Mother’s Day of Peace

Mother’s Day of Peace

Art Mothers Day

By Francie Arenson

This Mother’s Day marks the 35th anniversary of the biggest feud in my family’s history. The Microwave Fight broke out, as I’m sure our neighbors could tell you, on a Sunday morning in 1981, the morning of Mother’s Day and my mother’s 40th birthday, when my father, brother and I bestowed upon her a microwave.

The most upsetting part of the fight—aside from the realization that the highly anticipated contraption would apparently be going back to the store—was that we’d thought the gift was a sure thing. For months, my mother had been talking about how we needed one of these machines that cooked food instantaneously. Yes, she’d haggled over the safety aspect. There was concern about cancer. But in the end, she, like any right-minded mother, decided to err on the side of making dinner preparation easier.

The three of us took her decision and ran straight to the appliance store, and on Mother’s day, we smugly unloaded our perfect gift from the back of the wagon and hefted it towards the door to the house where the woman of the hour stood waiting. We didn’t even bother to wrap the cardboard box, that’s how good we thought it was. So we were blindsided when my mother’s face fell upon reading the word OVEN on the side of the box. From there, chaos ensued.

“But we thought you wanted a microwave,” my father said as the three of us marched the box and our dumbfounded selves back into the wagon.

I remember racing out of the driveway with my mother still in it, hollering, “No woman wants a appliance for Mother’s Day!”

Words I’ve chosen to live by. In fact, because technology may fall under the appliance umbrella, she will not be getting an iPad for this year’s joint 75th birthday and Mother’s day gift. Nonetheless, these words didn’t shed any light on what my mother wanted. Only now, thirty years and a husband, two kids and a dog later, I think I have some idea. My guess is that she, like many mothers, mothers who devote their unpaid days to putting others’ needs before them, want their people to think about them in the way they think about their people. Which, clearly, we did not. Or else we might have realized that a gift for the kitchen is not the best idea for a woman who is looking for ways to get out of there faster. And no one, regardless of their line of work wants a gift that screams, “Enjoy today, but tomorrow it’s back to the grindstone.”

For this, I would like to take the opportunity to formally apologize. Not only do I see you, Mom, but I give you credit for handling the situation as well as you did. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. We recently fixed up our house and I refused to spend the money specifically allocated to a new microwave on a new microwave. I, instead, bought throw pillows and a glass knot at West Elm. With the change I got a facial.

My guess is that miscalculations of microwave magnitude don’t happen as often today because of the “tools” in place (marketing campaigns) to guide husbands and children towards the perfect gift. And by perfect, I mean satisfactory. One to which a mother can say, “Although I’d rather have a necklace, you all and your gift will do.” Because really, how can any single object, or day for that matter, give justice to all that we mothers are and do?

It cannot, the concept is inane, as are the countless websites, articles and emails dedicated to helping us do just that. This year, for example, Esquire Magazine lists the top 30 Mother’s Day Gifts of 2016. It suggests flannel pajama bottoms for The Mother Who Needs a Nap. To which I ask, whose mom doesn’t? It suggests a top for The Mother Who Always Dresses her Best. To that, I ask, whose mom does? Even the financial publication The Street offers a list of sure-fire Mother’s Day gifts. Though you won’t catch me putting my money on items 2 and 5, the Robotic Vacuum Cleaner or the Multi-Cooker Crock Pot.

Many stores around the country now help eliminate the guesswork altogether by offering wish lists. Yes indeed, mothers can now register for Mother’s Day. We can come in, shop around and set aside items we want, which the husband or children can acquire ten seconds before presentation with the simple offering of a wallet. On its face, this concept seems at odds with the point of Mother’s Day, which as we just established, is to put thought into your mother.

On the other hand—as my family learned the hard way—the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So perhaps the online marketing and the in-store wishlists, while seeming to commercialize and superficialize Mother’s Day, are actually heading off a storm. They are keeping the peace, which is, when all is said and done, what mothers want above all else anyways, and which, ironically, is what Mother’s Day was intended to be about.

The origins of Mother’s Day date back to 1870 and to Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist and poet, who, after witnessing the devastating loss of sons and husbands due to the Civil War, fought to establish a Mother’s Day of Peace. A day when woman around the nation could come together and figure out how to prevent war.

“Arise then…women of this day!” she wrote.

“Arise, all women who have hearts!

Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: ‘We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,

Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,

For caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn

All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country,

Will be too tender of those of another country

To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

Nothing like a proclamation to put things in perspective. It turns out that Mother’s Day—what do you know—wasn’t even intended to celebrate mothers, and it certainly wasn’t intended to be about gifts. Julia Ward Howe called for nothing to be bestowed upon us, other than the presence of our children. So, technically, it seems anyone who asked for a day alone at the spa is doing it wrong. As is anyone who turned in a wishlist. Although to the extent that the wishlists help to keep the peace, perhaps Julia would have been in favor. Although I have a hunch her list would have never included a microwave.

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 completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her work at: Read more of her work at


Mom I Need A Ride

Mom I Need A Ride

Art-Mom-I-Need-a-Ride-768x630By Francie Arenson Dickman

Back in 1998, right before we got married, my husband suggested that we trade in both our cars for a new one. And so, we did. I traded in my black two-door Honda, a tiny thing that fit nothing except for me, a death trap according to my parents, for a bigger one. A safer one. A car that could and would carry children. My husband, who loves all things auto—I assume because he’s from Detroit—was giddy with excitement. But I, who tends to love merely what’s mine, stood in my Ann Taylor suit unloading tapes of Enya and Indigo Girls from the glove compartment, maps from the side pockets and cried. I wasn’t just trading in a car, I was mourning the end of an era. I was saying goodbye to my solo passenger status and paying my respects to the concept of mine and only mine.

And with good reason. In a matter of years, the backseat was occupied with carseats and with twin backwards-facing riders. My glove compartment was filled with pacifiers. My side compartments were stuffed with toys and wipes. My CDs played Ralph, but who could hear him over the all the crying. For driving, like for mothering itself, these were tense times.

But, the reliable thing about time is that for better or worse it keeps rolling on, and with it so did we. From facing backwards to forward, from boosters to butts. From Montessori straight through middle school, I drove on. Until, suddenly, a decade and a half later, we’ve reached a marker, not a destination, but a rite of passage. As it is time, a friend just brought to my attention, to sign my passengers up for Driver’s Ed. Their classes won’t start until September. They won’t have their licenses for another year after. Nonetheless, the end of another road is in sight. A road I never imagined would end. Napping, I always knew was a phase. Just like the park, Princesses and playdates. But the carpool, like Twinkies and cockroaches, seemed like something that couldn’t possibly expire.

“When one door closes another one opens,” my mother told me that day I gave away my Honda. She tells me this often, as I’m a sucker for anything having to do with the passage of time, and she was, of course, right. Though I had no idea that when the door to the Honda shut, the next one would be opening and closing ad nauseam for the next 15 years. Had I only known that I would be blessed not only with two daughters but the job of chauffeuring them around, maybe I wouldn’t have cried so hard. Or maybe I would have cried harder.

Driving’s what I do—it’s what we all do. Working the wheel is an essential part of the parenting job. On most weekdays, I’m in and out of the car from 3:00 to 8:30 pm, and on weekends we go to dance shows out in Timbuktu. Is it tiresome? Yes. Do I complain about it? Certainly. Would I trade it in for another two-seater? Not for the world. At least not now.

Although my husband is now bugging me to do it. Once again, what is to me a momentous occasion is to him simply an opportunity to head to a dealership. “Let’s get you a new car, maybe something a little smaller,” he tells me. He wants to hand down my big old car to our daughters. The bigger, the better, he says, as far as their safety is concerned.

But I know better. As does Bessie, my first car, a Caprice Classic station wagon, the biggest car ever created. Together we crashed into fire hydrants, backed into other parents’ cars, and plowed through the dry wall of our garage. In fairness to us, Bessie didn’t give a warning beep when we got too close to objects like cars nowadays do. All I had was 3 or 4 of my backwards-facing friends to scream after the damage was done. In this regard, I suppose my kids will have technology on their side. On the flip side, I didn’t have a phone in Bessie to distract me. And so, regardless of the car they drive, I am worried. Times two.

But more than that, I’m not ready to come full circle. Although this time around, it’s not the car itself that I care about losing. I’m mourning the loss of my status as driver.

“Mom, can you give us a ride?” is the most commonly asked question in our house (next to “Mom, do you have any money?”) One would think I’d hate those words by now. Those reliable words. They ring down from upstairs. They appear as texts on my phone at random and often inconvenient times. But I say, “yes” whenever I can, not because I’m such a good sport, but because I’m selfish, as it’s now almost only the car, or more accurately, my ability to drive it, that continues to reliably bind us.

My black SUV has become the last great bastion of guaranteed togetherness—like a prison for teenagers—a place where my girls who once faced backwards and cried now sit next to me and talk, albeit reluctantly, about their days. Most of which are spent away at school or with friends. At night, of course, I lose them to their rooms. But during those afternoon hours in the car, or better yet, the weekend hour after hour going to dance shows, they are still mine and only mine.* And I love that. I always have.

*Okay, well, like 60% mine and 40% Snapchat’s.

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 completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Love, I Mean Like(s), Conquers All

Love, I Mean Like(s), Conquers All

By Francie Arenson Dickman         


We had a crisis in our house this morning. It hit during the thirty seconds my daughters allot for breakfast. Instead of sitting stone still and staring at the counter, I noticed some last minute scrambling—not the physical kind, but the virtual—a frenzy with the phones, which I assumed had to do with school. They had math and science tests. A forgotten formula, maybe? Worse, it turned out. An almost forgotten birthday.The birthday of a good friend, no less, brought to their attention by another friend’s Instagram post…or maybe it was Facebook. I can’t keep track anymore.     

I’m sure if you are a parent of a girl who has finished breast feeding and is therefore old enough to have an online presence, you know where I’m going with this. You’re already aware of the online protocol required to appropriately acknowledge the birthday of a friend (defined broadly to encompass anyone they’ve ever met) via social media.     

The formula for online well-wishing for middle schoolers is complex and as incomprehensible to me as the formulas in my kids’ geometry books. It centers around “the post.” I’m not talking about a run-of-the-mill Facebook birthday wish. A simple, “Have a great day,” apparently won’t do. An acceptable birthday post is a multi-step venture. Step one involves digging. Deep and focused digging, one by one, through the eight trillion selfies and other shots in your child’s camera roll in search of pictures that show any sign of the birthday girl. (“Oh look, there’s her elbow.”)    

Not all photos, I’m afraid, are created equal. I’m fairly certain (though if I’m wrong, perhaps one of my children’s friends who are now on Facebook will correct me) but the further back in time the picture goes, the better. As the adage (updated for social media) goes, new friends are silver, old friends are gold and old photos of old friends are even golder. In other words, a picture speaks a thousand words and if you’ve got a photo with the birthday girl from preschool, you have said, “I’ve been friends with the birthday girl longer than you,” without uttering a sound.   

When we were kids, moms used to send their birthday kids to school with cupcakes that the birthday kid got to pass out with the help of a few chosen friends. Today, allergies have done away with the homemade cupcake tradition, but nothing will ever do away with the middle school girls’ ability to jockey for position. Human nature is alive and kicking: A one picture post (unless, as stated above, it’s a picture from way, way back), means you probably aren’t the girl who would have been called up to help with the cupcakes. But if you can amass 25 pictures or more, and then take the time to lay them all out in a collage, you are in the running.      

I’m not talking about the kind of collages we used to make. The ones that required hours of combing through magazines, cutting out photos and words that related to your friend or your friendship, laying it all out on cardboard and then carefully gluing it down. The modern day collage is similar, except it is, naturally, done in an app. If a kid has the technical know-how and the eyesight, she can kick out a hundred picture collage during the two minute ride to school, which is really all the time she has because, according to what I’ve gathered, a post must be live by the time the well-wisher arrives at school.  

To pass muster, the posts also incorporate words, or at least parts of them. Letters. Like H14BD ILYSM. While grammar lessons do not seem to be hitting home these days, kids really understand the value of the hyperbole. Sweeping statements like, “You are my best friend in the entire universe,” “I don’t know how I’d ever live without you,” or “I’d do anything for you,” are thrown about with abandon. On the one hand, I’ve got to hand it to these girls. They’re sure not stingy with the love, which is refreshing in a political climate plagued by constant hate and heckling. Furthermore, the unending love is not wasted on one birthday girl. Rest assured, the exact outpourings given to the birthday girl of today will be bestowed on the birthday girl of tomorrow. When it comes to effusiveness, today’s teens are equal opportunity employers.       

Yes, one may contend that it’s impossible to actually harbor so much love for so many people. Those who know better (i.e. parents) might say that there’s an element of disingenuousness to this free love business, and that perhaps all of this online PDA is indeed for the benefit of public consumption. One might be inclined to invoke the adage, empty tins cans rattle the loudest and those truly close to the BDG shouldn’t have to take such grandiose measures to prove it. After all, the reality is that behind all the birthday love, there is a quiet sting felt by the other girls (yours, of course) who look at their screens and see that the person they thought was their BFF is now labeling herself BFF with the birthday girl. Love hurts, even if it is spread too thin to have any meaning.

The good news is, the hurt doesn’t last—well the hurt may but the post itself doesn’t. Unlike the collages we used to make and receive (some of mine still occupy space in my attic), the modern day collage is ephemeral. Blink and you’ll miss the outpouring of affection. The unstated rule is that birthday posts are only meant to last the length of the birthday itself. My kids, when asked, didn’t give a reason for this but my guess is (and again, my kids and their friends can correct me if I’m wrong) that birthday posts don’t garner that many likes since they are only of interest to the birthday girl and the BFF who posted. As much as all the BFFs would do anything for the birthday girl, anything does not include leaving up a post that isn’t popular.                   

It’s truly a strange new world, this world of social media. The only place I know where love seems to know no bounds except when measured by likes.

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.


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


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.


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.


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cwvDm9asA_Lw9YsGTQNy8vWzhk4-1024x682The Things We Keep

By Sharon Holbrook

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. 





By Adrienne Jones

There is a suffering worse than one’s own, and that is to see one’s child suffer and be unable to help.





unnamed-3-1024x1024Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

By Allison Slater Tate

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





cq5dam.web_.1280.1280The Trouble With Pronouns

By Maureen Kelleher

As Bobby grew older, he became more insistent. “No, Mom, I’m a girl.”

Dear Diary, What Ever Happened To Having Crushes?

Dear Diary, What Ever Happened To Having Crushes?

By Francie Arenson Dickman


You know you are old when you think all of the boys in your daughters’ 8th grade class look adorable.

“Are you crazy?” my girls say as I mention this to them as we wait in the drop off line which moves at a snail’s pace, leaving me plenty of time to study the student body.

“Don’t you think anyone is cute?” I ask. They roll their eyes and run out of the car. I don’t blame them, I remember having similar exchanges with my mother who was also obviously old because she, too, used to think all the boys in my grade were adorable. The difference between my kids and me was that I could laundry list a slew of guys that were in fact cute, while my daughters, now fourteen, cannot.

“You’ve got to have a crush on someone,” I said to my daughter last year. We’d just watched the movie The Duff and my big take away was that the boy next door was no ordinary boy next door. “I didn’t notice,” my daughter said.

“That’s impossible,” I argued back. “You are thirteen,” I told her. “That’s what girls do when they are thirteen, they have crushes.”

She shrugged. “Maybe I’m a lesbian.”

“That’s no excuse,” I told her. “Even if you were a lesbian, you’d have crushes, they’d just be on girls.”

She shrugged again. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Before I wrote this essay, I researched—meaning I talked to friends with daughters around my kids’ age. Most said that their daughters had no interest in boys, either. They were too busy with school work and extracurricular activities. This is the same thing my girls tell me when I ask, and I do ask because I’ve got to be honest, I’m just not buying it. Liking boys is not a business decision. Liking boys (or girls) is hormonal. Crushes just happen. Like acne.

Who among us didn’t love David Cassidy or Rick Springfield or the entire cast of The Outsiders? We did, and we had Teen Beat posters to prove it. For the personal crushes we had diaries. Or at least, I did. My mother gave me a diary in 6th grade when I was being bullied, and a few months ago, I shared it with my daughters. I don’t know where I got the brilliant idea that by reading their mother’s first-hand account of her year dealing with mean girls that they would come away more enlightened than they already were from having heard my stories ad nauseam. I’ve shared the stories despite that my girls, to my knowledge, never have been bullied and never have been the bullying kind. Until of course, I shared my diary. Then they began to bully me.

“I wasn’t boy crazy,” I told them, grabbing the diary from their hands.

The truth is that I should have read the diary to myself before I read it to them because there was a remarkable dearth of material on girls. Maybe a line here and there about my daily existence, like “Lisa was mean again today.” But for the most part, the pages were littered with charts ranking my favorite boys on a scale of one to five and hearts with initials in it. You know, the kind that we all used to doodle.

“You were weird,” they told me. Not only do girls these days, at least the ones in my house, not have crushes but they don’t doodle, either. I’ve leafed through the pages of assignment notebooks looking for signs of crushes, only to come up empty handed. The diaries I’d bought them, in preparation to start journaling when the bullying and crushes began, are empty. Their walls hold no posters. Their bulletin boards are collaged in pictures, all of girls. Girls hugging. Girls piled in photo booths. Their worlds are raining girls. There are the school girls, the camp girls, the dance girls. Not that I wish it were different! I’m so grateful that my girls have girls. That they have spent years learning to be a good friend, understanding how to have female relationships. Nonetheless, shouldn’t there be some boys? If not in body than at least in initials penciled on the side of sneakers? Or maybe these days kids’ personal lives, their secrets and representations of their inner selves are buried down deep within their smartphones instead of their diaries, making it impossible for people who don’t Snapchat (otherwise known as parents) to get a picture of who they are. Or maybe, as hard as it is for me to believe, they really are just too busy.  

I don’t know where I got the notion that my daughters’ teenage experiences would mirror mine, and I’d be able to turn my childhood lemons into lemonade by dispensing relatable advice in a way that my own mother, who never proclaimed to relate, could not. But sure enough, time, as it tends to do, has created gaps between my middle school days and my daughters’, making not just my diary but my thoughts on how girls and boys should relate, outdated. According to my “research,” the trend among high schoolers these days is to have “hook up” parties, gatherings en masse in basements to fool around. Rumor is, these occur weekend to weekend, and kids switch partners as often as they switch houses. Like musical chairs with sexual favors, which I for one, find horrifying.

I suppose there might have been a time when I would have found it gratifying that young girls would prioritize goals and friends over going out with boys, and I would have believed that they could actually be okay with this free love business. I would have called it feminism and progress, and I would have been proud. But now that the girls are my own, I call it crazy. I can’t help but think that by-passing the harmless crush phase and heading straight for the physical will backfire. I can’t help but think that kids in middle school who don’t have the time to daydream and doodle are getting shortchanged. And, with the same benefit of time and distance that allows me to see all of the boys in the 8th grade class as adorable, I view my own middle school experience, no matter how brutal, as better than my kids’ today. Maybe my mindset makes me old. Or maybe it just makes me a mother.

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.


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

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

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Girls Will Be Fine

My Girls Will Be Fine

By Francie Arenson Dickman


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.

Rescue, Recovery and Lessons in Resilience

Rescue, Recovery and Lessons in Resilience

By Francie Arenson Dickman


As we raced along the rolling hilled roads of Wisconsin looking at real cows and pigs, it seemed that the only things standing between my little girl and the rest of her life were the stuffed ones. I was no more ready to lose Piggy and Grazer than my daughter was. Rescuing them was my own act of preservation.


“I left Piggy and Grazer on the bus,” my thirteen-year-old daughter announced as I stood amid piles of laundry in the garage. Sobs followed, the kind generally saved for the loss of loved ones—the real kind, not the ones filled with stuffing and beans.

“Are you sure?” I asked, already aware we were headed nowhere good.

Between convulsions, she nodded. She’d left them under the seat in the same over-sized Ziploc bag in which they’d lived all summer. She was sure of it, and I believed her. Piggy and Grazer are almost 14 and 11, adolescent like she is. Though in stuffed animal years, they are ancient. Their parts and worn, some are missing. Hence, my daughter kept them sealed in the bag all summer. An act of preservation. She’d never consider leaving them at home, where they’d be safest, as they are her security, her comfort, the things she turns to in times of need.

Needless to say, we experienced tense times in our house as the objects of security themselves were the subject of an intense search and rescue. My husband and I divided our efforts. He kept in constant contact with Wilma at the bus terminal who was on high alert for the arrival of Lamers Bus 502. I calmed my crying daughter as well as my other daughter who was lying atop the filthy clothes, breathing in the smell of what she called “camp” and also crying. All this, while we did the laundry.

Finally, at 9:30 that night, we got the call that Piggy and Grazer were alive and well. Though half-way back to camp in Wausau, Wisconsin.

“Can we go get them?” my daughter asked.

“Wilma says she will mail them to us on Monday,” my husband announced.

“But it’s only Friday,” I said. “Where will they be all weekend?”

My husband explained that they’d stay with George the driver overnight who would then pass them off to a man named Tom who would then drop them at the terminal office where they would wait until Wilma returned. He added that my daughter would have them by Tuesday and maybe in the meantime, learn that she didn’t need them that much. “At least there will be a silver lining to all of this,” he added.

This was the kind of character building exercise that I’d been totally into only weeks earlier as I’d sat idle on the outdoor couch. Fueled by a piece I read in Slate Magazine, Kids of Helicopter Parents are Sputtering Out, (which reinforces what most of us already know, that when parents over involve themselves to protect their kids, they deprive kids of the chance to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience) I’d promised myself that I was going to be a different kind of mother when my kids returned from camp. I was going to be non-reactive. I was going to be removed. I was going to stop making their lunches and driving them to school. If they needed more money, they were going to get jobs. If they had an issue with a friend, they could resolve it themselves. In the child-free vacuum of summer, reason was allowed to reign. My girls are teenagers, I thought, it’s time—for them as well as for me—to take a step back.

Not that I’m a helicopter parent as the Slate piece described—motivated by concern for my kids academic performance. I’m more of a hovercraft, concerned with their well-being overall. I come by the tendency genetically. My father, like his mother before him, were hoverers, operating on a past century’s premise that a parent’s job is to protect her kids whenever possible from the harsh realities of life, which will eventually provide lessons in resilience whether asked for or not. My parental circumstance doesn’t help my propensity to rescue. That’s the downside of having twins and only twins. Although I have two kids, I get to go only one time around the carousel of childhood. And the ride goes so fast. I’m wont to prolong it. So, I’ll bring the forgotten lunch to school. I’ll make the unmade bed.

I’ll even—despite the Slate article’s warning that “students with hovering parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression”—agree to take a 7 hour car ride (3 1/2 hours each way) to recover a couple of inanimate objects.

“The odds of Piggy and Grazer ever making it into a mailing envelope seem dicey. Waiting doesn’t seem like the smart thing to do.” I told my husband.

My daughter agreed.

So we drove. Resolutions on resilience went out the window of our SUV at 6:30 the next morning with my husband, both of my daughters and the dog in tow.

No, driving was not the rational thing to do. We came home exhausted only to find that the dirty laundry had not washed itself. But mothering is not a rational business. In a week, my daughter would start 8th grade. In a month, she’d turn fourteen. Next year at this time, she’d not only be in high school but in Driver’s Ed. As we raced along the rolling hilled roads of Wisconsin looking at real cows and pigs, it seemed that the only things standing between my little girl and the rest of her life were the stuffed ones. I was no more ready to lose Piggy and Grazer than my daughter was. Rescuing them was my own act of preservation.

And our road trip was actually a fabulous reunion. We talked about camp. We looked at pictures. We laughed. We ate McDonald’s. The dog went to the bathroom on the side of the road. So did my daughter. And, I’m happy to say we recovered the animals. Did I miss an opportunity to help my daughter build her coping skills? Maybe. But we certainly made a memory.

Let that be the silver lining of the story, instead.

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.




Not Quite the Opposite of Spoiled

Not Quite the Opposite of Spoiled

By Francie Arenson Dickman


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

I answered her with, “You need what?”

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

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

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

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

I’ve always known that I was going to drop the ball in some parental regard, and during the week between school and camp, it became evident that I had dropped the money ball. Clearly, I’d spent too much time over the years reading Charlotte‘s Web and Harry Potter and not enough time talking about taxes, return on investment and the value of a dollar. Not that I was unaware of these concepts, but I was hoping my daughters would pick them up by osmosis. Like I did.

Growing up, we never had formal financial programs like those Ron Leiber suggests in his book The Opposite of Spoiled, such as the Wants/Needs Continuum, which entails the charting of would-be purchases on a graph according to cost and something else. In our house, we simply had scare tactics.

“Money never burnt a hole in anyone’s pocket. Keep it there ’cause you never know when the banks are going to go bust,” my father, a child of the Depression, would tell us. He didn’t own a credit card, he didn’t miss a day of work and he didn’t need a Wants/Needs Continuum because to him, there were no such things as Wants.

My friends’ financial situations were as simple as my own. In middle school, we’d scrape together ten cents from the bottom of this backpack, a quarter from that, until we had enough money to buy an order of eggrolls at the Chinese place on our walk home from school. Two eggrolls split three ways. Who the hell even heard of sushi? We were, by virtue of our time and place, the opposite of spoiled.

But times have changed. My children are products of their time, and their time is filled with, well, products. Stuff abounds. As does access to it and awareness of it. My children’s estimation of their mother’s value of a dollar is diluted by Instagram, H&M and those God-for-saken Kardashians.

“Oh, we NEED antibacterial gel,” they said as they pushed through the aisles. They also “needed” Airborne, Boogie Wipes, nail polish remover pads, a hairbrush that magically detangles and defrizzes, a solar powered clock as well as a shelf on which to put the solar powered clock. I said yes to Bed and Bath products and no to everything Beyond. My daughters didn’t fight me on my decisions. I didn’t expect that they would. Neither of my two children are spoiled—they don’t ask for much, they don’t protest when the answer is no. But, they aren’t the opposite of it either.

I read The Opposite of Spoiled, hoping to center my girls’ perverted relationship to material things. But while full of great insights and ideas, I don’t have the methodological or mathematical skills to put them into place. If I did, I probably wouldn’t need the book in the first place. Take the aforementioned Wants/Needs Continuum. Even if I had fully visualized the Continuum (which I don’t doubt makes perfect sense) I can’t see it happening, at least in my house, where we barely have time to plan dinner. Generally speaking we buy on the fly as we dash between one activity and another. Not to mention, many of our “teachable moment” conversations occur in the car which is no place to start graphing.

I admit, it’s no place to start Googling either, but I did. In the Bed, Bath and Beyond parking lot, I googled the word “need” from my daughter’s iPhone (an oxymoronic act if there ever was one). “A need is a thing that is necessary for an organism to live a healthy life,” I read and then paused for the words to wind their way through the bags of junk and into their ears. “I don’t think that sushi falls under the umbrella of need.”

I tossed the phone back in my daughter’s lap and continued to drone as I drove, repeating cliches used by parents since the beginning of time, like “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” and “Super Loofah Body Scrubbers don’t buy happiness.”

After a few minutes they said, “Okay, Mom, we get it.” And I felt good.

Until yesterday when a letter arrived from my daughter—the same one who needed the sushi—explaining that she now “needs” return address labels for her letters. If you are wondering why she can’t address them with the same pen she used to ask for the labels, you’re not alone.

I thought one of the purposes of overnight camp was to bring it back to basics. Even Ron Leiber recommends overnight camp because camp reminds children of all that they have that they don’t need. He references air conditioning—but I’m thinking sushi. As far as all the stuff they don’t have that they also don’t need—I’m thinking labels—I guess I’m the one to remind my kids of that. And I suppose I’m also the one to remind them of all they don’t have that they actually do need—here, I’m thinking jobs.

I know two 13-year-olds who are free to babysit come fall. Message me, if you are interested.

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


The Unfine Art of Raising Twins

The Unfine Art of Raising Twins

By Francie Arenson Dickman


Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike.


The last weekend of every May, I stock up on tickets and Exederin and brace myself for the two-day storm of overlapping dance recitals. We bounce between auditoriums in different cities to see shows that are worlds apart. From the beautiful world of Russian ballet, with numbers called Waltz of the Hours and music by Tchaikovsky to the underworld of hip hop, a dark and dirty counter-culture where they do dances called Haters to music by Wiz Khalifa.

“You can’t call this dancing,” says my father, my 84-year-old tap-dancing, Vaudeville performing, Gershwin loving father. He convulses in his seat as my daughter convulses on stage.

But dancing it is. I am used to it by now, not just the gyrations but the dancing between extremes, the whiplash of raising twin girls, the parenting of equals who occupy separate spaces. It’s not what I expected but after 13 years I have my dance down as much as they have theirs’. My father, not so much.

“Can’t you get her to go to dance class with her sister?” my father hollers as Lady Gaga belts out Born this Way—a concept he obviously doesn’t buy.

Like I do every year, I shake my head. “No.”

They started out going together, my daughters did. Back when they were both dancing in my belly while I was consuming sausages and books with deceptive titles, titles akin to the numbers in the ballet recital, like The Joy of Twins. I can tell you now that any book on raising twins worth its baby weight in gold would have been called something more hip-hop, like Load Up on Your Lorazapam, Ladies, and Hunker Down for the Ride. Because there is no ballet in raising twins. It’s an art that’s imprecise and anything but pretty.

According to the books, I was to make a concerted effort to help my twins develop their own identities. At the time, this made sense. Who wouldn’t want her own identity? So, instead of buying two stuffed bunnies, I bought one stuffed bunny and one stuffed pig. One pink onsie, another purple—coordinated combinations, similar enough to mark them as a duo, but distinct enough to allow people tell them apart.

Then they were born. One with blond hair and blue eyes. The other with brown hair and brown eyes. Different enough in appearance to suspect confusion in the fertility lab. Different enough in being to suspect that different colored onsies wouldn’t be needed to establish my daughters’ separate identities.

Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike. As infants, twins meant one baby with colic, another with a constant smile. One who loved the stuffed pig, the other who wanted nothing to do with stuffed animals at all. In preschool, twins meant one who jumped out of the car without looking back, the other who had to be pried out of her seat in hysterics. In grade school it meant one who loved to read, another who wouldn’t. And now, twins means one who headsprings in high tops, the other who echappe’s in this white long gown, the kind of costume, my father told me during the ballet portion on the day, both of his granddaughters should be wearing.

“Not according to the books,” I might have told him but again, I didn’t need to go by the book because the hip-hop daughter did it herself. “Not on your life,” she told my father. “I’d never wear that. It’s not me.”

The question I would have liked to have asked her but didn’t because I’m sure no one—neither my daughter nor the books—has the answer is: why not? Is the dress not her because it’s just not her or is the dress not her because it is her sister? To the extent that Twin A is influenced by Twin B (and vice versa), how far will my girls go to seek out their own identities? And why did the books instruct me to go out of my way to make sure it happens when, at least in my house, it seemed to happen on its own? I never organized separate playdates or outings with grandparents like I was instructed to do. I was too busy running in opposite directions, first at the park and now to the recitals, to organize anything. For my sanity, I had to ditch the script and move to the beat of my children’s respective and very different drums.

My father would benefit from doing the same. “You can’t compare what the two of them are doing,” he continues to grumble.

“No, you can’t,” I tell him. And, according to conventional wisdom—which went out the window at my daughters’ one-week weigh-ins—you shouldn’t. Comparing twins is a Cardinal sin. But c’mon, who among us mothers of multiples has not, at the annual doctors visit, analyzed (at least to ourselves) one child’s height against the other’s? Certain traits are begging for it. The oldest. The tallest. The bigger foot. The thicker hair. Or, dare I admit, the better grades. That’s called keepin’ it real, the book might say if it was written by Wiz Khalifa, with the added footnote to compare and contrast all you want, mamas, but know it won’t mean anything because, from the physical to the personal, traits of twins, especially teen-aged ones, are constantly in motion.

For a time, the ballet dancer loved to talk, the hip hopper was quiet. Now, it’s the other way around. Just as I was ready to award the neatest room prize to the hip hopper, I found a rotten pizza beneath her nightstand. They are, like all people, too fluid to peg down. In fact, the only constant I’ve observed (one which the books should have mentioned because it is a bright spot in an otherwise muddled world) is that my kids rarely occupy the same space in emotion or opinion, at the same time. We have few five alarm fires because they figured out long ago, maybe even in utero, that when one is in the dog house, it’s the other’s time to shine.

The book of all books, the Oxford English Dictionary, assigns several definitions to the word twin. The first definition reads: One of two children or animals born at the same birth. The second definition is: A person or a thing exactly like another. In many ways, it seems my girls fall under the first definition—children who simply share a birth date. Yet, they also share recital dates. And clothes, friends, teachers, and the grandfather from whom they got their dancing genes. So maybe my twins sit somewhere in the middle on the twinness scale. A scale which slides from day to day. Up and down, back and forth, and I move too, as they do.

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.

An Homage to Mahj

An Homage to Mahj

By Francie Arenson Dickman

ARLINGTON, VA - JUNE 12:  Mah-jongg tiles are seen on a table of a sixth grade classroom during lunch break at Thomas Jefferson Middle School June 12, 2006 in Arlington, Virginia. A group of sixth grade students have been falling in love with playing mah-jongg, which originated from China that requires strategy; calculation, memorization and luck, since their teacher Sandy Tevelin introduced to them as a hobby at the beginning of the school year. Tevelin, a Jewish-American whose grandmother and mother played the game is now a member of a mah-jongg group, said the game has served as a good ice-breaker for her student who didn?t talk to each other to become good friends later.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Here it is, my mid-life crisis. I’ve been expecting it since I came home from school one day when I was about fifteen to my mother crying in the kitchen. She’d quit a job as an office assistant after only three hours which she’d spent running between the front and back ends of a mammoth copier feeding and stapling, until her blouse had sweat stains and she couldn’t breathe. “I’m too old for this,” she told my father.

A week earlier, she’d said the same thing about a stint in a gallery where she’d had to balance the books in a closet that she claimed doubled as a smoking section. My mother’s lost years—she’d eventually find herself at a mahjong table in California—coincided with my teenage ones, so her identity crisis was secondary to my own. Still, her struggle to move on as my brother and I grew up stuck with me, and as I sucked down Susan Faludi’s Backlash in my Women’s Studies classes and slugged through law school, I vowed that in this regard (and in this regard only, Mom), I would not be like my mother. My days would never be without definition. There would be no mahjong for me.

Yet here I am, thirty years later, with teenage daughters and unfilled hours if not at my feet than on the horizon. The writing is on the wall as much as it is on my daughter’s English paper that she had me read the other day, a story about a girl who gets sick at school. Her mother, when the school nurse calls, is playing mahjong.

“I don’t play mahjong,” I declared without finishing it.

“It’s a made up Mother,” she told me.

“Well you obviously got the idea from somewhere. There’s no such thing as fiction, really.” I told her she needed to change what the mother is doing at the time of the nurse’s call. “Maybe she could be finishing up surgery or her TED Talk.”

She grabbed the paper back. “Why do you care?”

Where do I begin? For starters, I would have hoped, after the years I’ve spent role-modeling what I like to think of as a feminist, can-do anything but math spirit, that she could have done better than mahj. “Have the words to Parents are People fallen on deaf ears?”

She says, “No, I just like mahjong.”

I’m sure she does. Over winter break, I gave in to my mother’s request to teach us and within rounds, my daughters were ruching like the best of them. My game, however, lagged behind due to an inability to commit to a hand.

The same inability to commit that’s driving my reaction to my daughter’s story. I care about what her fictional mother is doing because I don’t know what her real one wants to do as she and her sister move up and out. And my psychological clock is ticking.

“Don’t worry, you still have plenty of time,” my husband tells me. “Our kids are only 13.”

To which I tell him, like Sally told Harry after she found out her ex-boyfriend Joe was getting married, “But it’s there. It’s just sitting there. Like some big dead end.”

I’m not sure what, if anything, I can do about it. Hence, the mid-life crisis. If only it was the type that could be solved with a sports car. Or even a job. Most of my friends already have jobs. They counsel patients, they sell real estate, they run marketing campaigns, or like me, they sit at their computers and write. They are jobs that fill bank accounts and feed minds but for me, as for many of my friends, the shape of the day is defined by family. When the nests empty, I wonder, will our jobs have enough meaning to fill the void in a fulfilling way?

As I was writing this piece, one of those inspirational messages that I generally ignore crossed my screen and caught my eye. “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.” Therein, it seems, is the rub, the reason I question. After having had the privilege of working hard to raise kids, maybe most other jobs are just jobs. My mother should have applied for a passion instead.

But let’s face it, “finding one’s passion,” though all the rage these days, is a lot easier said than done. Especially if you want one that pays. And, even passions can pale in comparison to parenting. I am lucky enough to write every day. On a good day, I may even say I love it, but I love it between the hours of 8 and 3, when my kids come home, and then I love them more. So perhaps my problem isn’t that I don’t know what I want but that I don’t want to let go of what I already have, less of an identity crisis than a bad case of sour grapes.

With a touch of an ache to make more money, which leads back to my mother and my daughter’s ultimate question: “What’s so bad about mahj?” After I ranted to her that most women need to work for a living, she pointed out that my mother makes a killing at the table, which is true. Her winnings have been known to bankroll my kid’s wardrobes. In lieu of a higher purpose, it’s not a bad gig.

Ironically, however, due to my inability to commit, mahj may not be an option. So the pressure to re-purpose is really on. I suppose I could go back to school or to practicing law like Alicia Florrick of the “Good Wife” who left my hometown of Highland Park to restart her law career in the city and just last week was elected State’s Attorney. Although, as my friends and I discuss, unless you’re hired by the handsome Will Gardner, after eighteen years running your own show, having a boss may be hard.

So it’s tough. A Catch-22, a conundrum I wrestle with until the kids come home and then I put it off for another day, or maybe for the month if it’s May (heavy dance recital season) and then I might decide to enjoy the summer because I deserve a break—the whole family deserves a break—I’ll take it up later. In the meantime, I’ll drive the carpools, I’ll write my copy, I’ll try classes, I’ll try jobs, I’ll take up tennis or maybe mahj. And if I’m lucky, if I get a good hand (and I commit), one day I may find my place at the table—however I decide to define it.

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

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images



By Francie Arenson Dickman


Matters involving explanation of position, negotiation, emotions that can’t be condensed into an emoji—seem to tie their tongues.


I think I’m going to dust off my law degree and hang it above my stove. It hasn’t seen the light of day since the late ’90’s. I wasn’t sure that it would again, as What to Expect When Youre Expecting made no mention that a J.D. for mothers would be like a bouncy seat—helpful, though not essential to have. In fairness, at the time I read What to Expect, the smartphone, the source of all our issues, had yet to be invented.

Now, however, I find myself back in business. I practice nightly in my kitchen—a less-abled blend of Judge Judy and Julia Child, cooking up dinner and counseling in diplomacy, oral advocacy and conflict resolution.

Who knew I’d be so busy during my kids’ 7th grade. I figured my husband’s parenting calendar would be full since he handles math, but my girls would otherwise be off and running their own lives, and consequently their own mouths. Such is not the case. The word problems my kids have are ones involving actual words. Not basic banter; my kids can do that. But anything more complex—matters involving explanation of position, negotiation, emotions that can’t be condensed into an emoji—seem to tie their tongues.

Take tonight, for example, as I’m cooking bacon for our “breakfast for dinner,” my daughter appears in a panic. She’d been upstairs simultaneously studying for a Constitution test and practicing for a dance competition. She felt good about her inalienable rights but confused about a couple of eight-counts. “What should I do?” she asks.

“Have you emailed your dance coaches for help?”

“Am I allowed to?” she asks.

“I would assume.”

“But you don’t know for a fact,” she presses.

“I don’t need to know for a fact. They’re called coaches for a reason,” I tell her, touching on some basic contract law. “Their responsibility is implied.”

“Fine, but what should I say?”

With a wave of the spatula and the directive to say what she thinks she should say, I send her back upstairs, but not before the bacon burns and my other daughter, her twin, comes into my oven-lined office. Her fact pattern is more complicated: A friend, via group text, has invited some girls to a movie on Sunday. Everyone else texted they could go but she isn’t sure what to say since she’s not in the mood for the movie now but she may be over the weekend, and either way, she loves the friend, and doesn’t want her to think she doesn’t and she doesn’t want everyone on the chat to think she’s being rude. “How should I handle it?”

“Pick up the phone and explain this to her,” I advise.

She rolls her eyes. I wave my spatula.

“Once upon a time,” I tell her, “if we had something to say, we picked up the phone and spoke into it.” She looks at me with the same look of disbelief I used to give my grandmother when she’d tell me she used to have to go outside and pull on a giant rope to flush their toilet.

Lately I feel like my grandmother, too, with my constant recounting of the way things used to be and my longing for the good old days, which ironically now include my Lord of the Flies middle school experience. I can’t count the number of times I sputtered into the receiver, “Can I come, too?” Only to be met with, “No” and a click. Sometimes, I’d hear, “Let me check with my mom, I’ll call you back,” but the friend never did—or, as I liked to tell myself, she did call back, only she couldn’t get through because my mother was on the line yakking with a neighbor.

The olden days weren’t pretty. We were often unkind, but at least we were unkind face-to-face, and so forced to feel firsthand the effect of hurting another person. And yes, our thoughts might have been better expressed had we had our mothers standing over our shoulders piping words into our ears like Cyrano, the way parents today do with their children’s texts, but, for better or worse, the words were ours. We were lucky. We had the luxury to learn to speak up and hash it out through trial and error. And isn’t that the purpose of puberty—to allow kids to slowly spread their own wings in the world so that eventually (and hopefully) their social skills mature along side their bodies?

Stringing sentences together while simultaneously staring someone else in the eye is a skill, as are the abilities to advocate and apologize. But mastering any skill takes practice, and how can kids practice in an age in which they are socializing with a screen, and even their most mundane and innocuous interactions are in writing, and therefore subject to scrutiny, interpretation and possibly public consumption? They can’t. Or, they are scared to, and so I’m consulted.

As someone who has made careers as a lawyer and a writer out of communicating opinions and ideas, I found my daughters’ tendencies toward silence concerning. But then I read an article by Stedman Graham, Oprah’s man, on Huffington Post and felt better, the way one does when she finally gets to put a face to a name. My kids are “soft skill” deficient. And in all likelihood, so are everyone else’s.

In “Preparing for the 21st Century: Soft Skills Matter,” Graham explains that soft skills are “practices that were once in the background of all our lives.” Things like eye contact, analysis of body language and conflict resolution which “were constantly demanded from us as we moved through our days.” Skills which he says, “are not likely to be developed through silent communication” but yet “… continue to play the biggest role in determining your chances of achieving success.” What’s more, he cited a study that found that fewer than 30% of college kids were even aware that these skills matter.

Their ignorance must be bliss, I’m left to think as I scrape bacon from the pan and fret over how my kids will ever land jobs, and if they do, how they will keep them. Will they be running to the kitchen the rest of their lives, every time the boss asks a question? Better yet, what will be the future of the entire workforce once us old-schoolers take down our degrees and retire? Entire careers will become extinct. I imagine support staff will be the first to go, as no one will know how to answer a phone. Not long behind them, the journalists, followed by the business folks, the politicians and eventually even the lawyers. Except those of us holding court in our kitchens—because, for better or worse, there’s no technology that could ever mess with the job of being a mother.

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

MAMA: Mother Against More Activities

MAMA: Mother Against More Activities

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 9.34.23 AM

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were.


I’m trying to convince my husband and twin daughters to move to Fresvik, Norway. It’s a farming village tucked between snowcapped mountains and a fjord (Norwegian for ridiculously blue body of water). It’s a place with porches, and people who actually sit on them. A place where cows run wild and so do the kids, whose biggest decision of the day is whether to swim or bike.

No child in Fresvik, I’m sure, is sitting on the kitchen floor like my 13-year-old daughter, with her foot jammed in a contraption that promises to build one’s foot arch, agonizing over whether she should go to camp as planned or attend the Joffrey Summer Intensive as her ballet instructors have advised.

“I don’t know what’s involved in a summer intensive, but I assume it’s intense,” I tell my husband. “And I assume they don’t have them in Fresvik.”

“I’m sure they don’t have Starbucks there, either,” he says. “The grass is always greener.”

“No,” I say, pointing to the picture I’d pulled up on my computer in effort to hard-sell our Nordic relocation. “Their grass really is.”

He then points out that their grass is frozen three-quarters of the year. “It only looks like that for a couple of good months in the summer,” he counters.

That may well be, but that’s all my daughter has, too—a couple of good months in the summer, which she was going to spend at camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. The antithesis in atmosphere and activity, I surmise from name alone, of the Joffrey Summer Intensive. A place more like Fresvik, which I stumbled upon while watching a PBS documentary called Twin Sisters, an incredible story about identical twin girls adopted from China as babies by different families, one from Sacramento, the other from—you guessed it—Fresvik, Norway.

The film cuts back and forth between the life of the Sacramento twin—a life filled with soccer games, minivans, and goody bag trinkets—to the world of her sister. Although the film’s focus was the kismet that led the parents to discover the girls were twins, and the girls’ bond despite growing up on different sides of the globe, my big take-away was how the Fresvik twin got the better end of the deal.

While the Sacramento girl was shuttled and instructed, the Fresvik girl roamed and rescued mice. She walked to school, she ran to the mailbox; she got bored. The disparity in lifestyle and attitude was egregious, enough to steal the show. It was commented on by the Sacramento father as well as by many of the folks who visited the film’s website. Clearly, Fresvik is the place to be. Or at least the place to rather be. It seems I have company in my desire to go anywhere, even to a place without a Starbucks, as long as we don’t have to keep on going and going.

My girlfriend recently gave me her daughter’s college resume to review. It was four pages long. Her every minute of high school was meticulously accounted for and for what? She is going to the same college that I attended. Will she fare that much better there than I did? Will she fare that much better in life? And what about my girls? Will they have to run track, preside over student council, paint for the art show, spearhead the Homecoming Committee and save the whales to get into college, too?

I hate to see my kids spend their high school years overdosing on extracurricular activities, so I’m determined to teach them to just say no. “Summer and intensive don’t even belong in the same sentence. It’s an oxymoron,” I tell my daughter, whose face is now ashen, and not just because the foot wrench is cutting off blood flow. She is in a panic about her entire situation.

“If I don’t go, I won’t keep up,” she tells me. Most everyone else she dances with is, apparently, attending an intensive.

“Jason Brown went to camp,” I offer in effort to keep her off the bandwagon. Jason, the 2015 U.S. Men’s Figure Skating champion and Olympic medalist, grew up in our town. He went to the same schools as my daughters. I have it on good word that he also went to camp.

She doesn’t buy it. “I’m not Jason Brown,” she points out.

And she’s not. Which is exactly why she shouldn’t spend her summer doing ballet. As much as my daughter knows who she isn’t, she has no idea what she wants to become. Although one day she may be a dancer, for now she’s just a kid who loves to dance. But she loves to do other things, too. There may be things she loves to do that she doesn’t even know she loves to do and won’t discover if she spends all of her time dancing and no time doing nothing.

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were. I spent the bulk of my childhood either running around the neighborhood or watching Adam-12 with my brother.

Not that ours was the way to play it, either. Neither of us grew up with a clue as to what we wanted to do with our lives. But when What Color is Your Parachute suggested we figure it out by focusing on the things we liked to do in our free time as kids, at least we had free time to draw on.

And the twin from Fresvik will, too.

Unfortunately, my own twins and my husband made clear that Fresvik is not an option. So I’m going to shoot for camp. I never thought that I’d have to work so hard and pay so much to give my kids a chance to do nothing. Not nothing, per se, but activities that don’t transfer well to a resume, like swimming in a lake, running to get mail, talking without the aid of technology—the types of activities we used to just call life—the type of activities they still call life in the tiny village of Fresvik. An honest, old-fashioned childhood crammed into a few weeks a year. That, to me, is a summer intensive.

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

All The World’s A Stage?

All The World’s A Stage?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 11.12.32 AM

My husband and I had been played. I didn’t catch on right away, not until we were in the middle of our descent from the Bump N’ Grind, a hiking trail in the mountains of Palm Desert, California. We go to Palm Desert every Winter Break to visit my parents, and every Winter Break, my husband asks: “Does anyone want to climb the Bump N’ Grind?” He’s a nature lover, an explorer, an outdoorsman. My twin daughters and I are not. We always decline the offer—as well as his other one to visit Joshua Tree National Park—as during our stay in the desert, we like to sit. Sit and read. Sit and watch HGTV. Sit and play mahjong with my mother. So I was surprised when my daughter, now 13, an age at which I’d assumed sitting and sunning would be top priority, suggested we make the climb.

Before I could question, we were on our way to Sports Authority for gear (my daughters had only packed flip-flops), and then we were off. My husband was excited. He was delighted. “Their time spent at overnight camp is finally paying dividends,” he mused, as he loaded us up with water bottles and energy bars like we were doing the Pacific Crest Trail. We’d just seen Wild.

And our trek would have been exactly like Cheryl Strayed’s if Cheryl had selfie’d her journey instead of written about it. At first, I didn’t think much of the picture snapping. The day was beautiful, the scenery breathtaking. But midway down, in the midst of a tricky patch of rock (my husband had decided we should descend “off road”), while I struggled for footing, one daughter called to me, “Can you take my picture now?” Her sister echoed, “Mine, too.” From the edge of a boulder, they gave red carpet poses. Hair back, breezy smiles. As I watched this through the lens of my iPhone camera, the situation became clear.

I considered calling down to my husband that the hike was a hoax, we’d been had. No one but him was interested in the Bump N’ Grind for the Bump N’Grind’s sake. But I didn’t want to disappoint him. And I didn’t want to start a family feud while on the side of a cliff. So I kept quiet.

Until a few days later when we were half way up the mountain road to our next photo-op, Joshua Tree. My forehead rested against the passenger seat window. My daughters’ heads were down, their thumbs twitching repeatedly upwards, in motion as constant as the car, as they looked online at postings of their “friends” feeding lambs in Patagonia, floating in the Dead Sea, parasailing over Mexican beaches. I’d never seen a Joshua Tree before. I wondered aloud how it would measure up.

“The Joshua Tree isn’t really a tree,” my husband told me, “since it doesn’t produce a trunk with rings.”

“Our trip to Joshua Tree isn’t really to see Joshua Trees,” I informed him. “It’s to take pictures of them.”

My girls’ relationships with their iPhones are, I would guess, typical. The phones are affixed to their bodies unless I tell them to put them away, which I often do since I despise them. I’d actually been looking forward to Winter Break this year, figuring phone activity would naturally die down away from home. But, I’d miscalculated. The scrolling had reached epic proportions. Instagram and Snapchat went wild as kids across the country spent their vacations looking at everyone else’s. “And in doing so, missing their own,” I said to my husband as he navigated our way into Yucca Valley.

“Who cares,” my husband said. “At least they are off the couch.”

I suppose this was one way, the positive way, to spin the effects of social media on my children. But I’m not a positive person, or maybe I’m more private. Or less secure. Or more old-fashioned. After all, I still miss the busy signal. And, I’ve never had the constitution to keep up with Joneses. When I was in middle school, I would duck my head down from the car window when my mother and I would drive by a group of my peers. True, I didn’t want them to see me with my mother but also, I didn’t want to see them. Knowing you are not doing the cool thing and seeing it are two different things. “Hold your head high,” my mother would tell me. I liked to look the other way.

Not so with my kids. As I marveled at the size of the tumbleweeds, my daughter wondered why her ears were popping.

“Look out your window,” I told her. She did, long enough to appreciate how high we were into the mountains, and of course to snap a picture of them.

Later that night, I used my own phone to take what I considered to be a somewhat “artsy”—and therefore post-worthy—picture of our mahjong tiles. “If you must post a picture, why don’t you use this?” I said, showing them a touched-up version of the tiles. “It’s a more authentic representation of our vacation than a Joshua Tree.”

They both looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. My suggestion to post pictures of our game was nothing more than a modern day version of my own mother’s command to hold my head high. Mothers across the ages have been trying to help their daughters find peace of mind and comfort in their skin. Except now we’re up against the evil of the smartphone. The intrusive device that’s turned family vacations into photo ops, and the concept of a break into an anomaly, and an impossibility—as where can anyone go these days to get a break from anything?

It turns out, Joshua Tree. About thirty minutes up the mountain, we lost cell service. The phones went down. Heads went up. We rode. We watched. We talked. We climbed. At the top of one of the other-worldly rock formations, we stopped and took in the panoramic view of the mountains and the valley, from the wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass all the way to the Sultan Sea. It was a site that even my girls couldn’t help but appreciate.

And you can, too. On Instagram.

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


Fits and Flairs

Fits and Flairs

By Francie Arenson Dickman


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On top of this, I have hot flashes.

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

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

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

“But it looks good.”

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

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

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

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

“Right,” I concede.

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

I give her a hug.

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

“What else do you have in mind?”

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

“Perfect,” I say.

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

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

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Here Comes Trouble

Here Comes Trouble

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gracie answered with, “Only by Lilly.”

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

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

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

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Of Bangles and Boobs

Of Bangles and Boobs

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Francie1_BMWhen I walk into my parent’s apartment, my mother is in her bedroom, hunched on hands and knees.

Half an hour earlier, I’d gotten a call. “You need to get here quick,” my mother said. Her voice was a weak, worried whisper. “I’m not sure I’m gonna make it.”

A day earlier, my mother returned from the hospital following routine back surgery which, due to a bad reaction to anesthesia, spiraled into a four day stay. Her doctor let her go after she proved she could handle solids—solids defined as a cup of Jello, not the Big Mac that my father got her on the way home from the hospital on the archaic premise that a little grease would absorb the excess drugs in her system. My parents decided to call the Big Mac their little secret, until the next morning when I got the phone call from my mother, who spoke to me from her toilet, blocked up and bowled over in pain.

She directed me to bring Miralax and Ducolax, as suggested by the doctor. She didn’t tell him about the Big Mac, but she did tell me.

“Get here fast,” she pleaded. “I’m gonna to die and the cleaning people are going to be here in thirty minutes.”

I arrived in twenty, having called off the cleaning crew and having cleaned the Walgreen’s shelves of any digestive product ending in “ax” to find her hunched on her hands and knees. It’s at this point that I drop the drugs and rush towards her, my mind going towards worse case scenarios, my fingers on my phone towards 911.

I am my parent’s only daughter. My father is 81. He had heart surgery last year, prostate cancer the year before that. He can’t see or stand up straight. He doesn’t hear, and he won’t listen, wear a seat belt or carry a cell phone so we never know, when he’s disappeared for hours, whether he’s at the Lexis dealership or dead. My mother has a bad back, bad reflux and a bad habit of denying reality, so it’s hard for me to tell when it’s “nothing” and when it’s not. All I can do is hold my breath with regard to my parents and their accumulating ailments no different than with my daughters and their imminent adolescence. I’m in that precious and precarious middle place, where being a mother and being mothered meet. Signs of everyone’s impending age appear daily. But I’m often unsure what to make of them—when do I call the doctor and when do I pray to God?

The other night, my 11-year-old daughter came into my room with a boob. Just one. A tiny mound, barely perceptible except to me and perhaps to her, though I didn’t ask. Instead, I shot up in bed and asked her to come closer.

She gave me an annoyed, “What’s the matter?”

I said, “Nothing.”

But I posed that very question to the pediatrician the next morning after my daughter woke up with both the attitude and the boob gone, and I stood in the kitchen wondering if my sighting, like a UFO, had been a figment of my imagination. The doctor assured me that I had indeed seen a breast bud. “Puberty is gradual” she told me, “its signs come and go but it can seem to sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention.

And even if you are, I thought, because I didn’t see a boob coming and as both a daughter and a mother, I’ve been paying attention for the better part of my life. So sure I was, when I was ten and my father in his late forties, that he was going to have a heart attack playing football with the other, much younger fathers, that I watched the game clinging to the chain link fence, praying to God and holding my breath. Figuratively, I’ve been holding my breath for decades waiting for the other shoe to drop and now literally, as I race to my mother’s bedroom, convinced that it actually had.

“Are you okay?” I sputter.

“That was quick, I hope you didn’t speed,” she says casually, as if she’d invited me for tea. “C’mon in.” She holds her hand out for me to help her to a standing position.

“What’s going on?” I ask, as if I’d wandered into the wrong apartment.

She directs me to look down the back of her bathrobe. “Can you see that?”

I peak down her neck. Her backside is angry and bruised, blood vessels broken from mid spine down.

“That doesn’t look good,” I tell her. “I think we should call the doctor.”

She waves off the suggestion. “I called you instead.” As she settles back onto her hands and knees she says she’d thought about calling the paramedics from the toilet, but decided she’d rather die than have strange men looking at her bottom. “Luckily, I was able to relieve myself,” she explains as she directs my eye to an array of jewelry buried within the pile carpet. “But next time, who knows? So,” she continues, “you need to be able to tell what’s real, what’s sort of real and what’s not.”

My mother collects jewelry of all kinds. Her collection is organized meticulously into categories by color, type and quality. She stores it in a dresser, though in between her death-defying bowel experience and my arrival, she managed to move the entire stash to the floor.

I sit and she begins. “The best stuff is in the top drawer.”

I nod, though this is not news. I’ve gotten the jewelry talk before, after every narrow dodging of death—from the actual, like a clean biopsy of a tumor, to the perceived, like an unduly turbulent air flight. I know the ambers, the turquoises, the rose golds, the brushed golds, the strands of beads, the bulbous rings, and her beloved bangles. I can picture the pieces before I look at them, but even after all these years, I cannot tell you what’s real and what’s fake. On some deeper level, I assume I don’t want to know. As if to absorb the lesson will put my mother in a position to depart.  And the truth is, it’s all my mother’s and, genuine or not, that is all that matters.

As she speaks and goes through the piles, she doles out some of it to me. The stuff she never wears, the mistakes, the very fake amber to which she believes she is allergic, the pieces that are now too small and that might fit my daughters.”

With the larger, more recently acquired bangles, she is more thorough. “It takes a fine eye to tell the gems from the junk,” she repeats. Her greatest fear is that her daughter-in-law (who shares my mother’s fine eye as well as her wide wrists) will one day wind up with the good stuff. All because her real daughter wasn’t paying attention.

“I’m listening,” I promise (though I’m not), and I put on a piece of allergic amber. “How does it look?”

“Better on you than on me,” she says. We laugh, we reload her dresser and we do, in fact, have tea.

When I leave her apartment, after my father rolls in from the Lexis dealership, I am bedecked in jewelry and armed with instructions to wear it now, while she is still alive.

I promise her I will (though I won’t). I ask her if she’s feeling better.

She says she is (thought she isn’t). She thanks me for coming. I thank her for a lovely morning and head to my car, where I take a breathe of relief and thank God for the bangles, the boobs and the gift of another day.

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

War on Terror

War on Terror

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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