A Letter to Me, at 14

A Letter to Me, at 14

By Natalie Kemp

letter14me

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

Save

Save

He Has Autism

He Has Autism

By Jennifer Smyth

1464bc2ef63c6017563caf7a7d6f5e37

After her 8th birthday party in October, my big hearted, brown eyed daughter, Holly, decided this was the year she wanted to educate her classmates about Autism, and more specifically about her twin brother, Nick.  A petite girl, and classmate, named Emily had been the impetus that chilly fall night, arriving at our house overwhelmed by Nick’s jumping and loud shrieks of excitement, but leaving with an understanding of him.

“Mom, I want to explain Nick to people, but not because he is doing something they think is weird.” She had become an accidental interpreter for her brother, fielding questions such as “Why won’t your brother say hi to me?” or more hurtful ones, “What’s wrong with him?” from peers on the school playground and from strangers at the grocery store, who apparently felt it was OK to turn to my 8-year-old and say, “What’s he so mad about?”

“He has Autism” had been her dump and run response since we had “given” her that response language in kindergarten. But there had been lots of swings, slides and checkout counters since then, and it just wasn’t enough anymore.

“It doesn’t help to say he has Autism, if no one knows what it is. And I don’t like talking about it in front of Nick. I think it hurts his feelings.”  With her teacher’s blessing we chose a Tuesday in April, during Autism Awareness Month, to talk to her class. The night before, I scattered picture books on the dining room table. Kneeling on the chair she leaned forward on her elbows to study each one. Her long brown hair still wet from her bath dripped onto the table as she declared, “This one” with confidence, holding up a brightly illustrated book told from the point of view of a twin sister, whose brother has autism.

“Great choice. Which one of us should read it?” I asked.

“I will,” she said.

Still riding the wave of excitement in the morning, she slid the book into her backpack along with the rubbery blue wristbands with the words Autism Speaks, It’s Time to Listen that we purchased for the class. “I’ll see you in two hours,” I said as she slid out the car door, blowing me a kiss.

Minutes dragged as I cleaned the kitchen and then drove aimlessly up and down streets so I would arrive at just the right time. Waiting outside her classroom door, my stomach churned. Maybe this was a bad idea. What if I cried in front of all these kids? Her teacher, Miss Howard, smiled and welcomed me inside. Holly hid her face in my shoulder and hooked her arm through mine as we situated ourselves on chairs facing the classroom filled with 23 2nd graders who were negotiating their spots on the rug. Emily smiled as she crisscrossed her legs at her chosen location at my feet.

Holly leaned her mouth to my ear, using her hand to shield any would be lip readers, and with a whispery warm breath said, “I don’t want to read by myself, let’s do every other page.” I nodded.

“Some of you have met Holly’s twin brother, Nick. He has Autism, and since April is World Autism Awareness Month, we wanted to share some things with you.” Hands started flying up. Some with extra wiggly fingers as if begging to be called on. “We’re going to start with a book,” I said, as their teacher motioned them to put their hands down. Most of them did. Holding the book up high for everyone to see, Holly read the title “My Brother Charlie” and then the first page. She hesitated, waiting for me to read the next one. “You keep reading,” I said. Her voice grew stronger and steadier with every page. “When we were babies, I pointed out flowers and cats and fireflies … but Charlie was different.” The words of the story could have been her words. It WAS her story. So when she read the line, “One doctor even told Mommy that Charlie would never say ‘I love you'” my throat tightened, I chewed the inside of my mouth and tried to find a point on the wall to stare at, but instead my eyes locked on her teacher who had tears running down her cheeks. Hold it together. This is not about you.

Shutting the book with finality, Holly looked to me. I turned to the class. “Any questions?” Almost every hand went up

“You said it’s hard for him to talk. Does he have a voice box?”

“Does he go to a special school?”

“Is Asperger’s the same as Autism?”

“How does he tell you what he wants?”

They used words like sickness, and disease.

“Will he grow out of it?”

Sitting up straight now and addressing her class, Holly called on students and answered the questions as fast as they were asked. Emboldened by her authority, she went for a little shock value. “He doesn’t get embarrassed like we do. He could walk down the street naked and it wouldn’t bother him.” She giggled when she said it, knowing that she was kind of getting away with something by saying “naked” in her classroom.

And she told the truth. “He will yell and scream when he wants something. It doesn’t matter where he is or who is there. But he’s not a brat, he is sweet. His brain just works different.”

“Noooo,” they protested when Miss Howard announced it was time for recess. Heading towards the classroom door they blurted out the tidbits they still wanted to hear more about as they passed me. Holly had already skipped off with her friends, but there was one boy was hanging back, a sweet class clown of a boy, waiting for my attention.

“Hi Jackson.”

“My grandpa writes poems and there is one I think you would like.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s about a guy who accidentally walks into a spider web and thinks it’s really gross. But then he takes a step back and looks at it and realizes how beautiful it is. Anyway, you might like it.”

“Thank you Jackson. That’s beautiful,” I said, dumbstruck by the deep connection he had made. He ran out the door with the rest of the kids.

The next morning, watching my beautiful spider web of a boy saunter into school, my phone dinged the arrival of an email. It was from Emily’s mom.

Here is a photo I took in Emily’s room. After the Autism Awareness talk she came home and taught her dolls all about it!

There were two notebook pages taped up to an easel. Both had “atsam awarnis” written across the top with bullet points from the class conversation. My favorites were “likes to fluff hair” and “they hear everything you say.”

Emily had never met a child with Autism until she met Nick and since then we have met another family with an Autistic child and I don’t think Emily even blinked. Thank you, Jennifer and Holly for raising awareness.

PS I’ll work on her spelling!

Best,

Mindy

 

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

 

Save

Perfectly Imperfect

Perfectly Imperfect

By Elizabeth Richardson Rau

photo-1428992858642-0908d119bd3e

Best friends often don’t come in the prettiest packages. The true friends I have made are like me, willing to show dents, battle wounds and flaws. 

 

In 2011 my world imploded when I left my husband. The decision was the right one; the fallout nothing short of apocalyptic. It was during this time that I learned that friends of substance run towards the burning rubble that life can become while most others flee. This friendship culling, much like that of a spring garden, is laborious and painful but necessary so as to make room for more sturdy roots to thrive. During times of crisis it feels devastating, but, as one of those fleer-friends once told me: God sometimes draws straight with crooked lines. You will get where you are meant to be with the right people standing beside you, even if the journey there doesn’t look like you expected it. This was the friend who, after three decades of friendship, told me she needed space and a break from the drama; an understandable request. That break is going on over three years now and I haven’t heard a word from her since; she is now on my ex-husbands friendship roster.

Years later, with lots of therapy under my belt and a much better understanding of who I was as a woman, I landed happily on the friendship isle of misfits, among others who are unashamed to admit the imperfections of their lives, of themselves. I suppose we are social outcasts to some degree. Unlike years ago, my circle of friends is no longer made up purely of tidy, socially embraced Jack Rogers wearing, Coach bag sporting, SUV driving stereotypes. One is a recovering addict who is physically compromised from an illness that kills most people, and prefers jeans and plaid button-downs to capris and cardigans. Another, despite criticism, waited out her husband’s affair to save what is now one of the strongest, most admirable unions I’ve ever seen. And the friend who endured not one, but two, children’s battles with substance abuse. We are the women others whisper about — the ones who have the courage to show scars without apology. This does not come without a price of course. Gone are the invitations to book clubs, cookie swaps and wine tastings. Also gone, though, is judgment, comparison to others and the unspoken need to conform.

My daughter is now navigating the complicated ‘tween’ friendship labyrinth as she enters middle school. The complexities of her relationships are really no different than mine. Society teaches us that having popular friends is something to strive for from a very young age. Even Barbie has a bestie, Midge. One of the most successful sitcoms of all times was devoted entirely to the subject of…Friends. I learned, though, that popular doesn’t necessarily mean healthier. The friendship circles of my past included those who would be considered popular: they drove the right cars, wore the right clothes and had wealthy husbands. They sipped lattes on the sidelines at Saturday morning soccer practice, wore skinny jeans instead of yoga pants and gave fake air kisses instead touching lip to cheek. In these circles, though, publicly-perceived perfection was not only a goal but a requirement. The messiness of real life was simply too unpleasant for anyone with a hyphenated last name. Then I met the runners.

I joined the morning running group at the encouragement of a friend (who does not drink latte) which was not an easy feat for this night owl. I went religiously, however, after learning it was formed to support a woman who was experiencing unimaginable grief: the death of a child. I roused myself each morning at 5:30 with the stern reminder that if she could get out of bed in the dark to run, then I had absolutely no excuse. What happened on those runs changed my life. I found women who were honest about their life struggles and I, too, was completely honest about my unpleasant life’s circumstances: that my children’s father was more interested in destroying me financially and emotionally and protecting his bottom line than he was in being a father to his two children. That I, a Master’s educated woman, had taken to cleaning houses when I could not find a professional job. The final straw was at the gas pump on a Friday morning when my debit card was declined and I had been driving on fumes and prayers for a day and a half. My child support deposit hadn’t been made. I sat in the car and cried, feeling hopeless and helpless. So I did something I hadn’t ever done — I told these new friends, women I had known for mere weeks, the truth. Within days I had a frenzy of support around me. I had a fridge full of food, gas in my car and bills that were paid. My daughter had enough back-to-school clothes when her father refused to help, declaring “that’s what child support is for.” These women had not shunned or scolded me for “making my bed and having to lay in it” the way others had; they saw a friend in need and immediately took action to help. I had finally found women who were like me: imperfect and hurting, each in her own way, but loving, loyal and generous. They taught me to believe in myself the way they believed in me.  

The book of my friendship life has not been a romance novel. Nor has it been a tragedy. I have learned that best friends often don’t come in the prettiest packages. The true friends I have made are like me, willing to show dents, battle wounds and flaws. We might not win any contests around town for having it all together, but what we do have is authenticity.

Elizabeth Richardson Rau is a single mother of two children living in central Connecticut. She earned her B.A. In communications from Simmons College and her M.F.A. in creative and professional writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and a certified domestic violence victims advocate.

Photo: Melissa Askew

Save

On Friendship

On Friendship

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

2014-07-29 14.11.27

They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life.

Great friends are thrilled for you when you go from the least likely of the bunch to settle down to all-out smitten and engaged in the span of fifteen months. They wonder a little about this fellow you met in the middle of the woods and how you’re only 22, but then they meet him and no one has any questions, just joy.

They agree to hike four miles round-trip to watch you get married in your favorite hiking pants (with a veil thrown in for good measure) on the mountain closest to both your hearts, and then help to remove the blowdowns from the “altar” before the ceremony starts.

Even when most of them are doing more productive things with their lives, they don’t judge you when you decide to put off graduate school for a while to spend too much time in the woods and hang out by the sea.

They are thus super impressed when you adopt a dog, buy your first house, and decide to actually apply for graduate school.

A week after they find a lemon-sized tumor in your 27-year-old husband’s brain, they approach your car in the parking lot after work and hand you a half-gallon jug of homemade “apple pie” comprised of spices, apple cider, and most importantly, 100-proof-liquor. Also included is an offer to make more.

They ask what you need and they mean it.

They don’t doubt you for a second when you decide to become parents and they offer to babysit after the little one arrives.

They mow your lawn, plow your driveway, and take your trash to the transfer station.

They take your daughter overnight when it’s time for the second brain surgery and then drive her down to the hospital when he’s out of the woods; they pick her up from daycare when the chemo treatments run late or you have to travel out-of-state; they take her for a few hours here and there so you can try and juggle nursing school on top of everything else.

They call and it is like no time has passed at all.

They fly a thousand miles to help you survive school and take care of your family like their own, and then accept it despite their effort when you leave school a few weeks later when your husband can no longer safely stay home alone.

They start a fundraiser for your family to use to take a vacation, then for alternative treatments, then for just anything because sometimes that’s how quickly it goes.

No matter how inopportune the timing, they meet you at the local emergency department every time.

Knowing your daughter needs as much love as humanly possible, they give, give, give.

After the oncologist tells you there is nothing left to be done, they fill the house with visitors and love.

When your husband starts hospice two weeks before your daughter’s 3rd birthday, they arrange an enormous, spectacular party for her where all you have to do is show up and try not to cry.

When he becomes home-bound, they come visit with incredible spreads of food and booze, to play with your daughter for hours on end, and with enough meals for the freezer so that you won’t have to cook for months.

After the hospice nurse says hours to days, they stand at your side until family arrives; they hold his hand and say goodbye; they put Patty Griffin on in the background, every album repeating; they shake their heads right alongside you in disbelief that this is actually happening.

They meet you at the funeral home to fill out the cremation paperwork and tentatively look at urns.  When you find a little slate one with a golden tree and say you’re not going to buy it just yet, but look at this, they completely agree.

When he dies, they shower the world with tributes of his good spirit, love for teaching everyone about the woods, and how much confidence, humor, and knowledge he brought to their lives.

They help plan his celebration of life and spill into your neighbors’ house to fill it with love and laughter and stories.

When you turn 30 just over two months after his death, they take you out to a coastal town for dinner and drinks and the comforting smells of diesel fuel and the sea.

They hike 12 emotionally and physically grueling miles with you up your mountain to spread his ashes where they need to be; at the summit they all dip their hands and join you in setting him free.

When you return to nursing school that fall, they are there to support you through and through; when you find that you are miserable and leave the program six months later, all they want is for you to be happy.

As the horror of that first Christmas approaches, they entertain and distract.

They house/pet/chicken-sit so that you can travel for the first time in half a decade.

As the one-year mark nears, they gather with you at his favorite pub to reminisce and love.

When you start to date again, they want to know EVERY. LAST. DETAIL.

Your life is what it is in great part because of these friends, these friends who kept you afloat through the best and worst years of your life, through thick and thin, through marriage, birth, death, and life again.

Oftentimes, especially early in the morning with your first cup of coffee, you wonder where you would be without your friends. You breathe deeply, slowly, gratefully for all they have done, all they have sacrificed and loved. They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life. You hope they never experience anything even remotely similar, but because of them you’re there: ready, strong as hell, and by their sides to rally, protect, love, and provide anything they might ever need.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives in rural Maine with her daughter. Read more from Sarah at: www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

Save

Save

Save

To My Son, Turning 8

To My Son, Turning 8

By Wendy Wisner

8

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

 

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

Save

Save

The Grass Is Always Greener

The Grass Is Always Greener

Blackberry plant with berries and green leaves in the garden and on the field.

By Nancy Brier

 

Lauren and I toss down our bikes, shade our eyes with flat hands. “This is a good spot,” she says, and we start to pick.

“You get the high ones, I get the low ones, right Mom?” She squats, scanning thorny branches for clumps of purple.

Blackberry juice trickles down my arm, sticky and sweet. Lauren, crouched on the pavement, looks up at me, and laughs, her lips already stained, her bucket empty. “Put some of those berries in your pail,” I chide, “or we’ll never have enough for pie.”

Summer is in its final glory, the sun still warm but not too hot. Pear pickers drop skinny ladders in nearby orchards, the last of the soft fruits to be harvested. But there’s another crop ready to pick too, the crop that keeps me up at night, its fragrance hanging in the air wet and pungent.

My husband and I moved here from the Bay Area as soon as we learned I was pregnant. Entrepreneurs, the two of us worked all the time in those days building businesses and transforming worn out properties into beautiful living spaces. We liked our life but knew it would be impossible to maintain with a baby in tow.

One day, he found a walnut orchard on the internet. “How hard could it be?” he asked.

We sold our business and moved to a town we had never heard of in a place far away from city life.

Lake County has the largest natural lake in California, the cleanest air in the nation, spectacular mountains and small towns untouched by consumerism. We bought the orchard and a run down farmhouse with space to spread out.

Our walnuts flourished, but within a few years, that other crop did too.

Within the past several years, people have flocked to Lake County from all over the country to grow pot, and the cleanest air in the nation started to smell.

“I think you have a skunk problem,” a visitor said to me tentatively while he was visiting our home. I had to explain that the skunk he smelled was pot.

When I did a Google search, I counted 47 outdoor pot grows in backyards that surround our home. More cultivation takes place in doors. In fact, PG&E, our energy provider, said that Lake County uses three times as much electricity as an average community this size.

Growers come here because the climate is perfect for cultivating their crop. A patchwork of local, state, and federal laws ensures that pot will be a lucrative commodity for years to come. And law enforcement in this rural, mountainous area is stretched, a guarantee that only a fraction of rule breakers will get caught.

Some people think of pot as a victimless crime. But living here has taught me that it comes with guns, dangerous dogs, other drugs and lots of cash.

A mile from our home, a young man was shot dead on a Christmas morning, one pot farmer robbing another. Emergency vehicles raced past our house, and my husband and I exchanged glances as our little girl and her elderly grandmother, thankfully unaware, opened gifts by the tree.

Ten miles away in the other direction, a teenage girl was imprisoned in a small box at a pot farm. And on the other side of our county, a woman was killed in a car crash as deputies sped to the site of a grow.

Pot has made our little community dangerous. When teenagers ride their horses down Main Street to get cokes at the corner store, I marvel at the old fashioned charm all around me. But when I see other teenagers with vacant stares and marijuana leaves emblazoned on their tee shirts, I see a different picture.

The most dangerous time is during harvest, when that valuable cash crop is poised to be turned into cash.

Home invaders broke into our neighbor’s house but found a frightened, elderly woman. They had the wrong address; the pot they sought was across the street.

Are we next?

Lauren and I plunked berries into our buckets, talked about the kind of crust we’ll make for our pie. “Let’s grind up chocolate cookies,” Lauren suggests, “or make a criss-cross pattern with short bread.”

I smiled, but my eyes were trained on the slats in the wood fence that divided our berry patch from a field. Tell tale bright green jagged leaves shined brilliantly in the waning sunlight.

I hadn’t realized that our berries were a fence board’s width away from a pot field.

“I think we have enough now,” I said, walking toward our bikes.

We pedaled home and set our buckets down on beautiful new countertops. Pink sunlight streamed in from perfectly placed skylights, and my favorite color palate surrounded us in our spacious refurbished kitchen.

Lauren and I decided to go with a cobbler, buttery and delicious, the last thing we baked in that fabulous oven.

Nancy Brier lives with her husband and daughter. They recently relocated to Palm Desert, California where they are restoring their new desert home. Find her at: www.NancyBrier.com

Womanhood

Womanhood

By Stephanie Andersen

womanhood“It’s still snowing out there,” she said.

Mom and I were tucked under her blue comforter on her bed late one afternoon, staring out the window into the backyard. The snow had settled on the pine branches, and the windows shook a little in the November wind. I pushed my head into the space between her arm and breast, tracing the hardness of the catheter buried under her skin. She was holding a tiny portrait of a young Victorian woman with big brown eyes, soft curly hair, and pursed lips.

“This is how I imagine you’ll look when you grow up,” she told me.

I stared at the face of the woman and tried to imagine myself as her. She seemed gentle, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes shy and hopeful, her breasts round and high. I was only nine years old, and it was the first time in my life I ever seriously considered the possibility of becoming something other than the child I was.

Mom had found the lump in her breast five years earlier, and the doctors had told her she had only three months to live. She told the doctors, “Go to hell,” then started her treatment. She’d changed her diet, exercised, meditated, repeated positive affirmations, lost her hair, burnt her skin with radiation, and begged God to save her life. She had a little girl to take care of.

She had lived six years longer than the doctors expected, but when they told her they would have to remove her breast, my mother refused. She told my father that she was sure losing a breast would take something from her that she wasn’t prepared to lose.

I had not yet developed breasts. All I knew of womanhood was the shape of my mother’s body, the way she fit around me in her bed, the way she smelled of St. Ives lotion, of baby powder, and of ginger. I had no interest in attaining any of this for myself. I loved the simplicity of my own body, my ability to run barefoot and shirtless in my own backyard. I was thankful that I did not bleed from my private parts and have to leave diapers drenched with blood in the bathroom garbage. My father and I were free, untangled by the chains of what kept my mother from throwing off her shirt and jumping into the lake at the park with us.

I didn’t want to be a woman. I didn’t want my mother’s body. Strength was freedom, and a woman’s body was weak and stifling.

One morning, I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest. I ran to my mother.

“I have a bump on my chest,” I told her. “And it hurts.”

She smiled. “You’re getting your breasts,” she said, rubbing her fingers gently over the tiny bump. “You’re becoming a woman.”

I backed away from her. “It’s breast cancer, isn’t it?” I asked. “It must be.”

For several weeks, my mother argued with me, explaining that I was not dying, just growing up. But I could not be convinced until she took me to a doctor for a thorough examination.

“I don’t want breasts,” I told my mother. “My life is over.”

“No, Stephanie. Your life is just beginning. You’re going to be a woman. And that is a magical, wonderful thing. You’ll see.”

“Breasts stink,” I told my mother after school a week later. “And so does womanhood.” Then I stomped into my bedroom and slammed the door.

Two months before my twelfth birthday, I stood over her, studying her lifeless body. She lay stiffly on a hospital bed in our den. I raised her cold hand and tried to memorize how her fingers felt between mine. Above her on the wall hung a picture of us, me as an infant in her lap, my two sisters flanking us, Mom’s hands wrapped tightly around my waist. It was only then that I realized why my mother stared so intently at the picture of that Victorian woman. It was the only image of me as a woman that she would ever see. And as this realization crept through my thoughts, I suddenly felt a new desire that I had never known before. I wanted to find out what it was about a woman’s body that my mother sacrificed her life for. I wanted to understand what I had been missing.

*   *   *

I was finishing my junior year of high school when I made that happen.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror one afternoon, watching my boyfriend’s white ejaculate drip from my abdomen. I was supposed to be studying for the history final. My boyfriend was still in my bedroom. As I studied how the sperm appeared against my tan, summer skin, I imagined what it looked like under a microscope. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was wrong: I was too young, and I was certainly not considering the other party involved. But I wondered if I were capable of growing and swelling like other girls I had seen at school.

In the late nineties, in upstate New York, teenage pregnancy was no longer a surprise. My hometown, a small suburb just outside of Binghamton, was home to at least five pregnant adolescents in 1997, and they were not the first of their kind. These girls came late to school, flaunting growing bellies and exciting plans for their very own apartments. Two-bedroom, two-bath. They let us all touch their stretching skin. They said things like, “Only two more months,” “We think it’s a boy,” and “I don’t have to take gym anymore.” They were separate from the rest of us, more grown up, more in touch with the future, more interesting, and far more sexual. I watched them as they waddled down our high school hallways with heavy book bags, heavy bodies, and severe looks of determination. I found myself eager to know what it felt like to be watched and touched, to be mysterious, and to have such unavoidable purpose. These girls were at once scorned and cherished. They were our future and our failure. They were not ready but going ahead with it. They were dismal and exciting statistics. They were pregnant.

The longer I stood in front of the mirror, the more honest it all seemed. I was built for it. I needed it. I told myself that in the end nothing I did would matter to anyone else. It was my body, my choice, my wish.

*   *   *

Ten years and six hundred miles later, I hold a cell phone to my ear and listen to a fourth-grader tell her sixth knock-knock joke in three minutes.

“Knock, knock,” she says.

“Who’s there?” I ask.

She giggles. “Egg.”

“Egg who?” I say.

“Egg knock’s my favorite drink, too.” Then she laughs uncontrollably, squealing and hiccupping into the phone.

It’s difficult to fake a laugh. But I giggle nervously, tell her it was “a good one,” knowing that she had made it up on her own and is proud.

“What did the picture say to the wall?” she says, not ready to quit yet.

I pause for a moment as if to think about it. Then I admit, “I don’t know.”

“I’ve got you covered.” She squeals again with delight, hiccups twice, sighs, and continues laughing.

Elianna lives in upstate New York, just outside my hometown. She hiccups if she laughs too hard. She likes to read; she loves to draw. She takes gymnastics but accidentally kicked her instructor last week at practice. She’s tall for her age, almost five feet now, and embarrassed by it. She always has a good report card and likes to impress her teachers. She enjoys jumping on the trampoline in her backyard, swimming at the YMCA, shopping for clothes at The Limited and Old Navy, and listening to music, mostly Hilary Duff; she loves going to yard sales and has been begging her parents to let her start taking piano lessons.

When she heard there were people in the world without hair, she grew hers out, cut it off, and donated it. Her favorite color is blue. She watches Survivor every Thursday night at eight o’clock. She loves having her nails done, being an older sister, and staying up past her bedtime. She doesn’t like bras or mean people. When she grows up, she wants to be an artist.

This is the first time we have ever spoken directly to one another on the phone, but she has a picture of me in her bedroom she stares at, brings to school for show-and-tell, and sleeps with. She has never met me, but Elianna, the girl on the other end of the phone, is my daughter.

What I want to say to her: None of this is your fault. It was never you. I want to smell you, your head, your hands, your toes. I want to know what your hair feels like between my fingers. I want to see the way your thighs turn into your calves and your calves into your ankles. I want to find out, for myself, if your big toe is shorter than your second toe. I want to know the direction in which your arm hair grows.

I dream about you, wake up in the middle of the night worried that you are sick, sad, angry, or afraid. I want to crawl in bed next to you, wrap myself around you, finally feeling the shape our bodies make together. I want to feed you, cook the food myself, make you strong and healthy. I want to help you learn how to read, write, paint. I want to read you my favorite stories, the ones my mother read me. I want to walk through a mall with you, help you try on clothes, tell you how beautiful you look in blue.

I want to know the people you know. I want the pain in my breasts and abdomen to go away when I hear your voice and see your picture. Forgive me. Let me kiss your face, your arms, your ears, your fingers. Your jokes, as much as I love you, are really not that funny.

What comes out: “Very clever, Eli. Very clever.”

Before we hang up, she tells me good-night and that she loves me.

I tell her, “Sweet dreams.”

I’m back in my apartment in North Carolina, under this blue comforter. I cannot complain about much here. I have just earned a master’s degree. I work at a community college, teaching freshman English. I rent a nice little apartment outside the city on the third floor of a brand new building, behind an almost-finished Wal-Mart. I have a large friendly group whom I am lucky to call my friends. There’s no boyfriend, but this doesn’t bother me. I run through the routine, wake up every morning early, walk my dog.

Life is normal enough. I am free and strong, a product of my father’s firm encouragement to be an independent woman. “Women are no different than men,” he always said. “Women can do everything a man can do. Don’t ever sell yourself short.”

The only signs of weakness are the colorful stretch marks on my breasts, the grip I still have on the phone long after she’s hung up, and the picture of my daughter hung on the wall over my bed.

*   *   *

A baby. I would make it work. “No,” my father said. “It will ruin your life.”

“I can do it,” I begged.

“Not in my house.” He ran his fingers through his beard and flipped through his mail. “I won’t be a part of it. If you have this child, you will never know what it means to be independent, to be successful, to accomplish all that you’re capable of. If you choose this path, you choose a life I can’t support. Find another place to live.”

No problem. I would find a place to live. A charity organization. A family who would give me a home, tell me it was okay to be a mother.

At first, inventing myself as a teenaged mother-to-be was exciting. I collected baby clothes, pacifiers, bottles, and bonnets. My charity family gave me a tiny room in their basement. At night, as I lay alone in the dark staring up through the windows into the flower bed outside, I had no doubt that I was becoming who I was meant to become.

As my breasts and abdomen grew, I became thrilled with the changes, finally feeling like I was being given the opportunity to be a real woman. School no longer seemed important. Homework seemed petty. College seemed like a fantasy. In the waking hours of the morning, I would get up out of bed, my bladder full again, tip-toe up the stairs, and stare in the mirror. In my reflection, I searched for a change in my face, something familiar, any sign of the mother I planned to become. But my face never seemed to change. My growing breasts and the bulge in my abdomen grew on their own, separate from my eyes. I’d crawl back into bed and run my fingers over my stomach, feeling my daughter kick my hands through my skin, and ask her to have patience with me.

I wanted to keep that baby just as naturally and vehemently as I wanted my mother to live. And I tried for seven long months to find a way to do it. But 1997 was a difficult year. Clinton reformed welfare, making it impossible for anyone under the age of eighteen to receive aid, and I couldn’t find a way to keep a stable job, finish high school, and care for a baby all at once without at least a little help from the father, who was unwilling to admit to his parents that he even had a girlfriend.

At seven months pregnant, it became clear to me that there was no hope. I couldn’t do it. It had all been a fantasy I couldn’t live up to. I was no mother. In fact, I was little more than an irresponsible teenager with a penchant for the dramatic. I had no job and no future.

Worse, I found myself desperate for reprieve. I wanted out of the martyrdom. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night for anyone, much less for a child I had nothing to offer.

And one night, as I collapsed in the corner of my borrowed basement room, I knew in the most horrible sincerity that I was unwilling to give up my freedom and security for my womanhood. I didn’t want it badly enough. And when the realization came, I wanted to empty myself of my miracle as quickly as possible, renewing myself to the state of freedom, loneliness, and asexuality to which I’d become accustomed.

I would do what my father had told me and do everything my mother hadn’t. I would graduate high school. I would go to college, pay my own bills, travel, and live a long, successful life.

“I’m so proud of you,” Dad said, his eyes red with weepy gratitude.

“This was a hard decision to make but a very strong one.” I was still living in my basement room, but when the pregnancy was over, Dad promised, when life was back to normal, he said, I could return home.

“I want to be strong,” I told him. “And successful.”

“I know you will be,” he said. And I believed him.

*   *   *

Angel and her husband, Matt, had been trying to have a baby for eleven years. Every month, for all of those years, she had hoped she was pregnant, picked out a name, constructed themes for the nursery, and imagined the baby’s face. And every month, when the blood came, another imaginary child died. She had long since lost count of all the faces that might have been.

A friend of hers mentioned a pregnant teenager with whom her daughter went to school. She tried not to get her hopes up. It took me a while to work up the courage to dial her phone number.

“I can’t do this,” I told Angel over the phone. “I’ve decided to go to college. I just can’t do this alone.” I listened to her cry, in what I would later find out was relief, for several moments. Part of me hoped she would tell me she would adopt both of us, the baby and me. I wanted to tell her how desperately I wanted to keep my baby, but I just needed her to help me. I wanted to explain what it was like to feel a human being growing inside me for so many months, to learn what sounds made her sleep, to learn exactly the way I needed to walk in order to lull her. I wanted her to know that what I was saying was dangerous for me.

“Can I meet you somewhere?” she finally asked.

“Okay.”

We chose McDonald’s on Main Street.

Angel became a mother there, when I nodded my head across the table from her, licking the ice cream cone she and her husband bought for me. I said they could have my baby.

It would be Angel who held Elianna minutes after she was born. It was Angel who held her when she first cried and learned the motions of her body and the difference between hungry and wet. It was this other woman—whom I met by accident when I doubted my ability to be faithful to my own instincts—who watched my child grow from a seven-pound, eight-ounce infant into this nine-year-old girl who tells knock-knock jokes and giggles until she hiccups. It was never me.

Because of this, I cannot complain now if Angel, this other mother, chooses to explain the adoption in such simple terms as, “You grew in Stephanie’s belly but in Mommy’s heart.” I can’t blame this woman for waiting so long to let my daughter communicate with me. I can’t tell my daughter that her jokes are not funny or that it is the hope of one day meeting her that keeps me waking up in the morning and trying to be successful, impressive, and strong.

Friends ask, “How do you talk to your daughter on the phone so casually?”

And I respond. “How do I not?”

Since they brought my daughter to their home for the first time, this couple has repeated my name in her ear like a mantra, wanting to “do the right thing.” They want for her to be aware of her heritage and proud to be adopted. My daughter’s only questions have been whether or not I love her and why I gave her away. “Of course she loves you,” her parents tell her. “Stephanie was just so young.” But Eli repeats the same questions, seemingly waiting for a truth she’s sure she has not yet heard.

When her parents first told her she could speak with me, she decided it wasn’t time. Instead, she listened over the speakerphone while her mother spoke to me. When she did this, I tried to adjust my voice and attempted to comfort her with my words, even if I was only telling Angel about the weather in North Carolina. Sometimes I would hear her giggle in the background or whisper something to her mother. But she wasn’t going to talk directly to me, not for six more months.

“Eli’s doing really well in school,” Angel would say.

“Oh, wow,” I responded, trying to express a pride recognizable in my voice. “That is so wonderful.”

I heard a tiny giggle in the background.

“Stephanie’s proud of me,” she told her mother later.

“Yes,” Angel said. “She’d be proud of you no matter what you did.”

Angel always calls and tells me the whole conversation later, all the questions Eli asks about me. She reports that my daughter, her daughter, is making me a glazed plate for Christmas with my name and my dog’s name printed across the front in child’s handwriting and swirls of purple and blue along the edges.

It was my sister’s idea to create a website for Elianna. It may have been illegal for a nine-year-old to have her own MySpace profile, but it wasn’t illegal for a birth family to create a profile titled “We Love Elianna.” With a few keystrokes, my sister made a profile that displayed several pictures of all of us, even my mother. There were pictures of me as a baby, of my sister and me carving a pumpkin when we were children, of my father, of Elianna on her first day of fourth grade, of Elianna when she was a baby, of Elianna when she was still inside me. I e-mailed Angel the password, and we waited.

Three months later, I received a message from Elianna over MySpace. DEAR STEPHANIE, I AM JUST STARTING TO TYPING. WRITE ME BACK PLEASE! I WOULD LIKE TO MEET YOU VERY MUCH.WELL I HAVE TO GO. BY LOVE. ELIANNA

“At Olive Garden,” Angel told me later. Apparently Eli imagined a girls’ lunch with the three of us at the same restaurant where I had celebrated her first birthday, one candle stuck in a scoop of ice cream, my father and I wondering how to celebrate without the birthday girl.

“Does she mean it?” I asked Angel.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

“Why now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Angel said. “I asked her, and she said she wanted to know what your favorite color was. And she really wants to meet Daisy.”

Daisy is my Jack Russell terrier. Eli refers to her as the “birth dog.” I paused. “Will she ask me why I did it? Why I gave her…”

“I don’t think so.”

“What will I say to her?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Tell her what your favorite color is.”

“When?” I asked.

“Are you coming home for the holidays?”

I haven’t been home for Christmas in three years. In fact, I rarely go back to New York for any reason. I opt for distraction—grad school, affairs with married men, short-term love affairs with strangers, menial social melodrama, heavy drinking, various jobs I latch onto and pour myself into, my writing. Now I dial my sister’s number and tell her I’ll be home in a month for the holiday.

She says, “Okay,” but I can tell she doesn’t believe me.

“Elianna said she wants to meet me,” I say.

She’s silent for a minute.

I think about the last time I went home. I can’t remember whose idea it was to spy on my daughter. We had never driven by Elianna’s house before. We hadn’t expected her to be climbing out of a minivan in her driveway, her face so much like mine, with moving legs, with a real mouth, a living, breathing little girl. I slammed on my brakes and fumbled for my sunglasses. My sister slid down in her seat, thinking, like me, that Eli would look up and somehow recognize our car, maybe from the North Carolina plates. We pulled our car behind the tree across the street and watched her for a minute while she waited for her mother to unload the van. I held my sister’s hand, surprised at how much we were shaking.

“That’s your baby,” my sister said, shaking her head. “That’s her.”

I knew she was waiting for me to do something remarkable, to become the lioness confronted with her stolen cub. She stared at me, watching the way my face trembled. Maybe she hoped these long years had been enough to awaken the mother inside me. But after Eli disappeared into her house, I shifted the car into reverse and drove away up the hill.

My sister has often tried to stir my maternal instincts. There have been days I cry in her arms and tell her how much I regret it all. And she’ll call an attorney, tell me to get creative, get angry, claim duress, anything. Just get my daughter back. But I’ve never tried. And I know I never will.

“Are you ready for that?” she asks now.

“I don’t know,” I say.

*   *   *

“You’re not ready for this,” my boyfriend, Elianna’s father, told me ten years ago, the night before I would promise my child to another couple. “You’re not ready to be a mother.” And then I was hitting him. I punched him for all the decisions in the world I felt I had no control over. I clawed at his chest for my dead mother and the baby I couldn’t find the will to keep. I screamed because I couldn’t remember my mother’s face, I would never see my daughter’s, and I couldn’t find my own. He let me go on like that for several minutes as the snow fell against the windshield and melted into water.

There wasn’t anybody who wanted to help me be a mother. But there was a world of people who wanted to help me go to college. And slowly, this became my answer. I constructed a new truth out of what I decided the rest of the world expected of me. I learned that most everyone would respond delightfully to my change of heart. Teachers gave me extra time on my assignments; my father bragged about me in church; my boyfriend thanked me with wet eyes, told me he loved me, and that he would marry me one day.

Over and over, for years to come, all I had to say was that I gave a daughter up for adoption, and people would do everything but bow at my feet, chanting the popular “what a selfless, brave decision to make.” This gave me identity. I was the teenager who gave her daughter up for adoption. But the only image I had of the life I was choosing was the word my father repeated to me over and over throughout my childhood: college. And now that I had no choice, it sounded so good.

I waited, but no matter how many times I recited my mantra—”I’m going to college. I can’t be a mother”—my hand still found its way to her and I still spoke to her. I knew then that my instincts to care for the baby would not disappear when she did.

*   *   *

It’s been three days since Eli wrote to tell me she wants to meet. I tell myself that nothing—no lunch at Olive Garden, no knock-knock jokes—will ever make me her mother.

In the small box in the corner of my bedroom, I keep two ultrasound photos secretly tucked away, the two I once hid from myself just in case one day I needed to remind myself the pregnancy actually happened, that Eli was not a dream. I take them out occasionally and stare at them. I keep her second-grade picture sitting on the antique end table my mother left me in her will.

A year ago, Eli sent me a box for my birthday, a collection of her things she thought I needed to have. Inside, there are leopard print pillows, blue sandals, necklaces, pictures she drew in school, photographs of her swimming, lotions, Beanie Babies, and a letter that she wrote, explaining the little details of her life. I keep the box in another corner, sit next to it some- times. I smell the little pillows, hold the earrings in my hands, study the letter. Once I took out the sandals and tried them on. They fit perfectly.

Eli’s need to show me who she is doesn’t surprise me. These years with- out my mother and daughter have brought me no happy endings or clear answers, but I have realized that my inability to become the Victorian woman in the portrait is not tragic. My mother did not show me that picture to assign me an identity to live up to. That picture was for her. She would never know how my face would evolve as I grew older. This woman I have become, nothing like that portrait, with all of my regrets, with my two diplomas hung on my wall, with an absent daughter, is a woman my mother will never know.

My daughter and are I left to struggle through this strange distance from each other, memorizing pictures of each other, unable to put the pictures away. When asked whether or not I regret my decision to give my daughter up for adoption, I answer honestly. Yes. Going to college has never made up for the nagging regret. I can still smell the milk that leaked from my breasts for a week after she was born. The smell of those leopard pillows is still more comforting than any freedom or success I have earned. But what I’m left with is not a gift I take for granted. I have my daughter’s face next to me as I sleep. It changes in every new photo, her eyes like my mother’s, like mine, but with their own nuances, unexpected, miraculous.

*   *   *

Elianna was born on March 7, 1997, at seven o’clock. She was seven pounds, eight ounces. Lucky seven baby. As I pushed her out, I begged the doctor to not let anyone take her from me, but my words were dismissed as nothing more than the emotional roller coaster of a seventeen-year-old girl in labor. My father stood over me and covered my eyes as she slipped from between my legs. I heard her gurgle for a second, and then she was gone.

I saw her only once before I left the hospital for good. Angel’s husband passed her off to Angel who brought her into the hall for me.

“Do you want to hold her?” she asked.

I looked down at the baby. I waited for something in my mind to click. I waited for whatever it was inside me that might have become a mother to react, but nothing happened as I clung to the IV stand I had wheeled along with me. It was over.

“No,” I whispered.

“Is there anything you want to say to her?” Angel asked.

I thought about it for a second. But only one thing came to mind.

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess there is.” I reached into the blanket and found Eli’s hand. She wrapped her finger around one of mine as I cleared my throat. “Go to college,” I said. Then I pulled my finger from her grip, turned around, and walked away.

*   *   *

I won’t meet my daughter this Christmas. She’ll change her mind, lose the courage, send her mother in her place. I’ll have lunch with her mother alone. I’ll offer Angel a picture of Daisy and me along with a wrapped gift to give to Elianna. It will be a necklace that splits into two halves. Angel will sit across the table from me, run her fingers over my hand, and tell me Eli has my fingers.

“Are you okay?” I’ll ask her, watching the way her eyes well up at the sight of me. I understand that I am a reminder that Eli will never have her eyes, her fingers, or her lips. She will never be able to know what it felt like to carry her daughter to term in her own uterus. And she will watch me remove the necklace from the box myself. I will keep one half, and Eli will keep the other. I’ll never take off my half. I’ll run my fingers over the charm while I am at work, driving in the car, grocery shopping, or staring out my apartment window into the Wal-Mart parking lot.

“I’m dealing with it,” she’ll say. She will return home to my daughter, maybe brush the hair off her forehead, feed her dinner, and tell her what it was like to have lunch with Stephanie, the birth mother.

Back in North Carolina, I will continue to occasionally stand in front of the mirror naked, staring at the scars on my breasts and at the ever changing slope of my abdomen (which has never shrunk back to its original size). It reminds me that there’s a part of me that’s missing.

One night, to my surprise, my nine-year-old daughter will call with an unusual question. “Do you have big boobs?” she’ll ask.

“Elianna’s getting her breasts,” Angel will say in the background. “And she’s not happy. She has to wear a bra.”

I’ll laugh and tell Eli that mine aren’t so big, that there’s nothing to worry about.

“Okay,” she’ll say, sighing.

“I know how you feel,” I’ll tell her, picturing her standing there, staring hopelessly down at her swelling chest. “I didn’t want to get boobs, either.”

And after a small silence, she’ll clear her throat. “Well,” she’ll say. “Your boobs look big in your picture.”

We’ll laugh, and she’ll hiccup, both of us remaining somewhat damaged and slightly delighted.

“I don’t think she’ll ever take this necklace off,” Angel giggles in the background.

And I’ll be thankful, with the phone held tight to my ear, for my own breasts, for the shape of my body, and even for this regret.

Author’s Note: Birthmotherhood has followed me like a grinning ghost into an existence I thought would be empty of my daughter. I am a mother who is both without her daughter and full of her. I have both abandoned her and taken her with me. This essay was a grueling process of discovery and redemption.

Stephanie Andersen teaches college writing in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

They Are Not Half Sisters

They Are Not Half Sisters

By Stephanie Sprenger

halfsisters

 I believe with all my heart that my children will never regard each other as half of anything.

 

A row of three-year-old ballerinas clad in leotards fidget at the barre, a gangly eight-year-old wearing jeans and a T-shirt smack in the middle. My oldest daughter holds her tearful little sister’s hand as they plié together. It is my three-year-old’s first dance class, and the instructor gently invited her big sister to dance as well, a panacea for her jitters and sobs. Izzy bends down to whisper words of comfort in Sophie’s ear. Little brown heads pressed together, I again marvel that their hair is the exact same shade of chestnut. When I come across an errant baby picture, it’s sometimes hard to tell which daughter I am looking at if eye color—one of their few distinctions— is not immediately evident. My own childhood photographs contain uncanny whispers of each of their faces.

“Strong maternal genes,” I hear from friends who are in the know. I concur, astonished by my daughters’ similarities when they only share partial DNA. My youngest inherited the brown eyes accompanying the fraction of Native American blood in my husband’s veins, while her older sister’s eyes are the nebulous and changing color of the sea, framed by a luscious canopy of thick black lashes. Her chameleon eye color matches mine, but her large eyes and ebony lashes are a gift from her biological father.

Her “birth dad,” she calls him, on the rare occasion he comes up in conversation. When she was in preschool, we began awkwardly referring to him as “Dad in Phoenix” to distinguish him from my husband, whom we called “Daddy.” “Dad in Phoenix is on the phone,” I’d announce every 2-3 weeks. I couldn’t find the gumption to change his moniker, so when he moved to Texas I never bothered to tell my daughter. “Did you see the card from Dad in Phoenix?” I’d inquire, ignoring the postmark from north Texas. It bordered on comical. We had no plans to visit him, so I assumed my lie of omission was harmless.

After several years of using a geographically incorrect nickname, Izzy finally asked the hard questions. On the way to first grade one snowy morning, we managed to fit uncomfortable words like “divorce,” “biological,” “legal,” and “adoption,” into the same vast conversation that encompassed her gay uncles. I pulled away from her school building feeling stupefied, wishing I could temporarily resurrect my decade-gone cigarette habit to absorb the enormity of the ground we’d just covered.

I had never concealed her intricate history—details unraveled as they needed to, and, possessing an excellent memory, my thoughtful daughter even recalled details of “adoption day,” a stifling day in June several months before her fourth birthday when my husband became her legal parent.

Soon after her adoption, Izzy began campaigning for a sister. Not a sibling, a sister. She eerily placed her hand on my belly days before I hovered over the stick on the bathroom counter, praying for a pink line. “There’s a baby in your tummy,” she announced matter-of-factly. She continued to inquire until the day I finally confirmed her hunch, confident that the preceding pregnancy losses wouldn’t jinx my unborn child; Izzy jubilantly ran around the backyard proclaiming, “I’m going to be a big sister!” Whenever we stopped to converse with acquaintances, Izzy would possessively touch my belly, marking her status as big sister.

One day during my pregnancy, a friend innocently, if not foolishly, asked if I was worried about my husband loving Izzy as much now that he had his own baby coming. The implication was unmistakable: only one of his daughters was a real one. My daughters would only be half siblings. Waves of nausea rolled over me and I could feel the pink rushing to my face. “Izzy is his real daughter,” I replied stiffly, causing my flustered friend to back pedal.

When my phone rings this time, it’s been over three years since Izzy laid eyes on my ex-husband. As I announce the call, I suppress the old urge to label him “Dad in Phoenix,” and carefully articulate each syllable of biological dad, mentally tripping over the complications the term brings.

“I want to talk!” my three-year-old announces gleefully, elbowing her way onto the sofa while her big sister glares at her. “He’s my dad,” she whispers irritably, and I stiffen. My youngest child is simply not equipped to absorb such distinctions; having only met the man once, during her infancy, Sophie has no paradigm in which to tidily arrange him. I try to distract her with Daniel Tiger, but she erupts into sobs as I haul her from the room in an effort to respect the sanctity of Izzy’s connection to her birth father.

“That was my baby sister,” Izzy explains ruefully, and I wonder how this makes him feel. He had a family once. He doesn’t anymore. His daughter has a sister who does not belong to him. Do these surreal truths keep him awake at night?

Last Christmas, Izzy tore open a box of gifts from her paternal grandmother in Arizona. She brandished a conciliatory gift bag with one misspelled name, “To Izzy and Sofie,” but the generosity of the gesture was not lost on me. I pictured my former mother-in-law carefully wrapping the presents, deliberately including a sibling who would surely be jealous and confused when no corresponding package arrived bearing her name. A bag filled with marshmallows, candy canes, and chocolates that a pair of sisters would share.

From the moment our tentative five-year-old climbed into the hospital bed next to me to hold her sister for the first time, she was a full-blown sibling and took her role very seriously. Izzy orchestrated elaborate adventures, her dazed infant sister a captive audience in her vibrating bouncy chair. As her sweet companion became a tower-destroying toddler, Izzy tolerated The Wiggles redux while I lamented my bad luck at enduring a second round of the Australian quartet. She quietly advocated for the inclusion of her sister when other children would have begged for respite.

Her efforts to create a playmate paid off—oh, how they play. They race around the living room, vintage aprons tied backwards around their necks. Yellow gingham superhero capes and peals of laughter stream behind them, and they collapse together on the floor in a heap. While I originally entertained fleeting concerns that the five-year age difference would be an obstacle to their closeness—a worry dispelled by deep affection and a shared love of toilet humor—not once have I ever regarded them as half siblings.

Maybe it would be different had there not been a biological parent who signed away legal rights, had my husband not adopted Izzy. Maybe the fraction present in their genetic link would be magnified if there were custodial arrangements, a step-family with other children for whom to apply classifications and nicknames. I’ll never know. What I do know is this: I believe with all my heart that my children will never regard each other as half of anything. Their relationship contains everything that full-blooded siblings experience. It is full of loyalty. Full of conflict. Full of that deep understanding and witnessing that only siblings can share. Full of love.

Author’s Note: As I watched my daughters playing superheroes, it dawned on me how often I forget our family’s complex history. As the girls are only 3 and 8, we have many hard conversations ahead of us.

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

Purchase our Sibling Bundle for more essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship.

Save

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

bellow2

Like nearly all parents, I sometimes yell. I don’t like it, but it happens. Usually it’s close to the end of a particularly long or challenging day when the button-pushing preschooler in my daughter overtakes the exhausted mother in me, and for a split second I lose my cool. I yell, then I breathe, then I apologize.

I am grateful that these times are infrequent. I am grateful that I know I am not the only parent this happens to and that I just need to forgive myself and move on. I am also grateful because I know from experience just how much worse it can be.

There was a time in my life when I was stretched incomprehensibly thin, with no hope for recovery in sight, and it felt like all I did was yell or cry.

My daughter was barely three and my husband Steve was dying; one afternoon remains vivid in my memory.

I was trying to transfer Steve from his hospital bed to his wheelchair. His hospital bed was pushed against our bed, which was pushed against the opposite wall, and there was just enough space on the near side to maneuver the wheelchair.

He had not walked in nearly two weeks. The week before, I had signed the DNR order his hospice nurse had slid over the coffee table before she moved across the living room to listen to his heart and lungs. The prior day he had suffered a massive bloody nose and nine seizures, including one that lasted for seven full minutes. We were both exhausted and at our wit’s end.

During the last months of his life, Steve took high doses of dexamethasone, a corticoid steroid, to help control his persistent and insidious brain swelling. At six feet tall, he quickly ballooned from a slim 165 pounds to over 240 pounds.

Always fond of humor, we joked about our matching stretch marks, but it was truly a terrible transformation for him. People who didn’t know Steve before the steroid treatment did not recognize him in the photographs in our home. Though he had never been one to care much about looks, the uncontrollable weight gain and disfiguring side effects pained him, and he especially hated that it made it more difficult for me to take care of him.

I had transferred him hundreds of times. Sometimes the transfers were challenging, but I was strong, he helped as best he could, and most of the time they went fine. I knew from my brief stint in nursing school that no one in their right mind would ever transfer a patient of his size without multiple assists or a mechanical lift, but I also knew that he very badly wanted to stay at home and that I was going to make it work.

The transfer went terribly. He had almost completely lost his ability to use his right side in the preceding hours, a fact that neither of us was aware of until it was too late. I was not strong enough to bear all of his weight as we pivoted and he ended up half in the wheelchair with his right arm pinned beneath his body.

Every time something went wrong—a transfer, a medication complication, an infection, a functional decline—I felt somehow responsible, whether I had any actual control over the event or not. I knew, logically, I was not to blame, but I felt so guilty that I could not seem to manage it all, and all those months of challenges, complications, and of things going wrong had piled up.

In the midst of wrestling him upright and eventually back into the bed, our daughter came into the room. I have no recollection of her action—whether she was in danger of getting hurt as I struggled to move her father or she simply tried to speak to me at that moment—but I screamed at her at the top of my lungs. I bellowed. She burst into tears and ran out of the bedroom.

At that point, I felt the weight of everything, unbearably. I so desperately wanted to do everything right: to give Steve the life and death he wanted and deserved, one with as much dignity and as little discomfort as possible; to love and support our daughter through that process; to keep all the little pieces of our quickly crumbling life together for just a little bit longer.

I wanted just a small slice of grace and peace in the throes of my chaos and grief. Instead, my life imploded in a matter of seconds and I unleashed all that fury, loss, and disbelief on my daughter. I felt like the absolute worst mother in the world.

I managed to get Steve back into bed. We were both exhausted and in tears. I called our daughter back into the bedroom. I apologized and told her that I shouldn’t have yelled, that I had been scared and that I was sorry. She hugged me and nodded and climbed into my lap. I kissed her forehead and wiped her cheeks.

On the wall above Steve’s hospital bed was a framed picture of our daughter taken the previous summer on White Head, the island in the Bay of Fundy where we visit family every year. The photograph was the epitome of light and joy: her grin haloed by wispy toddler hair, green fields, and blooming fireweed.

She pointed at the picture and asked if we could go to White Head when the snow melted. Yes, I nodded, of course. She paused and then asked if Daddy could come with us. I knew what was coming, but I couldn’t, just yet. Maybe, I said, maybe.

Steve died almost exactly three weeks later, on the second day of spring.

I still sometimes feel guilty about those days, wondering if I could have somehow handled the stress better. I cringe when I think of the times I was frustrated or short-tempered, but I also recognize it was the weight of an impossible situation, exactly where no one ever wants to be: watching one’s life, love, and family disintegrate piece by piece.

I also remind myself that it wasn’t all burning rage and pain, though those memories are sometimes the ones that surface first, especially when guilt is at play. We had a lot of moments of love and light, of sacred time together as a family, and of beauty breaking through the suffering.

Those horrific months that I often wasn’t sure I would survive are now some of the most valued of my life. I was a disaster of a person and a thoroughly imperfect mother and wife, but I was there and I gave it everything I had.

It will always be one of my greatest honors that I was able to take care of Steve until the end, that he trusted and loved me enough to grant me that esteem. Despite everything we were facing, I never for one second considered not accepting that offering.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in Maine. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

Raising a Multicultural 4-Year-Old

Raising a Multicultural 4-Year-Old

By Sarah Quezada

175722974

“Mom, we do not kiss kids at school.” My four-year-old stared up at me as I covered her with a blanket.

Oh good. The before bedtime conversation every mother wants to have. Of course I’m the mom of the classroom kisser.

“Um… were you kissing kids at school?” Please say no. Please say no.

“Yes.” There it is!

My daughter went on to explain how she was playing with a friend when his dad came to pick him up from preschool. So she gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek to say goodbye.

“Ms. Terri was laughing and laughing,” my little girl said. “And then she told me, ‘We do not kiss kids at school.'”

My initial horror shifted to gentle amusement. Of course my daughter was kissing kids goodbye at school—that’s what her dad told her to do! My husband is Guatemalan, and he has been teaching her since birth to greet and say goodbye with a kiss.

I’m terrible at this practice, and it’s become a source of family humor that I’m able to make cheek kissing one of the most awkward experiences for everyone involved. I’m always too early, too late, too shifty, too nervous.

We have been passionate about nurturing my daughter’s bicultural identity, supporting her as fully Guatemalan and fully American. And it seems she’s 100% adopted her Latino kissing along with my penchant for making other people uncomfortable. But we always knew her light skin and perfect English would cause people to doubt her Latina-ness, so we’ve been even more intentional to promote bilingualism and take her as often as we can to visit her abuelos in Guatemala City. We also attend a Spanish church, where everyone kisses good-bye.

So what do I do as the mom of the classroom kisser? I know she is discovering what it means to balance her two heritage cultures. Through trial and error, she is learning who speaks which language, what’s culturally expected in different situations, and when it’s okay to kiss. Adapting to a multicultural world is a tall order for a four-year-old. It’s a tall order for any of us.

I want my daughter to be her full, authentic, bicultural self. But I also want her to fit in, right? I definitely don’t want her to be made fun of for kissing good-bye the way we’ve taught her. I never want her to look back and say, “My parents taught me to kiss everyone, and then I was ridiculed at school.”

Many months after our bedtime conversation, I witnessed her kissing in action. I came to pick her up from the gym childcare when she announced she’d made a new friend. Terrific. Then, she darted back into the playroom and kissed her new buddy goodbye. I watched as the girl wiped the wet from her face and yelled, “Ewww. Disgusting!” My daughter was unphased.

On the way home, we talked about how not everyone kisses good-bye and she should always ask first if it’s ok to do so. I didn’t want her to feel like she shouldn’t kiss friends whose culture was different. But we also discussed how it’s all right if a friend says no. And that simply means we don’t kiss them.

Weeks later, I then watched her ask a new friend at the park if she could kiss her good-bye. When the little girl said yes, the two accidentally smooched on the lips while I looked at her mom apologetically. I wanted to offer explanation, but instead just mumbled and scurried away. I wondered if my instructions had been sufficient since perhaps it would be better to simply hug in some situations.

It seems conversations about culture, context, and identity will be ongoing with my daughter. Where we are intentional to establish her heritage roots, we must also be committed to walking alongside her as she navigates their application in her world. But through it all, I am struck by how flexible she is in today’s multicultural world.

Flexible is generally not a word I would use to describe my daughter, who still needs a very specific spoon to eat her cereal in the mornings. But kids seem to have an easier time moving between cultures and adjusting with ease. My daughter gobbles up the Cuban food in the church fellowship hall while talking with her friends in English with a bit of Spanglish thrown in for good measure. But she is just as comfortable at all-English events in our mixed white and African American neighborhood. This is her world. And it is in cultural flux. As I watch my daughter interact within her world, I realize a multicultural experience is all she’s ever known. While she continues to adapt to these changing contexts, I will remain close by, helping to guide her and encourage her to maintain a groundedness of her own identity.

Sarah Quezada lives in Atlanta, Georgia in a talkative, Spanglish household with her Guatemalan husband and two kiddos. She writes about culture, family, and immigration on her blog, A Life with Subtitles. You can connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: gettyimages.com

The Cakes That Bind Us

The Cakes That Bind Us

By Susan Currie

The Cakes That Bind Us Im1

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.

 

My mother always told me my birthday was a celebration for her too. I’d come from her. Neither my son nor my daughter came from my body, because we’re a blended family. They spend weekends, Tuesdays, and week-long interludes during the holidays with their dad and me, and the rest of the week they’re with their mom. We do our best to be as involved as we can, often going all out on holidays and birthdays.

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.

It was the end of a busy semester and my inner pastry chef yearned to break loose. What better excuse—it was my then-boyfriend’s daughter’s birthday. I mused over this cake, carefully constructing it in my mind until I was ready to embark on my great creation. Three towering layers. Devil’s food would alternate with pink and purple vanilla cake. The outer layer would remain snowy white, maybe with some chocolate shavings for elegance.

Only two years out of his divorce, and not a wizard cake-maker, my future-husband’s cupboards were not equipped to handle my project’s needs. I lived between my roommate’s and his place, therefore my cupboards were also barren. He an entrepreneur, and me a broke student, we turned our pockets out to make multiple trips to the grocery store. Cocoa, whipping cream, stabilizers, butter, food colouring, bricks of chocolate, and the list went on.

The tiny galley kitchen afforded me little room to work, his dented stainless steel bowls were not ideal for mixing, and he didn’t have a single mechanized way to whisk the whipping cream. I assessed my tools and MacGyvered to the best of my ability. His daughter looked on with awe.

If I think back now I can only imagine the production I must have put on for my almost seven-year-old step-daughter. The organized chaos of a veteran baker who didn’t have access to a dishwasher: batter splattered spoons set aside and elevated to be used later, whisks whirling and bowls turning in opposition. Items in the freezer, and other items in the oven. A carefully timed cacophony.

“What are you making?” she asked carefully.

“Your birthday cake,” I said.

It had been a year-and-a-half-long budding relationship. Their father had met me two months after his divorce, we’d become friends, and then we had become something more. When he originally introduced me to his children they stormed into his home elated to be visiting Dad, and hazarded me no more than a passing glance and a hello before mutilating the art supplies he’d recently picked up for them. As time progressed I began to appear at more events. I was invited on an outing to see their grandmother. Soon I was accepted as Dad’s girlfriend.

“That’s not my cake. Mom got me a cake. It’s ice cream,” she stated firmly.

“Well, that cake will be for your birthday at Mom’s house, with Mom’s family. This cake is for your birthday with Dad’s family.”

Her eyes lit up. She looked around for a second time her mouth opening slightly and her face changing as the nature of blended family birthdays struck her for the first time, “I get TWO family birthdays?”

“You bet.” I said, and as charming as her excitement was, I was suddenly struck by the enormity of my task. I’d been making a cake for the sheer fun of it, with the excuse of her birthday. Suddenly I realized, this was so much more. I whisked harder.

“And you’re making it?” she said cautiously. We looked at each other.

“Yup. That’s what all this is for,” I said, aggressively attacking the task of hand whipping cream.

A spark lighting in her eyes, she chirped, “Can I help?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I was making the cake for her. I’d spent hours developing the plans. “I guess,” I said. I relinquished the whisk, and instructed her on how to beat the cream over the ice without it slopping over the sides.

It slopped over the sides.

I showed her how to drizzle chocolate without blotches.

There were blotches.

Soon her brother and father were taking turns with the whipped cream, all of us rubbing our forearms by the time the task was fully accomplished. As our cake stacked higher and higher my future step-daughter and I gleamed with identical maniacal glee.

“It’s huge!” She said, thrilled.

“It is huge.” My vision had been realized, but only kind of. It was gaudy, with a clutter of decorations that veered wildly from my original idea. It tilted ever so slightly. We placed the chocolate initial that I had shown her how to create on the top of the cake, and wrote her birthday message in red gel icing on top. It wasn’t what I thought it would be, but I was slowly falling in love it.

We were finished.

“How are you two going to get this to Granny’s?” her father asked.

We froze.

It’s safe to say that the cake made it to Granny’s. Perched on my lap it was dangerously close to the car heater, the gel icing running until the perky red we’d chosen to write “Happy Birthday” in looked disturbingly like blood. The chocolate initial had condensation on it. Before it was served I carefully did my best to make touch ups, afraid that the little girl who it was intended for would be disappointed. I shouldn’t have been concerned, because when it came time to sing Happy Birthday there she was, sitting at her grandmother’s dining room table—too excited to sit still. She blew out the candles and declared, “Susan made this!” to the room of individuals who I’d later call family, “And I helped!”

It’s four years later, and a week before her eleventh birthday, “Do you know what kind of cake you want?” I ask.

She chews on her lip, “I can’t decide, here’s what I was thinking,” she thrusts her iPad at me and we scroll through images of gummy-bear pool-party cakes, fondant iPad cakes, cakes more complex than the me of four years ago could have imagined—I blame Pinterest.

“I’m not working with fondant,” I say smiling.

“But—”

“No.”

“Okay.”

We scroll together, taking note of the cake elements we like and don’t like before settling on this year’s winner. It’s our family tradition now, we find our cake and we make it deliciously real.

Many years, and many cakes on my step-mom resume, a ring on my finger, and a baking cupboard bursting with supplies, these are only a few of the things that make my family mine. Cakes baked in ice-cream cones, Kit-Kat cakes, dirt cakes: we’ve made them all, together. What my mom said about birthdays still resonates with me, but for our family it’s a bit different, birthdays are another way for us to celebrate our unique way of becoming.

Susan Currie is a stepmother of two living in Vancouver BC.

Celebrating Their Birthday

Celebrating Their Birthday

By Kelly Burch

theirbirthday

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. 

 

My daughter’s first birthday—my father’s 52nd—was celebrated in the psych ward. There was no candle, and a nurse held the knife used to cut the cake. I had to call and plead in order for the baby to be allowed to visit my father, speaking first with a nurse and then with the unit manager. Normally, children aren’t allowed beyond the locked doors that mark the start of the psychiatric wing.

“Please,” I begged. “It’s their birthday. Both of them.”

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. I couldn’t celebrate the joy of her first year without thinking about the deep sorrow that year had held for my father. I couldn’t bear to celebrate another melancholy birthday with my dad, or find hope for his future, without the healing balm of my baby’s smile. After all, without the baby, we may all be forced to confront the lunacy of singing “Happy Birthday” to a man currently hospitalized for depression.

  *   *   *

The morning that my daughter was born, I awoke in the hospital with the OB-GYN by my bedside.

“The induction hasn’t taken,” he said. “But your blood pressure has stabilized. We’ve consulted with Boston, and they said we can send you home, or we can try Pitocin. We’ll let you decide.”

Frustrated but still hoping for a somewhat natural delivery, I waddled out of the hospital without a baby.

“Sorry Dad, not today,” I said as I called to wish him a happy birthday. Even through my own exhaustion I could hear the disappointment in his voice.

But on the drive home, I began feeling the rhythmic tightening in my stomach that had failed to happen during my three days in the hospital. My water broke right around the time I was supposed to be going to my dad’s birthday gathering.

“Going back to the hospital. Don’t tell anyone at the party,” I texted my mom. We had already had one false alarm, and there was no need for everyone to come running.

But a first-time grandmother can’t control herself, and the cake and ice cream were left abandoned as my siblings and parents rushed from the cook-out. After holding out all weekend, my daughter came so quickly that I didn’t even know my family had arrived, waiting just on the other side of the locked doors that separated the maternity ward from the rest of the hospital.

When my family came in to meet the baby, my father was the last through the door, his hulking frame looking timid and unsure.

“Happy Birthday,” I said.

As I watched him cradle his first grandchild, I hoped that the baby would make a difference. I wondered if a 7-pound infant was the key that could break into the icy depression that had held my father captive for eight years, correcting his chemical imbalance and bringing him back to me.

At the same time, even in my postpartum haze, I knew not to expect a miracle. Just weeks before giving birth, I was downstairs, in the hospital’s Emergency Room with my dad. As I swayed my ever-widening hips in an attempt to soothe my aching back, I listened as the nurse asked my father, “Do you take drugs?” and “Are you thinking about hurting yourself or others?”

Hospitalizations were something I had been through many times with my father’s bipolar disorder. But at eight months pregnant, this felt different. As I helped him through the E.R., hoping that he would be deemed sick enough to warrant one of the few beds reserved for psychiatric patients, I felt completely drained. That night I curled myself around my belly, wondering how the baby inside would remember my dad.

Long before I had children, I mourned that they would never meet the boisterous, gregarious man who raised me. They wouldn’t know the man who ran for mayor on a whim; the man who always had the next big idea, and was ready to shout it from the rooftops; the man who was apt to scoop up his nieces and nephews, tossing them too high into the air until they were consumed by laughter and their parents exchanged nervous glances.

That man had been snatched away from me by mental illness. I loved the sullen, subdued person left in his place, but I was heartbroken that my kids would not know the same version of my father who helped me discover creativity, and taught me to buck the norm. The poet and author who gave me my greatest joy—writing.

But as I looked at my father holding the baby on the day she was born, I had hope. I saw genuine joy radiating from him for the first time in nearly a decade. My daughter, swaddled loosely in the hospital blanket, nuzzled into my father’s bright coral shirt, a garment too cheery for the man who was wearing it. The massive man with paunchy cheeks, who was clean-shaven and showered only because he knew his family was visiting for his birthday, looked down at the baby with awe.

These two souls were connected, entering the world on the very same day, half a century apart. They were linked through me, but also independent of me, with a relationship I would never be fully privy to.

The year that I was expecting, I celebrated my birthday at 38 weeks pregnant. “Maybe she’ll be your birthday present!” people would say. Although I smiled, I hoped the baby would leave that day for me.

However, when I thought about her sharing my dad’s birthday, two weeks after mine, it just seemed right. Through the foggy years of his depression, I visited him on his birthday and tried to make my rendition of “Happy Birthday” sound as genuine as I could. But it seemed hollow and insincere to sing of happiness to a person who couldn’t find any joy at all.

For years, I repeated the ritual and the saying, but I knew he wouldn’t have a happy birthday, and wasn’t likely to have many happy days in the coming year.

But then, that day became theirs.

“I was hoping she would come on my birthday,” he had said when he met the baby.

He hadn’t expressed hope in the longest time.

Author’s Note: My daughter is nearly two now. After being hospitalized on her first birthday, my father began doing better. He is currently on his longest stretch without a hospitalization in nearly a decade.

Kelly Burch is a freelance writer and editor living in New Hampshire. She shares stories about mental health, mothering, and anything else that catches her interest. Connect with Kelly on Facebook, or via her website to read more of her work.

Happy Birthday Baby

Happy Birthday Baby

By Candy Schulman

200296650-001

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

 

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

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

Not this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

Soulmate

Soulmate

By Lexi Behrndt

soulmate_2

I never knew a son could be a soulmate

 

I spent my childhood dreaming of a soulmate. Someone who would be a new oxygen to fill my lungs. I read Wuthering Heights and swooned over the passion between Catherine and Heathcliff, and I knew in my bones that my person was out there. He had to be.

At eighteen, I fell quickly for a boy I thought truly saw me for me, the look in his eyes one of love. I married that boy, and what followed was the opposite of my dream. I spent years cursing myself for my idealistic tendencies, and wishing away the idea that my true love was somewhere out there. Our marriage was over before it was over, my hope for a soulmate long gone.

Together, we had two sons. One and then the other, fifteen months apart. When my first son was born, I was surprised by motherhood, and all that came with it. It was as though I had grown into my true self for the first time, loving and giving all I had to another. I could not get enough. When my son was six months old, on a hot July morning, I took a pregnancy test, and when the two pink lines appeared, instead of the fear I maybe should have felt at a poorly-timed pregnancy, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of joy. I knew this baby would receive all the love I had to give, just like his brother before him.

And when he was born, one cool April morning, he was placed on my chest, the powerful love rushed in, and then, the fear. The room quieted as I asked, “Why is he purple?” I watched as medical team members swarmed around him like bees watching their hive fall. Frantic and hurried, yet calculated and somber. I was forced to say goodbye to him repeatedly over his first few days of life, instead of wrapping him in my arms and holding him close for one, long, never-ending hello.

What followed was six and a half months of living in a pediatric cardiothoracic ICU as he battled congenital heart disease and pulmonary hypertension. Six and a half months of victories, hardships, setbacks, sweet kisses, moments my heart lurched out of my chest with contentedness and love, and moments my lungs deflated, suddenly unable to remember how to breathe. We bonded with cords and monitors, and I sang him songs repeatedly, if only to cover up the noise of the alarms. And when I entered his tiny, sterile hospital room, he always seemed to know, his eyes searched the ceiling, as if they were waiting to lock with mine. I was his, and he was mine. There was nothing I wouldn’t do to keep him with me, healthy and whole. But then, after 200 days, the fateful day came, and I watched all the dominos fall as I held him in my arms, and while everything screamed and raged within me, I told him it was okay to go.

I left the hospital numb with my mother and my older son beside me, with nothing but a lock of his hair, his favorite socks, his stained swaddle blankets. “This is the end of it all,” I thought.

But it wasn’t.

If you had told me two years ago that inside the sterile walls of a children’s hospital I would be forever changed, I never would have believed you. I gave birth to a little boy I had to give back, and the living and the giving was my saving grace. Somehow, my little boy with sick lungs and crummy veins taught me exactly what I needed.

He taught me to fight. He taught me to love without fear. He taught me to find my voice and stand my ground. Before him, I was stuck and desolate, and I didn’t even know it. He took care of his momma more than I took care of him. A little boy with the biggest blue eyes took my life by storm, and made sure he left me stronger, braver, kinder, and with more love than I realized my heart could hold.

I received a card after my son’s death, from a friend who had also lost her son. Her sentiment was simple yet profound, one lovely sentence that has stayed with me in the year since his death.

“I never knew a son could be a soulmate.”

I never did either, until I met mine.

Lexi Behrndt is the founder of Scribbles and Crumbs and The On Coming Alive Project. She is a single mother to two boy—one here and one in heaven, a freelance writer, and a communications director. Join her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

The Unexpected Grief Of The Unknowing

The Unexpected Grief Of The Unknowing

By Sonya Spillmann

RgJQ82pETlKd0B7QzcJO_5912578701_92397ba76c_b

When does an adolescent’s desire for independence from her mother wane and the longing for restoration begin? When do mothers and daughters reach a tipping point, and the pushing away becomes a pulling towards?

 

I didn’t think it would start this early: she is only nine. My daughter is not looking at me, but through me. We’re standing in the kitchen and I have one hand on the counter and the other on my hip. I’m leaning into her as she adjusts her elbows and ankles, getting comfortable for my lecture. She is somewhere beyond me. I know her look, her stance. I perfected it with my own mom.  

As I look back on those years battling with my mother, I find myself wondering: Was I a good child with horrible moments—a typical teenager? Or had I permanently damaged my relationship with my mom? Is there a distinction? Where is the line?

I don’t know the answers. I never had the chance to find out.

My mom died when I was eighteen, at the tail end of my senior year of high school. She was diagnosed with cancer ten weeks before she took her last breath. I was busy planning for my big exciting life away at college while my mother counted out her days.

Growing up, my parents were strict, their rules covered by a heavy blanket of expectation from our church’s traditions. No makeup. No jewelry. No dancing. No dating. Modesty always, especially in church, where pants weren’t allowed and head coverings were worn by women of a certain age to show their submission to God.  

As teens do, I challenged the rules and pushed my way onto roads my parents never expected to travel. I wasn’t a bad kid—I was just hard for them. I challenged the status quo. I wore jewelry and went to prom with my boyfriend, all against their wishes. I fought with them over everything and nothing.

We had too many arguments to remember. Except for one.

My mom and I were standing in the kitchen with it’s new cream, navy, and maroon striped wallpaper. She stood on one side of the room and I was on the other. I don’t know what she wasn’t giving me or not allowing me to do, but she wouldn’t change her mind. I had lost the battle, so I went deep and picked a new prize.

Could I push her enough to slap me?

She walked out of the kitchen to the garage, with it’s yellow textured walls and shelves full of tools. I followed her, relentless.

“But you said…”

“I can’t believe…”

“Everyone else…”

From the garage, she went out onto our deck. She needed nothing in the garage or from the deck, minus an escape. Twenty years later, I realize she was running away from me, in the only way loving mothers can. Hoping diffuse a situation with a quick exit, to anywhere the other person is not—allowing physical space and stolen time to shift the dynamic just enough.

My sharp tongue lashed at her soft skin over and over and over. Until finally, I cut too deep and she slapped me squarely across the face.

Anger. Power. Guilt. Pride. Satisfaction. Limits. The pain and mix of emotions (for both her and myself) stopped my self-centered world for a moment.  

My left cheek stung. And I imagine, as she walked past me through the garage into the house and back to our kitchen, closing the door on me, her hot tears of anger, power, hurt, and guilt must have stung, too.

When does an adolescent’s desire for independence from her mother wane and the longing for restoration begin? When do mothers and daughters reach a tipping point, and the pushing away becomes a pulling towards?  

Last week, I asked an acquaintance if she’d like to get our kids together for a playdate. “You pick the day. I’m free.”

“I’ll let you know,” she said, “we usually get together with my mom a few days of the week.”

When I see a woman flanked by her mother and daughter, creating a chord of generational harmony, a very hard note pounds in my heart. Unable to be that middle participant, I wonder, will I have the chance to do this with my own daughter and her child one day?

For my daughter to be a healthy adult, she and I must become autonomous. I need to accept part of her growing up involves our separation, and this is often hard work. Should the next decade be arduous—requiring me to both set limits and keep arms open while she vacillates between childlike trust and the pulling with unbridled independence away from me—am I willing to hold my ground, not knowing if we will have the chance, the time, to move past this stage of life? If I find myself in my mother’s shoes, dying young, will I regret not making these years more pleasant, though I know it would be a disservice to my daughter in the long run?  

Hope Edelman, in her book Motherless Daughters, writes of the many cycles of grief a woman experiences when she loses her mom:

“A daughter who loses a mother does pass through stages … but these responses repeat and circle back on themselves as each new developmental task reawakens her need for the parent. … At each milestone a daughter comes up against new challenges she’s frightened to face without a mother’s support, but when she reaches out for her, the mother isn’t there. The daughter’s old feelings of loss and abandonment return, and the cycle begins again.”

I grieved my mother at my high school and college graduations, at my wedding, and after each of my children’s births. As much as I could, I anticipated those griefs. But surviving them left me disarmed and vulnerable to the emotions I feel with the first strains of my daughter’s impending teenage years. I did not anticipate grieving the relationship I wish I had with my mother now.

This new grief, I call it the Unknowing, is unexpected.

I grieve not having the privilege of time; a gift which makes no guarantees, but at least offers the possibility of true reconciliation. I grieve not being able to show my mom I was deserving of the forgiveness she so graciously gave me in her last days. I grieve not being able to call her and ask her what to do with this little girl who will soon be a young woman. I grieve not knowing what the future holds, and I cannot help but fear I will be taken from my daughter before we have time to mend our relationship which will inevitably fracture throughout the process of her becoming an adult.

So here I am, feeling like a teenager while I simultaneously prepare to raise one.

After my mom’s diagnosis, she started chemotherapy. Although she only got worse, as a family, we didn’t discuss the possibility of her death. Even so, toward the end, each child was given a chance to talk with her alone. Without being told, I knew she was dying. She was in the hospital, requiring oxygen and hydration, and only days away from hospice care. She was cachectic and the chemo partially paralyzed her vocal chords, making conversations quiet and strained. My dad ushered me into the quiet room and I cautiously sat on the left side of her hospital bed.

Because this would be our last real conversation, I felt an urge to ask for her forgiveness. There are no adequate words to apologize for being a teenager when your mother dies.

As I started to speak, she shook her head. I began again, but she stopped me. She put her frail hand up, palm facing out. The same hand which set a limit on our deck years ago set another that day.

With her hand still up, she said four words I will always carry with me.

“You’re a good girl.”

Through all my self-doubt, and the grief I still experience, I am comforted knowing my mom knew my heart. She understood (more than I could have at the time) how typical, though ill-timed, my behavior was. Nothing changes a mother’s love.

Sonya Spillmann is a nurse and freelance writer who lives outside of DC with her three kids and husband. Her personal essays have been on Huffington Post, Coffee+Crumbs, and others. She was a cast member of DC’s 2015 Listen To Your Mother show and writes at spillingover.com to share stories of grief and grace. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

By Aileen Jones-Monahan

183091425

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

What I Wanted For My Daughters

What I Wanted For My Daughters

By Patrice Gopo

f7a44cdc-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because society says they can have it all.

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

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

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

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

  • *   *   *

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

Because she read my graduate school entrance essays.

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

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

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

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

  • *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

Because I called one laughter and the other miracle.

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

Photo: Daria Nepriakhina | Unsplash

Things No One Told Me About Grief

Things No One Told Me About Grief

By Rachel Pieh Jones

grief3

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

By Cindy Hudson

146472927

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

When There’s Enough Love for the Three of Us

When There’s Enough Love for the Three of Us

By Jessica Rosen

photo-1422327571285-01fb2ebc228f-1

I just don’t know where or how to find enough love for my husband when I give all I can muster to our son every moment of the day and night.

 

I come from a long line of divorce: My great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother twice, my father twice. He married a third a time, but their relationship hasn’t been easy. His wife refused to give into divorce when they grew disgruntled and distant. She signed them up for sailing lessons on Lake Michigan, bought season tickets to the opera, stopped working into the night and accompanied him to bed. Now they have settled into a silent comfort that I long to have one day.

But these divorces haunt me.

December marked my 10th wedding anniversary. Our four-year-old son came down with strep throat—we called off the babysitter. I spent the night crammed into his single bed, ready to sooth his pains upon every whimper. My husband slept alone. Perhaps on our 11th anniversary my husband and I will spend time together. Since the birth of our son, time for each other has escaped. There is only time to move through the day, complete tasks, sleep, start again. There is no time for marriage. No time to care for each other. As this lack of care divides us, divorce seeps in like dirty water through a cracked ceiling.

Driving in the car recently, my husband pointed to a small travel-trailer in a lot as we passed. “If you ever divorce me, I’m gonna buy one of those trailers, save up all my money, and get out of here as fast as I can.” His tone was not mean or angry, but matter-of-fact. I assured him he does not need an escape plan. He refused to give it up. I guess I have a plan, too. My dad has a very large basement, my mom has an extra bedroom. Still, this announcement was hurtful.

I wish we could live our lives without a disaster plan, without any sort of doubt. But those dim days when we don’t talk and aren’t reading each other’s minds, when I have spent each minute of my day washing, cleaning, caring, tending to my son’s every need, when I have nothing left to give to my husband upon his arrival home from work, when we are both so exhausted with life, I know our instinct is to plan. No one wants to be blindsided.

Before our son, we were inundated with time for each other. We took care of each other. From the very beginning, we savored the endless company of each other.

Our meeting in graduate school was nothing out of the ordinary. The first time he invited me to his apartment, we sat on the tattered second-hand couch and held hands. We didn’t talk. We sat. We breathed. We drifted far away into the future where we would still be sitting, holding hands, listening to the silence of each other.  

After graduation, I dragged him home with me to Chicago where we landed teaching jobs at one of the many junior colleges downtown and a second floor apartment in a bad neighborhood. When I told him he had to marry me, he didn’t flinch. That was that. We both knew it was right.

We flew to Vegas a few months later. I wore a red velvet jumper. He wore a cheap western suit he bought on Chicago Avenue (not the fancy downtown part of the Avenue).The wedding party consisted of only us and the two strangers who conducted the ceremony. Neither of us wanted a crowd.  We honeymooned two nights in Vegas and then drove in our rental car through the snowy mountains to Eastern Idaho where I met his family for the first time. Sisters, an older brother, so many nieces and nephews that I stopped trying to remember names. They all hugged me. His siblings gave us cards with small amounts of cash.  We ate pancakes with whipped cream and sugared strawberries. I had nothing in common with any of these people, but their kindness engulfed me. The same kindness my husband has always bestowed upon me.

Back at home, we continued our mundane life in Chicago. Marriage made not much difference. We settled into the comfort of each other like soothing bathwater. It flooded our bodies with warmth. Like many married couples, we read each other’s minds and had no need for conversation. He’d say what he wanted for dinner. It would be exactly what I had been thinking. He’d say we should go camping for the weekend. I had been dreaming of trees.

But for the past four years, our son has drained us of love and care for each other. Because of this addition to our family, marriage is no longer easy. All of the love and endless attention we used to bestow upon each other is now given to our son. Date night seems so silly we can’t bring ourselves to pay a babysitter, nor can we afford it anyway. Instead, we put our son to bed and sit side-by-side in our lounge chairs, watching TV and making witty comments during the commercials. I head to bed early. As our son gets older and his demands more demanding, I am exhausted by the time my husband gets home from work. I have no energy to care for him, too. He losses his passion for caring for me because my love is short and elusive.

I yell at him to wash the dishes because I cannot take the responsibility anymore. I ignore him for three days because he forgets to take out the garbage. My husband begins to hate me. I can feel it. “I need to know,” he says to me one night as I lie in bed reading. He means he needs to know if I’m done with our marriage. I wish I could explain to him that, right now, I just don’t know where or how to find enough love for him when I give all I can muster to our son every moment of the day and night. But, I am not done. I will never be done.

Someday, soon, our son will want nothing to do with either of us. He’ll get dressed on his own, bathe without my help, hide in his room. My husband and I will be left alone. We’ll figure out how to love each other again and take care of each other again. There will be room for all three of us in this marriage. I long for the room to move around in, to feel loved in, to give love the way we all need. One day, we might have to take sailing lessons together or buy season tickets to something. And I will. I will know that we can survive the moments of non-love. The moments we are too tired to give. I will know that the love is there somewhere and if I try, we will find it together.

Jessica Rosen is a Chicago native who now lives in the middle of nowhere on the Oregon Coast. Between grading papers, preparing snacks, playing superheroes, and washing dishes, she scribble in notebooks she has stashed around the house.  

Photo: Melissa Askew | Unsplash

Scared By My Abuelita Amable

Scared By My Abuelita Amable

By Kelly Clem Ruiz

IMG_4270

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

 

Chicomuselo, Mexico, 2009

She was having trouble breathing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One Where My Father Teaches My Kids To Use a Phonebook

The One Where My Father Teaches My Kids To Use a Phonebook

By Francie Arenson Dickman

00000014

My children recount my eighty-four-year-old father’s childhood escapades the same way they do the episodes of Friends. The One Where the Dog Took Pop’s Cookie. The One Where Pops Stole the Truck. And their favorite, The One When Pops Quit Camp Freedom Because They Only Served Bologna Sandwiches. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner, they flung ’em to us out of the back of a truck like we were dogs,” he tells my kids from his kitchen table in Palm Springs, where I take my kids every winter break.

“Do me a favor,” he tells me each year, “stop bringing them here. There’s nothing to do.” If you’ve ever been to Palm Springs in the winter (or any other time of year for that matter) you know that he’s right. There is nothing to do. Which is why my 14-year-old-daughters end up sitting around the breakfast table for hours every morning listening to him tell stories. My father says it’s like putting them in prison, like Camp Freedom itself. There’s no beach. There’s little sun. There are no other kids for miles around and you can’t show up to the table with your smart phone because not everyone at the table has one. My father hasn’t the faintest idea how to work a smart phone. In fact, during our most recent visit, he showed up to the table with a phone book.

“What is that?” My daughter asked after my father dropped perhaps the last remaining Yellow Pages onto the table. We were deciding, as we do every breakfast, where to go for dinner.

“What do you mean, ‘What is this?’ It’s a phonebook.” He opened the book, shoved it in front of my daughters and added, “How else you gonna make a goddamn reservation?”

My girls studied it like it was something out of King Tut’s tomb as my father sat down, took a bite of his bagel and began to impart knowledge on my kids in subjects and in language that they’re not getting in school.

Breakfast, for my father, is a thing. It’s leftover, I suppose, like he is, from a time when folks had nothing better to do on a Sunday morning than sit around the table and tell stories. When I was a kid, he’d get up at the crack of dawn to get the bagels that he and my mother would serve to my grandparents and whichever of my father’s friends came and went during the course of the lazy weekend day. It was the same every winter vacation of my childhood which we spent with my grandparents in Florida. No one had a tee-time or a tennis game to get to. Instead, every morning, we’d sit at a table at the Rascal House Deli where the adults shot-the-shit for hours on end while I watched them chew their bagels and prayed that no one would die.

The same, I’m sure, as my kids do now, as my father huffs and puffs, recovering from the carrying of the phone book. But all the while, they are learning, like I did, despite themselves. From their penance in Palm Springs, they know how to work a dice board, the same way I learned from my time around the table how to smoke a cigar. They know how to drive a car. And we all know how to dance the Charleston.

As my father is the only person they know who doesn’t own a cell phone or have an email address, he is one of the only people my kids know who is 100% present in their presence, 100% of the time. And therefore, so are they in his. They check their phones at the counter, just before the kitchen table where they munch on bacon and fried salami while they listen to his stories, the same ones my brother and I also know by heart. They rely on a regular cast of characters and a predictable plot, that of the underdog overcoming against all odds a series of hardships that tend towards the ridiculous and make his presence at the table nothing shy of a miracle. He is his own serial, a living, breathing situation comedy from which my kids learn (I hope) lessons that I don’t know where they’d learn anywhere else. From the practical—like entertainment need not come from a screen and success need not come from school. To the past—like how FDR ended the depression and the mob created Las Vegas. And for better or worse (there is, after all, The One Where Pops Gets His Mom Out Of Prison), they learn who they are and from where they came, which experts say is important in developing a child’s self esteem and confidence.

So maybe we don’t go zip-lining and we don’t go home with a tan, but in Palm Springs there is no bologna. Only salami and bacon and a perspective that is priceless. Especially now that my kids are teenagers and tend to tune me out. Especially now as their confidence waxes and wanes with the moon, with their identities up for grabs and the pressures of tomorrow upon them. They are, these days, preparing to go to high school, which means making decisions in areas in which they lack the necessary information. What subjects interest them? What activities do they want to do? These decisions domino into bigger ones about where to go to college, and to my anxiety-prone, analytical daughter, they trigger existential ones like, “Will it all turn out okay?” Naturally, they have answers to none of this and their parents’ reassurance carries no weight. But from a survivor of Camp Freedom and everything else, “Take it from me, none of this matters,” is comforting to hear. I can tell from the way they laugh as he talks and they recount throughout the year.

Pops is living proof that there is more than one way to skin a cat, which, in a society ridden with rules and driven by convention and a fear of the road less taken, is a valuable lesson. As valuable as knowing how to use a phonebook. “Just in case those phones or whatever they are stop working,” he explains as he chews his bagel, “you’ll know how to get your hands on a goddamn pizza.”

Author’s Note: I am excited to say that between the time I wrote this piece and now, my father acquired an iPhone. Of course, owning the iPhone and using it are two different things. He is set to start iPhone 101 classes this week. According to my mother, my father says he will attend. However, when asked to comment, he told me only that he is not throwing out his phonebook anytime soon.


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

 

Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship: A Book Review

Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship: A Book Review

Reviewed by Hilary Levey Friedman

Modern Families coverWhere do I come from? Who am I? These are some of the most fundamental questions humans ask themselves. In many cases, the answers have to do with family. But, what, then exactly is a family?

Joshua Gamson tackles these complicated issues in Modern Families, a book about contemporary tales of family creation including adoption, in vitro, surrogacy, and more. Gamson is a sociologist who has previously written books on fame, tabloid talk shows, and sexuality, but this book is far more personal. This is also the story of the creation of his family.

Unlike Mitchell and Cameron on “Modern Family,” the ABC sitcom that inspired the name of the book, Gamson and his husband don’t go through international adoption (though other couples in Modern Families use both domestic and international adoption to create their own modern families). His first daughter, Reba, was conceived using the egg of a friend and the uterus of another friend, what is known as “collaborative reproduction.” His second daughter, Madeleine, was carried by a paid surrogate who liked to refer to herself as a “fetus sitter.” It’s no wonder then that when describing Modern Families Gamson explains, “More broadly, you might read it as an intimate view of the much-remarked-on transformation of family structures, as seen through the experiences of people who have been, out of necessity as much as anything else, making their families up.”

Gamson successfully weaves together the personal and the academic throughout the book. He takes personal stories and situates them in more complicated institutions and social structures. In the Introduction (titled “Impertinent Questions” about the probing questions strangers sometimes ask about how their daughters were “got”) he usefully describes the book as the “love child” of two different types of writing on reproduction.

The first type of writing is what he calls Repro Lit. These personal stories, usually memoirs, double as how-to books and are ultimately celebratory about the process—think Peggy Orenstein’s Waiting for Daisy. Repro Crit on the other hand is more of a buzzkill focusing mainly on institutional structures and the circulation of power within them and how this literally reproduces inequality. Though less well known, a book by the name of Outsourcing the Womb, suggests the tone of this category.

Like Repro Crit Gamson points out forces of inequality throughout (mainly to do with financial issues, but also sometimes social class and cultural knowledge that impacts legal processes), but the narratives are often emotional and triumphant, with some how-to advice thrown in. Gamson details the legal workarounds they used with their surrogates in Kentucky and Massachusetts, and one of the best lines in the book is when he writes that Kentucky had out-liberaled California (where Gamson and his husband live) when they listed “parent” and “parent” on their daughter Madeline’s birth certificate, and not “mother” and “father” like California.

In the end it is the stories we are left with, mainly because there is a little serious research on families like Gamson’s, partly because they are so new. The various stories of family creation told in Modern Families—the struggles and the successes—are quite moving. On multiple occasions while reading I was moved to tears, usually tears of joy. One caution is that while this is a book you can dip into and out of, it can be hard at times to keep all the families and the people who make them up straight (no pun intended) given the multiple families featured.

A lasting theme of Modern Families is: “How extraordinary you are, and yet how ordinary.” While the families profiled here were brought together thanks to various types of technology, often in extraordinary ways, in the end the children and their parents are ordinary. Gamson insightfully writes, “It’s one of the things these family origin stories share with more typical ones: every family story has silences and secrets. More to the point, the farther away you get from the conventional, the less you can fit your story into a familiar script of family creation and the more you’re likely to face disapproval. For those of us who grew up in a culture of disclosure—in which, for instance, coming out is an act of empowerment and Facebook is a verb—becoming parents has posed the jarring challenge of figuring out what not to tell.”

As the extraordinary, yet ordinary, children whose creation stories are relayed here age, they will have the lasting evidence of just how much they were wanted, just how much their parents were willing to tell on social media and beyond to create their own modern families.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She loves all modern families, including her own.

A Q & A with Modern Families author Joshua Gamson

Buy Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship

Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

By Melissa Hart

7f047a9c

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *   *   *

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andrew Pons/unsplash.com

All Mom and No Fun

All Mom and No Fun

By Sharon Holbrook

holbrook3

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Namesake for Nonny

A Namesake for Nonny

By Mimi Sager Yoskowitz

PICT0078

At 32 weeks pregnant, I board a Chicago-bound plane from New York, teary eyed and wary about leaving my husband and traveling this late in my pregnancy. I’m heading back to my hometown to celebrate turning 30 with my high school girlfriends. We planned this getaway before I told anyone I was pregnant, so I never raised my concerns about the timing. But the timing turns out to be a blessing of sorts. My 94-year-old grandma has been in and out of the hospital, and this trip provides me with an opportunity to spend time with her.

Nonny’s apartment in the assisted living facility has a view of Lake Michigan. We stare out at the waters together, and she places her wrinkled hand on my burgeoning belly. Just as she settles in to check for some movement, her future great-grandchild kicks out a giant thwack!

“That’s a boy,” she says chuckling.

“You think so, Nonny? How can you tell?” I can’t help but smile.

“It’s so active.” Her tone is matter-of-fact as she rubs my pregnant middle, seeking out more signs of baby.

“All right Nonny, we’ll find out soon enough.”

I wonder if her old-fashioned stereotype will prove to be true. My husband and I are going the traditional route and not finding out the gender of our baby. And so it will be another few weeks before we know if my grandmother’s prophecy is correct.

After I return to Manhattan, Nonny and I start calling each other more frequently. It’s a mutual check-in; we are each concerned with how the other is faring. It seems that while my baby grows each day, getting ready to enter this world, my grandmother becomes weaker, getting ready to leave it.

“Hello?” Nonny answers the phone.

Cars honk and buses screech in the background as I walk home from work, but her voice still comes through stronger than the last time we spoke. Hopefully that means she is doing OK.

“Hi Nonny. How are you?” I ask.

“Oh, you know, Mimi. I’m waiting. I’m waiting until June 1.”

June 1 is my due date, and soon these words become her standard reply every time I ask how she is feeling. It’s just like Nonny to come up with a clever way of expressing her desire without being too emotional. Her love and determination remain strong, even as her heart weakens.

The special bond I share with my grandma dates back to my infancy when I served as a source of comfort as she grieved my grandfather’s sudden death. There are photos of us snuggling on the couch while she reads to me. Those cozy moments on her lap morphed into shopping excursions, sleepovers, and later, after I graduated from college, evening visits when I’d stop by her apartment after work.

As grandmother and granddaughter, we can do no wrong in each other’s eyes. For both of us, she has to meet her great-grandchild who is growing inside of me.  

On Mother’s Day, my husband and I head to Buy Buy Baby to complete our registry and take one more gander through the mega store that seems to hold all the paraphernalia needed to calm our first-time parent jitters. After combing the aisles filled with every possible stroller, breast pump, burp cloth and car seat known to parent-kind, we hail a taxi and head back home.

“Let’s finalize our boy and girl names and be done with it.” I have my husband cornered in the back of the cab. He’s been avoiding a decision, wanting to wait until we are  closer to the due date. Now I waddle instead of walk, and my belly tightens with Braxton Hicks contractions. It’s time to decide.  

During the course of my pregnancy, our conversations about our baby’s name ranged from calm and funny to heated and frustrating. We’ve combed through multiple baby name books, searched the Internet, and drawn up lists. Our preferences vary from the traditional, like Jacob, to the more modern, such as Talia. We discuss naming the baby for the grandparents we have lost, though I’m too superstitious to even consider naming for Nonny. At this point, it’s been weeks since we last broached the subject in any way. But something about that taxi ride seems to do the trick. By the time we arrive at our apartment building, our soon-to-be born baby has a name.

Once upstairs and giddy about our choices, I call Nonny to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. She can’t get to the phone, her caretaker tells me she is sleeping, but I should try again later. For some reason or another, I never do.

My father’s phone call wakes me the next morning.

“She didn’t make it.”

My friend who lives one floor below tells me she heard my wails through the walls.

I beg my doctor to let me go to Chicago for Nonny’s funeral.

“You can’t travel at this late stage of your pregnancy,” she tells me.

We’re too close to that June 1 due date Nonny was trying so hard to reach.

Jewish custom calls for mourners to bury the deceased using a reversed shovel until a mound of dirt forms on the casket. Since I can’t be there in person to say good-bye, my pen acts as the reversed shovel, and my words are the dirt I use to help lay my grandma to rest. My brother reads the eulogy on my behalf, and I listen in from my Manhattan apartment, my cell phone on speaker. It isn’t the same as being there, not nearly, but I hope I’ve given all those gathered a sense of how much Nonny meant to me.

Nonny’s name was Cecelia, though she went by Cel for short. After her funeral, my husband and I toss out the names we finalized on Mother’s Day and come up with a different list of names that begin with “C.” Nonny didn’t make it to see the baby, but my first-born child will be her namesake.

Up until delivery, I debate whether I can name a girl directly for Nonny or if the pain of her loss is too raw for me to call someone else Cecelia, even my own child. But we do choose a boy name, Caleb, which means bold and devoted, two traits my grandmother embodied. She was brave attending law school in the early 1930’s, one of only two women in her class. She was brave when she wed my grandfather in secret at the age of 23. As a medical resident, he was not allowed to be married, but their love transcended the rules. Nonny remained devoted to him up until her last breath, and she always put family first.

It turns out Nonny also was good at predictions. Four days after my original due date, I give birth to a baby boy. Though they won’t ever meet, Nonny and her great-grandson will always be connected by their names that start with the letter “C.”

Mimi Sager Yoskowitz, a former CNN producer, is now a mother to four children ages 10 to 4.  Her writing can be found on Kveller.com, the 2016 “28 Days of Play” series, in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me, and on her blog, http://mimisager.com.

Mourning Alone

Mourning Alone

By Marcelle Soviero

9e32df2d

“I don’t want to watch Grammy die,” my son said as he got out of the car, dirt-dusted from his afternoon baseball game.

“I know you don’t buddy.” I took his hand and we walked into the house. “But Grammy had a good life. Ninety-two years is a long life.” My ex-husband Larry’s mother was now in hospice care in Chicago, halfway across the country, and Larry wanted the children to be able to have their last good-byes.

I gathered my three children, Johnny, Olivia and Sophia, ages 9, 10 and 11, into the living room; I got a good look at the three of them seated in a row on the couch, each face punctuated with worry. Tear dots on Olivia’s cheeks.

My ex-husband Larry would be here in an hour to go to the airport. Though I had been divorced eight years, I had long adored my mother-in-law, and I was sad of course, but perhaps even more anxious than sad. I was unraveling knowing I would not be a part of what would be my children’s first attendance at a funeral. But this isn’t about me, I thought. Then again, somehow it was. This would be a major event in my children’s life, their first experience with a death, besides our family pet, and I would not be there.

I had asked Larry if I should go, but I knew I would not, our divorce had been court-worthy contentious, and we still spoke only if we had to. No, we would not fly as if a family to Chicago, instead the children would have their father—a no doubt distracted father—to care and console them. Who would really watch the children on the plane?

But it was more than this. Larry did not believe in a heaven of any sort; our misshapen souls do not rise. I knew matter-of-fact answers would be the only consolation offered from father to child—the details of the aorta, collapsed ventricles and how blood circulates through the body. I knew this because just after Larry and I married, my father had died young of heart failure. Mourning his death was made harder by the fact that Larry would not support speculation on an afterlife, while heaven was the only concept that was helping me through it. After a few weeks, Larry had told a tortured me that I needed to move on. I knew then that the marriage would end, not then, but soon.

“It will be hard to say goodbye to Grammy,” I said to the kids now believing each sentence I spoke would invite more questions in their minds. Perhaps I was hoping for that. Evoking questions and memories so they could mourn with me in advance. I knew Larry would get through it, his coping mechanism would be to intellectualize the death.

“She’ll die and we will never see her again?” Johnny said.

“That’s right, but she had a good long life.”

“Will Daddy be busy being sad?” Olivia asked.

“Yes,” I said, “But he will be OK I promise.”

Johnny twirled the fringe on the couch pillow. I sifted my words, deliberately dumbing them down in an effort to explain the unexplainable.

“I believe in heaven,” I said. “Your father may think differently and that is OK. You can believe what you want to believe.” I went on and on, this would be my only chance to ever tell my side of the heaven story. “Every time you think of Grammy she will be alive again in your memory.”

The concept of heaven wasn’t an entirely new idea for my children, we’d lost our dog years back, which had required some explanation on my part. I was able to persuade Larry then that the children did not have to hear the clinical aspects of how our dog died.  

“Grammy will be watching you from another place, she will see you grow. She will watch over you, you’ll talk with her in your mind, not face to face.”

“I love Grammy,” Johnny said.

“Me too buddy,” I said. Then I surprised myself by taking out every cliché I had in my purse—This is for the best, Grammy will be at peace soon—until I was clichéd out.

Larry came to get the kids at 6:00. Again came the clichés, I was so sorry she was nearing the end. How could I help? Polite conversation, then me escorting the children gently to the car, remembering every other time I piled them into the car to see Larry on his weekends.

The Jeep etched out of the driveway, and I went back inside. I cried anticipating the sadness my children would carry witnessing their grandmother’s death. I cried finally too for my mother-in-law. She was a charming character with good intentions, our only contentious moments being my decision not to breastfeed any of her grandchildren, and my decision to divorce her son. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to him,” she once said, my first and only Jewish mother.

An hour later Sophia texted me. They were at the airport—Grammy died. They had not yet boarded the plane. Neither they or Larry would have a chance for that one last visit.

I clenched my hands, which had already begun to sweat, the kids would not get to say goodbye to Grammy after all. I selfishly consoled myself with thoughts that their grief would be closer to home, closer to me now. Grammy was from New York, the services would be here so they would not board a flight and mourn across the country.

The next day Larry texted the particulars. The services would be on Wednesday.  

Nine-year-old Johnny got on the phone next with questions.

“Yes honey, the funeral will be in two days, on Wednesday,” I said.

“Did Grammy go to heaven already or will she go on Wednesday?” he asked.

 

Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child Magazine. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Gary Rockett /unsplash.com

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

By Jennifer Palmer

I recently found an image of my husband’s grandmother stashed away, hidden on some forgotten corner of my hard drive. I was purging; after years of simply dragging and dropping files from my camera to my computer without bothering to sort, I had many gigabytes of mediocre pictures needing to find a home in the recycle bin. I was flipping through old memories quickly—next, delete, next, delete—when this particular image jumped out at me, gave me a moment’s pause. It is not good in any technical or artistic sense; the light was dim and I did not use a flash and so the image is grainy, the faces blurred ever so slightly. It should not have survived my sweep, and yet it held my attention, demanded my contemplation. I did not delete it.

The photo was taken six years ago, when Grandmommy was in her early eighties. In it, she is hunched, bent slightly at the waist. Her poor posture is not due to age, though that would certainly be a reasonable excuse; after eight decades on this Earth, one earns the right to stoop. No, she leans forward for an obvious purpose: she has a hold of two of her great-grandchildren, cousins of mine, one small hand clasped in each of her own. The kids are young. The girl sports the holey grin of one recently visited by the tooth fairy; the boy is barely past the age of diapers. Grandmommy’s eyebrows are raised, her mouth open with a hint of a smile, her face forming that expression of excitement and fun adults so often assume when indulging a child they love. They form a circle, two blonde heads and one gray.

Image00002

Other photos in the series offer a fuller explanation of what is happening: in one, the three of them are walking in a circle, in another, they’re seated on the floor. Or rather, the kids are. Grandmommy is bent nearly double, feet still planted, her hands touching the ground so that the human chain remains intact. Ring around the rosy, then, played together while waiting for supper to be served. A children’s game, reserved for those who are very young and those who are young at heart, captured in a moment of pure innocence. The participants are unaware of the camera, unaware of the bustle of food preparation in the background, unaware of anything, really, except each other and the circle they form.

Image00001

This is a group of images worth keeping, worth sharing.

My hard drive is home to another group of images worth sharing, this set more carefully taken, more lovingly preserved. Five and a half years after the ring around the rosy series, it is now 2014, and, though you can’t tell from the photographs, the intervening half decade has not been kind to Grandmommy. Age has taken its toll. Dementia has set in, devouring memories and leaving nothing but confusion in its wake. A fall and resulting broken hip have made mobility for Grandmommy more of a challenge. But the woman in the photographs does not look much different from the one who played with her great-grandchildren a few years earlier. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think no time has passed at all.

Grandmommy sits in a rocking chair in the corner of a room, the walls behind her a pale green hue found only in hospitals. She holds the tiniest of swaddled bundles in her lap—my daughter, just two days old. There are many photographs of the two of them together, taken one after another; a moment such as this, the meeting of one so very young and one so very old, does not happen every day. Most of the images depict what you might expect from such a moment. The baby lies in Grandmommy’s arms, asleep, oblivious to the world around her. Grandmommy’s head tilts downward, her gaze fixed on her great-granddaughter’s face. The scene is one of tranquility, of peace, of wonder.

My favorite photo in the series, however, is the first—the only one in which Grandmommy is not looking at the baby at all. Instead, she looks up and out of the frame, as if at someone who didn’t make it into the shot. Her mouth tips up in a grin, her eyes alight with an unspoken question, and her hands wrap protectively around the little one in her lap. She is a young child clasping some precious treasure, an heirloom doll, perhaps, or an antique rattle, something far too special for her to hold. She impishly begs an older and wiser adult if she can keep it. The Grandmommy in the photograph does not seem to remember she has difficulty walking, or that her memory is fading, and she is no longer able to care for an infant, even for an hour. She cannot recall the work involved in changing diapers, in middle-of-the-night feedings. She has forgotten much, but the look in her eyes implies that she remembers this, at least: that children are precious, that the world is a fascinating place, that there is plenty in our lives that is worthy of reverence.

DCM_5348

I have other photographs of her, of course, images with her beside Granddaddy at his 90th birthday celebration; of her reading a picture book to a great-grandson, the younger sibling of those who played ring-around-the-rosy; of her wearing a paper headdress clearly fashioned by young hands, made for fun from a child’s imagination and worn out of a great-grandmother’s love. But these two groups of pictures—of her playing ring around the rosy, of her delighted with the baby in her arms—embody Grandmommy to me more than the others. Gracious, gentle, kind. A lover of children. An observer of the world, not afraid to lose herself in wonder.

Grandmommy passed away this week. I did not know her as well as I wish I had, to my shame and regret. Feeble though the excuse sounds in my ears now, modern life got in the way with all of its distraction and obligation, and kept me from making the time I should have made. Still, even as she aged and her memories slipped away, the core of who she was remained true. These photographs, moments frozen in time, were taken when she was unaware she was being watched, when her defenses and masks were stripped away. They capture this woman, reveal her heart and her spirit to those who will take the time to look. Until her final days, she maintained her fascination with the world and her love for children and babies. Though befuddled and confused, she remained cordial and loving, becoming ever more childlike in her wonder for the smallest things and people around her. Though she is gone now, the images remain, a testament to who she was, to the treasure hidden beneath the surface.

Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Author’s Note: Grandmommy passed away on January 15, 2015, and I wrote this piece shortly thereafter. Though the emotions surrounding her death are no longer fresh, the traits I highlighted here stand out ever more clearly in my memories of her. I hope that who I am at the core, when everything else is stripped away, will be as kind and gentle and loving as Grandmommy was. It seems fitting, somehow, to honor her memory with this essay, one year later, and I’m grateful to Brain, Child for including me in their grandparent blog series.

Jennifer Palmer lives in Northern California with her husband and daughter. Her essays have appeared online at Mamalode, Good Housekeeping, and Brain, Child. She writes about finding the beauty in everyday life at Choosing This Moment

I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

By Patrice Gopo

128064446

On the two-hour drive to my sister’s house, I tell my older daughter about the time my grandmother slaughtered my pet chicken. My husband’s hands hold the steering wheel, and my toddler sleeps with her cheek pressed against her car seat. But my six-year-old focuses on the story about the woman we will soon see sitting on the couch in my sister’s home.

“A family friend gave your auntie and me a chicken,” I tell my daughter. I then explain how one day when my sister and I were away at school, my grandmother walked with her machete to the makeshift coop in our backyard. She grabbed the chicken and chopped off its head.

“Then Gong Gong cooked it for dinner,” my daughter adds using the same name my grandmother called her own grandmother long ago in rural Jamaica. My daughter has heard the story before, and she doesn’t flinch at the chicken’s beheading.

“Yes, Gong Gong made a curry out of it.” I chuckle at the thought of my grandmother’s no-nonsense behavior. Her life in rural Jamaica happened decades before I was born, far from the suburban American neighborhood where I grew up. I imagine she struggled to believe that a chicken was supposed to be a pet. I can also imagine that an activity like slaughtering a chicken must be similar to riding a bicycle. Even if decades have passed since one last killed an animal, a person can’t forget the way the hand holds the feathered body. Or the way the opposite hand grasps the smooth, wooden handle of the machete.

Except a person can forget, and I think my grandmother has forgotten.

*   *   *

When I was about eight and my grandmother a bit past 60, she called her daughter-in-law—my mother—and said she was going to retire and come help my parents care for my sister and me. She left New York City, her home since leaving Jamaica, and came to Anchorage, Alaska, the place my parents settled after my father’s time in the military. With two working parents in our home, my grandmother shouldered many duties, easing the strains of managing life. She walked my sister and me to the bus stop and was there when we came home in the afternoon. What I remember most, though, is the way her hands spent their days in a whirlwind of motion: holding the handle of a hot iron as she pressed my father’s work shirts, twirling a wooden spoon while she stirred substances in great cast iron pots, hovering over a vegetable garden plucking weeds. Even in rest, she sat with word search puzzles in her lap, a pencil in her hand, making quick circles around the found words.

The color of my grandmother’s hands is brown like mine but with a tint of sunlight. These days she sits with those golden hands folded in her lap, no longer twitching or looking for something to make the fingers move. Now she doesn’t long for pulling weeds in a garden. And if my daughter had a chicken, her Gong Gong wouldn’t remember the steps to transform the pet into a fragrant curry dinner.

Why does the brain do this? When the brain decides to forget, to carve out gaps in memory, why does it leave the hands idle?

Once upon a time my grandmother came to help my parents care for their children. Now the years have passed and the roles have changed. My grandmother lives with my sister who helps her get ready in the morning, reminds her to take her medicine, and offers her more water to drink. From time to time, my sister even wipes my grandmother’s tears away when she remembers how much she forgets.

My older daughter was in preschool when my grandmother came to live with my sister. In those early months my sister and I talked about the similarities in our caretaking roles. The overlap as we both cajoled others to eat or go bathe or both.

As time has passed, though, I have watched my daughter develop greater independence and shoulder her own responsibilities. And my sister has watched the eager help my grandmother’s hands once offered diminish. Instead my grandmother sinks into the couch while the sounds of old television shows fill the living room and transport her to the past.

*   *   *

At the end of our drive, my sister answers my daughters’ pounding fists, and my girls leap through the front door. A dance of hugs ensues, and my grandmother rises from her spot on the couch. Her smile is wide across her face, and I know my sister will tell me later that Grandma had a good day because we came to visit.

“TC,” my grandmother says, standing in front of me with her hands pressed against my shoulders. She stares at me, her eyes a soft sparkle. I smile at her use of my old nickname. She stares a moment longer before adding, “It’s been so long since I last saw you. So long.” Her hands drop from my shoulders, and her arms curl around my waist, bringing me into a hug.

“Yes, Grandma, it’s been so long,” I say to her just like I said last month.

In the kitchen, my oldest daughter says to her aunt, “Gong Gong asks the same questions again and again.” I hear silence and know my sister pauses, taking a moment to gather her words. I’m glad my family lives close enough that we can make this trip often. There is a sweet joy that comes when I watch my grandmother’s face brighten at the appearance of my daughters. Even more I think of the lessons of life, love, and family my daughters discover during these times.

“She asks the same thing over and over,” I hear my daughter say again.

“Yes,” my sister explains. “Gong Gong’s brain is sick. She has a hard time remembering things.”

My daughter accepts this answer. Later, when we all are leaving a museum and walking down the sidewalk to the parking lot, I hear my daughter call, “Wait, Mommy. Don’t forget Gong Gong.” I turn and see my grandmother lagging behind.

While there are no guarantees about what the mind will do in the future, today I don’t forget. I tell my daughter about my grandmother’s hands that were once in constant motion. I pour over my daughter stories my grandmother no longer remembers. Perhaps one day my grandchild will speak to her daughter the stories I no longer remember.

Now, though, I stare up the sidewalk at the generation ahead of me and the generation behind. “I’m coming, Gong Gong,” my daughter says. She runs back and slides her smooth fingers into her great-grandmother’s wrinkled hand. I watch them, linked together by laced palms, walking toward the rest of their family.

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

How to Wake Up a Teenager on Vacation, in 16 Easy Steps

How to Wake Up a Teenager on Vacation, in 16 Easy Steps

By Rachel Pieh Jones

art-mom-and-teen-on-water

When the twins were young, I thought they would never sleep. Or never at the same time and never at the time I also wanted to sleep. Now our trouble is the exact opposite. My twin teenagers go to school for three months and then have a month break. By the time that break comes, they are exhausted and all they seem to want to do is sleep and eat.

So, to ensure the teens participate in our family activities even while on vacation or to get them to their jobs on time or to simply see them during daylight hours, I’ve had to take drastic measures. I have employed a variety of methods and they always end with me laughing, the kid groaning, and Mom emerging as victorious.

Here, I pass these suggestions on to other parents, also desperate to see their teens open-eyed before noon:

Preamble: In between each step, wait five to ten minutes. Always knock before entering the room. Even though they are probably still sleeping, you just never know and should respect their privacy. Remember, their brain chemistry is undergoing some serious hormonal onslaughts and they do need inordinate amounts of sleep. Remember also that they are working hard at school, enduring the stress of the teenage social world. It might help to have breakfast (or lunch, depending on the hour) already on the table so they can just stumble from bed to chair. This list builds upon itself, so each additional step is performed on top of the preceding steps.

After step 3, you will begin entering the room but you have performed the required knock several times by now, so feel free.

It is vital to remember that each step must be enacted with love, affection, and the teens ultimate best interest in mind.

I skipped some earlier steps which seemed self-evident and which I also employ before launching the following onslaught. These could include things like setting alarm clocks (my son sets five and misses them all), simply knocking on the door and saying, “Time to get up,” gently rubbing their back or leg or arm and reminding them of the day’s obligations, and sending younger siblings in to do the job for us. When/if these fail…

1. Pound on the door. I mean pound, full-fisted, make it rattle.

2. Shout, “Time to wake up. Time to wake up. Time to wake up.” 

3. Add the loudest rooster crow you can muster.

4. (You are now in the room) Shake their shoulder and say, “Good morning.”

5. Yank the pillow out from under their head and say, less gently, “Good morning.”

6. With great gusto, whip away their sheet or blanket.

7. Start hitting them (gently) with the pillow and with each tap say, “Up. Up. Up.”

8. Flick their ears repeatedly. Alternating ears is helpful but not required.

9. Flick other parts of their body: head, back, chest. Or tapping, tapping can also prove effective.

10. Pull arm hair. Pull leg hair. Stay clear of the armpit air.

11. Plug their nose so they are forced to breathe out of their mouth but back up quickly or turn your head away when that mouth exhales.

12. Crow like a rooster (yes, again), while performing karate on their back or chest (you know I mean to do this gently but firmly, right?)

13. Pull them by one arm out of bed. This will only leave them asleep on the floor but they are now a few feet closer to the shower, consider that time saved later.

14. Threaten to record this whole ordeal (which has taken over an hour and can replace your aerobics routine for the day) and offer to post it on YouTube and Instagram.

15. Say all kinds of wonderful things about yourself, like what a great mother you are, how good-looking and smart and creative you are, something about your awesome sense of humor and ability to relate to younger generations. Move their heads up and down in agreement. Record this as well and threaten to post it.

16. And last but not least, ice cubes. They never fail.

In my experience, the only method that produces my desired result is #16 but I just can’t bring myself to start there. The result probably won’t be what you are really aiming at—an alert, up and about, teenager but it does result in opened eyes and verbal acknowledgment of what an annoying mother you are. I consider that: mission accomplished.

Though, on second thought, I have yet to follow-through with the YouTube threat. That might be a pretty effective method if I did it just once. The dread of such shame could be enough to get those sleepy teens out of bed.

Now if these methods would only be so effective in getting them to do their homework…

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.

Purchase Brain Teen: The Magazine for Thinking Parents

Illustration: gettyimages.com

Save

Until It Bleeds Like We Do

Until It Bleeds Like We Do

By Caroline Horwitz

photo-1422422153408-a3298d6d542c

My scream joined the chorus of every woman who has unwillingly lost the life inside her. 

 

The nurse in purple scrubs walks me to an examination room and asks a third time if I’ve provided them with a urine sample. I affirm that I have. “Sorry,” she says in response to her forgetfulness. “There are five of you in here today all with the same complaint, and you start to run together after a while.”

My complaint is that I’m experiencing heavy vaginal bleeding. This is significant because I am—I was—pregnant. I take the nurse’s flippant words to mean the other four women are too. Five female bodies in this silent, sterile place, simultaneously and involuntarily expelling their embryos and fetuses. But that’s not what we call them: Babies. I lost the baby.

An hour before, a young man in fatigues checked me into the Air Force base hospital where my family received all of our healthcare—even after six years of marriage to a service member, I still registered the peculiarity of seeing camouflage and combat boots in lieu of white coats.         

“What’s going on?” he asked, a hand on his computer mouse.     

I cleared my throat. I had no illusions about what was coming out of me. I was, until early this morning, six weeks and five days along. “I just had a miscarriage.” My voice dropped and quavered on the M-word.        

“Sorry, a what?” He leaned forward.    

I jostled my sunglasses onto my face to hide the tears threatening to form. “A miscarriage.”

“Oh,” he said, and seemed on the verge of sympathy or an apology but began typing. “And this has been confirmed?”       

“Not yet,” I said. “But what I saw was pretty definitive.”   

It was. I didn’t need to frantically pull down my striped pajama shorts that morning to know what I would find in them after feeling a forceful surge of fluid. But I did anyway, and when I saw the vast amount of clumpy blood, I was neither surprised nor consolable.

The visceral roar emanating from my lungs was not mine alone. My scream joined the chorus of every woman who has unwillingly lost the life inside her. The millions rage and sob, trying to stab the air with our cries until it bleeds like we do. Then we stand up, take a shower, and go to the hospital.  

Hours later, all that’s left to accomplish at the ER—after a blood draw, abdominal ultrasound, transvaginal ultrasound, and pelvic exam—is the out-processing paperwork, so I reassure my husband that he can leave to pick up our son from daycare on time and return for me afterward. I am relieved to be departing this place of invasive procedures that concluded what I already knew.

My tears are gone for now. I stoically buy a coffee (Hey, I can have caffeine, I think) and wait for the car at a picnic table beneath a swaying line of trees. Air Force jets blast the sky above, setting off rogue car alarms here and there. The noise does not annoy me. It’s pleasing. They’re screaming for me.

Soul singer Merry Clayton recorded vocals with The Rolling Stones for their 1969 track “Gimme Shelter.” Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away, she belts. The fervor of her voice reaches such climactic proportions that it cracks twice. She was pregnant. On her way home from the recording, she miscarried. She wondered later if the overexertion of her singing could have caused it.

That’s what you do, even if you know that most early miscarriages occur because of a chromosomal abnormality or incompatibility with life or one missed step of the many required in the fertilization process. You wonder if it was the flight you took across the country, the frequent lifting of your twenty-five-pound toddler, the pre-knowledge beer you didn’t even finish while stargazing in Bryce Canyon. You do it because blaming yourself is what mothers do, no matter how short-lived the motherhood.

“Gimme Shelter” is the first track on its album, Let It Bleed. Decades later, rock journalist Gavin Edwards raved about the album’s sound, asserting that “…the Stones made sure you went home covered in blood.” Merry Clayton did.

The day after the loss, I wandered out the back of my house to the patio and discovered on the table the remains of what had been a relaxing morning: a half-drunk mug of decaf and an opened first edition of Joyce Carol Oates stories I’d purchased the month before from a used bookshop in Ojai, California. The city where, if my menstrual-cycle math was correct, I had gotten pregnant. I was clutching, and promptly abandoned, both of these artifacts when I felt the blood, but they awaited me like stains.

It wouldn’t take long for my fertility to return, I was told. There was no way to tell when or if I’d get pregnant again, of course, but I would most likely ovulate within two to four weeks. I wanted to hear this, yes. We had planned this pregnancy. We wanted a second child. Rules were less stringent nowadays for complete, uncomplicated miscarriages like mine, so we didn’t require a waiting period. Yet it seemed cruel of my body. Two weeks? A new egg might arrive as soon as that, when someone who was attempting to grow into a child was just there? My body would not grieve, I realized. It was a landlord eager to move a new renter into an empty apartment, even though the last tenant recently died there. I, on the other hand, despite being aware of the pregnancy for only two weeks, will be cognizant of its loss for the rest of my life, no matter how swiftly I accept it.

If I get pregnant again, I won’t expect another miscarriage. The odds of having a subsequent one are low in women with no previous reproductive problems. It happened last time, therefore, it won’t happen again, I will reason.

If I get pregnant again, I will expect another miscarriage. Someone has to be on the losing end of the odds. My last pregnancy ended in a red gush, so why wouldn’t the next one? It happened last time, therefore, it will happen again, I will reason.
Caroline Horwitz lives in Las Vegas with her husband and son. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Animal, bioStories, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mothers Always Write, and The Summerset Review, and is forthcoming in the anthology My Mom Body: Reflections on Body Image and Motherhood from Monkey Star Press.

Photo: Kien Do | Unsplash

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

By Sara Ackerman

165046770

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: gettyimages.com

New Year, New Gear: Moving to Airplane Mode?

New Year, New Gear: Moving to Airplane Mode?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Girl held aloft flyingshould parent like my kids’ iPhones are now set, on airplane mode, instead of reacting, even if only internally, to every issue that rolls in.

 

We are en route to visit my family in California. A mother and her infant sit a row ahead and across from me. As she takes out a bottle and a burp cloth, I smugly take out my notebook and pen and prepare, from my place above the Plains, to write something rich for my final essay of the year.

However, as I put pen to paper, commotion comes from across the way. Not from row 8 with the well-behaved infant, but from the one behind it, seats 9A and 9B, the row with my 14-year-old girls.

The mother of the infant looks back with judgment as the daughter in 9A swears at her computer because, I soon gather, her movie didn’t download and now she has nothing to do but—dare I say it—read. In addition, I learn when I lean over, the Afrin isn’t working for the daughter in 9B, who has a cold. To help with the stuffiness, 9B is chewing gum and the chewing is driving 9A, already distraught due to the download failure and, the real issue, the fear that she failed to make the school musical, bonkers. In all my planning, I realize, I overlooked the reality that in addition to the notebook and computers, we also took ourselves.

9B blows her nose and announces that while her movie is functioning, her earphones hurt her clogged ears too much to listen.

Then 9A hollers over 9B to me in seat 9C, “Do you think I’ll make it?”

I say, “I think so,” to appease my daughter as much as the horrified mother in 8B. I feel like explaining to her that we are not concerned with 9A’s actual survival, she simply auditioned for the school musical earlier in the week and will, upon landing, find out whether or not she made it. For several reasons, the odds are stacked against her and so in my daughter’s adolescent, all-or-nothing view of life—a view which her sleeping baby will have someday—9A’s future hangs in the balance as we fly. But of course, I say nothing. Instead, I long for my husband’s window seat as I hold my breath and hope that we survive everything from the flight to the musical to the rest of our lives.

As it seems I’ve been doing all year. I lived the past year like we now are flying, minute by minute, holding my breath. I’m not only referring to the real kind of breath holding that comes with, say, waiting for biopsy results, but the maternal kind of breath holding, the kind that comes from shuttling folks through the angst of adolescence. The year was characterized by crises that mandated my repetition of the line, “In 2 weeks, will you remember this?” A bad grade. A bad pimple. A bad exchange with a friend. And currently, a bad audition. But though it’s been minute by minute, two weeks at a time, 52 weeks have suddenly passed, and I, suspended in air, stare at the baby in 8B and wonder when it was that the ones in 9A and 9B grew up. I’m sure I’m not the first to say that time with teenagers is no different than time with infants; the years pass quickly though the minutes drag on.

And on. We have an hour and 45 of them left in this flight. 9A is saying something again about the musical but the good news is that my ears are now clogged. I can’t hear, so I do what I rarely do, I shrug my shoulders and turn away, which is, I suppose, the strategy I should always use. I should parent like my kids’ iPhones are now set, on airplane mode, instead of reacting, even if only internally, to every issue that rolls in. I don’t need to be high in the sky to see the big picture. I’m well aware that the school musical crisis is only a matter of the moment. Just as I know that as 2015 rolls into ’16 and 14-years-old turns to 15, the conveyor belt of crises is only going to move faster and the shelf-life of my daughters’ issues will extend. I see what’s coming down the pike. I have a girlfriend whose daughter is dealing with high school finals and heartbreak. I have a mother whose daughter (me) dealt with breast cancer. So do yourself a favor, I want to tell the mother in 8B, train yourself now to take it down a notch. Put yourself on airplane mode, you’ll extend the life of your battery.

Previous generations of parents tuned out all of the time. When my mother, back in 1950, told her mother that she had no clean underwear for school, her mother told her that she didn’t need any because it was warm outside, then she went back to sleep. When, back in 1976, I cried at my birthday party because I wasn’t happy with my gifts (in fairness, I received about six or seven of the same very girly tube-tops), my mother sent me to my room and continued the party without me. Yet, we grew up fine. Well, maybe not fine, but good enough.

And guess what? Good enough might just be the new gold standard. In his article, “The Good Enough Parent is the Best Parent,” published on December 22, 2015 in Psychology Today, Psychiatrist Peter Gray, says good enough should be the goal. His basic message to parents is chill out. Even if you mess up, even if your children struggle, all will be okay.

So, for the new year, I resolve to get on trend and adjust my settings.

Though I see already that it’ll be hard to teach an old(er) mom new tricks. With 30 minutes left in our flight, with 9B still obsessing about the musical and 9A still complaining about her ear, the mom in 9C does what no good enough parent would ever do, she hands the paper and pen with which she planned to write her essay to her kids and tells them to, “Do something productive.” Surprisingly, they listen. They use the paper to make a list of the things they want to do on vacation, which they hang in my parents’ kitchen. As the days go by, my girls cross off goals as they accomplish them. Including 9B’s goal to make the musical. She’s part of the ensemble, it turns out. She’s doesn’t have lines but she gets to dance. She is happy. “It’s good enough,” she tells me.

I tell her that good enough is, in fact, the goal.


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

Save

A Military Mother, and Christmas Day in Afghanistan

A Military Mother, and Christmas Day in Afghanistan

By Mary O’Brien

IMG_0274

Not everyone considers a promotion in the military cause for celebration—it often comes with an inevitable relocation. After seven moves, my 13-year-old daughter knows all the signs leading up to moving. She brings it up every chance she can. What are your options? Where will they send you? When will we know? If Dad retires, can we stay here in Maryland? If you move somewhere boring, like Texas, I don’t want to leave. I like our new house, my school, my basketball team. I’ll only move if you go somewhere cool, like Europe, Japan or Korea.

This go around, I get the news shortly before Christmas, but we decide to wait until mid-January to tell the kids. We choose the sunporch, the most cheerful place in the house we bought seven months earlier, when I saw retirement on the horizon. We used to go to a favorite pizza place to break this kind of news but can’t anymore because both kids learned that pizza restaurants mean family discussions regarding new assignments. The last two family discussions broke the news that my husband and I were being sent in different directions. We’ve been stationed apart ten of the last fifteen years.

I tell my daughter she was right—I’ll have a new job in the spring. Before I can finish, she asks “Is it overseas?” I pause a moment, not expecting her to ask about the overseas options, and say yes. Bursting into tears, she tells me, “I thought I wanted to go, but I don’t want to move.” I try to talk over her sobbing, “You aren’t going—I’m going to Afghanistan and you’re all staying here.” Her crying stops immediately. Embarrassed, she admits being relieved, but immediately feels guilty for being happy that I’m going to a war zone. They all know how deployments work. My husband spent a year in Helmand while the rest of us were stationed in the United Kingdom, meeting him in Germany to ski on his two week mid-tour leave.

Once we break the news, both kids promptly go back to their own worlds; to them, I suppose, five months until my departure seems a lifetime away. Occasionally, there’s a glimpse of concern behind their denial. After I make white chicken chili, a particularly favorite meal, my son asks my husband “Do you know where mom keeps her recipes?” Which reminds me, I have to share the kids’ practice schedules and game locations with my husband.

One morning in May shortly before my deployment, I laugh at my son’s comment about only being able to picture me sitting behind a computer when I announce I’m going to the shooting range to requalify on the 9mm. He can’t imagine me carrying a weapon, even if it’s just the small handgun that officers carry. “Contrary to popular belief around here, the Air Force is a branch of the military,” I respond. Soon after, I add my departing flight information to our family Google calendar and note the possible conflict with my son’s lacrosse game. “I can do both,” I tell him, hoping I can keep my promise. We drive to the airport in my minivan after his game and I feel a little guilty standing in the long line with my family. Other deployers who don’t live in Maryland already said goodbye to their families days ago and won’t get any more hugs tonight. My husband keeps the mood light and they all manage big smiles for the last photo at the airport—the kids on either side of me in my scratchy Army multicams.

In Afghanistan, tears creep out of the corners of my eyes every Sunday in the dusty base chapel, the only time I allow myself to admit just how much I miss my family. I’m the senior military woman in Kabul, and possibly all of Afghanistan—showing weakness is not in my job description. I follow the guidance I’ve given to many new military mothers I’ve mentored over my career. Limit the photos on your desk—a family portrait and one individual shot of each child. Too many cutesy photos and the men (and some women) won’t take you seriously. My husband and I are both in uniform in my carefully chosen family photo. My way of saying our whole family is “all in.”

The days turn to weeks, weeks to months. I try unsuccessfully to set up predictable times to call home. The 9 ½ hour time difference, my long hours on duty and the kids’ busy after-school schedules make it impossible. High school basketball tryouts are underway so I rummage through the stack of greeting cards I picked out before coming to Kabul. “You won’t be able to get anything good over there,” a friend told me. Taking her advice, I spent an hour in the Hallmark store picking out a “Congratulations” card, then decided I didn’t want to risk jinxing my daughter, so added a “Don’t Give Up” encouragement card. Remembering her sprained ankle from 8th grade, I threw in a “Get Well Soon” card for good measure. She makes varsity; she’s elated, and I promptly mail the “Congratulations” card with its handwritten “FREE MAIL” where the stamp normally goes. Knowing by then that the card will take at least three weeks to arrive, I use the Internet to send flowers overnight, too.

Surprise and disappointment set in when I realize our FaceTime calls are too hard for my son. He’s never been able to say good-bye. I ask my husband to stop coaxing him into the room when I call. I’ll wait until he asks to talk to me, which isn’t often. I’m thrilled by the rare text from him—”hi mom I lost that molar.” I accidentally discover that he’ll talk to me longer if I catch him home alone when my husband drives my daughter to basketball practice. I try to synchronize my work schedule and the time difference to take advantage of these moments. When my boss tasks me to attend multiple long-winded PowerPoint briefings about the possible reduction of troops in Afghanistan, I try unsuccessfully to hide my grumpiness as I see the rare opportunities to talk to my son slipping away.

My favorite aunt vows to make this Christmas special, but privately shares with me that my son has convinced himself that I am going to surprise everyone by coming home for Christmas unannounced, just like all those military reunion stories on Facebook and YouTube. I’d like to say that I despise everyone who has ever had anything to do with these videos, but actually I’m also envious.

On Christmas Day in Afghanistan, I wake up at 4:30 a.m. to hear my son play Christmas carols on his saxophone for all my relatives. It’s still Christmas Eve in Maine. Everyone can see me on the iPad placed on a chair in the center of the room and I’m mildly embarrassed that I’m still in my pajamas with messy hair and puffy eyes. My son opens with “Blue Christmas” in my honor and my heart breaks all over again. They sing along to “Deck the Halls” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.” He’s sounds really good and I’m surprised by the noticeable improvement in only six months of middle school concert band. “I take requests,” he boasts proudly. I’m amazed at this new confidence—what else will happen this year—and I request “Silent Night.” I hide a few tears as he plays it perfectly.

Mary O’Brien has more than 26 years of Air Force service and was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan from June 2014 to May 2015. She is currently stationed in Maryland with her husband—a retired Marine, 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. She hasn’t missed a basketball game this season.

What the Photographer Saw in My Special Needs Child

What the Photographer Saw in My Special Needs Child

By Marilyn Maloney

Maloney1

When my daughter was born, she was perfect. She had blue eyes like sparkling pools, dimpled cheeks, and a smile that gave her a constant look of a kid opening presents on Christmas morning.

She slowed down in development and started missing milestones around 8 months. When she was 13 months old, an MRI told us she had a Leukodystrophy, a fatal disease with no cure and no treatment. We went from a state of baby bliss to rock bottom and had to start over in a world we had not been exposed to. It was like we had previously looked through a pane of glass at the world of special needs, and now we were on the inside.

Even as my daughter grew, she did not look like she had a disease. She had bouncy curls and a happy smile. Although she did not walk or talk, she was small enough that people didn’t notice. Well, maybe they noticed, but I told myself they didn’t.

When I saw other special needs kids and adults who could not control their movements, arms in odd positions and drool sneaking from the side of their mouths, I was ashamed of my thoughts. “Maddy is different. She is beautiful and any drool is from teething. She holds a spoon and brings it to her mouth.”

As months stretched to years, she slowly began to look like she had special needs. She had a hard time holding up her head. Receiving blankets transitioned to become bibs for the drool. She lost her grasp reflex and could no longer hold the spoon. There was no denying that we were a special needs family.

Avoiding the Texas heat, we had family photos done while visiting my mom in Western New York. We asked the photographer to come to the house during that short time when neither our toddler, Jimmy, nor Maddy would need to eat.

Megan came walking down my mom’s street in a loose white top and shorts, camera hanging from her shoulder. She looked relaxed and welcoming, even while carrying a bean bag chair about half her size. We played and sat with the kids while she snapped photos and chatted. There was no formal setup. The humidity pulled Maddy’s curls up into perfect spirals as she laid on the bean bag chair in the shade.

My mom’s backyard grass was a vivid green color I don’t think exists in Texas. It was soft and cool, a background framed with Rose of Sharon and lilac bushes. Jimmy was quiet and curious, just starting to walk on shaky legs. He stared intently at the camera while holding my hands. Maddy smiled and laughed when my husband, Jim, threw her into the air.

The shoot was simple and easy and the time flew. Megan tried some gluten free coconut chocolate chip cookies my mom made and we thanked her as she said goodbye. She thanked us too, because, we quickly learned, that’s just how she is.

Over the next week or so Megan emailed me about how gorgeous my children are and told me she was interested in learning more about doing photography focused on special needs. Many special needs families don’t bother getting family photos because after the stress of getting the family ready, the photographer may not catch one smile or the slightest hint of eye contact.

Another week passed and Megan sent me the link to our photos. I logged on with a password and there she was–my Maddy. The first photo was the way I saw my daughter every day, as if the camera saw through her disease. She was a beautiful girl with the big blue eyes, bouncing curls, and a smile that makes everyone around her smile. I did not see my daughter struggling to hold her head up or drooling onto her bib while unable to stand and walk. I saw my girl looking right at the camera, smiling and laughing with her dad.

To the outside world, my daughter is the girl in the wheelchair, with children staring and friends who are so sorry she has this disease. These photos showed the girl as we see her, disease-free, holding up her head and smiling proudly, free to be Maddy, instead of Maddy who has Leukodystrophy. These were so much more than family photos.

You know how in some photos, you can tell what the photographer is feeling? In these, I could tell that Megan saw my daughter as her perfect self, Leukodystrophy and all.

Marilyn Maloney is an engineer and late-night medical journal reader.  She lives with her hero of a husband, beautiful puzzle of a daughter, and her cheeky son who likes to jump off the furniture.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

By Barbara Brockway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pledged to do things differently for my child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

74362260

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettymages.com

My Flight From The Empty Nest

My Flight From The Empty Nest

By Wendy Biller

186479253

Nothing really prepared me for the day when my child would go off to college, and I would join the dreaded “empty nester” club.  

We do everything in our power to try to brush it off like a bad case of dandruff, but the term gets slapped on anyway. One day you are a parent. The next day, an empty nester. It takes you back to your most primal self. We birth our children, protect them in the nest, and then they are yanked away from us, leaving behind a path of blood and regrets. No matter how we prepare ourselves, there is nothing natural about their leave-taking.  

Friends and family try to be hardy and forthright and write you emails with the subject line HEY EMPTY NESTER! The exclamation point being the clincher. But I was determined not to fall into the “empty nester” stereotype. I would accomplish this by making sure I did not have a moment to breathe. I would drop my daughter off in Oklahoma City, where she was beginning college, and then immediately segue to New York City where I was fortunate to have my play in rehearsals. I had already experienced this with my other child, saying goodbye, four years earlier. Weeping unabashedly for weeks, venturing off to the supermarket for the first time. Joining the ranks that clutch that box of Honey Nut cereal, knowing that it might never get off that shelf. Discarded, because it was a kid’s favorite cereal but he is no longer around. And you don’t think the others can smell your despair? It’s like a scent that permeates through the supermarket. The scent of the lost tribe of motherhood.  

But when there is a remaining child, you do not join the empty nester club. You are spared from that title. In fact you parade the remaining child around, reminding everyone that your membership in the club is years away. You shower the remaining one with gratitude and chocolate and neediness until they want to kill you. In fact, they can’t wait to leave the nest, almost throwing it in your face. “Ha ha, you will soon be an empty nester. Get used to it sucker!”

I vowed not to let my sentimental side get the best of me when we arrived at the college. That would mean doing things I hated. I hated going to Bed Bath and Beyond where I’d have to feign enthusiasm over a garbage can. And let’s not forget Target, for the rest of the billions of necessities for dorm living like posters, and special tape to hang the posters that wouldn’t damage the walls, or make the paint peel. I feigned enthusiasm for meeting all the other dorm gals, from the sullen hipster from Westchester, NY to the perky church gal from Texas. Back again at Target, I faked excitement for picking out towels, and a mesh shower caddy holder. But then something strange happened. As I clutched my huge bag of popcorn that I secretly bought for comfort, I forgot I was in Oklahoma. The layout of the store was exactly the same layout that was back in Los Angeles, my hometown, with one minor difference. The people seemed kinder and gentler.   

And then I glanced up, and saw my daughter down the aisle. She waved to me. I waved back. The realization hit that she wouldn’t be coming back to Los Angeles with me but staying on that prairie where “the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.” For one fleeting moment, there was a pit in my stomach. But I brushed it off burying myself in the popcorn.

The day finally came to leave. We said our goodbyes, mine behind a humongous pair of black sunglasses. I headed straight to New York City, got on the sweaty trains, headed to Long Island City, to watch the actors rehearse my play. Not one actor knew where I had just been roaming. I even spent two nights in Brooklyn with the first born, who made the mistake of saying “How does it feel being an empty nester?” I wanted to smack him. I was fearful of sleeping with this thought in my head. Luckily my thoughts were diverted when a mouse darted out from the closet. I began screaming and tripped over a rug, pulling a leg muscle. The rest of the trip was spent in pain, which I strangely welcomed.

Two weeks passed quickly. I felt like a vagabond with a suitcase filled with filthy clothes. But I was determined not to get back to LA. Six hours later on a Peter Pan bus, one ferry ride, I arrived in Martha’s Vineyard to talk shop. “Hey Ray, maybe you would consider directing a play I wrote?” I exhausted everyone with my non-stop chatter.  Three days later it was time to leave. Bus and ferry back to New York. There were no more places to crash. No more rehearsals. People stopped answering their phones. There was no other choice. I willed myself to Kennedy Airport where I booked a flight using frequent flyer miles. Sadly the flight left on time.

That night I stumbled in around 1am. The house smelled dusty. Like it had been hibernating for weeks. I finally figured it out. The smell of childhood was gone.

I set my alarm clock. Morning came. I opened the door. Dirty underwear under the butterfly chair, papers and candy wrappers, and a stuffed teddy bear with one eye. But the bed was empty.

 

 
Wendy Biller is an award winning screenwriter and playwright. She has written and produced projects for Showtime, TBS, Fox and won the Writer’s Guild of America award for best family film as well as the Andaluz jury prize for her play The Refrigerator that was produced as part of The Seven (Cell theatre, New Mexico).

Photo: gettyimages.com

When Parents Can Have Some Fun of Their Own

When Parents Can Have Some Fun of Their Own

By Campbell C. Hoffman

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

By Allison Slater Tate

unnamed-3

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.

Missing Your Mother Is The Distinct Taste Of The Immigrant Life

Missing Your Mother Is The Distinct Taste Of The Immigrant Life

By Betsy Parayil-Pezard

Nothing can quite describe the varying songs of loneliness, sometimes vague and subtle, sometimes acute with longing, every time the sun sets in an immigrant life.

 

My sister asked me what my birth plan was, and I laughed. The French hospital where I was registered to give birth had never heard of birth plans. I peed into a plastic cup at my monthly appointments and stood in the neon lights of a hallway, waiting for a nurse to finish weighing the round-bellied ladies before me. People would pass by as I held my warm pee. I obsessed over this detail for weeks. Who can think about birth plans when you don’t have a dignified place to set down your urine sample?   

When I became pregnant with my first child, I felt a surge of panic. With this flesh bean in the womb, I questioned all of my choices. I had married a Frenchman. We lived on the second floor of an apartment in Paris. But it was okay. No need to worry just yet. We could still move home. I would enroll our baby in the Montesorri preschool where I had gone as a kid and we would open the college fund. There would be baseball and tuba and Sunday school. And of course, he would speak American English with a nice Midwestern accent.

The morning my water broke, I stood on the street corner trying to hail a taxi with my husband. No taxi ever came, so we plunged into the corridors of the metro. Everything on the train beamed with a surreal glow. My husband and I stared at each other, sandwiched between the other passengers.

My mother showed up in Paris the day I came home from the maternity ward. She cooked and cleaned and let me sleep. “Mothering the mother,” she kept saying. “Back home in India, a pregnant woman goes home to her parents for the last trimester and after giving birth, she doesn’t set foot on the ground for a whole month.”

Every afternoon, she fell asleep with the baby curled up on her chest. I might have been jealous of her bonding so strongly with the baby, but I was thankful. In a couple weeks she would be gone, and I would be alone. Alone with my husband and my friends and all of the other people that loved me here, of course.

Missing your mother is the distinct taste of the immigrant life.

Whenever I travelled to my parents’ house in Minnesota, I often stood in the front hallway staring at a picture of my mother taken just after she had arrived in Detroit from India. She was leaning back on a couch, legs in white tights tucked to the side, and you could see the darkness of her knees glow through where the nylon was stretched taut. She was wearing one of those little nurse uniforms from the sixties, a little paper hat tucked around her beehive, a white mini-dress with buttons down the front. She had only been in America for a few weeks, and she was waiting for her fiancé to come in from Seattle. He was finishing up school and then he would come, but the blank limpness of her features seemed surprising, because all other pictures from this era are full of happy teeth, even though everything in the first apartment was loaned or donated from the church, even though the blue Chevy was purchased for only fifty dollars, and even though peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had to sometimes be served to guests.   

This was before the arrival of any children, I imagined that my mother’s heart was missing and loving my father, and that is why this misery had robbed her face of its one million dancing expressions. The cushioned lips hung softly open as if she were waiting for mouth to mouth resuscitation. The dark and intelligent eyes ignored the camera and stared off at some image of the mind that no one else could see, of a charismatic young preacher with wild eyebrows and a laugh that rocked through windows and down hallways.  

When I pressed my fingers against the glass of the frame, little halos of steam flared around my fingertips.

Nothing can quite describe the varying songs of loneliness, sometimes vague and subtle, sometimes acute with longing, every time the sun sets in an immigrant life. In the park where my children play, I watch the refugees come to use the water fountain and the toilets. We are worlds apart, but I feel close to them. The men take tomatoes and berries from the neighborhood gardens. Sometimes, if they cannot get a bed in a shelter, they sneak back into the park to sleep. Somehow this is better than the war torn countries they have left behind. As you are sleeping in the cold grass of a dark, empty park in Paris, wouldn’t you miss your mother and the little songs she sang to you?

My mother had crossed the ocean to follow that young preacher from India to America. They had met in Bombay while she was in nursing school and he was studying economics. He stood in the courtyard and called up to her dorm room. They walked together in silence, the sound of their feet crunching into the dust. One day, someone caught on and a family council was called. My father declared that he would be marrying my mother. “She was the smartest girl, and the most beautiful,” he told me emphatically years later.   

In the evenings, she climbed up to the roof of the dorm and clutched the letters to her chest, looking out to the west and holding him in her thoughts. He wrote to her regularly. After theology school in England, then a speech degree in Seattle, he eventually got things figured out enough to send for her. “Things were looking up,” he told me. That photo of my mother hanging in the hallway was taken when he hadn’t yet moved to Detroit, where she was waiting for him. Everything was so wildly different here. It was 1968.   

I had crossed an ocean too, not really following anyone else other than the small voice inside. In Oslo, I bought loaves of fresh whole grain bread and devoured them with slices of cheese or hazelnut spread. I ran down to the ocean and felt its vast mouth of grayness echoing the questions I etched into my journals. Why have you come here? What do you know about love?

My mother is pushing my son in the stroller on a lush sidewalk in Boca Raton. She speaks to him in English and he answers in French. I didn’t mean for him to be so French, actually. When I spoke English to him as a baby, I kept slipping back into French again and again. After fifteen years in France, I think in French. I dream in French. But still, I know that this is no excuse.

I had raised a child that couldn’t speak with my own mother.  

She would have to teach him herself.

For this too, we needed her.
Betsy Parayil-Pezard, an American with Indian roots, lives in Paris, France with her French husband and two children. She works on both continents as a professional coach and mindfulness facilitator with Connection Leadership, and blogs about the mindful life at The Paris Way (theparisway.wordpress.com). Betsy is currently working on a collection of recorded meditations for dealing with difficult times.

Photo: gettyimages.com

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

By Jennifer Berney

unnamed

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mandy Hitchcock

Unknown-1

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

 

“Cherish every moment!”  

“It goes by so fast!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Our Children About the Meaning of Friendship

Teaching Our Children About the Meaning of Friendship

By Meagan Schultz

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

 

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

“Lucky you,” I say.

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

“And what do friends do?” I ask him.

“Friends give hugs.”

“Oh,” I say.

“Friends kiss.”

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

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

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

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

“Nope, this time it’s for me buddy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OHMYGOODNESS, that was so NICE of you.”

“Thank you so MUCH.”

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

He’s copying the melodramatic exaggerations he heard earlier.

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

Photo: Getty Images

Sleeping Children of War

Sleeping Children of War

By Betsy Parayil-Pezard

photo-12

We cross the Avenue de la République and look down the street toward the Bataclan. We won’t walk down there, not with the children, but I sense a deep, grinding silence like an abyss opening.

 

On Friday night, my son is strewn sideways across my bed, one arm over his head, face buried in a pillow, his foot peeking out from the duvet. I should have put him back in his bed hours ago, but the sight of him sleeping is comforting. It is also resoundingly surreal as I listen to sirens raising welts on the smooth skin of night.

I reach over and run my fingers through his curls. In the places where we sip our coffee, poke our chopsticks into noodles, and listen to concerts, the warm bodies of young Parisians are plunging forward into pools of blood. Slightly buzzed people are dragging their dying friends across the vintage fifties tiling. People are holding their breath in kitchens and crouching behind shiny zinc bars while lipstick-painted glasses of wine shiver with each round of bullets. A concert venue is under siege. The dying children of rock n’ roll are scattered across the floor where we dance. My baby boy sleeps as if none of this were real. He is even dreaming.

My husband is managing an artist tonight, but not at the Bataclan. He calls to tell me that he is stuck. They are not letting anyone out. The show goes on. At the end, people leave in droves, texting frantically. He catches a ride with a colleague and they get back to the office and turn on the TV. At the Bataclan, hostages are being taken. The night stretches itself out into a long, thin, pointing finger of horror.

He takes his usual route when he walks home the next day, and passes over bloody sidewalks. Someone has thrown sand over the area. He arrives at the door with tears in his eyes. The children run and jump on him joyfully crying Papa! then squirm away as he clings to them.

On Saturday, we are restless and withdrawn. I am stuck to my phone, answering questions about our safety from friends and family back home in the US. I scroll mindlessly over my Facebook feed, over and over again, reading bits of articles. My husband cradles his iPad on the couch. We don’t say much to each other. We are like those old couples that speak by moving about the room.

In the evening, I invite some friends over and my husband traipses dejectedly toward the shower. Our friends’ children are all three years old like our oldest. They are gloriously happy to be together, jumping on the beds, screaming and running from room to room. The Big Bad Wolf is chasing them. My littlest patters after them, wherever they go. “The wolf!” she cries with raised eyebrows, giddy with fright.

On Sunday, we go out to buy bread. The temperature is warm for the autumn season. My daughter refuses to walk, then my son refuses too. We end up carrying them. We cross the Avenue de la République and look down the street toward the Bataclan. We won’t walk down there, not with the children, but I sense a deep, grinding silence like an abyss opening.  

When we bump into friends, we ask them if they have lost someone. The answer is yes.

There is a thick, funereal atmosphere as we proceed. People are standing on corners, bread in hand, speaking in low voices. The terraces of the cafes are empty. It is much too warm for November.

What will change, I ask my husband as we walk back.

He shrugs. Then he answers: Maybe now when we go out, we will know that it is possible to not come back. Maybe when I go to concerts for work, you will have that thought in the back of your mind.

On Monday, there is an epidemic of children peeing their pants at school.

In the evening, my son goes to the window with his little sister and looks up at the building across the street. His little head peeks through the wrought iron. He waves, calling out a bright “Hello, soldier!” to an officer smoking a cigarette out of the window. The officer smiles and waves back at him. Since January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, our street has been under continuous patrol. The troops protect the Jewish school and the synagogue on our block. They camp on the third floor of the school building, taping cardboard to the windows for privacy. Sometimes they come back with a pizza. I think they might be bored out of their minds.

Tuesday, I come across a Buzzfeed post with images of Syrian refugee children by Magnus Wennman. Like my baby boy, their sleeping bodies contort into the strangest forms, as if they have been dropped from the sky into the arms of Morpheus. But they are stretched onto dirty, abandoned mattresses, onto a cardboard box on a thin strip of sidewalk, and across patches of grass in the night.

 

Betsy Parayil-Pezard, an American with Indian roots, lives in Paris, France with her French husband and two children. She works on both continents as a professional coach and mindfulness facilitator with Connection Leadership, and blogs about the mindful life at The Paris Way (theparisway.wordpress.com). Betsy is currently working on a collection of recorded meditations for dealing with difficult times.

 

Thanksgiving Tips For Parents of College Freshmen

Thanksgiving Tips For Parents of College Freshmen

By Kathleen Volk Miller

162901555

By 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning your college student has not even gotten up to go to the bathroom. You know this because you have been downstairs banging pots and pans around since 8:00 a.m.

 

Your child is coming home for Thanksgiving, for 3 days or 5 days or a week. You haven’t seen him since parents’ weekend in late September, and what with all of your time together being in public—the school’s organized events, the restaurants, the hotel—that visit barely counts.

I’m a college professor, and your son or daughter has spent more time with me than you the past two months. If I wasn’t also a mother, maybe I wouldn’t see the fear right beside the bravado, fighting for dominance on the freshmen’s faces. I saw her on the first day, looking neither to left or right and fixing squarely on me, fussing with her coffee, because she’s allowed coffee in the classroom and so she brings it to class because she can. I’ve seen your boy start to laugh at something and then catch himself, wonder if he’s blown any kind of cool he’s built up. None of them realize the others are just as scared, no matter what we, professors or parents, tell them.

I have watched your child establish certain patterns, the coffee, the route to class. But he is nowhere near mastering the best time to do laundry or how to quickly find his ID when he comes back into the building, what pocket he should keep it in. Your freshman is still very fresh.

And now your child is coming home, with everything that home means. You pick her up at the train/bus station/airport and you drive so you have to look at the road and you aren’t able to stare at her, which you’re both afraid you will. Count to three (in your head) when you hug, or else you will lose track of time; she’ll hear you breathing her in; she’ll sense you’re not going to let go. You chat about simple facts that can be covered—who is at home, when others are arriving, the new butternut squash dish you’re making for Thanksgiving.

But then you get home and your son reaches in the back seat for the duffel of dirty laundry and you notice for the first time something different about his face—an angle, a shadow that wasn’t there before. You are trying not to stare and your kid is out, up the front steps and shouldering the door before you are fully out of the car, you are just watching like this isn’t your driveway anymore. Don’t worry; it is yours, it’s just different now.

You get in the house and exhale and see that your college kid has moved straight to the kitchen and you are thrilled—this is something you know how to do—you know how to feed your kid, so you practically bound into the kitchen, but try to hide your enthusiasm, your joy at doing something you so often resented. Assume the position you hated to find him in, just a few months ago, look casual while you prop the fridge door open on your hip, and stare inside, looking for something, and ask, “Hungry?”

The turkey sandwich is in front of her now, with salsa and mayo and lettuce, like–you forgive yourself for thinking this—like she has not had for 9 weeks. Sandwiches are always better when someone else makes them, and you are still her mother; yours are still the best.

But everything feels different in this November early dark and now you are staring at her. And you know you shouldn’t, that you have to stop, but you cannot help yourself, because look at her: The softness under her chin is gone. You cannot see that blue vein you used to stroke for hours while she nursed. Don’t worry, it is still there, it’s just under the surface.

Your other daughter finally pulls herself away from her room of devices and joins you in the kitchen. When you say, “We’ve been home 20 minutes,” she says, “I know” and holds up the flat face of her phone. You don’t know if they’ve texted or the returning daughter posted something on some form of social media. It doesn’t matter: Know that you have to leave the kitchen very soon. They begin to talk, to say what they can in front of you and you can see so much under this surface talk, waiting to be said: leave the kitchen, like a good mother. Just as much as you are thrilled with the relationship between your daughters you can’t help but sting a little, feel a little sore in a band right across your chest, because they don’t both want to share it all with you, only you, interrupting each other, sidling against each other trying to step just one millimeter closer to you, to you, to you. Like after-school time when they were at the grade school three blocks away and came in together bubbling with stories, legs, clad in pastels, tangling, pink and blue and yellow papers falling out of their backpacks. They have things to say to only each other now, and as you move up the stairs they are already laughing, a different laugh than grade school, to be sure, but laughing; hold your fist to your heart in both joy and pain and continue up and away from them.

Prepare yourself: by Wednesday night all of the high-school friends are also home, and they pull together like magnets. It’s a good thing—of course you want her to continue these friendships, despite what one mother told you about another’s daughter, despite what you believe you can predict about any of their futures. They gather at your house, but it cannot contain them all, whoever they are now, and whatever it is that compels them back outside cannot be stopped. They drive around. They text each other from two cars away in the convenience star parking lot—still posing like they did in high school, making decisions of import on whose house to converge on—and leave—next. When you hear them go out, know that they will be back. When they come back, hunker deeper under your covers, revel in the fact the kids are in their rooms, your family is breathing the same air. Rest easy.

By 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning your college student has not even gotten up to go to the bathroom. You know this because you have been downstairs banging pots and pans around since 8:00 a.m. Do not make more noise then you need to, but now, at 11:20 a.m. you do not need to try to be quiet. When they were little, the day before Thanksgiving meant watching a movie and ordering pizza, which you always joked about since your fridge was barely able to shut, the counters full. You didn’t let yourself look at the clock when he got in last night, but it was 2:45 a.m.

Keep cooking. You think you’re angry but you’re not. It’s just that you want him there, at the counter, always. He will be down soon. Yes, somehow your son’s voice is deeper. Somehow he did grow two or three inches in nine weeks. Your daughter’s face is older in a way you can’t explain. She can’t already have wrinkles, can she, but yes, something has changed around her eyes. You can hug her again when she comes into the kitchen; she’ll allow it if you count to three.

Later, when bottles of hard cider are being distributed don’t wonder how you will be judged if you hand her one. Have one yourself. Your sister will engage her in a conversation about immigration that she would never get into with you. Your son will still drink orange juice out of the carton but he will take out the trash without being told for the first time in his life. Allow the pride and pain to battle inside you like her fear and courage, every day. You have both been in training for this since the day she was born.

Kathleen Volk Miller has written for Salon, the NYTimes, Family Circle, and Philadelphia Magazine and has work forthcoming in O, the Oprah Magazine and others. She is Director of the Graduate Program in Publishing at Drexel University and co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly.

Photo: gettyimages.com

A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

By Alison Seevak

IMG_3587

I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog?

 

Just before I turned 35, I made an appointment to meet a pregnant golden retriever named Angel. Everyone I knew was having babies and I was plain miserable. I wanted a family of my own, but had yet to find lasting love. I didn’t think I could handle a baby by myself. However, I did think I might be able to handle a dog. It would take my mind off of things.

Angel’s owner, a woman named Rosalie, told me over the phone that she would need to size me up in person before she’d let me take one of her puppies. So I drove down from Berkeley to Mountain View and spent a few hours drinking iced tea with Rosalie, a large 50ish woman with cat eye glasses, while she questioned me about my work schedule and whether or not I had a fenced in backyard. I tossed a green tennis ball to Angel, who had plenty of energy, even though she was about to whelp eight puppies. I told Rosalie about the park in back of my house and feigned interest when she told me that a former San Francisco 49er, Joe Montana lived down the street. I knew nothing about football, but when Angel lay down and panted by my feet, I knew I wanted one of her puppies.

At my birthday party that year, two of my exceptionally pregnant friends lowered themselves onto my sofa with slight groans. Their attentive husbands hovered nearby, ready to hand them slices of birthday cake. One still had enough of a sense of humor to note “Alison, it’s like you are trapped in a Wendy Wasserstein play.”

But by now I had Sophie, one of Angel’s puppies, and she had become my grand distraction. We took long walks in the hills at dusk, looking for owls. She ran ahead of me, a flash of gold fur in tall grass, chasing after things I couldn’t see. Every morning, I took her to the park with a bunch of neighborhood dog owners, people I’d only said a passing hello to before. Now we stood around drinking coffee and gossiping while the dogs ran. I brought Sophie to the afterschool program where I taught. My students wrote her letters or drew pictures of her wearing wings and a crown. Sophie brought me onto the sidewalks, into the hills, into the world.

She was the constant while I dated in those nerve wracking years leading up to my 40th birthday. One of my dog training bibles at the time, a book written by a group of monks who raised German Shepherds, recommended that dogs sleep in their owner’s rooms. It was the one recommendation I actually followed. So, the first time I brought one boyfriend home, I had to explain the enormous crate containing the excited puppy in my bedroom. Together, we carried the crate into the kitchen. I tried hard to ignore Sophie’s howling that night.

Another boyfriend insisted that I board Sophie when I came to visit him, two hours away, in Santa Cruz. He lived with a skinny 18-year-old cat named Sallie.

“Sophie has too much energy,” he said, explaining why I couldn’t bring her with me. Not too long after that, I had a session with a pet psychic who told me that Sophie felt Howard could not open his heart to me.

“She’s right,” he said when confronted. We broke up shortly after that.

In between teaching and unsuccessful dating, my life was a series of long dog walks. Sophie’s leash tethered me to her, but it also tethered me to something solid, to the here and now. When I was with her, I had some respite from the “what if” and “what if not” that threatened to carry me away, as if I were a balloon from a child’s birthday party that escaped and floated high into the blue sky.

And then one night I dreamt that Sophie turned into a tall languorous teen aged girl in a red baseball cap who drove away from me in a convertible. I couldn’t wait any longer. I realized that if I was going to have a child, I’d have to do it by myself. By now, I was 41. I decided to adopt a baby girl from China.

While I did piles of paperwork and waited to fly to China to meet my daughter, I worried. I worried about attachment disorder, sleep deprivation, being a white woman raising an Asian child. I worried about getting time alone in the bathroom. But mostly, I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog? What if Sophie’s barking woke the baby up from her nap? What if they hated each other? I had never followed the monks’ advice too closely. I’d spent years letting Sophie do all the wrong things — sleep on my bed, pull on the leash, run in the opposite direction when I called her name. In a fit of desperation, I sent Sophie off to doggie boot camp. But after a week, the trainer called me and said I should just come get her. It was too late.

A few months later, I stood in a gray civil affairs office in Wuhan, China and was handed the most beautiful, angry one-year-old I had ever met. Red-faced and screaming, she arched away from me the first time I held her. I had prepared a list of questions for Mr Cheng, the orphanage director. I knew she had lived with a foster family in the countryside. Right after a question about favorite foods I asked, “Did her foster family have a dog?”

Mr Cheng shook his head no while the translator explained. “They only had chickens.”

After that auspicious meeting, we both came down with something. I lay feverish and nauseous in a fancy hotel room with a limp, grieving Anna plastered to my chest. My friend, Grace who had come along with me to help, looked at the two of us on the bed. “Maybe you’re going to have to find another home for Sophie. I don’t know how you’re going to manage,” she said.

But we both got better. By the time we’d arrived back in California and Sophie came home from where she’d boarded, things looked brighter. When Sophie walked into the house for the first time, she bounded right over to Anna, who grabbed her fur and pulled herself up. At night, when I walked the rooms of my house with a jet-lagged baby, the only thing that consoled her was when I let her rest on Sophie’s back. Sophie sat under Anna’s high chair waiting for bits of food. Anna’s first word in English was “sit.”

Sophie and I both finally grew up. My dog became less of a child, more of a collaborator. She was actually like a concerned canine aunt. When two-year-old Anna threw bedtime tantrums in her room, screaming “I don’t want to sleep in this crib! I want a book! I don’t want to wear these pajamas!” I’d watch the clock thinking if this goes on for ten more minutes, I’ll go in. But Sophie looked at me with serious brown eyes. Aren’t you going to do anything, it seemed like she was saying. Are you going to just let that kid scream?

Every night after dinner, we took a walk around the neighborhood, Anna in her stroller and Sophie trotting obediently alongside us. Once Anna got old enough, she’d walk too, my hand in one of hers, and Sophie’s leash gripped tightly in the other.

In preschool, when other kids pasted pictures of mothers, fathers and siblings onto posterboard for show and tell, Anna glued on photos of Sophie and me. When she was about to turn six, she described the birthday cake she wanted for her planetarium themed party. Anna, Sophie and I, wearing astronaut suits would float in a dark sky of chocolate frosting. There’d be a big vanilla moon and in the distance, a green and blue frosted earth. We’d be adrift in space, but love and our linked hands (and paws) would hold us together.

I knew I could not attempt this cake myself. I found a neighborhood mom with a baking business. “I have curly brown hair and glasses, my daughter is Chinese and we want the golden retriever’s fluffy tail sticking out of the astronaut suit,” I explained over the phone.

“No problem,” she said, calmly as if this request was an everyday kind of event. And in our world, of course, it was.

Alison Seevak‘s writing has appeared in The Sun, Literary Mama and Adoptive Families magazine. She lives in Northern California with her twelve-year-old daughter and their new dog, Buddy.

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

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

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Sometimes Three-Year-Olds Do Know Best

Sometimes Three-Year-Olds Do Know Best

By Alexis Wolff

 

470620963

These little people we’re tasked with raising, the ones who we’re supposed to teach right from wrong before releasing them to make their marks on the world, they come with lessons for us too.

 

It was the last night of our Disney cruise, a Christmas gift to my sons from their grandparents. After a final visit to the ship’s Finding Nemo-themed splash pad, then a decadent dinner capped off by Mickey-shaped desserts, my family of four was crowded together in our cabin. My five-month-old son slept sweetly in a Pack ‘n Play while his big brother, three-year-old Flynn, rooted through a backpack of books we’d brought, picking out a few for bed.

“So, what do you think?” I whispered to my husband.

“If you really want to,” he replied.

Starting in a few minutes was one final character meet and greet—something I knew Flynn would love. But, it was already well past his bedtime. And frankly, mine too.

“It’s vacation,” I decided after a moment’s thought. “I’m going.” I turned to Flynn. “Hey buddy, want to come with Mommy? Mickey’s boat has one last surprise.”

The backpack of books? Old news. Flynn’s green eyes sparkled as he nodded, grabbed my hand and raced for the door.

I started to pull the handle but then turned back. “Hang on small fry. Mommy needs to get her phone.”

I found it on the nightstand, shoved it in my pocket and headed out the door and down the narrow cruise ship corridor with my pajama-clad preschooler.

We arrived atop the stairs that led down to the ship’s Art Deco lobby, where dozens of characters were holding court. Flynn jumped up and down at the sight of them.

“Which friend can I meet first?” Flynn asked.

“Whichever you want.”

“Hey, this is like the Frozen stairs!” Flynn announced as we descended the regal staircase like Disney royalty.

“Mmm hmm buddy,” I replied. “Sure is.”

In the lobby, Flynn wandered over to Chip and Dale, who I wasn’t sure he even knew before our trip. We waited in a short snake of a line for his turn to hug each chipmunk and then squeeze between them while I shot a photo on my phone.

Next up was Cinderella. Snap snap. Then Donald. Click Click.

“Who now kiddo?” I asked.

Flynn looked up at me. “Can we not take any more pictures?” he asked, his voice even and calm.

“If that’s what you want, of course. Are you tired? Are you ready to go back up to the room now?”

“No!” he protested, stomping a foot to the floor. He was calm no more. “I’m not tired.”

“What then? I don’t understand what you want. Tell me what you want.”

“I want not to do any more pictures,” he whined. “I want to give Mickey and Minnie and Daisy big hugs and tell them bye-bye. Can we do that? Yes or no?”

Suddenly I saw that all around me, adults were clambering for perfect final photos—just like I had been. Turn this way, they were saying to their kids. Now that way. Smile. Say cheese. They stopped to assess the images on their screens. Another one, they would say. Let’s try again. And then time was up. The kids continued on to the next character hardly having interacted with the first. It was another parent’s turn to try for a photo that would be frame or Facebook worthy.

Why were they doing this? Why was I?

“Can we do that?” Flynn repeated, reminding me about his request for no more pictures. “Yes or no?”

“Of course we can do that,” I told him. I put my phone in my pocket for good. “Of course. You’re absolutely right.”

These little people we’re tasked with raising, the ones who we’re supposed to teach right from wrong before releasing them to make their marks on the world, they come with lessons for us too.

The unadulterated perspective of my three-year-old son reminded me: The point of pictures is to remember the moment, so when pictures become the moment, what’s the point?

For the rest of the night, I followed Flynn as he moved from character to character. Last up was his favorite friend.

“Mickey!” he said with an excited grin before wrapping his arms around the mouse’s leg. Then he took a step back and tilted up his head. He just stood there staring, his eyes wide with admiration.

“Photo Mom?” Mickey asked me.

It would have made a great one, but I’d made a promise. I shook my head. Mickey shrugged and let Flynn stare.

“Bye-bye Mickey,” Flynn said after a bit. “I had fun on your boat. I’ll see you later in your clubhouse. I love you. Bye-bye.”

Hand in hand, my pajama-clad prince and I headed back up the regal staircase and down the carpeted cruise ship corridor to our cabin.

“Shh,” I whispered before opening the door. “Your brother’s sleeping.”

“Okay,” Flynn whispered back. “Hey Mommy?”

“Yeah small fry?”

“I’m so glad that happened.”

A year and a half has gone by—a year and a half filled with cute soccer uniforms, dinosaur-themed birthday parties, ill-fitting snowsuits and other photogenic fun. And I have photographed some of it, but sometimes I make myself put my phone away. I make myself because: those hundreds of pictures I took on our Disney cruise? I never look at them. When I think back to that trip, the un-photographed final moments are the ones I remember most.

Alexis Wolff’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Mamalode and the Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, among others. She lives with her husband and two young sons in Mexico.

Photo: Getty Images

The WASP vs. The Guju

The WASP vs. The Guju

By Malena Hougen Patel

Ba & Nana 2

As I worked up some crocodile tears, we peeked out of the kitchen to scope the scene. What we saw made us pause.  

 

When my husband and I brought our baby daughter home last September, it was a small affair. Just us, with our new daughter, in our new house, in our new neighborhood. We had 10 days of quiet family bliss, lounging in our underwear, dancing in the living room at 3am, binge-watching True Detective at noon, shutters tightly closed to the brightness of the day and the cacophony of the world.

But all that was shattered one crisp, sunny day in early October. The Mothers arrived.

We had been somewhat concerned. Both of our 65-year-old mothers, under the same roof. Would they get along? One, a disciplined blue blood from shabby American aristocracy, who preferred fitted linen pants and crisp white sheets, anorexia and hydrangeas, who had her hair set weekly by Francois, taught her daughters the importance of the right fork, and who only drank G&Ts.

The other, a native of Gujurat, India, who defied her parents by coming to America to study, who defied her sisters by never dying her hair (or really, washing it) and who defied nature by never wearing anything but polyester. Oh, and who defied any common sense by drinking only the sweetest of margaritas.

But beyond their cultural and cocktail differences, there was something else that worried us. Our mothers are both trailblazing women in their fields, with 2 PhDs and 3 master’s degrees between them. They are strong, good women who relish work and adventure–but neither takes pride in domestic drudgery.

But surely they could tie on the proverbial apron for a week to change my milk-stained sheets? Perhaps, we thought in our most hopeful moments, we should be concerned: would these two highly competitive yet vastly different women compete to see who could serve the exhausted new parents best? My head swam with images of having to choose between truffled mac and cheese and tikka masala on a nightly basis. My husband and I heatedly debated who we would let diaper Baby N first, and who would be more honored to fold her onsies. We were worried they would exhaust themselves in their rush to serve us. After all, they were no spring chickens. And so it was with open, if cautious, arms we welcomed both my mother and my mother-in-law from LAX that crisp sunny October day.

Margot, my mother, arrived first, alighting from the cab in her Kay Unger knit dress hugging her lithe figure, lipstick bright and perfect, hair helmeted. She cooed appropriately over the baby while discreetly assessing my figure, which I pathetically tried to camouflage with a belly band and loose tunic from (gulp) Chico’s.  

Soon after, my mother-in-law Sita showed up, her inside-voice challenged greeting startling the baby from 50 yards away. She barreled through our front door, her compact 5-foot body swathed in a polyester sari and “well-loved” flip-flops, revealing pedicure-challenged toenails. I caught my mother’s short intake of breath. She glanced down at her own feet, safely ensconced in LL Bean travel moccasins, and seemed reassured that all was right in the world.

Margot, who was holding Baby N, got up to greet Sita. Sita gently took Baby N from Margot’s arms. Margot held on. Their eyes locked. My husband and I glanced at each other. Would they start to squabble over her? As we waited with bated breath, the two women simultaneously launched into a cascade of adoration for the baby.

We sighed with relief.

But then:

Margot (east coast Brahmin accent): You know, Sita, I saw a Times piece on a wonderful exhibit at LACMA.

Sita (thick, incomprehensible Gujuarti accent): I’m ready when you are.

Me: Oh, um, but there’s some laundry in the dryer…

Sita: And what about that Frank Lloyd Wright house I read about?

Margot: I heard it has marvelous gardens.

Me: Oh, um, but maybe you’d want to take the baby for a walk?

Sita: Nonsense! Newborns should not be taken from the house.

And with that, our fate was sealed. We had created a loud-talking, raucous-laughing, museum-hopping, grandchild-adoring, early-rising, non-cooking/non-cleaning/non-sheet-changing/non-dusting/non-diaper-changing cocktail-swilling 2-headed Beast. And that Beast ran our house for 3 days like it was a Hollywood Cocktail Party Invitational/Ladies-of-a Certain-Age Touring Company.

The next morning, they bustled into our bedroom at 6:30, fresh from a 3-mile jaunt around our neighborhood:

Margot: Rise and shine!

Me: Mom, we’ve been up all night with the baby. She’s not latching and…

Margot: I read about the most wonderful exhibit at MOCA in the Times this morning. They open at 11. Could you drive us?

Me: Mom, we’re a little tired…

Margot: Nonsense! I was never tired when I had children, and I was in graduate school.

Me: Maybe you can take the baby for a walk while we sleep?

Sita: No, no. Not good for her to leave the house. Margot, let’s go!

And so they headed off to LACMA, MOCA, Eames House. My husband and I sterilized bottles, flung together dinners, scrubbed lipstick stains off tea cups, and folded Baby N’s onsies, our resentment simmering.

The final straw came Saturday night.

During their morning walks, the Moms had met all sorts of neighbors, and being naturally outgoing and fond of cocktail parties, invited everyone over for a meet and greet. My husband and I could barely believe our eyes when we saw smartly dressed people strolling up our walk. We couldn’t see straight, much less talk coherently.

But by 7, Erik & Chip–from that cute Spanish bungalow on Gennesse–were sharing their Pimm’s Cup recipe. By 7:15, Julian and Abbie–they’re renovating the Tudor on Orange Grove–were wondering if they could use the oven to heat up their world famous shrimp dip. By 7:30, Tim and Carol, Francine and Cheryl were knocking back martinis.

As the evening wore on… and on… my husband and I decided to Take Back the Night. Our plan to bust up the party involved me having a breakdown in the middle of the living room, maybe flinging out the word lochia for good measure.

As I worked up some crocodile tears, we peeked out of the kitchen to scope the scene. What we saw made us pause.  

Margot was wearing one of Sita’s saris, Sita was chatting with Chip about Shah Rukh Khan, and Baby N was being passed from neighbor to neighbor and looking as delighted as a 13-day-old baby can.

Frankly, Margot & Sita looked like a happily progressive post-menopausal inter-racial lesbian couple, gleefully showing off their little bi-racial bundle of joy.

We looked at each other, eyes wide. And started laughing–an exhausted, relieved, disbelieving, rollicking, braying, healing laugh.

It is my mother’s fate that her daughter is not the energetic go-getter she thought she raised, but not all is lost. Every now and then, when it’s 2pm and I’m still in my pajamas, I catch my daughter giving me a look, a look that says “Why are you still in your pajamas? LACMA closes in 2 hours!”  

Oh, and Cheryl’s daughter babysits, Chip brought over a delicious lemon-roasted chicken, and Francine gets our mail when we travel.
Malena Hougen Patel is a writer and mother living in Los Angeles. You can follow her on twitter @malenahougen.

Pure Nepali

Pure Nepali

By Elizabeth Enslin

kites-flying-pics-1024X768

Speaking in our private, mixed language had been hard but precious–perhaps the most intimate time we would ever have aside from pregnancy and breastfeeding. 

 

My six-year old’s wooden arrow arced toward the sun and nailed its mark: a yellow nylon kite. Both fell into the sawdust of the beachside playground.

Amalesh had whittled the arrow and bow from sticks he’d collected during our hikes around Whidbey Island. I had reluctantly let him bring both to the year-end kindergarten picnic because I couldn’t imagine such a crude bow propelling a heavy arrow any distance at all.

For a few seconds, I froze, replaying the event in my mind and marveling. Then I noticed many eyes turned our way.

Once again, my parenting skills were in question.

Since I’d separated from Amalesh’s Nepali father four months earlier, I’d been learning to bear such judgments alone. That, plus the inquisitive stares and mostly silent questions: A brown-skinned, brown-eyed, black-haired boy with a White, blue-eyed, blondish-haired woman? Where does he come from? Is he adopted?

I shook off my dreaminess and scanned the crowd: the child–not from our group–cradling a torn kite, his mother and father comforting him and glaring at me, other adults edging closer as though to intervene.

I took Amalesh’s hand and dragged him over to the now-crying child and told him to apologize. He mumbled a quick, “Sorry.” I made an apology to the parents too and offered to replace the kite. The parents said it wouldn’t be necessary and turned away. I took Amalesh aside. Grinning, he refused to look at me. His eyes beamed back and forth between his bow and that victory spot in the sky.

Before I had a chance to scold, he said: “Ma bow shoot garnai parthie. Ani ma target hit garye!” Since we had left Nepal, I had grown accustomed to sentences made of two languages and understood: “I had to shoot the bow. And I hit the target!”  

*   *   *

Up until that point, Amalesh had spent nearly half his life among his father’s extended family in Nepal. I had given birth to him there, so Nepali was the language he’d heard more than any other during his first six months. Then we moved back to the U.S. for three years, where he spoke his earliest words in English, the language his academic father felt more comfortable using when not in Nepal. For several years after that, we lived between two countries. Every move required an adjustment in language. Talkative and outgoing, Amalesh usually transitioned well.

The family farm in Nepal was the most permanent home Amalesh had ever known. Homes in the U.S. had been temporary–graduate student housing at Stanford University, various rental homes for my postdoctoral position in Iowa City and his father’s professorship in Syracuse, New York.

Our last stint in Nepal had lasted eighteen months. Amalesh had been surrounded by grandparents, aunties, uncles, numerous cousins and even neighbors who spoiled him. As they doted on everything he did and said and excused his tantrums and mischief, he became fluent in Nepali. Now I had wrenched him away from that language of unconditional love and adoration.

*   *   *

“Kina angry hunuhuncha?” Amalesh asked.

Why was I so angry?

Early June sunlight shimmered on Useless Bay. Snow capped the Olympic Mountains behind. Amalesh skulked off to sit alone on a log in the sand. I decided to gave him his space so we could both cool down. I mingled with other parents in his class, attempting feeble explanations and apologies for my son’s behavior.

Amalesh’s kindergarten teacher took me aside. “It wasn’t right for Amalesh to do that, of course,” she said. “But I had to keep myself from smiling when he brought that kite down. He had to see if he could do it, and he did. No one but you understands his words right now, but we can understand when he aims an arrow and shoots a kite down so skillfully. He’s speaking to us with his actions.”

*   *   *

When Amalesh and I had arrived back in the U.S. in February, my parents were getting ready for an extended RV tour of The Southwest and invited us to live in their house on Whidbey for as long as needed. I figured Amalesh might adapt better if I put him in a local kindergarten. I would have some time to update my resume for college teaching positions, and he would have playmates to help him ease back into American culture.

I began my inquiries at the nearest public school.

“He doesn’t speak English right now,” I said. “He understands it, but he chooses to communicate mostly in Nepali.”

“Don’t worry,” the woman at the front desk told me. “We know what to do. We have ESL teachers. They can straighten him out.”

Sure that I did not want my son “straightened,” I thanked her for the information and drove down the road past llama farms and into a forest to check out the Waldorf School. I didn’t know much about it then but was enchanted by the curved walls and toys made of wood, stone and natural fibers.

School had just let out, so I was able to meet the kindergarten teacher, a soft-spoken woman about my age. I explained the language issue to her.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll find other ways to communicate with him.”

I enrolled Amalesh the next day.

Except for occasional outbursts in Nepali, he remained mostly silent in his class that spring. For a boy who usually chattered from waking until bedtime, that must have been tough. Unable to make himself understood through language, he often squabbled with classmates, threw fits or pouted more than expected for a child his age. But his teacher guided him without words and often calmed him better than I could.

A few weeks before the June picnic, Amalesh’s teacher told me he had finally spoken English in class. It had happened during a forest walk. He touched Douglas fir trees of various heights and announced their relationships: “mother, father, brother, sister.”

After that, he used some English words at school. But he still didn’t speak in complete sentences with anyone but me since those still came in a mix of Nepali and English. By the time I picked him up each day, he had a lot to say and talked for hours.

*   *   *

Two days after the kite incident, we sat in the living room of my parents’ house. Drained from single parenting, I stared out the window at the ferry gliding back and forth between Mukilteo and Clinton. Amalesh drew stick figures on drawing paper strewn across the carpeting. He pushed some drawings and a crayon into my hands.

“Book banaundaichu, Aama. Tapai write garnos, huncha?” I’m making a book, Mother. You write it down, okay?

“Sure.”

“There was once a girl who was the spirit of the whole world,” he began in his usual mix of Nepali and English. “That is, until the evil giant decided to trick her.”

Translating into English, which was easier for me to write, I scribbled quickly to keep up.

“He brought her a beautiful gold coin that he had stolen from a magic box. It was so beautiful that she wanted to taste it. But the moment she tasted it, she fell down and died. She was on the very top of a tree, so she fell down far.”    

I continued writing as Amalesh described gnomes and fairies who were sad to see the girl fall but too scared of the giant to get involved. Then, came a giant who could see for millions of miles, even across the Pacific Ocean.

“Don’t write this part, Mom. But remember how we flew across the Pacific Ocean when we came back from Nepal? It was pretty far, huh?”

“Very far,” I said.

I thought of all the ways that distance would grow now. Over the months since leaving Nepal, I had reassured Amalesh that his father would soon return to the U.S. But he may not have understood that we would no longer all live together. He and I would make our home somewhere in the Pacific Northwest while his father lived three thousand miles away in Syracuse.

“You can write again now,” Amalesh said.

Working with the thick crayon, my hand began to cramp. I shook it out and tried to keep up as he described the hot lava–a popular theme in his stories–and the girl falling toward it. Then the fairies reappeared, caught the girl’s body and brought her back to life with a special potion.  

Finally, the story returned to a giant. This one was good and wanted to help the girl.  

“He gave her a sword to cut her in two so that she became two spirits,” Amalesh said , then stopped, put his fist to his chin and looked over his drawings. “Maybe you shouldn’t write this part,” he said. “But one was Jesus and the other was Buddha.”

I didn’t write that at the moment, but—please, forgive me son–how could I not remember and write it down later?

“We made a book, Mommy,” he said and hugged me. “I’m going outside now to play.”

I watched him from the window and read what I had scrawled. It may have been the first story he ever told that had a beginning, middle, and end. I sensed something else important in the narrative but didn’t realize what until a few minutes had passed.

It wasn’t that his father’s family was Hindu–not Buddhist–and that my family never went to church and rarely talked about Jesus. Nor was it the violence, magic and hope. It wasn’t even the imagery of being divided by an ocean or a sharp blade. It wasn’t the content at all. It was the transformation in Amalesh as he told it. He began telling the story in Nepali grammar with mostly Nepali words. By the end, he used all English grammar and English words.

Squealing and laughing outside, he chased my mother’s dog in circles.

Speaking in our private, mixed language had been hard but precious–perhaps the most intimate time we would ever have aside from pregnancy and breastfeeding. I tried to commit to memory his lilting, singsong way of speaking Nepali. Pakka Nepali, our neighbors had called it back in the village. Perfect Nepali, indistinguishable from the Nepali other children spoke. He even ornamented it with the same head bobbles and hand twirls.

Now he shouted commands at the dog in English. I could still hear a faint Nepali accent, but just barely. Maybe he’ll weave some Nepali words and phrases back in once he gains more confidence in English, I told myself. Surely, this won’t be the end of his birth language.

But in many ways, it was. With his father and other Nepali relatives living so far away, he never did speak that pakka Nepali again. At age nine and again at fourteen, he returned with his father to the family farm for a few weeks and re-learned some Nepali phrases. He went on his own for nine months after high school and six months after college and became fairly fluent in speaking and understanding. Yet even I can hear his American accent.
Elizabeth Enslin is the author of While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal (Seal Press 2014). She has published literary nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Raven Chronicles, Opium Magazine, and other journals. Currently working on a sequel to her first book, she raises yaks on a farm in northeastern Oregon.

Just One Box to Define My Child

Just One Box to Define My Child

By Michelle Robin La

Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 5.01.56 PM

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Wendy Kennar

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 3.21.29 PM

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

 

“So your son is mixed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main idea: We are a family.

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

Batter Up

Batter Up

By Amy Yelin

dreamstime_s_1381324

 

My son Ethan stands with his arms crossed while listening to retired Red Sox legend Nomar Garciparra. My husband and I huddle a few feet away, watching while attempting to read lips and interpret body language. There is a battle of wills going on, and it’s tough to tell who’s winning.

Less than a month before, I’d gifted my two boys, seven-year-old Ethan and six-year-old Jonas, this baseball clinic in Foxboro, Mass. as a Christmas surprise. Looking back, I should have recognized this was a risky choice for a present. But I was on a mission that holiday season to enrich our lives by gifting experiences, rather than toys—a gut-level change inspired by my recent breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. As the holidays approached, I announced we’d do less materialism and more memory making this year and everyone—my husband and two boys and ALL OF HUMANITY DAMN IT— would be the better for it.

Right around that time I received an email promoting the baseball clinic. I immediately thought Whoa. The boys love baseball. And on the heels of the Red Sox World Series win in 2013, what could be a better gift than a baseball clinic with second baseman Dustin Pedroia?

That’s not a typo. I’d misread, or my lingering chemobrain was confused by both names ending in “a.” It was a mistake I realized only after I’d made my purchase, unfortunately.

I casually asked the boys at dinner one evening if they’d ever heard of Nomar Garciaparra.

They both said no.

The question then became how to both present this gift to them while educating them at the same time. I searched for a Nomar action figure on Amazon and immediately ordered it. I also printed out an information sheet on Mr. Garciaparra. I put it all in a nice bag with tissue paper and felt proud of myself for not feeding the materialistic monster this year.

Until 5 am Christmas morning. That’s when I woke up in a panic. Without the tangible toy gifts, the area under the tree looked barren compared to the year before. What did I do? I worried. But then I consoled myself: they’re going to love the baseball clinic. You did the right thing. It’s a former Red Sox. What could be bad about it?

That morning, they grabbed the bag with their gift, pulled everything out and looked confused.

“What is this?” Ethan asked. It dawned on me at that moment that no child has ever dreamed about reading a printout from the Internet on Christmas morning. Nor is it very fun to have to have your gift explained to you in detail, which I had to do. More than once. And no one touched the action figure.

“You’re going to love the baseball clinic!” I assured them, but they quickly moved on, looking for more. For “better” of which, there wasn’t much.

Several times that day I heard my younger son ask his brother, “What was our big present again?”

“The baseball thing, I guess.”

After Christmas, no one brought it up again, and despite my best attempts to get them excited via their new action figure, no one paid any attention to Nomar.

On the day of the clinic, there were a few hundred kids present. Certainly more than I’d expected. The boys were split up into different groups according to age. I knew Ethan, my more anxious child, was overwhelmed because he kept sneaking off to the men’s room and hibernating there. “Maybe you should check on him,” I said to my husband, and he did, but it wasn’t easy to get Ethan to come back out. Eventually he did, but he snuck off to the bathroom several more times for a break.

Nomar didn’t make an appearance until noon. He arrived in a grey hoodie and sweatpants (looking little like his well-groomed action figure). He gave a pep talk to all the boys, some of which was garbled due to either the sound system or the gym acoustics. After the pep talk, it was time to move from fielding exercises in the gym to the batting cages.

“Isn’t this fun?” I asked Ethan as we started walking toward the batting cages.

“No,” he said. He stopped and leaned on a wall while his group kept walking. “What are you doing?” I said. “Go catch up.”

He shook his head. “But this is the best part! You get to practice hitting!”

“I’m not going,” he said.

I gave him a snack to see if that would help. It didn’t.

My husband and I looked at each other helplessly.

“Ok, so take a little break and then you can go back in.”

“I’m not going in,” Ethan said, arms crossed.

And then Nomar walked by. Nomar: who I really had no idea about until buying the tickets and now suddenly it was like I was in the presence of royalty.

That’s when I grabbed him by the arm. He looked at me, surprised.

“Hi,” I said. “My son here doesn’t want to go hit. Could you possibly talk to him?”

“Sure,” Nomar said.

That’s when he called Ethan over and their conversation ensued as my husband and I tried and failed at eavesdropping. Despite Ethan’s crossed arms and slight scowl,  I remained hopeful.

As more time passed, however, my hopes dwindled. In the meantime, I snapped endless photos to post on Facebook.

When I moved closer to see if I could hear more of their conversation, I knew Nomar was losing this battle. When he said, “Come on, Ethan, I’ll walk you out to your group,” Ethan only shook his head no.

I turned toward my husband and loudly whispered, “He’s saying no to Nomar!” Suspecting the reason might be stranger danger, I intervened.

“Ethan , it’s OK. You can go with Nomar. It was really nice of him to offer to walk you out there.”

“No,” Ethan said, shaking his head this time for emphasis. Nomar shrugged. “You sure Ethan?”

The boy nodded.

I wanted to scream: But it’s Nomar—the guy I mistakenly thought was Dustin who I’m now obsessed with! Instead, I asked Nomar to take a photo with me, which he graciously obliged before moving on.

Looking back, I’m not sure why any of this surprised me. Ethan had always been a cautious and strong-willed child. Even before he was born. He held on so long inside the womb that after three hours of pushing, they decided to use the vacuum to force his hand. He came out screaming.

It was the same when he learned to swim. Although he was one of the older children in his class, he refused to swim in the deep end with the rest of the kids, despite our best efforts to get him there. Despite the fact that his little brother was already happily swimming there.

It was the last class when Ethan’s teacher talked with him in the middle of the pool, after which she brought him out to the deep end. She left him there, with his floatation device on, and backed up to the shallow end.

“Come on Ethan,” she said. “Swim to me.”

And then that it happened. To this day, I have no idea what she said to him. But he swam to her. He swam to her, and then he was mad, as though he’d been tricked. As my husband I cheered for him, Ethan walked toward us and threw his floatation device on the side of the pool.

“That was awesome, Ethan!” I said.

He wouldn’t look at me.

About thirty seconds later and still not looking at me he ordered, “put my bubble back on.” So I did. Next thing I knew he was swimming on his own toward the deep end and he’d never fear it again.

It never ceases to surprise me that my children have minds and hearts and powerful wills of their own. That they are not just carbon copies of me and their dad. Logically I get it. But emotionally, I tend to forget.

At the baseball clinic it was the same. Not long after Nomar walked away, Ethan made his own decision to go to batting practice. And he loved it. When he was done and walking back to the gym with his group, Nomar called from across the giant room, “Nice going Ethan!”

That evening at dinner at a nearby hotel, we asked Ethan why he refused to walk with Nomar.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It was like I was in one of those cartoons…with the angel sitting on one shoulder and the devil on the other. That was happening. I couldn’t decide what to do.”

And that’s what it boils down to, I think: learning to make up one’s own mind. As parents, we get to take our kids to the field, but we must remain in the dugout, quietly cheering them on while they choose their next play: Yes or no. Good or bad.

Angel or devil. And … swing.

 

Amy Yelin’s writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Literary Mama, The Mid, The Manifest-Station, The Boston Globe and more. Her essay about having boys, titled “Once Upon a Penis,” appeared in the anthology Mamas & Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting. She is managing editor for SolLit-Diverse Voices and her website is yelinwords.com.

Awake 

Awake 

005_Zappier_5138 copy

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I burst out laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Megan Dempsey

The Things We Keep

The Things We Keep

By Sharon Holbrook

cwvDm9asA_Lw9YsGTQNy8vWzhk4

I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself. 

 

I sat on the living room rug last week, surrounded by messy stacks of DVDs and CDs, almost all of which we have ignored for years. I had pulled them all out at once to decide what to toss and what to save. I blame Marie Kondo for this attack on my belongings, of course. Fresh off reading the Japanese organizing guru’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” I was fired up (again) about getting rid of the excess junk.  

I’m a serial declutterer, but it’s not because I’m naturally neat and organized. It’s quite the opposite. My head and hands and house are always full to overbrimming, and I desperately try to throw enough overboard to keep peaceful clarity afloat.  

Why is that so hard? Right now, it is almost 10pm on a Monday night. On my computer, I have open tabs for my kid’s birthday Evite, the sign-up link for the school picnic I am supposed to be running, a flyer for a race I might run with my son if we decide to train, and, of course, email. Each tab represents a long sub-list of items to do. That’s not enough for me, I guess, so I also have a tab open for an article about why punch is the best drink to serve at a party, because apparently I might throw a punchy party soon — even though I’m not terribly fond of hosting parties. My paper calendar, cell phone, several bills, a health plan reimbursement form, and notes and lists for my nonprofit work cover the desk next to me. I am overstuffed with the bureaucracy of life.

It’s no wonder I can’t think straight, but somehow I feel donating the outgrown Curious George DVDs and reuniting CDs with their lost cases will confer serenity upon me. Maybe it will also magically clean my kitchen and inspire the children to hang their jackets up. And so I sort on. I grab a stack of unlabeled CDs (or are they DVDs?) and mull whether to just toss them or pop them in the computer.  

I’m too curious; I must know what they are. The first one is my son’s, a montage of photos from his second-grade year compiled by a thoughtful teacher. Nice, let’s keep that. Next, a mix CD of songs I don’t even like. Easy toss. I catch my breath as the next one whirs to life on my screen. It is a DVD, chock-full of family videos from the year the youngest of my three was born. I didn’t even know this DVD existed.

I ignore Marie Kondo’s tidying-up orders to set aside sentimental items for last. (She warns that they will trap us into relentless reminiscing. She is correct.) I watch.

There we are on Christmas morning, at the zoo, and at the dining room table. I click on another, and there I am in a hospital gown. I had had a c-section that morning. My voice is dry and cracked, and I wear no makeup. My husband is taking the video, and I hear his and my parents’ voices floating in the background. My older children are there too, with their impossibly high voices and impossibly round cheeks. They have come to the hospital to meet their new sister. The 4-year-old gazes at the baby, beams, and pronounces her “good!” The 2-year-old stares at her, serious and silent. Now they want me, and my mother offers chairs, but I don’t seem to hear her, and I eagerly make cozy little nests in the bed on each side of me to snuggle my big kids.

The next one is shaky, a sure sign that one of the children is taking the video. It’s an ordinary day, and the images flash by, blurry, sideways, and now and again clear. There are shoes on the floor, pairs I’d forgotten. The cat wanders by, and toys are sprinkled across the rug.  I am wearing my glasses and slippers, and not all the children all fully clothed, so I take it we are parked at home for the duration. It is no day in particular, and it is every day.

I have decluttered, I realize now. I see the evidence there in the videos, the toys and outfits and baby gear that are now gone. Outgrown, and jettisoned. Even that old house is gone — our family grew and moved on, quite literally.  

We are encouraged, always, to look forward and keep discarding. Don’t look back. Don’t keep items you never use. Don’t hold onto old, outdated things that don’t suit you anymore. Ask yourself who you are now. And, yes, watching those videos, I didn’t wish for one material thing back. We have changed, after all, as we should.  

But — that change that has happened — that is exactly why I find myself wanting to grasp and hold on to those people, those moments. I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself. Looking at them from afar, like a shadowy time traveler, I am surprised by the pure fullness of their past selves, their golden, glistening kernels of individuality, ready to pop into who I know they are today.

The real stranger in the videos is me. I do not recognize this young mother — not really. She is very sweet, and a tender mother to all three children. Somehow, I have let myself forget this part of me, or maybe I never knew her. Those years were at once full and fierce and lovely, and I gave myself over. I truly saw the children during that time, yes, but I was in too deep to see myself as a mother, unless it was in my failures.  

I remember yelling. I remember the winter mornings when I struggled to get out of bed, and the evenings when I counted the minutes until Daddy would get home. I remember thinking I thought I would be better at this mothering thing — more patient, more joyful. But now, seeing this woman in the sum of small moments and with the distance of years, I see that she — no, I — was a good mother.   

When you’re on a mountain, the climb is rocky, exhausting, treacherous. Once you’re past it, you turn around and it’s lovely, magnificent, breathtaking. How could you have missed it, you wonder?

I’ll continue to declutter the old clothes and toys and almost all of that never-ending stream of youthful artwork. But I won’t let go of all of the past. I’m clinging to the parts that let me turn around and take in that scenic view after the climb, the things that let me fill in the pieces of the pictures of ourselves I was too close to see the first time.

There’s something else, too. Every present day somehow twists and flips into the past, even if messes of bills and to-do lists and homework and calendars don’t seem like the stuff of memories. If someone took a video of me at my desk today, and I watch it in ten years, what will I think? Maybe how young she is, so smooth-faced, and only 40! How dedicated she was, showing up every day for the minutiae of life, simply because it had to get done. (And, hey, look at that old computer!) If my children were in frame, I’d see a warm closeness with those small people, and I’d long for it, perhaps with tears in my eyes.  For they will not be small people in ten years.  

Just tonight, my ten-year-old hugged me at bedtime, proclaiming, “I want to hug you for ever and ever and ever!”  In a decade he will probably be gone, far away at college, and he won’t be saying that anymore — not to me, anyway. I’ll be left to hold on to that moment any way I can.

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

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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

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

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

 

Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage

By Carinn Jade

photo-1428829969150-e014ae1b7daa
My husband and I met in law school, both of us on the clearly marked path to becoming lawyers. We built our relationship on equal ground, walking parallel and in the same direction. With a healthy chemistry, complementary personalities and a similar vision of marriage, careers and kids, we felt confident as we moved swiftly towards our future together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Somin Khanna

 

Having a Kid Strained My Marriage

By Zsofia McMullin

photo-1433785124354-92116416b870

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Janus Face of Parenthood

The Janus Face of Parenthood

By Vincent O’Keefe

janus_by_valkea-d3gxqfm

A parent’s face is a constant mix of past and future, which leads to the tendency to forget the present moment right before one’s nose.

 

Face it, parents: You’re two-faced. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since parenthood naturally has a Janus face. Janus was the Roman god of transitions who had two faces—one looking toward the future and one toward the past.

My most memorable Janus-faced moments seem to occur while I’m driving. For example, recently I sat at a red light with my oldest daughter, Lauren, who was fourteen at the time. The license plate on the car in front of us read “LIL LAUR.” I smiled to myself and assumed the car’s driver was a parent who probably reveled in the joy of having a baby daughter named Lauren. Memories of my own baby Lauren’s voluminous curls and ocean-blue eyes danced through my mind.

When I told fourteen-year-old Lauren my warm theory about the license plate, however, she replied coldly from the passenger seat: “No Dad. I think the person driving nicknamed the car ‘Lil Laur’ because she loves it so much. I wish I had a car too.” While I faced the past, she faced the future.

It was a moment fit for one of those “Janus words,” or contranyms, that convey contradictory meanings depending on their context—e.g. to weather can mean endure or erode, to sanction can mean endorse or penalize, or to dust can mean apply or remove (dust). My favorite Janus word in relation to parenting has always been “to cleave,” which can mean to cling to or separate from something (or someone). The parent-child relationship often features one person clinging to the other and one person trying to separate from the other, though each person’s role changes according to context. At that red light, I was cleaving to family while she was cleaving from family.

The moment reminded me of a bookend from thirteen years ago that also occurred in a car. When Lauren was just seven months old, my wife and I moved to an Orlando, Florida hotel for two months while my wife completed a medical rotation at a cancer hospital. Yes, that’s correct: I was a stay-in-hotel-room father to an infant for two full months. Let’s just say the Comfort Inn became a misnomer in a hurry. In addition, Lauren had just started sleeping through the night, but that ended in the hotel’s rickety crib. The result? Sheer exhaustion.

The point-of-two-faces happened one afternoon when baby Lauren and I were speeding around town in our tiny rental car. After she fell asleep in her car seat behind me, I parked and tried to work on a book review in the front seat. I had not yet accepted that my becoming an at-home parent with a wife who worked long hours would seriously curtail my production as a writer, at least for a few years.

Shortly into my writing session, Lauren started crying. It was incredibly frustrating, but I knew I had reached a limit. Tired beyond words, I looked back at my crying baby in her car seat, and it seemed fitting that she was facing backwards and I was facing forwards. Together we made a Janus face, though one that demanded adjustment. Obviously, I needed to be more in sync with her needs, to welcome her inevitable clinging and cease trying to separate from it. So I stopped writing for a time, and in the process became a better father.

Ironically, I started appreciating those moments with my child that become the cherished memories a parent clings to at red lights when his child is a teenager longing to drive away into the sunset. I realized a parent’s face is a constant mix of past and future, which leads to the tendency to forget the present moment right before one’s nose. In other words, parents are tweens too.

Thanks to these bookends, I can imagine the not-so-distant future when Lauren will have migrated from the car seat to the passenger seat to the driver’s seat. Little did I know, however, that as we switch places, we also switch faces. Talk about a Father-Daughter Dance.

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is writing a memoir on gender and parenting. His writing has appeared at The New York Times “Motherlode” and The Washington Post “On Parenting” (among other venues), and he has been featured at CNN Parents. Visit him at www.vincentokeefe.com or on Twitter @VincentAOKeefe or Facebook at Vincent O’Keefe.

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess: A Book Review

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess: A Book Review

By Christina Krost

7 cover artI am sitting on the floor trying to reconcile fifth- and first-grade school supply lists with things we already have on hand when my daughters wandered in to inspect my neat piles.

“Isn’t that my stuff from last year?” Yes, I kept those blunt-tip scissors.

“Why can’t we just get all new stuff like everyone else?” Because that three-ring binder and pencil box can be embellished with patterned duct tape.

And so begins a typical battle in the war I’m waging against excess. It’s true that we can afford all new school supplies, but does that mean we must buy everything new, every year? Of course we all want the best for our kids, but does it always have to cost us?

This is the basic premise of Jen Hatmaker’s book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. Hatmaker, her family, and “The Council,” a group of close friends and advisors, embarked on a seven-month experiment against waste in their households. Hatmaker chose seven areas in which to reduce: food, clothes, possessions, media, waste, spending, and stress. She focused on each area with her family of seven for an entire month.

Hatmaker, a pastor’s wife, writer, and speaker, journals her struggles and successes giving up what we would consider common American comforts while working through her desire to follow religious teachings about possessions. For example, during the food month she and her family chose seven foods to eat: chicken, eggs, whole-wheat bread, sweet potatoes, spinach, avocados, and apples. During the clothing month she chose and wore only seven articles of clothing. She gave away much of what remained in her closet. The possessions month went the same way–she gave away seven items each day.

The media month shut down seven screens including TV, gaming, Facebook, Twitter, and radio. Cell phone use was limited to emergencies and the Internet was only used when necessary for jobs or schoolwork. The family learned to recycle, compost, and garden during waste month. They drove only one car and bought only local or thrifted goods. Spending month had them funnel their money to only seven vendors—a gas station, farmer’s market, online bill pay and Target.  During stress month they kept one night a week as a “sabbath” to recharge as a family.

Though Jen Hatmaker is an author and was likely paid in advance to turn her experiment into a book, her purpose was to see what would happen to her heart, her family, and her close friends by living with less. No one died from lack of anything. In fact, the family started truly living.

How? Hatmaker’s family began living with purpose. Instead of falling victim to the affliction of immediate gratification, they started watching their dollars carefully and intentionally. They saved more and gave more away. They found that their basic needs could be met with far less than originally thought. They waited before making purchases to see if after a month they still needed it or simply forgot about it. They stopped being slaves to stuff. As they stopped consuming they started reducing their impact on the Earth, but increased the impact they were making in their community.

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess is written by someone raised in a Christian tradition. I would have liked to read more about how other faith traditions handle consumption or prosperity theology. I am certain we have much to learn from each other and that much common ground exist between us.

It’s been a few years since the Hatmaker experiment with excess, and I’m curious if all the lessons stuck. In my work with an Earth care non-profit, I see this happen frequently: people are inspired to make real change after presented with information about smart energy and climate change or sustainable food and land use, but a few months later they’ve slid back into old routines. But in the end, Maya Angelou’s famous words ring true: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

I sent my kids off to school this year with old backpacks and lunchboxes, reused pencil cases, binders, scissors and folders. We bought new crayons and markers because, well, I’m not a monster. We purchased tree-free bamboo tissues and paper towels for the classrooms. I spent slightly less than usual, but I feel slightly more in control of our consumption. And that’s an excess I can live with.

Christina Krost is teacher, mother, and United Methodist pastor’s wife who works for an Earth care non-profit. She lives with her husband and three young daughters in rural central Illinois and blogs at thekrostfamily.blogspot.com.

Burning

Burning

photo-1416512167529-8550765ae0bb

I didn’t tell him that the only thing I wanted in this life was to be his mother again.

 

In early July, my eldest son, Jacob, called to say he couldn’t make it for my dad’s birthday party at the end of the month because his boss wouldn’t give him the time off. He had moved from Albuquerque to a small town in northern Wyoming almost a year earlier and I’d only seen him once since.

“Oh, man. That sucks. I was so excited to see you,” I said, trying hard to express my disappointment without laying any guilt on him. We chatted for awhile and when I hung up the phone, crushed because I ached to put my arms around him, to put my head on his shoulder the way he rested his head on mine for the first 13 years of his life when I knew him so well I felt like I could read his mind.

He said he couldn’t come and then, two days before my dad’s birthday, I looked out the window and Jacob’s truck was in my driveway. I ran through the house and out the front door and then I was hugging him, gorging on the feel of him, squeaking in his ear like a pre-teen girl, “You’re here! I can’t believe you’re here! You said you couldn’t come!”

I pulled away from him and he shrugged. “I thought it would be fun to surprise you. You really didn’t know?”

“I really didn’t, and I was so sad,” and I squeezed him again, making him laugh.

During the six days of his visit, I made Jacob a little nutty with my desire to hang onto him. Hungry for his presence, I wanted to hug him, sit next to him, be near him. He’s 21 years old, so the fact that he’s moved away and into a life of his own is normal, but the story of our relationship isn’t one of a son who lives with his mother until he’s grown and ready to move away. Jacob hasn’t lived with me since he was 13, when he left my house in a storm of fury and pain to live full-time with his dad. For the next five years we rarely spoke or saw each other as Jacob’s dad exploited my parental weakness during a time of crisis in my life and taught Jacob to hate me.

I remember a phone call soon after Jacob’s 18th birthday and I was resting my hot forehead against the cold window of my bedroom, tears rolling down my face and neck and into the collar of my shirt and I was silent. I will hear his pain I said to myself as he spoke his anguish to me. I don’t ever have to see you again. I don’t have a mom. You never loved me. Do you hear me? Are you listening? Do you know that I hate you? You will never see me again.

I hear you, I said. I’m listening, I said, and the cold window against my forehead was a lie because the world was burning and I burned with the world until I was a heap of ashes on the floor in front of the cold window, my pain the only solid thing left of me.

Two weeks after the phone call that burned me to the ground, another phone call, this one asking for help. “I don’t know what to do, Mom. I failed most of my classes last semester and I can’t find a job. I was afraid I’d end up working in fast food forever, and now I can’t even get some shitty job frying burgers.” I heard the tears and fear in his voice and I prayed before each word I spoke: I’ll help you. We’ll find a way for you to get your high school diploma that isn’t so hard. I love you I love you I love you. I didn’t tell him that the only thing I wanted in this life was to be his mother again.

I hate navigating large bureaucracies and Job Corps registration isn’t a quick or easy process, but I enjoyed it because it meant time with Jacob. As we gathered the paperwork that Job Corps required, I savored teaching Jacob how to create a home filing system. We shopped for shower shoes and toiletries and I never once checked my checking account balance, so thrilled was I to do this most ordinary of parental tasks. I was so filled with joy I was nearly giddy and I had to remind myself to match his mood, lest I annoy him so much that he would decide to ask his dad for help instead of me.

I don’t know why he lay down his bitter anger that day to call me; I’ve never asked. I only know that we explored his options together and, when he chose Job Corps as a place to finish high school and get some job training, he let me help him register for their residential program. We nurtured our nascent relationship on a dozen thirty-minute drives to the campus, talking about books, music, and his future, but never his anger. Never my pain. We didn’t talk about us, or the five preceding years when we scarcely spoke at all.

During Jacob’s visit at the end of July, I wanted to insist that he spend all of his time with me, but this is a family, and families are better when they’re made up of volunteers, not hostages, so I controlled my urges to beg and demand. We went out to dinner, celebrated my dad’s birthday, and spent a couple of long afternoons working at our respective computers at my dining room table. I was ebullient when I was with him and melancholic when he spent time with his friends, but I tried to remember that 21 year olds want to spend time with their friends and that’s a normal thing, not a rejection of me. The years without him have left me scorched and shriveled and Jacob’s presence is like water, but it’s not his job to heal me. I mourn over the years we lost and the relationship I wished we would have, but if I turn my grief into his guilt, I’d shift a burden to the young man whose burdens I want to ease. I’d not see our relationship become a malignant thing again, as it was during his teens.

After six days in Albuquerque, Jacob returned to Wyoming. I hugged him three times as he tried to leave and I ached to keep him here, but I didn’t beg because no matter her feelings, the parent of a grown child doesn’t have that right. I urged him to be careful, to drive safely, and there was a pleading note in my voice because I’ve lost too much time with him to lose more.

We talk on the phone a few times a month and if the conversations are uneasy sometimes, it’s because we don’t know each other as well as we’d like, not because there is acerbity under the surface. Discomfort and unfamiliarity are better than bitterness, but it isn’t the ease and intimacy most parents would hope to have with an adult child. When Jacob calls or texts me, I always feel a thrill. In between the calls and texts and all-too-rare visits, I miss him, and I have learned to live with the missing. I’ve become accustomed to the grief for the years we lost and the relationship we might have had. I hold the grief in one hand and my tremendous gratitude for the gift of being his mom in the other, and most of the time the two balance.

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

Photo: Casey Frye

My Girls Will Be Fine

My Girls Will Be Fine

By Francie Arenson Dickman

unnamed

When it comes to mothering, getting to do it is the only thing that matters.

 

I’d planned to refurbish our house this summer. Not a little nip and tuck but an overhaul. Picking up floors. Wrecking walls. Reconstruction. We’ve lived in our home for almost a decade, our home needed to be tended to. I don’t like decorating. I don’t like any activity that pulls me away from my daily routine. So you can imagine my reaction when, a week before my kids left for eight weeks of overnight camp, I was diagnosed with breast cancer (from an annual mammogram, so please, girls, go get your mammograms). I kept the news mostly to myself, but back-burnered appointments with the architect and scheduled them with a surgeon instead. There was a biopsy. An MRI. An opinion. A second. A lumpectomy. A second one of those, too. And lots of waiting. The worst part is the waiting. All the while I went through the motions of summer and watched the online camp pictures, my children in blissful ignorance. Then, timed with their return, I was told I needed a mastectomy. The wrecking and rebuilding would be mine.

“You are going to be fine, you will not die from this,” my breast surgeon told me so many times over the next 8 weeks that he offered to voice record himself into my phone because his words have a 2 second half-life in my head. There’s nothing like a little case of cancer to trigger the ultimate case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to right your perspective, to realize that when it comes to mothering, getting to do it is the only thing that matters.

An older, wiser friend had tried to teach me this lesson a long time ago, when my kids were little, when my husband was on the road and I was doing what I do best, complaining about being buried in a mother’s mundane and demanding tasks. She told me to spin the way I looked at the tasks. “You don’t have to give them baths, you get to. You don’t have to clean their spills, you get to.” I laughed as one would at any preposterous suggestion. Over the years, my girlfriend and I would joke about it. “We don’t have to drive 5 hours to sit on the floor of a convention center for days while our daughters’ dance, we get to.” I’m not laughing now. Well, certainly not as much. At least I get to say that it seems I have a “good” kind of cancer. It hasn’t spread. It’s noninvasive.

Nonetheless, how it’s invaded. I put my girls, oblivious to my circumstances, on a bus in late June, with the expectation that by the time they returned 8 weeks later, I’d be able to speak to them about what happened in past tense. A blip on the radar, a bump in the road. I’d get it treated. I’d go on redecorating as planned. But plans, especially when microscopic cells are involved, do not always go as such. I didn’t plan to write my kids 8 weeks’ worth of letters filled with half-truths, but I did. “I didn’t go to the concert because I had a migraine.” “We didn’t go to Michigan because a tornado hit our condo.” (Ironically, a tornado actually did hit the condo, so technically, it wasn’t a lie, but that wasn’t the reason we didn’t go.) I didn’t plan to keep my life a secret from friends I speak to regularly. But, in order to prevent the same type of disaster that happened in grade school, when my classmate found out her mother had breast cancer from another kid on the playground, I did. And I definitely didn’t plan for them to return in the eye of the storm, their mother’s major surgery coinciding with the start of school, and even worse, the start of dance. (You know something’s really out of whack when you are checking your surgery date against your daughter’s performance schedule.)

So, for the first and I pray only time in their camp careers, I anticipated their August return with a touch of dread. The waiting is the worst. I wondered if they would be angry with me for lying to them. I’ve never lied to them. I’m a stickler for telling it like it is, a habit left over from my lawyering days. “Lying by omission is nonetheless a lie,” is one of my favorite parenting lines. Is there an exception if the lying was in the best interests of the children? And since I’d already lied, would the children then believe me when I told them as the doctors told me, “I’ll be okay?”

Would the daughter with anxiety, the fear of bodily disfunction and disease, spin out of control? Or would she have matured enough over the years to keep it together, to perhaps even (dare I say it) rise to the occasion during my recovery, and take care of things, like the dog or maybe her mother, that fall outside the purview of her typical adolescent concerns (i.e. herself). I hoped that my speech would go as planned, that when I told them as I’d rehearsed—something involving the words Stage 0 and Angelina Jolie—and they saw that I seemed fine, that they’d be fine, too. They would take me at my word and turn their attention towards their bedrooms, which I did manage to redo under the wire, the paint fully dry only minutes before the buses arrived. As for the rest of the house, I’d get to it later.

Or should I say, I get to get to it later. Just as, I keep reminding myself, I get to show my kids their new rooms, and see my daughter’s face fall because I painted hers a darker shade of lavender than she’d requested. I get to watch them panic when I deliver my news, I even get to have them angry with me for not telling them sooner. Then, I get to unpack their bags. I get to do their laundry. I get to drive them around again and dole out cash. In a month’s time, their new bedrooms will be a mess, as will be the rest of the house, but God willing, when I write next, I will at least get to say that the girls in the house, all 3 of us (along with the fresh ones on my chest) are fine.

Author’s Note: A month has now passed, and I am grateful to get to say that thanks to my fabulous doctors and my extraordinary family and friends who I am so lucky to have, we are, in fact, all fine. I could write a whole essay about the conversation I had with my girls and the way they handled themselves throughout, but I will summarize by saying that the experience taught me that my kids are braver, stronger and more mature than I knew. And actually, I am, too.

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

A Last Meal

A Last Meal

By Naseem Rakha 

unnamed

Two days after Dad died, he made us dinner.

We sat at my table and we ate a feast of Qabooli Biryani and Mirchi Ka Salan, both dishes typical to Hyderabad, India where Dad was born and raised.

Qabooli is a lentil Biriyani made with basmati rice and channa dal. It requires a careful hand washing of the rice, rinsing out all the starch from the grains until the water runs clear. It requires a sorting and picking of the dal (golden lentils), ridding any that may be of poor quality. Then the two, the rice and the lentils, must be drained and let dry. The same must be done with the finely sliced onions, squeezed of excess liquid, they must air dry before they are carefully set in a half inch of sizzling hot oil and stirred to a delicate golden brown. The Qabooli requires garlic and ginger to be peeled and puréed into a fine paste, and then a grinding of spices. It requires a precise measurement of turmeric, cardamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, mint and fresh squeezed lemon. And then, and this is critical, it requires that both the rice and channa dal be par-boiled to a place that is not quite done, so that once the five elementsthe rice, the dal, the golden onion, the garlic/ginger puree, and spices are all layered together, and then drizzled with an infusion of cream and saffronit can be covered, and sealed and baked to the exact point in which when a spoon breaks into the its golden surface, each hand washed grain emerges tender and whole and separate and distinct.

The second dish, Mirchi Ka Salan or Green Chili Curry, is the equivalent of creating a Mole, it is time consuming and complicated to make. The paste itself has more than 12 ingredients. But the end product is unique and flavorful; it is one of my favorites.

When my sister came home on Monday the 12th of January, Dad was in the kitchen preparing to cook. It was 6:30 in the evening, the College Football National Championships were on the TV, and Dad was at his cutting board preparing the onions, his kitchen towel characteristically tossed over his shoulder. When Shameem asked what he was starting, she felt exasperated that Dad had taken on such a big project so late in the day. She had worked all day, she was tired. But, this was her dad. And we all knew his days were limited. There was the kidney disease, the heart problem, the iron build up from transfusions, the fatigue, the pink hospital form taped boldly to his refrigerator: Do not resuscitate. So Shameem set aside her exhaustion and spent the rest of the night cooking with Dad.

What surprised my sister most about the meal, she told me, was how much food he was preparing. This was not just for the two of them. Dad clearly had something else in mind. Perhaps a party the coming weekend. She didn’t ask. Instead they chopped, and stirred, and fried, and mixed, and boiled, and baked their way through the might. Finally, somewhere around midnight, they finished and put it all in the refrigerator for another day.

That day came the following Friday, 45 hours after Dad died from a tumble on a Portland Streetcar. Earlier in the day my family and I had gone to the funeral home and arranged for his cremation. Then, before heading back to my house, we went to Dad’s place, opened his refrigerator and took out the last meal he had ever prepared.

When my father came to the United States in his early 20’s, he had no idea how to cook. In his home in Hyderabad, India cooking was the work of servants, not the family and definitely not the men. Still he attempted to replicate the food he most missed. But trying to cook Indian food in the 1950’s and 60’s in the US, when Indian spices were not as ubiquitous as they are today, made the process of cooking a challenge. Yet he did not give upcollecting recipes and spices and experimenting at every opportunity.

One of Dads favorite things in his later years was to have friends and family over for large meals, even though those meals, particularly as he got older, would often take him more than a week to fully prepare. It frustrated him that his arthritis made it slower to peel and chop, or that the onions would seem to burn more frequently, or that hed forget ingredients, or would sometimes spill an entire meal trying to transfer it from one heavy pot to another. It frustrated him that cooking would make him so tired. Still, just the weekend before he died, Dad told me he wanted to make Shrimp Pulau one last time. It is another time consuming dish, and it is also a dish, due to his very limited diet, he could no longer eat. Yet, that is what he wanted to make, for us, his children, all of us in our forties and fifties now, all watching our father with greater and greater levels of anxiety and sadness and love. 

Unfortunately, Dad never got to make the Shrimp Pulau. Two days after he made the Qabooli and Green Mirchi Ka Salan he had his fall while riding the streetcar. At the hospital he refused treatment. He told us he was going to die that night. We fought him. We wanted him to live. But he knew better. He understood that his fall was a way out from the longer more agonizing death he faced, and then four hours after sunset, with Portlands lights glimmering out the hospital window, he died. His breathing became more and more labored. We could not imagine saying goodbye. And then, he was gone.

We brought the meal to my home after the funeral arrangements were madethree tired, distraught children, heads spinning, knees wobbling, all in need of comfort, and not knowing how to find it. And there it was, seeping into the house from the oven, the scent of rice and dal and ginger and onion. Saffron and chile, turmeric and cardamon. The scent of Dad bent over a stove, cooking for us one last time.

Naseem is the daughter of Mohammed Allah Rakha and Beverly Francis Schafer, both of whom are now gone. She raises her 15-year-old son with her husband in Oregon. She is the author of the award-winning novel, The Crying Tree, and is a journalist and geologist and naturalist. And she spends her free time backpacking, gardening, knitting, reading and writing. Dads recipe for Qabooli Biryani and Mirchi Ka Salan, can be found on Shameem Rakhas blog Scratch: For the love of all things homemade.

My Stepdaughter-to-Be Helped Me Heal

My Stepdaughter-to-Be Helped Me Heal

By Bonnie Jean Feldkamp

Al and me Ceremony

My boyfriend’s daughter processed her trauma in bouts of rage. It echoed through every corridor of the house. Her eruptions started with slammed cupboards in the kitchen and ended with shouts of fury over feeling unloved or unwanted. My love, she recognized as an intrusion on her time with her father. Only Dad could pack her lunch for school, and only Dad could help her with homework. If she couldn’t find an article of clothing she wanted to wear, only Dad could help her find it, even if I had done the laundry.

I was there to love her dad, not her. Right? We weren’t married yet. She wasn’t even my stepdaughter. I didn’t have any obligation to even pretend to love her. But I did love her. And I loved her for reasons that had nothing to do with where she came from or who fathered her. I loved her spirit, her resilience, and her sassy humor. When she was open, we talked, ventured out into the city together or sat in front of a good movie and crafted string bracelets. But when we got too close she didn’t trust it, so she raged. She wasn’t angry with me. She was angry with the woman who let her down. I got the “redirect” the therapist said.

Once, she raged to the point of destruction. She pulled the framed graphite and white pastel sketch of herself from the wall to smash it. It had been a gift I commissioned for her father. I recognized her disappointment in life. She refused to be a commodity or pawn, some leftover from her father’s previous marriage. I’ve been there and I’ve felt that. I grabbed her by the chin. “Listen to me,” I said, “I love you.” Her dad swooped in to catch her collapse. Her rage melted into sobs on his shoulder, she released the sketch from her grip. We repeated, “I love you,” to her over and over again. The words had to penetrate and disarm.

Summertime arrived and she went to a week-long wilderness camp for girls. It was the kind of camp that stripped away superficiality and uncovered a woman’s inner strength. Tents on a freshwater beach, no showers, and when they had to “go,” they nature-peed in the sand. They even filtered their own drinking water from the lake. The girls learned about womanhood, cycles, and sexuality. All of the empowerment a Red Tent community could muster. No technology. Complete seclusion. She got to celebrate her individuality in an atmosphere of supportive women.

At home, her dad and I transformed her bedroom from that of a girl’s to one that represented her crossover to womanhood. She was thirteen-years-old. Bamboo hardwood replaced carpet and we bought her a pillow-topped queen-sized bed. My week focused on the positive forces in her life. I rallied the women in mine and her father’s families. I asked for their stories of strength. One grandma wrote of her journey to the United States from Mexico as a child and the other wrote of being tear-gassed during civil rights protests in college. I filled the book with these stories along with positive photographs of her childhood.

The camp week ended ceremoniously with the girls and their female mentors. No boys allowed. I sat in an open barn with the mothers of other campers. Nervous. We were each given a red boa to symbolize our child-bearing position in womanhood and were told to wait. I didn’t know anything about her week yet, but I was already proud of her accomplishments. She had done it. I wondered if she would swear to never do it again, or tell me that roughing it was not for her. “How dare you send me out in the wilderness with these hippy chicks and no bathroom?” I imagined her saying. But I knew her spirit well enough to know that she would approach it with enthusiasm. She enjoys a challenge and loves to learn. For her, the anticipation was the hardest part.

I saw her come over the hill from the woods with the group of campers. She looked dirty and bug-bitten, but she wore a smile. They gave her a white boa to symbolize her stage in life’s cycle.

In the barn, the chairs formed a semicircle and when she sat next to me she grasped my hand. The girls each lit a candle and placed it in the circle. Each camper told us what they saw as their personal contribution to the world. She said that she contributed reliability. Of course she did. Her responsible nature was rooted in a childhood of self reliance by necessity.

We all played a game together. It involved a roll of twine that got tossed back and forth across the circle. Each person held on to the string as they tossed, which resulted in a large web. We set it at our feet. One-by-one in front of the group, Mothers sat with their daughters to tell them how wonderful they are and offer their boasts of pride and growth. Each mom removed her red boa and gave it to their daughter to welcome her into womanhood.

My heart pounded and my nerves shook me. It was our turn. I sat across from my girl at the open end of the semicircle. Words wouldn’t come. They choked in my throat with false starts. I stared at the web on the floor. She reached across and slipped her hand under the one in my lap. She squeezed it and I looked at her.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…” were the first words to come out of my mouth. “I’ve been through a lot of crap in my life. And you, you are my reward.”

That was the moment that I understood that I knew how to love this girl because of what I had survived — a mother dead at age seven, a stepmother I resisted through my adolescence, a stepmother who left us when I was 17 and a dad who threw me out shortly after I graduated high school. A child-in-waiting who never came to be at age 19.

She made me grateful to know what I know. Some people do go away and it hurts like hell. Others come back, like my stepmom did. We reconnected five years after she divorced my father. I have also reconciled with my dad. I know how to do this. I know how to heal and I know how to let go. And I can show her that some people do stay. She belonged with her dad and me. No matter how much she had tested us, pushed us away or how much she had raged through her own abandonment, we were there. While I helped her through her own hurt, she also helped me through some of mine. She helped me look through my own abandonment and see that it wasn’t about me at all. I saw it so clearly within her circumstance that I couldn’t deny it in my own. My stepmom loved me when I let her. My dad was grief-stricken for the second time in his life. It wasn’t about me at all, even though the time I was cheated out of should’ve been.

“You make the pain in my life make sense,” I told her.

I stood up from my chair with tear-filled eyes. The red boa still around my neck, I had forgotten the whole point of the camp ceremony. I stopped short and put the red boa on her neck and said, “Oh… and welcome to womanhood.” I heard a few chuckles and remembered the audience. They were crying too.

A photographer snapped pictures of us. We walked away from the group. I put my arm around her and said, “I feel like we just got married.”

She laughed. “We’ll have to tell Dad you married me first.”

I gave her my gift and she handed me an envelope. She had written me a letter. In it, she wrote, “I want you to know who I am… and even though you did not give birth to me, I am writing this to you.”

We had gotten married. I am forever hers.

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer, wife, and mother of three. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WriterBonnie or Twitter @writerbonnie

Microwave Chicken

Microwave Chicken

By Brooke Williams

185242467

When your mother is a therapist, your actions always have deeper meaning. Apparently, the fact that I never liked microwaves, pantyhose, bed skirts, careers or self-help books was my way of rebelling against her.

 

We were the first family in Decatur, Illinois to own a microwave oven.

The massive appliance took over the kitchen counter, emasculating the toaster oven the day my mother brought it home in 1975. The entire family gathered around it the first time she set the timer for 10 minutes to cook a hot dog. While I marveled at the charred remains from the explosion at four minutes, my mother saw a bigger picture, immediately recognizing the power and the potential of the microwave. It was not just an appliance; it was the key to freedom and equality of the sexes.

My mother had worked part-time since I started kindergarten, a near deviant act in our small town where women were supposed to stay home and have dinner ready for their husbands at 5:30. Always rushing from work to school pick-up to home, my mother served dinner late, European style, but we weren’t cool, it just took hours for her chicken casserole to bake.

After the microwave arrived, dinner could be on the table in minutes. Every woman and man should own one so they could “get out of their kitchens and on with their lives,” my mother proclaimed.

Using her job at the community college as a platform, she coordinated “Men Do the Cooking” a microwave cooking class. My reluctant attorney father attended and as soon as he learned how to nuke peas, my mother announced she was going to graduate school. For the next three years, my father cooked frozen peas and grilled steak for dinner every evening while my mother got a Masters Degree in Psychology.

The microwave even served as a parenting tool to keep my brother and me from fighting on long car trips. Speaking softly, just above the hum of the engine, my mother would lead us in a series of guided imagery exercises as the car sped down the interstate.

“Now I want you to take all the tension from your body and pour it into a pyrex bowl and put it in the microwave on high for five minutes.”

“Ding, ding, ding,” her voice mimicked the cadence of the timer.

My favorite part came after the last ding, when she whispered: “When you open up the microwave, you see that your tension has melted into a boiling hot liquid that you pour down, down, down the drain.”

As a college graduation present, my mother tried to buy me a microwave. My refusal shocked her, initiating a comprehensive campaign to change my mind that spanned the next two decades.

“How can you call yourself a modern woman?” she always asked. Wonder turned into resentment during my first pregnancy. “Brooke Ninette, you aren’t single anymore. It is downright irresponsible for a mother not to own a microwave.”

When your mother is a therapist, your actions always have deeper meaning. Apparently, the fact that I never liked microwaves, pantyhose, bed skirts, careers or self-help books was my way of rebelling against her.

It got harder to tune out my mother when she teamed up with my mother-in-law. During the seventies, Louise taught college history, held women’s rights meetings in her kitchen, raised three kids and still managed to bottle her own ketchup.

The two old feminists ambushed me at 41 weeks when they were camped out at my house waiting for the baby to arrive. During a trip to Target, they took over my cart, piling it with Clorox wipes, thank you notes and a 12-pack of yellow rubber gloves before wheeling into the appliance aisle.

“You simply can’t have a baby without a microwave,” Louise asserted as though it was a car seat.

“What’s the big deal?” my mother demanded.

The truth was I wanted to feed my baby homemade chicken soup that had simmered on the stove all day and vegetables from the farm stand down the road from our house in Maine where we had moved for the bucolic lifestyle.

The first year of my son’s life I stayed home and tried to be the perfect mother. In the process of stirring my soup, wiping my babies’ nose and bottom, washing and folding onesies, I discovered that I liked and needed to work. In the dark of the night, I wrote in my journal, wondering if this made me a bad or good mom, and whether I was more like my own mother than I cared to admit.

Getting a part-time job improved my sanity, but now I was the one rushing from work to preschool to home. Being pregnant again made me rethink the microwave. Maybe it could make my life easier? It didn’t have to be a lifestyle—just a tool.

Admitting this to my mother, I could feel her pumping her fist in triumph all the way down in her Florida condo. She and Louise immediately offered to co-sponsor the microwave and then the phone calls started.

“You need a carpenter to build the microwave over your oven so you don’t waste valuable counter space,” said my mother.

Louise called next. “The microwave simply must have a hood so your house doesn’t smell like hamburgers.

The carpenter told me I also needed an electrician.  “This microwave is going to end up costing us over $1,000,” my husband ranted, halting construction. “When exactly is it going to start making our life easier?”

The appliance sat in its box for months. I almost sold it, but in my nesting fervor, installing the microwave was the last thing I checked off my list before our daughter was born.

Returning from the hospital, it was also the first thing I noticed. To accommodate its girth the Whirlpool Hood Combo 2000 had to be attached directly to the soffit and it now hung over the stove like a sky box at a football stadium. Starving, I decided not to judge the appliance until after it made me lunch.

My soup was boiling in three minutes, but it took another four and a stepladder to not spill scalding chicken broth on my head. Balanced on the ladder, like I was doing the sun salutation with a soup bowl, I heard Louise and my mother in the next room remark:

“Why on earth would anyone put a microwave up that high?”

I wanted to scream: “This was your idea!” But it was useless. The microwave may have freed my feminist mothers but it enslaved me.

After I finished my soup, I checked on my newborn daughter. Starring into her pure face, I wondered if she was going to like microwaves, pantyhose, bed skirts, careers and self-help books. The only thing I knew for certain was that my daughter would rebel against me, and good for her.

Brooke Williams is a writer from Maine whose essays have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Christian Science Monitor and on NPR. You can read more of her work at brookenwilliams.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Author Interview: Amy Yelin

Author Interview: Amy Yelin

IMG_0450Amy Yelin is the author of this month’s feature story about raising our children while also caring for our parents. Here is what she had to say about writing this feature story.

What was the most surprising piece of research you found while writing the article?

I was blown away by the predicted number of aging baby boomers expected by the year 2029: 61.3 million people!  I must also thought the phrase “silver tsunami” was kind of brilliant.

What interested you most about this topic?

I had a personal interest in this topic because I am one of the sandwiched…although I didn’t really realize it until I started writing. The opportunity to research and write this piece came to me only shortly after my visit with my father in March, and after I’d spent time writing about a local assisted living facility for a freelance client. The universe apparently wanted me to focus on the sandwich generation and elder care. I was really interested in both the history of “the sandwich,” which Stephanie Coontz kindly shared, and Carol Abaya’s advice, particularly her advice not to move your elderly parent. That was new to me, and reassuring because I’ve often felt badly that I don’t live closer to my father. Also: discovering Caring Across Generations and learning about the work they are doing, which I think is just brilliant. And hopeful.

What was the most challenging part of writing the article?

I think it was synthesizing so much information: the research, with my story, with the interviews, both the families and the experts. Connecting all the dots–which I find both challenging and, when it eventually works, satisfying.

If you were able to include more information what would you have added?

Perhaps more resources for people who are living in the sandwich. Writing the story it became clear how confusing and overwhelming navigating the current system can be. And perhaps advice on how to have “the conversation” with your elderly parent(s)– about their wishes for end of life care, and whether they have the proper documents in place. It can be a really difficult conversation to have. I admit I have yet to approach the topic with my own father.

What do you want the reader to take away after reading this feature?

I hope readers find something to connect with–something that makes them feel better about their own situation, and to know they are not alone. One piece of advice I really love came from Stephanie Coontz who said that despite how hard the situation is for those of us who are sandwiched, in reality this is a positive development because we are doing much more for our families than people did in the past. That we can take a little solace in this.

How do you balance motherhood and writing?

It’s pretty challenging. Because it’s not just just motherhood and writing–it’s motherhood, writing and making a living. I recognized before kids how much joy writing brings me, so I find ways to do it, no matter what. Sometimes I run away, to writing conferences; last summer I went to to the Vermont Studio Center for two whole weeks! This was thanks to a fellowship from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which offers money and fellowships for writing residencies to parents who have kids under age 18. Mostly it’s a crazy juggling act. I’m most prolific when I commit to getting up early in the morning and writing. I really need the quiet. And I’ve gotten better at not beating myself up when I’m not writing much. I know i’ll get back to it.

Return to the September 2015 Issue

Sibling Resemblances

Sibling Resemblances

By Heather Cole

ColeFamily2

Although my youngest has been in our family for less than half his life—he walks and talks like we do. He holds his head like my husband; he rolls his eyes just like me.

 

“All I want is for my children to resemble each other.”

I was having a conversation with a dear friend who, after years of secondary infertility, was embarking on the journey of egg donation to complete her family. Lisa and her husband had already selected the donor from an online database, matching the donor’s ethnicity, physical features and interests to their own. They were in the midst of the paperwork and psychological exams that were required before they could proceed.

My husband and I had also suffered years of infertility but eventually adopted two boys out of our state’s foster care system. That, too, had been a long, stressful journey which included having a child returned to his birthparents after nine months living in our home. Lisa had witnessed this and had been one of the many shoulders I had cried on over the past five years. Although initially interested in adopting their second child, our rocky journey had scared Lisa and her husband away.

“I don’t think I could survive what you’ve been through,” she said on several occasions.

I smiled, shook my head and responded to my friend who had suffered multiple miscarriages, “We all do what we have to do. Your hell just looks a little different than mine.”

Loss and grief are at the heart of the journey for those of us for whom family-building is not as simple as an unmediated romp in the sack. There is the initial grief at the loss of the ease of parenthood, followed by the loss of privacy via invasive tests and medical interventions. In many cases, there are multiple losses of pregnancies—and of all the hopes and dreams that grow exponentially faster than the cells in one’s womb.

Adoption is no easy solution, either. It took three long years of court hearings and legal paperwork before we were able to finalize the adoption of our youngest son. During that time we grappled daily with the fear that the bonds we were forming could be ripped apart with no recourse. Although we celebrated mightily once both our boys were permanent members of our family, we also know that our joy comes at a cost. Our sons have lost siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles from their biological families. They mourned the former foster parents who cared for them in their early months. We don’t yet know how these losses will affect our family in the years to come.

The matter under discussion this morning was yet another place of loss: the loss of having children who look like each other. The particular concern was the issue of dimples. Specifically, that Lisa and her biological son both have dimples but the egg donor did not.

“I just want my kids to resemble each other,” she sighed.

On this, I was able to offer Lisa some reassurance: “They will.”

People tell me all the time that my two boys, adopted from unrelated biological families, look just like each other. They are just nine months apart in age, but one is a slim, pale, blue-eyed child of French-Canadian descent and one is a stocky, hazel-eyed kid with the darker skin of his Portuguese biological grandparents. Until my eldest’s recent growth spurt, strangers would often ask me if they were twins. I shook my head and laughed as I reminded Lisa of this.

Lisa said, “Oh, but they do…” and pointed out their matching smiles in the first-day-of-school photograph on my phone.

“That’s just it—they don’t,” I said. “They look nothing like each other.”

I know this because I have a point of comparison: I have met the biological family members that my children resemble. My youngest has his birthmother’s deep-set eyes and sculpted eyebrows. It was the first thing I noticed the one time I met her: in court during the trial to terminate her parental rights. And my eldest is the spitting image of his 10-year-old biological brother. The brother I saw just once, along with my eldest’s three other biological siblings, at their birthmother’s wake.

Back when we bathed them together, it was such a wonder to discover how different their little bodies were: long fingers on one, stubby toes on the other; slender hips next to chunky thighs; tan and pink bellies against the white ceramic tub.

Despite the differences, my kids resemble each other in the ways that people notice: they do have matching smiles and in snapshots, twist their bodies together with their arms around the other’s neck. They both laugh big, open-mouthed laughs and drive their father and I crazy with their incessant nonsense chatter to each other. Although my youngest has been in our family for less than half his life—he walks and talks like we do. He holds his head like my husband; he rolls his eyes just like me.

I reassured Lisa: her family will shape the person her baby will become.

“Your baby will learn to smile by mirroring your smile. Your son will teach his little sister to dance and laugh. Your husband will show her how to stand when she throws a baseball. Genetics or not, she will be part of your family and you will become like each other.”

Heather S. Cole is a writer and mom who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In previous lives she managed a state-wide oral history project, ran study abroad programs and produced a public access TV show. She is currently working on a memoir about being a foster parent.

A Little Moving

A Little Moving

By Peyton Price

157181290

He’ll be leaving for college soon and I don’t want to face that dark empty doorway at the end of each night and the beginning of each morning.

 

We’re moving my 17-year-old son downstairs. He wants to stay online after midnight when I zombie-walk past his door, calling “Off. Offff.” My downstairs office is chilly all year and he likes to sleep cold, so it makes sense to trade rooms. But truly, he’ll be leaving for college soon and I don’t want to face that dark empty doorway at the end of each night and the beginning of each morning.

I decide he should settle in downstairs this summer so he feels at home on school breaks. When I left for college, my parents sold our house and moved my siblings to new construction outside of town. My unfamiliar bed was in a loft open to the two stories below. My things were packed in the basement. After that first summer, I never came back.

I walk past his bedroom and poke my head in, sighing at the job ahead. “You’ll have to get rid of some of this stuff, you know. You have too much junk in here.” He protests, “It’s not junk!” I reach out and grab the first thing I see for dramatic effect. “Really? You need a plastic baggie full of rocks? This is a treasure?” “Mom! Please! Why do you care?” I say something about how much work it is to move, and how many moves he’ll be making in the coming years but honestly, I’m not sure why I care whether he keeps his bag of rocks.

His childhood room is white, with a blue ceiling and a comic book wallpaper border. “Pick whatever color you want for your new room.” He picks white with blue trim. We paint my office together. He paints the ceiling without a ladder. I get streaks of white in my hair.

For a year or two, we had a groundhog living under the deck. After that, foxes occupied the empty hole. In the hawk’s abandoned nest, there are owls this year. Neighborhood people leave. New people come in and make a home. Still, when we walk past an overgrown garden or see a light on late at night, we think of who used to live there. When we give directions, we say, “Remember where the Kendricks used to live?” I wonder whether sitting at my desk in his old room will be worse than facing the empty door.

I’m picking paint colors for my soon-to-be office. We’ll have to prime the blue ceiling. My husband reminds me that under the comic book border, there’s another one with police cars and fire engines. This will make things harder.

I bring home big plastic totes from the hardware store. “Line these totes up on your bed. Mark them: Need Now, Need For College, Keepsakes, Trash. Start sorting. Do a little each day so you don’t get overwhelmed.”  He is underwhelmed. The totes sit there for weeks. I peek in and say things like, “Why don’t you start with the desk? …the shelf under the bed? …your nightstand?” He says things like, “Trust me! I’m going to do it all!” My husband says nothing but uses two of the totes for some other chore. When I’m packing up my desk, I find a rock shaped like a bird.

In the limbo between final exams and graduation, he decides to make his move. He fills three big blue plastic totes to tuck away into the space under the stairs. He marks them “school stuff,” “sports stuff,” and “kid stuff.” He fills three big black plastic trash bags, too heavy for me to lift. For a second or two I imagine what might be in them, but I decide it’s best not to dwell on it. Instead, I focus on the mysterious tokens he offers with a quick “You want this?” There are only two: His first bank (Noah’s ark, in shiny pastel ceramic) and a preschool art project (an oatmeal canister, I think, with a beat up construction paper teddy bear face and torn tissue fur). I want them. I don’t even want them and I want them.

Everything else gets set up in his new room, much as it was in the old room. A few trophies, a few model cars, a few vacation keepsakes, a few rocks. We tell him to close and lock his window every single night, that the AC pump makes noises, and that we want him to say goodnight to us in person, not by text. He hustles us out. We go upstairs without him and my husband asks, “What is happening?” Our son just moved a little farther away. Neither of us likes it much.

The first time fox kits were born under our deck, they were grown and gone by June. Still, I kept watch for weeks, then months. Nothing. Grandpop, who knows such things, assured me I’d see them again. “Keep an eye out in bad weather. They always come back.” Later that year, a tree-whipping storm blew in and one did come back—not a fuzzy little kit, but a young red fox. He darted back and forth a few times before finding a new way into the space he had grown out of.

Every night I text him to come up for a goodnight kiss and he does.

Peyton Price is the author of Suburban Haiku: Poetic Dispatches From Behind The Picket Fence. You can find her take on the good life around the web and at suburbanhaiku.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Everything About Everything

Everything About Everything

By Olivia Campbell

117297779

Parenting is less about acquired knowledge and more about becoming skilled in creatively winging it.

 

I had just strapped my almost-2-month-old son into his vibrating bouncy chair when the weight of my newfound responsibility of motherhood finally sunk in. It was a dreary winter afternoon in our drafty second-floor, one-and-a-half bedroom apartment in the museum district of Richmond, Virginia. The bouncy chair was one of the few places my son enjoyed being other than latched onto my nipple. At this point, I was only just beginning to acclimate to this state of constantly being needed by another human.

The bouncy chair was a simple machine: a fabric sleeve enveloping a wire frame with a battery pack that produced vibrations. The frame eased back with the weight of the baby and the more he moved, the more it bounced. The chair looked vaguely like a baby slingshot. On the arch curving over the chair hung three wild animals: two hard-plastic elephants: one green and one blue, each with large orange ears made of crinkly fabric that toy manufacturers hope babies will find as fun to gnaw as newspaper. In between the elephants hung a small yellow stuffed lion with pieces of teal ribbon for a mane. My son stared up at the colorful creatures dangling above him. It was a rare, beautiful moment of him being calm without being held. I looked down at him and said happily: “Look—it’s a lion!”

The minute those four simple words hit my own ears, I froze. But… that’s not a lion, I thought. It’s a tiny, plush, inanimate, goofy-smiling representation of a lion—a caricature almost. What if he thinks that this is actually a lion? Then it hit me:

I have to teach him everything about everything.

As a new mom to an unintended child—my logic twisted by the haze of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression—my thoughts began to get further away from me. I realized that whatever I told my son, he would assume as true, simply because I am his mother and he trusts me implicitly because he doesn’t know any better. But what if I lied to him on purpose, as an experiment: if I told him that blue is called red, just to see if it stuck. I was awash in a sense of power that felt as exciting as it was utterly terrifying.

What if I were to get it wrong? What if he grows up to be a terrible person? I was only a few weeks into my parenting gig and I’d already messed up. I’d already told him something that wasn’t true. What if he thought lions were stuffed animals?

Seven years have passed since the lion incident. I have made more parenting mistakes than I can count. He rolled off the bed once as an infant. Instead of missing my grad school class, I left him with a sitter when he had a terrible stomach bug. I yell too much. I cave too often. He plays too many video games and doesn’t eat enough vegetables. Some mistakes I probably haven’t even realized I’ve made. But to look back and only laugh this one off as “mommy’s first anxiety-spiral” is to overlook the tinder of truth that ignited my fear.

While I know I am not my son’s only source of knowledge, but as his parents, his father and I are likely the most influential: we are the gatekeepers, interpreters. As a mother, my sensitivity to this role feels especially acute. This—among so very many other reasons—makes raising my child a huge responsibility. Even now, if ruminated upon for too long, the responsibility becomes too overwhelming. Remaining perpetually occupied with the day-to-day processes of parenting helps prevent me from considering this responsibility too frequently or in too much depth. Otherwise, I might go mad questioning every little parenting decision. Anyway, despite my panic and against all stuffed animal odds, my son does not appear to be confused about what a lion is.

I’ve come to understand that parenting is less about acquired knowledge and more about becoming skilled in creatively winging it. I could have read every parenting book under the sun and still not have be prepared for what it has thrown at me—poop in the exersaucer, broken bones, questions about death, swearing at church, a backseat full of goldfish, among many other things.

My role as a parent is constantly evolving, as is my relationship with my children; many times they show me how they need to be parented. It was when I had a second child—who couldn’t be more different from my first—that I realized just how much of their behavior was actually a reflection of their personalities, not my parenting skills.

I know my 7-year-old and 2-year-old sons will continue to ask questions I won’t be able to answer. Some things we can learn together, other things they will come to understand far better than I do. Now, whenever we visit the lions at the zoo, I remember that little stuffed toy on the bouncy chair and I think of how much I’ve grown as a parent. It’s not that I have all the answers now, it’s that I’ve made peace with the fact that I don’t.

Olivia Campbell is an editorial assistant at VELA Magazine and a freelance writer whose articles and essays on medicine, dance, and mothering have appeared in Pacific Standard Magazine, GOOD Magazine, and The Daily Beast. She holds an master’s in narrative nonfiction: science-medical writing from Johns Hopkins University. 

Photo: gettyimages.com

Intolerable

Intolerable

fa19555e

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Matt Benson/Unsplash

The Perks of Being a Grandmother

The Perks of Being a Grandmother

By Susan McCoy

scrabble-word-tiles-family

“Well, Grandma,” he smiled, “at least you improved your vocabulary.”

 

Monday afternoon is Scrabble day. My 12-year-old grandson Jax and I hole up for a couple of hours at a local coffee shop for serious word competition. Well, perhaps I’m overstating … friendly, word building is a more accurate description.

This past Monday, after setting up the board, we went to the counter. The owner smiled, “Hi, ready for your game? You two want the usual? Hot Chocolate with marshmallows?” (He’s got us down. We are what you would call: regulars.)

Scrabble between us began this past fall and, as I said, I made sure my grandson knew that vocabulary building is the intent. During the first couple months he played open dictionary—this variant, dictionary use, was my idea and I thought using it would keep him on a level playing field. I recall those first few games me saying: Let’s not worry about who wins. We’ll go for improving our personal score each week. Deal?

I thought he had agreed. Me, I continued babbling about how fun it would be to play for the joy of making words and improving. I went so far as to discuss sportsmanship, like if he drew a challenging combination of letters. In fact, in the beginning games, we strategized together instead of staring blankly at a rack of lackluster tiles, for example: iiiiooe—boo hiss.

About 30 minutes into Monday’s game, an employee stopped by our table, chatting us up a bit. Who’s winning? Every week, someone asked that question: Who is winning? Why does everything have to be about winning?

I humbly adjusted my halo, “Oh we play to improve our vocabulary … the score doesn’t matter.” I offered a smile. How could anyone expect a twelve-year-old to beat an ole Scrabble fan like me?

Glancing over at Jax, I noticed he was studying his letters not even aware that a question had been asked.

He was taking a long time with his play. “Do you want me to look at your letters?” I asked sweetly.

“No, I want to figure it out myself.”

“Well, remember, you can use the dictionary if you want.”

“No, I’m okay.”

He reorganized the tiles several times on his rack, stopped, then bit his upper lip suppressing a smile. He looked at me, smiled full out and plunked down the word: perkish. The “k” covered a double letter, the “h” on a triple word and also joined to the word “ut” at the right angle forming “hut”—yes, another triple word. And, since he used all seven letters, a 50-point bonus was allowed.

Arrgh … my back straightened.

“Perkish? Is that a word … perkish?” I was taken back at the play.

“Well, if you are perky then can’t you be sort of perky?” We locked eyeballs. “That would be perkish,” he stated in a matter of fact tone.

I grabbed the dictionary. Yes, I knew we are playing for fun but … what kind of derivative of perky was that?

The answer to that question: perkish is not in Webster’s nor Oxford Dictionaries (I know this because later that evening, I looked it up at home—and, yes, I recognize what this says about me; don’t remind me) BUT, it is in the Scrabble Dictionary. And, according to Scrabble, a person can be sort of perky.

I added up his score: 131 points. I added it again … are you kidding me? 131 points. I also lost my next turn for questioning the move and being proved wrong.

“Well, Grandma,” he smiled, “at least you improved your vocabulary.”

“You are so not using a dictionary for help ever again,” I mumbled. I scrutinized my next play.

“I didn’t use the dictionary,” he said quietly as he pulled seven letters from the black felt bag.

His final score: 414. Yes, 414!

Vocabulary be damned. (The halo is not remotely near me and likely never has been.) The guidelines have now officially changed. Monday’s game will no longer be “sort of” anything to do with me demurely correcting folks who ask about the score.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the coffee shop also serves beer and wine … could become my new “regular” order. Hmm, I’ll have to remember that: “regular” is a seven-letter word. I could place the “go” on a triple letter, put the “r” on a triple word a word, and receive the 50-point bonus. A perkish move, wouldn’t you say?

(A final note:  I have had to hit the ignore key six times when spell checking this article.)

Susan McCoy is an author and teacher who lives part of each year on an island in the Straits of Mackinaw. 

I Had A Boy

I Had A Boy

By Carrie Goldman

74855124

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages

The Many Personalities of A Mother

The Many Personalities of A Mother

By Aileen Santos

should_mother_of_surrogate_child_be_entitled_to_maternity_leave

The Enraged Mother

“If I come downstairs, someone’s gonna be in trouble!” I slam the bannister and stomp my feet, standing on the landing of the basement. My heart pumps loudly, a throbbing sound in my ears. I just want to finish marking these damn essays. Why can’t these fucking kids stop fighting?

I hear whimpering then one quietly says to the other, “Ssshh. We’re gonna be in trouble. Stop crying. It’s okay, stop crying.” The whimpering stops then silence. A little while later, laughter. I trudge back up the three steps, back into my office.

I don’t know why I get like this, why my adrenaline makes me want to whip a stapler against the wall, punch a hole to show them I mean it. That was the way it was with my father and I hated him. Whenever I saw his face darken, lips tightened, eyes wide, brows furrowed in a upending arch, I cowered in his shadow, ducked for fists and arms for protection over my head. I said I wouldn’t do it to my own kids. At least I don’t hit them, just raise my voice so loudly it shatters the ground they stand on, an eruption in their world. I don’t know why I get like this. It just happens sometimes.

Sometimes I have no patience so I scream and yell. Usually, when their dad’s not around, because I can’t handle it, two kids, three and six years old. I’m scared for them to get older. What will I do then? When they tower over me, challenge me, defy me, rebel… what will I do, then?

The Perfect Mother

I cuddle them, having just awoken from our collective slumber, they jump in our bed. We tickle, kiss necks, praises of love and encouragement. Or around the dinner table—we pray together, share highlights of our day, safe and loved in our cocoon. Or watch movies on a Friday night, on our couch, snuggle bugs under blankets, the perfect looking family, perfect children to perfect parents in our perfect looking world.

Out in the world, the performance intensifies, in front of others, smiles and soft words. Going down to their level, patting them nicely on the head, others looking on, “You have such a beautiful family,” strangers tell us. Puffed out chests, pregnant with pride, we have a beautiful family, so blessed, we tell each other. The enraged mother stays away on these days, out in public, in front of others, in our perfectly posed world.

The Sorry Mother

“Stop laughing I said!” My daughter rages at my son. They sit side by side, watching TV on our bed. She shoves him hard as he falls back on the bed.

“Don’t tell your brother not to laugh!” I command, “And don’t push him! Do you want to be a bully?” I eat my words as I feel their sharpness. I look at her face, see familiar darkness on innocent eyes, agitation in small limbs.

“I’m just trying to listen and he’s being too loud!” She responds aggressively, then turns her back and hides her face in her knees, a curled up ball of fire. She looks up, searches the room to see if I’ve gone. I soften when I see her bottom lip quiver and she begins to cry. I hold my arms open and she sluggishly complies. I rub her back and hug her, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do.

I need to change.

I see her anger model my frustration, mimicking my words. She’s only six but I see my traits bleed into hers, my eyes—her eyes, enraged, upset, hurt and afraid.

Apologetic, still holding her near, I kiss her neck, pat her hair and try to make her giggle.

“I’m sorry Mama,” She says.

“I’m sorry too,” I say too quickly.

The Un-mother

I pick up my pen and open my journal.

I close my eyes and remember, swaying hips, on top of tables, belly shirts, my form fitting figure, travelling freely from city to city, being in love and feeling sexy.

“Babe?” I hear a voice over my shoulder. I turn to face my children’s father.

A mother. A wife. A daughter.

Who am I, but the un-mother?

Uninterested in homework, cooking or baking, none of the roles I fit into easy. Red eyes from being rubbed too often, tiredness soaks into my skin.

“Yeah?” I ask, his arms wrap around me, enveloped in warmth, he kisses me sweetly.

A mother. A wife. A daughter. A lover.

A woman. Survivor. A fighter.

A pink line brushes the sky. Enraged mother slips away into the night. Perfect mother’s illusion is broken. Sorry mother’s voice remains, but eventually, it softens.

Aileen Santos is a high school teacher and mother to two adorable children. Her work can be read at literary zines and journals such as commuterlit.com, Ginosko Literary and Words, Pauses, Noises. She has a novel forthcoming in 2015.

What a Summer Should Be

What a Summer Should Be

By Jennifer Berney

IMG_1819

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Night

Movie Night

By Natalie Singer-Velush

photo-1420745981456-b95fe23f5753

The movie begins lovely. Somewhere in rural Japan an aging bamboo cutter is working in the forest. Toward the end of the day, the setting sun is spilling, golden-peach, through the bamboo stalks. The sky beyond the grove moves from this peach to honey, to amber, to a sustained pause of breath quickly cooling. In a small clearing, a bamboo shoot pushes up through the earth. From inside, a silver glow. The man peers into the bamboo flower; there lies a tiny sleeping girl, watercolored. Startled, he falls in love. The cutter cups the girl in his palm. He will take her home to his wife, where they will raise her joyfully as their own. As they watch this animated story, my daughters’ faces are open moons.

*   *   *

When I was 10, I loved a book in which the protagonist, a girl on the cusp of moving beyond girlhood, like I was, loved the colors aquamarine, lime and purple. She loved the colors in combination, how, in concert, they satisfied an unnamed need she had to see things a certain pleasing way. Many changes were happening to the girl, things which, out of fear of the unknown, I couldn’t think about directly. But I could hold that wheel of colors in my mind, and I searched relentlessly for a triple-color combination of my own, some crafted palette that could pass as guidance.

*   *   *

The day we watched the movie I overheard my youngest daughter say: If you sat on a cloud and looked through the cloud like glass, you could see. See what, I wondered, knowing as soon as I did that what she meant was everything.

*   *   *

The bamboo girl blossoms under the care of the old couple. She grows quickly, peculiarly so, and in the permissive air of the country she begins to run with the band of nearby children. She laughs; she runs and runs. She whispers to bugs. The blades of grass shift in the summer breezes, paintbrushed in diffuse light, pale greens and lemon. The earth’s dirt a crumbling cake of dried red and copper under the girl’s bare, pinwheeling feet. The air, infused with sweet melon, echoes the chorus of dragonfly wings. She even finds a boy to love. All is as it should be. Until, one day, the father finds a pile of gold glowing in a stalk of bamboo, offered to him in the same way the tiny girl was. He becomes convinced that heaven has shined down on the family, that the girl is truly a princess and must be raised in a mansion in the city, as a noble. The parents shower the bamboo girl with mountains of precious fabrics and silks and take her off to a new life, where she is trained in the ways of docile, obedient, inert princesses. The luminosity leaves her face. A string of wealthy princes come courting, determined to possess her as their own. The girl’s father, enamored with this life of riches, becomes greedy for a lucrative marriage and pushes his daughter to give herself away.

*   *   *

This is where the shouting at the TV begins. Don’t do it, we urge her, we order. Run away! Find the boy you loved from the country. Follow your desires, resist! All of us, the 8- and 10-year-old girls and me, plus my own 10-year-old self, are on the edge of the couch.

*   *   *

When I was young I had an imaginary life at night, after I was tucked in to sleep. My bed became a floating boat on a distant sea, and I rode the sea wherever it took me with a crew of stuffed animals, a white polar bear with a heart around its neck, a nervous gray donkey, a celadon bunny. There were dangers out there, to be sure, but I had jurisdiction over the boat and its destinations: While I sailed, I could do anything I pleased. It was a shame I had to be the only person on board, I might have thought from beneath the sheets (or not), but that was the cost of my freedom.

*   *   *

Can I stay with you forever, my daughter once asked me. I answered yes, yes.

*   *   *

I had checked the rating of the film ahead of time—PG on a trusted website with the emotional limits of children in mind. But there was no warning that the little bamboo girl who became a noble princess would be forced back to the place from which, it turns out, she first came: the moon. That the wealthy princes would all be frauds (yes of course) but that the good boy from the country, in the bamboo girl’s absence—during her time spent bending to the will of others—would marry someone else. That, in the end, there was no way for her to undo the knot of things, to go in reverse. That she would be forced to drift away from the impossible world on a cloud, the memory of her girl life erased, the future an approaching blank sphere.

*   *   *

I tuck my girls in, faces pale, their soft bodies long, brows furrowed. I kiss their cheeks, which smell of pink cherry blossoms. We have talked about the “lesson” of the movie—rich does not make you happy, we work it through and all decide.

What we don’t say is what else: How fast the moon arches across the windowpane. How unready we are.

Natalie Singer-Velush is mother to two daughters and the editor of a Seattle-based parenting magazine. She is also experiencing an acute case of “feeling old” as she returns to school to earn her MFA in creative writing and poetics alongside a bunch of idealistic twentysomethings, none of whom have children. Natalie keeps herself as young as possible with endless cups of coffee and red velvet cupcakes. You can find her on Twitter @Natalie_Writes.

Photo: Jason Ortego

An Ordinary Adventure

An Ordinary Adventure

ordinaryadventure

My co-worker was miserable about his ambivalence regarding children. His relationship with his girlfriend was getting serious, but she wanted to have kids someday and he thought a childfree life might suit him better.

I was 27-years old, a newly divorced mom of two very small children and quite enamored of those children. I was also exhausted by a life that felt relentless: I woke the children at 6 am on the weekdays, and they woke me at 6 am on the weekends. I drove them to daycare, went to work, went to my classes at the university, picked the kids up at daycare, fed-bathed-sang to them, and when they were asleep I studied until I was too tired to hold my head up anymore and I went to bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Do the laundry and cleaning on Saturday, go to church and do the yard work on Sunday, study in every available minute, try to blend parenting and schoolwork by reading Hamlet to my kids in between performances of Are You My Mother? and Green Eggs and Ham. I tried to shoehorn a bit of a social life into the few evenings the kids spent with their dad.

My co-worker, feeling like he was at a point in his relationship where he had to make a decision about children right away, was a little frantic when he asked me, “If I don’t have kids, will I be missing out? Will I be cheating myself somehow?”

I broke into laughter, which I regretted immediately. I could see that he was struggling with a major life decision and I didn’t want to make light of it, but the answer seemed so clear to me at the time.

When I pulled myself together, I said, “Yes, if you don’t have kids, you’ll be missing out. If you do have kids, you’ll also be missing out. Whatever you choose, you’ll miss out on some big, amazing things.”

“But you love your kids so much. The way you talk about them, it’s like they’re magic or something.”

“Oh, they’re magic. I didn’t know I could love anyone like I love them, but look: my relationship with their dad failed and leaving was agonizing because divorce is hard on kids. I wouldn’t trade them for any amount of money, but being broke with kids is a hell of a lot harder than being broke on your own. I don’t know; I don’t think you can really compare two lives this way.” I trailed off because I did adore my kids and never thought of them as burdens or mistakes, but it seemed a dangerous mental door to open.

*   *   *

When we were little girls, my sister and I would try to press our mom into expressing some hint that one of us was favored over the other, each of us hoping fervently that she was the one, the best one, the most important. Even now, when I call her, I respond to my mom’s hello by saying, “Hola, Mamasita! It’s your older, better daughter!”

The question we asked, to try to pry the secret of who was best loved from her, was, “If we were drowning (or burning, or being attacked by a bear, or otherwise being killed), and you could only save one of us, who would you save?”

Her unvarying response was, “I’d sooner die trying to save you both than make a choice like that.” The answer was not as satisfying as hearing that I was her favorite, but it was reassuring nevertheless. She wouldn’t choose me over my sister, but neither would she choose my sister over me. Inexplicably, she would choose us over herself, a thing I would not appreciate until I was newly pregnant with my first child and was nearly hit by a car in a parking lot. I slammed my fists down on the trunk of the car that was backing towards me, startling the driver into hitting the brakes, then screamed at her for almost murdering my baby (a seven-week fetus no bigger than a pinto bean) while my then-husband dragged me away.

I was pleased and surprised, and not a little relieved, to know of myself that I was capable of loving someone more than myself, but I never wanted to be the self-sacrificial mom. I didn’t hope I’d be the one who gave everything up, ignored her own needs, or let her life grow hollow while she fed the children everything about her that mattered.

*   *   *

My co-worker, still at sea and still trying to find his way to a decision about whether he would be a father someday, was frustrated with my inability to tell him if not having children would be a tragedy. He emailed me the evening after our conversations and said, “They bring out the best in you, right? Will I live my whole life, never being my best, if I don’t have kids?”

I couldn’t answer that question either, but I know that being a parent has showed me all the extremes of myself, good and bad. First I discovered my vast capacity for patience, and then I ran up against its limits. I found that I am a fierce advocate for my kids, and then I found that I may go too far before I knew what I was doing and sever essential relationships.

In short, my kids showed me my humanity. I thought having a child would make me something very different from myself: that I would know more, feel different, that somehow Adrienne as mom would be a new person entirely, with none of the challenges and maladaptive behaviors that plagued Adrienne as person without children. My children would be my redemption. As a mom, I would be worthier, better, nearly perfect.

*   *   *

Children should never be born with a job. It is unfair to conceive or adopt a child in the hopes that child will save a relationship, or be the person who finally loves us, or redeem us, or bring out the best in us. Those are enormous responsibilities to hang on a wee babe.

I had no conscious idea when I had my children that I hoped they would change me. It took years of self-reflection to understand that I had expectations of my children before they were born. Having a child is both cataclysmic and utterly ordinary, an experience that changes us in surprising ways, but never in all ways. Under the surface, I hoped having children would making me someone new, but I found (unsurprisingly) that once I had children I was still me, with kids.

I don’t know what my co-worker eventually decided. We were both students at the time, making the frequent job changes that some adult students make as our marketplace value shifts. I hope, whatever he chose, that he’s very happy, and that he remembers our talk as often as I do. When I feel like the worst parent ever, our conversation reminds me that my worst moments don’t tell the whole story of my life any more than my best moments do. I’m glad to know I’d rather die trying to save all my children than choose just one. I’m relieved that, in spite of my secret desire for my kids to save me from myself and the selfishness that lies beneath, I love them with an intensity that surprises me. Being a parent has showed me the worst of myself, but it’s also revealed the best in me. That doesn’t mean it’s better to have children than not, but it’s good to live a life in which I love some people with such ferocity it occasionally takes my breath away.

Photo: Olivia Henry

The Virtual Aunt

The Virtual Aunt

virtualaunt

I’m putting my daughter to bed, but her twin brother is still in the next room, waiting. I hear him chattering away, as he dances a toy elephant across the floor. He’s not talking to himself, though, my sister is with him. Well, technically, she’s some four thousand miles away in Vancouver, Canada, while we are in Glasgow, Scotland, but, virtually, she’s right there. My phone is propped against the bookshelf, the perfect angle for surveying the scene. My son is interacting with her as if she is sitting, flesh and bones, in the very same room.

We are regular partakers, my sister and I, in the phenomenon of the FaceTime babysitter. For me this kind of video messaging hasn’t just been a luxury, a vehicle for allowing an aunt to bond with her nephews and niece across an otherwise vast ocean. There have been moments, periods of time, where my sister’s virtual presence has been nothing short of a lifeline. Such is the way when you have two babies and only one pair of hands, only one set of eyes.

Back when their afternoon nap was the fulcrum of our day, we used to speak to her several times a week. I would put the twins in their high chairs at around noon; my sister would be getting ready for work, dawn breaking in Washington, D.C. They would choose the jewelry that best suited her outfit, oohing and ahhing over the various bracelets on display, as I cut crusts off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, my laptop offering a comprehensive view of the kitchen. And then I would haul one toddler up to bed, while she would occupy the other, bound safely in his seat, and nap time would proceed smoothly, a staggered affair, instead of the manic free-for-all it became when I was on my own.

My sister has been heavily involved in my children’s lives from the beginning. She is a devoted aunt, to say the least, but she is also a woman with a job that takes her all over the world. The two of us have not lived in the same town, in the same country even, since 1999. Our relationship has been conducted through the channels of whatever technological means have been in the ascendency. Hours-long phone calls via special long-distance plans, Skype, when it was a novelty, and now the holy grail of instant visual access: FaceTime.

For my kids, my sister is both a real-live entity and a digitized floating head, sometimes she is a tinny voice in the ether, talking or singing to them as I drag her around with us from pillar to post. When they were very young, fledglings in the concept of object permanence, we were curious to see the consequences of this arrangement: a face on a screen, familiar and representative as it might be, is not itself a person. But then she would walk through the door of our house, after months of being a two-dimensional image only, and the babies would know exactly who she was in all of her dimensions. The transition was almost seamless.

Our children, of course, are growing up with a blurred line between the real and the virtual. Their relationships are bound to be fluid things, the online and the IRL swirling together to form, ultimately, an unadulterated whole. This is how my own life works right now, after all, a melange of interactions, some of which take place across social media, some of which take place across a dinner table, but each just as “real” as the next. Unlike me, however, my kids will have no period of adjustment, they won’t be asking tortured questions, like our generation does, about what constitutes authenticity in this regard. They will simply accept the ubiquity of the technology they were raised with—and how it has, in turn, changed the essential nature of human connection.

The FaceTime babysitter is an outgrowth of our children’s native comfort level with technology, but so too it is a reflection of the modern reality of the scattered family. In typical fashion, the first has evolved to bridge the potentially devastating gaps of the second. It never ceases to amaze me that my sister, despite the miles between us, is a daily fixture in our house. My kids reference her with a frequency that, in another age, could only signal an intimacy born of geographic proximity. It’s because I talk about her a lot, I make the effort. But I’m convinced it is also because they know that she—her face, her existence—is a mere button away.

Eventually it’s my son’s turn for bed. I carry him upstairs with my sister tucked in my back pocket: he wants Auntie G to do his stories tonight. We are a strange trio lying there—mother, son and aunt beamed in from abroad—but we are a trio just the same. She and I read alternating months of Chicken Soup with Rice, while my son listens intently, as if this scenario is normal as normal can be. Before the lights go out, he takes the phone and says goodnight, smattering the screen with kisses. My sister kisses him back. Their lips are touching, but not really. They are so far and yet so close.

Author’s Note: Since I wrote this piece, I have had the great fortune of becoming an aunt myself. I am travelling a vast distance to see my new nephew soon, but of course we have already FaceTimed several times since his birth.

Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother?

By Cynthia Keenan

128136180

My daughter Audrey and I stood on the platform at the Stratford train station at 6:15 a.m. to catch the 6:35 to Grand Central. She carried her Little Mermaid backpack full of juice boxes, PB&J, pretzels and a fig bar. My law firm offered employees free day care at a center nearby where I’d drop her off at the lower Manhattan facility and then head to work, one stop north.

I held Audrey’s soft, brown, little hand and looked up the track for the bright light on the steel head of the train. Whoever saw it first “won.” She was five years old.

The train pulled into the station and the door to “our car” opened. The conductor stepped onto the platform to greet us as he always did.

“Good morning ladies.”

I gripped Audrey’s hand tighter, almost lifting her over the gap. She knew where to go as we took this train at least once a month; the first set of two seats facing forward. As the train pulled out of the station, the conductor came to collect tickets. I flashed my MetroCard and Audrey held out her 10-ride for him to punch.

“Thank you very much young lady.”

My daughter clutched Dee Dee, your dark-skinned doll with the Raggedy-Ann style dress, whose hair had taken on a certain Rasta-look after she had recently dunked her head into a sink full of water. We had tamed it by pulling it into two ponytails with rubber bands.

Although we were clearly behaving like mother and daughter, Audrey and I are visibly different, something she realized at an early age, when she asked “why is my skin brown and yours is so ‘pale’ Mommy.”

“Because you were born in the tummy of a woman who had brown skin,” I had said. We had a pregnant friend at the time so she knew about babies in “tummies.” This became my daughter’s explanation when friends asked the same question.

My daughter was curious about the woman with the brown skin, the one whose tummy she was in, and occasionally she asked questions about her—”Where is she?” “What is her name?” “What does she look like?” I supplied age appropriate information as best as I could, but was also extremely cognizant of not appearing hurt or disinterested. I actively listened to her, occasionally nodding my head in understanding and asking her simple questions to prompt her to talk more about it. As a single mother, I relied on many, mostly other mothers, to help me. If some goodness could be found in a relationship with the woman whose tummy my daughter was born in, I was all for it.

Within four stops Audrey’s head was on my shoulder, and by the time we got to Stamford, 40 minutes into the trip, her head had slipped to my lap for the first nap of her 12-hour day. I placed my hand over her body, slipping my thumb into the faux hammer loop on her pink striped overalls to guard against sudden stops, and put my head back and closed my eyes for the first nap of my equally long day.

“Next stop! 125th Street! Next stop! Check the overhead racks and seats. Make sure to take all of your items with you.125th Street, next!”

I opened my eyes and nudged my daughter gently on her shoulder.

“We are almost there,” I said. “Time to get ready.”

The train slowed into Grand Central and we worked our way to the door, scrambling off the train with thousands of others. The volume of the crowd seemed to create the pace of movement. Audrey held my hand while also gripping the strap of my briefcase. We snaked our way through clumps of crowds to the escalator down to the subway platform.

I positioned us near a steel pillar, far back from the edge of the platform, to wait for the train. Although I knew she wouldn’t fall onto the tracks, the image of it happening was horrifyingly vivid and flashed in my brain every time we took a subway. I tethered myself to her via the Little Mermaid, the fingers from one of my hands tightly clinging her backpack loop while my other clutched her hand. Her free hand covered one of her ears to block the loud screech of the arriving train.

We took the number 5 to Bowling Green, to the day care center. Her little hand squeezed the shiny subway pole as best as it could during the 20-minute ride, fitting only a third of the way around, while darkness sped past us. I held the same pole and hovered over, our bodies swaying to the motion of the train, as we held on a little tighter around each turn. The piercing sounds of the turning train prompted a mild look of terror, her eyes wide, mouth partially open.

“Are we going to tip?” she asked, grabbing my coat.

The train partially emptied after a few stops and we grabbed seats. Young black women sat all around us, some with children in tow. Audrey’s polite stares revealed fascination. From their hair, to their faces, clothes, and shoes, she quietly observed them.

“Can I sit over there?” she asked as she pointed to the seat across the aisle that happened to be occupied by one of these women. She was an independent little girl so this was not out of character. Audrey moved next to the young woman who acknowledged her with a motherly smile.

The woman was about 34 years old, dressed in a black pencil skirt and black and white stripe rayon blouse, a typical workday outfit. Her short-cropped hair was neatly styled, and held in place around her hairline with a hair product that shined. Her face was the color of very tanned white skin. Just like my daughter’s.

She moved her head closer to my daughter’s to hear what she was saying. I sat across the aisle wishing my ears were amplifiers. I could only hear snippets of the conversation; words like “day care,” “my mom’s work” and “Connecticut.” I was sure Audrey was asking her questions, as she was also very curious about people. My 5-year-old seemed so grown up in that moment, and so comfortable talking to this stranger who looked more like her than I did. At one point they both looked at me; the woman smiled and nodded her head. I felt like an outsider.

She left the train at the next stop, and Audrey made her way back across the aisle and nuzzled up next to me.

“Hi,” I said. “I see you found a friend. You know talking to strangers is fine, as long as I am with you.”

“She was really nice.”

“She was quite pretty too,” I said. “Did she tell you your name?”

“Yes.”

“Well was it a nice name?”

“Yes.”

After a few minutes of silence, I spoke.

“Do you think that nice lady with the nice name might look like the woman whose tummy you were born in?”

“Yes,” she said.

She stared at the seat she and the young woman had occupied and looked around at the few young black women remaining on the train. She was thinking. A lot.

“I wonder if that was her?”

Cynthia Keenan is a lawyer, writer and stepmother to six grown children.  She is working on a serious of vignettes about life with her daughter and lives in New York with her husband.

Photo: gettyimages

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

By Jennifer Berney

square wedding

“Ralph says that boys can’t marry boys,” my son said to me as I drove him home from preschool.

Ralph, who sported a buzz cut and freckles, was a longtime friend of my son’s. More than once I’d heard him voicing his mother’s opinions to an audience of four-year-olds, like the time he explained that babies took too much work and cost too much money. He delivered this news as I held my newborn infant.

“Well Ralph is confused,” I replied, glancing in the rearview mirror.

“He’s not confused; he’s wrong,” my son corrected.

It was July of 2013, just months after our own state had voted to allow same-sex marriages, and weeks after the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed. If Ralph or his sources hadn’t yet woken up to the reality of gay marriage in our state, they weren’t alone. I, too, hesitated to believe it. For straight people, a wedding was usually an event confined to a single day. But for my partner and me the process of getting married had been ongoing, continual, endless. Were we finally, really real?

When Kellie and I exchanged vows in 2003, there was nothing legal about our wedding. Neither of us dreamed we’d live to see the end of DOMA or—even more surprisingly—marriage equality in all fifty states, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to declare our love. And so, on a Sunday in August, we gathered friends and family in a circle on a friend’s green lawn. Our friend Queen, who wore a blue dress and red lipstick, opened the ceremony by informing our friends that they were a part of this commitment too. “By standing here today,” she told them, “you agree to be available to Kellie and Jenn, three months from now, ten years from now, anytime their marriage needs support.”

In that moment, more than any other, I reckoned with what it meant to be married: it was more than a private promise between myself and my partner; it was an intention declared, witnessed, and affirmed by those who loved us. Still, it felt significant that this affirmation did not extend into the world at large. On paper, as far as any lawyer was concerned, Kellie and I were simply roommates. I didn’t want this to matter, but it did. Any time I referred to my marriage, I was tempted to use air quotes.

Four years later, our state passed a bill allowing State Registered Domestic Partnerships to same-sex couples. It was a compromise of sorts, an option that was like marriage but with the most unromantic possible name. The legal rights that SRDPs conferred were significant: if Kellie landed in the hospital I could visit her; I could now get health insurance through Kellie’s employer. But there were also limitations: we couldn’t file our taxes jointly; I still couldn’t use the word “married” in the legal sense, and when we welcomed our first son into the world the following year, we’d have to spend over ten thousand dollars in legal fees to add Kellie’s name to the birth certificate.

Some of our friends who registered for SRDP status treated it like a wedding. They dressed up and threw grand parties. But Kellie and I were tentative. Hadn’t we already done the thing that mattered? When we went to the courthouse we treated it like an errand. Afterwards we went out for a glass of wine, but weren’t sure what to toast—bureaucracy? Separate-but-not-quite-equal rights?

I was seven months pregnant with our second child when our state passed a bill allowing same-sex marriages. I’d spent my pregnancy rooting for this bill for reasons that were largely practical. If the bill passed, and if Kellie and I could wed before the baby arrived, we could easily (and cheaply) add her name to the birth certificate. Instead of hiring a lawyer, we could simply fill out a few forms.

What I thought was our final act of marriage took place on our living room couch on January 6, 2013. Some friends were disappointed that we weren’t having a big party. “But we had our real wedding ten years ago,” I told them. “Remember? You were there.” Our friend Queen, who married us initially sat between us, and we re-read the vows we’d exchanged nearly a decade before. Two close friends had come to bear witness. They brought flowers and chocolate, and sat cross-legged on our floor. The baby, who would arrive two weeks later, turned and kicked me from the inside. Our first son was four and he kept interrupting. “Can’t we build a puzzle?” he kept asking our friends. “Can we watch a movie?”

Ten minutes later, we all crouched around the coffee table to sign the marriage license. In doing so, we finally completed the ceremony we’d begun ten years earlier.

Or at least I thought we were finished. Two and a half years later, on a Friday I would open my computer to see that the equal marriage map had gone green, that the Supreme Court had declared marriage equality a constitutional right. My breath would catch in my throat. I would try to call out to Kellie in the next room to share the news but discover that I was speechless. Our marriage would now be recognized in every U.S. state.

In the car that day, as I merged on the freeway, I continued to explain why Ralph might think that “boys can’t marry other boys.”

“There are still lots of places where men can’t marry men, and women can’t marry women. Some people just like to make rules about things that don’t matter.”

My son remained quiet, and I assumed he’d lost interest.

“Don’t you remember our wedding?” I asked him. “You were there. It was right before your brother was born.”

I thought that he might find some small joy in this, but instead a note of distress entered his voice. “You mean you weren’t married when I was born?”

“It’s complicated,” I told him. I kept talking on and on, trying to explain the logistics. But instead I should have told him what I, too, most needed to hear: It’s okay. It’s real. All of it. Our marriage, our family, our love.

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

All In: A Book Review

All In: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

All In Cover ArtBy now you’ve almost certainly heard of Lean In. Josh Levs is hoping you will see similarities between his recently released All In and Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller.

The similarities go beyond the titles. Both books deal with changing the challenging culture for working parents. While All In and Lean In emphasize that work/family balance is an issue for both sexes, the former concentrates on men and the latter on women.

Levs writes from experience as a devoted father of three who also covers family and fatherhood for CNN. In 2013, around the birth of his third child, he asked CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, about his benefits. Specifically Levs wanted to take the ten paid weeks new parents have as an option. But he discovered that those ten weeks apply to biological mothers, adoptive mothers, and adoptive fathers—but apparently not to biological fathers. After speaking with Human Resources, and even the CEO, Benefits ultimately denied his appeal of this policy. Levs consulted lawyers and took his fight public, using his own personal media bully pulpit to get the word out. While in the end he went back to work without the ten paid weeks, Levs came to be seen, and see himself, as a leader in the active fathers’ movement of the 21st century.

All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together is the culmination of his research, reporting, and ruminations on this issue. Levs brings together and discusses the most up-to-date research on fatherhood while also proposing practical and policy solutions. In the Introduction he makes it clear that this isn’t “just” a problem for fathers or mothers: “Overall parents in the United States are working hard and doing their best. It’s the era of all-in parenting. And, by and large, neither gender is letting the other down.” Levs believes that poor family leave policies discriminate against both men and women by taking choices away.

All In isn’t only about paid family leave, but it is a big part of the book, and its strongest. In Part I he discusses the legal components of the Family and Medical Leave Act, business implications, and tax policy. For instance, from this I learned that many employers use disability insurance to pay birth moms. While Levs started this project seeking support for paternity leave he didn’t have strong feelings about paid family leave, but after everything he has learned he now believes that paid family-leave law would make a significant difference.

Another strength of All In is its focus on popular culture. Unlike others who write on this issue Levs devotes a whole section of his book to “Fixing Pop Culture,” explaining, “Any time I’ve interviewed fathers over the years, frustration about portrayals of dads in pop culture has gotten them fired up above all else.” The discussion here focuses on advertising snafus by companies like Huggies, the TV show Friday Night Lights, and mom’s-only groups.

Levs also tries to move beyond the upper-middle and middle class parenting experience (incidentally one of the criticisms of Sandberg’s Lean In is the focus on affluent families) to include a variety of families and family structures. He writes about fathers in prison, military dads, widowers, and he strives to include stories of poor fathers and black fathers as well. While his aim is admirable, at times these sections of the book strike a false note, especially in contrast to other portions where Levs is writing more from personal experience so his voice is stronger and more authoritative.

All In is definitely a book with a specific message and every page is meant to remind us of that message—that millions of (working) dads want to spend more time with their kids but in some way society is boxing them in. Levs sometimes present alternative viewpoints or explanations but it’s clear by the length of those sections that they are not the main focus. All In will most definitely appeal to those sympathetic to its argument, but I’m unfortunately not convinced it will change others’ minds (and I say unfortunately because my own husband is an involved father and I know how much that means to our household).

Levs’ goal is to start a movement much like Sheryl Sandberg. While the impact of All In may not be as deep, the book will give you something to think about and some facts to share with others whether you are all in or just leaning in to working parenthood.

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

Buy All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses–And How We Can Fix It Together

The Girl Who Sings In Tune

The Girl Who Sings In Tune

By Nancy Schatz Alton

photo-1429637119272-20043840c013

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.

Gifts From My Father

Gifts From My Father

By Vivian Maguire

gifts from my father

I didn’t grow up poor, but my father did. When he told us stories about his childhood, I almost felt as though they had happened to me.

There was the time his father had found a magnetic screen at the city junkyard. He brought it home, and pressed it against the family television. The television flashed over from white, black, and grey images to glaring red, yellow, green, and blue vertical stripes across the glass. For the first time on their living room TV, they saw a rainbow.

Cambie el canal! Change the channel!” my father and his siblings yelled, believing that he had turned their black and white television into a color TV with his magic screen.

“No, no, no!” my grandfather said, laughing, “No puedo! This is all it does!”

One afternoon, at the park, his mother had forgotten their lunches. They were so far from home, she had had to buy hamburgers at a nearby stand. “The best thing we had ever eaten,” said my father, as he recalled how he, his three brothers, and his three sisters had chewed through the sandwiches of fried beef, mustard, pickles, tomatoes, and greasy lettuce on grilled bread. “When my mother got the bill,” he always paused, “it was for five dollars. She sat down and cried.” I would listen to this story and try to picture my grandmother, sobbing in the playground, with her seven thin children trying to console her, the taste of peppered meat still on their tongues.

My father did not tell these stories as fond recollections; the memories were integral to who he was, and why he worked as hard as he did.

Growing up, I would not know poverty and hunger as my father did, but he still wanted me to understand it. When we were out running errands or stopping somewhere to eat, my father would always hand me a few dollar bills to hand to a homeless person.

“Why don’t you do it,” I would whine. “I’m afraid,” I would say when he pressed me.

“So you’re not going to give them anything, because you’re afraid?” he would reply. I thought he was forcing me to give money to the poor because it made him uneasy. It took years for me to realize, that he was teaching me to see them. He wanted me to be uncomfortable, because he didn’t ever want me to ever be okay with just walking by people on the street, not if I had something to give.

My father found other ways to teach us too. When he bought us presents, he never gave us quite what we had asked for. My father always bought us toys that were close to what we wanted. For my sixth birthday, I had asked my father for a battery-powered car. I pictured myself in my pink, plastic convertible, with all of my friends watching me cruise down the block with matching pink sunglasses on my head, like Barbie. When my birthday came, I didn’t see a pink convertible. Instead, there was a brand new white scooter. “It’s not a pink car,” I told my father.

“Those things are too slow mi reyna,” replied my father. “You’ll be able to keep up with your brothers on this. Get on, try it,” he urged.

I set my foot on the flat base and pushed; it was fast. I thrilled and then laughed at the speed, the convertible forgotten.

Another time, I asked my dad for the Pogo Ball I had seen on television. My father bought me a pogo stick—an almost even trade, except that I almost broke my neck several times trying to balance on it long enough to even attempt a jump. Still, I enjoyed playing with it, until like my other toys, it was forgotten.

But one time my child-desire was nearly unshakable when I saw the Julie doll on television. In the eighties, she was a doll unlike any other that could sense when it was cold outside, her mouth moved when she spoke, she could respond to questions, and knew when she was being moved to another room.

“Are we going to get the Julie doll?” I asked my dad as we walked down the aisle at Toys R’Us.

“I found something even better,” said my father, and my stomach fell. I recognized those words. My father had other plans for me, and I would not get the doll I had been pining after. I had been thinking all morning of questions I would ask her, and now I knew that Julie and I would never speak to each other.

When we walked out of the store, I clung to the doll my father had bought me. She wasn’t Julie. She was Pamela. Her mouth didn’t move, she didn’t know that it was warm and balmy outside, she had no clue that we had left the store, and she only spoke when you pushed on certain parts of her body. “I see you!” Pamela said accusingly when I pressed on her blue, plastic eye.

When we returned home, I hugged my new doll to my chest. I took her to my room and laid her on my pillow. “I see you!” she said, as I pressed on her face, abdomen, and any other parts of her body that would elicit a response. “Muah!” her lips smacked as I pushed my palm onto her mouth. “Hee hee hee!” she giggled as my small fingers explored her belly. “I love you,” Pamela sighed when I pushed my hand onto her chest. I love you too, Pamela, I thought as I pulled her into a loving embrace. Being a child, I couldn’t help but believe that I would be hurting my doll’s feelings if I didn’t return her affection. I squeezed her to my body and whispered, “I love you, I love you,” until I began to believe it.

Over the years, I would receive many gifts from my father that would fall short of my expectations, but like the scooter, the pogo stick, and the doll, I would learn to love my father’s gifts more because of who they came from. Of course, I did not realize at the time that my father was teaching me a lesson that would extend into my adult life. Though I would be disappointed when events in my life did not turn out the way I planned, I would learn how to enjoy myself anyway, and to be thankful for the gifts I received, regardless of the form they came in. Like the gifts my father gave me, my life would not look anything like what I had wanted for myself, not even close. But, when I thought about it, I would see that what I had was even better.

Vivian Maguire is an English teacher, a writer, and a parent. She lives with her husband Randy, and their two daughters, Amelie and Penelope, in El Paso, TX. She writes about parenting and teaching on her blog, storymother.wordpress.com. 

What a Father Is, and Isn’t

What a Father Is, and Isn’t

By Jennifer Berney

165068400

My children have two mothers, two dogs, fifteen chickens, and zero fathers. That is the accurate headcount in our household.

 

When acquaintances are feeling bold, they sometimes ask about the father of my sons. “Do they have the same father?” they might ask in a whisper, or, “Is the father someone you know?”

My children have two mothers, two dogs, fifteen chickens, and zero fathers. That is the accurate headcount in our household. There is no father living out of state, or just out of sight, no one whom they will one day call “Dad.” Instead, they have a donor, which is a different thing entirely.

Fathers, as we all know, take countless forms. Your father might be the person who bore witness on the day you were born. He might have stayed through a long hard labor with one hand on your mother. He might have cut the cord when you came out. Or perhaps your father was banished to the waiting room, where he tapped his foot and checked his watch. Or he might not have been there at all. He might have been overseas waiting for a letter, a phone call, an email. He might have been off at the bar or away on business.

If it matters where he was, whether he was there or he wasn’t, whether he was hopeful or anxious or indifferent, he’s a father.

Your father might be the person who taught you how to ride a bike, who trailed behind you steadying the seat, who let go without saying a word and let you glide down a gentle slope. He might be the one who wiped the gravel from your skinned knee and spread a layer of bacitracin over the wound. Or he might have been the one who yelled out in annoyance every time you fell and cried. “Toughen up,” he might have said. “It’s easy.”

Maybe your father was the one who came home from the store with a box of cookies and didn’t care if they disappeared before he ate one. Or maybe he was the one who had a stash of licorice that no one was allowed to touch.

Maybe your father was a greeting card father, a #1 Dad who liked fishing and golf, who’d happily unwrap a box of cigars or a tie every year on his birthday. Or maybe your father hated sports and was hard to shop for because he only liked the things he liked, and these were not the things you gave him.

Maybe your father took over when your mother needed a break, or when she left. Maybe he was up to the task of making breakfast, wrapping presents, walking you to the park in a wagon, or maybe you just carried on as if you were alone.

Maybe your father was the only one you had. Maybe you had two. Maybe you’ve got gay dads, or step-dads or granddads who took over the role.

Our fathers leave us with internal landscapes. Even the best fathers may leave us with little ruts and gullies that mark the places we’ve been hurt. A father who leaves and never returns or a tyrannical father might leave a chasm. And then there are smooth swimmable lakes created by consistent paternal love.

We measure our fathers by how often they show up, and what they offer when they do. But an absent father and a sperm donor have little in common. We measure a donor mostly by what he offers before a child is conceived. Do the sperm swim towards the egg? Do they reach it?

And in the aftermath of conception, once a baby is born, we measure a donor by how well he honors his agreement. Perhaps he is nameless and will always be so, or perhaps he agrees to release his name and number once the child turns eighteen.  Or perhaps he participates from a meaningful distance in the role of family friend or uncle. In a donor’s case this distance, this absence, is love.

If you ask my older son about his father, he will quickly correct you. “I have two moms,” he clarifies, and I note that so far he frames his family in positives; he accounts for what he has not what he’s missing.

And so I worry that it’s confusing to him when people ask me about his donor, but use the word father instead. I know what they mean of course, but if I answer without correcting them what will my son think? That he has a father after all—a potential parent who has left him? That is not the case, I want to whisper in his ear; no one has abandoned you. You have one mother who bore you, and another who welcomed you, and a donor who was generous enough to help bring you into the world, and who honored our agreement that he would be a friend and not a father.

This is why when people ask in hushed tones about my children’s father, I try to be consistent. “Oh, you mean his donor?” I answer brightly, trying to chase the shadows into 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.

There When I Need You

There When I Need You

By Stephanie Farrell

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.59.26 PMMy mom often joked that the second baby should be called “the nervous breakdown baby.” I’d have found this funnier if I hadn’t been her second baby and if she hadn’t subsequently had a nervous breakdown. Now, with two children of my own, my stepfather reminded me that I am the same age she was when she was hospitalized. It was a gentle nudge, his way of telling me not to take on too much, but it made me feel like my biology has faulty wiring. Now on those days when I feel isolated or exhausted, I picture an old kitchen timer, ticking louder and faster right before the buzzer goes off. Time’s up—this is all you can take, no more.

In the years before her breakdown, Mom put on a fabulous act. She was Supermom. She set up a preschool in our garage and taught all the neighborhood kids. She taught us how to bake cookies, make collages, and collect bugs. She would make up stories about Mrs. Carter, a little old woman in tennis shoes who secretly rode a motorcycle. Much like the fictional character Mrs. Pollifax, created by Dorothy Gilman more than a decade later, Mrs. Carter was often hired by the CIA for international adventures. Mrs. Carter, much like my mom, led a double life.

Every morning Mom would say that she needed to put on her face. She meant her make-up; she’d rarely stray out of the house without it. But my mom put on a face all the time, a happy face that belied what lurked inside. She wore it to Garden Club and League of Women Voters and to Little League games and to my Brownie meetings. She wore it with her neighbors. She wore it with most of her friends. Underneath the face, she was hurting. Despite her joke, I know that we didn’t cause her nervous breakdown (okay, I say that only after a few years of therapy myself), but we probably hastened its arrival.

My mom’s mom, who wore a capable-Mormon-mother-of-six face, became a closet alcoholic. Grandma was recovering from her own childhood; she’d had to raise her siblings in poverty when she was just a kid herself. At her best, she could make a mean lemon meringue pie while at the same time assisting my grandpa, a doctor, with his patient on her kitchen table. At her worst, she said horrible, not-to-be-repeated things to my mother. Since they weren’t to be repeated, my mom didn’t repeat them. She didn’t speak of them. She didn’t laugh at them. She just stuffed them down and put on her face and carried on.

I have learned a lot from my mom. One of the things I learned is that you can be in a great deal of despair and still get up and put cereal on the table and change a dirty diaper. You can take the kids to Monroe Falls every day in the summer, teach them to swim, and laugh at their antics even though you secretly long to die. You can sing silly songs to them, read stories, and comb their long hair, being gentle because it’s so tangled. And you can act like everything is okay and fool most of the people most of the time. But not your kids.

I knew my mom was sad. I knew it at an early age. It was my job in the family to cheer her up, keep her happy, and do what I could do so that on the rare occasions when my dad was home, everything was fine. If that meant keeping my sister quiet, I would distract her. If it meant bringing my dad slippers and his newspaper, I fetched. I was my mom’s cleaning helper. I also became the entertainer, remembering ?funny stories to share? with her.

I also know that each ?of us has a breaking?point. When my mother ?reached hers, she finally got ?help. Though kids can add? pressure to a stressful life,? they are also a tether to ?remain on this side of the? grass. She felt the tug of us even ?when she was in a locked ward making brown-glazed piggybanks and pink crocheted slippers. When she got out, her face wasn’t so firmly on. She would allow cracks to be seen. She would say she was sad. She told us that for years she had tried to be perfect and that it was a mistake—we are not perfect.

My mother taught me a profound lesson. You are allowed to get help, but don’t wait until you desperately need it. I am determined not to follow her lead into the hospital, to sedatives and group therapy with permanent locked-ward residents. So in my own recovery process, I have learned to shed more of the face, to be out there with my feelings. I also find tremendous comfort in my faith. As a Christian, I easily acknowledge my imperfections and rely on God’s grace. I also like the promise that God is not going to give us more than we can handle. (To which my brother likes to quip, “God must sure think a lot of us.”)

When I became a mom five years ago, my mom drove out from her home in Ohio to South Jersey as soon as I went into labor. Our son, Daniel, was born while she was en route. She stopped by the hospital at the tail end of her drive. I looked at his tiny little feet next to my big feet and then over at my mom. “You’ve known me since my feet were this small,” I told her. I was filled with love; I got it for the very first time how intensely a mother can love a child, and I realized that this is how much she cared for me.

She was full of nervous energy that visit and my house seemed to be her best outlet. She scrubbed the bathtub, made the laundry room sink sparkle, polished the wood floors, and swept the driveway. I think she rearranged my cupboards, too. I haven’t been able to find my small bowls since.

Three years later she flew out again, this time not to celebrate a birth but to join me in grieving. I had had two miscarriages in a row. The first one knocked me off my feet. I was at fourteen weeks and the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat, so he ordered an ultrasound. The screen showed an empty womb, the baby almost disintegrated. I was heavy with grief and sobbed for days like I had never cried before. But the doctor told me that what had happened was very rare: I could have done nothing to prevent it, and there was just a one percent chance of its happening again. Five months later, I learned something about percentages. I had “vu jà dé”— it’s like “déjà vu” except it has all happened to you before, just a little differently.

The second time, I was eleven weeks, at a regular check-up, and again no heartbeat. I stood in a doorway at the doctor’s office, just where I’d stood before, while they called to order the ultrasound. If it happens again, I told him, I’m going to fall apart. Someone is going to have to come and pick up the pieces. This time there was a fully formed baby, but it was no longer alive. My mom came to pick up the pieces.

She was again there for me, but not in the way I expected. Daniel was then two and a half and ready to be potty-trained, she declared. I said, Knock yourself out. And I meant it. Potty-training was the last thing in the world I cared about. Really, I didn’t care about anything, not eating, not sleeping, not anything. It was the first time in my life when I couldn’t make any kind of decision. And there my mom was having this incredible bonding experience with my son, the trips to the bathroom a special adventure for the two of them. After three days, the job was finished. Daniel was dry through naps and at night. I am still amazed at this, but at the time, I wanted to yell, I am the one who needs help. Every now and then she would show up on the screened-in porch where I planted myself early in the morning and stayed parked all day. She’d let me cry for a minute or two and then would leave again. After a week, I started to make meals. “I put those dishes in the sideboard, not there,” I told her. “Hey, we recycle!” I’d say, pulling a two-liter bottle out of the trash can. She smiled at my irritation, happy to see that I was beginning to engage in life.

Many months later my husband and I somehow summoned the desire to try again, and this time everything went fine. Our daughter, Emily, arrived with lots of hair and bright blue eyes. My mom was thrilled. She loaded her car down in pink packages for her first granddaughter and made the drive out. Yet again, I sat on the porch, this time content to nurse and read and drink lemonade. Mom’s nervous energy returned and this time she attacked my yard. She weeded, mulched, and planted. Perennials and rhododendrons appeared along our side fence, orange hibiscus along the back fence, impatiens and lilies in front of the house.

Despite previous experience, I expected her to take care of my postpartum needs: meals, diaper changes, etc. But again, she just gave me space, this time to bond with my baby on the porch, every day transforming the view of the yard from its state of neglect. Now I could look up from my book and enjoy the view rather than think, “Oh, I should really take care of that” before turning back to my novel. (I rarely let anything get in the way of a good book, especially not housework or weeding.)

On her last morning with us she gave me a pedicure on the porch, gently massaging my still-swollen ankles. With cotton balls between my toes, I cried as I watched her car pull out of my driveway. How could I take care of both of these kids and this house and do all that I am supposed to do? I was overwhelmed, mostly by sleep deprivation and by the feeling that my son had become possessed. Why else would he choose this time to pee in our closets and write on the walls?

It was a crisp fall morning a few months later when my mom called to tell me that she had cancer. The Big C. Not cancer—no one in our family has cancer, I thought. Emotional breakdowns, depression, drunk and disorderly conduct, this we understand. Nothing some rehab or Prozac couldn’t cure. Cancer is a whole different planet, one our family has never visited. My mom had always joked that she didn’t have a moderate bone in her body; she went overboard in whatever it was. Well, this time was no different. It wasn’t a little lump to be removed. It was Stage IV uterine cancer.

It was my turn to pack up the car and drive to her. I made four trips over the next four months, a total of forty hours in the car with my two kids in tow. We drove through thunderstorms, hail storms, a blizzard, and fog. I wondered whether I really knew my mom. I had this desperate need to capture her. I was panicked with a deep nagging fear that her good days were over, that I was going to watch as she slid into a period of illness that she wouldn’t recover from, that she would die. As I was driving I realized that even though she was not there for me the way I thought I needed her to be, she was there for me.

When I got to Ohio, I embraced the opportunity to mother her, for she had taught me how to do it. When she was determinedly positive, I smiled with her even though I didn’t share her optimism. I drove her to chemotherapy in Cleveland, twice through blizzards. We stopped for coffee and bagels on the way, fortifying ourselves. We had always talked about making a quilt together. With no time to waste, we worked on a quilt wall-hanging while we watched the I.V. drip, drip, drip into the hole in her chest for six hours.

She didn’t look like a cancer patient at first. “I always wanted to be a blonde,” she said when she first showed me the wig she’d picked out. She had a head shaving party, inviting her friends to a day at the salon. Later, when her head got itchy at a chemo session, she shed the wig with a smile. “Guess I am having a no-hair day,” she said. Her starkly bald head, more than anything else, made the cancer real.

During the winter of her cancer, we cried together only once. I caught her on the Monday after chemo, when the effects were worst. She was honest about how terrible she felt. I blurted out how much I hated this, hated all of it, that I still needed her and that she absolutely was not allowed to die yet. Not yet, I am not ready. I don’t think I will ever be ready. But maybe when you’re in your nineties and I’m in my sixties, we can talk about it.

We cried together on the phone, my handset getting all wet. I was in the kitchen, leaning over my counter, looking out at a gray winter day. She was in her king-sized bed, confined to it for the next few days by the chemo that had wiped her out. Normally, she was distracted from the pain by the birds who visited her wooden balcony. But that day we didn’t have to talk about the birds and I didn’t have to tell her funny stories about my kids that I had saved up or about how happy I was to have organized my linen closet. I could just say, it stinks. The whole thing. Winter, living far apart, being positive, feeling sick, cancer, death.

Months later, when she had made it through chemo, the strongest stuff they can give you, the kill-ya-to-cure- ya strength, she said, “Just thank God that He has cured me of cancer.” But here’s the problem: you never really know if you are cured from cancer. When you’re on the toxic stuff, nothing is growing. So after she was done with chemo, we were in wait-and-see mode. Her face was back on, adamantly positive. I was a little kid again, knowing that everything was not all right but not allowed to talk about it.

I really wanted to call my mom this morning. There’s a terrible time in the morning when I linger between sleep and alertness—it can be a good fifteen minutes before I remember that she is dead. Our winter of cancer was followed by a spring of false hope. Then on my daughter’s first birthday, right before we cut the cake, she called to tell me that she was in the hospital. The cancer was back and she was terminal.

Our last month together was surreal. It was as if every morning she walked toward her grave, eyes wide open, but upon getting there, she found herself still standing. No? Not today? she’d ask politely. Well, okay, then. There was no more pretending. During that month, she talked about her hopes for us, and she shared how painful it was when her mom died. She gave me tips on finding mom-substitutes.

The week before she died, my mom checked into the presidential suite at the spa. It was there that I saw her for the last time. She treated me and her two sisters to pedicures and manicures, facials and massages. The next day I brought the kids there for a swim in the pool. When we were done, we said goodbye, and she and my aunts climbed into the hot tub. I tried to do our funny goodbye schtick—you say goodbye, walk away, then come back and say goodbye again. But she had already turned after my first goodbye; she was laughing with her sisters and didn’t hear me. I stood there in the hallway, holding my kids’ hands, looking at her. It was as if her trial with cancer had crystallized her, like a fire burning away all but the core. What endured was her strong, joyful spirit, determined to live a full life to the very end. I left, knowing I had just seen my mom for the last time, but I smiled at the kids. In the car, I put on their favorite Sesame Street tape and cranked up the volume so they wouldn’t hear me weeping.

In some way that I can’t fully put my finger on, it feels significant that my mom died just after my daughter was born. When I talked to my ob-gyn about my own risks for cancer—and told him, wasn’t it crazy, but I might want to have another child—he assured me that it wasn’t. The alpha and the omega, he said. The alpha and the omega.

Author’s Note: Since writing this essay, my father’s been physically and mentally ill and I’ve had two more miscarriages. What are you doing to take care of yourself? my mom would ask. I’d tell her that when I can find the words, I pray or write. When the words won’t come, I quilt. I just finished a quilt for my daughter Emily (now two), that is made from her outgrown sleepers and my mom’s flannel nightgowns. It felt like a tangible way to recognize my role in connecting these two generations.

Stephanie Farrell lives in Vineland, New Jersey, with her husband, Peter, and their two children. She does freelance work for her regional newspaper. This was her first essay published in a magazine.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

The Opposite of Spoiled: A Q & A With Ron Lieber

The Opposite of Spoiled: A Q & A With Ron Lieber

By Amanda Rose Adams

OppositeSpoiled hc cRon Lieber, personal finance columnist for The New York Times and father has written a bestselling book that tackles the difficult issue of how to teach the values and meaning of money to our children with insight, kindness, and humor. Below, Mr. Lieber answers questions about his book, The Opposite of Spoiled, and the values we teach our kids about money.

Q: You were inspired by real-life parents and tested many of the concepts in your book while writing it, but were you already committed to any of these practices before you decided to write about them, and if so which ones did you bring to the table with your own family?

Lieber:  The idea for this book arrived not long after I became a parent for the first time, so I didn’t have much in the way of philosophy underlying any of my writing on parenting at that point. But there were a few things that became a part of this project almost instinctually. 

One was honesty with kids about money. Not full disclosure, but a no-lying rule, especially for children who are 8 years old or so and up. While there may be some circumstances where delaying the truth or avoiding it may be best for some children, most of us will be lucky enough that we won’t find ourselves in them most of the time. Plus, they can tell when we lie, or they find out later. And if it becomes clear that we’re not good sources for accurate information about important things, like money and sex and drugs, they’ll turn to others (or the internet) for advice and counsel. That’s not something we want. 

When I was in high school, my mother was pretty blunt with me about the reality of our financial situation. While that wasn’t always fun, in retrospect, I’m glad I knew exactly what kind of odds we faced for getting me into and through college without racking up too much debt. She also took me along for a meeting with a financial aid counselor when I was in high school, which had a lasting impact

Money is a source of power, but it’s also mysterious. So of course our children are going to have lots of questions about it. We should be as honest as we can, even if it means promising the truth (say, about our salaries) on some later day years in the future when they’re more ready for it.

Q: What I came away with after reading your book is that money is a powerful tool to express who we are. Were you as open with your daughter about money before you started writing the book as you are now?

 Lieber: Thanks for saying “a” powerful tool and not “the most powerful tool” or the “best” or “only” tool. It’s none of those last three things, though it might be the most underrated and least used or understood parenting tool to imprint good values on our children. We should talk about money more often, but not all the time. Make it a focus, not a fetish.

Think about it this way: What we spend and where says a lot about what we care about and ultimately what we stand for. If looking at the credit or debit card statement each month is unpleasant, then we’re probably spending on the wrong things or in the wrong quantities. This is not a hidden argument for more thrift by the way; sometimes spending more on the things that matter most is the surest route to happiness, as long as we can do it without going into debt. The money we give away, by the way, says a lot too. When we told our daughter how we divided our charitable budget, the conversation was revelatory for all of us. We do it every year now. 

Q: Do you have any advice for where to start, and if families are late to start the discussion about money and finances how they can catch up?

Lieber: First, before you start talking, consider your own shame, in all the forms in which it may manifest itself. Some people have shame about what they do have, especially if they inherited it. They’re ashamed of not having to work, and they feel idle and unaccomplished. Others are ashamed of how they’ve made their money. Still more feel shame about having more than anyone else and don’t want anyone to know. 

Then there is shame in having less, perhaps because of a job loss. Or there is shame in a path not taken, a career that feels like a dead end or is not glamorous. There may be shame in having been tricked or swindled in a way that is costly or shame in big mistakes that have led to the need for a move to a smaller residence or some other large disruption. 

Talking about these feelings is as good of a way as any to start the conversation with a spouse about how to start a conversation with a child or children. Spouses who grew up in different social classes may well have very different ideas about how to approach the topic. If you don’t have a spouse, try confiding in a sibling or close friend. Ask other parents what their kids ask and how they answer. 

Many parents also feel shame in not knowing enough about money to teach their kids or talk to them about it, or they’re ashamed of their own habits around money. But teaching and talking out loud with children, especially older ones, is as good of a way to shape yourself up and get over it as any. You’re a role model, they’re watching your every move now anyway, and they probably have taken in way more than you think about how you spend and what that says. Might as well talk about it.

Q: When researching for your book, what did you notice about parental partnerships and different approaches to money, and how that influences the kids? How involved is your wife in the money messages that you bring to parenting your child?

Lieber: The most important thing here is not to fight about money with your spouse (or ex-spouse) in front of your kids. When I talk to adults about the topic, so many of them have intense memories of loud fights over money when they were growing up and having been led to believe that money is a source of stress and strain first and foremost. It’s those recollections that often lead those grownups to not talk about money at all, for fear of repeating the same patterns with their own spouse. 

Q: A lot of parents are co-parenting with a former partner, how do you think separate households can collaborate to give kids a consistent message? This wasn’t a focus of the book, but when a child could have as many as four parents and twice as many grandparents through remarriage, how can they all begin to balance those influences, which is probably trickier than the influence of the media?

Lieber: The fact is, many times they cannot give kids a consistent message. Ex-spouses are sometimes not on speaking terms, and even if they are, they don’t agree about money and 1,000 other things. One spouse may have more money than another or is willing to spend more (or go into debt) to show the kids a good time or lavish them with toys or experiences to make up for whatever pain and distance exists in the family relationships. 

This is a hard thing for the parent with less (or who chooses to buy or do less) to explain. Kids will demand an explanation, and I do believe they are entitled to one. This is confusing, after all, and it’s their job to figure out how the world (and their world) works. But it can be extremely difficult to explain your choices without disparaging your former spouse. Try to avoid doing that anyway if you possibly can. Explain that you’ve simply chosen to make different choices. Lay out your budget. If you’re choosing not to spend more, even if you could afford to, remind your children that it is your job to set limits so that the kids will know how to do the same thing for themselves when they get older. Give them some power or control over whatever budget you do have if you can, and let them make some choices for themselves about tradeoffs. 

Q: What kinds of financial details do you think are appropriate to withhold from kids of particular ages, and when do you think those details should be shared, if ever?

Lieber: I don’t think we should tell kids how much money we make until they are ready. Most aren’t ready (having practiced with money themselves for a decade, having learned about all of the household bills, having proven they are discrete) until they are at least 16 or so. 

To me it makes sense not to voluntarily offer up information to children that we think will cause them anxiety. But I also believe in the no-lying rule. 

Q: Your entire book spoke to me about family trust. Parents who trust their children to treat private information with respect, and children who trust their parents because they know that nothing is off-limits when it comes to conversation and learning. Would you agree that the unspoiled child is one who is given the gifts of trust and respect, and if so, how can parents continue to build these attributes?

Lieber: Agreed. Most younger kids are not ready to keep private information private and we shouldn’t test them unless we don’t mind certain things getting out. When kids ask for it, remind them that childhood (and their teenager years especially) are partly a years-long discretion test that parents are conducting. Are they keeping their friends’ information to themselves, or getting in trouble for spreading gossip? Are they reading their siblings’ journals or tattling on them inappropriately? Is other family information leaking out somehow? If so, let them know that they have flunked this part of the test. Until they can pass, they don’t get to discuss the household income or net worth, which is private information.

One other useful tactic to try with teens as they approach readiness, especially those from families who have more money than average: Remind them that the information really doesn’t have much use outside of their house. Their friends probably aren’t going to ask about your family’s income, and if your kids share the information anyway, they’ll sound like braggarts and jerks. No kid wants to flunk their parents’ discretion tests but they definitely don’t want to flunk their friends’ jerk tests. 

 

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

Things Money Can Buy

Things Money Can Buy

By Sarah Winfrey

unnamed-2

He came home that Friday night to his heavily pregnant wife. That was me, the heavily pregnant wife. He made some comment about the layoffs at work. The layoffs we’d been promised at least twice would not affect us.

“Do you know who is getting laid off yet?” I asked. In passing.

“Well, I know one of them.”

“Who?”

He didn’t answer and I finally looked up from whatever held my attention so closely. I met his eyes and I knew.

“Me,” he said, though he didn’t have to.

We’d planned our entrance into parenthood with a meticulousness that, in retrospect, probably boded disaster. My husband had heard it was best to wait at least 2 years after marrying to begin trying to conceive, so as to consolidate our emotional bond. We did that.

We also planned which doctors we’d use, how we’d get to the hospital (with alternate routes in case of emergency or traffic), and which baby products were worth buying at a premium.

We had it all covered, everything but this.

It would have been one thing if he had lost his job when it was just the two of us, to scramble a little, to work part-time and freelance and live off our savings until we had something official again. Who knows? We might even have decided to take off and travel around the world, to pursue the thing we’d spent so many years dreaming about.

When I became pregnant, knowing our daughter grew inside of me and seeing her tiny heartbeat on the ultrasound, we began to dream new dreams. A home with a yard, family that lived close, and friends who knew us like family. And stability.

Stability is a strange thing to dream about. Most people pit stability against dreams, like you have to choose one or the other. But we began to dream of the things that meant her life would be safe: steady income, health insurance, and childcare such that she would know who was going to be there for her, and when, and why.

Of all the dreams that came along with that first baby, stability was the one we thought we’d be able to provide. And then we couldn’t.

With the loss of my husband’s regular income, we felt like we couldn’t give our daughter anything. This child, the one we would have given anything for, was going to come into a world where nothing was certain.

My dad worked for the same company, albeit in different locations, for my entire life. Even as a small child, I took it for granted that money would continue to come in, that there would always be enough for whatever I needed. Because the family could count on his steady income, I took things for granted that other kids didn’t even have.

I lived in a home my parents owned.

I got new clothes with the changing seasons.

I got to travel all over the country and try things like paragliding and snorkeling.

Was there privilege in that? Yes. But there was also stability.

Even when hard things happened, like when we moved three times in three-and-a-half years, life didn’t fall apart completely.

That’s what I wanted to give my baby.

Instead, I found myself afraid of the way she would grow up. What would it mean for her if we couldn’t buy her new clothes when she outgrew the old ones? What would happen if we never owned a home? If we had to forego something she really needed because of money?

After my husband lost his job, we tried to figure out what life would look like as we moved forward. We talked about income, about needs vs. wants, and we talked about dreams.

We found that some of the things we dreamed of giving her, the things that meant “stability,” centered on less material aspects of life.

“I want to teach her to ask good questions,” I told my husband over bottles of cider one evening. “And to know that the questions you ask in life are more important than the answers you get.”

He nodded. “I want her to know that we know her, inside and out. And to know that she’s always got people on her side,” he said.

“I want to love her well.”

I don’t remember which one of us said that, but it came from both our hearts.

That proved to be the first of many conversations about money and about what we want to give our kids.

We’ve talked, too, about what the loss of that job meant for us. Looking back, we see how not being able to provide her with financial stability threw us even further into darkness than the job loss itself.

But she brought us light too: loving our baby girl made our priorities clearer and helped us focus on moving forward despite our loss. Loving her still centers us, even when it doesn’t make sense of everything.

Just the other day, my daughter, that baby now a five-year-old, got angry with me because her brother got something new and she didn’t. I looked at my husband for reassurance.

“She knows she’s loved,” he said, like he’s said so many times over the years.

She knows she’s loved.

It would be nice to say that my husband’s job loss and our daughter’s first years helped us to refocus, to realize that loving our daughter would be enough. The truth, though, is more complicated.

We have loved her. We always will. And because we love her, we want to give her many things, including some that money can buy.

Still.

Always.

Sarah Winfrey helps moms who struggle with motherhood make peace with both their mothering and their struggle. She writes about mothering and spirituality at sarahwinfrey.com.

Paid Family Leave: An Elusive Option for Many U.S. Workers

Paid Family Leave: An Elusive Option for Many U.S. Workers

By Susan Buttenwieser

130874531The United States is one of only three countries in the world without a paid maternity leave law. The other two? Papua New Guinea and Oman. Workers in many other countries can also count on receiving paid paternity leave, elder care benefits and generous paid sick leave.

Meanwhile, the only federal legislation that American workers have is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to look after a newborn or a sick relative without losing their job. The law applies only to companies with 50 or more employees, and then if an employee has worked for a certain amount of time.

Although the FMLA provides important job protections, many workers simply can’t afford to utilize it, leaving parents and caregivers with stark choices. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, nearly half of workers who were eligible for leave but didn’t take it, cited lack of pay as the reason. Six in ten workers who took partially paid or unpaid leave reported difficulty making ends meet; half of these workers were forced to cut their leaves short due to financial constraints.

However, the tide may be starting to turn. Three states now guarantee paid family and medical leave—California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, and a similar law is set to go into effect in Washington State, possibly later this year. Additionally, studies of these programs have shown that they have been beneficial not only to employees, but to their workplaces as well. Various pieces of legislation are either being passed or introduced in cities and states across the country as well as on the federal level, with the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act being reintroduced in March.

Rachel Lyons, senior government affairs manager at the National Partnership for Women & Families, shared her thoughts on this important issue.

Q:  There seems to be momentum around paid family leave right now. Do you think there is a shift in thinking on this issue?

RL:  There is unprecedented momentum around paid leave right now, and a number of factors have contributed to what we see as a watershed moment for the policy’s future in this country.

Women now make up nearly half of the workforce and are primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children. Women are also still their families’ primary caregivers, so they are disproportionately impacted by conflicts between work and family caused by the nation’s lack of family friendly workplace policies.

There is also a powerful and growing body of evidence from existing paid leave programs and employer policies showing that paid leave benefits workers, their families, businesses and the economy. In particular, the success of paid family leave programs in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island demonstrate that.

People are struggling to manage work and family, and an overwhelming majority of voters (81 percent) want lawmakers to consider new laws that would help, like paid family and medical leave. They also say they are more likely to vote for someone who supports paid leave.

So, in many ways, the issue has become unavoidable for our elected officials. And some are stepping up to help advance the policy. The Obama administration just launched a new tour to highlight the issue, and the President has urged Congress to take action. The administration also dedicated and proposed funding to help states advance paid leave policies. And members of Congress recently reintroduced the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would establish a national paid family and medical leave insurance program.

The National Partnership leads a coalition of several hundred organizations that is pushing for the FAMILY Act.

 

Q:  On the flip side, why is it taking the U.S. so long to catch up with the rest of the world? Why have we been unable to have these benefits sooner?

RL:  In many ways, our culture is very individualistic and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is pervasive. But we also can’t ignore the strong influence that business and business interests play in our politics and policy landscape. There’s a longstanding misconception that what’s good for workers is bad for business, and in the case of paid family and medical leave—like so many other basic labor protections—that’s simply not true.

But, no matter why the nation has fallen so far behind, the country’s failure to guarantee paid leave hurts working families and our global competitiveness. When women don’t have access to paid leave, it is more difficult for them to remain in the workforce. In fact, women’s workforce participation, which climbed substantially in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, has stagnated relative to other developed countries.

 

Q:  Studies have shown economic benefits when workplaces have adopted paid family leave. What are the other benefits, the ones that may be less tangible or easily quantifiable?

RL:  Overall, paid leave strengthens the economic security of working people and their families. It provides income stability to families with new children, encourages workforce attachment, promotes families’ financial independence and safeguards workers’ income and retirement security. It can also promote men’s involvement in the care of a child—men who take two or more weeks off after the birth of a child are more involved than fathers who take no leave in the direct care of their child nine months later.

Paid leave contributes to improved newborn and child health because newborns whose mothers take leave are more likely to be breastfed, receive medical check-ups and get critical immunizations. Seriously ill children also recover faster when cared for by their parents, and paid leave helps make that possible. It also allows ill or injured adults to get critical care and take needed recovery time, and it enables caregivers to help ill parents, spouses and children fulfill treatment plans and avoid complications and hospital readmissions.

Paid leave reduces worker replacements and improves worker loyalty. It saves the government and taxpayers money through reduced health care costs, reduced reliance on public assistance, more people staying in their jobs and paying taxes, and increased earnings and savings over time.

 

Q:  What would implementing family leave on a federal level mean to the average American?

RL:  It would mean that tens of millions of workers and their families could rest easier knowing they are no longer one illness, injury or birth away from financial devastation. It would be a giant leap toward the family friendly America we have long wanted and needed.

Right now, just 13 percent of the workforce has paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40 percent has personal medical leave. That means that, when illness strikes or babies are born, the majority of workers in this country have to choose between their health or the health of their families and their jobs. And the negative effects ripple throughout our communities and society.

A national paid family and medical leave program like the one the Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act would create is a smart, affordable and tested way to ensure that working people in this country can take time to address their own serious health conditions and care for their loved ones without sacrificing their economic security. It’s a common sense policy that would bring our nation’s workplace policies in line with the rest of the word.

A confluence of factors has gotten us to a moment as a nation when we are primed for progress on paid leave. This is a unique and unprecedented moment.

Now, it’s time for lawmakers to make the most of it.

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. 

Photo: gettyimages

Suspended in Social Mobility

Suspended in Social Mobility

By Amanda Rose Adams

86806192

For the past seven years, my kids have attended our neighborhood elementary school. The school was recently classified as a Title One institution. According to the US Department of Education, “Schools in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment are eligible to use Title I funds for schoolwide programs that serve all children in the school.”

For many years well over 50% of our school’s students have been eligible for free or reduced lunch, but my children are not part of that 50%+ percent. At our elementary school, we’ve been the minority of families who are decidedly and comfortably middle class.

My daughter only has nine more school days before she leaves our Title One school to join her brother in middle school next fall. Our middle school has the lowest percentage of at-risk need funding of any school in our district, less than 2%. We are going from a school where most of the school directory addresses are in one of the biggest trailer parks in our state to a school where we’ve seen kids picked up in Lamborghinis and limousines.

According to the principal at the middle school, close to one hundred percent of the students have smart phones. I can assure you it’s not fully one hundred percent because my son does not have a cell phone of any sort, smart or not. We simply cannot afford to arm a sixth grader with a telephone for his convenience or ours. Once again we are in the minority, still middle class but closer to the margins than many families at this school.

My husband and I look back over our children’s tenure at the lower income school with mixed feelings. We are glad we didn’t try to “choice” out of our neighborhood school because we wanted our kids to understand that not everyone has the same advantages and possessions. We’re glad that they had so many English-learning classmates. We are glad that we had the school’s social worker translate birthday party invitations to be inclusive. Diversity is one of the values the school celebrates.

We did “choice” our son out of the middle school he would have been bussed to because we wanted him to have a chance to make new friends. He was never athletic enough to blend in with his peers in elementary school and a new crowd seemed the right choice for him. Where we live if a family wants to opt out of their default school, they must submit a request in writing by the January before the next school year begins, and even then a change of school is not guaranteed. The middle school he’s at now was actually third on our list of three alternatives. We knew little about it before he was assigned, but it’s the one the school district chose for us.

In elementary school, our kids were getting easy As for years. They’ve been coasting, which we learned this year when our sixth grade son was buried in homework and struggled to legitimately earn solid Bs. We’ve not only seen him work harder, we’ve seen his writing and math skills improve dramatically. At his old school we never pushed him to join the gifted and talented program because we knew he wouldn’t push himself. In this new school, whether it’s his age, his teachers, or his peers, he’s found his drive.

We expect our daughter to really take off in middle school and are hoping to see her communication skills blossom like her brother’s have. We are so happy with the academic rigor middle school that we wonder if we did wrongly by our kids by not trying to “choice” them into a more challenging school sooner.

For the past several years we were stubbornly loyal to our neighborhood elementary school, volunteering regularly and donating supplies and hosting classroom parties. We didn’t want to be those people who thought their kids were too good to go to school with the poor kids. This was especially important to me because I actually lived in a trailer park from kindergarten until sixth grade. My siblings and I were the kids who got free and reduced lunch. My family ate government cheese and drank canned pineapple juice from the USDA Commodities program. It seemed like a betrayal of my family of origin and an enormous hypocrisy of self to segregate my own children from other kids just because the other kids lacked money. What I didn’t understand until later is how hard the teachers have to work to make up for other gaps that many kids without money also possess, like never attending preschool or not having books at home and often not having a parent at home.

By doing right by our neighbors and our values, I do sometimes wonder if we did right by kids? Our son seems to be catching up quickly, and I expect no different from our daughter. If we created a gap by indulging our values of equality and fairness ahead of our value of education, it is our responsibility and our great privilege to close it with the myriad of resources at our disposal. One of those privileges is sending our kids to a middle school that challenges them. It’s now up to our kids to reach their full potential and for us to support that. I wonder about our choices, but I don’t regret them. In raising children, I would far rather error on the side of compassion over competition because that’s the lesson I most want them to take into the future.

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

 

Photo: gettyimages

The Foster Mother Lupe Garza

The Foster Mother Lupe Garza

By Jessica O’Dwyer

ShannonPawloski_HostCountryCulture_LaAntigua1

We were 15 months into adopting my now 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, when I quit my job and rented a house to live with her in Antigua, Guatemala. The Guatemalan town was flooded with people like my husband and me, who got to know our hoped-for children over long weekends, eating brunch in hotel dining rooms and playing peek-a-boo on hotel pool decks.

The process wasn’t easy for anyone, most of all Olivia. She’d been placed in a foster home at four months old, so until my husband and I showed up to visit, the Garzas were her family. The first time I held her in my arms, she looked at me with brown eyes filled with fear and puzzlement. And no wonder. My hair was blonde, my skin white, and my basic Spanish incomprehensible. I wasn’t Lupe Garza, the mother Olivia knew. I was a stranger. When Lupe tried to hand her to me, Olivia stiffened her spine. When I gave Olivia her bottle, she turned away her face. By the end of our long weekends, when Olivia finally let me feed her, it was time to return her to the Garza family and fly back to California.

Adoption experts claim a child can transfer attachment from one primary caregiver to another, but as the months passed, Olivia’s attachment to Lupe Garza seemed deep and permanent. How could I ever tear her away? Which is why, fifteen months into it, I quit my job and rented the house in Antigua where we lived together. Olivia was cautious at first, watching me with her intense eyes and screaming with fear if I moved from her sight. But after a few weeks, she let me nuzzle her cheek and hold her hand. She snuggled into me when I read her a book, and smiled when I sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” We began to feel like mother and daughter.

We stayed in touch with the Garzas, who lived an hour away. Foster mother Lupe Garza was a fantastic cook, and during our hotel visits, had often shared with us her country’s specialties—tamales around Christmas, black beans, and the dish most associated with Guatemala, pepian. I loved pepian so much that Lupe insisted on teaching me how to make it. We set a date and the entire Garza family arrived at our house in Antigua mid-morning—Lupe and her husband, the kids and their significant others; this was a big crowd—carrying bags of rice and peppers and onions and chiles, a large sack of pumpkin seeds, and two whole chickens, freshly plucked.

After we said our hellos, the men and boys settled in front of the TV in the living room, while the women and girls commandeered the kitchen. On an old videotape in a closet somewhere I have footage of Lupe Garza carrying Olivia in a sling across her back, wielding a wooden spoon to sauté the onions and roast the pumpkin seeds as she explained to the camera in Spanish the steps for creating the dish. Beside her, Olivia’s foster sisters and the brothers’ girlfriends chopped and sliced and minced and pummeled. They laughed and spoke fast, again in Spanish, words I couldn’t understand.

I hadn’t thought about this particular day for years, until I recently came across a pepian recipe. As I read through the ingredients, the memories of our hours together returned. The morning that became afternoon that became evening. The sharp smell of chiles, and garlic, and oregano. The sizzling of the browning chicken. The scent of pumpkin seeds, toasted. The way Lupe tied Olivia into the sling and carried her across her back. Olivia’s foster brother running out at the last minute to buy tortillas from the seller in front of Pollo Campero. The Garzas seated at my table eating pepian. Olivia sitting on her foster sister’s lap. Everybody hugging at the front door. Olivia waving bye-bye, with a backwards wave, the way Lupe Garza taught her.

Jessica O’Dwyer is the author of Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir (Seal Press) and the adoptive mother to two children born in Guatemala. Her essays have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, and in the San Francisco Chronicle magazine, Adoptive Families, Marin Independent Journal, and the West Marin Review.

Mom Blame

Mom Blame

By Katy Read

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 8.13.17 AMMy son was a couple of months old when he introduced the nightly practice that we came to call The Board.

It would happen at bedtime. The parenting books all said you should establish a soothing routine. I would sit in the gliding chair, turn the lights down, rock the baby as he nursed one last time. I might whisper a lullaby or run softly through Goodnight Moon (or, okay, flip through a magazine or watch ER). The idea behind this peaceful ritual was to send my son the message that it was time to relax and get ready to sleep.

He got the message, all right.

As soon as the lights dimmed and the gliding began, my son would pop his eyes open, fling back his head, straighten his legs, and arch his back. He would turn his tiny body board-like, rigid as a two-by-four.

It wasn’t the rocking, my singing, or even one of those gory surgery scenes on ER. By day, my son loved—indeed demanded, loudly, often in the middle of a store—to be held and rocked. But at night, he would resist it using the only weapon he had (besides wailing, of course, which he would deploy the moment

I set his board-like body into his crib). My son already was learning how to impose his young but steely will. He would not go gentle into that goodnight ritual.

The Board complicated our evenings. But putting babies to bed is always difficult—everyone knows that. Things would get easier, I kept hearing. Sure enough, a few months and many raucous bedtimes later he began sleeping through the night.

Boldly, I got pregnant again.

*   *   *

A few years ago, I discovered how different my views about raising children had become—different from those of other people, different from those I had once held myself.

I was gossiping over coffee with a group of friends, and the talk turned to one woman’s young nephew, whose recent behavior suggested some kind of problem.

“It’s just what you’d expect,” the aunt said, shaking her head, “the way he was raised.”

The young man, a gifted student, had dropped out of college and moved back home. He had no plans for his future. No job. No friends. Didn’t date. Rarely left the house. Slouched in front of his computer all day.

“No wonder,” the woman continued. “Janet was always so clingy and overprotective. When he was little, she wouldn’t even leave him with a babysitter.”

“Well, but you can’t put all the blame on Janet,” said another family member. “It’s Dave’s fault, too. He stood back and let her smother him.”

I hesitated to add my own opinion. The young man was not my relative. I didn’t have all the facts, and maybe it wasn’t my business. Once, though, when he was little, his family had brought him to our city for a visit. I remembered the parents walking through a hard rain to take their son to a children’s museum.

“Don’t you think it’s possible,” I finally said, “that whatever has caused this behavior, it’s not the fault of either of his parents?”

The faces around the table were frowning, skeptical, perplexed.

*   *   *

At one time, I might have reacted the same way. I used to see a kid with a problem, from a toddler acting up in a restaurant to an ashen-faced teenager begging for spare change on a street corner, and assume that the parents had screwed up. Spoiled the kid or neglected him, been too harsh or too lenient, allowed too much sugar or too much TV.

It worked the other way, too. If a child was cheerful and responsible, obviously his mother and father had raised him right. The parents were often happy to agree. Yes, well, we always made sure we set limits/were consistent/ate dinner together as a family.

I don’t make those assumptions anymore. Or, if I start to do so out of long habit, I catch myself. These days, when I hear a mom or dad boast about some parenting triumph or other, I have to restrain myself from asking whether their supposedly well-brought-up offspring might simply have been born that way.

*   *   *

It’s one of the enduring images of my older son’s early years. My husband and I still secretly chuckle about it, not just because it’s funny and cute—my children have said lots of cute things—but because it’s such a textbook illustration of the qualities that would come to define our son. Our laughter is affectionate, even a little proud, but it is tinged with frustration.

Picture him at three years old: sturdy, round-bellied, the size and shape of an elf. He stands in the kitchen wearing green flannel footie pajamas, curls flopping over his forehead, feet firmly planted like a tiny lumberjack about to swing his ax. He has misbehaved in some way, and my husband has warned him that if he keeps it up, he will be placed in time out.

My son glares up at his father from his knee-high level and points at him with a fierce pudgy finger.

“No,” he replies, his little elfin voice stern. “I will put you in time out!”

Struggling to suppress our amusement, we fail once again to grasp the implications. Toddlers drive everybody crazy, right? It will get easier, we keep hearing. Soon, soon.

*   *   *

Why do we so confidently trace the behavior of children, even of the adults they become, to the actions of their parents? Why are we so certain that fathers and mothers (let’s face it, especially mothers) have control over how their kids “turn out”? It’s a measure of how deeply these assumptions are embedded in our culture that the questions themselves seem almost absurd.

Sure, most people believe, theoretically, in some confluence of nature and nurture. But the nature part is invisible and baffling; even scientists have barely started to grasp the complicated machinations of our genes. Nurture is much easier to sift through for clues.

And, man, we are desperate for clues. Wondering about our own paralyzing shyness or obsessive neatness, we think back to what our parents might have done or said to make us this way. We draw a connection with our father’s aloofness, with our mother’s white-gloved insistence on keeping the bedroom tidy.

The sages who serve as our guides to human nature—philosophers, psychologists, novelists—have compared babies to unmolded clay, white paper, blank slates just waiting for their parents’ chalk. “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” asked seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. “To this I answer, in one word, from experience.” The importance of family environment in particular in shaping character was touted by early twentieth-century scientists. For those times it was enlightened, if a bit ridiculous, for behaviorist John B. Watson to boast that he could take some random infant and “train him to become any type of specialist I might select—a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even into a beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

These days most people, unlike Watson, would consider the difference between an artist and a doctor at least partly the result of talents and penchants. Career choice aside, though, the notion that humans are profoundly malleable—that a model upbringing produces a model child, that a child’s flaws reflect her parents’ mistakes—has taken hold, been culturally internalized, come to seem self-evident. The concept appeals to Americans’ faith in our endless capacity for improvement, in our confidence that hard work—in this case, raising children—pays off. Helping to popularize and legitimize the notion is the ever-growing parenting-advice industry. Desperate parents want suggestions for controlling their children, and a book that throws up its hands is unlikely to rule the best-seller lists.

The idea is entrenched enough to be satirized on The Simpsons. In one episode, Bart gets arrested and sent to jail, and a distraught Marge moans that she’s “the worst mom in the world.”

“It’s not totally your fault,” Homer Simpson consoles his wife. “All these years, I watched you turn our son into a time bomb and yet I did nothing.”

*   *   *

I started paying attention to the way other children acted. At our daycare center, I noticed that at the end of the day most kids simply walked out the front door. They did not have to be slung over their parents’ shoulders as they thrashed and screamed and kicked off their shoes. At the park, I saw toddlers riding serenely in their strollers, gazing at dogs and birds—not straining against the straps and howling to be freed, as if held hostage by a kidnapper. I observed kids quietly sitting on the sidelines at sporting events, kids waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, kids behaving as if they wanted—even strove for—adult approval.

What was especially mystifying was that the parents in these situations were rarely seen coaxing or scolding or bribing or cajoling or threatening or tricking or punishing to achieve this compliance. I concluded that they had already done all that work behind the scenes, using some carefully formulated mixture of discipline techniques to lay a solid foundation of obedience.

Obviously, I was doing something wrong, though it wasn’t clear exactly what. Should I impose tighter limits or pick my battles? Show more empathy or less? Loosen up or crack down? Be a drill sergeant or a therapist? And whichever course I picked, was I following it with unswerving consistency, or were there times—late at night, in the car, at a party—when I might be letting some slight human variability slip into my approach?

Seeking guidance, I combed parenting books, which assured me that my children’s behavior was well within my control.

“But how do you want your child to turn out? What will your child need from you in order to become the person you want him to be?” ask best-selling authors William and Martha Sears in The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child from Birth to Age Ten.

The books promised to make our lives easier with endless strategies for taming kids, from putting them in time-out to plunking them in soothing baths, from setting strict limits to offering multiple choices, from pasting stickers on a chart to counting 1-2-3, from gentle reasoning to the robotic suppression of my own anger (which many of the books warned would only reinforce the undesi