A Letter to Me, at 14

A Letter to Me, at 14

By Natalie Kemp

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You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her.

 

I know you’re trying so hard, too hard, to make her see you, but she won’t, not now, when you’re blossoming into young adulthood, not later, when you’re graduating or getting married or divorced. She won’t be there helping you get ready for school dances, or ever see you march in the band, or even ask you what you want to do with your life. When she is there, she’ll usually be drunk. It will, now and always, be all about her.

In fact, when you are going through the worst of your divorce and find yourself completely alone, she’ll call you one day, and your heart will leap when she asks if you want to go on a vacation, just the two of you, to Florida. You’ll jump at the chance, though part of you will question her motives right out of the gate. But you’ll push down your doubts and forge ahead into the make-believe land she inhabits.

You’ll find yourself alone, again and still, right there in Fort Lauderdale, as she takes off on the back of a motorcycle with a guy she met on the Internet. She’ll toss a handful of twenties at you as she giggles her way to the door and tells you to get whatever you want for dinner, that you’ll watch T.V. when she gets back, just like the old days when she worked second shift and you’d wait up for her, hoping she’d remember to invite you into the living room before Dobie Gillis reruns started. You’ll wait up for her in that Florida hotel room, but she won’t come back that night or for two more days.

While you wait for her to return, you’ll take the rental car she left you and go to the mall, alone. You’ll cry as you drive down the freeway, real, choking, foolish sobs that are way more about her than they are about your soon-to-be ex-husband. You’ll be 24 and hate yourself for still not being past this, for still needing your mommy, for never allowing yourself to feel justified in your anger toward her. You’ll still be making excuses for her, still apologizing and hiding and wrecking yourself with constant grief, anguish and worry. You’ll force a smile when she finally returns, giddy and still reeking of beer. You’ll pretend to agree with her when she says she thought it would be good for you to have some alone time.

At 30, you’ll be remarried and expecting your first child. She’ll live across the country, and she won’t come. You’ll cry to your helpless, sweet husband while you’re in the throes of labor that no, you don’t want more medicine or a drink, or for him to rub your back. All you want is your mom and nobody can even get her on the phone. She’ll never lay eyes on you when you’re pregnant, either time.

Years will go by, the same, jagged patterns carving out a tired rut. You’ll have insomnia and you’ll blame it on motherhood and being so busy and some kind of anxiety thing, but you’ll know the truth. Nighttime is reserved for worrying about her. You’ll make sure your phone is on because you know that someday, the call will come, and it will come in the middle of the night, but somehow, maybe not, if you don’t go to sleep.

If you don’t sleep, you can keep your world propped up, and hers, too.

Somewhere along the line, she’ll own some of it. She’ll actually admit, in plain terms, that she’s an alcoholic, that she’s fucked things up along the way. She’ll detox. She’ll promise to stay sober, but she won’t for long. She’ll be too far gone, too lonely, too far away from everything she knew and threw away.

You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her. You’ll overcompensate and coddle your kids too much, but it will be better than her neglect, which you can recognize in hindsight now.

You’ll realize you’ve given up on her when you don’t even cringe when she has manic, hateful fits on Twitter for all your friends to see. It will be like you’ve already mourned her passing. You’ll cling to the good memories you do have of her, back when you were very young, when she didn’t correct people who thought she was your big sister.

But then when you’re 15, cigarette in hand and smirk on her lips, she’ll casually tell you that you were a mistake, one that ruined her life. You’ll try to brush it off, to find some compassion for the younger version of her, pregnant at 16, only a year older than you. “She doesn’t mean it,” you’ll tell yourself.

And maybe she doesn’t, and maybe she loves you, but she will hurt you. She is your mother and she will hurt you deeply and repeatedly until you’re broken, and then she’ll sob that you care nothing about her. Nothing will appease her and nothing will shake her from the chains of victimhood. You will have to watch yourself so you don’t fall into the same patterns.

But know this, too: On the other side of the pain, when you’re well past 30 and a mother yourself and finally brave enough to accept that you have value, when you’re so far past 14 that you can no longer remember it sharply, there is love. You’ll find it everywhere because you have a big heart and relentless, unrealistic hope, and though you will never fully believe it, you’ll deserve the love that emanates from within you. You’ll hold out hope for her, too, to the end.

And I’ll be here waiting, trying to pass some kind of motherly love back to you through time, because you need it now, at 14, and you don’t even know it.

Natalie Kemp is a freelance writer based in the upper Midwest. She is a daughter and a mother, and feels compelled to share the stories that bind us all.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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The Promise of Maybes

The Promise of Maybes

By Audrey Hines McGill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The First Disappointment

The First Disappointment

By Stephanie Sprenger

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

By Cindy Hudson

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

Making Room for Joy

Making Room for Joy

By Jennifer Berney

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I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.

Too often when my children are full of joy, I take it as my job to curb it.

Take the following scene, for instance:

“Get your pajamas on!” I yell to my older son for the umpteenth time. It’s eight thirty in the evening and I wanted my two sons in bed half an hour ago. But instead they are still naked from their bath, chasing each other through the living room. My toddler jumps out at my older son from behind a half-closed door. He shrieks, and our small house fills with peals of laughter. “Enough!” I shout. I put my hand on my son’s bare back, and guide him into his bedroom. I close the door between him and his little brother. In moments like this, I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.

One of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve ever received came from an older friend, her child already grown. “I was good at being present through the hard emotions,” she said. “But I wish I’d been more present for the joy.”

When she said this, my jaw dropped a little. So far I had measured my parenting on how well I tended to my children through their daily disappointments, their struggles and grievances. But when it came to how well I engaged with their happiness, I never measured that.

I began to consider the moments when I interfere with my children’s fun. There’s always a reason: it’s bedtime or it’s time to leave for school. They’re messing up the bed I just made, or their shrieks are hurting my ears. It’s true that sometimes the fun must end. But it’s also true that sometimes I can make room for it by starting our bedtime routine earlier, for instance, or training them to help me remake the bed that they’ve unmade.

The more I think about these things, the more I must face a truth about myself: Joy is a challenging emotion for me. Sadness comes easily. Anger hovers in the background. Anxiety is ever-present. These are my resting emotions. I don’t want to overstate it here. It’s not that my life has been particularly hard, or that I’m a chronically unhappy person. It’s just that joy is such a big emotion. One I find hard to inhabit comfortably. When I embody it, I feel like I’ve put on an outfit that doesn’t quite suit me—like I’ve borrowed a friend’s neon party dress to wear to a PTA meeting.  

I suspect that I’m not the only adult who feels this way. I suspect that for many of us, by adulthood joy has left our emotional landscape or we must go to special lengths to engage it: we might finish a bottle of wine on Friday night, or empty our wallets for brief thrills like sky diving or bungee jumping. Some of us might have even wanted children, in part, because we thought they might help us regain the sense of joy that has dimmed over the years. But then, after a year or so of parenting, we might claim to be so overburdened with the tasks of work and keeping house that there is no room in our lives for such a big and frivolous emotion.

At first glance, joy doesn’t help us to vacuum the car or put away the groceries. But I do wonder if joy may act as a medicine, a balm, if it might help me move with ease through life’s sharp turns and corners, if yesterday’s dose of joy might make today’s to-do list feel less daunting, or less important. And so lately I try to take note when my children are joyful. I try to open myself to this strange and foreign feeling.

Yesterday morning my children were ready for school and we still had ten minutes to spare—a small miracle in my world. To entertain themselves, they took turns jumping off the coffee table and into my arms. As they leapt, they shouted random words like cat-face! or jellyfish!

In the past, I might have acted as catcher for a hundred jumps and never noticed what a good time this was. I might never have noticed how good it felt to have their full weight land on me, each of their bodies creating a gentle ache with each landing. But at some point, after at least a dozen falls and catches, it registered: this is joy. I opened my arms wider. I cheered. When they finally landed, I held them tighter.

On the couch that morning, no miracle occurred. All of my resting emotions—my sorrow, my anger, my worry—remained. But for those minutes I also felt suspended, held inside a bright and hazy light. I was at once two selves, present and distant, joyful and fearful, a human existing in time, space, and also light.

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

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

By Allison Slater Tate

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mandy Hitchcock

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

 

“Cherish every moment!”  

“It goes by so fast!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Kids See Inside Out (and How They Might Not)

How Kids See Inside Out (and How They Might Not)

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Perhaps those abstract lessons of Inside Out are more important to a different audience — parents. 

 

For months, I’d looked forward to seeing Pixar’s Inside Out with my daughter, Liddy. Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling turning feelings into characters! Characters we could understand and laugh at and talk about! When you’re the parent of a nine-year-old girl who is caught up in the fierce turmoil of third-grade life, that is no small thing. Plus, you know, popcorn and Reese’s Pieces.

I brought Liddy and her friend Charlotte, and we loaded up on snacks and settled into our seats just as the previews were wrapping up. The movie is a quick ninety minutes, and none of us even took a bathroom break. We were enthralled. We all loved it as much as I’d hoped, and when it ended the girls talked, rapid-fire, about the antics of Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness, and Disgust.

Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you may have heard by now (spoilers ahead) that Amy Poehler’s Joy works hard to keep the other emotions in check as they all pilot the day-to-day life of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of The Office) proves especially challenging in this regard as Riley faces a big move, family stress and friendship challenges.

But in the end, Sadness proves her worth. Joy learns, the hard way, the lesson so many of us are still working on. Sadness is a part of life. Efforts to banish her, distract her or leave her in the past, no matter how creative, just won’t work. And it turns out Riley needs Sadness as much as she needs Joy, in order to get the help and support of the people who love her. Allowing space for Sadness means she doesn’t have to go it alone.

So what did Liddy and her friend make of all this? When I asked them how those battles between emotions worked out for Riley, and how they might play out in real lives, like theirs, they looked at each other and kind of shrugged.

“I’ve never really thought of little feeling-creatures in your head controlling you,” Liddy said, with a hesitant smile. She looked like she was afraid to disappoint me.

“But let’s say we did think about them that way,” I said. “Like, Fear, for example. I can think of times in my life when Fear is around, you know, making his list of worst-case-scenarios like he did to Riley in the movie.”

“Um. That’s just … weird,” the girls said, laughing.

Later, when Liddy said that Mindy Kaling’s Disgust was her favorite character, I tried to make the connection once more. I wondered aloud if she could remember a time she felt Disgust working in her own life, thinking she might mention something about her brother burping or stealing a gulp from her water bottle.

“Mom,” she said — gently, as if to suggest I was still missing the point. “It really just feels like characters in a movie.”

I shared this anecdote with a child psychiatrist I know, who laughed and said that it all sounded exactly right. She reminded me that, even heading into adolescence, kids are very concrete thinkers. They simply want to fall in love with characters and soak up a good story.

“But is there some way parents could talk with their kids about the movie, that might help them make those connections?”

“I think you can just let her enjoy the story for what it is,” she smiled.

She helped me see that perhaps those abstract lessons of Inside Out are more important to a different audience — parents. Because maybe, for some of us (cough cough), it’s not our kids who need to work on accepting their Sadnesses. It’s us.

The Girl Who Sings In Tune

The Girl Who Sings In Tune

By Nancy Schatz Alton

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Last night my family skipped the spring music concert at school. For years, we have secretly dreamed of skipping this event. My ten-year-old has always had stage fright. It’s hard watching Annie look like she’s about to fall off the risers and throw up her dinner as she stands there—wide eyed and unblinking—staring down something we all can’t see.

People tell me these concerts are important. Showing up for what scares Annie may be powerful and life changing—an affirmation of our bravery. These events can also suck, like the time when all the lights from the clicking and filming iPhone and iPads and i-what-the-hell-is-anyone-actually-living-in-the-moment-here made my Annie turn her entire body sideways and remain silent. That concert was during the year she repeated kindergarten due to her dyslexia. It kills me that my girl not only faces learning difficulties all day at school, but she is also filled with angst at an evening program that could show off one of her gifts. Because even though my girl has anxiety, singing is actually one of her favorite activities. She’s always sung in tune and memorized songs within one or two listens. She sings for fun, by herself, in her room, where she thinks no one is listening.

So, yes, I gave a big sigh when my mom asked me, “Is Annie going to be graded on the concert tonight?”

Since I didn’t have the energy to face a potential hard evening, I’ll take an F for the family team. But no, she’s not graded on this. I’m not graded on being human either. I’m not graded on my wish to relax instead of helping Annie pick out something appropriate to wear when she’s most comfortable in sweats. I’m not graded on my waffling between going and not going and asking Annie for her opinion before deciding we’ll stay home and enjoy homemade pizza instead of facing our fears. Annie didn’t give me an F because she popped out of a day dream after dinner to ask me if the concert had happened yet.

“The concert is over, Annie,” I said.

“It is?” she asked. Then she started to cry.

She climbed onto my lap and we talked about how I had just heard her sing at her biggest performance success yet. She takes voice lessons from our neighbor, who hosted an intimate spring event in her living room. Just two rows of chairs made a small arch around the baby grand piano.

Annie went first. She walked up front and turned to the audience. She moved her eyes from left to right, sweeping the room as her head came along for the ride. And then she burst into tears.

Her teacher didn’t treat it like a big deal. “Oh, OK, Annie, take a moment. There’s Kleenex in the back of the room,” she said. “And while you do that, we are all going to start singing your warm-up exercises. You can join in when you are ready. And when you sing, you can face me at the piano.”

I asked Annie how I could help while holding her close. “To make it not happen. To not sing,” she said through tears.

“Let’s just calm down,” I said.

But I sounded anything but calm. My insides clenched as I worried about whether or not she was going to sing.

I turned my head away from Annie to the owner of the deep voice next to me. This grandfather held the room’s lowest notes with joy, his whole face beaming with helpfulness and song. His voice during the warm-up exercises began to buoy me. As my body began to relax, Annie quietly joined in. I couldn’t sing a note, but Annie could and did. And when the warm-ups ended, Annie walked to the piano. She placed herself with her side to the audience and faced her voice teacher’s back.

“Annie, I’m going to play a short warm-up, and then you’ll begin,” said her voice teacher.

The teacher played the first notes of “Belle’s Reprise” on the piano and Annie began to sing. “I want to venture in the great white somewhere. I want it more than I can tell. For once, it might be grand to have someone understand I want so much more than they’ve got planned.”

And there I was, my heart aching at all it took to get right here, with Annie sharing her gift with everyone in the room. Just past the ache was the soaring joy. I never imagined this moment when I watched Annie suffering on those school risers. Back there I couldn’t fathom Annie would actually show off her talent in a tiny living room three doors down from our house.

When I used to see her scared up onstage, all I felt was my fear. I saw how different she was from the kids singing with joy and posing for cameras. Why couldn’t I have that kid? As she sang “Belle’s Reprise,” I could see her walking in the wilderness, voice lifted in song as she took in nature, her life on her terms, not mine.

After such a performance, I couldn’t fathom going back to a spring concert to watch a possibly quaking Annie standing on the risers. She gave up her spot in a group solo last week. When I sounded disappointed about her not wanting to sing the group solo, Annie’s teacher told me, “We are proud of Annie for knowing exactly what she wants. She has years ahead of her to use her singing voice the way she wants to use it.”

“Mom, I don’t want to do the group solo.” “Mom, I don’t want to do the jumpathon.” “Mom, all that noise gave me a headache.” “Mom, I don’t want to go to the birthday party with all the girls from my class. It will be too loud.”

Mom, see me, love me, accept me. Last night we finished reading a book together about a sixth grade girl that has dyslexia when we should have been at the concert. We read it because my girl has dyslexia and many of the strange side effects that kids with learning differences have. It’s not strange in this world to have parents reply, “My kid can’t jump rope either. Does yours ride a bike? Mine doesn’t.”

So I work every day to accept my girl the way the girl in the book we read is finally accepted by her classmates as they all realize she isn’t stupid, she simply has dyslexia. I smiled so big as my girl jumped off the couch and did an impromptu dance for me when the girl in the book realized she was smart despite her dyslexia.

My girl, I see her so much clearer in our living room than when she’s up on those risers so far away from me. Front and center, singing for only me, she’s all herself.

Seattleite Nancy Schatz Alton is the co-author of The Healthy Back Book and is a regular contributor to ParentMap.com. Read her blog at withinthewords.com.

Fiction: For the Graduation Speech

Fiction: For the Graduation Speech

BT 15 Graduation Speech ARTBy Ellen Lesser

In the graduation speech I won’t give at the therapeutic academy, I’d tell them all how cute you were when you were little, with your one dimple that showed up more when your cheeks were round and those hazel eyes, crazy big. Cute and smart as could be and so good—easy, at least that’s the way I remember it, though certain relatives and professionals would say that’s because I let you do whatever you wanted.

Didn’t set limits or enforce consequences, two things you’re getting in spades in the intensely restrictive school program, on the theory that the extreme dosage now can correct for the early deficiency.

For the graduation speech I won’t give, I’d be that shameless parent who puts on a slide show. I wouldn’t wind it all the way back. Let’s say we kick it off with that shot of you in your high chair on your first birthday, presiding over the gleeful wreck of strawberry shortcake, your face and what hair you had, your bare chest and arms slathered with fresh whipped cream.

Later, once you were almost a teenager, you demanded to know why I’d dressed you for the occasion in only a diaper, like that wasn’t obvious. Like it constituted some form of abuse. Of course in the rest of the slides you’d have clothing on. How about that great Halloween costume: the big, reversible satin cape I sewed, red with white stars on one side, solid blue on the other, lightning bolts stitched onto your pilot cap, and on the front of your sweatshirt, the shield with the big golden “S.” Super Suzie.

And what would the soundtrack be? I could pull out the stops and find that cassette we ordered from the kids’ magazine. We filled in the card and physically mailed it, then waited the predicted eight weeks. How’s that for deferral of gratification? Ten “very special tunes” with lyrics customized to feature your name, just like the ad promised. Cloying but hopelessly catchy, so naturally you played them over and over, though even once through they got plenty repetitive. I want to sing a song about Suzie. I want to sing a song about Suzie. Let’s sing a song about Su-u-ziestretched to give it three syllables.

Did I really steal into your room one night, slip the tape from your player and make it mysteriously go missing? Or did I just dream about doing that? I remember hysterics and tearing the house apart and finally needing to bribe you with something way cooler, whatever that was right then, thereby, in the words of the treatment team, robbing you of the chance to learn how to self-soothe.

No doubt before long you’d have forgotten it anyway, or grown out of it, like you grew out of a lot of things you once loved: dance classes, art projects, mother-daughter baking, the flute, even basketball. A whole slide deck of leotards and paint-splattered smocks and crisp concert blouses, not to mention the treasured Allen Iverson jersey that started out down to your knees. The requisite, adorable get-ups for all those fun and enriching activities you accused me in our last family therapy session of making you do.

Not that I’ll ever really be showing those.

*   *   *

In the graduation speech I’d give for real at the treatment academy, I’d try my hardest not to embarrass you, though every kid must cringe a little when a parent gets up there, wondering what we’re going to say. You are still teenagers—young adults—despite all the therapy.

It’s an odd tradition, asking the parents to make speeches, since we’ve been so far away, having shipped you off to this place where it takes a whole specialized staff and system of rules and ascending ladder of stages to accomplish what we so spectacularly failed to at home just as mothers and fathers. But actually, calling anything at the school a tradition is kind of a stretch, considering how it only sprang up a few years ago, this outpost of authentic Montana-style lodge buildings tucked up into a wild hillside at the end of a road so remote, only the most in- trepid or desperate or crazy would try running away from it.

The parents who get to stand up and give speeches have kids who didn’t try running away. Who only hiked on the designated trails with their teams farther up into the hills every weekend. Who didn’t find the chance unsupervised moment to, say, touch a boy in the cubby room and get caught, because although the school is co-ed, it runs on the strictest no-contact policy. Who sat down at the end of each day and listened to extensive feedback about their actions and attitude and didn’t tell the staffers charged with providing it to go fuck themselves. Who didn’t pioneer a closet method of home-fermentation, filling Nalgene bottles with grape juice and yeast stolen from the school kitchen, until a whole team of girls was found inexplicably drunk in the dorm one night. Who, even though their families were blowing their college funds or invading 401(K)s or taking out second mortgages for the stunning tuition fees, not only made their beds and kept their own shit picked up but swept floors and scrubbed toilets and washed pots and pans, to help break them of an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Who didn’t talk other kids into forking over their meds for depression or bipolar disorder or ADHD, then crush and snort them in the far bathroom stall when they thought nobody was around to hear and report on them. Who themselves scrupulously followed the code requiring them to come forth about anyone else’s infractions, not because they were sucking up to staff or angling for promotion but because they sincerely bought into this as an act of love, a life-line for the person they ratted on.

“I’m not like some snitch,” you said. But then you got tired of listening to the bulimic girl every night through the wall by the head of your bed. You already had enough trouble sleeping.

The team counselor you told would assure you that had nothing to do with the girl, a week later, smuggling a paring knife out of salad prep and slitting her wrists—not very effectively—then being pulled from the school. But that’s hard to swallow. Which means you either messed her up really bad or actually saved her ass.

Wrapping your head around that: now there’s something to keep you awake at night.

*   *   *

In the speech I’d like to deliver for your graduation, I’d leave out that part of the story. Forget the setbacks and stumbling blocks, the delays and demotions, all the scary-bad or just stupid shit that made the odds of my standing up there seem impossibly slim. Better to keep it light and upbeat. Beginnings are good that way. So I’d tell about our arrival at Glacier Airport in the dead of the night that first time. What was the end of one road but the start of this new—let’s call it journey, a popular word in the lingo there. I’d booked us on the last flight into Glacier, a plane we’d only make if we hit no snags earlier. Such a long way from home for us, and we weren’t even starting from home. Home, which already you hadn’t seen in three months, since you first shipped out for wilderness treatment. But at least that was wilderness Eastern Standard Time. That’s where our day began, before dawn, under the canvas tarp you strung for us between trees in the Family Transition Camp.

“Montana: is that even a state?”

That’s what you asked your field counselor when she delivered the news about your therapeutic boarding school placement. Because of course, you weren’t coming back to our house and your regular high school—not yet. Twelve weeks in the woods was only Phase One of the cure for what all was ailing you.

In the letter I wrote that same week, I admitted I’d had to pull out your old atlas myself to check the location. (This could make a good laugh line for the speech: Geography had never been an “A” subject for either one of us.) But then I assured you the distance on a map didn’t matter, since once we got you out there, traversing it would be on me, and I’d come see you, whatever it took, as often as the school let me.

That sounded fair enough—smart—when I said it. But by the time we rode the rental SUV out of the forest to the base office, where you took your first actual shower in twelve weeks, and cruised the couple-hundred miles back to the airport from which the wilderness transporters had collected you; by the time we flew across the plains to the eastern slope of the Rockies then over the mountains up to Salt Lake; by the time the western night had fallen and deepened and we boarded the tiny prop plane through this weird cross between cattle stalls and gates at a bus depot, and roared over an expanse of unbroken black to touch down at the one brilliantly lit, empty terminal, it might as well be the moon we had landed on.

Mom,” you said in that tone you reserve for me and me alone, that particular mix of outrage and disappointment, like the world is this appalling place and my fault on general principle. That’s when you spotted it, in a giant glass case between us and the one baggage carousel. Our eyes were so bleary from traveling, so struck by the glare, it looked to be out in the open just standing there. “What the fuck is that?”

It was a mountain goat, though I didn’t know that yet. A massive billy with its lush coat of pure white and curving horns and great beard and kind but no-nonsense expression. I stared into the glassy black eyes, out of which it appeared to gaze back at me.

“Is it real?” you said.

“I think so. But dead. You know, stuffed.”

You gawked at me not so much like I’d just stated the obvious, but as if I’d killed the creature and performed the taxidermy myself. “And you decided to send me somewhere they’d have this Thing in the airport—why exactly?”

At that moment I had no answer. Do I have one now? But I’ve lost my thread. Why was I thinking the arrival bit would work well for the speech again?

Something about beginnings—that’s right. How distant and alien it all seemed, unlikely as the mountain goat greeting us at one in the morning, this sentinel at the gate to another world. How maybe you had to go that far out to find your way home again.

How we passed through that portal and stepped into the Montana night air, which was thinner and smelled different—dry—I guess. How we climbed into another rental car and steered toward the town, along a road littered with motels and fast-food places. How even driving that strip you sensed something. Lowered your window and stuck out your head.

“Oh my god, Mom—the sky. It’s so big. How is that even possible?”

When we hit a red light I looked too, through the neon wink of a pawn-shop sign, and saw what you meant. The sky was bigger than ours back east—exponentially—though strictly speaking that didn’t make sense, since really it was the same one.

Why did this suddenly fill me with a mad hope? The sky itself, but more, the fact that you noticed it.

*   *   *

In the graduation speech that runs through my head, I follow that train. I don’t mention the silence in which we drove the dirt track up to the school the next morning, or the emptiness I felt once I left you there. I don’t say I had to pull over at the base of the hill to beat back the voice shouting this was all a mistake, and I should go scoop you up and fly you back home with me.

In the speech I still hear myself giving sometimes when the roaring stops, I stick to the positive. How I looked forward all week to those Thursday nights, for the scheduled phone call we had once your homework and chores were done. How I had to pinch myself to believe it really was you, given what you were telling me: that you actually liked your school classes, not just because there were boys but because you could feel your brain starting to work again. That the academic subjects were cool but art was your favorite. That you were busy and working hard and actually happy in a way you’d forgotten you knew how to be. That you missed me and loved me—how long had I gone without hearing that?—and were counting the weeks until my next visit there. That you’d earned your Stage Two pro- motion, so when I came, after family therapy, we could leave the school grounds for a whole afternoon. That you’d made Stage Three, so you could stay with me at my motel overnight, and we could tour Glacier National Park, try to spot a live mountain goat.

So when did it change? When did things start to turn again?

You won your Stage Four promotion, which meant that if you kept on course, you’d graduate in three months. But part of how you earned that bump was ratting the puker out. Is that what started to eat at you? The guilt, or maybe the jealousy, since she was gone? Or was it the community service glitch?

You were gung-ho about that requirement: twenty volunteer hours for a local non-profit or charity. After all, hadn’t you spent the past year and some reawakening empathy? Habitat for Humanity seemed like an excellent cause: helping fix up vacant buildings in town so homeless people could live in them. We talked right after you worked your first shift. (In Stage Four, you could call whenever you wanted to.) You were crying so hard I could barely make out what you were telling me. Something about an abandoned crack house—”like, what the fuck?” About how there were pills everywhere: stuffed behind the rank toilet, under the piss-smelling mattresses, inside the slashed-up, mildewed upholstery. How you couldn’t believe they’d send a crew of kids with drug problems into a place like that.

I kept saying I was sorry, that someone had clearly made a mistake. You didn’t have to go back, you’d switch over to some other agency. I figured it was the unspeakable squalor that got to you, but maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe the vision of all those pills—of a life where such freedom and plenty existed—fired that other part of your brain back up.

Maybe you managed to pocket some and smuggle them back with you, because in the calls after that, something wasn’t quite right. I want to say you didn’t sound like yourself but that wouldn’t be true. You sounded like that other Suzie, the one before wilderness therapy. Always some reason for indignation, some run-in with staff or a teacher or another girl on your team; some way that the stage system, the school, the universe, was singling you out for special injustice.

You’d go on about it in that old way you had of cycling up, then catch yourself and apologize; say you’d just had a bad day, you hadn’t been sleeping well. You still talked about graduation, but more and more it was with this speculative, vaguely confrontational air, leading with “if” instead of “when.”

“If I graduate, remember you promised I could get a tattoo.”

“If I graduate, what’ll you say in that speech?”

“If you fly out for graduation, can we skip Glacier Park this time?”

When I saw the school name on the caller ID last night, I had that little thrill I always get when I hear from you, but something else too. I caught myself thinking, what now? then feeling so bad about that, it took me a second to realize it wasn’t your voice but the staff person’s.

She said they weren’t sure how many hours you’d been gone exactly, but probably only a few. They had reinforcements fanning out in the hills, and the local police were putting extra cruisers on the roads to watch out for you.

“What can I do?” Even as I spoke the words, I sensed the cosmic futility, all those thousands of miles away. But she said my job was to stay by the phone, in case you got someplace and tried calling me. ?I was about to ask if that happened—a kid runs away then calls home—but she was still talking. “And praying might help.”

If we’re down to that it doesn’t look good, I thought, but didn’t say that aloud.

I said the same thing I did when I found out there were schools like this: “I’ll try anything.”

*   *   *

The whole time I’m packing, the different speeches spool through my brain. The school people said don’t fly out right away but that made no sense. Of course I need to be there, in case you turn up. Or to hunt for you.

I should start with the meth dens, the crack houses, those sketchy, falling-down places on the wrong side of town. Ask if anyone’s spied a girl with huge eyes, green or brown—it depends on the light; with a dimple that won’t necessarily show that day.

But really, I see myself steering across Glacier Park again, scouring the cliffs and crags like we did when we searched for the mountain goats. I picture the nanny and kid—perfect miniature—materialized on that ledge, as if our wishing had conjured them. And suddenly it’s like the first time we took that drive on Going to the Sun Highway.

I’d read the warnings: this trip was not for the queasy. And yet it led off mildly enough, winding through woods along boulder-strewn streambeds, and I thought, I can handle this. Then we started to climb, threading the switch-backs up, up, up until my gaze slid sideways and I glimpsed the sheer drop—three-thousand feet downward to the glinting seam of the river below, not so much as a guardrail between us and that gorgeous oblivion.

Vertigo. It would occur to me later that was the sensation but it struck like pure terror, paralysis. And it came to me, we could die like this. Then it hit me I couldn’t let on how afraid I was. I’m the grown-up, I had to push through. Plus oxygen—maybe that’s what I needed. A while back we’d shut all the windows, the gusts had gotten so strong. Now I scanned the dashboard and punched AC, cranked the fan dial.

I don’t think you even noticed, you were so awed by the view. The whole attack might have lasted mere seconds, though it felt like much longer. Once I drew in the cool air, the dread lifted and I could go on.

How about that for the graduation speech, if I were still giving it?

Forget graduation, screw the speech, only breathe. But that’s what this loop in my head has become: a method of breathing, a mantra.

In the graduation speech that’s no longer a speech, it’s a meditation, a promise, a plea—

In the speech that was never a speech but a prayer, I ask that you live is all.

Ellen Lesser is at work on a collection of linked short stories about mothers and teenage daughters in crisis. She is the author of The Shoplifter’s Apprentice, The Other Woman, and The Blue Streak. She teaches in the MFA Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she also directs the annual Postgraduate Writers’ Conference.

I Believed the Lie

I Believed the Lie

By Jenna Hatfield

ibelievedthelie

In that moment, in the dark of that darkest night, I agreed. My children would be better off without my presence.

 

As night descended, my thoughts also turned toward the dark. There, alone in the bedroom I shared with my husband, I stumbled down a path on which I almost got lost.

I thought of the night my oldest son entered this world. How I rocked him in the chair with tears streaming down my face, overcome with guilt and fear; panicked about finally being given a child to parent.

I thought about the time I left him in his crib to cry. I walked outside and sat in the blooming lilies and cried tears of desperation.

Flashes of all the ways I failed him kept popping into mind, slow at first and then fast and furious. The time I smacked his mouth for biting. The time I yelled so loud he ran all the way to his bedroom as fast as his toddler legs could carry him; I found him buried under his blankets, crying and red-faced. Any and every harsh word, disconnected moment, aggravated feeling, and frustrated outburst—they swirled around me, taunting.

And then the timeline opened up to include his younger brother and all the ways I failed him as well.

Like the time I stepped on his hand in our living room while dancing through the diaper laundry and strewn toys; why didn’t I just clean up first? Another check in the box for reasons I couldn’t be a good wife, a good mother, a good anything.

Of course, they’re older now, not just babies, so the progression of wrongs kept growing, kept building upon the last. The words I’ve used when I thought they weren’t in ear shot or forgotten they were in the car or just plain old didn’t care. The times I’ve told them to shut up or asked them simply to go away. The times I’ve been too busy to play LEGO or read through a book or draw a picture or simply be their mother, present and willing to do any and everything with them.

I stacked the grievances higher and higher.

And then my daughter sat down in my brain, and said, “Oh no, don’t you forget about me.”

As if she needed to remind me of all the ways I’ve failed her. I carry those closest; I use them against myself on a daily basis, not just in moments of mental health crisis. I blame myself for each and every one of her struggles, her anger, her questions, her fear. I tell myself if I had been the mother I needed to be at the time she needed me to be, things would be different for her.

All my fault. All my fault. All my fault.

These failures, however real or imagined, trite or life-altering, remained the only thing on which I could focus that night. I couldn’t see the good. I couldn’t remember all the ways in which I have loved, supported, nurtured, cared for, and lifted up each of my three children. I simply saw the ways in which I have harmed, failed, neglected, abandoned, broken, or hurt the three most beautiful beings in my life.

“Who does those things? Who says the things that you’ve said? A bad mother,” the voice taunted. I believed it, to the core of my being. I knew, without a doubt, that no other mother on the face of this planet made the same mistakes, said the same things, or acted in the same ways.

“They’d be better off without you.”

And I agreed.

In that moment, in the dark of that darkest night, I agreed. My children would be better off without my presence. My sons would thrive easier without me. My daughter could then look at what I’d done in the end and realize, yes, she was better off with her adoptive mom. They’d all look back and think, “We really dodged a bullet there.”

I didn’t come to the decision to end my life based on the oft-claimed selfish desire to end my pain. No, I believed I deserved the pain. But I felt my children deserved more—more without me holding them down or back. I listened to the dark lie of depression and believed every nuance and syllable. I couldn’t see beyond my fear that I was hurting my children simply by existing.

I followed the instructions the lie laid out. I did what the lie told me would be the only way my kids would ever be okay.

When I woke in the hospital the next morning, the lie still whispered in my ear.

“Oh good, you can’t do anything right. Just another way you’ve failed your children.”

I spent the entire day still listening to the whispers, the hateful speech directed at me from within my own brain. It wasn’t until the next day when my husband brought cards from our sons, cards their little hands wrote with crayons on green paper, that my heart finally understood the lie in my brain. It was in that moment that my heart shouted back.

“This mother is more than your lie. She is needed, wanted, and loved. Go away.”

It’s been six months, and the lie of depression still whispers on occasion, but never with the same menacing fervor. I still struggle with guilt and feelings of worthlessness, but I know my children are better off with me, not without. I know they need me, here—even when I’m having a bad day or struggling with anxiety and depression or just plain old exhausted from the day-to-day business of living.

With a change of medication and some deeper, harder work in therapy, I’m able to hush the lying voice if only to make it to the next day. I don’t know when—if ever—I’ll wake in the morning to find the lie of depression gone for good, but I know that every day I wake to the sound of, “Mommy, can I have breakfast,” is another day I have to try, to be their mother, to love them like no one else can or ever will.

If you’re struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1 (800) 273-8255. You are not alone.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at http://stopdropandblog.com.

Photo: Tim Mossholder

Regret Is Poison

Regret Is Poison

regretispoison

My guilt over the childhood I gave them is sometimes like a bundle of cinderblocks I drag behind me.

 

Recently, I went to the ER with sciatica so bad I couldn’t stop howling from the pain. My left leg felt like it was in a vice from my hip to the top of my foot, the result of weeks and weeks of lower back spasms and pain that I get whenever I’m stressed. Eventually, those spasms irritated my sciatic nerve severely enough to put me on the bed, wailing and writing with pain.

When I later described this miserable episode to a friend, she asked, “Why did you wait so long to go to the doctor if you’d been in pain for more than a month?”

Without thought, I responded, “I deserve the pain.”

I’m not always aware of it, but there’s a part of me that believes that I deserve to suffer.

Pregnant with my first child in 1993, I dreamed of all the ways I would give my baby a better childhood than I had, free of the emotional turmoil and traumas that impeded my own parents’ desires for a peaceful, happy family life.

I can’t possibly overstate the naïveté of my 22-year-old pregnant self, going for long walks in downtown Albuquerque, meditating on the wonderful life I would create for my family.

Now, as my three eldest children round the corner out of adolescence and into adulthood and my youngest is just a few months from becoming a teenager, my guilt over the childhood I gave them is sometimes like a bundle of cinderblocks I drag behind me on chains.

When I descend into this nasty spiral of regret and shame, therapists and spiritual advisers and friends urge me to focus on the good parts, the things I did well, and of course there are memories like that. There were hours and hours spent cuddled together on the couch reading books; the mornings they came into my bed and enjoyed talking so long that we had to rush to get to school on time; the fancy lunches out we had every year after school registration. There were happy Christmas mornings and joyful birthday parties and jokes and games. There was my advocacy for my youngest child’s educational and healthcare needs, my efforts to co-parent effectively with my eldest children’s dad, and my presence with a cool cloth and soothing words when any of my kids was ill or injured.

But often, the damage done by my many poor decisions, mistakes, and missteps looms so large that there aren’t enough kitchen dance party memories to drown them out. They clatter noisily in my skull, paralyzing me emotionally. For every backyard picnic, there were mornings when I was too depressed to wake my kids with anything but the most cursory interaction. For each hour I lovingly tended them when they were ill or injured, there were more hours when I emotionally neglected my three eldest children because I was overwhelmed by their youngest brother’s special needs. For all the depth of love I felt for them, there is the agonizing fact of my two eldest kids’ alienation from me, and my inability to break that stalemate for years.

Sometimes, the guilt and regret bring me to my knees, begging for another chance, a rewind, a do-over.

The universe never grants do-overs, of course. It is a terrible truth of time that it moves ever forward, impervious to human sorrow. I can no more fix what I’ve broken than change the course of the ocean tides. The curious thing is, among the painful experiences of my children’s lives, there were things I did wrong and things that happened to us over which I had no control, yet I feel equally guilty for all the things that hurt them.

I know my regret is worse than useless. It is emotional poison, and the more I punish myself for the mistakes of the past, the less effective I am as a parent in the present, exacerbating problems instead of easing them. Whatever I may or may not deserve, allowing myself to be emotionally incapacitated and physically damaged by my own regret does nothing to help anyone, my children included. However much I flagellate myself, the past is apathetic and unmoving.

Ultimately, in these episodes of pathological retrospection, I reach a place where my regret is so destructive that I regret my regret, sort of like emotional compound interest, a thing that can only grow.

My task now is to give up all hope of a better past because time is relentless, and while some deep and ugly part of me believes I deserve suffer, I know that’s not true. In any case, whatever I do or don’t deserve, my kids still want me to show up for them, to be my best self in my relationships with them.

My friend, after I told her that I deserved the pain (and after I cried for a long time) asked me, “Is there anything your kids could do that would make you think they should just hurt like hell for the rest of their lives?”

“No,” I said, “nothing.”

“So?” she said.

So indeed.

 

Photo: Blake Verdoorn

What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

Boarding Kids Come Home

I missed so much over this 10-week term and I can never get it back.

 

The plane is supposed to land at 2:15 p.m. Nairobi, via Addis Ababa, to Djibouti. My youngest daughter Lucy spends the morning creating welcome home signs. We have one sign glued to cardboard that she made three years ago and because it is sturdy, that is the one we bring to the airport. But she also makes a fresh one every three months. Origami swans and frogs pasted between ‘welcome home.’ Or snowflakes cut from colored paper so they look like fireworks. A sketch of herself with her big brother and big sister. These we tape to the front door.

I spend the morning baking and making sure we have enough food in the house. Brownies and fresh honey whole wheat bread and box after box of cereal on the shelf. My husband organizes the bedrooms. This year he had a carpenter build a new wardrobe for our son, and a bedframe. Fresh towels and sheets and plumped up pillows.

The kids are coming home!

The day creeps by, like eighth period on Friday afternoon in high school.

At 2:00 we drive to the airport even though it is only a mile away and we know we will get there too early. We’re tired of waiting. The plane is late. When it finally lands, our kids are the last ones to come through immigration. They have the right paperwork, including photocopies of my husband’s work and residence permit but the immigration officer wants to see the original. My husband has to drive back home to get it and the kids are still inside, behind glass. So close but we can’t see them yet.

Lucy is tired of holding the cardboard sign and gives it to me to carry. She is bouncing up and down. Here they come.

Our teenagers. Fourteen years old. Stepping through customs control and now they are in our arms. Lucy leaps first onto her sister and then onto her brother. They know she is going to fling her full body weight onto them and have already dropped their luggage and planted their feet in a solid stance to take her nine-year old weight. She squeezes their necks until their faces turn red and they laugh and squeeze her back. Then I’m hugging them and Daddy is hugging them and we gather up all the bags and step away so other people can get out of the customs line.

They are home from boarding school. The next five weeks, until the New Year, we will be five Djibouti Joneses under one roof and I will spend more time at the grocery store and in the kitchen than any other time of year. I will stay up later but sleep better. I will feel that all is right in the world, even though it isn’t. All is right in my world, even though of course, it isn’t. But all five Joneses are in my house and that makes all the difference.

At home the kids run upstairs. Lucy and her sister spend the first hour playing Littlest Pet Shops or tea party. The next hour is spent by Lucy and her brother wrestling or beating each other with padded sticks or playing catch. I sneak photos and the kids pretend not to see me. I love these two hours. The noise, laughter, pounding, giggles. The teenagers and their little sister taking delight in each other and playing like they are all five years old.

The house finally feels full.

Then we sit down to dinner and start to hear stories from school. They are thriving there. Friends, sports, academics, faith, the beautiful outdoorsy campus, books, activities. They want to be there. I want them to be there. I also want them to be here. But here has little to offer them academically, socially, or in extra-curricular activities. Even their local peers, friends they played with since kindergarten, have left the country to go to school in Europe, Canada, the U.S. But here is still home, here is dad’s job, here is the house and the family. When I ask them where in the world they consider home, they all say, “Djibouti.”

We linger at the dinner table a long time after the food is gone, talking, listening, laughing. The kids are tired, they have been traveling since before sunrise so we turn on a movie. My husband, Lucy, the twins, they lounge on the couch and on the floor and I go upstairs. They think it is because I don’t like watching movies but it is because I need to cry.

I bury my head in a pillow and the tears flow. I do this every single time and I wish I didn’t but I can’t help it. I’m so happy, so peace-filled, so proud of them. And I’m so sad.

I missed it. I missed so much. I missed watching Henry grow two inches this term. I missed practicing his lines for the high school drama together. I missed nagging them about homework. I missed being the first to hear that Maggie made the JV soccer team. I missed noticing the fungus growing on her knee. I missed so much over this 10-week term and I can never get it back.

They don’t want to be anywhere else in the world than at this school and I want what is good and right for them, even when it pierces. So I just need to cry a little. I need to grieve the losses. I need to name the things I missed.

And then I need to wipe my eyes and go downstairs and watch the movie with them. They’re right, I don’t like watching movies but I like sitting close to them and I like hearing them laugh at Adam Sandler. I don’t want to miss anything else.

 

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

Bubble Wrap

Bubble Wrap

By Deborah Mitchell

motorcycle jump

How can we protect our kids from getting hurt participating in risky activities and sports?

 

I am the mother who gave up. The mom who, somewhere along the line, just said, “Do what you want. I give up.” I severed the cord to my willful, tow-headed teen and gave him complete control over his own life. As any parent knows, kids sometimes wear you down until you have no fight left.

My sixteen-year-old son has lived and breathed dirt bikes since elementary school. And I have protested, pleaded with him and his dad that he find another, safer sport.

“But the kid loves to ride,” my ex-husband told me over and over, and at night, when my son and I went on our walks with the dog, he would tell me he wanted to become one of the best, that he loved riding more than anything else, even more than his own life. He’d talk with an enthusiasm I’d never heard in his voice, a desire that said he was strong and determined, and he practiced and worked on his bike every chance he had. He stayed out of trouble. Didn’t I want my kid to work hard for something? I told myself that he was exhibiting the grit that every person needs to thrive and succeed.

His dreams were not the dreams I had for him, but could I, in all fairness, take from him the thrill his personality craved, the goals he wanted to attain? Didn’t child experts claim that today’s parents bubble wrap their kids, that they’re too protective? At least this is what I told myself, to exonerate the guilt I felt of giving up the fight against a sport I knew was dangerous, especially for a child who was still growing and changing.

I never gave him my proverbial blessing, but I stopped protesting. It was easier to just look the other way and hope that he would come home safely. I didn’t have to listen to him say those awful words that made me cringe: “You’re the worst Mom. Ever.”

I didn’t have to listen to him tell me that I allowed his brother to pursue his dreams of playing tennis, but that I stopped him. There is perhaps no greater heartache than hearing your child point out a perceived inequity in parenting.

There have been little accidents along the way. Broken fingers. A broken hand. Sprains. Abrasions. Minor head injuries. Yet I knew it was only a matter of time before the Big One—the accident that would, in a few moments, change our lives forever. I knew this somewhere in the back of my mind; on some level, I’ve been waiting for it.

And one day last summer, I received the call from my son’s father. I knew before I answered that my son had an accident. It was still early in the day, and my kid usually called or texted me in the late afternoon to tell me, “I’m okay, Mom.”

“Where are you?” He asked. I was driving, thirty miles from home. My stomach clenched. He told me my son was in transit by CareFlite to a hospital in a nearby town. It would be at least a thirty-minute drive. He tried to pacify me with the words, “He’s doing okay. Stay calm.” But I knew that accident victims were not taken by helicopter if they were just “okay.” He was conscious, but he was scared, his dad told me. He explained that my son had taken a jump too aggressively and over-shot the landing, losing control and tumbling end-to-end with his motorcycle, over and over under the control of speed and momentum. Out of safety and concern, the Motocross track had been shut down while they worked on him, in case he injured his neck or spinal cord.

My son arrived at the hospital shortly before I did. He lay in the ER, terrified, immobilized in a neck and back brace, tethered by tubes and monitors. His face was bruised and swollen. The boy that I had carried in my belly, worked so carefully to create and carry, was broken, would be permanently scarred.

The first two things he told me were, “I’m done riding.” And, “Please don’t get mad at Dad.” As he moved in and out of awareness, he said he didn’t realize how much he wanted to live. He was not ready to die.

The helmet, the gear he was wearing, had saved his life. I was thankful that his dad had been so vigilant about safety. My son got off relatively easy: collarbone surgery, spinal fractures, concussion, collapsed lung and a few days in critical care. He would walk, and there would be no permanent signs of his accident, save for a long, thin scar along his right collarbone. Youth was on his side helping him heal, but it would also work against him. As his body recovered, he buried his fears and forgot how close he was to paralysis, even to death.

Time mends us physically and psychologically. He has bounced back and is yearning to ride again, but I am no longer the compliant mom. I cannot give up now—when even Lady Luck did not give up. When my son speaks of motorcycles, I protest vehemently, understanding that, while this may keep him away from the dangerous sport of motocross, there are plenty of other opportunities for his thrill-seeking personality, some of them legal, some of them not.

Then, too, at age sixteen, it’s only two short years before he will be able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. I can only hope that he matures enough to understand that life is a one-way, very short ride in a vehicle that is both amazingly resilient and exceedingly fragile. Dreams can be replaced, our bodies cannot.

My son decided to take up a less dangerous, though still risky, activity: wakeboarding. He understands the importance of safety equipment and, most importantly, of limits. A bicycle, a skateboard and a wakeboard have the potential to be used in any number of dangerous stunts or unsafe activities—just like a motorcycle.

What my son does after he reaches the threshold of adulthood will be out of my control. But I must not give up now.

Deborah Mitchell writes about secular parenting and environmental issues. She is the author of Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids without Religion. Follow her at @dm2008 or raisingkidswithoutreligion.net.

Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

By Dawn Davies

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 5.04.33 PMStay up late on a Sunday night reading a book about a woman in medical school because you have gotten it in your mind that you, too, want to go to medical school. Not now, of course, but someday, when the kids are older.

Read long past the time when you should be asleep, until your eyes drip tears of exhaustion. Your husband is out of town on business, and you have allowed all three children to sleep in your bed, though you fear that, like feeding a begging dog from the table, you are creating a habit that will be impossible to break. Program ‘911’ into the instant dial function of your portable phone and nestle it next to your ribs in case someone breaks in and you have time to hit only one number.

Go to sleep and dream about vampires. Wake up ten minutes later to the sound of crying. It is the baby: let him nurse you dry. Notice the deflated shape your breast takes as it lies across the mattress. Go back to sleep. Wake up again to the sound of crying in the distance and locate only two of your children, sleeping curled and stiff, like the victims of Pompeii. Break the suction and peel the baby off your boob, then get up. Kick the Labrador off the bed, call him a nasty name, and then trip over him in the dark as you follow the sound to the children’s bedroom.

The smell of urine surrounds you. In the corner, the three-year-old is sitting on the wood floor in a swath of streetlight, marinating in a pool of pee, her footie pajamas half off, yet twisted and inside out enough to render her as helpless as if she wore a fuzzy, size 4T straightjacket. Note the eviscerated night diaper oozing from under her buttocks.

Change the child. Sop up the pee on the floor with your husband’s favorite bath towel. Pray that the child was not sufficiently stimulated to be interested in truly waking up. When she rubs her eyes, lay her gently in her own bed. Do not speak. When she falls asleep, return to your own bed because the baby is in it and he could roll over onto the floor. When the child hollers out, “I can’t sleep,” play quietly with her in her room. Crawl into her bed with her. She is warm and round and soft and trying to wheedle a story out of you. She calls you “Beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” and her dimpled baby hands explore your face sweetly, so you read to her until your words begin to come out garbled and you wake up from the sound of your own snoring amplified inside the Little Golden Book covering your face. The child is gone. You hear her in your bedroom shaking her tambourine and shouting the same, “Stick out my wiener!” she heard the next-door neighbor’s six-year-old future predator calling out of his upstairs window the day before. Note: it is 5:37 a.m.

Bring your hands up like an orchestra conductor and cue in the baby’s cries. Unzip the five-year-old’s pink Dr. Dentons and tell her to go use the potty. Outside, it is still dark, but you know that when the sun comes up, it will not be satisfying because the godforsaken Northeast, where you live, is exhibiting a record streak of cold rain, so bone chilling and wet that the sight of the sun, even for fifteen minutes, would make you weep for joy. You have not seen it in weeks and everything around you looks grey, including your own skin. At 6:15 a.m., take the children downstairs for breakfast because, even though you are exhausted, the onus is on you. It is always on you.

Let the dog out the back door. Put four frozen waffles into the toaster and make a 13-cup pot of coffee. Add sliced bananas to the children’s plates so you can at least say you offered them fresh fruit. Let the baby transfer all of the food in the dog’s bowl to its water dish, because he is happy doing it and, for three minutes, not hanging off your kneecaps. Drink your coffee. Drink it. The children pull all of their toys out of the toy box and scatter them around the house. Your resources are low and you do not know what to do with this day. Even though your husband has a burgeoning career at a newspaper, and you own a starter house, you are broke, nearly as broke as you were in your student days, when you worried about gas, and groceries, and paying the utility bills, only back then you could get a second job or sell some marrow in a real emergency, and now you are tethered to three other people who will die if you don’t feed them, and whom you can’t leave alone for five minutes.

Decide to take them to church because the day before the five-year-old asked, “What is church?” and because church is free. Remember the few times in your single days when you attended a local Unitarian church which offered a loose Pagan ceremony culminating in a barefoot group dance down the aisles with percussion instruments and pan pipes, and sexy, lean, bearded vegan men who scoffed at the Establishment. Look up “Churches” in the Yellow Pages and decide on a Methodist one a few miles away. Without yelling at the children or the dog, whom you find eating the crotch out of your only pair of stockings, get everyone dressed for the icy rainstorm that is predicted to last all day, choosing leggings, velour jumpers, and tight turtlenecks stretched down and popped over their enormous heads, making their hair collect static-like plasma balls.

Think of the ‘A’ you got in inorganic chemistry the semester before you met your husband in college. Think of the noble gasses, of neon filling thin, rounded glass tubes shaped into seedy, blinking signs in the window of a bar, a bar that serves whiskey—which you would like to drink—and of argon, and a gallon jug imploding when the oxygen is sucked out of it. Think of small amounts of krypton in a flash bulb, and of everything you know going up in a mushroom of white. While you get dressed, the girls rub their socks into the area rug and shock the baby with the tips of their fingers, making him laugh and cry at the same time.

Stuff their arms into their coats, fishing at the end of the sleeves for fingers to pull through to the other side. Think about rolling a condom onto a limp nob. Notice how, in their winter clothes, your children look like blood-stuffed ticks. They complain, like they always do when wearing coats, about being too hot. Ignore this and pack them into the nine-year-old wreck of a Saab and wonder if your husband is up yet and reading the paper in a quiet, clean hotel room on the other side of the country.

Find the church and park in the only spot left in the parking lot, which in the sleet looks impossibly far away from the church door. Carry the two younger children, who are now crying because the freezing rain is whipping them in the face, dragging the hem of your long, wool skirt in icy, slushy mud puddles as you go. The five-year-old, who must walk by herself, trails behind, stomping her boots into dirty potholes out of spite.

The service is pleasant and easy to endure. The choir sings hopeful songs about God’s love out into the clean, warm space, and neat, controlled people occasionally look at you and smile. Do not see one toy truck or Barbie littering the carpeted aisle and there is a faint smell of Lemon Pledge and old-fashioned perfume, the kind that would be found in matron ladies’ bosoms. All of this makes you want to go home and clean your own house. It makes you want to start over. It makes you want to confess something wildly, something that will make you feel better, something that will wipe your slate clean, although you know the Methodists do not practice confession.

When the service ends, wander down to the coffee hour in the basement. Look around for people who don’t have that glazed, New Testamentesque appearance, and absentmindedly switch the baby to your other hip to fill out a visitor’s card. Drink coffee. Notice that the L.L. Bean denim jumper/hunter green turtleneck ratio is high, too high for your comfort, perhaps nearing 70 percent. Get cornered by a woman in one such jumper whom you fear is a designated ‘greeter’ after she immediately begins asking you questions about yourself. Put your guard up. Lie when possible, especially when projecting the idea that you have your shit together, and that everything you do you are choosing to do. Nod when she mentions Sunday School and mothers’ groups, knowing you will not join these things.

Corral the children and force them out of the church, which they now don’t want them into their car seats. Insert the key into the wretched Saab, and for good measure, since you are in the church parking lot, pray that the car will start. Turn the key and accept the dull ‘click’ that follows to be punishment for teasing that soft kid, Jeffery, in fifth grade. Think about Karma, think about Jesus, think about the Holy Spirit coming down and filling you up like sunshine fills an empty room, renewing your mind like the minister preached during church. Squint your eyes. Try to make it happen. Feel nothing. Realize you don’t know how to pray.

Pop the hood and get out. Suck on the rain dripping off of your lips and stare into the engine as if you know what you are looking for. Jiggle the battery connectors and see a spark. Hear the children whining from inside the car and note the love of Christ the parishioners exhibit when they drive by you, blank and faceless. Mutter, “What the cuss frigging fudge muckers!” at them for not stopping to help, and marvel at this particular combination of almost-curses you have vowed to use ever since the five-year-old has asked you to stop being so foul.

Turn the key again. Sense a slight difference in the way the car doesn’t start and feel a surge of hope. Get in and out of the car eight more times, jiggling the battery cables and listening to the car almost start before it finally does, yelling, “Bite me,” into the open air only twice. Drive away in pouring, freezing rain, blasting whatever you can on the radio, which is Hootie and the Blowfish, to drown out the sound of the baby’s shrieking and the animated discourse between the three-year-old and the five-year-old in the back seat.

By the time you pull into the driveway, the baby is sleeping so hard he looks drugged. Bend over to scrutinize the depth of his unconsciousness and lift one of his lids to see if his eyes are rolled up—a sure sign that he is sleeping deeply. Take the two older children inside, intending to leave the baby asleep for the four more minutes it will take for him to be sleeping deeply enough for you to carry him inside without waking him, because you really need him to take a nap and get out of your life for thirty minutes. That’s all you are asking.

Check the answering machine for messages. There are none. In the dining room, while watching the car out of the window overlooking the driveway, read stories to your other children until your eyes start involuntarily tearing and closing. Lie down on the floor and suggest they play “Doctor Heals,” with you as the comatose patient. Lie like a corpse and drift in and out of sleep for perhaps four minutes while your children drop feathers, to which you are allergic, onto your face. Feel a nice, tickling sensation on your fingers.

Wake up to discover they have colored all of your knuckle joints with the indelible black magic marker you told them never to touch. Both girls are sitting on top of the kitchen counter eating a plate of cookies. There is a spilled bottle of delicious looking, ruby red antibiotic pills next to the five-year-old’s thigh, the ones you were prescribed for your quarterly sinus infection. Ask her if she opened them. When she says no, grab her shoulders and shake her, asking this time through clenched teeth if she ate any of them. When she says no again, multiply the number of pills you take per day (three) by the number of days you have been taking the pills (three) and subtract the total from the total number of pills that should be in the container (ten days’ worth). Thanking the God you just went to visit, find 21 pills on the counter. When your child asks to eat one, shout, “NO!” then hug her hard. Wonder how many milligrams of amoxicillin it would take to kill a thirty-four pound-person. Imagine yourself sweeping the crayons and paper and glitter off the dining table and laying your five-year-old across it, performing a gastric lavage with supplies you happen to have lying around the house, then see yourself walking in slow motion, down a hospital corridor in a white coat and stethoscope, your hair flowing perfectly behind you, forgetting the now-closed bottle of pretty drugs next to the candy fiend that is your child.

Suddenly jump up from the table and run outside. Find the baby shrieking in the car seat inside the nearly sound-proof Saab. Bring him out. Ignore your neighbor, the tire-shaped, middle-aged gossip, who is looking at you through narrowed eyes, and imagine how far this story will make it around the block by the time lunch is over. Go inside and nurse the baby, tuning out your other children for as long as you can, which is less than a minute, since one of them is jumping up and down on your feet and legs and the other is trying to ride the dog. Think about Sophie’s Choice and imagine, if you had to for survival only, worst-case scenario only of course, which of your children you would give away if you were forced to in order to save yourself and the other children. Weigh the pros and cons logically. Scare yourself with your own thoughts.

When the baby wakes up enough to put him down without him bucking and screaming and flailing, the phone rings. Lunge for it viciously, hoping it might be your husband. It is a lady from the Methodist church calling because you filled out the visitor’s card an hour and ten minutes earlier. It’s part of their ministry, she says, to reach out to newcomers. Leave the room to take the call, because you are considering pouring your heart out to the strange lady on the phone. Imagine her soft, grandmotherly bosom smelling of perfume. Imagine pressing your head against it and sobbing. Imagine the kind of hugs you could receive from these partridge-shaped church ladies. Remember standing outside of the church with the hood of your car up while all of these ladies and their husbands drove past you in the rain. When shrieks ring out from the living room, hang up the phone and rush back into it in time to witness your three-year-old flat on the floor, with the baby on top of her in a wrestling hold, trying to gouge out her eyes. Tell the five-year-old, who is climbing up the armchair to knock it off and to “stand up and just sit there.” Separate the fighting children and smack the dog who has jumped into what must have looked like a fun foray.

Calm down. Suggest to the three-year-old that the dog might like to play while you change the baby’s diaper on the couch. Watch her roll the dog onto his back for a belly rub then jump onto its extended leg, self-performing the Heimlich maneuver. When she vomits up several bites of cookie and one bite of cranberry bread and starts crying, jump up, and with one foot on the baby to keep him from rolling off the couch, reach for the three-year-old. When the baby starts crying, ask the five-year-old to hold him, and when she says, “No!” holler at her, making her cry, too. Don’t care when the dog immediately begins eating the vomit from the floor, as he is doing you a favor and you now do not have to clean it up. You must go somewhere where there are other people, you think, because you are so lonely you could scream, and besides you want to shake someone and this frightens you. Call your mother. Listen to the phone ring empty on the other side of the line. Call your husband’s hotel and leave a message. Take more Tylenol. Drink coffee.

Feed them grilled cheese sandwiches. Give the crusts to the dog, who has become an expert beggar since the children were born. Think about slipping under the table for a quick nap while they eat.

After lunch, stuff them back into their coats and boots and drive to the mall, cruising a few extra minutes around the mall parking lot until all three children are so deeply asleep that they could be hung from their heels and not awaken. Envy them. Park the car and decide to rest your eyes for a few minutes. Tilt back your seat and rest, feeling a deep fatigue behind your eyes, hoping that you will not fall asleep with your jaw gaping open to the point where you and your family resemble a Mafia hit to passers-by. Fall deeply asleep. Wake up to utter darkness with dried spittle crusted on your chin. Freak out, shouting, “Jesus Christ!” until you realize it is the middle of winter and only 4:30 p.m., 30 minutes after you fell asleep. Stare at two worried mall cops slowly circling the Saab with flashlights.

Drag the children into the mall and walk around. Thank whatever God you hope might exist for their public behavior, which for a change is orderly, calm, and obedient. Stop in the food court to buy them a giant muffin the size of a cauliflower with your last ten dollars. When your three-year-old starts hopping up and down and grabbing her crotch, yelling, “I have to do a dinky!” stuff the muffin into the diaper bag, then herd the children to the bathroom. Beg the three-year-old not to touch anything except the toilet paper and her own pants. Put the baby down and help the three-year-old onto the toilet, then go back out and unzip the five-year-old’s sticky zipper, and guide her into a stall. Stand near them so they won’t be abducted, until you notice the baby toddling out of another stall with festoons of toilet paper streaming from his mouth. Grab the baby and remove from his mouth a gray mass of wet paper molded into the shape of his hard palate. Hope that it came from the roll in the dispenser and not from the toilet.

Grabbing the baby, race back to the three-year-old, who is now shouting, “Mommy, close the door. Strangers can see my ganina!” Hold the three-year-old’s door shut while the baby bucks and kicks and flails in your arms, and the fiveyear-old initiates a display of linguistic skill by saying, “It’s not ju-nina, stupid, it’s bu-gina.” Don’t dare put the baby down because he might fling himself back onto the filthy bathroom floor and crack his head against the tile, possibly rupturing one of those fragile arteries that could cause a hemorrhage in his brain—you read about them last night in the book about the woman who went to medical school and now, for as long as your children are your responsibility, these arteries will forever worry you. Impress yourself by discussing in depth the types of bacteria that might be found in a public restroom with the five-year-old who asks questions about germs.

When the three-year-old, out of the blue, asks to get her ears pierced, look at your watch. Sigh. When she says it will help her look more like you, exhibit poor judgment and say yes, because this is the child who calls you “beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” the child who knows how to use a gentle touch to get exactly what she wants from you. Walk to the piercing place quickly, lugging the bucking, screaming baby, as the five-year-old attempts a precise depiction of how much and how little it will hurt. At the piercing place, ask the three-year-old if she is sure and when she says yes again, whip out the credit card you only use for emergencies, then help her pick out a pair of heart earrings. Watch carefully with her as a slightly older child gets her ears pierced without crying.

Let a young sales clerk hold the baby. Sit in the piercing chair with the three-year-old on your lap as she looks around brightly, yet shyly. Love her to death. Feel like her betrayer when, after the piercing girl stabs her simultaneously in both ears, the three-year-old starts shrieking and does not stop. When the baby, never one to miss out on anything, howls along in concert with his sister, kneel on the floor of the piercing place and rock them. Yell, “No!” when the five-year-old asks you to buy her a fur-covered diary. Look at the three-year-old’s ears and notice that the earrings are wildly askew, and that that the piercing girl has completely botched the job. Get angry. Demand a refund, and although you are not ordinarily a nasty person, smirk when they tell you to come back for a free re-do when the holes have closed up. Tell them if they ever see you again it will be in court. Drag your screaming three-year-old and the rest of them three hundred yards through and out of the mall to where you parked the wretched rust-heap of a Saab. Feel the same small stab of disappointment you usually feel when you see it hasn’t been stolen. Buckle everybody in. Straighten up to get out of the car and hang yourself on the clean shirt hook. Ask the three-year-old to unhook you.

When you try to start the car 20 times and the engine doesn’t turn over, yell, “Fuck!” as loudly as you can. The sound of it echoes in the air and the five-year-old starts crying. Unbuckle everybody. Pick up 56 pounds of wretched children and carry them a hundred yards back into the mall to a pay phone. Call the AAA that your parents gave you for Christmas last year—a subtle hint that they do not think your husband is a good provider, with your finger plugging your other ear to block out the sound of the five-year-old who is still weeping, clearly trying to recuperate from your profanity. Wait for a tow truck while the mall shops close around you. Your three-year-old, recovered from the piercing ordeal, flounces about asking strangers, “Do you like my new earrings? I used to be a girl without earrings, but now I am a girl with earrings. My mommy made me get them,” then quietly, “It really hurt,” and the baby eats a third of a jumbo pack of sugarless gum and its foil wrapper.

Stand outside under an awning while the rain spits around you. Spot a tow truck trolling around the parking lot and run through dark puddles of slushy water as you chase it down. The tow-truck guy jumpstarts the car in the two minutes it takes you to buckle everyone back into their seats. Snort when he warns you to not stop anywhere else on your way home. Dig the leftover muffin out of the diaper bag and hand chunks of it to the children. A sense of frantic futility fills you as you drive down the highway, and you glance back at the five-year-old tracing raindrops on the window, the three-year-old, her crooked earrings in her beet-red ears, sucking her thumb, and the baby burping mint. They sit silently, slumped and broken-looking in their car seats, and it is here where your own tears unleash like rain from the clouds in your sky that have been living over you for months, for—truth be told—who knows how long. Cry hard as you drive down the highway. Imagine, on impulse, taking this highway south instead of north, and driving to a place filled with bright light and warmth and sunshine. Imagine pulling over, releasing your children into a field of flowers, where they happily chase butterflies into the distance, getting smaller, smaller until they are gone. Then imagine getting back into the Saab and following the road to a bridge suspended over a rushing river, and speeding up as you drive over the rail of the bridge, straight into the warm, blue water. Hate yourself. Hate everything about who you’ve become and what you are destined for and how much everybody needs you all the time, and as you pull into your dark, icy driveway, realize this: you will never go to medical school. Carry your sleeping children, one at a time, into the house, putting them straight to bed in their clothes. Kiss their sticky mouths and filthy cheeks and whisper, please forgive me, I promise to do better tomorrow. Feel like a crappy mother and wonder what kind of a doctor you would have made if you can’t even manage three healthy children through one long Sunday.

Check the answering machine. There are no messages. Wake up to check the locks on the doors and bring the portable phone into bed, making sure 911 is programmed into the instant dial function. Fall back to sleep to the sickening sound of the cat licking itself at the foot of the bed and dream of fat, milk-white lizards crawling through the round letters of the alphabet.

Author’s Note: It took me 14 years to write this piece. I would start it then stop, telling myself that no one would want to read anything in second person. But I needed the second person for two reasons: first, I was trying to capture how overwhelming it felt to have three really young children, and writing out the minutiae gave some sort of tribute to what mothers go through every day. More important, I needed the distance of second person, because every time I wrote “you,” I didn’t have to write “I.” I was depressed for a time after the birth of two of my kids, and I didn’t give it a voice for several years, because I was ashamed of it. I no longer am. Being able to see humor is what gets me through hard times, and I’d like to think this piece gives a voice to that as well.

Dawn S. Davies is an MFA candidate at Florida International University and the fiction editor of Gulf Stream Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Styx, Ninth Letter, Saw Palm, Cease, Cows, Fourth Genre and others. She can be reached at www.dawnsdavies.com.

Artwork by Katie M. Berggren

To the Furious Mom in the Target Parking Lot

To the Furious Mom in the Target Parking Lot

By Lisa Sadikman

target

Trying to cope with the rough moments of motherhood when we don’t think we can overcome our own anger and frustrations.

 

I see you storming out of Target, carrying your crying boy while another three kids, under the age of seven, scurry after you across the parking lot. I see you without a cart, without any bags. I see the red-hot anger in your face as you put your boy down on the shimmering summer pavement, a little too roughly, to dig around for your keys. I see you shove him towards the minivan and yell at him to Get. In. The. Car.

I see the fury in your eyes as I roll slowly past, looking for a parking spot. I see your rawness and it shocks me, not because I’m judging you but because it’s all too familiar, that look, that feeling. I’ve been there—believe me.

When my oldest daughter was around two, she started pitching a fit in her car seat on the way to the grocery store. She had wanted out. She arched her back, red faced and screaming, trying to escape the snug straps. I tried telling her we were almost there, and then she could get out. I tried to explain to her that we needed more milk, but she didn’t let up. Her cries crashed through the car, swallowing me like a renegade wave. That’s when I lost it. I screamed at her to stop screaming. I swerved to the side of the road, cramming the car onto the narrow shoulder. There was no plan, only anger and resentment and frustration. I stomped around to the backseat door, threw it open and unbuckled her, yelling the whole time. As she climbed out of her seat and into the way back, I wanted to grab her and shake her and who knows what else. Instead, I closed the door and went back to sit in the driver’s seat. We were not going to the grocery store. I wasn’t even sure how we were going to get home.

Ten years later, I still grapple with the emotional challenges of motherhood. I wake up willing my heart into a good place, promising myself I won’t lose my temper when the big girls fight, that I won’t yell at the three-year-old when she refuses for the third time to close the kitchen drawer that holds the knives. My anger leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and guilt in my heart. I hate that feeling, and I bet you do too, but sometimes the world just bursts into flames and you can’t do anything but stand there, burning.

I look right at you, willing you to see me seeing you. Willing you to look through my window at my face because maybe, just maybe, that look between us can break your anger. Sometimes that’s all we need: to be seen, in our shiniest or plainest or shittiest parenting moments. Then something shifts, whether from pride or gratitude or shame or sadness, and we reenter ourselves through other people’s eyes. We reset.

As I pass, I keep watching you in my side mirror. Then, I see you take a step back from your boy, the one you are furious with, the one who made you abandon that shopping trip for school supplies or new shoes or toilet paper. I see you stalk to the back of the minivan, behind the kids piling in, and stand there, silently, fuming. You don’t say a word or make a move. You hold yourself in check. It’s one of the hardest things we moms do: keep it together, temper our tempers and our sadness and our lonely. We do this for ourselves and for our kids. We have to remember that our love is bigger and brighter and better than an abandoned cart sitting in aisle 12 of Target.

I find a parking spot a few cars down and turn off the engine. When I glance back, you’ve already pulled out. I don’t know what happened in your car after the kids were all buckled in and the doors slid closed. Maybe you cried into your steering wheel or dealt out consequences or lectured the kids about their unacceptable behavior. I won’t ever know. What I do know, though, is that I saw you wrestle with your anger there in the parking lot instead of unleashing it all over your kids. And that counts for something. It really does. I know. I’ve been there.

Lisa Sadikman is a writer living in Northern California with her husband, Labradoodle and three daughters. Her writing has been featured on Huffington Post ParentsKveller and Scary Mommy. You can read more of work on her blog, Flingo and by following her on Twitter @Lisa Sadikman

Photo Credit: Veer

Bringing Him Home

Bringing Him Home

By Susan Vaughan Moshofsky

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Adoption is opening your heart to a baby, then waiting six months to meet him. Adoption is worrying about who rocks him at night, then hoping someone just comes when he cries.

 

“We could call him Riley,” my husband, Brett, said, referring to the Chihuahua mix playing on the Humane Society floor with our son, Ryan. Snuggled close, Ryan and Riley touched noses.

Ryan looked up at me. “Can we bring him home, Mom?”

The papers we signed that night were labeled “Adoption Papers.” But bringing home a new animal, as much as our pets are members of our families, is not adoption.

Adoption is opening your heart to a baby, then waiting six months to meet him. Adoption is worrying about who rocks him at night, then hoping someone just comes when he cries. Adoption is squeezing your eyes and ears shut when people tell you what happens in Eastern European institutions. It’s filling out forms with questions so personal you wonder how having a biological child, no forms required, is even legal. It’s inviting a social worker into your home to review all those questions and ask even more.

Seventeen years ago, Brett and I flew to Moscow, then took a train 14 hours east to meet our 18-month-old adoptive son. The medical report, proclaiming him healthy, had allayed our concerns. But not until our visit to Filotav Hospital in Moscow did we learn how wrong that report would be.

“See his big forehead? Water on the brain,” the doctor said in a thick Russian accent.

I felt dizzy. The exam room was sweltering in the 95-degree heat. Ryan’s fine, short bangs were plastered to that big forehead. Sweat rolled down my back, my short-sleeved top glued to my skin.

The doctor had quickly reviewed Ryan’s medical records, then turned his attention to the eerily quiet toddler on the exam table.

“Boy wasn’t breathing when he was born. Hospital gave oxygen,” he added.

I felt like I was fifty yards away. “How long?” I mumbled from that far away place, looking at the limp toddler on the table.

“Not so long.” The doctor moved our son’s legs. “Boy’s legs are weak.”

The doctor scooped Ryan up off the table, then set him on the floor, where he stood looking at the wall. He spoke in Russian to our son, who glanced at him for a split second, then quickly away before he took slow steps in his odd, Frankenstein-like gait. I looked over at Brett. His face was ashen, eyebrows furrowed.

“Pyramid insufficiency,” the doctor pointed to Ryan’s legs. “This is problem.”

What was he saying? His words conjured medieval charlatans.

“Will he get better? Maybe he needs more practice walking,” I said in a small voice. Why wasn’t Brett saying anything? A knot of anger formed in my chest. I looked at Ryan, so eerily still.

What were we doing here? What about the medical report they’d faxed that said Ryan could “speak in full sentences”?

Just then, Brett, a strong, 6’5″ man whose height regularly brought stares, crumpled onto the bench in a fainting heap.

The doctor slipped quickly out of the room while I used a diaper to fan Brett. Ryan stood there, eyes wide, meeting mine occasionally with furtive, sideways glances. I reached out to our boy, but he looked away, unmoving. Brett sat up slowly but still looked pale.

Returning with a can of soda pop, the doctor handed it to Brett. “Drink this. I need to see next patient.”

“But, but—we have more questions,” I insisted. “How can we help our son? His leg strength?”

“Get ultrasound of brain.”

“Can we get that here?”

“Ultrasound office closed,” he answered, handing us Ryan’s records.

“When does it open?” we asked in unison.

“September.”

We stared, open-mouthed. This was July.

“On waycation,” the doctor added, arms wide in an expansive gesture as if to say everyone took long holidays. “Get ultrasound in States. He is good boy. Only 25, mebbe 30% chance of real problem. Doctor will tell you in America.”

Was Ryan okay, or wasn’t he? He’d gone to sleep in my arms. We knew that institutionalization could cause developmental delays, but we hadn’t prepared ourselves for other issues. Now, without understanding the extent of his needs, how could we help him?

Back in our hotel room, Brett called our pediatrician. Ryan stood stiffly near the edge of the bed, eyes averted. Even the toy I offered didn’t interest him.

“Does he what? Walk on tiptoe?” Brett was saying. “No. He hardly walks at all. Stands and stares.”

I looked at our son, remembering all the warnings from well-meaning friends and family. News of children adopted from Eastern European orphanages had generated a flurry of concerned phone calls and emails.

“What’s that?” Brett put his hand over the receiver. “He says to offer him something, get him to walk to you, Sue.”

I reached into my bag, fished out some crackers, and held them out to Ryan. He took some goose-steps my way, reaching tentatively for the crackers, pushing three of them into his mouth at once.

“Yes, he walks stiffly, but not too wobbly,” Brett was saying. “What do you think?” he asked this doctor, whom we trusted. Then he was silent, listening. How I wished for a speakerphone! More listening, then Brett’s eyes welled up with tears as he put down the receiver.

“What? What is it?” I reached up to hug him.

“He says—” he choked up for a minute. “He says, ‘I think he’s your son, and you need to bring him home.'”

As I watched our son playing on the floor with the dog that night at the Humane Society, I’d thought about that day in Moscow 17 years ago. Ryan. Our born athlete, our prankster, our tall, lanky, typical teen. Our son.

“I want a dog, Mom,” he’d said, “but will he get along with the cats? Will he be okay? Can we bring him home?”

“Of course, honey,” I’d said, tears in my eyes. “Trust me. He’ll be okay.”

 

Susan Vaughan Moshofsky is a mother, teacher, and writer who lives with her family of five in Portland. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Huffington Post, The Oregonian, and Seattle’s Child.

Photo: ThinkStock

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Somewhere Near the Bottom

Somewhere Near the Bottom

By Elana Sigall

archive_abortionYou can blame a lot of folks, from media bigwigs to bishops, if we lose our reproductive rights, but it’s the women who shrink from acknowledging their own abortions who really irk me … The freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away.”

— Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times, July 22, 2004

 

I am forty years old. I am happily married. I own a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn; I have a law degree and three young children. Two years ago, I had an abortion. At my post-termination checkup at my obstetrician’s office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, my doctor said, “You know, you go through life and you think things, and you think you know things. And then you become an OB, and you find out lots of people do this. They just don’t talk about it.”

When I found out I was pregnant, my first child was two and a half, and my younger one was sixteen months. It was the end of January, and my husband had been out of town for most of the month. We had not been trying to conceive.

I had a part-time teaching appointment at Columbia, but I had mostly been home since Talia, my oldest, was born, less out of a desire to be a full-time mother and more out of a kind of inertia about what to do next. My biological clock was ticking—not about having children but about finding myself.

Michael and I wanted another child. He comes from a family of five, and I had two sisters, so a family of two children seemed incomplete to us. But the surprise of the pregnancy sent me into a tailspin. I didn’t feel happy or excited, just anxious and ambivalent. Suddenly, another baby didn’t sound so good. I had never experienced my two children as a burden. But what if this time it were different? What if I resented the baby or just didn’t love it as much? And what if something was wrong with the baby? I had two healthy, thriving children. Why tempt fate?

Almost immediately I learned that the level of my Hcg (the “pregnancy hormone”) was abnormally high, which can indicate Down syndrome. I figured it would at least mean that the pregnancy dilemma would end; I wouldn’t have continued a pregnancy if I knew that there was a birth defect. At the sonogram the doctor cheerfully reassured me that I had a healthy embryo, with a heartbeat. The pregnancy was about five weeks along. He also knew why my hormone levels were so high. “You see this?” he pointed to a dark spot on the screen, “And this?” he pointed to another one. There were two extra sacs. They were empty, and the doctor could almost guarantee that they would not develop into pregnancies. “It’s much better to have one healthy baby than three premature triplets,” he offered consolingly. That night, Michael rubbed my belly and remarked, “How’s our litter? Wow, I could have ended up with five kids after all.” I didn’t laugh. The triplets served in my mind as evidence that my vocation had become child production.

The extra sacs increased my chance of miscarriage, but as the weeks wore on, the precariousness of the pregnancy faded and my anxiety mounted. I began to feel sorry for other people who were pregnant. Having a baby seemed suffocating, even distasteful, despite the fact that I had loved my tiny babies. I was increasingly overwhelmed by a feeling that I had to make a choice between this new baby and me. Three children seemed like a life sentence. If I had the baby, I thought, I would never leave my house again. I would be pushing a vacuum for the rest of my life. I would turn forty, and I would have nothing to show for it except three children in diapers and a one-night-a-week job. One friend asked if I might have regrets if I terminated the pregnancy; I was embarrassed to tell her that regret was unimaginable to me.

I didn’t know anyone who had had an abortion, except a girl in high school. I went online in search of the right answer. I Googled “abortion”; “third child and abortion”; “should I have an abortion?” I found lists of common reasons that women have abortions: avoidance of single motherhood, financial instability. That wasn’t me. I talked to friends. I looked at the newborn pictures of my other children. I visited the maternity ward at the hospital and watched the new babies. I pictured Michael holding the baby, bouncing it. I made lists of pros and cons. I couldn’t come up with anything for the pro side, except that Michael wanted the baby very, very much.

I agonized for seven weeks. How would I be able to teach three children to read? How would I stay up to date with photographs and scrapbooks? I tried to confirm over and over again that Michael would not be resentful, would not be angry, if we ended it. “Let him stay home and take care of it,” my OB said. When I protested that he really does take care of the kids, she said, “Fathers can help. But in the end, somehow, I don’t know why, it’s the mother’s burden.” This might have been reassuring except that it was so wildly untrue in my case that it only added to my guilt.

Michael and I lay in bed at night talking about what to do. He kept saying, “I would love to have another baby, but not like this.” One night, he lay with his back to me, quiet. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I was thinking about names,” he said.

I had a dream about going to terminate the pregnancy at a clinic and finding that they were giving a cat an abortion. I asked them if it wasn’t just better to let her have the kittens and then give them away, but they said that the abortion was really better for her. In the dream, also, I couldn’t find Michael. He wasn’t there.

*   *   *

At twelve-and-a-half weeks—about four days past the deadline my OB set for a safe first-trimester termination—I went to the clinic. Emotionally, I’d been everywhere except here, to the actual moment. I sat in the waiting room with the other women, mostly black, some with men, some with mothers, until my name was called. I sobbed as a young woman drew my blood. She asked me if I was afraid of needles. Michael joined me for the sonogram. The screen faced away from me, but Michael could see it. Unlike the ultrasounds of my past, the tech did not adjust the screen so that I could see it comfortably from my supine position. She dated the pregnancy at twelve-and-a-half to thirteen weeks and gave me a consent form for a second-trimester abortion. I would need a general anesthetic, she said, not a local, as I had requested. When I pressed her for an explanation, she said that I was too far along, it would be too painful.

They put us in a private waiting room, handed me a robe and told me to take everything off but my bra and socks. There was a bed with a flowered maroon bedspread. I searched it for an answer. Michael knew exactly what I was thinking. “You were expecting that we would see the sonogram and have an epiphany and get up and walk out of here?” he asked. But all I had seen was Michael’s face and tears as he looked at the screen.

Nurses and techs kept knocking on the waiting room door, and each time we asked for a few more minutes. Finally, one nurse, Rosie, told us to go home and think it over for another twenty-four hours. “I see this every day,” she said, “And I tell people to take one more day.” I protested that it was getting to be too late, that I was already in the second trimester. “One more day doesn’t matter,” she said.

In the shower the next morning, my daughter told me that my tummy was full. “It’s fat,” she said, patting it. “My belly is fat, too,” she added with a smile. I spent the morning pre-procedure fast in a neighborhood coffeehouse, grading midterms and trying to imagine being excited about being pregnant. I touched my abdomen and imagined Talia and Julian coming to the hospital to see the new baby. I wondered if I would only find the desire for another child after the procedure. I began to look forward to the general anesthetic. I hadn’t slept peacefully in weeks. I hadn’t had a moment when I wasn’t obsessed with my decision. I called Michael. “Let’s take the weekend and try to imagine having the baby and see how it feels,” he suggested. I was so relieved at the thought of not having to go back that I agreed.

But the weekend didn’t go well. We didn’t talk much about it. I was too panicked. We had one conversation about moving Julian into Talia’s room. I tried to imagine where his toy chest would fit. It had his name on it, and a lion, his favorite animal. He also had a small picture of a mama polar bear snuggling her baby that we had gotten him for his first birthday; it had seemed as if he’d spent that whole first year in my arms. If we moved those things onto Talia’s wall, I thought, there would be holes in the wall of the new baby’s room.

Monday morning came, and we hadn’t gotten anywhere. I was looking more pregnant. I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore. I was terrified that people would start noticing.

*   *   *

I walked in and out of that clinic a total of four times. The second time, I made it to the O.R. It was sterile and cold and looked like a delivery room. I sat on the table, and a man smiled at me and said, “I am the anesthetist.” I began to cry hysterically and got off the table. “I have to go see my husband again.” I fell into Michael’s chest, sobbing. “I can’t do it.” Rosie, the nurse from the other day, came in a few minutes later, “Again? So, why don’t you go home and come back?”

I protested. Rosie shook her head. “The doctor won’t do it. You got off the table.”

“Come on,” Michael said. “At least we’ll find out how it feels to walk out of here again.”

Michael went away on business the next morning, and I spent two days feeling almost calm. There was nothing to be done until he returned on Thursday. I worked. I read books to my children and sang them songs and put them to bed. I could never love anyone else as much. Why would I have another baby?

Thursday night, I barely slept. On Friday morning, we took the train back to Manhattan. “So this is on your way to work, right? I mean, if I decide not to go, you can just get off the train and you’ll be at work, right?”

“I can’t try to make the decision in that place again,” he said. We got off the subway in the neighborhood of the clinic and found a coffee shop.

“I always thought that I wanted to have three children,” I offered.

“Let’s make it easier,” he said, resigned. “Let’s go.”

We walked to the clinic and got in the elevator. Michael was crying. “I just keep thinking about the baby,” he said. “But I know that I have to think of you. That’s my priority. You have to be there for me and for Talia and for Julian.”

“The baby has gotten off to such a bad start,” I said.

“Really?” said Michael. “I was thinking just the opposite. That baby’s a fighter. Been here three times already and still around. I love that baby. I can’t wait to hold that baby.”

I looked at him and said nothing. “We are having the baby. Come on. It’s our baby, and we are having it,” he said. We walked out again.

We went to a diner. I couldn’t sip the water. If I did, the fast would be over. Michael looked at me, saw the state I was in. “That’s it.” He walked me back to the clinic. “I don’t think that you can do it with me there.” I agreed. I had to do it alone.

I went into the room, and the tech strapped my legs to a table and told me to lie down. But I wanted to sit up. And I wanted to talk to Rosie again before the doctor came in. He strapped me down anyway; Rosie came in.

“You can still have another baby,” Rosie said.

“But I’m thirty-eight.”

“When will you be thirty-nine?”

“July.”

“So, let’s see. If you get pregnant in July, you’ll have the baby when you’re thirty-nine,” she explained, as if there were nothing at all strange about having an abortion in April for no apparent reason with a plan to get pregnant again in July. Her suggestion comforted me.

I had wanted the happy ending. I had hoped that I would jump off the cliff, arms wide, and embrace Michael with a huge grin: “We’re having a baby!” We would be laughing and crying and relieved, and then I would touch my full, fat belly and everything would be okay. But I couldn’t feel that way.

“I have two children already,” I said. “Two and a half and eighteen months.”

“You have an eighteen-month-old? That baby needs you,” Rosie said.

The anesthetist, a different one, was standing on my side with her hand on my arm, getting ready to stick the needle. “Wait! Wait!” I kept saying.

“Awww, honey, it’s not gonna hurt at all,” she said, tightening her grip on my arm.

The doctor put his hand up to stop her. “We cannot tell you what to do,” he said, getting impatient. “There are other women waiting. They haven’t eaten.”

Rosie told him to go to see another patient. As she followed him out the door, she looked back at me over her shoulder, “We’ll be back in a few minutes. You need to decide.” I watched the clock frantically, wanting more time.

Soon Rosie came back in with the doctor. “So, what do you want to do? If you get off the table again, that’s it.”

“Go ahead.”

The next thing I remember is waking up face down on a gurney in a different room. Another nurse led me to a big recovery chair. I started to sob uncontrollably, in a way I had never cried in fourteen weeks. There were other women there, too, but nobody else was crying. They all seemed calm, maybe relieved. The nurse gave me a prescription for antibiotics to prevent infection and told me to take it for many more days than she’d told the woman next to me. “You were further along,” she said.

I met Michael near his office. We walked to two drugstores to find the medications. I fixated on the bag of disposable diapers behind the counter with the smiling baby on it, and I wept.

*   *   *

The grief found me quickly. I was one hundred percent sure I had done the wrong thing. All of my reasons for feeling hesitant seemed trivial and surmountable, especially compared to these new horrible feelings.

Once the pregnancy was over, I could conjure up again all of the reasons that I loved having children. That was, in an odd way, a relief.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute, the principal collector of data on abortion, does not amass data for any education level above “college graduate” or an income level higher than three hundred percent of the poverty line. But the Guttmacher Institute estimates that by the age of forty-five, one-third of American women will have had an abortion.

During my weeks of agonizing, my obstetrician, who treats professional, educated women mainly over the age of thirty-five, assured me that she’d had many patients end pregnancies for reasons far less elaborate than mine. Sometimes when I spoke, she finished my sentences, having heard it all before.

She told me about a woman who had an abortion when she got pregnant accidentally. She had a son already and hadn’t had a chance to “read the book” on how to have a girl. Another obstetrician I spoke with afterwards, who also practices on the Upper East Side, treating women “who may not be millionaires but who are certainly employed,” describes patients not at all in conflict about what to do. “You have these successful couples with children—women who are very successfully managing a home life and a career,” she said. “They get pregnant by accident and they decide that they want an abortion to ‘keep things where they are.’ Do they feel guilty? Yes. ‘This shouldn’t have happened. I feel terrible.’ But they have the abortion.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, the feminist political activist, reproachfully quotes women who claim that they don’t think of what they’ve done as an abortion when they terminate for medical reasons and who resent being treated in clinics alongside women who “did not want their babies.” But Ehrenreich herself, even as she unfailingly defends the right to choose under any circumstances, suggests that some of the reasons people elect to abort, “like deafness or dwarfism, seem a little sketchy.”

In the hierarchy of abortions, mine must be somewhere near the bottom—under women with no job and no education and no husband and no money and under women with the education and money and desire to find out that a fetus has birth defects. But the right to choose cannot be measured against an objective set of “good reasons”; we cannot embrace any argument that ranks some choices as less “sketchy” than others. Would we rank the reasons for wanting children—what about ego satisfaction, loneliness, wealth transfer, extra help at home, boredom?

Recently, there have been calls from the left for an acknowledgement by the pro-choice movement that abortion is wrong, something to be avoided—a recognition, to use Hillary Clinton’s now oft-quoted phrase, that “abortion is always tragic.” There’s some sense that the pro-choice movement doesn’t stand on any moral ground and that it can’t be sustained in its current form unless it does. But should any baby be born ever that isn’t completely and utterly wanted?

Throughout those difficult weeks, Michael kept saying, “We can have this baby. If we can’t do this, nobody can.” The notion of “choice” takes on a different meaning for those whose lives are already blessed with lots of choices. Of course we could have done it. But I needed a better reason to have a baby, and I couldn’t find it.

Six months ago, a year and a half after my abortion, I did have a baby, my third child, just not my third pregnancy. When Laila stares into my eyes I am overwhelmed by love. She radiates a peacefulness that I don’t remember in my other kids. I already can’t remember a time when she wasn’t here.

The fall before I had my abortion, I was in Ohio, working for John Kerry’s campaign. I was staying with my mother-in-law, in Toledo. Days before the election, we stood outside one night, in a neighbor’s driveway, talking. The neighbor’s expensive cars were plastered with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers, and she was defending her candidate. “What about the right to abortion?” my mother-in-law asked, knowing that this woman had had one herself, once upon a time. “Oh, that’s never going away,” the neighbor said.

My ambivalence about my own decision was agonizing. I was worried about making the wrong choice for myself, and at times I wished that someone else could decide for me.

But not really.

A number of people have asked me how I feel about making public in this article what was such a personal experience. Besides questions about whether I might get a politically hostile reception from some quarters—a risk I was willing to accept—they expressed concern about how I would feel about my children’s reading the article someday. Might they feel hurt? I hoped not, of course, but I thought about it. I realized that, although I decided to have the abortion, the piece is a celebration of the children I have. For me, it is a kind of love letter to them. It is about how much I needed to want each of them, and how much I do.

Elana Sigall is an attorney. She is an adjunct faculty member at both Columbia Law School and Teachers College where she teaches courses on legal issues in education.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

The Day You Really Became A Mom

The Day You Really Became A Mom

By Susan Buttenwieser

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Up until this morning, your anxieties revolved around your parenting abilities. You’d been consumed with fear, even before your daughter was born, never felt so inadequate.

 

You are on the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street when it happens. Right in front of Ricky’s, pushing your three-year-old daughter in her stroller, as you head home. Just like hundreds of other days, weeks, moments.

This time, however, things are different. Thirty minutes ago, you were on the roof of your building. Watching with your neighbors in stunned silence, as if unable to decipher what you were witnessing. The tallest building in New York City pancaking down on itself. It was there, the South Tower was just there, with a burning airplane inside. Then it was totally gone, replaced by an enormous cloud of smoke, like the aftermath of a detonated nuclear bomb. How many people had been in there, people who were certainly no longer alive. You couldn’t conceive of it, no one could.

The first person who spoke was a woman instructing her boyfriend to take a picture. “I can’t,” he said, though his camera was on a tripod inches from him. Then everyone was in motion with the sickening realization that the other tower could fall down too.

You were frozen at first. Finally it hit you. Your daughter at Pre-K, several blocks away. Even though you didn’t feel remotely safe, she should be here, with you.

In the stairwell, you could hear a neighbor’s tortured moans. Her boyfriend worked at Windows on the World. It was a sound you never heard a human make before. Her wailing continued throughout the entire day, a never-ending soundtrack.

The streets and sidewalks were complete pandemonium. Filled with people crying and clinging to each other, helplessly looking downtown at the smoke and debris snaking through lower Manhattan, and a blank space where the South Tower used to be. The North Tower still stood.

You ran the whole way to your daughter’s Pre-K. When you got there, she said good-bye to her teacher and calmly got in her stroller. She didn’t seem afraid as she sat there, waiting to be taken home, expecting you to make it okay for her. Expecting your most basic function. To protect her. No matter what. Even right now.

Up until this morning, your anxieties revolved around your parenting abilities. You’d been consumed with fear, even before your daughter was born, never felt so inadequate. All the other parents came across as organized and cheery and prepared. You were none of these things and less. Lackluster, late and always making emergency stops at delis because you forgot something at home or lost it on the way. And in the dawning of this new millennium, retro-domesticity was an obsession with the other parents. The list of their skills felt endless, everything from making bagels and play dough from scratch to hand-stitching their own children’s clothing. Meanwhile, you were barely getting through the day.

But then, there is this moment that changes everything. Rushing home from Pre-K with your daughter in her stroller, you reach the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street, right outside Ricky’s, just as the North Tower falls down. People go crazy when it happens, start running uptown, away from it, as if it will come crashing down and smother you all. The grouchy cashier from Ricky’s bolts outside, looks downtown and screams when she sees that it too has completely collapsed. That the World Trade Center no longer exists at all.

You try somehow to get through the next few hours and days. You take your daughter to the nightly candlelight vigils in Union Square, to the school next door housing out-of-town firefighters, and help set up makeshift beds. You do regular, every day things, like going to the playground, to friends’ homes. There is even a party, all the parents welling up when the children sing “Happy Birthday” in their high, hopeful, three-year-old voices. A week later, you find out you’re pregnant with your second daughter.

But during that moment outside Ricky’s, as people are literally running for their lives, your parenting anxieties have become a vanished luxury. There isn’t time to worry about what the other parents are doing. You have to go with your instincts.

Maybe there is more to being a mom than craft projects and baking. And maybe what your daughter really needs is for you to stay focused on what is right in front of you: her.

For once, you have no hesitation about what to do. Bending down, you pick her up out of the stroller. Arms wrapped all the way around her, you cradle her face in the crook of your neck, in the midst of this swirling, panicked, out-of-control crowd.

“That’s right,” a man rushing past says. “Hold onto her.”

And you do.

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. She read this piece at a Listen to Your Mother, NYC event in 2013.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

What Not to Say to the Parents of Boarding School Kids

What Not to Say to the Parents of Boarding School Kids

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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Things to never say to the parents of boarding school kids and the responses that go through parents’ minds when they hear them.

 

There are few responses to our decision to send our 12-year old children to boarding school that are harder to hear than, “I could never do that.” Especially when that response comes from people I care too much about to offend by saying out loud what runs through my mind in the moments following this declaration.

I could never raise my kids in a country that sells five-pound gummy bears. I could never raise my kids in a culturally isolated, world-view restricted, familiar but uninspiring location.

It is a good thing I don’t respond like this because not only are these responses cruel and snarky, they are lies.

They are lies because I could raise my kids in America, I even daydream about it sometimes. I have good friends who are excellent parents raising kids in America. There are kids with healthy palates, culturally diverse worlds, wide-open world-views, living creative and inspired lives in the American suburbs.

The reason these answers are what initially rise to the surface when someone says I could never do boarding school is because those words imply a refusal to step into my world for even a second, an inability to see anything beyond the four walls of their own choices so I knee-jerk back with the same attitude. They also subtly (and not so subtly sometimes) communicate a, “You don’t love your kids as much as I do,” kind of attitude that is equally false and I want to belittle the speaker just because I can be mean like that at times.

I compiled a list of things to never say to the parents of boarding school kids as well as the responses that go through that parent’s mind when we hear them. I have personally heard each of these, and more:

“I’ve never known boarding school kids who do well as adults.”

You must not know many boarding school kids. I know plenty who have done incredibly well in life. And I know plenty of non-boarding school kids who have not done well. There is no guarantee and I won’t pretend that any single decision of mine will ensure the outcomes I would love to see for my kids.

“I could never do that.”

You could never make a decision that is good for your kids, that is something they want, even if it causes you pain? That seems kind of selfish.

“Don’t you worry about them?”

Of course I worry about them. Don’t you worry about your kids? But worrying never changed or fixed anything so let’s encourage each other instead of judging each other.

“Now you don’t have to worry about teenagers, yours are away.”

Didn’t you just ask if I worry about them? And, I still do have teenagers. I didn’t sign over my parenting responsibilities. I still see them, talk to them, love them, nurture them, discipline them, argue with them, play with them.

“It will get easier.”

It does not get easier. It gets harder, and better, even as we develop new normal and routines.

“I love my kids too much to do that.”

I would like to slap you.

“So you are letting someone else do your job.”

No. This is me doing my job. I have not abdicated, I have just made a different choice than you and I am very much still their parent.

“Couldn’t you just move back to the United States?”

Moving back to the United States would possibly be the worst decision we could make for our children. They don’t want to. Their parents have no jobs there. This is home to them, here, believe it or not. The kids want this. And I hate to break it to you but American high schools aren’t exactly utopias, either.

“I can’t imagine doing that.”

Maybe your imagination is underdeveloped. What you are really saying is that you could never imagine doing the best thing for your child, if that best thing made you uncomfortable or caused pain. I’m sorry to hear this. You are also saying that you refuse to enter into my world for a single moment, to try and understand any reality other than your own, to join me in my joys and pains of parenting, even though you are comfortable judging them.

 Isn’t it, um, expensive?

Yes, it is (though not as much as you probably think). And aren’t, um, private music lessons expensive? Hockey lessons, gymnastics classes, summer camps? Extra curricular actitivies are included for us. Plus, we’re away from shopping malls, Amazon prime, movie theaters, restaurants, and all the other venues urging kids to consume, consume, consume. I’d rather invest in education than in fashion labels.

“It is probably easier for you than it would be for me.”

Excuse me? Because I’m a worse mom? Love my kids less? Feel pain less acutely? Am some kind of superwoman?

“I’m too attached to my kids.”

Too attached to your kids to do what is in their best interest? That is a dangerous position to be in.

“Well, that is not our idea of family.”

While you are allowed your own opinion and conviction about family, don’t impose them on me.

I would never send my kid to boarding school.

How can I explain how painful your words are? They are more like weapons that cut through my heart and divide us. The truth is you don’t know what you would do in my situation and it wouldn’t hurt to be a teensy bit more sensitive.

The underlying message behind words like these is that if we really loved our kids, we wouldn’t make this choice. The way I see it is that because I love my kids so crazy-much, I’m willing to make this choice.

Every family is unique in personality, purpose, and choices. This is how the Joneses roll, at least for this season and in the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. I am happy to talk about boarding school and love when people are genuine and sincere and curious.

It is a gift when someone comes alongside and is able to see this perspective and bless our decision, to hear about the joys and griefs in it, just as there are in every parent’s life. I am exuberantly thankful for the way most of the people around our family honor our choice.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

Mathematics of a Family

Mathematics of a Family

By Isabel Abbott

unnamed-2I think my son chose to enter the world, chose to come to me. I just said yes. I did not seek motherhood out, and his entrance into my body and life was of the unexpected variety. But yes, I did say yes. And his dad said yes. So my son was knit together in the web of my womb, and then he was born. One plus one now equaled three. Because the mathematics of love and bodies colliding sometimes works this way, bending the rules of reason. We were a mother and a father and a child. We were a family. And this made me very happy.

But then there was this. Five years after my son was born, I asked his dad to move out. I had my reasons. They were about the he and she equation of marriage, where one plus one equals one. Until one of the ones decides to leave. I asked him to move out, because, really, he had already left. And yet we were not just a marriage, but a family. To unfasten from the first, would shatter the second.

We were separated, pieces splintered out in all directions. Those were the months of subtraction, of absence and taking away. There was, in our family, a gaping hole, this open wound of loss. I wandered around in a haze of disbelief. I woke up in the mornings, remembered everything all over again, and crumbled. Then I got out of bed, drove him to school, watched him walk through the front door with his backpack and unanswerable questions, sat in the car, and cried. I did this every day for weeks.

I was afraid of my son growing up as a statistic, a casualty of a broken home. I did not want to have this as my legacy and his history. And I was unwilling to pretend, to work to get back together with his dad simply “for the sake of the child,” sacrificing myself at the altar of guilt, and have my son forever feel responsible for his parents’ unhappiness. And so those mornings, when I sat in the car crying, I kept waiting for an answer, something to tell me what to do. I thought there would be some moment of clarity, when all was revealed. That I would perhaps one Sunday afternoon be standing in the grocery store, staring at the pyramids of apples, and suddenly think, Oh yes, of course! How obvious. How could I not have known? But this is not how it happened. Instead, there was simply choice. Not right or wrong, have to or can’t. Just the freedom and weight of choice. And no matter which direction I walked towards, there would be no certainty, a conclusion I could see or know. So I did the most difficult and perhaps courageous thing I had ever done. I chose, with all the complexity and ambiguity and responsibility this brings. I asked for a divorce.

Divorce is the mathematics of division. Dividing up his and hers, possessions and the meaning made of memory, the vast collection of books accumulated over the years and the regret over what went wrong. But for a family, three divided by two does not equal one and a half. His dad and I chose to have joint custody, with our son living with each of us a week at a time. But you cannot divide a child into two pieces, split him down the middle, each taking a half. And so three divided by two is watching my 5-year-old son attempt to navigate two homes and worlds and try to integrate them into a cohesive life, and feeling the burdened hurt that this is not something I can do for him even though I chose it for him. And three divided by two is being my son’s mother all of the time and only being with him half the time, and there is not an mathematical formula in the world that can solve the ache of this.

But in the division which destroyed the life I once had, this is what I began to know as true—though my child may have chosen me those years ago, I was choosing him now. Were it not for him I think I would have come undone, all the pieces broken apart, and stayed there unformed for a very long time. I would have moved away and licked my wounds and waited until it no longer felt dark inside and I could breathe again. But I had my son. So I woke up every morning and fought for him. I was starting completely over, with no income, no home, no savings to live off, no stability in which I could rest. I moved in with friends, said yes and thank you to help that was poured out, did whatever I needed to do to get a job—staying up late into the night filling out applications online, working below minimum wage, spending money I didn’t have to buy clothes for a job interview, only to find out the position had already been filled. I found us a small apartment to set up a home for us, and built a life for us.

I made us peanut butter sandwiches which we ate in bed while watching The Wizard of Oz, and waited until he fell asleep to go take a hot shower and this is when I would cry, letting the grief have its way with me. And to grieve what was dead was to choose life. And to choose life was to choose my son.

And then one day I realized I was no longer walking around with the constant lump lodged in my throat; my son and I began to spend much of our time exploring together or resting in a quiet ease, days filled with routine, and life as just normal. Somehow we came out the other side. I am clear that our family today exists in part because of things far beyond my control and in part because of decisions made. Some things were lost, and others were found. I do not think it was the right way or the only way. I think it was simply a choice, and as is the case with any choice, what happens next is part grace, part living well within the choices made. I do not assume my son will grow up and have all the same feelings I do about what took place, or that he will not have questions and grievances. I hope, though, that he will know and feel that he was conceived and born from love, even if that love did not turn out to be a family resembling what we imagined it would be. And that he grew up surrounded in love; a love that, even its loss and separation, its subtraction and division, found a way to more than there was before.

This is my family now. There is the mother and son, me and him, solid and whole in our family of two. And from this there is the family we choose, and the family that chose us these past years, and the family that stitches itself together into new forms. The friends whose homes we lived in for a time, leaving out a special place for him to keep his things and hang his pictures on the wall. His home and life with his dad and his dad’s partner, a good woman who loves him well, and the times when we are all together, walking crowded neighborhood streets Halloween night for trick-or-treating, pumpkin lantern glowing light in the dark. There is the ancestry of my origins, and all the faces, the kinds of loving people that have been there on the bridges between then and now. We have been surrounded, encircled, loved. This, then, is the mystery of multiplication.

There is a backwards and strangely beautiful math in matters of love and human need, the family we are given and the family we choose, the heart which breaks and mends itself, the division that hurts and the forgiveness that heals. Whole new people are created and born. Things are lost which cannot be replaced. Choices are made and lived. People come and claim you as belonging. Nothing equals up to what it should be. And this is the ache of it. And it is the kindness.

Isabel Abbott is an artist and activist whose writing has most recently appeared in Ars Medica, Bellevue Literary Review, elephant journal, and Amulet Magazine, and she also regularly writes at www.listsandletters.com. She lives in Chicago with her son and alley cat.

What I Will Teach My Boys

What I Will Teach My Boys

By Shannon Brugh

whatiwilltellmyboysI will teach my boys that they are not entitled, that they are not owed, that they have the power to wait. To stop. To save.

 

I remember. I remember all the times I felt like I should. Like I had to so he would still talk to me. So he would still like me. So he wouldn’t be angry. Even the times I wanted to… until it was happening, and I didn’t want to anymore. I remember the times I spoke up, and the times I didn’t. I remember all of it. And I see all of it so differently now. All of it is different now.

I am a mother. I am a mother of boys.

So now, I see it all through the eyes of a mother, too. What my mother would have felt like, had she known. What my mother will feel like now, when she reads this. What the mothers of those boys would have felt like, if they had known. What I would feel like if my wonderful, sweet boys did something like that.

My boys. They would never. They won’t. They can’t.

But how do I know? How does anyone know?

I think about what must’ve been missing. What the boys I knew or the Steubenville boys or the millions of other boys who intentionally—or unintentionally—rape or push or pressure people into sex, were missing. What was it?

I think, or hope anyway, that it was because no one ever talked to them about it. No one ever came right out and said, “Hey. You cannot have sex with another person unless you are sure—100% sure—that they want to have sex with you. If there is any hesitation, if you have to “convince,” then it’s not okay and you have to stop.” No one ever said that to them; I’m sure of it. Because really, how often to parents really say that to their boys?

It’s becoming more common, I think. Things are changing and people are becoming more comfortable talking to their kids about the uncomfortable things: sex, drugs, mental/emotional/social health. But I think it’s still new, and I doubt it’s part of the plan for most parents of boys.

Parents of girls, on the other hand, they know they have to talk about it. To talk about pressure and making sure their daughters wait until they are ready. Birth control and being careful. Some parents even go so far as to warn girls not to dress too suggestively or “give the wrong impression.”  Because as all women know, we—the victims of this kind of aggression—are blamed.

But who says to their sons, “It does not matter what she’s wearing. It does not matter if your friends say she’s a sure thing. It does not matter that you want to. Do not pressure. Do not push.  Her body is her body. His body is his body.”

I will. I will say those things to my sons. I will tell them—explicitly—not to rape. Not to pressure. Not to push. Because if I don’t, who will? I will not wait until it’s too late. I will not assume that they know. I will not allow my sons to fall victim to the idea that men are entitled to anyone’s body.

And if I have to, I will tell my boys that once, boys who could have been just like them felt entitled to my body. That one boy tried to take my body. That after I made it clear that I didn’t want what he wanted, he held my body down and tried to take it. That he knelt on my arms so I couldn’t fight. That he sat on my legs so I couldn’t kick. That he touched me and took off clothes and that I fought him as hard as I could. That he only stopped when my friend screamed from the other room. That my friend, who couldn’t fight the other boy off of her, saved me. That I fought my way out from under him and tried to fight my way to her, but it was too late. That then, because we were too young and too stupid to consider alternatives, we let those same boys drive us home. And that then, when he tried to touch me again in the truck, I elbowed him in the ribs as hard as I could, and that he opened the door of the truck on the freeway and tried to throw me out. I remember. All of it.

I can’t change it now. I can’t change anything that has happened to me or to anyone else. But I can try to stop it from happening again. I can teach my sons that they are not owed anything. That their feelings and hormones and urges are not any more important than anyone else’s. I can teach them that they have the power to stop, and that they must if there is so much as a shadow of doubt.

I can teach my boys be safe. Safe with themselves, safe with their bodies, save with others and their bodies. I will teach my boys that they are not entitled, that they are not owed, that they have the power to wait. To stop. To save.

And I will teach my boys to listen. To pay attention to the words of those around them and in front of them. To speak up if they hear something questionable. To step in if they see someone being pressured or pushed around. To help.

I remember, and I will do what I can to stop this, beginning with my boys.

Shannon Brugh received her B.A. in English Lit from University of Washington and her Masters in Teaching from Seattle University. In addition to her contributions at Rattle & Pen, she can be found on her personal blog Becoming Squishy. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two young sons.

 

Parents in Pain, Parents Ashamed

Parents in Pain, Parents Ashamed

adriennejones

Start from this truth: I love my children with the heat and light of the sun. They are the most fascinating and wonderful people I know. I do not love them all the same, but I love none of them less, whether they have developed typically or are disabled. They are both my home and my grandest adventure.

Even in the presence of this enormous love, there has also been pain so deep it became desperation, despondency, and terror. In the special needs community, there is a loud message that says parents (or other caregivers) of people with disabilities may not express these feelings. We are told that our pain is self-pity, our grief is unwarranted and unkind, and hate of our children’s disabilities is akin to hate for our children.

To be really clear, this is codswallop. Piffle. Crapola. Balderdash. Rubbish. Hogwash. Bollocks. Nonsense. Muddle-headed gibberish. Feelings are morally neutral, neither bad nor good, holy or evil. Feelings are part of being human and my feelings belong to me. No person may declare my feelings wrong.

In this alternate reality, a caregiver’s pain doesn’t much matter, and may be totally invalidated, because the pain of a child with a disability is infinitely worse. Being the parent of a child with mental illness, or cerebral palsy, or autism, or Down’s syndrome, or any other disability may be painful, but since the struggles of the person with the diagnosis are greater, the caregiver’s (usually a parent) pain is null, or worse, it could be called out as self-pity.

Again: codswallop. Piffle. Crapola. Balderdash. Rubbish. Hogwash. Bollocks. Nonsense. Muddle-headed gibberish.

In what my family will forever refer to as The Bad Years (the first eight or so years of my youngest son’s life), I was a tumble of hectic anguish. My pain cascaded out of my face and into the lap of every adult with whom I talked because I was far, far too wrecked to be able to put on a social face and pretend to be OK.

I was greeted mostly with platitudes and scolding. Platitudes hurt because they minimize or invalidate reality. When someone said God never gives us more than we can handle, I heard people telling me I was fine, that if I was in pain it was because I was being a wimp. When I was scolded with statements like you really just have to learn to accept this or you should be grateful he’s alive, I felt deeply ashamed (and what is it about pain that causes people to assume that there is not also gratitude?), which only compounded my agony.

And I want to tell you this: sometimes, during the years 2009-2011, I was in serious trouble. Very, very serious trouble, close to doing terrible things that would have put my family’s name all over the internet and most newspapers in the US and even internationally. I felt hopeless, desperate, and completely alone.

All the scolding had done its job. It silenced me. Even when I feared I would do the worst possible thing, I could not speak it. The feeling, I believed, made me evil, and I wanted to hide that evil. I hoped I could pretend it was not as it was. My family was very nearly destroyed by that silence.

Return, if you will, to the fact that I love all of my children, and Carter, my youngest and my child with disabilities, not one iota less than the others. I was in agony largely because he was suffering and he is my child and I could not ease his pain. He was a whirling dervish of misery and rage. He was sleepless, aggressive, and terrified and in spite of every effort, his torment continued, day and night, for years.

I was also entirely irrational by that time. I wanted to be a good mother. I could sometimes playact at being a good mother, but I was not OK. Years of extreme sleep deprivation take their toll. Years of fear take their toll. Imagine your worst experience with any of your children. For me, before Carter, it was when my daughter Abbie was a toddler and was sick with pneumonia. She was so miserable and fretful for four days that she only slept a few minutes at a time, and only when she lay on top of me. Her fever would spike to 105 and when I gave her antibiotics and acetaminophen, she would vomit it all over me, which in turn caused her nose to gush blood. It was a very hard 4 days.

Now imagine parenting with that level of intensity and fear (except infinitely more fear, because we had no real idea what was wrong with our child) for nine years. It changed me. It destroyed me. I am OK now, but I am not the person I was before my son’s disabilities tore me off my foundation. I am not stronger.

Eventually, I fell into the arms of some parenting support groups (online and in real life) and there, I spilled my tale of woe. It’s awful, so hard, how will we survive? He’s so sick and we never sleep and the medical and educational systems meant to help him don’t, and I can’t go on. I’m in agony. Returned to me, finally, was affirmation. Understanding. Yes, this is awful. So hard. We hear you. We understand you. You are not bad or evil. You are not alone.

I even spilled the darkest of truths, that at that time I wished I’d not had Carter. No one gasped. No one paled. No one misunderstood me and thought I wished this because Carter had disrupted my life. They understood that my beloved son suffered and it felt so damn unfair, so cruel. I felt selfish for choosing to have another child. How could I have created this person if his existence was nothing but torment?

There were no platitudes. No “he is here to test your strength” (he is himself, not my test), or “he is here to make you a better person” (he is himself, not my personal self-improvement exercise), or “God never gives you more than you can handle” (he is himself, not God’s telegram by which God’s confidence in me is communicated).

No one chastised me for my pain and anger. Never were the words self-pity used; never was I admonished to accept my son just as he is. There was simply hearing. There was kindness and understanding.

It may seem paradoxical (although it’s not), but it was finally being heard that enabled me to move away from depression, helplessness, and yes, self-pity, into a place of acceptance. That acceptance is not acquiescence and it doesn’t mean I’m happy my son’s brain was damaged before his birth, but it does mean that I no longer flail against it.

It was kindness, not condemnation that saved me. It was kindness that brought me back to peace and hope. It was kindness that helped me to be (however imperfectly) the mother to my son that I want to be.

My hope is that the special needs community of caregivers, loved ones, and people with disabilities will begin to make space for respectful expression of all feelings, including the darkest and scariest ones. A parent in pain does not have to be a parent ashamed.

 

Photo by Scott Boruchov

What if it Was Your Son?

What if it Was Your Son?

By Robin Finn

Robin and son on beach

Walking across the blacktop of my son’s elementary school after the last bell rang, I couldn’t help but scan the faces of the boys at the handball courts. “You’re out!” a blond boy called, tossing back his hair to reveal a streak of dusty soot as if he’d recently emerged from a coal mine. “It’s a sticky!” a redhead countered, tucking the rubber ball firmly between his hip and forearm. A swarm of boys argued and pointed until the ball once again smacked against the large gray wall and I went lo look for my son.

Playing handball after school had once been my fourth grader’s favorite afternoon activity. For years, he’d shoved an oversized ball into his striped backpack, crushing his SpongeBob lunchbox, and pulling hard on the zipper to close it around the unsightly bulge. He’d looked more like a camel than a boy as he trudged up the hill on his way to school, the misshapen pack forming a kind of hump across his back. But my son didn’t play handball anymore.

The conflicts on the courts over the years had apparently been too much for him. He’d impatiently smacked the ball out of someone else’s hands, stormed off after what he deemed a bad call, or refused to leave the court, even when the other kids insisted he was ‘out,’ one too many times. And although he read social cues poorly, he read them well enough to know the other kids no longer wanted to play with him. I spotted my son in the distance, leaning against a wall in a yellow T-shirt and black sweatpants, reading a book.

A dad I’d been friendly with over the years—our boys were in the same grade—approached me and asked how my son was doing. This dad, I’ll call him Joe, was a stay-at-home parent and frequently hung out after school to oversee one of the handball courts. My son had once been one of his regulars.

“Not so great, Joe” I said, unable to hold back. “He’s having a hard time with friends. He doesn’t seem to have anyone to hang out with.”

“You know,” Joe said, adjusting his baseball cap, “your son’s a good kid. I just think …” he trailed off, choosing his words carefully, “he’s a bull in a china shop.” He looked away toward the kindergarten yard and then back at me. “Eventually, when the shopkeepers see the bull coming, they lock their doors. Y’know what I mean?” He squinted as the afternoon sun slow-roasted our flip-flopped feet on the pavement.

I liked Joe; he seemed like a decent guy. But watching my son sit alone at the edge of the playground, reading The Lightning Thief for the third time, his yellow Apple Store T-shirt rubbing against the side of a classroom, hurt. It was the kind of slow wound that festered.

Once, when the boys were in preschool, everybody in the class was a “friend.” “Friends,” the teacher would say, “it’s time to go outside.” Or, “Let’s ask our friends to help clean up the lunch tables.” Even though my son lay across his classmates at circle time and interrupted class conversations frequently, the other kids had accepted him.

But by the fourth grade, the universal “friend” had narrowed. Friends were people who invited you to their house after school and included you at their birthday parties. Friends were people your mom (or dad) liked and who were similar to you. Friends were easygoing and agreeable. Friends were not impulsive or hyperactive or emotional. Those were bulls.

But my son wasn’t a bull.

He was a ten-year-old boy who struggled with impulsivity and hyperactivity. And he didn’t live in a china shop. He lived in a community.

How could I tell this dad, who I knew to be a sweet guy, that he was way off base? That a bull is, after all, a wild animal, but a boy is not? A boy has feelings and the need to belong.

What I wanted to say, what I should have said, was, What if it was your son? Learning to get along with others is a life skill. Learning to see through other kids’ limitations and find the goodness inside changes the world. And my son, without a doubt, is filled with goodness. He’s just rough around the edges. But maybe that’s too much to ask of fourth graders. Or their parents.

I thought about all of this after I’d walked away. After I’d found a shady spot to nurse my hurt and wait for my son to finish the chapter so we could leave. I pulled out my phone and pretended to text so I wouldn’t have to talk to another parent who might wander by. I tried to work out my complex feelings—not just about this parent but about the long list of people I perceived as quick to judge my son, quick to shoot me the stink-eye, quick to delete my contact information or never return my e-mail asking for a play date.

When I pick up my son after school in the afternoons, I frequently see Joe surrounded by a large group of boys playing handball. If he happens to look my way, I give him a wave and he shoots me a dimpled smile. I still think about our conversation that day. How could I have conveyed what it feels like to be a parent of a child who is different and frequently misunderstood? It’s easy to classify a boy as a bull when he isn’t your boy. But what if he was?

Robin Finn, MPH, MA is a writer/author/essayist and the mother of three spirited kids. Her background in public health, spiritual psychology, and motherhood- including raising a child with special needs- informs the lens through which she views the world. Robin lives in L.A. and is working on her first novel. Learn more about Robin at robinfinn.com.

Lonesome Road

Lonesome Road

By Molly McNett

sophialaurenSometimes I must get out of the house and its “chronic angers,” as the poet Robert Hayden put it. This particular night I fought with my husband—about what? I never remember—and slammed the door at eight-thirty, just after the kids were in bed. I was still nursing. And I was so heavy, thirty pounds overweight, although the baby was six months old already.

Was it dark? I think so. Or it became dark as I walked. The road is a natural place to be alone here, in rural Illinois. There are only animals, and their pastures—no people, no houses in sight. I seemed to be stirring the hot afternoon with the new evening as I walked: My face was warm and my hands were cold, and I could feel these opposing currents moving.

A hawk gave a raspy cry and swooped down from a tree, and then it was quiet. A deer jumped up from a bush in front of me, straight up over the fence and into the soybeans. She took three nearly vertical jumps and stopped, the soybeans up to her neck. She made a pretty picture frozen there in profile, with the fireflies lighting quietly all over the field. I watched them for a while. If I wanted to explain to a deaf person what music was like, I thought, I would show them this field. All these sweet, tiny lights, holding and releasing together or in turn, the whole field a silent polyphony. I was pleased with myself for thinking of this. I stood there watching and being pleased with myself.

A truck came by. I heard it approach from behind, and I stepped off the road, waiting for the noise to go away, to continue my walk. But after it passed, it circled back and pulled up alongside me. A man rolled down the window.

“You okay?”

“Yes,” I said, but I was startled, like the deer. I was half a mile from home. And it was dark.

“I thought you was someone I knew,” said the man. He sighed. “I thought you might be someone I knew.”

Whiskey on his breath. He was maybe sixty. No beard but unshaven. There was a gun on a rack behind the front seat: a hunting rifle. And behind it, the outline of a pissing Calvin on the window.

“This gal I’m looking for … She’s my wife’s daughter, but she run away from her dad and then come to my wife and me and she run away from us then, eleven days ago. There from a distance, I thought you was her.”

He’ll ask if you need a ride, I told myself. Say no, emphatically. Don’t act afraid.

“Did you call the police?”

“Oh, hell, they can’t do anything—she’s eighteen.”

His truck is idling noisily. Then he shuts it off, which makes me nervous. I ask, “What happened?”

“I tried to lay down the law on her. I says, you’ll be home at such-and- such an hour and you won’t have them friends of yours in my house or drugs and whatnot. I love you like a father, and if he don’t lay down the law, then I will.”

His “such-and-such a time” makes it all a little spurious. I have kids. I would never say their bedtime is “such-and-such a time.” It’s eight-thirty.

“You know what she resembles? Sophia Loren.”

I had no image of a young Sophia Loren, only someone matronly, an older “classy lady” whose picture I sometimes saw in women’s magazines in articles about How to Care for Skin at Every Age, along with maybe Catherine Deneuve, or Julie Christie.

He put his elbow on the window and leaned out.

“Why are you out so late?” It sounded like “slate.” Why are you out slate.

“I have a baby,” I said. “I can’t get away any other time.”

This was true: I could hardly get out of the house. I was trapped there. Suddenly I felt I’d confessed something terribly intimate. If he asked me to elaborate I might begin to cry— how important it seems, the fact that you are fat, at a time like this. Everything you say feels like an apology. Everything that happens interpreted through this layer of belly fat, ass fat, huge quaky boob fat.

But he didn’t notice. His eyes were squeezed shut, and he was shaking, softly. And maybe because my own misery had come to the surface, I felt I knew something about him, and why he cried. He was in love with his own stepdaughter. So he was not only drunk, but maybe crazy. Or dangerous. And the nearest house was my own, now half a mile away.

“She’s wild,” he sobbed. “I told her, I got to look after you like your own father would. I got to lay down the law. But them friends of hers … You can’t hold her down. You can’t tame her.”

I am disgusted by him. He is old, and grizzled, and drunk, and in love with a teenager. And yet his face is pitiful. His jowls hang down like some sad dog’s.

Just because you are not attractive doesn’t make you less susceptible to beauty: That is something the young imagine. My breasts are grossly heavy, my legs and face are swollen, but underneath these things I am the same person. I watch men and think of them in the same way I always have, because all love is a dream, whether it is manifest in your own flesh, or not. Even now I am dreaming that I can be mistaken for a young Sophia Loren—at least, on a dark night.

“That’s too bad,” I said to the man. Sometimes you just need to say it. I’m in love with my stepdaughter. I’m trapped in my own house.

He started up his truck and drove off, and I walked home, thinking that it’s hard to predict when people will find something in common. It might only be the fact that we are alive, of the same species, on a road at night. A road where everything is quiet, except for the high trilling of the frogs. A bull in the field with his low, gasping inhale. Coyotes, who sound dangerously close, their voices circling: Here I am, I’m coming, choose me.

Author’s Note: Sometimes walking is the only way to be alone. And it’s a fine one, easy to see as a metaphor, since you walk away from your life as you do it. For me, I’m walking away from my family who needs me, and my house which needs me, to a place where I am only myself for a little while, where I can have a different vantage on the day, or the argument, and so on. If I am angry when I begin to walk, I usually don’t return that way.

Molly McNett lives with her husband, son, and daughter on a farm in northern Illinois. Her writing has appeared in The Best American Non-required Reading, as well as many literary journals. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

photo credit: life.time.com

The Whole Truth

The Whole Truth

dad:cerise

“How often do you see your dad?” she asks casually.

The question is one of many questions we’ve volleyed back and forth this particular afternoon as we sit in the sun and let our children play on the playground.

How should I answer this question I’m sure she perceives as benign?

I could simply say, “My dad visits a couple times a year.”

That’s true. Or, at least, true enough.

Or, I could say, “I see my father’s shadow every day.” That’s also true but it takes some explaining.

I could tell her I see his shadow every time I pass a big rig on the highway and glance at the forearms of the trucker to see if they are connected to my father’s hub-cap sized hands.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the uneven gait of anyone in cowboy boots. And in every pair of Wranglers with extra slack where a butt should be.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the hand firmly gripping the upper arm of the whining child in front of me in the grocery checkout line. And in the neck swiftly turning to administer a fierce gaze and the promise of action to an off-task child at the park.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the red nose of the man in the bar who asks for another with eyes at once hopeful that the next round will bring relief and simultaneously sorrowful because he knows the amber elixir lost its magic years ago and the bottom of the glass is not where second chances hide. And in the father sitting across from his child at a nearby table holding up his end of a patchwork conversation, pieced together as good as it can be given the uneven stitches of court ordered visitations and shared holidays.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the Vietnam vet on the corner and hold my breath while I check to make sure that the stranger is indeed a stranger and that the remarkable resemblance is only just that.

I could tell her all this and reveal myself to be a not-so-well-adjusted, not-so-resilient child of divorce. I could reveal myself to be the dented can somehow placed on the shelf alongside all the unblemished cylinders that made it through similar journeys without permanent damage.

There are plenty of other moms on the playground that appear normal and self-actualized. Friendship with me will cost the same as friendship with one of them. Surely she would prefer to invest her time in building a friendship with someone else. Someone not standing in the long shadow of what could have been but wasn’t. Someone who won’t tense when she hears kids whine. Someone who won’t weep when she sees the easy affection of a father for his child. Someone who won’t speed up to overtake a semi on the off chance she knows the driver. Someone who won’t lose her train of thought when she sees a bearded man at the off ramp with a Sharpie plea written on a cardboard remnant.

I could pose as an undented can. I could turn my best side forward and hide the imperfections. I could pretend to be unaffected by the bumps and sharp corners of my journey.

I could say, “My dad visits a couple times a year.”

Or, I could reveal the scars of improperly healed wounds and say, “I see my father’s shadow every day.”

I look at her and realize that I’ve taken too long to answer what she thinks is a simple question.

Still Pregnant

Still Pregnant

By Susan Vaughan Moshofsky

white lily

“Aunt Susan, are you still pregnant?” my four-and-a-half year-old niece, Elena, asks. Her clear, blue eyes reveal no understanding of the seriousness of her question. I wonder this every day. Am I still pregnant? Is the baby’s heart still beating? Will it beat tomorrow? Will I hold this baby, or only see its form floating on a cold, black ultrasound screen, the ghostly white figure preserved as still as a photo, like the baby we lost a few months before Elena was born?

I’m working as hard as I can to prepare not to have a baby. At least it seems that way. I wear baggy clothes, so people won’t guess. Overweight by more than just a few pounds, I just look fat. With my ample bust line, it will take at least another month before baby outpaces boobs, so I can still hide it. What if I lose this baby, too? I don’t want my grief to be that public, again.

We haven’t told anyone except family and very close friends. What am I waiting for? The magic moment when I can stop worrying? My doctor says the magical point is when I’m in her office for my six-week, post-delivery appointment, holding the baby. Will I hold this child? What if, I think?

Since the plus sign popped up on that seventh pregnancy test strip, I’ve kept a list of the few people we have told. That way, if something goes wrong, I’ll know whom to call. On the rare occasion I break protocol and tell someone, I add that name to my list. We weren’t planning to tell Rachel, our 10 ½ year-old, this soon, but her propensity for walking into the bathroom unannounced, and the heparin injections I have to give myself make it impossible to keep the secret any longer. Seeing your mother shooting her bulging tummy with a needle would be scary. Seeing my bruised belly, a patchwork of dark blue, violet, and light green blotches, would be even worse. I don’t want her to think I’m a junkie or a chemotherapy patient.

One morning, I shoot the heparin in my belly, but the precious, clear liquid, prescribed but not guaranteed to prevent pregnancy loss, seems to leak right back out. Panicked, I call the perinatologist. “The abdominal tissues are saturated. Use your upper thigh. Perfectly normal,” is the reply. I want this baby, so my thighs will be next to turn black and blue. I’d shoot the heparin in my face if it would help.

I’m tired of trying to hide it. I want to be happy, embrace the joy, really expect this child. But eight years of secondary infertility and two pregnancy losses—one late-term—have made me so careful, so guarded. I wonder if I’ll stop worrying in another couple of weeks, when I can hope to feel the baby move. To get some reassurance, I visit my patient-as-Job doctor’s office once a week to hear the heartbeat. I go in for monthly ultrasounds to check for growth retardation, a sign that things are going south, like last time. I shoot myself twice a day with the heparin, hoping it works.

The nurse, Sandy, checks the heartbeat each week before I see the doctor. This week, Sandy is on vacation, so I see someone new, an older woman. “So, how are we feeling?” she croons. “What do you want?”

I stare at her. What kind of question is that? My eyebrows knit together in puzzlement.

“Boy, or girl?” she asks, smiling.

I freeze. Who cares? Hasn’t she looked at my chart? “I just want a live baby,” I answer, gulping air to keep from choking up. I realize with a catch in my throat that this baby may kick and hiccup in utero sooner than I think. That’s when I’ll really believe that he or she might make it. Until then, in between weekly visits, I poke my bruised belly every so often, hoping to elicit some evidence that the baby is still alive, hoping for that kick to reassure me.

I know I need to go on with normal life as much as possible, in between heparin injections, doctor visits, and hours of worry. My doctor says it’s okay to go camping with my husband’s sister and her friends—as long as I take it easy, don’t lift over ten pounds, and keep up with the injections. “You need to stop worrying so much. It’ll be good for you and your family to get away,” she reassures me.

Squatting on the air mattress in our tent, trying to stabilize myself on the unsteady surface, I figure out how to give myself the shots. Kind of like starting an IV in a raft on the ocean. I have to get my husband to hold the flashlight at night, as it’s too much to handle. It works okay, but I finally ease up on my privacy issues the second day and go to the camp bathroom, using a stall just for the stability of the floor. The camping trip is a success, but I don’t stop worrying. I can’t.

At the next doctor appointment, it’s time for a urine sample. Something of a milestone to get this far in the pregnancy. I’m wearing an off-white, cotton knit maternity dress I wore when I was pregnant with Rachel, but not during the other pregnancies. A good-luck charm. I pick up the plastic cup after providing the sample and reach down to smooth the front of my dress. My clumsy gesture jostles the cup, spilling the contents down the middle of my dress. I panic. It’s July. I have no jacket or sweater I can artfully drape across the obvious stain. What will I do? I haven’t seen the doctor yet, so I have no choice but to walk back to the waiting room sporting a bright yellow stain down the front of my white dress! Fabulous. Then I recall my doctor’s comment that pregnant women are often clumsy with their growing girth. I am pregnant. Still pregnant. I’m so happy to be pregnant, still, this moment, that all I can do is laugh at my yellow badge of courage.

What stories I’ll have to tell this child, I hope. Will I? Living with a high-risk pregnancy is like being strapped to a train track at the Y in the track. Who knows which way the train will go?

Susan Vaughan Moshofsky is a mother, teacher, and writer who lives with her family of five in Portland. Her work has appeared in Brain, ChildHuffington PostThe Oregonian, and Seattle’s Child.

On the Cutting Edge

On the Cutting Edge

By Laura Amann

cuttingedgeFrom a photograph on my desk, my daughter’s face peers out at me. Her eyes are crinkled; her chicklets-perfect teeth are held by a wide grin. Her dark hair curls in fat, sausage ringlets. She is wearing a princess gown. She is five.

Periodically, I look at that photo and close my eyes. I do the same thing when I come across her papers from grade school, with the hearts on top of the i’s and the puppy dogs doodled in the corners.

Today her long, glossy hair has alternately sported thick dreadlocks, been chopped short and bleached an unnatural blond, and been dyed with streaks of blue, green, or pink. Her brown eyes are now muted by a ring of heavy, thick, black eyeliner. Her ear- lobes are stretched and weighted down with huge earrings.

She is still stunningly beautiful and this makes me sad.

It breaks my heart because I know all of her attempts to be different are really a cry of pain. She has struggled with mighty demons as she has wrested her way through adolescence.

Depression runs through the women in my family like a thick, pulsing vein. It strangles our self-confidence, saps our energy, and leaves us limp and lonely. I have watched my sister and mother struggle with it. I have fought my own conflict. I have listened to stories of my grandmother and great-grandmother taking to their beds.

But when I learn that she is cutting, my stomach recoils and I am physically sick—nauseous and clammy as if the flu has suddenly possessed my body. Soon, she starts wearing long sleeves all the time or a thick crowd of bracelets to hide her scars. I learn she has a secret blog and through a concerned friend of hers, I log on. It is so dark and disturbing that I lay awake at night thinking of what I’ve seen.

She had already been seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist for a year when the cutting starts. Now we up the ante. Intense, twice-weekly dialectical therapy, coupled with weekly visits to the psychiatrist and regular group therapy sessions take up much of her time. She visits the school social worker almost daily.

I suspect that she began cutting as a way to cultivate an image she wanted to convey: that of a hipster with a dark and daring soul. But the allure of the cuts quickly spiraled out of control, becoming its own form of addiction and destruction.

When she first came to me three years ago, crying and scared about her mood swings, I was concerned but not shocked. “I know I should be great right now,” she said. “But I just want to be by myself and be sad.”

But who as a teenager hasn’t felt some depths of despair? I remember those teenage feelings of angst and anxiety only too well, which is why in the beginning I was eager to direct her to a nutritionist or a new exercise group. Good food! Brisk air! Let’s just drum those bad feelings right out! For months I optimistically bucked her up, nauseating myself in my own faux cheeriness. I clung to her smallest request, as if an order of Kung Pao chicken could make her unhappiness disappear. But I also had a friend commit suicide in high school and I know the edge of the cliff can spring up quicker than expected.

Soon I learn that I can’t leave her by herself. I scrutinize every outfit. Grab her wrists. Take the sharp objects and prescription medications with me when I leave the house.

In the midst of her chaos, we transfer our home movies from videotape to DVD. The process requires it to be done in real time with the machine playing back what it is recording. I’m mesmerized. There she is as a baby, our first child, and her dad and I are completely in love with her. Her every move is recorded, nothing seemingly unworthy of the camera’s attention. As a toddler and a little girl, she is captivating. Her clear eyes gaze at the camera, lovingly looking at us. She is the ring leader, the head of family plays and sing-a-longs.

She orchestrates her siblings’ moves with confidence and assurance. I can’t stop watching, looking for some sign of the sullen girl who lives with us now.

Her clothing styles change as rapidly as her moods. First, she shed the trendy shirts and skinny jeans for men’s over-size clothing. That look gave way to black rock concert T-shirts which gave way to ’60s style bell bottoms and fringe vests. Each personality adjustment comes with a slew of other refinements. In addition to the new style of clothes, she adapts a new makeup look and a new personality design for her bedroom.

She draws all over her walls. Beautiful swirls, elaborate scrolls of flowers, inspirational quotes, and images. It’s stunning. She takes one wall and creates a vision board, filled with images she finds inspiring—yoga poses, New York City, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and plenty of other tortured souls who killed or nearly killed themselves with their creativity.

She silently glides out of the house. She has a new group of friends. Earlier, when she didn’t have friends and spent hours and days alone in her room, I worried. Now when she’s out with these new friends all the time, I worry. She tells me to relax, assures me she’s fine, her friends are what she needs right now.

I don’t trust this new group of friends, but without proof (and I desperately search for proof), I feel powerless as she slowly slips further away. Later I will learn that my suspicions were correct; she was engaging in high-risk behaviors on many levels. But I want to believe her. Desperately. Even though the line of pills I need to dole out to her every night is a constant reminder that she is anything but okay.

Eventually, I get a call from the social worker at high school, her voice belying her news. She tells me that there was “a setback” last night. I speak the language and know what that means. The social worker sent her to the nurse and when I go to pick up my daughter, I hug her and tell her I love her. She gently lifts her sleeve and I am stunned and heartbroken at the large hospital-like bandage covering the length of her arm. I am scared to see what lies underneath. Scared to see what she did to herself while I slept, oblivious, in the next room. My mind cannot go in the direction of the darkness she clung to last night. But I will fight for her.

*   *   *

A few hours later, we are on our way to check her into a psychiatric hospital; we stop for coffee and bagels—black for me and a coffee/hot chocolate/whipped cream concoction for her. We order bagels as well because, well, we’re hungry. And I’m not sure of the protocol for checking your daughter into the psych ward. Etiquette books don’t cover such topics.

I look over at my daughter, my first-born, my amazing girl, and try to imagine how we got to this point where she needs to spend time in what is euphemistically dubbed a behavioral health center. What words can I say right now that will make this okay? Do I optimistically give a pep talk about new beginnings? Do I break down crying like I want to? I’m hoping she recognizes the symbolism and love represented by the Dunkaccino. I sip coffee and chew my bagel despite the curious lack of salvia in my mouth. It’s almost painful to swallow.

She seems oddly calm, almost relieved. I fall squarely in the devastated and terrified category. I want to prolong the time I’m with her and perhaps commemorate the moment. I come up with a soppy, heartfelt, caffeine-laden toast to the future.

*   *   *

The adolescent psych ward is both everything I imagined and nothing I expected. The waiting room is full of people just like me, parents wearing the same expression of exhaustion, worry, and a tinge of relief. We don’t make eye contact; there is no need—it’s all too unbearable and we know it. And we are the lucky ones. In the hallway outside the waiting room, patients are being wheeled in, strapped to gurneys followed by familiar-looking parents. By familiar, I mean normal. Someone I would see at the grocery store. I don’t know why I find this surprising.

The kids getting checked in all wear a haunted, blank expression. The girls have the same black-rimmed, heavy eye-lined eyes and nails covered in black, chipped polish. Their clothes are grungy and baggy. The surprise is that my daughter fits right in. She looks just like them.

How had I not seen that before? In my quest to keep her out of the hospital, had I waited too long? How could a hospital stay possibly undo years of dark, deep depression? Where had my little girl gone who was on the soccer team and swim team, and loved going to church and hanging with her family?

We pass through three sets of locked doors before checking her in on the self-harm/eating disorder unit, where skeleton-like bodies with haunted eyes peer at her above their jutted collar bones. Quickly, these become familiar faces. A cross between a hospital ward and a bland dorm hall, the unit has both a nurse’s station and traditional dorm furniture (albeit, bolted to the wall). We have to relinquish everything from underwire bras to spiral notebooks and anything with staples.

This isn’t a retreat. There are no colorful posters or inspirational bulletin boards, encouraging residents to “hang in there, baby.” The nurses and clinical staff are professional but not sympathetic. I want them to smile or reassure me I am doing the right thing. But they don’t. They hand me forms to sign and packages of information, none of which are stapled.

The following days are a blur of phone calls to relatives, the school, teachers, doctors, therapists, insurance, and a few close friends. It’s exhausting and emotionally draining and every conversation seems to take an hour. I have three other kids who are scared and concerned. The younger two had no idea of the extent of their sister’s depression. We take a mental health day.

I spend the next week narrating my life, one step removed: I am folding the laundry while my daughter is in the psych unit. I am answering work email while my daughter is in the psych unit. I am driving a carpool while my daughter is in the psych unit.

I feng shui her entire room, cleaning, scrubbing, and airing everything out. I wash and refold her clothes, dust her shelves, take down the dark tapestries which cover the windows and buy a plant.

My feelings slide on a scale ranging from anger to relief to hope. I’m angry that it’s come to this—angry I didn’t do more sooner, even as I recognize that there was nothing more I could have done.

But there is also relief. Relief that she is in someone else’s care. That for a short while I won’t have to check on her constantly. That my heart won’t race going up to her room when she is the only one home. That I won’t need to look out the window waiting for her to come home.

That I can briefly stop questioning the medicine, the therapy, her psychiatrist, her school load, me, her father, our family—always wondering where we went wrong. Someone else can do all of that now. It is out of my hands for now.

And of course, there is hope. Hope that she is finally getting the help she needs. Hope that perhaps her future will be returned to her, a future where the possibility of college and a life outside of home exists.

We are periodically allowed one-and-a-half hour visits where we sit on uncomfortable chairs in a hallway near other patients and nurses. She is lonely and scared at first (which is hard) then excited and almost happy to have met so many people like her (which is maybe even more difficult) and finally desperate and anxious to get home.

We also meet for family meetings with other parents whose stories are just as awful as ours. And like my daughter, I feel an excitement and kinship with these people. Finally, someone else who understands the true struggle of watching a child battle demons.

Because the reality of mental illness is that it’s still extremely difficult to discuss. Those of us navigating the dark pathways are often too emotionally fraught to fight against other people’s assumptions or battle the stigma as we should. Many of us are too busy blaming ourselves as it is. And so the veil of silence continues. Who are we, the parents of children who suffer, who cut, who starve? Who among us shares this heartache?

When she is finally released, we walk slowly to the car and sit together for a while. She begins to weep. I hug her and cry with her. Then I ease the car into the road and begin the drive home.

*   *   *

The second time she is hospitalized it is less traumatic, but not easier.

She only made it a year before relapsing. After her first hospitalization, she participated in an outpatient program for an additional two months. She managed to keep up her coursework and return to her job. And to my relief, she moved away from her group of friends.

But if there is anything I’ve learned from this journey, it’s to expect the unexpected. Studies show that self-injury can be as addicting as alcohol and drugs.

The second time around, we are even more careful who we tell. My daughter’s illness is chronic and at times it can be life-threatening. And yet, her battles are fought internally, and sadly, we’ve learned that some people find it easier not to inquire.

My daughter, my husband, and I have each lost friends or distanced ourselves from people since the first round. Although we had told only a few people, we learned that the same folks who organize a chemotherapy support brigade don’t phone to check in. And the people who volunteer with the disabled don’t necessarily understand a psychiatric hospital.

But our family sticks together, at times straining at the seams. Before being hospitalized the first time, my daughter made me a CD (a mixed tape of love) and the haunting song “Beautiful Girl” by William Fitzsimmons swims through my brain in gentle laps.

Beautiful girl

Let the sunrise come again

Beautiful girl

May the weight of world resign

You will get better

Her doctors told us that the adolescent brain doesn’t completely stabilize until around age twenty-three. There is a good chance that she will age out of the cycle of self-injury and depression. There is also a chance that she will be fighting this battle the rest of her life. And so it’s up to me in the brief time she has left living at home and in our care, to make sure that she has the tools and knowledge to monitor her disease and keep herself safe.

For now that means supervising her medications, checking in with her daily, staying in communication with her school social worker and her therapist. And yes, ensuring that she is eating healthy food, drinking water, and getting exercise.

And sometimes it means simply ordering Kung Pao chicken on a bad night.

Author’s Note: Since this story isn’t mine alone, I showed it to my daughter before sending it into the world. Any hesitancy I had evaporated when she read it and encouraged me to put it out there. We’re hopeful we can assure someone who is experiencing a similar struggle that they’re not alone. Our journey continues, and although the path we’re taking remains murky, we’re both a lot stronger than we were when we started out.

Laura Amann is a writer and editor who mothers a brood of four in the Chicago area. Her award-winning essays have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Brain, Child, Salon, and Chicago Parent. Her reported pieces have appeared in Your Teen, Scholastic Parent, among others.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

 

 

A Mother’s Seventeen-Year-Old Secret

A Mother’s Seventeen-Year-Old Secret

By Julie Burton

IMG_6396I had recently begun to mother my 17-year-old daughter Sophie with a suffocating intensity. I’d hover over her shoulder while she checked Facebook, and ask prodding questions. I’d interrogate her when she returned home from social outings, craving every detail.

“Why are you like this?” she asked one evening, her voice, already filled with irritation as she interrupted my line of questioning. “It’s not normal. You…are…smothering… me!” The volume and intensity of her voice escalated, “What happened to you that makes you act like this?”

All of my breath exited my body. My stomach had tied itself into a knot and a goiter-sized lump had developed in my throat. I looked back into her keenly perceptive eyes that darted into me with intense scrutiny.

How could I possibly tell her the truth?

Almost immediately after giving birth to my daughter, I felt the need to protect her from the awfulness buried within me. If I safeguarded her from my secret, she would not follow in my path of self-destruction, and my scars would not become hers. She would have no reason to be ashamed of me, or to view me with pity and disgust. She could think of me as good and pure, worthy of her love and respect.

I promised myself her path would not resemble mine—that I would dedicate every ounce of my being to mothering her in way that would help her become the self-assured person I so desperately had wanted to be and have spent much of my adult life trying to reclaim.

As we sat on the floor of her room, the silence lingering between us, I felt trapped within myself. My daughter must not know the real me…she couldn’t know. Because within the real me was a secret box, and within the box was shame—the shame that accompanied a four-year, life-threatening battle with anorexia, that began 13 years before she was born.

How could I serve as a source of strength and inspiration for my daughter if she knew I had starved myself for nearly two years, was hospitalized twice, thought about killing myself, ran away from home? How could she respect me when, at her age, my self-worth was almost non-existent?

A daughter should not know these things about her mother.

Yet, as Sophie inched closer to turning 17, the memories of my 17-year-old emaciated self became more prevalent and my anxiety sky-rocketed, propelling me to become so overly involved in her life that I literally started to feel her feelings. The boundaries between us became blurred and I could not get enough of her life.

I tried to avert her suspicious gaze by searching for a sign in the Aspen tree standing unwittingly outside her bedroom window. I felt in my core she knew I was damaged goods. And that I had a secret that was intricately linked to my almost obsessive need to be close to her.

Our eyes locked and connected us—mother to daughter, daughter to mother—and at that moment I knew it was time to open the secret box.

My whole body ached as the memories mixed with shame were released from that locked place within. As I closed my eyes, I could hear the distinct click of the automatic lock that triggered every time the door to the adolescent mental health unit closed. The door that kept us “crazies” locked up—purposely removed from the outside world because some of us were “dangerous” to ourselves, or to others. I could smell the too familiar antiseptic hospital aroma that filled my nose for nearly two months; I could feel the scratchy, cold bed sheets on my skin, which perpetuated the continual feelings of loneliness and loss that burned inside my heart. I could hear the steady breathing of my sleeping roommate, whose stories of abuse and abandonment still haunt me to this day.

As I peeled my eyes open again, there she was, my beautiful daughter, her head tilted to the side and her piercing love-filled eyes pulling me out of that sad and lonely place, as she had done, unbeknownst to her, since I first held her in my arms.

Yet in this moment, she was demanding to understand more about that far-away place to which she had determined was a scary place for me.

“Mom, will you please tell me what happened to you?”

Was she ready to hear my story? What would our relationship look and feel like when she learned about my scary, unstable “crazy” past? Would she think differently of me, of herself?

“It’s okay, Mom. I can handle it. Whatever it is.”

I shook my head to dislodge the destructive, shameful demons, the ones that still appear as pop-ups in my brain during times of uncertainty. Her eyes didn’t leave mine as I took a deep breath and began, despite the shakiness in my voice, to painstakingly walk her through my 17-year-old world of anorexia nervosa.

For the next several hours we held each other tight, and through many tears, I tried to provide her with answers to her multitude of questions. I knew I couldn’t make her understand the how’s and why’s of my path toward, through and away from this perplexingly brutal disease. But we could, with the power of our love and trust in each other, examine my hurt, fear, sadness, blame, forgiveness, and journey to healing with honesty and tenderness.

As she nodded her head and opened her eyes even wider, I could see her slowly begin to grasp my answer to her initial question, “Why are you like this?” She now understood how my obsessive hovering, protectiveness and the unclear boundaries between us were directly linked to me bumping up with my past­—that looking at her at 17 prompted a cascade of memories of my 17-year-old withered self, and that I felt an overwhelming, fear-based need to protect her so that she would be safe from the demons that kidnapped my spirit at her age. Together, we came to the realization that in raising my daughter, I was healing myself—nurturing not only her, but the child within me, and that in some ways I was trying to re-live my tortured years through her.

Sharing my secret with Sophie did not make me less of a mother to her. It made me human. And the shame that held my secret locked in place for nearly 17 years slowly began to loosen its grip on me.

As I watched the look in her eyes slowly transform from frustration and confusion to empathy and compassion, I knew that my daughter now knew me—The true version of me. The flawed and imperfect me. The broken me.

And yet, she loved me just the same.

Maybe even more.

Julie Burton is a freelance writer and blogger (unscriptedmom.com), a mother of four and a yoga instructor. She lives in Minnetonka, MN, with her husband of 21 years and her children, and is working on a book on self-care for mothers. 

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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What The Living Do

What The Living Do

By Emily Rapp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is,” he said.

“It isn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the living must do is remember.

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

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

Illustration by Mikela Provost

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Here Comes Trouble

Here Comes Trouble

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Frannie_13I read my twelve-year-old daughters’ texts. I admit it. I take a peek whenever I get the chance, which isn’t that often because my kids are on to me and take their phones wherever they go, which includes the shower. I found this out a few weeks ago at the “Genius Bar”in the Apple Store where we went after one of the phones mysteriously stopped functioning. When Jeremy, our trouble shooter, asked if the phone had gotten wet recently, my daughter answered, “Not like soaked, but maybe like misted from steam in the bathtub.” Her face went red and she gave a small smile, as if to acknowledge the idiocy of her actions. I, however, stayed silent, unable to admit that I’d had a hand in it, that in a court of law, under but-for rules of causation, my own nosiness could be blamed for the broken phone.

I’ve heard the arguments against reading your child’s texts. Texts are private. It’s the way children communicate nowadays. They need to feel like they can freely express themselves. Obviously, these are the views of the more well-adjusted parents. I would like to be one of them. I would like to stop reading the texts, but honestly, I can’t. In this area of parenting, the realm of preteen relations, I am, like my daughter’s iPhone, damaged goods. I don’t need to apply any fancy rules of causation to tell you why. I was bullied in sixth grade.

When I say bullied, I don’t mean your garden variety name calling or not including, but the real deal, the stuff that makes up a parent’s worst fears and messes up a grown woman’s psyche. Girls throwing rocks at my mother as she shopped in town. A chain of arms linking across the hall so I couldn’t make my way. Walking home in the cold, after my winter coat had been buried in a snow drift while I’d sat in class.

As for why it happened, I can’t tell you. Although over the years I’ve developed a few theories which center around the fact that I was clueless and so was my mother. She sent me off in blind faith and Wranglers to sixth grade where I learned about Queen Bees and Wanna Be’s through on-the-job training.

But, like any survivor does, I gradually moved on and eventually, I moved away. I made friends. I got a degree. I found a career. I found a therapist, then a husband. I had kids. I was healed. And then, first physically and now it seems, emotionally, I moved back. I never intended to. I’d vowed to never return to my hometown after I graduated high school. But I’d found a house I loved in a neighborhood I liked with close friends and my parents nearby. “Go back,” the therapist told me, “and get it right.”

I tend to take any assignment with goodie two shoes seriousness (a habit which I suspect, along with the Wranglers, had something to do with the bullying), and so we bought the house, and I threw myself into my task of getting it right. For a while, the job was easy. But gradually, my girls got older. Third grade rolled into fourth, fourth into fifth, and before I knew what hit me, my SUV was rolling around the circle drive of Junior High. My girls were in sixth grade, and once again, so was I.

In an instant, I was off the wagon, undone, nauseous as could be when I dropped off my kids in the morning. When I looked out the window at the kids clustered around, I saw potential social terrorists. When I watched my own kids head into the melee, I saw potential targets. This time around, however, I vowed to be on guard, to get it right.

In my efforts to do so, I led my daughters in a series of well-intended but largely ignored lectures which touched on themes such as bullying, cyberbullying, empathy, inclusion, how to look our for yourself, why to not look out only for yourself, and when all else fails, how to throw a right hook.

I also committed to keeping tabs on social dynamics, which I quickly realized was more difficult than anticipated due to modern technology. Gone are the days when a parent can keep a finger on the pulse by simply pressing an ear against a bedroom door. Kids don’t talk, they text. So one day I decided to read, and I never stopped until the phone broke down. All in the quest to have what my mother did not—a sense of what’s going on.

The irony, of course, is that nothing is going on. In six months of school, while I’ve been patrolling and panicking, nothing has happened. As twelve-year-olds go, my children’s friends are saints. They have kind hearts, good values and nice families. It seems the only troublemaker in the sixth grade so far is me.

The other day I had to fill out a profile on each of my kids for camp. Has your daughter ever been teased? It asked. And I, in turn, asked my kids. “Have you ever been teased?”

Lilly answered with, “I don’t think so.”

Gracie answered with, “Only by Lilly.”

Their answers and their relaxed attitudes beg a few follow up questions for me, like can one really “get it right”when so much—having a twin, having nice neighbors—comes down to luck of the draw? Which in turn begs a better question: what the hell have I been doing with my time? Except, I’ve realized during the idle hours I’d allotted for advising on the non-existent bullying, scarring my children. In the name of getting it right, I have been screwing it up by handing down my issues—an aversion to groups, a distrust of people, the assumption that a friendship can go permanently south on a dime. My guess is that I am, like a parent who passes down an addiction, giving my own sixth grade to my daughters. Let’s face it, when the last words children hear as they head out the door are, “Stick together and don’t take shit from anyone,” their outlook on the day can only be so grand. I assume many parents would tell me that a better approach would be the more traditional, “Have a great day, girls. I love you.” Obviously, these are the same parents who aren’t sneaking peeks at their children’s texts, the well-adjusted ones who weren’t bullied in sixth grade.

I admit that maybe I have erred in the opposite direction as my mother. But isn’t that what parenting is all about? Swinging the pendulum, over compensating for the ways in which our parents fell short, making the big mistakes that keep therapists in business. My girls may likely grow up to be cynical, paranoid people with attachment issues. After all, one is already showering with a phone. But I hold out hope. There are still three months left of sixth grade and an entire year of seventh—an eternity at an age when all can go south on a dime.

Francie Arenson Dickmans 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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Nothing

Nothing

By Joni Koehler

dreamstime_s_40258674I found this game on the Internet. The object of the game is to find three or more of the same colored squares together and click on them with the mouse. If you click, they disappear and make room for other squares to pair with their red, blue, yellow, or green teammates. Each level has more squares, goes faster, and is harder to complete.

I have been playing the game all summer, moving the mouse back and forth at a leisurely pace during the early levels, growing more and more frantic with the mouse as the game intensifies until, at level nine, I am clicking the mouse button in a nonstop motion, arcing the mouse back and forth across the mouse pad. When I lose, I take a deep breath and start over, glad to be back at the beginning, where it’s easy and things move slowly. At the beginning, I don’t have to think, and that is the real attraction of the game.

The game does nasty things to our computer, downloading data miners every couple of minutes. My husband, who knows a thing or two about computers, says that the miners could ruin our computer, that we can’t afford to buy a new one, that I really should stop playing the game. I know he’s right, but the risks have been worth that luxurious feeling of thinking about nothing. If I had to take stock, here are the contents of my summer:

Thinking about: nothing.

Doing: nothing (e.g., watching TV, playing video games).

In my brain: nothing.

What I want to accomplish: nothing.

What I have actually accomplished: surprisingly, more than you would imagine.

Two things startle me. The first is that I have been able to keep up this sort of vacant existence for so long. I said goodbye to my sixth-grade reading students seven weeks ago, and I usually rebound from the need to vegetate much, much sooner. If boredom doesn’t drive me, then outside forces take over. The kids need to be driven to baseball practice, the eaves need painting, someone wants food, or I need to work to prepare for the next school year. All of it is important and necessary and my role in life, and normally after a week or two, I plunge myself into the minutiae of daily life without resentment and with a renewed vigor. This summer, I’ve done all the feeding and the driving and the schoolwork, just as I always do. But I haven’t been there.

The entire time while I was shopping for my son’s baseball cleats, my mind was skimming across the abyss, hoping we could hurry up and finish so I could catch Intimate Portrait when we got home.

At our summer in-service about poverty and diversity at school, I was daydreaming the entire time about what my strategy would be if I were a contestant in The Amazing Race. See, before I went, I’d study all the maps in the whole world and learn how to talk to taxi drivers in three or four Romance languages and a couple of Asian ones, too. I’d make my husband drive places fast, and I would practice navigating from the back seat. We’d drive in downtown Houston during rush hour to practice being civil to one another in high-stress situations. We would be the nicest couple ever to compete and would not do one mean or cutthroat thing to the other people. We would win the million dollars with the power of our preparation and winning personalities. I went to the trouble of daydreaming only to keep myself upright in the chair.

The second surprise is that nobody seems to notice my mental absence. We’re in the car driving to the orthodontist, and my son is talking about dove hunting season, and I’m saying “Uh-huh” periodically, but I’m not listening at all, and he doesn’t know the difference. I lie across the bed and listen to my husband discuss his job, and I barely keep up. He has to ask if I’m listening once or twice, but I don’t think he realizes that even when I’m looking straight at him, even when I am asking pertinent questions, I’m not there.

He never comes home from work at the end of the day and says, “It looks like you sat around all day and didn’t do anything. Is this how you want to spend your summer?” I lose my planner, which I refer to as my brain, and nobody thinks it is odd that I have lost my brain. Nobody says, “Mother/Wife/Daughter, how very odd that you would lose your brain. You usually have your brain together.”

And then I get mad. I tell my husband I’m sad. I tell him I feel disregarded. He says sorry. He makes the kids say sorry. But it’s all a ruse. My anger is a façade; I’ve wielded it to keep them from seeing that I want to do nothing, think nothing, and have nothing to stop me from doing nothing, including people. It’s easy to lash out, because I’m the mom, and they are afraid to call me on it.

My mom can loaf with the best of them. She can spend a whole week doing nothing but eating Wheaties and reading romance novels, with an occasional change of clothing to make people think she is moving around more than she actually is. She can play penny poker with a six-year-old for half a day. If I were playing penny poker with a six-year-old, it would be something. I would have to concentrate to keep from losing my temper and to keep people from knowing that I am not especially patient at poker or six- year-olds. But she is patient at both, and for her, it’s nothing.

She tried to teach me the art of blankness for a lot of years but had never been successful. It isn’t that I’m a bad student. I would have loved to pass the course, but she’s not the only one from whom I inherited traits. The familial penchant for obsessive compulsive disorder, though somewhat muddied by my mother’s coolness, has manifested itself in me as a type A personality with a side of anal retentiveness. So, technically, I knew how to do this “nothing” everyone kept talking about, but in practice I had spent very little time doing it. And I can now admit that for many years I only acted the role when it came time for nothing. Maybe I was still, maybe I was quiet, but on the inside, I was lying on a sunny beach with a scantily clad Viking lad. But now, I’m doing it. And I’m doing it for a lot longer than necessary. I could compete with a corpse.

Mom can dip into nothing at the drop of a hat, stay there for fifteen minutes, and return unblemished. That is her normal pattern. Over the years, though, there were times when I witnessed a prolonged retreat. She pulled into herself during times of extreme stress. When her sister died, she was mentally absent for a year or so. She did the chores, but every spare moment was poured into a Harlequin romance. She read hundreds of them, with the bad grammar, the identical plots. Their mindless drone kept her afloat in the aftermath. It was how she handled her grief.

I usually need a week or two to recover from the previous school year, and I am now five weeks past that deadline. There is a possibility that events of the last year have prolonged my coma. I could add a week of bone idleness for the unwanted changes at work that will add hours to my workload. Two weeks for the letter in the mail saying there is a nodule. A nodule and we would like to take another look before we remove both of your breasts and leave a cavernous maw in their place. Another week for when they sent the next letter saying sorry for the inconvenience, but there is nothing wrong with your breast. The technician thinks she may have dropped an olive from her lunch into your titty pictorial. Add a week for that phone call from my daughter in the middle of fifth period. “My best friend tried to kill herself and I had to stop her.” A day, no two, added on for the trip to the mental hospital, following in the wake of the red ambulance that carried her friend kicking and screaming to that unfamiliar place. My daughter’s frightened eyes, wide and so young. What does that add up to? Almost seven weeks. Three days short.

The other three days? There was extra stress because of the graduation. Have to have the right dress, send the invitations, plan the parties, the thank-yous, the college visits, the imminent leaving of your first child.

The imminent leaving of your first child, off to college, where she will almost certainly forget the way home. Where she will shush off to Vail on the first Thanksgiving with a kid named Rick, while we at home mourn her passing. The day I watched the Real World marathon for eight straight hours in my pajamas, did that have anything at all to do with the imminent leaving?

Am I trying to hold time at the end of my arm because I am afraid, terrified actually, that the wake of her absence will fill with … nothing?

I’ve done everything right. I worked all year to own my feelings, to acknowledge that the last homecoming parade, the last high school volleyball game, the last report card were sad to me. I have done my crying. My husband and son have not done theirs—and will not until she is gone—and I figured I would get a head start so I can help them through it. This is what a good mother does.

But I don’t feel up to helping them. I wonder if it is possible to die from having your kid go off to college. I have friends whose kids are in college. They don’t look dead, but they could be sort of half dead. Maybe all those gray-headed people wandering around the country in RVs are really half dead from their kids leaving. Maybe they sit on far hillsides with powerful telescopes and watch Junior at the office. “Mom,” Dad will say. “Come quick! He’s about to make his presentation!” It’s possible.

Maybe I’ll be the first. Only nobody will know. The local newspaper will write an article about my untimely demise. It will say:

“Joni Koehler died today. The cause of death was heart failure. Her husband stated that Joni was playing a computer game when she gave a sudden cry and collapsed on top of the keyboard. ‘They really should make level nine easier,’ said the stricken widower.”

There is a ring of being pregnant again to all of it. My emotions are all over the place. My daughter and I are walking through the mall, and I say I have a headache, and she says, “Just do what I do and don’t allow yourself to get a headache, because like I never succumb to the folly that is illness.” And I want to have this baby already. I want her out. She’s a bowling ball in my gut. Then, we’re walking through the store looking at bedspreads and I tell her, “That is a dependable bedspread right there. You can use it on your own little girl’s bed. It will last you a long time, so it’s worth a few extra dollars,” and I just want to throw myself on the floor and beg somebody to give me a little girl because I don’t have one anymore. It hits me in a startling wave like morning sickness, and I have to concentrate very hard on the E! True Hollywood Story to look like a normal person, not a forty-four-year-old woman clinging to the sales clerk’s leg, howling about babies.

Her leaving isn’t the only hard thing. It is the change in my role. From the moment she left my womb, my existence as Joni took a back seat to my existence as Amy’s mom. Society saw me that way, and so did I. It was difficult to go from being the one with the beautiful body to the one with the slack tummy and the oversized breasts that spewed milk without my knowledge or permission ten times a day. I grew into motherhood with grace. I endured the days when six of the seven bodily fluids ended up on my clothing, the telephone didn’t ring once, and I lay in wait for my husband to come home from work so I could follow him all over the house and talk and talk just to keep my head from exploding. I talked to my children, I read to them, I praised their childish creations, and I watched hundreds of ball games in which I had no interest. My children have turned out happy, reasonably intelligent, and well adjusted. However, they are about to turn out, both of them, and her leaving has reminded me of this.

I think it used to be enough that a woman raised her children. If she survived child rearing, society didn’t expect much more. She was then free to let her chins multiply and watch squirrels from her front porch. Now I think I’m supposed to do something else. When my son leaves in three years, I will be three years away from my fiftieth birthday. If Oprah and Maya Angelou are any gauge, I’m supposed to celebrate this new age and start sprouting wise pronouncements. I am supposed to grow into another role altogether, one where I know myself, lower my body fat, and achieve something worthwhile in my own right. Only, I don’t know anything about this “new” woman, and sometimes I feel the same sort of wide-eyed fright that I felt when I held my daughter in my lap for the first time, and she looked at me so helpless and trusting. I’m staring down the teeth of a waterfall, and I’d rather not.

So I go to my bedroom, because it’s Amazing Race time. Amy comes in and lies on my bed and we watch together. The contestants race to Russia, where they have to play hockey, drink vodka, and eat two pounds of caviar. The skinny women have great difficulty with the caviar; they say they’re sick and can’t possibly finish. They roll in agony on the floor and cool cloths are applied. The bowling moms suck that caviar down; they’ve smelled and tasted worse than this, endured worse than this. They leave their skinny counterparts in the dust. Amy turns to me and says, “You could do that, Mom.”

“You bet I could, but when Dad and I go, he’ll do all the eating. He’ll eat anything.”

“No, you and I should go, Mom.”

“Okay,” I say.

The contestants reach the pit stop for the day. The older Internet dating couple is last and they get eliminated.

“You’ll have to get in shape, though,” she says.

“Yeah, I will. I can do it, too. But you’ve got to be smart to win this game.”

“Yeah, we could win.”

And we do, every day. I’m sad that she’s leaving but I know it will be okay. I’ll get into shape and jump back into my life, and get smart, and learn the new languages I need, and read the maps, and sometimes we’ll still run the race together. We are the new women, she and I, and we can conquer hockey, whip caviar, and slay vodka. We can even beat level nine, if we want to. And that would be something.

Author’s Note: My daughter is now in her second semester of college. I will not lie. At first, I was glum; I was teary, prickly even. Now, I’m adjusting. Writing this piece was somewhat prophetic. My body fat is lower, and I am determined to accomplish something in my own right. I’m back on the

Joni Koehlerlives in a South Texas town. She is a sixth-grade teacher at the local school, a wife, the mother of two children, and an aspiring author.

Brain, Child (Summer 2005)

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Burned

Burned

By Doreen Oliver

iStock_000000074062SmallThe first time I threw myself a birthday party, my hair caught on fire. I was chatting with a friend in a West Village lounge, unaware burning candles hung centimeters away. With a slight tilt of my head to sip my lemon drop martini, my hair lit up like four out of the five rings at the Sochi Olympics.

I’d never been one to throw myself a party. It had always seemed a bit self-indulgent, celebrating yourself when all you did the day you were born was lie there, bawling.  But I had felt isolated in the months leading up to that fateful day, and wanted to be fêted. For nearly two years, while my husband went off each day to collaborate with colleagues and clients, I stayed home with my lone co-worker: our first-born son, Xavier. I had abandoned my career as a film producer when he was born, and now he and I were new hires in the roles of mother and child, with neither of us doing a very good job. He had high marks when it came to walking and feeding himself, but wasn’t cutting it in the talking department. If I were a better supervisor—scheduling more play dates, labeling aloud each piece of produce in the supermarket, not stashing him in the Aquarium swing during my morning coffee break with The View—I would have been able to help him speak. Instead, Xavier and I were alone together in our Brooklyn apartment, punching the clock. And he hadn’t uttered two words consistently.

I scheduled another developmental review with New York City’s Early Intervention agency. A few months before they had denied my son free speech therapy services, saying his language was “age appropriate,” but I knew he needed help. This time, my case manager prepped me for the upcoming review,advising me to push for at least two speech therapy services each week. “You might only get one,” she said, “but at least that’s more than none.”

At the meeting, after probing deeper into how below average our pride and joy was, the agency awarded my son three speech therapy sessions per week and two family training sessions per month. They also recommended he undergo a psychological evaluation.

I closed my eyes and finally allowed myself to exhale. A moment later, my eyes flew open.

Wow, I thought. My son must be really messed up.

*   *   *

Still, my birthday party had to go on, now more than ever! I needed—no, deserved—to celebrate something. After clothing and party accommodations were squared away, I focused on my hair.

Hair had always been where I’d stumbled. During college, the time when many African-American women declare their allegiance to either permed hair or their natural kinks, I vowed never to chemically straighten my hair again. For someone who never liked to think about her mane but refused to cut it off, this decision left me to fight with my thick, coarse mass on a daily basis. It brought me great anxiety, and to make life easier I often covered up my God-given locks with braided extensions or the occasional wig.

Determined to display my natural beauty for my birthday, I indulged in a trip to one of the best natural hair care salons in New York. The stylist massaged my scalp with elements like eucalyptus and lavender; she coaxed my curls into lush, even, shiny waves. I glowed.

At the party, surrounded by only adults, I caught up with friends who did things other than cut up their child’s chicken nuggets. Alison quit her job to ski in Crested Butte. Lorelei started a non-profit in Brazil.  Athena, my cousin’s friend, focused on me.

“Your son is so cute!” she said. “The picture you sent of him in the bathtub is adorable!”

“Thanks.” During Xavier’s first year I’d email pictures every week—him at the playground, eating cake, sleeping. Recently I had taken fewer. Only my husband and I knew how hard it was to get him to look at the camera and smile.

“Do you have any new pictures?”

I nibbled the sugar on the rim of my glass. “I’m so used to toting him around I didn’t even think to bring pictures.”

“Where is he now?” she pressed.

“Huh?” I said, thinking of ways to change the subject.

“Where is your son now?” she shouted over the music. “Who is he with?”

“Oh no!” I seized the opportunity to create a diversion and called over to my husband with mock alarm. “Honey! What did we do with Xavier? I thought you had him!”

My husband and Athena looked at me, baffled. I, however, laughed hysterically. I had traded my discomfort for amusement, and I leaned back away from Athena and her questions to take a long, satisfied swallow of my drink.

And then I was aflame.

It was quick and without warning—the low-hanging chandelier caught a strand of my eucalyptus-treated hair and ignited it as if it were the actual leaf. Athena, a parole officer trained in emergency situations, swatted at the middle of my head, extinguishing everything but the smell of burnt hair. A patch in the middle of my head was seared almost to the scalp, and my formerly beautiful tresses now resembled an overgrown lawn, mowed only in the very center.

Within a month after that party, the psychologist diagnosed Xavier with autism, my husband was laid off, and my 35-year-old sister had a stroke. I had tried to runaway from my worries about my son, to focus on myself instead of the nagging guilt that I was failing my child. Instead, I got burned.

*   *   *

That was six years ago. My husband found a new job, my sister recovered, but sometimes I still wish to run away from motherhood. Xavier was diagnosed early, but at eight years old he still can’t hold a proper conversation. Maybe I’m the problem. My love for him is great, but also heavy, laden with worry and regret. Perhaps it drags him down, stunting his development. Maybe if I left, we’d both be relieved. I imagine stepping out of the kitchen while the kids eat their gluten-free ground turkey and kale wraps, slipping out the back door, then tearing down our tree-lined street.

My fantasy stops there, though, because I have no idea where I would go. I can visualize the escape, but can never picture the destination. That’s the difference between a fantasy and a dream; a vision borne of sadness rather than joy.

I dream Xavier will be a musician. Recently he recorded himself on playing “Let it Be” on the keyboard. He had taught himself to play the chords by ear in the original key. I don’t know if he’ll ever speak like you or me, but I believe his passion for music will be the path to his success—however we define it. When I think about his talent, the accomplishments he’s made in his own time, my love for him is light, buoyant, and joyful.

It is this type of love that cements me in place when self-doubt shouts for me to run. I can see my son’s future, and therefore I must stay. I have to be his voice, his advocate. I have to be his mother.

The patch of hair has grown back since, but recently, after an exhausting few weeks of Xavier waking up in the middle of the night and squealing for up to two hours, I cut off all my hair. It was uneven, the ends were frayed and split, and it was too much to manage. I hated the way it looked and was overwhelmed by the care it needed that I felt I couldn’t give. So I took the kitchen shears, stood over my bathroom sink and cut it, lock by lock. I ran my fingers through the short, healthy roots. They were strong and sturdy, and stood firmly in place.

Doreen Oliver is a writer, performer and producer and mother of two boys. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post Sunday Magazine and the 2014 Listen to Your Mother storytelling showcase at Symphony Space in New York City. Follow her at @doreenoliver.

The End of All Things

The End of All Things

By Catherine W. Crawford

iStock_000021904999SmallI find myself lately wandering through the past. Sorting through layers of my life like an archaeologist, careful to brush gently so as not to damage what remains.

A six-bedroom house has many corners. We were once practically a town unto ourselves. Our doors never locked, our lights perpetually ablaze to ward off sadness and accommodate insomnia. It seems like a ghost town now. I look for tumbleweed. The two oldest kids live a thousand miles away. The extended family who shared our lives have moved on, grateful to be beyond the reach of the co-dependence that bound us.  My husband Quinn, the central feature of the home, the elephant in every room, took his own life almost five years ago. The three young people still living at home maintain an uneasy alliance, each waiting to fall out of the nest and, gathering strength and a small amount of savings, flies away. The empty spaces have, like a dig, begun to give up their secrets; photos, notebooks, and revelations have surfaced.  Some of these finds are mundane, some earth-shaking, and all leave me in wonder.

I have found my sociology notes, and copies of the tests that might have helped my younger daughter get a grade higher than a C last semester. I tore the house apart looking for them and here they are, right next to my desk.

I have found my phone charger, from three phones ago.

I have found many photographs.

In one, I am surrounded by pumpkins and kids, an autumn day eighteen years ago. My Autumn Self was always a happy one, endlessly optimistic, energetic, and creative. I have no doubt the woman in the photo thought her worst days were behind her. Losing a child, job changes, health issues, strange days when her husband was confused and erratic, early courtship days when people seemed conspired against them as a couple. What would we do differently if we could see what form our futures would take?

Another picture of all of us, smiles tired and wary, an evening birthday party about eight years ago. A stolen moment with cake and presents.

A photo I’ve never seen before. My eldest child, thin and tense, the way brides-to-be are, surrounded by her bridesmaids, bathed in sunshine at a bridal luncheon. Most of the photos seem to be taken in the fall, my hopeful time of the year. Too often, loving a person with a mood disorder means you cycle right along with them, and my husband’s cycles became ours.

I have found pictures of Quinn too, and they strike me in an odd way. I can tell his mood, what the day had entailed, what had not yet happened. It is always surprising to find photos of a man who hated to be photographed. He once (once? Maybe twenty times) told me how, as a ten year old, he ripped up every photo he could find of himself, systematically leafing through every album, destroying himself. I had always pictured this scene after a punishment from his mother, one laced with the poisonous guilt and deep shame she wielded so well.  No wonder. No wonder. I grieve for the little boy who hated himself so much.

I married, at far too young an age, a man who was brilliant, angry, damaged. I thought the force of my joy could fix him. I thought children were sure to help. Although he said he wanted none, I ignored that statement, certain it was a wish to remain young. I had never been consistent taking a pill. I was just as inconsistent with The Pill. However, I barely thought about the adults my babies would become, the father I’d be giving them.

As the children grew, I wound the cocoon around us. The key was to keep the love coming—and keep the world away. I never knew the manipulation I was under, never knew the cocoon was his to weave, not mine.

I stayed home with my babies; I nursed them and homeschooled them. Through it all, Quinn encouraged me. My days were poured into the little ones. But the unwritten law was that all attention shifted to Quinn at the end of every day—and all weekend long. Even now, my memories of those days are rosy-hued and I miss them. Nowhere in these memories do I find me. I told my homeschooling friends my husband was very supportive. Very supportive.

I had no concept of mental illness, of bipolar disorder, of the long tentacles of shame and depression. My own upbringing had been gentle, structured, purposeful, with a sense of security so integral to my life, that I did not see my husband had none of his own. His narcissism was a thing of survival. He was a funny Pied Piper when his mood was high, organizing contests, making up rhymes and songs, dispensing tickles and compliments, and pocket money.  And if they were naughty within earshot of Daddy, they were subjected to long shaming lectures; Quinn accused them of attitudes and even looks they could not have understood. There were tears, and shouting, and the next day a toy. A television, a bicycle, a puppy, the post-punishment gifts were ridiculous.

These gifts left the children confused but grateful that Daddy was no longer mad.

I can recall, with very little effort, the feeling of overwhelming relief when his rage was over, and all was temporarily ok again, as if the sun had come out and we were redeemed.

*   *   *

My hand traces the drywall that was pierced by shotgun spray a few months before he died.  Examining the gun he forced me to buy for him, he accidentally discharged a shot in the house, which miraculously hurt no one.  The wall was patched but the inside of the closet was not repaired.  The holes lie just below some words an angry child once scrawled on the wall after a punishment. The words say, “Dad is an asshole.”

I have found his well-worn Zippo lighter. The sound it makes upon opening it, or rather the absence of that sound, was the first clue I had that he was dead. I hadn’t heard the sound in the hours before he died that night. I remember telling the 911 operator this fact.

I have found the journal he gave me for Christmas, 1981—the year the Mighty Quinn descended upon my life. We were soon engaged to the horror of my parents and siblings—and in a strange way, to my own relief. I would no longer have to see my mother’s face tighten as she heard Quinn’s car sweep up the driveway to take me away. I would no longer have to endure my father’s gentle, old-fashioned comments about character, and temperament, and the nature of a successful courtship. Or the lectures about how my education, my dreams and my goals, also mattered. Quinn and I would be away. Our grand story would continue, this time with new china and pretty towels, and a new name.

I hold the journal in hand, the pretty flowered cover now faded. On a romantic whim, I had dedicated the journal to Quinn, “the god of my idolatry” (I tended to speak in Shakespearean terms at age nineteen and sometimes quoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning). The first few pages are filled with gushing, overwrought nightly declarations of love. But as journals often do, it diminished into once-or-twice-weekly entries about my day. Quinn would ask how the journal was coming, and I would hurriedly write something heartfelt. After reading these entries, he would spend the evening pouting that my sentiments were “shallow” and “like something you would write in a letter to your sister.”  My next entries would then gush about our “love” and the people who were thwarting that love around us.

In those pages I feel his manipulation, and my own desperate attempts to find a reason for it.  I grieve that I only see it now.

I have been called “brave” by those who have known the outer edges of my life, but not the inner madness. I have been called “smart” as long as I can remember, but how smart was I not to see what I helped to construct? A brave woman gets a madman to a doctor. A smart woman does not buy a depressed person a gun.

He is gone now, that brilliant abusive boy, killed by his own hand with a gun he coerced me to buy, ostensibly, to protect us. Left in his wake are those five children, grown now, eager to flee this house, eager to try to escape memories of his illnesses, the chronic pain he suffered from a car accident, his despair at losing his job, his descent into a delusional world he insisted we share.

I have rearranged many of the photos on the walls, trying to incorporate those golden autumn days. I have loaded up the car with things that no longer fit into our lives. I am having more trouble finding a place for the memories, and where to put the girl who wrote the journal.

I have wrapped the journal carefully in tissue paper, unwrapped it, wrapped it again. I have flirted with the idea of burning it and just as quickly decided against it. I have held the journal to my nose, trying to detect the odor of Old Spice and Marlboros.

I have closed the nearest closet, and thrown away the sociology notes. One of the empty bedrooms will be reclaimed and a daybed and desk should just about fit. The artifacts will be cataloged, studied, dispensed with, put to rest. Here, at the end of all things, it is good to open my hands and let go.

Catherine W. Crawford, a Northern Illinois resident, wrote her first parenting piece when her first child was three. She is now a grandmother and finds that parenting never ceases to inspire and reward her.

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Bury My Son Before I Die

Bury My Son Before I Die

By Joanne De Simone

joannedesimoneIt goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.

My son Benjamin was born with Lissencephaly, a rare brain malformation. Developmentally he’s like an infant in a fifteen-year-old body. He can’t walk, talk, or use his hands. I bathe, feed, and diaper him every day. In the not so distant past, Benjamin would have been institutionalized. Without an arsenal of seizure medications, he wouldn’t have lived to see his first birthday. By the age of ten, he was taking twenty-six prescribed pills daily.

Many children with Benjamin’s disorder suffer with chronic pneumonia, and unstoppable seizures. Medical advances and invasive interventions, like tracheostomies and feeding tubes, have extended their lives but cannot change reality. These children die, young. I have spent Benjamin’s entire lifetime mourning the deaths of children I’ve met on the Internet.

When I dreamt of parenthood, I expected to raise children who would grow strong and healthy. I dreamt of watching them graduate college and launch exciting careers. I hoped they would fall in love, marry and fill my life with grandchildren. I never thought I’d envision my son’s name on a headstone in a peaceful resting place.

It began when Benjamin was diagnosed at four months old.  My husband and I were forced to redefine parenthood. We couldn’t protect our son from his physical devastation. Our only goal was to give Benjamin the best quality of life. We knew that the definition of “quality” would be hazy, dependent on Benjamin’s needs and our capabilities. We knew we would always be judged.

The miracle in this situation is the existence of Benjamin’s joyful soul. Although he has constant pain ranging from constipation to his slowly dislocating hip, Benjamin has never gone one day without smiling. He loves when I read, sing and dance for him. He likes to stay up late with company, and sit on his Daddy’s lap for hours. He fills our home with his contagious laughter.

I have looked into Benjamin’s eyes more than I’ve ever looked into anyone’s. I’ll never know his thoughts, but our connection is powerful. He possesses an intangible, indefinable beauty. I love my son in a way I will never love anyone else.

I used to worry about Benjamin dying but now fifteen years in, I worry about him surviving beyond my husband and me. Only we have comforted Benjamin through daily seizures and seven surgeries. We are his one true voice. No one can understand Benjamin the way we do.

A few years ago Benjamin was vomiting for two weeks. The doctors assumed it was a virus, instructed us to wait it out. We watched him grow weak. There was a vacant, lifeless look in his eyes. He was a suffering shadow of himself. I kept pushing the doctors to help him fight to live. I felt selfish. Part of me wanted him to let go and die. That felt selfish too. Because of my persistence, we discovered Benjamin had an atypical presentation of pneumonia. I fear the day my voice is silenced.

If orphaned, Benjamin would need to live in some kind of hospital facility. I’ve seen medical residencies for children like Benjamin. They are sad places. A hospital setting is a business, not a home. I picture Benjamin alone in a bed, hooked up to tubes, nothing more than an insignificant number on a chart. With that in mind, I’d rather see him dead.

I have learned to embrace motherhood with brutal honesty. I don’t actually want to see my son take his last breath. I don’t want to know life without him. For as long as I live, I will do whatever I can to keep Benjamin healthy and give him the best possible quality of life. His happiness is my happiness. He is no less than anyone else, deserves every right and consideration. As Benjamin’s advocate I can guarantee a strong proactive force. When I’m gone, I can do no more.

I will regret some of these thoughts if I do one day find myself standing on Benjamin’s grave, but there will be no peace if he is wheeled across mine.

Joanne De Simone lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons.  She’s a special educator and writer whose work has appeared in The Huffington Post.

Since this piece was published on Brain Child, Joanne was interviewed on Huffington Post Live. Click here to watch the video.

The First Tour

The First Tour

By Christi Clancy

firsttourI never thought that a college tour with my seventeen-year-old daughter would be an emotionally fraught experience. I’m a professor, so I’m used to the campus environment. Our friends who have gone through this process marvel at the ways colleges have changed since we went to school, but I’m not surprised by mindfulness classes and meditation rooms, dining halls with vegan and gluten-free options and gender-neutral dorms and bathrooms.

But there I was on my first campus tour, not a professor, just another mom in a traveling pod of parents, siblings and high school juniors following our guide’s bouncing ponytail. She was a pretty, self-assured co-ed in Cleopatra sandals and Raybans. She pointed out the student artwork in the library, the international studies office and the common room in the dorm where a lonely looking kid in a t-shirt that said WEED banged on a piano. She’d pause occasionally and put her hand on her hip. “Any questions?”

I didn’t know what to ask. I couldn’t even focus. I was thinking about how old all the mothers and fathers looked, and I was roughly their same age. I’d tripped on one of those age touchstones that launch you into existential angst. Where had all the years gone? Wasn’t I just in college myself? Why didn’t I think about schools in California? Why didn’t I look at small, private colleges? Why didn’t I major in geology? Why hadn’t I traveled abroad? What would it be like to start over again, forging a whole different chain of life decisions, starting with this one?

I looked over at Olivia. I could still picture her in her car seat even though she’s half a foot taller than I am. She was walking with her arms across her chest, the sun glinting in her golden hair. She was far enough away to be mistaken for a student, which was probably her goal. I wanted to shout out that she was mine. I had a vision of her walking happily across the quad to class while I was two thousand miles away … two thousand miles! Going to a college far away sounded fine before, adventuresome. Now I could measure that distance by the inch.

Suddenly I wanted to duck into a bathroom to cry. What was my problem? Olivia had already taken the ACT twice. We’d talked about college, poured over the US News and World Report rankings and researched student to faculty ratios and acceptance rates.

I thought of a story I’d heard from a woman whose child had been born premature but survived. She said that even years later, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her child had been ripped out of her, ripped away. The late high school years are like the final trimester of a second, different kind of gestation. I must have gotten it into my head that we were both developing, approaching a point of ripeness, like an egg timer would ding and she’d be mature enough to leave me and survive, and I’d be ready to turn her bedroom into an office.

Letting go might be easy for some people, but on that college tour I started to think that it’s going to be a lot harder for me to be emotionally prepared for her to leave home than I’d thought. She’d been a horrible, colicky baby, comforted only by the hum of a vacuum cleaner. But over the years she turned into my favorite person to spend time with. We read People Magazine while we get pedicures, have long conversations about politics and religion, watch dumb reality TV shows and do her crazy workouts standing side by side in front of the mirrors at the gym.

It’s not that we have a perfect relationship. I resent the piles of clothes, crumbs on the countertops, the loud blender she uses to make her kale and chia seed smoothies in the morning. I worry when she’s out late, and we go to battle over too-tight, too-low outfits.  But her habits, her days, are braided into my own, and the process of unbraiding will be a challenge— one that seemed unimaginable, or that I really just didn’t understand until we started looking at colleges.

Some of my friends have confessed that they experienced trauma when their kids left home, but I insisted to myself that they were the exception instead of the rule, and that the trauma was short-lived. One friend said she didn’t know how to fill her time anymore, while another friend said she would fold laundry on her daughter’s bed and cry and cry. My friend Susie said it’s not just your kid going to college that makes you sad, but the way your family changes, and you can’t ever go back. “Oh, honey. It’s like jumping off a bridge.”

Maybe the good news is that the jump happens in slow motion, one college tour, ACT test and college application at a time, slow enough that you understand what’s happening even if you can’t quite absorb it. Who knows, in another year I might be ready. But ever since the tours started, I go to sleep at night, thankful that my family is all under the same roof. Our daily drive to the high school seems more poignant. I feel a little rip in my gut every time she gets out of my car and I watch her walk towards the double-doors, one day closer to leaving.

Christi Clancy teaches English at Beloit College. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Glimmer Train Stories, Hobart, Literary Mama and Wisconsin Public Radio. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and two kids, Olivia and Tim.

Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds

By Kate Abbott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Sketchy?”

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

 

Sunday

 

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too,” I lie. “See you later.”

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

I leave.

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

“Who?” the girl asks.

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

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

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

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

“Who?” Brennan asked.

“Do you know, Sivan?” I ask.

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

Wednesday

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

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

I leave.

Thursday

Brennan’s temperature is 102.3.

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

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

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

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

A year later

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

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

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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These Are Not My Beautiful Children

These Are Not My Beautiful Children

By Virginia Woodruff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could this possibly be my life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I don’t miss the aloneness.

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

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Irony—and a List

Irony—and a List

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puberty (mostly, with my kids)

Sex (mostly with my husband)

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

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

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

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

Money

Jealousy

Success

Self-doubt

Boundaries

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

Privilege

*   *   *

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

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

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

What are some things you hope to address more?

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Stalking My Kids

Stalking My Kids

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

This post is republished with permission from our friends at Grown and Flown.

By Lisa Heffernan

NYCNightlifeWhen my kids were little they stalked me.  They followed me from room to room, they banged on the bathroom door and almost never left my side. Sometimes I loved it, sometimes it made me mental, and sometimes I worried they would never successfully separate.  I wondered why they wanted to be with me so much, stalking day and night.  I thought it might be a little like our Labrador who follows me around every evening hoping to be fed.  Yet they still seemed to want to be with me even after they knew how to open the refrigerator door.  Now I find, it is me, stalking my kids.

Sometimes I would say to them, why do you want to come with me?  I realized that whatever I was doing would be slowed down by their presence and when I was in a hurry, I felt frustration.  But they wanted to be with me, even if the task was tedious, and irrelevant to them. If I just wanted to roam, they wanted to know where we were going. I loved being with them, loved everything about their presence, but their questions could wear me out.  They seemed happy just to be with me. Then it struck me.  They wanted my life.  They wanted to be able to go where they wanted and do what they wanted.  They wanted to call the shots and be the person who made things happen, even if it was just going to the grocery store or, on a good day, Toys R Us.

Now they have that life.  Two are grown, out the door, and the third is in possession of a driver’s license.  The eldest has an apartment for the summer and the middle one left days ago to squat on his brother’s couch and soak in the City Life.

And now I find I want to stalk my kids.  I want to be 21 years old and see New York City anew. I want to live in an apartment with almost no belongings and hold impromptu parties on Friday nights feeling no compulsion to provide my guests with anything other than cheap beer.

So last night I was stalking them.  With the feeble excuse of bringing some extra sheets for the couch surfing brother, I drove into NY to see them.  I followed them from room to room looking at the apartment, I talked to one through the bathroom door and helped carry garbage to the downstairs.  I wandered the building’s basement and asked where the laundry room was and if the closed door was a gym.  I asked about work being done in the hall and why they had left the air conditioner on when they went out.  They looked at each other, with an expression that could only have said, “This would have been faster without her.”

When we left the apartment it was late and dark and I asked where we were going.  I was told, “We will find something, Mom.”  We stopped at a small take-out and picked up falafel and humus.  We wandered over to a teeming Union Square with bags of wonderful smelling food.  All the benches were full and my kids sat themselves down on some steps. The ground was dirty, my pants were white and I had a handbag that I would not have set down on my own clean kitchen floor.  The air was sticky and humid and teens swirled around us on the skateboards. The person next to me was blowing smoke in my direction and there were buses idling on the road nearby emitting noxious fumes.  But I was just happy to be with them.

Photo credit: Tasayu Tasnaphun

On Grown and Flown, Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Endlich Heffernan reflect on parenting middle, high school and college kids. Follow them on Facebook  or Twitter.

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This is Nine: Denise Ullem

This is Nine: Denise Ullem

Kris Woll interviews Denise Ullem, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

Denise UllemWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece? Have you written other things about this age/stage? 

My daughter, Abby, was and will always be my muse. My experience as her mother provides endless points for reflection, celebration, frustration and love. As she gets older, however, I shy away from writing pieces about her because I want her life to be her own sacred place; I write more now about my own experiences (and those of my younger son, Henry). This is difficult because I am still a mother of a growing daughter, experiencing just as much as I did when my children were younger. I just don’t feel like it’s mine to share anymore. When I do want to write about an experience with her, I always ask her permission first.

What is it about age 9 you liked the most? The least?

Watching Abby at 9 was like watching an explorer prepare for a long journey—the passage from child to tween. I saw her muscles strengthen, her mind broaden and her senses sharpen. She morphed before my eyes and it was beautiful. However, within each of these stunning milestones brewed a slight melancholy. Nine walloped me with the acute awareness of the end of her childhood journey.

What do you wish you knew before you had a 9-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

Loosen your grip. Breathe in and out.

Besides your own piece, which other piece in the collection do you relate to the most? Why?  (OR, if you don’t feel super familiar with the collection, what other age/stage in this collection—which explores 1-10—is one you would like to explore more—or do you often find yourself turning to—in your writing?)  

My son Henry will be eight this summer. Just writing those words quickens my heart. EIGHT!? My baby’s continuing maturation serves as a further reminder to slow down to capture the intricacies of this splendid time:

Kisses from the bus window. The endless questions. His hand in mine. The small, quiet miracles of each day. The reassuring fact that I still provide refuge from any storm.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you? How has that fit over time?

Motherhood brought me to the page. I started writing to capture moments for my husband, who traveled extensively when my daughter was three and my son a newborn. I now realize that this chronicle of small moments is like a time-capsule to my future self. One day I hope, as I sit my quiet, still home after they’ve both left for college, that my words and essays will take me right back to this heady, physical, intense, wonderful time of motherhood.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

Recently, a Facebook friend asked for friends to relay the best writing advice they’ve received. As I scrolled down to add my own, one commenter simply wrote, “Write.” It struck me with its simplicity and truth. Whenever I start to get in my own way now, I say, through gritted teeth, “Write, Denise, write.”

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece? From this collection?

Each day is a gift. Stop and savor it in your way, in a way that will help you celebrate that which is mundane today. Put the words on the paper. I believe those pedestrian moments are those which we’ll all hold up in our memories as time passes, sigh, and see them as glittering, rare gems.

Read Denise’s “This is Nine” essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood.

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My Mother’s Glasses

My Mother’s Glasses

By Daisy Alpert Florin

What is Motherhood?I look in the mirror and see my mother’s face staring back at me, the same sharp jawline, deep set eyes, high forehead, sloping nose. She’s been dead for fourteen years, so seeing her is both eerie and comforting, a kind of visitation. I never thought I looked much like her when I was growing up but now, at 41, as the softness drops away and age takes hold, what’s left behind is my mother’s face.

My new glasses, thick, brown tortoiseshell frames, add to the illusion. My mother always wore glasses. For a brief period in her forties, around the same time she got braces (don’t ask), she wore contact lenses, but the consensus was that she should go back to glasses. Glasses suited her; without them, she looked naked, her eyes slightly too large, her nose a touch too long.  I rarely saw her without them. Severely nearsighted, she put them on as soon as she woke up and took them off only to go to bed. She even went swimming with them. I can still see her bespectacled face bobbing above the waves as she cut through the water with her dainty breaststroke, her curly red hair pinned on top of her head.

And she always had a stylish pair. My father would shudder at how much she would spend on a pair of glasses. “They’re the one thing you wear all the time,” she would tell me. “And right in the middle of your face!” She traveled to Europe several times a year for her work in the fashion business, and would often return home with a new pair, one that no one else stateside would have, which pleased her. The styles and shapes swung wildly, from chunky to wiry, square to round, retro to modern. As a child, it always took me a few days to get used to a new pair.  When she died, suddenly, from cancer at the age of 56, a young resident returned her glasses to my brother and me in a plastic bag along with unfinished bottles of medications and the lip gloss she kept by her bedside. Seeing her glasses lying there, a brown oval-shaped pair so new I’d barely had time to get used to them, I burst into tears in the middle of the hospital lobby.

I was born when my mother was thirty and remember her best when she was in her forties, around the age I am now. I never saw her as anything less than magical, but perhaps she saw something different when she looked into her sleek compact mirror. Her red hair was going gray at the roots and fine lines were beginning to lay tracks across her face. Did she see a diminished version of herself? Did she wonder where the time had gone? “When people say you look tired, Daisy, what they really mean is you look old,” she told me once while powdering her nose.

I would stare at her as she got ready for work in the morning, watching her familiar routine: moisturizing, concealing, plucking. I soaked in every part of her, her long fingers and sharp collarbone, her straight teeth. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said one day when she caught me staring. “I used to look at my mother the same way, always thinking how old and ugly she was and I couldn’t imagine I would ever look like that.” I wasn’t thinking that at all, I wanted to say but didn’t.

As I move through life without her, I remember things I thought I had forgotten. How she curled her eyelashes so they wouldn’t hit the lenses of her glasses. The way she smoothed out her forehead with her fingers in an effort to iron out the vertical indentation between her brows. I see myself doing them too as my features shift and morph into a version of hers. I wear my new glasses on busy days as a way to camouflage the dark circles beneath my eyes. I realize now that she did the same, and imagine that was the reason people preferred her with her glasses. I understand many things now that I didn’t then.

When my children were born, children she never had a chance to meet, I searched their features for a sign of her. Did Sam have her nose? Oliver, her hair? And what about Ellie, her namesake, who, at 8, already sports her own pair of stylish purple frames? She’s in them all, for sure. But when I look in the mirror, I see that she lives on most strongly in me, not just in appearance, but in the steady way she moved through life and in the gentle way she guided her children, nurturing our independence and, yes, our style. I put on my glasses and see the world she missed.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a Staff Editor at Brain, Child. 

Thoughts on Motherhood

Thoughts on Motherhood

 

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

Literary Mama editors and columnists respond to our question “What is Motherhood?”:

Motherhood: guaranteed to make a solo trip to the grocery store feel like a tropical vacation.—Kate Haas, Creative Nonfiction Editor

Motherhood is being sick in bed with a stomach virus, and making it outside to meet the school bus anyway.—Amanda Jaros, Blog Editor

Motherhood closed a window, but opened a door.—Caroline M. Grant, Editor-in-Chief

Motherhood is a beautiful mess of contradictions and juxtapositions: it can make you feel both broken, and mended; free yet bound; it is bitter, and almost unbearably sweet.                                                                                                                                           —Alissa McElreath, Columns Editor

Motherhood is a living expression of hope for our future world.                                                                                                                 —Kristina Riggle, Fiction Editor

When you live in the Midwest, you mark time by wind chill and heat index and in inches of rain and snow. You consider road conditions before heading out to the basketball games, and you watch for lightning from the bleachers that surround the baseball diamonds and swimming pools.  You respect each of the four seasons, and you’re prepared—the trunk of your car is filled with boots, shovels, blankets, gloves, and umbrellas—because you know how quickly a calm evening can turn dangerous.

You weather the hailstorm, tornado, or blizzard and then you pick up the debris and rebuild what was destroyed. You begin a new day, but now, you appreciate the pinks and reds and oranges of the sunset, the brilliant blue of the noontime sky, and the sparkles of a clear night just a little bit more -and you remind yourself to make the most of each moment.Karna Converse, Blog Editor

I’ve learned that to float through the ebbs and flows of motherhood I must remember to honor self-care.—Kelly Sage, Ezine Editor

Motherhood has felt like an awakening and a call to action. Inherent to the idea of the maternal, I think, is the desire for fairness, equity, justice, and opportunities for our children; for me, this has translated from the particular to the general, from my own family situation to activist work on a larger scale.—Rachel Epp Buller, Profiles Editor

Motherhood: the delicate opportunity to see life reflected.—Christina Speed, Literary Reflections Editor

To me, Motherhood can be both grounding and disorienting, as exemplified in this untitled poem I wrote that originally appeared in Thunderclap! Magazine (2010):

Driving on a certain stretch                                                                                                      
of Victoria Park                                                                                                                      
right after Sheppard
and before York Mills
that bridge around the 401
my fingers tighten
around the wheel
although I’ve been this way
more than a dozen times
I don’t remember what comes next
and am grateful for the chatter
from the back seat
the proclamation, “Mommy, I’m done,”
as she tries to hand me
the granola bar wrapper.
I am home in that noisesteering towards the intersection.Maria Scala, senior editor
 

Motherhood: It is

It is a single giggle
that breaks up the monotony of eternal days,
when coffee and a ten-minute nap
are best friends of mine.
The one, I see too often,
the other not enough.
But quickly, too quickly really,
everything about those days changes.
And then, it becomes
the pain that radiates up the back of my leg
as I step on building blocks and Legos and Lincoln logs
and all of the imitation fruit that spills out of the play kitchen;
the one I spend hours putting together
on a dark, cold, Christmas night,
two years after they are born,
but before the next baby comes along.
That kitchen now sits in the cobwebbed corner of the basement,
forlorn and lonely, longing
for the day that future grandkids will bestow on it some love.
Because again, everything changes.
And now, today,
I move the pretend cash register to the side of the play space
since the kids, there are four in all,
have mercilessly moved on.
I’m surrounded
by American Girls and Barbies and Harry Potter and Minecraft;
the children reach for non-existent IPods and IPads and Furbies,
those material goods that I won’t allow—yet.
They ask for computer time and Doctor Who, YouTube, and Scratch.
But it’s not the things.
I’ve gotten past the things that have littered and defined my motherhood.
All of the toys and books and gadgets we bring into our lives when we
welcome these children—they are left behind me.
Instead, it is the sight,
the sounds, the scents;
the immense feelings of love and gratefulness that envelop me
each time the tiny, wiry arms wind around my no-longer-taut middle.
It is the sweetness of the smiles they send to me as they walk out the door,
the thoughtful look that passes across their faces
as they pause, once, to blow me the last kiss of the morning.
I catch those kisses, those smiles,
and place them inside the recesses of my heart,
hoping to store them for later;
for when they leave the nest I have built for them.
And when the time is right,
I will pull them out, along with the memories, good and bad,
and the joy of knowing what motherhood is.

Christina Consolino, Profiles editor

 

A mother’s journey to get her child to preschool when they are late:

“Look, Mama, a rock.”

“Yes, a rock.” I nod.

“I tro it?”

“OK, you can throw it.”

“Look, Mama, ‘nother rock. I tro it?”

One step.

“Oh, Mama! Look at dat one! I tro it!”

–Heather Cori, Columnist

 

Motherhood is Holding…

Motherhood is holding

a finger-long hand

a bum against your hip

a sandy rock from the beach and then another and another

a vigil

a single thought

your breath

your tongue

your belly in

a party for preschoolers

a bowl beside the bed

a bicycle seat

the car keys

out for something more

on to your ambition

worry enough for two, three, four

this fleeting incessant moment

that notion of letting go

and still holding.

Katherine Barrett, Managing Editor and Columnist

 

Literary Mama publishes literary writing about the many faces of motherhood. Since 2003, they have featured poetry, fiction, columns, and creative non-fiction that may be too raw, too irreverent, too ironic, or too body-conscious for traditional or commercial motherhood publications.

Literary Mama is for writers as well as mothers. They function as a collective of volunteer editors and columnists. The magazine was launched in California, but their staff is now located across the United States as well as in Canada, Thailand, and Japan. Their writers hail from all corners of the world.

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This is Eight: Amanda Magee

This is Eight: Amanda Magee

Kris Woll interviews Amanda Magee, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:


Amanda MageeWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece?  Have you written other things about this age/stage? 

My inspiration for this piece was the serendipitous shift in my daughter as the invitation to participate in This is Childhood arrived. Briar is my firstborn, which means that every milestone she hits is a first for me. From the first days of holding her in my arms to these days of waving as her bus drives away, it has been like watching an opal in the sun, constantly changing color and complexity in the gentlest pastels. I am fascinated by her, though this age has been the first that has given me pause as to what I write for public consumption. We talk, “Will you write about this, Mom?” I’ll respond, “Why, do you want me to?” She is my guide, my star, whether I hit publish or not.

What is it about age 8 you liked the most? The least?

Music, definitely music. She loses herself in songs, singing the lyrics under her breath long after the music has stopped without realizing it.

What do you wish you knew before you had an 8-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

I have no regrets because there is no way we can anticipate or know what to do, the beauty of this journey is that it unfolds in each moment. Every time I’ve ever tried to plan ahead, to script what will happen, it’s gone another way. I look back on each memory tenderly, because even if I faltered, I was trying, always will be.

Besides your own piece, which other piece in the collection do you relate to the most? Why? 

I can’t select a specific post—these wonderful authors are my friends and each write so differently. I think the thing that means the most to me from this experience of chronicling, as a group, these years, is the understanding that in the most disparate scenarios, there is a common thread of love and questioning. It’s a spiritual salve to suddenly know unequivocally, that you are not alone.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you?  How has that fit over time?

I remember sitting at the computer late at night while I pumped milk, or early in the morning with B in my arms. My writing is the grown up version of bedtime stories, it is where my imagination runs and my heart rests. It restores me and inspires me.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

Trust yourself. Have fun. Listen to yourself.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?  From this collection? 

Oh, I think all you can ever hope is that your writing sparks something, a sweet memory, an idea, or that whisper of knowledge that we are all just trying to love our kids.

Read Amanda’s “This is Eight” essay in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 

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Not a Scary Story

Not a Scary Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s so soft,” he said.

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

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Here We Go, Grace and I

Here We Go, Grace and I

By Lindsey Mead

sling2When Grace was nine she broke her collarbone playing soccer.  It happened days after I wrote a piece about how I wanted my children to be physically fearless and push themselves in the world.  When I watched my crying daughter, through a glass window, standing in front of the ER’s x-ray machine in her soccer uniform, I was forced to confront my own biases about parenting.  Did I still believe that, about being physical, athletic, confident in their bodies, even if this happened.  The truth is, I did.

I couldn’t believe how quickly she healed.  The first few days were very painful, especially because she fell on day two and caught herself with the bad arm, pushing the bones further out of joint.  The low point was the second night after the injury.  Grace came into my room around 2 a.m., her face wet with tears.

“Mummy?” she whispered and my eyes popped open.

“Oh, Gracie!” I sat up. “Are you okay?” Matt was away so I was alone in bed.

“Will you help me get back in bed?  I can’t do it.”  Her face was contorted with a mix of pain and shame.  She hates asking for help.  I think I know where she gets that particular trait.

I leapt out of bed and gave her more Tylenol with codeine before lifting her carefully into bed.  I flashed back to lifting her baby self, swaddled in a yellow blanket covered in white stars, into her crib, putting her down slowly, willing her not to wake and begin wailing.  As she lay back in her bed, arm propped up a stack of pillows, she looked at me in the dimness of her nightlight-lit room and I could see that her eyes shone with tears.  I sat down next to her gingerly, not wanting to jostle her body, and smoothed her hair back from her forehead.  It was damp, and she felt warm.  “I love you,” I whispered.

The next morning Grace was dismayed to still be in so much pain.  I helped her get dressed, easing a baggy shirt over her shoulder, trying to move it as little as possible.  Over breakfast, she asked me to tell her about the bones I had broken.  I smiled and told her: an ankle, two bones in one arm, multiple fingers and toes, and several ribs.  Her eyebrows shot up as she chewed her toast.

“Well, I’m not going to break any more bones.  Ever.  It hurts too much.”  She shook her head.

“I don’t know, Grace.  It’s going to happen sometimes when you do sports.  I’m pretty sure there will be more injuries to come in other games.”  I hesitated.  “I think it’s part of the deal.  But I promise,” My eyes swam with tears, but my tone was suddenly firm.  “I promise you it’s always worth it to play.”

Within a week of the break she was just taking regular Motrin a couple of times a day.  Within two weeks she was annoyed with her sling and didn’t want to wear it anymore.  The bones had already begun to knit together.  The doctor told us that while she would always have a bump, it would become less and less noticeable as she grew.  Then he looked at us both and said, with a shrug: “So?  Everybody’s got bumps.”

*   *   *

Everybody does have bumps.  I think of that doctor’s offhand comment all the time.  In fact we have matching bumps now, Grace and I.  I separated my left shoulder just months before she broke her left collarbone, so we both have visible protrusions by that shoulder.

I wrote my thesis in college on the mother-daughter relationship, a detail that now seems full of portent.  It gives me goosebumps to think back to my 21-year-old self, hunched in a small carrel in the library, writing about questions I would intimately inhabit almost 20 years later.  Specifically, I wrote about the mother-daughter bond in the lives in three 20th century poets: Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Maxine Kumin.  I called them the first generation of true mother-poets and asserted that in all three cases their work was both haunted and enriched by the long shadow of the mother-daughter relationship and specifically by the interplay of identification and separation that marks this bond.

I chose this topic for my thesis with what I remember as an almost utter lack of deliberation; I just knew I wanted to study those poets and to explore these topics.  I went directly into the heart of the relationship between a mother and daughter, and spent six months deeply immersed in psychoanalytic theorizing as well as close reading of poetry.  I researched and wrote and felt my conclusions fiercely, a fact which amazes me now because I realize how little I knew about the topic.  Of course I was a daughter, with a mother I loved dearly, but my real understanding of the fertile and complex layers of relationship between generations of women came only after I had my own daughter.  I am struck, not for the first time, by how the perspective provided by the arc of years illuminates choices we made long ago.  From those months of work I understand intellectually that the separation of daughter from mother in adolescence is critically important.  I know how painful and violent it can be, but also how transformational.  Now I am living it.

Grace has begun to wade into the whitewater of emotion that swirls around adolescence.  The uptick in her moodiness and frequency with which she’s mad at me are harbingers, I know, of what is to come.  As is my pattern, I turn to the page; hoping that writing down my experiences, my observations, and my hopes will somehow help me through this period of dislocation and difficulty.  I dread what lies ahead but simultaneously feel great guilt about that very dreading; so far, parenting has surprised me by being better and better every single week, month, and year.  Is that golden uphill climb over?  Have we, now that the summit is in sight, transitioned to a speedier, less joyful downhill slide?  Oh, I hope not.  But the truth is, I don’t know.  There is so much that lies ahead.  I want fiercely to make it through to the other side of this transition with my cord that I know ties my heart to my daughter’s intact, though stretched, of new, different dimensions.

Here we go, Grace and I. 

Read more of Lindsey’s work in This is Childhood, a book and journal about ages 1 -10 of childhood.

Baby Teeth

Baby Teeth

By Allison Slater Tate

babyteethThis past week, my oldest child lost the last of his baby teeth. It fell out, a fat little molar, without any pomp and circumstance at all. Just like that, a chapter—maybe even a whole book—in his life and mine was over. As he casually handed it to me, so far past the age when he still believed in the tooth fairy, I had to swallow back a little cry. It felt like a little moment disguising a big one, a turn in the road I didn’t know was coming up quite so fast. Not yet, I thought. I’m not ready yet.

A few days later, my youngest child turned two years old. She is still years—I hope—from losing even a first tooth. There are almost ten years yawning between her and her oldest brother, and for so many reasons, I am grateful for them. It’s true that, with her, we “started over.” There are four years between her and her next oldest sibling. She is the only one not in full-time school. We had been out of diapers for years when we had her, and I still remember being a little scared when I was pregnant that I might not “remember” how to breastfeed her after such a long break. I now have to remind myself which foods can be choking hazards or that she might not be able to walk certain stairs on her stocky toddler legs alone.

But there are blessings to starting over and having a baby in the family again. In many ways, I have cut my own parenting “baby teeth” already, and I feel so much more prepared and ready to receive the experience of parenthood now with her and, possibly, because of her. The things that stressed me out when my older children were babies are inconsequential now; I don’t sweat a random tantrum or a blown-out diaper or a missed nap. I am able to feel grateful for the block of time I have to set aside every day for her nap and awed at how easy it is to feed her—she has not yet developed super strong opinions against certain foods like her brothers—and put her to bed, as opposed to my older children, who like to play mental chess with us every night in the form of bedtime stall-and-delay tactics.

So when we celebrated my baby girl’s second birthday this weekend, my emotions were a complicated cocktail of gratitude, happiness, overwhelming love, and, in a small amount, sorrow. This surprised me, because when my oldest were younger, I felt like I was always running (or more accurately, hobbling) in a race, trying to get to some finish line that kept moving. I just needed to get my baby to sleep through the night, to eat solids, to potty train, to swim, to go to preschool—if I could just get to that next milestone, then… then I would be able to let my shoulders slump, and I would get a full night’s sleep without waking with worry, and it would all get, dare I say it? Easier. I looked forward to the two-year mark before.

But now, I know that secret about parenthood that someone might have once told me, but I never heard: It doesn’t get easier. Physically, yes, it eases. Babies and toddlers are much more physically taxing than children are, in my experience. But parenting only gets harder. As my children’s legs grow longer and their thoughts grow bigger, my worries have only stretched. As my children walk further out into the world under their own power, the world scares me more, but I can show it less. I have to bite down on my tongue, smile, and urge them to explore, with only my hope and faith in them and in the world to soothe me.

When I signed up for a fourth baby, when I signed up to “start over” again, I did so knowing it would never get easier. I did it knowing full well that craning to see ten fingers and ten toes is only just the beginning of struggling to feel that our children are prepared for the world, and that preparation actually has nothing to do with fingers or toes at all. I did it knowing that baby teeth come and baby teeth fall out, and what is left is a human being that is both our child and not. I did it knowing that every child I have is a part of my heart I get no control over, laid bare to a world that can be indifferent and cruel. And I did it anyway.

So I leaned over the birthday cake and helped my little girl, no longer a baby, blow out two little candles on her massive birthday cake. I watched her play tea party with two older girls. I later swept her hair, newly cut for the first time, from her neck and helped her take off her party dress. I wept a little, because there are no babies in our house anymore, just children and parents growing and coping and learning and failing and conquering, every day. I wept for plush baby thighs, for wispy baby hair and cheeks like pillows, for toddler bellies and diaper covers, for pacifiers and sippy cups. I wept for baby teeth still to come and baby teeth all gone. It never gets easier. The finish line keeps moving. Now, I know: the pain and heartache of parenting is part and parcel with the wonder and joy of it. The beauty of parenting, the part that makes it feel like life itself, is also the result of the struggle. And the struggle is a privilege, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

 

Allison Slater Tate is a writer and mother of four children. She also writes regularly at www.allisonslatertate.com and Huffington Post Parents as well as Facebook (www.facebook.com/astwriter) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/allisonstate). She hopes her writing will make up for a lack of completed baby books when her kids grow up. 

Read an excerpt from Allison’s “This is Five” essay, from This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.

 

It Could Be Worse

It Could Be Worse

By Heather Tharp

Tharp.1It could be worse.

It could be worse.

It could be worse.

I repeated those words in my own mind for months leading up to the heartbreaking news that I had just received.

My baby, my first born, my son was in desperate need of another open heart surgery.  Except this time, his fragile, tiny heart needed a titanium valve to save his life.

It could be worse.

As I watched him grow weak, sick and lethargic over the last few weeks, I knew something was wrong.  I knew in my heart, my gut; that something was wrong with him.

His increasing need to be by me, with me, on me all day long seemed different.  He cried for me; to be in my lap, to rock in the chair and to sleep in my arms.  I wearily complied through exhausted eyes and rocked, cuddled and cried wondering what was wrong with my baby. I craved for normalcy.  Why did my baby have to be sick?  Why couldn’t he be healthy and happy?

No, stop it.  It could be worse.

As we went to the doctor’s office, I hoped and prayed that they would have answers for me.  With a glimmer of hope, we stepped into the waiting room.  I held him in my lap for the fear that if I put him down he would begin to cry inconsolably again.  As I held him, I looked around the waiting area at the pictures hanging on the wall; gleaming smiles of other little children that this doctor had saved.  Some of them obviously had other health issues, not just heart problems.  I sighed.

It could be worse.

The friendly nurse called his name and we went into the examining room.  After hours of tests, multiple doctors, and nurses rushing hurriedly around me, they told me the news.  “He is experiencing Congestive Heart Failure.”

Failure.  Funny choice of words, because that was exactly what I was feeling at that moment.  My baby was suffering, hurting, dying and I was powerless to fix it.  I felt completely out of control and had no way to help the situation.  I fought back the tears as they admitted him immediately to the Children’s Hospital.

The next few days were a total surreal experience as they tested, poked, x-rayed, and prodded my eight-month-old baby.  I sat on the sidelines, nodding and smiling; trying to understand all the medical jargon that they were throwing at me.

“Uh-huh. Ok. Mmmhmmm.”  Whatever, doc.  Just fix my baby, ok?  Make him be normal.  Make him laugh again.  Let him grow up to be a happy, healthy boy that can live and love like he deserves.

“Luckily, he has a pretty good chance at living a full healthy life after all this.  It could really be worse,” they said.

It could be worse.

It could be worse?  What could be worse than this?  My infant is getting ready for a surgery in which you are about to open up his chest and reach in and replace a part of his heart with a piece of metal!  It could be worse?

Turns out they were right.  It could be worse.  And in the days following his surgery, I met worse.  While my baby came through surgery with flying colors, I saw many other children on the pediatric floor that didn’t.

While spending the next nine days in PICU, I met quite a few other parents that were equally as weary as me.  While our dreary eyes met across the hall, we gave a polite smile or sometimes a glazed stare.

We knew what the other was going through; thinking.

We knew the feeling.

We knew that dread that we faced every time we returned from the bathroom, the cafeteria, or the vending machine for lunch.  That dread that hits you in the gut when there are three doctors standing in the room.

What’s wrong?  Why are they all in there?  What happened in the five minutes I was gone?

Oh, nothing?  Just some residents doing their rounds?  Ok, good, let me just take a moment because I think I stopped breathing for a minute there.

While spending those days on the PICU, I couldn’t help but notice that it could be worse.  While my guy was getting better each day, breathing on his own, eating, sitting up, and playing with toys; others were not.

While they removed lines and tubes from my baby, others were being wheeled down the hallway for more tests.

While the medicine drips slowly disappeared in our room, they popped up in the neighbors’ rooms.

While I was finally able to hold my fragile baby again, other mothers’ arms were empty.

It could be worse.

As the days passed, I met a mom whose baby had been in PICU for months.  Her son was sedated and hooked up to so many machines, I lost count after about ten.  As we chatted here and there, we became friendly and I found out that her baby was born with gastroschisis, a congenital condition in which the baby is born with the intestines on the outside of the body.  Her little boy underwent several surgeries to repair it and they were still trying to fix him.

It could be worse.

As we exchanged glances through the window that separated our children’s PICU rooms, I felt for her.  I felt guilty and selfish because I was cursing nature and God for making my baby suffer.  Meanwhile, this mother was feeling the exhaustion and anguish of her own struggles.

One day, as we were chatting, she told me how her husband had to stay in their hometown, which was about 100 miles away, because they couldn’t afford for both of them to miss work.  He would visit on the weekends and she would stay in the hospital with the baby.

I felt lucky because we had the luxury of living within driving distance of the Children’s Hospital.  My husband and I were able to see our baby every day.  My heart sank for her, having to face all this hardship alone without her husband by her side.

It could be worse.

Although, as we talked more, I realized how upbeat she was considering her situation.  She seemed so positive and optimistic.

During the course of a conversation, she looked to me and then her eyes motioned to the room across the hall.  There was a flurry of activity going on in there, with doctors and nurses rushing in and out; family members crying and holding one another.

She said to me, “You know, this kind of stuff really gives you some life perspective.  You know, how you think you got it bad and then you see others like that.” She motioned again across the hall with a nod of her head.  “It could be worse.”

Heather Tharp is a writer and teacher living in in the Midwest with her husband and two children. She writes about life perspectives and motherhood at http://www.dalaimama-ecogirl.blogspot.com/.  You can also connect with her on Facebook www.facebook.com/dalaimamablog and Twitter twitter.com/dalaimamablog.

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Weaning Ella

Weaning Ella

By Jill Christman

spring2007_christmanMy daughter Ella was just over two on the morning of her last breastfeeding. She’d stumbled in from her own room around five a.m., as usual, scrambled up into our bed, and latched on. Humming and suckling, she slipped into sweet sleep. Most mornings, this was the method by which my husband and I got to be those rare parents who sleep until eight.

This morning was different because I needed to catch a flight, without Ella, to interview job candidates for three days at the Modern Languages Association Conference in Washington, D.C. I’d never been away from Ella for a night. Not ever. I lay awake and watched Ella nurse, feeling sick with love and the specter of our separation, touching the tiny droplets of sweat on her soft temple, watching her jaw pumping out the rhythm of our bodies together.

My husband Mark and I had decided that this forced separation would be the perfect weaning window, and I knew chances were good that this would be the last time she and I would lie together like this: cuddled, content, sleepy and sleeping. I must have drowsed off myself because the next thing I knew the morning news was mumbling in my ear and the clock glowed six thirty. In that alarm clock moment I did what I had always done when I needed to get up without Ella: I slipped my finger between her lips and my nipple to break the suction, held a gentle pressure under her chin until her sucking wound down and her mouth relaxed. And then I got out of the bed.

In the dark, on the way across the room to the shower, I realized what I had done. I had failed to mark the last time as the last time. Standing frozen in the warm stream of the shower, I felt as if that moment should have been something more. What should she and I have done? Lit a candle? Whispered a prayer? Shared a promise?

Think of all your last times in love. Did you know they were endings? The end? This time, so rare, I had known, and I had let it slip away.

*   *   *

On the plane to D.C., my heart was breaking and my seat belt was broken. The buckle clicked, but when I leaned forward, the whole mechanism slid easily along the nylon strap. No resistance. No help at all in a crash, but then again, who are we kidding? Nonetheless, I notified the flight attendant, who couldn’t get the darn thing to clamp either, and then there we were, a whole plane waiting on the tarmac because of my seat belt. I dismantled the thing and put it back together. It worked! The mechanics were cancelled, we took off on schedule, and the flight attendant offered me a free drink for my heroism.

I didn’t want to be on that plane. I wanted to see my baby. I ordered a Jack and Coke. Why the hell not? I wasn’t nursing, after all. I wanted this high-noon cocktail to feel liberating. Instead, I deplaned with a big, fat headache.

*   *   *

We met with the job candidates in my gloomy hotel room. By day, I dressed in a loose jacket to hide breasts that grew larger with every interview, and at night, when all of the candidates had gone, I peeled off my professor clothes and climbed naked, a mother again, into the shower. I needed to express milk—enough so I’d fit into my clothes, not enough to encourage production. She’s not here, I told my body. Give it up.

Ba ba is our family word for breastmilk. Months before I found myself in that dim hotel shower, wet and weeping, I read a sidebar in a parenting magazine that had made me smile. A recent study out of Australia reported that nursing toddlers say their mothers’ milk is “as good as chocolate” and “better than ice cream.” No wonder Ella was crazy for ba ba. Sweet goodness and a cuddle with mom. That’s some soda fountain.

Standing under the warm stream, I lifted my hands up under my breasts and they felt like full IV bags, liquid heft. What a waste to squeeze it all away, I thought, but I did. I did.

*   *   *

After three days in D.C., I was afraid to go home. What would we be now?

On the plane, I obsessed over our reunion, and all the possibilities scared me. Maybe she would run towards me, short arms flailing, demanding to be nursed. My husband and I had discussed this, of course, and he had been firm. He knows my weaknesses.

“You will say no,” he told me on the phone. “You weren’t here. It was hard. We’re not going to do this to her again.”

This made sense. But I wondered about the other end of the spectrum. What if she’s mad? What if she feels abandoned? What if she doesn’t want to see me?

When I pulled up in the car, Ella was waiting at the glass storm door, leaping intermittently. I watched her press her face and both palms against the glass and jump, a haze of breath and nose smear. From the driveway, I could see she didn’t plan to punish me for going away. Instead, she was all over me with hugs and stories. In those first happy hours, she said nothing of ba ba. I was enough.

But there was a bedtime ritual yet to be performed, and part of it was going to be missing.

After a bath with four rubber ducks, I dried her in the frog towel and got her into footie pajamas. My heart was in my throat. Ba ba time. “Hold me,” Ella said. “Mommy, hold me.”

“How about a book?” I said with forced cheer. “Do you want to read a book with Mommy on the couch? And then Daddy will read you some more books in the big girl bed?” I heard the false notes ringing from my lips, and I knew she could too. Ella’s two, but she’s no fool.

The book-reading on the couch went fine: My Opposites. Mis Op-puestos. “Ooh,” I said. “Look! The green snake is lo-o-ong. En español, largo. Can you say largo?” Her pronunciation was surprisingly good. I sounded like a parody of a bedtime parent. When the book was over, we headed back to the bedroom. I was as cheerful as Christmas morning, but Ella was onto me. She dug her heels into the area rug beneath the dining room table.

“I want some ba ba,” she said. Mark and I made eye contact. This is what we’d been waiting for. “I want some ba ba.”

I threw my head back and laughed (a friend of a friend had mentioned this technique and in this moment I had nothing better). “Oh no,” I said, still laughing, “You don’t want ba ba. You’re a big girl!”

Mark repeated my message, smiling at Ella, and then directed his expression to me and hissed, “Redirect! Redirect! Don’t come in the bedroom. You’d better just stay out.”

By now, Ella was on the floor, sobbing. “But I needba ba,” she countered. “But I needba ba.” At this point, nobody was saying anything just once.

I walked to a part of the house where I could not hear the screams. My breasts were aching. By the time I returned, maybe ten minutes later, the sounds were muffled. Reading sounds.

Mark appeared triumphant about an hour later, rubbing his eyes.

*   *   *

At seven the next morning, Ella scrambled up into our bed. She flopped on her belly and turned her face toward me, breathing softly. Her breath smelled like sweet corn. I fluffed a pillow to keep her head up with my head, not in the habitual place, breastside. I rubbed her back and hummed. This seemed to make her happy. But then she flopped around. “I need you to change my diaper,” she said. “And then it will be seeping time.”

I did. It was not sleeping time.

“I need Something,” she said, capitalizing the something A. A. Milne-style.

Mark watched us through a cracked eye and chose this moment to intervene. “Do you want some water? In your sippie cup? Are you thirsty? Here you go.” If he hadn’t been supervising, would I have folded? Would it have been our little secret? I still wonder who was weaning whom.

Ella slapped the cup away. “No. I need Something Else.” Amazing. She couldn’t seem to remember what she wanted. She couldn’t seem to remember what those dark, early morning moments had been for throughout the first two years of her life. But we could see her mind working. Redirect. Redirect.

“I need Something Else.”

Mark gave options. Juice, soy milk, Kix.

She rejected them all and turned to me, half-remembering. “Roll over,” she demanded. “Roll over.”

Since I was facing her, I started to roll away, obediently, a woman without a plan.

“Noooooooooooooooooooo! Roll over! You need to open up the ba bas.” She pulled on my heavy black shirt. “You need to open them up!”

*   *   *

And so it went—a cycle of remembering and forgetting until time did its work and made nursing a vestige of babyhood, an artifact, something that happened “last night”—Ella’s umbrella term for all things gone by.

Later on the first full day of my return, Ella had seemingly forgotten about nursing again, and we made oatmeal cookies. After the margarine and the sugars, I reached up to turn on the KitchenAid, and without being told, Ella put her hands flat on the countertop and said dutifully, “Only Mommy or Daddy can touch that machine.” I wondered: If she can forget breastfeeding, the nearest and dearest thing she has known, after only five days, how can she remember anything at all? How can she hang onto something I’ve told her maybe twice about a mixer, and not be cognizant of the soft keystone of her young life?

In the weeks after D.C., even though I could reach out and touch her whenever I wanted, I missed Ella. I missed my baby. The relationship changed—it had to—once the nursing was over. I cuddled her, and she let me, but it wasn’t the same. I had nothing to offer her that was mine and mine alone to give.

That can’t be true, can it? It felt true.

We held back from each other, doing a kind of dance to avoid physical closeness that might remind us of what we once shared. I keep trying to figure out what this feeling was like—this stage on the letting-go continuum between giving birth and dropping her off for her first day of school—but since Ella is my first child, I can only compare this shift in intimacy to the end of a romantic relationship. Not a messy, dirty breakup, but the kind born of time and change—the kind you both know has to come. Okay, so you talk and talk and talk. It’s over. This is it. This is the best thing for everyone. But his stuff is still in your apartment, the hide-a-bed couch is a back-breaker. This is a time of transition. You agree he can stay for three more weeks until the lease starts on his new place. He can even sleep on his side of the bed, but he can’t roll over onto your side.

But you know how many moles he has on his back. You know how he likes a swirl of honey in his coffee, but not the whole spoonful. You know he’ll never replace the cap on the toothpaste, even if it’s a flip top designed for recalcitrants like him. You know everything. But you can’t touch him when he’s feeling sad about leaving. You can’t, because if you do, well, there you go, you’re back in it, and you’ll both have to begin the separation all over again.

This is how Ella and I felt, and I know her well enough that I can speak for her, too. Here’s the difference: She wasn’t leaving. Not yet. For now, she’s not going anywhere, and we need to figure out what our new intimacy is going to look like. We need to figure out what replaces what we’ve lost, what we’ve grown beyond. This can be exhausting.

A week after my return, this involved a turkey and hummus sandwich with the crusts cut off at 3:30 a.m. A picnic. The next day, I sighed and said to Ella’s babysitter, “I don’t want her to think that this is what we do—we wake up in the middle of the night and have picnics! But she was hungry. She ate the whole sandwich. I can’t just let her be hungry.”

The babysitter laughed. “Well, she was having midnight picnics before, wasn’t she? It was just a different caterer.”

In nursing, Ella and I had located each other. Seconds after the doctor tossed her onto my belly, she rooted around and found what she needed. Knowing nothing but what I’d read in books, I followed her lead. Here you go, Baby. Here you go. Shhhh. Since then, we had known no other way of being.

But motherhood is about letting go—first from our bodies, then our arms, then our sight, then our homes—and then? Weaning falls hard on this spectrum, forcing me to see the life Ella will live far beyond me, where she will learn to find her own sustenance, her own comfort.

I have never seen a child of mine grow up. I am starting to see what it looks like.

Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and in 2011 was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com.

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)

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Labor of Love

Labor of Love

By Crystal Stranger

BIrthI don’t want a Cesarean. The young surgeon tells me from behind his cold blue eyes that my body just isn’t going to fully dilate on it’s own. It’s for the baby’s health and I have no other choices remaining.

After an effortless pregnancy, this extended birthing struggle has taken me thoroughly by surprise. I never had a day of morning sickness, and barely looked pregnant until the two weeks before labor started. Contrast that with eleven days of continuous labor, four times being admitted to the hospital, then a full day and night of trying to induce stronger labor with medications. Yes, it is time for this baby to come out. A wave of pain washes over me, and the room turns black.

I scream out for the midwife to take the catheter out, it hurts too much. “The catheter could not cause such pain,” she says, and checks my dilation. Her probing fingers still inside me, she looks up with a shocked expression. After being barely five centimeters dilated for the longest night imaginable, the baby’s head is now crowning, although there is still a lip. She runs across the room to grab the surgeon, who coincidentally had just come in to check on surgical preparations. By the time he walks across the room and checks me I am fully dilated. My little angel is pushing her way out.

A loud beep comes from the monitor next to me. Everyone in the room freezes for a moment and stares at the computer screen. Panic sets in. The surgeon starts yelling at all the nurses in the room. He is a surgeon, not a delivery room doctor, but he takes charge as if he has carried out hundreds of deliveries.

An oxygen mask is pressed forcibly over my face, ostensibly to quell my screaming. The midwife tells me the baby’s heart rate has dropped to nothing and they have to do an emergency delivery. They hastily convert the hospital bed to a delivery apparatus. Poorly so. One leg’s stirrup is loose and my foot is flailing around threatening to hit the nurses running hither and thither.

The surgeon coaches me to push. My mom starts singing spiritual songs in her off-tune way and tells me to be calm. Wrong thing to say. How am I supposed to be calm right now? Seems condescending to me somehow. I know I’m probably being utterly irrational but I detest her more than anything in the world at this moment. She is my mother, I feel really awful to hate her. But still I tell her to shut up and just let me do this.

The first push does nothing. The second push and the baby’s head comes halfway through. It is stuck in the birth canal. I’m stretched so far open and everything seems so still. Someone pressed the pause button and all the crazy motion in the birthing room is frozen while waiting an eternity for the next contraction. The third push and her head comes out entirely, all the pain is gone. What a relief! The fourth push combined with a gentle pull by the doctor, and her body is fully out.

What is that purplish thing with dark curly hair? I guess that is my daughter. It’s not reasonable to think I’ve given birth to a giant raisin. The umbilical cord is draped around her neck and her little hand is gripping it, pulling it away from her throat. Was it choking her? She is gasping for air. She hasn’t cried. Is she ok?

They whisk her away and I continue to worry about her as the midwife sews me up. Seven stitches are all it takes to repair being ripped open like a seam of a too-tight evening dress. My best friend shows me the bruises from where I was squeezing her hand mercilessly. I hear an iPhone making noise from somewhere, buried in the disaster zone of a bed. My boyfriend, an officer on a ship in the North Sea, has been talking with me the whole day and night. He has been just as supportive during the pregnancy as if the baby is his.

I wish there was some way I could believe he was the father. But he isn’t. The father wanted nothing to do with me or the child once he found out I was pregnant. He’s a surgeon. Leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth about doctors. Ironic now that our baby was delivered by a surgeon. I’m so grateful I didn’t have the C-section surgery. The phone keeps making noise. I want to talk to him, but I can’t handle talking to him right now.

They bring my baby back in the room. Synne I will name her. It means ‘gift of the sun’ in Norwegian. The nurse pushes her up to my breast to drink. She looks up at me with her big blue eyes as she eagerly takes the nipple and pulls on my breast with her little hands.

Crystal Stranger is a freelance writer and tax specialist who lives in Hawaii when not travelling the world with her infant daughter. 

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This is Five: Allison Slater Tate

This is Five: Allison Slater Tate

Kris Woll interviews Allison Slater Tate, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

Allison Slater TateWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece?  Have you written other things about this age/stage? 

When Lindsey Mead brought this idea to me, my first reaction was that I wanted to write about the age of 5. My children range in age from 1 to 11, so I have been through every age in the series at least once, and I love 5. It is probably my favorite. Five marked the end of the hazy baby years and the beginning of the ages when I really see my children develop into full-fledged people.

What is it about age 5 you liked the most? The least? 

I love the increasing independence, the beginning of school, the development of real friendships. I love that they really begin to discover the world on their own at 5. I don’t love the resulting strong opinions and negotiating, though I realize it’s all part of the deal.
What do you wish you knew before you had a 5-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

I wish I had more assurances that for the most part, things do work themselves out and click into place. I worried with my first child because he didn’t read early. He is that kind of child who likes to do things well immediately, and he balked at reading. As a person whose whole life has revolved around reading and writing, I was a little terrified when he wasn’t an early reader. Of course, now I know that doesn’t matter, and he is a voracious reader. First children are scary. They don’t come with instructions.

Besides your own piece, which other piece in the collection do you relate to the most? Why?

I definitely related a lot to Lindsey’s essay on the age of 10, because my oldest child was 10 as well when we first wrote the series. Ten is also a watershed year that feels like a turning point to me between childhood and the Great Beyond (also known as middle school). It feels like that moment when a flame burns the brightest just before it starts to fade—the moment before your child becomes less your child and more a person of the world.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you?  How has that fit over time?

I have processed my mothering through writing. Writing encourages me to see and remember the details of mothering my children—I use all the senses and try to use them in my writing. In many ways, I feel like I was reborn when I became a mother, like this is a whole different life than I had before. Writing has been a way to feel less alone.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

I think writing in and of itself is the reward. Sometimes I feel like I need to justify my writing as a “job” or as a purpose. Really, it’s enough just to write, to have captured both my children and myself in this moment in time. It doesn’t have to be a job to be meaningful.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?  From this collection? 

I hope readers will see that little bit of awesome that is the age of 5 in my writing and that it will remind them of how, apart from the daily grind of living, this life has so many moments of beauty and joy and wonder in it. I think 5-year-olds just radiate joy. They are pretty special.

Read an excerpt from Allison’s “This is Five” essay 

This is Four: Galit Breen

This is Four: Galit Breen

Kris Woll interviews Galit Breen, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

GALIT2What was your inspiration for writing this piece?  Have you written other things about this age/stage? 

I wrote this piece when my youngest of three was right smack in the middle of this age. It felt new with him but strikingly old to me all at the same time. I loved learning how the moments—and my reactions to them—told his story as a 4-year-old, my story as a mom, and our story as a family.

What is it about age 4 you liked the most? The least?

I love the wild abandon and creativity of 4-year-olds. And the STRONG opinions and reactions— while fun, adorable, and story-worthy in retrospect—feel challenging to me in the moment.

What do you wish you knew before you had a 4-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

I would tell myself—again and again—that my children’s true personalities are starting to form and to embrace that. Because not only is it lovely to get to watch it happen, but it’s also the very first chance to send them the message that I love them exactly how they are!

What other age/stage in this collection (which explores 1-10) is one you would like to explore more—or do you often find yourself turning to—in your writing?  

I think about Lindsay’s piece—age 10—the most often. It’s a stage I haven’t reached yet, but am about to, and I love having Lindsay’s chartered-territory words to turn to for comfort and inspiration as my own daughter and I tiptoe into double digits.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you?  How has that fit over time?

I started writing about motherhood when my youngest was an infant. It’s where I found my voice and my heart and learned how to use both within my words. I’m grateful for the two and see them as perfectly interlaced.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

My best advice is to write with equal parts honesty and kindness and with the crystal clear insight that your children will read your words one day so be purposeful and mindful about what and how you write about them.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?  From this collection?

I hope that readers feel with each fiber of their being that every single stage of mothering and childhood has golden glints to it. So if you’re in a harder moment that’s stretching you more than feels comfortable—remember that it will pass. And if you’re feeling the bittersweetness of growth and change, remember that there are (many, many) more gems to come.

Photo credit: Nicole Spangler Photography
http://nicolespanglerphotography.com

Read Galit’s “This is Four” essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood.

So Special …To Me

So Special …To Me

photo1Before my son was born, he was gifted a book called “On the Night You Were Born.” It’s one of those recordable books that lets you tape yourself reading the narration and then plays it back for your enraptured child as he or she turns the pages. It starts with this sentence, “On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered, ‘Life will never be the same.'”

In the story, the news of the child’s birth travels around the world and all of the flowers, animals and heavenly bodies remark in awe at the awesomeness of this incredible new baby (the listener). The book is replete with words like “magical,” “wonderful,” “special,” and, of course, “you, you, you.”

My partner and I read it together, exchanged horrified looks, and put it up on a high, high shelf in the hallway closet where it has stayed, collecting dust, until I retrieved it to write this article. We did not record our soft voices carefully pronouncing each word. We have not read it to our son, pressing a finger to his chest to punctuate each “you.” We don’t plan to, either.

Look, the hard truth is, my kid is probably not all that special. I mean, sure, in a “his DNA sequence is unique” way, I guess he is. No one else has his particular mix of guanine and cytosine, but I don’t think that’s what this book is getting at. This book seeks to extol my child as amazing and brilliant and remarkable simply for existing. But I was there the night he was born, and, in reality, the moon did not halt its orbit around the Earth. The polar bears at the North Pole did not dance all night. The ladybugs did not gasp in awe at the sound of his beautiful name. None of those things happened.

And more to the point, I don’t want him to think that they did. It seems a huge disservice to send a kid into the cold, unblinking world thinking that everything and everyone is all about him. That feels like an awful lot of pressure to put on so small a body. And such weighty disappointment when he realizes that, in fact, most of the people (not to mention polar bears) he’ll encounter may not care much about him at all.

Instead, my message to him is a humbler one. I want him to know he’s magical, wonderful and special … to me. I want him to know how much I love him. How much his father loves him. How much his grandparents and aunts love him. I want him to know that this love is a gift. It’s his no matter what and that he’ll have it forever, just for being him. I want him to know that this is a special kind of love.

When he’s older, I want to help him understand that there are other kinds of love that he must earn. That his friends will love him if he gives love in return. That his teachers will invest their energy in him if he shows himself to be willing to match their effort. That his lovers will expect devotion, tenderness, loyalty. That in jobs and hobbies and relationships, he will reap what he sows. That he will have to give to get. That there’s hard work to be done, if he wants to be noticed.

These are truths I don’t want to keep hidden from him. I want him to embrace them, and be prepared for them. So I’ll keep this book hidden instead. And when I fill his ears with love and praise in darkness and daylight, in the car, in the kitchen, in the wind and rain and sun and snow, it’s always the same message: I love you more than you will ever know. I love you just for being you. You are so very special … to me.

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I Need Faster Shoes

I Need Faster Shoes

April photoThis is the second time my son has left me behind in a race, but the first time my shame was captured in the local paper.  When he pulled ahead at the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, there were only a few friends in the immediate vicinity to witness my lameness.  This time, my lameness was featured in a slideshow.

We’ve been running Seattle’s St. Pat’s Dash as an annual tradition since my son was born.  Well, before that actually.  My husband and I ran this race together before we were even dating and have been running it every year since.

We ran the race in the early days of our relationship when, despite our different running paces, we ran side by side and crossed the finish line together.  We ran the race later too, when our relationship didn’t require the same level of coddling and could sustain an honest revelation of one partner’s superior running ability.

There was the year I felt dizzy the whole race and couldn’t figure out why I was so winded.  Turns out, I was growing a human.  We count that as our son’s first 5K.

Since then, we’ve run the race pushing strollers of the single and double variety; carried toddlers; and coaxed kindergarteners from the start line to the finish.

The race is a marker in our year—a chance to reflect on where we were at the same time in years past.

This year marks the year I was left behind by my husband and my son.   I adjusted to my husband’s superiority years ago, but being beat by a first grader was hard on my ego.

Somewhere in the final third of the race, my son kicked up his heels and began to weave through the crowd without so much as glance over his shoulder to check on me.  As his lead grew and my hope of catching him diminished, I mentally flipped through the images of the journey to this winded moment.

I saw my son’s first steps toward my outstretched arms that were tense and ready to swoop in at the first sign of falling.  I watched a slow motion clip of his drunken toddler run that was really just a prolonged version of tipping over—with his feet trying frantically to keep up with an out of scale head that insisted on leading the way to every destination.  I saw picture after picture of his giant smile, ruddy cheeks, and sparkling eyes at various finish lines of rigged races on the sidewalk outside our home where, against all odds, the grown-ups always came last.

But now, the faking was over.  This grown-up wasn’t pretending to lose.  She was losing.  She was trying her best.  She was sweating.  She was huffing and puffing.  And, she was still losing.

When did it turn from pretending to struggle to keep up to actually struggling to keep up?

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Or, was it?

Sometimes, when I see my kids take a big developmental leap forward, my first instinct is to wince a little.  There is pain associated with their transformation from dependence to independence.  Cutting ties is emotional surgery and it leaves tender places.  So, I wince.

But then, I smile because I know that these are the moments that say I’m doing it right.  Moments of successful independence in my children are the equivalent of a positive performance evaluation.  Moments of growth and achievement mean I did what I set out to do.  I taught my kid what he needed to know, encouraged him to grow his skills, and set him on a path to do things better than I did.

And, it worked.

Somewhere between the mental film montage of precious childhood moments and the finish line, I understood Emelina’s words from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams just a little better:  “It kills you to see them grow up. But I guess it would kill you quicker if they didn’t.”

I found my radiant son at the finish line, congratulated him on his achievement, and gratefully accepted the bottle of water he offered.  I congratulated myself (silently) for accepting defeat with humility.

I really thought I had.

Until the next day, when my colleague sent me a link to local coverage of the event—complete with pictures.  The picture that caught her eye was the one where a photographer captured the very moment my son began to leave me in the dust.

Am I proud of my son?  Yes.

Do I realize there will be many more of these moments?  Yes.

Do I hope this is the last of such moments memorialized on film? Yes.

 

Photo By JOSHUA TRUJILLO/SEATTLEPI.COM

Bite Your Tongue

Bite Your Tongue

By Kathleen Bustamante

biteyourtongueI sit on the toilet, gripping a white stick that boasts a bright pink plus sign. I am pregnant again! A second time I marvel (with a hint of pride) how easily my husband and I have made a baby. I call myself “Fertile Myrtle” upon sharing the news with my husband later that night.

We tell our parents, siblings, and a few close friends, but agree to wait until the end of the first trimester before we announce our accomplishment to the rest of the world. Just a precaution really.

Ten weeks into my pregnancy, I am in the waiting area of the ultrasound department of our clinic. Despite its antiseptic smell, this is a happy place. After all, this is the same room in which I sat two-and-a-half years prior, awaiting a glimpse of little Fiona on the monitor. Still, as I sit on the teal couch watching my daughter flip through picture books, a sense of foreboding takes root inside my belly. I recall the visit to the midwife the week before. I had been bleeding some, but I was not really concerned since I had also experienced some bleeding early in my pregnancy with Fiona. I shared this information with my midwife while she poked my belly with her fingers, searching for my uterus. She asked if I had been experiencing any nausea this time around. I hadn’t. The midwife and her nurse assistant shared a glance. When the nurse assistant handed me the slip of paper containing the ultrasound department’s contact information, the same twinge of foreboding nagged at my abdomen.

An hour after the ultrasound, my husband and I are ushered into a small office by a blonde nurse with kind eyes and a gentle voice. I know something is wrong when she draws the blinds. I notice a box of tissues on the otherwise bare plywood table that separates us from the woman. I know before the words escape her mouth. My hands, clasped in my lap, begin to quiver and my heart races. I want nothing more than to dart out of the room and out of the clinic, but I will myself to remain in my chair awaiting the ominous message.

“I’m so sorry. The technician didn’t detect a heartbeat. It seems your pregnancy has resulted in miscarriage.” The sadness in her eyes tells me she truly is sorry.

I stare at the woman, mouth agape, for several moments. My husband takes my hand in his. As her words sink in, my hands go numb, my mouth turns dry, and I weep so hard I don’t make a sound for a long time. When I finally do, I wail in a voice I don’t recognize as my own.  A primal sound.

I travel the bumpy path of emotions through grief, despair, and anger. I torture myself with endless questions, but no answers take shape. What did I do wrong? Was it the pomegranate martini I enjoyed while celebrating a much-needed night out with my husband early in my pregnancy? Was it the sinus medicine I swallowed that week I was feeling lousy? Did I exercise too hard, lifting too much weight during my work out? But I had no idea I was pregnant! How could I have known?

My husband and I give ourselves a few months before trying again. When our first attempt fails, I am disappointed but not shocked. The miscarriage has shattered my illusion that procreation is effortless. Still, I take comfort that a handful of my girlfriends who have also suffered miscarriage had little trouble getting pregnant again. And I am mostly confident I will become pregnant again soon.

Nearly one-and-a-half years later we are still trying.

Fiona is three-and-a-half, and the rest of the world, it seems, has determined three years is a big enough gap between children. I am shocked by how many people—friends and strangers alike—ask without any qualms, “So, when’s your little girl going to have a brother or sister?” Of course, they have no idea how many times I have asked God the same thing, nor do they suspect the grief and disappointment I experience at the start of my recurring period. I can’t seem to keep my hope in check each month as what seems like pregnancy symptoms—tender breasts, break outs, and bloating—sets in. Eventually, so do the cramps. On the first day of my period, I find myself snapping at Fiona over senseless things and pulling away from my husband.

Because I keep these woes to myself, people take it upon themselves to inquire. I begin to dread appointments with my hairdresser because of her inevitable probing: “When are you going to have another baby?” Even after I relay the heartache of my miscarriage and subsequent infertility problems, she continues to inquire at each hair appointment “are you pregnant yet?” I am pretty sure she is part of some underground fertility watchdog group keeping tabs on the situation.

I am even confronted during celebrations. One evening, my husband and I attended a retirement party for a former colleague. It had been fun—exactly what I needed. But when someone posed the dreaded question: “So, when’s the next baby planned?” my blood pressure skyrocketed, my face became flushed. I was ready to shout back that either my husband’s sperm or my ovaries haven’t been compliant, and would he care to share his thoughts on the problem? Thankfully, however, my husband stepped in and skillfully handled the situation before I exploded.

The hardest, however, is when well-meaning friends and family deal clumsily with the uncomfortable truth about my inability to conceive.

During a recent girls’ night at a friend’s house, I sat cross-legged on the living room floor sipping coffee and catching up with four other women. One friend had just finished sharing the antics of her toddler who gave himself a haircut during quiet time when another friend announced the pending arrival of her third child—”a complete accident” as she described it. Then she turned her attention to me and assured me in front of the other women in the room, “It’s okay if you hate me. I understand.” I was stunned and mortified. I knew this was not her intent, but her statement minimized my loss in such a way that I felt small and petty for struggling with infertility.

Days later, a close friend, privy to our difficulties and desperation, listed the fleet of pregnant women around us. “There’s just something in the water these days!” Perhaps she was trying to offer encouraging words. However, it only emphasized the stark contrast between me and the many fertile women who have obviously gotten something right.

Each of these incidents is as painful as broken glass against bare flesh. I am amazed at how clueless people can be. Even more, I realize that before experiencing loss and yearning personally, I, too, have callously posed similar questions to others.

One lesson I have learned throughout this journey is how important tact and sensitivity are during conversations about babies and fertility. It is not my place to ask when someone is planning to have another child, unless that person broaches the subject first.

I’m thankful for the many people who have never inquired about the size or future of my family, but rather have provided me the time and space to offer information when I feel ready to share it. The most supportive words I have received came from a thoughtful friend: “I can’t begin to know the pain you’re experiencing right now, and I don’t want to bring up the topic if you’re not ready to talk about it. Just know that when you are ready to talk, I’m here to listen.” When I was finally ready to talk—she was the friend I chose to confide in. And she was there to listen.

Kathleen Bustamante lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children. She is a stay-at-home mom by day and a writing instructor by night.

Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Now We Are Ten

Now We Are Ten

lbdelDSC_4746web“I wasn’t born yesterday,” you say when we offer you the smallest bit of advice. We know that. In fact, we remember the exact moment you were born, even though it was, unbelievably, ten years ago.

Ten. It’s the most frustrating and exhilarating mish-mash of little-boy-big-kid. We never know which one of you to expect. And, probably, neither do you.

You might be the kid who insists, furiously, on walking the mile to your after-school program alone, with two dollars to spend at the convenience store on the way.

Or the one who panics when you think your sister’s kidnapped the love-worn stuffed tiger that kept you company every night for years. (Guess what I stole? she taunts. It’s Scratchy, isn’t it? you whisper.)

You go snowboarding, listen to Eminem and quote The Breakfast Club.

Then you beg us to squeeze the mustard on your burger for you. Or carry you, all knees and elbows, to your bed because you’re too tired to walk.

At Thanksgiving, you tower over your sister and younger cousins. In the class picture, you are the smallest and skinniest of the lot.

You walk the dog, pick up after him and train him to sit, and stay. You ask me if I think that, just maybe, you can communicate with squirrels through hand gestures.

You are pissed that you weren’t allowed to use the diving board at swim class. You cry when I say you have to wash your hair in the tub.

You teach your sister to hold a pool cue. You ask her to show you how to use her rainbow bracelet loom.

You worry about the homeless woman with the sign that said, “9 month old baby.”

You wonder if puppies have belly buttons.

You get mad that we won’t let you see The Hunger Games. You watch Scooby Doo.

You stalk into your bedroom because I took away your iPod. You clamor onto my lap for the first time in months, or maybe a year.

Life is about contradictions. For us, it’s unimaginable that we’ve already had you an entire decade, and that our lives existed before you at all.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

Read more essays on ages 1 – 10 in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 

 

Writing Memories

Writing Memories

Lauren:Writing MemoriesFor years, I have kept a notebook by the side of my bed, the pages filled with my children’s milestones. With teeth cut, with words uttered, with laces tied, with pedals pushed. When my first son was born, I wanted to catch every last detail, to snare them all, like the slippery fish they are, in the net of permanence language casts so well. I wanted future access to the moments I knew would slip, inevitably at some point, through the cracks of my mind. What I wanted, I see now, was nothing less than to be able to hold his childhood in my hands, once it was gone, and to say, yes, I remember it, I remember it intimately, each fleeting drop.

The notebook was an insurance policy that I would remember who my son was at 16 months old and then again at 36 months old, that I would remember the difference between those incarnations of him and how he got from one to the other. From the toddler who would sleep 15 hours a day to the boy who is still thumping around in his bed gone 10 pm. From the three- year-old with the clipped English accent, performing brain surgery on me with a stethoscope, to the eight-year-old bearer of broad Glaswegian vowels, between whose feet everything becomes a football.

When my second child was born, I bought another notebook. And when the twins came along, I bought yet another two. There were lapses in the entries, of course there were lapses. In between the task of chronicling life is the business of living it. But no major milestone went unrecorded. The when and the how were just as telling to me as the what. Taken together, I felt, these details were evidence somehow of the most important evolutions I would ever witness. I can’t put my finger on why exactly I needed to pin down my children’s development in this way, to preserve these moments like so many butterflies on a collection board, except to say that I sensed, from the beginning, a responsibility.

Before I had children, I was a classicist. An education spent tracing the lines of historical inheritance had shown me that the events of the past only reside with us in the present through the careful transmission of words, because somebody had the foresight to realize this, this is significant, this is worth putting on paper. If I wasn’t that person for my children, who would be? If I didn’t keep custody of the facts of their early existence, there was a good chance those footprints would fade away altogether.

Oblivion was a risk I was not willing to take. And I deemed memory too wily a creature to trust on her own, not with an enemy so powerful as the passage of time. The ancient Greek word for oblivion is lethe, which means “forgetfulness.” The word for “truth” is aletheia, which means, literally, an un-forgetting, because forgetting, the Greeks believed, is the way you lose your grip on the truth. From the night I became a mother and began charting feed times by moonlight, it was clear that, in the battle against oblivion, writing would be my weapon of choice. It was words, I was convinced, that would allow me to hold tightest to the “truth” of this almost indescribable thing that was happening to me.

My pen has not failed me. The written documentation I have compiled over the past eight years has helped me to remember my children as babies, to remember them as toddlers, to remember them in a way that photographs alone, for example, have not. There are reams and reams of pictures saved on my computer, but an image of my daughter at two and a half cannot tell me that that was the age she asked her first “why” question. Nor can it tell me what it was that she asked.

Recently, however, I have noticed a change. While the notebook still sits by the side of my bed, the pages are emptier than they used to be. One of my kids will say something or do something and I will think, aha, a breakthrough in logic! A new feat of independence! But time will pass and I won’t have written it down. My twins, my last children, have just celebrated their third birthday and this can’t be a coincidence. At three, they have pushed through the door which marks the end of the truly formative period, into a room where development is not so fast and furious, where age is no longer measured in days or weeks or months.

Quite suddenly, it seems, we have begun the long march of years. As our family life becomes more about the broad strokes and less about the fine points, so does the way I find myself accounting for it. The details and dates I once obsessed over have given way to bigger-picture essays, essays like this one, that attempt to pin down a different kind of truth. A truth that will, in turn, leave me with a different kind of memory. In Greek mythology, the goddess Memory, Mnemosyne, is the antidote to oblivion. She is also the mother of the muses. Whatever I remember about them in the future, however I write about them from hereon in, the one thing I know for certain is that my children will always be my muses.

“Most sweet, vigilant, she reminds us of all the thoughts that each one of us is for ever storing in our hearts, overlooking nothing, rousing everyone to consciousness.” 

-Orphic Hymn to Memory

Read more essays on ages 1 – 10 in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 

Nine Years After the NICU

Nine Years After the NICU

By Rebecca Hughes Parker

NICUI consider my daughters’ birthday to be in January. But I am the only one.

Their birth certificates read November 17, 2004 and that is the day they were hastily scooped out my womb, neonatologists standing by with oxygen. But, in my head, they did not fully join this world until January 2005, when the tubes and leads were removed from their tiny bodies and they were finally declared ready to breathe and digest on their own. The day they came home—a bitter cold day like the ones we have been having this winter—they were five-and-a-half-pound newborns. They looked and acted like two-day olds, but really it had already been two months.

We are lucky, so lucky. I know that. I know they are fine now. Better than fine. But I’m the one who was toting them around, slowly, inside of me at 29 weeks 5 days of pregnancy when my water broke in the middle of the night. And it didn’t feel so lucky then.

It didn’t feel so lucky when they were put in the more “intensive” part of the intensive care unit, with one nurse just for the two of them. I did not get to hold them when they were born. I was wheeled down hours later to their incubators so I could look at them. Look, but not touch.

It didn’t feel so lucky when I was told how much oxygen they were being given. When I was told that they each had a brain bleed. That one had a hole in her heart she would be given drugs to help close. That they needed caffeine-based drugs every day to stimulate them. That though they were relatively big for their gestational age, they were still far from ready to be born. We will “approximate the placenta” as best we can, they said, but the conditions in the NICU are not as good as the ones in the womb.

It didn’t feel so lucky when I peered at them through my tears and the thick plastic of the incubators. Lost in a web of tape, gauze and wires, their faces were hard to see. Their legs were bent in a frog-like position, common with preemies, I was told. What we could see, throbbing through paper-thin sheaths of downy skin, were their tiny, purple and stubbornly beating hearts. The lights overhead were harsh, the sounds loud. This was not the womb.

It didn’t feel so lucky when I had to pump breast milk eight times a day for babies who could not suck and had to be fed through a tube.  Or when one developed an intestinal infection and couldn’t have breast milk at all for weeks. Just “total protein nutrition” and lipids—predigested food through IV lines, IV lines that eventually caused her veins to collapse. They brought in the “IV specialist” nurse. She failed, her attempts punctuated by faint screams from the baby, now at least strong enough for her voice to be heard. The nurse shaved a bit of her hair and put the IV in her head. “It’s a good vein,” the nurse said sadly, “but we know parents don’t like to see an IV in their baby’s head.”

It didn’t feel so lucky when a phone call came late at night, four weeks in. Baby A is on a ventilator, the doctor said. She has two infections at once and her body has shut down. We were at the hospital as early as they would let us come. The head of the infectious diseases department and his interns stood around her incubator, taking notes. The tubes coming out of her nose and mouth were even bigger than they were at the beginning.

The sicker twin recovered slowly the next few weeks, the flood of antibiotics performing its task. The other twin still struggled to breathe on her own. She would go a day or two without an “episode”—when she started to turn blue and needed assistance, the numbers on her vital stats screen would cause the shrill beeping that rang in my head at night. She had to go five days with no episodes before she could be released. Those five days passed breath by breath.

We celebrate their birthday in November, of course. That is the only date that matters to the twins and to our friends and family. It is the date the NYC Department of Education used to determine that they should enter kindergarten at the (unadjusted) tender age of just 4 years 9 months old. The cutoff is December 31. To me, they were not even “here” on December 31. Now, they’re in school with kids who were a year old on that first cold day they left the hospital.

“They are tough,” my husband says whenever I voice concerns. He thinks that the NICU, while an awful experience for us all, had no long-lasting consequences for them. I know I’m being irrational and emotional, given my twins’ perfectly normal development after 18 months old, and the doctors’ shedding of the “adjusted” and “unadjusted” nomenclature at that point, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be fully convinced.

When the twins first came home, they had small dot-like marks all over their heels from the frequent blood tests. Every time I saw those marks I was reminded of the needles that pricked their heels all those days, days they should have been floating serenely in my womb.

As they grew, the marks faded. Recently, one of the twins was reading a book on the couch, her bare feet propped up on the arm. I saw a mark on her foot as I walked by and looked closer. It was a speck of dust. I blew it off. Her nine-year old feet, long and narrow like mine, were flawless once again. It appears that I may be the only one still scarred by the months in the NICU. There are no scars on their feet. Just in my head.

Rebecca Hughes Parker lives in Manhattan with her husband, a stay-at-home dad, and three daughters (including twins).  She is the Editor-in-Chief of an online legal publication about anti-corruption issues.  Previously, she was a litigator at a large law firm and a broadcast journalist.  She writes at rebeccahughesparker.com. Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook.

When Your Child Can’t Compete

When Your Child Can’t Compete

By Nicole Matos

9MusesMeandAlexThose bumper stickers that read, “My karate star can beat up your honors student”? Those sometimes make me cry.  I’ve got neither a karate star nor an honors student. At the moment, my son—quirky, funny, enthusiastic, endlessly beloved by my husband and I—is something I don’t hear many parents in today’s culture talk about.

He’s not especially good at anything.

This isn’t just my perception, but an actual diagnostic category.  His official diagnosis has shifted around over the last few years, but one possibility is what is termed PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified). In favorable company, I like to re-letter this as PDD-WTF?, since it essentially stands for behind the average in multiple areas for reasons unknown. Jack of all trades—and until I had a child who struggled to learn, it had escaped me how many “trades” the average day involves—master of none.

The very nature of my son’s disability, at least at the moment, means that he can’t compete favorably—not academically, not athletically, not socially or emotionally—with other children his age.  But it doesn’t rescue him from the need to: from the clarion call of a competitive, capitalist society, or the inner drive, so natural and human, to look at others and compare.

And, perhaps most problematic, it doesn’t rescue me from my own displaced competitive drives, from my own desire to be an achiever who produces other gold-star achievers, from the universal temptation to read my son as a synecdoche of self.

“Everyone has a talent,” we are told. But such a thing, were we to quantify it, would not be mathematically possible.  I’ve become well-versed in the language of percentiles, of subscores and cohorts, and as of now, my child falls between the 3rd and the 18th percentile of every area in which he has been tested.

Sure, he might be underperforming—perhaps with time and with therapies, these numbers will change. “Someone‘s got to be in the 11th percentile,” my husband says, well-meaning, as my eyes welled up over yet another less-than-stellar, less than even average, report. “The 11th percentile is normal, it is someone’s normal.” Yes: it is our normal, Alex’s normal.  I just never knew—nothing every prepared me for—how that would feel.

I think of it as Average Privilege—something like White or Male Privilege, the invisible-to-its-hosts constellation of unacknowledged benefits that accrue to parents when their children are, well, at least average: the middle of the pack.  We can all image what it is like to envy the honors student, the music star, the wrestling champion.  But to the parent of a child with a mild disability, every city is in fact Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above (your) average.

Parents with Average Privilege receive social credit for and are positively reinforced for the clear cause-and-effect of their efforts and sacrifices.  “Reading already!” the elderly lady beams, to the mother and child sounding out words ahead of me at the drugstore.  The mother replies, eyes shining, “I read to him every night.” I also read to my son every night, but he is not reading yet, and I don’t know when he will.

Parents with Average Privilege receive compliments on their children that are both believable and bankable; that is, they represent a legitimate area of competitive ability, and they are a talent they can envision their child cashing in on, building into some sort of productive future. “Sarah is such a graceful dancer;” “Nevaeh might be a mathematician someday;” “Jorge is quite a writer—way to go!”

What I’ve heard is “Alex tries so hard.” And though I do not dismiss the honor and integrity in the compliment—I cling to its promise of persistence, more than you know—I’ve heard it way too often, because it is too often the first obvious “good” thing there is to say.

Parents with Average Privilege can walk up to a bulletin board without fear. Even if their child’s art is not the absolute best, they can unconsciously trust it is likely not to stand out.  I never walk up to a bulletin board without girding my loins; the chance is good that my child will be the contrast that adds gilt to your Lily—not once or twice, but each and every time.

And parents with Average Privilege never need to hide these competitive feelings—admittedly self-centered, damaging to all if not critically examined—or to worry that they will be seen as some sort of monster, cold-eyed, unloving, if they admit these feelings are there.

In the end, there’s lots about my son that is exceptional that isn’t captured in testing.  But more to the point, there’s lots that is important about him, valuable, meaningful and precious, that might not ever be, necessarily, exceptional.  That’s a value system that isn’t espoused enough, even and perhaps especially, in the world of children. When supposedly public school systems stratify students by selective enrollment, and when bad parenting is assumed to be the evil behind a child’s social and behavioral difficulties, families like mine are only the first to feel the pain.

Because, all else aside, my husband is right: there’s always someone, 49% of us to be exact, making the best out of something less than average, and we deserve some measure of privilege too.

Nicole Matos is a Chicago-based writer, professor, roller derby girl, and special needs mom. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Classical, The Rumpus, theNewerYork, The Atticus Review, Full Grown People, and others. Follow her on Twitter at @nicole_matos2.

 Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Paying My Respects to My Son’s Birth Mother

Paying My Respects to My Son’s Birth Mother

By Heather Cole

COLEI had never crashed a wake before.

I was so nervous driving to the funeral home that I accidentally drove the wrong direction, down a one-way street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. An oncoming car honked loudly, and I managed to swerve into a nearby driveway before being hit.

How ironic would it be, I thought, if I was killed on the way to my son’s birthmother’s wake.

We adopted our son out of foster care when he was 15 months old. Charlie was placed in foster care at birth. His biological parents never completed the rehab and parenting classes that could have gotten Charlie returned to their custody and didn’t contest the termination of their parental rights just over a year later.

At the time we were relieved. Like many children in foster care, Charlie’s biological roots were mired in multiple generations of poverty, substance abuse and mental illness. And several members of his birth family were apparently still struggling with those issues. Charlie’s adoption was finalized as a closed adoption with no birth family contact.

But current research on adoption and identity tells us that pretending Charlie had no previous ties wasn’t healthy for any of us. The experts say it is best to have regular, age-appropriate conversations with adopted children about their biological family and heritage so that they grow up understanding their story and feeling comfortable asking questions.

I took that to heart and, as we were going through the process to adopt Charlie, I gathered every piece of paper and snippet of information about his birth family. His medical card had his original last name. Social workers provided first names and general social history information on his birth family. Legal paperwork provided some more clues. With that information, I scoured newspaper archives, online police logs and various social media sources. Every few months I’d plug all the names I had into Google to see what came up. And, gradually, I accumulated a binder of clippings, photographs and notes on a family that I believed to be Charlie’s birth family. I felt like I had done my job: I had names and photographs to share with my son when he asked questions about his biological origins. And when he turned 18 he could search for them, if he wanted.

But then one winter evening I was surfing on Facebook and noticed that various members of Charlie’s birth family had recently changed their profile photograph to one of his birthmother. Not just one person, but three, four, five people. I had never seen that before, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out what it meant.

And in that moment, the reality of my son’s loss finally hit me. A pile of newspaper clippings and low-resolution photographs might not be good enough. They didn’t answer the questions he might have for his birthmother. What else might Charlie be losing by keeping his adoption closed?

When I found the obituary online and told my husband I wanted to go, he tried to talk me out of it. “Who are we to this family? Don’t they deserve privacy in their grief?”

But I kept coming back to Charlie, and what we would some day tell him. “One day Charlie will ask what we did when his birthmother died,” I argued. “And do we want to say ‘nothing’? This is a chance to find out for sure if this is his birth family. To meet them. To pay our respects. To maybe begin to forge a connection.”

So that’s how I found myself walking through the doors of a dark funeral home on a Tuesday night in February, preparing to introduce myself to my son’s other family.

At the entry to the waking room was a poster board with a few dozen family snapshots. My concern that perhaps I had the wrong family vanished when I recognized a pair of blue eyes looking back at me from one of the photographs. There he was—my son, at that moment being tucked into bed by my husband—and here a baby surrounded by the members of his other family. I thought I recognized the setting as his foster parents’ home.

As I stood scrutinizing the faces in the photographs, I heard, “How did you know Charlotte?” The man next to me was in his mid-40s. I didn’t recognize him from my Internet research, so I wasn’t sure how to respond. “I didn’t. I mean, not well,” I stammered. “I know her family.”

He offered his hand. “I’m her brother. Thanks for coming.” As I shook his hand and offered my condolences I wracked my brain to remember what I knew about him. Was he the brother who had been jailed for a violent crime?

For a moment I thought maybe my husband had been right—I had no business being here. But as I looked around the room, amongst the baggy pants, wool hats and heavy makeup, I saw faces that had become familiar. These were the people who knew and loved Charlie first. The people who shared his history, his genealogy, his DNA.

These people weren’t just a binder of information to be doled out in age-appropriate pieces to my son. They were real, live, human members of his family. Of our family.

There is some comfort in the familiar ritual of a Catholic wake. I approached the open casket, kneeled and blessed myself.  I noted the funeral home-supplied flower arrangements with sashes proclaiming “mother,” “sister,” and “daughter” and the framed poem propped on the casket. I was relieved that they’d been able to provide this for her.

I then, at last, looked upon the woman who gave birth to my son. She wore a long-sleeved black blouse and her dark hair was arranged over her shoulders.  Her hands were folded on her chest, a rosary entwined in her long fingers. I wish I could say I felt some connection to my son’s other mother. But I just felt sad. She was the same age as me, but looked so much older. Her life had been hard.

There was a row of chairs along the wall opposite the casket. I guessed that the older woman in the center was Charlie’s maternal grandmother. It was to her that I directed my attention.

“Are you Charlotte’s mother?” I had heard that she’d had a stroke shortly before Charlie was born— we were told that was the reason he was placed in foster care, rather than with her and his biological siblings. So I spoke slowly and as gently as I could manage.

“I am so sorry for your loss. I apologize for the timing, but I wanted to come and pay our respects. I wanted to let you know that my husband and I adopted Charlie. He is five years old now. He is doing great. We love him. And I just wanted to let you know that.”

My eyes filled with tears as I waited for her response. It was tough to read her expressionless face if she understood me, but a woman to her left grabbed my arm and whispered, “What did you just say?”

I had a moment of panic. But I offered her my cell phone, with a photo of Charlie on the home screen.

“I’m Charlie’s adoptive mom. I wanted to come pay our respects and let you know he’s ok.”

In a moment, I was surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings, all crying and all clamoring to hug me. I passed around my cell phone with photographs of Charlie and apologized over and over again for my timing.

After a few long minutes, Charlie’s maternal grandfather rescued me and escorted me to a corner so we could speak privately. He thanked me for coming. He thanked me for caring for Charlie. He confirmed the details of some of the stories we had been told. He apologized that the family was not able to be there for Charlie when he was born. He said they had wondered and worried and wished that things were different, but had faith that Charlie was being loved and cared for. We compared notes on the children and I was given a few snippets of medical information on the family. We exchanged email addresses.

At one point, the funeral director interrupted our conversation to ask him to pick out music to be played at Charlotte’s funeral the next morning. He asked my advice, we laughed, and he selected a hymn. It was one of my favorites from my childhood days at Mass.

A few days later, we received an email from one of Charlie’s biological siblings with some family photos. That evening, my husband and I sat down to talk to Charlie. And together we drafted a reply.

Heather Cole lives outside of Boston with her family. Her writing has appeared in Transitions Abroad magazine, The Boston Herald, The Star-Ledger (NJ) and several local history books.

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Complicated Grief:  The Death of My Granddaughter

Complicated Grief: The Death of My Granddaughter

By Adele Gould

Tali2“Granny!” my granddaughter would shriek, as she leaped into what she trustingly assumed would be my waiting embrace. Her eyes would shine with joy as she anticipated playtime, Granny-style. We would collapse on the floor, surrounded by dolls and other such girlish accoutrements. Sometimes I got to be the mommy and she the daddy, and when she grew tired of parenthood, she would dump her “children” in a box, and we’d dance to the rhythm of “Old McDonald” joined by her two brothers (one of whom was her twin).

Could there be any greater joy?

My beloved granddaughter, Tal Doron (affectionately called Tali) was just four years old when she died on August 26th 2007. A beautiful child, she exuded both childlike joy and astounding maturity throughout the ten months of her suffering.  Diagnosed at age three with a rare form of brain cancer, her chances of survival were slim. Nevertheless—as she endured the unspeakable horrors of chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation—we convinced ourselves that she would beat the odds.

There was simply no other way to think.

Dazed and terrified, we sprang into action, aided by our wonderful community of friends.  The family needed to eat.  The parents needed clean clothes.  And there were two bewildered little boys whose world had turned upside down and inside out.  My heart broke as I dropped my 3-year-old grandson at preschool—without his twin for the first time in his life—and had to leave him screaming because I was needed at the hospital.

How could this possibly be happening to my family?

With heartwarming compassion, the oncologists devised an aggressive treatment regime, which required my granddaughter hospitalization for the better part of six months.  Each day, after work, I alternated between helping out at the hospital, and spending time with the two little boys at home—until my body demanded an end to the frenetic pace as I found myself crying non-stop—and realized that it was time to take a leave of absence from work.

Tali’s hospital room was a veritable “Dora the Explorer” exhibit—Dora being her all-time favorite character.  She had Dora books, videos, posters, stuffed animals, and stickers. She even played Dora games on the computer, which inspired her parents to set up Skype for her, so that she could interact with her brothers—and other family members—when they were unable to visit.  And for me, it meant extra time with her, reading stories or singing together— activities we both loved.

The second phase of treatment—stem cell transplantation— carried with it a significant risk of infection due to her immune system being severely compromised by the treatment. Only Tali’s parents were allowed in—one at a time.  But if one parent wasn’t well, I became the overnight alternate.

After sanitizing everything and anything in my possession, I would peek in—only to be greeted with an excited “Granny!”— sending my heart soaring to the moon. When she displayed typical 3-year-old silliness, my heart would dance with happiness, and when she was ready for sleep my heart would melt as she lay quietly, her huge dark eyes locked with mine as I sang to her.

Discharged home after the last cycle of treatment, she flourished, quickly gaining weight and looking healthy and robust. We dared to be cautiously optimistic, but soon after her fourth birthday came the catastrophic news of a relapse from which she would not recover.

It was unfathomable to imagine a world without this remarkable child.  Words couldn’t possibly capture the depth of our grief.

Her devastated and devoted parents cared for her at home, where I too stayed day and night, terrified to leave. I remember singing “You Are My Sunshine” to her … until I reached  “Please don’t take my sunshine away.”  I could not go on.

She died two days later.

As I tried to articulate my sorrow, I found myself trying to brush aside my grief, since it was a mere drop in the vast ocean of suffocating agony into which her parents had been plunged. Of what importance could my grief be when the parents were facing a future forever darkened by this inconceivable loss?

Yet I could not ignore the screaming voice inside of me, and I had to keep reminding myself that loss cannot be measured …  that my pain—although markedly different than that of Tali’s parents—was real.

Hoping to somehow quiet my sorrow, I began creating a collection of tangible and touchable remembrances. I put together photo albums and videos, surrounded myself with framed photographs, wrote in my journal and listened to “our” songs.

Gradually I began to notice that time was softening the edges of my grief, allowing me to remember moments my granddaughter and I had shared—how she would give me Dora stickers for “good behavior,” make up nonsense syllables or declare her love for me, arms outstretched to show me just how much. She loved “chicken muggets” and “pupcakes” and needed “mapkins” to clean her face. She offered adult-like encouragement when I exaggerated my struggle to master a task (“Good job, Granny!” or “I know you can do it Granny!”). And she was so proud of her long string of bravery beads, one for each painful procedure she endured.

Tali’s surviving twin is now ten years old. His parents, who never stop grieving for their little girl, must make his birthdays special for him, while simultaneously taking time to remember Tali.  And so, each year the family gets together to carry out a ritual in which we write messages to Tali, paste them onto helium balloons and release the balloons  to drift towards the sky. Tali’s twin never lets us see what he has written.

Adele Gould is a retired social worker. She has five children, three stepchildren and four grandchildren (previously five).  Read more of her work on her blog adelegould.com.

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

Meeting Mr. Li

Meeting Mr. Li

By Avra Wing china2Seventeen years, ago, my husband and I adopted a baby girl from China. That sweet, smart baby is starting to get college acceptance letters. About to embark on yet another new life. And it makes me think, more consciously than I have for a while, about how she began her life with us. Our first glimpse of her was a small photo of a five-month-old propped up in a chair. The accompanying letter from our adoption agency dutifully asked, “Do you want this child?” This adorable girl? This baby we’d longed for? Uh, yeah. Two months later we were in Hunan Province on our way to her orphanage—a bare-bones operation with nary a toy in sight. The back of our child’s head was flat from lying in a crib all day. She couldn’t sit up. She didn’t know how to reach for or hold anything. She kept herself stimulated by staring at her hands as she ran her fingers over each other. She was unnervingly quiet our first day together. By the second day she smiled. The day after that she was laughing. By the end of the week she was grabbing for the toys we’d brought. We felt like geniuses. After all, we had raised two children already. But we weren’t giving her enough credit—for the remarkable resiliency she displayed in making this second major transition in her very young life. We weren’t considering what she had lost. A demonstration of how much she had left behind came on our way home. My husband’s cousin, fluent in Mandarin, met us at the San Francisco airport during our wait to change planes. He picked up our daughter and began speaking to her in the only language she had known until the day she became ours, and I literally could see her glowing. When she was 11, we took her and her big brothers to China. Against all advice: “Don’t go until she’s ready. Don’t force her.” Well, she wasn’t going to be ready. She had dropped out of Chinese culture classes. The girl loved ballet, but no way she was going to ribbon dance. She didn’t like hanging out with her “sisters”—other adopted Chinese girls. Any mention of her birth family, however oblique, brought instant tears and a refusal to talk. Yet we had an instinct that it was important for her to go back. Our trip began on the wrong foot when the tour guide in Beijing greeted our daughter with an over-hearty “Welcome home!” She wasn’t at home. She was uncomfortable with the Chinese people who stared at us, who tried to talk to her and were surprised—or angry—when she didn’t understand them. During our visit to the orphanage she broke down when one of the nannies pointed out the room in which our girl had stayed. We were sure we had made a disastrous mistake. We didn’t feel like such geniuses. But then something happened. My husband and I went to our child’s “finding spot”—the accepted euphemism for the place where she’d been abandoned. She had been deposited in front of a local government bureau and then brought to a police station. The bureau was deserted so we moved on to the station. It had been more than 10 years—no one knew anything about her. But one policeman got on the phone and contacted the person, Mr.Li, who had been the station chief at that time. And then Mr. Li invited us to his new office. He was thrilled to see the little girl whom, he said, he had never forgotten. He remembered he was off duty when he got the call about a baby being found. Nervous about caring for an infant, he had asked his wife to come along. He recalled how people had stood around our child murmuring that she was hao piaoliang, so pretty. That her legs were long and he thought her height would be above average. He smiled when he saw his prediction coming true. And, in return, she glowed. A while after our trip, our daughter began studying Mandarin. She started mentoring younger adopted girls from China. She still expresses no desire to find her birth family—which might be impossible, at any rate. For now, meeting Mr. Li, her pictures taken with him, suffice. When he put his hand on her head it was the closest she’d ever been to reconnecting to her earliest days. The closest she may ever be. It is the moment she wrote about in her college essay. We worry about our little girl going away from home next fall. How will she manage among strangers in a strange place? How will she succeed? And then we remember what she’s already been through and how she’s aced it so far.

Avra Wing is the author of the new young adult novel, After Isaac. Her first novel, Angie, I Says, was made into the film Angie. She is the mother of two grown sons and a teenage daughter.

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

Steering Clear

Steering Clear

By Andrea Jarrell

UntitledWhen my daughter gets her driver’s permit, I am surprised she trusts me enough to teach her.

Whether strapped into her toddler seat or later riding shotgun beside me, she has witnessed my transgressions behind the wheel. I drive too fast. I swear at other drivers. I’ve run red lights and gotten stuck in a ditch, wheels spinning. And I get lost. Horribly, utterly lost. Getting lost makes me do crazy things like jump medians.

She doesn’t know how lucky we’ve been.

“Can I drive?” she asks each time we head out to the car. Not trusting myself, I say, “No.” I heave this parental duty onto my husband’s shoulders, wanting him to bestow upon her his cool-headed driving gene and the internal confidence to always at least think she knows where she is going.

So why do I finally agree to let her drive on that Friday in late November? Perhaps it is my buoyancy, thinking of the weekend ahead. Or simple guilt after months of bagging out while my husband helps her practice.

As she reaches for the keys and turns toward the car, I feel my tether to her lengthen. I change my mind I want to say, like a child. But it’s too late. I’m the mother. I stick to my word.

She steps off the curb and around to the driver’s side, clicking the familiar singsong beep on the key fob to let me in. Bunchy in our winter jackets, we reach for our seatbelts. She pulls her long brown hair into a high ponytail, ready to get down to business. As she turns the key, the car comes alive with David Bowie singing “Golden Years.”

“Oh, such a good song.” She bobs her head to the music and I catch the edge of her smile in profile.

“Turn that off,” I say, officious.

“You’re just like Daddy,” she says. But rather than my husband, it is my own mother’s voice in my head that I hear. Whereas other women might imagine their mothers hovering over them in the kitchen, mine is always there with me in the car’s rearview mirror. Driving was one of her great survival skills. A quick downshift. A rev of the engine. All she needed, she always said as we sped away from possessive men and to a better life for us, was a good, fast car.

My daughter steers us from the curb. My plan is for her to avoid streets heavy with going-home traffic as we head to the post office and a thrift store she wants to visit. We cut through our suburban neighborhood, heading three blocks east and two blocks south. As dusk turns to evening, the car’s headlights automatically illuminate. Rather than pulling into the main post office lot—a turn that will force us across two thick lanes of traffic—I suggest the nearly empty side lot on the right.

She makes the turn into the extra lot just fine. With plenty of parking spaces, she is gliding neatly in between two yellow lines when, rather than braking, she steps on the gas. We shoot forward. Our Mazda CX- 9 plows through a rusty chain link fence and keeps going.

We dip down over a narrow grassy slope between the fence and the pavement. That’s when I see her—a woman scrambling to get out of our way as we head toward the sidewalk and the packed lanes of traffic I’d been trying to avoid.

At the exact moment the woman darts past our fender, my daughter finds the brakes. We lurch to a stop the way a rollercoaster car does at the end of the ride, leaving you breathing hard and unsure if you can find your feet to stagger away as the attendant lifts the safety bar.

We haven’t hit the woman. We haven’t hit any other cars. We are both okay.

When I turn to my daughter, her face crumples in tears. I manage not to say, “Oh my god we almost killed someone.”

I can’t remember if I hugged her, comforted her. Certainly I should have. That would have been the right thing to do. What I do remember is the intimacy of the car, our breathing heavy, and the now-dark sky closing in tighter around us as if we are in a space capsule. What I do remember is that within that intimacy I also want distance. I want what has happened not to be my fault. But as I look into my daughter’s frightened face, I don’t want it to be her fault, either. In that instant I want to swallow, to absorb, to make my own whatever she has done and the consequences.

I get out of the car, reflexively looking around to see who’s seen us. The woman we nearly hit approaches me tentatively, the way the Munchkins draw nearer to Dorothy’s house when it falls on the witch.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

Beneath wispy, dark bangs she blinks at me as she comes closer trying to see what kind of person I am. Crazy? Reckless? Unfeeling? I can’t tell how old she is. Fiftyish, like me? Is a heart attack a possibility? She is plain with full cheeks and no makeup, clutching her thin, shapeless coat close at the neck, as if it will shield her. She points first to our car and then to the bus stop a little further down the sidewalk.

“Are you okay?” I say again.

Her eyes go wild with the terror, the disbelief she felt as our car sped toward her. I realize she doesn’t speak English well. She’s come from work or the Asian market across the street or maybe the post office. She was on her way to the bus stop when she almost lost her life because of two women in an SUV who didn’t care enough to watch out for people who have to take the bus.

I want to put an arm around her but I know that’s not what you do in these situations. We are not friends. I expect her to pull pen and paper from the canvas bag over her shoulder—to take down our license plate the way another driver would—but she just lingers there as the traffic from the main road streams by. She glances at my purse.

She is waiting for me to do the right thing. I take out my phone and say, “I’ll call and report the accident.” But when I tell her I’m calling the police, she looks past me to my daughter, whose ashen face stares through the window at us. For a moment, I feel the woman and I are on the same side, protectors. Is she a mother herself? I have the fleeting thought to motion my daughter to move to the passenger seat. The woman exhales loudly, air hissing between us. Then I notice her looking at my purse again. It dawns on me then that she has been hoping I will pay her for what she’s suffered. We stare at each other a moment longer. Then she turns to go.

As I watch her move off through the parking lot, I call “Wait,” to her hunched-up shoulders. But the truth is I want her to go. As our victim, our witness, slips into the shadows, I know that we can drive away now. Other than the mowed-down old fence in this no man’s land of a lot, there is no real damage. No one else seems to have seen us. We are free to slink off without even reporting what we’ve done.

I walk back to our car and open the driver’s door. My daughter looks up at me, her green eyes searching my face for what will come next. Whether it is true or not, I believe that she will carry what we do right now, at this moment, with her forever.

I dial 911. “It’s not an emergency,” I say, when the operator answers. “But there’s been an accident.”

I imagine saying these words to my husband, my mother. He will understand but she won’t. She will think our near miss in this parking lot could have been avoided entirely if only I’d been more careful, more in control of fate. But as I stand there waiting for the cops, I feel just how far the tether between my mother and I has stretched. I trust that I have done everything right. I will never be able to explain this to her but I know it’s true. I know that sometimes you’re just lucky or you’re not.

When the officer arrives, I tell my daughter to get out of the car and take her place beside me. He listens as she explains about confusing the gas for the brake. About the woman she almost hit. We walk to the post office. We talk to the man in charge. We point to the flattened fence. The officer and the post office clerk take down our names and number.

In the months that follow, I expect a call, a bill, an insurance claim, a request to appear in court. Nothing. It’s as if our mistake hasn’t mattered. But it has mattered.

Every once in a while, my daughter and I still drive by the scene of the accident to see if they’ve repaired the fence. Each time we do, I see that woman’s face rising in our headlights. The fence, now just a wave of woven metal, lies there still: our transgression out in the open. We move on by, my daughter driving while I ride shotgun, music playing, shuddering again at our good luck, praying that it holds.

Andrea Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, The Washington Post, Narrative Magazine, Literary Mama, Memoir, and elsewhere. She is at work on a memoir. 

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Sarah’s Box

Sarah’s Box

By Lisa C. Friedman

WO Sarah's Box ArtShe lives in a box. Actually, she is the contents of a box. The box is wrapped in a blanket that was a gift from my sister. It was supposed to keep a newborn warm, but now it’s muted pinks, greens and blues warm the box. I look inside once a year, on the anniversary of her birth/death. I have, like a fanatic, kept every scrap of her. Her first ultrasound. Locks of her hair. A card with her foot and hand prints. The doll’s dress that she briefly wore. (She weighed 3.5 lbs, too small even for the preemie wardrobe.) Condolence letters. The autopsy report, detailing her tiny dimensions and the final, inconclusive results.

The contents are about the potential for life. They also mark the end of hopes and dreams. They are the reality of my child, born dead at 32 weeks. No separate birth and death dates mark her headstone; just one date, March 11, 2006.

When you’re pregnant, the countdown to birth starts almost immediately. It is a long but steadily quickening race to the finish.

The first trimester, from the approximate date of inception through week 12. Nervous excitement, and thankfully no nausea, just a strong craving for grapefruit soda. A first ultrasound brings the baby to life. We see and hear her heart beat inside me. My waistline slowly expands, forcing the inevitable shift into maternity clothes. A pregnancy still fresh and special, it is a secret between me and my husband.

The second trimester, weeks 13 to 26. At age 39, the dreaded amniocentesis. The needle draws its fluid and does no harm. Good results, so check that one off. Tell our 3-year-old that she is going to be a big sister. Also tell our family and friends the happy news. Let my employer know that I plan to keep working after the baby comes.

The last trimester, weeks 27 to birth, typically anywhere from 38 to 42 weeks. The end is near. Sleep is getting more difficult. My back aches. But the excitement is growing because soon we will meet our new child.

It is Friday afternoon and it seems as though I haven’t felt the baby move all day. To relieve my anxiety before the weekend, I make an appointment for a quick visit to my obstetrician. I call a friend on the drive over. I say, “I’m sure it will be fine. She’s probably just been sleeping a lot.” And then I add, “But if there’s no heartbeat, come visit me at the asylum.”

My husband, not one to miss a chance to hear and see the baby, meets me at the doctor’s office.

I know very quickly that something is wrong. The doctor is taking a long time to find a heartbeat. My own is quickening and I can sense my husband getting uncomfortable. I ask, “Is something wrong? You can’t find a heartbeat?”

“I’m sorry,” he says in his slight English lilt. “No, there isn’t one.”

The tears want to come but I force them back. He puts down the doppler and looks at us. I am aware that he is really trying his best to be caring, to sound caring.

“This is a tragedy,” he says. “I am so sorry.”

I ask, “But this—has this happened before?”

He says that it is very rare.

Then why me? Why me? Why us?

“We can go to the hospital this afternoon. I think it would be best to take care of this as soon as possible. I would also recommend an autopsy so that we can understand what happened,” he says.

“But I don’t have to go through labor, right? You can do a C-section, right?”

“No,” he says. “A vaginal birth. A C-section is an unnecessary risk to you. The baby is small so it won’t take long. Just call my office and let me know what you decide to do. Take as long as you want in here.”

He leaves. The meltdown can come now. Still in my gown, lying on the examination table, I start sobbing. My big belly bounces with me. The dead baby bounces along inside. My husband leans his head into mine and cries.

But we need to pull ourselves together. I don’t want to go to the hospital now. I want to see my 3-year-old.

On the way home, I ask my husband to stop at the city recreation department—today is the first day to turn in summer camp registration forms. Looking back, I can now see my need for control—to make something turn out right. My 3-year-old daughter would get into the zoo camp.

I’m sure I’ve done something wrong. Was it my ambivalence about having a second child that cursed me? Having suffered severe postpartum depression after my first, I wasn’t sure about having another child. We waited more than two years before even trying.

I must have done something wrong. Was it something concrete? Not taking my prenatal vitamins every day? Drinking too much bubbly water? Sleeping on my back?

We tell our daughter. I hold it together while my husband falls apart on the floor of our closet. She climbs on top of him and puts her face close to his ear and giggles.  

But she will come to ask many questions over time, wanting answers we don’t have or ones we are unwilling to give someone so young.

“But I want to see her. What is she doing now?”

“Why can’t you just open her eyes?”

“If she’s buried, do her eyes have dirt in them?”

“If heaven is above the clouds, why can’t you turn the clouds upside down to see her?”

“It’s better to have boy babies. They don’t die.”

As promised, the labor is fast. The Pitocin kicks in, and I only have to push once and she slides out. Our last faint hopes disappear with her silent arrival. There is no flush of first life; her skin is gray, body limp. Eyes are closed. I count ten fingers and ten toes. A head of dark hair. But she is broken.

Once finished with the task of labor, the doctor sits down to do paperwork. Why doesn’t he leave? I am holding my dead baby you idiot! I want to shout. We wait while he completes the hospital forms. Then he says he is sorry again and will get back to us with the autopsy results.  

I want to feel that she is beautiful. I want to feel like holding her forever. Maybe I’m numb. Or maybe death is ugly.

We cry more. But then we don’t know what to do. No rush to breastfeed, change diapers and make happy phone calls. No flowers, no gifts, no breath, no life.

We name her Sarah. I want a name that has endured.

The nurse is wonderful and caring. At some point, she takes the baby and puts her in a dress, makes an imprint of her feet and hands, and cuts a few locks of hair.

We leave the hospital with our box.

Irrational thoughts come and go. I can diet quickly and lose the baby weight. I can sleep through the night. I don’t need to breastfeed.

But my milk comes in and fills my breasts, my skin is so stretched I want to cry out. I moan into my pillow instead. I’m advised not to pump off the milk because then more will come in. I take lots of Advil. My husband wraps an ace bandage tightly around my breasts to keep them from moving.

It is early morning and everyone is asleep. My mother has flown out from the East Coast to help. I wake her up to tell her about the birth and the baby. I want her to know that it was a real baby—I held her. She was complete. My mother cries with me. In her day, the baby would have been whisked away. A friend’s mother who experienced a similar loss never even saw her baby.

My father does not come. He is a doctor, a researcher published many times over, renowned in his field.

But he doesn’t come. When we talk on the phone, he goes into science mode. He even calls my doctor to try to get some answers. Thankfully, my OB shows discretion and says he can’t talk without my permission.

I tell my father, “I don’t need you to be a doctor. I need you to be my dad.” He doesn’t know what to say. I am angry and sad. He simply can’t do it.

My sister and I had due dates a week apart. Ever the older sister, I try to be strong and supportive. Pregnant with her first child, she can’t let my loss in. I am resentful and pissed.

She gives birth to a healthy baby girl six weeks later. It will take me several years, including the birth of a healthy second baby girl of my own, to really acknowledge my niece—to embrace her and not see the shadow of what we lost.

The cemetery. The rabbi meets us there and fittingly, it is a cold, rainy day. He is wearing a worn yellow slicker. His voice is warm and gentle. The heavy-set man from the funeral home carries the tiny casket. We put a teddy bear inside and a note. We say goodbye.

Word gets around quickly. I am too raw and sensitive to face people. I despise the ones who don’t say anything, too afraid and uncomfortable to acknowledge what happened. Others say things so thoughtless and stupid like, “Don’t you wish the hospital would have just taken care of it?” I don’t even ask what that means.

Then there are the friends who give the pitch-perfect response like the one who wraps me in a hug and says, “What the fuck?” Every reaction either passes the test or feels like an assault.

I have always felt in some way that my worry would protect me from really bad things ever happening. But then it didn’t. There was no heartbeat.

I have a second daughter now. She was born on March 6, 2007, just shy of one year after Sarah. Born with a rare spinal abnormality, she had to have surgery at seven months. Told repeatedly that it was a simple procedure for a skilled neurosurgeon, I was not convinced. I felt sure she would react negatively to the anesthesia and not wake up or that an infection would come and she would be gone. The surgery went fine and she is a perfectly healthy 6-year-old.

But once tragedy hits, it never really leaves. The scars run deep.

I watch my younger daughter as she sleeps, with her favorite stuffed animals—horse and bear-bear—standing guard on either side of her. Then I imagine another trip to the cemetery. The panic subsides and she is once again a peaceful, happy, sleeping child and I am her mother again and not some crazed lunatic.

My older daughter’s anxiety can make us laugh at times. If someone feels unwell, she jumps on it, “Is she going to barf?”

Too often, her worry can escalate to, “Is she going to die?”

I’m not so prickly now. I no longer feel the need to announce my loss. Seeing a very pregnant woman sometimes, not always, makes me sad.

And guilt, a friend of grief, has often come to visit. Maybe I’ve made too much of my story. My neighbor had a stillborn baby at 40 weeks, much worse. A friend lost her daughter at 17 months, unimaginable. Stories of dead children are everywhere.

But as a friend tells me, “This is not a tragedy horse race.”

Sarah’s box sits at the top of my closet and I open it once a year.

Lisa C. Friedman lives with her family in Northern California. 

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When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

By Rachel Pieh Jones
babies2
A young American mom in Djibouti said her husband recently asked what she wanted and she looked at him, all crazy.

“What do I want? I don’t know what I want. I only know what the baby wants. Do I have wants? Do I get to have wants?”

Maybe not now, I thought. But one day, you will.

I didn’t say it out loud, though. The words, the sentiment, the experiential knowledge would age me, make me appear condescending and unsympathetic to this mom’s current loss of autonomy.

I wanted to talk about how when that day came she still wouldn’t know what she wanted and that it would take her months of floundering through guilt, feeling selfish, and being daunted by the sheer number of options to settle into what she wanted, who she might be, when she no longer had a baby or toddler.

That conversation didn’t belong in this conversation because I was talking with three women who still had babies and would most likely have more babies in the future. That was a conversation they weren’t going to have for another decade, give or take. By that point, I would be ready to talk about colleges and careers.

Next the conversation turned to stories of post-delivery mishaps (bladder control issues and emotional roller coasters, anyone?), questions of learning to navigate Djibouti Town with babies in tow, mutually-exchanged offers of hosting play dates, and about how taking photos on a monthly basis of children holding numbers or stuffed animals seemed far too overwhelming at this stage in life, how they were lucky to get their teeth brushed by the end of the day.

My own birth stories have dust on them, the photos (print, not digital) from the day I delivered the twins are practically yellowed and curling around the edges. Pulling them out from thirteen and eight years ago in an attempt to relate felt like dredging through history books. Thirteen years ago? That was before digital cameras were in every home, or phone. Eight years ago when my youngest (and last) was born was before Pinterest.

I am no longer woken by crying babies at ungodly hours. Instead I do it to myself, setting the alarm for 5:45 so I can squeeze in a six-mile run before my third-grader rolls out of bed to fix herself breakfast. I leave the house without diapers, snacks, or rattling toys. I no longer lock the bathroom door for five seconds of privacy.

I didn’t have much to offer these moms and listened with the fully alert brain and stain-free shirt of a woman no longer claiming Goodnight Moon is literature, no longer leaking fluid at nipple level. Their stories were delightful and hilarious, their loneliness and love for their families palatable.

I wasn’t that much older than these moms, two years older than the other mother of twins. I simply started having babies young. So young that when my youngest graduates from high school I could, in theory, still get pregnant.

On the other side of the room in which this conversation took place were more parents, of the gray-haired variety. They weren’t talking about kids or parenting, they were watching a recent home video someone brought back from Mogadishu, the streets calm and peaceful as life flowed back into the Somali capital after decades of violence.

I could cross the room to join the conversation surrounding the video but somehow crossing the room felt too monumental. It would communicate that I was moving over, away from the babies and nap schedules and Fisher Price toys, stepping aside to let a new generation of moms fill in that space with their exhaustion and the exhilarating first steps that marked their days.

But these moms were my age peers, or as close as peers come in the small expatriate circle in Djibouti. These are the women who know how to use Twitter (though they lack the time) and who would listen to Mumford and Sons if the toddlers weren’t blasting The Wiggles. Or whatever toddlers listen to now.

Among parents the age-gap is often more related to the ages of our children than to our own biological age so if I want to be with women my own age and not sound like an old, boring been-there, done-that, know-it-all, I need to embrace the newness of their stories and not drag my ancient ones down from the attic.

If my husband asked me in that moment what I wanted, I would have said, “This. I want to listen to a new generation of moms.”

I know what I want now and it is to have brushed teeth, a clean shirt, and adult conversation while guarding the treasure these moms will learn. The baby stage was hard and beautiful. The elementary school stage is hard and beautiful. I’m assuming the teenage stage will be hard and beautiful.

I would have said, “What I want is to be the adult human face a mom looks at and doesn’t need to wipe and to be the empathetic ears a mom speaks to without using a sing-song voice.”

I earned my dusty stories, years ago. And I told them. Now is my turn to listen.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

The Invisible Boy

The Invisible Boy

By Angelena Alston

ASHTON_BM“He not singing Mommy,” my three-year-old daughter half-spoke, half-shouted in the crowded middle school auditorium. A few heads swiveled towards us and knowing smirks broke out on the faces of people nearby. Like any good mom would, I hurriedly sshhed her. She went about her business and continued digging in my purse for a handful of multicolored goldfish. The stage was a sea of white tops and black pants. My son was on the far left, almost at the end of his row. And, as usual, my three-year-old was right. Her brother was barely mouthing the words to a popular Christmas song.

My ten-year-old son has a nice singing voice. For the concert that night he had been excited to the point of nervousness. He’d spent days telling me the songs they were going to sing over and over again. Yet, there he was with a faraway look in eyes, his lips barely moving. It’s not that I was surprised, each year he’d stand there looking constipated and barely mouth the words. Admittedly, some years were better than others.

I leaned back in my chair and tried unsuccessfully to grab my purse back from my daughter as she continued to stuff her mouth with pilfered goldfish. It wasn’t always like this. When my son was three and in pre-school he had been so smart, so full of energy and personality. When his class had a nursery rhyme hit parade, he stood in front of a large group of parents singing with the rest of his classmates. He had to go to the bathroom and was holding onto his private parts for dear life during the whole performance. He never stopped singing.

That was Before.

Long Before changing schools, special classes, countless tears from both of us, doctors visits, two trips to the hospital, medication three times a day. Before our lives changed with the official diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, and ADHD.

Even back then, at three, my son had signs of the illness: he was always lining things up, he had an intense sensitivity to noise, and he was unable to adapt to or accept changes. His diagnosis became official when he was seven, a second grader.  He was the same age then as my middle daughter is now.

After he was diagnosed everything changed. He started going to a different school, he started therapy, and eventually medication for the ADHD. As he got older his symptoms became more obvious; he couldn’t get along with kids his own age, he couldn’t make friends, he couldn’t deal with everyday frustrations, and his motor skills were delayed.

Autism is so complicated because it’s not about the behavior so much as how the way the brain works; the way we form our thoughts and from there our emotions. It’s about how we make sense of the world. Without a basic understanding of how things work in a real world sense, making decisions, and dealing with other people is a constant struggle.

And the saddest part is that beneath all of that my son is so breathtakingly innocent and considerate and sweet. Anytime he goes to the store and buys something for himself, he makes sure to get something for me and his sisters. He shines, like a piece of glass half buried in the sand.  It’s easy to forget the softness that exists as he harasses his seven-year-old sister, as he screams and cries because he can’t find a pencil that was “right there!” as he accuses me of stealing from him when he misbehaves and I take away one of his electronic toys.

All of this is in such sharp contrast to my youngest daughter. Whereas he is easily distracted, easily frustrated, she can be focused as a laser, able to figure out many things on her own. Sometimes I look at her and wonder if only. If only her brother didn’t have This Thing. This Horrible Thing that stands in his way, keeps him from one of the best things in this life, finding real connections with others, making friends.

I hate Autism.

There. I said it. I hate that my son’s own mind works against him, that he gets so stuck moving forward, that growing up is not only hard for him, it’s painful as hell.

Sitting at the concert, watching my son try his best to be “normal” my heart went out to him. I tried to wave and smile encouragement but we were sitting too far back for him to see me. In the end, he sang a little bit, but mostly he stood there looking stiff and uncomfortable.  I felt sad for him. And then it was over, my son’s next to last concert as an elementary school student. It was a painful reminder that whether he’s ready or not, a new phase in his life is about to begin. Whether I’m ready or not, too.

As all of the fifth graders filed out the auditorium, I left the girls with their dad and headed for the cafeteria to pick up my son. I caught up with him in the hallway and we headed to the cafeteria to get his coat. As I walked close to my son, he said in a quiet voice, “How was I?” He didn’t yell it so loud that everyone nearby looked in his direction, he didn’t say it in a high-pitched voice so that he sounded much younger than his ten years.

I started to teasingly say, “Great.” Dramatic pause. “But next time you should actually sing.”

Instead, I found myself not saying a word because I had the sense something important was happening. In all the years, he had never once asked how well he had performed. If I really thought about the reason why, it’s probably because I always jump in without hesitation; I tell him how great he did, truth notwithstanding. For the first time, that night, I hesitated. For once, his mother, his faithful cheerleader, was silent; no gushing compliments, no clever quips. As I walked beside him, I suddenly realized what a toll all of this is taking on me.

I try my best to be encouraging and hopeful, to let him know he will always have me. But over the past year or so as his behavior has become less manageable and everything at home has fallen bit by bit into chaos, I have stopped trying so hard. I can’t do it anymore. It is exhausting to constantly micromanage someone else’s emotions, to have to anticipate someone else’s meltdowns. It takes so much energy to get from one day to the next. As his softly spoken question hung in the air for a beat, things seemed simple again; he was just a kid who loves his mom and wants her to think that he is good.

“You were great,” I told him smiling.

And as much as I hate autism, I love him with everything that is in me. As hard as it is, the more I can separate the disease from the essence of who my son is, the better off we’ll both be. It’s not easy to watch my son get hurt over and over, to watch him struggle. But in that moment I realized the hardest thing of all: it’s his fight, not mine. All I can offer is my love and support and hope and pray that when all is said and done that will be enough to help him get through the difficult days ahead.

I reached over and gave him a quick hug and a squeeze. He smiled, his whole face lighting up with something that I can only call pride. That’s better, I thought, feeling some of my strength come back to me. That’s much better.   

Angelena Alston is a freelance writer from New York. She is a mother of three children with strong personalities. In between working as a nurse and writing she spends her time acting as a referee/confidante/chauffeur to her boisterous brood. 

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An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

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IMG_0548Last week, my youngest child turned one-two-three-four-five-SIX. Six. Six requires two hands, after all, as Saskia’s godfather pointed out when I emailed the photograph of her with the count displayed across her fingers.

She’s wonderfully set for six. This girl is rocking kindergarten. Although I feel no pressure to have her read or write, she’s begun to do those things and of course, these new skills excite her and the rest of us, too. Her ability to hurl through air—gymnastics, not flight—amazes me. She’s got awesome, patient friends she loves, hugs too hard, cries out “Not Fair!” to all too often but then hugs again. Her One Direction-loving, screen-loving, chocolate-loving, sassy little self tickles me most of the time and proves a bit hard to calm down at night.

What was different about this year for me was this: I didn’t feel sad. The sadness I’ve experienced other years wasn’t connected to my baby, our caboose’s advancement from infant to toddler or toddler to preschooler; my sadness had more to do with her mother—and I guess, with her. On her birthday, I’m forced (this is a fine thing) to remember her birth and to remember that her arrival into our family is defined by a gift and a loss rolled into one. It’s not about a value—adoption is good or bad; sadness even is positive or negative—it’s about how complex it is to make families. I almost added the word “sometimes” here and then hesitated, because families always embody complexity along with simplicity. Our complexity as a family includes this. My memories of that original birth day, the day Saskia was born include this happy-sad truth that our family grew by more than one and that her first mother’s family grew by more than one, too.

Apparently, Eskimos have something like fifty words for snow. Our family constellation could use something like that to describe our roles, and our connections. Even mother doesn’t get a good divvying up. Every qualification of mother serves up room for judgment, words like biological, birth or adoptive. And what of cousins that are, technically, Saskia’s but not her siblings’—why aren’t there words to describe those relationships with more clarity, rather than somewhat convoluted, breathless explanations? Open adoption is relatively new territory and there aren’t so many descriptors or rules or customs or blueprints. There’s some good amount of winging it.

Every single year it’s amazed me that we’re a year further into Saskia’s life. Every single year the same thing amazes Caroline, her first/birth mom (her other mom). Somehow, this year, for reasons I can’t pinpoint, that amazement felt softer all around. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Is it simply about the passage of time? Is it that over time, we’ve gotten to know each other better? We’ve enjoyed recent visits with Caroline, with a couple of Saskia’s grandparents, her aunt, and two cousins. Since the visit with the fourteen-year-old-cousin Saskia recalls fondly what they played and things they both liked at the toy store. I think it’s one of those older, cool cousin crushes you get (I did, at least), the kind that makes you wish to grow your hair exactly that long and to wear makeup because she did.

I think that as Saskia gets bigger, she understands adoption and she’s pretty matter-of-fact about it. She isn’t more confused by cousins or grandparents from this family of birth than the rest of her labyrinthine family; she is accepting of everyone pretty equally at this point. She knows this tummy fact and remembers it more often than not. She knows she’s loved. She feels entirely loved.

This is this year—and other years may well feel different. There’s only been one time when Saskia asked why she’s here and not somewhere else and the answer was that this worked well for everyone was met with a nod. Either she’ll want to know more or she won’t want to know so much more than that. The fact is she doesn’t have to ask me whether other family members love her, because she can do so directly. And because I know, for a fact, with my own eyes, that they do. Reassurance is a concrete offering.

Maybe we all understand—and trust—our adoption better over time. I didn’t have to wonder whether to call Caroline on Saskia’s birthday, because she called. Saskia was at her friend’s house so we called back. Sure, mostly Saskia said, “Hi Auntie Cece,” and “Uh-huh,” during the phone call with Caroline. That’s because she was busy with her brand-new coloring book.

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Love On The Rocks

Love On The Rocks

By Beth Kohl

summer2009_kohlI am a person with too many items in storage. There are reminders of late relatives, like my grandmother’s chipped porcelain tea cups that call to mind her living, breathing, sipping mouth upon their rims, the wrinkled half moons of coral lipstick still barely perceptible. There are framed photos from my parents’ lost marriage, my dad in a white tuxedo jacket and my mom with a startlingly chic pixie cut, his arm draped comfortably around her tanned, rounded shoulders, all of these souvenirs from my past that I’ve stowed until I decide what to do with them.

I’ve meticulously packed and labeled things—the Chinese figurines from my deceased grandmother’s condo and the belongings I’d salted away when my mom decided on a near whim to sell the house—as if I knew it’d be some time before I’d look through the neglected intentions idling in storage. I hope someday to amass the guts to go through the boxes, plucking out and remembering an item’s former life, displaying the meaningful or using the practical until the luster of nostalgia rubs off and expediency sets in.

Among my array are seven frozen embryos. They’re at a fertility clinic, stuck inside a capillary straw suspended within a nitrogen tank until my husband and I decide what to do with them. They are leftovers, seven untapped yet potentially fruitful embryos from our various in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles. Unlike the inert objects up in the attic, the Betamax and LPs, the moth-eaten coats and the collar from a dead pet cat, the embryos have the possibility of an entire life before them, requiring neither resurrection nor retrofit.

*   *   *

The embryos exist precisely because we’ve been successful at IVF. We underwent five attempts, ending up with a beautiful girl on try number three, and twin ones on the fifth. My ovaries had been easy to stimulate, and each cycle produced a bounty of eggs, many of which fertilized. Each cycle, we chose to transfer three embryos from the Petri dish into my uterus, the right amount to up our pregnancy chances while not risking a too seriously complicated one. The day of each transfer, we were asked our intentions for the remaining embryos. My husband and I, discussing it briefly and always at the very last minute when I was already undressed and ready to get the procedure under way and over with, when we only just learned how many embryos had continued to develop overnight and how many cells they contained, agreed on cryopreserving the surplus. It was the only decision among those presented—donation to research or another couple, or destruction—that preserved them as ours until we were ready to make a thoughtful, measured choice.

It has been eight years since we froze five of the embryos and nearly ten since we decided to save the first two (a clinic mishap accounts for those older ones). In that time, our children have grown from babies to toddlers to these fantastic kids who are loveable and proficient at assorted skills, the sorts of people we enjoy conversing with, helping with homework, and treating to nights out at restaurants or the movies. We’ve even gone on a couple of not-disastrous trips and fantasize about other places we’d love to see together. We’ve forged unique relationships with one another, developed a kind of family linguistics of silly nicknames for commonplace items based upon charming toddler mispronunciations, the sorts we have difficulty dropping around other people who assume my pronouncing garbage as gawbage is a speech defect rather than simply a charmed mother.

We have a shared history, all five of us pulling away from those tough early days. When our eldest daughter was two, she had some seizures and a couple of emergency surgeries to remove infected masses in her bladder. And my pregnancy with the twins had been nearly catastrophic. After almost miscarrying them at twenty-one weeks’ gestation, I spent months on bedrest, scared stiff that my cervix would give way and too-young babies would come tumbling out. But we all survived, the eldest daughter given a clean bill of health, the twins emerging at week thirty-five. We’ve been a family with three children under two years of age, with twins who had various preemie issues, and who had weathered the typically “Terrible” years. We’ve outgrown the reflux and grown out the self-inflicted haircuts, and we’ve all gotten used to the idea of us as a completed family unit with a keen memory of dodged bullets and tested fate.

*   *   *

But my mind is far from made up. I’ve been mooning over those seven stragglers, missing the excitement and heightened physical sense that pregnancy, labor, delivery and nursing bring. I’ve been toying with names and the possibility of loving another child the way I love my daughters. True, the stage we’ve reached is a relative piece of cake compared with the relentless exhaustion of raising three very young children or those dark early days when I thought I’d never get pregnant. And I’m back on track with my own career, able to work while the kids are at school or asleep not just for the night, but for the whole, uninterrupted night. Our social life is once more in blossom. More importantly, my husband and I now have the time, and inclination, for a sex life. I remember, now, why I fell in love with him in the first place. He is funny and smart, warm and sexy, more than just another set of hands. And he is the only being in the house who smells like neither powder nor dog. I take him in and recall our early, heady days together, marveling that parenting could have obscured them.

Adding another child not only would upset our balance and boomerang us back to overwhelmedness, it’d tip us into another category: that of the Big Family, the sort that, despite how well-behaved the children or how fantastic the wife’s guacamole she brings over, simply entails too big a crowd. We would once more be anchored down by a needy, bawling, sleep-ruining infant who would inevitably turn into a demanding, throwing-silverware-on-the-floor-just-to-see-her-mom-fetch-it toddler. He or she would wind us back up and tether us back down to just the sort of enforced domesticity we’ve blissfully started to outgrow.

All the same, I’ve been eyeing babies for a couple of years now. The ones in my friends’ arms or in strangers’ shopping carts, the ones asleep in their strollers or crying on airplanes. I’m keen for the infinite shapes of their heads, the lengths of their eyelashes, their curled toes and grabby fists, and I’ve convinced myself that my attention is a sign to not give up the embryos unless I’m positive using them isn’t the best, most well-considered and most ethical option.

Indeed, my ethics seem to have shifted since we froze the embryos. Or maybe it’s just that the once-bright line separating more Platonic ideals of Right and Wrong from my own personal yearnings has dimmed, leaving me in the dark about the difference between doing what’s best and doing what’s right. Perhaps realizing that my children were once, even if only for the most fleeting of moments, cell clusters identical to these seven provoked this change. Intellectually, I appreciate that embryos are not very young fetuses, the storage containers at the fertility clinics aren’t nitrogen-rich orphanages, and thawing them out and letting them languish doesn’t amount to a prenatal massacre. Fertilized embryos are cell clusters, raw ingredients rather than a realized being. But I also know that frozen embryos have the potential, given the right conditions, to become fetuses who (that word creeps in) have the potential, given the right conditions, to become human beings.

We made our decision to freeze our embryos from a place of innocence and ignorance, a matter of putting practicality over bioethical or moral considerations. At that point, we didn’t know whether I’d end up pregnant, and the last thing we were willing to do was squander any unused potential children. I also couldn’t have deduced how deep my connection to my children would be before having them, or how frequently I’d think about the frozen embryos before creating them. But becoming a mother and loving my children has breathed life into what—when I was in an exam chair, trembling from nerves and drafts blowing through my untied and over-laundered hospital gown and being asked to make profound bioethical decisions—turned out to be an inert, unexamined personal philosophy and an abstract sense of the ethics involved.

Also, until becoming a mother, I couldn’t have anticipated how powerfully motherhood would impact my perspective on all sorts of things, bioethics and cryopreservation among them. Like an inmate who finds religion in the slammer, being a mom has caused me to reevaluate how I live my life and to think more about why I believe what I believe. For example, why had I assumed I’d have no problem donating biological matter, let alone my daughters’ full genetic siblings, same vintage and all, to an unknown lab for unknown purposes? Why hadn’t I at least recognized that, good cause or not, handing them over would be to extinguish them?

Looking back, I think it’s because I’ve always been pro-choice, pro-science, pro-pragmatism. Those were my fallback positions, ones I inherited and proudly averred. But becoming a mother has taught me that I am also vehemently pro-family and pro-child. Which, alas, leads me back to the quandary of what is the right and best thing to do, not only for our own family, but for others? Would helping to care for a new baby, exhausting as it would be, be a boon for our crew? Would we all look at each other and marvel that our beloved daughter or son, brother or sister, might never have been? (Family! Family! Sis Boom Bah!) Or would the time, energy and finances that a new baby would divert, particularly in these rough economic times, cause us to regret having chosen this path?

To be clear, I’m drawing a distinction between personal values, on the one hand, and fundamental morals on the other.  The former is a personal code of conduct derived from multiple influences (parents, teachers, religion, philosophy, civics, etc.). It’s the code that allows you to figure out where you stand when there are good arguments to be made for multiple courses of action. Morals, by contrast, are less optional, a code of conduct that (ideally) would be espoused by all rational people. I view my frozen embryo dilemma as existing along the ethical continuum. Donating them to science, therefore, is an ethical course of action. But the way in which my personal ethics have evolved leads me to believe that donating them may not be ideal, at least not for a person who, like me (and unlike, say, Nadya Suleman), has physical and mental health, a manageable number of healthy children, resources to care for all of my children, and a helpful and willing family.

*   *   *

Putting aside religious doctrine (which I did many years ago), I am left only with my subjective sense of right and wrong. I am not capital P, capital L Pro Life, all of a sudden, at least not in the way of Phyllis Schlafly or Sarah Palin. But I recognize not only intellectually, but in a more complex way involving my heart, spine, and stomach, that fertilized embryos are not mere cellular gobstoppers.

Scientific progress requires experimentation and a whole heaping mess of trial and error. So even though I’ve always believed it’d be wasteful to destroy the embryos—a brash smiting when scientific research was such a good option—I’m no longer as certain that scientific advance trumps baby number four. Certainly, if every scientific test yielded definitive, productive results, and if somebody could guarantee a medical breakthrough before dismantling our embryos, plucking them apart cell by cell or injecting them with an experimental solution, I’d likely feel differently about ceding them. But knowing that scientific advance is a matter of baby steps and missteps, and also recognizing that the symbolism of these embryos—the not insignificant space they’ve occupied in my mind and heart all these years—will be lost on whoever it is doing the dismantling, makes it that much harder for me to surrender these potential children and/or stem cells to the trial and error heap as if they were any other specimen.

Like the irrationally protective mother I can sometimes be, I have nightmares in which they end up in the wrong hands. I imagine unsmiling, begoggled technicians using them in unsavory experiments involving combinations of human nuclei and chimpanzee lysosomes. I envisage them for sale on black markets to skin care companies formulating embryonic potions for the wrinkle-phobic, or classified CIA-type operations trying to create a frozen embryo bomb, or simply misplaced or left to wither when somebody mistakenly unplugs their tank.

*   *   *

But I also have misgivings about keeping them around indefinitely. At $500 annually, it’s expensive. And as a mother who remembers keenly the miraculous moment when we first heard our daughters’ hearts beating, a sound we’d sought for so long and through such adversity, I tend to think magically about these cells. I think about them daily, envisioning them stuck to the sides of their straws inside their container, one shiny scuba-tank-looking receptacle among hundreds, within which lurk thousands of teeny tiny surplus. I wish I was copacetic with the idea of keeping them around indeterminately, dashing off that annual check and viewing them as thoroughly modern and ultra cool mementos of the earliest moments in our children’s path towards life. I wish I could see them, as my fertility doctor does, strictly as a perfect source of stem cells should any of the girls need some, or (and here the bioethical dominos start to topple) a potential child for one of my daughters should she inherit her mother’s fertility issues, end up in a same-sex relationship, or desire single parenthood.

But I can’t. The seven embryos remind me too keenly of the precise moment when the development towards life begins to unfurl. They also cause me to dream of flutters, kicks, contractions, tugs on my lactating nipples, teensy fingers wound into my hair. They represent seven potential daughters or sons, sisters or brothers, pureed peach-loving, hair-pulling, bathing, crying, sleeping, thinking, growing, struggling, achieving, sensing, smiling, brawling, bawling individuals.

But defrosting them and going for that fourth baby forces other sorts of ethical reckoning. The first dilemma surrounds how many to thaw, since not all embryos survive the process. It’s the cooling and thawing that cause the destruction. Even assuming a seventy-five percent thaw survival rate (the statistic our fertility clinic uses for embryos frozen at the blastocyst stage, as ours were), it’d be tough to decide how many to thaw in order to end up with one or two quality embryos. If we defrost them individually and they don’t survive, I’ll have prepared my uterus with a month’s worth of potentially cancer-causing injected hormones for naught. But if we thaw them out in slightly larger batches, I may end up with pregnancy upon pregnancy, or multiples upon multiples, and more children than we can reasonably handle. On the other hand, if we were to thaw them all out and implant only the best one or two, we’d need to dispose of the extras—you can’t refreeze them once thawed, nor can you donate them to science or even to another couple at this point, unless you have a buddy with a prepped uterus willing to accept the embryologist’s B team.

*   *   *

I’ve heard stories of how other people deal with their untapped, unwanted frozen embryos. I have a friend who retrieved her and her husband’s three extras from the clinic, wrapped them in a tiny drawing of rainbows made by her twin daughters, and prepared a box for them to be buried in. It was neither fancy nor macabre, involving neither decoupage nor a miniature casket. Rather, she used a metal tooth fairy box with a screw-off lid that she said a blessing over and buried in the backyard beneath a favorite tree. I have another friend who, after delivering two sets of twins and a singleton to boot, gladly signed the form to donate her two surviving embryos for research. She figured she owed her largesse to science, and if those two embryos were to offer any sort of scientific boost, their existence would not have been in vain. I’ve also learned of women who have their frozen embryos transferred into their bodies at a point in their cycles when pregnancy likely won’t occur. They say this feels like the most natural and least violent conclusion.

I do not, however, know anybody who has donated her leftovers to another couple, something I considered only briefly and then dismissed as not for me. The idea of somebody else raising my biological child under these conditions bothers me. In part, it’s because I fear a molested conscience, the monotony of what if, what if. Putting aside the pure desire other couples have for taking frozen embryos off someone’s (sinful, selfish, blasphemous) hands, I don’t think I could give them away to another potential family when ours is relatively high-functioning and my uterus is still intact. Perhaps if there were a test we could conduct, a way to predict my pregnancy chances versus that of a potential donee, I’d be amenable to giving them away for a likelier shot at life. But all things being equal, I’d be hard-pressed to let another couple raise our children’s full genetic siblings. I can’t help imagining what those brothers or sisters would think if they looked us up one day, got our address and drove up and saw our plenty big-enough house, the charming public school down the tree-lined street, and the couple of dogs lying around the well-kept yard.

Perhaps I’ll reach a point when the idea of not using them doesn’t bother me. But I don’t have the luxury of much time. If I’m going to have another child, I’d like for him or her to be as close in age as possible to the current pack (me and the mister included). And if I’m already convinced these embryos are potential people—which my current baby lust and the fact my mind jumps so easily from the babies I encounter to my own supply of raw material proves—isn’t it safe to assume that I’d mourn their loss, even if giving them up proves most practical?

But there are other risks beyond exhaustion and upset balances. Fertility drugs are potentially dangerous to the women who use them, upping the odds of ovarian cancer, this when the usual odds strike this semi-hypochondriac as scarily high. Worse are the ongoing, multitudinous studies on the health risks to children resulting from IVF. While there’s no unequivocal correlation, several world-class institutions have found convincing relationships between assisted reproduction, particularly IVF and its component procedures, and rare childhood diseases, retinal and bladder cancers chief among them.

I remember the terror of having a daughter with serious medical problems and how I’d automatically assumed the IVF was to blame. When her doctors shook their heads, unable to pinpoint the source of the troubles—the seizing was neither from fever nor epilepsy, just anomalous shakes that disappeared as quickly as they’d come on; the cysts were remnants of an embryonic structure that should have turned into the bladder by birth—I’d suppressed the urge to comfort them by letting them know she’d been conceived using IVF and therefore undoubtedly had been packing some not-completely-normal parts.

But my children seem so normal. Beyond normal, really. They’re extraordinarily kind, sociable, and clever. And I’ve pored over them, their bodies, and their development. They’ve hit the normative milestones, crawling and walking and talking according to schedule. They’ve learned how to read, beg for turtles, guinea pigs, and rabbits, and have started wondering where babies come from. I observe each landmark with a mixture of celebration and relief, hoping that, someday soon, expediency will set in, and I’ll start to forget about unexploded landmines and other thorny residue.

*   *   *

Still, knowing what I now know, having read the studies and experienced the anguished helplessness of having a sick child, how could I choose to use these possibly toxic embryos. Not only had they resulted from IVF, but they’ve been frozen for the better part of a decade. If the dusty taste of waffles that languish in the freezer are any indication, quite possibly there would be something “off” about our preserved embryos, too.

I imagine an alternate, more perfect world, one without ghosts or the pain of lost lives. In it, every maternal woman would be gloriously fertile and no child would ever know disease. I’d be a young, energetic mom with three healthy and happy children who resulted from spontaneous and hot, hot sex. There’d be no health risks associated with producing life, no overwhelming decision still to be made about the fate of cells that are too often viewed as property, and not enough like somebody’s past and future. Our cat would still be alive, jumping up on the kitchen counter as I pour tea into my grandmother’s cup. She’d be sitting at a table near the window, smiling as she watched her great-grandchildren run around outside, then raising the cup to her mouth, stamping another coral scallop upon its rim.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: I wrote the bulk of this essay long before the term “Octomom” entered the lexicon. And as I say in the piece, I feel like I’m in a completely different logistical boat than Nadya Suleman, making my decision a matter of choosing amongst decent options as opposed to forging ahead without due consideration and ignoring practical considerations to a harmful degree. Having said that, when I heard Ms. Suleman talking about her frozen embryos as her future children, I couldn’t help but empathize. I know what she means, even though she took her argument, and then its consequences, to a point far beyond the limits of my ethical comfort zone.

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

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

High Needs Mother

High Needs Mother

By Lynn Shattuck

LynnShattuck_blogAfter my first son Max was born, I wanted answers.

My little red-faced infant wanted to nurse every twenty minutes. He woke up six or more times a night. The ‘quiet alert’ phase that we had heard about—the one we had imagined our peaceful, silk-cheeked baby silently gazing at us while inhaling the landscape of our faces—was non-existent.

Long days dripped by in a haze of milk and tears—both of ours. Our pediatrician said it wasn’t colic; nursing soothed him. And Max didn’t save his sadness for just the witching hour—any hour of the day or night was fair game. In my attempts to ‘fix’ my son, I lugged him to osteopaths and homeopaths. I went on an elimination diet consisting of brown rice and carrots. I spent hours with him hooked to my breasts while I searched the Internet for solutions. For ways to make him happier. To make us both happier.

In my research, I came across an article by Dr. Sears, a leading proponent of attachment parenting. Dr. Sears described ‘High Needs Babies”—how they tend to sleep poorly and require constant holding and attention. The article suggested my son’s temperament as who he was, who he was born to be. Not something to fix. I was a bit devastated by this theory; if I couldn’t fix it, the tears and sleepless nights would continue. We were already utilizing many of Dr. Sears’ suggestions for calming our ‘High Needs Baby’—co-sleeping was the only way for any of us to get rest. I carried him in the Ergo so often, I felt like the skin on my shoulders was absorbing the straps. I nursed on demand—and the demand was high.

The only thing that really helped was time. Ever so slowly, our nursing sessions stretched out. After about sixteen months, Max finally started piecing together four or six hour stretches of sleep.

Max is four and a half now. He’s been weaned for a few years, and he usually sleeps through the night. But he is still intense. When he’s happy, he’s down-to-the-toes effervescent. And when he’s not—which is often— he’s a shrieking, writhing tempest of misery.

We have a daughter now, too. She smiles and laughs easily and often. Loud sounds don’t phase her, and she weaned with little effort. At 21-months, she still requires a lot of care. But her whole being vibrates with ease, with lightness. I sense that life is much easier for her than it is for my son.

Than it is for me.

You see, I’m a High Needs Mother.

Before my kids were born, I practiced extreme self-care. I went to yoga and dance classes. Twelve-step meetings and therapy. I took long, slow walks and attended a Unitarian church. I signed up for retreats and workshops. I did all of this to help me feel normal, which has always seemed much easier for most people than for me. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Maybe it’s because I struggle with anxiety and depression. Maybe it’s because I’m what is described as a ‘Highly Sensitive Person.’

My husband and I vowed that when we had children, I would keep up my rigorous program. We promised we would support each other in doing the things we loved and the things that kept us sane and happy.

And then my son arrived.

And I was the only one who could soothe him.

A few months after Max’s birth, I went to a yoga class by myself. As I backed the car out of the driveway, I felt half giddy. I also felt half naked without my son.

At the class, I breathed. I tried to root my body on my yoga mat, to let the ground cradle me like I so often cradled my son. In between surrendering to gravity, my mind wondered how my son was. If he was screaming. If he would take the bottle. If he would nap. During the closing shavasana, I felt the sharp zing of my milk letting down; even my body couldn’t fully surrender to the time alone.

When my son was twenty months, we discovered my husband’s work would subsidize part-time childcare. We enrolled Max two days a week in a nearby daycare. I had wanted children, badly. So why did I need to be away from my son? How dare I ask other people to care for him two days a week when I wasn’t going to be filling all of that time with paid work? When I might use some of it to go to a yoga class or do laundry or lug my laptop to a coffee shop and write?

My guilt was huge, but my need for a respite was bigger. When I dropped my son off that first day, I came home, melted onto the couch and cried. When I finally peeled myself off the couch, I wrote Max a letter. In my home, alone, all I could hear was the hum of appliances. For the next several hours, my body was all mine. I felt guilty and blissful, free and lost.

With time, the guilt shrunk.

I hate that as a mother, I felt like I had to choose between caring for my child and caring for myself. Because really, I can choose both. I can teach my kids—by example, which is perhaps the most potent way of teaching—that they are worthy of listening to their own needs. To the quiet, sure voice that might tell them they need a break. To lie on a yoga mat and sink deep into their own body and breath. To wander through a cemetery, alone, slowly enough to read the names on the gravestones. To sit down and write about how they’re feeling, or to surrender to sweet sleep for an hour.

When I take good care of myself, I am more present for my babies. I can play air guitar with my son and orchestrate dance parties to Footloose. When I don’t take care of myself, I’m a stringy, soggy, limp wash rag of a mother. Slowly, over the years, I have been able to add more and more self-care back into my life. To come back to myself and meet my own needs. To meld the person I was before having children with the mother I became.

Over time, I learned that there was nothing wrong with my son. He just happens to be a lot like me.

Lynn Shattuck is a writer living in Portland, Maine. She blogs at http://thelightwillfindyou.com as well as the elephant journal and Huffington Post.

Why I Refuse to Enlist in the Mommy Wars

Why I Refuse to Enlist in the Mommy Wars

By Aubrey Hirsch

HirschMotherhood has brought about a number of changes in me. But perhaps the most unexpected change is that it has made me the most non-judgmental person on the planet.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Having a baby is hard. And I mean hard. Without hesitation, I can say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It is also my favorite thing. In these last fifteen months, I have been irreversibly altered. Becoming a mother has made me stronger and more sensitive. It’s made me powerful and new. And it has made me more open-minded and accepting than I have ever been.

I didn’t go into motherhood naively. I knew that people had opinions—strong opinions—on the right and wrong ways to birth and raise a baby. I had my own strong feelings, my own uncompromising ideas on how I would raise my son. But those had all faded into distant echoes by midway into the second week of his life, when just grabbing a quick shower required a day and a half of advance planning.

There may have been a time when I would have glanced sidelong at a woman making a choice I didn’t understand. But now that I know how tough it is to be a mother, I simply can’t wrap my head around judging anyone for her decisions. This job is so hard, so hard, that I have nothing but admiration for anyone who’s taking it on.

To me, criticizing another mother for letting her kid cry or not letting her kid cry, for breastfeeding too briefly or too long or not at all, for putting her kid in time out, letting him eat this, dressing her in that, or birthing in a way that would have made me uncomfortable—to do any of these things would be like critiquing someone for her hair moving out of place while she was being eaten by wolves.

That is not what I want to do. I want to say, “Hey, Mama! You looked like a badass bitch taking on those wolves!” And “Aren’t these wolves crazy?!” And “Tell me how you’re surviving these wolf attacks.” And then I want to hug her, and tell her she’s doing amazing, and that I’m proud of her.

Because I am. I’m proud of all of us.

I know the love that’s emerged between me and my own little wolf pup. It’s ferocious and wild. It will not be tamed or suppressed or caged. I know all the other mothers are feeling it too. So it is proof beyond anything else I could observe that we are all doing everything we can to make sure our children grow up happy, healthy and loved.

So I won’t be enlisting in the Mommy Wars. I’m tearing up my draft card and burning it in protest. And if someone on the playground or the doctor’s office or the mall tries to recruit me, I will tell them I’m a pacifist. A conscientious objector. I’ll tell them that we’re all just doing our best—and look at these children. Aren’t they beautiful? Aren’t they the most exquisite things you’ve ever seen? I mean, come on Moms, we all must be doing something right.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. She has also written essays on pregnancy and motherhood for TheRumpus.net. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com

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Love in the Time of the Parenting Plan

Love in the Time of the Parenting Plan

By Theo Pauline Nestor

TheoPaulineNesterWhen you divorce as a forty-two-year-old mother of two, you can almost see the trajectory of your dating life stretching out before you, as solid and real as your seven-year-old car and your century-old house. As you file away the notarized papers decreeing your solitude legal, you know with complete certainty that you will be totally alone for several months or maybe even a year with not even an occasional thought of your romantic future. You will meet no one of interest in your trips to the grocery store and the library, and you do not expect to.

Around the one-year mark, friends will begin to set you up, and perhaps you will dabble in online dating on the Friday evenings when your kids are with their father. You will meet someone; he will be wrong for you in ways clear to you but not to others who are just so glad to see you “getting out again.” Suffering through long dinners and Scrabble games for the promise of mediocre sex, you will deny to yourself the ways that he is only half-right and date him half-heartedly for six months, and then, suddenly but somehow expectedly, the day comes when you never hear from each other again.

Acquaintances are nice to you because they know that this is your fate, that you are, in fact, the latest member of the country’s most congested demographic—middle-aged women in want of a good man. Nice married people think of you as someone who has it worse than they do; they treat you in the manner they normally reserve for the elderly or the terminally ill, and you do in some ways depend on the disability status that being female, middle-aged, and single affords you. No one asks if you’ll be attending this year’s school auction.

But what if, in fact, your life swerves abruptly and veers away from this dreary course? What if just months after a long marriage you fall headlong in love and you are no longer an object of pity but regarded now with some strange mixture of suspicion, guarded good will, and maybe even a little envy?

I was in what I now refer to as The Winter of My Home Improvement when news of our upcoming twenty-five-year high school reunion began to circulate among my old friends. During this home improvement season of my divorce, I channeled all my disappointment, anger, and loneliness into spackling, painting, and repairing wallpaper. I would run a roller dripping with Terra Nueva pink over a dingy wall with all the force of my being and then stand back to admire, as I kept insisting, “how much better things were becoming.” I manically charged through all the tasks that I’d been perpetually waiting for someone else to do when I was married, and it was only when I was hip-deep in some job of Herculean enormity—moving a pile of rocks from one side of the yard to the other, reorganizing all the junk thrown into the basement—that I felt any of the sense of peace and contentment that I’d once been able to garner from everyday activities like making dinner or folding a basket of laundry. Whenever my ex had the kids overnight, I obliterated the nagging sensation that I’d somehow misplaced my children by cruising the aisles of the jumbo hardware stores, filling my senses with the soft pile of carpet samples and the smell of freshly cut plywood. Yet, underneath my remodeling obsessions, I was haunted by my newfound isolation, and I immediately began to look forward to the reunion as a chance to get together with friends and warm myself around the bonfire of their company.

I didn’t give the reunion that much thought, though, until late spring, when I received a reminder e-mail. I recognized Thomas’s e-mail address on the “To” list as soon as I opened the message. Our names were side by side just as our lockers had been in the eighth grade, a coincidence of alphabet once again. We didn’t talk that much back then—just a shy word or two exchanged as we spun our combination locks. It wasn’t until a couple years after high school that our big romance ignited. We got together on a cloudy summer day for coffee at the beach and ended up spending the next year tangled up in each other, drinking blackberry tea in bed and confessing our love in three countries, chasing a dream of a life of a two-artist home, a dream we were too young to really live out but too old to dismiss. It took us all of the eighties to really break up, although we were never quite the same after our fateful re-entry into the U.S. from Australia at LAX. I went through the “US passports” line at customs and he went through “All Others.” His Canadian passport was stamped but he was granted only two weeks in the U.S. before he’d have to leave the country, me, and our Santa Fe life behind. When he left for Canada two weeks later, we broke up and spent the next six years trying to make it final, opening things up at random intervals by sleeping together and then having a fight over nothing the next morning.

In the nineties we both married other people and started families. Once in a while, he’d phone me and the room would spin until I’d catch my breath. We’d talk about our daughters and family life. When his marriage broke up in ’97, we talked on the phone until I said at last that we couldn’t. There was nothing I could do for him. His marriage was sinking, but I still had mine to keep afloat.

But now I wasn’t married. And neither was he. When I saw his e-mail on the list next to my own, I thought, Well, he can certainly see my name there just as I can see his. I went to sleep that night smug and certain there’d be an e-mail from him by morning. But there wasn’t one the next day, and I noticed that but then forgot about it in almost the same instant I rushed off the computer to get the kids ready for school. Yet, a week later, when another reminder e-mail came from the reunion organizers, I couldn’t resist the desire to e-mail him. It took me fifteen minutes to write the three-line note. His reply came a few hours later: Your “locker” is still next to mine.

Within a day we were on the phone, and once we were on, we couldn’t seem to get off. One night we talked until four in the morning and the next day we finished where we’d left off the night before. We talked of our marriages and their respective demises, our daughters, our gardens, and finally what had happened between us. He invited me to visit him, and soon I was juggling my parenting schedule, school performances, babysitters, and the favors of friends to cover my life as a single mom so I could take the two ferries and the bus between my house and his.

It was rainy as I walked off the final ferry. And I was worried and nervous and obsessing about whether or not I should put down the umbrella and let my hair get wet and frizzy or should I attempt to keep the thing aloft gracefully while also taming my clumsy rolling suitcase at the long-awaited moment of our reunion. Which hand should I carry the umbrella in? Did the rolling suitcase make me look middle aged and foolish?

And then I saw him. I saw his smile first, and then we were hugging and I reached up to kiss him and he pulled back and looked at me and then kissed me and put his hand on the small of my back and pulled me towards him. The wet black umbrella sat upside down on the dock where I had dropped it. All the little things I’d been worried about seemed from another life.

*   *   *

I live in a city, but it’s a city of small neighborhoods that are almost as insular and self-contained as mountain villages. It is rare for me to go to the library or the grocery store without running into someone I know. “Coming out” with my new boyfriend made me feel inconceivably brazen. It was only eight months after my husband and I separated when Thomas and I walked hand-in-hand into the local burger place, and I realized that the only people who seemed to know that my husband and I had split were those I’d actually gotten around to telling. It is, in fact, much easier not to mention that you’re getting divorced to acquaintances you bump into selecting their organic celery in the produce section. It’s much more socially acceptable to chat about the comings and goings of children than to say, “Hey that’s quite the head of romaine. Did I mention that my husband and I split up?” And who notices whether you’re wearing your ring or not? We’re all in our forties, not twentysomethings gushing over newly acquired solitaires.

My Seattle community is not prone to gossip, which I suddenly realized was somewhat unfortunate. Gossip has a distinct social function— it is an efficient and effective means of disseminating information. When you want said information to remain a secret, gossip can be a nightmare, of course, but when the news is the sort that everyone will inevitably find out—such as that of a divorce—you can almost find yourself wishing that there was someone whispering, “You wouldn’t believe what I just heard,” rather than having to awkwardly say, “Oh, we’re not married anymore” and deal with their sympathy (if you’re alone) or their open disgust (if you’re holding hands with your new boyfriend). At times, I’ve wished there were some sort of newsletter in which I could post the news of my marital disaster, sparing others and myself a number of awkward moments.

Before I was divorced, I had this naïve black-and-white view of divorce and tended to see divorced moms as something like the untouchables, a class of people whose lives had cast them into a dark and lonely sea, perpetually just out of reach of the brightly lit shores of happiness. But suddenly I was starting to look around and realize that the divorced moms weren’t inherently more miserable than the married ones and, in fact, many of the divorced moms seemed to be unapologetically happy.

I noticed another divorced mom, Kari, the first day at my daughter’s new school. She was wearing cute low-rise jeans and a ball cap and was laughing mischievously into her cellphone while the other mothers were straightening backpacks and chatting with each other. Kari and I started talking in the parking lot and quickly exchanged divorce stories. She was a year and half further into the process.

“You seem like you’re doing okay,” I ventured, hoping for some good news about the future, I suppose.

“Well,” she laughed, “I have a boyfriend. That helps!”

“You do?” I was surprised how open she was, no tone of guilt here. I lowered my voice and whispered, “So do I.”

“Co-ol!” She called out, nodding and giving me the you-go-girl look.

A few weeks later at basketball practice, one of the married mothers, Becky, was idly cleaning out her purse as a cluster of us chatted on the bleachers, only half-watching our seven-year-olds’ attempts to dribble balls down the court. Becky, sighing, passed me a Victoria’s Secret coupon from her purse’s discard pile. “Do you want this?” she asked with a sort of despair in her voice. “I’m afraid you’re the only one of us having the kind of sex that requires good underwear.”

*   *   *

The rule of waiting a year before introducing a new Significant Other to one’s children is apparently so pervasive in our culture of divorce that even my friend Nancy (also separated from her husband but far too sensible to become mired in the competing voices of advice books) cited the one-year rule to me as if it had been sent forth from the Ark of the Covenant.

“Aren’t you supposed to wait a year?” was her only response after I rambled on about Thomas and his latest weekend at my house with my daughters, Grace and Elizabeth.

What happened to being happy for me? “Yeah, you are,” I said. “But sometimes your life just happens and then you have to work with that.”

For a divorced mother of two, it would seem that falling in love should have a waiting period, like the purchase of a handgun. If my life had gone the route of occasional Scrabble playing and futile dating, I know the world would still be on my side, but apparently there is something deeply disturbing about a newly divorced woman slow dancing in the living room with a man other than her children’s father.

It wasn’t just my friends, though, who were concerned about my children and how best to juggle their need to have nothing more change in their lives and my need to love and be loved. I had obsessed endlessly on the phone to Thomas about how best to tell my daughters about him, how to reassure them that I was still there for them even though I was clearly—even a six-year-old could see it—crazy in love.

My eldest, Elizabeth, tended to think of this relationship as an affair I was bold enough to have out in the open for all to see. She is nine and a half and precocious, and it is with a suspicious tone—a tone not unlike the one Rita Moreno’s character uses on Natalie Wood’s when she realizes her sister has fallen for a member of the rival Jets gang—that she asked me, “So, are you ‘in love’ with him?”

She is the girl, and I the grown woman, but still I trembled a little as I nodded my head with a yes.

She looked at me with the exasperation of a mother of a teenage girl and said, “So soon?”

“It’s not like I planned for this to happen now. If I could’ve chosen a time, I would’ve waited.”

Gracie, my six-year-old, nodded and tried to make sense of it all by drawing from her far-too-extensive knowledge of Disney films. “Yeah, in the movies,” she said, “When the characters fall in love, it just happens. They don’t know it’s going to happen.”

Elizabeth turned her frustration on Grace. “Grace, can’t you see this? Mom and Dad are a match. For every person there is just one person. Dad is that person for Mom. There cannot be another person!”

Resting her head on one hand, Grace looked strangely detached, something like the Dalai Lama, as she said to Elizabeth very calmly, “I don’t believe that. I think there can be more than one. Wait here. I’ll show you.”

Grace leaned over the front porch and plucked two waxy camellia leaves from the overgrown bush that borders the house. Carefully, she tore the first in half, but before she did this she waved the one whole leaf that symbolized her parents’ intact marriage before our eyes, like the magician’s dramatic gesture of showing nothing up the sleeves. Then, she calmly demonstrated the autonomy of the two newly freed halves and the ease with which the mother half of the first leaf was able to hook up with the male half of the second torn leaf. “See how the leaf can split in two. I think,” she paused and then continued in a measured, emphatic voice, “there can be more than one true love.”

Stunned by Grace’s demonstration and by just how far beyond my reach and control things had really gone, I sat there speechless for a moment, and then Elizabeth spun on her heel and dashed to the same camellia bush to yank off another leaf.

“Well, this is what I think,” she said, looking me right in the eye as she waved her leaf in my face. “This was Mom and Dad.”

She then shred the leaf violently into minuscule pieces, shouting, “This is them now.” I was terrified of her anger and the enormity of the situation. I knew all the anger she felt was justified, and I knew too that I was the one who had set the match to this blaze of emotion. But as scary as that was to realize, I also felt genuinely relieved. Maybe now we could start to move forward. I pulled her close to me and held her for a long time while she cried and cried, and I said the words I could only hope were true: it’s okay, it’s okay, it really is okay.

*   *   *

The first few times that Thomas came to visit when the kids were home were at times akin to a root canal, a thing to be endured so that life could be better later on. He slept on the couch because it seemed too early for him to be sleeping in the same bed Mom and Dad had slept in together less than a year earlier. I would wake up at five in the morning and creep into the living room and lie there beside him, wishing I could freeze time and stay tucked into his arms all day, but at the first footfalls upstairs, I leaped off the couch as if I’d just received an electric shock, just as I had when I was sixteen and heard my mother start down the basement stairs to check on my boyfriend and me.

It was excruciating to watch Elizabeth struggle with how to just be around Thomas. She’d cycle through a gamut of emotions, from disdain to giddiness, in five-minute intervals that were exhausting to follow. Sometimes she would be very nice to Thomas but then glare at me or say something snide when he left the room. He’d somehow return just as I’d be telling her to smarten up, and he’d look at me surprised and come over and rub my shoulders and say something like, “Hey, easy there.” And then she’d say something like “Yeah, Mom,” even daring once to add, “Why don’t you chill?” After a few hours of this, I’d go lie down in the bedroom, Thomas would come lie down beside me, I’d go to touch him—wanting more than anything to just kiss him—but then Elizabeth would plunk into my desk chair and spin, browsing with obvious glee through my normally forbidden papers until I’d find myself shouting something like, “Hey, that’s enough!” and find myself awash in remorse and guilt.

But I also knew throughout this that if I just gave the situation enough time, love, and patience, as well as the right mixture of attention and detachment, it would improve. And it did. The day before Halloween, Thomas and Elizabeth sat on the front porch carving pumpkins in the fading afternoon light. They talked in quiet voices for a long time and when I walked by once to take out the trash, they both gave me a look warning me not to interrupt them. By the time they came in, their hands were cold and it was almost dark, and there was a shift in Elizabeth—very tiny, almost imperceptible—but still an undeniable shift.

By our second Christmas as a two-home family, Thomas has been part of our lives for six months, and it is more mind bending than working a Rubik’s cube for my ex and me to figure out how, when, and where the holiday should be celebrated, despite the legal “parenting plan” that delineates the children’s movements down to the millisecond. Somehow it’s just not as simple as “on even years the children will spend the first half of the Christmas break with their father” when Santa, stockings, and a new boyfriend are all involved.

We agree somehow that Thomas will stay at my place (alone) Christmas morning, and I will come to my ex’s (where Santa has been smart enough to scout out the children and the stockings, which normally reside with me) and watch the kids open their gifts there. But then on the twenty-fourth, Thomas and I are dropping something off for the kids when Elizabeth rushes down her dad’s front steps.

“Mama, Thomas can’t stay at home alone on Christmas morning. It’s not right. I want him to come over here.”

I look up the stairs and I meet the gaze of their dad and ask with a shoulder shrug, “What do you think?”

“I think it’s a great idea,” he says. Both of us know that’s not true.

The next morning Thomas and I walk hand-in-hand to the house where the man who used to be my husband and my two children wait for us. Inside, we will drink hot chocolate and eat muffins and then we will notice the stockings. Beside the four matching ones of a Christmas mouse, reindeer, penguin, and bear that our family has used for years, there is a new stocking, a fifth one made late last night by a nine-year-old girl who would never want anyone to feel left out.

Author’s Note: The other day Thomas and I took a walk at the beach with the girls. We sat down for a moment on a bench so Elizabeth could adjust her roller blades. When they were tightened, she leaned back into Thomas and rested her head momentarily on his chest. It was one of those breathtaking gestures that is so small and yet undeniable in its significance. Neither Thomas nor I said a word but our eyes met in that split second before she scrambled back up to her feet and began to glide along the path once again.

Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006. Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, Bird by Bird & Beyond, and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by literary leaders such as Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron, and Natalie Goldberg.

Brain, Child (Fall, 2005)

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This Is Our Last Baby … I Think

This Is Our Last Baby … I Think

By Jessica Rassette

JessicaRassette3There is nothing better than a baby bundle. A lump of baby all bundled up on your chest with their frog legs curled up underneath them. Chest to chest, heartbeat to heartbeat, their big fat cheeks covered in drool just begging to be munched on. Yep, nothing is better than a baby bundle.

I’ve been doing the baby bundle with our youngest a lot lately. He’s five months old and my baby bundle days are numbered. Any chance I get I grab that boy around his big ol’ belly and squeeze him as close to me as I can. Squeeze and tickle and coo and squeeze and rub his soft face, oh, the squeezes. He has two older brothers he’s been admiring for a while now, and he is just one gutsy, coordinated moment away from crawling after them. I know when that happens he’ll be all “pssht mom, no time for bundling this baby, I’m crawling!”

It’s ok, I’ve been through it before, but the hurt is a little more scorching this time. He is our last baby. While we haven’t done anything official to ensure he’s our last one, in my heart, I know. This is it. My husband knows it too, he was after all my biggest cheerleader when I asked my doctor about getting my tubes tied. But in the end I couldn’t go through with it. I gave a really lame excuse, like “I don’t feel qualified to make decisions for my future self.” But really, I am scared of being done making babies.

Don’t get me wrong, I complain a lot when I’m pregnant. Almost as much as I eat. A lot. Between the morning sickness, joint pain, back pain, hip pain, pain pain, and the mood swings, insomnia, general feelings of lethargy, discomfort, exhaustion, melancholy … I complain. A lot. But I enjoy a lot too. I can’t possibly get over that feeling of knees brushing across my belly from the inside. The inside! The fun of dreaming of a new baby and what he’ll look like. Or just that glowing feeling because I’m growing a baby. Then there’s the first cry, first smile, nursing, snuggling with a baby bundle. It’s beautiful, who isn’t scared to be done with all of that?

But back to reality, we have three boys. Our house, hearts, arms, eardrums are full, our pocketbooks empty. It’s time for me to climb out of my “in the trenches years,” take a shower, and try to make a name for myself while I raise these cute little hooligans. It is time.

Recognizing that our family is complete is as much of a loss as it is a blessing. We’re done, and it hurts. Every first milestone that our youngest achieves will be our last time experiencing it. No more fluttering fetus kicks. No more preggo glows. No. More. Baby. Bundles. And the list could go on and on.

It hurts a lot, and I need time to mourn the loss of my baby makin’ years. It was a good run, uterus, you done good. If my uterus had a tush I would give it a friendly little tush pat, like a burly football player in the end zone. That’ll do, pig, that’ll do.

But there’s good in this too. At some point, I think, we’re going to start sleeping again. As much as I love yoga pants I’m going to wear real clothes again someday. Our kids will become more independent, they’ll grow and become real people. I’ll even start showering (pretty) regularly, and maybe even be really important to people who don’t call me “mom.” There is a lot of good in this decision that, someday, I’ll appreciate.

But right now I’m still in the trenches for a few more years, and in mourning that this baby cycle will not renew itself and these days are fleeting. I’m squeezing up all the fat baby bundles that I can and appreciating everything I am experiencing for the last time. But let’s be honest, a part of me will always hope I can talk my husband into just one more. We are done having babies, but I’ll always leave that uterus door open just … a tiny … sliver …

Just in case.

Jessica is a blogger, photographer, and freelance writer in Nebraska. Blogs she contributes to include the Huffington Post and BabyCenter. She writes at www.bubandteebs.com

Photo: Istockphoto.com

Skin On Skin With My Teen

Skin On Skin With My Teen

By Nancy J. Brandwein

SkinonSkinMy 13-year-old daughter and I face each other, propped against opposite ends of our worn old couch. I have my New York magazine, and she has her book. Our calves knock lazily against each other now and then, or she plants her feet flatly against the thin bones of my shins. The pressure hurts, sometimes a lot, but I treasure this contact, this skin on skin. Friends with older daughters caution that mine will likely make an abrupt break from any contact with me. My wariness of that moment (when will it happen? Will there be a sign or many signs?) makes it hard to truly relax here on the couch, but it also makes me hyper appreciative of this moment.

I like the smell of her feet, fruity from the cheap Payless flats she wears without socks. If they were anyone’s feet but hers, I’d gag, but instead I inhale their vinegary aroma the way I happily breathe in her sour cat’s maw breath when I wake her on school days. First, though, I grab her feet in both hands and give them a tug, suddenly aware of the weight and heft of this girl who had always been so slight.  I rub the dry creased soles of her feet or take my index finger and, like a doctor with his rubber triangular hammer, sketch a line from big toe to heel. Her body curls deeper under her Andy Warhol duvet. But I uncover her head and kiss the sweaty brow under wisps of the tawny mane she worships. Sometimes I hold her pointed chin while she yawns in my face. I wince, but still stick close.

On weekends I often help her prep the sacred hair for yet another Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I part and comb damp hanks and hold the blow dryer, just so, at her command, to make the long honey-colored locks straighten without frizzing. At night, when I flop on her bed and sing a line from the ritual song I once used to sing her to sleep, she might pull on the frizzy ends of my middle-aged hair or mindlessly sweep it off my forehead as she tells me, excitedly, of some new plan she has of making jewelry from garbage, of selling her old clothes, or traveling to Iran. I wish I could say, as I used to when she was four and we played at hairdressing, “Do my hair.” I could command her to attend to my body—braid my hair, scratch my back, polish my nails—as she now commands me to attend to hers.

Recently my daughter asked me when she should start shaving under her arms. “If you have hair there,” I said, and boldly ventured, “Do you?” She flapped open one arm like a chicken wing to reveal a few strands of curly brown hair. “Aaw,” I said, moved. I well remember my own scrawled diary entry “I have hair under my arms!!!!” I reached out to touch her there, but she snapped her armpit shut. There are rules I must abide by, and those are, for now, namely that skin on skin is OK if she initiates the contact: her skin on my skin first, as a way of granting permission. And even then the permission might come with codicils and fine print about which I am unaware.

These days when we stroll the city streets, usually in pursuit of some clothing item from my own adolescence that she must have (desert boots … studs … peasant blouses), I am often gobsmacked by her sense of freedom with my body. My daughter pulls at my arm and lifts my hand to her mouth as if to take a giant bite. It is a game she plays, “I must bite! I must bite!” she tells me. And if I am not fast I will feel a small impression of teeth on the top of my hand.  Happy in her body—and with her purchases bought with my credit—she does an impish King Tut walk in front of me, then throws an arm around my shoulder, something she can do since she is now just one inch shy of my height. Or, in a more sedate mood, she will loop her arm companionably in mine and we walk like two ladies who lunch. Yet—and there’s the fine print—when I am encouraged to hold her hand or rest my hand on her waist, she may dart away.

At other times, though, her touch reminds me that she is still very much my little girl. Coming back from our outings, we walk through the maze-like Times Square subway station, and she is young enough to fear being parted. She walks behind me, pinching the unloved loose skin at my elbow as we make our way through the crowd.

Just as I love her spontaneous hugs or love bites, I treasure my daughter’s utilitarian approach to my body—as guide through the city throngs, as footrest on the couch, as backrest while we watch TV on the living room floor. This notion of being the ground for my daughter’s explorations goes back to toddlerhood. Learning to walk, she clung to my thigh as if I were a stable oak tree. Lying on the couch trying to read the paper, I’d peer over the New York Times to see her scaling my bent knees. My memories of our sensual connection go further back, of course, to breastfeeding days. I remember that anxious moment when I’d prop her at my breast and she would fuss or twist her head the wrong way. When she finally latched on, I’d will myself to stay stock still, so tenuous did the connection seem, until she sucked in long regular draughts and I could relax and shift position. Even when the feed was going well, though, I was unable to multitask when breastfeeding—all those fantasies of reading Trollope’s Barchester Towers in small increments went quickly out the window. Most of all, I loved to attend, not just to the moment, which seemed always to stand outside of time, but to revel in the accretion of moments, which would, with time and the gradual weaning, soon be labeled a “stage” and put behind us.

Those stages of infancy, toddlerhood or even early childhood seemed so clearly demarcated, unlike the messiness of adolescence. Those same friends who warn me not to bask so in the physical connection with my daughter told me that her period, which she announced from behind a closed bathroom door, would presage raging hormones, bitter fights, or worse: an icy hatred.  It’s hard to imagine this as my 13-year-old daughter and I face each other on opposite ends of our worn old couch, our calves knocking lazily against each other. “Ouch,” I cry when her sharp, unclipped toenail scratches my shin, but I wear the thin red scrape like a badge of motherly pride. “See,” I want to tell the naysayers, “We still touch. We are still close.” But just as in those days when I held her to my breast, I feel I must hold my breath and remain absolutely still, like a table or a chair. I wonder when “close” will become “closed.” It is enough, for now, to lie across from my daughter on the old green couch or, if I’m really lucky, to squeeze next to each other down its length. Then her fragrant hair potions waft over me as her elbow jabs my side every time she opens and closes her book. Sometimes her long tapered feet actually trap my own against the nubby couch fabric—as if she, too, is willing me to stay.

Nancy J. Brandwein is a freelance writer (www.nancyjbrandwein.com) who has published in The New York Times, Brain, Child, West Side Spirit and Hippocampus Magazine. She lives in New York City with her husband and two teenaged children.

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Show Me Family

Show Me Family

By Amanda Magee

ColoringI’m sitting upstairs in bed; back propped up with pillows, feet enveloped in ridiculously thick winter socks, and the loving directive from my husband ringing in my ears, “Just go take some time.” He’d started a movie for the girls and they’d curled up like kittens to watch. Jimmy Fallon’s voice popping in and out, every so often followed by the girls’ laughter, tinkley layers of giggles peppered with shrieked guffaws.

I’ve been wishing to carve out more time to write about our life. The conflict of loving them and needing time away from them makes my cheeks burn and my heart ache. Beyond the screen of my laptop I can see the hallway, a picture hangs there, canvas stretched taut over a wooden frame, in it Finley runs, arms outstretched into the impossibly magnificent sunset on the beach. Can I really love them if sitting in the quiet of my own room brings me such pleasure?

The doubt that took root the moment I first became pregnant, the one that keeps a tally of my triumphs and always seems to measure them as being less frequent than my foibles, whispers to me, “Shouldn’t you be down there? If you love her so much, if this photo is so magical, why aren’t you cutting craft paper and making holiday decorations with her? Why do you always say maybe or later?”

The cursor blinks like foot tapping, what am I doing? The whine of a power tool thrums outside the window, a dog barks, and there is singing. I sit up and realize that I can no longer hear the movie. I wonder what they are doing and begin to set my laptop aside. I swing my legs off the bed and just before my feet touch the floor I hear them.

Avery is singing, I strain to hear the words, “Cause all I know is we said hello.” She trails off and Finley chimes in, “Your eyes look like coming home.” They go quiet and then they both build up from a mumble into, “You’ll be mine and I’ll be yours.” They keep going, alone, then together.

“I just wanna know you better, know you better, know yoooooou better now.”

I’m smiling and it hurts. Music has always been a part of their playing. When Briar was four she would croon Taylor Swift’s “Our Song” into a lavender Ariel microphone while Avery would pound on the keys of the piano and bop her head. Five years later Briar’s voice is every bit as sweet, but the way she carries the tune, sounding more like a teenager than a toddler, is sobering.

“All I know since yesterday is everything has changed.” 

My feet follow along, gently swaying to their absentminded singing. They sing the chorus together, their voices layering in ways that they unwittingly picked up listening to Sean’s band. There is no rivalry, no jockeying for lead, they just sing, all the while they are coloring.

I am feeling less conflicted. As much as I judge myself for not being present or engaged at all times, it is in the space that I leave empty that they find ways to be gentler with one another. No one is hurt because they don’t get to sit next to mom, their activities adjust to suit their taste, with Finley coloring, Briar tracing, and Avery cutting shapes.

I have an idea, a story that I want to write. I type ideas, sentences to prompt my memory, it flows easily reminding me of my earliest days as a mom, sitting at the computer before dawn pumping milk. My fingers dance over the keys and my spirit lifts with the certainty that I am where I should be. I’m not sure how much time passes before I finish. I save a draft and close my laptop.

As I walk downstairs the girls are singing a Beyonce song, when they see me they giggle and scatter. I wait and before long they walk in step together and grin at me as they sing Ho! Hey! wearing sunglasses and scarves.

Ho! I’ve been trying to do it right
Hey! I’ve been living a lonely life
Ho! I’ve been sleeping here instead
Hey! I’ve been sleeping in my bed,
Ho! I’ve been sleeping in my bed

I chime in, “Hey! Ho!”

They beam and we parade through the house singing together.

Ho! So show me family…

This is our family; together and alone, singing and laughing, writing and wishing, and on this Saturday morning it feels absolutely perfect.

Amanda Magee lives in the Adirondacks of Upstate, New York, where she owns an advertising agency. She and her husband are raising their three daughters to be kind hearted, rough and tumble spirits. Amanda has been featured on BlogHer and is a contributing blogger on the Huffington Post with features on their Parents and Women sections.

Read Amanda Magee’s essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.

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A Letter to My Seven-Year-Old Son

A Letter to My Seven-Year-Old Son

BJ sittingDear Son,

I remember when you first entered my life. I spent hours holding you close, smelling your head, and gazing into your eyes. I lived for your smiles; even the gas-induced ones brought me joy.

Seven years later, not much has changed.

I still love the way your head fits perfectly between my chin and collarbone, though the sight of your legs extending beyond the couch sometimes makes me sad. I still love to breathe in the scent of your hair. Not necessarily after a soccer game, but when you are fresh from the bath. Your smiles—even the fart-joke induced ones—still bring me joy.

I don’t spend as much time gazing in your eyes as I used to. Your eyes have always been expressive.  I see the world in them. Lately, I see the weight of the world in them. The apprehension in your seven-year-old eyes makes it hard to look at them for long.  Your eyes are full of questions.  What if you fail?  How much is enough?  When is the right time?  I see you looking to me for answers, but I don’t have answers to give. The answers used to be easy. When you were younger, it was a multiple choice test every time you cried: milk, sleep, or clean diaper. Now the questions and answers are more complicated.

I remember your milestones. Learning to sit. Learning to stand. Learning to walk and talk. I checked the boxes on those easy-to-define achievements. I even charted your pre-milestone progress. I used to sit you upright and count how many seconds it took for you to tip over. Of course, that was proof not of your progress toward independent sitting but of the existence of gravity in our living room. Nevertheless, I soaked it all in and my new mom heart swelled with pride and relief as the evidence mounted that you were gaining the skills you needed to survive in this world.

The milestones from here are less defined. There are no checklists.

It’s no longer about knowing how to sit or stand, but when to sit or stand. Courtesy—easing another’s burden, putting some else’s comfort ahead of your own, offering a small kindness, showing that you see others and deem them to be of value—is a gift the world needs.  You need to know when to offer your seat to another.  But the rules for doing so are not based on a simple algorithm of gender and age.  They are complicated.  You need to know when offering your seat would wound fragile pride. You need to watch for situations where a person’s need to be perceived as capable exceeds the need for comfort. It’s tricky.

It’s no longer about knowing how to walk, but where to walk. Someday, you will sit in class and your teacher will introduce you to Robert Frost’s poem about two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Your teacher will tell you that what Frost wrote is true. Our choices matter. You will think you understand.  It will be my job to tell you that Frost was writing about the best case scenario. Life’s intersections are rarely simple forks in the road with two defined choices. Life’s intersections are crowded and the road less travelled is overgrown and easy to miss. Choices don’t announce themselves. Defining moments camouflage themselves in our daily routine. Seemingly small choices are turns: to smile or not, to speak or stay silent, to stay within or stray from your comfort zone, today or tomorrow.

It’s no longer about knowing how to talk, but which words to use. Words have power and must be used wisely. They have the power to hurt and the power to heal, although those powers are not equal. The hurt caused by words is rarely able to be healed by words. Even sincere apologies can’t fully erase the damage. The best an apology can do is ice the swelling. Apologizing for hurtful words is like painting over graffiti. The new paint never quite matches the original color; the shadow of the vandalism remains.

There are so many milestones to come: wisdom, courage, discernment and more. None of these have clear metrics to let you know when you’ve arrived. But, you will make progress if you practice. Like a baby taking ten seconds to tip over instead of four, you will slowly learn.  You will learn which battles are worth fighting and which are best served by pacifism. You will learn which risks are likely to yield rewards and which are simply an excuse for an adrenaline rush.

You will learn so much in the years to come. Trial and error will be your greatest teacher. You will be bruised. You will be scraped. You will get bumps that swell to an alarming size. That’s part of the growing. Skinned knees mean you’re doing it right.

Along the way, you will look to me for answers. I might not have them.

But, I still want to hear the questions.

Love,

Mom

Photo by Benton J. Melbourne

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More Than a Stat: My Son is Obese

More Than a Stat: My Son is Obese

By Erin Ruggaber Howard

howardThere are lots of words I would use to describe my seven-year-old son “Ben.”  Sturdy comes to mind.  Solid also gets thrown around a lot.  And yet, after Ben’s recent well-child appointment, I had to throw out Solid and Sturdy and replace them with two far less pleasant adjectives—Overweight and Obese.

The pediatrician flashed her electronic tablet at me, pointing to the Blue Zone—the healthy BMI range—and following my Ben’s line up the chart as it shot straight into the White Zone.  The Danger Zone.  She tilted the screen away from Ben so he couldn’t see.  Almost guiltily, she made a few brief suggestions about healthy foods and increased activity, and we moved on.  Quickly.  I guess she didn’t want to embarrass him.  Or me.

Ben just doesn’t look obese.  Not to me, anyway.  I’m sure a trained eye would detect the slight pudge around his middle, the thin padding that smooths over the ridges of his rib cage.  To me, he looked healthy, and that’s scary.  Normally, I’m pretty on top of this Mom thing.  I’m quick to pick up on symptoms—the wheeze that denotes an allergy trigger or the rash that’s our first clue of Strep.  I’m observant, darn it!  How could I miss this one!

Looking back, there were clues.  When he was a toddler, Ben’s sister found some of my banana scented Burt’s Bees hand cream and fed it to Ben with a doll spoon.  He ate it.  All of it.  He’s always been a big eater like that.  It doesn’t matter if he’s hungry.  I guess it doesn’t even matter if it’s food—he seemed happy enough with hand cream.

And of course Ben’s swimming in my husband’s gene pool.  Phil is the very definition of a Big Guy.  We have to order his Size Sixteens from a website called “BigShoes.com.”  No joke.   When I do laundry and pull out a pair of pants that is almost bigger than I am, I think, “Wow, these are ‘Big Man Jeans’.”  Then I chuckle to myself, because my husband has both “Big Man Jeans” and “Big Man Genes.”  I get really bored when I do laundry.

Just like his Dad, Ben has “Big Man Genes.”  Undoubtedly, he will someday also have “Big Man Jeans.”  Does that mean I should throw up my hands, throw out the BMI chart, and go on as I’ve been?  So.  Tempting.

Since that fateful doctor’s appointment, I’ve taken a good look at our family’s eating and exercise habits, and the truth is we aren’t perfect, but we aren’t doing that bad.  It’s not like I handed Ben a bag of Cheetos and a six pack of Coke with a cheery “Enjoy your video games, Dearie, I’m off to Bingo.”  We’re an active family who eats home-cooked dinners around the kitchen table.  It’s all very Rockwell-ian.  Those “Big Man Genes” must be a big part of the equation because Ben’s three siblings (who all happened to have joined the family through adoption) are perfectly balanced.  The three of them are nestled comfortably in the healthy Blue Zone on their own nicely curving growth lines, while Ben’s chart shoots straight up into the Danger Zone like a profile of Mt. Everest.

I could shrug this whole BMI thing off.  Ben’s a Big Guy and that’s the way it is.  After all, I’m sure Phil went through his whole childhood hearing, “Oh, he’s just big boned” and he turned out all right.  Ok, not exactly all right when it comes to this issue—it’s a struggle for him to stay under the 300-pound mark now that his football and wrestling days are behind him—but he’s got low blood pressure, low cholesterol and normal blood sugar.  And he’s charming, well-adjusted, spontaneous, and a great Dad.  That has to count for something.

But from long years of experience watching Phil’s battle to stay under 300, I know it is much easier to maintain a healthy weight than to try to shed unhealthy extra pounds.  Even if Ben is “big boned” I need to teach him how to make healthy choices—now.

No more hot-and-ready pizzas when I’m running late.  No more ice cream every sweltering afternoon.  No more granola bars for breakfast.  But the biggest change needs to come from Ben himself.

When we were out to lunch a couple of weeks ago, Ben and I split a club sandwich and tomato soup.  For the first time, I noticed that we ate the exact same amount—me a grown woman and him a seven-year-old boy.  As soon as his food was gone he glanced over at his little sister’s plate.  There was half a grilled cheese sandwich, just sitting there, all tempting.  “Are you going to eat that?” he asked casually, already reaching across the table.

“Are you still hungry?” I asked.  He thought about it for a second.  ” I’m not really hungry anymore … but I’m not full either.”  Ah-Ha!  Breakthrough!  Still holding his hand gently, I looked him in the eye.  “This is what full feels like”, I said.  “Right now.  ‘Not hungry anymore’ is the same as ‘full’.  You don’t want to eat until you feel sick, do you?”  Sadly, I think he had to consider it.  Eventually he shook his head, and I quickly removed little sister’s temptingly half-empty plate.  One small victory.

It’s a weird balance—teaching Ben to make healthy choices without getting carried away.  I feel a sadness that Ben is now a national statistic—one more of those 31% of American kids who are overweight or obese—and it would be easy to get carried away trying to “fix” him.  But doubling down to reduce his BMI percentage?  That’s the wrong goal.  That BMI thing is just a tool.  It doesn’t tell the whole story.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition.  Like those black knit winter gloves I naively bought home for my ham-fisted hubby when we were newlyweds, the BMI chart is at best one-size-fits-most.

The goal has to be a healthy Ben—whatever that is—and not a dot on a chart.  I’ve got to let go of my Mommy Guilt and admit that healthy Ben might never be a Blue Zone kind of guy. But healthy habits, healthy choices for the whole family, will go a long way toward making sure those “Big Man Jeans” never get too big.

Erin Ruggaber Howard is a freelance historian and writer, and a SAHM to four children.  She has written for Adoptive FamiliesAdoption TodayChicago Parent, and Brain, Child exploring issues of parenting, adoption, and racial identity.

Guilty as Charged

Guilty as Charged

By Bridget Kevane

summer2009_kevanehpOn Saturday, June 16, 2007, I was charged with endangering the welfare of my children, a criminal charge that, in the city where I live, Bozeman, Montana, can lead to imprisonment in the county jail. The Montana Code 46-16-130(3) states that a parent can be charged with this offense if she “knowingly endangers the child’s welfare by violating a duty of care, protection, or support.”

Typically, prosecution is pursued when an adult supplies a child younger than eighteen with drugs, prostitutes the child, abandons the child’s home, or engages in sexual conduct with the child. A violation of duty of care is described as cruel treatment, abuse, infliction of unnecessary and cruel punishment, abandonment, neglect, lack of proper medical care, clothing, shelter, and food, and evidence of bodily injury.

I was charged with this crime because I dropped my three children and their two friends off at the Bozeman Gallatin Valley Mall.

*   *   *

Bozeman is a small town known for its quality of life, striking physical beauty, easy access to the outdoors, and great public schools. It is also known as a safe community. The mall is considered a family place where kids trick-or-treat in October to escape the cold, and groups of children meet friends, shop, eat and see movies. It is a popular activity both during the long Montana winters as well as the summer months.

The mall is a safe place. There are no signs posted at the mall saying that children cannot be left unattended. No child has ever been kidnapped or molested at the mall. And yet, I was charged as a criminal for dropping children there without my direct supervision.

My oldest daughter, Natalie, and her friend, were both twelve at the time, going into seventh grade. The girls, who had known each other since they were three years old, had attended a babysitting class sponsored by the local hospital for girls eleven and older. The class teaches CPR, infant care, responsible behavior and more. They both also had enough experience babysitting other people’s children that I trusted having them supervise the other kids at the mall—Ellie, eight, Matthew, seven, and my younger daughter, Olivia, who was three.

An outsider, or someone used to a bigger, more crowded way of living, might be shocked to know that I left children that young in the care of two twelve-year-olds. But these kids were a pack. They grew up together in a neighborhood full of children. They walk to and from their local schools together, play together, and frequently spend time at each other’s homes.

My husband and I are particularly good friends with two families that live near our home. We parents depend on each other for support and mutual child care as much as our children depend on each other for friendship. As our kids have grown older, an implicit agreement has formed among us: Our children will wander to each other’s homes, and it is our job to informally supervise them and keep each other aware of their whereabouts. As we all live within less than half a mile from each other, much time is spent going from one house to the other, to the park, or walking around the nearby university, where I am a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies.

So when the older girls asked if they could go to the mall that Saturday, I said yes, if they took the younger kids with them. On that particular day, I was exhausted. The children wanted an activity, and I wanted a couple of hours of quiet and rest.

Why was I exhausted? I have three kids, a dog, a cat, a hamster, and a fish named Oscar.  I have a husband who had started his own company and was working on weekends. I teach classes, write books and articles, and am chair of my department. I love my job, for one reason because it has given me the flexibility to be home for my kids every day after school. I oversee violin, swimming, and art lessons; I drive my kids around; I think about what I can make for dinner, and I wonder how early I can get to bed. In other words, like many mothers, I work two jobs, and sometimes that catches up with me.

I’ve come to look differently on my exhaustion that day, now that all this has taken place. I made a choice, and I believed it was the right choice: I let my daughter take over. I gave her a responsibility so I could have a break.  I had no reason to doubt my daughter. I believed then and continue to believe today that the girls were aware and responsible enough to handle their younger siblings.

*   *   *

The plan was for the kids to have lunch and walk around a bit. I told the older girls the rules. They could not leave the younger kids unsupervised. They could not make a ruckus. They had to behave. Olivia, the three-year-old, had to stay in her stroller. When I called my husband and the other mother to let them know the plan, there was no hesitation on their part. My husband was at his office down the street from the mall, less than five minutes away. I would be at home with my cell phone, and my daughter had her cell phone in case they wanted to be picked up early.

I dropped the group off at roughly one forty-five p.m. and said that I would pick them up at four for the barbeque we were going to that night. It was to be an afternoon activity, as simple as that.

About an hour later, my husband, who was home by then, received a call from the police telling me that we had to come down to the mall immediately. My first thought was that the kids had made a scene, that they had knocked something over, that they had run about recklessly. We jumped into the car.

When I walked into the mall, the children were all in an enclosed security office behind a glass wall, smiling, eating candy, and talking to a security guard and some Macy’s employees. I smiled and waved to them, relieved that everything appeared fine.

That feeling was quickly about to change.

As soon as we entered the office, I was confronted by two Bozeman city police officers. One told me that what I had done was completely unacceptable in his opinion and that he was going to arrest me for endangering the welfare of my children. I asked him if there was a mall age limit that I was not aware of. He told me to be quiet. I tried to explain to him that I had faith in my daughter’s skills and in the safety of the mall, and that I was not an endangering parent. As I tried to keep talking, desperate to clear up what was obviously nothing more than a huge misunderstanding, he warned me that if I “went crazy” on him, he would handcuff me right in front of the children and take me away to jail for the night. He said he had called child services already. They would either arrive at the mall shortly or get his report and be visiting my home this week to check in.

My husband tried to reason with the officer, emphasizing that this was a first-time mistake and asking if we could be set free with a warning, some lesser charge. But the officer simply kept repeating that what I had done was a crime.

I was completely stunned, unable to grasp what was unfolding right before my eyes. I sat down, scared, exhausted, and confused, and didn’t utter another word. We were allowed to take the children home, but I was told I had to hire a lawyer and appear in court on June 21.

As we drove home, the younger kids chattered about their adventure, oblivious about what had just transpired. My husband asked some pointed questions, and details began to emerge: Olivia liked the candy the store employees gave her and said the ladies were nice; Matthew said the employees asked strange questions; Ellie wondered why all the kids had been taken away to the Macy’s office.

Natalie and her friend, both visibly shaken, were mostly quiet except to say that they had not been allowed to call us. I sensed that they understood the bigger implications of what had happened and were not only worried about repercussions but also about their first encounter with the police. “Are we in trouble?” Matthew asked. No, we replied. Then he asked, “Are you in trouble, Mommy?” The question lingered in the air without an answer.

Guilt, a nagging feeling that always resided somewhere within me as a working mother, began to surface. Was I a bad mother? Had my judgment been so completely off? The two police officers, so much younger than I, had been so certain that I had committed a crime against my own children. They had not a shred of doubt. Maybe they were right; maybe in my at-times-frantic daily juggling act, I had lost the ability to care for my children. I had been discovered! My children would be taken from me! And how was I going to explain this to my friends, who had entrusted their children to me? Shame, guilt’s partner, took root as well.

When we arrived home I went straight to my room and lay down on the same bed on which, a few hours earlier, I had hoped for a couple of moments of peace.

*   *   *

Details of the incident became clear later. The kids had gone into Macy’s after lunch; it was to be the final stop of the afternoon. Natalie and her friend decided to try on some shirts and left the three younger kids in the purse section by the cosmetics counter—which, it’s true, was against the rules that I had laid out for them.

While the girls were in the dressing room, some Macy’s employees spotted the three younger kids and called mall security. When Natalie and her friend returned less than five minutes later, all the kids were taken away to Macy’s administrative office where they were held until the arrival of the city police. The kids-who were now being treated as victims of abuse-were not allowed to use their cell phones to call me, because I was now considered a negligent mother.

In making their decisions, the mall police and city police relied upon the statements of four Macy’s employees who worked the cosmetic counters, though it became clear later in written statements that some of the workers were not even in the store at the time, and that others had badly misestimated the younger kids’ ages to be two, three, and four (rather than three, seven, and eight). The rest of the employees’ stories vary wildly in time, place, and their perception of what actually happened.

At any point in the course of events, the Macy’s employees, the mall security guards, the police, or the city prosecutor could have chosen to view my decision to drop my children off at the mall as an innocent moment of faulty judgment. They could have slapped me on the wrist, or warned me, “Don’t do that again,” or settled for any number of lesser charges. After all, there is no law in Bozeman against dropping your children off at the mall.

But instead my actions were considered criminal neglect, “violating a duty of care.” Why? As the pretrial procedures dragged on, I began to feel I was caught in a culture war, or perhaps several wars—town vs. gown, native Montanan vs. outsider, and working mother vs. working mother.

The city attorney made no secret of the fact that her own parenting choices informed her decision in backing up the police officer. She told my lawyer in their first meeting that she also had a daughter and would never have left her at the mall. She also said she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their “heads are always in a book.” Her first letter to my lawyer ended on a similar theme: “I just think that even individuals with major educations can commit this offense, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education.” Despite the fact that Montana professors are among the lowest paid in the nation, and that undoubtedly the prosecutor has a law degree herself, she nevertheless categorized me as someone trying to receive special treatment.

My lawyer and I came to understand that, more than anything, the city attorney wanted me to plead guilty, to admit that I had “violated a duty of care.” She wanted me to carry that crime with me for the rest of my life, a scarlet A that would symbolically humiliate me, teach me a lesson, and remain etched in my being.

I now realize that her pressure—her near obsession with having me plead guilty—had less to do with what I had done and more to do with her perception of me as an outsider who thought she was above the law, who had money to pay her way out of a mistake, who thought she was smarter than the Bozeman attorney because of her “major education.” This perception took hold even though I had never spoken one word to her directly. Nor did I ever speak in court; only my lawyer did. I was visible but silent, and thus unable to shake the image that the prosecutor had created of me: a rich, reckless, highly educated outsider mother who probably left her children all the time in order to read her books.

And that’s how I became defendant Bridget Anne Lieb (my married name), charged with a crime by the State of Montana, Case no. TK-07-03739.

*   *   *

The prosecutor was right in one respect. I am an outsider. My parents—my father born in Iowa from poor Irish immigrants, my mother raised by Russian Jewish parents in a small town in Wisconsin—left the United States in the late Fifties, never to return. I was born in Italy and raised in Puerto Rico, one of eight children.

As kids, we were frequently left to our own devices, with the older children often left in charge of the younger ones. In many ways, I raised my youngest sister, walking her around the neighborhood, taking her to the local neighborhood store, and more. My mother was certainly around quite a bit, but many times she was not able to attend to all eight of us, each about a year apart, each with our own separate needs and demands on her time. She, like many mothers, believed in the power of allowing her children to gain independence by depending on themselves. Although I cannot speak for my siblings, I certainly believe that I derived not only a sense of independence from this practice but a sense of confidence in my ability to manage and make my own decisions.

During the months between my arrest and the deferred prosecution agreement that my lawyer eventually worked out, I began to feel that I was being reprimanded for allowing my daughter to develop that sense of responsibility, and, equally important, to come to the realization that sometimes failure is the best teacher of all. Certainly, she had failed when she made the decision to walk into that dressing room, and had the police not intervened, I would have been angry with her, and she would have known that what she had done was wrong. We both would have gained experience. Instead, we got caught up in the legal system and wound up learning a different, sadder lesson: that self-sufficiency is shrinking in today’s culture.

I saw this illustrated in the parenting class I ended up taking as part of the deferred prosecution agreement. Listening to the questions from the other parents (all of whom were there voluntarily, as far as I could tell) it became clear to me that there’s less room than there used to be to parent by instinct and to trust oneself, as my mother did. Our culture has attempted to find a prescription for parenting, and many people want to believe in the prescription rather than in making their own daily judgments.

At every turn, the parents in the class asked questions that I believe they could have been able to figure out on their own. Should I leave my child in timeout for less time if he yells out “I’m sorry”? Should I not give my child dessert if she doesn’t finish her meal? Should I let him play with his food or take it away when he does that and not give him any more? Should I let my child cry for twenty minutes or thirty? Should I close the door when my child goes to bed or leave it open? Should I tell my child I am angry or give her the silent treatment? Please tell me how to raise my children.

I, on the other hand, had trusted my own instincts and trusted the way I had been brought up when I made my decision on that fateful day: It was fine to drop the kids off at the mall. Did I learn from this? Absolutely. I learned it’s not okay to drop the kids off at the mall, not in Bozeman, Montana, anyway. But I also learned that I am more fiercely attached than I realized to my way of parenting. My temperament, my juggling, my choices: I would not let someone tell me how to raise my children.

*   *   *

Had I been willing to plead guilty, the whole case would have been settled in a month, with a fine of roughly eight hundred dollars and a permanent record. Instead, I chose to plead not guilty, causing the case to go on for more than a year and cost us thousands of dollars. I found support for my decision from my own mother, whose simple statement was the only one that made sense to me during the whole year: If I did not defend myself, she told me, no one would.

My lawyer gave the prosecutor many options to choose from for punishment, ranging from hundreds of hours of community service to taking a parenting class to admission of a mistake. But he could not give her the guilty plea that she so wanted.

I love my children. I would die for them. I have done my best as a working mother, balancing raising them with my job, making sure that I am home when they return from school, being with them on a daily basis. I am by no means a perfect mother. I get angry, I yell, I can be sarcastic, short-tempered, and inaccessible. Yet my children know I love them. They are safe and secure with me—and, I still believe, they are safe and secure in places I allow them to go without me, their friends’ houses, our neighborhood, and, once, the mall.

I got through the year during which the case dragged on quietly, not sharing with anyone what had happened—not only because the judge had placed a gag order on the case, but also because I felt a deep, deep shame. Here I was, someone who had been successful for almost thirteen years raising children and having a job—indeed, someone who was admired by others in this balancing act—and I was being accused of failing.

The exhaustion of being a working mother while trying to raise a wonderful family had caught up with me. At times, I found myself thinking that six months in jail might be just what I needed.

*   *   *

In anticipation of my impending trial, my lawyer set up a mock jury in a conference room at his firm. My daughter and I were called to the witness stand and asked to describe what happened to the best of our knowledge. My lawyer thought the four mock jurors would come quickly to a decision. They ended up discussing and fighting over the case for what felt to me like an eternity.

The jurors were meant to be representative of a broad spectrum of parents in Bozeman, which they were—but they also turned out to illustrate a microcosm of the parenting culture wars. At stake was what constituted good parenting and whether or not I was guilty as charged. We could hear their loud voices from the office’s kitchen where we were waiting.

I finally was called back in with my lawyer. What followed was one surprise after another. First there was the Montana rancher who practically guffawed when he heard the charges against me. At twelve years old, he told us, he was cutting wheat on a tractor and independently working a farm. There was the child therapist who was appalled yet forgiving. There was the father of one who was unforgiving, and there was the older homemaker who was oddly angered by my statement that I considered Bozeman a safe community. “There was a murder here last year,” she exclaimed.  In the end, the mock jurors told me that if I wanted to win a real trial, I’d have to cry and show remorse, or at least show some emotion.

Two things happened at that moment: I realized that I was so guarded about the incident that no true emotion was showing, not to strangers or to my friends or even to my husband. And I realized I could never go to trial. My lawyer worked out the deferred prosecution agreement, and I began my service.

At first I felt angry about the show the mock jurors had wanted me to put on, but I now realize that the only way to truly explain my story is through an emotional lens. I do feel guilty about what happened. Not because I committed a crime according to the legal definition, but because no parent has confidence that they have been completely successful, ever.

For all the times that I was not the “good” parent, I am guilty; for all the times that I did not respond perfectly to my children’s needs, I am guilty. For all the times that I’ve not given them enough of me, I am guilty. For feeling constantly torn between so many daily demands, trying to make it all work, but knowing that I sometimes fall short, I am guilty.

But of knowingly putting my children in harm’s way by letting them go to the mall alone? Not guilty.

Author’s Note: I finished the rewrites of this essay on Mother’s Day, 2009. I welcome the irony. On the day where mothers are celebrated nationally, I was writing about being a bad mother.  But in the end, I was a bad mother who defended myself and finally found the strength to realize that I am proud of my mothering instinct, mistakes and all.

Bridget Kevane is chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and a professor of Latin American and Latino Literature at Montana State University in Bozeman. She was born in Rome, raised in Puerto Rico and has lived in the United States since 1983 in New York, Los Angeles, and now Montana.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

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Transitions

Transitions

 

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 tumblewieds.tumblr.com.

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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.

Follow Me: A Mother’s Day in the Israeli Army

Follow Me: A Mother’s Day in the Israeli Army

BC_FA2013_Final_layoutBy Judy Labensohn

When my daughter Yael was seventeen, I checked out her army, just as I had checked out nursery schools, junior highs, and high schools. Like all secular Jewish Israeli girls, she would be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces at eighteen for twenty-two months.

To check out conditions in the IDF, I pretended I was writing an article for The Jerusalem Post. This was not far-fetched, as I often wrote features for The Jerusalem Post and in the 1980’s I wrote a humorous mothering column until nothing seemed funny anymore. The Army Spokesman’s Office let me accompany a group of new recruits on their first day in the IDF.

*   *   *

Cloudy sky at 0658 hours, December 31, 1996. The parking lot in front of Jerusalem’s Soldiers’ Home is empty, except for two soldiers clutching clipboards.

“Who are you?” asks the lean one.

“I’m my daughter’s mother.”

“So?”

“So I’m doing a piece about the first day in the Israeli army to see what awaits my daughter.” The fat soldier tells me to open my briefcase. He feels it up for suspicious objects.

“My only weapon is my pen,” I say. They don’t smile.

By 0725 hours, 150 families arrive, park their cars, and empty their contents: mothers wearing over-sized sunglasses; fathers with paunches; hungry boyfriends; concerned aunts; weary grandmothers; younger brothers and sisters wishing they could go to the army instead of school. The eighteen-year-old draftees wear the standard civilian uniform: blue jeans and knit tops. One member of each family unit lugs an enormous backpack, stuffed with everything the new recruit will need for the next twenty-two months, even though she will probably return home for the first Sabbath after induction.

Three empty buses approach the Soldiers’ Home. The drivers make their way to the front of the crowd with difficulty be- cause the field is full of hugging and kissing civilians. Fathers film as 150 Israeli childhoods end in a parking lot.

“No big deal,” says a former paratrooper pop when I ask how he feels. “I know the army.” Mothers sniffle, hold their sunglasses steady, though the sky is cloudy.

At 0729, the heavy soldier stands near a little wooden table and uses a mega-phone to order all new recruits to stand in line with their induction papers and Israeli identity cards. Young women look pleadingly at their mothers, reminiscent of first days at any nursery school.

At 0743, the lean soldier calls out names. “Mia, Adi, Moran, Ruthi, and Svetlana—get on the bus. Good luck to all of you.”

Fathers now don expensive Raybans. Mothers light up Marlboro Lights. When I ask a new recruit how she feels, she says, “Regular.”

The women take up positions in window seats, so they can see their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, and grandparents. They wave, blow kisses, open the windows to hold their civilian lives, reach for a hand, a face, a bottle of orange juice. Everyone giggles, nervous laughter the best defense in the arsenal.

Middle-aged parents who fought in the Six-Day War or missed that but made the War of Attrition, or missed that but made the Yom Kippur War, or missed that but remember the Lebanon War, surround the bus. Grandparents, who fought the British and then five or six invading Arab armies in 1948, rub their eyes.

From my vantage point on the bus, it is clear as chicken soup that these families are falling apart. The last line of defense sits on the bus. Mothers and fathers—intimate enemies—will now be alone, together. How many couples will stay married?

At 0759 hours, the lean soldier yells at the women to take their feet off the seats. Then he calls more names: “Gila, Galia, Merav, Avishag, Keren.” They climb on the bus. The soldier steps down, but not before saying, “Goodbye and good luck.” He sounds like a flight mechanic wishing the crew a successful mission behind enemy lines.

The driver aims the bus towards the absorption base at Tel Hashomer, an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. Hands and arms, inside the bus and out, flail. Kisses blow into the morning air. Smiles give way, finally, to tears. Tissues replace cigarettes at this quintessential Israeli moment.

On the bus, most of the women sit wrapped in silence, forlorn and dreamy. A few sociable ones climb to their knees and turn around to chat with the strangers behind them. When asked how she feels, Sharona replies, “Pressured.”

“It was hard saying goodbye,” adds Sigalit, sitting next to her.

At 0915, when the bus enters Tel Hashomer, the women are greeted by a billboard:

THE STAFF OF THE ABSORPTION AND CLASSIFICATION BASE WELCOMES YOU ON YOUR INDUCTION TO THE ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES.

In June, 1967, when I was twenty-one, I watched the IDF victory on TV from Cleveland, Ohio. I saw the dust, smiles, and tears, heard the speeches, threats, and songs, and I wanted to be a part of that. By September, when I sat with an IDF representative in Jerusalem, I was twenty-two. The army didn’t want me; I was too old. The billboard at the entrance to the absorption base reminds me of my disappointment.

*   *   *

Mature eucalyptus trees line the paths of the base, called “Bakum” in Hebrew. I associate this acronym, which stands for Absorption and Classification Base, with “vacuum.” The base mirrors the vacuum in each new recruit’s family home—empty bedroom, empty chair.

A blonde male sergeant gets on the bus.

“Sit properly and be quiet. When I call out your name, say Yes,” he explains, and begins:

“Oshrat.”

“Yes.”

“Roni.”

“Yes.”

“Rotem.”

“Yes.”

The new recruits giggle.

“Girls, please. Stop laughing. Stop being smart alecks. This is the army!”

He finishes the list of names and then, with his whole being, shouts the most famous word in the Israeli army: Acharei! Follow me.

The women repress giggles and follow blondie, shlepping their enormous back- packs to a tent.

“Stand in a double file. No gum chewing. No smoking.”

The draftees obey, but guffaw and giggle.

“OK, girls, Acharei!”

In their jeans and knit tops, the women march in two parallel lines to a low, white building, where they are led into a pleasant auditorium. There, they are supposed to watch a seven-minute movie that will prepare them for the ten-step bureaucratic maze they are about to enter. Fifteen minutes later, they are informed the projector is temporarily out of order. Is this an omen, like a nursery school teacher’s guitar popping three strings on the first day?

When a female soldier reads off the name of each new recruit, the young woman goes to the front of the auditorium and is handed stickers with bar codes. These represent the new recruit’s personal IDF identity number. At each station of the bureaucratic Via Dolorosa behind the closed double doors, the new recruit will hand over one bar code sticker.

Ready? Jump.

The first twelve draftees walk to the double doors and then, rather than continue, turn around to wave goodbye to the rest of the girls sitting in the auditorium.

“Want anything from the duty-free?” one smart aleck shouts.

Station 1: Each draftee gives the details of her bank account. The army will automatically transfer a monthly sum to each account—enough for gum, soft drinks, and cigarettes.

Station 2: Each new recruit receives the first payment—NIS 100 ($25) as a loan from the Israel Defense Forces, to be paid back in five monthly installments. The recruits are handed a 20-unit telephone card, a gift from the Soldier’s Welfare Association.

Station 3: The girls are fitted with gas masks.

“A mask that fits you will be kept in a warehouse especially for your use, should the need arise,” explains a female soldier. Each woman has her own gas mask in her closet at home, but should Israel be bombed with chemical weapons in the next twenty-two months, the girls may not be close to their closets. Hopefully, the masks, unlike the projector, will be operative and the warehouse will be nearby and open.

Station 4: Each woman dips one hand in ink so veteran soldiers can take her hand and finger prints. Now it is time for photos.

Station 5: When the draftee is in that fertile transitional state, neither here nor there, she has her mug shot taken for the IDF identity card. The first twenty of the fifty new recruits from Jerusalem do not smile.

Station 6: The new recruit is interviewed for five minutes to verify her vital statistics—name, address, family constellation—and to determine who should inherit her IDF income, in case of death. This is the second time in ten minutes that death is raised to consciousness, though in such a way that the horror of it is denied. Death, in the context of Station 6, is a possibility, one option on the flow chart.

Station 7: Is a clinic where the new recruit must extend both arms. She gets two shots, one in each. Some of the women cringe; others take shots like heroes. This is also the venue for reporting allergies and pregnancies.

Once the new recruit is named, numbered, photographed, shot, and presumably barren, she is fit to sign quartermaster Form 1004 at Station 8. This form lists every item that the new recruit will receive as soon as she walks over to the warehouse, located outside across “The New Recruits’ Park.” The draftee signs the form and exits. She is still wearing jeans and a knit top. Even though all the paperwork has now been completed, making her legally a soldier, she does not yet look like one.

Station 9: At the warehouse, she receives a clean, used, olive green duffle bag. Inside, among other things, is a uniform, which she will try on in the dressing room beyond the warehouse. She removes her civilian uniform and puts on the IDF’s Class A uniform: green Dacron shirt and slacks. It fits! She exits with her civvies in the duffle bag. Now the fun begins.

Station 10: She stands in a circle with forty-nine other new recruits, dressed alike. Their duffle bags sit on the ground in front of them, but these children are not going to play Duck Duck Goose. A red-headed male sergeant stands in the middle of the circle and says, almost kindly, “Welcome to the Israel Defense Forces.”

*   *   *

During those days in May and June, 1967, before it was clear that Israel would continue to exist, I came to realize that Israel was worth fighting for. And if fighting for, then dying for. And if dying for, why not live there?

*   *   *

“Oshrat, Rakefet, Olga, Liat, Noa …” The sergeant gives each girl her dog tag and IDF identity card with the photo taken minutes before at Station 5.

It is clear to any civilian onlooker pretending to be a journalist that these sundry eighteen-year-olds form a group. This particular group, though, has no identity. At least, not yet. They need a name.

In the Talmud it is written that all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet were created on Friday afternoon, at dusk before the first Sabbath. Clearly, God’s options were multiplied once He had letters to play with. Given this tradition, it is no surprise that the army of His Chosen People recognizes the profound importance of names. The sergeant anoints the group Platoon G.

“We’re going to basic training camp #12 in Tzrifin, a thirty-minute drive from here. You will stay there for three weeks,” a squad officer tells them, once everyone is seated on another bus. This is the first time the girls have been told exactly where they will be going, though rumors circulated all morning. Nobody giggles.

“I’m usually not even up at this time,” Ronit says, as the bus drives by the last orange groves east of Tel Aviv. Like the other girls on the bus, Ronit has been out of high school for six months, waiting for this day. Esther takes out her cell phone and calls home. When she finishes telling her mother where she is going, she looks sad.

After thirty minutes, the bus turns into Tzrifin and stops near basic training camp #12. The squad officer orders the soldiers to take their bags from the belly of the bus, put them next to the wooden hut in front of them, and arrange themselves in rows of five. When they are lined up, she reads their names: “Iris, Dana, Hili, Lital, Nechama…” The soldiers look as if they expect something meaningful to happen.

Meaning appears in the form of a short woman, no more than nineteen, with a long blonde braid down to her waist. She is their sergeant and stands before them as if a broomstick has been inserted into her backbone, reaching up to the rubber band holding her braid.

“Stand up. Hands at your side. Straighten the ranks,” she bellows. “Those in the back rows, look at the girl’s neck in front of you.” The women obey and, miraculously, Platoon G looks like a military entity rather than a bunch of teenage girls waiting for boys.

“This is how you stand at attention,” the sergeant pounds, “and this is at ease. Now do as I say. Attention. At ease.”

I have seen only one natural wonder of the world—Niagara Falls—but I am sure the others could not compare with the miracle I am witnessing here on a concrete field in the middle of Israel.

“This is how you turn to the right,” the sergeant instructs. When some soldiers giggle, perhaps thinking of steps they would like to do on the dance floor tonight, New Year’s Eve, their sergeant shouts, “Be quiet. This is the army!” She then teaches them how to march in place. “Left, right, left,” she bellows, just like in the movies. “Now march and move forward at the same time.”

Fifty women march across a field as a unit for the first time in their lives. They wear the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces. Drums should be rolling and trumpets blaring, but the only sound is the cooing of pigeons in the eucalyptus trees. At this miraculous moment of creation, the group is differentiated from all other groups by being assigned a second name: Platoon G, Squad 1.

At 1245 hours, G-1 marches towards the dining room.

They stand in formation at the entrance to the mess hall. “Don’t talk. Stand straight. Be proud,” their sergeant shouts. “You must go to all three meals every day and sit at the table for at least ten minutes. Sit together. Never be late for a meal.”

I wonder why I never gave my children such clear messages. Coming from this nineteen-year-old, rules sound beyond argument.

“When you finish lunch, sit at the table with your hands behind your back. No one moves until 1335 hours. At 1345, we will meet in the open space over there and line up in rows of five.” When the sergeant walks away to eat in the officer’s dining room, the new recruits chortle.

The dining room is an enormous, noisy room with windows on three sides. At the entrance is a sink for washing hands. Directly above it is a sign with the words of the prayer that Jews recite while washing hands before a meal with bread. Since observant Jews who serve in the army know the prayer from childhood and since secular Jews don’t pray, the sign is a puzzlement.

The women eat fried corn schnitzel, fried chicken schnitzel, elbow macaroni in oil, purple cabbage salad in mayonnaise, eggplant salad in oil, tehina, and sliced bread. Oranges for dessert. Pigeons looking for crumbs flutter above the green plastic chairs arranged around the square tables. Conversation among the ten women at the table ranges from com- plaints about the food to fantasies of New Year’s Eve parties. Some of the soldiers sit like statues, staring at the full trays in front of them.

During the ten-minute break after the meal, the girls gather outside the dining hall and smoke.

“How’s the army?” I ask.

“Fun,” says Michal. “Like our annual high school outing.”

“My shots hurt,” Adi complains. “Awful,” blurts Esther.?”All my friends will be in discos tonight.”

Ronit says, “and I have to be in this shitty place.”

At 1344 hours, the women walk over to the large, open field.

The recruits fall into formation and start marching. They march past the dining room, past the orange public telephones, the red Coke machines, and halt in front of the clinic.

“Undo your ponytails,” the sergeant bellows. “When you sit at the desk inside, pull all your hair over your face and bend your neck towards the table so the soldier can check your head for lice. When you’re finished, put your hair back in a ponytail at the height of your ears and line up in fives.”

*   *   *

When my daughter Yael was two and I put her over my knees to inspect for lice, I turned the inspection into a game. I called each lice “Shlomo” the Hebrew name of King Solomon. We were fishing for Shlomos. How many Shlomos found Yael’s hair so beautiful they could not live with- out it? I wondered if Yael would remember those intimate afternoons, when she joined the army.

*   *   *

“Now we will march to your rooms,” says the sergeant. The soldiers arrange themselves in rows as if they have been doing this for months. They march to what is called “the Hilton,” a four-story prefab cross between low-income housing and a youth hostel.

“Take all your stuff to your rooms. The third floor is yours. Put all your things under the bed. Then sit on the bed. Don’t talk. Don’t move.”

The soldiers lug their belongings up thirty-five stairs to their new homes. Each room has two rows of seven iron beds facing each other. Yellow paint on the walls is peeling and the wooden bookshelf is empty. Fourteen windows—seven on each side—allow in natural light and air. On each bed is a gray blanket and on the blanket are a canteen, a belt, and a long, black instrument for cleaning rifles. Next to it are a soap dish full of more implements for the same purpose, ammunition, a green army jacket, a green wool sweater, a green canvas visor hat, and two folded gray blankets. White powder covers the blankets and clothes. After the recruits put their belongings under their beds, they sit on the beds. Then they talk and move.

“Quiet!” shouts the sergeant, when she enters, fifteen minutes later. “I said don’t talk and don’t move.” The soldiers move into obeying. “The white powder is against scabeous worms, which cause unpleasant itching. The powder is used at the end of each basic training course. There are no worms now, but you must air out your blankets every day.”

*   *   *

I was the kind of mother who skipped those chapters in how-to-parent books about setting limits and making rules. For me, boundaries are lines discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, not mothers and daughters. Consequently, Yael, like me, has no schedule and little routine. Her obligations at home are minimal, due to laissez-faire mothering. I do not admit this with pride. In these barracks I appreciate the consequences of such laxity—scabeous worms.

*   *   *

The soldiers are told to report to the Absorption Room at 1530 hours. Once there, the young recruits look tired and fed-up. They sit on low benches with no backs. Do the eighteen-year-olds notice the sign above the doorway? “And God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and take care of it.” Do they appreciate the irony of this sign, when their eyes survey the chalk graffiti on the blackboard next to it: “This is a horrible, depressing place”?

Yawns replace giggles. In silence they wait.

“Hands behind your backs. Sit up straight. Head forward. Don’t move at all. This is how you will receive the platoon’s commissioned officer. Soon she will enter the room.”

It is said, if the Messiah should arrive when you are planting a tree, you must continue to plant. If a commissioned officer walks into a room, however, you must freeze into a posture of submissive respect.

Now the sergeant is introducing a new vocabulary which the soldiers pick up quickly: “Yes, officer.” and “No, officer.”

“Say, Yes, Officer.” “Yes, Officer.”?”Now, say No, Officer.” “No, Officer.”

“You will have a course on weapons, first aid, and chemical warfare. During the basic training, you will meet with people who will help you decide where you will serve in the IDF, according to the needs of the IDF. Now prepare to meet the platoon’s commanding officer.”

The soldiers straighten up and push their heads forward. Drums roll in my head as through the door strides a thin girl, no taller than 5’2″, wearing black-framed glasses and a visor that hides her face. Some of her hair is pulled into a ponytail; the rest straddles either side of her neck. She looks at the floor, then at the new recruits, as if she were wearing contacts for the first time. Her voice thunders with the authority of one who knows all the answers and is always right.

“There are two basic values here. Camaraderie and Discipline. OK. I expect you to help each other. And I expect you to behave. We do not want to punish you, so do not provoke us. OK. Platoon G-1 will do everything correctly and obey all orders. You are one body and you are the best. You will all cooperate. OK. This doesn’t have to be difficult.”

The commissioned officer paces back and forth in front of the stunned women. On each “OK” she looks at her soldiers from under the visor and behind the glasses. Her “OK” is not like that of an insecure mother who, after suggesting to her daughter that she goes to bed, adds an “OK?” as in Are we going to cooperate tonight? Will I still be an OK mother if I force you to go to bed? No. The commissioned officer’s “OK” says, This is the way it is. No questions. Period.

*   *   *

“Help each other and you’ll all get through this. You have a talented staff who want to teach you. OK. We have a lot to give you. OK. I want Platoon G-1 to be the best. It will be difficult, but we will help you with any problems that arise. OK. If you see that a friend is having a hard time, tell us. This is not tattle-telling. We are professionally trained to help you.”

The new recruits look comatose.

“On Friday you have a military trek and then you will stay here this Sabbath. OK.” The commissioned officer escapes before the tears start rolling. The draftees expected to spend their first Sabbath at home. One soldier is crying loudly.

The crying turns into sobs. The sergeant orders the woman next to the distraught soldier to take her out of the room.

“Get her some water at the drinking fountain down the hall,” she says. When they return five minutes later, the sobbing girl’s uniform is completely soaked.

Groups of five soldiers are called to the front desk, while the other forty-five soldiers are expected to sit up straight on the wooden benches with no backs and keep quiet.

“Are you vegetarian, naturopath, kibbutznik, religious, or from a bereaved family?” each recruit is asked.

The new recruits waiting their turn murmur, much like the Israelites murmured against Moses. The sergeant singles out one woman for whispering to her neighbor and tells her to stand up straight with her hands behind her back for five minutes.

*   *   *

I chose the nursery school with the teacher who could sing in six languages. Each week Etti taught the children about a different country on the twirling plastic globe. Yael sang in Chinese, Arabic, Dutch, Hebrew, English, and Russian by the time she was two and a half. Etti never told any child to stand up straight with her hands behind her back because she was whispering.

In first grade, the choice was between a school that worshipped computers and one that worshipped God. I chose the latter. Computer technology changes rapidly, becomes obsolete quickly. I wanted Yael to learn something lasting. The prayers had been around since the tenth century. For high school, I checked out two schools—one with classes of forty that paid lip service to excellence and another with classes of twenty-eight that paid lip service to socialism. Yael’s education was a litany of sensitivity training in hypocrisy.

*   *   *

At 1630 hours, the sergeant begins her opening speech as if the fifty soldiers have just arrived and have not been sitting on benches for more than two hours.

“My name is Inbal, but you address me as Sergeant. You treat me with respect. I am not your friend. Keep your hands at your side. Respect my rank and do not laugh. I am responsible for equipment, administration, and discipline. Whatever equipment you receive here, you must return. Keep your duffle bags locked. At the end of basic training, if something of yours is lost, you will have a trial and have to pay.”

I stop taking notes, and list only the headings: appearance regulations, guard duty regulations, daily schedule, channels of communication, prevention of fungus in canteens, soldiers’ rights. At 1745 hours, the sergeant raises her voice. “I’m not finished yet, but it’s time to eat.”

Numb, I excuse myself to go home. Might there be another army in the neighborhood I can visit? What will I tell Yael, who always took five months to adjust to a new school? She has no more desire to become a soldier than I do to send her.

Yet…

The bus comes and I take a window seat. At the next stop a woman soldier sits next to me. I take notes. She asks if I am a journalist.

“No,” I say. “Just a mother.”

She takes out her cell phone, the antenna looped like an umbilical cord.

“I … have no control,” I murmur, “What … happens to her.”

Author’s Note: Yael completed her army service in 1998. She went from tears on the first day to being recognized as “An Excellent Soldier” on the last.

Judy Labensohn’s writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Lilith Magazine, among others. Originally from Shaker Heights, Ohio, Labensohn has lived in Israel since 1967. She mothers three Sabra children, grandmothers four, and still writes in English. Visit her at www.writeinisrael.com

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Plan C

Plan C

By Nicole Montague

IMG_6404-1I stare up at the ceiling of my ObGyn’s office and wonder if a man or a woman came up with the idea of the “soothing nature picture” inset into the panel of the stark white ceiling. This new clinic has one in every examination room-a photograph of some idyllic setting that’s meant to take your mind far away from the harsh realities of what inevitably takes place inside these rooms. Today I lie beneath what should be called the Aspen Refuge photo. It’s actually quite clever and artistic, shot up from the base of the trees to give the impression that you are lying down on the floor of a peaceful aspen-filled forest looking up towards a blue sky. In theory, it’s a nice addition. Right now, however, I feel so resentfully female that I know without a doubt a man must have come up with this well intentioned, but misguided design touch.  No woman who’s ever laid down, prone and naked, on an obstetrics examination table would ever believe that would work. No photo of aspen trees could possibly distract me from the ominous specter of that cold speculum sitting right over there on the table waiting to invade me.  My nerves give way to offense. Aspen Refuge is just downright insulting. Condescending, even.

I breathe deeply, waiting for my doctor’s busy schedule to afford her enough time to give me her attention. I shift uncomfortably on the table, doing my best to keep the white paper blanket that the nurse gave me wrapped tightly around my pelvis and legs. Pathetic armor indeed. I don’t want to look around too much at the implements that surround me, knowing full well that is the surest way to provoke the tears that threaten to break loose. But I can’t help but stare at the long, beige phallic-shaped electronic instrument that sits next to me that will, in the next half hour or so, be unceremoniously inserted inside me and tell me lots of information that I don’t want to know. I am smart enough to recall this instrument’s name: a transducer. Its function: to perform internal pelvic ultrasounds. But apparently I was not smart enough to do whatever it was I was supposed to do to avoid this intimate meeting altogether. Mr. Transducer is covered by a spanking brand new condom. The irony of this fact does not escape my attention. I hate Mr. Transducer for reminding me of the last time I saw a condom.

As my mind rolls back six weeks in time, I am surprised to discover the memory is still freshly pressed into my body and I can almost feel myself reclined back in that urban, chicly decorated bedroom. Bizarrely, I was in a position that mirrors the one I am in now-leaning back, exposed, legs wide open and surrendered.  The universe certainly has a twisted sense of humor. But otherwise the moment could not have been more different. I was deliriously happy, arched back in ecstasy, engulfed in high-thread-count sheets and dimly lit passionate kisses. At that moment I was sure it was a night to remember—filled with true romance and even blossoming love. I shiver, embarrassed to have been so foolish, such a sucker, causing the memory to dissipate like vapor. I pull the scratchy blanket up higher over my swollen achy breasts. They have changed so much in such a short amount of time. I wiggle from side to side to try to find some relief for my butt, which has gone numb from pressure and lack of warmth. The mean fluorescent lights that buzz above me have somehow colluded with the unforgiving table beneath me, adding a little extra humiliation to my position.

I am then confronted with the mental image of the lover who spent so much time pushing in from above me that night, and of how he devoured my body without an ounce of hesitation. How, when I told him what had regretfully happened, it turned out that he was no different than this table. Cold, hard, and indifferent. Yes, I was as special to him as I am to this table-just one more optimistic, vulnerable patient to be examined and released with hopefully no infection or follow-up appointment. A painful lump in my throat has formed, perhaps because the truth is so difficult to swallow. I turn away from Mr. Transducer. I look back to Aspen Refuge. This time it’s even worse. The trees mock me with their perfect, unmarred life of simplicity and beauty in contrast to my own messy portrait of disappointment and mistakes that have landed me here.

Plan A was love and happily ever after. Plan B was contraception with a perhaps just a side of love. I cup my hands over my small but growing belly bump.  The maternal instincts rooted in my abdomen flare up against my rational mind, forcing me to wonder whether I have been granted an unexpected gift.  Despite the circumstances, I cannot help but feel in awe of what is happening inside my body.  My rational mind protests again, and points out for the hundredth time that I am completely unprepared for this.  So what comes now? Plan C? Funny, no one ever talks about Plan C. I wish they would, because it seems that life is filled with many more detours with long, often painful layovers than direct flights to the desired destination.

I am nowhere near my Plan A. I am divorced. A single mother of a ten-year-old son with an unconventional, hodge-podge of a career path that’s been a disaster by Silicon Valley standards. In this la-la-land of sexy start-ups and social media powerhouses, being adrift without your own “big thing” is tantamount to living in professional Siberia. Here, women like me are supposed to be able to achieve anything. Coming from an upbringing of hard-working, middle-class parents filled with big dreams and high expectations, even Plan B felt like a failure when I was growing up. Which would make Plan C something even worse than failure. I have no idea what that might be.

I look around the well-funded high-tech room that surrounds me with flat screens and new computers and feel pangs of guilt. I should feel fortunate. I am educated. I live in an upper-middle class town. I am nowhere near destitute. I think about the fact that my standard of living is probably higher than ninety per cent of the world. Women around the globe give birth to and raise kids on far less every day.  I am not bound by any religion to do anything I don’t want to do. I think about how the lives of American women were before Roe v. Wade. I chastise myself. I have choices and I should be falling down on my knees grateful. Grateful to have the impossible task of figuring out the best thing do, the right thing to do for me.

I flash back to five days ago to the icy, cutting words of this baby’s father, “I will never, ever recognize this baby as my child. I will NOT be the father in any way shape or form. Am I clear? Do you understand that?”  Oh, I understand all right. I understand that I am so alone on this sterile table that I might as well be on the dark side of the moon. I understand that I am facing raising a baby by myself who will never be acknowledged by his or her father. I am terrified by how far I’ve traveled away from dear, naive Plan A. I ask myself how I would ever explain this to my impressionable ten-year-old son. How can I teach him to be responsible and make good choices when I can barely find that path for myself? I feel the crack that penetrates deep into my heart widen and the tears finally swell to the point that they come rolling down my cheeks.  I wipe my face with the paper blanket. It’s shockingly rough. Just as so many things have turned out to be.

I look at the aspen trees again through my waterlogged eyes and this time they are blurry, giving the photo the look of an impressionist painting. How am I smart enough to appreciate that it looks like a cross between a Manet and an Ansel Adams, but not smart enough to have avoided being here?  I ask the smug aspen trees, aloud, “If you’re so smart, please tell me, wise perfect trees, do you know what my Plan C is supposed to be?”

I hear a quick, purposeful rap at the door.  My doctor’s kind voice asks if I am ready to for her to enter. I desperately want to hear some kind of answer before she walks through that door. To have some clue as to what to do at this fork in the road before she introduces me to Mr. Transducer and checks for the tell-tale heartbeat that might break what little resolve I have to pieces. My doctor knocks again and inquires if I am ready. My eyes still fixed on the ceiling, I decide, for the moment, that the promise of Aspen Refuge will have to do. I make a vow to myself that I will somehow make it through this detour and will someday travel to a place where I can lie down and look up from the floor of an aspen forest like that in real life. The aspen trees continue to look down silently, but I think I feel their approval. “Yes, Dr. Rothstein, come in. I’m ready.”

Nicole Montague is a fantasy writer and non-fiction essayist.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology from Harvard University and a law degree from Harvard Law School.  Her first fantasy novel, Eye of Fire, is due to be released in 2014.  Nicole lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, California with her twelve year old son.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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When My Tween Son Doesn’t Love Me

When My Tween Son Doesn’t Love Me

By Allison Slater Tate

907397_10151321959836493_473111420_n“Have a good day,” I said as my firstborn stumbled out of the minivan door, significantly encumbered by a giant Jansport backpack loaded with textbooks and a lunchbox packed with my own hands. “I love you.”

“I don’t love you,” he answered confidently, each word measured and punctuated by his eyes piercing mine. He slammed my passenger door and stalked off toward his friend awaiting him at the end of the sidewalk at our carpool drop-off, his exit less dramatic than he wished due to the way he had to shift his own 90 pounds of body weight to hoist his ridiculous backpack.

I watched his back for a few moments. I saw his friend glance furtively in my direction as he exchanged a few words with my angry son. Finally, I set the car in motion and drove away, down the street, so that we could both start our days without each other. The subject of our disagreement was nothing special; the problem is that these small, tedious disagreements happen almost daily, and they wear on both of us.

This is how our story goes these days. When he was little—when all of them were little—I found myself frustrated and sad because being The Mommy was not very fun most of the time. Once we left their infancies and entered their toddlerhoods and beyond, I felt even less like I was on the same team as my children. I was the bummer, the fun sponge—the one who had to enforce the bedtime, end whatever dangerous activity was occurring that moment, or announce the next transition that would frustrate them. I tried hard to provide discipline and guide them without being their adversary, but in the end, it’s too often Them vs. Me. I am their primary caregiver and the parent most often on duty. And, frankly, it can suck. It makes me feel hard to love.

But it sucks in a whole new way with my tween. I’ve been told these middle school years can be harder than the high school years in some ways, and I am hanging on to that thought—that if I can just eke through these next few seasons of not-awesomeness, it might get better, or at least smoother, afterward. Then I get to do it all over again. (And again. Oh, and again, because I thought once that four kids would be a grand adventure. Woo-hoo! Adventure!)

In the meantime, I have the privilege of being the one to drag my firstborn out of bed in the morning, all the while struggling to remember days when he woke me up way too early almost as if for sport. I have to usher him, however reluctantly, through the morning routine and make sure he gets to school on time. I have to receive him in the late afternoon when he is tired and cranky after a long day in the jungle of middle school. Then the real fun begins: the constant dance of do-your-homework/is-your-homework-finished/I-told-you-to-do-your-homework, with him pulling and resisting the entire time, desperate for just a little more time to play, to decompress, to resist thinking. The truth is, I don’t really blame him. That makes it even less fun to be The Mom, the Enforcer, Buzzkill-in-Chief. I’m on his side, and I can’t even tell him so, because I’m not ready to take on the whole school system and the way it doles out homework.

We still have our moments, and I hang onto them with both hands: when a new book arrives that I ordered without telling him, and he eagerly scoops it up and begins reading it immediately with a genuine, “Thanks, Mom!”; when he comes back to my room a second time before bed because he “forgot to give me a hug,” even on the days that started out with a door slamming and icy words; when my husband is away on business and I let him stay up with me, his nose deep in a book while I finish working on my laptop in my big white bed. He’s fun to be with when our internal agendas align, and I want so desperately to be able to enjoy him more and nag him less. We’re just not always there yet.

He is my firstborn. There is no one in the world that holds his unique place in my life. He is the boy who made me a mother, the boy who has challenged me unlike anyone else. He knows exactly which buttons to push; he knows the nuances and personalities of our little family better than I do. He is still my heart every bit as much as he was the first day we brought him home from the hospital. But sometimes, in hormone-filled (me), puberty-rich (him) moments, when his assertions of independence and will meet my obligatory parental push-back, he doesn’t love me. I have to be okay with that, and I will be, as long as I have hope he will always come home at the end of the day loving me again.

So far, he has.

Allison Slater Tate is a writer and mother of four children. She also writes regularly at www.allisonslatertate.com and Huffington Post Parents as well as Facebook and Twitter. She hopes her writing will make up for a lack of completed baby books when her kids grow up. 

A Shared Shyness

A Shared Shyness

By Meredith Bland

small bioI couldn’t see him, but I knew he was crying.

I sat in a big plastic chair at a desk so small that it hit my knees in my kid’s kindergarten classroom. I was working as a parent volunteer, doing some of the busy work that teachers don’t have time for. My son, his class, and his teacher were on the other side of an easel that stood between us. They were talking about a book they had just read. I couldn’t see my son standing at the front of the class, but I could see his classmates, all 27 of them, sitting criss-cross apple sauce on the carpet and waiting. For him.

“Go ahead. What was your favorite part of the story?” His teacher asked, gently.

“I don’t want to.” he mumbled.

“We’ve got all day. Just tell your friends what your favorite part of the story was.”

Silence.

I sat there stapling handouts together with tears in my eyes. GRR-GUNK. GRR-GUNK. Just keep stapling, I told myself, and whatever you do, for the love of god, please don’t cry.

You see, I knew what my son was feeling at that moment. I was that kid in elementary school who shut down completely when I was in front of the class. I was painfully shy and refused to read any of my work out loud. Ever. One time a teacher asked me to read a poem I wrote about my cat, whose name was Snowball. I believe the title was, “Snowball.”

She asked me to stand in front of the chalkboard and read. I said, “No.” Or maybe I just shook my head. Or maybe I put my head down and said nothing at all. She sighed and walked over to my desk with her hand held out.

“Fine. I’ll read it for you.”

I panicked. I couldn’t flee, so I fought: I balled up my poem, put the whole thing in my mouth, and started chewing.

The class began to laugh, and I was sent outside to sit on the staircase till class was over. She called my mom, and when I got home that afternoon we talked about it. I told my mom what happened, and she said, “Good for you. I can’t blame you.”

I have the same approach to my son’s shyness. He’s shy. He has a right to feel whatever he wants to, and there is nothing wrong with it. You don’t want to tell my friends that funny thing you said the other day? That’s cool. No problem. I am not going to force you. When he hides his face or runs away or screams “STOP LOOKING AT ME,” I get it. I understand. And it’s okay. When he’s with me, my son can cloak himself in shyness and never worry about being forced to come out.

But teachers are not mothers and schools are not home. There are different expectations, different rules, and lots of “have to’s.” And my parenting approach of “be who you are and do what you do” doesn’t fly in a room with twenty-eight five-year-olds. Letting the shy kid sit down without speaking sets a precedent that does not work in a public school setting. It makes sense, but it’s painful all the same.

Every second I sat there, listening to the class silently waiting for my son to speak, I ached inside. Eventually, his teacher coaxed out of him that he liked “the beginning.” I kept my eyes on the story I was stapling together while he sniffled and sat down. I can’t save him from experiences like that. There are going to be more painful moments in the coming years, when he is no longer within my reach. But this time I was only a few feet away, unable to see him but feeling all of him. I wanted to tell him, “Hey. No big deal. I understand. Mommy was shy once, too.” But Mommy can’t always be there to rescue you in the real world. I was just a visitor there that day.

About five minutes later I finished my stapling, waved good-bye to his now relaxed little face, and left him in his teacher’s care. When he gets home this afternoon, I’ll hug him and tell him it’s okay. I’ll tell him that he is brave, kind, moral, funny, smart, and loving. I’ll tell him that I used to feel the same way. I’ll tell him about the time I ate a poem, and the times later in life when I gave four-hour presentations and loved every minute of them. I’ll tell him to imagine people in their underpants. And I’ll hope that he’ll have more courage than his mom and that this fear will, in the least, become less crippling. But if it doesn’t, it’s okay. I understand. I get it.

I ate a poem once.

Meredith Bland is a freelance writer and award-winning humor blogger. Her work can be found on her blog, Pile of Babies (http://www.pileofbabies.com), and on the humor site Aiming Low (http://www.aiminglow.com) where she is a staff writer.

The Favor

The Favor

By Priscilla F. Bourgoine

0-22For months I avoided the fitness center. I didn’t want to run into Faith who worked there. She had lost her son five years before. She knew what I was going through. I didn’t want to talk to Faith because I didn’t want to join her club.

My doctor had ordered me on Thursday back to the gym.  “Exercise will help you,” she said. The last thing I wanted to do was move.  Dr. Whyte passed me the prescription: “30 min. of cardio, 3x per wk.” I imagined that I turned her to ice. When my middle daughter was young, she loved how Kimberly the Pink Power Ranger froze whatever got in her way. Every morning and every night, since the June day of our horrible loss, I willed superhero magic. I commanded life halted: the summer breeze, the blossomed lilies, the honey bees, the deep oceans, even the orbited planets.

On Friday, at the gym’s entryway, I sat down and put on my sneakers. I glanced up and saw Faith headed my way. Early daylight illuminated her auburn hair. Her slight smile acknowledged me. The twinkle in Faith’s brown eyes misplaced for good somewhere along the sidewalk of her life like a button that never turned up. I looked down and concentrated on making tight double-knotted loops with my laces.

Faith stood in front of me. “I have a favor to ask of you,” she said.

I raised my chin.

That afternoon, back home, with a bottle in hand, I climbed downstairs into our basement to search for the photo Faith desired. I heaved the large Rubbermaid tub with a thud to the cement floor. The photos of my three children shook loose inside the container. Faith knew too well what she had asked of me. I guzzled the Pinot Noir and wiped my lips. Since our own awful afternoon eleven months ago, it was the facts of my middle child’s twenty-three-year life that I clung to like a rescue rope thrown to me in the deep rising waters of grief.  How can I deny Faith the next stone to step on to stay afloat from the thunderous current of despair?

Months before, when the summer sun hung high, the goldenrod bloomed, blueberries hung plump on the lakeside bushes, and the sticky heat weighted down my work dress, a small paper bag had been left in my office mailbox.  Inside was a book of mediations on loss with a postcard, a field of forget-me-nots. Faith had written: “We found this book the most helpful. We hope it gives you some peace. Call me when you are ready to walk.” That’s when I made the connection. Five years before, my oldest daughter had called me from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She had cried into the telephone. A wretched ice storm had covered most of New Hampshire and had shut down electricity. I had mistaken her sadness for worry over those of us trapped in the frozen darkness. She told me that wasn’t it, though she was upset for us. There had been a sudden death. That kind and handsome boy with the dark eyes who had been her date for her senior prom had been killed in a car accident on a slippery mountain road.

On Sunday, my husband held his oval glasses in his hand and pressed his eyes close to the newspaper article. “Listen to this French interior designer’s meaning of color: Every color has a psychological effect on a room. Particular color combinations give one another balance. Colors like vibrant vermillion red and chartreuse green, when paired together, properly symbolize survival.” He cleared his throat. “Colors give us permanence.”

 *   *   *

The dampness from our home’s foundation seeped into my flesh and bones. I swigged another sip of bitter wine, and put the bottle down on the cement floor. With both hands I dug through the plastic tub of loose photos. Like someone at a contest, I pulled a photo free and held it up toward the light. There we were. My three children and I had picnicked by the ocean. The day’s brightness had beamed. I remembered the breeze that summer day had fluttered our beach towels and sand had stuck to our bodies, covered in cocoa butter lotion. We had used our sandals to tack down the corners. The endless blue had spread-out above us. Our bare legs had touched. For our lunch we had gobbled our usual homemade bread slathered with butter and sliced bananas, drizzled with honey.

 *   *   *

On Monday, I bought a picture frame for the prom photo I had uncovered at the bottom of the bin. Years before on that spring day, the four teens had stood outdoors beside a stand of pines. My older daughter wore a little black dress with a wrist corsage. The outline of what would become a full moon had peeked out from the dusk. Off camera, my middle daughter had swung on the swing set. Valerie yelled to me, to them, that she would sway high and fly.

At the gym, in my workout clothes, with silence, I placed the package wrapped in bright red and bright green paper with ribbon into Faith’s empty hands, and headed to the treadmill. This will be the only evidence Faith will ever have of her son in a black-tie tuxedo.

Colors remain. People fade.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy. 

Priscilla Bourgoine practices as a psychotherapist outside of Boston and, offers web therapy through a Manhattan company. She earned a MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Priscilla lives with her husband in southern New Hampshire. 

Close Encounters with Kindermusik

Close Encounters with Kindermusik

By Elisabeth De Vos

fall2007_devosI am teetering on the edge of the Abyss of Maternal Guilt. My extroverted, twenty-one-month-old daughter is repeating her daily litany: “Grammy. Grammy come soon? Want Grammy come see Mari. Jenni. Jenni come soon? Want Jenni come see Mari.” Her list includes all our family and friends, the ones she hears me talking to via speakerphone while she scribbles on recycled paper with beeswax crayons—but who she sees only on rare visits.

Her social isolation is the result of various realities my husband Steve and I must deal with, including, but not limited to, living a continent away from most of our extended family and a minimum of forty-five minutes away from that precious resource, friends with same-age offspring.

However, distant relatives and relative distance don’t matter when your daughter is using the W word: want. I am her mother. Since her conception, the sole purpose of my existence has been to meet her needs. Mari wants social interaction. Mari is not getting it. Therefore, I must remedy this situation or plunge into maternal guilt.

I am cowering at the brink of the blackness when I have an idea. There is, a mere five blocks from our home, a small strip mall containing a natural pet-care store we used to frequent. I remember sitting in the car while Steve loaded our trunk with forty-pound bags of chemical-free dog chow made from people-quality ingredients and watching moms with young children in tow entering and exiting an adjacent business. Equally significant, those moms were removing their shoes upon arrival. And the name of the place frequented by these shoe-removing moms was Kindermusik.

This memory lights up in my mind, a beacon of hope at the edge of the abyss. A Kindermusik class would provide social interaction for Mari. It would enable us to meet friends with same-age offspring who live nearby. It would give me a chance to work on taking my daughter in the car without her dad accompanying us to serve as Toucher of All Things Unclean, including the steering wheel.

Later that day, I balance my daughter on my hip with one hand while manipulating my computer’s mouse with the other. There it is—Kindermusik International’s website. Mari’s tolerance for being in my office (where, despite the reassuring presence of my medical-grade air purifier, I won’t let her touch anything because of the flame-retardant-contaminated dust emitted from my laptop) is very short. I have just enough time to glance over the website and get the phone number for the school in our neighborhood before her patience expires.

But I am elated. It appears, from my brief perusal, that Kindermusik originated in the 1960s in Germany. This bodes well. The 1960s produced my husband, me, and the values that we adhere to. Germany, we’ve learned since becoming parents, seems to be about the only country producing toys, clothing, educational philosophies, and floor finishes that are consistent with those values.

We are eco-conscious global citizens. Reducing, reusing, and recycling, television-less, back-to-basics and back-to-nature eco-conscious global citizens who try, through our personal and purchasing choices, to bring about what Steve has dubbed The Organic Future: a world where people live in harmony with nature and each other. Hence, our enthusiasm for all-natural pet food, air purification, and European enlightenment.

All of this, of course, puts us on the distant left shore of mainstream America and its raging torrent of trendy consumer products and programs, including kiddie enrichment curriculum. So despite Kindermusik’s pedigree, despite the fact that encouraging words like “joyful,” “natural” and “multicultural” leapt out at me from the website, I harbor some doubt as to whether it will be right for our child. Because in addition to those happy-hippie words, there were an awful lot of little trademark symbols. Whisking Mari out of my office and into the bathroom where I can wash any toxic dust off my hands, I decide I’m not going to let those â„¢s rain on my idealism parade. Not yet.

I call the Kindermusik in our neighborhood. I have some questions, and am hopeful that the answers will confirm that yes, my daughter soon will be basking in joyful, natural social interaction set to a multicultural music soundtrack. The owner is pleasant. She is helpful. I learn that we are welcome to attend a free trial class prior to registering for the next term.

I ask her about the shoe removal. Oh yes, she assures me, they do their best to keep the carpet clean for the kids. Green light. Is it vacuumed regularly? Indeed, she answers. And it’s new, as well. Oops, yellow light.

How new? Installed last spring, which is now three seasons back. I sigh, relieved. The owner is confused by my reaction, so I explain that strong chemical odors can trigger migraines for me, but the carpet should have finished the worst of its off-gassing by now. (I forego the opportunity to enlighten her about the evils of conventional wall-to-wall, knowing from long experience that she’ll be far more sympathetic to my moderate chemical sensitivities than to my extreme environmental sensibilities.) Green light again.

On to the issue of germs. I am again relieved when she readily launches into a description of their infection-control measures: instruments wiped off between classes, instruments that get inserted into mouths (whether intended for that purpose or not) set aside for special cleaning, “gallons” of hand sanitizer available at all times and parents encouraged to use it, as well as free disinfectant wipes. Green light, even though her sanitizer and disinfectants are probably not environmentally friendly.

What about the ceiling, I ask. This one stumps her. I explain that I am familiar with the pet-care store next door, and that the strip mall her school inhabits is obviously older and has a textured “popcorn” ceiling, which can contain asbestos. Does she disturb that ceiling? Does she, like the pet-care place that only my husband enters, hang decorations from it? She sounds perplexed, but assures me the ceiling is left alone.

And the paint? Is it in good condition? Yes, and bright red. Green light, green light.

I get off the phone. The Abyss of Maternal Guilt is receding into the distance as my daughter and I zoom toward the Musical Garden of Extrovert Delights. The natural, joyful, multicultural garden. The environmental-contaminant-tracking-shoes-free, undisturbed-popcorn-ceilinged, disinfected-instrument garden.

*   *   *

I am more than just an ultra-progressive mom. I am also a mom who has Obsessive-Compulsive (OCD). Where other people see some parking-lot grime on a pair of shoes, I see petrochemical toxins leaching toward my child. Where other people see an old textured ceiling, I see asbestos particles showering into the air she breathes. Where other people see a stranger’s hand picking up a Kindermusik instrument, I see a threat of incurable disease. All of this makes me an ultra-protective mom. The kind of mom that calls Kindermusik schools with queries that don’t appear on their website’s FAQ list.

Being ultra-progressive and having OCD means that I continually struggle to sort out which of my concerns stem from my values and which from my illness. Most people, members of my family included, tend to assume that I am ultra-progressive because of my OCD, and that without it, I’d drift happily back toward the middle of the road. What they don’t understand is that I have passionately held beliefs and I have a mental illness that causes obsessive fears around those same beliefs. In other words, I am obsessed with environmental hazards because I care deeply about environmental health, and not the other way around.

But there’s another catch: OCD has been called a “disease of doubt” because it involves a malfunction in the part of the brain that generates the sense of being certain. So when I make decisions, I can never be sure whether I am honoring my values or caving in to my sickness. This is a critical fact which very few people comprehend. OCD is not about whether you have germs on your hands; it’s about an inability to generate the internal sense of certainty that your hands are “clean.” Normal brains do this so automatically and effectively that their owners are not even aware it happens. When it doesn’t happen, you notice. You notice that you have OCD.

I first noticed symptoms of this disorder when I was nine. I started seeking help at age twenty. The medical community didn’t figure out that OCD is a neurological disease and not a Freudian complex until I was almost thirty. The three different psychiatrists I went to apparently never heard the news. I didn’t get valid information about or treatment for my problem (which I ultimately found on the Internet and in bookstores) until I’d given up on the counseling and medical professionals. By then my condition had been complicated by pregnancy and childbirth, an experience so psychiatrically profound it can induce OCD in those previously unaffected.

OCD causes intense, often unbearable, anxiety. So does being a mom. Especially being an ultra-progressive mom in suburban America. Which means that when I’m not fearing that my child’s body is being assaulted by mutated microbes and toxic residues, I worry that her soul is being assaulted by mutated dinosaurs and talking sea sponges.

My mother knows about my values and about my OCD. She is still coming to terms with both of them. Since I am a mother myself, and I suffer from a genetically based disorder, I can understand how painful it must be for my own mom that I have this problem.

Her reaction to my values is a little harder to comprehend. Mom is a recovering starving artist and former hippie who has embraced her newfound middle-class, mainstream status with a convert’s zeal. Sure, she’s still a vegetarian with eclectic interests, but it’s become obvious, as I’ve taken her former beliefs to their idealistic extreme, that she’s disappointed I adhere to the very values she raised me with. Go figure.

I call my mother and tell her about Kindermusik. She is enthused. Since my daughter was a year old and I e-mailed digital clips of her bobbing to music by African pop star Angelique Kidjo, Mom has urged me to get Mari into a musical program. And since Mom came to visit months after my daughter’s birth and witnessed me in full-blown postpartum OCD paranoia, she has worried about the extent to which Mari will actually get to leave the house. I caution Mom that I have to check Kindermusik out, that there are still issues, but that it looks like a green light.

When I do get a chance to peruse the Kindermusik website more thoroughly, the light turns back to yellow. First, the requirements for being a “licensed Kindermusik educator” basically boil down to being able to carry a tune and promising you’ll make every parent buy the At Home materials kit. And second, Kindermusik has launched a new endeavor, home parties that offer “everything musical for a child’s world.” This trademarked service is a member of the Direct Selling Association.

Now not sure what to think, I call the ultimate authority on all things kid: my sister Debi—licensed mental health counselor, assistant professor of child psychology, certified play therapist, mother of six-year-old twins who are both gifted and special needs, coupon and two-for-one goddess, thrower of super-deluxe double birthday parties on shoestring budget, baker of Easter bunny cakes, maker of rainbow-unicorn Halloween costumes, and all-around glue-gun maniac. That sister.

She’s the one I call with questions ranging from “My eighteen-month-old is yanking at her hair. Is this developmentally appropriate or the early signs of trichotillomania?” to “How can I create a pink tail for a kitty cat costume in ten minutes without a glue gun?” If Debi doesn’t know about it, then it’s not worth knowing. She is my guide to the world of childhood beyond the Organic Now.

“I am confused. Is Kindermusik a legitimate music education curriculum or a mass-marketing scheme?” I ask.

“Yes,” she answers. Ah, that clarifies everything.

In her expert opinion, the curriculum is good, but only as good (and as free of purchasing pressure) as the Kindermusik educator. I tell her the local franchise (ugh!) has two certified music therapists on staff. She deems this a green light. I tell her of Mari’s recitation of wants, of my hopes for a Musical Garden of Contaminant-Free Extrovert Delights. “Go,” she responds.

And so, emboldened by finding myself on a route where all lights have turned green, I boldly advance toward the Garden: I send my husband, Toucher of All Things Unclean, to perform reconnaissance. Steve returns with a brochure for the upcoming semester and a report that although the facility appeared to be well maintained, there was no clearly delineated shoes-off area. We decide that the best course of action is for me to attend a Kindermusik class without Mari to determine if it is acceptable from the standpoint of our values and tolerable from the standpoint of my OCD.

*   *   *

A week later, on an icy January morning, I hurry across the parking lot of the strip mall and approach the Kindermusik franchise. From long-practiced resourcefulness, I have a paper napkin in my pocket that I di