Sexuality on Campus

Sexuality on Campus

A eight years old school girl close to the schoolyards

By Mary E. Plouffe

Recent surveys indicate that between nineteen and twenty-three percent of women will experience sexual assault in college. That’s one in five of our daughters. Those assaults are rarely by criminals, or even strangers. They are by their classmates: the boyfriend they broke up with, the guy they just met at the frat party. They are our sons.

How did we get here?  So much has changed in the way we approach sex in our culture in the past few decades. We are more open and honest, more accepting and less judgmental. Yet despite our best intentions, I believe we have inadvertently made things more confusing for the young people we care about.

We have taken the shame out of sex. The average age of first marriage has risen by more than 7 years since 1950. Along with this shift, Americans now accept that most people will not postpone sex until marriage. Sex before marriage is less a “sin” and more a fact of adulthood, even to the majority of those sitting in pews every Sunday.

We have taken the ignorance out of sex as well, establishing early, accurate education about sexual function, emphasizing safe sex for disease and pregnancy prevention. Most fifth graders can tell you the biology of how sex works.

But I wonder if we have taken the emotion out of sex as well. I wonder if we’ve neglected intimacy and relationship and human emotion in the safe sex discussion. When and what are we teaching our kids about psychologically safe sex?

Too many times in the past ten years young women in high school or college have described their first sexual experience to me as “getting it over with,””losing my virginity so I could stop worrying about it” or even ” so I wouldn’t be embarrassed about being a virgin.” This implies that having sex is something you do for yourself, because your body is ready to have sex, because, like getting a driver’s license, it is a rite of passage.   Relationship is not an essential part of the experience, just the tool for accomplishing it. If you are lucky, they tell me, you have a boyfriend you want to have sex with, but if not, the pressure to be sexual overrides waiting for the right person, the one with whom sex is a logical step of intimacy that grows out of relationship.

Sex in college also has its own rules. The young women who educate me about this are often trying to digest the rules themselves, and struggling with their own reactions. So they try to explain to us both.

“Partying” I am told, is separate from dating. It’s more like a play group where sex is part of the party. Alcohol, and sometimes drugs, are part of the party, so that the sex is easier, and the experience heightened. Sexual contact with a boy at the party is not “cheating,” even for those with a boyfriend. To meet that boy for coffee and conversation the next day would be cheating.

But at some schools the party culture is also the entryway, the signal that you want to date.   “What if you choose not to party? I asked one.

“Then people think you don’t want a boyfriend, that you’re a nerd or not interested at all,” she answered. “I really don’t want that.”

“So, you’re hoping to meet someone special?” I asked.

” Yeah, it’s like, we get the sex part over with first, then maybe see if we like each other.” Girls who choose this entryway hoping to find relationship are often devastated if no one calls once the party is over.

“Hooking up” is slightly different. It can mean just needing sex and agreeing to satisfy that need contractually. Sort of like needing a dance partner, and taking whoever is available. Some boyfriend/ girlfriend bonds tolerate this, some do not. “It’s just sex, right?’ one asked hesitantly. “So, it shouldn’t matter.”

These young women are confused, and so am I. In the most formative period of their emotional lives, they are being asked to take the emotion out of sex. This is hard for mature adults to do. Even hard core proponents of open marriage can end up in therapists’ office wrestling with psyches that are not as “evolved” as they want them to be. Despite our logic, most of us care about the very personal act of sharing out bodies with someone else. Few of us can do it cavalierly, most of us cannot keep emotion out of the equation even when we want to.

College age women are particularly vulnerable. They are seeking relationship as much as sexuality, trying to define who they are, and who they want to bond with in friendships, in peer groups, and in loving relationships.   And the complicated rules of college sexuality do not help.

A few students are afraid to dip into the college sexual scene, but many more try to participate, and find themselves numb, or upset, or, as one student said ” not exactly guilty about it but just so uncomfortable with myself.” Most are relieved when I suggest that there is nothing wrong with them, nothing inherently superior about being able to separate sex from intimacy, sexuality from emotion.

There is probably a normal curve about this, like so many human variables. In thirty-five years of clinical practice, I have met people on the far ends. A few who saw sex as having no moral or emotional component. They felt free to be sexual with any interested partner, and were irritated and confused when others judged or felt hurt by their behavior. “Sex is like sneezing for me,” one man offered “Sometimes you want to, sometimes you need to and sometimes you just can’t stop yourself.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those whose sense of intimacy holds sex in a unique place. “I don’t think it’s a sin,” one young woman who remained a virgin into her late twenties explained her choice, “I just think of sex as God’s wedding gift to me and my husband, and I don’t want to open it early.”

Most of us fall somewhere in between. A place where sexual need and emotional connection meet, where sex is not only about physical desire, but about psyche: the experience, sometimes unexpectedly powerful, that a relationship is special, and that adding sexuality to that connection feels safe and right.

Morality is a component of this, but that word needs to be used carefully with today’s young people. “Oh I’m not religious” is often the quick response I get when I use it. And my follow up, “But you are not amoral, right?” usually takes them by surprise.   Most are relieved to engaged in a discussion that assumes that that developing an ethical self, a personal right and wrong, is part of becoming an adult, whether guided by a church or not. So I help them discover their own intuitive reactions to questions that push their boundaries. “If it’s ok for you to have sex with your boyfriend, is it ok if two of his roommates want to join in?

Fear of being judgmental of others is sometimes paralyzing, and keeps them from embracing their own good judgment for themselves. It short circuits finding the place where temperament, personality and morality meet. They do not want to be accused of “slut-shaming” their classmates who seem to participate in the recreational sex culture without difficulty. But there is no need to judge others in order to find what works for you, to find the freedom that comes from setting boundaries because you know yourself well, and you accept what feels right and what does not.

We can teach fifth graders the biology of safe sex. They can understand how condoms work, and how conception happens. But you cannot teach fifth graders the psychology of safe sex. How do you talk about trust, and vulnerability and self-respect and shame? How do you explain intimacy and emotional connection and commitment? You cannot address these constructs with minds that do not yet have the capacity for self- reflexive thought, do not understand a world where motivation comes from multiple sources, and do not have the experience of powerful emotional urges that complicate and defy logic.

Somewhere between the” birds and bees” lesson, and the freedom of college, we need to have much deeper discussions about the truth that sexual safety is not just about avoiding pregnancy and disease. It is about ensuring that we are ready for the powerful emotional feelings that come with sexuality. It is about putting intimacy back into the equation, and validating that it belongs there.

What message do we give when we pretend that casual sex is for everyone? Young men and women both feel the expectation to comply when this is the atmosphere the rest of the culture accepts, even idealizes, as normal college experience. When we offer no guidance about sexual decision making, and turn a blind eye to a culture of promiscuity, it is easy for “permission” to become “expectation” to become “entitlement”.   From there it is a very short distance to rape.

Sex can be for recreation or for intimacy. Most of us, ultimately, choose the latter. We crave the deeper emotional closeness that real relationship offers, and we imbed sexuality into that. That is not only because we want family, or children, or security. It is because our psyches find it so much more satisfying.

That is the truth that we need to talk to our children about. That casual sex is not always casual. It is not a stage of development that everyone must go through, or feels the same about trying. And that even when it does not cause pain, it can lead to confusion and misperceptions and feelings no one expected. Delaying sex, and choosing partners carefully is not only about avoiding disease and pregnancy. It is also about valuing the intimate emotional component that comes with the experience, and understanding what that means for you.

Prep schools and colleges must take responsibility for the interpersonal learning environment as much as they do the academic one. Social clubs and fraternities that become alcohol saturated brothels on the weekends are not unlike locker rooms, where bravado and testosterone- fueled “group think” overpower sensitivity and good communication. Real solutions must go beyond teaching students to ask more “affirmative consent” questions in the heat of alcohol fueled arousal. Schools need to set standards, provide healthier social alternatives, and crack down on those that consistently cause harm.

Public policy seems focused on prosecutorial responsibility once rape has happened. Yet, at a congressional hearing in August 2015, a victim’s advocate reported that nine out of ten women who have been assaulted on campus do not want law enforcement involved. This seemed to surprise our legislators but it does not surprise me. Because, for every case in which violence or surreptitious drugging provide a clear cut division between victim and perpetrator, there are many more where the story reflects a more complicated truth. Men and women participated willingly in the college social scene. They wanted something they knew might or would become sexual. The results were terrifying, or tragic, or not at all what they expected. They are not merely looking for someone to blame. They are looking to understand how this all went so terribly, terribly wrong.

We owe our children more. Much more than a wink and a nod, an implied permission to be sexual so long as they do not get pregnant or get a disease. We owe them the truth about real human sexuality. That it is a complicated and emotionally powerful part of human experience. And that one’s values and personality must guide our choices if we are to be comfortable with them.

Exploring sexuality means more than finding out how your body works. It means accepting that humans are uniquely created: we are both animal and spiritual. Sexuality bridges those two selves, and in the best moments, unites them. When we find the person who knows and loves us emotionally, physically, and spiritually, we call them Soulmate.

If we want our young people to aspire to that, we need to show them how.

Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is a clinical  psychologist and author of I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child to be published in May 2017. She is currently writing a book of essays on the art of listening.




Thirteen, Now and Then

Thirteen, Now and Then

Art Thirteen 1

By Christine Green

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

I cry. She yells.

Water. Flame.



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

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

Sparks fly.

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

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

photo credit: Courtney Webster

A Birthday In The Park

A Birthday In The Park

A lone park bench in a botanical garden park

By Lori Wenner

The din of the birthday party seemed to fade as a cloud of primary-colored balloons drifted high above the treetops, slowly disappearing into the azure sky. We’d enjoyed birthday cake, sung “Happy Birthday” in a large circle and then released the balloons. But something was missing: the birthday girl was absent from her party. As the last balloon vanished, I heard a voice whisper, “I’m okay, Momma. I love you.”

The birthday girl was Alexa Christine, my first daughter and she had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome a year before when she was eleven weeks old. My husband Rohn and I had decided to observe her first birthday with a gathering at her grave. We couldn’t bear the thought of the day passing unnoticed, as if she’d never existed. But I worried what others would think; I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Rohn had reassured me, with his typical confidence, that our loved ones would approve and attend. He was right. We marked Alexa’s birth as she deserved and received love and support that our friends and family would never have known how to give to us otherwise.

The dazzling summer sun spilled over our gathering and a breeze from the nearby Neches River granted us a reprieve from the southeast Texas heat. The mood was light with laughter, conversation and hugs. Our many guests mingled under the towering pine tree standing sentry over Alexa’s grave. The party also served as a send-off: Rohn and I would depart that afternoon for a Colorado holiday where, pregnant with our second daughter, Caitlyn, I looked forward to relaxing in the cool mountain air.

The cemetery where Alexa is buried is as green and lush as a city park. Pine and live oak trees shade the grounds, which are dotted with picturesque flower gardens. The grave markers are uniform, flush with the ground allowing an unobstructed view as the land slopes gently to the river below. Here, it’s easy to forget you are in a graveyard. When Alexa died, we chose four paired burial plots near the river, arranged head-to-foot. We buried Alexa in the middle of two plots; the other two were reserved for Rohn and me. I buried Rohn in his plot seventeen years later, when, at age forty-eight, colon cancer ended his life.

We celebrated Caitlyn’s first birthday fifteen months after Alexa’s. On that crisp, sunny October day, many of the same guests from Alexa’s party milled about our backyard, laughing and talking. The birthday girl, fashionably late after a long nap, entered the yard with her chubby hand in mine. Rohn videotaped her toddling by my side, capturing her pale pink smocked dress, her lacy socks, her white Mary Janes and the pink bow in her curly blonde hair. I presented the group with the queen of our world, my heart full to bursting.

Our family grew by two over the next six years, as Caitlyn’s sisters Jillian and Zoe were born. Big sisters and an ever-expanding cast of cousins increased the fun as we celebrated first birthdays with elaborate cakes from Beaumont’s best bakery and new dresses for the birthday girl and Mom. We chose Blue’s Clues, Jillian’s favorite Nickelodeon show, for her first birthday theme; the birthday girl wore an aqua, green and hot pink dress to match the chipper puppy and a headband that tamed her thick, black hair. At her own first birthday party, Zoe wore a vintage-inspired linen sundress, white sandals, and a white bow in her blonde hair. Rohn photographed her seated on our dining room table near her two-tiered pink cake, which she quickly devoured with both hands.

After celebrating Alexa’s first birthday with our friends, we honored the occasion each passing year with a dinner with my parents. In the early years, we also visited her grave. But, as time passed, I didn’t feel the need to visit Alexa there. I felt closer to her in our home giving her sisters the love I couldn’t give her.

Following his death, we celebrated Rohn’s birthdays at his favorite seafood restaurant, with his favorite cake: lemon with chocolate icing. Rohn had wanted these flavors for his groom’s cake, but for once, I’d said no to him. I would have been better off suffering through that cake once. When he didn’t get his requested groom’s cake, Rohn felt entitled to a lemon cake with chocolate icing for his next twenty birthdays. We continue this tradition now, reminiscing about Rohn’s other odd food combinations, like Steen’s syrup and cheddar cheese atop pancakes. In her first year away at college, Caitlyn marked her Daddy’s birthday by baking his favorite cake in her poorly stocked dorm kitchen and sharing it with her friends.

Caitlyn’s, Jillian’s and Zoe’s birthdays have always been about growth, hope and life; each represents another year that a child of mine has flourished. Since his death, Rohn’s birthdays have been about remembrance and gratitude. I often mention him to friends on his birthday. We laugh together, remembering the kind, gregarious, creative and unstoppable man we all loved. Rohn’s life was cut short, but he packed everyday of it working hard, playing hard and loving even harder. It is sad to remember Alexa on her birthdays and there isn’t laughter when I do, so I only mention her birthday to a few select friends.

Losing Alexa remains an agony, even after twenty-three years. I can easily recall the happy times in her short life, but I keep the the unvarnished fact of her death hidden away. I know that my daughter is dead, but I rarely access that reality. When I do, I say the words my baby died aloud. The intensity of my grief shocks me. Then I recall Julian Barnes’ thoughts on mourning: “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

Alexa’s birthdays are not about a baby who didn’t get to grow up. They’re not about what might have been. After the initial devastation of her death, I wrestled with a heartrending question: Would conceiving and loving other children betray my love for Alexa? With time, I have come to believe that each unique child’s conception is only possible at one precise moment in time; a child conceived at any other time is a completely different person. If Alexa had lived, I would not have become pregnant so soon afterward and Caitlyn and her sisters would never have been born. In this way, I have come to believe that Alexa was meant to live for only seventy-seven days. This is a sadness I can bear; what I cannot bear is the sadness and regret of a life not lived.

A nursery RN for thirty years, I usually choose to work on Alexa’s birthday. I recall my first pregnancy, labor and delivery as I walk past room 319, the room where she was born. The babies I care for comfort me. At times, I see a whisper of Alexa’s spirit in their faces and for a moment, it’s as if she’s there with me.

Lori Wenner is an RN/lactation consultant who lives in Beaumont, Texas with her three daughters ages 22, 18 and 15. Her work has appeared in Mamalode, Nursing for Women’s Health and MEDSURG Nursing. 

The Photograph

The Photograph

SEPT 15 The photograph ART

By Maura Snell

Hey, you, in your tutu,

tulle-decked and plump

with the pots of geraniums

leaf-licked and blooming about you.

Hey, you, there, squat on the cement step,

fingers wrapped in fists, bare toes wiggling,

where did you go little girl?

You surged, opening

the way a new bud might

when placed in water and sunlight

in a fast-frame unfurling.

Will you remember me when I’m dust?

I can feel how the concrete must have made

your bare skin itch, the leotard, thin

against your tiny bottom pressed down

into rough cement,

already a eulogy.

You’ve disappeared into gawk and glasses.

But sometimes, when you’re not looking,

I squint at you and can still see in your profile

that baby girl,

gazing up at me as she squats

among the geraniums.


photograph: Werner Images

Return to the September 2015 Issue




By Alicia Chadbourne

Recollection is a curious buffet. My mother’s memories are deep fried and sugar-dusted. Like a churro, their only bite is a smattering of cinnamon. If hers are confection, mine are curtido, shredded and pickled greens in bitter brine. On their own, either sets a stomach churning.

I left home at 17, the day my father, a Vietnam vet, choked me for opening my bedroom curtains. He said “they” were watching us. Because of “them” I was never allowed a sleepover or guest. Most children learned phonics from Dick and Jane. My father clipped stories of heinous crimes to read over breakfast. For years I wondered who these mystery monsters were. Over time I came to realize that for him, the enemy was anyone outside the house. Nadie te va querer como tu familia. “No one will ever love you like your family,” he chanted. But his love required darkness and I needed sunlight.

“No!” I said, refusing to close the curtains.

“Exhibitionist! Slut!” he snarled, his face contorted and eyes hollow. I reached for the phone to call 911, but he ripped it out of the wall. “No one’s coming,” he whispered with a smile and wrapped his hands tightly around my neck. “I’ll kill you, little bitch.” He squeezed tighter. I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t hit me. He said I “never did listen.” That’s why my pudgy legs were covered in welts even as a young child. But this was more than hitting. I feared he would kill me. I wanted to live and so for the first time, I didn’t float away and wait for the calm. I fought back. I thrashed and kicked. I clawed. But my struggle was futile as he outweighed me by 200 pounds. There was nowhere left to go but down, so I let my body fall, boneless as a toddler’s. He lost his balance and his grip loosened. I rolled away and ran.

I could hear his heavy footsteps behind me, the jangle of keys dangling on his dungarees, his jagged breath. Outside, the day was oddly sunny. I looked back as he slammed the front door and peered at me through the glass. He retreated into the dark house, never to catch me again.

We made it to Colma, a strip mall and cemetery wasteland, a town where the dead outnumber the living by a thousand to one. Colma’s motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma.” I called my mother from a pay phone. I had spent years begging her to leave him. When that failed, I prayed he would die. Still nothing changed. Now this horror would be the impetus. She would save us all. It took several tries before I reached her. She was away at a union conference. My mother: professional advocate.

“Go home,” she said from her hotel room 500 miles away. “Your father would never do anything to hurt you.”

“He tried to kill me,” I said.

“If he really wanted to kill you, he would have.”

I started to cry, knowing then that my father was right. No one was coming.

I hung up and moved into my boyfriend’s walk-in closet, the first of many homes to come. It was cozy enough, but I cried incessantly. “Do you want to talk about it?” Daniel asked. I shook my head and sobbed.

Years passed, and Daniel remained the constant in my life. My mother cut me off financially when I refused to return home, so I nearly dropped out of college. Daniel and I both found jobs to pay my tuition. When I graduated, we married. I refused to invite my father to the wedding. My mother was appalled.

“You know,” she said, shaking her head, “Your uncle chased your cousin around the house with a knife and she still lives there.” My mother had a collection of stories starring families more dysfunctional than ours who miraculously stayed together. She called me exajerada, literally, she who exaggerates. When that didn’t work, she resorted to Jesus-speak mixed with psychobabble. “Pray. You need to forgive him for yourself. It’s not healthy to hold grudges.”

“I never knew how to be a mother,” she whimpered, tears streaming down her face. “I did the best I could.” My mother had been abandoned by her mother as an infant, so in her mind, simply by sticking around she had done better. Everything is relative. Still, I yearned for more than she would give.

I became sullen and withdrawn, angry and confused, storming around the house for days after a visit. Daniel begged me to distance myself from her. I severed ties for good when I was pregnant with my first child. I would do anything for my baby and I couldn’t be fully present while living in the past. It was time to stop trying to find a mother, so that I could become one. I changed my phone number and we moved.

I revisited my childhood in nightmares. It was always the same one: me trapped in my childhood home, cradling my son, running around searching desperately for an exit, up and down the winding stairs, my father in pursuit. I’d wake up wheezing, the asthma of my youth perched on my chest like a leaden ghost.

With time, the nightmares stopped and when my son was one, I became pregnant with a girl. At first, I was terrified. How could mother/daughter ever mean anything good? Then I saw her. She was red and puckered, like most newborns, but had the alert brown eyes of someone far older.

I named her Aria, which means lioness in Hebrew. It proved to be the perfect name. Bright and quick-witted, Aria’s cherubic face belied her ferocity.  If anyone dared hit her or her brother, she was quick to hit back harder. “I have a right to defend myself,” she insisted. It was an impulse I would never squelch. Neither would I stymie her curiosity.

“The kids at school have two grandmas,” she said.

“Really?” I replied. She nodded.

“Is your mom dead?”

I hesitated, tempted for a moment to lie. “No.”

“Why don’t we see her?”

“She and I don’t get along.”


“My father hit me when I was a kid.”

“That’s mean.”


“And she didn’t stop him?”



“I don’t know.”

“You should ask her.”


“What does she look like?”

“I have a picture.”

“Can we meet her?”

“Do you want to?”


I paused again. “Then…. yes.”

My voice faltered.

“Stop it, Aria,” my son said. “You’re making Mom sad.”

“I can ask Mom anything I want,” said Aria.

“That’s right,” I replied.

I knew what it was like to grow up in mystery. My father had enlisted in the navy at 18 and never saw his family or the Bronx again. But fleeing never gave him the distance he sought. He carried the past locked tight inside him. There were no pictures, just stories that painted everyone, except his sainted father and beautiful sister, as demons. As a child, I was curious about his family. Who were they? Did I look like them? The unanswered questions plagued me. Cutting ties with my own mother had been an act of rage, desperation and self-preservation. Seeing her again would be an act of love—for my daughter.

My father never gave me the choice to know his family. But choices are power, and Aria would have it. She would not spend her life tiptoeing around the past. She would know our history, even if the path traversed shadows.

I was pregnant a third time when my mother and I met again at a playground in San Francisco. The children complained during the forty-minute drive, but I would not meet my mother in Oakland. It was important to me that we keep a bay between us. Seven years had passed, but she looked immeasurably older. She was obese, stooped, with deep furrows in her brow. Her hair was an unnatural shade of orange that clashed with her yellowing skin. It pained me to look at her.

“I am your grandma,” she announced, before demanding hugs from her grandchildren. My son, ever the pleaser, acquiesced, but Aria refused. She simply met my mother’s eyes, shook her head and walked off.

“That one’s a handful,” said my mother.

“Like me,” I replied.

We sat there side-by-side for a long while, silently watching the children play, my past and present coming together again.

We met sporadically after that, always in public places and never for more than two hours. She bought the children Christmas presents and I texted photos of their smiling faces. She called to make idle chitchat and sometimes I answered the phone.

Recently, I baked a quesadilla for my mother’s birthday. It is a homely Salvadoran cake made of Parmesan, sour cream and rice flour, the top freckled with sesame seeds. Let’s just say, it’s no churro. Still, I think she liked it. I can only speculate because she is not prone to smiles or praise.  It is a tendency, along with my father’s temper, that I battle.

“There is something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” she said.

“What is it?” I replied, curious.

“Why did you stop talking to us for all those years?” Embedded in her question was one of the very reasons—she viewed herself and my father as one, never “I” but “us.” She had stayed married to him for more than half her life. When he died, she canonized him in her mind.

I answered my mother the only way I knew how. “I know we have differing opinions on the past. I feel dad was abusive. I could never forgive him for it. I feel you should have protected me. I could never forgive you for that.”

“Oh,” replied my mother.

Once upon a time, her response would have sent me spinning, back when I still held out hope of apologies and Sunday teas. But that dream exists in a world where monsters abound and darkness is sanctuary. Now maternal has a new meaning.

This past Halloween, Aria decided we would both dress up as tigers. Her father wanted in on the act and declared himself ringmaster.

Aria shook her head. “No, daddy. Mama and I are not circus tigers. We are free tigers.”

Free indeed. And together, we make our way.

Author’s Note: Aria is putting her spunk and loveliness to good use as an actress, but there are certain perils involved when you mix a bouncy six-year-old and a curling iron. Last week, I singed her forehead.  Racked with guilt and regret, I tearfully apologized. Aria touched my cheek. “You’re my mama,” she said. “I’d forgive you anything.” I am working toward the day when I might feel the same way.

Alicia Chadbourne is a writer, actress and mother of three from Oakland, California.




WO Scream Art

“NOOOOOOOO!!!” My oldest daughter screamed as loud as she could. She was the third one to yell at the dinner table.

First was my 4-year-old daughter. Then me. Then my oldest daughter. Then my 9-year-old son. And finally, my husband.

After each scream we cheered. Big, real cheers. Around the table. Half-eaten plates in front of us, darkness outside, the baby in his high chair. He wasn’t used to all that noise. I wonder what he thought.

“Let’s do it again!” We all took turns, louder and louder, wilder and wilder. If you walked by our house that evening you might have pounded on the door, worried, asking, “Is everything okay in there?”

“Not really.” I would have answered, if answering honestly.

When my husband screamed, I felt uncomfortable, even a little scared. His was a roar that echoed from the depths of him, from a part we know exists but see rarely, the frightening, intimidating rage of a father whose child had been harmed.

Mine, perhaps, cracked as it passed my lips.

Not because my rage was less than his. Rather mine had come already.

It had come in waves, pushing to destroy, annihilate, torture. It wanted to burn, break, kill. My screams had already moved into the air, into nothing.

I did it when nobody was around, a couple times while driving alone—the few moments I had alone—screaming out loud, envisioning what I’d do to the trash who had hurt my daughter, if I could, and if he weren’t a child himself, one who’d spent his first years in foster homes, unattached, broken, disturbed, dangerous, old enough to know better, manipulative, terrifying, with parents who preferred the depths of sand over actual air.


The one I’m in now. The one I didn’t ask for. The one created by two hours at a house with a sick child, and a powerless one, mine. Mine was the powerless one. By trust in parents who didn’t deserve it. By “friends” who came in the back door, quickly, casually, quietly, with a smile that overwhelmed my mother’s instinct.

“You must empower her. Her agency was removed. She needs to have her power rebuilt.”

So we yell, loud. We scream. We wail. We throw our hands out and kick. She beat the shit out of a giant stuffed puppy in her therapist’s office. Then she stood up triumphantly and declared, “He’s dead.”

We sat silently as she walked over to the dollhouse, to play again.

Later, she pulled the puppy up and said, “He’s not dead anymore.”

I felt sad. I wanted him to bleed forever there on the soft carpet.


I don’t want to teach her to protect herself. I don’t want that to be her reality. I don’t want her to know that people who are stronger can do things to her if they please.

I want the puppy dead. And her, I want her to not even notice.

I want to go back to a month ago when she didn’t even notice. When there wasn’t even a puppy to decimate.

When I told the other kids, they banded together in support of you, their little sister. When I told the older kids, they too were launched unwillingly here. We don’t keep secrets in this family and we can’t be separated because the assault was on one body. It was on us all.

A friend said we are a soft place to land, this home. Our house. The people in it.

Come in, child, we have you.

Your older sister reads you stories on the floor more than she used to. Your brother plays games with you and lets you win sometimes, or overlooks your cheating, even though he’s young enough that it’s still hard for him. And at dinner, oh, at dinner, the thousand times we’ve sat together, meaninglessly, and talked, fought, chatted, flailed, we fight over who gets to sit by you.

You smile. Laugh. Throw your head back.

Your dad and I probably have tears in our eyes. We glance at each other, at each child, but mostly at you these days. You were stolen from us, for mere moments. You were taken and changed against our knowing. Our greatest fear and agony was that your spirit would break, that you would change somehow (your light, your power, your joy), move beyond the reach of the arms we thought were long enough, just inches beyond our fingers. You were torn from the fabric of our bodies and minds and left alone in a room for mere moments with evil. But that was all it needed.

It is not the evil you suspect. It is the evil you refuse to suspect.

We can only bring you home.

We can only sit here and scream in unison on your behalf and watch your eyes light up at the power of our sound. We can only scream the wails of a hundred thousand hurt children today, yesterday. One of our own. You. The scream crushed and crawling half-dead across the floor, bleeding and pathetic and hopeless, wracked with the knowledge of powerlessness, of children just out of reach, of our own baby’s body violated.

But the scream of the power of moving on, up, forward, tiny fists held in the air, triumphant and shaking, unruly blonde locks held in the hands of a brother, sister, mother, father and the ever-widening circle of people beneath you, around you, holding, cradling and rocking you, as you fall softly, kick, scream, wail and rise again.

Note: The author of this piece prefers to stay anonymous.

Do You Believe in Magic

Do You Believe in Magic

WO Believe in Magic Art(in a young girl’s heart)

By Galit Breen

I sit by the light of the moon, the lamp and the television screen, as my husband sleeps. My knees are drawn to my chest, I lean against them, pen in hand. My eyes are bleary and my alarm will sound all too soon, but this I want to do.

Swirly letters, print that I hope looks nothing like my own, fill the page. Satisfied, I roll the thin paper between my fingertips, walk down the hall in bare feet, and slip the note and one cool coin beneath my daughter’s pillow.

Chloe, my seven-year-old, just lost her first tooth. She’s waited (somewhat) patiently as her classmates have lost one tooth after another, stories of special boxes and tooth fairies and even braces filling their chapters.

My husband, Jason, and I weren’t surprised about her wait time. Chloe got her first tooth at 18 months. It’s just unheard of! Her pediatrician, who I love, kept saying throughout her well check. It’s just unheard of! I reported to my husband while Chloe gummed raspberries and peas and yogurt between us. He nodded in “appreciation” of my worries, threw a She’s fine my way, and passed her tiny, sliced pieces of his meat.

And she was fine. Of course she was. Seven years later when her smile remained whole while her friends’ tooth count dropped by the day, “we” knew how to tow the She’s fine line. But yesterday, when she came home from school, coveted treasure box in hand, gaping smile proud, she looked instantly older and heartachingly proud and I was more than ready to play my tooth fairy roll.

In the morning, she came downstairs with her trademark steps—confident in the way middle children have to be, blazing their own paths between those of their siblings, and quick because she’s used to taking the kinds of steps necessary to keep up with the longer legs she walks beside.

I knew it was her without looking up, but when my eyes met hers—that match mine in shade and intensity and fierce – I saw what I was looking for. They were absolutely lit. She grasped her tooth fairy magic between thankfully still small fingers and held it my way. An offering.

We sat together on the yellow couch, toes tucked beneath us, and read the note, palmed the coin. The sun was just rising and the sky blazed in watercolor shades of red and purple and even a tinge of green. She leaned against me in the way that I love and I breathed in the scent of her hair. Strawberries, childhood.

Her older sister Kayli came downstairs just a few minutes later and sat by my side. “Look, Kay!” Chloe said, giving her a view of the magic she held. Bookended by my two I wondered how this back and forth between sisters would work.

At nine-years-old, I get the feeling that Kayli knows more than she lets on. She keeps many of her thoughts and feelings and opinions tucked into the crevices of her heart, for her eyes only. But every once in awhile she shares a glimpse of that heart; her own offering.

“Look, Kay!” Chloe says again pushing the note and the coin toward her sister. Kayli gets up and makes her way to Chloe’s other side so now Chloe sits in the middle. This feels appropriate. They lean over the note and read it together. Knees and shoulders touching, locks and voices threading in the way that sisters do.

“You have a great tooth fairy,” Kayli announces with authority. A smile plays on my lips as I look up expecting to see their heads still nestled close. But Kayli’s eyes are on mine. They’re impossibly big and brown and where Chloe’s match mine, Kayli’s mirror Jason’s.

I still write tooth fairy notes to Kayli. Its never occurred to me not to sprinkle that kind of magic into her childhood, but for the first time I wonder if she knows, what she thinks, if she’s actually playing into my glitter instead of the other way around.

The morning needs starting, so we do. Breakfast is punctuated by folders that need packing and library books that need finding and a puggle that needs feeding.

The girls are ready and out the door in what feels like just a few minutes, and are home after a full school day in what seems like just a few minutes after that.

Chloe is in a mood. Her lift has always been as high as her fall. As a baby her laugh was always the deepest and most infectious and her cry always the loudest and most intense. Her feelings fill rooms.

So the rest of us try to maneuver around her, biding time, willing her to rest, to take a break, to give us a break. Jason is bringing home take-out and I cross my mothering fingers that she can make it long enough so we can have this treat as a family. But she just can’t—the ups and downs of the day, the late night and the early morning were just too much for her and somewhere between six and seven o’clock she has struck one too many chords and has been sent to bed.

She showers, wraps herself in lotion and fleece and slippers, the same creature comforts I would have chosen for myself. Seeing she’s on her way to okay, I head downstairs to make her a sandwich.  I wonder what my own footsteps sound like to my kids, if they know it’s me without looking up.

As I round the corner into the kitchen, Kayli sits at the counter. Legs crossed, lean body curved, pen in hand. The way that her head is tilted, her almond locks hit the counter. Her eyes are focused, her lips are set. She’s lovely.

“What are you doing?” I ask, running my fingers through her strands that glitter by this evening light.

She looks up, meets my eyes in the jolting way for the second time that day—a smile playing on her lips this time—and pushes her writing toward me.

On a small, thin piece of paper she’s written, “Here’s a sandwich, tomorrow will be a better day. Love, The Peanut Butter and Jelly Fairy” in slanted, curvy, and swirly print that looks an awful lot like my tooth fairy writing. She’s dotted each “i” with a heart. Paused, I look up and take in my girl, note this mark of her tween-ness.

I know this is a turning moment between us and I brace myself for what I think I’m about to feel—sadness, wistfulness, a need to grab onto the fleetingness of it all. But that’s not what happens.

I realize with an inhale that she’s already taken the first steps away from childhood that I’ve been holding my breath for. And with an exhale, I see how beautiful this stage looks on her.

Knowing so much more than she’s let on. Maneuvering between the one being taken care of to the one doing the caring. Using what she knows to show love, to create magic, to be graceful.

“Oh, Kay,” I say, “That was really nice of you.” And not really knowing what else to add, I step aside. Kayli makes her sister a sandwich, calls her downstairs, and, once again, my two share magic while I watch.

So this is the wonder of her tweenness—of being just one step away from the magic of childhood that she still gets and loves and feels the fun and the whimsy and is just looking for her own way to be a part of it.

And as long as I can keep finding these moments to step aside and let her in, neither one of us have lost childhood, instead we’re both tiptoeing into a newfound relationship that is magical in its own right.

Galit Breen is a Minnesota writer. Galit is a contributing writer to Soleil Moon Frye’s Moonfrye, the Huffington Post, SheKnows’s, allParenting, EverydayFamily, and Mamalode Magazine. Galit blogs at These Little Waves and may or may not work for dark chocolate.

See more of Galit Breen’s work in This is Childhood: Book & Journal  – Available Now.

Photo credit: Nicole Spangler Photogrpahy

The Unintended Lesson of the Bird Shoes

The Unintended Lesson of the Bird Shoes

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

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

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

I really, really loved those shoes.

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

Are you kidding me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Looked Away and She Was Gone

I Looked Away and She Was Gone

By Janelle Hanchett

Web Only When I looked Back ArtMy daughter, she’s eleven. She’ll be twelve in November. She grew up one day a couple months ago.

We were going to a town about an hour away, in California’s Napa Valley, to hear my friend’s sister sing in a rock-n-roll band. We were going to have dinner first.

My daughter put on a dress, boots, hat, elbow-length gloves, and five years.

She wore them like a loose veil across cheek bones I never noticed, on the poise of squared shoulders, soft over eyes that knew something, something more than me, something adults know, or almost know, if they could remember.

She nearly stopped my heart when I saw her in that get-up, so beautiful she snatched my breath and words. I looked at her and looked harder and harder to see it clearly.

A woman?

The second I saw it, it vanished, and there stood again my little one, my first one, who played in the sand and still does sometimes.

My Ava. She was born when I was 22-years-old. I thought having her would be a cool new thing to do. Like going to Mexico or backpacking around Europe.  We got her name from a magazine article about Ava Gardner. It wasn’t popular then. I thought it was the most beautiful name I’d ever heard.

“Mama, I hate you!” She screams and runs off.

I stir the meat in the pan and heat like the cast iron before me. I think “How dare she speak to me that way.” I AM THE MOTHER. I think about storming down the hall and demanding better treatment. HOW DARE YOU. Who do you think you are?

Well I’m a girl, growing up, and it sucks sometimes.A victim of biology.

Screw biology, hormones, and nature.

For taking my girl from me, even if it’s only in moments still, so young. A victim of a uterus and ovaries a decade or two before she even needs them. I have no idea how to stand near this child. I have no idea what to say or where to reach as I watch her slip away, only in moments still, of beauty or rage.

So damn young.

But always moving away, or so it seems, until she tells me that she wants to hear my voice to feel better, and I want to cling to today for dear life. I want to weave her back into my skin and hold her there like it was and it’s always been.

Except that it isn’t. Not anymore.

And I cannot.

Except sometimes, like a couple weeks ago, when we went camping in Mendocino, along the heaven coastline of California, where the cold and redwoods meet. The fog sits soft on jagged black rocks, waves crash against them in bursts beautiful and deadly, and it’s clear. Clear that you’ve got nothing here and never will. Against this ocean, the relentless pull of time, moons and earth and water, a speck of sand on misty beach. You put on your sweatshirt and enjoy your nothingness. Breathe the gray serenity of something you know or knew once.

On the day we arrived it was sunny.

And through our campsite ran a little creek. It was my friend, pregnant, and her toddler daughter, and my own three kids. Our husbands not here yet.

I guess something about the place made my oldest one feel like the littlest one, or one of the little ones. Maybe it was having her own mama and another mama and just little kids around. Maybe it was the sun filling up our spot among the ferns and trees or the fog that rolled in, or the ocean cove across the street.

Whatever it was, I looked over and she was 8 again or 7 or 6 or 3.

She wore a bathing suit bottom and a t-shirt and she was gathering materials to build a fairy house, proudly running over to show me the couch, the walls, the shell vase.

She stomped around the little brook, building a dam, of course. She got filthy, put a banana slug across her nose.

She spent hours rigging up a chipmunk trap, sure the damn thing would come any moment now.

I watched her like the best movie in the world, one that plays only once, each scene sacred: each time she squatted down without a lick of self-consciousness, acted a little too young for a girl her size, each time she wanted my appraisal of the effectiveness of the trap, or how to make the couch stay together, weave together the leaves. Look at the moss she found. “Won’t it make a great bed?”

“Isn’t this great, Mama?” And I almost couldn’t contain it all, being that person again to her, the one to praise her childish constructions. I was her for so many years. I only get moments now.

And she wasn’t the girl yelling “I hate you,” then. She wasn’t the kid losing her mind about something, irrational, full of rage, hormonal. She wasn’t the kid flipping out about whatever drama is happening at school.

And she wasn’t in that dress that made her like the waves. So utterly beautiful and terrifying I can’t figure out if I’m in love or want to run away, from the power of it all. It’s almost too much…

“I HATE YOU!” the words sting my core because they’re true, for a moment, and maybe I hate her too. Because how can I do anything different with this pain taunting me, dangling in my face? I know it’s coming. It’s right there.

I’m losing her.

Nah, I don’t hate her, not even for a moment, but I dislike her sometimes in a way that’s shocking and new, like I dislike adults on occasion. It hurts my stomach to have that feeling toward my child.

They say she’ll come back, after the teenage years. That she’ll just seem gone.

They say it’s so wonderful again, after those years.

They say supportive things.

But what I see is that my daughter is growing up, and it’s all exactly as it should be, except that this is not a change a human can stomach. How can I take it? How can I accept it?

TELL ME WORLD, how can I let go? When all I want is one more day and one more after that of our little family and the oldest child still a child and she’s going.

She’s going.

I can only let go, and yet I cannot.

Once again, here I am. A mother. The Mother.

With nothing.

I stir the meat a little longer and remember eleven and twelve and sixteen and how I couldn’t see myself in myself sometimes, and I didn’t know either. “Who do you think you are?”

I have no clue, mom.

So I walk down the hall a few minutes later and open her door. She’s weeping into her pillow. I sit by her and say nothing, look at the trinkets and the papers and stuffed animals. I look at the jewelry and the books and treasures. I touch her arm. The clutter, the mess, the thousands of things on the walls. The notes from friends and things from second, third, fourth grade.

The little girl beneath a towering world.

Her little haven in an untouchable world begging her to join it, her place in my home, her home, all I can offer beyond what I am in all my broken form:  a mother, her mother, a new mother I guess, to a new form of child.

I see again it’s all just a series of being reborn. It’s all just a series of recreation, of being tweaked and carved into something new, as I kick and scream and weep for the old.

Just when I was sure it would never end.

Just when I thought I knew what tomorrow would hold.

Janelle Hanchett is a mother of questionable disposition to three children aged 11, 7, and 2. She lives in northern California with her kids and a husband who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. If you want, you can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, Renegade Mothering (

The Elegant Undoing

The Elegant Undoing

By Amber Scott

SU 13 Art Elegant Undoing 3-1The praying mantis turns its head. No, wait. The story doesn’t start there. The story starts with a black sky and distant stars and the orange glow of the light over our patio. The light envelops a small gecko on the outside of a window, its body rendered nearly translucent as it darts within the circle of light, gobbling up tiny bugs. I should be shepherding my daughters off to bed by now, but Madeleine, my 6-year-old reptile enthusiast, has had a rough day and the sight of the gecko has revived her spirit. “Can I try to catch the gecko?” she asks, and she might as well have been asking for permission to be happy. “Five minutes,” I tell her.

She bounds outside and I lurk near the back door, carefully, trying to remain hidden so she doesn’t know I’m watching her. And there. There is the smile I was waiting for. It comes as she tilts her head up, that particular determination shining in her brown eyes as she zeroes in on the now-still gecko. The line of her upturned mouth curls into her cheeks and it is the loveliest line I’ve ever seen because I know that it mirrors a certain peace within her, a contentment. That’s a rare smile these days now that school has started and we have found ourselves in the deep, unfathomable waters of first grade. Where Madeleine, with her isolating shyness and inability to pick up basic social cues, is having a hard time. It seems like every day brings a new story, something to puzzle over, to worry half to death, and today’s was buried deep into the lining of her pockets, so reluctant was she to pull it out. “I pushed and punched a boy. I had to defeat him,” she explains. Why, we ask, and all she can do is sigh. “I don’t know,” she says, and she truly doesn’t. It’s an itch, a nervous tic; it’s rain. She has no control. She gets a feeling and turns it into action, absent of thought. These things happen.

The only time I don’t worry about this kid is when she’s in her element, which is literally in the elements. When she is less Madeleine and more Other, or maybe exactly Madeleine, a wandering spirit among towering maples, the swirl of a river eddy, a little girl rustling through thick underbrush, scaling tall hills and flying down them on the other side. Every day is a new discovery: geckos, snakes, beetles, anoles, skinks, butterflies, moths, shiny rocks, leaves made remarkable by virtue of her simply noticing them. Her room is filled with mementos of a world she only visits but wishes she could live in forever. Containers filled with dirt and pebbles, bits of bone, long casings of shed snake- skin, shells, dry brown magnolia leaves, tangles of dried grass.

I watch her as she climbs up on the windowsill, movements so slow and measured that the gecko doesn’t seem to notice she’s there. Until it does. She darts up, hand outstretched, and the gecko scurries higher, just out of reach. Madeleine is disappointed, but still smiling.

And then, as she comes around to the back door to re-enter the house, I hear her exclaim. “Mom! Come see!”

I open the door and Madeleine is standing right near the porch mat, pointing to the side of the house. There, clinging to the weather-stripped paint, is a brown praying mantis. I step closer, and the praying mantis turns its head.

I’m stuck there because watching a praying mantis turn its head is an experience. Because they turn their heads and suddenly you feel unsettled. This bug knows more than I do, I thought. Bug. What a funny thing to call this creature. This is not a bug. It is a being. A sentient thing.

The praying mantis is still, and it is staring at us while we stare at it. I’ve seen green praying mantises before, but never brown like this one. It’s such a dull brown it looks like the husk of a healthier mantis now sleeping under a leaf or building an egg case. Half of one of its forelegs appears to be missing. This is concerning because a praying mantis needs its forelegs to hunt and eat its prey. “I think it’s hurt,” I tell Madeleine, pointing out the leg, and steel myself because I know what’s coming.

“We have to help it,” Madeleine says.

I knew she’d insist on it, and the words I’d prepared—we have to let nature take its course—fizzle on my tongue. We have to help it, she says, because of course we do. This is a truth I feel deep in my bones because if Madeleine has taught me anything at all, it’s that we are no better or worse than these weird little beings. To Madeleine, all things exist on an equal plane. To Madeleine, a cockroach is precious. So we’ll help the praying mantis if we can. Of course we will.

Once inside, though, it becomes clear that the praying mantis is not actually missing half of its leg. Instead, the bottom half of its leg is stuck folded and twisted in the “prayer” position. It doesn’t look like anything we can help. Google tells me that the praying mantis probably had a bad molt. I imagine the molting process, when the mantis starts to know, in the curious way that insects and animals know things, that it has grown out of its exoskeleton. Some ancient synapse fired and the mantis set about the arduous process of sup- porting its own growth. It seems like this should be easy, a no-brainer, but for this guy, something went wrong.

And now, plainly, it can’t hunt or eat, so it will die. That’s it! Its life is over prematurely because it was just going about what nature called for, following a script encoded in its DNA. And it just seems so achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, what nature can do to a thing. An entire being. It or me or you or any one thing in the universe.

But Google also tells me it’s possible to hand-feed a crippled praying mantis if one is so inclined. There is even a video demonstrating the process, and I show it to Madeleine. “So that’s an option,” I say to her. I wonder if I can convince my husband to do the feeding, but he is horrified when I try to explain it to him over the phone. “No way,” he says. I can practically see his shudder. “That’s disgusting!”

It is disgusting. I won’t do it either, I decide. But then I find myself watching this strange, mysterious insect inch its way up the habitat we’ve housed it in, reaching up for the overhead light. The habitat, a glass terrarium carefully landscaped with dirt, pebbles, plastic greenery, and even an underground tunnel, has been home to all kinds of wildlife. Two anoles, caught outside and returned to the yard after a few weeks; various house geckos, snared from around drainpipes and windows framing our home; click beetles captured after a trip to the park; and even two emperor hackberry caterpillars found during a walk—they cycled into chrysalises and butterflies in the duration of a week and were released the day they were hatched.

I wonder if the habitat feels even a little like home to the mantis, or if it can sense the various lives that have passed through the glass confines. The mantis hangs from the screen below the UVA light bulb casting white light into the tank. Its deformed leg wavers once in the air, as though to grasp at something, and stills. Again it turns its head to watch us watching it, and I think: maybe.

A day passes as I consider what to do with the mantis. I check on it, concerned with its suffering. Was it suffering? Should we have left it outside to let nature take its course? The mantis doesn’t move much, but when it does, its crippled leg sometimes gets stuck around the other leg, behind its head, in the foliage.

Madeleine, meanwhile, is carrying the weight of school and all its bewildering social interactions heavy on her shoulders. She yells and rails, shakes branches and coils and clenches her muscles like a snake tightening on its prey. She shrugs off concerned hugs and glances. Sometimes it feels like she would tear down the walls in furious rips if she could. The only smiles come when she is considering the weight of living things in her hands: the gently clasped anole, the snared gecko. The grasshoppers and katydids plucked from the grass in our backyard. And the mantis. “I’m going to name it Adorable Face,” Madeleine says, pressing her nose to the glass of the habitat, watching the slow, careful way it climbs.

And there is what convinced me to try feeding the little guy. All of it: its name, her smile-lit cheeks, and even the wall-rattling frustration that she lurches around the house like a medieval weapon. Because it’s achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, the ancient synapses that sometimes misfire in my daughter’s brain. Faced with an emotion that skews even slightly into negative territory, her coping mechanisms are all wrong. She turns feral, tamping down tears and literally baring her teeth, hissing and clawing at anyone near. And in those moments, her deep brown eyes go impossibly dark and sad and sparking with fear. Like she’s observing from somewhere inside while her body goes haywire, while bad thoughts and feelings hijack her actions. Later, the helpless sobs as she struggles to explain.

Helping Madeleine is hard. Teaching words for feelings, guiding her away from being afraid of those feelings, into accepting them. Into communicating. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But helping the mantis is easy. Food, water, shelter. So I tell Madeleine, against the pressing certainty that the mantis is going to die anyway, that we can try to feed it if she wants to help.

Madeleine retrieves a squirming, writhing cricket and hands it to me. I hold its lower body between two fingers, and it flails and flails. Madeleine braces the mantis gently in her hands and holds it out, brushing its head against the cricket’s waving antennae. And the mantis gets to work, mandibles tearing off legs and slurping them down with little fanfare. Its jaws find the cricket’s abdomen and begin pulling at the flesh, bit by bit. For a brief moment, I make myself watch, to see what Madeleine is now staring at with an incomprehensible look on her face. The inside of the cricket looks soft and white, pillowy even. The mantis pulls up tufts as it eats, maw working steadily. As gross as it is, there is also a strange grace to its ruthless chewing, head moving just so, legs attempting to do what is basic nature, reaching out to hook into the prey.

I only watch for a brief moment, and it’s too much—too much for the both of us. We shriek and groan and yuck and look away and our hands shake, but the mantis manages to get a little meal out of it. He doesn’t finish the poor cricket, so we return both to the habitat. The mantis crawls for a green branch and the cricket hobbles across the dirt, twitching feebly. I feel a strange mix of horror and fascination. It was disgust- ing, sure, but we also got to hold the essence of nature in our hands. We got to see it up close, in great detail. Like prying open the back of a clock to see how the gears turn. Beyond observing the existence of something, we were seeing its true function. We were watching the way of the world. Ugly and hard, oddly elegant and true.

Even still, when Madeleine decides that we did the right thing, and that we should make sure to feed the mantis every day, I am not so sure. My stomach churns at the thought, but I tell her I will think about it.

Madeleine strings together a few good days at school, and while we slog through our daily routines, the presence of the mantis weighs on me. I am loathe to let it go, knowing that it will certainly die, likely without ever leaving our backyard. I imagine finding it dead on the ground, or worse, Madeleine finding it dead on the ground. She’d bring it to me with her arm outstretched, face sad, and I’d be hard-pressed to know what to say to her. That’s what happens in nature sometimes, is the patented response, but it doesn’t seem enough in cases like this, when you’ve invested so much in something.

On the fourth day of mantis ownership, I know we have to make a decision, but the point becomes moot when I find the mantis lying at the bottom of the habitat, its pale brown body nestled into the dirt and leaves. It is not moving, and I feel a strange grief well in my chest, a dawning sense of dismay. I reach in to take the mantis out, and it moves just a little. And this is even worse, holding this small, dying creature. “Aw, no, little mantis,” I say to it, and its body twitches. This is awful, awful. Madeleine wanders in and wants to know what is wrong with it. “It’s dying,” I tell her, and she wants to know why. I remind her that we had known it would happen, but it doesn’t seem right somehow. It wasn’t supposed to die on our watch. We were the ones who would do right by it. We would make its life better by virtue of being in it. We had hoped.

As Madeleine gets closer, I hold out my open palm. The mantis’s body flicks in small, twitchy movements. And then, horror of horrors, a tiny white larva comes squirming out of the mantis’ abdomen. Another follows. And another.

And another.

And so many more. I drop the mantis with a small shriek and the husk of its body flits to the floor. The larvae scatter. “Are those its babies?” Madeleine wants to know, a hopeful note coloring her words.

And no. No. I wish. “A parasitic wasp must have laid eggs in the praying mantis,” I tell her. “Those are the baby wasps.”

We watch for a second, with revulsion on my part and mute fascination on Madeleine’s. She leans in for a closer look and so do I. Tiny black dots, muted and fuzzy around the edges, are visible just under the milk-glass bodies of each larva. Their brains? The whole of their nervous systems? They’re just so small, so non-wasp, it’s strange to imagine that full-fledged winged creatures would come from these things. What complicated potential rests in those little black spots! Whole lives crawling from the desiccated shell of our mantis. Nature is good at that, finding growth from death. Birthing a peculiar new kind of hope from the decay of an old one.

Still, I am sad for the mantis and eager to put the whole episode behind us. And so there is really no elegant ending to the story of the mantis. I sweep up its carcass and the larvae and toss them together into the backyard with a quick, unceremonious sweep of my hand. They will crumble into the dirt the way that nature unravels all dead things, and we’ll move on.

On the way back into the house, Madeleine’s head is bowed and her steps are slow. I brace myself for her reaction. This is a girl who wept when classmates at school smashed ants into the sidewalk near the playground. The same girl who can shrug when her snake eats a mouse: “It’s sad for the mouse, but good for the snake. It’s just part of nature,” she tells me while I worriedly monitor her reaction.

She still doesn’t speak, so I ask her if she’s okay. She considers the question and finally answers. “I wish we would’ve kept the baby wasps,” she says, her brown eyes as deep as the richest soil, like wet bark after rain and all the best bits of autumn. “Wouldn’t it be neat to watch them grow?”

I think of those larvae and the creatures they will become. No, it certainly wouldn’t be neat, I want to say, but looking down at my unfathomable daughter, I feel a rush of tenderness. For this girl who some days is sweet and some days not, but is always breathtaking, the very living wonder of discovery. What a strange, biting joy it is to be her mother.

And the answer is easy, then. “Yes,” I tell her, and I mean it with my whole heart.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Madeleine I have learned all sorts of beautiful, harrowing, and fascinating things about nature. And while I am probably better off not knowing about the giant water bug’s hunting and reproductive habits (for example), I am forever grateful to her for connecting me in a very immediate way to the stuff of life, from disturbing to amazing and everything in between, both in the natural world and within the walls of our home.

Amber Scott lives in Arlington, Texas, with her husband and two daughters. As an undergraduate, she was nominated for a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Since then, her poetry has been published in local literary magazines. She is a communications writer and editor for the University of Texas at Arlington.

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