Young Love is Real Love

Young Love is Real Love

Couple Rear View Love Holding Hands Drawing Simple Line Vector Illustration

By Jennifer Berney

My seven-year-old son might be in love. I can’t tell you for sure because I’m determined not to ask him, and even if I did, I’m not sure that he could answer. But I can tell you what I’ve seen.

Yesterday afternoon, when I arrived in his classroom to volunteer, my son sat next to a girl—let’s call her Abby—a girl who I’ve been hearing about for months. My job was to bring pairs of children to a table in the hallway so that they could complete a special worksheet. I tapped Abby and my son, asked them if they were ready to join me, and when they stood up they were holding hands. The gesture seemed so natural, as if in standing up their hands had simply joined. They walked to the table this way in comfortable silence and as I trailed them I felt as though my own heart might burst. “Do you see this?” I wanted to say as we passed their teacher, but instead I bit my tongue.

I handed each of them a worksheet and a pencil. Their job was to write down the title of a favorite book and draw an illustration. Such a task would normally take my son five minutes, but on this day he could barely write three letters without looking up at Abby and launching into conversation. I’ve seen my son be distracted by friends before, but this was different. They weren’t making fart jokes and erupting in laughter. Instead, they spoke calmly and earnestly, their eyes fixed upon each other.

I can see why my son is fond of Abby. She has a quiet certainty about her. She has a serious face, but laughs easily. Yesterday, as she colored her illustration, I noticed she was wearing an R2D2 t-shirt. She makes declarative statements that I’m pretty sure send my son’s heart aflutter such as “My favorite book is Diary of a Minecraft Zombie.” When I witness their rapport, I find myself hoping that all of his future relationships might unfold as naturally as this one has.

Tim O’Brien in the short story “The Lives of the Dead” writes about a childhood friendship with a girl named Linda, who eventually dies of cancer.

Linda was nine then, as I was, but we were in love. It was real. When I write about her now, three decades later, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things.

I just loved her.

It takes all of my willpower—all of it—to not impose my adult yardstick on my son’s relationship, to not prompt him to officially declare his feelings. Yesterday, after school had ended, my son asked me to walk him to a nearby playground because he and Abby had schemed to meet each other there. As we put on our shoes, I nearly cried out “Do you have a crush on Abby?”

I knew there were so many good reasons not to do this. For one thing I am his mother, not his big sister. It’s not my job to taunt him. For another thing, I don’t want to send the message that any friendship with a girl must be a romance. But also, as Tim O’Brien suggests, by prompting my son to label his feelings I fear I will diminish them. I don’t want to do that. I want to leave room for this friendship to grow in every possible direction.

In spite of this clarity, I nearly asked him anyways, but by some divine grace my partner arrived home at that exact moment. The diversion allowed me to recover my willpower.

I think that so often we treat our children as adults-in-training; we see their relationships as practice relationships, their emotions as practice emotions. I think that sometimes we fail to notice that our children are already whole, that their feelings are as real as our own, that their desires for themselves are as important as what we desire for them. And, as Tim O’Brien suggests, adults are reluctant to acknowledge that children are capable of loving one another with great tenderness and depth.

I don’t mean to suggest that my son and Abby are eternal soul mates. I realize that this connection between them might easily shift or fade. But I do believe that my son might always remember Abby, that the spark between them at this moment might always be source of warmth.

And so, when it comes to my son’s new friendship, I try to keep my mouth shut. As he picks flowers for her in our backyard, I fight the impulse to gently tease him. Instead, when he holds the small bouquet beneath my nose, I breathe it in: rose, phlox, and lemon balm. “It’s a smell-bomb,” my son tells me. “It’s so good,” I say, remembering what it feels like when you first meet another person who feels so much like home.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, Brevity, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Illustration: © gow27

 

 

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Experiments in Radical Self Care

Experiments in Radical Self Care

Word Cloud with Self Care related tags

By Jennifer Berney

Before I was a parent, I thought that I was a skilled at self care. In the hours I spent alone, I took pleasure in serving my body’s needs. I went for long runs; I cooked elaborate meals; if I was feeling low I put myself to bed early with a cup of mint tea and a hot water bottle. I treated myself like I was worth something, the same way you might treat a lover you wanted to keep around.

In a sense I was right—I was good at tending to my wants. But there was a deeper layer of self-care that I could not yet recognize, the kind of self-care where you speak up for your own needs even when you risk inconveniencing others.

When I was in my twenties, I spent some months working as a prep cook in a restaurant. The kitchen was small and my station was directly in front of the pizza oven which ran at 500 degrees. One day the hinge on the door broke and the door to the pizza oven would not stay shut on its own. I expected we might turn off the oven and make a sign that said No Pizza Today. Instead my boss produced a bungee cord, which he used to hold the door shut. The door, which was made of insulated steel, was remarkably heavy. I knew that bungee cords were strong, but I was pretty sure they weren’t infallible. I was worried that at some point, as I was spreading sauce on the pizzas with my back to the oven, the cord would slip and the heavy door would bust open and hit me on the back of my head. I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Would my neck snap? Would I be knocked unconscious? Would I be carried away in a stretcher? I considered this for hours as I did my work, and yet I said nothing. I did not want to pester my boss.

It seemed that, though I was fine at caring for myself in solitude, I wasn’t so good at caring for myself in relationship to others. Other people’s needs trumped my own by default. This was and continues to be my problem. “I’m not comfortable with this,” or “I can’t help you with that,” are not words that leave my mouth easily. I know that I am not alone in this.

Self-sacrifice is one of the primary tenets in the lore of motherhood. Good mothers, we are often told, are selfless. Good mothers give up their desires, their aspirations and devote themselves wholly to the care of their children. They pack them bento boxes filled with healthy and colorful foods; they sew Halloween costumes by hand and pack towels when they go to the park so that they can wipe morning dew off the slides. In whatever time is left to them, they tend to their home and their marriage. They read magazines and books about how to do better. They exercise daily and watch their waistlines so they won’t be accused of “letting themselves go.” This narrative of the good mother is now the forty-pound oven door that is constantly poised to fall on my head. It is a set of expectations I could never possibly meet, a world I can’t survive in and so, ironically, it is motherhood that has pushed me finally to claim my own space, to state my own needs, to recognize that self care means more than an occasional night out or a long bath.

Self care means that even as I raise two young children, I try to give my own needs equal priority. Sometimes this approach feels ordinary, obvious—of course I should see myself as an equal member of my family rather than a servant. Other days it feels nothing short of radical. To remind myself of my own value, I’ve developed the following mantra:

–My job is to love and provide for my children, not to meet their every demand.

–My needs are as important as my partner’s needs.

–My needs are as important as my children’s needs.

–I am allowed to take up space in this family.

Self care in my house often means that laundry overflows from the basket and onto the floor because I refuse to use naptimes to catch up on housework. Self care means I’m okay with serving grilled cheese with carrot sticks for dinner three nights in a row if it means I have time to go for a walk. Self care means I’ve learned to utter uncomfortable statements like “I need help,” or “I can’t do that.” Self care means that my kids have learned to trust and love other grown-ups in their lives because I often carve out time to myself.

These days, our conversation on parenting seems focused on creating the perfect world for our children. We talk about how to balance their meals and manage their screen time, how to maximize their achievement at school and make them feel special at home. I wish that we talked more about how we tend to our own selves as parents, about how we sustain ourselves in the midst of unending demands. There are so many ways we can tend to our children—that work will never be done. But I’ve convinced myself that to love my children wholly I need to be whole. Being whole means that I too require tending, not just once a month or twice a week but every single day.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

 

When I Said Goodbye to Nursing

When I Said Goodbye to Nursing

By Jennifer Berney

Nursing-2

Some months ago, after enduring four hours of dental surgery, my toddler emerged from anesthesia groggy and pissed off. He punched at my ear and my jaw as I carried him to the car, and then he cried the whole ride home. I brought him to the kitchen where he clung to me and threaded his fingers through my hair, still sobbing. I offered him some blueberry yogurt in a bowl. He calmed himself enough to eat a few bites, and then he pointed to the couch. I carried him there, and once we settled, he asked to nurse. I lifted my shirt and cradled him. His breathing steadied, as did mine. I wiped the tears from his face with the edge of my sleeve. My eyes wandered around the room. “Other side,” my son requested eventually, and so we changed positions. All in all he nursed for maybe fifteen minutes, and in that time he was restored to his usual self. As I righted my bra, he slid off the couch and began to chase his older brother around the living room.

I had no idea that this would be the last time we ever nursed.

My approach to weaning had been so haphazard that perhaps it’s a stretch to even call it an “approach.” A year earlier I had wanted to quit because my son—newly two years old then—woke up desperate to nurse every morning. His demand was so insistent that it limited my ability to meet my own basic needs. I learned to master the art of peeing with a child propped on my lap and to brew a cup of hot tea with my one free hand. He seemed to have an internal rule: his feet could not touch the floor before he nursed.

Once I brought him to the couch, he wanted to keep me there all morning. If I tried to unlatch him after, say, twenty minutes, he looked me coolly in the eye and moved my hand away from his mouth. After several months of this, I left town for a conference and was gone for seven nights and seven mornings. Without me, my son woke up happy. He walked straight to the kitchen table and ate his breakfast.

I returned home wondering if our nursing relationship was over, and also knowing that I need not wonder—the decision was mine to make. If he asked to nurse, I could simply tell him no. The airport shuttle dropped me off at home an hour after bedtime. I peeked at my sleeping children and settled in my own bed. In the morning my younger son wrapped his arms around me, smiled, and asked for a bowl of cereal. We had spent two hours of our morning together before he put one hand on my shoulder, cocked his head, and asked me “nursey time?” I hesitated for a moment, and then I said, “Okay.”

In the months that followed, my son nursed less and less. Sometimes he’d go two days without asking. Occasionally, he’d ask twice in one day. Each time he asked, I wondered when I would start saying no.  With my first son, I had drawn a clear line. “This is our last time nursing,” I had told him before our final session. It was late on a Saturday morning and sun blasted through my bedroom window. I propped up pillows so that I could comfortably sit and nurse, just as I’d done a thousand times before. I thought about his first days at home and the hours I had spent in this same spot latching and unlatching my newborn, trying to get it right. I thought about the midnight feedings and the naptimes, and all the times that nursing had put an end to tears. It was a tender moment, this final goodbye, and the clarity of my boundary allowed me to savor all of the flavors, the bitter and the sweet.

I had expected to do the same with my second son, eventually. And then one day I realized that we hadn’t nursed in weeks. Our nursing relationship had ended without ceremony. I only remember our last time because it was such an unusual day.

I am thirty-nine now and, by choice, I will have no more children. I will never be pregnant again. I will never nurse another baby. I feel relieved about this, and sad about this, but more than anything I feel puzzled. How did I get here so quickly? Every day I look at my seven-year-old son and tell myself that he’s halfway to fourteen. Before I know it, he’ll be shape shifting into a man. My second child, my three-year-old, still looks like a baby to me most of the time. But then last night as he raced two imaginary friends across the living room, he looked suddenly taller, leaner. I could see in him a preview of the child he’s becoming. Somehow, suddenly, I’ve arrived at the phase of parenting where my children leave my embrace as often as they seek it.

I leave behind the years of intensive physical parenting, the years of rinsing diaper inserts in the toilet, of wiping drool away from chins, the years of mastitis and sore nipples, of baby whorls and cradle cap, the years of rarely being alone and always being needed, of being too crowded in the bed, of being asked to sing the same song over and over and over in spite of my broken voice.

Those years are now behind me. They are years that were as frustrating as they were joyful, but I have no doubt that the filter of nostalgia will eventually render them perfect. There’s no token I can hold—no lock of hair or beloved blanket—that will actually bring those years back. That era has come to an end with no clear warning, no announcement. This is of course, the way of things. To say goodbye, I must turn around and wave to the thing that is already gone.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Making Room for Joy

Making Room for Joy

By Jennifer Berney

Joy

I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.

Too often when my children are full of joy, I take it as my job to curb it.

Take the following scene, for instance:

“Get your pajamas on!” I yell to my older son for the umpteenth time. It’s eight thirty in the evening and I wanted my two sons in bed half an hour ago. But instead they are still naked from their bath, chasing each other through the living room. My toddler jumps out at my older son from behind a half-closed door. He shrieks, and our small house fills with peals of laughter. “Enough!” I shout. I put my hand on my son’s bare back, and guide him into his bedroom. I close the door between him and his little brother. In moments like this, I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.

One of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve ever received came from an older friend, her child already grown. “I was good at being present through the hard emotions,” she said. “But I wish I’d been more present for the joy.”

When she said this, my jaw dropped a little. So far I had measured my parenting on how well I tended to my children through their daily disappointments, their struggles and grievances. But when it came to how well I engaged with their happiness, I never measured that.

I began to consider the moments when I interfere with my children’s fun. There’s always a reason: it’s bedtime or it’s time to leave for school. They’re messing up the bed I just made, or their shrieks are hurting my ears. It’s true that sometimes the fun must end. But it’s also true that sometimes I can make room for it by starting our bedtime routine earlier, for instance, or training them to help me remake the bed that they’ve unmade.

The more I think about these things, the more I must face a truth about myself: Joy is a challenging emotion for me. Sadness comes easily. Anger hovers in the background. Anxiety is ever-present. These are my resting emotions. I don’t want to overstate it here. It’s not that my life has been particularly hard, or that I’m a chronically unhappy person. It’s just that joy is such a big emotion. One I find hard to inhabit comfortably. When I embody it, I feel like I’ve put on an outfit that doesn’t quite suit me—like I’ve borrowed a friend’s neon party dress to wear to a PTA meeting.  

I suspect that I’m not the only adult who feels this way. I suspect that for many of us, by adulthood joy has left our emotional landscape or we must go to special lengths to engage it: we might finish a bottle of wine on Friday night, or empty our wallets for brief thrills like sky diving or bungee jumping. Some of us might have even wanted children, in part, because we thought they might help us regain the sense of joy that has dimmed over the years. But then, after a year or so of parenting, we might claim to be so overburdened with the tasks of work and keeping house that there is no room in our lives for such a big and frivolous emotion.

At first glance, joy doesn’t help us to vacuum the car or put away the groceries. But I do wonder if joy may act as a medicine, a balm, if it might help me move with ease through life’s sharp turns and corners, if yesterday’s dose of joy might make today’s to-do list feel less daunting, or less important. And so lately I try to take note when my children are joyful. I try to open myself to this strange and foreign feeling.

Yesterday morning my children were ready for school and we still had ten minutes to spare—a small miracle in my world. To entertain themselves, they took turns jumping off the coffee table and into my arms. As they leapt, they shouted random words like cat-face! or jellyfish!

In the past, I might have acted as catcher for a hundred jumps and never noticed what a good time this was. I might never have noticed how good it felt to have their full weight land on me, each of their bodies creating a gentle ache with each landing. But at some point, after at least a dozen falls and catches, it registered: this is joy. I opened my arms wider. I cheered. When they finally landed, I held them tighter.

On the couch that morning, no miracle occurred. All of my resting emotions—my sorrow, my anger, my worry—remained. But for those minutes I also felt suspended, held inside a bright and hazy light. I was at once two selves, present and distant, joyful and fearful, a human existing in time, space, and also light.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

On Infertility and Magical Thinking

On Infertility and Magical Thinking

By Jennifer Berney

baby12_21

Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone.

 

When I first began trying to conceive, I believed that I’d be pregnant within a month. For one thing I was only twenty-eight years old. Because I’m a lesbian, I had already worked out all of the logistics: I knew when I ovulated, and I knew that the donor sperm we had purchased was viable—our doctor had watched them swim beneath a microscope. Of the millions of sperm that would be delivered directly to my uterus, only one of them had to find my egg. What could go wrong?

Besides these clinical facts, I had stories I told myself around conception. I had already spent years of my adult life pining for a child. Surely this desire would inform my body’s ability to conceive. Though I understood that conception took an average of three to six months, I knew plenty of women who had conceived on their first try. I held their stories close to me like talismans. The first time I lay on the exam table for an insemination—my feet in stirrups, my partner holding my hand—I summoned a feeling of openness and joy. Of course this would work. Of course it would.

It didn’t. Months later, when I still wasn’t pregnant, my stories about conception changed. I no longer daydreamed about the women I knew who had conceived immediately. Instead, I imagined I was waiting for the right child to choose me. I pictured little baby-spirits, hovering, taking stock of all the candidates. Sympathetic friends tried to console me with their own magical thinking. “It will happen when it’s meant to happen,” some of them told me. “It will happen when you finally stop worrying about it,” others said.

The stories I told myself and the ones my friends told me had this in common: they imposed order on a process beyond our control.

Story 1: If a child-spirit chose me, then I would be a parent.

Story 2: A force called destiny would choose when I got pregnant.

Story 3: My thoughts controlled my womb.

I didn’t know what to think of any of these stories, these tropes of magical thinking, including my own. I didn’t quite believe them, and yet they haunted me. The third story was the least comforting of all. Surely my attitude was within my realm of control and yet, the more I tried not to worry, the more I worried, and the more I worried the more I blamed myself for worrying.

One day, after nearly a year of trying and failing, after having spent thousands of dollars on frozen sperm and monthly inseminations, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. She had dated a close friend of mine not long ago, and so she was privy to my situation. “What’s going on with the baby thing?” she asked me. We stood between shelves of toothpaste and shampoo. I looked at my shoes and then back at her. “It’s just not happening,” I confessed.

“Well,” she said, her voice strangely chipper, “maybe you just weren’t meant to be a parent. Did you ever think about that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve thought about that.”

*   *   *

Now that I’m the parent of two young boys, there’s a mind game I like to play with myself sometimes. When my children are hugging each other on the couch or running ahead of me on a dirt road, I take a snapshot in my mind and offer it to my earlier self, the me of nine years ago. She is preparing to turn thirty and wondering what she will do if she’s not pregnant soon. Will she spend another small fortune on IVF? Will she apply for an open adoption and hope that someone will choose her? It is true that she has options; it is also true that none of them guarantee a child.

The me of nine years ago tries not to cry to her partner too often. Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone. For two weeks of the month the mind hopes and imagines. With blood those hopes are dashed. Her partner, on the other side of things, continues in a body unchanged by the ritual of hope and disappointment. Her partner learns about the blood arriving, but is not the one checking her underwear every hour.

And so when I cried, my partner tried to comfort me by saying, “I’m not worried about it. I know that we’ll have a child. When it’s meant to happen it will happen.”

Destiny again. Magical thinking. These words didn’t help me nine years ago. The only thing that could have helped would have been a picture of my future life. With this evidence I might have waited calmly. But the snapshot of my children, handed through time, is a dream. In the real world no one can offer evidence. They can only offer hope disguised as certainty.

The longer I tried and failed to conceive, the more I saw that there were plenty of people around me who wanted children and would never have them. Some of them had never found the partner they were looking for, or they found that partner too late. Some of them conceived and lost a child and then couldn’t conceive again. Some of them pursued adoption but were never matched with a child.

This isn’t destiny, at least not in the benevolent sense of the word. It wasn’t the kind hand of the universe intervening for some unknown reason. Instead this was reality. Sometimes you want a thing very badly and still you don’t get it. When life presents challenges, when it drops bombs of longing and grief, we inevitably grow and gain depth. But this doesn’t mean that those challenges were pre-ordained.

I do believe that the stories we make of our lives are important. But they are just that: stories. We reach into the chaos of the universe and try to pull out some meaning and order. Because my story has a happy ending, I can pretend that it was destined after all, that I was meant to be a parent. But the true story is this: I got lucky.

The me of nine years ago reaches forward in time. She takes the snapshot from my hand and reminds me of how badly I wanted the life I have now. She reminds me to listen in the dark as my children breathe. She reminds me of how tenuous all of this is, our lives together on this earth. We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times MotherlodeThe Washington PostThe Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Learning to Get Out of the Way

Learning to Get Out of the Way

By Jennifer Berney

learningtogetoutoftheway
What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him.

 

For the six years that I’ve been a parent, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to enrich my child. When he was a baby, I hovered as he explored a toy xylophone, wondering if he might be a prodigy. As he grew old enough to talk, I wondered if, with a little coaching, he might be reading and writing fluently by the time he was four.

This is what good parents did, I figured. They helped their children identify their passions and then, through active instruction, they crafted them into geniuses.

About a year ago, I thought I’d found my opportunity when my son started dancing any time there was music within earshot. My partner and I had a blast watching him shake his booty across the living room, mimicking every kind of dance he’d ever seen. Within a week, I was on the phone with our local ballet school, asking them if my child was old enough to train. From what I understood, boys were a rare commodity in ballet. Clearly, my son would be the next Baryshnikov.

My son wasn’t certain that he wanted to take a dance class, but he agreed to visit the classroom with me on a Saturday morning. We sat together on the sidelines and watched a group of girls and boys his age move across the room like dinosaurs and elephants. I looked at him to see if he was inspired to join them, but his face remained blank. As they moved into formal instruction, practicing standing en pointe and demi plies, he leaned in and whispered “Mommy, I’m not interested in that.”

“Are you sure?” I prodded.

Though I gave up on ballet, I still waited for my moment to help him shine. That summer, I signed him up for a day-long painting class. He had agreed it sounded fun, but when the day arrived, he clung to me, not wanting to go inside the classroom. It was the sight of a like-minded boy in a Spider-man shirt—not the easels and paintbrushes—that helped him settle in. That afternoon, when I arrived to pick him up, the other children had painted skies, mountains, and trees. My son held up his canvas, smiling. Apparently he had started painting and couldn’t stop. He enjoyed layering color after color. The result: a canvas that looked like mud. This would not be going on our wall.

For a while after that, I laid off the courses and stopped trying to turn our time together into a curriculum. I accepted that my son, more than anything, liked to play Angry Birds and watch Spider-man on Netflix. He liked to be read to, to play with friends and build forts, and he didn’t care to go for walks. In short, his interests were unexceptional.

And then, about a month ago, my son began asking me for paper. I’d pull a couple of pages from my printer and he’d spread his markers across the kitchen table and fill the width of the page with sketches of superheroes and remembered scenes from movies. He found a sketchbook I’d bought for him a year earlier and began filling the pages systematically. Looking at my son’s sketches is like looking at a cross-section of his brain. There are lines firing like neurons in all directions, depictions of good versus evil, of the sun and the moon, his baby brother, and all of his friends. Taken together, the pages are his universe.

What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him. By definition, a passion is something that can’t be controlled. It’s not the thing that someone pushes you to do; it’s the thing you have to do, the thing that beckons you. That’s why it’s called your calling. It knows your name. It comes to find you.

For once I’m learning to hang back and let him do his thing. I bought a small set of pens that I thought might allow him more precision than the wide-tipped markers he’d been stuck with. But that’s it. I don’t correct the way he uses his pen. I haven’t signed him up for any more art classes. For the moment, I don’t want anyone to come between him and his passion—not me, not a teacher, no one.

As it turns out, my son is the one instructing me. I watch the way he gravitates to paper, the way he ignores any bids for his attention. I watch how the minute he completes one sketch he moves on to another. Lately, when I bring him a plate of toast in the morning, I usually find it untouched twenty minutes later as he continues to sketch Darth Vader’s cape.

“Why haven’t you eaten?” I ask him.

“I got distracted,” he explains.

Really, it’s the opposite. The daily tasks of life are the distraction. The work that calls us is what matters. It’s a lesson I try to teach myself daily when I find myself buried in the daily minutia of laundry, errands, preparing meal after meal. “What do I actually want to do?” I ask myself.

It was a quiet voice at first. It whispered, walk that trail to the beach, or blow off laundry and watch TV. The more I listen, the louder it grows. Write that book, it tells me. Not just on the weekends, but every single day.

With two sons now, I’m busier than ever, but that voice will not be ignored. On the best of days now you’ll find us in a house piled high with unfolded laundry, dancing and drawing and writing till we drop.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times Motherlode, The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Illustration: Harlan Shincke, the author’s son

Editors’ Picks: Some of Our Favorite Blog Posts from 2015

part-timemotherPart-Time Mother

By Lauren Apfel

It’s not enough anymore to fill my days only with theirs. I am half of one thing and half of another.

 

 

 

teenage-boy2What is a Teenage Boy

By Rachel Pieh Jones

A teenage boy is an almost-man’s body with an almost-but-not-quite man’s voice.

 

 

 

Life_Choose-1024x768Making Peace With The Life I Didn’t Choose

By Jennifer Berney

Every day I remind myself that this is the life I’ve chosen, a life of two children, both of them rowdy and loving.

 

 

 

photo-1428992858642-0908d119bd3e-1024x768Perfectly Imperfect

By Elizabeth Richardson Rau

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

 

 

 

Unknown-1My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

By Mandy Hitchcock

Being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.  

 

 

 

ibelievedthelie-1024x684I Believed the Lie

By Jenna Hatfield

In that moment, in the dark of that darkest night, I agreed. My children would be better off without my presence.

 

 

 

 

unnamed1My Girls Will Be Fine

By Francie Arenson Dickman

When it comes to mothering, getting to do it is the only thing that matters.

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRender-1024x568Dear Teenaged Girl In the Crop Top

By Karen Dempsey

Here is what I’d like to say: It’s not the crop top.

 

 

 

 

Dear Kindergarten TeacherTeacher-1024x1024

By Jennifer Berney

Let me begin with a confession. When I signed up to visit your classroom on Fridays, it wasn’t because I wanted to help. I volunteered because I was curious.

 

 

 

cwvDm9asA_Lw9YsGTQNy8vWzhk4-1024x682The Things We Keep

By Sharon Holbrook

I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself. 

 

 

 

fa19555e-1024x686Intolerable

By Adrienne Jones

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

 

 

 

 

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

By Allison Slater Tate

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

 

 

 

 

cq5dam.web_.1280.1280The Trouble With Pronouns

By Maureen Kelleher

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

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

By Jennifer Berney

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The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.

 

At two years old, when my younger son began putting words together, his first complete sentences were all variations on a theme.

“Watch this, Mommy!” he would shout over and over as he frog-hopped across the living room floor or threw a ball into a hoop. When the action was complete, he always asked, “See that?” his voice crackling with pride.

Once my son had these sentences, he used them hundreds of times every day, and I thought about what it meant that he wasn’t saying “feed me” or “hold me” or “keep me warm.” The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.

Now that he’s approaching three he finds more creative ways to remain in my line of vision. When I make dinner he often struts into the kitchen, demands to be held, and then physically turns my head so that I must look him in the eye.

Because of both his age and personality, my younger son refuses to be invisible. But my older son, who is seven, can sometimes fade into the shadows. He spends hours sitting alone in his room building Legos, or lying on his top bunk reading comic books. In our house, he’s often a friendly background presence rather than a force to be reckoned with. Because his little brother steals the show so often, I often worry that I sideline him, that I don’t actively see him the way he needs to be seen. It’s easy work to tell my older son I love him, to hold him tight when he’s near, but sometimes those words—I love you—feel inadequate and hollow. Sometimes I suspect that to convince him of my love, I must first convince him that I know him.

Two weeks ago, his first grade teacher gave me the opportunity to see him with new eyes. It was parent-teacher conference week, and on the day of our conference my son and I walked to school holding hands. It was a rare moment for us, one where he and I could be alone together, free from his brother’s toddler antics.

When we sat down with his teacher, she laid out a folder of his work and told me, “Your son pays close attention to detail.” This wasn’t a thing that I knew about him, but once she pointed it out, I could see it everywhere. As we leafed through the pages of his folder I noticed how tiny and careful his letters had become. I noticed the way that, in his self-portrait, the sky was not just a line of blue at the top of the page—it actually met the ground.

But there were other things worth noticing in my son’s self-portrait. He had drawn himself not as a giant smiling face but as a tiny shadowy figure at the bottom of the page. I remembered a video I had seen years ago that demonstrated how much children’s self- and family portraits revealed about the way they saw themselves in the world. If my son, when asked to draw himself, could only summon something tiny, then clearly he needed some building up.

That night as he soaked in the bathtub, I dug through his school folder to retrieve a hand-drawn book his teacher had returned at the conference. “Will you look at this with me?” I asked as I sat on the bathmat and showed him his own work. He straightened his back to look over my shoulder. I pointed to every detail I noticed—the fluttering fins on the goldfish that swam inside a fish bowl, the disco ball he’d drawn on the page with the dancing canary. My son nodded and giggled, impressed with his own sense of humor. He pointed out details I had missed.

Once both of my sons were in their pajamas I kissed them goodbye and left the house—it was my partner’s night to put them to sleep, my night to meet a friend for adult conversation.

When I returned that night the house was quiet, dark except for a fake candle—a battery-powered tea light that flickered on the coffee table next to a glass of water. I thought nothing of it until later when I settled on the couch to read and I noticed the water glass was full. Between the water glass and the tea light was a tiny illustration. It was a picture of my son and me standing together beside a candle, holding hands.

Some part of me was humbled by son’s deep generosity. I wasn’t sure that a parent-child relationship was supposed to be so reciprocal. I had given him ten minutes of my undivided attention and he had returned my investment immediately. He had thought about me and my after-hours quiet time, had pictured me on the couch with a book reaching for a glass of water. I had seen him, and in return he saw me too.

I looked closely at the picture and considered it. The paper itself was tiny, but in this illustration both my son and I took up the full width of the page. Were we big or were we small? I couldn’t tell. I only knew for sure that we were the same size as the candle that lit us. It strikes me now that he perfectly captured the magic that happens when we witness each other, when we take the time to look and narrate what we see: we stand in the glow of that other person’s view, and know not just that we are loved, but why we are loved, and how.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

By Jennifer Berney

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This wasn’t the first time that someone had trouble understanding my son. Other grown-ups, charmed by his pronunciation, often chuckled and mimicked key phrases.

 

My son was four years old when he first expressed embarrassment about the way he talked. It happened one morning, as he played blocks on the floor with a friend and I sat in the background, reading. My son was narrating as he played, telling her that this giant tower was just part of what would become a “really cool world.” It was clear to me exactly what he was saying, but his friend just kept asking “What?” over and over, because all she could hear was “weally cool wowld.”

“I can’t understand you!” she said, giggling.

My son got up and sat next to me. He leaned in. I translated. “He’s making a really cool world,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, unfazed.

“Are you okay?” I whispered my son who was now resting his head in my lap.  

“I think—” he said, “I think it’s just that my voice is a little funny.”

This wasn’t the first time that someone had trouble understanding my son. Other grown-ups, charmed by his pronunciation, often chuckled and mimicked key phrases. My son might explain to an adult friend that he had dreamed about a red-eyed creature who chased him through the forest. “Is that right?” the friend might respond. “A wed-eyed kweecha, huh?” My son would look confused for a moment and then resume his monologue.  

“Oh honey,” I said now, drawing him as near as I could. “Your voice isn’t funny. You just have a hard time with the letter R. Lots of kids do.”

Some minutes later, he returned to his blocks. He built now in silence, no longer speaking of his really cool world.

Over a year later, our family doctor asked if we’d consider bringing him to a speech therapist. She acknowledged what I already knew: that most kids with a delayed R acquire it naturally before the age of seven. “But,” she went on, “you might consider whether it would help his confidence to address it before he starts kindergarten.”

I thought about how lately any time someone asked his name he would lean into me and whisper, “You say it.” At first I assumed he was simply being shy. “You can tell them!” I’d say. “Hah-lan,” he’d tell them, and inevitably the person would give him a puzzled look. “Hollin?” they’d say, looking to me for guidance. “Harlan,” I’d correct.

We met with the speech therapist the following week. She was a gentle woman, gangly and tall with long hair, who played card games with my son and sent him away with stickers. Under her guidance, he became an expert at distinguishing Rs from Ws. He could hear the difference between weed and reed, between walk and rock, no problem. But this didn’t mean that he could pronounce his Rs. Instead he paused at R words; he gave them his full attention and came out with a sound that wasn’t quite W, but was still quite far from a recognizable R.

After six months of speech therapy, his therapist wanted to talk to me about his progress. She had recently tried recording my son so that he could hear his pronunciation. He’d been enthusiastic initially, but when he heard his recorded voice, his face grew red and his eyes welled up. He insisted that the recording machine was broken, that it made him sound weird. “Wee-ahd.”

“We can keep trying,” she offered, “But he might just need a break.” As we left her office that day, I felt relief at letting go of this one thing—a small thing really, a single letter of the alphabet. I was hopeful that after a few months my son might find R on his own.

He didn’t. He started kindergarten and made new friends, and built elaborate structures out of Legos, and learned to read, and basically did all of the things that you would want a happy, healthy kindergartener to do, only he still didn’t like to say his own name, and if you asked him who his teacher was, he didn’t want to say “Mrs. Brown.”

At the end of the school year, my son’s class put on a recital and in the days leading up to the event, my son confided that he was nervous. “What are you nervous about?” I asked him. “What are you going to do?”

“It’s a suh-pwise,” he told me.

When the evening of the recital arrived, the gym was packed with at least sixty parents and siblings and neighbors and relatives. At the last moment, I remembered to stuff my pocket with tissues. My son stood on the front riser, dressed in his brand-new Minion t-shirt and freshly laundered shorts, his version of a fancy outfit. The whole class sang The More We Get Together, and then Mrs. Brown handed the microphone to the girl sitting at the edge of the front row. She spoke with absolute confidence: “My name is Hailey and my favorite thing about kindergarten is reading corner.” She handed the mic to the boy on her left. It wasn’t until he began to speak, that it hit me: my son was next in line. In just moments, he would take the mic and have to introduce himself to a crowd of near-strangers. My heart sped. My face flushed. My son took the mic, looked out at the crowd, and gathered his breath. I swear, he took forever to speak, but once he started he didn’t pause. “My name is Hah-lan,” he said. “And my favowite thing about kindahgahten is computahs.”

The audience clapped politely just as they had for the two proceeding children. No one else knew that my son was likely terrified, that they had just witnessed an act of significant courage. But I knew. I sat there with my tissues, snotty and teary and beaming, grateful in a strange way for that impossible letter R for teaching my son that it’s okay to say your own name, to claim what you love even if you can’t say the words perfectly.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Terrible Twos and Life Out of Balance

Terrible Twos and Life Out of Balance

By Jennifer Berney

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This time around two-and-a-half is pushing me so far beyond my comfort zone that I am sometimes frightened. In my darker moments, I wonder: what if I wake up one morning and I just can’t do it anymore?

 

My son, who is two-and-a-half, has perfected the art of resistance. When I go to change his morning diaper, he snakes behind the sofa cushions and lies there, still and silent. When I give up on waiting for his cooperation, when I remove the cushions and attempt to lift his body, he transforms into a whirlwind of force and motion, every limb wild with fury, kicking and punching at my face. “No change me!” he cries as I carry him to the bathroom. “No change me!”

I can try to imagine why he resists with such force. The morning diaper, I’m sure, is warm and molded to his body. Perhaps he dreads the sudden air on his bottom, followed by the crisp new elastic on the tender flesh of his thigh. But my empathy for my son’s position doesn’t do either of us much good. That diaper still needs to come off.

Yesterday, as I ripped the first adhesive strip from the diaper he shouted to our dog “Save me Wally! Eat Mommy!”

I paused. “Do you really want Wally to eat me?”

A gleam passed through his eyes. “Yeah,” he answered, smiling now. Apparently the thought gave him comfort. When my job was complete, I lifted him from the changing pad, and he leaned into me and held my face. “You my best friend,” he whispered.

This is what two-and-a-half has meant for my son and me. Over the course of five minutes we both may find ourselves embroiled in a physical struggle, then laughing, then holding each other close. We have become, I think, a textbook example of a concept from developmental psychologist Jean Piaget: disequilibrium.

Disequilibrium occurs during a time of rapid development, when the brain is acquiring new skills faster than it can assimilate them. This explains, for instance, why a child might act ornery and sleep terribly in the weeks before she learns to walk. I’m not sure exactly what skills my son is processing at the age of two-and-a-half, but I know that the specialists predict—accurately—that he will test me at every turn. “Two years old is a lovely age,” a parenting coach once told me. “Two-and-a-half is the age that’s terrible.”

I imagine that for my son disequilibrium feels a bit like waking up on a winter morning, snug and warm beneath the blankets, only to have someone suddenly yank those blankets away; it’s a feeling of being moved abruptly from a state of comfort to a state of unease. No wonder my son doesn’t want me to take off his warm diaper. He’s already feeling exposed.

It’s not so hard for me to imagine how disequilibrium feels to my son, because, as his parent during this stage, I feel the same way: shocked into a new reality where I feel constantly at my own edge. I move through my day bracing myself for conflict. My problem isn’t that my son is wildly inconstant. It is that he is relentlessly predictable. It’s not that I can’t see the tantrums coming. It’s that I can, one after the other, in rapid fire, many times in a single day.  

Last week I found myself crying in the car after a particularly hard morning. I had struggled to get my older son to school on time and once I had dropped him off, my two-and-a-half-year-old refused to get in the car. It was nine-thirty already and I needed to get to work. He reached for the doorframe and hung on with his gorilla grip. “Please don’t do this,” I pleaded as I attempted to pry him off. Once I had buckled him in and settled in my own seat, I passed him a cracker, hoping to distract him from his temper. He accepted it, and then threw it. The cracker glanced off my shoulder and landed on the seat beside me. I buried my head in my hands. “Mommy?” my son inquired. “Mommy, I sorry.”

“Mommy’s okay,” I told him, but I spent the ensuing drive to work wondering if my tears would stop or if I would need to call in sick and spend the rest of the morning hiding in my bed. Upon arriving, I was relieved to find that the motion of walking to my office, the sunlight in the trees calmed me.

I’ve been a parent for seven years, and I’ve had my ups-and-downs, but this time around two-and-a-half is pushing me so far beyond my comfort zone that I am sometimes frightened. In my darker moments, I wonder: what if I wake up one morning and I just can’t do it anymore? Addiction and mental illness run deep through my family’s genetic history, and I’ve spent my life wondering if the wrong circumstance might trigger a change in my brain’s chemistry and send me headlong into depression.

In brighter moments I remind myself that there is a better case scenario, that my son and I will make it to the other side of this together, both of us more even, unflappable, upright. Because if disequilibrium is a stage in my child’s growth, it might simply be a catalyst for my own as well, a state that stretches my patience until I become more elastic, more capable of steering towards balance.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

My Bikini Body

My Bikini Body

By Jennifer Berney

bikini

In front of the dressing room mirror, I tried to decide between two versions of the same swimsuit: the one-piece or the bikini.

The one-piece resembled the swimsuits that both my mother and grandmother wore throughout my childhood, the kind of suit that safely covers the entire bottom, and ruffles at the hips, the kind of suit that knows how to keep a secret.

But the bikini—a modest two-piece that still secured me in important places—made me feel like a different person, one who loved her belly well enough to show it a little sunlight, one who didn’t need to hide. That was the person I wanted to be.

In the thirty-eight years that I’ve been alive, I’ve spent at least thirty-two of them looking down, sucking it in, wishing the fat away. The summer of my first grade year I would snack out of boredom and then do leg lifts on the floor of the living room, trying to burn off the calories I’d just consumed.

But no matter what I tried over the years, I never achieved flatness, and as I approached thirty my belly began to grow undeniably round. Each night when I stepped out of the shower and leaned over to dry my legs, the fat on my belly gathered and hung.

Two pregnancies simply sped the process my body had begun on its own. These days, weight-loss ads in my Facebook feed often feature a belly that looks alarmingly like mine, one that sags a bit over the waistline. Their message is clear: a belly like mine must be tamed.

I bought the bikini. It was the first I’d ever owned. The first time I wore it out, I was on a road trip with my sons. On a Saturday in July, after helping my kids into their swim trunks and life vests, I ducked into the motel bathroom, put the thing on, and looked in the mirror. Viewed from the side, I looked about five months pregnant. As I walked to the pool, I wondered how likely it was that another motel patron would ask when I was due.

As it turned out, we had the pool to ourselves. There were no other eyes to assess me. I could have relaxed, but I didn’t. Instead I stood around feeling awkward, trying to straighten anytime I stooped, to tuck anytime I sagged. My six-year-old practiced his cannonballs. My two-year-old splashed on the first step and pointed to the deep end.

“Do you want me to swim?” I asked him.

“Yeah.” He nodded.

I jumped in. I swam away from him, into the deep end, my arms spreading through the water, carrying me forward, my torso and legs floating and gliding, buoyant. I could hear my son’s voice behind me, reminding me “So deep, Mommy; so deep!” The pool was a small one. It only took me five strokes to reach the other side, but when I turned around, the look on my toddler’s face was unmistakable: it was the look of total adoration, the kind of love I’d spent a lifetime seeking.

My older son noticed and laughed. “He thinks you’re Aquaman or something.”

“Mommy, swim!” my younger son commanded me, over and over, until my fingers had pruned and I shivered. I wrapped myself in a towel and led the boys back to our room.

That night as I fell asleep in the motel bed, I remembered my son’s awestruck gaze and turned it over in my mind. I wondered how anyone could love me with so much enthusiasm. I thought about what he had seen in me—the same smoothness and the strength I felt while gliding through the water.

To my sons, I am not the sum of my parts, the balance that remains once you subtract all my physical flaws. My six-year-old doesn’t love me any less for my acne. My two-year-old doesn’t wish I’d lose twenty pounds. When they look at me they don’t assess me, they love me.

To assess and to love are, I’m learning, verbs that are mutually exclusive. To assess something is to step away from loving it, to decide—from a distance—what has value and what is worthless.

When you love something, you are right up next to it, inside it, you are it. When one of my children coughs my own throat tickles. In the middle of the night, when my little one calls for me and I settle beside him, our breathing finds the same rhythm. When my son watched me swim that afternoon he was all caught up inside the motion of me, the bigness of me.

If I truly wanted to love myself, I would take a cue from my kids and quit assessing. I wouldn’t look at my body with a stranger’s eyes, I would instead just inhabit it, feel the heat of the sun, the coolness of the water, the strength of my stroke. These are the reminders I will whisper to myself the next time I put on my bikini.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

What a Summer Should Be

What a Summer Should Be

By Jennifer Berney

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Because isn’t it true that on a warm summer evening it’s easy to like whomever you’re with?

 

When I was eight years old, in 1985, summer had long arms. I woke long after the sun had risen to a day that no one had mapped out for me. It was my job to map it, and so I read books, I watched TV, I put an album on the record player and spread out across the floor to listen. And when I got bored of all of these things, I cut through the neighbor’s back yard, walked two houses down, and knocked on my best friend’s door.

Our play dates were never arranged by parents or noted on the family calendar. Instead, they were spontaneous and sprawling: they often lasted for days. After an afternoon of play, as dinnertime approached, and the prospect of separating loomed, we inevitably begged for a sleepover.

My parents, who valued routine, were likely to say, “We didn’t plan for that.” But Alison’s parents—who had once been hippies and had an open door policy—were far more likely to say “Sure.” On one of these summer evenings their yes meant that I traveled with them to a party several towns away.

I had never been to a party that combined adults and children. When my own parents wanted to socialize, they hired a sitter and went out, or invited one or two guests over for dinner. So far the only parties I knew involved balloons, a small group of kids the same age, and a table for carefully wrapped presents, but this party was expansive. Grown-ups spilled out of the house and onto the lawn. Alison and I were instantly absorbed into a group of children. There were about a dozen of us, boys and girls of various ages, most of us unknown to one another. We never learned each other’s names, but we played together, easily, for hours. We played tag and red rover. We found big sticks and explored the nearby creek, balancing on rocks and swatting at mosquitoes. If we had gone to school together, we would have been in different grades and different social groups. At best, these other children would have ignored me at recess; at worst, they would have teased me for my bad haircut and crooked teeth. But that evening we were free from all of that.

Back at the house, grown-ups did whatever grown-ups did at parties. They drank and smoked strange-smelling cigarettes. They grilled meat. They sang and talked and laughed their loud grown-up laughs. By this time I was certain that my own parents were in bed, asleep.

When night descended, darkness drew us kids to the light of the bonfire, where each of us settled between the grown-ups we’d arrived with. On the long drive home, Alison lay across the back seat with her head in my lap while I tracked stars in the clear night sky.

As an adult, I’m surprised by how often I remember this party, which marked a rare moment in my childhood where time and social boundaries were fluid. I think of it every time we assemble on a neighbor’s lawn for a barbecue and my sons join games with children of various ages. On these evenings I note how the teenage boys are tender with the younger kids. They are skilled at adapting games of football and Frisbee to include my six-year-old who still struggles to catch and to throw, and my two-year-old who stands in the middle and lunges.

I think of this party when we visit a friend whose twin granddaughters jump up and down at the sight of my sons, and they all run wild together. They take turns sliding on the Slip n’ Slide. They sprint down the hill and do tricks on the swings. Away from school, my son feels free to play with girls who wear pink, and the girls in turn are happy to spend their afternoon with younger boys who can barely keep up. When children form packs, when their friendships leave the restrictions of gender and age, their play becomes timeless. There is magic in that.

The rest of our summer is often marked by the trappings of our era. We listen to audio books on the iPad, watch movies on Netflix. These days, the parents I know aren’t eager to let their children roam the neighborhood or swap kids for days at a time, and so I arrange play dates for my son via text message and mark them in their box on the calendar.

I’m fond of all our summer days, but it’s expansiveness I crave, the flow state of summer where time melts and boundaries blur, where we disconnect from set schedules and slip into our own rhythms of sleeping, waking, eating, where friends become family and strangers become friends. Because isn’t it true that on a warm summer evening it’s easy to like whomever you’re with?

I seek and savor such moments for my children—the barbecues and long afternoons on the lawn—because their school year is so often composed of compartments, of school days and home days, of dinner before dessert and two books before bed, of play dates and swim lessons and designated screen times. There is no greater joy for me than watching these edges soften, watching my children find their identities spread beyond their daily to-dos and into the wilderness of unstructured time.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

By Jennifer Berney

square wedding

“Ralph says that boys can’t marry boys,” my son said to me as I drove him home from preschool.

Ralph, who sported a buzz cut and freckles, was a longtime friend of my son’s. More than once I’d heard him voicing his mother’s opinions to an audience of four-year-olds, like the time he explained that babies took too much work and cost too much money. He delivered this news as I held my newborn infant.

“Well Ralph is confused,” I replied, glancing in the rearview mirror.

“He’s not confused; he’s wrong,” my son corrected.

It was July of 2013, just months after our own state had voted to allow same-sex marriages, and weeks after the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed. If Ralph or his sources hadn’t yet woken up to the reality of gay marriage in our state, they weren’t alone. I, too, hesitated to believe it. For straight people, a wedding was usually an event confined to a single day. But for my partner and me the process of getting married had been ongoing, continual, endless. Were we finally, really real?

When Kellie and I exchanged vows in 2003, there was nothing legal about our wedding. Neither of us dreamed we’d live to see the end of DOMA or—even more surprisingly—marriage equality in all fifty states, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to declare our love. And so, on a Sunday in August, we gathered friends and family in a circle on a friend’s green lawn. Our friend Queen, who wore a blue dress and red lipstick, opened the ceremony by informing our friends that they were a part of this commitment too. “By standing here today,” she told them, “you agree to be available to Kellie and Jenn, three months from now, ten years from now, anytime their marriage needs support.”

In that moment, more than any other, I reckoned with what it meant to be married: it was more than a private promise between myself and my partner; it was an intention declared, witnessed, and affirmed by those who loved us. Still, it felt significant that this affirmation did not extend into the world at large. On paper, as far as any lawyer was concerned, Kellie and I were simply roommates. I didn’t want this to matter, but it did. Any time I referred to my marriage, I was tempted to use air quotes.

Four years later, our state passed a bill allowing State Registered Domestic Partnerships to same-sex couples. It was a compromise of sorts, an option that was like marriage but with the most unromantic possible name. The legal rights that SRDPs conferred were significant: if Kellie landed in the hospital I could visit her; I could now get health insurance through Kellie’s employer. But there were also limitations: we couldn’t file our taxes jointly; I still couldn’t use the word “married” in the legal sense, and when we welcomed our first son into the world the following year, we’d have to spend over ten thousand dollars in legal fees to add Kellie’s name to the birth certificate.

Some of our friends who registered for SRDP status treated it like a wedding. They dressed up and threw grand parties. But Kellie and I were tentative. Hadn’t we already done the thing that mattered? When we went to the courthouse we treated it like an errand. Afterwards we went out for a glass of wine, but weren’t sure what to toast—bureaucracy? Separate-but-not-quite-equal rights?

I was seven months pregnant with our second child when our state passed a bill allowing same-sex marriages. I’d spent my pregnancy rooting for this bill for reasons that were largely practical. If the bill passed, and if Kellie and I could wed before the baby arrived, we could easily (and cheaply) add her name to the birth certificate. Instead of hiring a lawyer, we could simply fill out a few forms.

What I thought was our final act of marriage took place on our living room couch on January 6, 2013. Some friends were disappointed that we weren’t having a big party. “But we had our real wedding ten years ago,” I told them. “Remember? You were there.” Our friend Queen, who married us initially sat between us, and we re-read the vows we’d exchanged nearly a decade before. Two close friends had come to bear witness. They brought flowers and chocolate, and sat cross-legged on our floor. The baby, who would arrive two weeks later, turned and kicked me from the inside. Our first son was four and he kept interrupting. “Can’t we build a puzzle?” he kept asking our friends. “Can we watch a movie?”

Ten minutes later, we all crouched around the coffee table to sign the marriage license. In doing so, we finally completed the ceremony we’d begun ten years earlier.

Or at least I thought we were finished. Two and a half years later, on a Friday I would open my computer to see that the equal marriage map had gone green, that the Supreme Court had declared marriage equality a constitutional right. My breath would catch in my throat. I would try to call out to Kellie in the next room to share the news but discover that I was speechless. Our marriage would now be recognized in every U.S. state.

In the car that day, as I merged on the freeway, I continued to explain why Ralph might think that “boys can’t marry other boys.”

“There are still lots of places where men can’t marry men, and women can’t marry women. Some people just like to make rules about things that don’t matter.”

My son remained quiet, and I assumed he’d lost interest.

“Don’t you remember our wedding?” I asked him. “You were there. It was right before your brother was born.”

I thought that he might find some small joy in this, but instead a note of distress entered his voice. “You mean you weren’t married when I was born?”

“It’s complicated,” I told him. I kept talking on and on, trying to explain the logistics. But instead I should have told him what I, too, most needed to hear: It’s okay. It’s real. All of it. Our marriage, our family, our love.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

What a Father Is, and Isn’t

What a Father Is, and Isn’t

By Jennifer Berney

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My children have two mothers, two dogs, fifteen chickens, and zero fathers. That is the accurate headcount in our household.

 

When acquaintances are feeling bold, they sometimes ask about the father of my sons. “Do they have the same father?” they might ask in a whisper, or, “Is the father someone you know?”

My children have two mothers, two dogs, fifteen chickens, and zero fathers. That is the accurate headcount in our household. There is no father living out of state, or just out of sight, no one whom they will one day call “Dad.” Instead, they have a donor, which is a different thing entirely.

Fathers, as we all know, take countless forms. Your father might be the person who bore witness on the day you were born. He might have stayed through a long hard labor with one hand on your mother. He might have cut the cord when you came out. Or perhaps your father was banished to the waiting room, where he tapped his foot and checked his watch. Or he might not have been there at all. He might have been overseas waiting for a letter, a phone call, an email. He might have been off at the bar or away on business.

If it matters where he was, whether he was there or he wasn’t, whether he was hopeful or anxious or indifferent, he’s a father.

Your father might be the person who taught you how to ride a bike, who trailed behind you steadying the seat, who let go without saying a word and let you glide down a gentle slope. He might be the one who wiped the gravel from your skinned knee and spread a layer of bacitracin over the wound. Or he might have been the one who yelled out in annoyance every time you fell and cried. “Toughen up,” he might have said. “It’s easy.”

Maybe your father was the one who came home from the store with a box of cookies and didn’t care if they disappeared before he ate one. Or maybe he was the one who had a stash of licorice that no one was allowed to touch.

Maybe your father was a greeting card father, a #1 Dad who liked fishing and golf, who’d happily unwrap a box of cigars or a tie every year on his birthday. Or maybe your father hated sports and was hard to shop for because he only liked the things he liked, and these were not the things you gave him.

Maybe your father took over when your mother needed a break, or when she left. Maybe he was up to the task of making breakfast, wrapping presents, walking you to the park in a wagon, or maybe you just carried on as if you were alone.

Maybe your father was the only one you had. Maybe you had two. Maybe you’ve got gay dads, or step-dads or granddads who took over the role.

Our fathers leave us with internal landscapes. Even the best fathers may leave us with little ruts and gullies that mark the places we’ve been hurt. A father who leaves and never returns or a tyrannical father might leave a chasm. And then there are smooth swimmable lakes created by consistent paternal love.

We measure our fathers by how often they show up, and what they offer when they do. But an absent father and a sperm donor have little in common. We measure a donor mostly by what he offers before a child is conceived. Do the sperm swim towards the egg? Do they reach it?

And in the aftermath of conception, once a baby is born, we measure a donor by how well he honors his agreement. Perhaps he is nameless and will always be so, or perhaps he agrees to release his name and number once the child turns eighteen.  Or perhaps he participates from a meaningful distance in the role of family friend or uncle. In a donor’s case this distance, this absence, is love.

If you ask my older son about his father, he will quickly correct you. “I have two moms,” he clarifies, and I note that so far he frames his family in positives; he accounts for what he has not what he’s missing.

And so I worry that it’s confusing to him when people ask me about his donor, but use the word father instead. I know what they mean of course, but if I answer without correcting them what will my son think? That he has a father after all—a potential parent who has left him? That is not the case, I want to whisper in his ear; no one has abandoned you. You have one mother who bore you, and another who welcomed you, and a donor who was generous enough to help bring you into the world, and who honored our agreement that he would be a friend and not a father.

This is why when people ask in hushed tones about my children’s father, I try to be consistent. “Oh, you mean his donor?” I answer brightly, trying to chase the shadows into light.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Dear Kindergarten Teacher

Dear Kindergarten Teacher

By Jennifer Berney

Teacher

Let me begin with a confession. When I signed up to visit your classroom on Fridays, it wasn’t because I wanted to help. I volunteered because I was curious. I wanted to see how my son had settled into kindergarten, if he had made friends, if he followed the rules, to make sure he didn’t spend the day hiding beneath the table or whispering to friends. I wanted to see you, his teacher, in action. Also, I thought that kindergarten on a Friday might be entertaining.

You didn’t disappoint me.

On the first morning, as I walked through your door, I was surprised to discover that you took attendance in song. “Good Morning, Kylie” you sang, “Good Morning, Rowan.” Each child heard his own name and replied by singing “Good Morning Teacher,” to confirm his presence. The children were so attentive, so organized and earnest, and their voices were so sweetly off-key that I couldn’t bear it. I kept stifling laughter and wiping tears as they gathered in the corners of my eyes. But you continued to lead them, unfazed, accustomed as you are to this hilarity and sweetness.

One afternoon when all the kids were tired, I watched you steer my son away from an impending meltdown. A friend had given him a sticker earlier that day, and he was convinced that it had fallen from his pocket and was now lost forever. He wasn’t crying yet, but I could hear the tremble in his voice from across the room, and I was certain that in moments he’d melt into a puddle on the floor. “Will you do me a favor and go check your cubby?” you asked him sensibly, as if he too were in a sensible mood. You engaged with the problem, but not the drama, and he followed your lead. Of course, the sticker was in his cubby. My son shuddered with relief.

On a different day, I watched as another boy, in tears, ran to you as if you were his own mother. You placed your hand gently on his shoulder and allowed him to take comfort for a moment before you lowered yourself so that you could learn why he was crying. He explained that a friend had taken over a toy that he had put down for a moment. “Well go tell Daniel how you felt about that,” you instructed him. I watched as these two boys had an intimate conversation in the corner of the room. Minutes later, they emerged and reported to you that they had fixed the problem.

I’ve seen you clip the tag out of one little girl’s shirt because she complained that it was itching her. Upon spotting you with a pair of scissors, another girl lined up behind her and asked if you would please clip a loose thread off of her shoe. “Anyone else need anything?” you asked the room, making light of how often your work is interrupted by a child’s immediate physical need.

Once, at the end of a game of polygon bingo, I heard you explain to all twenty-five of your students how winning doesn’t feel good if you’ve cheated. I’ve seen you teach them a line to help them cope with disappointment: “Aw, shucks, maybe next time.” You punctuate this line with a snapping gesture, and I’ve seen the children in your classroom mimic this unprompted after someone else has won at bingo, or been chosen as the next line leader. You’ve trained them not to cry, or scream that it’s unfair. “Aw shucks, maybe next time,” more than a few of them whisper, and then everyone moves on.

Under your instruction, my son has learned how to properly hold a pencil, and learned how to write legibly, first in capitals and more recently in lowercase. He has learned to write from left to right and to leave “finger spaces” between individual words. At the beginning of the year, he could make sense of a written word by sounding it out methodically. Now he reads full sentences, pages at a time; at night he climbs into his top bunk and reads himself to sleep with a headlamp. His transformation from non-reader to reader happened faster than I would have ever imagined. One night, in the midst of this transition, my partner wondered aloud how many kids you had taught to read over the years, and I marveled for a moment, thinking of the hundreds of children whose hands you’ve guided, your hand helping theirs fit to the shape of the pencil, the hundreds who have echoed your voice making alphabet sounds and reading sight words.

I’ve spent much of this year wondering how we got so lucky. My son is quiet and sensitive, but obstinate; he doesn’t like to be told what to do. I worried that kindergarten would mark the beginning of a long struggle, that he might hate school and cry every morning. But your rules and your kindness, your patience and your limits have helped him feel at home. The teachers that come after you, they don’t have to shine as brightly—he’s already formed his opinion of school. He likes it. Of all the jobs you do, from teaching kids subtraction to helping them tie their shoes, it strikes me that this one is most essential: you invite them to bring their whole selves, their best selves to the classroom.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.

I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

By Jennifer Berney

Yelling

Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life.

 

Sometimes I am that parent: the one in the grocery store holding her son by the wrist, hissing at him to watch where he’s going; the one hollering in the front yard beseeching my son to climb off the ladder—”Right now, or I’m going to lose it!”—as if no one else can hear.

I don’t yell at my kids all the time. I mean, it’s not my immediate response every time they annoy me. There are times of the day when I am calm and patient and can present everything in rational “I” statements. (“I’m feeling crowded. Please move your foot away from my face.”) And then there are the other times, like bedtime, when I’ve asked my son over and over to put his dirty socks in the hamper, or to stop pouring water on his brother’s head, and yet he pretends he hasn’t heard. I don’t count to ten or practice my deep breathing. I yell.

I try to keep my yelling in check for two reasons: First of all, it’s ineffective. Though I might get my son’s attention, his reaction is usually to rail against me rather than comply. Also, unlike a good cry, yelling doesn’t bring me relief. Instead, yelling leaves me feeling empty, deflated. Though I may try to keep a lid on my temper, I embrace the occasional flare. I want my children to see me—all of me—and the truth is that I’m often cranky, or tired, or sore, or overwhelmed.

I grew up in a household where anger was taboo. We buried our daily grievances, and kept our conversations formal, pleasant. If I sensed that either of my parents was in a dark mood I treaded lightly. I offered to set the table; I helped with dinner; I asked questions and offered compliments, hoping I could brighten the mood. “Did anything good happen to you today?” I might ask, cheerily. But it was like trying to plug a leaking dam with my bare fingers: immobilizing and impossible. My efforts may have warded off small bursts of anger, but rage became an event that hit my family in the middle of the night. As my parents argued on the other side of our shared wall, I hid under pillows and cried. The next morning I’d wake up, determined to be perfect. And so I did the laundry. I said please and thank you. I kept my voice soft. Because I spent my childhood avoiding anger, I couldn’t be all the things that I was. I could be sweet but not sassy, helpful but not demanding, competent but never bossy. All of those traits most common to children were traits that I resolved to squelch, and the effort left me feeling small, a miniature version of myself.

Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life. I want them to see that I often struggle to keep my cool, sometimes I lose it, and that when I do I attempt to make amends. I say “Sorry,” or “Can we start over?” Or sometimes I say, “I’m not sorry for yelling because that ladder is shaky and you weren’t paying attention.” I don’t need to provide them with an emotional landscape that is flat.

As a result, my sons learn to live with my flaws, and hopefully they learn to live with their own as well. Though sometimes I worry that my regular outbursts will train them to fear me, so far, I’ve noticed the opposite result. “Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry?” my older son asks me moments after I’ve lost my temper.

And at six years old, he’s already mastered the art of the apology himself. A bad morning sometimes sends him stomping into his room. He slams the door, and stacks piles of books so I can’t enter. But I can count on him to emerge ten minutes later, collected and loving. “I’m sorry Mommy,” he says, and hugs me at the waist. We put the books away together.

Rupture and repair, a therapist once told me, are the basis of a healthy relationship. And so I mark the daily ruptures as they happen and try to repair them swiftly, one by one. It’s not so much like plugging a dam as it is like patching the tears on a favorite pair of jeans. The jeans continue to hold their shape, their worn-in softness, but the fabric of the patches and the color of the stitching adds to their appeal. They are lived-in, not perfect, the way a family should be.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.

Making Peace With the Life I Didn’t Choose

Making Peace With the Life I Didn’t Choose

By Jennifer Berney

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A friend of mine once observed that I was “deeply monogamous” by nature. She said it one day while I was talking about my dogs. It was odd, I remarked, that even though my partner and I had adopted two dogs in the years we’d been together, and even though I fed and cared for both, I only thought of one of them as mine.

“That’s because you are deeply monogamous.” She said it offhandedly, as if it were something she’d always known, and it struck me that she was right.

At the time, I very badly wanted to have a child, and her comment haunted me as I planned my future family. If I was monogamous by nature, prone to focusing my affections on one object at a time, then perhaps it would be a mistake to have more than one. If I had two children, would I see them the same way I saw my dogs? Would I feed them both and clothe them both, but allow only one to sit close to my heart?

When my first son was born, several friends warned me that a single child would not quell my biological urge, that I would crave baby after baby the same way I craved chocolate after dinner. But this did not turn out to be true. As Harlan grew older, I sometimes felt a twinge of nostalgia for his newborn smell, his wispy hair, but for the most part I felt capable of moving on. My body had filled its quota. I could have stopped. But I didn’t.

Though my own biology didn’t pull at me, something else did: I wanted Harlan to have a sibling. The tug of this was gentle. It was a voice that I put off for years, but it was insistent. You have big expectations, it whispered. It might be better to spread them out between two children. The voice urged me to consider my own siblings—two sisters and two brothers—and the way they helped me understand my place in the world. I didn’t want to deny my son that sense of self-knowledge and belonging.

And so we conceived our second son. As he grew inside me, his brother spoke to him through the wall of my belly with ardent devotion. But the moment he arrived, I felt instantly torn. Harlan, who was now four, still hadn’t learned to sleep through the night on his own. Every night he’d wake and call for me, but I couldn’t come to him. I had to stay in my own bed to hold and nurse the baby. My partner replaced me.

In the daylight hours, Harlan would ask things of me, like to sit at the table and draw with him or help him make a puzzle. I couldn’t do these things because I was holding the baby, or nursing the baby, or changing the baby’s diaper. It was disheartening: Harlan had finally reached the age where he was an engaged conversationalist, a steady companion. These were the things that I had looked forward to, but I could no longer fully enjoy them.

At the time, I reassured myself that this era was temporary, that this is simply what it meant to have a newborn. But now, two years later, this reality persists. I cannot, for instance, play Candyland with Harlan while his brother Andy is home, because within minutes he will disrupt our figures and toss the cards across the room. If given the chance, Andy would tear the board along the seam with his brute strength.

Often I imagine the life I didn’t choose. In this life I am the parent to one six-year-old boy. I sleep through the night. I spend long Saturday mornings with a book on the couch while he sits on the floor playing Legos. Some days he goes over a friend’s house and our own home is completely quiet. This imaginary life, the one I left behind, has its perks.

But I haven’t so much lost these small pleasures as I have traded them for others. These days when I put on a favorite album, my two sons dance across the living room, shaking their booties and kicking the air, and I laugh from a bright place that would have been unfamiliar to me in the years before I was a parent.

Every morning, Andy stands outside Harlan’s door and fiddles with the knob, crying “Bro-Bro? Bro-Bro?” until I carry him back to the kitchen. When Harlan finally wakes and emerges bleary-eyed from his room, Andy coos his name and leans in for a hug.  Sometimes I stand from a distance and admire their devotion. Other times I get down on my knees to join the embrace.

Even when things are hard—when Andy dismantles Harlan’s Lego rocket ship by chucking it across the room, and when Harlan slaps him in retaliation, I feel grateful for conflict as a teacher. “I hate your attitude!” Harlan shouts at his oblivious little monster of a brother, and I laugh at these hot moments, where both children must come to terms with the fact that the world won’t always bend to them. This is a lesson I want them to learn.

Every day I remind myself that this is the life I’ve chosen, a life of two children, both of them rowdy and loving. It’s a life that, quite frankly, my introverted, monogamous self was not designed for. But though it is an awkward fit, it is indeed my life. These are indeed my boys. Several times a week they prove it by attacking me on the couch and making farting noises against my bare belly, the same belly that now jiggles and sags from having carried them. My boys giggle wildly at their antics and my body.

It’s too much—all of it: the kisses and the screams, the dancing and the fights, the sleepless nights and the cuddles in the morning. It’s a life that stretches me beyond what I ever would have imagined. These boys have twisted me into a woman I barely recognize: a woman who’s aged visibly over the last three years but willing (mostly) to let go of her vanity; a woman who can be stern and loving in alternate breaths; a woman who finds the frayed end of her patience daily and either fails or succeeds at remaining calm.

The life I didn’t choose would have been rewarding, I think. It would have been restful, and sensible. But richness and growth, spontaneity and joy, those come at a price too.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.

Learning to See All Families

Learning to See All Families

By Jennifer Berney

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It surprised me that in this century, in a metropolitan area, a person who worked in the field of Prenatal Diagnosis would have no idea how two women could conceive a child.

 

I was four months pregnant when a colleague sat next to a close friend of mine at a dinner party. Apparently, the colleague knew about my sexual orientation, but hadn’t heard my news, and so when my friend informed her that I was expecting my first child, she looked startled. “How in the world do two women make a baby?” she asked, making no effort to disguise her dismay.

Around the same time in my pregnancy, I sat in an office with a genetic counselor. She was in her mid-twenties with long red hair and an eager attitude. The purpose of the visit was to sleuth out any diseases my unborn child might be at risk for, and so she asked me dozens of questions about my family’s medical history. I answered them without incident, until she turned a page on her clipboard and looked up.

Early in the appointment she had made reference to my husband. “My partner,” I corrected, and assumed she caught the hint. “So your partner,” she began now, “does he have any health issues?”

“Well my partner is female,” I told her. “We used sperm from a donor.”

“Oh my god. I’m so sorry,” she said. Her face turned red and she returned her gaze to the clipboard. She fumbled with her papers, looking through them as if she had lost something between the pages. “Do we have to start all over now? I mean, was it even your egg?”

It surprised me that in this century, in a metropolitan area, a person who worked in the field of Prenatal Diagnosis would have no idea how two women could conceive a child.

These were just two of many times during my pregnancy when I seemed to be a walking contradiction: a pregnant lesbian. As my belly grew, I felt acquaintances assess me with a look of concern. It seemed they were worried that something had happened. Had I left my partner? Had I taken a lover? Or maybe I was just gaining weight?  I’m sure that all of these people had heard of sperm banks, and yet they seemed unable to comprehend my pregnancy.

My own uncle’s reaction helped me understand this phenomenon. Towards the end of my first trimester, he and his wife were passing through town and so I took them out to lunch. My uncle, a soft-spoken smart aleck, relies on a cochlear implant to hear, and my voice, which is quiet, often misses his limited range. Once we’d settled into our seats and exchanged pleasantries, I shared my news. “I’m pregnant,” I told them. “Kellie and I are expecting a baby in October.”

My uncle cupped his hand around his ear and said, “I didn’t catch that.” My aunt leaned toward him and enunciated in his ear: “She’s expecting a baby.”

“Oh,” he replied casually. “No wonder I didn’t hear.”

I didn’t ask him to clarify. I knew exactly what he meant. The possibility that I, his thirty-year-old niece in a committed relationship, might be pregnant was nowhere on his radar. Though I said I was pregnant, he couldn’t hear it. This was similar to the acquaintances who could see that I was pregnant, but couldn’t believe it. A pregnant woman was a straight woman; lesbians were either infertile or uninterested in children.

The assumptions that we make about pregnancy—that there are two parents actively involved, that one is a man and the other a woman—reveal our unconscious ordering of the world. When people defy our expectations, we have choice: to slip into denial, or adjust the barriers that confine our thinking. We can refuse or we can choose to see.

Of course, I continue to greet these assumptions in my daily life as a mother. Often, when filling out paperwork, I must cross out the box that says “Father” and hand-write the word “Mother.”  My son has learned to correct people when they ask him about his “Daddy.” “I have two Mommies,” he replies. I don’t yet detect a trace of shame in the statement, though I’m worried that someday I will.

When he was one, and before he could make such corrections I brought him to a children’s salon for his first haircut. “Is Dad going to freak out?” the stylist asked as she clipped the first lock of hair.

“Nah,” I answered. The question had caught me off guard. I know, of course, that she meant nothing by it, but I felt the same sense of bewilderment that I did when the genetic counselor asked, “Are they even your eggs?” Here was a woman who dealt with families every day. If she didn’t meet many queer families, didn’t she meet plenty of single mothers, or single fathers, or kids being raised by grandparents, or stepparents, or foster parents?

Learning to see queer families, to know that they exist beyond the world of television and tabloids, is just one part of learning to see the whole range of families that exist in our communities. Not assuming that any given child has one father and one mother may seem like a small courtesy we can offer each other, but I think it goes beyond that. Taking for granted that families can take infinite forms helps us to remember that love itself is boundless, an answer that can’t be confined by a single equation.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.

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Conversations with my Son About Gender

Conversations with my Son About Gender

By Jennifer Berney

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When my son was three, as he sat at the kitchen table playing with his Etch-a-Sketch, he offhandedly asked me the following question:

“When Mommy Kellie was a little boy, did she have an Etch-a-Sketch too?”

The wording of this question reveals a lot about our family. To begin with, of course, my son has two moms. I am his birth mother, and so far have played the traditional role of “Mommy”: I’ve been the breast-feeder, the diaper-changer, the lunch-packer, the medicine-giver. But my partner Kellie goes by “Mommy” too. She’s the one he runs to when one of the handles has fallen off of his dresser; she’s the one who brings him to the dump and stops for hot chocolate along the way. My son has never attempted to call my partner “Daddy” and has never stumbled over gender pronouns. And yet, apparently his understanding of gender categories had some room for variation.

“She probably did have an Etch-a-Sketch,” I answered, “but did you know that Mommy Kellie was actually a little girl and not a little boy?”

My son gave me a puzzled look. “When did she change?” he asked me.

“Well,” I answered, “what is she now? Is she a woman or a man?”

He thought for a good while. “She’s a mommy,” he concluded, apparently giving up on the categories I had offered.

Gender was confusing to me too. Before our son was born, I had ideas about raising him gender neutral, not constraining him to our cultural mandates on what colors he could wear or what toys he could play with.  I didn’t plan to put him in dresses, but I happily bought a pink onesie and enjoyed imagining him in that. Once he was born, I dressed him in it a number of times. He wore it well. But as he grew older I found I had no desire to replace it with pink t-shirts or lavender sweaters.

I did continue to think about gender and explore this through his wardrobe. I bought a yellow girl’s t-shirt that featured a kitten; I cut off the puffed sleeves and replaced them with straight navy blue ones.  On the one hand, it was an act of rebellion: my son liked kittens. Why shouldn’t he be able to wear one on a shirt? On the other hand, it was an act of conformity: I clearly did not want to dress my son in girls’ clothes.

My son is five now, and gender informs our conversations in ways that reveal the values of our culture at large. Recently, after my son had just lost a race to a friend, I tried to explain that winners aren’t by their nature better than losers. I ran this scenario by him: “Mommy Kellie can build a house better than I could ever build a house, but that doesn’t make her better than me, right?”

“No, it just means that she has better skills than you,” he said.

That stung. My partner, an electrician by trade and builder by hobby, offers him a great example of how women can excel at “men’s work.” This is great, but I still worry that our culture has taught him to value her skills above more traditionally feminine pursuits. I tried to explain to him that my skills are pretty awesome too, that making dinner is important, as is teaching grown-ups how to write papers for college (both are things that I do), but I’m not sure he bought it.

In the end, there seems to be no escaping this gender conundrum—no easy way to keep every door open, to convince him that hemming a pair of jeans and installing a dryer vent are both valuable skills and both within his range.

Now that my son is old enough to dress himself, his drawers are filled with Spiderman shirts, Star Wars pajamas, and Transformers underwear. It seems the best that I can do is just embrace and love his boy-identity while trying to make room for balance. Right now balance means that we snuggle in Star Wars pajamas, encourage him to cry when he is sad, and have a “yes” answer on the ready if he ever asks for a pink bike or a Barbie—two things that I’m pretty sure will never happen.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.

Grieving the Days of Only

Grieving the Days of Only

By Jennifer Berney

Grieving the days of Only ArtThe Sunday after my second son was born, my first son, Harlan, asked if he could shoot his Nerf gun off the front porch. It was bright outside but cold and windy. Storm clouds gathered in all directions.  He had put his new boots on over his dinosaur pajamas. The boots had been a Christmas gift less that a month before. They were navy blue with orange soles, a shade of orange so bright it stung my eyes. He insisted he didn’t need a coat.

All morning we’d been stuck in our new routine: I nursed the baby on the couch while Harlan bounced on the cushions. When I asked him to stop, he’d press his body into me and yell into his sleeping brother’s ear: I love you so much.  I kept a hand on the baby’s head at all times, terrified that Harlan would land on him or bonk him with his own head—a head that suddenly seemed disproportionately large.  So far, having a newborn meant that I clenched my jaw all day long.

And so I said yes, shoot your Nerf gun, silently praying that he could go at least ten minutes without calling for me. But almost instantly Harlan wanted to switch to water guns—never mind the weather. So I wrapped our new baby in a blanket and, with one hand, dug out the water guns from a box in the garage.

But, of course, his favorite one was missing. It was missing because it leaked and my partner had thrown it away, a fact that I didn’t want to reveal, and so I pretended to look for it, poking through boxes and boxes of junk.

“I want you to find it,” he informed me, standing at a distance, watching, and when I told him we’d just have to play with the two we had, he collapsed on the ground and wailed.

This was typical, not of Harlan in general, but of Harlan since the arrival of his baby brother. There was no rolling with the punches, no making do. Every dropped cracker, every wet sleeve was a tragedy. And now, as he threw himself around on the floor, I was stuck: with a baby in my arms, I couldn’t soothe or move or wrestle him. I could only hold my breath and silently will him to quit.

***

Throughout my pregnancy, as we prepared to welcome our second son into the world, I knew that our family in general, and our son in particular, was headed for a time of transition. That’s all I knew. That word, transition, had been tossed about for some time, but no one had offered specifics. Instead, seasoned parents warned me to brace myself. It will be hard, they said, so hard.

I had waited four months to tell Harlan I was pregnant. In my first trimester, morning sickness crushed me. At the height of it, I spent evenings face down on the couch, moaning, too nauseated even to move myself to bed. Harlan tapped on my back, whispered “Mommy,” until my partner coaxed him away. I didn’t explain what made me sick; I didn’t want him to blame my pain on his unborn sibling.

Later, once the sickness had all but passed, I withheld out of superstition; Harlan himself had arrived after years of trying and false starts, and so I had learned to never treat a pregnancy as a sure thing. To name a baby as a certainty was to endanger it.

When I finally did tell Harlan, I told him this way: my body is trying to make a baby. And once that settled in, once my belly was round, once the baby was actual, he was certain that my belly held a sister. He started calling that sister Banana.

I took this to mean that he preferred a sister to a brother. So, at twenty weeks, when the technician spotted a penis on the ultrasound, I was cautious again about breaking this news.  It was the end of summer then, and when I picked him up at a friend’s house, he was sitting on their sunny front porch.

“You know Banana?” I whispered. He nodded.

“How would it be if Banana wasn’t a little girl?”

Harlan’s eyes went wide.  He gasped. “Oh, I would love it if he was a brother!”

I guess that Harlan too, was cautious, guarded about imagining the thing he most wanted.

As my belly grew, he talked to it constantly. “Hi Baby!” he shouted, stripping away the layers of shirt and nylon that covered my bump. I had to train him not to do this in public. Friends thought it was sweet. But I found myself wiping the spit from too many kisses off of my stretched-out belly, and swallowing a desire to push him away, wondering what he’d do once Banana-boy was born. Would he still talk to him, still love him, still want to be around him?

***

What Harlan did after the baby was born was rail against me.

I couldn’t feed him. Harlan refused to eat breakfast, and each morning I waited for the inevitable blood sugar crash, the screaming tantrum on the floor. I began to advocate for food at any cost, offering him ice cream on a toaster waffle or extra honey on his toast. But he would complain that I cut the toast the wrong way, or that he didn’t want butter, or he would shriek because the ice cream melted too fast.

I couldn’t touch him. If Harlan walked by and I tapped him on the shoulder, he would fall to the floor and clutch the place I had touched as if I had prodded him with a hot spear. If I were sitting on the couch with my leg extended, he would walk by, trip, and begin screaming, red-faced: “I am so mad at you Mommy.”

Harder still were the moments of grief that arrived in the middle of the night.  The first night we were home, I lay half awake with the light on and the baby on my chest. My partner slept on the couch to give us space. At 2:00 a.m. Harlan cried out for me, and I lay there, still, waiting to see if he’d go back to sleep. I’d done this countless times before the baby was born without any guilt, but now, this time, I held my breath and felt dread. He needed me and I wouldn’t come. I wouldn’t come because I had a new son now, a son whom I would hold tightly and nurse through the night.

The next night he cried again and this time didn’t stop. When my partner went in for him, I could hear his cries through two sets of closed doors. “Go Away!” he yelled at her, kicking beneath the covers. “I want Mommy Jenn!” He cried the way I remember crying as a child, the way I suppose I still cry when feeling particularly lost and desperate: choking on endless sobs.

I got up, leaving the baby alone in the middle of the bed. I held Harlan, my impossibly long four-year-old, and listened to the grief move through his body, his sobs slowing to a shaky but steady breath. I continued to lie there as he moved back into sleep, half of my mind still trained on the baby, picturing him tiny and lost in the sheets.

Harlan’s body, it seemed, had transformed overnight. His head was the size and weight of a bowling ball. When he cried, I could see inside his mouth and up his nose, his tonsils, his spit, his snot. Suddenly, there was something uncouth in his size, his need, and all his human functions.

The baby, on the other hand was dainty with his tiny head and perfect whorl of hair. He breastfed and slept. His breath smelled like milk and so did his poo. Before I had the baby, my worst fear had been that that I would love Harlan less, or see him from a greater distance. Now that that seemed to be coming true, I began to worry that I had made some horrible mistake, that our relationship was all but over and we’d spend the rest of our days alternating between sorrow and conflict. I knew for sure that things would never be the same. And sometimes I thought: who needs this baby anyway?

Our baby, you see, still did not have a name.

From the moment we found out that Banana was a boy, Harlan had stopped calling him Banana. I had wanted to name him Fox, and shared the name with Harlan, thinking he’d approve and that the name might become a special family secret. But Harlan didn’t like the name Fox. He didn’t like any name that I proposed, not Cooper or Vincent or Ivan or Hudson.  Not Forrest or Cedar or Lake.   This was fine, of course; my partner and I would choose whatever name we wanted. But then one day I suggested Andre, and Harlan, inexplicably, fell in love with that sound.

“I hear you picked out a name for the baby,” his daycare teacher said to me a few days later.

“We did?” I asked. Harlan had shared during circle time that we were going to name our baby Andre.

He called the baby Andre until the day he was born, at which point he called him only baby, a choice which seemed to quietly acknowledge that he didn’t have the final say. My partner and I didn’t hate the name, but we liked other names better.  “Cedar’s a good name,” I tried to convince Harlan. “You know Cedar, like the tree.”

“Andre’s a good name,” he answered, almost in a whisper.

We agonized for days.  We set deadlines for ourselves, and then missed them. We wanted to name him Cedar. We didn’t want to disappoint our Harlan. Friends tried to convince us that it was our right to name the baby, but I couldn’t get past the fear that our choice would impact their connection. Harlan had chosen a brother named Andre; Andre was the name of the brother he loved.

There was another voice in my head, a reasonable one who told me this would pass. Name the baby Cedar, the voice said. Be the grownup; be the parent. It’s silly to think that a name will shape their destiny as brothers.

I listened to that voice and acknowledged its wisdom. And then we went ahead and named our baby Andre.

Three days later, on that stormy day in January, I convinced Harlan to remove himself from the garage floor and come inside where it was warm. I thought I could make him hot chocolate, that I could read him a story and nurse the baby and have some sense, for a moment, that everything would be all right. Instead, as I set the kettle on the stove, I heard the click of the front door. The baby was asleep in his vibrating chair. I took a moment to put my shoes on, not eager to venture out into the cold rain.

No more than thirty seconds had passed, but when I stepped on the front porch, there was no trace of Harlan. I called him. He was not in the yard or in the driveway. He was not down the street or in a tree. I called him again. I raced to the end of the block to peer around the corner, then back to the house to check on the baby who still slept soundly in his chair. I called Harlan again. He was nowhere.

I thought I’d look for him in the garage, and that’s when I spotted them: the bright orange soles of his boots. He had wedged himself between two planters in the driveway. It was his absolute stillness that rendered him invisible; if it weren’t for the color orange, I wouldn’t have found him.

I picked him up like a baby, the heaviest baby who ever lived, and carried him inside, his limbs dangling toward the ground.

“Did you hear me calling you?” I asked him. “Did you hear the fear in my voice?”

“I was playing hide and seek,” he said.

I draped his body on the couch and locked the front door. I couldn’t be mad. I didn’t want to be. This was a challenge he’d somehow designed, like the runaway bunny.  If I leave, will you find me? If I disappear, will you see me? When I’m out of your vision, do I still exist?

What could I do to convince him the answer was yes?

***

Andre is three months old today. Harlan sleeps through the night again. He still crowds the baby when he nurses, and gives him too many kisses. Earlier today I laid the baby down on the sheepskin rug in Harlan’s room and Harlan lay down next to him and showed him a parade of his stuffed animals. In the morning sometimes he asks to see his baby brother, or sometimes when I’m holding him, he asks to see his face. Many times in a day, he greets him: “Hi baby,” he says. “Hi Andre, hi Andre, hi Andre.”

And just yesterday he told me that he loves me, he loves me, he loves me so much. The words reached inside and touched a place that I realized had been cordoned off for just a little while. Those words had been frequent between us, and then for a while instead there was distance, a baby in the middle, whom both of us adored.

I’ve lost my days alone with Harlan—planless days where we’d leave the house to do one errand and we’d let the day run his course from there. I remember once spending over an hour at Panda Express watching him eat Lo Mein, because that was how long it took him. We talked the whole time about whether ghosts were real, and whether the Panda Express Panda and Kung Fu Panda were the same panda.

These days, our time together is interrupted by nursing, by diaper changes, by naps. Most nights, I nurse Andre to sleep while I read to Harlan and they wind up asleep together, Harlan’s mouth agape and Andre’s lips still in the motion of nursing. But there are rare nights that Andre falls asleep with my partner and I have Harlan to myself. On these nights, we snuggle with no one between us and I savor it, this taste of something I once had every day.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She lives in Olympia, Washington.