered why she did not go home when she only lived four doors down in Unit 1C. The buzz of voices had been replaced by the static of running water. Finally, Mama emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel.

Auntie Su got up and apologized for staying so late.

“Don’t be so polite,” Mama said. “Won’t you keep us company for a little longer?”

“I should get going,” Auntie Su said. “But I was admiring what a nice apartment you have. Such a big TV.” Auntie Su laughed. “And you have the best poker table in the Big Yard. So round and sturdy. I wish you wouldn’t cancel the games.”

Mama had selected the wooden table from a garage sale in Kendall Lake. If they couldn’t live in a nice neighborhood, she often said, at least they could buy rich people’s old furniture. Baba only asked why they had to keep other people’s junk.

“I was wondering if we could still play poker here on Sunday nights,” Auntie Su said. “No trouble for you, of course. I can be the hostess and clean up the mess afterwards. Your husband will appreciate that, I bet.”

“My husband never notices when I clean up,” Mama said. “So I doubt he’ll care if anyone else does it.”

“He’s like all men,” Auntie Su said. “But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if we kept meeting here. I mean, I’m not suggesting that you owe us anything.”

The smile on Mama’s face trembled. Saving face was even more important to her than saving money.

“You can’t have your games here,” Jing Jing started to tell Mrs. Su, but she stopped talking when Mama gave her a look.

“Now that you mention it,” Mama said in her best hostess voice. “I don’t see why you can’t meet here without me.”

Mrs. Su clasped her hands together and thanked Mama.

“Jing Jing here will help you clear off the table. Isn’t that right, Jing Jing?” Mama asked.

Jing Jing wanted to whimper, but for her mother’s sake she remained silent.

After Auntie Su left, Jing Jing lay in bed between her parents and thought of all the things she could buy with twenty dollars and seventy-five cents. Finally, she decided she would get twenty Fantasy 5 tickets from the nice Cuban man who ran the corner convenience store. He would sell them to her as long she told him they were for Mama. You had a better chance of winning the Fantasy 5 lottery, Mama always said, because they only picked five numbers instead of six. Sure, the jackpot was smaller than the regular lottery, but who needed millions anyway? Fifty or a hundred thousand dollars would pay their rent for years, even if Baba continued to do nothing. Whenever Jing Jing heard her mother’s complaints she felt guilty, as if she was the one who should be working to make money.

If she ever won the lottery, Jing Jing decided, she wouldn’t just pay the rent—she would take her family out of the Big Yard. Of course, the Big Yard wasn’t its real name. In English, their complex was called the Villas of Dadeland, though that name was also a lie. Villas, she had learned in school, were supposed to be Spanish mansions, not old apartment buildings covered in peeling paint. Ever since her family moved from China, they had occupied a one-bedroom on the bottom floor of Building A. Jing Jing wanted to move out and buy an enormous house in Kendall Lake where she would have a top-floor room all to herself.

Baba was snoring even louder than usual. Jing Jing fidgeted, and the rustle of the blanket caused Mama to turn over.

“What are you doing?” Mama whispered.

“Baba is too loud,” Jing Jing said. “I can’t fall asleep.”

Mama stroked her hair. Jing Jing forgot to be mad about her agreement with Auntie Su.

“I thought I had an unbeatable hand tonight,” Mama whispered. “I haven’t played so badly in years.”

“Don’t worry,” Jing Jing said. “Auntie Su probably switched her cards with yours when you weren’t looking.”

“She wouldn’t do that,” her mother said. “She’s pushy, but she’s not a cheater. It’s just too bad all the luck went to her and not me.”

Mama sighed and turned away. Jing Jing wondered if she had said something wrong, but before she could ask Mama had fallen asleep.

The next morning, Jing Jing woke up to the sound of her parents fighting in the living room.

“What kind of woman invites her friends to come over and play cards when she’s at work?” Baba asked.

“A woman like me,” Mama said. “And if you don’t want to be here, you can leave.”

Jing Jing jumped out of bed and cracked the door open. The bowls of rice porridge on the table had gone untouched. Her parents stopped talking when they saw her.

“Why are you standing there?” Mama said. “Come eat.”

Jing Jing shook her head and closed the door again. She wasn’t feeling hungry.

At work, Mama carried plates of sesame chicken and deluxe pu-pu platters to the American people who ate at Imperial Garden. When a customer was mean and asked for no-salt, no-oil in a dish, she delighted in the fact that they were ordering Fake Chinese Food without knowing it. “We save the good stuff for ourselves,” she liked to tell Jing Jing as she slipped her an almond cookie or a sesame ball she’d smuggled home. The stolen treats were one of the few perks of her job.

The day after losing to Auntie Su, Mama came home late after a double shift. “That stinky boss,” she said as she shut the door. “He’s going to work us to death.”

She sat down in a saggy wicker chair and untucked her crumpled white uniform shirt. She had a dozen shirts like it hanging in the closet, and all of them needed mending. This one was missing several buttons.

“Was it busy tonight, Mama?” Jing Jing said.

The dining room of Imperial Garden was an exciting place to Jing Jing. It had a tank full of goldfish and a fat Buddha statue. Lots of rich-looking people sat in booths drinking watered-down tea. Her mother had taken her to work on summer afternoons when she was little, but now Jing Jing was too big to play in the restaurant. That day, she had stayed at home with Baba.

“Yes, it was busy,” Mama said. “I made good tips. See?” Mama pulled out a wad of dollar bills from her purse and unfolded them to reveal a brand new Fantasy 5 ticket. “I couldn’t help it,” she whispered.

“What did you feed Jing Jing for dinner?” Mama asked Baba.

Baba didn’t reply. He kept his eyes on the TV. Every night, he watched game shows and played along with the contestants. He was learning English on a schedule of his own, he said, no teachers required. He liked Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right, but Jeopardy was his favorite. Baba leaned forward as Alex Trebek asked for the name of an exotic sports car for $200.

Mama shook her head.

“Do you want me to cook something?” she asked Jing Jing.

“No,” Jing Jing said. She was about to explain that she was full when Mama noticed the plate of white buns on the table.

“What’s this?” Mama asked.

Jing Jing couldn’t answer. She had suddenly lost her voice.

Mama repeated her question loudly, and Baba looked up as a commercial break began.

“Oh, that?” he said as if seeing the buns for the first time. “Mrs. Su dropped those off. These buns are one of her specialties. You could stand to take a few cooking lessons from her.”

To Jing Jing’s surprise, Mama smiled and reached for a bun.

“That woman knew it was her turn to pay me back,” Mama said.

When Sunday came around again, the sound of the vacuum woke Jing Jing up. She went into the living room to find Mama pointing the nozzle at the space beneath the couch.

“Go get me a wet rag from the kitchen,” Mama said when she saw Jing Jing. “I have to be at work in an hour.”

When Jing Jing returned with the rag, Mama set down the vacuum and started wiping the table.

“Remember to be good tonight,” she said. “Don’t give Auntie Su a hard time, okay?”

Jing Jing nodded, but she was crossing her fingers behind her back.

After Mama left for work, Jing Jing waited for the adults to arrive. She didn’t want to be alone with Baba anymore. He wasn’t acting like himself. His hair was slicked down and parted to the side. He had stationed himself in front of the TV, and he got up and went to the bathroom to check his reflection every few minutes.

Someone finally knocked around dinnertime.

“I’ll get it!” Jing Jing yelled, but Baba was already in the hallway.

He opened the door to reveal Auntie Su. She was wearing a pink halter dress that made her look like a sick flamingo and carrying a stack of Tupperware.

“I thought I’d come over a little early,” Auntie Su said. “I wanted to see if you guys cared to try some of my other dishes. How did you like those buns, Jing Jing?”

Jing Jing shrugged. They’d been delicious, but she wasn’t about to admit it.

“Mr. Li, you didn’t let Jing Jing try my sweet bean buns?” Auntie Su said. She hit Baba on the shoulder, and for a second Jing Jing thought he would get mad.

Instead, Baba laughed and rubbed his belly. “I wanted to eat them all. My wife lets me go hungry these days.”

“Is that so? You do look thin.” Auntie Su pretended to examine his belly. “I’ll make sure both of you eat well tonight.”

She smiled at Baba, and he smiled back. Jing Jing couldn’t remember the last

time she had seen him so happy.

Auntie Su set the containers on the table and lifted their lids. Jing Jing walked over and peeked at them. There was sweet lotus root cooked with vinegar, pork ribs covered with black bean sauce, and a whole fish steamed with scallions and ginger. Auntie Su must have spent all her poker winnings on the ingredients.

“Eat up,” Auntie Su told Jing Jing. “Your father seems to like my cooking well enough.”

The steam rising from the food made Jing Jing’s mouth water, but she didn’t want to eat in front of Auntie Su.

“Not right now,” Jing Jing said. “Maybe later.”

“Don’t worry about her,” Baba told Auntie Su as he grabbed a spare rib. “My daughter is too picky for her own good. I’m glad you like to play poker.”

“Only when I win. But be honest,” she said as she laid her hand on Baba’s arm. “I know you don’t want the game here tonight.”

“Nonsense,” her father replied as he chewed. “I’m glad you’re here.” Jing Jing suspected he was telling the truth. He seemed to like Auntie Su a lot, but Jing Jing didn’t know why she felt upset.

Baba kept chewing as he turned to Jing Jing. “Go find the cards,” he said. “I think your mother keeps them in the kitchen drawer.”

When Jing Jing came back with the deck of cards, she found Auntie Su replacing the lids on the containers.

“Your father said he was full,” Auntie Su said. “And since you’re not hungry, I thought I’d take the leftovers home.”

That night the guests trickled in as Auntie Su’s leftovers cooled in the fridge. For the first time, Jing Jing took a seat at the table, and no one shooed her away. Baba also remained in the room. His presence kept everyone else silent. He was watching TV again, and his eyes would occasionally wander over to the game.

Halfway through the first round, Jing Jing saw Baba exchange a long glance with Auntie Su. What was going on between them?

“Can I play too?” Jing Jing asked.

“You’re too young to gamble,” Auntie Su said as she glanced away from Baba. “Besides, you have to learn the rules first.”

Jing Jing wanted to say that she knew the rules better than Auntie Su. She scanned the faces gathered around the table. Uncle Cai laid down two queens. Auntie Chen selected a nine, ten, and jack of diamonds from her deck. Next, it was Auntie Su’s turn to reveal her hand.

“Three of a kind!” Auntie Su shrieked as she laid three aces on the table. “Beat that,” she added.

If Mama were here, Jing Jing thought, she’d be peeling oranges and refilling everyone’s teacups, but Auntie Su was too busy bragging to bother.

Jing Jing looked over at the couch to see if Baba was paying attention. She was relieved to find him watching Jeopardy. Alex Trebek announced that the category was Famous Buildings.

This 183 foot tall building was originally planned to stand vertically.

Baba looked stumped, but the contestant beeped long before the time ran out.

What is the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

That is correct, said Alex Trebek.

Back at the table, the game was dragging on. When her three aces won, Auntie Su had the chance to take another turn.

“You guys are no fun tonight,” Auntie Su said as she picked up three new cards. Then she grinned.

“Straight flush!” Auntie Su announced. “I have my good luck charm here with me tonight.” She reached across the table and pinched Jing Jing’s cheek. “Isn’t that right, Jing Jing?”

Jing Jing twisted away before Auntie Su could pinch her again. Why couldn’t this woman just leave her alone? Jing Jing looked back at the TV.

Famous Buildings was going for $200.

This New York skyscraper was the tallest building in the world until it was surpassed one year after its completion in 1930.

Her father remained silent.

What is the Chrysler Building? the contestant fired back.

That is correct, said Alex Trebek.

Meanwhile, the poker game had stalled. Though everyone else still had a full hand of cards, all the quarters were already stacked in front of Auntie Su.

“That’s it,” Auntie Su announced. She didn’t seem so happy about her straight flush anymore. “There’s no point in playing another round. I guess I’m the winner for tonight.”

Everyone nodded and threw down their cards. They looked relieved that the game was over.

“Well, let’s clean up,” Auntie Su said. Now she looked annoyed. “Jing Jing will tell us where everything is supposed to go.”

As Jing Jing helped Auntie Su collect the cards, she snuck looks at the Jeopardy game. Famous Buildings remained the category of choice until the $500 answer was the only one left.

This site once saw the violent removal of Chinese emperor Pu-yi.

“What is the Great Wall?” the contestant said.

Go pi!” Baba cursed. Jing Jing thought that a “dog fart” sounded much worse in Chinese than in English. “What. Is. Forbidden. City!”

The correct answer is: What is the Forbidden City? said Alex Trebek.

Baba’s moan made everyone turn around and stare.

“Did you see that?” Baba asked. He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. “These people are so stupid. I should be the one on TV. I just won. Can you believe it?”

Jing Jing didn’t tell Baba that you had to get more than one question right to win Jeopardy. She knew he wouldn’t have listened.

When no one answered his question, Baba looked around the room. His eyes finally rested on Auntie Su. He stood up from the couch and walked over to the table. Auntie Su was sweeping the quarters into her purse, but she stopped when he grabbed her wrist.

“Did you hear what I said?” Baba said. “I just won.”

Jing Jing decided she wouldn’t tell Mama too much about tonight’s game.

Auntie Su let Baba hold onto her wrist for a minute, then loosened herself from his grip.

“Well, I guess we both won tonight,” Auntie Su said. She shut her purse and began walking towards the front door. “Too bad we’re still not rich.”

Jing Jing stayed up late that night waiting for the Fantasy 5 drawing to be broadcast live on TV. The guests were gone, and Baba was already asleep. Mama wasn’t home yet, and Jing Jing didn’t have the latest lottery ticket in hand, but she knew what numbers her mother always played. The winning numbers just might be a match. She could see it now: the look of surprise on Mama’s face when she gave her the slip of paper with those lucky numbers. How happy Mama would be when they were receiving the giant check on TV.

Right before the 11 o’clock news, the drawing began. Jing Jing scooted closer to the TV and turned up the volume. On screen, an American man who looked a lot like Alex Trebek stood behind a glass case where a lot of painted balls were bouncing. “Welcome to tonight’s Fantasy 5 drawing,” the man said. He turned a giant key that made the balls move up and down even faster. “And the winning numbers are…” Jing Jing crossed her fingers. She watched as the balls began to slow down and reveal their numbers. Any second now her luck was going to turn around. Tonight was going to be the night.

About the Author: Mai Wang is a writer currently pursuing her PhD in English at Stanford. This is her first published story. Her nonfiction has been featured in publications such as The Billfold, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Upstreet Magazine.

Return to the October Issue


Cancer Mom

Cancer Mom

WO Cancer Mom ARTBy Kristen Brookes

I am a cancer mom. Like a gymnastics mom or a swim mom, but different.

At gymnastics, we would all huddle around the window into the gym, admiring the strength, grace, and coordination of our daughters. Seeing how hard they were all working. Sharing in the pride and excitement as one child did a beautiful beam routine or nailed a back handspring for the first time. We passed many hours in a very small room with long, rambling chats. We talked about our children together, and we shared stories of our lives. We were friends.

At cancer, although I smile at the familiar faces from weeks spent inpatient on the 8th floor, compliment the cleverness of a dad bringing a futon on the elevator, and show another mom a picture of how great my 13-year-old daughter looks in her new wig, I do not talk with other cancer parents. We are not cancer moms and dads together.

I am sure some people create community around their children’s cancer, but I do not see a lot of parents happy to see one another at the clinic, picking up their conversations where they left off or sharing the mundane details of their lives. I believe we are not cancer moms together because what we have to share may not be very nice. I do not want to know other children’s diagnoses. I don’t want to know how other children are doing because I do not want to be more afraid or experience more pain. I do not want to hear of more bad things that might happen to my daughter. I do not want to know children who might die. And I do not want to know their parents. I do not want to feel their loss. And I do not want the possibility of my own loss to be any more real than it already is.

Rather than connecting with the cancer moms, I google-stalk their kids, hungry, despite myself, to learn about their diagnoses and prognoses, finding out things I didn’t know. I feel a silent empathy for the mother whose child kicks and screams every time she has her port accessed, extending their clinic stay needlessly and aggravating even the most patient of nurses. And I feel both disturbed by and sad for the fifteen-year-old boy who tried to escape admission to the hospital and had to be wrestled into submission by security guards. I feel concerned when “Big Boy,” the tall young man who drives himself to his appointments, looks drawn and hollowed-eyed and even more when I hear a doctor lecturing him about his defeatist attitude. Relieved when I see him again, months later, looking much better.

Being a cancer mom doesn’t mean that you have a child who is a gifted athlete, who makes age group cuts, who has beautiful strokes, or who is still swimming hard at the end of practice when everyone else is slacking off. It doesn’t mean sustaining yourself during long meets with the hope that your child will beat her best time or with the dread that she might actually make finals and have to come back in the evening. It doesn’t mean becoming over-invested in the activity not only because you enjoy your child’s success but also because it is easier to endure six hours of swim meet when you are tracking her times against meaningful markers.

Being a cancer mom means, of course, that your child has cancer. It means that all the fears you ever had and laughed away were warranted. Your absolute worst fear—or maybe even something much worse than you ever dared to fear—has come true.

Being a cancer mom means having ripped from you the confidence with which you faced the world, the certainty that things would work out. And along with it, your ability to tell your child that everything will be okay. It means being left with a heightened sense of vigilance, an understanding that something terrible could happen at any moment.

Being a cancer mom means always having your bags packed, in case you have to go to the ER and then get admitted. Lecturing an alarmist resident, telling him that, for hematology/oncology parents, low hemoglobin is really not “of concern:” it just means she needs a transfusion.

Being a cancer mom means losing yourself in hospital time. It means spending six or sometimes eight hours at the clinic, sitting and sitting as the poison that is to save your child’s life drips into her body. Finding a fondness for the characters in the Disney shows you before disdained. Losing your ability to think, as your mind becomes filled with blood counts, chemotherapy drugs, and countless medications for side effects. And mostly with worry.

Being a cancer mom also means gently bathing your child’s head, gathering the clumps of loosened hair, as one cares for a baby, with love and as a matter of course.

And it means feeling close to and dependent on people you wish you had never had to know and whom you can’t wait to never have to see again.

I do not want to be a gung-ho cancer mom. A mom who takes up the fight, raises funds for research, organizes a team for the fun run for the local clinic. And I pray that I will never be the ultimate cancer mom, who, after the death of her child, creates and dedicates herself to an organization to help find a cure or to make easier the lives of children and their parents going through what her family went through. In her child’s name. To honor her child’s life. To keep her child’s spirit alive.

But I am a cancer mom. And being a cancer mom means being part of the magic of The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. It means wearing a dog tag from camp around your neck as a reminder that joy can happen, along with an orange “positivity” bracelet for hope. Appreciating how beautiful your child looks bald and seeing what a great model she would make as she poses for Flashes of Hope and with a monster truck for a fundraising calendar. Being a cancer mom doesn’t mean a shining moment of pride when she earns an all-around gold medal at the state meet or drops 8 seconds in the 100 Fly. It means a long-term appreciation for how she is handling a horrific experience with as much courage and grace as possible. A gradual realization that she has become more much bold and assertive than before.  It means gaining the sense that so much of what mattered so deeply before is not at all what really matters. And it means the unfortunate sense that the cancer team is not one you can just quit when you have had enough. I am going to be a cancer mom for a long, long time. God willing.

Author’s Note: This essay was written in October 2013, after my daughter had begun the maintenance phase of a treatment that lasted 857 days. She completed treatment this spring and is doing well. I now find myself engaging more with other cancer parents than I thought I would and better understand the incentive to create community (but am grateful not to have needed it). I still follow stories I would be better off not knowing and sometimes google, fruitlessly, for information that would bring me certainty about my child’s future.

Kristen Brookes, a teacher and writer, lives in New England with her husband, daughter, and puppy. In a previous existence, she published articles in early modern studies, on topics such as race and tobacco and gender, sexuality, and colonization. Kristen is currently working on a collection of essays about her experiences as a “cancer mom,” an identity from which she wishes to flee.

Photo credit: Team Photo.


Should Young Girls Be Allowed to Wear Bikinis?

Should Young Girls Be Allowed to Wear Bikinis?


By Daisy Alpert Florin

485204867-1My nine-year-old daughter, Ellie, is going to sleep away camp this summer, and the packing list calls for four bathing suits, but “no two-pieces.” While I understand the likely reason for this rule—one-piece suits might be more appropriate for active play—it still irritates me because it seems to imply that there is something shameful about young girls wearing bikinis, so much so that they are forbidden.

In our house, bikinis and one-pieces are both suitable choices for swimming. I have purposely not drawn a line between the two because I don’t want Ellie to think there is a big deal about choosing to show more or less of her body. Granted, a string bikini might not be the best choice for swimming or cannonballing into the lake. But a well-fitting two-piece suit that gives her room to play and can easily be pulled down for bathroom breaks—well, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

When Ellie was little, I dressed her in one-piece bathing suits simply because they fit her better. If she wore a two-piece suit, I discarded the top and let her run around in just the bottoms. Putting a bikini top on a pudgy toddler chest seemed impractical to me, but I didn’t have a problem with parents who did. For the most part, I think mothers (and it is usually mothers) have fun dressing up their daughters in tiny versions of their own clothing, be it skinny jeans or bomber jackets or bikinis. I did this to Ellie myself when she was small, but by the time she was four she would have none of that, and I had to respect her decision to dress herself the way that made her most comfortable.

I prefer a bikini to a one-piece suit because I like the way it looks on me, plain and simple, so why should I ask my daughter to do anything different? I trust her internal monitor to signal when something feels right for her, and when it doesn’t. I want Ellie to carry herself without shame, and telling her not to wear a certain article of clothing might suggest that there is something wrong with showing a part of herself. I think there is a fine line between modesty and shame.

When they were first introduced in the 1940s, bikinis—which take their name from the Bikini Atoll, a site of U.S. nuclear testing—were considered dangerous, explosive even. Early in their history, they were banned in several countries and declared sinful by the Vatican. This idea of female sexuality as wild and destabilizing might seem silly to modern sensibilities, but forbidding our young daughters from wearing bikinis seems to be an extension of that kind of thinking.

There is something about girls and their burgeoning sexuality that we as a culture—and as parents—still find threatening. We worry about our girls growing up too fast because we feel there is something scary about female sexuality, and watching them step into that murky landscape terrifies us, when it ought to be something to celebrate. But our daughters don’t stay little girls forever of course, so what’s the tipping point when wearing a bikini is suddenly okay?

Nine years old was the last time for a long while that I saw only the good in my body—its strength, beauty and possibility. At nine, I hadn’t yet started to judge my body against some external ideal. Puberty hit me hard and by thirteen, far from wearing a skimpy bikini, I went to the beach wearing an oversized t-shirt covering my bathing suit. Even then I can remember wanting to go back to the version of myself that still felt beautiful and powerful. Now, at 42, I wear a bikini all summer and try to do it with confidence; I hope it sets a good example for my daughter.

Watching Ellie move through the world without self-consciousness about her body brings me a bittersweet joy. I want to bottle that feeling so she can always access it, opening it every now and then for a whiff. Because I know it doesn’t last. The world is hard for girls that way.

But maybe if Ellie wore a bikini now, those two pieces would imprint on her somehow. Maybe by owning her body in all its glory now would help her bank some self-love for later on, for 13 and 25 and 42—for whenever she needs it. Maybe wearing a bikini now would help her love her body that much more for that much longer.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer, editor and mother of three. A native New Yorker, she lives, works and lounges poolside in Connecticut. 



By Sharon Holbrook

159626626It was a beautiful, warm June day on our backyard deck, where we were celebrating my daughter’s birthday. She pulled a little flowered tankini out of one of her grandma’s gift bags, and Nana hastily announced, “It’s open in the back, but it’s not sexy!” I sure hope not. It was my daughter’s second birthday.

My mother-in-law already knew my feelings on this subject, and kindly respected them. I don’t care for bikinis, or any other “sexy” clothing, on little girls.

I’m usually hands-off about clothes, almost to an extreme. My daughters dig through their drawers and match or mismatch as they like. I don’t care if they wear pants or dresses or—as on one recent school day—a bandanna around the 7-year-old’s hair, an ankle-length flowered skirt over patterned leggings, and a brown velour bolero jacket inherited from her cousin. “You look like a fortune teller,” her older brother commented, not unkindly.

When I do draw a line about clothing, I like to have a good reason. Icy winter day? Must be warm from head to toe. Special occasion? Be respectful, and wear something a notch or two above the everyday. Dirty or damaged clothes? Just, no. Underwear showing, very short skirt, super tight leggings on the butt? Cover it up, because those areas are private.

Not surprisingly, bikinis don’t pass my modesty rules. Sure, we’re all wearing small, tightish clothes at the beach, because that’s just a practical reality if you want to move in the water. I don’t think anyone in their right mind wants to return to those awful bathing dresses of a century ago.

But a bikini takes it to another level, and its small size has nothing to do with practicality. A bikini is meant to emphasize the breasts, hips, and bare skin of a woman in a sexy way. That’s the whole appeal of it, and it’s why men are such big fans of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, right?

That focus on and sexualization of the body isn’t appropriate for girls. One could argue that it’s innocently silly when a toddler’s little pot belly pops out of a teeny two-piece. Adults laugh and wink and say, “Isn’t that cute?” Amid the attention, the little one learns to vamp for others, to entertain them with her looks, her body, and the way she’s dressed.

Instead, the longer we can protect girls from focus on and display of their physical selves, the stronger and more mature they will be when they meet the full reality of a world obsessed with their bodies.

Their round babyish selves seem to turn lean and leggy overnight, then rounder again with the buds of breasts and the swell of hips and, before we know it, their bodies are womanly in every way. We owe them clothing and modesty rules that are consistent over the years and don’t fixate on or show off their bodies at any given moment—that let their bodies just be their own.

When she’s four, it means we can allow her a little girl body, instead of imitating sexy grown-up clothes and pointing exactly to where she’s going to have boobs someday. She can wear simple, practical clothes that allow her to run, jump, play, and swim with ease.

When she’s eight or nine, it means she can still be a little girl, even if she’s entering puberty early, an increasingly common reality. It means we don’t have to burden her with why she suddenly shouldn’t wear a bikini top that emphasizes her budding breasts, when it was okay before, a conversation that might make her feel her perfectly normal body changes are somehow shameful.

Even when she’s fourteen, though my daughter might argue otherwise, it means protecting her from her own sense that her body is all grown up, and therefore she is too. Just because her body has sexualized does not mean she has the maturity to take on all aspects of her brand-new sexuality. Sure, like all women, she’ll have to learn to sift through the admiration and catcalls and come-ons. But she needn’t come out of the gate into that reality wearing a bikini.

Through all those stages, her body is just as it should be, a beautiful thing, neither to be flaunted for attention nor covered up by shame. And when it comes time for bikinis, if she’s someday interested, it will be when she herself has the adult maturity and sense to know — and handle — what a bikini says: “Look at me!”

Sharon Holbrook is a freelance writer, who lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio. Find more from her at, and on Twitter @216Sharon.

Please join us TODAY, Thursday, 7/9, at 1:00 p.m. EST for our July Twitter party to discuss the issues. Remember to use the hashtag #braindebate


Photos: gettyimages

What I Vow To Teach My Daughter About Sex

What I Vow To Teach My Daughter About Sex

By Lela Casey


I will do everything I can to keep my daughter from feeling like being attractive to men is her most valuable trait and that having (or not having) sex defines her as a woman.


I was raised to believe that sex was a juicy cherry that girls carried around to entice boys. They could look, drool even, but never touch.

My mom led by example. Her plunging necklines reached almost all the way down to her knee-high boots. She had a steady stream of admirers, young men, old men, even a few women. (At almost 70 years old, she still does).

Men buzzed around her, hoping to earn one of her big booming laughs or electric smiles. Her purring foreign accent only added to her allure.

Her sexuality embarrassed me as a teenager. It was too garish, too intense. I was sure that she was having affairs, probably more than one. I’d hover nearby every time she was talking to a man, trying to catch little snippets of the conversation.

The thing is, at the same time that she was dressing seductively and being flirtatious (and encouraging me to do the same), she was constantly, CONSTANTLY warning me about boys. Boys might look nice and say interesting things, she’d say, but when it came right down to it, they were the enemy and sexuality was a woman’s only weapon against them.

“Guys are only after one thing,” she’d also say. “Don’t be the girl they experiment on.” “Let them look, but NEVER touch,” she’d repeat over and over until it became something of a mantra.

I didn’t let them touch. In fact, I didn’t give them much to look at either. I dressed conservatively and spent most of my adolescence with my nose in a book.

Looking back, I suppose it was a rebellion of sorts. If my mom was attractive, if she wanted me to be attractive, well then, dammit I wouldn’t be.

Until I moved to college and away from her (very voluptuous) shadow. I started small at first. A little lipstick, a tiny bit of cleavage. It wasn’t long before I began to understand what my mom had been talking about. Sexuality was power and I was drunk with it.

I started going out to dance clubs dressed in tiny shirts and tight skirts. I grew out my bangs and wore my waist length hair loose around my shoulders. Boys who’d walked right passed me for years were stopping and staring with open mouths and eager eyes. And I’d let them look. In fact, I’d bask in their looks.

But, I wouldn’t let them touch. Because, no matter how sweet they talked and how nice they smiled, I knew that they were only after one thing… and once I gave it to them, I’d be just another conquest.

The attention was the important part—the hungry glances, the dedicated suitors. Sex, I thought, was nothing more than the carousel ring that I held just out of reach, the sparkly prize that kept them spinning around and around me with eager smiles and straining hands.

I can’t say that I was never curious about sex. Certainly there were boys that lit my insides on fire. But, there would always come a point where I knew that if I let him kiss me one more time or take off one more layer of clothes, I’d lose control and become one of “those” girls that my mother warned me about.

I made it all the way to the ripe old age of 22 as a virgin. The first time I had sex (with the guy I would eventually marry) I sobbed myself to sleep.

I’d given up my cherry, succumbed to the enemy, let him touch… Oh did I let him touch!

My mother was (is) a brilliant woman. Raising us in an area that was fraught with teenage pregnancies and high school dropouts wasn’t easy. Despite our surroundings, she was able to raise my sister and me to be responsible women with high self-esteem and promising futures. We both graduated with honors from prestigious universities, found satisfying careers, and married smart, kind men.

For years I was positive that I wanted to raise my daughter like she raised us.

But now I’m not so sure.

As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that, while I avoided a lot of trouble, I also missed out on a great deal of experiences. It took me years to discover that sex isn’t a gift I give to my husband, but something that I enjoy… that I crave.

I want my daughter to respect her body and herself. I want her to make careful, thoughtful choices about sex. But, I don’t want her to grow up thinking she needs to hold men captive with her sexuality.

Because, even though my mom’s warnings kept me away from promiscuity, her emphasis on sexuality gave me the impression that my appearance was the most essential part of me. Despite feeling that I was in charge, I was STILL giving the power to men, still allowing their opinion of my looks to control my world. And, perhaps even worse, I was missing out on all the joys that come with exploring my own sexuality.

I am almost 40 now and I still dress sexy to get male attention, I still post a ridiculous amount of selfies, I still think about plastic surgery to put things back in order. I still worry that I carry all of my magic in my slender figure and long dark hair.

I am fortunate to have married a wonderful man. He, like me, is adventurous, free-spirited, and open-minded. Still, I wonder about the relationships I have missed out on. Not only about the sexual experiences, but the deep intimacy that comes with being close to someone, an emotional connection I’m not sure comes without sex. I wonder how having multiple relationships might have changed me, made me stronger, exposed me to different perspectives.

My daughter is six now. She is smart and funny and big hearted. And, yes, she is beautiful. So beautiful that people often stop us when we’re out to compliment her waist-length auburn hair or her big brown eyes.

She smiles and thanks them, and then quickly goes back to chasing after her brothers or making elaborate mud pies.

While most of the girls in her class are captivated by princesses and dress-up, beauty seems to hold little meaning for her now. Her brother’s cast-off T-shirts suit her just as well as the flowery dress from her Grandma.

How much of that is innate and how much is due to my constant emphasis on her internal strength vs. her appearance, I’ll probably never know.

What I do know is that I will do everything I can to keep her from feeling like being attractive to men is her most valuable trait and that having (or not having) sex defines her as a woman.

Lela Casey was raised by a fiery Israeli mother and an all American father on a farm which often doubled as a resting place for foreign travelers and families in need. Her unconventional childhood has had a great impact on her parenting and her writing. She is a regular contributing writer at She has also written for, femininecollective,com, and

Photo: Leigh Kendell

Parenting with Lorrie Moore

Parenting with Lorrie Moore















By Jaclyn Dwyer

The worrys going to kill us,says the Husband.

But if all we have to do is worry,chides the Mother, every day for a hundred years, itll be easy. Itll be nothing. Ill take all the worry in the world, if it wards off the thing itself.“‘

From People Like That Are the Only People Here: Cannonical Babbling in Peed Onk


My daughter is splashing in the kitchen sink when I notice her left leg twisting around like a bulb loose in a socket. Her body was folded in half like an umbrella stroller in the womb, which can lead to hip dislocation, which is what I think I’m seeing right now.

Shortly after my daughter was born, she was diagnosed with developmental hip dysplasia, not uncommon for breech babies. For weeks after her birth, every time we lay her flat, her legs flung straight up into the air like a cartoon character stepping on a rake. At first we stretched her legs until she could lie flat on her back, but even then her hip sockets clicked when she kicked. Her legs felt loose in their joints, but in time that went away, until now.

I rub the washcloth over her back, and her left leg flops inward. Her knees fan out to make a circle of her legs. Now seven months old, baby fat crimps in uneven dimples around each thigh. Her knee breaks the circle and plops in the middle like some unpopular goose. I tell myself the stainless steel is slippery and that’s what’s making her leg twist this way. Her knee swishes inside again. I turn it out. I right it again and again until I drop the washcloth and scream, “There’s something wrong with her leg.”

Usually, my husband tells me I’m worrying over nothing. “You’re being such a mom,” he’ll say, as if a mom is a bad thing to be. He gets up to see what I’m talking about, not because he’s worried about her but because he’s worried about me.

“Tell me I’m not crazy,” I say. “Do you see it?”

He claps his hand to the small of my back and looks down into the sink like an impatient diviner reading tea leaves. Our daughter shoves the washcloth into her mouth and sucks.

He dips his hand wrist-deep into the water to lift her leg, which slithers out of his grip.

“It’s loose or something. It doesn’t move like the other one,” I say.

“I see what you mean,” he says. “We’re going back to the doctor next week. Let’s try not to worry about it until then.”


When I was in elementary school, I collected worry dolls. They were tightly wound lengths of string no bigger than a fingertip knotted around a paper face. You were supposed to put them under your pillow to ease your troubles. I kept mine in a tiny wooden box along with a lip gloss and a folded love note. After a while, the dolls ended up in my junk drawer among orphaned rubber bands and paper clips. Having them, I never worried any less.


Orthopedics is not a bad part of the Children’s Clinic. A library of picture books greets us as we walk into a lobby painted in bold primary colors. Sometimes there are volunteers, high schoolers mostly, stationed in the waiting area to show the kids how to make a flower out of pipe cleaners or string beads onto yarn. There’s a big TV playing a cheerful animated movie. Most of the kids here are wearing a cast on one of their limbs. They’re here for broken bones, a fall from a tree or a skateboard, a pirouette gone wrong on freshly waxed linoleum. Others, it is clear from the shape of them, have chronic illnesses, ongoing problems with bones and joints and movement. We don’t quite fit in either group.

Every few months we make the three-hour drive to have an ultrasound on our daughter’s hips. At our first appointment, the doctor told us hers was a mild case, but by the second appointment, he sent her home in a brace that looked like a big foam diaper that wrapped around her legs and waist with velcro. Worse case scenario, he told us, she may need surgery to correct the joint, but by the time she turned one, all of this should be over.

In the exam room, I pull a typed list from the diaper bag titled “Questions for the Doctor.”

The doctor pulls up her x-ray.

“Is the left leg dislocated?” I ask.

“No. The hip dysplasia looks good.”

My husband ceremoniously throws her brace in the trash the way kids toss their shoes over the power lines to announce summer’s glorious freedom. I consult my list, explain what happened in the bath, how she only uses the right leg to crawl, how her left leg seems looser than the right.

“Well, good eye. You’re a very observant mother,” he says.

I feel like a preschooler who’s just been awarded a gold star.

“But,” he says, “there is a little something I want to show you on the x-ray.”

He points to the hip socket and waves his pen over the ball of her right femur. “You see how on this leg you can see this round ball.” He moves his pen to the left, “This one is kind of fuzzy. The legs aren’t developing the same.”

The right ball in the socket of the joint glows like a bright white cumulus cloud, while the left looms like a hazy cirrus, the threat of a storm about pass through.

“What does that mean?” I ask.


I’ve assigned Lorrie Moore’s story “People Like That are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” many times. In the story, a Mother and her Husband discover something wrong with their Baby and must decide a course of treatment. The Mother spends most of the story sorting through medical terms and procedures as she struggles to come to terms with the Baby’s illness and her role and responsibility as the Mother of a sick Baby. This semester, I’m not teaching that story. This semester, I go back and re-read it, as if I can find answers there.


The baby grabs at my face while I dress her. My husband has nicknamed her “the Lip Ripper.”

“It’s her wrestling name for when she’s taking down opponents on the ropes,” he says to the doctor.

The doctor gives a weak smile and starts to explain what might be wrong. I tug baby fingers away from my mouth and unplug her thumb from my nose. Her hands aren’t anywhere near my ears, but it is hard to listen.

“One of her legs is longer and stronger than the other,” he says. “I think your daughter is normal. A variation of normal. But it could be a sign of hemihypertrophy.” He’s going to send us upstairs for blood work, and they’ll test for a protein associated with this syndrome. He will order an ultrasound, just to check that all of her organs look okay. She’ll need a genetic consult, a follow-up x-ray in two months. Is all of this too much?

I have to put the baby down. I strap her into the stroller, hand her a rattle and sit in one of the plastic chairs. Waterproof furniture, I note, built for accidents, like some kind of cheap patio that can be hosed down at the end of the day.

The doctor leaves us alone in the room with a slip of paper listing the appointments in our future.

My husband turns to me. “Do we need to be tested? What about having more kids? Could they have this thing too?”

I fold the paper in half and in half again until it is a pocket square of procedures. “I don’t know,” I say.

I can only worry about the baby we have.


You can worry a knot, rubbing at the threads until there’s nothing left but a frayed rope that splinters every time you touch it.


Before we head upstairs for the blood test, my husband stretches a fluffy bow over the baby’s head and fastens the shoe strap across the top of her foot. I remember her shoe falling off at Christmas, shiny red Mary Janes. When our family said she looked like a little Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I stood her up on the floor and tried to make her click her heels. She kicked out of one shoe, lost one in the car, tugged one off to chew on when I wasn’t looking. Was it always the left slipping off? I only noted the hassle of having to strap it back on. I make a mental note to notice which shoe falls off first.

The doctor returns with a business card. He writes his cell phone on the back.

“Call me if you have questions,” the doctor says.

How sick do we have to be to get this number? I want to ask, but my husband speaks first.

“Is there any way we can do the ultrasound today?” he asks.

I remind the doctor, “It’s a three-hour drive.”

“She’ll need to fast for the ultrasound, so you can’t do that today.”

“Can we do it when we come back in two months?” my husband asks.

“You don’t want to wait that long,” the doctor says.

It is the first time he sounds concerned.

I want to ask questions, but these new tests and proteins and syndromes aren’t on my typed list. Part of me keeps quiet because I don’t want her to have these things. I came to fix her hips. Her leg is in its socket. My daughter is fine.


To worry originally meant to choke or strangle. I think of those little dolls all bound with string, every one of them strangling someone’s daughter’s fears in her sleep.


The doctor puts his hand on my shoulder as if he sees panic on the list crumpled in my hand like a useless receipt.

He says, “She may grow out of it. Her leg might catch up. I just don’t know.”

He says. “I think your baby is normal. I just have to prove it.”

He says, “I do bones. Hemihypertrophy is a genetic condition. The geneticist will know more than me. I trust her opinion.”

He says, “You can go to a doctor even if you’re not sick.”

He doesn’t say what exactly the tests are supposed to tell us.

A tube of maroon blood snakes out of my baby’s arm. She giggles. All of this is a game to her.

What he doesn’t say is that the protein he’s testing for is a tumor marker.

What he doesn’t say is that when they perform this ultrasound, they’re looking for cancer in my baby, which is why we can’t wait.


I think of the nursery rhyme about the crooked man in the crooked house. It bothers me that I can’t remember how it ends.


A week later, on the day of her ultrasound, my husband pins our daughter’s arms and I restrain her legs on the too-big table while whirling shadows bubble into view on the monitor. Each organ is an oil droplet rising from the USS Arizona and thinning out across the Pacific. We hover over each black spot, each white flash. We have no idea what we are looking for, but we are still afraid of what we might see.

The tech tells us that the radiologist is already here, that we should have the results by tomorrow, Monday at the latest, that she has a baby herself. She understands. She finishes scanning our daughter’s belly and grabs a towel from the cabinet across the room. She lets us wipe her down.

“You can feed her now,” she says, “but I need to flip her to scan the kidneys.”

I take my daughter’s place on the table. The butcher paper crinkles as I lean back and pop her on my breast. Her little head bobs as the tech smears jelly on her lower back and begins to scan, but I can’t see the screen any more.

When the test is over, the tech tells us they don’t need the room so I can stay and nurse as long as I want. I’m still nursing when she comes back in.

“Is there a reason for us to be looking for a mass or tumor?” she asks.

“They’re testing her for hemihypertrophy. Kidney cancer is associated with that? Wilms’ tumors?” I say. Everything I say comes out a question except for the questions I don’t ask: Why did you ask that? What did you see?


Everything I know about the Wilms’ tumor I learned from Lorrie Moore. It is a type of kidney cancer commonly found in children, easily treatable if found early. I know to spell Wilms’ s apostrophe. I know to italicize the s. I know that the Mother is the center of the baby universe, that it is her job to take notes, to document color and consistency and character. As the mother, it is my job to write this down.


By Friday, we still do not have the results. We worry through the weekend, during long walks to the park where we feed my daughter’s legs through the baby swing. Both of us push her, “wheeing” into her face at the crest of each pendulum her body makes.

It takes five days and nearly twenty phone calls to three doctors for my husband to break down and scream into the receiver, “This is my daughter. Why can’t somebody just tell me whether or not she has cancer?”

My parents try to console us.”If it was serious, they probably would have told you by now.”

But, I wonder, is cancer something delivered over the phone? If it is serious, maybe they are waiting to break the news to us in person.

On the sixth day the doctor tells us that the ultrasound is normal. There is a cyst on her spleen, but it is small and probably not cancer. I tell my family, “She does not have cancer,” but in the back of my head I add: She does not have cancer, yet.


The following week we visit the geneticist who prattles to my daughter in baby talk, “Let me take your di-pee off.”

She lays the baby on the table and claps the baby’s hands together. She holds the baby’s arms out straight as if the baby is going to dive. She squeezes my daughter’s legs together and measures them by eye the way hair dressers gather trimmed sections under your chin to see if it is even.

“Her arms are the same length,” she says. She doesn’t mention the legs.

Her baby voice is gone. In its place are big words and syndromes that have proper names. Hemihypertrophy puts our daughter at risk for certain cancers, for Wilms’ tumors. We will need to scan her abdomen and test her blood every few months until she is eight.

“So she has it?” I ask.

The geneticist squeezes her lips together and nods.

“This isn’t a variation of normal? She won’t grow out of it?”

“Probably not,” she says.

I don’t take notes. Later, I will ask my husband, “What did she say?” I will doubt him. “Are you sure that’s what she said?”

I am not a stupid person, but I feel dumb. The geneticist must think I am dumb. I am trying to find a loophole in the diagnosis, a way for my daughter to be normal again.


In Lorrie Moore’s story, after the cancerous kidney is removed, the doctor offers the parents a course of chemo or monitoring through ultrasound. They reject the chemo and choose the monitoring. I re-read the story thinking: We are like you.


For the first time, my husband and I fight over what to do about the baby.

“I think this is all a little silly,” he says. “I feel like I’m getting jerked around by all these doctors.”

“You don’t believe them?”

“If you keep looking for things to be wrong, you’re going to keep finding them.”

“But the doctor said she has something,” I say. Another word for crooked is dishonest. It is important for him to trust the doctors, to believe that what they are saying is true. If something happens that could have been prevented, we will never live it down.

“Plenty of people have one leg longer than the other,” he says.

“But the cancer risks?” I say.

My husband shakes his head. “I worried myself sick for five days over an ultrasound. I can’t spend the next eight years of my life worrying if my kid has cancer.”

“Just tell me you believe the doctors. Tell me that you’ll listen and we’ll do the screenings.”

“For now,” he says, which is good enough, for now.


In bed, my husband curls his body around mine, wedges a leg between my knees where I used to squeeze a pillow. Now, I have him.

“Do you know the nursery rhyme about the crooked man?” I ask. “How does it go?”

“Doesn’t he have a crooked wife and a crooked cat and mouse?” he asks.

“Does he?”

I want to trust him, but I can’t.

My husband’s body is a tight wad of string bound up with scraps of clothing, a painted-on face and an even pair of arms thrown into the air as if to say I give up. That’s what it means not to worry, to throw up your arms and say it’s out of my hands.

Later, I google the nursery rhyme and find out that he’s wrong about the wife.


I think of the blood clot the Mother finds in her baby’s diaper in the opening paragraph of Lorrie Moore’s story, how she describes it “like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?” I linger over that question mark, how perfect the simile is, how uncertain the discovery. I remember how angry I felt at the Mother for trying to cast off everything, for her irrational disbelief. Reading and asking: How? Why? When I go back to re-read the story now, I nod along, with each page affirming, Yes. Yes. Yes.

When I teach this story, my students clamor to know: Is this based on the author’s real life? They ask, What happens to the baby? I don’t have answers for them.

At the end of this essay, you might want to know: What happens to the baby? Will she be alright? You want answers, assurance, you want some kind of certainty.

Reader, so do I.

Author’s Note: The geneticist has diagnosed our daughter with isolated hemihyperplasia, an overgrowth disorder characterized by asymmetrical growth. There is an increased incidence of certain childhood cancers in children who have this condition, and so every three to four months we’ll have to take our daughter for a blood test and ultrasound to ensure that she is cancer free. She’ll undergo the screenings until she is eight years old, at which point the cancer risk drops. In some ways the diagnosis has been a blessing. My husband is right. I can’t spend the next eight years worrying about whether or not she will develop cancer. Instead, I’m just enjoying being her mother every day as she learns to clap and wave and boogie to whatever music’s playing at the moment.

Jaclyn Dwyer has published stories and poems in Ploughshares, The Pinch, Prairie Schooner, Haydens Ferry Review, The Journal, New Ohio Review, and Witness. Her fiction was named a Special Mention in the 2015 Pushcart Prize Anthology. She is a PhD candidate at Florida State University, where she received a Kingsbury Fellowship.

Fits and Flairs

Fits and Flairs

By Francie Arenson Dickman


I was, apparently, in peri-menopause—that dreaded, never-ending land between in one’s prime and out to pasture. “It’s not them,” he said, “it’s you.”


“I don’t like the way this one looks, either,” my daughter hollers from her dressing room. She is locked inside of it but her attitude spills over.

From a couch, I holler back, “What don’t you like?”

She hollers again. “I’m just not comfortable in it.” She yanks another dress from atop the door.

At first I consider the couch as a nice place to plant myself while my daughter tries on dresses. Thirty minutes and as many dresses later, I see it as strategic, a mental health tool similar to the soothing music played at airports or the drugs my gynecologist suggested I start taking after I complained to him of bouts of anxiety and depression. I’d hypothesized that the cause was my two newly minted teenage girls, and asked if he, the same man who delivered the daughters, could now please put them back. He said that would be a waste of time since they were not to blame. I was, apparently, in peri-menopause—that dreaded, never-ending land between in one’s prime and out to pasture. “It’s not them,” he said, “it’s you.”

Or better yet, I think now from the couch. “It’s us.”

At least the couch is turned away from the faces of the more congenial mother-daughter duos shopping at the younger, less hormonal end of the store. The ones still laughing and talking, unaware of the side effect of having daughters later in life: the simultaneous onset of both Puberty and Peri-menopause, the by-product of leaning in; the home wrecker of the modern age.

Take our home, for example. My husband is the only happy one in it, and that’s because he’s usually gone. He travels weekly for work, leaving the three of us recklessly floating between life’s stages, the emotionally blind leading the emotionally blind, all waiting to see where our bodies and ourselves will go from here. Yes, now and then, estrogen levels align and we, like Alzheimer’s patients, enjoy a flash of our affable former selves. But by and large, my girls have disappeared into adolescence, and ironically, so have I. Once the reliable cornerstone of operations, I’m now just another loony in the bin, and as awkward in my role as a Mother of Teens as my daughter is in the dresses.

“This one looks hideous on me,” she says, and beneath the dressing room door another dress plops onto the pile.

Luckily, the store is one we frequent. We are on a first name basis with the manager, a woman I shall call P. When it comes to clothing, her word is gospel. Her voice also has an advantage simply by virtue of not being mine.

So I assume my daughter will listen when P explains that she is trying on the latest style. “I just got back from a buying trip in LA,” P yells over the door. “All of the dresses are fit and flair.” She says that F and F is tight on the top and swingy on the bottom. A hybrid, I think, like the part anti-depressant, part anti-anxiety Lexapro the gynecologist offered me.

I nod to show my understanding of the acronym, but I am unclear on how all this hard sell is needed for a kid who has $9.47 to her name. When I was a kid, we lived by one fashion rule and one fashion rule only, This or That. I’d come home from school and my mother would say, ‘There are two dresses on your bed, a light blue and an imperceptibly lighter blue, take a look and pick one.’

I now grumble to P, “You know, I didn’t see the inside of a dressing room until I went shopping for my prom dress, and that was only because my mother was recovering from surgery and couldn’t stand up. I bought the first dress I saw—this purple thing, tight on the top, wide at the bottom. A fit and flair if there ever was one.” I pop a complimentary Hershey’s Kiss into my mouth and add, “Perhaps the first of the fit and flairs.”

P assures me I’m helping my daughter “find her identity.” She sets out to collect more inventory leaving me to hunker down and hope that having a better sense of style somehow translates into having a better sense of self, so that when my daughter grows up she won’t hem and haw over whether she’s making a mistake giving her thirteen year old this much latitude in the local clothing store.

A few weeks ago, back when my girls were still girls and my ovaries were still operating, I would have told her to pick this Fit and Flair or that and out we’d go. She’d cry but I’d be confident. The old me didn’t care about being liked. My kids could say they hated me, but they’d be clinging to my leg as they spoke, and we all know that actions speak louder than words. Only now, they don’t cling and worse, they don’t speak. The separation anxiety is suddenly on my own peri-menopausal foot.

Technology doesn’t help my confidence, either. Judging from my friends’ Facebook posts, I’m only one bad call away from having a heroin addict. Or a cutter. The Today Show recently talked about a new teen trend called Dirty Sprite, a deadly concoction of soda, candy and prescription drugs. Reason enough to decline the Lexapro.

On top of this, I have hot flashes.

“I found one,” my daughter announces from behind the door. Maybe P was right, with this daughter I need to be a little more loosey goosy, less fit and more flair.

I pop to the end of the couch as the door opens and out she comes. Her adorable self, still more pre than teen, plastic-wrapped into a polyester number, a myriad of primary colors swirled together and stuck to every lick of her body, breasts to booty, until it stops just below her crotch. With it, she’s paired 4-inch platform heels that she found in the dressing room.

My mouth drops. “All fit, no flair,” I say.

“But it looks good.”

On impulse I escort us into the dressing room where I fire up a lecture on sexuality, the type I imagine mothers of teen girls have at the ready, the one my mother never had to give me because she never gave me a choice. “You only get one reputation,” I tell her. “Let’s not blow ours the first time out of the gate.”

She looks at me cross-eyed through the mirror. “So does that mean I can’t get the dress?”

I tell her it’s not why she can’t, it’s why she shouldn’t want to.

“But either way, I can’t get it.” Her bird legs start to wobble in the heels.

“Right,” I concede.

She starts to cry in confusion. I, however, have a moment of clarity. Fear and frustration turn to compassion. Nothing, I well know, is worse than being tween anything, and here she is, almost a woman, but still a child. In limbo, a hybrid. Part little girl, part lady of the night.

I give her a hug.

She asks me if she has to wear a dress at all.

“What else do you have in mind?”

She points to a jumpsuit, a silky thing with sunflowers on it. Loose on top, baggy on the bottom.

“Perfect,” I say.

Then she asks if she can wear it with the 4-inch heels. I waver, but then, in the name of helping my daughter find her identity and helping me save my sanity, I cave.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

Purchase our 2015 special issue devoted to parents of tweens/teens

My Problem With Princesses

My Problem With Princesses


“The problem with princesses is threefold: their aesthetics, their functionality and their relationship with meritocracy.”


I don’t like princesses. I don’t want my daughter called “princess.” I would rather she not play with “princess” things, both those that are bona fide accoutrements of the throne (e.g. a tiara) and those that are merely decorated or marketed as such (e.g. a Cinderella toothbrush). If I had my way, she would never, not once, take to the streets as a three foot tall version of Snow White, bedecked in a satin, gold-sequin-trimmed costume with glitter detail.

Before you cast aspersion on my dismissal of an entire category of plaything, mode of dress and term of endearment, know this: I haven’t just banned princesses from the house willy-nilly. When fate handed me a daughter amidst three sons, I did my homework. I read my Peggy Orenstein (among others) to find out why—not just that—princesses suck. The problem with princesses, as I see it, is threefold: their aesthetics, their functionality and their relationship with meritocracy. Taken together, these reasons have convinced me that a princess is neither a healthy nor a desirable role model for my daughter.

The aesthetic issue is obvious enough, thank you Disney and your billion dollar industry. Princesses seem to come in one size and one shape only, as if being impossibly thin and having perfect hair are requisites for the title. Princesses can have different colored hair, of course, but it has to be long, unless it is possessed of magical powers and cut off to save her life. They wear dresses mainly or other impractical clothes, even while slinging arrows on the back of a charging horse or trekking up a mountain through the snow. Their eyes are caught-in-the-headlights large, their noses resemble something of a button and their bone structure is spot-on symmetrical. It should go without saying that this is not an attainable look for most girls.

Conventionally beautiful and impeccably dressed, princesses don’t really have to do anything. Except be kind or be kissed or catch a husband. This is the functionality issue. Traditionally, the life goal for princesses is to find true love (with a man). Often it involves being saved by the selfsame man and living happily ever after as a wife and, one suspects, not much else. To be fair, Disney’s recent royals are a little more go get ’em. But even for firecrackers like Rapunzel, Merida and Anna, so much of their raison d’être is interpersonal. It’s not that their quests are unimportant: discovering your birth parents, rejecting an arranged marriage, reuniting with your sister, these are worthwhile causes indeed. It’s that they are the stuff, rather, of stereotypical feminine and domestic concern. (Mulan and Tiana are perhaps the exceptions that prove the rule here and are, unsurprisingly, among the least popular Disney Princesses).

The meritocracy issue is the fact that princesses must either be born into their title or marry into it. This tends to be overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant, especially by Americans who have no culture of royalty, but how you come to be who you are is never insignificant as a lesson for children. In the same way we can contrast a princess’ functionality with an astronaut’s or a policeman’s (typical “boy” things), so too we can consider how she got her position with respect to these other professions. A princess does not earn her princess-ness through intelligence or diligence: you can’t knuckle down to become Queen. Princesses are elevated creatures by dumb luck, not by true grit.

And yet, despite all of this, “it has become nearly impossible for girls of a certain age not to own a few Princess trinkets,” Orenstein writes in Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Ah, but Cinderella will not be making a meal of my daughter, I thought smugly, as I read those words a little over a year ago, glancing at a toy chest remarkably devoid of sparkle.

That smugness lasted about six months, my fall from grace a reminder of how even the best laid, mom-made theories can crumble in light of little mouths begging and little eyes crying. For as soon as my daughter turned the corner of three, things started appearing in her room, as if by the wave of a wand. Magazines she had persuaded her father to buy, called, somewhat unimaginatively, “Princess Magazine.” A plastic tiara her grandmother had gifted her, or maybe it was the babysitter, beset with a huge magenta jewel in the middle. And now that she has pinpointed the common denominator of this new toddler lust, the requests for “princesses” are raining down in earnest. She wants a princess castle for her birthday. She wants to be a princess for Halloween, with a princess dress, not Anna’s sadly, but Elsa’s, the one she wears after she morphs from Swiss Alp girl into Barbie look-alike.

Though most of us believe, deep-down, that our influence on our children will prove a force above nature, I was prepared for this, to some degree. Three years old is a watershed moment for gender identity. It is a formative time, when children are learning not only that gender is a defining characteristic, but that it is a fixed one. This period is associated with an exaggerated amount of gender-typical behavior and toy choices, a torrent of pink and blue as it were, and it’s actually a normal part of development. At this age, a report by Princeton Univesity concludes, “girls’ love of pink, frilly dresses may be viewed as a kind of obsession linked to developing knowledge about social categories.”

It’s typical for feminist mothers whose little girls have turned, seemingly overnight, into bundles of fuchsia and frill to wonder where they’ve gone wrong. The truth is they haven’t, we haven’t. Letting our daughters wear frothy cotton-candy-colored frocks, however, is a different beast from encouraging them to identify as Sleeping Beauty. The first might be unpalatable; the second raises alarm bells. My daughter will be disappointed when I don’t buy the princess costume for which she’s asked. But if saying no now means preventing her, even in some small way, from internalizing the message that she is the sum total of the luster of her hair and the circumference of her waist and the ability to marry well, then that’s a price I am willing to pay.



What You’re Left With When She is Gone

What You’re Left With When She is Gone

WO What You're Left With ArtBy Ronit Feinglass Plank

In a box of old things my sister recently sent me I found a photo of my mother from when I was thirteen and my sister was ten, when Mom had just come back from her second cult experience.

She looks thinner than I’d ever known her. Hollows carve shadows under her cheeks and the pallor of her skin is off; her face has a gray tinge to it. She has a faint smile but it doesn’t reach her eyes. My sister dangles from her left arm and I, a little chubby and wearing too much make up for a middle-schooler, have my arm around my mom’s shoulder. I am leaning into her, a big stretched out smile across my face as if everything is normal.

It had been six months since me and my sister had seen my mother and we were grateful to have her back. But tentative. Like if we said the wrong thing or touched her without warning, or got too close, she’d disappear again. We had none of the casual comfort we might have once felt with her. I remember serving her tea, asking for permission to touch the tinsel threaded scarf she wore draped around her neck, offering her blankets and snacks, trying to keep her comfortable so she would stay.

For the longest time my mother seemed like a superhero, she was dazzling to me, which made no sense since she left me and my sister twice: once when she went to live on the ashram in India, and once when she went to live on the ashram in Oregon. I think it confounded my father, too, since apart from a few years of weekends at my mom’s after their divorce, she had left him taking care of us since I was six. Still, I dreamed of seeing her. She was the gift parent, the special occasion; I imagined her appearing like a fairy queen—and changing my life.

She was back this time because the ashram had broken up, her holy man arrested, his ninety-three Rolls Royces confiscated. She and the other followers—sannyasins they called themselves—had given up everything they owned for their guru and were now leaderless, scurrying back to wherever home had been to plan their next moves. My mother had nowhere else to go.

Even though this was the second time she had skipped town leaving my father to care for us, he told her she could stay at our apartment a few days while she figured things out. My sister and I were elated: both of our parents under one roof with us was something we had stopped hoping for. But my father should have known better before he agreed. And my mother should have known better than to ask.

I could feel his agitation soon after he came home from work that first day. After so many cancelled visits, so many missed birthdays, to see my mother curled up cozy on our sofa like she belonged there, a daughter fawning over her on either side, was too much for him. His frustration simmered through the apartment until it swelled into a wave of fury he could not contain. His profane expletives flew and my eyes darted between him and my mother, the panic in me growing, trying to figure out even as he got louder and louder how I could make it go better, how I could make it stop.

He said he wanted the child support money she owed him for all the years she hadn’t paid. But I understood it was much more than just that.

He stormed into the dining room and snatched her purse off the table searching for money. My mother tried to get it but he grabbed it away from her. He swung open the apartment door and she followed, crying out that he should give it back. But he wouldn’t. He threw it onto the stained burgundy carpet in the hallway.

“Where is the money? Where is the money?” he yelled, his eyes blazing, his face burning with anger. But I was so angry with him because after all us kids had been through, all the waiting for our mother to return, he was going to scare her off. It didn’t have to be this way but he was making it happen: he was going to force her to go away.

And that’s when our elderly neighbor Elizabeth from England, whose apartment was right next to the garbage room, opened her door to see what the trouble was.

There was my mother, kneeling on the old matted carpet, clutching at her purse, my father pulling at the handle. My mother wasn’t letting go and so he dragged her along the carpet by it for several feet, her thin scarf trailing, the warm garbage stink of the incinerator room filling the airless hallway, Elizabeth looking on.

I was so sorry Elizabeth had to see this. So sorry because it wasn’t really true, what she was seeing wasn’t our family. I wanted to smile at her to tell her this is not what it looks like, this doesn’t ever happen. But something about Elizabeth witnessing us made it worse, made it harder to convince myself everything was going to be okay.

My mother was gone by evening. She zipped up the two suitcases that she had not yet really unpacked and left.

It’s not easy now to look at that photo of us from before she left again, to remember how careful I was, how hard I was working to keep her with me. When we took the photo I understood I didn’t have my mother in my life. What I didn’t know yet is that I never would.

Ronit Feinglass Plank’s short fiction and essays have appeared on, The Iowa Review, Lilith and is forthcoming in Best New Writing 2015. She lives in Seattle with her young family.

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On Wearing Makeup

On Wearing Makeup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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A Flair for the Dramatic

A Flair for the Dramatic

By Aaron WhiteWO Beating Outside my heart Art


I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. I’m not proud to admit this. A large part of me wishes I’d outgrown it by the time I reached adulthood. The ideal portrait I’ve always painted of myself is stoic, collected, but I know otherwise. When I was a kid, I often babysat my three younger brothers. I was too young to be left in charge of children, and after hours of angrily trying to corral them, stifle them, all in the hopes of preventing spilt milk on the linoleum or broken glass in the bathroom, I’d had enough. In seething, utter frustration I grabbed my whitest shirt and soaked the front in stage blood from the previous Halloween. Corn syrup crimson, I let it permeate the fabric and rest on my stomach. I then pulled a steak knife from the kitchen drawer and screamed for all the neighbors to hear. Collapsing to the floor, shutting my eyes extra tight, I felt the clustered patter of bare feet. They approached me, timid and cautious. I tried my hardest not to breathe. Soon, a blanket was thrown over my dead frame, and their bellows of laughter were chased by the intense melodrama of my searing rage, pursuing them to the other end of the house, steak knife in hand and bogus blood caked to my torso.


 I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. I’d gotten better about hiding it by the time my daughter was two. I remained stoic and collected in the cold exam room, antiseptic white. My wife, Tiffany, nervously rapped her heel against the slick linoleum. What was concern for an earache soon turned into questions about Harper’s severely regressed speech. The doctor showed unnerving angst for the early stages of autism. That evening, I locked myself in my office. I shut the door tight and wept in secret. I wept and cursed and spat without shame. I slammed my fist on my desk. I knocked pens and paper to the floor. I stomped my feet and hit my head in unison. I despaired the loss of my normal child. What little experience I’d had in the public school system taught me that autistic children are awkward. They’re good with computers, sure, but they walk on their toes and struggle to end a sentence. These kids are corralled into special education classrooms and taught how to shut up, sit straight, act appropriately, and smile accordingly. I collapsed to the floor and wished for a blanket.

Speech Delay

I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. I try not to let it get the best of me. Just a few weeks before the final diagnosis, before hours spent pouring over pamphlets and web pages and online seminars, before working with a slew of speech and developmental therapists, I got out my phone and snapped a photo of my daughter. Tiffany was away and in my absentmindedness Harper got a hold of an apple. Before I could catch her she’d already started in, her teeth dug tight into its green flesh. The juice bled down her chin and permeated the collar of her shirt. She babbled happily, plump cheeks resting atop a wide smile, and ran from the kitchen to the living room to devour her well-deserved spoils. As she finished up, I wet a napkin and tried to wipe her down. Before I could reach for the core she handed it to me, mouthing in a little voice I so little heard, “Apple, Dada.” I smiled and welled up inside. I inflated and I danced. I stomped my feet and hit my head in unison, in laughter. I hugged and kissed Harper, welcoming her confused, timid expression. I eagerly called my wife and tried to speak but found my mouth useless. The photo was sent to her instantaneously. We rejoiced over the scattering and reassembling of digitized pixels, an accomplishment and reminder that our daughter was going to be okay.


I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. Sometimes it can’t be suppressed. In the pediatrician’s office three hours from home, they diagnosed Harper as autistic, but it sounded wrong. Tiffany’s eyes welled up big and wet and I tried to remain stoic for her and my little girl. I tried so incredibly hard to keep myself from shouting “bullshit” and throwing my chair. Two well-dressed, tight lipped, closed-minded strangers evaluated Harper for a mere hour and a half. They bled color from the word “autism.” They dismissed two years of laughter and growth and love to throw it over her like a wet blanket, to stifle her with a condemnation, a disease, a sickened, blackened word. This was not the same portrait of autism I’d come to know. It was not a new way of thinking, but a wrong way of thinking, of seeing the world. “Take advantage of the Social Security benefits,” they told me. “ABA therapy,” they told me. I wanted to stomp my feet and hit my head. I wanted to shove that picture in their faces, show them my little girl, my Harper, standing on a kitchen chair with that bright, green ball of fruit in her hand. I wanted to tell them, “Apple, Dada!” She said two consecutive words! Unprovoked! She associated the abstract with the tangible, god damn it, can’t you see? I wanted to hold a steak knife to my gut and shout, “Look at me! Look at me!” I wanted them, for just one second longer, to avert their eyes from my daughter, to cast that blanket over me.

Repetitive Behaviors

Harper has a flair for the dramatic. She can melt in a mere moment, kicking and screaming, flailing her arms and legs like something wild. Harper will bite and pinch. She will shake her fists and flap her hands. She will also laugh. And kiss. And wrap her arms around my neck so tight I’ll forget to breathe. Late at night, when I kneel over her bed and the blinds allow only a modest amount of white moonlight to enter the room, I’ll feel her plump arm reach out to me from the void and pull my head toward her chest. Harper’s heart thumps rapid and rhythmic and I know she’s narrowly escaping some nightmarish landscape of phantasm. I pull her fleece blanket close to her chin and static pops in small bursts of blue light, like Fourth of July sparklers, enticing and delusive. I’ll close my eyes and listen to her breathe. When she swaddles my face in milky gusts, the tension finally loosens its grip.

Aaron White recently earned a graduate degree in creative writing from Eastern Illinois University. His work has been published in The Tonic and Heart. His fiction and poetry has won awards from The Academy of American Poets, The Mary-Reid MacBeth Foundation, and The James Jones Literary Society. In grad school. This essay is his first venture into creative nonfiction.

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Idle Threats

Idle Threats

WO Idle Threats ArtBy Lorri Barrier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Swinging Lola

Swinging Lola

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

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

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

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

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The Unintended Lesson of the Bird Shoes

The Unintended Lesson of the Bird Shoes

IMG_0564-1You know that pair of simply breathtaking little shoes you just can’t stop eyeing for your toddler even though they are too expensive to justify the purchase?

I happened upon a photo of them the other day. The photo is four years old now; the toddler has turned six. Seeing those empty shoes, I was reminded of something very smart I learned, but often forget.

Here’s what happened: the cute little soft shoes, pale sky blue with perfect Portlandia “put a bird on it” birds were something like forty-odd dollars. We have a generous hand-me-down stream, so there wasn’t a “need” for any shoes, let alone ones that cost an arm and a leg (I couldn’t help myself; never does a cliché work so well as this one right here). But I coveted the shoes. I’d go to the store where a sweet bird was perched on each shoe and I’d pick up the left then the right, and admire. And then, I’d put each shoe down. I’d walk away, slowly.

I really, really loved those shoes.

The most amazing thing happened: my friend passed a pair of them on to us when her daughter outgrew them. “These are scuffed up, so I feel bad about passing them on,” she apologized. “They aren’t perfect.”

Are you kidding me?

They were more perfect that way. “I love that they’re scuffed and loved and I love them more than you can know and I’m relieved that I didn’t have to buy them or not want to scuff them and there’s now absolutely no pressure on Saskia to wear them loads, but if she does, I’ll be thrilled,” I said, the words gushing out. “This is the single best hand-me-down we’ve ever gotten,” I declared.

I most certainly meant “we.” The perfectness of the gift had about nothing to do with my fast-walking toddler.

Don’t you know even as a toddler the precious pale blue bird shoes were not my pink-loving, sparkle-loving daughter’s favorites? She wore them plenty, but not the way I would have had her wear them—not with ardor. I often had to put them on when she had no agency over her wardrobe, like after I’d carried her to the car or stroller in her socks.

Fortunately, she wore them and I enjoyed them (to the hilt) and eventually, she outgrew them. Fortunately, hand-me-downs continue to serve as the basis of my now-six-year-old-daughter’s wardrobe. While few things have been as personally swoon-worthy as those shoes, my hand-me-down or bust mentality can be challenged by a few pricey brands with glossy catalogues that clutter our front hallway or sneak peeks via my email inbox. Inevitably, I fold every now and then for some dress that’s so adorable I can’t stand it, and rarely are the things I gravitate toward frilly or sparkly. I don’t even always go for pink.

Not surprisingly, this means that the clothes I purchase because I can’t stand not to are not necessarily my daughter’s favorites. Some, she likes fine, others less so, and some, not at all. I find myself in an uncomfortable position when I care about her clothing.

I cared, at times, about my young sons’ clothing, too. I loved to get beautiful clothes for my small boys, too. There were things I fell for, like the OshKosh overalls size six months or the smoky blue hooded chenille sweater. With my daughter, sometimes it feels different than it did with my sons. I’d call “daughter as doll Syndrome” and I’d have to admit, I am uncomfortable placing my sensibility about how she should look or dress atop hers and the pressures she already feels to look certain ways, pretty ways (not from me, but all the messages from everywhere). This place where my fashion sensibility and dress-up the doll impulses meet pit my desire not to care or covet against how much I like little girls’ cute, comfortable dresses for my girl. I’m caught between not wanting looks—or clothes—to matter and the love for the pretty object on my pretty gal.

Clothes and appearance and girls, that’s a thicket of questions to contemplate. For now, sometimes I buy the pretty thing on sale or get her a pair of shoes I know she’ll love (see, next year’s red canvas Mary Jane sneaks with a flower affixed). More often, I just look, lust a bit, and don’t buy. The tension remains. While the little shoes signify the beauty of hand-me-downs, perhaps they endure in my memory as a reminder that it’s okay to care about my daughter’s clothing—just not too much.

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Beautiful Girls

Beautiful Girls

By Anndee Hochman

WO Beauty Art

The problem was an infected earlobe.

Sasha, my 13-year-old daughter, had been diligent about swabbing the new piercing twice a day, but the air is full of germs, and somehow one of them had crept inside. Now the ear throbbed scarlet, and a lymph node had swollen just behind it, an unforgiving pea beneath the satiny skin of her neck.

The doctor was not Sasha’s regular pediatrician, but a warm and competent partner in the cozy suburban practice. She wiggled the earring from its hotbed of infection, while my stoic daughter held back tears and my partner winced in empathetic pain. Then Dr. B. prescribed an oral antibiotic and a prescription cream.

The visit was over, nothing left to do but grab coats and write a check for the co-pay, when the doc called out, “She’s beautiful…does her daddy lock her in the closet on weekends?”

Suddenly, we had a new problem, far more inflamed and resistant than the pinkly painful earlobe. There is no daddy in our family. Closets aplenty, but we’d spent years breaking out of those, thank you very much. The only things closeted in our house were winter coats and warped umbrellas.

You could write off the incident as a moment’s thoughtlessness, one of those times when the ancestral brain overrides all rational filters. Except the comment was no fluke. Just a few days earlier, my cousin had said, nodding in Sasha’s direction: “She’s gorgeous. You guys better get a shotgun.”

And the day before that, in the moments immediately following Sasha’s bat mitzvah, during which she had chanted words of Torah and spoken eloquently of “everyday miracles,” my mother’s boss offered similar caution. “She’s a beauty. Better lock that one in the closet.”

How do I even begin to unpack these remarks, let alone respond to them? What I said to my mother’s boss was, “We don’t believe in locking kids in closets. We believe in teaching them to manage the world.” Humorless. Preachy. What my best friends later called “a classic 1980s feminist response.”

So, okay, how about humor? I wish I’d told my cousin, the one who recommended we arm ourselves to preserve our daughter’s innocence, “Yeah, we’ll put that shotgun on the shopping list, along with a chastity belt and a windowless tower.” And oh, for the presence of mind to lob the good doctor a snappy rejoinder: “Lock her up on weekends? Gosh…don’t you think that would be…child abuse?”

Here’s the truth: My daughter is indeed beautiful. And smart. And tough. And it enrages me when acquaintances, colleagues and strangers in the food co-op see only one aspect of her gorgeous complexity, then feel entitled to say something Medieval about it.

On Sasha’s birth announcement, we quoted Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” And fierce she was, even at one hour old and less than six pounds, when she did a one-armed push-up in her hospital isolette. At three weeks, she flipped herself from tummy to back with a torque of her tiny legs and an exertion of sheer will.

Fast-forward 13 years. Late on the night of her bat mitzvah, I found Sasha doing push-ups, barefoot in her silver party dress, on the carpet outside the synagogue’s social hall. Some nights, between face-washing and tooth-brushing, she hangs upside-down on the pull-up bar that is bolted into the bedroom doorway, her fleece pajama shirt bunched to reveal abs hard as cedar.

My daughter loves a good gel manicure and likes to fringe her ice-blue eyes with dark mascara. She also likes to argue, arm-wrestle and run a mile in less than eight minutes. When my partner, Elissa, explained what the doctor meant by her unfortunate remark, Sasha declared, “No one’s going to touch me unless I want them to!”

So when people suggest we keep Sasha under lock and key, they’re grossly underestimating her strength, ingenuity and pluck. But that’s not all they’re saying. Embedded in those remarks are centuries of poisonous myth: Beauty is dangerous. Women are helpless. Men are wolves. Parents (fathers, especially) must guard their daughters’ sexuality by any means necessary. And of course, there’s the assumption that she’s straight.

It would be laughable, except that it’s a short walk from those deep-seated beliefs to cultures where daughters are forbidden to read and wives are forbidden to drive, where girls suffer painful genital mutilation because their sexual pleasure is so suspect and their virginity so prized.

But my daughter isn’t being raised in Afghanistan or Somalia. She’s growing up in a progressive pocket of Philadelphia in 2014, a century and place teeming with strong, funny, competent women and men who call themselves feminists. Why, then, these retro words from the mouths of people—including a female pediatrician, for heaven’s sake—who certainly should know better?

Old stories take a long time to wither and die. The image of beauty bespoiled is a potent one. In a culture that sometimes feels as though it’s spinning out of control—Sexting! Online pedophiles! Thongs marketed to pre-teens!—maybe the sequestered adolescent or the shotgun-wielding papa is an appealing trope.

But not where I live. So, no, we will not be installing a padlock on Sasha’s bedroom door. No rifle on my shoulder as she strides down the front walk to meet her sweetheart.

Yes, the world of social and sexual interaction is rife with risk (chlamydia, pregnancy, almost-guaranteed heartbreak), but it’s not my job, as a parent, to police Sasha’s journey. It’s my job to help her learn tools to navigate on her own: Audacity. Self-regard. Candor. Communication. It’s my obligation to share every story I know about girls and women—stories from mythology and Torah and history, stories to critique and stories to admire. True ones, too, from Elissa’s life and mine, about times we said yes and times we said no and with whom and what happened next and how it all felt.

And this: When I was a teenager, my mother passed along the words of her grandmother, Ethel, a woman always described in family anecdotes as “a feminist before her time.” Ethel ran the business side of the bakery she and her husband owned in Philadelphia; she took a train to Chicago alone to visit relatives. And she advised her granddaughters, in salty Yiddish, that if a guy got fresh, they should “varfn im inem yam un pishn arayn zayn oyer.” Throw him in the ocean and pee in his ear.

Now, there’s an idea.

About the Author: Anndee Hochman is the author of Everyday Acts & Small Subversions: Women Reinventing Family, Community and Home, a collection of essays, and Anatomies, a book of short fiction. She writes about family health, the arts, and spiritual life and community for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Conversations With My Daughter: Style Edition

Conversations With My Daughter: Style Edition

m_DSC5534 copyAge 18 months

Liddy fishes my bra out of the laundry basket and spends a long time trying to thread her arms through the straps. She strokes the fabric and presses it to her cheek. “This soff,” she says. “This mine.”

Age two

“AAARRRGGGHHHH,” I hear Liddy bellowing from the windows of my children’s daycare. Inside I find her sitting on the floor, trying to pull on a sock. Other children watch, fearfully, from a distance.

Age three

Liddy is on the floor at Target, weeping “I need it” over something that will not fit her for nine years. A passing woman offers me an I’ve-been-there smile and says, with regard to Liddy, “I have one of those at home.”

Age four

“Liddy, have you seen my eyeliner?”

“What’s eyeliner?”

“A little brown pencil? It was in my makeup bag?”

Liddy stares then turns and walks toward her room to retrieve it. “Don’t see me,” she calls back over her shoulder.

Age five

We are carrying an assortment of little-girl bathing suits into a department store dressing room. Liddy has not been in this setting since her stroller days. (See Age three.) She turns in a circle, taking in the space, and the mirrors reflect her enormous eyes. She whispers, “Do we try them on over our clothes?”

Age six

Liddy falls on the playground and runs to me crying.

“Oh honey are you—” I see the black streaks on her face. “—wearing mascara?”

She shakes her head no but the gesture turns into a nod as she says, “Yes.”

Age seven

“I’m cleaning out my closet,” I explain. “Throwing away things that don’t fit me any more.”

“You should also get rid of things that don’t look good on you,” Liddy says. “Can I make some suggestions?”

Age eight

“What are you wearing to the party?” she asks, staring at the clothes I have set out on the bed.

“That dress.” I answer.

“Oh,” she says “The old lady dress?”

Minutes later

Liddy watches mesmerized as I struggle into my tights. The old lady dress requires Spanx®.

“Are you out of breath?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “A little.”

“Can I write about this in my journal at school?”

Minutes later

“Is that really what you are wearing?” she asks.


She sighs, resigned. “Can I at least do your hair for you?”


Photo by Megan Dempsey

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Author with her daughters in 2012

            Author with her daughters in 2012

Last Sunday, my oldest daughter left home. She was halfway asked to leave, halfway left of her own volition, in a cloud of ugly and strife, lies and accusations. Her belongings fit neatly into her ragtag car, and she drove away with a piece of my soul clinging to her.

Like the day of her birth, 18 1/2 years ago, she was struggling to be brought forth into this life, to the other side. And this is her struggle now. Getting to the other side, being born again and washed clean, and again not without significant pain on my part.

Unlike her freshly newborn self, this world had its chance to leave scars on her heart. The damage we inevitably do to our children was done, right alongside the repair and comfort. While I attempt to look honestly at myself for mistakes I made, I also know that this life with which she was gifted is hers and hers alone.

This is her walk, with her worn out shoes and desires and decisions propelling her forward. She’s grown now into 120 pounds of heart and skin and love and wounds, along with some pretty questionable choices. She was never mine, she was a gift given to the world, and to me.

I stay in prayer that as she journeys, she finds the jewels that have fallen from her crown along the way. I pray she stops and replaces them with the strongest of glue, a smile on her lips. I pray that she learns to treasure her body, and her mind, and the light that shimmers within.

I have about the same amount of assurance that I had on the day she was born that everything will be okay in the end. On that day, long ago, I knew that she and I were in for a struggle, the long haul, and I knew it was going to hurt before it got better.

This is where we are now. My baby girl is made of the bones of her ancestors and we are people who are strong, and don’t go down without a fight. I know that she will claw her way, if she has to, back into the light.

I carried her inside me through long months while she formed, silent and whole. We couldn’t speak then, except through the threads that form between mothers and children, and can never be broken. This is how we speak now.

Just like then, I do not expect this will be easy, this rebirth—the powerful woman that lives in my daughter bursting forth from a dark chrysalis. I cling to my faith that tells me that as it was on the day she first breathed air, I will hold my daughter close after a long and arduous journey, and our hearts will beat in harmony.

Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus. She enjoys crafting, chaos, and baking. Sarah is currently working on books about the realities of foster care and an anthology focused on homeschooling. Read more about her daily life at

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Tell Me Something Good

Tell Me Something Good

BHJThe first cup of coffee. A good joke. The quiet certainty that you’re not alone and that you are loved. Sunrises from behind mountains. Long runs. Chocolate.

My daughter’s teacher called to discuss a classroom display of frustration that didn’t seem to shore up with merely struggling with long division. Something else was bothering her. Something she conceals that builds and builds until she unloads her sublimated wrath on that God awful math. She snapped her pencil and cried and cried and cried some more. Couldn’t be consoled. The teacher took her to a different room until she calmed down.

Movie theaters. Sharp pencils. Finding money in an old jacket. Forgiving. Forgetting. Popcorn.

Autumn explodes in a mad dazzle of fireworks but make no mistake: it’s the finale. It’s already over. And I suppose I keep returning to the metaphor of autumn with the hope of unveiling a graceful end. How, I wonder, can we situate death in a good story that’s beautiful? I have snapped my own share of pencils. It’s inherited. This frustration. These tears. And never knowing for certain what’s really wrong. Math’s giving her a hard time, yes, the teacher said, but she also let it slip that she misses her daddy.

Holding hands. Cherries. Looking up at a blue sky and feeling somehow boundless. Reading. Writing. Old wives’ tales.

To our delighted surprise, we realize that there’s no ultimate distinction between self and other. The painful experience of being-apart is merely a trick of the ego, itself the result of an illusion—some Great Reality mistaking itself for a smaller reality that often takes itself way too seriously. For an I is a you and the rest of it too. Unfortunately, however, our insights into ultimacy are ultimately fleeting. Being so stubbornly subjected to our own subjectivity, we find ourselves frequently lonely, afraid, and frustrated by math. We miss our dads. Will, we ask, these wounds ever mend?

The moon. Bridges. The ecstasy of losing one’s self in reverie. Solitude. Silence. Unagi.

The alcoholism recovery people suggest that we make amends to the people we harmed, which is easy if you stole $500 from your old boss because all you do is pay him back. But how do you make amends to your kids for wrecking their family? How do you put that right? I’m of the mind that it can’t be done, that the most I can do is maintain a vigilant attempt to mend the wound, to heal the separation. And this call from her teacher, this report that my daughter is frustrated and misses her daddy, stirred up—again—the issue of amends.

Smiling monks. Forest paths. The way light and shadow converse in a little girl’s hair. Belly laughs. Cold water. Naps.

An old friend, long dead, once, after vomiting blood for the better part of 45 minutes and collapsing on the bathroom floor, asked me to lay down next to him because he was scared. He shook with delirium tremens and cried and we just laid there, knowing he would die. And then from nowhere he said, “Tell me something good.” I peered into the brown sludge of his hopeless eyes and flashed him a counterfeit smile. “Please,” his voice quivered, “tell me something good.” We’re going to win, I told him. We didn’t.

Old photographs of your grandparents. Ice cream. The windows down in August. Devotion. Prayer. Potato chips.

And so, in addition to seeing her three times a week, to make amends, to keep busy with the work of mending, I commit to calling her on the days I don’t see her, to either see her or talk to her every single day. It’s awkward at first. We are often at a loss for words or she responds to my inquiries with single word answers and I flounder, stutter, stop. Until, as if haunted, I demand without thinking, “Tell me something good.” Silence. “Yes, that’s what we’ll do,” I make it up as I go. “It’s my job to call you, but you need a job too, so your job is to, every single day, tell me something good.” Silence. More silence. And then: I have five Jolly Ranchers.

Five Jolly Ranchers. Friendship bracelets. Indian food. A repaired microscope. Substitute teachers.

Autumn explodes in a mad dazzle of fireworks and—yes—it’s all over (nobody wins), but look at that bloody mess of red, orange, and yellow—gasp! Good things. Not a solution or a cure or an attempt at justification, but there nonetheless, always in all ways. And maybe in spite of the despair and the woe and all our lonely missing being-apart—maybe a way toward the real work of the never-ending mending is in the shared discipline of seeking out good things.

A Little Fire in Her Dark

A Little Fire in Her Dark

IMG_8102Stop the presses and close the doors and play all the slow songs about promises and memory. The leaves are on the ground, dusted with snow. All the people walk away. Planes take off and there’s nothing to do but watch. You can’t see the moon tonight. No one is home. The stores are all closed and the letters were either lost or not written. The building’s abandoned, the window is broken, and no one in this whole wide world gets long division.

I broke your heart tonight.

We were sitting in an Italian restaurant and the tablecloth was red and white. Maybe, somewhere, an old woman wrote a poem, a collage of memories that would otherwise disappear forever. I said, “I saw your report card. What’s going on with you? Since when do you get such poor marks?” and two big tears raced down your cheeks and splashed in your bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.

When you were born, after your mother fell asleep, I cradled you in my arms and whispered promises to your stunned pink face. I like to imagine that my hushed words started a little fire in the darkest dark from whence you came and that you might one day hear them again when you were cold and needed warm hands and good thoughts. I will protect you. I will protect you. I will protect you.

But who am I—how can I possibly stack up—next to this concrete world of broken promises, lifeless pink bunnies, and long division? Long division is hard, man. It doesn’t make sense. What makes sense when you’re 9-years-old? I mean, what’s it even MEAN to ask how many times this goes into that? How many 3’s go into 18? Falling leaves and slot machines? One handful of jelly beans? More to the picture—not what it seems.

I promised to protect you but then banished you to a world where they do long division, where pet fish die, where everything’s conditioned by the ebb and flow of ceaseless flux, and there are boys. And then, tonight, with just a couple callous questions, I broke your heart and made you cry in a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. It’s hard to keep the path through the forest after dark. Are we on the right one? Or are we even on a path at all? It happens so easily and quick to lose one’s way in the weeds and thicket. And my God it’s cold.

But if you keep walking, slowly, with your hands out in front of you so as to avoid smashing into a tree, I believe that eventually your pupils will constrict on the distant flicker of a tiny little fire that, by virtue of its being an orange smear on the dark, will seem to say Over here! Over here! And as you walk toward it, your muscles will slacken, you will begin to relax, and your hands—your defenses—will drop because you will then be able to see the trees and they too will seem to wave you in and cry Welcome!

And now, too, the clouds will have parted and you will once again see the moon.

The fire, a hub, reveals many paths in all directions and you’ll be able to choose your way home in the morning. But, for now, sit by the fire and get yourself warm again. Stick out your hands; let it lick your fingers. Do you hear that? The way the fire cracks, pops, and hisses. Relax. This is how it whispers. Welcome to the world, little one. I’ve been waiting for you. I have always waited for you. The world is big and scary and easy to get lost in but I promise you that I will stay here, burning, in the very core of the darkest things and the most broken hearts, to keep you warm and light your way. I will protect you. I will protect you. I will protect you.

War on Terror

War on Terror

By Francie Arenson Dickman

photo-5My daughters leave for school at 7:30 in the morning, which makes for an early start in our house. I’m downstairs doing all of my least favorite activities—unloading the dishes, making lunches—in the dark while my children are upstairs doing the things essential to get ready for school, like doctoring an invisible pimple with makeup from my bathroom or checking the Instagrams posted in the 30 seconds since they last checked. If they have time after this, they brush their teeth and get dressed. These are the days, the ones when they wind up in the kitchen without me having dragged them there, that I feel buoyed. I don’t bank on them anymore, I’ve adjusted expectations but nonetheless, I don’t expect much worse. So I was surprised the other morning, surprised in a bad way, when, with my head in the dishwasher, I heard my phone ding. This particular sound signaled that I was being summoned by my daughter.

A few months ago, each of my daughters assigned to my phone a unique ringtone, or text tone as I believe they are called, so I can identify who is in need without looking up from whatever I’m doing, in this case, putting away dishes. The text tones, like their cries as babies, are easily distinguishable. One is upbeat and silly. It sings “you’ve got a text message” in a goofy voice. The other is a single, repeated call, like a sick wolf or a train about to run you down. It is appropriately entitled Suspense. Any time I hear either’s sound, I hold my breath, since as with their infant cries, they both tend to text me reflexively, and primarily in times of discontent. “Not having fun here, come get me.” “Forgot my lunch.” “Pants ripped.”

So, with trepidation I shoved the wok from last night’s unappreciated stir-fry into the drawer and shuffled to my phone. It was after 7, no one had yet appeared in the kitchen and the lone wolf had just called. This couldn’t be good, I thought, and it wasn’t.

“My hair didn’t crimp right,” the sentence read. Actually, it wasn’t a sentence because it didn’t finish with a period or any other form of recognized punctuation. Instead, at the end of the line were 4 emogis, little smiley faces; the ones she chose had tears coming out of their eyes.

I paused for a moment to soak in the reality that my home had devolved into every other home in America that housed kids in what I like to think of as the terrorist years. The irony didn’t escape me either that my daughter and I were feet away from each other and rather than storming down the stairs to show me the aforementioned hair, as I would have done, or even screaming, she didn’t make a sound. If I hadn’t have checked the text, I wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. I decided that in this case, it was probably better if I didn’t make a sound either.

So against my impulse and better judgment, I typed back, “I don’t know what to tell you.” I used a period instead of an emogi.

I waited. No little dots issued forth to indicate my daughter was responding. I figured maybe she was busy uncrimping her hair or better yet, cutting it off, as I had once done after a perm gone bad. Or maybe, if I was lucky, she was putting on clothes as it was now ten minutes after 7.

My other daughter had already strolled into the kitchen and was now eating cereal. “What’s going on with your sister?” I said. Since we were face to face, I was allowed to use actual words to communicate with her and she managed to use some in return.

“Don’t know.”

My daughters are twins and they are twelve. They were born two weeks after 9/11 and for the first months, years actually, of their lives, I, like the residents of Lower Manhattan lived on a constant state of high alert. My adrenaline worked overtime. I’d gained 60 pounds while pregnant and lost 70 in the four months after. My hair turned grey. I developed Ulcerative Colitis. I’d lay awake at night on edge, waiting for signs of unrest over the baby monitor, which I see now, was the precursor to the iPhone. My father who was born in 1931, a solid 70 years pre-Sept 2001, could never understand the monitor. “When they really need you,” he’d say, “you’ll hear ’em. If you respond every time they whine, they’ll never shut up”.

I also remember my father telling me, “You got two to three rough years ahead of you, then it’ll all be ok.”

“But then,” added my mother, who was sitting next to my father on our couch, “it won’t be.” They each held a baby, having stopped by for one of their 10-minutes-is-all-we-can-tolerate visits.

At the time, I focused on my father’s words. They hung in my head, a beacon of hope as the minutes ticked by, the nights grew quieter and life, as he predicted, got easier. I no longer trembled for hours on Sunday nights before my husband set out for the week. I gained weight. I dyed my hair. My colitis went into remission. As the horrors of late 2001 faded with time I, like all Americans, slipped into a state of complacency, where I lived happily until now.

I stormed upstairs to find my daughter maniacally wetting and brushing, wetting and brushing. All of the hair supplies in her arsenal had been brought forth to the counter. The mirror, along with her sweatshirt, was splattered with water. I have to give her credit, her hair was worth the 4 tearful emojis. The back of it, which I learned had been braided loosely by her sister, hung in a gentle wave whereas the sides, which she’d done in a series of Medusa like braids, had produced a wild, Amazonian look, reflective of her text tone, I thought, as I stood in the war zone that was her bathroom and tried to not laugh.

“I’m not going to school,” she informed me, adding for impact that she also had a pimple in her nose that was making it hard for her to breath.

“I too feel it hard to breath,” I told her, “due to the pimple now sitting on her countertop.”

She rolled her eyes. I grabbed her brush and did the only thing I could think to do. I pulled her hair into a ponytail. Yet unlike years ago when I had sole control over hairdos, she was now armed with the motor skills to yank the hair band out of her head and the verbal skills to inform me that the ponytail was off center. Then she grabbed a headband, and of course her phone, and stumped her way downstairs. I decided to declare a victory as at least in body, she was headed in the right direction, a step closer to the door.

I freely admit these days that I drop my kids at school with the same joy with which I once welcomed the babysitter. Time to regroup. Settle my nerves. I color my hair, I do some work, and reflexively, I do as my daughters do. I call my mother to complain.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

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My Daughter Doesn’t Look Like Me

My Daughter Doesn’t Look Like Me

0-18I play a game with myself sometimes. I pretend I am in a room of children and I don’t know which ones are mine. I scan faces, I consider jawlines. I rub strands of hair between my fingertips like worry stones. Given the chance, I wonder, would I be able to pick my own flesh and blood out from a crowd?

There is my first son, I can tell by the eyes. They are wide-set like mine. He is fairer than I am, but we share a sharpness about the chin and the cheekbones. My second son’s eyes give him away too, the color of espresso like my mother’s, the shape of down-turned almonds like my father’s. He is the darkest of my children, his hair could weave seamlessly into my own. My third son takes longer to find. He is the aesthetic link between the older two. I’ve spotted him now by the nose. I recognize it from pictures of myself at the same age, smallish and slightly blunt. The unruly turns of his hair remind me of my brother’s, save for the tinge of copper.

Three boys accounted for, but where is my daughter? Search as I may, I don’t see her here. My only daughter. Isn’t she supposed to look just like me? Then I notice a little girl sitting in the corner. She has blonde hair, which she lets run through fingers that are long like a piano player’s. I stare down at my own childishly small hands. She watches me do this with cornflower eyes, and despite a familiarity with the laws of genetics, I am even more uncertain now that we are related. She is smiling, though. She knows she is mine before I do. The game is over.

The joke about Phoebe is that there was some kind of mix up at the hospital (she doesn’t look like her father, either). Or really there was only ever a single baby. Phoebe is a twin, but maybe, just maybe, the stork slipped this rosy creature into the bassinet next to her olive-skinned brother and that is how we, a family I sensed was destined for sons alone, came to have our daughter. We brought home one baby that was a match to the others and one that, well, wasn’t. It was fitting, I thought, that she should be the different one. As the lone girl, she would be different anyway. It was fitting, but it made her more of a stranger to me.

That first moment we lock eyes with a new baby, we think one of two things. We think: yes, of course, it is you. We’ve met before, in some past life or in my dreams, you are the tiny person I knew you would be. Or else we think: it’s nice to meet you finally, but where, oh where, did you come from? Whether that baby feels instantly, inexplicably our own often depends on what she looks like. In the beginning, the surface view is all we have. So we obsess over her face like nothing we’ve obsessed over before. This doesn’t make us vain. It only makes us human.

There is something life-affirming about finding your own face in the contours of somebody else’s. The drive to have biological offspring stems from many places, some of which are light and some of which are darker, but there is usually, at the heart of it, a desire to pass on genes. Part of that desire is shamelessly superficial. It is about wanting to look at someone you have made and see pieces of yourself. But part of it is about the grander sweep of history and legacy and immortality.

Because faces connect people through time. I used to judge them quickly, recklessly, is she pretty, is he handsome? Since becoming a mother, however, and a devoted student of my children’s features, I look more deeply now. I look for origins. I look for stories. A dimple that belongs to a great aunt, who was also a twin; an arched eyebrow that wends its way from grandfather to father to grandson; a slope of the chin that goes back further still. The little details that string the generations together are where the beauty lies, even the ones that aren’t conventionally attractive.

My mother has strong opinions about aesthetics, most of which align neatly with convention and most of which I internalized as a girl. Blue eyes are gold dust to her. When she found my father, a Jewish man with eyes that spoke of the sea, she couldn’t believe her luck. She married him and it was that “luck” that allowed my brown-eyed husband and me to produce a blue-eyed daughter ourselves. Phoebe gets attention for her eyes and I admit a small pride in this, fluke of nature though it is. But there is also a small sadness, which I wouldn’t have predicted. I must identify with my semitic coloring more than I realized, coloring that is the same as my mother’s and her mother’s before her.

Every day Phoebe grows to look more like herself, and less like me, and every day we grow closer anyhow. Of course we do. A parent’s love doesn’t hinge on shared phenotypes. And yet, I continue to be struck by our physical differences. At two and a half, she notices them too. “My eyes are blue, Mommy, and yours are brown!” “Our hair is different, Mommy, that’s funny!” She says these things and I picture my mother, who is almost seventy years old and whose face is still the touchstone of beauty for me. I used to think this was because I can trace back to it what I like best about my own appearance. But now I’m not so sure it is to do with resemblance at all. Perhaps my mother’s face is beautiful to me for a much simpler reason: because it was always there.

A Real Fantasy With My Daughter About Imagination

A Real Fantasy With My Daughter About Imagination

0-25“I’m bored. So bored. I’m going to die of boredation,” she said in her bed. All the birds, perturbed and concerned, stopped singing.

A door’s slow creak gained in momentum and slammed.

Not a door in the house nor a door in my head, but rather a door between worlds. The kind of door that, when open, confuses things with the clarity of some largeness that confounds. Do you follow? Please do. Come along and don’t worry. We’ll leave a trail of breadcrumbs or popcorn or pearls.

A big orange flower, not yet wilted, is drooping. The dream animals, lost in the desert, are dying of thirst. My little girl is bored. She dangles precariously on the precipice of a reified world of inanimate, impersonal matter.

“Want some candy?” I ask her and hand her a red and white lollipop. There isn’t much time. I check my watch but it’s not on my wrist. No matter. To hell with chronology.

“There’s always time. No rush. No rush,” the turtle mumbles in a slow deep voice as he lumbers lumberingly through the door. “Climb aboard.” We hop on the turtle’s shell, a maze of yellow and brown wherein it’s easy to get lost. We don’t know where we’re going. Nobody does.

I remember you, Lola Blue, on your stomach, straining the just barely able muscles in your neck to lift your wobbly head. I marveled at how you were able, already, to focus and direct all your baby energies into one concentrated act. And why? Why did you so tenaciously will your head off the pillow?

To see. Driven only by the wonder and thrill of the ability to see and all that might be seen.

“Look! It’s raining lemon drops and gummy bears from pink and blue clouds of cotton candy!” she screams, and the turtle sighs. Taking cover, slowly, he heads toward a cave on the side of a mountain as Lola catches candy on her tongue.

The mountain, to put things in perspective, is actually an irritated blemish on the back of a Cosmic Yellow Dog who is said to devour each moment in his voracious maw. It is not known if the Cosmic Yellow Dog is God’s tame pet or if he is wild and incorrigible.

Inside the mountain, the turtle, whose name was Martin, was soon gone. We found ourselves on a playground upon which a gentle snow fell. Lola listened as I stood atop the tall red slide and recited Dylan Thomas. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age.” The poetry made us feel weird, like we were dreaming, enchanted by the spell of some rhythmic witch.

“Daddy,” she said, “This isn’t real, is it?” The snow turned to tiny pink and yellow flowers that fell in slow motion, twirling humbly to the earth. I felt empty with longing. I wanted to argue about truth and beauty and justice with ancient Greek philosophers. I wanted to keep the door open and stoke the fire.

“Of course it’s real, little girl,” I replied and did a cartwheel.

“But none of this is happening. Not really. Not even this conversation. It’s make believe.”

“But, baby, here we are, you and me—talking.”

“No, Daddy. Not really.” She shook her head but her eyes were wide with hoping.

“Then why do you keep answering me?”

The question caught her off guard and she thought about it. She shook tiny flowers from her yellow hair and thought some more before saying the magic words: “I don’t know.” A choir began to sing. All the prisoners escaped from jail. Reunited lovers embraced and kissed, celebrating ignorance.

“We are strange and mysterious creatures, little girl,” I lectured. “Thrown into the world against our wills—here—there is so much to see and eat and dream. There’s no time. No time for boredom. Boredom begins where your imagination ends. There are too many books to read to possibly be bored. Too much music. Too many poems. Too many worlds waiting to be born, waiting to happen, waiting for you.”

As she became interested in her boredom, the door creaked open. Inside her clenched fist she found a magic silver key. “It’s the secret,” she said, “the secret to everything.” And, without hesitation, she gave it to you.

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Why I Worry About Twelve

Why I Worry About Twelve

By Kathleen Harris
558225_10201065632895516_1316489195_nMy first-born child—my daughter, my baby, my soft, powdery, little one, whose infant body shook with love and the very electricity of life as she clutched my face, and bestowed upon me the most precious gift of open-mouthed, applesauce-ed kisses on my lips and nose and cheeks—will be twelve in the fall.

My baby girl is gone. There’s no one to call, and nothing to do. She no longer shakes with excitement at the sight of me. She shouldn’t. It would be odd if she did.

It’s abject selfishness, really, to still want to be adored in the way that small children often do. To want the chubby clap of hands to greet you, to see the glow and glint in your child’s eyes when she recognizes your face. This light—her fiery, warm, living light—must envelop and surround other people, and be directed towards other passions. And inward, to stoke the furnace of her very being.

She started middle school in September. Her father and I gave her a phone, because we don’t know what else to do, except set up rules that she hasn’t even thought of breaking yet. We are lulling ourselves with the illusion of control. It seems to be a common practice among mothers and fathers.

I want to believe that I’ve done right by her. But I already have proof of what I’ve done wrong. That’s why the number twelve hovers. The anticipation of its arrival awes and frightens me.

I had my own twelve. We all did, of course, if we found our way through the blind maze of adolescence out into the harsh light of adulthood. But I—shamefully, secretly—superimpose my twelve over hers, like fragile onion skin paper, noting the similarities, the places where our outlines run together, so alike, so close, and then spread so far apart.

My twelve took place in 1982—the summer before my parents and I moved from Queens, New York to the affluent suburbs of Connecticut.

I was a city kid, although it never occurred to me to think of myself that way. We were simply where we were, where generations had lived before us, and where we always expected to be from. We weren’t tough kids living in the south Bronx, in Washington Heights or Jamaica. But we were all harder and wiser than we knew ourselves to be. All of us were. Every single one of us who called a New York City borough their home.

At twelve, I smoked Parliaments, wore ice-blue eyeshadow and roll-on lip gloss, and started being silent. It was a time when I acted as if I liked metal bands, so I could stay at the parent-less party in another girl’s basement, and drank whatever I was offered.

That summer, I sat on a soiled, abandoned couch in a wooded area that separated my childhood playground and the Interboro Parkway. I gathered with friends around a cast-off air-conditioning unit, serving as an unsightly coffee table, with candles melded to its vents. I watched friends smoke PCP-laced pot that they’d bought from the “dusties” hanging out in the park, and I didn’t take any when it got passed around. Instead, my friend Debbie and I—the girl who sat next to me, hands folded and knees together under pleated plaid skirts in our kindergarten class photo—now held hands and pressed knees together in some sort of naive united front, and both shook our heads no while the boys laughed too loudly at our refusal.

Debbie’s long nails dug into the back of my hand as we watched Michael, another Catholic school classmate, light the joint and make the end glow. Michael had red-rimmed eyes every day that summer. I watched him adeptly twist the rolling paper, and thought of him crying at his desk in first grade because he missed his mother. He had a bowl cut as a little boy, and his hair fell in a thousand, swaying strands of yellow, brown and gold. I remembered his clip-on tie, which was always askew in class when he was little, and that at seven or eight, I had yearned to straighten it.

That was the summer my friend wanted to set me up with a boy from the neighborhood. He didn’t go to our Catholic school. I’m not sure where he was from. His name was Johnny. That’s all I remember. I didn’t want to know him at all. I didn’t understand yet what he wanted from me. I’m sure he didn’t understand, either. I only knew that I didn’t want him to be the first of anything in my little life.

We moved to Connecticut at the end of that summer. I never told my parents about the couch off the Interboro Parkway, about the beer purchased from the back window of the Myrtle Avenue liquor store, or about the Parliaments I’d purchased from the same delicatessen where I’d once bought Yoo-Hoos, gum and Funny Bones.

I don’t expect that my daughter’s life will unfold in the same way. I tell myself that the world is different now, that parents are more aware of problems, that we see the signs of worry or trauma, long before it indents forming souls.

But I think of the fact that I became silent. I never told my parents that I’d grown older, or grown up, in a matter of weeks. Children never do.

That’s why I worry about twelve.

Kathleen Harris is a fortysomething wife, mother and writer, living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children. Her work has been featured at The Rumpus, Scary Mommy, and Rebellious! Magazine. She was named as a Glimmer Train Press short Story finalist, as well as a 2013 winner at the Woodstock Writers Festival Story Slam. You can find her regular blog postings at The Mommy Chronicles ( Follow her on Facebook or Twitter at @tristatemomma.

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By Tracy Lynch

fall2011_lynchThere’s a word in our household that is used rather often. I wouldn’t have thought much of this word even a few weeks ago, but for some reason, its presence has buzzed around my ear lately like a fly-by gnat. Not annoying, but just often enough to get my attention.

The word? “Inappropriate.”

Our family unit has used the word for many moons to describe shorts that are too short, dogs doing their business, the phrase “Shut up,” and the kind of dancing performed by the younger, more-Beyoncé-like daughter. My daughters’ friends giggle it from the backseat of the minivan; my husband utters it when one of his girls pretends to wear half-shirts; I whisper it when one of the girls forgets her manners and comments on the girth of the man in line at the grocery store. It’s a one-size-fits-all term.

When my daughters used this word at a younger age, it was endearing and adorable. The word stumbled out of their mouths whenever something simply wasn’t proper or right according to their itty-bitty worldviews. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a difference—a shift in usage—and that’s the buzzing in my ear. Now that the girls are ten and twelve, no longer does That’s inappropriate refer to something forbidden. Its current translation is now something along the lines of I know that’s wrong or feels weird to me, but I don’t know why and I don’t think I want to know. Or maybe I do. Why are the grownups laughing? What’s going on with my understanding of the world around me?!

My response has shifted, too, moving from adoring to slightly unsettled. The weight of the word seems heavier as their definitions of “inappropriate” evolve from childish simplicity to adolescent curiosity. A few years ago, my older daughter giggled with glee as our new puppy “hugged” her leg “over and over and over.” “He must really love me!” she laughed breathlessly. Fast forward to the present, and the same daughter, now awkward in her own beautiful body and entering seventh grade, stops suddenly one morning to chastise the same dog (who is now also old enough to know better): “Fergus! Bad boy! That’s inappropriate!”

A line has been drawn: the line of understanding. True, it’s a thick line, a foggy patch in the cognitive landscape, but it’s there.  My daughter, thanks to her growing brain, “family life” courses in health class, and television we probably shouldn’t let her watch, knows now that something is just not right. But she also knows enough to know that she has no idea what that is. Something that was once hilarious is now taboo. My daughters may not know why, but they are on the verge of knowing why. And for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, that makes me a little sad.

Once I became aware of this shift, I found myself listening more intently for the word “inappropriate,” swatting at its buzzing with my own attempts at understanding. Finally, I’ve come to this: “That’s inappropriate” is an off switch. It’s a way to stop the conversation, the image on the screen, the dog humping your leg … and thereby stop yourself from thinking too much about something that just doesn’t feel right. If we label something as inappropriate, we stop ourselves from walking through the thick, foggy patch, through the unpleasantness and toward understanding. “That’s inappropriate” keeps us safe. It keeps us comfortable.

For my daughters, and for kids of all ages, that’s okay. That’s called learning your own boundaries. We give children permission to ease themselves into what is and is not appropriate because they are, after all, kids. They are preparing to travel through the foggy patch. Sometimes what growing kids want to label “inappropriate” really are just parts of growing up, like buying training bras, discussing armpit hair and how to work a razor, or talking with your mother about a boy you like in your math class. This kind of understanding can be uncomfortable, but if all goes well, my daughters will emerge on the other side with understanding as their souvenir. Why do we, as actual grown-ups, use the same off switch, “That’s inappropriate,” for any number of situations and in any number of conversations? What are we so afraid of?  For some (like me), political discussions are often inappropriate. So are religious ones. Reflecting on it, I may know why: I get too nervous discussing a point about which I’m not well versed for fear of being called out. Applying the off-switch word—inappropriate—can stop a conversation before it even begins. Of course, perhaps I could benefit from the understanding that broaching these so-called inappropriate topics could bring. Probably. Maybe. After all, turning off conversations has the potential to make us miss out on pretty significant growing up ourselves. If the adults of this world would strive to constantly re-evaluate what we consider inappropriate, we could charge, head-first, right through those foggy patches and toward understanding. Or casually stroll. What’s inappropriate to some is, after all, inspiring to others.

Take the work of David Jay, for example. Jay, a photographer who is slowly gaining respect and world recognition for his The SCAR Project, photographs of women who are on the other side of breast cancer and have the scars to prove it.

I first stumbled on Jay’s photographs on Facebook. They were going viral, and the link was passed around to tens of thousands of members within a matter of weeks. SCAR stands for “Surviving Cancer. Absolute Reality.” The photographs are, at their very basest level, real. It’s difficult to express the effect his photographs had on me, not because I’m quiet about the emotions they brought (and continue to bring) to the surface, but because, for a long time, I wasn’t quite sure what those emotions were or even how to describe them. Here was a man who was putting to print the most secret, private part of me. A part of me that still felt a little too new to share.

Two years ago, on June 12, 2009, I had a bilateral mastectomy to begin my seven-month treatment of Stage III breast cancer. Walking around without breasts has become only a part of who I am, but it’s always a reminder of what I’ve been through: my own absolute reality. I may not know one woman in the series, but everything about them, their bodies, their eyes, reflected me. Reflected what was left of my cancer. Jay’s photographs tore off the clothes I had been wearing to cover my scars and invited others to click “like” at what they saw. To share these photographs with people, as I felt compelled to do, was in a sense to show them myself naked. My family and friends could now see, on the chests of these women, what breast cancer had done to my body and, through their eyes, to my spirit. SCAR is what happens after the chemo, the surgeries, the hair loss. People who view the works have the chance to be informed.

Or to be confused. Or surprised. Or, even, afraid.

After my surgery and subsequent healing, my own daughters were no longer comfortable being with me when I undressed. A nudist by nature, I was profoundly altered by their response to my naked body. Nights spent putting our PJs on together were no more. Instead, if they saw it was time for me to change, they practically ran to their room, often shutting my door behind them lest I forget to do so myself. They were little and could not be casual about their aversion. My younger daughter, nestling with me in my chair one night, once I was healed enough to snuggle, rested her head on my chest and told me she missed my breasts, that I was too boney and not comfy anymore. The same daughter, with her trademark full-disclosure policy, instructed me once to change clothes in our hotel room bathroom, alone, away from them. She waved her hand in my chest’s general direction and explained, “That’s just creepy.”

This was almost a year after my surgery. Time and again, I was crushed by my well-meaning and brutally honest girls. I was less of a woman. I was a mystery. And, the most difficult pill to swallow, I scared them. My body was, to my daughters, inappropriate.

*   *   *

What my girls couldn’t handle in the flesh, many adults were uncomfortable with even just on paper. Jay’s photos, I learned, were deemed to be too real, too honest, and to show too much. There are nipples. There are lack-of-nipples. There are the curves of a woman’s shape. There are the glaring absences where a woman’s shape should be.

This winter, I worked on a writing project about SCAR and I had a chance to discuss this with Jay himself. He told me that only online publications ever included images of his work. Not one print outlet had ever shown a photograph. None would. One Italian journalist told me that her editor would not include his images in their publication because “he says the images are too much strong, that he makes feel bad.”

The editor’s statement, even in its broken English, says a great deal about what we, as grownups, see as inappropriate in the world. Why are the images so jarring? Are they too painful? Is the “absolute reality” a combination of nudity and illness (or the aftermath of illness) that causes a deep confusion—or simply hurts too much? Is it pushing us too far, too fast toward what we don’t understand?

For kids, facing the inappropriate is scary because they’re learning something that they didn’t know before. Is it the same for adults? Was the Italian editor—merely one of dozens made uncomfortable by the prospect of printing the photos—also afraid of that foggy area, the one that would allow him to cross to the other side, to understanding? Did he turn the switch off? I believe he did. And I believe that he and dozens and dozens of other print journalists missed out in the process. Unfortunately, so did their readers.

One evening in November 2010, a few months after I discovered Jay’s photographs, I was re-examining his extensive collection online. One by one, I clicked through the pictures, sucked into their honesty, until I slowly became aware that someone was looking over my shoulder. It was my younger daughter.

“What are you doing, Mama?” she asked, quietly.

“Looking at these amazing photographs.” Long silence. “Do you want me to stop?”

“No,” she said softly, and I continued on. Eventually, we reached a photograph of a beautiful woman, arms stretched high over her head, that revealed penetrating eyes and double-mastectomy scars.

“That looks like you!” my little girl practically gasped. I agreed, and we sat there in silence until my other daughter slowly came over, timidly, ready to see, too. They were safe there with me, computer screen in my lap, and they saw something new in that woman who looked like their mother.

A few days later, getting in my comfy clothes for the night, I gave my usual precaution to my little girl: “I’m getting ready to change, honey.” Our unspoken agreement had, over time, become Yes, it’s okay for you to leave now.

“That’s okay, Mama. I don’t need to go.” So she stayed. And we talked, and we giggled. One night soon after, my older daughter, typically more timid, joined us.

Neither of my girls has looked away since. I can try on clothes in cramped dressing rooms with them by my side again. They are comfortable whispering to me when my shirt is askew and showing a bit too much of my scars. I have been given the gift of time back with them.

Two years later, and we’ve turned the switch to on.

Author’s Note: My husband and I were overwhelmed by the love that came our way during my breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. We used to talk about how we could actually feel it. I continue to be grateful for it to this day, and whenever I need to slow down, relax, or remind myself what I’m on this planet for, I just have to remember all those gifts, actual and emotional, from those who love us. It still strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that a stranger gave me the biggest gift of all. David Jay’s work changed how I viewed myself, absolutely; he’s gotten that kind of moving feedback from women all over the world and is still humbled and surprised by it. What I don’t write about in this piece is how much SCAR helped me to accept my body, to view it as more than just “appropriate.” Beautiful, even.

Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

Why She Turns

Why She Turns

0So she slams the car door, says “Bye, daddy,” and starts running to the house. Halfway there and suddenly, she stops.

Sure, I write to remember, of course, but I also write to wonder, to poke certain memories with a stick in order to see, in and through language, what they reveal. And also to create a documented memorial to memory, for the minutia, for those fleeting things, so sly, that frequently slip by into the unspeakable realm of forgotten things.  So maybe she can one day read them too, a woman, perusing tombstones of her childhood, things her daddy thought.

And it’s all in the stopping. When she stopped. Stop.

What, spinning on dimes, changes our minds? For instance, you’ve decided with certainty that you want the carrot cake, you close the menu, sip your coffee, wait. But when the waitress comes and solicits your decision, you hear yourself order the crème brulee. It’s like that, no? Someone else emerges through you and you, from some quirky 3rd person perspective, hear them trump your carrot cake with crème brulee and you’re like ‘What?’ But then you quickly adjust to the thought that it was your idea because the spooky alternative lacks coherence and, besides, the crème brulee? It was delicious.

And she turns.

One of the first paintings I ever loved was Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Because, though ambiguously, she—a static image—wants to move and she does in your firing imagination. She’s turning. But away from you? Or toward you? And what’s the deal with the expression on her face? Is she longing for her lover? Mourning? Startled? It was the first painting that ever filled me with confused wonder that, far from irritating, lit me on fire with awe and questions. I wanted to know her but I knew I never would, that her story would always both beckon and elude me. I remember the last day I saw my best friend. He walked away as I wondered if he would stop and turn around. I remember my rum soaked step-dad walking down the hall as I wondered if he would stop and turn around.

The sky is so blue that it could make you cry if you thought about it too hard and the sun smashes through like a baseball shattering a window. And there she is, wearing a purple dress. Stopped, turned, and now standing on the white sidewalk. So present, she owns the space she occupies and the palms lean in. She has such a keen draw on my attention that she often forces me to imagine that the vast interconnection of all the things of this world are all thus locked in an effort to continue producing her, permitting her to erupt into the world with her mischievous smile and long yellow hair. What does she want? Why is she standing there?

When you closely observe, in the midst of a conversation, how fast we talk, how quickly the words come up our throats and off our tongues, it becomes easy to doubt that there’s a process by which we first think of words and then say them. Rather, language sometimes, especially when we “say things we don’t mean,” seems to have a mind of its own, as if perhaps Language itself is speaking and merely using people in the way we tend to believe that we use art supplies. Can you imagine? We use paint and brushes to paint landscapes. What if Language uses us to speak its mind? It’s just a thought. But whose?


It startles us both. Because it’s more than the declaration of a 9-year-old girl. It was as if something grabbed her, stopped her, and spun her around. And then, wild and blue-eyed, she yelled it. A man walking his dog stops to make sense of the scene. There is a yellow fire hydrant and yellow flowers waving in the wind. And I, so often perplexed by issues of meaning and worth, feel as if the world just opened its front door and invited me in.

How separate are we? Is there such a thing as alone? What, besides ideas, stands between me and you and the infinite riches of the treasure house? She runs back to the car, leans in the window, and gives me a kiss. “I love you too, little girl,” I reply and she turns once again to run to the house without looking back. And I drive away, cruising the city’s streets as everything—cars, park benches, litter and debris—come alive and smile at me.

Art: Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, 1665

What I Want To Teach My Daughter About Kissing Frogs

What I Want To Teach My Daughter About Kissing Frogs


pOI_gmpDekM9BudWnVhxh6qTY-qWVdJBMOX-tGa5uTo,nIzZ3TIvwit3Lf7uPO_W9bL7QLo2rNlxR-2PMVJklTUAs the parent of a young daughter, I am on the receiving end of frequent “Wait ’til she’s dating” comments. The implication is that I should be dreading the day she is ready to date. But, the truth is that I want Daughter to date. In fact, I hope she dates a lot. A lot of people. A lot of times.

I want her to practice getting in—and out—of relationships.

I want her to learn to identify the personality traits that bring her joy as well as those that bring sorrow.

I want her to learn how to heal a broken heart without growing the scar tissue of bitterness.

I want her to learn that “something is better than nothing” is faulty arithmetic.

I want her to learn to be comfortable alone and how to make the most of the periods of solitude.

I want her to have epic tales of horrible first dates with which to entertain her friends and family.

I thank every one of my ex-boyfriends for the fact that I am happily married today. Sure, most of the gratitude is rightly placed with Husband for being the kindest man on the planet, but the boys who preceded him deserve a little credit too. You see, they each moved me a little further down the road to understanding the attributes that were endearing in an enduring way. Making some bad boyfriend choices helped me make a great Husband choice.

Trial and error worked for me.

Let’s fast forward through the elementary and junior high “dating” scene to a time when the term meant more than wearing a boy’s coat at recess, calling each other on the phone, or playing spin-the-bottle.

My first real boyfriend was in high school. He was every parent’s dream—smart, kind, and Baptist. He wanted to be a preacher. Catholic guilt has nothing on Baptist discipline. Dating him, I learned a lot. I learned that intelligence, kindness and integrity were important to me. I also learned that I get bored easily if someone is too good.

I was a straight arrow in high school but I knew that I needed a little edgy in the mix for long-term interest. I still had (have?) some crazy to get out of my system. At one point in Anne of Green Gables, the heroine explains that she doesn’t want a man who is truly wicked, but would like a man who could be wicked and wouldn’t. Amen.

I over-corrected when I got to college with a boy full of edgy. Through our short but tumultuous time together, I added humor, fun, adventure, spontaneity, flowers and dancing to my list of must haves. Excessively flirtatious was added to my list of traits to avoid in the future. But, I think the most important lesson I learned was that not all friends make good boyfriends.

Fast forward again through a string of dates and relationships that helped me test my theories of what was and was not important to me.

A fantastic salsa dancer whose other interests were fast cars and football. An outdoor enthusiast with atrocious table manners. A brilliant man with stunted social skills.

Another great dancer who looked like Robert Redford in The Natural on the dance floor but somehow transformed into Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer when he picked me up for dinner. To his credit, he looked appropriately alarmed by the three decade age difference neither of us had noticed on the dance floor.

There was the guy that failed to mention he was married. Hell hath no fury like a duped Irish woman. Then, the musician with no money management skills.

A clingy Brazilian. A misogynistic Australian. Another flirt (some lessons need repeating). A spoiled rich kid that was so obnoxious it wasn’t even worth sticking around for a few weeks to attend dinner at the White House. A nudist. A garage sale enthusiast. And, the guy who attended black-tie fundraisers with ease but pitched a fit when he received a mosquito bite.

Great stories, but not great suitors.

Through the corrective lens of hindsight, I can now see how each and every bad date and doomed relationship helped prepare me to identify and value Husband as my Mr. Right.

I want the same thing for my daughter.

I am a big fan of dating. Kiss a bunch of frogs, I say.

Hear that, Daughter? I said kiss. That is not a euphemism.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle mom trying to find a little meaning in the madness.  She blogs at, tweets as @DefineMother, and talks to anyone who will listen at the local coffee shop.

Photo by Benton J. Melbourne    

I Looked Away and She Was Gone

I Looked Away and She Was Gone

By Janelle Hanchett

Web Only When I looked Back ArtMy daughter, she’s eleven. She’ll be twelve in November. She grew up one day a couple months ago.

We were going to a town about an hour away, in California’s Napa Valley, to hear my friend’s sister sing in a rock-n-roll band. We were going to have dinner first.

My daughter put on a dress, boots, hat, elbow-length gloves, and five years.

She wore them like a loose veil across cheek bones I never noticed, on the poise of squared shoulders, soft over eyes that knew something, something more than me, something adults know, or almost know, if they could remember.

She nearly stopped my heart when I saw her in that get-up, so beautiful she snatched my breath and words. I looked at her and looked harder and harder to see it clearly.

A woman?

The second I saw it, it vanished, and there stood again my little one, my first one, who played in the sand and still does sometimes.

My Ava. She was born when I was 22-years-old. I thought having her would be a cool new thing to do. Like going to Mexico or backpacking around Europe.  We got her name from a magazine article about Ava Gardner. It wasn’t popular then. I thought it was the most beautiful name I’d ever heard.

“Mama, I hate you!” She screams and runs off.

I stir the meat in the pan and heat like the cast iron before me. I think “How dare she speak to me that way.” I AM THE MOTHER. I think about storming down the hall and demanding better treatment. HOW DARE YOU. Who do you think you are?

Well I’m a girl, growing up, and it sucks sometimes.A victim of biology.

Screw biology, hormones, and nature.

For taking my girl from me, even if it’s only in moments still, so young. A victim of a uterus and ovaries a decade or two before she even needs them. I have no idea how to stand near this child. I have no idea what to say or where to reach as I watch her slip away, only in moments still, of beauty or rage.

So damn young.

But always moving away, or so it seems, until she tells me that she wants to hear my voice to feel better, and I want to cling to today for dear life. I want to weave her back into my skin and hold her there like it was and it’s always been.

Except that it isn’t. Not anymore.

And I cannot.

Except sometimes, like a couple weeks ago, when we went camping in Mendocino, along the heaven coastline of California, where the cold and redwoods meet. The fog sits soft on jagged black rocks, waves crash against them in bursts beautiful and deadly, and it’s clear. Clear that you’ve got nothing here and never will. Against this ocean, the relentless pull of time, moons and earth and water, a speck of sand on misty beach. You put on your sweatshirt and enjoy your nothingness. Breathe the gray serenity of something you know or knew once.

On the day we arrived it was sunny.

And through our campsite ran a little creek. It was my friend, pregnant, and her toddler daughter, and my own three kids. Our husbands not here yet.

I guess something about the place made my oldest one feel like the littlest one, or one of the little ones. Maybe it was having her own mama and another mama and just little kids around. Maybe it was the sun filling up our spot among the ferns and trees or the fog that rolled in, or the ocean cove across the street.

Whatever it was, I looked over and she was 8 again or 7 or 6 or 3.

She wore a bathing suit bottom and a t-shirt and she was gathering materials to build a fairy house, proudly running over to show me the couch, the walls, the shell vase.

She stomped around the little brook, building a dam, of course. She got filthy, put a banana slug across her nose.

She spent hours rigging up a chipmunk trap, sure the damn thing would come any moment now.

I watched her like the best movie in the world, one that plays only once, each scene sacred: each time she squatted down without a lick of self-consciousness, acted a little too young for a girl her size, each time she wanted my appraisal of the effectiveness of the trap, or how to make the couch stay together, weave together the leaves. Look at the moss she found. “Won’t it make a great bed?”

“Isn’t this great, Mama?” And I almost couldn’t contain it all, being that person again to her, the one to praise her childish constructions. I was her for so many years. I only get moments now.

And she wasn’t the girl yelling “I hate you,” then. She wasn’t the kid losing her mind about something, irrational, full of rage, hormonal. She wasn’t the kid flipping out about whatever drama is happening at school.

And she wasn’t in that dress that made her like the waves. So utterly beautiful and terrifying I can’t figure out if I’m in love or want to run away, from the power of it all. It’s almost too much…

“I HATE YOU!” the words sting my core because they’re true, for a moment, and maybe I hate her too. Because how can I do anything different with this pain taunting me, dangling in my face? I know it’s coming. It’s right there.

I’m losing her.

Nah, I don’t hate her, not even for a moment, but I dislike her sometimes in a way that’s shocking and new, like I dislike adults on occasion. It hurts my stomach to have that feeling toward my child.

They say she’ll come back, after the teenage years. That she’ll just seem gone.

They say it’s so wonderful again, after those years.

They say supportive things.

But what I see is that my daughter is growing up, and it’s all exactly as it should be, except that this is not a change a human can stomach. How can I take it? How can I accept it?

TELL ME WORLD, how can I let go? When all I want is one more day and one more after that of our little family and the oldest child still a child and she’s going.

She’s going.

I can only let go, and yet I cannot.

Once again, here I am. A mother. The Mother.

With nothing.

I stir the meat a little longer and remember eleven and twelve and sixteen and how I couldn’t see myself in myself sometimes, and I didn’t know either. “Who do you think you are?”

I have no clue, mom.

So I walk down the hall a few minutes later and open her door. She’s weeping into her pillow. I sit by her and say nothing, look at the trinkets and the papers and stuffed animals. I look at the jewelry and the books and treasures. I touch her arm. The clutter, the mess, the thousands of things on the walls. The notes from friends and things from second, third, fourth grade.

The little girl beneath a towering world.

Her little haven in an untouchable world begging her to join it, her place in my home, her home, all I can offer beyond what I am in all my broken form:  a mother, her mother, a new mother I guess, to a new form of child.

I see again it’s all just a series of being reborn. It’s all just a series of recreation, of being tweaked and carved into something new, as I kick and scream and weep for the old.

Just when I was sure it would never end.

Just when I thought I knew what tomorrow would hold.

Janelle Hanchett 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 (

The Elegant Undoing

The Elegant Undoing

By Amber Scott

SU 13 Art Elegant Undoing 3-1The praying mantis turns its head. No, wait. The story doesn’t start there. The story starts with a black sky and distant stars and the orange glow of the light over our patio. The light envelops a small gecko on the outside of a window, its body rendered nearly translucent as it darts within the circle of light, gobbling up tiny bugs. I should be shepherding my daughters off to bed by now, but Madeleine, my 6-year-old reptile enthusiast, has had a rough day and the sight of the gecko has revived her spirit. “Can I try to catch the gecko?” she asks, and she might as well have been asking for permission to be happy. “Five minutes,” I tell her.

She bounds outside and I lurk near the back door, carefully, trying to remain hidden so she doesn’t know I’m watching her. And there. There is the smile I was waiting for. It comes as she tilts her head up, that particular determination shining in her brown eyes as she zeroes in on the now-still gecko. The line of her upturned mouth curls into her cheeks and it is the loveliest line I’ve ever seen because I know that it mirrors a certain peace within her, a contentment. That’s a rare smile these days now that school has started and we have found ourselves in the deep, unfathomable waters of first grade. Where Madeleine, with her isolating shyness and inability to pick up basic social cues, is having a hard time. It seems like every day brings a new story, something to puzzle over, to worry half to death, and today’s was buried deep into the lining of her pockets, so reluctant was she to pull it out. “I pushed and punched a boy. I had to defeat him,” she explains. Why, we ask, and all she can do is sigh. “I don’t know,” she says, and she truly doesn’t. It’s an itch, a nervous tic; it’s rain. She has no control. She gets a feeling and turns it into action, absent of thought. These things happen.

The only time I don’t worry about this kid is when she’s in her element, which is literally in the elements. When she is less Madeleine and more Other, or maybe exactly Madeleine, a wandering spirit among towering maples, the swirl of a river eddy, a little girl rustling through thick underbrush, scaling tall hills and flying down them on the other side. Every day is a new discovery: geckos, snakes, beetles, anoles, skinks, butterflies, moths, shiny rocks, leaves made remarkable by virtue of her simply noticing them. Her room is filled with mementos of a world she only visits but wishes she could live in forever. Containers filled with dirt and pebbles, bits of bone, long casings of shed snake- skin, shells, dry brown magnolia leaves, tangles of dried grass.

I watch her as she climbs up on the windowsill, movements so slow and measured that the gecko doesn’t seem to notice she’s there. Until it does. She darts up, hand outstretched, and the gecko scurries higher, just out of reach. Madeleine is disappointed, but still smiling.

And then, as she comes around to the back door to re-enter the house, I hear her exclaim. “Mom! Come see!”

I open the door and Madeleine is standing right near the porch mat, pointing to the side of the house. There, clinging to the weather-stripped paint, is a brown praying mantis. I step closer, and the praying mantis turns its head.

I’m stuck there because watching a praying mantis turn its head is an experience. Because they turn their heads and suddenly you feel unsettled. This bug knows more than I do, I thought. Bug. What a funny thing to call this creature. This is not a bug. It is a being. A sentient thing.

The praying mantis is still, and it is staring at us while we stare at it. I’ve seen green praying mantises before, but never brown like this one. It’s such a dull brown it looks like the husk of a healthier mantis now sleeping under a leaf or building an egg case. Half of one of its forelegs appears to be missing. This is concerning because a praying mantis needs its forelegs to hunt and eat its prey. “I think it’s hurt,” I tell Madeleine, pointing out the leg, and steel myself because I know what’s coming.

“We have to help it,” Madeleine says.

I knew she’d insist on it, and the words I’d prepared—we have to let nature take its course—fizzle on my tongue. We have to help it, she says, because of course we do. This is a truth I feel deep in my bones because if Madeleine has taught me anything at all, it’s that we are no better or worse than these weird little beings. To Madeleine, all things exist on an equal plane. To Madeleine, a cockroach is precious. So we’ll help the praying mantis if we can. Of course we will.

Once inside, though, it becomes clear that the praying mantis is not actually missing half of its leg. Instead, the bottom half of its leg is stuck folded and twisted in the “prayer” position. It doesn’t look like anything we can help. Google tells me that the praying mantis probably had a bad molt. I imagine the molting process, when the mantis starts to know, in the curious way that insects and animals know things, that it has grown out of its exoskeleton. Some ancient synapse fired and the mantis set about the arduous process of sup- porting its own growth. It seems like this should be easy, a no-brainer, but for this guy, something went wrong.

And now, plainly, it can’t hunt or eat, so it will die. That’s it! Its life is over prematurely because it was just going about what nature called for, following a script encoded in its DNA. And it just seems so achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, what nature can do to a thing. An entire being. It or me or you or any one thing in the universe.

But Google also tells me it’s possible to hand-feed a crippled praying mantis if one is so inclined. There is even a video demonstrating the process, and I show it to Madeleine. “So that’s an option,” I say to her. I wonder if I can convince my husband to do the feeding, but he is horrified when I try to explain it to him over the phone. “No way,” he says. I can practically see his shudder. “That’s disgusting!”

It is disgusting. I won’t do it either, I decide. But then I find myself watching this strange, mysterious insect inch its way up the habitat we’ve housed it in, reaching up for the overhead light. The habitat, a glass terrarium carefully landscaped with dirt, pebbles, plastic greenery, and even an underground tunnel, has been home to all kinds of wildlife. Two anoles, caught outside and returned to the yard after a few weeks; various house geckos, snared from around drainpipes and windows framing our home; click beetles captured after a trip to the park; and even two emperor hackberry caterpillars found during a walk—they cycled into chrysalises and butterflies in the duration of a week and were released the day they were hatched.

I wonder if the habitat feels even a little like home to the mantis, or if it can sense the various lives that have passed through the glass confines. The mantis hangs from the screen below the UVA light bulb casting white light into the tank. Its deformed leg wavers once in the air, as though to grasp at something, and stills. Again it turns its head to watch us watching it, and I think: maybe.

A day passes as I consider what to do with the mantis. I check on it, concerned with its suffering. Was it suffering? Should we have left it outside to let nature take its course? The mantis doesn’t move much, but when it does, its crippled leg sometimes gets stuck around the other leg, behind its head, in the foliage.

Madeleine, meanwhile, is carrying the weight of school and all its bewildering social interactions heavy on her shoulders. She yells and rails, shakes branches and coils and clenches her muscles like a snake tightening on its prey. She shrugs off concerned hugs and glances. Sometimes it feels like she would tear down the walls in furious rips if she could. The only smiles come when she is considering the weight of living things in her hands: the gently clasped anole, the snared gecko. The grasshoppers and katydids plucked from the grass in our backyard. And the mantis. “I’m going to name it Adorable Face,” Madeleine says, pressing her nose to the glass of the habitat, watching the slow, careful way it climbs.

And there is what convinced me to try feeding the little guy. All of it: its name, her smile-lit cheeks, and even the wall-rattling frustration that she lurches around the house like a medieval weapon. Because it’s achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, the ancient synapses that sometimes misfire in my daughter’s brain. Faced with an emotion that skews even slightly into negative territory, her coping mechanisms are all wrong. She turns feral, tamping down tears and literally baring her teeth, hissing and clawing at anyone near. And in those moments, her deep brown eyes go impossibly dark and sad and sparking with fear. Like she’s observing from somewhere inside while her body goes haywire, while bad thoughts and feelings hijack her actions. Later, the helpless sobs as she struggles to explain.

Helping Madeleine is hard. Teaching words for feelings, guiding her away from being afraid of those feelings, into accepting them. Into communicating. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But helping the mantis is easy. Food, water, shelter. So I tell Madeleine, against the pressing certainty that the mantis is going to die anyway, that we can try to feed it if she wants to help.

Madeleine retrieves a squirming, writhing cricket and hands it to me. I hold its lower body between two fingers, and it flails and flails. Madeleine braces the mantis gently in her hands and holds it out, brushing its head against the cricket’s waving antennae. And the mantis gets to work, mandibles tearing off legs and slurping them down with little fanfare. Its jaws find the cricket’s abdomen and begin pulling at the flesh, bit by bit. For a brief moment, I make myself watch, to see what Madeleine is now staring at with an incomprehensible look on her face. The inside of the cricket looks soft and white, pillowy even. The mantis pulls up tufts as it eats, maw working steadily. As gross as it is, there is also a strange grace to its ruthless chewing, head moving just so, legs attempting to do what is basic nature, reaching out to hook into the prey.

I only watch for a brief moment, and it’s too much—too much for the both of us. We shriek and groan and yuck and look away and our hands shake, but the mantis manages to get a little meal out of it. He doesn’t finish the poor cricket, so we return both to the habitat. The mantis crawls for a green branch and the cricket hobbles across the dirt, twitching feebly. I feel a strange mix of horror and fascination. It was disgust- ing, sure, but we also got to hold the essence of nature in our hands. We got to see it up close, in great detail. Like prying open the back of a clock to see how the gears turn. Beyond observing the existence of something, we were seeing its true function. We were watching the way of the world. Ugly and hard, oddly elegant and true.

Even still, when Madeleine decides that we did the right thing, and that we should make sure to feed the mantis every day, I am not so sure. My stomach churns at the thought, but I tell her I will think about it.

Madeleine strings together a few good days at school, and while we slog through our daily routines, the presence of the mantis weighs on me. I am loathe to let it go, knowing that it will certainly die, likely without ever leaving our backyard. I imagine finding it dead on the ground, or worse, Madeleine finding it dead on the ground. She’d bring it to me with her arm outstretched, face sad, and I’d be hard-pressed to know what to say to her. That’s what happens in nature sometimes, is the patented response, but it doesn’t seem enough in cases like this, when you’ve invested so much in something.

On the fourth day of mantis ownership, I know we have to make a decision, but the point becomes moot when I find the mantis lying at the bottom of the habitat, its pale brown body nestled into the dirt and leaves. It is not moving, and I feel a strange grief well in my chest, a dawning sense of dismay. I reach in to take the mantis out, and it moves just a little. And this is even worse, holding this small, dying creature. “Aw, no, little mantis,” I say to it, and its body twitches. This is awful, awful. Madeleine wanders in and wants to know what is wrong with it. “It’s dying,” I tell her, and she wants to know why. I remind her that we had known it would happen, but it doesn’t seem right somehow. It wasn’t supposed to die on our watch. We were the ones who would do right by it. We would make its life better by virtue of being in it. We had hoped.

As Madeleine gets closer, I hold out my open palm. The mantis’s body flicks in small, twitchy movements. And then, horror of horrors, a tiny white larva comes squirming out of the mantis’ abdomen. Another follows. And another.

And another.

And so many more. I drop the mantis with a small shriek and the husk of its body flits to the floor. The larvae scatter. “Are those its babies?” Madeleine wants to know, a hopeful note coloring her words.

And no. No. I wish. “A parasitic wasp must have laid eggs in the praying mantis,” I tell her. “Those are the baby wasps.”

We watch for a second, with revulsion on my part and mute fascination on Madeleine’s. She leans in for a closer look and so do I. Tiny black dots, muted and fuzzy around the edges, are visible just under the milk-glass bodies of each larva. Their brains? The whole of their nervous systems? They’re just so small, so non-wasp, it’s strange to imagine that full-fledged winged creatures would come from these things. What complicated potential rests in those little black spots! Whole lives crawling from the desiccated shell of our mantis. Nature is good at that, finding growth from death. Birthing a peculiar new kind of hope from the decay of an old one.

Still, I am sad for the mantis and eager to put the whole episode behind us. And so there is really no elegant ending to the story of the mantis. I sweep up its carcass and the larvae and toss them together into the backyard with a quick, unceremonious sweep of my hand. They will crumble into the dirt the way that nature unravels all dead things, and we’ll move on.

On the way back into the house, Madeleine’s head is bowed and her steps are slow. I brace myself for her reaction. This is a girl who wept when classmates at school smashed ants into the sidewalk near the playground. The same girl who can shrug when her snake eats a mouse: “It’s sad for the mouse, but good for the snake. It’s just part of nature,” she tells me while I worriedly monitor her reaction.

She still doesn’t speak, so I ask her if she’s okay. She considers the question and finally answers. “I wish we would’ve kept the baby wasps,” she says, her brown eyes as deep as the richest soil, like wet bark after rain and all the best bits of autumn. “Wouldn’t it be neat to watch them grow?”

I think of those larvae and the creatures they will become. No, it certainly wouldn’t be neat, I want to say, but looking down at my unfathomable daughter, I feel a rush of tenderness. For this girl who some days is sweet and some days not, but is always breathtaking, the very living wonder of discovery. What a strange, biting joy it is to be her mother.

And the answer is easy, then. “Yes,” I tell her, and I mean it with my whole heart.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Madeleine I have learned all sorts of beautiful, harrowing, and fascinating things about nature. And while I am probably better off not knowing about the giant water bug’s hunting and reproductive habits (for example), I am forever grateful to her for connecting me in a very immediate way to the stuff of life, from disturbing to amazing and everything in between, both in the natural world and within the walls of our home.

Amber Scott lives in Arlington, Texas, with her husband and two daughters. As an undergraduate, she was nominated for a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Since then, her poetry has been published in local literary magazines. She is a communications writer and editor for the University of Texas at Arlington.

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Time Travel Is A Voodoo Rite

Time Travel Is A Voodoo Rite

By Grayson Bray Morris

0-10I know the secret to traveling through time.

I hold my daughter’s hand as the transport assistant pushes her gurney down the fluorescent hall. The wheels click against the irregular breaks in the linoleum. Right now I’m all here, in the anti-smell of hospital clean and the too-cold of hospital air. You can’t travel through time when the present is so insistent.

The assistant’s name is Tuggy and he makes fresh-squeezed lemonade so sweet your eyes turn back in your head. He’s gentle, slowing down for the bump across the elevator threshold, and I’m glad it’s him again today. We roll into Ped Onc and I help him inch my daughter into bed. What the tumor hasn’t paralyzed, radiation and chemo have sucked dry.

Tuggy dims the lights as he leaves and I crawl in beside her. I stare at the unique curve of her skull beneath the skin on her head. There’s a dip in the skyline where they took a sliver out; even so, they can’t tell us what she has. Two things, they say, it’s one of two. This one has an eighty percent survival rate at five years. That one is two percent. We’re treating eighty, but it will turn out to be two. I don’t know that yet; that isn’t what I mean by time travel. Time travel won’t get you from fact to fact. You’d think it would; it seems all gears and gadgets and the innards of physics, but the truth is surprising. Time travel is a voodoo rite. You split your heart open and knit together the past, present and future with your blood, then cast what you’ve created into the wind.

I move closer and breathe in her scent. The beep and whir of the monitors is steady, unlike gurney wheels on linoleum. You need that to travel in time. I think the voodoo words: someday she might not be here, and I won’t be able to smell her ever again. Here in the present, I lie with my lips against her hairless, blistered skin and inhale deeply, sending her scent forward through time in a rocketship bottle to wait for me, just in case. And suddenly I’m there, in that future where she died, drying off a fork or a plate and looking out the window at daffodils in the frost, dissolving the knit of the bottle against the skin of my chest, remembering the way she smells.

She comes home from the hospital thirty pounds lighter, tied up in IVs and puking. In time—ordinary time—the puking stops and the IVs come out, and I wheel her through the spring air. She points with the hand that still works to the little daisies pushing improbably through cracks in the sidewalk. We eat chocolate-covered cherries for breakfast and strawberries for lunch, fat red ones dipped in whipped cream and jimmies. The steroids that keep her brain from bursting with fluid pack the weight onto her, but it’s hard to notice, living in the moment as we are. We are burning through the present, incinerating every atom of the here and now. That’s another secret to time: the present slows down and expands to twenty technicolor dimensions as you approach the singularity, leaving no space for the past or the future.

We are within the event horizon when my daughter stops making recognizable words. She touches a hand to her head, where cells multiply like daisies, crowding out her past and her future. We dribble morphine in by dropper and hope it slakes the pain. I lie on a mattress on the floor in the silent dark of her bedroom. I don’t think I’ll sleep with my arm raised to hold her hand, but I do, and when I wake I see I’ve missed her last lucid moments. Her legs and arms are blue and I recognize her breathing, because I have been reading about this moment for months. I count the seconds between each fish-out-of-water gasp. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. I count eight times; the ninth breath never comes.

It’s as close to eternity as you’ll get.

The universe is frozen while we cut off her nightgown and wash and dress her. As I fold her hands over the blanket and tuck in the stuffed cat she’s slept with since she was born, time resumes its flow, but squeezing through the singularity has disoriented it; I cry for the future loss of the pain I feel in the present. For the dull ache and blurred wash that will constitute what is left of her beneath the march of ordinary time.

But time, though relentless, is not heartless: it has an unexpected present of blood for me. I’m four months pregnant when she dies. When my son is born he cries; the blood-yarn loops and the wind blows, and I see my daughter between my legs. They wrap him and hand him to me. I look down and see my son, I whisper his name; then the needles purl again and I’m with her. It is the ultimate time-traveling gris-gris, this baby in the present that looks and sounds and smells like that baby in the past. I cry two kinds of tears in an endless round robin: gratitude for the visceral experience of holding her again, guilt for letting the past in to obliterate the here and now of him.

Time passes, ordinary time, and the ephemeral weave of blood and voodoo dissolves in its impalpable wind. When I look at my son, I see only him. One morning, standing in the kitchen, drying the forks and plates, I look out and see the year’s first daffodils. I search for the voodoo bottle I sent forward in time fifteen months ago and find only a fine powder, dark like dried blood, its contents long vanished. I have forgotten the way she smells. It is the first of many things I will forget as my heart heals, sealing away the long, ropy strands of voodoo blood.

But time is not heartless: the seal is not perfect.

My son turns four, and I am there among the cake-smeared faces when his preschool teacher—innocent, uninformed—reads the day’s story. Sally said to her mother, I’m feeling quite ill. Mother said, to the doctor! He’ll give you a pill. But Doc said, to the hospital, and quick, on the double! That thing—and he pointed—is awfully big trouble. A strand of blood coils into the hand I have pressed to my heart; time’s wind lifts the ends of my hair.

I lean in and breathe deeply of my son until the wind fades. I hold on to the rope of blood a little longer, until it’s time to leave. It bobs gently against my chest as we walk home hand in hand. By dinner it will have crumbled to dust.

There will be others.

Grayson Bray Morris is an American writer and translator living in the Netherlands. You can read more about her daughter’s battle with brain cancer at, or visit her website at

Art by Zebi Damen

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My Five-Year-Old Daughter Still Has A Bottle

My Five-Year-Old Daughter Still Has A Bottle

IMG_1037My five-year-old-daughter has a bottle of milk every night. Should I say my five-year-old-daughter still has a bottle of milk every night? Many people would add the modifier—and I can’t fault them for this. I haven’t made even one attempt to wean her from that ritual. No surprise, our shared attachment to her bottle stems back to her babyhood.

One of the biggest adjustments I had to make as a fourth-time mom but first-time adoptive mom was to become comfortable with the bottle’s primacy.

I’d breastfed the three children I gave birth to and while I hoped to encourage some comfort nursing that didn’t work out. I had considered the possibility of a concerted attempt to breastfeed the fourth child. Yet, I decided against that effort. It was unlikely I’d ever produce enough milk to sustain and I didn’t want to take hormones to feed a baby I might not take home. I pumped in anticipation of her arrival a handful of times, but with three older children to care for–ages five, nine and 12–I couldn’t put the effort in that would be required to maybe just maybe encourage the milk along for real.

My firstborn had a tight frenulum—that’s the little flap of skin under the tongue—and so his suck action didn’t bring the milk in very well, which meant I had to pump in order to keep production up. I’d pumped eight times a day for ten months. I knew from pumping. A fourth child isn’t a first child and I understood what that sacrifice looked like and felt like and how little room it would leave for the other children. Even a lesser commitment would take from all the rest that needed to happen to adjust to our family of six, so within a few days of our daughter’s homecoming when she was just two days old, I let go of the Supplemental Nursing System and the pump. With some ambivalence, I sought to embrace the bottle.

The bottle offered unexpected gifts. My husband and the big brothers could feed daughter and sister. I found emancipation from the minute-to-minute responsibility that a breastfeeding mother of a newborn has, which allowed me to remain much more present to the active, older kids than would have been the case. Adoption presents a more sudden and jarring adjustment to parenting a newborn than parenting a newborn post-pregnancy. Not only was my body unprepared to feed her, my sleep wasn’t interrupted beforehand in the same way—although anxiety performed that sleepless duty quite well. Without the belly, there aren’t kicks. Without the belly, there aren’t a million and one conversations with strangers about what’s to come. Without the belly, the mom is not pulled by gravity to a slower mode. Without the belly, there isn’t a sense of getting to know one another. And so, the baby is a shock. The bottle cushioned that transition in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, especially for the five year-old unseated from baby status; he’d hold her and feed her and reckon with all that had just shifted. He was tender and ponderous and loving.

This was all well and good until she turned one. Then, the pediatrician encouraged a cup. I refused her suggestion. “The brothers nursed at least two years,” I told her. “She had a huge disruption right after her birth. I like the snuggling with a bottle and so does she.” The pediatrician demurred. Over time, I’m sure she assumed we’d stopped and I certainly didn’t bring up the fact that while the many bottles have dwindled to one at night, except sometimes she has an extra when she requests one, that nightly ritual ensues, albeit not in our arms.

In so many ways, she’s mature beyond her five years. Her three big brothers’ influence mean all kinds of bigger kid and teen ways waft into her consciousness and result in nuggets like “people wear bras to kiss,” as seen on television or “Beyoncé starts with ‘B.'” At the same time, she’s small, our baby. Although she doesn’t remember her birth and although adoption seems to remain a little fuzzy and confused and even fleeting in her consciousness, I know it’s all there, the confusion, the loss, the sense of wanting to feel anchored—and comforted. For all the time I may have wondered whether bottle was somehow less than breast, I’ve come around to view comfort as comfort. Comfort doesn’t have to come in one specific way to count. I’m glad she can have a bottle at five to help her unwind from the day. I don’t think I have to fix or change that. In fact, I’m reassured by it, too, not the milk, but the appreciation for her ease.

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Indecent Exposure

Indecent Exposure

Indecent Exposure Art“I’m afraid to let you go in there,” I tell my 15-year-old daughter Sophia as I pull into the parking lot of the Amity Teen Center. Three tattooed boys in their early 20s laden with chains, studded leather pants, and black lipstick linger at the door.

“Stay here,” I say, directing Sophia and her two friends to sit in the car.

“We came all the way here, Mom,” Sophia says. “It’s a teen center. It’s the battle of the bands.”

Heavy metal bands, I know now, seeing the crowd. This is typical of Sophia, my oldest daughter, setting me up for something I did not expect. I had promised last Thursday that I would take her to the concert. She had been grounded for sneaking out of the house and had not been out. She wore me down, somehow making me the bad one for having grounded her. Only Sophia can twist me up like this. But we’re here now and I could turn this into the umpteenth argument of the day or I could tell myself I’m trying to understand my daughter and her love of thrashing music and black hair dye.

I’m scared for Sophia; how little control I have in protecting her. She is my child who blows apart boundaries and takes unmitigated risks. Should I let her go in and mingle with these older boys? Will she come out tattooed and pierced?

I reason with myself. I’ll be in the teen center parking lot outside for the next three hours, able to go in at any moment if she needs me. I let her go.

“Come back if you need me, honey,” I say. “I’ll be right here.” The girls get out. “Text me when you get in, just so I know,” I shout. “Do you need money?” Not even the mention of cash slows Sophia down. She and her girlfriends speed walk away from me and towards the entrance. They are dressed in black, but no tattoos or pierced eyebrows in the trio. The tallest of the three boys at the entrance gives Sophia a high-five when she passes them to go in.

I wait five minutes then walk over to the boys. “You in the band?” I ask and they stop talking to stare at me. I am in white jeans and a blue button-up blouse. The boy with the ring in his nose and spider web tattoo on the corner of his eye looks at me. “We are,” he says, and he smiles, his voice normal like my son’s voice. I don’t know what I expected. “Meet the members of Indecent Exposure,” he says. “I’m Tack, this is Freeze, and that’s Jebs.” I reach out my hand for a handshake, notice the skull ring on Tack’s middle finger. I wonder how I would feel if Sophia brought one of these boys home for dinner.

“When do you go on?” I ask.

“Around 9:00 p.m. Right after Maniax, they’re awesome,” Tack says. I imagine myself in this parking lot for the next three hours. Then imagine myself going inside to see the band, which is way worse.

“Do you know if there is a place I can get a bite to eat while my daughter’s in there?”

“Subway, four shops down,” Freeze says, his tall grasshopper-thin legs straight and endless.

“You brought your daughter,” Tack, says. “Where from?”

“About an hour from here” I say.

“That’s cool.”

“Can I take your photo?” I ask.

Sophia would kill me. “Sure,” Tack says. I snap a photo with my phone and wonder what Tack’s mother said about the eye tattoo. What was she thinking, letting him do that to his great face? I laugh at myself and the way I fantasize that a mother has that much control over her teenage kid.

“Good luck tonight,” I say, “I’ll pop my head in at 9:00 p.m. to watch.”

“Hey thanks,” Freeze says, turning to go inside.

In the car, I feel a little reassured after talking with the band. They were nice boys, kind of regular. Still, I wonder how Sophia, my 96-pound metal head, got into this crowd. The way she ventures as far from me as possible, and the way I still think I have some control over her.

“All good?” I text Sophia. No response from my rebellious little black sheep, who is no doubt inside projecting her tough image, despite her small figure, beautiful green eyes, and long dark hair that shines like seal skin.

The music is so loud it vibrates my car, quickens my heart rate. I eat my 6-inch turkey sandwich and text the photo of Tack, Freeze and Jebs to my brother Tom. “Here is what I’m up to” I text. Ironically he is at the One Direction concert in Chicago, a bubble-gum pop band, with my niece, who’s the same age as Sophia. “You’re a better person than me, LOL” Tom texts back. He knows I have struggled with Sophia ever since she was born over a 38-hour time frame. Ever since she became my self-declared vegetarian at age seven, and later my budding Buddhist, then my ball of rebellion once she hit high school this year.

And because of the choices she’s made, and the boulders we’ve hit head on, I toggle through the guilt that falls somewhere between my feeling like the worst mother ever and feeling that she is a difficult teenager. Even when she was a toddler, she danced her own way (in spirals), ate her own way (chopsticks), and talked her own way (“I prefer not to”). But the truth is I loved her early show of independence when she was little, as much as it frustrated me, and I often admire her ability now to jump into situations, unthinking, yet confident.

It’s after 9:00 p.m. Sophia has not replied to my texts. I have to go in. Sophia sits on a ripped leather couch to the side of the stage, rocking gently, smiling, happy in her little spot, a girl with a shaved head sitting next to her. Perhaps she has been looking for a place to fit in and she has found it, in the midst of loud music and other kids who orbit differently – though not necessarily in a bad way.

She sees me as I move toward the five or so other parents who have braved the onslaught of sound and are standing against the wall by the foosball tables. Sophia seems unmoved by my presence. She doesn’t care that I am here and I admire that, knowing if my mother showed up at a concert when I was 15 I would have been mortified. Sophia accepts me, and I need to do the same for her I think.

In the center of the room, dozens of kids let their long hair fly, or their spiked hair redirect, drumming their heads against imaginary posts. Tangible teenage angst, the same as I felt as a teen when I rocked to The Who’s Teenage Wasteland. In that moment, I see myself at all those rock concerts in my past, not quite fitting in until the music started and we were all bound together by sound and lyrics.

On stage, Tack, Freeze, and Jebs have summoned movie star personas. They’re more than a little scary under the black and blue stage lights screaming violent lyrics over the sound of amped guitars.

Two songs in and I’m caught on the periphery of a mosh pit. Something Sophia mentioned once. A dozen boys and a few bold girls form a square on the perimeter of the stage floor then start to run toward each other, meeting in the middle, slamming their bodies into each other with some force, picking each other up if one falls. Please God don’t let Sophia get off that couch I think. Tack has jumped off the stage and fallen. But a mob of people help him up.

Sophia walks over to me. “Moshing, Mom?” she screams in my ear as the crowd disperses back into a stance facing the band, the moshing seamlessly ended. This scene has put some fear in me now; my stomach is trembling. I’ve had enough.

“We have to go,” I say. “This is nuts.” She tells me she is having fun, then pleads, “Just one more band, Mom. Oath of Insanity is next. It’s all good.” She turns toward the restroom. I don’t follow her in. I decide she can stay, or did she make the decision by walking away?

“Come out when it’s over. Immediately when it’s over,” I say, giving her my stern look and voice, which I know mean nothing.

I return to my spot by the wall and she eventually comes out of the bathroom and begins to dance, by herself in the crowd, her friends off playing ping pong now. A boy with a blue-haired crew cut and gauged ears dances in time with her. I sense the future, all the potential dangers as I let her go on being herself. As she dances, her long hair sails. She is raw and unadorned. She is my daughter, though not the daughter I expected.

She is way better.

Author’s Note:  Some months after this concert, I took Sophia to see The Who. “They’re really old,” she said.

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Auspicious Signs

Auspicious Signs

By Jesse Cheng

0My afternoon visit with Mom was approaching that inevitable moment when she’d ask how soon before I’d provide her a grandchild. Since marrying two years before, I had learned, like many men before me, that the best counterstrategy couples the Preemptive Dodge with its natural companion, the Convenient Exit. I edged toward the doorway emitting a stream of chatter about the sick guava tree my wife and I were nursing, then the cute jujube sapling we’d just bought, before somehow letting loose a remark about the pair of doves nesting in the back of our house.

My mother clutched the sleeve by my elbow. “Doves? Where? Where did they build that nest?”

I kicked myself, wondering how the frontal lobe let that one slip through. The top of a patio light fixture was where the birds had constructed their home, a patchwork affair of twigs, dried grass, and evergreen branches tucked into the wooden frame encasing the bulb.

“Ohh, the patio outside your bedroom.” She leaned back, nodding. “That’s good. That’s very good.” And she uttered nary another word about it for the next several weeks.

I suppose it was reasonable to read a felicitous birth omen into the appearance of mating birds. Still, Mom’s silence seemed a touch too content—smug, even. I suspected some time-honored belief supported by the weight of venerable cultural authority; and so, like any good American-born, culturally challenged child of Asian immigrants, I started to look online.

There, I discovered that to our native Taiwanese, the nearby presence of birds is indeed an auspicious sign. Good luck, though, seemed to me something of a stretch from the promise of procreation. I also learned that in some Asian cultures, mandarin ducks are traditional representations of lifelong marital accord. It happens that my wife’s Vietnamese name derives from the Chinese word for that very type of bird. Nevertheless, any etymologist will confirm that fidelity is not synonymous with fertility—and our new tenants were landlubbing doves, not waterfowl.

What did my mother know that I didn’t? For several days I observed the birds perched on their roost. They certainly appeared worthy of immortalization in cultural folklore. While one of the doves tended to the egg, the other kept tender watch from the rafters a few feet away. I imagined a legend about forbidden lovers reincarnated in aviary form, weaving the nest for their child atop the silk-covered rim of an imperial lantern.

Back in real life, I read that the Chinese believe bird’s nest soup—a delicacy that involves an actual bird’s nest, boiled—to aid the reproductive function. Progress! But further study revealed the magic ingredient to be the saliva of another species, the swiftlet … and my mother never did say our guests’ home was intended for consumption. This was fortunate, since my wife and I were becoming quite protective of the critters.

It was with some feeling of loss, then, that after returning home from a long vacation, I’d poked my head out the back porch door to find the nest empty. The birds were a full-fledged family now, all three taken to the skies. As I drove to visit my mother, I wondered how she’d handle the news. But then, the bombshell: three new nests at her house—doves on the eaves under the side porch, thrush cuckoos in the backyard bush, and a to-be-identified species in the tree on the front lawn!

“This is good,” Mom said. “This is very, very good.”

By now, I accepted her prognosis must be justified in some culture’s historical lore somewhere in the world. And, as it turned out, modern Western medical technology would follow up with its own bombshell not long after: positive! My mother was pleased, albeit none too surprised.

But the issue remained of what to do with that abandoned nest back home—I just didn’t have the heart to take it down. Happily, one last bit of online research was in order. According to multiple sources, the same pair of birds (doves, like mandarin ducks, tend toward monogamy) may come looking for their nest the next year, and possibly many more seasons after that. And so it remains.

“You haven’t taken down that nest, have you?” Mom asked the other day.

I transferred baby Amie to my wife’s arms, shaking my head. “No, Mom. The nest is still there.”

“Oh, good.” My mother crossed her arms, smiling. “Oh, that’s very good.”

If some cultural authority out there has its say, our little girl may one day point up and tell a sibling all about it.

Jesse Cheng is from Southern California. His website is

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Why It’s Not OK To Label Our Children

Why It’s Not OK To Label Our Children

By Julie Hill Barton

0-6When my first daughter was born, I fell madly in love with her. I remember crying in my hospital bed, my dad whispering, “You okay?”

“Yes,” I said, wiping my tears. “I knew I would love her.  But I didn’t know I’d love her this much.”

That baby is eight-years-old now, has a five-year-old sister, and I still vividly remember how blessed I felt that day, how confident I felt that I could raise a strong, kind, loving, self-assured girl. I always had a deep-down faith that I knew how to teach my girls’ right from wrong, kindness from thoughtlessness, respect from carelessness.

That is, until our oldest daughter reached kindergarten. At our spring parent-teacher conference, we learned that our sweet girl was sometimes monopolizing her best friend, could be grumpy with peers, and had rolled her eyes at the teacher. The teacher suggested our daughter needed to see the school counselor. When the conference ended, and I managed to extract myself from the tiny chair, I walked outside and burst into tears. What had I done wrong?

It has taken me almost four years and lots of drama to understand that all of this has very little to do with me. I’m doing my best. My daughters have vastly different personalities, and that’s just how they came. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and both are at the core, nothing but good.

My oldest is in third grade now. I’ve watched as she has learned, through trial and error, to be a good friend. She is strong and confident, but she gets hurt sometimes too. It’s all part of that sticky process of growing up.

In second grade, she asked her best-friend-since-kindergarten if they could have a play date. Her friend replied, “I can’t have any more play dates with you because my mom says you’re mean.” My daughter came home with eyes as big as saucers, collapsed into bed and wept.

That was a year ago, and she still talks about it. She still asks me if she’s a mean person. She was seven-years-old when this happened, and I fear that the trauma of this one word being uttered about her by one careless adult will forever be etched in her heart, making her question her own goodness.

I called that mom, who was my friend, and she mumbled that our daughters were both mean sometimes. She tried to make a joke about girl drama, but I wasn’t laughing. I hung up feeling sick and guarded, and hyper-aware of how nonchalantly we, as a society, label children.

A short list of things I’ve heard parents say about other children: “He’s a shy kid.” “She’s such a sweetheart!” “Ugh, that kid’s a nightmare.” “She must have ADHD or something.” When we say these things, it’s the emotional equivalent of juggling knives in the NICU. We’re putting children in narrow boxes, cornering them into behaviors and personalities that they’ll then feel that they must inhabit. We all experienced this as children in the 60’s and 70’s. Isn’t it time we changed the course for our children?

I can’t say it clearly enough, both to myself and to other parents: There’s no mean one. There’s no nice one. There’s no sweet one. There’s no nasty one. They’re all little imperfect, nascent beings with every single one of the above qualities healthily intact.  As my daughter’s third grade teacher says, “Label the behavior, not the child.”

I was in school just a few days ago and watched my daughter walk by her former best friend in the hallway. They waved at each other with a longing so sweet and strong that I wanted to hug them both, tell them it was okay to be friends, that it was their choice and no one else’s, and that they were both nothing but walking goodness, simply and beautifully learning their way in the big, wide world.

Julie Hill Barton is a writer and mother of two daughters in Northern California. She has an MA in Women’s Studies and an MFA in Writing. She is currently writing a memoir about battling depression with the help of a remarkable therapy dog. You can read more about her at