Dear Fellow Soccer Mom: I’d Be So Grateful If You’d Talk to Me

Dear Fellow Soccer Mom: I’d Be So Grateful If You’d Talk to Me

By Kristen De Deyn Kirk

Soccer Ball on Blackboard


We’re both watching our teens play soccer, and we’re likely to see each other three times a week for a few months, so please allow me to introduce myself: I’m Kristen, middle-aged mom of two teens. I’m an introvert who knows for sure that “introvert” does not mean “anti-social.”

Let me explain. Most days, I talk to no one outside of my family. It’s my fault; I choose to be a freelance writer, comfy in my yoga pants and day-old hairdo, at home, with my laptop. Yep, me and my laptop.

Sounded ideal at first. Then the loneliness kicked in.

My next-door neighbor, a fellow work-at-home mom, used to be reliable for a couple of chats a week near the mailbox. But she moved.

My other friends are weighed down with homeschooling, from-home businesses or traditional jobs. We catch up once a month in person, a true treat.

If only those 29 days between get-togethers flew by instead of dragging….

So, fellow soccer mom, when I see you standing near the field, I smile. Forgive me, my smile might be too wide, and as I approach you, I might talk too loudly.

I’m not completely crazy, I promise. I’m grateful to see someone who is around my age, who gets the agony and amazement of raising teens and who is bravely stepping outside the safety of her minivan.

You can talk about whatever you want. Tell me your son is not much of a talker, and you wonder if that’s true in school, too. I’ll understand when your face lights up when you then see him chatting with a teammate. (My face did the same at our last game, when my son saw an old friend and actually walked over to him to talk.) If you’d rather talk about the long drive you have to the practice field, and how your husband can’t get out of work in time, that’s fine too. I will commiserate and share that mine is hoping to drive to the next practice. We like the dads involved, don’t we? You can also mention that you’re starting a full-time job soon and you’re thinking of a million contingency plans. What happens if the school bus doesn’t come in the morning — and you’ve already left for work? What if one of your children has an afterschool club and no school-provided transportation back home? How will you manage dinner and then practice if you’re late driving home because of traffic? My heart will ache for you, and I’ll tell you I get it: The trade-off for a full-time job is a gut-wrenching juggle of responsibilities. As we continue to talk, you can even go political and tell me you love the candidate I hate. I’ll appear diplomatic. I’ll ask questions, and you’ll think I’m in the undecided camp. Or if you’d rather keep the conversation light and mention your addiction to The Real Housewives of New York City, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the team and The Property Brothers, I’ll do my best to play it cool, nod in agreement and save my happy dance for the privacy of my kitchen.

If you want to talk as long as that last paragraph, I’ll listen.

If you want to talk as short as this sentence, I’ll talk instead. Either way, I’d be happy.

Kristen De Deyn Kirk is a freelance writer from Virginia. She writes about parenting, education, politics and wine — and dreams of regular assignments that combine the four. She tweets at @KristenKirk.

Photo: Getty Images

The Girl From Anthropologie

The Girl From Anthropologie

By Juli Fraga


Like many childhood relationships, my friendship with Abby had simply run its course.


In the first months of new motherhood, meeting new moms came with ease. Our babies served as relationship glue and brought us together for coffee, walks and play dates. Of course, like any relationship some friendships were better matches than others.

Three months after my daughter’s arrival, I met my “match” in the dressing room at Anthropologie. That afternoon, surrounded by the scents of vanilla and lavender in the dimly lit hallway of the dressing area, our babies were natural conversation starters. Their cries echoed through the doors as we tried on the same blue, bird printed T-shirts. “Nice t-shirt,” I said when I saw her emerge from the dressing room. “Ugh, I was hoping to get a few things to wear instead of my sweats, but I don’t love my post-baby body,” she replied. “How old is your baby?” I asked. “She’s three months old. How old is yours?” “She’s three months old, too,” I replied.

Her name was Abby. She told me she had recently moved to the Bay area. Then she noticed that I was feeding my daughter a bottle and asked if I was having problems breastfeeding (I was). She confided in me about her nursing struggles, too. After months of feeling like a failure because my body couldn’t produce enough milk, I felt seen and validated. We exchanged email addresses. She contacted me the next day. The title of her email read, “Girl from Anthropologie.” Her message made my day. As much as I loved my newly born daughter, I felt lonesome. Prior to entering the mom tribe, I led a heavily scheduled, active social life. My husband and I traveled a lot, and I often joined my girlfriends for dinners and concerts after work.

New motherhood hijacked these social plans, and the freedom I had enjoyed with my friends for years. When I became a mother, most of my girlfriends were single and childfree. While they continued going on weekend vacations, happy hours and late night dinners, I spent my days and evenings at home immersed in diaper changes, burping, feeding, and sleep training. Abby’s email offered a breath of new hope — a thread of adult connection that broke up the long stretches of loneliness that accompanied parenting a newborn. We had coffee that week and met weekly for the first year of our daughter’s lives. We went to the park and every Wednesday we met at a café for an early dinner. I learned about Abby’s pre-mommy life, and how she had once been a preschool, director. We talked about how much we missed our careers, and how they had been impacted by the pause button of motherhood. We even survived our first mom crisis together.

One afternoon Abby called me panicked. Her daughter had a high fever and a red rash on the bottom of her feet Our girls had played together the day before. Not only was she worried about her baby’s health, she was also concerned about my daughter. Her daughter had “Hand Foot Mouth” disease, and within two-days, my daughter had it, too. We spent hours on the phone supporting each other as we both dealt with our children’s first fevers and the worry that accompanied it.

Then, shortly after our daughters turned two, she disappeared. Slowly. Looking back, I had missed the signs. It started when she wrote back after every third or fourth email I sent. Her messages were cordial, but not inviting. “Hope you are doing great, too. Can’t believe it is almost fall.” She ignored my invitations for dinner and play dates, and changed her RSVP to “no” for my daughter’s birthday party. “She’s probably busy after her vacation,” I told myself. My denial served as my armor, a Band-Aid for my hurt and confused feelings. Then, one afternoon as I walked down the street with my daughter and my husband, I spotted Abby walking ahead of me. I recognized the butterfly tattoo on her ankle and her silver Birkenstock sandals. “Abby,” I shouted.

She turned around and things felt awkward. She didn’t hug me. She didn’t apologize for her absence. Instead, she looked me up and down and said, “Hi.” My daughter started crying. Abby focused on my daughter’s tears and said she hoped her day improved. I felt foolish for saying hello. Clearly she had broken up with me and didn’t want to talk about what had happened between us. I mentioned we were going out to lunch, and we made small talk about the upcoming holidays. “Where are you going to lunch?” she asked. “I’m not sure yet, ” I replied. “Hope you have a nice holiday and thanks for saying hi,” she said.

Afterward, I felt a knot well up in my stomach. Her rejection stung, and my stomach bore the brunt of my hurt feelings. I could tell our friendship was over. She had asked me where I was going to lunch because she didn’t want to see me at the same restaurant. Even my husband who is usually clueless about female relationships commented on the awkward interaction. “I’m sorry, but I think she’s divorced you,” he said. That was over a year ago.

This past fall, I once again ran into her at the Anthropologie dressing room. I felt like a hurt ex as I tried to act unaffected by the strangeness between us. We made small talk about kindergarten applications. But this time, we were trying on different t-shirts. She tried on a plain colored tee while I tried on a floral printed cardigan. I almost asked her what I had done that  offended her. Had I unintentionally hurt her feelings? Had she outgrown our friendship as our daughters became older? Like a detective trying to find answers, I replayed our last play dates in my mind. Nothing glaring stood out. Her silence communicated that she didn’t want to tell me why our friendship had ended. That afternoon, I was at the cash register when she left the store. She turned to wave and said, “Bye, Juli.”

While I never learned why my friendship with Abby ended, I grew to appreciate our relationship for the joy it provided during my early years of motherhood. And I realized the person I needed to forgive was the one I had neglected the most: myself. I had beaten myself up as I imagined I had deeply hurt Abby. “What did I do?” I had asked myself repeatedly.

One day, I observed my daughter on the playground. I watched closely as she held hands with a little girl as they went down the slide. Their little hands released from each other as soon as their feet hit the ground. They ran in opposite directions, and my daughter began playing with another friend near the seesaw. Studying my daughter’s fun filled play, I realized that like many childhood relationships, my friendship with Abby had simply run its course. She decided to let go, and that afternoon, so did I.

Juli Fraga is a psychologist, writer and mother. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times Motherlode, The Washington Post and the Mid. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga. 

The Rise and Fall of the Single Moms Club

The Rise and Fall of the Single Moms Club

By Stephanie Sprenger


I struggle to shake off the unrealistic notion that all friendships I form during adulthood should be “forever friendships.” 


“I wish we could see our friends again sometime,” my seven-year-old daughter casually commented as we drove toward the foothills on our way to dance class. “Which friends?” I asked, wracking my brain wondering who she was referring to. “Um, I think they were friends of yours? Two kids, I think—they were older than me. We used to play and eat dinner together.” “How old were you?” “I’m not sure. Maybe three?” “Was Daddy there, or was it just you and me?” I pressed, trying to get a feel for during which stage of life this friendship had occurred. “Just the two of us.” Izzy confirmed. We rode silently for a while as I processed this. “Hmmm.” I said lamely. And then, “Was it two girls?” I asked carefully. “Yes!” she exclaimed! “That’s right!” “Was it Ellie and Hannah?” “Yes!” my daughter was jubilant, delighted in our triumph at piecing together her memory. And sure enough, their home was visible from our vantage point on the mountain highway. “That’s some memory you’ve got, buddy,” I replied grimly, pressing my lips together.

It had been five years since my daughter had played on the balcony with Ellie and Hannah while their mother and I talked in the kitchen. Caroline prepared curry from scratch while I awkwardly attempted to peel an apple by hand with a knife, a task I had never before attempted. She laughed at my botched efforts, and I bristled—surely this was why peelers were invented! But she was European, and had a different way of doing things—both in the kitchen and generally speaking.

We had fallen into a nice routine with our dinners together—just the girls. I was intimidated when it was my turn to cook for them, wanting to appear as sophisticated and capable as Caroline was. Prior to becoming close, we had been friendly acquaintances for several years. I spent time with Caroline and her husband Rob during weekly baby music classes, looking up to them in the way that one looks up to people who are barely older, but have crossed some invisible threshold that is just out of reach. They seemed like the perfect couple to me, and I simultaneously envied and adored them. I had no idea that their marriage struggles mirrored my own; the reality of their impending separation didn’t seem to fit with the idealized image I had created of them.

The accelerant to my deepening friendship with Caroline was our mutual divorce and single parenthood the following year. Suddenly, the playing field had been leveled, and we needed each other in a hungry, almost desperate way. We’d make plans to go out to lunch, and between bites, frantically share details of our dating lives, bond over the thrill of having undertaken this turbulent transition at the same time. Caroline had plunged into her life as a single person with both feet, with an enthusiasm and irreverence for convention that I was too inhibited to embrace. Although I was aglow from my own fledgling relationship, I had no interest in casually dating more than one person like Caroline was doing.

We spent many afternoons together, watching our girls playing in the summer sun in Caroline’s spacious backyard. We spent holidays together, posing our adorably clad offspring and snapping photos of them. We were young, fun-loving, non-traditional mothers. When we were both involved in monogamous relationships with new boyfriends, we enjoyed the harmony of attempting to build pseudo-family units with them. If we were both single, we embraced our independence together. But any breakup or reconciliation that was not balanced by the other disrupted the delicate equilibrium of our friendship. Perhaps adulthood, motherhood even, was no different than adolescence in that way. My old tendency to create friendships to mirror my own life circumstances and needs and then discard them after the next metamorphosis still prevailed.

When I reunited with the man I would later marry, after a brief relationship hiatus, I was deliberately vague with Caroline, knowing she would disapprove. As we sat at the playground one day, eating lunch with our girls, she said, “I just don’t think he’s right for you. You’re so much more fun and outgoing.” I was miffed, certain that she didn’t have my best interests at heart, but rather wanted to make me her single partner in crime. While she was always eager to have a night on the town with girlfriends or a date, I generally preferred to spend the evening on the couch with a good book or TV show. Maybe it was actually me who wasn’t fun or outgoing enough for Caroline. As the months dragged on, we continued to have our community dinners together with just “the girls,” never including my partner, and I continued to be brief when sharing details of our relationship. Caroline whispered tales of her latest escapades when our girls were out of earshot. Some of her stories made me blush, and brought out the inner Puritan I thought I’d clubbed to death in college. The disparity in our choices and values was undeniable. Our daughters’ age difference had become more apparent and problematic—my toddler’s lack of social skills and impulse control began to frustrate Hannah and Ellie. “I-zzy!” They would shout with exasperation, as my hapless child once again ruined a game or activity. Defensiveness boiled up inside me as I sprang to her rescue.

“Girls, remember, she’s only two. She doesn’t understand the rules; she’s not trying to wreck things.” Soon I grew tired of their accusations and my resulting attempts to defend her. One evening, I’d had enough, and after a series of complaints, I abruptly grabbed our coats. “I can see that Izzy is bothering your girls, and I’m tired of listening to them tattle on her. We’re going home.” I felt like a petulant child myself, but the dynamic had lost its fun. It seemed I had morphed into the irritable chaperone, thanks to my lack of patience with Caroline’s children and my out-of-character judgment about her life choices. I didn’t like who I was with her anymore. I began to make excuses when she called. We were busy. We had the flu. I was going out of town. She began to reach out more rarely; it seemed maybe she was taking the hint. I felt relieved, and yet still guilty. And then one day she sent an email: “It seems like you’ve been avoiding me. Did I do something to upset you?” I quickly replied, babbling about focusing my energy on my relationship with my partner, and how maybe I didn’t feel that she supported my choice, and the girls’ relationship had become sort of frustrating . . . and of course I’d just been so busy!

After several days, I heard back. When I saw Caroline’s name in my inbox, my heart started pounding. I felt my cheeks flush as I read, “You could’ve just told me so I didn’t feel like an idiot.” It was a slap in the face, and one I deserved. I had been a coward. Six years later, I still feel guilty for throwing away the friendship. I struggle to shake off the unrealistic notion that all friendships I form during adulthood should be “forever friendships.” Despite knowing that some relationships are more circumstantial, I am plagued by a sense of failure when a friendship ends—even if it has run its course and served its purpose. Sometime after I remarried and had my second child, my girls and I bumped into Caroline; we were genuinely excited to see one another, and she expressed her happiness that I’d had another daughter. We greeted each other warmly, without any lingering animosity or awkwardness. Perhaps the wisdom that comes with life experience enabled us to realize that the time for our friendship—the closeness, the trust, and that comforting sense of sameness—had simply passed.

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


One of the Girls

One of the Girls

By Dawn S. Davies


I appreciate the importance of friendship, but I’ve not been the kind of woman who has a posse of besties who meet on Thursday nights for cocktails. 


I don’t have any girlfriends.

I want to, I think. I’ve certainly tried over the years to have some. I suspect I’m missing out on something fundamental by not having them, and it’s not that I would be a bad friend, either, or that I am incapable in some way. I’m intensely loyal. I care, in a theoretical way, about other people’s lives. I hate to see people struggle. I have dropped everything to help someone in need, and I understand the importance of knowing another person to the core: the good, the bad, the embarrassing. Of carrying the weight of the shared experience, and of loving someone through both the swells of life and the tedium. But I don’t have those kinds of relationships with women.

I appreciate the importance of friendship, but I’ve not been the kind of woman who has a posse of besties who meet on Thursday nights for cocktails. I don’t have anyone to go with on a girl’s getaway weekend. I don’t belong to a social sorority and I certainly didn’t join one in college. I don’t play Bunco, and candle parties and jewelry parties and spa days make we want to shriek. When life gives me lemons, I call my husband and we lament and make the lemonade together, but at the same time, I question what is wrong with me that I don’t have close friendships with women, like all the other women I know.

The most obvious answer is that I’m an asshole. I can’t chat. I don’t like to share my thoughts. I can’t abide hearing a report about the actual minutiae of anyone’s life, although I do like to write about it. I will listen to someone for a while, feigning interest, mimicking body language, adopting an empathetic face complete with the subtle, quick nod and raised eyebrows, but then my foot starts shaking and I begin to sigh deeply and check the time. Assholianism may be my issue.

The second most obvious answer is that I have interests that many women don’t have, and I am unable get excited about the bountiful wellspring of themes women are traditionally drawn to. I like transportation. I love cars, actually. I like classic cars, new cars, watching the way that different models of cars evolve over time, and TV shows about cars. I like to reminisce about cars I have owned. I like other kinds of transportation, too, such as boats, and motorcycles, and mountain bikes and road bikes. With the exception of trains, which, Lord love him, my husband can talk about until I fall in a coma, I could be happy talking about cars for the duration of a standard house party.

I also like sports. I like following leagues, teams, coaching decisions, player trades. Fantasy football. March Madness. MMA. Pro basketball. World Cup. I think 30 for 30 is one of the most fascinating shows on television, and I believe that sports analysts are secret geniuses.

I love working out, and workout theories, muscle building and body sculpting, and trends in exercise and fitness, but I don’t care about diets. Actually, I don’t care about your diet. I care very much about mine, but I don’t like to talk about it, or lament aspects of it, or share pounds lost or pounds gained, because I don’t find diet struggle an interesting topic of conversation. If you want to lose weight, eat a shit ton of vegetables and a little fruit, some nice starches, and some decent organic protein. Lift weights. Don’t snack. Don’t eat packaged foods. Don’t drink a bottle of wine a night. Don’t eat your kids’ leftovers. Just stop talking about it and get it done.

I also don’t like to get too personal with people, and perhaps this is what is revealing. Perhaps I’m fundamentally damaged by the loss of several close girlfriends when I was a child. Perhaps I have a deep-rooted psychological injury. There was Mia, who died of leukemia when we were eight. There was Danielle two years later, whom I left, and Michelle, two years after that, and because we never made it three years in one place before we moved, I was constantly severing friendships, forced to make increasingly feeble attempts to replace much loved girlfriends in another city or in another state. Maybe all of that got old.

Or maybe it’s an identity problem, because I am six feet tall and find no joy in clothes shopping and I don’t look good in most feminine clothes. Shoe shopping, about as enjoyable for me as a kidney stone, is even worse. Nothing fits my size 10 1/2 feet, and the two times in my life I wore heels it caused people to gawk and make insulting comments to where my evening was ruined. I buy my shoes online when I get holes in my old ones. Not that I am reducing women in general to talking about clothing, but it is often a common ground, where women, even strangers, can meet. But talking about clothes and designers, and deals bores me to weeping silt from my eyes, and I can’t. I just can’t.

Prescriptive things I’ve tried: a women’s book group—oh gawd, it didn’t work—they didn’t talk about the author’s craft or the structure of the book, or noticeable literary elements; they talked about how the book made them feel—candle parties, jewelry parties—the obligation of purchase only slightly less painful than the girl talk I had to stumble through. I tried bible study groups for moms and wives, and meeting other moms for coffee, and talking about our kids. I adore kids, but frankly, I don’t like hearing about yours for very long and I don’t like talking about mine. I’ll do it, but I can’t bring myself to schedule a meeting and do it a second time. I joined a women’s quilting group once. We made quilts for sick people. Noble and good of concept it was, with a promise of sitting head to head, glasses perched on noses, the parts in our hair visible in the circle, talking about sensible things, our children, perhaps, or spouses, or maybe world peace. But it wasn’t like that. All these women talked about was who had what cancer and how long they had left, and how many young children they were leaving behind, and  if I didn’t go in the room a hypochondriac (I did, actually), I came out one, in full medical panic attack that kept me from sleeping.

None of these group activities worked, likely because I was required to show up more than once and execute a repeat social performance, and these activities were filled with so much weight. So much vulnerability, and worry, switched up with insignificant details and pointless, yet likely therapeutic, chatter and then more weight. The women in these groups could navigate the switching of that effortlessly, like piloting a boat through a treacherous pass without a single dash against the rocks. But I couldn’t balance the weightier parts with the chat, because I couldn’t relate to the chat, and at the end of each event, I left feeling unattached, and a little bit like an asshole for not caring.

Not long ago, at a back-to-school event at my new university, I was introduced to a group of women in my department, the Languages, Literature, and Composition department, which in olden times would have been called “The English Department.” Five or six accomplished and lovely women were sitting at a round banquet table that fit twelve, leaning in to talk to each other. All of them had PhDs. I was intimidated by them and excited to meet them at the same time. They welcomed me and I sat down and smiled, and then they turned back to their conversation. Recipes. Cooking. Their children. Their children cooking. Their children growing up. Their children growing up too fast. Where they bought the dresses they were wearing. Where all the time was going. Department changes. Highlights and lowlights. Tenure. More cooking. What I’m not saying here is that there is anything wrong with these women or their topics of conversation. They are perfectly fine, intelligent, powerful women, replete in their abilities to have children and PhDs at the same time, and to be able to speak the magical language of women everywhere, and to be nice to each other besides. What I’m trying to convey is that for some reason, I don’t speak this language, even though I am supposed to. I have to fake it. Make the mad eye contact with raised, interested eyebrows, nod my head and ask clarifying questions so they think I am not a jerk, but secretly, I would rather be over in the corner with the men in the department, talking about cars and traffic and sports, although it makes me look like a traitor, or a hussy. I am sure there are other women like me in the world, but I haven’t found them.

I recognize that this flaw is within me, and not within other women, who are beautifully complex, verbally weaving the fiber of their lives together, laying their lives out for each other to hold for a while, to try on, to rub between their fingers, to help each other mend. The depth to which they connect, the intimacy, the intensity: I don’t have that. I wish I cared about those things so I could be on the inside. So I could speak the language and care about the meaning of it. So I could be one of the girls.

Dawn S. Davies lives in the South. She is the mother of a blended family of five kids. Her work can be found in River Styx, Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere. Read more at:

Lifelong Friends

Lifelong Friends

By Jennifer Palmer


Mom is still someone in flux, someone continually being refined by life, by experience, by motherhood itself.


China, two years after the end of World War II. Two American couples, husbands both pilots for the Marine Corps, wives both new mothers. A shared love of flying, a shared enjoyment of golf. A shared language, not to be disregarded in a foreign land far from home. Superficial things on which to build anything lasting, perhaps, but these were the foundation for a lifelong friendship, one that spanned six decades and more.

It’s a bit of family lore now, the meeting in China, the friendship that bloomed there. John and Gloria—my husband’s paternal grandparents—spoke long and often about Roy and Shirley, about their shared history. Though they were well into their adult lives when they met, already parents and spouses, theirs was a friendship for the ages, of the type you only ever expect to find in fiction. Even when the Marine Corps sent them to Southern California and they returned to the familiar sights and sounds of the States, they chose to remain close to each other, sharing meals and stories and life.

When Roy died flying one of the planes he loved so much, John and Gloria were the support Shirley needed as she and her young sons picked up the pieces, providing love and advice and help during her darkest days. Later, she remarried, and John and Gloria celebrated with her, and welcomed her new husband into their lives.

Shirley remained in Southern California for the rest of her life; John and Gloria did not. When Uncle Sam sent John to Korea, Gloria returned to her native Missouri, and after retirement the couple finally settled in Northern California. Still, even when time and distance separated them, Shirley and Gloria found a way to maintain their friendship; until Shirley’s deteriorating health would no longer permit it, the two women spoke on the phone every day.

I never knew Shirley, but there were days when I felt as though I did. Gloria never failed to mention her at our weekly lunches, never failed to share some anecdote from their shared past. It hit her hard when her dear friend passed away; though it was not unexpected, it is no small thing to lose a companion of more than sixty years. When Gloria lost Shirley, she lost more than a gabbing partner. She lost a treasured friend, the one who understood her better than most everyone else.

Those of us who knew Shirley or Gloria think of them as lifelong friends, and, indeed, they were. It is nearly impossible to picture one of them without the other, to imagine what their lives would have been had they never met. And yet this struck me recently, as I looked into the face of my own sleeping infant: Shirley and Gloria met after they were married, after their boys were born, at a time when they were well into their adult lives. Their lifelong friendship, the relationship that came to define them in so many ways, wasn’t formed until they were mothers, until they were in a place in life that looked pretty similar to where I am now.

It is hard to wrap my mind around this concept, for I have lived thirty years on this earth, in all likelihood a full third of my life. To a large extent, my identity and character are established. I have likes and interests and friends and hobbies that have nothing to do with the fact that so much of my time and energy is wrapped up in keeping a small human alive and thriving. Though I know that, in the eyes of that small human and in the eyes of any who may come after her, I will be “Mom,” first and foremost, always and forever, my life and my identity precede children.

What I realize when I contemplate Gloria and Shirley, however, is this: “Mom” is still someone in flux, someone continually being refined by life, by experience, by motherhood itself. I may meet somebody tomorrow, or next week, or next year, who will become integral in my children’s lives, who will shape and mold me to the point that my kids will be unable to picture me without her. Some person or lesson or experience may yet come my way which will change me profoundly, leave me a different woman from the one I am today.

This idea inspires me, for it reminds me that even now, as an adult and a wife and a mother, my life is not static. I have the room and the opportunity to grow and to change and to learn. Who I will be in my daughter’s eyes, the woman she will remember when she is grown with children of her own, is yet to be defined.

More than that, though, Gloria and Shirley’s example shows me that it is not too late for me to form lasting new friendships or to rekindle old ones, that it is not too late to invest time in meaningful relationships with other women. This truth seems to contradict my everyday experience; even in the modern world of Facebook and email and Skype, these early days of motherhood are often quite lonely, and making time for friendships sometimes seems impossible. Gloria and Shirley demonstrated otherwise. Their friendship did not happen by accident; though they had young boys at home, they found a way to spend their hours and their days together, to build a lasting relationship. Their families and their lives were better for it.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.


Irony—and a List

Irony—and a List

IMG_2615Here’s irony: the moments we click as humans—friends, lovers, parents, children, or siblings—often occur when we find the person to discuss the thing we can’t talk about, or at least the thing we cannot talk about easily. The courage to speak a truth less often discussed is very powerful. Intimacy emerges from the sharing of secrets. Good parenting requires us to take on the topics and feelings and experiences where we find discomfort, because being present is not possible if you can’t remain present for the hard stuff, the quiet, and even the secret.

Much as there are “goods” to be discovered when we share our genuine feelings, we so often shy away from the topics that matter most to us, the ones that could—potentially—forge for us strong bonds. It would seem as if we’d crave meaningful connections and so we’d do anything in hopes of creating them. We don’t, though.

How we seem to work in actuality is that we’re worried about taboo topics’ impact. What if by bringing them up, we are impolite? What if we sound stupid or mean or entitled or naïve or totally messed up? What if the person on the other end of hearing our story rejects us in some way? How do we bring our voices to subjects that no one wants to face or that we think people will only be interested in for the gossip factor? This is especially hard when we want or need to speak about our truths without hurting the people close to us.

I’ve been thinking about the things I wish I could talk about more (even write about more) and why these issues matter. As a mom and partner, daughter, and friend, I know that my willingness to address things less often discussed will only make me feel more grounded and more whole once I get past the fear of vulnerability. As a writer, I know that sometimes my best work lies in the places I’m most afraid to commit to on the page. A friend of mine, who’s a photographer, advised me: “Always take photos of someone crying and always take a photograph of someone telling a secret, because those moments are intimate.”

She’s right; those moments of intimacy translate into strong images. They are strong because intimacy is powerful. We wouldn’t want to only live in gut-wrenching confessional mode. We need more than one note to sound like ourselves, so I am not advocating for all-confession all the time. But sometimes I wish I could challenge myself to take more risks of this nature.

Here’s a list of some things I hope I dare to address more, and model talking about well (as in, directly, authentically and with some graciousness and poise):

Puberty (mostly, with my kids)

Sex (mostly with my husband)

Issues surrounding growing older and caring for parents if they need that (mostly, with my family, especially my parents and siblings)

Middle age, as in the physical and emotional changes (mostly, with my friends and my mom and my spouse)

The moments no one admits to like when you just don’t enjoy your kids or your spouse or your life (you love them, but it’d be nice to find someone really accepting to hear you complain without judgment or vilification of the people you love)

Big-ticket fears from climate change to illness to war to failure






What to do when friendships get challenging (other than walk away, mostly to friends I find challenging)


*   *   *

Recently, I’ve begun to schedule a phone call-slash-debriefing with a friend every couple of weeks, about life and work (by life, I think I mean family). We’ve known each other a long time and can lay our challenges out without hesitation.

In big ways and small, this unearthing of what’s often deliberately left unsaid helps. It’s amazing how the chance to share—brainstorm, support, and problem solve and hold each other’s anxiety—lightens the sense of burden we sometimes feel when worn down and buoys us both. Given that I wonder why I’m so afraid sometimes to speak up.

I hope that going forward I can summon my courage. I hope I can do more than make a list like the one above; I hope I can use the list as my guide.

What are some things you hope to address more?

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Lessons From New Friends

Lessons From New Friends

badzin:snowRecently while flipping through the various radio talk shows I enjoy when I’m alone in my car, I heard a guest on one of the programs say we should treat our spouses as well as we treat our newest friends. I wish I could remember the channel I landed on and the person talking so that I could give proper credit. No matter the source, the advice made me think.

Do I treat my husband Bryan as well as I would treat a new friend? Most of the time, yes, but there’s room for improvement. One example comes to mind right away. Often when Bryan wants to vent about subjects we’ve already covered, I’ll rush us through the conversation. Would I do that to a new friend? Would I sigh then say, “Didn’t we talk about this yesterday?” Would I pick up my cell phone to answer a text? No, I wouldn’t, because that would be obnoxious and embarrassing for both me and the new friend, but since it’s “just Bryan” I’ve been more lax with my standards.

The same suggestion to treat a spouse as well as a new friend works for other family members and for our best friends. There’s a tone of voice—our nicest, most empathetic one—that many of us use with the people we’re still getting to know. We ask acquaintances how they’re doing and offer follow up questions to show that we’re listening. We provide thoughtful, colorful answers when the conversation turns to us.

One could argue that our family members and close friends get the honest, authentic version of us, that we’re more “real” with our family and best friends. That’s certainly one way of looking at it, but I do wonder if in some cases “real” is a positive spin on rude. I also wonder if too much “authenticity” is how layers of contempt seep into relationships over time. Is real always such a prize if real means less considerate or leads to taking the next person for granted?

All of this reminds me of a quote I like from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a novel full of subtle advice about how not to treat the people closest to us. Pip, marveling at the lengths he’s gone to impress some of the other gentlemen in his new societal position, says, “So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.” In other words, one step worse than behaving better with our new friends than we do with our spouses, family members, and close friends is outright mistreating the special people in our lives for the sake of people we don’t even like that much.

Thinking about the way my kids sometimes treat each other, I wouldn’t mind if they were less “authentic” some of the time. And I definitely think they could stand to improve the way they act towards each other when certain friends are at the house.

When Sam, 9, is frustrated with Rebecca, 7, he speaks to her and of her as if she is the most annoying creature in the universe. Like Pip notes, Sam’s even meaner to her around certain friends, kids he’s trying too hard to impress. Rebecca, in turn, takes on a similar air of disdain and disgust when she’s irritated with 5-year-old Elissa, who I’m sure, before long, will give the same eye-rolling attitude to 2-year-old, Nate.

The only action I’ve taken so far is to consistently point out the way they speak to each other when it gets ugly and to help them note the natural consequences. For example, when Sam wants to play outside, he’ll ask Rebecca to put on her snow stuff and join him. If she hesitates for a moment, because, say, it’s freezing or because she’s in the middle of doing something else, he’ll immediately start demanding she play with him. If that doesn’t work, he’ll yell louder, at which point no amount of begging or bribery will get Rebecca to join him outside.

“Would you play with someone who was yelling at you and throwing a fit?” I’ve asked Sam on more than one occasion.

After I heard the aforementioned radio show, I tried a different tactic. “Is that how you get your friends to play a game?” The answer, of course, was “no.” Perhaps one of these days Sam will see that if he were half as nice to Rebecca as he is to his friends, especially his new friends, she would accept his invitations every time. And I’m hoping Rebecca will eventually figure out that coercing Elissa into doing whatever she wants to do by claiming she’ll stop being Elissa’s sister is not a great tactic either. A mom can certainly dream.

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The Stories Of Our Lives

The Stories Of Our Lives

I recently read an interview with Joan Didion where she expands on her famous quote saying writers are always selling people out. Here is how she explains it:

If you are doing a piece about somebody, even if you admire them tremendously and express that in the piece, express that admiration, if they’re not used to being written about … they’re not used to seeing themselves through other people’s eyes. So you will always see them from a slightly different angle than they see themselves, and they feel a little betrayed by that.”

Most people don’t understand that creative nonfiction is biased. It’s creative in that those of us who write it are using the facts (as we understand them) to write our way to a truth that is inherently personal. If we are writing from our own experience, we are sharing a perspective that is shaded in memory. We may write that, for example, that a little sister was forever whining or that a father was preoccupied with work but that sister and that father may remember it differently. The sister may remember that you were terribly bossy. The father might tell you that he was only distant during that difficult time when he was passed over for a promotion.

The truth is all of that. The truth is the bratty little sister and the bratty big sister. The truth is the worried father and the lonely child.

But when we write our stories down, they carry a weight that they don’t have when we’re telling stories around the dinner table during a family reunion. An essay published and out in the world has an authority that may feel threatening to the people featured in it.

When I talk to other writers about it and about their decision-making there’s a variety of responses. Some believe that speaking their truth takes precedence over the feelings of friends and family. Some always seek permission before taking pen to paper (or before sending it out for possible publication). But most of us take it step-by-step, piece-by-piece. We check in and we pull back. Or we write it all and then edit more. Some of us having written things we regret and some of us wish we had written with more honesty and less fear.

Personally I think we should write it all, write everything and write as true as we know how. But then I think before we give it to the world we have to edit with kindness and sensitivity.

For myself, I’ve certainly gone too far with work that is doggedly self-centered. I remember back when I was writing my personal blog way before blogging was anything anyone knew about and I wrote a pretty damning entry about my father. I didn’t bother to consider that he might be reading it and only heard later that he’d looked at that entry then called my sister to say, “She really hates me, doesn’t she?” I didn’t then and sure don’t know but I did during the time I was writing about. But I didn’t bother to shade what I was writing with the benefit of hindsight and so that entry sat bald and glaring, telling a truth that no longer needed to be told.

It was so easy to be caught up in my story – that time in my life where my feelings were so raw – and to forget that the people I were writing about weren’t static characters. I knew the happy ending (my eventual reconciliation with my dad) and didn’t consider that without current context my father just looked like a bad guy.

I’m fortunate that my father forgave me and I learned to be more cautious when I hit publish on a blog or send on a submission.

I’m curious about the rest of you writerly folk. Have you ever gone too far? Do you ever feel hemmed in by the expectations of friends and family? Do you talk about these things in your writer groups and with your writer friends?

How do you manage the challenge to be truthful in your work without violating the truth of others?

Choosing Our Family

Choosing Our Family

By Candy Schulman

unnamed-1The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. -Richard Bach

In middle school my daughter was given an assignment to draw a family tree, a fun way to strengthen vocabulary in her French class. She had a pet hamster at the time, and her family tree renderings turned out to be furry and nocturnal, with tails. So was her best friend Nicki’s. No one was surprised. Each of our families were imploding, and our human family structures had shattered irrevocably. At the time, hamsters provided more family support than human relatives.

Madelyn met Nicki as an infant in a Mommy and Me class. We lived a few blocks away, and our families became instant friends, babysitters, weekend travelers. We bought matching outfits for the girls, and they slept over each other’s houses more than they stayed at home. They grew up with a unique friendship bond—more like sisters, without the sibling rivalry. When Nicki’s sister Hannah was born, Madelyn became a big sister too.

Every December we took off in different directions: Nicki’s family to celebrate Christmas in Ohio, ours for Chanukah in California. We reconvened every New Year’s, sharing a bottle of Champagne at midnight long after the girls had gone to sleep, snuggling next to each other in the same bed.

Madelyn was an only child and often asked to have a brother (never a sister). Later she changed her wish from “sibling” to “puppy.” But when she saw other friends who shared weekly Sunday dinners with nearby family members, she knew something larger than a puppy was missing in her life.

“Nicki and Hannah are our family,” I told her, even though she already knew. “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. We are more fortunate than many: we’ve picked friends who have become our family.”

Once when Madelyn became dehydrated and my husband was away on business, I alone had to do everything from getting Madelyn to the hospital to excessive worrying. In my haste, I grabbed the duplicate stuffed Golden Retriever she slept with every night (in case we ever lost the original). When the nurse was setting up a cot for me to sleep next to her hospital bed, I realized the real puppy was home. IV fluids had begun to work, and Madelyn was more aware than the nearly comatose five-year-old in the ER. She sobbed, begging for the only puppy who could coast her into dreamland.

I couldn’t call my family in California for help. So Nicki’s mother rushed over to the hospital on a frigid January night, fetched my house keys, went to pick up Puppy, ran back to the hospital, and generated the first smile Madelyn’s face since she’d gotten a bad case of flu five days ago.

That’s true friendship. That’s family. How many parents are lucky enough to have both?

Years later both of our DNA families began to splinter. Coincidentally, we were both going through disagreements with siblings about our mothers’ wills. Vicious arguments. Law suits. Tears. Families torn apart.

Nicki’s parents invited us out to dinner—without the kids. Before the entrees arrived, they asked if we’d be willing to be the legal guardian of both girls. “It isn’t possible with members of our family anymore,” they said. “And besides, you’re our family now.”

We were honored, yet apprehensive of the large responsibility. Of course we said yes. Who can turn down the needs of true family? And we loved Nicki and Hannah as much, if not more, than blood relatives.

A year later my sister and I were embroiled in a lawsuit over our mother’s will. She’d left me her jewelry, knowing I made less money than my sister did. And I’d been her main caretaker for the last five years of her life. My sister and I had never been close, and even though she lived near our mother, I was the one who spent every Chanukah and birthday with Mom when she was bedridden with dementia, while my sister was gallivanting around Hawaii with her boyfriend

Now we were adversaries in court, a heartbreaking process where my sister told lies about me to the judge and to my nieces and nephews. After our suit was over, I knew I’d never talk to her again.

It was my turn to invite Nicki’s parents out to dinner. They said yes, just as we had. That night I downloaded a legal document from the Internet, notarizing it the next day. My daughter had a new guardian until she’d turn eighteen.

Each year as Chanukah and Christmas nears, I shop for gifts for Nicki and Hannah the way I used to enjoy giving personalized presents to my sister’s family. Together we light the menorah. Madelyn never did get her own puppy, but she’s been crowned guardian aunt to Duke, Nicki’s English bulldog. She walks him when they’re away on vacation. She loves him as if he’s her family—even though he drools and snores.

We have an extended family too. Each year we spend Thanksgiving with Jill, whose son is Madelyn’s age. Last year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we cooked for a friend of Madelyn’s since preschool, whose Jewish father now lives in another state and whose mother was raised Catholic. Passover is always with Nicki, where the two girls have searched together for the hidden matzo. Sometimes we have holiday dinners with friends who don’t have children. John, a lifelong friend of my husband’s, is known in our house as “Uncle Johnny,” always interested in hearing details about Madelyn’s soccer games and knowing that she loves dark chocolate whenever he brings her a bakery treat.

Creating a family for our only child, we replaced the families we’ve lost through needless disagreements, but the grief for their absence is always there. No one can ever predict the surprising twists that can cause great distances, beyond geography, among family members. You do what you must to compensate for loss. Our family and holiday gatherings don’t look like they did when I was a child, but there is always plenty of laughter and hugs. Sure we have the occasional disagreement—but after all, we’re family.

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

Illustration by Christine Juneau

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

The Costumes of My Adult Life

The Costumes of My Adult Life

0-33While shopping for the kids’ Halloween costumes this year, I thought about the costumes of my adult life and how there’s often a negative feel to this idea of adults trying on different “costumes.”

And yes, during this time of year it’s especially hard to think of the words adult and costume without getting an image of the overly-sexualized Halloween ensembles for grownups (mostly women) that have become a profitable part of the holiday’s industry. What also comes to mind are the conventions where adults dress up as their favorite characters from video games and movies. I’m not discussing either of those types of getups right now. I’m referring more to the various roles, hobbies, and even slight changes in my persona that I’ve tried over the years.

I also want to clarify that I’m not referring to a “disguise.” A disguise hides an identity. A mask, too, implies phoniness. In the various roles and personas I’m remembering, I feel that I have always been myself even if in some cases I’m reaching to be better and do better. Costumes, even aspirational ones, are not necessarily a false path to reaching a new goal or milestone.

In my days as an English teacher during my mid-20s, for example, I wore pencil skirts, blouses, and heels. Some of my colleagues in the English department wore jeans, but I wanted to appear serious and confident despite worrying that I was only one page ahead of the students most of the time. For my first year as a licensed teacher, I was assigned to seventh and eighth grade classes in the morning and ninth grade classes in the afternoon. Every day I needed three sets of lesson plans and I had to arrive at two buildings on time (the first one at 7AM). Most of the time I felt like a disorganized, underprepared disaster. But in my teacher getup, I made it through the year at least looking professional. I did a decent job and earned a position teaching full time at the high school for the next year. I still never wore jeans.

I only taught for three years before I had a baby and took on the role of stay-at-home mom. I won’t go into all the clichés of mom clothes, but I can say that the pencil skirts were no longer part of my wardrobe. When I decided to start writing after having my second child, I didn’t need a “costume change” per se, but I did want the accessories that went along with my new self-appointed and experimental hobby. A laptop, a new notebook, and a few special pens helped me ease into the writer persona long before I would publicly call myself a writer and even consider writing a realistic career path. I had to convince myself first.

Once I was writing often enough to get articles published, I did develop a certain mode of dress for the days I’d be writing in coffee shops. My writing uniform now includes scarves, sweaters, and a vest no matter the time of year because the air conditioning is as miserable in the summer as the cold air from the door is in the winter. Some accessories and outfits help us ease into a new role while others develop out of practicality. When I’m dressed to write and my laptop is charged with my notebook beside me, I know it’s time to fill up that blank screen. The outfit reminds me what I’m there to do.

I also have my religious outfits, which require a different length of skirt and sleeve depending on the synagogue I’m attending. Then there are my exercise ensembles. About a year and a half ago, I really got into exercise for the first time in my life. I remember acknowledging at one point during that particular transition that I was finally putting the yoga in my long-loved yoga pants.

This “trying on” of roles is more than all right. In fact, I think it’s good, and I’m not sure why so many of us find ourselves initially suspicious of others who dive into a new role, hobby, persona or whatever we want to call these moments of change. We mock the friend who gets so into meditation that after a month she’s converting a corner of her house into a quiet, scared space and signing up for a retreat in Santa Fe. Who does she think she is, we ask ourselves.

But why are we uncomfortable with others’ attempts to change and even resentful, yet so hopeful for friends’ and family members’ support when we want to try something new? Perhaps we see others’ attempts to take on a new persona as too contrived. Yet I’d like to argue that we can’t know what we like and what will enrich our lives until we give a new activity, job, or relationship a real shot. And sometimes a real shot requires a full costume change to convince our minds that we’re ready to tackle whatever challenges lay ahead.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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A Child-less Party with a Child-free Friend

A Child-less Party with a Child-free Friend

0-6I went to a party on Saturday night and I stayed late. This is newsworthy, believe me, I don’t get out much. For the past nine years I have been knee-deep in various stages of pregnancy, breastfeeding, broken nights and the exhaustion that attends them all and I am someone who bows to the demands of my body. I am usually in bed by 10:00 p.m. But my youngest children are not babies anymore and a good friend was turning forty. It was time to celebrate.

The friend is a member of my book club, the only regular engagement on my social calendar. Book clubs are the stereotypical outlet for parents of young kids and ours is no exception. We take it seriously, don’t get me wrong. The books are read, the issues are aired, it even gets a little feisty with dissension from time to time. But more often than not the conversation is pulled, a moth to a flame, in the direction of our children. It is a blowing off of steam in the most needed way: the majority of us are mothers obsessed with mothering.

I tend to surround myself with mothers for just this reason. Before the party, for instance, I had dinner plans with a couple of other friends, a rare occurrence of having double booked the evening. These friends are women I met in a pre-natal group, when we were expecting our first babies. I remember sitting around a cramped room with them, a lifetime ago now, it feels, sizing up each other’s bulging bellies alongside each other’s hopes and fears. We talked about epidurals and episiotomies and I wondered if we had anything in common other than the fact that these creatures we were housing in our bodies were due to make their appearance within days of each other.

It turned out it didn’t matter what else we had in common. As soon as the babies came, once a week throughout that unseasonably warm September, we clung to each other like ivy. Feeding times, how often last night?, cracked nipples (ouch!), the poo is green, that can’t be normal, the tiredness, so tired, our husbands, can they do anything right? All of a sudden, there was very little else to say. My world had shrunk considerably (though happily) and I wanted, I needed, to occupy it with people whose own horizons were comparably narrow.

Of the many gulfs of interest that divide people, children are a chasm. Mothers, particularly new mothers, have tunnel vision. That’s understandable. But it can also be boring, tear-your-hair-out boring, especially to those non-mothers who can see the light, so to speak. I hold onto this perspective tightly, because I didn’t have it when my first kid was little. Sometimes I hold onto it too tightly. I now err on the side of assuming, if you don’t have kids yourself, you don’t really want to hear the minutiae of mine.

But that’s not always the case. Friends without children support friends with children routinely and, often, genuinely. They coo at the photographs. They applaud the story about how the baby turned over the hard way. They make sympathetic noises at the lack of sleep, the cascade of dirty diapers, the diabolical temper tantrums. A lot of the time, though, they do this because they are child-less and you are simply a step ahead of them. They are not child-free, which is a distinction with a profound difference.

One of the women from my book club is decidedly child-free, but she engages with enthusiasm when the rest of us spin our progeny-laden tales. She was there, at the birthday party that night, and we fell into a head-touching kind of conversation, fueled as much by alcohol as by opportunity. We like each other, instinctively, but we don’t spend that much time together. I imagine at least in part because of the fact that she isn’t a mom.

Somewhere in between the third and fourth glass of champagne, or maybe it was the fourth and fifth, our focus shifted onto why this was so. “It’s not that I woke up one morning and decided,” she said. “It’s that I’ve never longed for a baby enough to give up what I love about not having one.” And then her tone grew confessional: “nobody’s ever asked me why before.” She said it almost with giddiness, like this was a conversation she had been waiting to have. A successful and happily married woman on the cusp of forty, I understand the reason the subject isn’t raised off-hand: who likes to conjure the specter of infertility?

Because that’s the assumption, of course, that child-less-ness is more a matter of “can’t” than “won’t.” Mothers can be blind in this way too. Once we embrace the title for ourselves, we fail to see the meaning in an existence without it. We struggle to believe that having it all is not a question of how best to balance kids and career: it is a declaration of not wanting half of that equation in the first place. I fall into this trap myself. Motherhood has become so consuming to me that, despite best efforts, I find it hard not to project onto other women a desire for the sense of purpose it offers.

The party was a revelation in this respect. For as much as I looked at this lovely, child-free woman and wondered if something was missing, I discovered that she was looking at me and wondering the same thing. “Sometimes I think,” she said that night, clearly weighing up either her word choice or whether to continue at all, “What could Lauren be if she didn’t have four kids?”

At 2:00 a.m  we left the dancing behind and that question, among others, unanswered. We went our separate ways, back to different houses and very different lives. I would be woken in the morning, too early, by the scurrying of feet and the tips of my daughter’s hair on my face. She would be stirred by an alarm clock, perhaps, or by the rhythms of her own body. My day would unfold, for the most part, according to the needs of people other than myself, with all of the beauty that entails. She would rise to a day of her own choosing, with all of the beauty that entails. And we would both be happy.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

The Importance of Couple Friends

The Importance of Couple Friends

0I knew before I met my husband, before I even cared about the world of dating, that making and maintaining friendships with other couples would play a central role in my marriage.

As a child, I’d stay in the room while my mom spoke to her friends on the phone. She’d balance the receiver between her ear and her shoulder so she could thumb through the pages of her velvet green appointment book. While looking for open Saturday nights, she’d tap her pencil on the desk, and I’d catch her side of the conversation. Should they stay in the suburbs or head downtown? Somebody’s spouse didn’t like the artsy movies at the Evanston theater. The third couple coming along was tired of Italian food. There were intricate negotiations about when and where, but never a discussion of including the kids.

I didn’t feel left behind. In our house there was a clear boundary between adult time and kid time. Saturday nights meant one of my sisters was in charge or that I’d sleep at my Grandma Pauline’s condo. When I got older, I had sleepover plans with friends. As far as I was concerned, the system worked well. So I put the same system in motion when Bryan and I got married nearly thirteen years ago and we moved to Minneapolis where we had no friends. Not one.

My parents and their friends operated like an extended family, and I wanted the same atmosphere for Bryan and me. I remembered my parents attending 40th birthday parties for friends who are now turning 70. These friends hosted engagement parties and wedding showers for each other’s kids. They helped provide food and support during periods of mourning. What I miss most about Highland Park other than my family and my own childhood friends are my parents’ friends. I might not have tagged along on those Saturday nights, but we all had plenty of other time together as families.

Bryan and I slowly (very slowly) made friends with other individuals in Minneapolis, which eventually turned into friendships with other couples. We’ve known some of our friends for over a decade. We make plans without the kids, with the kids, as foursomes, or in larger groups. We’re often making new friends, too, and we’re constantly introducing couples to each other. One aspect of these friendships that I knew I’d enjoy was the extended-family-like feeling that I already described. Until recently, however, I didn’t understand the indirect benefits of good relationships with other pairs.

Spending time with other couples reminds me why I like Bryan. Not just why I love him, but why I like him, respect him, and would choose him again.

Studies by Geoffrey L. Grief and Kathleen Holtz Deal, two professors in the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland, show that “sharing mutual friends is linked to a happier marriage.” In their book Two Plus Two: Couples and Their Couple Friendships, Grief and Deal say that “couples may not only derive great enjoyment from their friendships with other couples but they are likely to appreciate each other more.”

Bryan and I are a good example of Grief and Deal’s thesis. When we’re out with other couples, we’re on better behavior, which gives us a chance to see one another in the most flattering light. We’re each funnier, more interesting, and more interested. We look better, too. I do my hair. He shaves. We put in a little extra effort when we’re getting dressed.

Going out with friends also brings out the team spirit in us. Before we leave the house, I remind Bryan not to criticize anyone’s parenting style. He reminds me not to overuse the expression, “I wrote about that on my blog.” I like these people, I occasionally have to tell him on the way to dinner, which is code he understands as “Do not discuss politics.” Other times I’m the one who needs to turn up the charm for a couple he likes more than I do. We kick each other under the table when one of us needs to shut up.

The newest boon to our marriage as a result of our Saturday nights out is that I’ve started taking Bryan’s advice more seriously after noticing that several of my girlfriends seek out his opinion about various situations in their lives such as discipline issues with their kids, the benefits of a bigger family versus a smaller one, career changes, and even advice on how to deal with another friend.

At first I was surprised when I saw the pattern. Bryan does not sugarcoat anything, but our friends already know this before they ask his opinion. He’s unapologetically “old school” in his approach to parenting and almost everything else. Ask your grandparents how they disciplined their kids, I’ve heard him tell one of our friends who at first mocked Bryan’s high expectations of our kids before she apparently revered them. Grandparents, he reminded her, not your parents.

I admit that I’ve learned to tune him out when I’m not interested in hearing the harsh truth. But after watching my friends eagerly ask for his advice then listen attentively, I’ve learned to appreciate his insights into my life. Who knew I’d been living with a life coach all this time? Our friends knew! My best friend, Jenni, calls Bryan, “Brain.” She and I get a little chuckle out of it. Bryan feels good. Everyone wins.

In other news, I am now officially my mother. Replace the velvet green appointment book with an iPhone and the vision is complete.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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

Bus Rides

Bus Rides

By Christine Pakkala

School Bus ArtWhen the second-grade class comes out, I immediately see Lulu’s blonde head among the brown, floating like something lost and bright at sea. I recognize the turquoise sleeveless top she hated at the store but I bought anyway and the stained khakis she insisted on wearing, instead of the skirt with the matching turquoise flowers.

It has only been an hour since I waved good-bye to my daughter at the bus stop, but I am absurdly excited to see her again. I signed up to chaperone all the field trips, but as the teacher gently said, “All the parents need a chance.” Now is my chance, and my heart knocks around like a teenager in love.

“Line up,” the teacher says. “Children, line up.” Although she doesn’t tell them to find partners, everyone does. Janna clutches the hand of Madison, Anna wraps her arm around Sophia, and so on.

And there is Lulu, staring up at the clouds, absolutely alone. Her brow is furrowed in that way I recognize: she is concentrating hard. Cirrus, cumulus, stratus, she told me the other day, naming the kinds of clouds.

My heart tightens like her shoelace knots I tied this morning. It hurts to see her like that, turning her gaze from the clouds and heading to the school bus alone. Damn it, Lulu! I want to yell. Grab a hand.

But she doesn’t hold anybody’s hand, and she doesn’t have her arm draped around anyone’s shoulder. She climbs up the bus steps, and I have to follow although the yellow school bus fills me with dread. It reminds me of journeys I would rather forget—but I can’t, now that I’m her mom. Her very presence in my life is a constant reminder of my own girlhood.

I know her Westport, Connecticut, childhood is very different from mine. Her parents are married, her sheets are clean, her dogs are purebred, her refrigerator is full, and she is bathed and read to and adored. But I can’t help it. My intention is to let the past be over there—in Idaho—while I’m safe over here on the East Coast. But it keeps rushing in.

When I was Lulu’s age, I hated riding the bus, where all the kids paired up in the seats made for two. It seemed to me that school buses were lawless places where kids could be just as mean as they wanted to be and no one would care. And I was an easy target. I was the new kid in town, over and over again.

First, divorce, then drinking, then trouble making payments forced my mom and stepdad to keep moving us until we ended up in a run-down trailer court on the outskirts of Asotin, a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town on the banks of the Snake River. When school started, the yellow bus screeched to a halt in front of the trailer court manager’s unit, kicking up dust. In the pocket of my yard-sale cords was a round plastic token for the free lunch. I walked down the aisle embedded with dirty pink circles of gum and squeezed past the shoulders hanging off the seat. There was no place to sit.

Trailer trash! Some kid shouted it out, and lots of kids laughed. As the bus pulled away from the manager’s trailer, as I stood there, hot and dizzy in the aisle, all eyes on me. The bus driver made a U-turn, so I had to hold on to the seat or lose my balance. My fingers brushed the shoulder of a girl.

She said, Ooh, cooties.

I looked back to the front of the bus, helpless and panicking. I wanted more than anything to just sit down. The bus driver caught my eye in his rear-view mirror. He slammed on the brakes, metal shrieking.

Sit down! he yelled. With his armpits ringed with sweat, he stood up and bellowed, Move over. Finally, some kid (striped shirt, big collar) scooted over, and we lurched forward to Asotin Elementary.

But that was me—not Lulu. So why can’t I let her be a girl who chooses to stare at the clouds instead of grasping a friend’s hand?

On the bus, Janna and Madison whisper to each other; Anna and Sophie try to get their window down. Lulu marches past them toward the back of the bus and finds a seat. I slide in next to her and wrap my arm around her. I kiss her cheek once, and, when I go for the second kiss, she leans away.

“How has your day been so far?” I ask her.

She leans her forehead into the window and stares out. To me, it is the posture of melancholy. “Good,” she says into the glass.

“What did you do?”

“Mom, we were only there for an hour.” She sighs and looks out the window.

I look around the bus. I wonder if I’m coming down with something, it hurts so much to breathe. Maybe it’s allergies, this tightening around my chest.

As the bus roars to life, the children’s chatter grows in competition with the motor, and we make our way to Bridgeport. We pick up the children’s “Buddies” at school there. Bridgeport is the town that neighbors Westport. It was once prosperous but when the factory jobs left, so did the prosperity.

As these children file onto the bus, it occurs to me that I have more in common with these Bridgeport kids than I do with my own daughter. Their childhoods are ones without a lot of money to cushion them.

Yet every girl has perfectly groomed hair, tied back in buns or ponytails. I imagine their moms combing their daughters’ hair early in the morning, then tying it into frothy buns. It makes me remember that no matter how bad things got, my mom would always make me sleep with big plastic pink rollers. In the morning she would take them out and spray my hair with Final Net. She’d tie up my curls with fat, bright yarn and send me off to meet the bus. Even hungover, she would do that. Even if my stepdad beat the crap out of me with his belt the night before, I still looked good on Picture Day.

Looking at these Bridgeport girls with their gleaming hair, I feel compassion for my own mother for the first time in years. Trying to make order when there was none; trying to take care of me in a way she knew how.

After touring a museum with their Buddies, the children file back on the bus. This time, the teacher instructs them to sit with the Buddies. I find myself in a seat with the other mother. After saying hello, I turn and see a little girl from Lulu’s class sitting with her Buddy.

“Hi, Madison,” I say, smiling sweetly at her.

She looks very bored, very hot.

“Hi,” she says grumpily.

Her Buddy, Bianca Sofia Rodriguez, according to her nametag, gazes in another direction.

I’m happy that the Buddy system broke up the real buddy system, happy that everyone is suffering.

And that makes me feel a little ashamed. I turn back to face the front, and the bus jounces along. I’m not a proper grown-up. Proper grown-ups don’t want revenge—not against other children, anyway. But the stronger emotion prevails: I sit there thinking of Lulu, alone at recess while the Madisons and the Sophies play fairy games. I want to fight them, and the ones I can’t get to now: the Heathers, the Tiffanys, the Jennifers that made my yard-sale, drunk-Mom childhood miserable.

Madison suddenly yelps.

“My Lip Smackers!” she cries. “I dropped it!”

The panic in Madison’s voice is familiar. I dropped a small bottle on the bus once. It was amber-colored glue.

I bought the glue for myself with the Christmas money that my real dad gave me. When school began again, in January, I carried the glue in my coat pocket, feeling for it when some kid said, “What’d you get for Christmas, retard?” All day long, I kept it in my pocket, and when I felt lonely, I help the bottle in my hand, under my desk.

On the bus ride home, I got a seat next to the window and held it up to the weak January sunlight. I watched how the sun made it orange. The bus hit a pothole, and I dropped the amber-colored glue. I was on my hands and knees looking for it, when the bus pulled up to the trailer court. The kids were laughing, telling me to get up. Somebody kicked me in the butt.

Get off the bus! You’re going to make me late for my shows! the kicker yelled.

Did I say already that when I held it up to the light, it changed color? I wished more than anything that I hadn’t let it go.

The parent next to me jumps up and, after glancing under a few seats, grabs the Lip Smackers, triumphantly handing it back to Madison.

I hope that for all these kids, that what is dropped will be picked up. What is lost will be found. What is broken, mended. I hope that they never need magic glue.

We get out at the Buddies’ school in Bridgeport. It’s a modern building, but huge, housing kindergarten through eighth grade, unlike our smaller K through 5 school.

We troop to a cafeteria to eat lunch. I suppose the idea of sharing a meal is to build a community, but it doesn’t work that way. First of all, each kid from Bridgeport gets the free lunch (although they don’t have to hand over the plastic token like I did). Their lunches are, of course, identical: a bologna and cheese sandwich, an apple, milk, and cookies. All the Westport kids open their paper bags filled with too much food—a great variety of organic applesauce, sandwiches, clusters of grapes.

The children eat in absolute silence. Lulu has a Starbucks fruit salad, an Odwalla juice, organic chips, and a fresh bagel. I watch her carefully as she eats it, watch each bite of apple that goes into her mouth, each grape.

I turn my attention to her Buddy sitting next to her. In Spanish, the Buddy asks a boy from her class if he is going to use the mayonnaise packet. He hands it to her with a smile, and she opens it and squirts it onto her sandwich. I watch this little girl enjoying bite after bite and remember how hungry I used to be at Asotin Elementary. I ate every bite of my free lunch. My favorite was the chicken-fried steak that came with a dollop of mashed potatoes, limp green beans, and a roll that was golden brown and tasted like butter. The lunch lady gave me seconds on the rolls when she had them to spare. I hope this girl had breakfast. I hope she’ll have dinner, too.

Finally, the silent lunch is over, and the Westport kids say goodbye to the Buddies. We troop out into the sunshine, and all the alliances re-form as we wait for the bus, Madison with Janna, Sophie with Anna.

“Do you want me to sit next to you, or do you want to sit next to a friend?” I ask, hating myself for still wanting to yoke her to another child.

Above me, on the step, Lulu turns, her wide blue eyes considering me. She leans toward me, cups her hand to my ear and whispers, “Is it okay if I sit with Riley? She doesn’t have a friend.”

I nod.

“Are you sure, Mom?” Lulu asks.

I nod again.

“Come on, Lulu,” someone bellows from on board. Lulu turns without another word and jumps up the step.

I am so struck dumb by this realization—that all the time I was worrying about her, Lulu was worrying about me. I climb on board, see her sitting there with Riley, the two of them talking. The bus lurches forward.

“Lady, take a seat,” the driver says.

Author’s Note: The great thing about writing an essay is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The same cannot be said for the issue I write about in this essay. I had that moment of clarity on the bus, but I still have to fight the urge to pack Lulu too many snacks and ask her a couple dozen questions after school every day. She caught on pretty quickly to a trick I picked up in a parenting magazine: If you want to know how your kid is doing at school, ask them what they did at recess. Now her answer is standard: Nothing.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

Christine Pakkala’s essays have appeared in Salon, Serendipity, and Ladies Home Journal, among others. Last-But-Not-Least Lola is her chapter book series debut, published by Boyds’ Mill Press. She lives in Westport, Connecticut with her husband and two children.