I No Longer Do It All —  And I’m Happy!

I No Longer Do It All — And I’m Happy!


By Jamie Goodwin

For the past seven years, I have been a type-A kind-of-mom.  I loved it.  I loved doing it all.  I loved volunteering for each and every need at my children’s schools.  I loved throwing the best birthday party blowout.  I loved hand-making e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.  And of course, I loved making sure my kids were dressed in their Sunday best just to go out in the yard.  After all, you never know who was going to drive by, right?

My third child arrived five years after my youngest girl.  But wait, another child, another round of being a strict Type A mom? I needed a new perspective, a new plan. So I made one, and I am so much happier.

Baby number three has taught me more than any college class I took:  I can’t do it all.  I shouldn’t do it all.  I won’t do it all anymore. And I shouldn’t apologize for it.  I can’t be the best mom, the best wife, the best friend, the best leader, the best volunteer, the best at everything.  And you know what?  It’s OK.  It’s more than just OK, it’s exhilarating!

Today as a parent, I pledge to myself and my children:

I won’t sign up for every need around our church or your school anymore.  Why? Because when I do, I am more stressed and more anxious. I spread myself too thin and took it out on you.

I won’t make sure your uniforms or Sunday clothes are ironed.  Why?  Well, I hate ironing and no one cares anyway.

I won’t hand-make your birthday invitations by myself anymore.  Why?  Because it’s so much fun for you to make them!  And I discovered that the free online invitations are not cheesy, they allow me to spend more time with you instead of searching Pinterest for three hours for the perfect invite that wound up in everyone’s trash anyway.  Yep, this year I sent a free online invitation for your party and I laughed at my old self as I hit send.  And you know what?  You told me this was the best birthday ever.

I will stop answering the phone or emails when I am playing My Little Pony with you. Why?  Because at the end of the day, you tell me it is the best day ever when I take time to play with you.  And I remember that smile on your face, not the details of an email.

I will stop using the time nursing my baby as an excuse to catch up on emails.  I realize now it is a time to bond.

I will ask my husband how his day was when he walks in the door… and actually listen. Because it’s not a time to disappear to go finish planning a volunteer event taking place two weeks from now.

I will enjoy my time with each of you.  Because I want to be with you, I want to laugh with you, I want to cry with you, I want to be in this moment right here, right now with my family.

I will make a dandelion bouquet with you instead of stressing out that you’re blowing them across the yard.  We’ve spent three years trying to get rid of those suckers and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon, at least this season.  And you deserve a fun childhood memory of making a mud pie with dandelion sprinkles on top!

I will embrace your purple shorts and pink shirt with rain boots, even when there’s not a cloud in the sky.  You are your own person and I love you just the way you are.

I will not squash your creativity and tell you a better way to do your own art project.

I will worry less and smile more.

I will not sign you up for more than one sport or activity at a time.  And that’s a good thing for you and us, you will see that later.

I will let you smear mud on your clothes and laugh about it – But yes, I will still make you take them off when you get inside.

I want you to be a bright, loving, respectful, happy, and responsible person so know that I will always instill our family’s love and values or discipline, even in the middle of a grocery store. And I promise not to worry about what other parents think.
My third child has transformed me into a more laid-back-parenting approach and I LOVE IT!.  I LOVE NOT HAVING 5 DIFFERENT SPORTS CLASSES TO RUSH OFF TO!!! I love the freedom of our weekend calendars.  I LOVE my house looking like now looking like Kaleidoscope instead of a fine art gallery!!!

To my friends, kids teachers, and Church family, please know that when I do say yes and commit to spending time with you, helping you, celebrating life with you … know that it will be with all the love that is in my heart because I am saying, “No” more.  It may be, “No” to you more often than before, but when I now commit to you, I commit with my fullest desire and heart. When I offer to come to your home at 10:00 pm the night before your child’s birthday party to help clean and assemble goody bags, I do it because I love you and you and your children are a top priority to me.  And I can now be a better friend to you because I am committing less to the rest of the world.

To one of my best friends:  Thank you for lining all of your walls with your children’s artwork. Thank you for allowing your children to be happy, healthy, and displaying their creativity all over your home. Thank you for showing me how to allow my children to be who they are.   Thank you for caring for my children last-minute when I have a doctor’s appointment or need to run an errand. Thank you for caring for my children like they are your own.  And thank you for displaying my children’s artwork as proudly in your home as you do with your own.  I thank you for showing me that I am a much happier parent when I spend time with my children first and worry about picking up last.  You have inspired me and should say, “You’re welcome!” instead of “I’m sorry I didn’t pick up.” next time I pop by unannounced.

Right now, instead of editing and proof-reading this article, I am off to pick dandelion bouquets with my girls.  I promised I would work a few hours this morning and then ignore my emails for the rest of the weekend. I have girls that are running around laughing, making dandelion pies, playing with worms, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it!  And if you drop by my house right now, I will not apologize for it looking like a mess.  I will invite you to explore, have fun, and make a mud pie with us.

Jamie Goodwin is a homeschooling mom of three. She has a Bachelor of Arts in child psychology and publishes Northland Kansas City Macaroni Kid.  She lives in Kansas City, MO with her husband in their home full of kids, animals, lots of love, and of course, toys on the floor. You can follow her daily journey of dandelion pies and mommy aha moments on Instagram @life.on.serene.ave







Beyond The Makeup Aisle

Beyond The Makeup Aisle

little girl painting lips while wearing hair-rollers and bathrobe

By Marie Holmes

At the drugstore, I usually have both of my children in tow, and they usually run straight for the toys, followed by the candy. But today it’s just me and my two-year-old daughter, and the first thing she sees are gleaming rows of nail polish: pink and peach, red and purple and even blue. An entire rainbow, right there at the level of her gaze. She turns and finds the lipsticks, and then the eye shadows. She grabs one bottle, then a compact, and another, focusing intently in order to hold each of the small, shimmering items in her chubby little fingers. She is entranced.

I shouldn’t be surprised. I may now be a thirty-five year old married lesbian whose beauty routine consists of sunscreen and chapstick, but, for a long time—for my whole childhood—no one would’ve seen that coming. Just like my daughter, I was once enthralled by all things shiny, sparkling and pink. I can still feel the residual twinge of an urge to push bottles of nail polish between my fingers, comparing shades.

My daughter soon collects more items than she can carry, and weighs each one, turning it in the light, trying to decide which glimmering package to set aside. She could go on with this for an hour, I realize, wishing I had thought to bring a book with me.

Instead, I think of all the hours I spent in the aisles of the Payless drug store. It was the one of the few places that I could walk to by myself, at age twelve. I knew all the make-up lines, cheapest to priciest. I tested colors and textures on the back of my hand. Over time, I amassed a cornucopia of beauty products. The adult in me wants to reach back in time and shake that child, to tell her that she doesn’t need any makeup to discover who she is, to beg her to instead go read a book, climb a tree, do something of real value with all those hours of leisure.

My feet shift in the aisle next to my daughter. Inside of me, somewhere, is still that restless girl, chasing anything that shone with the promise of a brighter life.

Starting in the sixth grade, I wore full make-up: foundation, concealer, blush, eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick. Were the other girls doing it, too? I wonder, now, that none of my teachers said anything, that my parents weren’t alarmed. Or perhaps they were, and just couldn’t find a way to tell me.

I can’t imagine allowing my daughter to wear make-up. Not at two or twelve or twenty. But her single-mindedness is already more than apparent, and I can all-too-easily imagine the losing battle of trying to stop her. Perhaps it was wise of my mother not to mention my make-up. Maybe if she had said something I would’ve just worn more.

I knew that make-up attracted attention, and as a young adolescent, attention is what I wanted. Or at least what I thought I wanted. Sometimes it was thrilling and sometimes it was frightening, with the line between the two entirely blurred. Around age fifteen, I would say, I reached a peak in terms of people—older men, mostly—stopping me on the street to tell me I was beautiful. It was my eyes, they would say. It was the pinnacle, too, of my being sexually harassed. Groped at a party, grabbed by a stranger while walking to school. How much, he demanded. How much did I cost?

That was as far as it went. I was never assaulted, but that was simply a stroke of luck on my part.

Somewhere in my early twenties, I aged out of the cat calls, the creepy compliments, the seedy invitations. Right around the time I stopped looking like a teenager.

I think of that girl now as I examine the shining cardboard displays of bronzers and enhancers and plumpers. The models are so young. Closer to my daughter’s age than my own. And even the older women, actresses I recognize, have had their skin digitally softened to look like a child’s.

This is beauty, I think, as I learned it: teenagers made up as adult women, thinner and more beautiful than we adult women will ever be.

No one stops me on the street anymore. It’s not nostalgia, but there is the feeling of a missed opportunity. Because now I would have a comeback.

The compliment was never really about my eyes, or even my skill with the make-up. It was my youth. It was the same gangly, doe-eyed innocence of the cardboard display girls in these drugstore aisles, their skin baby-soft like my daughter’s.

I let her play with her shiny little bottles and tubes and compacts for a while, and then take her by the hand and lead her toward the toys—and eventually the laundry detergent, which is what we came for. Slowly, I distract her and take hold of one of her treasures, depositing blusher amidst the greeting cards, nail polish behind the discounted Easter candy. I don’t want her hanging out too much in this drugstore. Not now and not when she’s a teenager. I want her to pick up these things just once in a while, just for fun. I don’t want her to confuse the project of constructing her identity with the much smaller, optional task of making up her face.


Marie Holmes’ essays have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Refinery 29, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City with her family.



Remembering The Rotating Elephant

Remembering The Rotating Elephant

vector illustration of decorated elephant

By Kim O’Connell

On a bright afternoon not too long ago, I took my kids to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., a city that I’ve lived in or near my entire life. Although we’ve been there many times, the dinosaur bones and butterfly garden and mammal exhibits always draw us back. We especially enjoy seeing the giant African elephant that has been displayed in the museum’s rotunda for decades. As we gazed up at its famous uplifted trunk, I told the kids, “When I was little, the elephant turned on a rotating platform.”

They looked at me with raised eyebrows. “When did it stop spinning?” my son asked. Unsure of the answer, I went over to the information kiosk, staffed by a white-haired gentleman who looked seasoned enough to know.

“Excuse me,” I said, “when did the elephant stop rotating?”

The man looked at me quizzically. “This elephant has never rotated.”

“No,” I countered, “I distinctly remember it rotating when I was a child.”

“Nope. Don’t think so.”

I was annoyed that a docent could be so ill-informed. You see, it’s not just that I have a vague recollection that the elephant rotated; I have vivid, specific memories. All of them, I realize, involve my father. My parents split up when I was 7 years old, a moment that forever cleaved away the early part of my childhood. In the way of the newly divorced, my father compensated by frequently taking me to special places on his court-ordered every-other-weekends—the circus, the ballet, the zoo, and the natural history museum. With my small hand in his, I remember standing at the base of the Smithsonian elephant and watching it slowly move, almost imperceptibly, like the shadow of a sundial. I remember it facing a different direction every time I walked back into the rotunda. I remember the way the elephant seemed to spot me out of the corner of its eye as it came around again. There was no way I could be wrong.

When the kids and I got home from the museum, I crowdsourced a query on Facebook: Did anyone else remember the Smithsonian elephant rotating? The answers poured in: No spinning elephant. (However, some people remembered the creature as a woolly mammoth, so I’m not alone in my delusions.) Still unconvinced, I finally tweeted the question to the Smithsonian itself, which responded unequivocally: @kim_oconnell We’ve checked…and the elephant never rotated.

I was, frankly, crushed. I began to wonder whether all my other childhood memories were suspect, too. Had I really almost drowned in a motel pool in Beach Haven, New Jersey, until my father swam up and saved me? Did we really keep a box turtle in our kitchen for a week after my dad found it on a bike trail? Had my third grade teacher really taken me out for cherry ice cream after she testified in my parents’ custody trial? Or was it all like the rotating elephant, a figment of my imagination?

I may never know the answer. Among other things, my father is now gone, so I can’t ask him, and even if I could, chances are his memory would be just as faulty as mine. Scientists have studied the phenomenon of false memories for years, and the unreliability of memory has come up in countless cases involving eyewitness testimony. Apparently, our memories are malleable because our brains are taking in so much information all the time, and our thoughts about our memories, as well as our hopes and dreams and other input, inform what we are filing away for future retrieval. Psychologists have asserted that some false childhood memories can even be useful to us, if they help to construct a positive narrative of one’s past.

This is how I’ve come to view the rotating elephant. Because my time with my father was so precious in those early days, my experiences with him were seared into my memory bank—or some version of them. Many times I have told the story about how a group of camera-toting tourists accosted my father and me outside the Kennedy Center in the 1970s, convinced that I was presidential daughter Amy Carter and my dad was a Secret Service agent. Did it really happen? Maybe. Or maybe just being there with my dad made me feel like we were something more special, together, than we ever were apart.

I hope that someday my kids will feel that way about me, even though our nuclear family—in contrast to the one I grew up in—is so stable, so easily taken for granted, that they aren’t likely to consider our outings all that precious. Still, like my father did before me, I like to take my kids to places like the Natural History museum, where they are forming their own memories of the elephant, fixed as it is on the museum floor. Maybe they find enough magic in its broad shoulders, its wide ears, and its sad eyes. Yet I can’t help but feel grateful to my younger self for conjuring up something even more enchanting—a gigantic elephant spinning, almost dancing, almost alive—to carry with me to adulthood, along with all the other real and manufactured memories that make up my life story. I’m not sure I’m ready to let it go, even now. And in my mind’s eye, at least, I don’t have to.

Kim O’Connell is a writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ladies Home Journal, Babble, PsychologyToday.com, National Geographic News, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. In 2015, she was chosen to be the first-ever writer in residence at Shenandoah National Park. She lives in Arlington, Va., with her husband, son, and daughter.



Milk and Cake

Milk and Cake

beauty child at the blackboard

By Sarah Bousquet

Last week it occurred to me, I’ve stopped counting my daughter’s age in months. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just tapered off, which I suppose is typical after age two. This morning I measured her height on the pantry door frame. She’s grown an entire inch since we last measured her on her birthday in January. Then I started counting days on the calendar and discovered her half-birthday is exactly halfway between her dad’s birthday and mine. I told her we’ll bake a half-birthday cake.

Her legs suddenly look so long. “She’s stretching out,” my mom says. That’s what it feels like too, stretching, both of us. Drifting from our perfect dyad, stretching toward autonomy. The evolution of nursing newborn to nursing toddler-the dramatic growth and change, the intimacy and beauty-is almost impossible to capture. From balled fists to dexterous hands. From curled toes to toddler feet flung in my face. It feels like only months ago I sat glassy-eyed and thirsty, nursing my newborn, so voracious, it felt like she was sucking milk from the bones of my back.

There is the magic of that transition from cut umbilical cord to latched breast; nine months of nourishment invisible, now suddenly right before your eyes. And you see how perfect the design. For us, breastfeeding was that easy. Instant and harmonious. Nursing my baby evolved almost as unconsciously as my heart pumping blood.

The triumph of a body doing what a body does was packed with meaning. After nearly three years of struggling to conceive, I became pregnant naturally, much to my surprise and elation. For months and then years I had worried, wondered, researched—why wasn’t my body working? My pregnancy was an answered prayer, but one fraught with anxiety. The act of breastfeeding, just moments after giving birth, my daughter’s perfect latch, allowed me to see my body in action. It was the assurance I was providing everything she needed, the empowerment of a body at work.

When my daughter was six months old, a hyper clarity bloomed. I would listen to conversations, observe the behavior of others, and have sudden insights, new depths of understanding. I remember saying to my husband, “It’s the strangest thing, I feel like I can almost see right through people.” I called them popcorn epiphanies, these realizations that came in quick succession like kernels popping in the pot. I tried to write a few down, but they felt indescribable and came too quickly.  The lactating brain is plastic and creative; new neurochemical pathways are forged during the process of breastfeeding. I felt the changes in myself as surely as I saw the changes in my daughter. As she awakened to the world around her, taking in sights and sounds, babbling and laughing, intelligent eyes holding my gaze, I too became more alert and aware, both of us growing together.

I more often use the term nursing, which feels all-encompassing and true. Because breastfeeding is about much more than nourishment. It is medicine, comfort, bonding, security. You have only to nurse a toddler who has just finished a breakfast of banana pancakes to understand that nursing is pure contentment. Pure peace.

And sometimes pure hilarity. When she’s in her father’s arms calling out, “Goodnight, Mommy! Goodnight, milks!” When she charms and cajoles, “How about milks on the couch? Sound like a plan?” Or when I step out of the shower, and she’s there handing me a towel, her face so full of glee, calling out, “My milks! My milks!” Such celebration of my body. Such love.

I’ve been reflecting as it begins to taper. I’d never set any specific goals around nursing, no timelines or numbers. I have followed my baby’s cues and my body’s cues. And I will follow that wisdom into the next phase, as we grow together, celebrating the glittering increments, marking the door frame, baking half-birthday cakes.

Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.


Tennis With The Man Boy

Tennis With The Man Boy

Tennis original hand drawn collection

By Vic Sizemore

I am playing summer tennis at Peaks View Park in the midday sun. Sweat runs inside my sunglasses, makes them slippery on my nose. My deodorant is beginning to fail and at certain swings of my racket, I catch of whiff of my stinking animal body. I take my time between volleys to get myself back to the baseline. Though I am the better player, he is several inches taller than I am, young and in better shape. He just dropped one over the net and I almost tripped trying to reach it in time. My knee and hip both ache from the jarring attempt.

The side parking lot has a steady flow of college kids here for disc golf. A boy smokes weed at his open trunk. A girl pulls up beside him. They gather their discs and head over the hillside toward the course.

I take him to deuce three times. Back at ad out, he slides a serve down the line and I swat it into the net. As we switch courts, I hold my racket out flat and he lays three Wilson balls on it.

I stuff all three balls into my right front pocket and lean my racket into the net. We both swig from our water bottles and rub the icy condensation on our faces. I take off my sunglasses and dry my face with my shirt. The man who just beat me is my son. Just through his first year of college, he is home for the summer. He takes a long swig of water and gazes out over the park.

While he is not looking, I size him up. Tall, lean but broad shouldered. Strong. In that moment, a memory hits me. I am racing my ex-wife J from West Union, Ohio to the hospital in Maysville, Kentucky, where the doctor on call, a stranger to us both, worked his rubber-gloved fingers in and out of her.

“He’s breached,” the doctor said, and he mashed and kneaded J’s stomach with such rough force, I worried he would injure the baby, who nevertheless stayed breached. They prepped J in a rush and performed an emergency C-section. I sat by her head and watched the procedure in the mirror above. The smell of singed flesh rose into the room as the hot scalpel cauterized the wound as it cut. The fatty tissue inside J’s split stomach was shockingly white.

A nurse spread the incision apart with a shiny steel tool, and the doctor pushed the fingers of both hands into the cavity of J’s torso and pulled out a red baby boy. His head was round, not squeezed into the shape of a banana by the birth canal, dark hair slimed down flat.

“You okay, dad?” a nurse said. “Do you need to sit down?”

“I’m okay,” I answered, staring at this creature.

Another nurse, on the other side, said, “You want to cut the umbilical cord, dad?”

I took the snips from her and cut the cord, purple and shiny as wet plastic.

The nurses immediately swept the boy off to the pediatrician’s table under a warming light, and the doctor immediately went to work stitching J back together.

“Dad,” a nurse said, “do you want to meet your son?”

On the table, the boy’s body folded itself back in half, as it was in the womb, heels to ears, no bigger than a bag of flour. His purple scrotum was swollen, full and tight as a new Hacky Sack. The warming light was hot on my forearm as I greeted him. He turned, squinted up at me, intense, confused.

As the memory flashes through my mind, the intervening nineteen years collapse on me,  into this impossibly brief instant. This might be his last summer home, who knows. I want to grab him in a hug but I don’t.

Instead I walk to my baseline and say, “I’m going to play for real this time.”

He chuckles, nods, and spins his racket in front of him.
Vic Sizemore’s fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Eclectica, Sou’wester, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes. Sizemore teaches creative writing at Central Virginia Community College.

illustration © bioraven







What We Learned About Parenting At Starbucks

What We Learned About Parenting At Starbucks

Amsterdam, Netherlands - JUNE 08, 2011: Starbucks coffee logo in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on June 08, 2011 in Netherlands. Starbucks Corporation is an American global coffee company and coffeehouse chain based in Seattle, Washington

By Kathryn Streeter

When our son was 4, he fell in love. The object of his affection was voluptuous—far too old for him. He saw her constantly. She had long flowing hair and intense eyes. He called her his “little love.” The crown she wore lent an air of power while sleek fins encircling her projected steady but enticing mystery.

The fact that our son was smitten by the Starbucks Mermaid was our fault.

One of our oldest family traditions is spending Saturday mornings at the local coffee shop. Started long before kids came along, this easy-going tradition was a sweet opening to weekends. We didn’t have a lot of money and the coffee shop fit our wallet. Wherever we lived, we targeted the local, indie or chain, just as long as we could reach it by foot. Whether sunny and blistering hot, wintry and blowing icy winds, we’d wake up and sleepily trudge towards the coffee shop hand in hand.

When we started having kids, going out for coffee each Saturday morning was a tradition we were determined to continue. We selfishly coveted this entrée into the weekend as a young couple and didn’t want kids to change this beloved routine.

Looking back, it was inevitable that our son’s first love would be the Starbucks logo. At our Washington, DC neighborhood Starbucks, we’d wolf down our weekly dark-roast coffee and cinnamon scone with our baby son and his slightly older sister in tow. It was exhausting. No longer a peaceful, relaxing way to begin the weekend, our treasured tradition had been turned upside-down. It would have been easy to let this tradition die with the arrival of kids.

Yet, we persisted, trying to roll with the times.

When the kids morphed into fidgety toddlers, we’d pull out toys. We started talking about what restaurant manners looked like because coffee shops offered a forgiving environment in which to begin these lessons

As they grew, we adapted, stashing coloring books and crayons, drawing paper for doodling, designing mazes or gradually, for hangman tournaments. We would pair up, one parent, one kid and go the distance, watching our little ones work with letters and spelling.

Once, R-E-C-Y-C-L-E was the word that stumped the boys’ team, handing them a loss. I remember this hangman tournament well because by then, we had moved to Dubai on short-term assignment, where recycling was very much a cultural afterthought. After consulting with my daughter, we decided “recycle” was apropos for the championship round.

“Dad, think harder!” our 7-year-old son pleaded.

Time passed and the kids grew. Their tastes changed, resulting in them branching out, trying new items on the menu. Previously, they had faithfully ordered chocolate chip cookies because they knew that on Saturday mornings, we lifted parental law regarding what made for an appropriate breakfast.

“It’s up to you. One thing. You decide.”

As they grew older, they took to dabbling:


A cinnamon roll, please.

Izze soda, please.

Pumpkin-bread, please.

A hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream, please.

A vanilla latte, please.

A yogurt parfait, please.

An egg-sausage breakfast sandwich, please.

A macchiato, please.

An Americano, please.

Time sped by and one Saturday we suddenly realized that the day we had been pining for had arrived: we were having conversations with our kids. We realized we could actually finish our sentences without meltdowns, outbreaks, or an impatient, is it time to go yet?  They answered in fully formed sentences with increasing thoughtfulness, making eye contact. In fact, we were experiencing intentional, meaningful time together regardless of the topic of conversation.

Sometimes we’d just chill and review the week. Sometimes we’d address what we needed to accomplish that day. Sometimes we’d talk current events and big ideas. Sometimes we’d have a rare moment when our blooming tweens needed to really talk, letting us into their world. Away from the distractions of the home, there was more space.

This basic tradition was mercifully adaptable, able to accommodate the various seasons of family life. As our family moved around from Dubai to London, Indianapolis to Austin, this tradition followed us, so easily transferable into new surroundings.

An old friend, this was a tradition we came to count on, a comfort during often painful adjustments.

Yet, from its infancy, the core point of this family tradition—to hang out, celebrate and support each other—remained unchanged. With amazement, I watched as we grew closer to our kids through our steady and persistent Saturday habit. We intentionally had built a routine which had serendipitously brought ease to our parent-child relationships. Additionally, our kids had grown close as siblings.

Now in high school, coffee on Saturday mornings starts much later, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all because teens need their sleep. And that is ok. There’s no question good things are happening because the kids will often text us, asking to meet up after school for coffee. Or for family happy hour where dad orders a beer, mom orders a glass of red wine and kids suck down soda, another form of caffeine. By this we know that our kids are choosing to hang out. Talk. Laugh.

There’s an element of trust. They know we’re not going to ask for deep conversation in exchange for buying them a coke. Our little inexpensive outings—whether coffee or happy hour—are going to be whatever they end up being, no strings attached. Together, just hanging out as a little family.

Could it be that this tradition is in part responsible for the young adults I now see sitting across from me at Starbucks discussing the current presidential campaign?

We all want close family relationships. We all hope for strong relationships with our teens. Yet, if not careful, we can find ourselves going from day to day, week to week, living under the same roof but in every way disconnected from one another. Is it possible that intentionally putting everything aside to walk to the coffee shop together is also a path toward stronger family relationships?

I realize now that this simple tradition of hitting the coffee shop each week started something in motion long ago. Though I’m still trying to appreciate its fullness, its richness, its direct contribution to building the relationships we have today with our young adults, I’m thankful. Starting with Starbucks, this coffee shop routine helped our kids want to be with us—their parents. And that’s no small thing.

Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including Literary Mama, Story|Houston, Scary Mommy, Mamalode and The Briar Cliff Review. Her essay is included in the best selling anthology “Feisty After 45.” Connect with Kathryn on her website, Twitter @streeterkathryn and Instagram @kathrynstreeter.



Mom I Need A Ride

Mom I Need A Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing Makes Me Feel Better About My Parenting Flaws Then Remembering My Mom’s

Nothing Makes Me Feel Better About My Parenting Flaws Then Remembering My Mom’s


By Lisa Goodman-Helfand

When I want to feel better about my parenting blunders, I need only to reflect on my own mother’s flawed judgment when raising me. By today’s standards, my mom would be accused of child endangerment.  I’m not referring to the typical parenting practices all moms in the 70s and 80s considered “safe.” Like many Gen-Exers, I walked to school alone at age 5, rarely wore a seatbelt, and was cared for by questionable babysitters. No, I’m talking potentially fatal errors in parenting. There’s an endless supply of examples, but I’ll stick with an automotive theme to illustrate my point.

I have fond memories of my grandfather hoisting my sister and me on top of his station wagon, and then getting in the driver’s seat shouting, “Hang on tight to the rails!” He drove us around the neighborhood like a pair of mattresses fastened atop the car, only we weren’t strapped to anything. We proudly waved at pedestrians, bikers, and other drivers (so much for holding on tight). Can you imagine doing something like that today? The authorities would be notified faster than my sister and I could have splattered onto concrete.

We also took turns sitting on my grandpa’s lap and steering while he worked the pedals. My mom would stand at the curb smiling and waving as we drove loops around the block. One could argue that plenty of 4-year-olds in the 70s took driving lessons and were considered more dispensable than a mattress, but I’m just getting warmed up.

When I was 6, our old Pontiac had a hole in the floor. And it wasn’t a tiny hole either. It was a gaping tear that fully revealed the road beneath me in the driver’s side backseat. Nothing stood between my dangling feet and the open road. I could have easily pulled a Fred Flinstone and been flattened by our hunk-of-junk. Luckily, my mom warned me to, “Sit safely on your knees with your legs under your butt!”

We finally got a “new-old” car when I was 8. This time it was a red Chevy that was safe enough to chauffeur the Pope in, at least compared to our previous clunker. That is until my mom accidentally hit a brick pillar and the back passenger side door caved in. From that point forward we could not enter or exit from that side of the car. Later on, that same car’s seat fabric got torn, leaving a large portion of the wire piping exposed. Why on earth my mom never duct-taped that sucker down remains a mystery to this day. Every time someone sat in that spot of the back seat, the wire would snag their pants, or worse, their nude nylons, and often resulted in blood shed. My sister has a scar on her thigh to remind her of those delightful joy rides. It’s a good thing the wire protruded on the side of the car where the door had been smashed, so we rarely sat there.

When I was in high school, we got another “old-new” car. It was a poop brown Oldsmobile that drove okay for a while until the fabric on the roof of the interior began to sag. Soon, the drooping material became a hazardous obstruction. Since safety first was our family motto, my mom cut the whole interior part of the roof off with a scissors. It was smooth sailing until the heat broke. Chicago winters and no heat is a bad mix, yet we went an entire frigid season without getting it fixed.

By my senior year in college, I used money I had been squirreling away for years and purchased my very own “new-old” car. I needed a safe, reliable car to get me back and forth from my student-teaching assignment. What could be safer than a used, rusty, powder blue Chevy station wagon? The car drove like a dream except for when it died at every red light. Approaching intersections would induce a panic attack, so I stuck to highways as often as possible.

I spent my formative years being mortified by our junkyard cars. I must have been an unusually dense child, because I never realized my mom couldn’t afford anything better. I didn’t know it then, but for several years after my parents divorced, we lived below the poverty line. My mom worked her butt off to fulfill our basic needs. We showed our appreciation by continuously whining and complaining about our embarrassing cars and lack of other material possessions. The truth is, my mom was doing the best she could under very difficult circumstances. Isn’t that the definition of a great parent? If it isn’t, I think it should be.

Only as an adult and a mother myself can I understand the sacrifices my mom made. In the end, my sister became a doctor and I became a teacher, all thanks to my mother’s dedication to getting us the best possible education. After a year of teaching, I traded in my old Chevy station wagon for a spanking new red 1997 Ford Escort with cloth interior, manual windows and door locks, and… wait for it… AM and FM radio (I know, I know, it was a major splurge).  To me, it felt like I was driving around in a Maserati.

Lisa Goodman-Helfand is a freelance writer and professional speaker living near Chicago. Her memoir, Does This Hospital Gown Come With Sequinsand blog, Comfortable in My Thick Skin, explore parenting, body image, and overcoming obstacles with humor. Connect with Lisa on her blog or on Facebook.





Disbelief, Suspended

Disbelief, Suspended

images-4By Kelly Garriott Waite

Evenings, just prior to giving each of the three door handles (one front, two back) a final twist and firm tug, to reassure myself that the deadbolts were engaged, I would unplug the coffee pot. As I slipped into bed, my mind would flash with what ifs and are you sures, images of fires and robbers swirling around my head. In order to relieve my brain, I would repeat this procedure, tiptoeing down the stairs so as not to disturb my parents who’d since gone to their room to read and, for my father, to smoke the night’s last cigarette. I’d hear the click as Dad flipped open his silver lighter, hear him thumb the spark wheel against flint. I’d get a hint of butane and know from the faintest sound of burning the precise instant when the end of Dad’s cigarette caught.

Sometimes – not often, for I had learned to be silent – Dad called out after he snapped the lighter shut and inhaled deeply. What was I doing out of bed? I would claim I needed a glass of water, in the kitchen going through the motions of turning on the faucet, the running water blanketing the sound of my checking the back doors one more (quietly twisting, quietly tugging – already I knew that there was something unacceptable about my behavior) before giving the coffee pot plug a glance. Often this wasn’t enough. I would have to pass a hand directly in front of the outlet: Perhaps there was an invisible connection between plug and socket that my eyes had not seen.

After, I would sneak into the den and grab my father’s overflowing ashtray, take it to the kitchen, and turn the faucet on again, watching the cigarettes bob in the rising water. Just before heading up the stairs, I’d give the front door another check, just in case.

Back in bed, I hoped to fall asleep quickly so that my mind wouldn’t force me downstairs before breakfast. If I did have to rise again, my checking turned violent: I would yank each of the door handles and wave the plug before my eyes. Sometimes I would run my thumb against the prongs, stab them against my hand. Here was visual, tangible proof that the coffee pot was unplugged, although sometimes even that wasn’t enough to make me believe.

Growing up, I was uncertain about religion: My mother was Catholic, my father a lapsed Protestant. My sisters and I were raised with a foot in each tradition, a situation that left me divided and confused. But I did learn to pray. At night, I’d repeat Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an awful prayer – die before I wake? – probably taught to me by well-meaning Sunday School teachers. I prayed as well that the house wouldn’t burn; that the robbers wouldn’t come; that my mind would detach itself from its ever-present worrying. Then I would blink up at the dark ceiling, thinking about the endless black wave I imagined eternity to be.


Shortly after my brother’s birth, my mother nearly died. For days after she’d returned home, somewhat slimmer and with a squalling infant on her arm, Mom complained of a neck ache. The slightest breeze sent her into spasms of pain. She spent hours in our living room, resting her head upon the green card table normally reserved for bridge night. My sisters and I learned to tiptoe. We learned to whisper. We learned how to help care for an infant. I remember watching The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams on television, holding a bottle to my brother’s mouth. As I lifted him to my shoulder to pat his tiny back, my mother turned her head to look at me: You’re going to make a good mother someday.

In the evening of the day that my mother nearly died, my father gathered my sisters and me around him on the couch in the family room while my brother slept blissfully unaware in his bassinet. We almost lost her today. My father swiped at his eyes. It was – and is – the only time I can recall seeing him cry.


Before I turned twelve, I’d convinced myself I had breast cancer, mistaking normally-developing tissue for a lump. I stole the Better Homes & Gardens Family Medical Guide from the den’s bookshelves, reading, under Concerns of Women, about my surgical options. Later, I flipped through my sister’s biology textbook. It showed a breast in the late stages of cancer. For years, I believed I was ill, but I told no one, of course, imagining my slow demise, the horrible disfigurement of my breast eaten away by cancer, and the goodbye note I would write and clutch in my dying hands: I knew it all along. I consoled myself, thanks to Billy Joel, that if I must die young, at least I knew that I was good and so would go to heaven. For years I carried around the fear of breast cancer until it suddenly dawned on me that if I had had the disease, it would have killed me by now.

Every other week, Dad would drop my sisters and me off at the Hilltop Christian Church where we attended Sunday school and then church on our own. I remember newsprint paper and broken crayons. I remember the teacher’s cheeks tinged with pink when she got to the seventh commandment. That’s for adults, she said.

On alternate Sundays, my sisters and I attended St. Joseph Catholic Church with our mother. This, of course, was not church. It was Mass. And the priest (not the minister, nor the pastor) didn’t give a sermon. That long mind-wandering period during which a man stood rambling at the front of the church was called a homily. I remember cushioned kneelers covered in red vinyl. I remember missals with thin yellowed pages. I remember incense and holy water and colorful light slanting through stained glass windows, tinting my legs blue and red, yellow and orang.


After deciding our house was too small for the six of us, my parents bought forty acres of land. We cut down trees and hauled brush. We stacked logs and peed behind the tool shed while our house was being built. We celebrated small victories with takeout chicken dinners, sitting on the plywood floor of the future kitchen of our future home. We worked the land. We made a farm.

We planted a massive garden, too much food for our family to consume: peas, carrots, zucchini and green beans. My mother learned to make strawberry jam, her daughters stirring the pot with a long-handled wooden spoon, hoping to avoid the inevitable splatters. We baled hay. We rode horses. We kept cows and pigs and chickens, whose shit-littered eggs we stole from beneath their warm white breasts every morning.

We walked in the woods, easily jumping across Silver Creek to explore the junk pile, until the beavers moved in, dammed the creek, and made a home of their own.

For a time, my sisters and I exclusively attended a local Disciples of Christ church, my mother having fallen away from the faith of her birth. But after a time, we, too, divorced ourselves from religion. Work and nature had become our altar.


Obsessions don’t just disappear. They metastasize. As soon as my cancer worry was under control, a new fixation began to torment me: Before getting out of bed, I promised myself I wouldn’t overeat that day. But I always did, had already imagined, while still beneath the covers, what I would eat first. A breakfast of sugared cereal, topped with creamy Jif peanut butter and Half and Half, eaten, of course, in secrecy, was immediately followed by a snack: More peanut butter, smeared so thickly on a piece of toast that I could see the imprint of my two front teeth where I’d bitten. I would eat without tasting: A dozen Pop-Tarts, whose empty boxes I would hide until I could safely get rid of the evidence; candy bars from the video store where I worked – I ate so many in a day that I lost track and would stuff the cash register with a handful of singles and hope it was enough; the ten-pound block of Nestlé chocolate my mother kept in the pantry for baking, from which I would hack away hunks with an orange-handled ice pick. After cramming myself with thousands of calories, I was full of shame.

I tracked my food intake, the day’s list always beginning with promise: Puffed Wheat with milk, plum, tea, glasses water, 4. Then cookies, 2 appeared on my list, which suddenly came to an abrupt end. A squiggle appeared across the leftover portion of the day’s page, accompanied by the damning word: binge.

I tracked my measurements, tracked my exercises: jogged 10 minutes with weights on trampoline; 100 jumping jacks; 107 jump rope (not straight). I promised myself a subscription to Shape Magazine, even Glamour if I could reach 125 pounds. I regularly wrote in my journal that I would be totally happy if I were thin, yet happiness eluded me.

I discovered that with Chocolate Ex-Lax, I could eat as much as I wanted and lose weight. I discovered that cigarettes could curb my appetite. I started cooking gourmet dinners for my family and internally criticized them for so openly enjoying food.

Food became my religion. Shame my constant companion.


After eight years of farming, my sisters and I gradually lost interest. We sought boyfriends. Independence. Cars. Whenever I drove home from work, or school, or shopping, I’d have to double back to where I’d just been, so certain was I that I’d run someone over. As the miles passed beneath my tires, I’d check the rear view mirror, picturing body parts strewn about, people standing in the street, hands pressed to cheeks, round mouths around horrible screams. A mile would pass. Two. Five. Even ten. My mind, in this mode, was ungrounded, like a bratty toddler having one hell of a temper tantrum, wailing and kicking the ground, demanding that it got its way. Eventually, I would give in to it, turning around in someone’s driveway, my mind circling as I scanned the road for signs of trauma that I knew I’d never find. Through the windshield, I resentfully watched pedestrians going about their business, jogging, shopping, eating ice cream cones. How could they behave so normally when inside I was falling to pieces?

I kept silent about my driving obsession. There was no easy way to bring it up: Sorry I’m late. I thought I ran somebody over. And there wasn’t a lump. There was no fever. There was, in short, nothing tangible to offer up as proof. Having nothing to poke or prod, nothing to press down upon, I certainly could not be ill.

Eventually, I learned to reason my way out of this driving issue, in the same way I’d reasoned my way out of my cancer fear: I forced myself to drive further…further…further, my mind screaming all the while: Stop!Turnthecararound!Danger! My hands shook. My eyes watered as ten miles stretched to fifteen, then twenty. But then, my stomach would fill with the heavy knowing that the irrational side of my mind was about to take over. I was frustrated and angry and so sick of myself and my stupid life.

Yet I learned to fight back, telling myself that I had not heard a thump or a scream, that I had not felt a lump beneath my tires. I promised myself that I would watch the evening news and if there had been a report of a hit and run, I would surrender myself to the authorities.


Before marrying, I told my future husband I would convert to Catholicism. Religion was important to him. I was kind of half-Catholic anyway, I reasoned, even if I hadn’t been to church in years. I wanted our future children to have one faith. I wanted us to attend church as a family.

At the Easter Vigil, after months of Tuesday night lessons, I was baptized and confirmed and received the Holy Eucharist for the first time, according to the Catholic Church, although my mother had baptized me at home and I’d taken the bread and wine regularly with the Protestants.

My husband and I bought an eighty-year-old house for seventy-nine thousand dollars. Three tiny bedrooms upstairs. One small bathroom. A living room with a hole in the floor and a hideous brown fireplace. There was a dining room with a built-in bench and fabric wall paper. A kitchen with bright yellow tiles, easily dislodged by an incautious tread.


After the birth of my eldest, I thought I had schizophrenia. While my colicky newborn screamed every day from 3 until 6, I put her in her stroller and wheeled her endlessly around the dining room table or sat on the built-in bench, holding her close, praying that she would stop screaming, just for a moment. One day, a clear voice whispered to me: Kill her.

I hadn’t heard of postpartum depression, still wasn’t clear on how to handle my obsessions. I told no one but my husband. I thought that if I sought professional help, my daughter would be taken away from me forever. But I should have remembered the intrusive thoughts I’d had for years.

Sometimes a voice would tell me to drive up on the sidewalk into a crowd of people. I’d grip the steering wheel tightly, press on the brakes, fight the voice inside my head. Sometimes I’d look at a complete stranger, just a sideways glance, and a thought would fill my head: He deserves to go to hell. It didn’t matter if the person was man or woman, child or adult, black or white. My mind chose random targets to mentally condemn. I was a horrible person. I was a sinner. I deserved go to go hell. No they deserved to go to hell. No, I…Back and forth, my rational mind would argue with its irrational partner until my brain felt as if it would explode. But to have such thoughts about my child…I promised myself I’d commit suicide before I harmed my daughter.

I didn’t know the Catholic Church’s stance on this action, killing oneself to avoid harming another. I didn’t care. I would gladly burn in hell to save this infant.


Before my daughters — by now we had two — could get up from their morning naps, I would sweep the floors of the entire house, afraid, if I didn’t, that the girls would get lead poisoning. When I ended in the kitchen, thinking about a cup of coffee and a few moments of reading, I’d tell myself I’d missed a spot and would have to head back upstairs to restart the process. Again and again, while my children slept, I swept those floors, hating myself, hating my brain, wishing for once in my Goddamn life to be a normal human being.

I used to throw away entire meals, so convinced was I that I’d somehow contaminated it with shards of glass or a splash of bleach.

I used to take my daughters’ temperatures. Every. Single. Night.

My husband and I enrolled our daughters in Catholic school at the very church I had attended with my mother and sisters. I continued to wrestle with my new set of beliefs. I confess I have sometimes wondered whether the words of a prophet were actually spoken by a madman, if an angel’s visitation was actually a hallucination.


After we tucked her into bed, my older daughter slipped into the bathroom to wipe down the toilet seat with a tissue. If she didn’t, she knew that a mean man would come through her bedroom window. Every night, she would rid her room of pointy objects and frightening books. She would call down the stairs: Will I be all right? Will anything bad happen? Are the doors locked?

My daughter dealt with her obsessions by constantly seeking reassurances. I gave her what she wanted: A mean man isn’t coming. You’re not having a heart attack.

For a while she was content with this response. Then the obsessions began demanding more. After each reassurance, she sought proof: How do you know?

I just do, I told her. It’s like faith. My own faith was on shaky ground. But still, I told her this. I offered her faith to give her some sort of hope when life felt hopeless.


Before she was in kindergarten, my younger daughter began confessing things: I stuck my middle finger up, which she immediately chased with, Well, I might have. I’m not sure. Later, she developed a strange noise, a high-pitched snort, which she would deploy with regularity. A tic of sorts, my husband and I figured.

Eventually the tic disappeared. My daughter stopped making her confessions. My husband and I concluded that she’d outgrown whatever it was that had been troubling her. We didn’t then know she’d learned to be silent, too.

Because I didn’t tell my daughters I suffered from mental disorders. I told myself that my obsessive behaviors stemmed from growing up in an alcoholic home; that the girls were too young to understand; that if I kept silent, if I didn’t name it, mental illness would bypass them. I told myself, too, I was a bad mother. Sometimes–often–I still do.

Faith and OCD. Both powerful. Both mysteries, one of the brain, the other of the soul.


Obsessions are a set of rules for behavior, different for each person: for me, checking the coffee pot, for one daughter, wiping down the toilet, for the other, making confessions. These rules represent an attempt to gain control over our uncontrollable, uncertain world. Christianity, I’d been taught, also has rules which, if we follow, increase our chances of getting to heaven. Life doesn’t actually end when we die.

But reaching that security requires two different paths. The best way for me to work through obsessions was to learn to apply my rational brain to them. I had to look for proof, or lack thereof: Had I heard a thump? No. A scream? No. Had my tires lifted off the ground? No. Only then could I conclude that I’d probably not run anyone over. Faith, however, required suspension of rational brain: I couldn’t see Jesus in the disk cradled in my palm, didn’t see a flash from the sky as He came down from heaven, but I had to accept that He was there. It was a mystery. There could be no proof.

Obsessions and faith and rationality and mystery and those damned intrusive thoughts that grip the brain. Perhaps, like faith, obsessions require a person to go beyond mere rationalizing. Perhaps both faith and OCD require a person to accept the unknowns, without reassurances; without certainties. Will the house catch on fire? Probably not, but a definite possibility. Does God exist? I can offer no proof. And yet, there is always hope.

Now, when I leave Starbucks where I’ve been writing, I have to return to my table to see if I’ve left anything behind: my computer, my notes, the cell phone I know is in the pocket of my jeans. Clearly, I have not exorcized my obsessions. But their grip has lessened somewhat: I don’t unplug the coffee pot before heading to bed. I no longer drive around the block to see if I’ve run someone over.

I used to hope to become the person I was before obsessions crowded my brain. But I am not certain she ever existed. Perhaps I have always been the person I have, for so many years, tried to escape. Perhaps I have always been the after person. And that’s OK. I have learned to accept the mystery that is my brain. I am learning not to be silent about my history of mental illness. Ever so slowly, I am learning how to speak.

Author’s Note: Six weeks ago my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died this morning. My dad passed on to me his love of hard work. Half of my faith. My respect for nature. He gave me his obsessions, too. The funny thing is, we never talked about it. He suffered in silence. I suffered in silence. Isn’t it time we all started talking?

Kelly Garriott Waite’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Globe and Mail, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She is currently writing about her search for the stories of both her great-grandfather, who immigrated from Russian-owned Poland, as well as the forgotten owner of her historical Ohio home, an English immigrant who married into a Native American family.

Things I Remember About My Childhood Home

Things I Remember About My Childhood Home

By Christine Juneau

1_AlligatorWe moved into the house where I grew up the summer I turned five. It was an English Tudor built in 1924 in the northern suburbs of Detroit, and my parents had bought it from the estate of its original owner, a widower who had allowed it to fall into a state of severe disrepair during his last years there. I didn’t then understand why my parents were so excited about this looming, dark place with its dirty peeling walls, piles of broken glass blanketed under thick layers of dust, cobwebs everywhere, and a horrible pea green kitchen. “For heaven’s sake, don’t touch anything,” my mother had said, throwing open the back kitchen door. “You girls go outside to play.” There my older sister Leslie and I discovered a magnificent backyard with sprawling lawns shaded by towering spruce trees, a fruit orchard, and an abandoned chicken coop. That summer before we moved in, my father spent evenings and weekends working alongside a group of workmen who somehow got everything fixed and cleaned up. When we finally did move in, one of the painters who lingered to touch things up told Leslie and me that he had found a dead alligator in the fruit cellar. For years I pictured this as the former owner’s dead pet, a hideous dark green creature about four feet long, with a full set of protruding teeth. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s browsing in a New Orleans Voo Doo shop staring at a pile of small crocodile skeletons that it dawned on me that the alligator in our basement was just a cheap souvenir.



Leslie and I shared a bedroom with matching twin beds that we jumped on like crazy to “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass until our mother shouted, “Stop that!” from somewhere downstairs, not because she was afraid that we might hurt ourselves, but because she didn’t want us to ruin the box springs. At night, after we were supposed to be asleep, we sent our baby dolls back and forth to each other in a shoebox we had rigged with kite string between our bedposts. My doll was a gift from my grandmother, given to me the day my mother went to the hospital to deliver my younger brother Stephen. I was two and a half. It was March and I named the doll Jingle Bells and washed her hair in a bowl of 7-Up causing some sort of chemical burn that made her acrylic hair stand straight up on end like a dish brush. “What on earth happened to Jingle Bells hair?” my mother had asked. “She was in a big wind.” I said.


3_Dress Up

Our house didn’t have a playroom or family room, so we spent a lot of time in our basement. There were almost as many rooms down there as there were in the rest of the house. It was always the perfect temperature — cool in summer and warm in winter. Other than the creepy fruit cellar and the occasional run in with a large spider or small mouse, it was a good place to play. On rainy days we built elaborate forts with old sheets or dressed up in costumes from a large trunk that had belonged to our great grandmother. She had abandoned our mom’s mother when she was ten to join the San Francisco Opera Company as its first soprano. “She just up and left in the middle of the night,” said my mother. “She might as well have run off to join the circus.” But somehow we had ended up with her things—heavily brocaded floor length dresses shimmering with iridescent threads, flowing ostrich feather boas, luxurious fur muffs and mink stoles with scrunched up faces at one end and tiny wrinkled feet with claws at the other—and they were wonderful!


4_Shameful room

As we we got older, our mother fell into the habit of communicating her grievances with us by leaving long handwritten notes taped to our door, the bathroom mirror, or on one of our beds. She would work herself into a slow boil over some minor infraction while we were at school and sit down with a sheet of loose leaf paper and really let us have it. These notes often started something like this: “Girls, Your room is SHAMEFUL! It is disgusting to me.” She always included a lengthy and detailed list of every last thing she had been doing to ensure that ours was a privileged life. Sometimes we would take the note down, go into our room and disintegrate into laughter, poring through it line by line, reading it aloud to each other until we had exhausted ourselves in amusement. Other times we left the note taped to the door untouched and pretended we hadn’t bothered to read it, a strategy that proved equally effective in exasperating her to no end.




5_Waldorf Salad

Leslie and I once enraged my mother to the point that she threw a salad at us. Actually, she threw the salad at Leslie, but that’s only because I had already been instructed to go to my room. I was on my way up the stairs with a perfect view through the open door into the kitchen to see the glob of Waldorf salad rocket by Leslie’s right ear, its neatly cut chunks of apple, celery, and walnuts all carefully folded together with two large scoops of Miracle Whip bonding the mass in flight until it went “splat” on the wall behind her.   “No one wants to eat salad that you girls have been picking at with your dirty fingers,” said my mother as her first warning. What sent her over the edge, however, was not that we had picked at the salad with our fingers, but that we had picked out every last one of the exorbitantly priced seedless red grapes that were her favorite part of the recipe.



Towards the back of our property, we had a large unfenced vegetable garden with everything from hearty, mature asparagus plants to tomatoes and strawberries. We had no trouble with deer, but woodchucks were a big problem and my father lured them into Hav-A-Heart traps and later gassed them in a Hefty bag behind the garage. On hot summer afternoons, Leslie and I helped ourselves to whatever was ripe, savoring the unwashed taste of sun on the warm treats we found. Long after we had moved on to something else we could hear my mother shouting from the garden, “Who ate all the snow peas and left their chewed up shells right on the walkway? You girls come here right now!” When we got back to the garden, we inevitably found our mother, standing with one hand on her hip the other holding a trowel, stripped down to nothing but her Maidenform bra, some cotton shorts and a pair of sneakers. “We were going to have those for dinner!” she said.




Both avid gardeners, my parents spent a great deal of time planning, plotting, planting and ordering around a whole posse of yard boys—all big, strong athletic high school kids —who lurked about the property pushing wheelbarrows, weeding, and spreading mulch on weekends between May and August each year. It was an enormous amount of work to maintain and it was expected that Leslie and I would help despite our lack of interest in anything except the high school boys. We were too young to capture their interest, so to see if we could get their attention, we offered to fix their lunches for our mother, who was astonished at our willingness to pitch in. It was Leslie’s idea to shake a thick layer of black pepper onto their tunafish sandwiches and lace their Cokes with heaping tablespoons of salt. When they stopped for lunch, we watched them wolf down their food from a distance, waiting in giddy anticipation for one of them to gag or spit a mouthful of Coke into the grass. But they didn’t notice anything wrong with their food, and certainly didn’t notice the two of us.


At 8_Rope ladderone point my grandfather brought over a rope ladder—an apparatus made of two thick pieces of rope connected by 20 or so wooden rungs. He and my father, who never once tried to climb it, tied it to the branch of a large red maple and secured it a huge stake they drove into the ground about 15 feet away. It was one of those impossible ladders that carnival people set up as a big profit center, charging five dollars for each futile attempt at reaching the top. It required perfect balance and pressure from both hands and feet applied at exactly the right time to avoid flipping over. My mother was an expert at climbing it. After watching umpteen neighborhood kids flip over on their backs after reaching only the fourth rung, she would eventually emerge from the back door by the kitchen in her Bermuda shorts, penny loafers and knee socks, slamming the screen door behind her and shout, “Let me show you kids how it’s done.” Then she’d scramble right up to the top rung, dramatically twirl herself over and drop to the ground landing softly on her feet like gymnast or a trapeze artist.



My 9_Bird of paradise father always had a big project going. One of his early installations was a greenhouse he attached to the south side of the house built from a kit he had found in a catalog. It was connected to a winterized porch where he kept his marble topped liquor cabinet filled with single malt scotches and gin. In the summertime, the greenhouse was mostly empty, its potted plants all moved outdoors to various patios and decks. In the winter it was humid and earthy smelling, crammed full of fragrant gardenias, brilliant hibiscus and passion flowers, citrus trees laden with fruit, and one moribund bird of paradise plant that had belonged to my grandmother before she died.

“This god damn thing takes up too much space,” my father said whenever faced with the prospect of moving it either indoors or out. “It’s nothing but a nuisance – it has never once bloomed.” But my mother insisted that we keep it despite its apparent deficiencies. “We can’t get rid of that, it belonged to my mother!” And then one day, exactly seven years after my grandmother’s death, without any forewarning, the plant produced not one, but seven brilliant orange and blue flowers, and it continued to blossom for years after.



On my sixth birthday, during my party with sparkly hats, favors and an extravagant scavenger hunt all carefully orchestrated by my mother, my brother Stephen who was three, climbed high into the huge white pine tree zig-zagging from branch to branch until he eventually fell out of it and thumped onto the thick bed of pine needles 20 feet below. The fall knocked the wind out of him, during which time the party came to a gasping halt. There was no blood, but for the rest of the day, my mother could not stop talking about what kind of idiot would leave a garden hoe lying on the ground, its sharp point facing straight up less than a foot from where Stephen’s head had landed.






One summer when I was in my teens, my father surprised my mother by suggesting that she take my sister Leslie and me to Chicago for a girls’ weekend. “I’ve had my secretary arrange for you to stay at the Drake Hotel,” he said. “There’s a Manet show going on at the Art Institute and maybe you girls can do some back-to-school shopping.” The offer seemed suspicious, but wasn’t something any of us was about to refuse. When we returned home we discovered that my father had installed a new balcony with French doors right off the side of my parents’ bedroom and my mother was enraged. Months before our girls weekend in Chicago, she thought she’d put an end to it. “I don’t want a balcony,” she had said. “I don’t want to sit out there in in my robe. You’re just going to make a huge mess.”



12_Short Sheet Bed

One of my father’s early projects was to convert the garage, a standalone structure oddly situated behind the house, into a guest house. He took me with him on scouting missions to find wood siding and hand cut beams from dilapidated barns way out in the countryside. He put radiant heating beneath the flagstone floors, installed a wood stove and set up a stereo system where we kids could play our awful rock music out of his ear shot. The Little House, as we called it, afforded us a level of freedom and privacy we probably didn’t deserve. One afternoon I was out there sprawled across the sofa blaring the radio when my mother burst through the side door with an armful of bed linens. “John McGoff is coming for dinner and to spend the night,” she said. Mr. McGoff was my father’s most important client. So we unfolded the sofa bed and stretched the fitted sheet across the mattress. We spread the top flat sheet over it and as I began to tuck the bottom edge in my mother said, “No, not like that. Tuck in the top edge first. We’re going to short sheet the bed.”




Over the years, my family developed a summertime ritual. Every evening at dusk, just as we finished supper by the pool, we gathered at the edge of my mother’s perennial garden to watch her evening primroses bloom. The plants themselves looked like nothing more than a roadside weed, but in my mother’s garden they were one of the main attractions. As soon as one of the buds began to twitch, my mother shouted, “Look, they’re starting!” as if we weren’t kneeling right there next her and were in danger of missing the show. It took less than a minute for each bud to unfurl itself into a simple yellow blossom. It was like watching a time-lapsed film, only this was in magical, marvelous, real time. And as soon as all the primroses had bloomed, my mother would look at whoever had lingered the longest and say, “It’s your night to do the dishes. I’m going take a swim.”

Several years after I was married and living Connecticut, my parents abruptly decided to sell the house and move to Wyoming. My last weekend there was spent sorting through things, deciding what to do with nearly 30 years of stuff. Before leaving for the last time, my mother helped me dig up one of her evening primroses and pack it in small paper lunch bag to take back to my pathetic, deer-ridden garden in Connecticut. I cried the whole way back on the plane, staring out the window as we flew east into the darkness. When we landed and I gathered my things, I discover that the evening primrose, knowing it was time, had bloomed in its bag.


Christine Juneau lives in Weston, Connecticut with her husband and two children.  She is Brain, Child’s staff artist. A former investment research executive, she now works as a business advisor when not painting, writing and drawing cartoons.  You can see some of her work on her cartoon blog at www.christinejuneau.com.





Cities of My Body

Cities of My Body

Silouette of Woman's BodyBy Liz Rognes

With her long, perfectly manicured fingers, the checkout girl methodically lifts each item out of my shopping basket. She scans a box of almond milk, a package of pasta, then the container of prenatal vitamins.

I shift my weight from one leg to another. I’m barely showing, but if you look closely, you can already tell. I’m sixteen weeks pregnant with my first baby. This was not something I thought would come easily. My body, now generally a place of health and reliability, has in the past been the site of rampant destruction. My doctor had said subclinical infertility. My slow thyroid and elevated hormone levels worried her. She had said it could take many months, maybe years, to get pregnant. She had said she could refer me to a specialist.

But it happened faster than we had expected. Jason and I were shocked and elated when one home pregnancy test after another appeared with a plus sign, only weeks after the appointment with my doctor. I had worked so hard to prepare myself for disappointment, for the reality of subclinical infertility, that I did not believe the results. I took three, four, five, and then six pregnancy tests over the course of a few days, and all came back with the same unbelievable message.

There will be a baby.

I will be a mother.

I am short with a short torso, and there’s nowhere for this expanding uterus to go but out. I’m proud of this, and I wear my growing belly like a marker of glowing wellness and peace and love and all of that motherhood mythos, but standing there on the other side of the checkout counter, I am swept with insecurity. I do not feel like a mother. I am not glowing.


I know little about the woman who scans my groceries, but I know more about her than I know of the other cashiers. Only months ago, before I became pregnant, before I quit coming to the grocery store because of morning sickness, I stood behind the checkout girl, partial stranger, partial familiar face, in the garage of a house I’d never before seen, after bar close, with a slew of skinny, tattooed men circling the cold room and line after line of cocaine appearing on a workbench.


When she finishes unloading and scanning my basket, she asks, “Paper, plastic, or reusable?” She does not make eye contact. I realize that we’re pretending not to know each other.


Six months earlier, Jason and I walked into a party after bar close, on the heels of a magnetic, fast-talking British musician who now lived in Spokane.

We had recognized him from his moment of fame; his band had a hit song in the eighties. He was not the kind of person we usually hung around, but something about him was alluring; Jason and I were both inexplicably swept up with him and his exaggerated manner. We joked that his arrogance was endearing. He didn’t give a fuck about what people thought, and we were nothing like him.


When she finishes unloading and scanning my basket, she asks, “Paper, plastic, or reusable?” She does not make eye contact. I realize that we’re pretending not to know each other.


We were bookish, responsible, rule-followers; Jason was a librarian, and I was an English teacher. When I did get pregnant, my own mother joked that our baby would inevitably be a nerd. “Nerd plus nerd equals nerd,” she said, smiling. She meant this lovingly; we were creative, but we went to bed early. The musician, on the other hand, was tall in stature and presence, and he commanded the attention of everyone in the room. We were seduced by his fame. And ever since we had begun talking about trying for a baby, even before my visit to the doctor, I had started to feel a little impulsive, like there was a limit to this moment in my life as I knew it. I felt myself yearning for spontaneity. So when the musician invited us to the bar for a drink that night, we went. When he invited us to the after party, we went. We were somewhat star-struck, and, despite a slew of signs indicating the opposite, were convinced that there could be something positive, or at least productive, about this friendship.

At the bar, his girlfriend leaned into me and she whispered in my ear, “It’s a hard party, if you know what I mean.”

I looked her in the eye.

I knew exactly what she meant.


Ten years ago, I signed in to the last of many rehab centers I had been to. I’d hallucinated my way through hospital detox a handful of times, blood pressure exploding in my ears and the sick expulsion of poisons pouring out of my mouth and pores. Then, I was a young twenty-two years old, with the face of a girl of about eighteen. I was small, with big eyes and a quiet demeanor that convinced people I wasn’t trouble. I got away with almost everything—drugs, constant drunkenness, promiscuity, hanging around with a rough crowd, finding myself in rooms with guns and coked out drug dealers—and the outside world likely pinned me for a brooding teenager, not a girl mixed up with the kind of stuff I was doing.

Even when I started accruing consequences, I managed to maintain a certain naïveté. I’d been drinking and drugging like that for only a year or two, and I was simultaneously heavily medicated on antidepressant drugs and a pharmacy of other pills that were supposed to help with my anxiety and bulimia. The cocktail of drugs, combined with the heavy drinking, took a quick, serious toll on my liver. I was confused when I started experiencing withdrawals from alcohol, telling myself that was crazy—I was only twenty-two, after all. That was the kind of thing that happened to old men who’d been drinking for decades, not to promising Midwestern farmer’s daughters who went to fancy women’s colleges like me. I kept the extent of the chemical dependency a secret.

Most of the time, I didn’t care that I was a mess. I didn’t want to take care of myself, and a future of motherhood—the possibility of one day being responsible for someone else—was not even a consideration. My body was a burden that I wanted to escape.


At the party, the checkout girl was drunk and high already, and she walked right over to me, announcing to the people around her that I was her grocery store customer. This was not how I wanted to be identified. Normally, in this mostly sober adult life I have crafted in the past decade or so, I think of myself as a woman who no longer takes unnecessary risks, a woman who eats kale and root vegetables, who wears a seatbelt and a sunhat, who cares about whether or not there are laureth sulfates in her shampoo or fluoride in her toothpaste. After years of therapy and hard work crafting a more or less healthy lifestyle, I am no longer the woman who shows up at after parties to do lines of cocaine with strange men on workbenches in cold garages. I have learned how to take care of this body and how to quiet my anxiety. I have learned how to reach out, how to ask for help, how to be accountable and to maintain relationships. I wanted to bring a baby into this place of steadiness, to enter motherhood with the firm footing of ten years away from the chaos of my past. But on that night, I didn’t want to be the careful, healthy woman I had worked so hard to become, I didn’t want to think about motherhood, and I did not want any reminders about who I was, now.

The truth is, I was feeling itchy, and I had been for a while. The musician’s arrogance and gestures, his constant phone calls and quick disappearances were familiar to me, and while I didn’t tell Jason about the old cravings swirling around in the back in of my mind, I intuited that hanging around this fast-talking man with a palpable residue of aging fame could eventually lead to something like this. The musician’s cues represented something I had put away, and the nearness of it was intoxicating. When I walked into the party and saw the woman who nearly always scanned my groceries, I was jolted. She made me think of the natural foods store, of my chosen lifestyle of health and sobriety and intention.

That night, I didn’t want any reminders of what my life was outside of that party.


“Sixty-three forty-nine,” the checkout girl says.

I pull out my credit card and run it through the swiper, even though I know it won’t work. The strip has been busted for weeks. I try again. It doesn’t work. After the third try, I have to hand my credit card to her so she can manually enter the numbers. I watch her hold my card, and I can’t help but think about her long, skinny fingers holding onto a different credit card on a different night while organizing the white powder into neat, short lines, before turning to me and saying, one hand by her nostril, head tipped back, leaving the last line for me: “All yours, sweetie.”


I’ve been buying groceries at this overpriced natural foods store since I moved to Spokane four years ago. Even while I was a broke grad student and then a broke adjunct instructor at a community college, I would count my quarters, trudge through the snow from a few blocks away, and buy onions and garlic and potatoes to make hearty soup that would last me for a week. The boiling potatoes curled steam across the windows of my tiny, cold second floor apartment.

Buying groceries has nearly always been a knotted task for me. As a kid, I hardly entered a grocery store because my mom would drop my siblings and me off at my grandma’s house across the street in our little farm town while she went in to shop. I had no idea where our food came from, immediately or long-term, even though we lived smack on a farm in the middle of Iowa, with hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans surrounding us. I was sensitive to the cultural messages about femininity and thinness that permeated the strange mix of culture of rural farming and mainstream media of the late eighties and nineties. And as the eldest child in a homogenous culture, I was a perfectionist. I developed an eating disorder in my pre-teen years, and my relationship to food was severely stunted. Grocery stores became terrifying and overwhelming places where the thing that I most feared and most coveted lived. I loved food, and I hated it. As a teenager and then as an early twenty-something, I cycled through bouts of severe restriction and uncontrolled devouring of food. Adding drugs and alcohol to the mix, I was completely unable to find a middle ground or to even recognize that a middle ground could be possible.


After the party, we didn’t get home until the sun was beginning to slowly lighten the sky behind our house. In our domestic life together, we had never stayed out until sunrise.

I had been offered the last line of cocaine at the party. I would have done more, but that’s all there was. I kept thinking of it as “only one line,” but after ten years of complete abstinence from hard drugs, one line and the guilt that sank into me nearly immediately afterward was enough to keep me awake. The late spring sun uncovered the valley below our bedroom window pine by pine, and I felt the old shame of addiction begin to crawl through the synapses of my brain.

We invited our dog onto our bed as an apology for leaving him alone all night. My head spun. Jason knew that I had done a line, but he did not see it, nor had he done any cocaine. In fact, he had never done cocaine. He had hardly smoked pot in his life, and I loved this about him. Once, I had been knitting a foot for a stuffed animal, and without the body attached, it kind of had the shape of a pipe. Jason asked why I was knitting a bong, and I burst out laughing, completely in love with him. I found his lack of expertise about drug paraphernalia extremely endearing. This man was the person I wanted to spend my life with. He was funny, smart, and sweet, and he cared deeply for people. A library member had threatened him once; the man had slammed the desk and screamed at Jason until he called the police to remove him. The library had to exclude the man for a year. Instead of being angry that he had been threatened, Jason said, “I just hope he has another safe place to go.” I could see in my partner a man who was sincerely motivated by his heart, who was patient and thoughtful and empathetic; he would be a wonderful father.

I began to cry softly, afraid that my choice to do a line of blow had jeopardized this life I had with him—this beautiful distance from the darkness of drug use, this life of books and mornings and dog walks, this life of music and love and happiness. My past and my present were polar opposites, two cities that could not be any more different or further apart, but that night they had appeared in the same room. Two versions of me had inhabited my body.

I curled into Jason’s arms and listened to him comfort me. He said it would be okay, that one line of coke didn’t mean the end of the world, that we could sleep for a few hours and wake up and go about our day. We could still start trying to get pregnant, like we had planned. Even after the party, he believed I could one day be a good mother. He was soothing and loving, and I was not sure that I believed him.


After the party, we didn’t get home until the sun was beginning to slowly lighten the sky behind our house. In our domestic life together, we had never stayed out until sunrise.


We managed to sleep for a few hours, and when Jason’s alarm went off, the sun was beating through our bedroom window and I could hear the sounds of cars climbing the hill, people going places, doing normal things, like this were any other day. Birds chattered loudly. Jason hit snooze and closed his eyes again. The dog, a happy, rowdy Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, yawned and stretched, rolling onto his back, his giant red paws extended into the air, exuding the musky sweet smell of sleeping dog. I felt my love for these two creatures surround me, thick and tangible.

The truth is that for weeks afterward, I would feel the itchiness. I would try to talk Jason in to calling the musician. I would say things like, “I only got to do one line at that party—I should have a real last hoorah.” If we were going to try to get pregnant; this could be my last chance. I would say these things with a smile on my face, as though it were no big deal. I half-joked about buying an eight ball, just for fun, but then I had to define “eight ball” to Jason, and my two worlds knocked heads. My past and the possibility of relapse loomed over us, a storm waiting to break. But it wasn’t what I really wanted; I wanted the stability that we had created, I wanted this partner who loved me, I wanted to become a mother.


His alarm went off again—the opening riff to one of his favorite songs, on repeat. He opened his eyes and looked over to see me watching him. He smiled a sleepy greeting. “Good morning, baby,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

I felt awful. My head was pounding, but I knew that I couldn’t just stay in bed. “I’m coming with you,” I said.


Jason’s job is pretty straightforward: he manages a library, helping people access information. He goes to the same place every morning, works more or less the same hours every day, and he has reliable income and responsibility. But once in a while he gets assigned something like driving the district library van in a small-town parade on a Saturday. So the morning after I sniffed my first line of blow in ten years off a dirty workbench, I climbed into the passenger seat of a loud, bumpy van with the library logo painted on the sides and rode along to a tiny town on the edge of the Washington Palouse, surrounded by wheat fields and rolling sky to hand out library pencils to the kids who lined the single street.

It was the kind of day that is not supposed to exist when you’re trying to wallow in the shame of your past. Even though it was still spring, it was stunningly summer-like, the sun filling the street and warming the backs of the horses and local equestrians who proudly showcased their riding gear in the parade. People were giddy with the weather and the atmosphere of celebration. There were craft vendors, tractors, a high school marching band, and a man with a microphone from a shoddy P.A. system in the center of the five-block parade route, his voice crackling with static and pride as he announced each float and organization as it went by. “And here’s the library. Everyone loves the library!” he said cheerfully, as we slowly drove past. I waved out the window at rows of grinning children and adults, and library staff in screen-printed T-shirts walked to the curb to hand pencils to excited kids. Everyone cheered.

I smiled, but I was holding back tears of gratitude. This is my life now, I thought. This: libraries and sunshine and happy children, not last night.


Once, while I was living in a halfway house, the house manager told us about a dream she had in which she had relapsed. She had been sober for many years, and the dream had disturbed her. But she said that she was grateful for the dream because it reminded her about how horrible her addiction had been. It reminded her the life she had now was her chosen life, the life she truly wanted. I have relapsed before, moments that initiated dramatic falls, landing me deeply in old habits. I worried that this time would not be any different. That one line of cocaine could be a sentence: that I would have no choice but to succumb to the old patterns.


My card finally goes through, and the checkout girl prints the receipt. She has bagged my groceries, and she smiles at me. “Have a nice day,” she says.

I lift the bags, one in each hand. We make eye contact. I thank her, and I take the groceries. I leave the store with my food and prenatal vitamins. I walk across the parking lot to my car parked in the crisp late fall air that smells like ponderosa pine and wood smoke and I tell myself that it’s going to be okay. This is my life now, and I am lucky. This body has surprised me; it has been through destruction and healing more times than seems reasonable or possible or fair. I am lucky to live in this chosen city, in this place where my days are filled with meaningful work and love and songs and mornings when I wake tucked into Jason’s arm.

But my body is more than a chosen city—it is many cities, all of them imperfect and strange and beautiful. Its geography is informed by the proximity and relationships between dots on the map, and I need all of these cities to appreciate the span and breadth of terrain. Doing one line of cocaine was a stupid, momentary decision, but it didn’t mean that I had to relinquish the life that I have chosen. Even the ugliest, darkest parts of a city see sunlight, and to live without acknowledging that those dark corners exist isn’t realistic or even fair. That line was not a sentence, but it did offer me a chance to reaffirm my commitment to the life I have now. The health and stability I have worked so hard for is not perfect, and it is not indestructible, but it is a place that, given the choice, I want to live.

I open the trunk to my car and set the bags inside, and then I pause, stunned.

A new landscape is forming in this imperfect, strange, beautiful city: I feel the unmistakable tiny flutter of a baby moving in my belly.

Author’s Note: The months leading up to the birth of my son were some of the most exciting and reflective months of my life. Pregnancy was this surreal occasion, where I was literally carrying pieces of my past and my future within the boundaries of my body. This essay was a way for me to grapple with that bridge between the “two cities” of my past and present/future, and especially to consider the lingering shame that I still carried. But that past, with all of its darkness and healing, is a part of who I am today. I am the mother I am partly because of that past, which has taught me about recovery and empathy. My son is now a healthy, happy, toddling, singing, and chattering 14-month old.

Liz Rognes is a writer, musician, and teacher who lives in Spokane, Washington with her rock ‘n’roll librarian and their son.


A Ghost in My Neighborhood

A Ghost in My Neighborhood

A Ghost on the Neighborhood ARTBy Leslie Kendall Dye

Last month the woman was standing in front of the vintage shop a few blocks from my apartment. She was rocking continuously and her back was bent at an alarming angle. I heard her singing—it was a tune I recognized. My own child was dashing down the street, but I called after her—”Do you remember that song? I used to sing it to you!”

The woman turned toward me and I saw a baby—about seven months old—was snuggled into the woman’s chest, wrapped in the secure folds of a wrap made of soft Jersey fabric. She was putting the baby to sleep.  I remember that time, I thought. I smiled at her, trying to tell her that I had been there, and that I envied her the simplicity of that moment with her baby. I envied the waves of oxytocin flooding her precariously tilted frame. She didn’t smile back, because she didn’t see me.

My own child is now close to four years old and in a matter of weeks she’ll enter a society larger than the one between parent and child: preschool. I am so very ready for it, as is she. Both of us need more than each other now to pass our days productively and to be stimulated. Both of us need a few hours not intertwined but sailing toward separate adventures. Both of us want friends our own age. Still, I cried bitterly when we signed the paperwork for school. My daughter will have a teacher and a cubby hole and things will happen to her during the day that I will not bear witness to. In four years, there is little for which I have not been present.

As we rush headlong toward this new era, I luxuriate in watching another woman in the neighborhood who has a five month old. I don’t want to go back—yes, babyhood races by quickly, but it is also slow and exhausting and besides, I lived it fully—as best I could.

We had such fun. We took so many naps together. We jumped in so many leaves. We nursed for so long.

I started seeing the new mother in the neighborhood a few months ago. I can tell this is her first baby. She gazes at the reflection of mother and child as she walks by windows. She points to her baby’s face and the baby laughs and bobs in the carrier. I remember how the little legs kick with delight and the arms flap with expressive glee. Maybe the baby has one or two words by now.

I saw her in a bookstore a few weeks ago. Her child seems to grow unusually fast; she’s already standing up. She was with a friend and the friend tried to walk the baby on her legs by holding up her arms. The mother grew alarmed.

Never hold a baby by the arms to help her walk! She has to build her musculature by walking on her own and only when she’s ready!”

I was surprised, because I too had guarded my child’s physical development ferociously. I’d read that it was bad for a baby’s hips to stand her up and “walk her.” I almost approached the mother and asked if she’d read the same book—she was the first parent I’d heard espousing the same idea—but I didn’t want to seem interfering or crazy.

Instead, I turned to my four-year-old and told her that she had shown no interest in walking until she was thirteen months old; she tore a lot of holes in her pants while crawling at the speed of light.

“Mama,” she said, with a hint of teenage exasperation, “You’ve told me that before.” And then we went back to reading Frog and Toad, because I had refused to read her that awful princess book.

Yesterday I saw the mother in Central Park. The baby had mastered walking. They were by the Alice in Wonderland statue that my toddler and I had visited many times. There was a pile of leaves and the baby was jumping and crunching the leaves and shouting “again!”

I sat on the stone ledge by the boat pond. I called out to the woman “My daughter used to love climbing Alice!”

A cool wind swept by, chilling me. Strange for August, I thought. I then noticed that the mother and child were dressed for an autumn day. Maybe they’d left the house in the cool of early morning and had yet to shed their cardigans. I remembered arriving at the park at five-thirty in the morning, seeking amusement at ungodly hours when my own baby had awakened and announced the start of the day.

Mothers of babies must get so tired of people wanting to re-live the baby days. People are always talking to them, trying to chat with their babies. I wonder if they think: you had your turn. Please stop telling me how quickly it goes. Stop telling me to enjoy my baby. I am enjoying her, can’t you see that?

She didn’t pay any attention to me. She strapped her child into a Beco carrier built for toddlers.  She then gathered a swaddling blanket around the baby’s legs the way I used to do when the wind picked up and we had a long walk home. She walked right past me, in a hurry, talking to her baby about dinner and a bath. I looked back at the boat pond. The leaves must have scurried past as well because the August sun was once again shining on a bare, hot ground.

Occasionally I follow her. She goes down to the playgrounds in Riverside Park. I often guess where she’ll be and I find her, just to catch a glimpse of her playing with her child.

I saw her on one of my favorite blocks the other day. She was standing under a pear blossom tree in full bloom, brownstones flanking her. She was telling her child that it was nap time. Her daughter wanted to nurse right there on the street, but she’d grown too big for that.

I wanted to tell the mother that I often gave in even when my child got big enough to wait; I’d nurse her right on that very same brownstone stoop, because the pear blossoms were so pretty, and because why not? Before I knew it, she would not be interested in nursing so why not slow time by enjoying every moment?

When I got to the tree, the woman had begun packing up.

She’s avoiding me, I realized.

I must have imagined the pear blossoms, because I was standing under the green and parched-brown leaves of midsummer by the time I’d crossed the street. I must have been confused because of a memory of my child standing under the pear blossoms and asking to nurse.

And speaking of my child, I needed to get home. I hurried to our apartment, where she’d discovered coloring pages. I was pleased she’d found occupation, but sad that the structure now appealed to her. A mere month ago she never would have had any interest in decorating someone else’s picture. She would have wanted only a blank page and a crayon.

She’s not a toddler anymore, I realized.

I don’t try to talk to the mother anymore. She is in her own world, her own time with her child, her own stage of life as a parent. She doesn’t need my nostalgia. Before she knows it, her child will be begging for school and friends and climbing to the top of the jungle gym and swinging from the monkey bars. Let her enjoy this time with no reminder that it will pass one day. She already knows. I’m certain she already knows. I can tell by how consumed she seems to be with motherhood.

She is not in a rush, this mother.

Still, when it comes upon her, she will not be prepared. She may know that, but it won’t help.

There will be a rupture, and she will feel it coming, the way labor pains come on to alert you of your first violent separation from your child. She may have a few months to prepare for it—as I do now—watching the summer disappear into the lengthening shadows of summer’s end, counting down the days to the sudden change.

Still, she will not be prepared.

I know why she never answers me.

She knows I am there—or will be there when her baby ages. For now, I am only an older mother in her imagination. But she is quite real to me—I know her every route and routine, every bench she nursed on, every path in the gardens of the park along which she and her daughter have stolen. I don’t just know her routines—I remember them.

It isn’t only streets across which I am calling to her, it is time—and that is a dimension through which only memory, not voices, can travel.

 Author’s Note: I have a seventeenth edition of “Portrait of Jennie” by Robert Nathan on my shelf, given to me by my father. If it were a first edition it could not be more precious. I’ve no doubt that the book influenced my own little tale in which Time doesn’t play by the rules. 

Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress in New York City. She has recently written for Salon, Word Riot, Club Mid, The Washington Post, and Off The Shelf, and has work forthcoming at The Toast, Coffee +Crumbs, and Vela Magazine.  She and her husband and daughter are a family that rarely sleeps in the city that never sleeps. You can find her at twitter at @HLAnimal.


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

Where I’m From

Where I’m From

where im fromI am from weeknight family dinners, napkin on the lap, elbows off the table, and asking permission to be excused. I am from Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream for dessert and Dad’s piano practice before primetime television when he, with the Chicago Tribune, and Mom, with her needlepoint, sat in the den together to watch a show, their hours together protected.

I am from the ranch house with the circle driveway by Ravinia Park that my grandparents built. I’m from the park’s summer music filling the Japanese garden in the backyard, Lake Michigan’s wind blowing the porch screens back and forth on stormy nights. I’m from my father’s and aunts’ childhood memories preceding mine and my sisters’ in every room.

I am from snowy walks to school, the smell of lilacs in the spring, and the mysterious ravines nearby where I played until my second round of poison oak. I am from the rumble of the Metra Train, from shaded walks on The Green Bay Trail leading to Glencoe or “uptown” Highland Park. I’m from knowing in my bones that The Lake is East and The City is South. I’m from the gorgeous drive up and down Sheridan Road, past Northwestern University and spilling into Lake Shore Drive.

I am from businesses like Grandpa Norman’s and my father’s fasteners, to Grandpa Chuck’s scrap metal, to Mom’s handwriting analysis and her store, Winnetka Stitchery. I’m from Grandma Susie’s and Grandma Pauline’s art, from their desire to express and create. I’m from world travelers, readers, theater goers, lovers of symphony, and rescuers of greyhounds.

I am from the tradition of summer camp, in my case eight years at Chippewa Ranch Camp for Girls in Eagle River, Wisconsin. I’m from color war (go tan!), loud songs after lunch, horseback riding, archery, sailing, water skiing, canoeing, and so many outdoor activities that neither my husband nor my kids could picture me doing now.

From “someone has to be the adult” and “Sackheims don’t quit.”

I am from a Judaism that was peripheral, but that ignited in me an almost inexplicable attachment and deep curiosity—what a rabbi and friend later called my pintele Yid, Yiddish for Jewish spark, a spark that is so alive for me now.

I am from the people of Highland Park and the places that haven’t changed. I’m from my parents’ closest friends, who are still like family, and from the kitchens and couches of all the Braeside Elementary School girls. I’m from the Edgewood Middle School girls who sometimes filled me with terror and other times awarded me a desperate dose of approval. I’m from the security and love of Jennifer, Dana, Lindsey, Emily, Taryn, Gwen, and Norah. I’m from cheese fries at Michael’s, Piero’s pizza, Carol’s Cookies, Once Upon a Bagel’s tuna salad, and Sunset Foods. I’m from the lost era of Gsell’s Pharmacy, Chestnut Court, Chandler’s, and The Style Shop.

From a name, Norman, my grandfather, who died in a plane crash before I was born.  From Saturday night sleepovers with Grandma Pauline, who never remarried. From my mother’s memories in Rochester, New York where we spent many winter vacations sitting at Grandma Susie’s beautiful table and hearing Grandma Chuck’s clarinet all hours of the day and night.

I am from drawers full of photographs that one day my sisters and I will have to organize on our own.

I am from the peace of mind that I’m building a world of memories for my kids. I’m from the assurance that despite all the moments of imperfection and times I could have done better, that they will look back with a clear sense of atmosphere, family, and mostly of love. That they, like me, will remember the gift of home.

Where are you from?

Author’s Note: I discovered the “Where I’m From” template from fellow This is Childhood writer Galit Breen, whose beautiful version was recently published. After reading Galit’s piece, my mind was filled with images of the people and places that made up my childhood in Highland Park, Illinois, where my parents still live in the same house where I was raised. I immediately wanted to complete the exercise myself, which I hope, like Galit’s, makes you think of your own family as well as the friends, places, foods, and passing moments that made up your earliest years.

The original template based on George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From” can be found here. 

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Why I Don’t Think My Son is Growing Up Too Fast

Why I Don’t Think My Son is Growing Up Too Fast

By Aubrey Hirsch

photo (4)My son is growing up at a rate of exactly one second per second. And I think that’s the perfect speed. I don’t want him to be a baby forever. I want him to become the person he carves himself into, at the rate he chooses to grow.

It’s true that I love watching his satisfaction when he balances one block on top of another. But I can’t wait to see him study hard and learn something even I don’t understand. I want him to stretch himself, to work and try. And fail, sometimes. I want him to know the deep pleasure that accompanies triumph after disappointment.

His sweet toddler babbling is like music to me now, but I can’t wait for him to tell me what he’s thinking, what he wants, who he is and not just who I think he is. We often talk about wanting to keep our kids small, to protect them from the less appealing parts of life. But I want my son to have everything life has in store for him.

I want him to experience splendor and grief, summer sun and injury. I want him to lie to his best friend and feel the white-hot rush of embarrassment in his cheeks. I want him to have friendship, get picked on, make a pretty girl laugh, feel so alone he can barely breathe.

I want him to laugh until his ribs ache and cry until his throat is raw. I want him to run fast and skin his knees. I want him to give up on something important. I want him to make wrong decisions. I want him to know that pain and sadness lurk around every corner, under every good thing, and that life is unfair and unforgiving. But that there is beauty there, too. And hope. And comfort.

He should have warm air on his face, but also burning fevers. I want him to feel like no one understands him. I want him to have splinters and sore muscles and heartache. He should have pain. And love. And sorrow. And happiness so pure that it hurts him, because he knows—even as he has it—how soon it will be gone.

I want all these things because I love him and because this is what mothers do: We make our kids eat their vegetables and attend their oboe lessons and apologize to their friends when they screw up. We do this because we know better than our kids that temporary discomfort can open doors to wonderful things. And that sometimes great pain makes room in our hearts for joy to fill.

Even if I did hope to keep him small, if I thought having this child, at this age, made me the happiest a person could ever be, then I’m not so selfish that I would keep him from having his own perfect moment with his own perfect child. So I don’t mind watching him get bigger and watching the seconds tick away. I know those clock hands are moving toward amazing things for him, even the ones that seem terrible at the time.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. She has also written essays on pregnancy and motherhood for TheRumpus.net. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com

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.

New England Beach Babies

New England Beach Babies

By JoeAnn Hart

Web Only Beach Baby art“What now?” I muttered as my trowel hit an obstruction. “A plastic something.” In the depths of a major garden excavation for my son’s wedding, I kept coming across indestructible bits of our family’s life. Bare tennis balls, bottle caps, keys to cars we no longer owned. This time, though, as I cut away the roots wrapped around my latest find, annoyance gave way to memory. It was a child’s green plastic shovel, and as I turned it over in my hands, years of sitting at the beach with children washed over me.

“What a luxury,” people had always said, “to live within walking distance of the water.” What a pain, I’d grumble to myself. I grew up with suburban sprinklers, not ocean, so I was not a relaxed summer-time mom. Getting the kids ready for our daily beach expedition was like being backstage at a circus, helping squirming bodies into suits and painting faces with sunscreen. Adding up the hours, I have spent a full week of my life searching for sandals the length of my pinky. I could not begin to guess the time spent packing The Bag: Sunscreen, water, box juices, cookies, mini-carrots, peanut-butter sandwiches, towels, more sunscreen, and a blanket. I was exhausted when I finally hit our isolated patch of sand, and it was just the beginning. Clutching a sweaty baby boy while digging a moat with a toddler without taking my eyes off the oldest at the water’s edge was no day at the beach. I did my best to identify the sealife for the two older girls (“that’s a dead crab, honey, put it down”) and answer their questions about nature. “Why is the water blue?” Because it reflects the sky. “Why is the sky blue?” Have a cookie.

We stayed as the tide played in, then out. (“Where does the water go?”) We kept time by an upright stick in the sand, and when its shadow reached a certain angle they knew we had to head back. After packing up camp, an epic adventure of lost and found, we’d begin our forced march, me pushing the stroller with baby and toddler smushed together like sardines, the oldest lagging behind and whining. This was followed by the hose-down, story-time and a nap. That last one more for me than them.

Oh, it got easier over the years. My job became that of lifeguard, albeit one who burned easily and got dizzy from the sun. I sat in a chair, a magazine open on my lap, and watched the kids float like soap bubbles and swim like otters, dark shapes against the sunlight on the surf. Occasionally I’d be called into duty to help steady a kickboard, but mostly they tried to lure me into the water so they could hear me screech like a seagull. My children, true New England beach babies, are unfazed by the sharp slap of the frigid Atlantic. I will never get used to it.

One by one, they reached the age to beach it alone. My oldest girl would run off after breakfast and I’d meet her down there with the two younger ones. In later years, there was just one with me, and then there were none. After that, I’d only go to check that everyone was using sunscreen and staying hydrated. Usually I’d just find them working on their tans, but well into their teens, I’d catch them building kingdoms of sand, festooned with seaglass and bird bones. At the end of the day they’d watch their creations wash away with a shrug. To them, raised on tides, change was the way of the world.

Not so many years later and there I was with a little green shovel. Slipping two fingers into the handle, I could feel the small hand that once wrapped around it, and suddenly I missed the beach. Not the heat or the sand fleas, but the three familiar shapes moving through the water’s brilliant light. I missed their childhoods, and sometimes, I think, so do they. For his wedding, my son wanted a sand castle cake, a clambake at the beach, and silhouette photos against the sun as it dropped into an orange-red sea.

I stuck the shovel in a pile of dirt and tried to guess the time.

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled. Her short fiction and essays have been widely published, and she is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe Magazine. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts with her husband and a few barn animals. To find out more, please visit www.joeannhart.com


“I’m Angry at You!”

“I’m Angry at You!”

By Sue Sanders

WO I'm angry Art v2I lugged the laundry basket filled with freshly washed and haphazardly folded clothes into Lizzie’s room and dropped it on her aqua shag rug. Lizzie was sprawled on her bed, absorbed in a book. A mountain of clean clothes was piled on her desk, where they’d been sitting for the last few days.

“I’d like you to put away all your clothes any time before dinner. And when you’re done, please bring the basket downstairs. I need it,” I said. Lizzie’s room, a Bermuda Triangle for laundry baskets, was starting to resemble a rummage sale.

She put down her book and glared at me as though I’d demanded she drown a litter of kittens.

“I’m angry at you!” she spit out.

“Sweetie, it’s fine to be angry with me. I’m glad you’re telling me,” I said evenly as I left her room.


I’m happy Lizzie feels comfortable telling me she’s irritated. Lately, though, these bursts have been occurring more frequently, almost as if they’re volcanic rumblings, to prepare me for the temperamental eruptions of an older teen. When Lizzie is furious, most of the time I smile and calmly tell her she’s going to be mad at me a lot during the next few years—I’ll love her no matter how she feels. Then I ignore the sighs of exasperation and say something like, “That’s my job: to annoy you as much as possible. . . .

“I’m getting pretty good at it, huh?” I add.


Young teens can be emotional vortexes. I try not to get sucked into the drama. Sometimes Lizzie states her sentiments clearly and other times Albert Einstein couldn’t figure her out. It would be much easier if she were just expressing the usual teenage anger, but with her it’s more complicated. Her biological father and I split when she was three. Jeff came into our lives when she was four. I think a subconscious part of her may still worry about how she fits in to our family—if she gets too angry at me, would I choose Jeff over her? Of course the rational part of her knows this is nonsense, but, like everyone, she’s got bits of her past lodged in her psyche. And I’m sure, locked away in some small cells of her temporal lobe, she’s got to feel some residual rejection from her biological father disappearing from her life when she was so young. We do talk about these things, but although she denies they’re issues for her, I can’t help worrying.

Reading Lizzie is like tearing into a book on astrophysics. I may be able read the words on the page, but I have absolutely no idea what they mean. This is when I have to whisk out my supersecret decoder ring so I can decipher what she’s really saying. What seems on the surface to be normal conversation often has a very different meaning. And at times my words need interpreting, too.

Here’s a translation of a recent conversation Lizzie and I recently had one day after school in our dining room. I was sitting at the table, working on my laptop, and Lizzie had just brought in a snack of milk and tandoori naan from the kitchen.

We said… We meant…
(looks up from computer)Hi, sweetie. How was your day?
Lizzie:(looks down at plate, not smiling, not frowning)“It was good.” “It was not especially good.”
Lizzie:(takes bite of Indian bread and chews, staring into distance)
Mom:”Oh?” “I’d love to hear more. I know that you’re not telling all.”
Lizzie:”Yeah, I didn’t do such a great job on my English essay.” “I’m not happy with it and I suspect you will be even less so.”
Mom:”As long as you’re taking your time and not rushing. Did you understand what you could do differently next time?” “Will she get into college or will she end up working the counter at McDonald’s?
Mom:(his SAVE on laptop and closes it, deciding to ask about an incident that occurred that previous week)“Hey, how was Jill today?” “Was Jill as mean as she was on Friday? I dislike her very, very much.”
Lizzie:(takes a slug of milk before answering)“She’s okay.” “She’s a jerk. But I don’t want to say that because I’m not mean like she is.”
Mom:(quiet, trying to decide exactly what to say)
Lizzie:(smiles, eyes sparkling)“Lunch was good. I sat with Eleanor today. She’s nice.” “Lunch was the best! Eleanor is great!”
Mom:(grins)“Sounds good!” “It does sound good. I’m relieved that awful child is no longer a ‘friend.’ For now.”


The word okay, though short, is long on meanings that I try to translate based on context and inflection. If Lizzie says something is okay, most of the time I know that it’s really not and I don’t want to let it stand. I want to call her on it, but in a way that will allow her to save face. So when she says something like “Jill’s okay,” her father or I might ask: “Is she okay or ‘just okay’?” When Lizzie admits someone is “just okay,” we know they usually aren’t. We keep talking, keep translating her feelings, and let her know that anything she feels is okay and not “just okay.”

Recently, Lizzie became furious at me for no reason I could fathom. We’d been sitting on the sofa one rainy Saturday afternoon, each reading a magazine that had arrived in that day’s mail about a half hour earlier. She had an issue of New Moon and I had one of New York. I could feel the atmosphere in the living room suddenly shift, as if a cold front had arrived unexpectedly. Usually there’s a chore to trigger a mood—a bathroom to scrub, a dog to walk, rules to uphold.

“I’m angry at you!” she shouted, and marched into her room, slamming her door and leaving me mystified. Unfortunately, her room has two doors, one of which is connected to my office and which happened to remain ajar. When I went into my office, I peered into her room through the open door. Lizzie was sitting on her bed, fuming, tapping angrily on her iPod’s tiny keyboard.

“Sweetie, slamming the door doesn’t have quite as dramatic an effect when the other one stays opened,” I said evenly. I smiled, determined to lighten the situation. I wanted to give her an out, if she desired one. Lizzie looked as though she wished I’d be teletransported to Jupiter, and then she appeared to do a quick mental calculation. She tried to force herself to look angry and failed. She laughed. One crisis diverted. Seven more teenage years’ worth to go.


I was an angry kid. When I was a child, we didn’t really discuss our feelings. Instead, my anger built up like a pressure cooker, ready to explode. I think there was a real fear to get emotionally honest in my family. Anger was perceived as messy and something that couldn’t be controlled. And my dad loved control. My theory is that it goes back to his childhood. My dad was four and lived on an army base in New York when his father was killed in the Netherlands during World War II. His father’s death upended his life. His mother became a distant presence, unable to cope with three young children. My father, who was not a difficult child, was sent away to boarding school, in effect to deal with his sense of loss on his own. It’s not unexpected, then, that my dad doesn’t like surprises. He has spent his entire adult life trying to plan for everything. Dinner menus decided weeks in advance; mealtimes like clockwork. And real emotion expressed honestly? Forget it—because who knew where real emotions and unchecked anger could lead?

By the time my teenage years rolled around, my parents and I hadn’t talked, genuinely, probably ever. And I’d built up an emotional Kevlar vest.

I could be, to put it mildly, difficult. I was not a cuddly teen, all rainbows and ribbons, floating around in a cloud of Love’s Baby Soft. I was black concert shirts and tight Calvin Klein jeans, moving about in a cloud of marijuana smoke.

“You’re a piece of work!” my dad yelled after I’d challenged yet another rule. Ping. His shouts hit the vest and ricocheted right back.

We’d been slowly retreating into our corners for years, and when I finally came out of mine, I came out swinging.

“Fuck you both!” I screamed at my parents.

But what a defiant kid says and what he or she means are two different things. I wish my parents had been able to interpret my angry words for what they were—the words of an adolescent who wanted independence but was frightened by it (and pretty much everything else). Because what a furious teenager wants more than anything is to be understood and to be told, “I’ll love you no matter what. I know you’re testing limits, and you can try all you want, but if you break our rules, there are consequences.”

Even if the parent has to lie and force these words out, even if he or she is really thinking, Who the hell is this child? I hate her.

And if the kid says, “Fuck you! I hate you!” she really means, “Yes, I am filled with animosity, but I actually love you even if I don’t and can’t show it right now. I’m trying to assert my independence, and you’re throwing a big wet blanket on my parade.” I wish I could time travel and hand my parents a teen/parent phrase book (or, more likely, throw it at them)—so they could translate what I was saying and what I really meant.


It’s no surprise that as an adult, I also have some unresolved anger. I try to deflect it with humor instead of sending it in a lightning bolt of words toward my husband, but I’m not always successful. I sometimes feel the steam building in that old pressure cooker and still have trouble finding the release valve to let some of it escape. I don’t want Lizzie to have the same frustrations, so I talk to her about emotions, letting her know it’s okay not only to be angry but also to express it. Some family traditions shouldn’t be handed down.

This is excerpted from Sue Sanders’ new book, Mom, I’m Not A Kid Anymore. Sanders’ essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brain, Child, the New York Times, Real Simple, the Rumpus, the Oregonian, the Seattle Times, The Morning News, Salon and others.

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.



Sew The Labels

Sew The Labels


Art Sew the Labels“It’s spring,” I said to my children, as I noticed the newly sprouted crocuses around our white mailbox post.

For me, the deep purple and yellow specks peppering the blades of grass meant something entirely different than Little League games and warmer weather. Rather, Mother Nature was reminding me to start my annual spring undertaking – sewing the nametag labels into the clothing Emily and Daniel would be bringing to camp. With two children, this meant that I would spend about 15 hours sewing at least 350 labels. So, why like many of my friends had I not chosen an alternative to this time-consuming method of labeling my children’s personal belongings?

My 10 and 13-year-old children had been going to sleep away camp for the past four and seven summers, respectively. A few months before that first summer, my mother presented me with a baggie filled with three things:  a needle, a spool of white thread and a small square of paper. I was confused. It had been almost 25 years since home economics class when I had sewn a lopsided octopus I affectionately named Gus. “What’s all this for?”  I asked my mother. “The camp labels,” she replied.

Growing up, my mother put a lot of time and effort into the sewing she did for us.  Her mustard colored sewing kit looked more like a cross between a picnic basket and a toolbox. An assortment of rainbow colored spools of thread in different thicknesses and sizes dotted the main compartment of the basket, along with a variety of scissors and mini plastic bags filled with an array of buttons. The entire interior flap was lined in a floral fabric filled with stuffing, creating an oversized cushion to store different sized needles and pins. In addition to shortening pants, hemming skirts and sewing buttons, my mother also created my costumes for school events, like the American Indian dress she made for my 2nd grade bicentennial celebration. The hand-made linen colored tunic-like dress was adorned with fringes and beadwork. On the back, she had sketched a colorful scene with an Indian woman sitting cross-legged next to a fire.

Unlike my mother, I was never much of a sewer or a seamstress. Instead, over the years, I had opted to pay my local tailor or occasionally ask my mother to sew a button that had fallen off a pair of shorts or the sleeve of a jacket. But when she handed me my very own needle and spool of thread the summer Emily was heading to sleep away camp, something had stirred inside of me and I was determined to figure out what it was. So, with a big pile of my daughter’s tee shirts beside me, I began to sew. I threaded the needle, pinched each label in half, and knotted the thread by rubbing my thumb and index finger together.  My stitches were far from perfect and the knots often looked messy. The label was usually not folded exactly in half, the “y” in Emily’s name often cut off and instead, included with our last name on the back. I would prick my finger nine out of ten times and with each “ouch” I would look at the remaining piles and resume my labeling.  So, why had I chosen to spend so many hours sewing in nametapes with a far from perfect result?

Many of my friends had paid someone to sew their labels. Others had tried laundry markers, which, in my opinion, could either bleed onto the clothing or fade with each wash. A few had opted for iron ons or peel n’stick clothing labels, “easier alternatives” but perhaps not sturdy enough for the camp laundry.

It was during that first year that I figured out why my mother had given me, a novice sewer, my own needle and thread. Between the 18 pairs of underwear, 10 pairs of shorts and the long list of other clothing and accessories, the camp packing list had recommended ordering between 100-200 nametapes, each I would have to sew. It was when I noticed the suggested 24 pairs of socks that I felt like I wanted to quit. Instead, I rolled down the top of each sock and then folded and sewed on the nametapes. Although tedious, with each finished pair, I had a renewed sense of accomplishment and pride.  But, more importantly, I realized that the labeling represented much more than just branding my daughter’s name onto every article of clothing so she wouldn’t lose things that summer. It was about sending a piece of me with her, with my maternal imprint on each item she would have with her throughout her seven week journey at sleep away camp.

Now, years later, that same baggie sits in my bedside drawer. The spool of thread is much thinner and the needle is fastened to a now tattered square of paper. My labels are still crooked, my stitches are still sewn in no particular pattern and my knots are still messy. But, at least I know that both of my children have a constant reminder of me throughout the summer. Whether that is more of a comfort for them or for me I am still not sure.

Tuesdays with Nirvana

Tuesdays with Nirvana

By Heather Dundas

Art_NirvanaEvery Tuesday night at 7:00 I spend an hour listening to Nirvana at top volume. It’s not nostalgia and I’m not at a club; I’m at my 14-year-old son’s drum lesson in a loft in downtown Los Angeles. Teo sits on a platform behind an enormous drum kit and plays along to the songs in Nevermind. It’s loud. So loud that Kurt Cobain’s voice expands like a wet sponge, filling all the space around me and inside me, driving most thoughts out of my head. I love it. This is one of the few opportunities I have to uninhibitedly stare at my son, and every week I give in to the luxury.

I don’t want to embarrass Teo; I bring my laptop along and tap away studiously during the lesson. But he doesn’t need to know that I’m just playing computer solitaire. And watching him. It’s amazing that someone related to me is capable of mastering the ultimate symbols of adolescent machismo, especially since I was the one who hummed along to Tchaikovsky through my youth, who knew all the words to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, who embodied girl geekdom in high school. With his long blonde hair and ripped jeans, Teo is undeniably cool behind the kit.

I watch Teo, and I wonder about the enduring popularity of Nirvana. Why do I enjoy it? Certainly the lyrics with their proto-emo teen angst have very little to say to me – my angst is undeniably middle-aged. Maybe it’s that the wrist-slitting lyrics seem to be undercut by the lively beat? Is it the irony, the juxtaposition? I ponder this as long as I can, but it’s not long until the song reasserts itself in my brain, and I find myself nodding along to the bouncy beat: oh well. Whatever.

Every now and then Teo’s eyes glaze toward me – I can’t tell if he’s actually seeing me or not. As he plays, one foot is visible under the hi-hat; Teo’s sporting his father’s cast off shoes, the ones he’s been wearing exclusively for a year. I gave Teo two pairs of sneakers at Christmas, in an attempt to get him to wear something other than those black clodhoppers. He finally took one pair to school so he could play PE in suitable shoes. But otherwise, he’s wearing his dad’s shoes, now split at the seams because they are-suddenly–two sizes too small. If his father and I hadn’t divorced, would Teo still want to wear these shoes day after day after day? I allow the music to push the thought away.

Dopily, I try to imagine how loud it is behind the drum kit, where Teo sits. It must be deafening. “Hearing loss” floats through my head, but looking at him, skinny shoulders just showing above the snare, his mouth pursed and eyes vacant with concentration, his entire being absorbed into the music, I can’t work up a real sense of danger.

Already he’s had “gigs.” At the first, a middle school dance, girls screamed. At the second gig, another school event, Teo learned to flip his hair around and collapsed at the end of a song in mock exhaustion. Girls screamed louder. Parents came up to tell me how cool my son is. How did this happen? My own son, one of the band.

Teo is my second. His sister, now eighteen, leaves for college in a few weeks. He’s my youngest child, my last. He was my blonde baby, the little boy who loved red cowboy boots, the child who fell asleep next to me on the couch more nights than either of us care to admit. And now – there he is, master of the universe.

There are days when the drum lesson doesn’t go well: Teo’s beat is either a little ahead or behind, and no matter how hard he tries he can’t hit the time exactly. It’s immensely frustrating. I can see his face get redder and redder as he chews on his lips and tries to keep the beat.

“Lower your elbow! Use your wrist!” his teacher yells at him. Chris is closer in age to Teo than me, member of a bonafide band that plays real gigs. From where I sit in the loft I can only see the back of Chris’s head, but Teo is attuned to his every movement. Chris clicks his sticks together and they both nod. Chris beats out a rhythm on his knees and Teo plays along softly on the drums.

“No, man,” Chris says, “you flam it here.”

“Oh,” says Teo, “like that?” They parse out differences that I can’t hear. Some days the lesson devolves into a tedious repetition of a few beats over and over again, as Teo struggles to coordinate his feet with his hands. These are the hardest lessons, when Chris turns the music off and Teo pounds out tom (beat) tom-TOM (beat), tom (beat) tom-TOM (beat) for minutes on end.

Today Chris is sporting a fresh black eye.

“You have to be tough in rock and roll,” he says, as though this explains it. Teo nods, as though black eyes were common in his experience. I want to know more, but I won’t interject too much motherly attention into the conversation. I know I’m only being tolerated here.

I congratulate myself that Teo and I like the same music. I like Nirvana. Teo likes Nirvana. Therefore…what? I remind myself that in Teo’s world, Nirvana is an oldie, on a par with the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. Next year it’s just the two of us in the house…how are we going to manage that? He moans at the thought, hurting my feelings. (Oh, how I am going to miss his sister.)

“Next up is Incubus,” says Chris. I’ve never even heard of them. What I’m trying to ignore is that Teo is learning a completely new language, one that leaves me behind.

Never mind, drones the song. Teo, red-faced and sweating, keeps up with the tricky rhythm. The stage is a boat, holding only Teo and Chris, and it’s pulling away from me. I wonder – is this ship just beginning to sail or did it leave months ago, when I wasn’t looking? When does he stop being mine? Was he ever?

You have to be tough in rock and roll, I think. And like a happy, besotted groupie I settle back to watch my growing son master the shifting beat.

Author’s Note: Teo’s drum lessons were pivotal in his evolution from struggling pre-teen to successful high school student. He played in his school’s jazz band for four years, and his love of one art form gave him the confidence to explore others. Upon graduation from high school, he received an award for his contribution to the artistic life of the school, and won scholarships to study painting and creative writing in college.

About the Author: After a career in theater, Heather Dundas is now studying at the University of Southern California for a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing. Her story, “Trivial But Numerous,” was published last year in PMS: PoemMemoirStory 11. An earlier essay, “Mull Mermaid,” was published in Brain, Child in 2006. http://heatherdundas.net/

The Boy Luck Club

By Lauren Tom

I’m forty-three years old and pregnant with my second child. I waited a long time to have kids so that I could become the Not-So-Famous-Asian-American-Actress I am today, and to have more time to work on my “issues” so that I wouldn’t pass them on to my children.

I’m hopelessly in love with my two-year-old son, Oliver—to have another boy doesn’t feel threatening to me. But what if it’s a girl? I would never want my daughter to hate me the way I have at times hated my mother.

My due date is September 13th, my mother’s birthday.

“Why is Ollie so slow when it comes to potty training?” my mother asks. We’re standing in the kitchen of my home in the Hollywood Hills. She takes a swig of Diet Coke and runs her fingers through my son’s hair.

“What do you mean?” I say, wanting to scoop up my son like a football and run with him to safety into the next room. My stomach tightens.

“Well, I mean, he’s two years old. He seems to be doing fine with language, but why he is still in diapers at two? Is he slow?”

“Ollie, you’re fine,” I say, looking right at my son. “You’re right on schedule.” My face feels hot. I breathe deeply, take Ollie’s hand, and lead him into the next room. “Here, honey,” I say as I hand him a toy airplane.

I know that dropping the subject would be wise, but I walk back into the kitchen and say, “The doctor told me to wait until he turned two to start potty training him, Mom. He said that most boys don’t really get it until they’re almost three.”

“That’s ridiculous—you and your brother were both potty trained by the age of two. In fact, your brother learned faster than you did.”

“Whatever,” I say as I pick up the sponge and start to clean the kitchen counter. I scrub it hard.

It’s my mother’s birthday, 1966, and I’m seven years old, just home from school, breathless. I’m standing in the kitchen, holding my mother’s gift behind my back.

“Reach out your hands and close your eyes, Mom.” She unfolds her long thin arms and cups her large hands. Her fingernails are so long they curl in, taking up most of the space in the palm of her hand. I wedge the gift in. She looks like a praying mantis as she accepts it. She opens her eyes. I’m so excited I can hardly stay on the ground. “Do you like it?” I can feel my heart beating.

My mother smiles, her straight white teeth framed in frosty orange lipstick. She is wearing orange plastic earrings and a sleeveless orange dress with big white buttons running down the front. Her hair is puffy on top and flips up at the bottom like Laura Petrie’s in The Dick Van Dyke Show. But she’s not as cheerful and silly as Laura Petrie. She’s cooler, sleeker, more like Emma Peel in The Avengers.

I desperately want to show my mom that even though I may be short and chubby, I can make her beautiful things. I’ve been working on this piece of pottery for two weeks at school. I think maybe it’s a “masterpiece” because my second grade art teacher, Mrs. Benassi, used that word.

I shift my weight from side to side as my mother holds my creation up to the light.

“This is beautiful,” she beams.

“You really like it?” My face feels like it’s about to explode.

“Of course, honey. It’s nice.” She cocks her head to one side. She smiles harder. “What is it?”

I guess I would call it a ceramic blob with bumps—sort of like a soap dish but more like a jellyfish. It’s painted my mom’s favorite color—orange. Even our front door is painted orange.

“I don’t know, Mom. I guess it’s a soap dish. I’m just really glad you like it! Happy birthday!” I watch her carefully place it on the oval dining room table. I wrap my arms around her waist and give her a hug. I can feel one of her ribs jab my cheek. “I’m going upstairs to my room. Okay, Mom?” I want to get out of there before anything can ruin the moment.

“Okay, sweetie,” she says.

I race up the staircase, which is covered with white shag carpeting. A plastic strip runs up the center of it. I am careful to never step outside that strip.

“Come down for dinner when your father gets home,” she calls after me.

My mother has made our home a “real showcase,” as my father puts it. Our living room has white shag carpeting, a light green silk couch, and wallpaper with hand-painted Japanese flowers. Against the wall looms a locked cabinet with old ivory Japanese tchotchkes. My older brother Chip and I are not allowed in this room. Ever. In fact, I’ve never seen my mom and dad in there either.

An hour later I come down to see Chip and my father sitting at the kitchen table. The table looks beautiful. It is set, as it always is, with orange dishes and brown glass tumblers. I look for the soap dish/jellyfish but I don’t see it. We’re having Lop Chung, rice, and peas for dinner. Lop Chung is Chinese sausage that has large polka dots of fat in it. Chip and I like to dig the fat out with our fingernails and line the sides of our plates with it. My mom always shakes her head when we do this.

My father asks my brother to talk about current events taken from today’s newspaper. All I can think is, When is my mother going to tell my father about the gift I made her?

“What do you remember most from what you read today, Chip?” my father asks, pouring a can of Tab into his glass.

I don’t even hear what my brother says because I’m too worried about the soap dish. I wait all through dinner for her to mention it. But she doesn’t. Maybe she put it someplace special so it wouldn’t get knocked down. I’ll bet it’s in the locked cabinet in the living room with all the other tchotchkes. I’ll go look after dinner. I can see everything in the cabinet if I stand at the edge of the carpet. I gouge out the last pocket of fat and eat my sausage.

After dinner, I clear the plates and take them over to the sink. I open the cabinet beneath the sink to scrape the food into the garbage can.

And that’s when I see it.

My masterpiece is sitting right on top of a pile of garbage. I feel my heart drop to my stomach. I want to throw up. My mother doesn’t notice me looking at her; she’s sitting at the table talking to my father. I feel a tightness in my throat. I scrape my leftovers into the garbage, turning away my face so I won’t have to look at the food hitting the soap dish.

Either Mrs. Benassi is a liar, or my mom is a liar. I scrape the next plate. The food completely covers the soap dish now. I start to cry. Maybe my mom liked it at first but then changed her mind. Why would she throw it away? Who throws away a perfectly good soap dish? Or maybe it’s not so perfect or even good. Mrs. Benassi must be the liar.

My mom calls out over her shoulder, “Honey, get the Jell-O out of the fridge and bring it into the den. Bewitched will be on in five minutes.”

“Okay,” I say, keeping my head down so she won’t notice I’m crying. We sit and watch the show, just like we do every Thursday night.

Twenty years later, it’s the late eighties, and people across the country are in therapy, dredging up their pasts, blaming their parents for every imaginable woe. When I finally confront my mom, I feel the support of an entire nation.

We’re sitting at the dining room table in my rented apartment in West Hollywood. My mom still looks like a knock-out.

“What are you talking about, Lauren? I never did that.” Her eyes dart away.

“Yes, you did, Mom. I saw it sitting right on top of the garbage.”

“I really don’t remember, but you’re making such a big deal out of it. Really.”

Here it comes.

“You’re too sensitive. You make everything into a big problem.”

“Well, maybe that’s because you dismiss me and what I’m feeling as if it has no validity whatsoever.”

My mother leans forward. “But it usually doesn’t, Lauren—that’s what I’m trying to say. I don’t understand you. You don’t have any problems, not really. You don’t know what a real problem is.” She starts to pick dog hair off her black leggings.

“What do you mean by that?” I’m staring at her. Hard.

“That in the large scheme of things, a girl your age has no problems.”

“A girl my age? I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m a woman.”

She knits her brow and turns away her head. “You should see what I’ve had to deal with in my life.”

She’s right; she had a rough childhood. But we’re not talking about her. I was talking about me.

She lets out an exasperated sigh. “Is all this ‘therapy’ helping, Lauren? You know, your brother and I never seem to have these kinds of arguments. He gets me. He never says things like this to me. But you? I have had problems with you since the day you were born.”

I dig my front teeth into my lower lip and say, “Fuck you, Mom.” I have never said that to her before. I am shocked that that came out of my mouth.

She looks at me, her face expressionless. She takes a swig of Diet Coke. “You can talk all you want, Lauren. Go ahead and talk. Say whatever you want. Your words do not affect me. I’m not going to change.”

Three years of near-silence followed.

Then, on the heels of my featured role in The Joy Luck Club, a film about mothers and daughters—Chinese mothers and daughters—I telephone. I invite my mom and her mother, Helen, to the film’s premiere. My grandmother is so excited she calls all her Mahjong pals and tells them she’s going to see her “big-shot granddaughter in that movie, The Pot Luck Club.

I’m wearing a black, ankle-length, so-tight-it-looks-sprayed-on Spandex dress, my hair slicked back with greasy styling gel (big mistake) and enough make-up to last the rest of the year. I can hear my father calling out from the grave, “You look like a hooker.”

My mother is wearing a deconstructionist, see-through silk dress by designer Xandra Rhodes. My grandmother Helen, four foot ten, eighty-one years-old—the woman I call “Who-Who” (Chinese baby talk for Grandma)—is wearing a traditional red Chinese silk brocade jacket, black pants, gold sequined tennis shoes with a matching visor, and diamond rings on each finger.

As we’re walking into the theater, the ushers hand out little packets of Kleenex. Who-Who takes one and taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, Little Midget”—I’m five feet tall, Who-Who is four foot ten, and that’s her nickname for me—”why they give me this? They think I’m going to be some kind of crybaby?”

“No, Grandma,” I say, taking her hand. “No one thinks that—it’s just in case you need one.” She scrunches up her face as if she’s just tasted something sour. “It’s free,” I say. “Just put it in your purse.”

“Oh. Okay,” she says.

We settle into our seats as the lights go down. The curtains slowly open. A smile spreads across my face. My mom is sure to be proud of me now. Millions of people have read Amy Tan’s book; it’s already a success.

Twenty minutes have passed. We’re watching the scene in which one of the mothers is crying because she’s been beaten, when suddenly my grandmother starts yelling at the screen as if she’s hailing a cab, “Hey! Buck up!”

I whisper, “Shh! Grandma! We don’t talk in the theater.”

She turns and looks at me—as do several people sitting close to me. She turns back to the screen and yells, “What you think life gonna be? A gravy train?”

“Ma! Shh! Not now,” my mom chimes in.

She turns to my mom, “You shh, Moose!” (It’s her nickname for my mother because she thinks she has big bones.) They bicker in Chinese for a moment. I sink so low into my chair I’m almost lying down, my knees pressed against the seat in front of me.

Who-Who sneers and reaches for her purse. She pulls out a bag of mui, Chinese dried salted plums that have large pits inside them. She unwraps one, and the crackling sound and pungent odor produce more hairy eyeball stares from the people around us. She pops it in her mouth, reaches into her purse, and pulls out an empty plastic grocery bag. The sound is like deafening static over a microphone as she shakes it out and creates a makeshift garbage can on her lap. She rolls the pit back and forth in her mouth, trying to scrape it clean with her teeth. Click-clack, clack. Click-clack, clack. Patooey. She spits the pit into the bag. I settle in for what turns out to be the longest screening in the history of mankind.

The lights come up. The room bursts into applause. I look at my mother.

“What did you think?” I ask, feeling, once again, seven years old.

“Well, I have to say, I agree with Who-Who. I don’t know what the big deal is—all these women crying and whining about all their problems. I’ve seen a lot worse.”

I start to make my way down the row of seats to the aisle.

Okay, okay, I know that you and Who-Who have had to endure the long-held Chinese belief that women are valueless—heck, you’ve just witnessed a baby girl being drowned on the screen. Can’t you find some compassion for that girl, for yourselves, for me? If you can’t be supportive of me in this one moment . . . then just lie. I may have said that last part out loud. I’m not sure.

My mother, following me, calls out, “Why did you have the least screen time of all the women?”

“What?” I say, although I heard her. I stop, turn around, and look at her.

“Was your part cut or was it always that small?”

I keep walking. I try to slow my breathing. I open the double doors leading outside to a sea of photographers lined up along the edge of a long red carpet. “Uh . . . they may have trimmed a scene or two,” I say.

“Yeah, it definitely seemed like you had the smallest part,” she says.

A photographer yells, “Hey, Lauren, can we get a shot of you, your mom, and—is that your grandmother?”

“Sure,” I say, plastering a frozen smile across my face. Do not cry, do not cry. This is the biggest night of your life; don’t let anything ruin it. I stand between my mom and Who-Who, an arm slung around each of them. I can feel a large lump caught in my throat. I hope it’s not detectable in the photo.


Over the next ten years, my mom didn’t change much, but I’d started to realize that I wasn’t going to change her.

It’s two years after the opening, Ollie is a newborn, and my mom and I are talking on the phone. I’m picking dog hair off my silk-upholstered chair, thinking, Oh God, this is exactly what my mother does. We’re talking about how Ollie and my brother have the same shaped head and I look down at my son. He’s lying in a Moses basket, swaddled in a soft orange blanket. His large blue eyes, like pools of deep water, look up and to the left. He pulls one arm free, waves his hand and coos as if he is conversing with other beings, angels perhaps. I look at him and I’m so in love, my heart pounds faster and harder than it ever has, and suddenly my mom says,

“And don’t forget, Lauren, I love you as much as you love Ollie.”

When I’m twenty-four weeks into my second pregnancy I discover a new space within me—a space that can hold the idea of having and raising a baby girl. A girl, who will descend from a long line of strong, funny, independent women who love gaudy jewelry. Is my mom a warm and fuzzy sort of person? No. But it’s not warm and fuzzy that defines love.

I am stepping into my womanhood, and I couldn’t have found my way here without my grandmother and my mother. I know that now. And it’s my turn. I am a launching pad for a new soul.

So when I go to Dr. Katz’s office, I’m ready to find out I’ll be having a girl.

“I can’t take it any more—just tell me,” I say as Dr. Katz squirts warm goo on my belly and presses down with an abdominal probe.

“Do you want me to write it down, put it in an envelope and seal it so you and your husband can open it later?”

“Why don’t you just tell me now, write it down, and I’ll pretend to be surprised later.”

“You got it,” he laughs. Dr. Katz points to the middle of the screen. “There you go.”

“Is that what I think it is?”

Dr. Katz smiles. “Yes, yes it is. You’re having a boy.”

And I smile because I realize he could’ve said “you’re having a kitten” and it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Author’s Note: Landing a featured role in The Joy Luck Club was an honor, a privilege, and a thrill, but until I gave birth to my sons, I had no idea what joy and luck I was to have in my life. Writing “The Boy Luck Club ” helped me understand to what degree that is true. 

Brain, Child (Fall 2004)

About the Author: Lauren Tom is an award-winning actress and writer. Besides The Joy Luck Club, she has starred in the films When A Man Loves A Woman, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, Mr. Jones, Bad Santa, and Disney’s Mulan II. She had a recurring role as Julie, Ross’s girlfriend, on NBC ‘s Friends. You can read more about her at laurentom.com.

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

Peanut Butter Stinks

Peanut Butter Stinks

Peanut Butter ArtBy Morgan Baker

I can smell peanut butter a room away. I know where the open dish of nuts is at a party, and it’s not because I’m salivating for the food.

When I gave birth to my oldest daughter, I knew I’d teach her safety tips like how to look both ways before crossing the street, but I didn’t know I’d teach her how to read ingredients on food packages, and to remember her EpiPen (a shot of artificial epinephrine to jump start her system should it shut down) when she left the house.

When Maggie was 11 months old, I slathered peanut butter on some crackers, tossed them on the high chair tray and watched her lick the crackers clean. I left her in the high chair (something mothers are warned not to do) and ran to the bathroom. When I returned, she was unrecognizable. Her face was swollen to twice its size and covered in hives. Her eyes were almost swollen shut and her lips were puffed out.

I poured liquid Benadryl down her throat and called the pediatrician who was at lunch. The answering service recognized the significance of my call because the pediatrician called back and asked, “Is she breathing?”

Maggie, I learned later, is anaphylactic to tree nuts and peanuts. If she eats one by accident her body can shut down. Her blood pressure can drop, her heart rate can slow and her throat can swell up without a shot of epinephrine in the first 15 minutes of a reaction, she could die.

I know this from meeting with doctors, reading lots of literature and watching my husband almost die several times as his allergies continue to change and develop as he ages.

I grew up on peanut butter and Fluff and ate Snickers bars throughout my pregnancy, but when Maggie was diagnosed with these life-threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, I tossed our half-eaten jar of peanut butter in the trash. We haven’t had another jar in the house in twenty years. My younger daughter doesn’t know what it tastes like.

I spent much of Maggie’s childhood trying to control her environment. She took her own piece of cake when she was invited to birthday parties. We chose her schools partially based on where my husband and I thought she’d be best protected. We avoided those with huge cafeterias and she ended up at a small school where I advocated for her class to be nut-free, for the middle school lunchroom to have a nut-free zone and eventually in high-school for the students to eat on trays to avoid cross-contamination. In one case it took an obituary to motivate the administration to give me what Maggie needed.

But I didn’t just educate her school and friends, I also taught Maggie how to keep herself safe. She doesn’t eat any food if she doesn’t know what the ingredients are. She carries her EpiPen with her at all times – she has a huge collection of purses – and she needs to identify herself in restaurants.

Maggie didn’t always like being singled out, but my zealous behavior has kept her from harm. She has had only two accidents since the original incident.  When she was 13, she ate a congo bar at her grandmother’s memorial service on Martha’s Vineyard thinking I had made it. The caterer had made it – with nuts. A 30-minute ride to the hospital and an EpiPen later, Maggie was fine.

My job as her official advocate, however, ended when she started college. The last call I made on her behalf was to food service at Vassar. On move-in day, two kind administrators showed us around the dining center and explained which food stations would be more, or less, safe for Maggie. They also showed us the Peace of Mind station where Vegans or those who are lactose intolerant, or those who keep Kosher, could find safe food.

I knew letting go of Maggie was going to be hard, but I didn’t expect to choke up in the cafeteria when I saw the individual cream cheese containers for her in the refrigerator.  While everyone else could slap cream cheese and peanut butter on bagels without paying attention to the neighboring open-air containers, Maggie could enjoy one of her favorite foods safely.

As a sophomore, she lived in a teeny-tiny single, which she obtained on her own through The Office of Disability. Now as a junior preparing for senior housing, she’s discovering not everyone can or wants to live without peanut butter. Vegetarians rely on it as a source of protein, and others depend on it for easy meals, but she’s navigating this journey with her friends, not me.

As she departs for a semester abroad, I try not to think about how she’ll communicate her allergies in a foreign language away from home.

I’m not with her all the time anymore, but when I smell peanut butter or see nuts, I catch my breath and think of Maggie.  I keep my fingers permanently crossed and hope I’ve been aggressive and proactive enough, that she’ll continue to take care of herself the way I would take care of her.