Tween Anger: No Hugs Welcome Here

Tween Anger: No Hugs Welcome Here

By Karen Dempsey


The ten-year-old lies face down on her bed, trying not to cry, clenched in a hot coil of anger. The day has not gone as planned.

I lie beside her, pressed to the wall so I will not make actual contact. She has beckoned me into the room with her grievous moans, waved me closer when I offered her space.

She wants me as near as possible. She does not want me to brush against her. She wants me, she says into her pillow, to help her. She wants me, she says, to do nothing. She does not want me to speak or to be silent. She wants to cleave me to her side. She wants me to disappear.

It is some small, insurmountable slight by a friend that has brought us here. She needs to move past it, we know. We don’t know how she will do so. She is normally better at the “moving past” thing. With adolescence upon us, it’s grown more complicated.

I put a tentative hand on her back. She flinches it away. Hugs aren’t welcome.

I touch a wisp of her hair. “STOP.”

I wish that she would cry. That would be easier, I think. But I remember the feeling—the not wanting to give in, in the face of such unpredictable emotion. Crying over nothing, over everything. I would cry in the shower to hide my inexplicable weeping. But my mother could always tell, even hours later. She would study my face, give me wide berth, and ask, eventually, “Are you alright?” I would be enraged and relieved that she could read me so well.

Sometimes, but not usually, it helps to say to the ten-year-old, “What is it?” or “I’m sorry you’re sad.” Once I asked her, in a calmer moment, if there is anything that helps. She said one thing that helps is when I say, “Oh, sweetie.”

I say, “Oh, sweetie.” It doesn’t help.  

I study her small, angry frame, too slight to hold onto so much emotion, to steer it. It doesn’t seem fair. Looking at her tensed little shoulder blades, I remember something. “X marks the spot,” I say to myself, silently, and I trace a criss-cross on her back. “Dot. Dot. Dot.” I think, pressing my fist against her lightly. She exhales. “Lines go up, lines go down, lines go all around. Spiders crawling up your back. Elephants walking down your back.” Later, I will research the strange rhyme—the variations passed down through the years. My daughter’s preferred version differs from the one I learned decades ago, taking a grotesque turn, and she knows I don’t like this part but I keep reciting silently, my hands pantomiming the lines that always made her laugh. “Crack an egg on your head and the yolk runs down; stab a knife in your back and the blood runs down.”

I hesitate, not sure if I’ve missed something. “Finish,” she says, and I think I hear a smile in her voice.

I say the end out loud, puffing a cool breath on the back of her neck. “Tight squeeze cool breeze now you’ve got the shivers!”

She snorts and rolls over. “It’s shiveries, mom,” she says. She is laughing and crying, the rage-spell broken, the tears falling free. She threads her lengthening fingers through mine; measures our hands. Hers are catching up but she still has some room to grow. She lifts her shining eyes—enormous dark lakes of future tears.

“It’s shiveries,” she says again. “But you got the rest right.”

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her on Twitter.

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. 





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.”

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats


“Why didn’t you tell me about the bomb threat at school?” eleven-year-old Brennan said when he burst through the door, before he’d even shaken off his backpack.

“Oh, honey, I didn’t know before you left,” I said. “I would never keep that a secret.”

With the violence in the headlines very much on people’s minds, our schools were suddenly the subject of an anonymous threat, sent late the night before to the local police department. While Brennan was upset that he’d had to learn about it from a friend, some parents were complaining that the district should have communicated more quickly and clearly with us, too. As it turned out, there would be plenty of opportunities to refine our information-sharing, because threats of bomb and gun violence against the schools continued for a week.

“It was so much better this time because they told us,” ten-year-old Liddy said, after the next threat. Her teacher had mentioned the situation and said police were in the building to help keep everyone safe. As distressing as it is that my kids can now compare the reactions of authority figures in such circumstances, their insights have something to tell us about how we can do better in the future.

Liddy wanted to talk about the threats, but not too much. She needed to be able to turn off the conversation. The person who handled this best, she said, was her afterschool program director. “Kaitlyn told us the truth,” Liddy said. “And she didn’t promise everything would be fine, but said it was her job to keep us safe. And then she said people could choose to stay and ask questions or go do an activity.”

Things that weighed on Brennan, along with hearing about the first threat from a rumor instead of a trusted adult, was seeing some of his classmates pulled from school by anxious parents, and worrying that the heightened security would mean missing recess. “We did get recess!” he said triumphantly, later that day. “There was a cop on the roof!”

The image pushed my heart into my throat. Liddy said the police presence was “like a wall of cops.” I had seen a few officers at drop-off, milling about and talking to the kids, and their presence felt less ominous than I’d feared. But in her sheltered experience, Liddy hadn’t experienced police in those numbers anywhere, much less at school. And they’re easily three times her size. Of course they felt, to her, exactly like a wall.

When the third threat came, my phone rang at six a.m., jolting me from sleep. I let Brennan hear the carefully formulated message after breakfast. He listened, and asked, “I’m still going to school, right?” I was glad we were passing on some kind of confidence. But just as he headed for the door to get his bike out from the garage, he turned back to call out a question: “Has there ever been a bomb threat when there was really a bomb?”

Dropping off Liddy, I saw a mom in a head scarf offer our weary-looking school counselor a hug. It reminded me that others’ experiences of all this ran much deeper than mine: parents who have to worry about their kids because of the all-too-real threat of bias and intolerance; families who have come here, to this very school, after leaving places where violence and trauma were a part of everyday life; and kids whose skin color alone means they might have a completely experience of law enforcement than my kids.

All week, I watched teachers and staff put their own safety concerns aside to manage kids’ distress and competing demands from parents and administrators. I was glad that the complaints I read on various parent listservs were balanced out by notes of gratitude, reminders that the person behind the threats could be one of our own troubled kids in need of support, and even a volunteer effort to deliver breakfast to staff at the affected schools. It was this sense of community that bolstered me the most.

My husband John and I shared the goal of keeping the days as normal as possible. But I still got a rush of adrenaline with each new update and phone call. I texted my sister about it one morning. In her line of work, this is familiar territory, and I wanted to get her take.

She wrote back that the kids would be likely safer that day than any other. With so much to worry about in the world, she said, we already have to decide whether we’ll ever let them leave the house at all. And then do it. She also said that parents should be grateful that they were told.

The kids want the very things we want. The right information. The confidence that people who care are doing all they can to keep us safe. And, ultimately, the knowledge that we’re not in this alone. Making sure that our kids get those things — that is something we can control.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her on Twitter.


Intensive Care: The Nurse Who Saw Us Through the Night

Intensive Care: The Nurse Who Saw Us Through the Night

I will realize, eventually, that six-year-old Brennan is her only patient. She is here just for him. And for us.


Machines and monitors whir in the dark, chilly room. It is like stepping into a vacuum. There he is, so small on the hospital bed. Unconscious or simply asleep, I don’t know. A white bandage covers the right side of his head over his ear, where surgeons operated on the fractured skull, the nicked artery that resulted when he fell down the basement stairs at a friend’s house, landing heavily on the concrete floor below.

Brennan’s eyes flicker open; enormous brown eyes in a pale, pale face.

“Brennan. Hey, Brennan,” my husband, John, and I whisper at his side. He turns to look at us. I want to pull him into my arms. I touch his hand. “Hey guy.” His eyes close again.

“He’s still coming out of the anesthesia,” the nurse says. “It will be awhile. He was out a long time.” Then: “Climb right up there, mom.” I stare at her. Tammy, her name tag says. She nods. “Go ahead.” And already I am flooded with gratitude toward her.

I begin pulling off my boots—the stupid red boots I bought a few days ago, a lifetime ago, when I was a person who could have cared about boots. Tammy hands me a set of scrubs to pull on instead of my skirt and sweater. “These will be more comfortable,” she says.

I will realize, eventually, that six-year-old Brennan is her only patient. She is here just for him. And for us.

With John’s help I climb into the bed and lie on my side facing Brennan. The sharp smell of antiseptic masks his familiar, salty, little-boy smell. My tears are still coming; for hours they’ve streamed down my face uninterrupted, but now I try to wipe them away before they seep into the sheets. Breathe, I think. Breathe.

There are conversations. He did well, they stopped the bleeding, cauterized the artery, evacuated the blood pooling in his skull. The CT scan looked good. He’s not out of the woods yet, the surgeon says. Brennan’s brain might swell from the trauma, or not. All we can do is wait. There are phone calls to make. My mother crying. A message left on my sister’s voicemail: Call mom.

My anxiety pulses along with the thrum and beeping of the monitors. The dark has receded. I can breathe. I am still riding this wave of fear, but I do not feel alone.

When you have a newborn, you are at first overwhelmed, and then, suddenly, you know more about him than anyone. The dozens of motions required to care for him become automatic, almost involuntary, like your beating heart and breathing lungs.

This is the way Tammy cares for Brennan. Checking his vital signs, repositioning him on the bed, administering different medications through the IV. A constant quiet vigilance and countless acts of caretaking that are almost invisible because she performs them unselfconsciously. She is young, maybe not even thirty. I don’t know if she has a family, children; she doesn’t talk about herself.

I don’t think I will fall asleep, but I do, at some point late into the night. Then I jerk awake, gasping. “It’s just me,” Tammy’s voice whispers from nearby, “Sorry.”

And later, another sound. Brennan coughing vomit onto the white hospital blanket. I sit up and hold him and Tammy is at his already at his side, supporting him. He does not fully wake up. She mops his face and lays him back down. She tells me to grab the corners of the pad beneath him and together we slide him to one side (“Ready? Lift.”) She effortlessly strips the blankets from around him and remakes the bed, swift and quiet, not even waking John, who is sleeping on a built-in cot behind the hospital bed and monitors. I can’t see him but I know he’s there.

She brings me a clean set of scrubs and I climb back in the bed.

“Is the vomiting from the anesthesia?” I ask.

“The injury,” Tammy says softly, and I close my eyes again.

She pulls a blanket over me. “I’ll be right here.”

Deep into the night there is some activity and conversation outside our room, after which one of the neurosurgical Fellows comes in—the young one, kind, who had stood beside me in the ER handing me tissues. He tells me we’re being moved. The beds are full and there is another patient coming in. He tries to frame this as good news: Brennan is in better shape than anyone on the floor.

Heart pounding, I am on my feet asking questions. Where will they take us? How often will they check on him? There is no step down unit, so Brennan will now be a regular patient. Instead of a nurse assigned to him—instead of Tammy—he will share a nurse who will check his vital signs every four hours. No, I think. No.

Not out of the woods yet. Those were the neurosurgeon’s words and I repeat them back to the Fellow several times. I say I want to hear from the neurosurgeon himself.

He steps out of the room for a minute and, in that moment, Tammy moves beside me, leaning down as she folds something and sets it on a chair.

“You’re doing the right thing,” she says quietly, never looking up. Her voice is a low hum, reaching out to me.  “You need to advocate for him.”

We manage to put the move off, a least for now.

When, hours later, they wake me again to move us to the surgical floor, the young neurosurgeon sits and explains all the reasons they believe Brennan is progressing well. He promises to check on Brennan himself, and says he will camp out in the room across from us for the night, if we need anything.

I don’t want to leave. But as we guide Brennan’s bed carefully through the halls to the surgical floor, Tammy tells me she is taking us to a room directly across from the nurses’ station. “Page them any time you need them,” she says. “For anything at all.”

As a team of people sets Brennan up in our new room I see Tammy speaking intently to the nurses; one meets my eyes and comes toward me to talk.

I look toward Tammy, wanting to say something more than thank you. But she is already moving away, on toward her next patient.

I move close to Brennan, not even considering sleep. I stare at him and listen to his breath sounds. I take in the long eyelashes someone commented on in the ER, the freckles standing out against his pallor. I look out the window of this new room, where it is still dark outside, not quite morning. The sun has not yet come up, but it will.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images

Our Friendship Blog Series

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2014-07-29 14.11.27

On Friendship

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life. 





One of the Girls

By Dawn S. Davies

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





The Rise and Fall of the Single Moms Club

By Stephanie Sprenger

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





Perfectly 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. 





The Girl From Anthropologie

By Juli Fraga

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




Friends picTen Thoughts on Being a Mom Friend

By Karen Dempsey

Friendships can be temporary and still rich and authentic. When it stops working, whatever the reason, give yourself and your (now-fading) friend a break. It’s part of life. Move on – and remember what you gave to each other while it worked.



Illustration by Christine Juneau



005_Zappier_5138 copy

Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.


When you stop sleeping, really stop sleeping except for forty-five minutes or an hour at a time, your eyes have to work harder to focus. Your muscles feel like gelatin. Your hands shake. And when you haven’t slept, and the small vulnerable thing that is your few-weeks-old child settles on your chest, radiating warmth into your sore muscles, whispering tiny warm breaths onto your tired skin, it is really, really hard to stay awake.

Night after night, for Liddy’s first months, my husband and I took shifts holding her up straight and still, to minimize her reflux and let her digest the calories she so desperately needed. When my turn came, I would sit on the couch with my knees pulled to my chest and cradle her there against me, keeping her body, and mine, upright, trying to stay awake, praying she wouldn’t slide off onto the floor or press her tiny nose and mouth into me and stop breathing.

My sister Megan had diagnosed Liddy’s reflux before the doctors, hearing her pained gulps and grunts through the phone. Megan’s own daughter, Corinne, was born just ten weeks before Liddy; Corinne’s reflux was confirmed when she stopped breathing in her car seat and went to the hospital in an ambulance. So the girls shared the same illness, the same long nights. And Megan and I were on similar schedules, up every hour or two to feed, hold, and soothe. We held them for thirty minutes, an hour, or sometimes, for the rest of the night.

This was in the time before texting and smartphones, so first Megan and I tried keeping each other company through email. But it was difficult to keep Liddy upright and still while I typed, and the keyboard’s clicking and the blue glow of the screen made her restless. The murmurs of my voice relaxed her, though, so Megan and I developed a system. We set our cell phones to vibrate and kept them beside us through the night. We could call each other without the risk of disrupting our rare opportunities for sleep.

Our late-night phone calls came to resemble our childhood sharing a bedroom, whispering to pass the time when we should have been asleep. Even after our older siblings moved out, leaving us with our own bedrooms, Megan continued to stay in my room at night. Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.

When Liddy did sleep, I’d sometimes wake to a missed call message, then check my email to find a hastily written message right in the subject line: “HELP. Up all night no sleep.” Or, “To Liddy from Corinne. You up?” OR, “WAIT WAIT do not call. Cannot find cell phone and ringer is on.”

“Daylight savings time is going to screw us,” Megan said once. “We’re not frigging farmers.”

I burst out laughing.

“Stop!” she said. “You are going to shake her.”

We talked about the girls’ health, about our toddler boys’ antics, but mostly we spoke about mundane, silly things. But often, we just relaxed into silence punctuated by the girls’ shallow breathing as they relaxed into sleep.

“Is she asleep?” One of us would say, eventually.

“Yeah. I think I’ll try to lay her down.”

“Bye,” we’d whisper, and hang up. We’d release our finally-settled babies from our tired arms, and fall into our own brief sleep before it was time to start again.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

10 Thoughts On Being a Mom-Friend

10 Thoughts On Being a Mom-Friend

Friends pic

Friendships can be temporary and still rich and authentic. When it stops working, whatever the reason, give yourself and your (now-fading) friend a break. It’s part of life. Move on – and remember what you gave to each other while it worked.


When I had my first baby, over a decade ago now, I wondered how I’d strike up solid friendships with other new moms.

Looking back now, I realize how lucky I’ve been. Here are some gestures, big and small, that can go a long way toward building a real friendship. 

1. Be honest about the hard stuff. We all benefit from being real about how tough it is to be alone with a baby and find time to just use the bathroom. Don’t gloss over the lowlights.

2. But don’t be toxic. Envy, anger, and endless complaining are easy to fall into but bad for both of you. And besides, little ears are listening. 

3. Make her laugh. And hope she’ll do the same for you. Having someone to laugh with is even more important when you are sleep-deprived and full of self-doubt and generally just finding your way.

4. Listen. Put your phone away. Those snippets of real-life conversations will carry you through the hours when you don’t have adult company.

5. Snap a picture of her with her kid. We can’t have enough candids of ourselves with our kids. Take one when she doesn’t know you’re watching and send it to her. Even better, print it out and stick in an envelope before your next play date. 

6. Share your hand-me-downs. But only if it’s something you don’t need back. No one needs the added stress of trying to keep track of your onesies or get spit-up out of your favorite overalls.

7. Ask about her pre-parenthood life. And tell her about yours. 

8. Keep money in mind. We’re all on a different budget. You might need to realize that pricey lunch spot won’t work for her – or learn to put your own constraints, graciously, on the table. 

9. Remember that it’s not always about you. When she doesn’t return a few texts and you’re feeling left out or forgotten, she may have stuff going on that has nothing to do with you. 

10. Strike a balance when it comes to favors. Be willing to offer help and be able to ask for it. Be generous, but not to the point where you become resentful. Remember that she’s not your built-in babysitter and you’re not hers.

Finally, know that friendships can be temporary and still rich and authentic. When it stops working, whatever the reason, give yourself and your (now-fading) friend a break. It’s part of life. Move on – and remember what you gave to each other while it worked.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her on Twitter.

Dear Teenaged Girl in the Crop Top

Dear Teenaged Girl in the Crop Top


Dear Teenaged Girl in the Crop Top,

I saw you walking down the street this morning with your friend — carefree kids out of school for the summer, with the sun blazing and the whole day ahead of you.

Maybe you were headed to the park or the swimming pool or the bookstore. When you passed me you were laughing — peals of laughter. A giggle so genuine that just the sound of it made me smile.

Then I saw something you didn’t: the man leering at you from the corner. He was more than twice your age and the expression on his face as he stared at your bare midriff sucked the air out of my lungs.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about young girls and their clothing choices. People — maybe even people who know you and love you — say things like, “See what happens when girls dress like that?” “Respect yourself.” “Cover up.”

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

On another beautiful morning, many years ago, I went for a run in the city I’d just moved to, feeling happy and alive and suddenly so grown up. Then a guy in a truck made a U-turn and slowed down beside me, screaming something awful. I instantly felt sick, even though I knew he was the problem, not me. I was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Not that it should matter.

There will always be people who see you as an object, a thing, instead of the complicated, trusting, brilliant human being I have no doubt you are. They’re going to see you that way no matter what you do or wear. You’re not responsible for someone else’s stunted view of the world. I hope people who say they mean well as they tell young girls to cover up don’t make you believe you are.

Today, at least, you missed the look from the creepy guy. I hope you and your friend went on to have the kind of day you deserve — filled with more of that amazing laugh. I hope you wake up tomorrow and throw on whatever clothes make you feel happy and strong in your body, and that you’ll help your friends feel that way too, whatever their shape or size.

These are the same wishes I have for my own daughter, who will be your age in a few short years. And here’s one last thing I hope you will both eventually understand: There are plenty of people in the world who want to truly see you, to know you, for the beautiful person you are. It could take some effort to find them. But you are worth it.


Photo: Megan Dempsey

How Kids See Inside Out (and How They Might Not)

How Kids See Inside Out (and How They Might Not)


Perhaps those abstract lessons of Inside Out are more important to a different audience — parents. 


For months, I’d looked forward to seeing Pixar’s Inside Out with my daughter, Liddy. Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling turning feelings into characters! Characters we could understand and laugh at and talk about! When you’re the parent of a nine-year-old girl who is caught up in the fierce turmoil of third-grade life, that is no small thing. Plus, you know, popcorn and Reese’s Pieces.

I brought Liddy and her friend Charlotte, and we loaded up on snacks and settled into our seats just as the previews were wrapping up. The movie is a quick ninety minutes, and none of us even took a bathroom break. We were enthralled. We all loved it as much as I’d hoped, and when it ended the girls talked, rapid-fire, about the antics of Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness, and Disgust.

Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you may have heard by now (spoilers ahead) that Amy Poehler’s Joy works hard to keep the other emotions in check as they all pilot the day-to-day life of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of The Office) proves especially challenging in this regard as Riley faces a big move, family stress and friendship challenges.

But in the end, Sadness proves her worth. Joy learns, the hard way, the lesson so many of us are still working on. Sadness is a part of life. Efforts to banish her, distract her or leave her in the past, no matter how creative, just won’t work. And it turns out Riley needs Sadness as much as she needs Joy, in order to get the help and support of the people who love her. Allowing space for Sadness means she doesn’t have to go it alone.

So what did Liddy and her friend make of all this? When I asked them how those battles between emotions worked out for Riley, and how they might play out in real lives, like theirs, they looked at each other and kind of shrugged.

“I’ve never really thought of little feeling-creatures in your head controlling you,” Liddy said, with a hesitant smile. She looked like she was afraid to disappoint me.

“But let’s say we did think about them that way,” I said. “Like, Fear, for example. I can think of times in my life when Fear is around, you know, making his list of worst-case-scenarios like he did to Riley in the movie.”

“Um. That’s just … weird,” the girls said, laughing.

Later, when Liddy said that Mindy Kaling’s Disgust was her favorite character, I tried to make the connection once more. I wondered aloud if she could remember a time she felt Disgust working in her own life, thinking she might mention something about her brother burping or stealing a gulp from her water bottle.

“Mom,” she said — gently, as if to suggest I was still missing the point. “It really just feels like characters in a movie.”

I shared this anecdote with a child psychiatrist I know, who laughed and said that it all sounded exactly right. She reminded me that, even heading into adolescence, kids are very concrete thinkers. They simply want to fall in love with characters and soak up a good story.

“But is there some way parents could talk with their kids about the movie, that might help them make those connections?”

“I think you can just let her enjoy the story for what it is,” she smiled.

She helped me see that perhaps those abstract lessons of Inside Out are more important to a different audience — parents. Because maybe, for some of us (cough cough), it’s not our kids who need to work on accepting their Sadnesses. It’s us.

Taking the Plunge: Mom-fear Versus Kid-fun at the Water Park

Taking the Plunge: Mom-fear Versus Kid-fun at the Water Park


It will be fine, I say, as if those words could push away their worries. 


“Mom,” Brennan says. “Are you going to chicken out?”

Liddy crosses her arms over her turquoise swim suit and squints at me accusingly through the glare of the sun, waiting for my answer.

“No way,” I say, with a forced smile. “I’m in.”

The three of us are pressed together in the brutal heat with dozens of people — adolescent boys, mostly, dripping with sweat and chlorinated water. Sun and sunscreen are burning my eyes and, as we slowly ascend the steep wooden steps, my bare feet are steeped in some muck I’d rather not consider. I peer down over the side of the waterslide steps at the miniature people down below, and my heart is going 60 miles an hour.

When I was eight or nine years old, I took my first turn on a real roller coaster and promptly threw up. I haven’t looked back. Until this morning, that is, when Liddy woke up crying in advance of our big trip to the Cape Cod waterpark featured in The Way, Way Back. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t want to go without Daddy.” I thought she just meant she’d miss John while he was stuck at work, until she talked about how, on our last trip to Water Wizz, I only rode the lazy river ride. How I read my book at the picnic table while John went on every ride with the kids, screaming and laughing alongside them.

So here I am at Pirate’s Plunge waiting for a signal from bored-looking ride operator indicating that it’s time to step forward, lie on my back and slide feet-first into the rushing water, then rocket down a fifty-foot drop.

I think about various scenarios that could get me out of this situation. A lightning storm. Vomit on the waterslide. A lost child who needs help finding his family. I search frantically for thunderclouds or a sobbing child. Nothing.

We wind closer to the top and the kids offer advice. Lie as flat as you can, Mom. Fold your arms like a mummy. Close your eyes. Hold your breath. Oh, and when you think the ride is over? There’s one more really big drop.

What am I doing? I am the mom who sits under the beach umbrella while my kids ride the waves. When camping involves a long hike into the woods with the gear on your back, I stay home. And when we had the chance to ride a flight simulator at the San Diego Maritime Museum, I sat out as my family whipped their way through 360s and Liddy screamed “Help me! I need a hairbrush!” into John’s ears.

A teenage girl takes her turn and I count — 1, 2, 3, 4 — getting to 30 before the operator at the bottom signals that she’s reached the end. I can take anything for 30 seconds, I think. Right?

I have plenty of time, while I’m standing here shaking, to think about all the occasions when I expect my kids to do something that scares them. Rolling up their sleeves for a flu shot or stepping on stage for a school performance. Or simply going to an unfamiliar place to meet new people can cause them no end of anxiety. It will be fine, I say, as if those words could push away their worries. Remember this feeling, I tell myself. Remember how it drills through you, how you’d give anything to escape.

But there’s no more time to think now. Brennan drops down with a grin and pushes himself off the side for extra speed. Then Liddy gets the signal and throws me a last pleading look — Do it! — before she drops down, face scrunched, and disappears. And then I am getting an unenthusiastic “thumbs up” from the bored ride operator and I crouch down, knees shaking, in my skirted mom-suit.

And then, I am flying, catching air. Freezing-cold bursts of air and water and I am terrified and thrilled and mostly, mostly terrified. My butt slams down on the base of the ride, and it’s done.

“Yeeaaaahhhhh!” I hear them before I see them, bobbing up and down as they cheer and laugh, both with me and at me. “Mommy, you really did it!”

I stand up shakily, gasping, with my suit twisted in all the wrong places. I catch my breath and wave at them. And I smile, knowing I’ve earned the right to watch from the sidelines next time. And feeling certain that, when they face their next time, whatever it is, they will have earned a pass, too.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

Perks and Perils of the FaceTime Playdate

Perks and Perils of the FaceTime Playdate



Would the FaceTime friend feel left out because she was only virtually connected? Would the live friend think that she was getting dissed?


I stepped into the basement playroom where nine-year-old Liddy sat hunched on the floor, arranging freshly sharpened pencils alongside crisp white sheets of paper.

“Hey Liddy? Five minutes ’til dinner.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Hi, Liddy’s mom!” said a little voice behind me.

I swung around to see her friend’s smiling face, reduced to a small, smiling rectangle propped on the desk.

“Oh, Bessie! Hi.” I laughed, immediately grateful that I hadn’t walked in wearing a towel or yelling about something I didn’t need Bessie’s family, hidden somewhere in the background of that screenshot, to overhear.

I made a mental note to add another guideline to the list: I needed to know when Liddy had guests, whether virtual or in person.

For the first few months Liddy owned an iPod touch, she’d used it only sporadically, to listen to Meghan Trainor, play “Virtual Family,” and send me goofy texts filled with panda emojis. But when Bessie changed schools unexpectedly, Liddy was heartbroken, and it seemed like a small comfort to have the girls exchange contact information so they could text.

Then Liddy’s iPod trilled out a FaceTime invite one evening and my husband and I locked eyes in that flash of parental cognition that we’d failed to think something through to its logical conclusion. What kind of slippery slope have we stepped out on? Was this a great idea, or a very, very bad one? What’s the emoji for “Oh, crap. Now what have we done?”

Flash forward a few months and now there are five little girls, with freshly minted iPods, engaging in semi-regular virtual playdates. There have been some sticking points along the way — like what it means when Liddy is hanging out with one friend in person and wants include another via FaceTime. Would the FaceTime friend feel left out because she was only virtually connected? Would the live friend think that she was getting dissed?

Fortunately, so far, those fears have been unfounded. I know because I check in and remind Liddy to be aware of the possibility, but also because I can hear them all whooping it up and laughing — in person and through the iPod speaker, with its volume cranked as high as it will go.

And these playdates are much more interactive than I would have imagined. Liddy runs through the house holding her iPod aloft, banging a song out on the piano while a friend joins in from several blocks away. They show off art projects they are each working on, or write silly poems together, or even play virtual family — with humans. And they still get plenty of face-to-face time along with the FaceTime. Electronic get-togethers have not replaced the real-world ones.

I’m reminded again that the questions I mistakenly believe our generation of parents faces for the first time are not so far off from the ones my own parents wrangled with in the era when I’d spend half the afternoon dialing a friend, hearing a busy signal, then hanging up and dialing another friend to try to figure out who was talking on the phone without me.

And I recently realized that I was Liddy’s same age when my fourth grade science book promised a future of moving sidewalks, computers that talked, and phones that had video feeds. Those ideas seemed outlandish to a ten-year-old in 1982. Outlandish, and totally awesome.

Have I Ever Told You….?  How Sharing Family Stories Helps Our Kids

Have I Ever Told You….? How Sharing Family Stories Helps Our Kids


We were late for school, stuck behind a slow-moving garbage truck, and the kids were bickering loudly over who was to blame. Instead of my usual go-to responses (negotiating peace talks, cranking up the radio, or shouting them down), on this particular morning I thought of a story.

“Have I ever told you about the time my cousins Tim and Pat tricked the garbage men?”

I recounted the story of my cousins mimicking a cranky garbage man’s whistle and triggering the truck to pull forward just as the grump tried to empty a trash can into it. That story led to other well-worn tales of my siblings’ and cousins’ various escapades until, before we knew it, we’d arrived at school.

My kids love hearing family stories, whether I’m describing a funny incident from their own toddler days or recounting some prank that occurred between my siblings thirty years ago.

There’s timeless adolescent humor (one brother dares another to ride down the block in his underwear), the occasional moral takeaway (mom always finds out in the end!), and the pleasure of seeing my kids tease my now-adult siblings at family gatherings.

But it turns out that sharing family stories might give us all a whole lot more.

Not long after I told that story in the car, I heard an interview with author Bruce Feiler, who was talking about resiliency in kids, and research showing correlation between strong kids and how much they knew about their parents’ lives. “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative, ” Feiler wrote on the topic in the New York Times, discussing something called the “Do-You-Know scale.”

Developed by researcher Marshall Duke and colleagues, the Do-You-Know scale asked kids 20 questions on topics like where their parents had grown up and gone to school, where they’d met, and whether the kids knew stories related to their own or their siblings’ births.

According to Feiler, higher scores on the scale were associated with “higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control (a belief in one’s own capacity to control what happens to him or her), better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes if a child faces educational or emotional/behavioral difficulties. “

Of course, it’s not the information itself that gives kids a boost. It’s everything that happens to make transmitting that knowledge possible. When we share family stories with our kids, we are taking the time to connect with them, and to help them understand that they are part of a larger story. We are teaching them to put their experiences, good and bad, into a larger context.

I think about the family stories I grew up hearing: My mother as a little girl, determined to cut the tags off a new dress herself and snipping a hole in it, and my grandmother sewing it up without an I-told-you-so. My father as a young kid with a newspaper route, tearfully kicking at the door of the family who never paid him, then selling extra papers to make up the loss. Those vivid stories offered me glimpses into who my parents were — and a better understanding of who I was as the daughter they raised.

And what about the not-so-happy stories of the past? The stories of accidents and arguments, of misunderstandings and mistakes? Those stories, it turns out, may be the most important of all — as long as we know how to frame them.

“When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship,” Feiler explains. He tells parents: “Create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

Reading about the Do-You-Know scale and the work of Marshall Duke, I immediately started ticking off stories from my family’s history, and my husband’s, that I know my children can already retell. And I made a mental list of others that I’ll make a point to share.

Who would have imagined, on that stressful morning, that a brother-and-sister-blowout on an already-late-for-school day could have such a positive ripple effect?

(See that? Already I’m learning to frame our stories differently.)

Photo credit: Megan Dempsey

What Getting Them to School Really Looks Like

What Getting Them to School Really Looks Like


“DON’T SAY A WORD!” the eight-year-old screams at me from the other side of the bathroom door, where she has been trying to put her hair in a ponytail while the clock ticks closer to the first bell.

The ten-year-old is at the front door with his backpack, playing with the dog. “You want to come with us? You want to come with us?” he repeats as the dog jumps and barks.

“Don’t get him riled up,” I say.

“You want to get riled up? You want to get riled up?” he says to the still-barking dog.

The bathroom door opens and she is frantic. “What time is it? Why didn’t you tell me it was so late?”

“She does have a point,” he says, and I can’t even tell if he’s being sarcastic.

I suggest, strongly, that he and the dog wait for us in the car. He leaves.

She grabs gloves, jacket, homework, backpack and stomps out the front door.

I open the car door and he is in the driver’s seat with the back reclined, feet up on the steering wheel, dog in his lap. “Can I ride shotgun?”

“Yes,” I say. “In two years. Get in the back.”

“Can I ride in the trunk?”

“First bell just rang,” I say.

He throws himself over the headrest into the back seat, kicking his sister.

“Ow,” she yells. “That was my FACE.”

“Sorry,” he says, like he doesn’t mean it.

We pull out of the driveway ten minutes before the late bell rings. We are one mile from school.

“I don’t get why I can’t ride in the Thule,” he says. “When Mitt Romney’s dog rode on top of the car was he in like a carrier?”

“Can you change the station?” she says.

I ignore her. The morning DJ uses the word douchebag. I switch stations to Taylor Swift singing Blank Space.

They yell at the same time. “No!” Yes!” I leave it on.

“Hey, remember that dude with the yellow hair at the assembly?” he says.

“He read that poem about bacon!” she says.

“That was hilarious.”

“I know, right?”

(Sounds of wrestling and laughing.)

“Guys! I can’t concentrate on driving.”

“Why is that car honking at you?”

“He’s not.”

“Were you honking at him?”

“No, I wasn’t honking.”

“Who was honking?”

“Guys, please!”

“The dog is drinking your coffee,” she says.

“Can I climb out through the window when we get there?” he says. “I can do it in like two seconds. I’ll totally clear it.”

“Yeah, right,” she says.

(More wrestling and laughing sounds. A screech.)


“Okaaaayyyyyy!” they say in unison.

“Is that clock a minute fast or just a half minute?”

“What’s a douchebag?”

“The dog is drinking your coffee.”

“Did I pack my library book?”

“Can Derek sleep over tonight?”

“That’s so not fair. You’ve had like two million sleepovers!”

“So what? You have, too.”

“I don’t want to have one. I just want you to not have one.”


“You have chocolate on your face,” she says.

“Yeah I get that a lot,” he says. “Mom, what’s an example of an NC-17 movie?”

“Why aren’t we moving?” she says.

“Why aren’t we moving?” he says.

“There’s a garbage truck in front of us,” I say.

“So, when we get the late slips, should we check off that it was because of traffic?” she asks. “Or oversleeping? Or that there was a family issue.”

Family issues, I think. Plural.

He says, “They really should have an option for ‘All of the above.'”

“The truck is moving,” she says.

“Why aren’t we going?” he says.

And then, we are there. We pull up just in time to hear the late bell ring. “Bye! Love you! Have a great day!” I say as they unbuckle and clamor out with the dog barking in protest.

Their overstuffed backpacks bob as they run. They are laughing.

The dog watches them and whines, missing them already.

“I know how you feel,” I say.


Photo credit: Megan Dempsey

Notes to My Self of Ten Years Ago, When I Was a New, New Mom

Notes to My Self of Ten Years Ago, When I Was a New, New Mom


You are doing okay. You are doing great.

You are not actually losing your mind. Okay, you are, but you will get it back. For the most part.

He will sleep, I promise. He will one day be an amazing sleeper. (His yet-to-be-born sister is another story. Worry about that later.)

It doesn’t matter if he watches a second episode. Really. Close your eyes for a little while. You’ll both be better for it.

When you first begin to wonder if you are depressed? You are. Ask for help, accept it, as much as you can. You will be okay.

Staying home will be good for you both. Returning to work, when you do, will be good for you both.

Your first day back, you will go to a conference and forget everyone’s name. It doesn’t matter.

Those women in your moms’ group will still be in your life ten years from now.

The remarkable young women you hire to care for him will love him like no one else. You’ll get to watch them grow up, too, and go on to have families of their own.

When you briefly meet a single mom in the coffee shop who tells you, with a teary smile and newborn strapped to her chest, that she’s trying to do it all on her own, you will write down the moms’ group info for her. Ask for her phone number. You will worry and wonder about her, years from now.

You will find moments to relish, like when he falls asleep in the car and you have nothing to do, in these low-tech days, but sit and wait. And rest. And breathe. You will relive these moments on a far-off, bittersweet evening when he falls asleep in the car after a long day and you have to ask his dad to carry him because he’s grown so heavy you simply can’t any longer.

That favorite pacifier you can’t find when he really needs it? You will come across it a long time from now, when you reach into the pocket of your heavy brown sweater. He will have long forgotten it by then—but you will savor the slight weight of it in your hand for an extra moment before you tuck it in a drawer.

He will fall out of love with fire trucks but continue to love dogs. One day—not yet—your little family will be ready to get a dog of your own that he will love and you will remember these days, how he scans the park for dogs and squeals softly and pants at them.

Your instinct to surround him with the kids who make him laugh and delight in himself—that is a good one. The time will come when you can no longer choose his playmates; you’ll want him to look to the friends who are kind and funny.

Watching him become a sibling will make you see and understand and love your own siblings in a new way. Watching him torture his sister, well… He will love her and he will be cruel to her, except when they are banding together against you. But she is the one who will make him laugh most even though he will never admit it.

The thing that terrifies you most, the fear that you could lose him, will almost come to pass years from now. It will come close. But after the surgery, the hours in the ICU when you watch him sleep, when he gets better, when he comes home, you will be a better parent than you have ever been because you will really know that you cannot control these things. You will become a freer parent. A freer person.

In the future, there will be nights when you will sneak a kiss on a sweaty, sleeping forehead because he won’t otherwise allow it and you will watch him sleep (remember—he will sleep) and you will know: I did okay.


Photo credit: Megan Dempsey

When Judy Blume Told My Kids There’s No Santa

When Judy Blume Told My Kids There’s No Santa


When the kids were seven and nearly-nine, Judy Blume brought it all to a crashing end. Or at least, I’d like to think the blame was hers.


Unpacking the Christmas decorations, I pulled out the small crocheted “I BELIEVE IN SANTA” pillow that Liddy loves so much and handed it to her. I watched closely as she walked around the house with it – she finds a new spot for it every year – and felt relief when she ultimately placed it in the entryway, smiling to herself a little grimly. At least, I thought, She didn’t refuse to put it up.

When my kids were tiny I was on the fence about how to handle the Santa story. It’s true that I spent my own early years as a firm believer and had many magical Christmases as a result. But as an adult, a little bit of cynicism crept in. We were lying to our kids, and to what end? On top of that, in our community, we’re surrounded by families with different traditions. Should kids who weren’t waking up to a bounty of gifts under a glittery evergreen be expected to play along?

But I came around to the Santa idea, in part, because of some convenient research I came across tying this kind of believing to the development of abstract but essential emotions like love and empathy. And once I saw Brennan and Liddy respond with such joy to the idea of Santa, I embraced it. I held back only a little: I never pretended a costumed red crusader was the real deal. I didn’t put out milk and cookies. And when challenged I fell back on vague non-answers like, “If you believe, he’ll come.”

Then, when the kids were seven and nearly-nine, Judy Blume brought it all to a crashing end. Or at least, I’d like to think the blame was hers.

I was reading aloud to them from Superfudge when we came to the part where Peter admonishes his parents for letting Fudge continue to believe, and Peter’s mom admits that “sooner or later, he’ll have to learn that Santa is just an idea.” The words came out of my mouth so fast that I didn’t have time to auto-correct, and then I had two stunned kids to answer to. I first stammered out a weak explanation that involved Ms. Blume trying to include families who didn’t celebrate Christmas.

“Or maybe she doesn’t believe in Santa,” I said then, ridiculously. “But I do.”

So I was already wondering if that Christmas would be our last in the I-believe camp when we spent Thanksgiving with my family. Afterward, my sister called me with a confession: “I’m afraid Jake might have told Brennan there’s no Santa,” she said.

“Oh well,” I shrugged it off. “I think we were already headed in that direction.”

And that’s where things stood when I overheard Brennan tell two brothers in the neighborhood, “Guess what? Santa’s not real.” I ordered Brennan into his bedroom, furious: “You might be too old to believe in Santa, Brennan,” I said. “But it’s not fair for you to ruin it for other kids.”

Brennan’s eyes grew wide, then teary. “There’s really no Santa?” he said. “I was just pranking them! I was about to tell them I was only joking.” He looked about as sick as I felt.

I told my sister that Jake hadn’t ruined Santa for Brennan. I had. And I tried to give Brennan the speech I’d read about, where you say now it’s his turn to be his little sister’s Santa. As if there’s fun to be had watching your sister open gifts delivered by flying reindeer as you sit with your pile ordered from Amazon Prime by lame moms and dads.

And then there was the question of Liddy.

She was relentless. “Tell me,” she implored, over and over again. I’d start to say, “If you believe -” and she’d say, “Tell me the truth!”

So eventually I did. And she cried,

“But you asked me to tell you the truth,” I said.

“Well now you ruined it!” she answered, weeping.

We spent that Christmas at my mother’s an eight-hour drive away. I’d sent all gifts ahead of time and my mom and I stayed up late wrapping them and arranging them under her tree. In the morning, when Liddy opened a life-sized golden retriever that would require a seat of its own on the ride home, my husband asked, “Where did that come from?” with a perceptible note of distress.

“I have no idea,” I said, trying to shirk the blame.

Liddy overheard and it was all the encouragement she needed. “I know who it came from,” she said. She hugged what would become one of her all-time favorite Santa gifts and her eyes flashed in a challenge to me, Judy Blume and anyone else trying to dampen her Christmas spirit. “You might not believe. But I still do.”


Photo by Megan Dempsey

Ode to a Firehouse

Ode to a Firehouse


Remembering and reflecting upon the daily visits to the neighborhood firehouse


“Oh, they’re putting up lights,” nine-year-old Liddy says as we walk past Station Four, her hand loosely holding mine. Several firefighters are working to untangle the glittering strings they hang every November. Watching, I realize how long it’s been since we paid much attention to this place that was once an everyday destination for us.

“Do you guys remember how much time we used to spend there?”

Brennan shrugs and smiles. “Kind of.”

Liddy was born when Brennan was just eighteen months old, a toddler on the go. While Liddy needed to nap and eat and snuggle, Brennan needed to be on the move. We went to gymnastics and music and story times and play groups. None measured up to his favorite outing, which was free, always open, and located just a few blocks away.

Rain, snow, hail or sleet, we would make our way over, with Brennan stomping through puddles, crunching over snow or, on lazier days, riding in back of the double stroller. If we were very lucky, someone might call out, “Hey buddy!” through the wide bay doors. “Come on in.” Then Brennan might get to hold a heavy helmet, wrestle with a huge pair of boots or even get a boost into the enormous front seat, where he would sit wide-eyed and dazzled by the array of switches and buttons. Once, one of the guys teased Brennan about his spot behind Liddy in the stroller. “Your sister’s got you stuck in the cheap seats again,” he laughed. “That’s what we’re calling you from now on. Cheap Seats.”

If the truck was out on a call, Brennan would stand on the sidewalk dejectedly, willing it to return. “Ahh,” he would sigh happily if we caught them coming back, with all the pomp and flash involved in getting their truck backed in to its resting place.

Our visits always ended with Brennan happy and satisfied, and worn out with the excitement. And with me thinking about how far a small act of kindness could go, offered quietly alongside everyday heroics. Like my own memory from decades before, when paramedics were attending to my grandmother after she’d had a stroke. I stood with my younger sister on our grandmother’s porch, trying to feign an adult’s expression of calm, only to have a fireman walk up the steps in his heavy gear and fold me in a hug.

It’s hard for me to believe nearly ten years have passed since those walks over to the firehouse. I’m not sure how much he remembers of those visits, but they remain vivid for me, and one stands out in particular. It was the time we happened upon Brennan’s heroes in action as they put out a fire in an abandoned triple-decker just a few blocks from our house. I felt a little self-conscious about letting Brennan gaze out over the scene like it was entertainment, so I kept him back a ways, telling him we wouldn’t stay long.

Then one of the firefighters who was gathering up a line called out, “Hey, I know that guy!” To my embarrassment, and to Brennan’s delight, he had recognized us.

“We spend a lot of time at the fire station,” I explained, red-faced, to a laughing neighbor.

After an enthusiastic wave, the firefighter moved on to get the work done and I tugged at Brennan and told him it was time to get going. “Your friends will be leaving soon too,” I told him. “Heading to the firehouse. But we’ll see them tomorrow, I’m sure.”

Photo: John Parise

Going Dark for School Picture Day

Going Dark for School Picture Day


School picture day—fan or foe?


“Can I get the black background?” ten-year-old Brennan asks as I sigh over the photography studio order form where lines like ‘hand pose – optional’ feel painfully retro.

Like the hand pose or photo retouching, the black background is a premium option, which tacks a few extra dollars onto the already-overpriced packages.

“The black background?” I ask. “Why?”

The child who has never before expressed the remotest interest in picture day is excited to explain. “I want to wear all black, with long sleeves,” he says. “So I’m just, like, a floating head.”

I can’t help but laugh. I’ve never been a fan of school picture day—not since I was even younger than Brennan or eight-year-old Liddy. Maybe at their age I still held out hope when I first glimpsed that polystyrene-windowed envelope that held the pictures. Pictures that you were expected to trade with your classmates, on top of the horror of seeing them hang in a row with your siblings on the dining room wall. I learned the hard way they were really a permanent, high-gloss record of chicken pox scars, orthodontics and acne.

Thirty-something years later, with digital cameras on every smartphone and candid portrait photographers ready to capture your child actually smiling, for a pretty reasonable price tag, it’s hard for me to get excited about school picture day. So I can’t help but enjoy the idea of Brennan turning the tradition on its head. So to speak.

“Okay,” I say, to Brennan’s astonishment. “Sure.”

Liddy hears the conversation and demands her own premium option: a painful shade of teal for her background. “And can you ask them not to fix my hair?” she asks.

“Oh, Lids,” I sigh. “I don’t really think they’d listen.”

“I know,” Liddy says. “And the way they keep telling you to smile bigger and bigger? It’s like they want you to look ugly.”

“Exactly,” Brennan chimes in.

The pictures won’t go on our walls. The kids will cut out a couple of wallet-sized photos to pass on to their cousins. Grandparents will get framed 5x7s at the holidays. And the rest will get tucked, envelope and all, deep into a closet with the previous years’ entries, to be pulled out when the kids want to laugh over their grimace-smiles, and those of their classmates, in the annual class picture.

“I’m Brennan,” Liddy says, and then perfectly imitates his forced smile. These are the exact conversations my siblings and I had around school picture day when we were kids. It’s as if the same people are in charge of the whole thing. The poses, the glaring light, the weird, dated, backgrounds.

I know from talking to friends that some schools have jumped forward a decade or two in their handling of it all. But for my kids’ school, picture day is like a timestamp from the early eighties, right down to the photographer’s assistant who is aggressive with a comb, and the plastic windowed envelopes holding the final product.

“Am I a terrible parent?” I ask my husband John on the morning of picture day. Brennan is rummaging through his closet for the black fleece that zips up to his chin. “I mean, should I make them wear clothes that at least look half-way decent?”

“Well, I don’t care.’ John says, as he fixes his tie perfectly without even needing to consult a mirror. “And you don’t care. So if they have strong ideas about it …” He shrugs.

“Right,” I say. “Okay.”

The kids head out the door on time, Liddy in an arrangement of turquoise on turquoise, Brennan shrouded head-to-toe in black. Both have a little extra skip in their step.

*   *   *

“She pushed my cheeks up!” a friend of Liddy’s is saying to her as they climb into the backseat at pickup time. “I just closed my mouth again as soon as she let go.”

Liddy giggles. “I know, right? Why do they try to make you show your teeth?”

I resist the urge to add my two cents, but can’t ignore the fact that these are exactly the same reactions we had on school picture day when I was a kid.

A few hours pass and then Brennan comes home from his after-school program and reports cheerfully on the photographer’s reaction to his premium background choice.

‘Oh….you chose black!‘” he mimics in an alarmed, high-pitched voice.

Later on, at bedtime, I attempt to prepare him for the possibility that his school pictures might not turn out exactly as he’s imagined. “You know,” I say. “They might tweak the lighting so you don’t just look like a floating head.”

“I know,” Brennan shrugs, only a little deflated. But he still has hope. “Maybe they won’t! I just can’t wait to see how the pictures turn out.”

I have to admit that, for once, I feel the same way.


Photo by Megan Dempsey

The Rescue Dog Who Rescued Us

The Rescue Dog Who Rescued Us


Sometimes the family dog adds a love to the family dynamic in an unexpected way.


“Poor Toby,” John said one night as we lay in bed. We were listening to one of the kids cry into the dog’s curly white coat after an exceptionally bad day. “He didn’t know he was going to be a therapy dog.”

I smiled despite my stomachache over the unhappy child. It was true. We didn’t know he was going to be a therapy dog. Even in that moment, the dog was helping to calm me. I couldn’t find the words to make the bad day disappear, but I knew that Toby—enthusiastically licking the salty tears away—would help it fade into the background.

Toby came to us from a dog rescue in rural Tennessee. Along with dozens of other formerly abandoned dogs, he traveled to New England on an enormous tractor-trailer we met up with at a highway rest stop. A burly, tattooed man called out my name and beamed at me as he placed a shivering bundle of white in my arms. We knew we were receiving a gift that day, but we couldn’t yet appreciate its impact.

Brennan was nine at the time and his shaky quests for independence, his growing wish to be out from under our thumbs, found a focus in caring for Toby, in the early mornings when he snapped on the dog’s leash and negotiated how far he was allowed to walk him. Liddy suffers from anxiety, but she found new footing in helping to earn Toby’s trust—carefully cataloging his likes and dislikes, delighting in newly found ways to draw him out.

Brennan captured our situation perfectly one night at the dinner table. “I’m so glad we have Toby now,” he said. “It’s like he made every part of our lives better.”

John arrived home from work late one evening. Still wearing his suit, barely inside the front door, he wrestled Toby for a well-chewed, stuffed green Frankenstein doll. This is their nightly routine. “Daddy said he never wanted to get a dog, but it turns out he likes Toby as much as we do,” Liddy said. Not least of all, I expect, because the dog is the family member guaranteed to greet him at the door happily, without a single complaint or accusation.

As for me, the aspect of dog ownership I most dreaded — having to walk him, every day, no matter what — has turned out to be one of the very best parts. If it were my choice, I would hole up at home all day, and the solitary life of a writer often allows for that. But it turns out the long walks with Toby on the bike path, the encounters with other dogs and their owners, are just the thing I need.

On one of last winter’s most bitter-cold mornings, John was shocked when I offered to take Toby out. I piled on layers to protect the both of us against the elements, and we stepped out into the crystalline frozen snow when no one else was brave enough to be out there. The neighborhood was still and silent and as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it. If it weren’t for Toby, I would have missed it.

The kids and I were walking Toby on a warmer day this spring when Liddy asked a question that had been troubling her. She spoke in the slow deliberate way she has when she’s trying to find the right words. “Mommy,” she said. “If Toby dies — when Toby dies — will we send a letter to his old owner, to tell her? Because even though she gave him up I think she will really, really, really want to know.”

We do not actually know this former owner; we only know that she sent Toby spiraling into weeks of homelessness, trauma and shelter life when she met a man who didn’t like dogs. But Liddy’s willingness to look beyond that act, her belief in the anonymous woman’s continued bond with Toby, hint at the wellspring of faith and generosity that opens up with the love of a dog.

For Brennan, though, Liddy’s question — and the idea of losing Toby — triggered an angry reaction. “Why did you have to bring that up?” he said to Liddy. “It’s a stupid thing to say.”

I gave Liddy’s hand a squeeze, ready to intervene, but I didn’t have to. Brennan stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and crouched down to Toby. “Are you my crazy dog? Are you my fluffy puppy?” And Liddy laughed at the high-pitched squeal Toby let out, and knelt down, too, cupping the dog’s face in her hands. Toby began to wriggle and paw at them, anticipating the affection he knew was coming.

Fluffy-fluffy-fluffy -fluffy-fluffy-fluffy-fluffy!” The kids rubbed his ears and neck and he rolled onto his back for a belly scratch. Then Brennan freed Toby from the leash and the three of them raced toward home, leaving me — and their argument —behind. Their little bodies whirled and bounded down the street, happy to simply be.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

Rocks and Rainbows

Rocks and Rainbows


Running along the bike path near our house on the way home from an ice cream outing, Liddy jumps into the air over and over again, determined to reach heights high enough to grasp a leaf off a branch. Finally, finally, she gets one.

Feels so good getting what I want,” she whispers fiercely to herself, repackaging and redefining Iggy Azalea’s omnipresent “Fancy” lyrics into something suited to the mindset of an eight-year-old.

Liddy holds onto the leaf all the way home, pleased not only with her success but with the precise shade of green the leaf holds, the smell and “crispiness” of it.

“You have to feel this, Mommy,” she says, holding the crumpled leaf out to me like a gift. “Smell it.”

At not-quite nine, there is still, for Liddy, such pleasure to be taken from ordinary things. She begs me to buy her a glittery ring as a memento when we are on vacation and I realize, following her eyes, that it is actually the tiny cardboard gift box it comes in that she’s after.

At home I offer her another jewelry box, inky blue and felt-covered. She examines it, opening and closing the hinged lid, and then asks breathlessly, “Can I just have this?” and slips out the spongey cushion inside. She runs with it to her bedroom and adds it to one of her collections of tiny, valueless (to the adult eye) treasures.

On Liddy’s bedroom floor is a large poster board—a work-in-progress she calls Crafts No One Would Think Of. She peels the outside frame from a sheet of stickers, leaving the stickers themselves behind, and uses the frame as a stencil to trace indiscernible shapes on the poster board, coloring them in with a bright pencils. Over the shapes, she tapes a curtain of fringe made from salvaged beige packing material.

“A rainbow! A rainbow!” she shrieks from the backseat of the car one day. I look in the rearview mirror and see that she is looking not at the sky but in her hand, where she is trying to catch hold of a shimmer of colors reflecting off the metal seatbelt.

Decades ago, just after graduating from college (and long before marriage and kids), my now-husband John and I served as VISTA volunteers in Austin, Texas. John worked with Tibetan refugees, and his organization’s big annual fundraising event culminated with the building of a Sand Mandala, a dramatic, traditional work of art created painstakingly by monks over several days’ time.

John was there when a group of young school kids came through to watch the monks building their masterpiece grain by colorful grain. The kids’ attention held for all of a few minutes before they began wandering the building in search of something more interesting. A few of them approached the organization’s information table with its pamphlets and newsletters.

“Free business cards?” one of the girls exclaimed, incredulous. The message was repeated across the group of kids and there was a rush on the table.

For years, the expression “free business cards” represented, for us, our nieces’ and nephews’—or really, anyone’s—inexplicable interest in the otherwise mundane things of the world. It was a funny anecdote then. Now, the chance to experience moments like it is something I savor.

I know—because I also have a ten-year-old—that Liddy’s admiration for small, ordinary things will evaporate without notice someday soon, and will be replaced by a desire for things like Beats headphones or her own bathroom. But for the moment, at least, it is alive and in full force.

Lately, Liddy has been collecting rocks. Not dramatic, surf-worn stones from the coast, but ordinary silt-colored rocks plucked from driveways and the crevices of our neighborhood’s concrete sidewalks.

She rinses them in the sink and polishes them with a paper towel, then arranges them by color on surfaces all over the house.

“I think I’m going to have a rock sale,” she announces one morning, studying her finds.

I stifle a laugh and aim for diplomacy. “Okay, so…who are you expecting will want to buy these rocks?”

And then, her eyes go wide with disbelief as she asks the all-important question:

Who wouldn’t?”

Photo by Megan Dempsey

Life and Loss in the Neighborhood

Life and Loss in the Neighborhood



When my husband John and I moved into our condo nine years ago, one of the first people to learn our names was our seventy-something neighbor, Jack. Our son Brennan was just a toddler, and we hadn’t had time to make a single friend on our street when baby Liddy came along — with a whole host of medical challenges. Jack and his aging chocolate lab, Packie, were a bright spot in those long and difficult days.

Brennan loved dogs and would be first to spot Jack and Packie making their slow, shuffling way down our street or to hear Jack’s unmistakable voice calling out greetings to various neighbors and passersby. Brennan would sit right down on the sidewalk and Packie would lean into him for a hug. And I would get a few precious minutes of adult conversation about Jack’s winters in Florida, his most recent trip to Ireland or his victory in the 5k road races he still relished. “I came in first in my age group,” he’d laugh, having been the only person anywhere near his age who’d competed.

We kept our conversations light, but he must have seen how worn down I was feeling on the day he called out behind him, “You’re a good mother, Karen,” as he headed back to his apartment building, bringing tears to my ears.

As Liddy grew older, she went through a shy stage, taking cover behind me when people addressed her. Unlike other adults, Jack never pushed her to make conversation, but instead slipped her dog treats to win Packie’s affection, knowing that in doing so, he’d eventually win hers, too.

One day John opened the Boston Globe to a photo of Jack’s beaming smile. At age 77, he was about to run his 1000th road race. It did not surprise us to learn Jack was much beloved in the running community. More than a runner himself, he was every athlete’s best cheerleader. His second story porch gave him a view of anyone out for a jog. He started bellowing out hellos at about 5:30 every morning. His voice had a raw rasp to it — but it carried. I remember John shaking with laughter one morning before we were fully awake. “Jack’s back.”

That was a refrain heard around the neighborhood every March or April, when he and Packie returned from a few months in Florida – always in time to cheer on the runners for the Boston Marathon, which he’d competed in himself many times. “Jack’s back,” we would say. “It must be spring.”

My neighbor Tiffany and I took up running ourselves, and Jack was thrilled for us. His cheers bookended our early morning runs. “Go get ’em girls,” he’d shout when we started out, and when we came home he’d point dramatically at his watch and give us a thumbs up, or hold up five fingers and yell, “Did you make it to five?” Once he was already on the street when we were out and he spotted us first: “Hubba hubba,” he called to us, laughing.

When Packie died a few years ago, the whole neighborhood felt it. Brennan and Liddy were old enough to understand that Jack was grieving, despite his cheerful façade. When Jack finally decided he was ready to adopt another senior dog, his condo association refused to allow it, even after his doctor wrote to them that a dog’s companionship was important to Jack’s health. Ever tuned in to the world’s fairness, or lack of it, Liddy and Brennan were furious on Jack’s behalf. After that, Jack filled his pockets with dog biscuits that he offered to every dog in the neighborhood.

This past March, just after John mentioned that Jack would be returning soon, I was stunned to wake up to an email one morning from another friend and neighbor, John Corcoran, telling me Jack had died in Florida. He waited until we talked in person to tell me Jack had been hit by a car on the morning of Saint Patrick’s Day as crossed the street for Mass. He showed me a St. Patrick’s Day card he’d received days before in the mail. “Lucky to be here,” Jack had written. “See you soon.”

I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to Jack’s death. They knew he was getting on in years — they’d even asked once if Packie’s death meant Jack might die soon too. Like all kids, they process the happenings of the world in their own unscripted ways. But when I told them the news Brennan’s eyes went wide with tears before he retreated into silence, and Liddy cried and said, “I’m so mad.”

The ripple effects of Jack’s presence, his kindness, reached into their lives in real and meaningful ways. The first few times we passed his building after he died, Liddy shielded her eyes with her hand, a concrete demonstration of the way we feel in the face of loss, the difficulty we have confronting it face-to-face. “It’s not fair,” she said, speaking for all of us.

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Best Medicine: Kindness

Best Medicine: Kindness

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Outside of the hospital’s enormous revolving doors, Liddy begins to whimper. She’s been to this place countless times in her eighteen months of life. The hospital has become a familiar place, but not a comfortable one.

We pause at the enormous tank of fish in the lobby. “Fishy,” Liddy says softly. “Fishy, come here!” She presses her small hand to the glass and watches the fish dart among the tank’s plastic reeds. But we are running late, and after a moment John nods at the elevators and I steer her away again.

A nurse leads us to a closet-sized room and leaves a pair of tiny, pink hospital pajamas on the bed. John and I drape the gown over eighteen-month-old Liddy, but she swats angrily at the pants.

Along with numerous other complications, Liddy was born with a deep dimple near the base of her spine, which can suggest tethered cord syndrome—a condition that causes nerve damage and scoliosis. An ultrasound of her spine showed something, a haloed white spot, a glare of light. Only an MRI could tell for sure.

We’ve delayed this day for over a year, hoping Liddy would be a candidate for sedation instead of anesthesia, which has a higher risk of complications and means we cannot stay with her for the procedure. I can hardly bear the thought of her little body stilled by anesthesia. But Liddy also has severe reflux. If she is not completely sedated and refluxes while in the MRI machine, she could aspirate spit-up into her lungs.

Like us, Liddy is anxious. John occupies her with round after round of Wheels on the Bus and Open, Shut Them. He holds her baby doll like a marionette, manipulating the plastic arms to turn round and round, round and round.

Liddy alternates between the two of us. She sits in John’s lap and laughs, saying and signing with a touch of her fingertips, “More? More?” Then she quiets and reaches for me, and presses her warm face into my neck. I run my fingers over her plump little arm. She’s had nothing to eat or drink since eleven o’clock last night.

The anesthesiologist is young and serious. He speaks formally about the procedure, and says that I can stay with Liddy until she “falls asleep.” Liddy will cry when he puts the plastic mask over her nose and mouth, he warns me, but says that the crying will help her go to sleep faster.

“If something goes wrong,” I say, keeping my voice even. “Will someone come and tell me?”

He talks about benign reactions, like hives and rashes, but he knows I am worrying about something more serious. “We would come and get you,” he says finally.

Eventually the nurse sweeps in and says, “Say goodbye to Daddy.” Only one of us can accompany her into the MRI suite. Liddy stiffens in my arms as we move, too quickly, away from John and through a set of wide swinging doors.

The room envelops us in gray light and a loud, vacuum-like sound. Liddy begins to sob. She clings to me as I lay her on the white table. I lean my face close to hers: “It’s okay. I know.” The anesthesiologist reaches for the pacifier in her mouth, hesitates, and leaves it in. He presses the plastic mask over her face. Liddy screams and screams, then whimpers, and stills.

“Thank you,” the anesthesiologist says, dismissing me, but Liddy’s small form convulses and I look at him, alarmed. “She’s okay,” he says. “She has the hiccups.”

I let go of Liddy and walk across the dim room toward the door. From the shadows a woman’s voice asks if I am okay. I nod, but I’m crying, and once I get out into the hallway I am lost. Someone points me toward the waiting room, where I find John again.

“How was she?” he asks.

“She cried a lot,” I sigh. “She’s asleep now.”

For a long time, I stand in the hallway and stare at the closed doors of the MRI suite. Then I move back inside the waiting room, sit beside John, and relax against the tension that has held me taut since I woke up this morning, since long before then.

When they wheel her out I hear the wail of her crying and see her tiny, grasping arms reaching up from the bed. I step toward her. “Can I come?”

The anesthesiologist waves us into the recovery room and lets me hold her. “That’s what she needed,” he says when I press her to me. He tells us she tolerated the anesthesia well and shows John how to hold the oxygen mask near her face.

Liddy’s face is swollen with crying, her eyes shining spots of black. She refuses the nurses’ many offers of apple juice.

“And the results of the test?” I ask. “Will we know anything today?”

A grim-faced nurse shakes her head. “They’re reading sixty results a day back there,” she says abruptly. “You’ll get a call from the neurosurgeon.”

The anesthesiologist glances at me and excuses himself. He appears again a moment later with a printout of initial readings from the MRI. Liddy is still crying and it is difficult for me to hear. He holds the paper in front of me and points at the word “Normal” at the bottom of the page.

“Stay here as long as you need,” he says, and squeezes my shoulder.

I sit in a chair holding her as another nurse comes by. This one gently pushes the bed closer and props up my feet. Soon Liddy opens her eyes again, and she is back with us. “Apple sauce?” she asks in a tiny, hoarse voice, mis-remembering the promised juice, and the nurse and I share a smile.

She brings the apple juice for Liddy and also ginger ale with a straw. “Something for Mom,” she says. A small, caring gesture that tells me I’m her patient, too.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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When You Drop Me Off, Are You Going to Leave?

When You Drop Me Off, Are You Going to Leave?


dempsey“How many more days until my soccer camp?” Brennan asks, every day. I cringe inwardly but pretend enthusiasm.

Months ago, he heard about this camp and begged me to enroll him. The opportunity for him to run and play at a park all week with other four-year-olds sounded great idea. I signed him up.

Then I ran into my neighbor, Craig, whose son Drew would attend for the second year.

“You know about this camp, right?” Craig laughed. “It’s kind of…sketchy.”


“Well, it’s run by this crazy bunch of kids from England,” Craig said. He described them as “clueless.” He repeated the work “sketchy.” But, he said, Drew loves it.




Brennan sits on the living room floor, struggling zip up his backpack. “You are going to bring me there and then leave, right?” he asks, beaming.

He appears long after bedtime, too excited to sleep. I tuck him in again. He rolls onto his side, hugs his stuffed gray kitty and smiles at the wall, imagining…what?

I am kept awake, too, imagining less happy things. What was I thinking? An unfamiliar camp at a huge city park, with a bunch of strangers? He’s barely four.

I look over the camp information and realize I forgot to pick up a copy of Brennan’s immunization record. A sign that I shouldn’t be sending him — or some kind of subconscious sabotage.

I’ll have to convince the coaches to let me drop him off and return with the form at pickup. But I fantasize they’ll send him home with a little clap on the shoulder, saying, “Maybe next year, mate. When you’re five.”


The park sits on a buried landfill framed by a towering housing development and four-lane highway. Waves of kids shriek and run across the turf on their little shin-guard clad legs, pulling at each other and tripping over soccer balls.

Brennan tugs me toward the field, eyes huge with excitement. “Now you leave. And I stay by myself.”

“You stay with your coaches,” I say. But he is already running ahead of me.

I spot a guy of nineteen or twenty swinging a clipboard. “I’m called Paul. Who’ve we here, then? Master Brennan. You’re a big man of four then, eh?” Beside Brennan’s name on the attendance list is a highlighted, glaringly unchecked “medical form” box. I prepare to plead my case, but Paul cheerfully strikes a bold line through the box.

Brennan is wearing an Italian soccer jersey and Paul grabs him by the shoulders. “All suited up, are you? Ready to play some football then?” He spins him around to read the back of his shirt. “Buffon!” he yells as Brennan cracks up. “You’ll be taking care of us then, eh, Buffon?”

Brennan’s coach, a wiry kid with glasses and black curls, is leading a group of preschoolers in a game where he appears to play some kind of British pirate-monster, threatening and growling at kids as they scream, claw and jump at him. Before I can say goodbye Brennan takes off and is absorbed by the pack. They move away, yelling and pummeling the coach with their tiny fists.

Dragging myself toward the parking lot, I spot Ruth, whose daughter Sivan is Brennan’s age. Enviably unflappable, Ruth is the opposite of me. But she says, “I don’t know about this place. Look at that little guy wandering off over there and no one’s even noticing.”

We watch the boy hop around the edge of the field. Then someone waves to me from among the trees — Craig, spying on Drew.

I walk over to him and he shrugs and laughs in an I-told-you-so kind of way. We watch for a few minutes before he says, “Okay, I’m going to stop being an overprotective parent and go now.”

“Me too,” I lie. “See you later.”

Brennan’s group moves across the field. Something in the grass catches his attention and he stops and kicks at it, then squats down to examine it more closely. His group keeps going. He sits down and, within a few seconds, he is enveloped by a different group of kids just as his group blends into a mass of older kids. But then a pony-tailed teenaged girl runs back for him. I see her reach out her hand and they run across the field together.

I leave.

At pickup, kids run all over, tackling each other, taking off to find the bathroom or climb a tree. I spot Brennan: red-faced, exhausted, happy.

“Bye, Buffon,” the curly-headed coach calls. I make a mental note to put him in the yellow Italian jersey all week.

On the drive home, Brennan smiles out the window when I ask about his day. All he says is that he needs to wear a green t-shirt tomorrow, because he is going to play for the green team.


“Right when you drop me off, are you going to leave?” Brennan asks

“Yep!” I say. And really, I plan to. But dark clouds are rolling in and the park has no shelter. I sit in my car in a nearby parking lot until a crack of thunder sounds. Rain falls in a thick curtain. I call Ruth to tell her I’ll take Sivan.

The rain soaks through my clothes as I run to the field. Kids huddle under trees as the coaches try to organize them and call parents from cell phones. One boy sobs as a coach asks, “What’s your name, mate? What’s your name?”

“I’m taking Sivan,” I shout to the ponytailed coach.

“Who?” the girl asks.

I point. She half nods, half shrugs and moves toward some older kids who are wrestling in a puddle.

Brennan, Sivan and I grab hands and run. They are drenched and laughing as I buckle them into their seats.

“Did you leave today?” Brennan asks as we sit in traffic in the downpour. “Was I there by myself?”

“Yep,” I say. “Hey, guys, what’s the name of your soccer coach?”

“Who?” Brennan asked.

“Do you know, Sivan?” I ask.

She looks at Brennan, widens her eyes and shrugs. And then they both laugh as though I’ve said something hilarious.


I will stay for just ten minutes. I peer through the bushes. The ridiculousness of the situation falls on me in its full weight. I am hiding from a four-year-old.

I spy Brennan’s group moving toward a cluster of trees with their bags. Sivan’s eyes immediately find me and she raises an arm to wave. I duck but then give in and wave back, embarrassed. But Brennan is oblivious. He is bringing up the tail of the group, dragging his red backpack through the dirt behind him as he shlumps along heavily in the heat. He plunks down next to Sivan and says something to her, and they laugh together.

I leave.


Brennan’s temperature is 102.3.

“Can I still go?” he asks, and cries when I shake my head.

I feel sick myself, with guilt, like I have somehow willed this.

In the afternoon, our babysitter Tasha comes by. She picked up her sister from the camp and mentioned to the coaches that she would be seeing Brennan.

She holds out a huge bag of stuff: Soccer balls, t-shirts, water bottles. “Those guys were so nice! I told them Brennan was sick and they were like, Oh, poor little guy, and they just kept bringing me stuff.” Tasha seems unaware that their attention might have actually been captured by the fact that she is a tanned, twenty-two year old knockout in a tank top and shorts.

A year later

Brennan still talks about soccer camp all the time. Even though he was only there a few mornings, the experience made an impression. This summer, he’ll go to a real, reputable day camp where he’ll swim and hike and play soccer, too.

Maybe I’ll hire Tasha to drop him off. She’ll make more of an impression on the counselors — and both they and Brennan are sure to admire her when she walks away.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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Welcome to the Club

Welcome to the Club

What is Motherhood? is a Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?

06_Eileen_6403 copyI unlatched the bucket baby carrier and heaved it out of the stroller. It was only three weeks since my C-section, and I swore under my breath as I felt a pinch. But the stroller wouldn’t fit into the community center’s tiny bathroom and I didn’t have much choice.

“Oh look at him! How old?” a voice exclaimed over Brennan, and then, “I can take him for you.”

A blonde-haired woman with chic glasses smiled at me. She looked … not crazy. Looked, in fact, much saner than I must have in the moment as I stood there sweating with the adrenaline, exhilaration and exhaustion of brand-new motherhood. She had with her a baby of her own, a girl of about six months old. I left Brennan with her and darted into the bathroom. And I thought about how impossible it seemed that I had just handed my newborn over to someone whose name I didn’t even know.

Days before, my mom had climbed out of my car at the airport terminal for her flight back home, both of us weeping. I had no family nearby, or even close friends with children, and my husband’s two weeks of paternity leave were up. I was looking at a week of ten-hour days, all on my own.

A coworker had given me information on a new moms group months before and I had tucked it away. I’d never thought of myself as the support group type, whatever that means. But when I faced down those first long days alone with Brennan, I looked up the meeting location and set the goal of getting us there.

The blonde woman, Kathleen, led me through a door to where the meeting had already started. Moms and babies were spread out across a sun-lit room with wide windows. Some were cooing, others crying (babies but also, probably, a mom or two.) The smaller babies lay on their backs kicking while others crawled across the rug or even practiced standing; compared to tiny Brennan, the older ones looked like giants. Many of the moms looked more or less like I felt, as though they were seeing the world through the fuzzy veil of sleep-deprivation. But they also looked relaxed.

The group facilitator welcomed me and then said, pointedly, “We usually start at ten,” — it was a few minutes past — and I wanted to punch her in the face, or just leave. But I found a spot and sat down (I was too tired to leave again, anyway). Following the lead of the moms around me, I unfolded a flannel blanket and set Brennan down on the floor.

In the meeting, we simply went around the room and said how things were going for each of us. If someone had a question, the facilitator (who was actually great, despite her initial brusqueness) would respond, and then others might chime in. People had a whole range of ideas and approaches, ways of parenting that worked for them. But we shared a lot of the same worries, big and small. We were on the same learning curve. And we were kind to one other.

You could ask paranoid-seeming questions about eczema or poop frequency or cradle cap or how many layers for sleeping, and no one would roll her eyes and think, First-time mom. You could say, “Will I ever freakin’ sleep again?” “Does yours cry this much?” or, “I think I am losing my mind.” And people would nod sympathetically. No one would judge.

It’s hard for me to describe how these simple discussions and interactions impacted me. If the world opened up when I had a baby, so did my fears, self-doubts and insecurities. That day, the nagging feeling that I wouldn’t get it right — that there was a “right” way to be, as a parent — began to quiet, both during the course of the meeting, and after.

As I was packing my bag up, Kathleen came over.

“Hey,” she said. “We usually go to lunch afterward. You should come.” I hesitated. This was already a big outing for me. Up to then, my boldest destinations were the coffee shop and the CVS near my house.

“Really, it’s the best part,” Kathleen said, convincing me.

At the restaurant a few doors down, the staff exclaimed over us as we came in. “They’re so great here,” someone said. “They’ll even play with your baby while you eat.”

People began to put their baby carriers on the floor or onto chairs wedged solidly between the wall and table. I watched, enthralled. Fidgety babies were nursed or given a bottle or a toy. Menus appeared. Favorite dishes were discussed. And then —then — a couple of moms ordered Diet Cokes. It was like we were regular people.

That day that I had dreaded was the beginning of knowing that I would figure it out. And that I wasn’t, in fact, alone. Those women would go on to be my first real mom friends, and their babies would become Brennan’s first playmates. Most importantly, I realized that we could play both roles — caring, thoughtful, attentive parents, and women who just needed to set their babies down for a while and laugh over a Diet Coke.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

Now We Are Ten

Now We Are Ten

lbdelDSC_4746web“I wasn’t born yesterday,” you say when we offer you the smallest bit of advice. We know that. In fact, we remember the exact moment you were born, even though it was, unbelievably, ten years ago.

Ten. It’s the most frustrating and exhilarating mish-mash of little-boy-big-kid. We never know which one of you to expect. And, probably, neither do you.

You might be the kid who insists, furiously, on walking the mile to your after-school program alone, with two dollars to spend at the convenience store on the way.

Or the one who panics when you think your sister’s kidnapped the love-worn stuffed tiger that kept you company every night for years. (Guess what I stole? she taunts. It’s Scratchy, isn’t it? you whisper.)

You go snowboarding, listen to Eminem and quote The Breakfast Club.

Then you beg us to squeeze the mustard on your burger for you. Or carry you, all knees and elbows, to your bed because you’re too tired to walk.

At Thanksgiving, you tower over your sister and younger cousins. In the class picture, you are the smallest and skinniest of the lot.

You walk the dog, pick up after him and train him to sit, and stay. You ask me if I think that, just maybe, you can communicate with squirrels through hand gestures.

You are pissed that you weren’t allowed to use the diving board at swim class. You cry when I say you have to wash your hair in the tub.

You teach your sister to hold a pool cue. You ask her to show you how to use her rainbow bracelet loom.

You worry about the homeless woman with the sign that said, “9 month old baby.”

You wonder if puppies have belly buttons.

You get mad that we won’t let you see The Hunger Games. You watch Scooby Doo.

You stalk into your bedroom because I took away your iPod. You clamor onto my lap for the first time in months, or maybe a year.

Life is about contradictions. For us, it’s unimaginable that we’ve already had you an entire decade, and that our lives existed before you at all.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

Read more essays on ages 1 – 10 in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 


Conversations With My Daughter: Style Edition

Conversations With My Daughter: Style Edition

m_DSC5534 copyAge 18 months

Liddy fishes my bra out of the laundry basket and spends a long time trying to thread her arms through the straps. She strokes the fabric and presses it to her cheek. “This soff,” she says. “This mine.”

Age two

“AAARRRGGGHHHH,” I hear Liddy bellowing from the windows of my children’s daycare. Inside I find her sitting on the floor, trying to pull on a sock. Other children watch, fearfully, from a distance.

Age three

Liddy is on the floor at Target, weeping “I need it” over something that will not fit her for nine years. A passing woman offers me an I’ve-been-there smile and says, with regard to Liddy, “I have one of those at home.”

Age four

“Liddy, have you seen my eyeliner?”

“What’s eyeliner?”

“A little brown pencil? It was in my makeup bag?”

Liddy stares then turns and walks toward her room to retrieve it. “Don’t see me,” she calls back over her shoulder.

Age five

We are carrying an assortment of little-girl bathing suits into a department store dressing room. Liddy has not been in this setting since her stroller days. (See Age three.) She turns in a circle, taking in the space, and the mirrors reflect her enormous eyes. She whispers, “Do we try them on over our clothes?”

Age six

Liddy falls on the playground and runs to me crying.

“Oh honey are you—” I see the black streaks on her face. “—wearing mascara?”

She shakes her head no but the gesture turns into a nod as she says, “Yes.”

Age seven

“I’m cleaning out my closet,” I explain. “Throwing away things that don’t fit me any more.”

“You should also get rid of things that don’t look good on you,” Liddy says. “Can I make some suggestions?”

Age eight

“What are you wearing to the party?” she asks, staring at the clothes I have set out on the bed.

“That dress.” I answer.

“Oh,” she says “The old lady dress?”

Minutes later

Liddy watches mesmerized as I struggle into my tights. The old lady dress requires Spanx®.

“Are you out of breath?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “A little.”

“Can I write about this in my journal at school?”

Minutes later

“Is that really what you are wearing?” she asks.


She sighs, resigned. “Can I at least do your hair for you?”


Photo by Megan Dempsey

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The Mommy Wars Come to the Classroom

The Mommy Wars Come to the Classroom

KarenDempseyI am crouched down in the hallway outside my son Brennan’s third-grade classroom, counting cash to stuff into the teachers’ holiday cards and silently excoriating myself for being so disorganized, when another parent—a friend—walks up and stands over me.

She smirks. “Are you a room parent?”

“Shhh! Don’t tell anyone,” I joke, and then add, “You know, somebody has to do it.”

“I know,” she says. “I just didn’t think you were the type.”

Another friend says, on the subject of chaperoning field trips, “Just say no. End of discussion.” I think maybe she means that she doesn’t have it in her to untangle gum from the hair of a crying child hair in a crowded public restroom. But then she adds, “Leave it to the people who have nothing better to do.”

I resist the urge to pursue the conversation. Because I like my friend, and I’m not sure I want to explore what she’s saying. And I suddenly have that pinched feeling I get when arguments erupt over breast versus bottle, or sleep training versus family bed.

On the other hand. Rewind a year or two, to a wholly unnecessary meeting of parent volunteers where someone brings a formal, printed agenda and strikes up an impassioned debate about binders. I groan and pull at my hair. We are caricatures of ourselves.  When there’s talk of a follow-up meeting I suggest we continue the conversation by email, and then get chastised by a fellow mom who starts off by saying, “I realize you may be too busy with work—.”

These scenes are aberrations, I hope. Not reflective of a bigger thing: Say, the toxic and difficult debate about the balance of working and parenting. Right? Because it would be really silly and self-defeating to bring the mommy wars into the classroom in such a way.

I get that, in the mix of parents at school, there are people who are difficult and domineering. In any work or life situation, there’s someone looking for power in the wrong places.  But it’s also true that somebody needs to help raise money for field trips and make sure there are enough snacks to go around, and tissues, and number two pencils. Those may seem like small things. But they are important. And in too many classrooms, I suspect, it’s the teachers themselves who have to spend time worrying about them.

You know what else? NOT volunteering doesn’t mean a mom cares any less about her kids, or mine. I remember that dismissive “busy with work” remark so vividly because it was bruising. And maybe it was the experience of encountering a similar attitude, spoken or unspoken, that leads my friends to give me grief about helping out at school.

When I was registering my son for kindergarten six years ago, I asked my friend and neighbor Alison about our school’s reputation for parent involvement, and over-involvement. It happens, she said. But she added, wisely, and generously, “I don’t have the time or inclination to get deeply involved in everything that happens at school. But I’m grateful there are people who do.”

Helping out at school has been both powerfully rewarding and unbearably tedious, kind of the way I think of my own experience of school as a child. One of the things I appreciate is that the wall of every classroom has a handwritten list of rules the kids come up with themselves at the beginning of the year. Brennan’s classroom rules include this one:  “Support others and make them feel safe.” Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. But it’s definitely one worth working on.

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When The Doctor Drops In

When The Doctor Drops In

karen dempsey“I had to borrow my wife’s stethoscope,” Dan says, sitting down beside me on my sister Megan’s couch. “You don’t mind if I examine her?”

I pull eight-year-old Liddy closer and she flashes me a look. “You DO mind,” she whispers in my ear. But Dan has an easy way with kids that quickly wins her over.

“This will feel a little cold.” He snakes the stethoscope up under Liddy’s pajama top. “Ready?” I know the moment he presses it to her skin because the two of them raise their eyebrows at each other and smile.

Dan is the chief of pulmonology at a nearby hospital. He arrived at Megan’s house with his wife and son, stepping out of his boots at the front door like any other neighbor.  It’s the day before Thanksgiving.

Liddy was diagnosed with asthma at age three, but she has had a long healthy stretch, free of flare-ups, before this cough. This cough is different.

It has been hanging around for nearly a month despite visits to the pediatrician and faithful use of her inhalers. Then over the weekend—while we were still home in Boston and readying ourselves for this trip—it grew suddenly worse. All night, I sat up holding her as she coughed into my chest. She breathed in the medicine from two different inhalers. We moved around the house from her bed to the glider on the icy front porch, to the bathroom with the steamy shower running. Still, she coughed and coughed.

The pediatrician sent us for a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. Liddy stood before a wide white screen, arms extended over her head as a gown three sizes too big dragged the floor. The pediatrician called me an hour later, perplexed and frustrated. Her chest was clear.

“Let’s try a round of antibiotics,” he said. “We need to get her in to see her asthma specialist, and perhaps even a pulmonologist.”

In the meantime, we were flying home to Buffalo, and I had visions of scary coughing fits on the plane and a late night trip to the E.R. if things continued. My sister had another suggestion. Her own daughter’s pulmonologist lived in their neighborhood.

A few texts back and forth, and here we were, talking quietly in Megan’s comfortable living room while Dan’s wife chatted in the kitchen and their son played Minecraft with the boys.

I tell Dan that I think the antibiotics have finally taken hold of whatever is causing the cough.

“I like it when my patients are already feeling better when I see them,” Dan said. And I think with a pang of the patients he usually sees — children with cystic fibrosis.

Dan spends a long time with us, listening to Liddy breathe, reviewing her medical history, suggesting an alternative medication, and showing how to best use it to “make the medicine stick.” He even asked Megan to pull out her iPad so he could show us a website with kid-friendly videos demonstrating how to use an inhaler.

While we’ve had remarkable medical care in Liddy’s lifetime, and her brother’s, this is a memorable visit. By Thanksgiving evening, Liddy is breathing easily – laughing and chasing her cousins through my mom’s house. We have a lot to be grateful for.

As for Liddy, the experience of a house call allowed her to assess her doctor at a different level.

“First I thought he was rude,” she says. “When he asked Megan for hand sanitizer. But then he knew Megan’s dog Jack. And he definitely knew her cat because his family found him when he was a stray kitten.” She thinks for a minute. “I don’t know if he knew their old dog Sam. But I guess that’s okay.” She shrugs, and smiles, and takes off running without another thought.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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Being a Mother’s Helper, to a Fellow Mom

Being a Mother’s Helper, to a Fellow Mom

By Karen Dempsey

0-30Brennan, Liddy and I sat by the gate, waiting for our flight to board. Holding sections of newspaper in front of them, they took turns reading aloud from fake articles on subjects like poop and exploding toilets, sending each other into fits of laughter.

The airport speakers rasped out: “Standby passenger [indecipherable name].” A few rows down, an adult-sized head of erratic blonde curls bounced up, followed by a chubby-cheeked miniature version of the same person.

“Okay, Isabel. They need us one more time,” the mom said to the little girl. She stood up to reveal a Baby Bjorn strapped to her chest and struggled to maneuver a floppy baby boy into the arm- and leg-holes.

An airline staffer looked on from the check-in desk, radiating impatience.

“This will just take one second, Isabel,” the mom said. “Just. One second.”

“His leg is stuck,” an older woman called out unhelpfully, her own arms folded across her chest.

I recognized the desperate look on Isabel’s mom. She was me, seven years before. I stepped toward her as she worked the baby’s errant foot down through the carrier hole. “I’ll watch the bags,” I said in a low voice, in violation of all those warnings posted around the airport.

She took me in with a grateful glance and mouthed, “Thank you.”

At ages seven and nine, my kids are just recently easy — even pleasant — when it comes to airline travel. And nothing makes that clearer than seeing another parent perform the juggling act I struggled with for so long.

The call to begin boarding came just as Isabel’s mom began nursing her baby. She stopped, he cried, and Isabel squirmed under a row of seats and refused to come out. The mom piled the two suitcases on top of her stroller and began negotiating with Isabel.

I reached for the stroller. “I can wheel this down.”

“I think we’ll be fine,” she said breathlessly, tugging Isabel out by an ankle.

But my hand was already on the bags. Brennan and Liddy were lined up with our bags and the other passengers had already boarded. “I’ve got it,” I said. “I’ll leave it on the jetway.”

She didn’t say anything as I walked ahead and I instantly knew I’d overstepped — inserted myself into her situation and probably made her feel worse. She’d said they were fine. Why hadn’t I let it go?

On the plane, Brennan and Liddy settled into a pair of seats across the aisle from me, pulled on their headphones and plugged into a movie. I looked at them — frightfully independent and funny, so much of the time now, and wished I could travel back in time to my early days as a mom and give myself a preview of moments like this.

I was still flustered about whether I’d crossed a line with Isabel’s mom. She would have figured it out. We all do. And I’ve had my share of “well-meaning” strangers interfere, like the librarian who warned three-year-old Brennan he looked cuter without his pacifier, and the woman on the beach who tried to distract Liddy out of a tantrum and made everything much worse.

But I thought back to the stress of boarding a plane alone with tiny Liddy and toddler Brennan, and the relief I felt the time a stranger took the infant carrier from my hands and deftly installed into the seat for me. He had a three-week-old at home, he explained. He was actually a pilot for the airline, “catching a ride home to see her.”

I remembered other moments when someone offered a small gesture that made a difference. When I was hugely pregnant with Liddy, I was struggling to collapse Brennan’s stroller on busy Mass. Ave in Boston, and a woman pulled over, hopped out of her car, and folded it up for me. “I just couldn’t keep driving,” she said, gesturing at my belly, with a huge smile. “Good luck!” And there was the time Brennan and I took the subway and got swallowed up in the crowds headed to Opening Day at Fenway Park. The stroller wheel caught in the door to the subway car, and a group of young guys in Red Sox gear wrenched it free for me, then ran onto the train whooping and cheering in triumph.

My reverie was suddenly interrupted. Two little stocking feet dangled in front of me.

“Sorry-can-you-take-him-I-have-to-get-Izzy-to-the-bathroom!” Isabel’s mom was behind my seat, literally dropping her baby in my lap in a deft move that only a parent can pull off — when she has someone on the other end who gets it. She must have scoured the rows for me when she realized she needed her arms free.

I cradled that still-sniffling little guy in my lap — the tiny flapping arms, the giant crocodile tears, and smiled. “Okay little man. You’re right here in my arms,” I said, and heard echoes, again, of myself years before, comforting my own tiny kiddos.

I looked over at Brennan and Liddy. They were completely oblivious.

“Are you having a tough flight, little man?” I asked the stranger baby. “Are you happy to be going home?”

In another five minutes, Isabel’s mom was back, still looking completely frazzled. But grinning. And here too was an expression I could interpret. Relief. (They must have gotten to the bathroom in time.) Pride. (They got to the bathroom in time!) Disbelief. (This stranger is holding my baby so I could get Isabel to the bathroom in time.) And gratitude. (This stranger is holding my baby so I could get Isabel to the bathroom in time!)

“Thank you,” she said simply. “So much.”

I was still smiling when Brennan, Liddy and I made our way through the airport to the baggage claim.

“Did you guys see that I got to hold that tiny baby?”

“What baby?”

“The woman from the airport?” I began. “We took her stroller onto the plane…?”

“You took her stroller onto the plane?” Brennan exchanged a glance with Liddy, confirming again their shared world view that adults, especially parents, are crazy.

I laughed at their expressions. Never mind, I thought. You kind of had to be there.

Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Welcome to IVF

Welcome to IVF

By Karen Dempsey

dreamstime_s_3413964“If we have a baby, we can tell it, ‘This is the desk you were conceived on,’ ” I say.

The desk is where we sit for the injections that will pump my little eggs—our unconceived children, John calls them—with hormones so they will grow big and strong.

I hold the syringe like a dart and stab it in two inches from my navel. The fatty flesh of my abdomen offers little resistance, and the sinking of the half-inch needle is oddly painless. Watching, John reminds me to release the pinch of flesh. Then, sensing somehow that my instinct is to draw back on the syringe, he tells me to press down to release the single cc of clear liquid. I fumble, too many fingers and thumbs. My skin resists the plunging, and I really have to press

“This part hurts.” I tug the needle free from my skin. “Done.”

Tender bruises mark my belly from three months of injections. We have spent more than half a year in infertility treatment, but with this cycle we graduate to IVF, in vitro fertilization. We have tried oral fertility drugs and a procedure called intrauterine insemination. If we are going to conceive a child, IVF is our best and last hope.

My doctors can only guess at what is causing my infertility. Eight years ago, when I was twenty-three and single, an odd, painful pressure began in my pelvis. A surgeon threaded a tiny camera into my abdomen and saw dense endometrial tissue, not lining the uterus where it belongs, but running over my right ovary and fallopian tube and binding them together. “We’ll do everything we can to protect your fertility,” the doctor said. Her words frightened me enough that I opted for the most aggressive treatment option, a harsh course of steroid injections to induce temporary menopause, shrink the errant endometrial tissue, and allow my body a chance to heal. I endured intra-muscular injections into my buttocks, suffered hot flashes and night sweats. But soon enough the pain in my pelvis went away. I felt like myself again. Cured.

Today, we know that my fallopian tubes are clear and that John has plenty of enthusiastic sperm trying to reach my eggs. But we are in our seventeenth month of trying, our seventh month of treatment, and still there is no baby.

I entered the world of infertility treatment with a prescription for Clomid, a low-dose, oral medication that puffs up the ovaries and helps them release a fat egg or two each month. I had read the literature on fertility drugs and their frightening side effects—bloating, cramping, exploding ovaries. Triplets. But I had also talked with a woman who’d struggled with infertility thirty years before me, whose marriage ended as a result. “If I’d had the options you have today,” she said, “I would have pushed the sky.” So I swallowed the pills and pictured my ovaries inflating a little each day, like a slow balloon. I bought the ovulation predictor kit. I swelled. I cramped. I had sex. And then I got my period again.

I counted the days to my next ovulation and called in a refill of the Clomid. At the pharmacy, I learned that the store had run out of the tiny white pills. I would need to return the next day, delaying my planned departure for an out-of-town weekend. “Half the people in this town are on Clomid,” I told John.

It is true that at times infertility treatment seems to have caught on like some sort of fad. But it also seems I am surrounded by babies, in strollers and grocery carts and those little baby-backpacks people wear. I ride to work on the subway and watch two little girls whisper conspiratorial, nonsensical things to each other as they wind themselves around their father’s limbs. I sit alone, my lap holding only my overstuffed work bag. It is hard not to feel I’m the only one.

When the second round of Clomid failed, I had a late-night phone conversation with my ob/gyn. We talked about further treatment, which would involve my seeing a specialist at an infertility clinic. In the meantime, I would try Clomid one more time, at double the dose. Before hanging up, my doctor promised that pregnancy is in my future—a matter of when, not if.

The night I took the last dose of Clomid, I woke from a deep sleep, felt my way down the stairs from my bedroom in the dark, and flipped on the bathroom light. It flashed and flickered. I suspected a dying bulb until the hallway light did the same. Electricity’s going out, I thought, listening for wind or thunder. I moved through the house flicking switches. By the time I reached the dining room, everything in my peripheral vision quivered, like the view through heat rising off highway blacktop. I stared at our oil painting of a Hong Kong street scene; it seemed to ooze grays and blues and yellows. Gas leak, I thought. I tested the black knobs of the stove and checked the carbon monoxide detector. Then I got it. The drugs.

I flicked the lights a few more times, then crept back upstairs and under the covers, trying not to wake John. I wanted to show him the view from inside my head, but instead I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Tilt-a-whirl. The room began to dip and spin. I lay flat on my back, breathing. I pressed gently on my frightened eyelids, my popcorn ovaries.

My vision had returned to normal by morning, but I called an ophthalmologist, convinced that I had somehow detached a retina. He had me come right in. His assistant took my medical history. She skipped through a list of questions in a cheery voice, her words layered in a brogue that lent drama to even the most innocuous phrase. “Clomid … Now what is that for?” she asked. “Right! Thank you.” She dripped some cold drops into my eyes to dilate my pupils, and I sat back with a copy of the New Yorker to wait for the doctor. A haze settled over my dilating pupils, and the print on the pages blurred.

“I’m not used to seeing younger people in here,” the ophthalmologist said as he looked at my file. He sat in a chair opposite me and pulled forward until we were almost knee-to-knee. Through the haze he looked like a rounder Steven Spielberg.

“How are you doing with the treatment?” he asked. I hesitated. He went on to say that he and his wife had gone through five and a half years of infertility treatment. “Look,” he said. “We are of a generation. I don’t even raise an eyebrow anymore when I see a thirty-one-year-old woman on Clomid.” He said infertility treatment has just become part of the process for some of us. He said it in a way that acknowledged the sadness of it all but made me feel a little less like an aberration, a little less crazy.

He examined my eyes and told me they looked great. “Now let me say this,” he told me. “You are going to have a baby. Unless there is something radically, radically wrong, and that’s almost never the case, and you’d know it by now. You are going to have a baby. This”—he gestured, capturing the bigness of infertility, the way it permeates a life—”it does fade into the background. And then you have all the other traumas and stresses and worries. I would want to say this to you anyway because you seem like a nice person, but I’m saying it to you as a doctor and because I’ve been there and because it’s true.

“Your eyes are fine,” he said again. “Come back after you have your baby.”

The infertility clinic was located in the same building as my ob/gyn, just down the hall from his office. I glanced in his window as I passed by. I missed him.

In the clinic waiting room, patients sat singly and in pairs, avoiding one another’s eyes. One woman strayed from this code of behavior and scanned the faces in the room. I pretended to read a magazine. Beneath it lay an envelope of x-rays. The films showed a foggy envelope of a uterus and tendrils of injected ink flowing freely—healthily—through my fallopian tubes.

John describes our first conversation with the infertility specialist like this: When you first walk in, you believe that you are there to learn about a whole host of new options. IVF still sounds to you like something out of a science fiction movie, something you might need to consider in the distant future. But then you sit down with the doctor and review your file and discuss the statistics that you face. The likelihood that you will conceive on your own at this point: two percent. The success rate for intrauterine insemination, combined with hormone injections: maybe eighteen percent. In vitro success rates: forty to forty-eight percent. By the time you walk out of there, IVF has become your best friend.

The other option, IUI, is a type of artificial insemination. Doctors use a catheter to boost the sperm up into the uterus, nearer to the fallopian tubes. But the egg must still travel down through the tubes from the ovary. If the path is imperfect, if the ovary is displaced or the tubes marked by scar tissue, the egg can lose its way. Based on my history and medical testing, the doctor suspected that my eggs weren’t surviving the journey. In vitro fertilization—fertilization outside of my body—might give my eggs a chance. She pushed us toward IVF.

Our treatment plan was not her decision and it was not our decision, either. While we are fortunate to live in a state that treats infertility like the medical condition that it is and mandates that health insurance companies cover treatment, we also have to follow the insurance company’s timeline. My doctor would pitch the case for IVF to my health maintenance organization. And, she said, she would probably lose. Even though she was convinced that only IVF will work in this case and even though the IUI cycles require the same painful injections, the same numerous ultrasounds and blood tests, she believed my HMO would make us try it.

She was right. When she called to tell me that the insurance company had mandated two IUI cycles before we could try in vitro, she reminded me to save my energy for IVF. “Think of these next two months as something you just need to get through.”

I am okay with needles as long as I can watch them go in. When nurses stick me with a flu shot or probe my veins to draw blood, I stay relaxed as long as I can monitor their efforts. So while John and I waited to meet with Paula, the “patient educator,” for our “injection demonstration,” I told myself I’d been preparing my whole life for this and I tried to remember that people jab themselves with needles all the time. Insulin, I thought as I went into the office and saw the syringes laid out on the table. Heroin, I thought when I held one and pulled off the plastic cap.

John practiced first, on a rubbery blue pillow that looked like a miniature waterbed. He held the needle over the pillow, hesitated, and cast an anxious, guilty look my way. I took my turn next, and then Paula suggested that I try a practice injection on myself, on my actual flesh. I rolled up my shirt, watched my belly rise as I inhaled, pinched my skin, and sailed the needle in without flinching. Then I pulled it out and stuck myself in the finger.

In the room where we planned to put the crib, we now keep a mini pharmacy. A desk holds alcohol prep pads, sterile bandages, and tiny plastic bottles of Gonal-F and Pregnyl and the sterile water used to dilute them. Plastic syringes lie next to dozens of needles in two different sizes and a red plastic container, the size of a shoebox, marked “Biohazard Infectious Waste.”

Two months of injections, ultrasounds, and inseminations. Of blood tests and, ultimately, the cramping and bleeding that signal another failed intervention. Two failed IUI cycles. And now we have graduated to IVF.

Through the ultrasound, my ovary resembles an insect’s eye, holding countless eyes within it: my exhausted eggs, my tiny, un-conceived children. Every few days we’re up at six to drive to the clinic and check the swelling of the egg follicles. Twelve millimeters, thirteen and a half, fifteen. When the follicles reach eighteen millimeters the eggs within them will be mature enough for a surgeon to extricate them from their nest, from among their too-small sibling eggs, with yet another glistening needle.

When we last counted the eggs and saw that some of the smaller ones had ballooned, I looked away from the ultrasound monitor to see John’s eyes, wide with something like alarm. In the car he sat for a moment and rested his hands on the steering wheel. “You’re going to have triplets,” he said. It is a bitter irony that we live with limited chances of conceiving at all and still struggle with the possibility of multiples. But later he kissed my tired face and said, “Tell the twins I want them to come straight home from school today. I’ve got things for them to do around here.”

The day after my final injection of the cycle, I sit in my office and sense the last bits of my energy seeping away. I leave work early and struggle to walk the few blocks to the station where I catch the subway. I feel I am in danger of floating away, like a helium balloon: empty. I move among a crowd of people who all seem grounded, held by gravity, and I think that I am linked to this earth only by a ribbon-thin string. I board the train holding onto this image of the string linking me to earth, and I somehow find a seat and count the stops until I am home.

Along with the isolation, the depression, the sheer physical exhaustion of infertility comes the overwhelming feeling that my body has let me down. But as I look back over the past months and consider what infertility treatment has required of me, I think about the strength it must have taken for my body to have endured—to have survived each cycle of aggressive treatment and tremendous disappointment, to have recovered from it and readied itself for the cycle to begin again.

A good friend who experienced infertility repeated to me something she had heard from another survivor: “IVF will bring you to your knees,” she said. And I have watched infertility bleed over into my entire life—my relationships, my work, my way of being in the world. It has worn me down a little more each day.

Has infertility brought me to my knees? I think it has. But on the morning of the surgery to retrieve my eggs, I rise and shower and put on my favorite sundress, and I know that I have pulled myself back up.

At the infertility clinic, we are greeted outside the surgery by a nurse named Amy, who says in a soothing but serious voice, “Welcome to IVF.” John and I roll our eyes at each other, but Amy understands that we have arrived here after a very long journey. We are ready. Amy holds my arm as we glide around a wide, white room, me in my hospital slippers, she in her soundless white sneakers. Here is the scale where we check your weight. Here is a tiny locker for your things; I will keep the key for you.

John sits beside me until he is banished to the waiting room. When they come for me, I feel a bubble of nausea rise up from my stomach. The operating room is cold, and the lights blind me as I lie on a table waiting for the anesthesia to take. A woman appears at my side: “I am the scientist who will take care of your eggs.” She and the nurse speak in murmurs that grow softer. I think about my little eggs and of John in the waiting room, thinking of me, holding the ribbon-string that tethers me to the earth, holding me fast and safe as I push the sky.

Author’s Note: I wrote much of this essay during a writing workshop that coincided with my infertility treatment. I wrote on the subway between home, class, work, and home again, and I scribbled notes after appointments and encounters with people whose words and gestures had an impact on me. In one of the few morning classes I managed to attend when I wasn’t at the infertility clinic, I met the remarkable woman who told me she would have pushed the sky to have a child. I survived infertility, in part, because of a few generous people who, like her, experienced infertility before me and shared their stories with me. 

Brain, Child (Spring 2005)

Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at






By Karen Dempsey

photo-1“Oh, Brennan, I think that’s a bong, sweetie.”

I crouch down and wedge my fat, pregnant self under the playground slide to try and reach him. Brennan smiles and pokes gingerly at a smoke-smudged, modified Coke bottle: its neat, mouth-sized cutout for inhaling, its glittery foil screen. “Okay, Brennan, we’re going to throw that away because we need to get rid of it.” Awkward. It’s clear I have yet to read the how-to books on talking to your fifteen-month-old about drugs. I pull the bong from Brennan’s grasp and he cries out in protest, then turns his attention to the blanket of wood chips on which he sits, driving his hands luxuriously into them, celebrating with his mouth sounds, “Adju, adju, adju.”

I drop the bong in a trash can and try to lure Brennan to another part of the park. We pass a little girl sitting on the bulge-eyed rocking toy we call the “OxyContin fish.” “Drugs are good,” the huge plastic fish proclaims in permanent black marker. “Get some now!” Brennan takes my hand to climb the toddler train that bears the park’s most provocative message, the one found also on the basketball backboards, the wooden benches, the curving yellow slide. “Kill A Yuppie,” the neighborhood teens have scrawled. “Save Families.”

The authors of these messages identify themselves as “DVS,” or “DaVille Soljahs.” Messages that make me smile—”Have unprotected sex promptly!”—share the playground with darker writings, like “Yuppies=Pilgrums, DVS=Indiens.” A local alderman wrote about the struggles of these teens in her newsletter. She described the losses they had experienced, the friends who had died from violence, drugs and suicide. These teenaged “soljahs of da ‘ville,” she observed, are defenders of their lost city, their writings the idylls of a youth far from idyllic. She received an e-mail response, signed by DVS, that read in part: “Dear Denise … Fuck you and your article about how we don’t know what to do. We do know what to do, and that’s kill all yuppies.”

A few days after Brennan found the bong, the Department of Public Works guys show up at the playground with the cans of steel-gray paint they use to periodically mask the graffiti and assuage the frustrated parents who have found themselves in a turf war with the neighborhood’s clever, but increasingly marginalized and disillusioned teens.

This visit from DPW raises the stakes, though. The workers are accompanied by our enthusiastic young mayor, striking in a tie and shirtsleeves despite the ninety-degree heat. A sheen of perspiration lends him an athletic glow. He stands near the picnic tables talking to a young couple and their baby. A few feet away, on the basketball court, five or six of the neighborhood teens half-watch this exchange as they bounce a ball among them. One scowls in anger; the others wear practiced expressions of indifference. Crowding them off the court are two uniformed police officers talking to several other people accompanied by young children. One cop has drawn out a notebook, but the conversation seems informal, even affable.

I am trying to decode this scene when the mayor meets my gaze and walks toward me. We exchange the expected pleasantries, and then I wait for him to explain his appearance on this sweltering Friday. There’s been no serious incident, the mayor assures me, but there was some particularly disturbing graffiti near the park’s entrance and he’s having his crew clean it up. He has heard from several people about tensions between the teenagers and young families who use the park. The police have identified some of the teen “ringleaders” and will let them know that defacing the playground with threatening graffiti is unacceptable. The teens need to learn to respect other people, the mayor says a number of times.

I tell the mayor, as I have told some other parents in the neighborhood, that my own interactions with the teens have been fine. “I think these kids are just a little lost,” I say.

He looks back at the teens on the basketball court and explains that they had been smoking cigarettes when he arrived. “We have little kids running barefoot who could step on a cigarette butt,” the mayor says, gesturing at the playground sprinkler. “There’s no smoking in the park. It’s unacceptable.” His commitment to the park’s toddlers is admirable, but I can’t help but think his perspective sounds limited, narrow, not unlike some of the neighborhood parents who are loudest in their condemnation of the teens.

Under the mayor’s watch, the DPW workers are so diligent in their removal of the graffiti, they erase even the one message they had let stand for nearly a year, the writing on the basketball court that read, in careful block print, twelve inches high, “RIP Ryan.”

When John and I moved to Somerville five years ago, we joked about the group of rowdy preteen boys on our street. Street toughs, John called them, because they were small, children still, but they had an undeniable edge to them. I spent our first weeks in the apartment unpacking boxes with every window in the place forced open, welcoming the breezes and the voices of the kids. One afternoon I leaned on a windowsill and watched them charge up and down the street with a video camera, shouting instructions at one another as they choreographed some kind of skit that involved “the bully”—the largest kid among them—tossing the others onto the hoods of various cars. I thought they might be working on a school project until I heard the dialogue, which was peppered with four-letter words. Eventually, the cranky old-timer three doors down came out and shouted, “Get off that car!” The kids froze. Then a small, nimble boy whooped and ran right over the top of the car from bumper to bumper, and the kids all ran laughing down the street.

As I immersed myself in my working life, and as the boys grew into their teens, I saw them less often, and only from a distance. They were a more peripheral presence, hanging out at the margins of the playground or leaning against the rusting blue car they seemed to share among them. Then I had Brennan, and I began spending my days at the playground, reading the messages left there and wondering about the boys who had grown up around me without my ever really noticing.

For the most part, the boys on our street had always been a blur to me, one running into the other. They moved in a pack and I could only guess at who lived in which house. John took closer notice of the brother and sister who lived just a few doors down and spent a lot of time playing hockey together in the street. He said it would be great if the girl could one day babysit Brennan and teach him to play hockey. We didn’t even know their names until we read them in the newspaper, after the boy, Ryan, was killed in a stabbing just two blocks from his house. He was sixteen.

The article said that Ryan had been walking along the bike path near the playground when he came upon a fight involving a friend who was outnumbered four to one. Ryan intervened. He was stabbed to death, witnesses said, by a twenty-four-year-old man.

In the days after Ryan’s death, a memorial grew along the fence and sidewalk in the place where he’d been killed. Brennan slept as I pushed his stroller down the bike path toward that place. Some city workers were making repairs on the street nearby and one stopped to guide me across. A woman and a boy of twelve or thirteen stood before the fence. She rested a hand on his shoulder. He held a pen. I walked on, but came back after they’d gone.

On the sidewalk, candles burned in jelly jars still bearing their labels. Flowers and balloons wilted in the heat. There were Irish flags, a hockey stick and a team jersey. An emptied pack of gum. And all along the wooden fence were the handwritten messages from friends, family, neighbors, strangers.

“Rest in Peace, Ryan” trailed over the fence in dozens of different hands.

“Let Martini and Matty show you the ropes up there. We miss you down here,” someone had written.

“I never told you how I felt.”

“I never knew you, but I wish I did.”

“Your shamrock was better than Katie’s.”

“Biology class was fun with you.”

“You are our angel. Please watch over us.”

And there was Ryan, in photo after photo. Little-boy face and gleaming, black Irish eyes. In a hockey uniform with the rest of his team. In a tux posing with his prom date. Huddled on a porch with four other boys in a picture with the handwritten caption, “The Crew.

Carefully typed out and laminated were the lyrics to a U2 song. I can’t believe the news today / Can’t I just close my eyes and make it go away?

And in the perfect cursive of an elderly neighbor named Ruth was the message, “I tried to comfort you that sad evening. My heart is broken.”

Sitting with Brennan on our front porch, I watched as people, especially young people, moved in and out of Ryan’s house those first few days, and gathered in the street in quiet groups of three or four. A teenaged boy bounced a basketball with Ryan’s younger sister. The old-timer three doors down spoke animatedly, angrily, to another neighbor. He waved his arms as he told the story, his hand making stabbing gestures in the air. With all of the activity, though, the street felt heavy with silence. The morning of the funeral, a procession of teenagers made their way down our street, young people awkward in their dress clothes, the girls stepping carefully in high heels.

Since having Brennan, I see my world and everything in it through the lens of new motherhood, a magnified sense of vulnerability that keeps me awake thinking about the dangers we might face every day. Toxins, illnesses, unrestrained dogs, careless drivers. I catalog the hazards, nursing my anxiety. When Ryan died, my sister asked whether John and I were struggling with our decision to raise Brennan in the city. But my reaction to Ryan’s death was more complicated than fear, and more simple. I did experience it through a filter of new motherhood, but what came through, more than my own vulnerability and fear, was a grief and sadness made more raw and vivid than I might have imagined before becoming a parent. Serving as a distant witness to the unimaginable loss of this boy made me feel not less a part of this community but more, more connected and committed to it.

If you could stand on the roof of the house where we live, you would see the Boston skyline just a few miles to the south. You would see the comfortable old houses that have been tended by generations of working-class families, the aging double- and triple-deckers standing shoulder to shoulder, row on row, with fortitude and grace. You would see some of the many restaurants and coffee shops that now populate the neighborhood, the independent bookstore, and the movie theater. And on the street behind ours, you’d see a splash of vibrant red and yellow that is the renovated playground.

It was only over the past decade or so that my neighborhood found itself in the unyielding embrace of gentrification. Lot by lot, the houses have been snatched up by developers, gutted to the studs, chopped into small condos, and outfitted with granite countertops and walk-in closets for the neighborhood’s new tenants, young professionals drawn to the easy commute into Boston. In ten years’ time, the average selling prices of single-family and multi-family homes in this neighborhood more than tripled. In 1996, there were seventeen condos sold in our neighborhood. In 2006, there were two hundred and seven.

John and I stretch our budget thin to afford the rent on our apartment, a tiny, falling-down place. But the people who truly cannot afford to live here, but do, are the families who have lived here for decades, the families whose children will not be able to buy or even rent homes in the neighborhood their own parents and grandparents built.

Before the mayor’s visit, one of the teens’ more clever acts of defiance was to take hostage the used plastic ride-on toys that families had donated to the playground. Rather than simply steal the toys, the teens had hidden them in plain sight. They’d parked them in a neat row on the roof of a bakery overlooking the playground, challenging the young parents to hoist their soft-middled selves up the side of the building and retrieve them. A new message had appeared on the park bench: “DVS not responsible for damaged or stolen property.”

A mom I didn’t know complained about the teens’ prank as we pushed our children on the swings, the pink-and-blue plastic of the marooned toys still peeking out at us from the bakery rooftop. Some of the families who have sacrificed the expansive lawns of the suburbs for urban living want the park to serve as their own backyards, a place for neighborhood potlucks and birthday parties. When they donate a well-used toddler toy to the playground, they expect to find it there, intact and graffiti-free, when they return to use it the next day.

As we talked, the woman asked which street I lived on, and hesitated at my response. “I’m so sorry about your neighbor,” she said, and then, “Was he a good kid?” I felt confused by the question. If she was asking whether Ryan would have enjoyed seeing the Big Wheels held hostage on the roof, I thought that most sixteen-year-old boys would have liked that one. “I didn’t know him,” I said finally. “But, yeah. He was a good kid.”

Our apartment doesn’t come with a parking spot, so sometimes I find myself in front of Ryan’s house, strapping Brennan into his car seat as he wrestles against me and laughs at his reflection in the mirror. I cannot help but look up at the front door, where at various times over the past months someone has found the strength to mark the passing holidays with a dancing leprechaun, with tiny white lights at Christmas, and, the month before that, with balloons and a happy birthday sign to mark Ryan’s seventeenth birthday, the birthday he didn’t live to see.

I think about Ryan’s parents, about his mother, mostly, and what I might say to her if I meet her, what profoundly insufficient words of sympathy I might speak. Twice, from my car, I catch brief glimpses of her as she stoops over a flower pot, as she unlocks her front door. I want to call out to her, but I do not. I just want her to know—I want them all to know—that their pain is not invisible to me.

For a long while after the mayor’s visit, the park remains remarkably empty of graffiti. The police maintain a zealous guard and zero-tolerance policy in enforcing the park’s designated closing time so the teens can’t linger after dark with their beers and bongs, their spray paint cans and Sharpies. School is out, but during the day the basketball court is littered only with scooters and strollers and bikes with training wheels.

When the teens do show up at the park, Brennan clings to the fence outside the basketball court as we watch them dribble and shoot. We sometimes get a nod or a wave, sometimes not.

I am not the enemy, I want to tell them. But, of course, I am. They are not wrong to look at me and see someone with an easier life. I have found a place for myself in this neighborhood as they are losing theirs. I gave up a good job to be at home with my family, and still we manage to pay the bills every month. And I have friends with these same choices and opportunities. Friends who are not dying from drugs or suicide or a chance encounter on the bike path.

John and I both come from places more like this community’s past than the neighborhood it is becoming. We are drawn here because of its working-class roots, not in spite of them. At the same time, we are largely insulated from the struggles and tragedies of the families being displaced by people like us. Despite the threatening graffiti on the playground, it is not the yuppies who are dying, it is the teenagers themselves. And while we admire the city’s history, its diversity of race and class, we are among those responsible for diluting the very qualities that attract us.

I take Brennan to the middle school to sign up for a Water Babies class, and I have to navigate the stroller through a group of smoking, angry-looking adolescents who seem loathe to make room on the sidewalk to let me pass. “Hi!” I chirp at them, sounding absurdly fake even to myself. But inside the school, I ask a passing teacher for directions to the pool office, and kids slightly younger than their peers outside fall all over themselves trying to out-shout each other with different routes I can take. The elevator! The green stairs! Outside and in the side door! The teacher simply talks over them, accustomed to their excitement, able to shut it out. Their enthusiasm won’t last, I thought to myself on the walk home. There is not enough space here for it, no room for it to grow.

At the end of summer, we make the leap from renters of a sub-standard apartment to owners of an undersized, overpriced condo half a mile away. Brennan and his sister, due any day now, will have several new playgrounds to choose from. But often in the mornings, Brennan and I take the longer stroll to our old park. He knows the walk well, and before the playground is within view he starts shouting and trying to free himself from the belts on his stroller.

I miss this place and the people it holds, the parents working to build community in a place where so much works against them—geography and demographics and a population density so thick you can feel it when you breathe. I miss the graffiti, too. Because I miss the teens who’ve been banished from here, or who will leave, anyway, as they navigate a changing landscape where their lives no longer quite fit.

Two blocks away from the playground, in the place where Ryan died, his friends still cover the fence with new messages promising always to remember him. But in the place where Ryan lived, the one small tribute to him is hidden beneath a coat of paint.

Not until summer draws to a close does some new writing appear on the basketball court; a single message, in pink sidewalk chalk: “Graffiti is gone. Gangs-n-drugs aren’t. Problem solved? Yours truley, DVS.”

Author’s Note: Soon after the events described in this essay, a remarkable group of young people who had grown up in the neighborhood initiated a formal dialogue between long-time residents and newcomers. From those first conversations grew a list of action steps to build community. Step number three was, “Look people in the eye, and say Hi.”

The group formed a nonprofit organization to advocate for change, including a small but significant change to the park: a reconfiguring of the park’s two half-basketball courts to make one full court with a high fence to protect the playground from errant balls, and designated areas for artwork around the court, including a tribute to Ryan. The mayor heard them out; the renovations are scheduled for early this summer.

Brain, Child (Summer 2007)

About the Author: Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at

Bad Medicine and Good

By Karen Dempsey

fall2008_dempseyMy breasts ached with the need to nurse Liddy as I stood at the pharmacy counter, gripping the prescription bottle of omeprazole the pharmacist had neglected to flavor. I knew that if I gave Liddy the vile-tasting acid suppressor unsweetened she would screw up her tiny face and cry, and when the liquid hit her tender stomach it would come straight back up. I had already delayed her ten a.m. feeding to pick up the prescription; she needed to take it on an empty stomach, before she nursed. I had left her at home with my mother and my eighteen-month-old son, Brennan. She was waiting for me, crying, I imagined, from hunger, and refluxing because of the crying.

The pharmacist’s voice and expression were passive as he stared at a computer screen and clicked the keyboard. “There’s no note here about flavoring.”

I leaned onto the counter, fighting the urge to scream or throw something. This pharmacy—a huge urban pharmacy in a national chain—had already failed to refill the prescription the first time I’d called. This was my third trip here in a week, and I still didn’t have what I needed. “She has to have the flavoring,” I said. “She can’t keep it down like this. I called last night, and they said it would be ready by ten.”

“I can mix it again, but it needs to sit for twelve hours. We can have it for you tomorrow.”

The week before, Liddy had stopped breathing after a feeding. She had just been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the mechanisms of reflux, and I’d thought she was choking, gagging on spit-up. I had been sitting on the couch, her warm little newborn body curled on my shoulder, when she spit up and then spit up again. Milk surged up out of her mouth and nose, and she suddenly tensed and arched away from me, her face puckered and red. “Okay okay okay,” I said, and turned her over my forearm and vigorously rubbed her back as I’d seen a nurse do at the hospital, when she’d stopped breathing after birth.

Liddy’s face was scrunched closed, and she’d turned a deep purple. John was downstairs, out of earshot. My heart raced as I searched the bassinet for a bulb syringe to suction her mouth. Suddenly she gasped, and breathed, and relaxed into my arms. The incident was over in a moment, so quickly that I had a hard time believing it had happened at all. The next morning, I learned from her doctor that these episodes occur in reflux babies when the esophagus closes off to protect itself against the burning of stomach acid. The closed esophagus prevents the child from breathing. “That scares the heck out of me,” the doctor said. “Next time, don’t hesitate to call 911.”

I thought about saying all of this to the pharmacist as he stood before me, so dispassionate, in his crisp white coat. I could feel other customers watching me, and I knew that I must look like a mad woman—my tearful, red-rimmed eyes framed by the dark hollows of sleep deprivation. Like Liddy, I’d been sleeping for only forty-five minutes or an hour at a time. When I finally spoke, my voice was low and even, though I forced the words through what felt like a knot in my own throat, a swallowed scream or sob. “She is three weeks old.”

He took the bottle from my hand and walked away.

For a moment, I thought the conversation was over, but then I saw that he was mixing something. He came back out with another bottle and said that though my insurance would only pay for the generic version of the medication he had refilled it with the brand-name, Prilosec, because it mixes faster, and had added the cherry flavoring. He said to shake the bottle, then remove the cap and let it sit for ten minutes before giving it to her, to help the medication break down.

The gastroenterologist had warned me not to expect Liddy’s condition to improve until the medication had been in her system for a couple of weeks. Omeprazole does not actually prevent reflux from occurring. It simply reduces the acid content in the spit-up, allowing the damaged esophagus to heal over time. Still, I carried the bottle home flooded with relief that we could at least begin Liddy’s treatment.

The first few days, Liddy swallowed the medication easily, but something looked off. I held the dark brown prescription bottle up to the light in the kitchen, swirling the contents and studying the bottom of the bottle, where I could see little beads floating in the liquid. John called the pharmacy again to ask about it, and he received the same advice I’d been given: Shake the bottle, remove the cap, and let it sit for ten minutes before filling the tiny oral syringe. I kept looking at the bottle, though, and at the liquid in the syringe each time I filled it. A few nights later, I called the pharmacy again.

“Oh,” said the woman who finally picked up the phone, when I described what I was seeing. “Oh, no … that doesn’t sound right.” I heard distress in her voice. She told me she needed to hang up and check something, and then she would call me back.

My phone rang again within minutes. The flavoring they had used, she said, was incompatible with the medication. The omeprazole had failed to break down. It had stayed in the bottle, in tiny, silvery beads, as I fed Liddy cherry syrup twice a day for a week. “I am so, so sorry,” she said, assuring me that she would have the prescription refilled again, this time with a compatible flavoring.

The next morning, I took the kids on a major outing by myself for the first time. We went to the Museum of Science, Brennan’s favorite place on earth, and I managed to time Liddy’s feedings right and keep her straight and still for the requisite thirty minutes afterwards while Brennan rearranged the pieces of an enormous Lite-Brite and built a fragile wall with spongy, yellow blocks. The outing exhausted but also energized me because I had made it through the morning alone, in public, with two very young children.

When Brennan fell asleep in his car seat on the drive home, I took advantage of the relative quiet to call the pharmacy again. Yet another pharmacist answered the phone. At first, he could find no record of another refill. Stunned that anyone in the store could be unaware of the terrible mistake they had made, I retold the story, no longer feeling the need to hide my fury. He put me on hold and came back on to say that the medication had been prepared overnight, and the store had identified the correct flavoring, but they didn’t carry it, and they had not yet been able to arrange for a delivery.

“This is the eighth phone call I have made to your store about this prescription,” I told him. “I have been in to talk to a pharmacist three times. Someone has to take responsibility here. My daughter needs this medication, and you need to get it for me. Someone has to figure this out, right now, and that someone cannot be me.”

He promised to call me back.

I drove home, slipped Liddy out of her car seat and into the special sling-like seat that held her body straight and upright, then carried a sleeping Brennan to his crib. I sat at the kitchen table and dialed John at work; the moment I heard his voice I knew that my reserves of strength had dissolved. I wept as I described my latest, fruitless phone call. I had remembered another pharmacy, one that specialized in compounds, and I wanted to know if they could take the omeprazole already prepared by CVS and flavor it into a form Liddy could tolerate. I just couldn’t pull myself together to make that final phone call. I spelled “Skendarian” out for John, and he hung up to look for the listing.

Skenderian Apothecary is an independent, family-run store about a fifteen-minute drive from our house. I had been there only once, after Brennan’s birth, when, in the process of sterilizing the tubes for my breast pump, I had somehow melted them into a rubbery lump. I’d spent that desperate afternoon calling around for replacement tubes and posting a message to my local new mom support group listserv. Another mom had e-mailed to recommend Skenderian. I called the pharmacy, and the woman who answered told me to come right over. She kept the store open for me past closing time and showed me how to cut the ends of the tubes so they would fit my machine.

John called me back just minutes after we talked to say that Skenderian, which specialized in compounds, could take the omeprazole we already had and flavor it on a form Liddy could tolerate.

I called the big-chain pharmacy for the last time, and the young guy I’d spoken with on the drive home from the museum told me they had located the flavoring and he would spend his own time, after his shift ended, driving to the other store to pick it up so that they could have it ready for me that evening. He also suggested that, after this refill, I transfer my prescription elsewhere. His pharmacy—with one of the highest volumes of prescriptions in the area—was not equipped to do it.

I let him finish and then told him I would be in to pick up the prescription, unflavored, and that I would be transferring everything over to Skenderian. And then I hung up, and waited for my new babysitter to come and care for Brennan so that he could run his toy trucks through the back yard instead of accompanying me on the frantic drive to two separate pharmacies.

After fetching the bottle from the original pharmacy (along with the address for the complaint department of its national headquarters), I drove over to Skenderian and carried Liddy inside. A man who I would come to know as Robert, the pharmacy manager, met my glance from behind the counter.

“My husband called—”

Robert nodded and reached out to take the brown plastic prescription bottle I held in my hand. “I talked to him,” he said. “Let’s see what we’ve got.” He examined the label, then held the bottle up to the light just as I had a few minutes before. “Bubblegum or grape?” he asked.

I paced Skenderian’s immaculate waiting area. We deliver for any reason, read a sign posted over the registers. I looked around and saw, tucked into the corner, a basket of brightly colored toys and books. Several therapeutic chairs rested nearby, including one that bore a sign beckoning, Try this seat.

Robert came out with the uncapped bottle of omeprazole, and held it out for me to taste. “Sweet enough?” he asked.

Skenderian became a regular outing for the three of us, as Liddy’s dosages changed frequently and her medication regimen soon expanded to three separate prescriptions. On my second or third trip there, I parked outside and entered into a long negotiation with Brennan over how many matchbox cars he could bring in with him. When I finally got both kids into the store, Robert’s younger brother Joe was waiting behind the counter, holding a pen out to me. He had already located Liddy’s prescription, set it on the counter and flipped to the page in his notebook where I needed to sign for it.  My face must have given away my astonishment. He laughed and said, “I saw you getting out of the car. I know from experience that it takes a while with two.”

Most of the staff, in fact, knew me by sight once I had been in a couple of times. “How is Liddy today?” they would ask, reaching up to the shelf or into the refrigerator for whatever prescription I had called in.

We visited the store once or twice a week, and it soon began to rival the Museum of Science for Brennan’s favorite place on earth. He ran straight to the toy basket each time we walked in, digging for the red plastic van and the tiny dinosaur that had quickly become his favorites

I began to think of Joe as my personal pharmacist. He conducted a great deal of research after the shelf-life of omeprazole compounds came into question, and helped me determine when the time was right to switch Liddy from the liquid compound to solutabs, little tablets that break down instantly in water, which were easier to store and dispense. Joe would compliment me on a new haircut, and say things like, “You’re a good mother,” unsolicited, with utter sincerity. He told me anecdotes about his own two children, and said Saturdays were his favorite day to work because it is a slower day and he can chat with people.

The sense of ease and familiarity I felt with the staff took on new meaning as summer approached, when I finally admitted—to John, to my doctor, and to myself—that I was sliding into the depths of post-partum depression. When I spoke to my doctor about anti-depressants, I had a fleeting but intense desire to have her call the prescription in to some other pharmacy where I could remain anonymous. My cheeks burned when I went into Skenderian, alone this time, to pick up the medication. But Robert saw me walk in and sailed right over, asking gently, “We haven’t done these for you, before, have we?” And then he spent ten minutes advising me on easing into the medication. My eyes welled as he spoke, but he never looked away as he talked about beginning with half-doses the first few days and trying different times of day if the drowsiness was too intense. He cautioned me against taking cold medications, which would keep me awake when we both knew that I couldn’t afford a sleepless night. And he smiled when he said that a glass of wine, once in a while, would be okay.

Liddy suffered through eight or nine ear infections in her first eighteen months.  The pain increased her refluxing and fussiness and marked the periods of our most sleepless nights. With each new round of antibiotics, her pediatrician prescribed numbing ear drops to soothe the pain while we waited for the infection to subside. On New Year’s Eve, I checked our supply to see that we were nearly out, and desperately dialed Skenderian, hoping they had some on the shelf so that I could get it before the holiday.

The answering machine picked up and a prerecorded message told me the store was not only closed for the holiday but would close early for New Year’s Eve, at two p.m. I stared at my bedroom clock, which told me it was after three, as I listened to the message and the beep that followed.

“Oh, we’re fucked,” I said—into the pharmacy answering machine.

When I had confessed to John my reluctance, months before, to fill the antidepressant prescription with Skenderian, he had made me laugh by assuring me they already thought I was crazy.

So when I told him now about the message I had inadvertently left, he burst out laughing, then quickly composed himself. “I’m sure it happens all the time,” he said. Though I was sure I’d feel sheepish the next time I went into the store, I knew that they knew me and that they’d be laughing, too.

Author’s Note: The bad bottle of omeprazole sat on a shelf in my refrigerator for months. I kept it as a reminder of what we had gone through, Liddy and I, a reminder that I had held the pieces of the puzzle and that I had to fit them together, even when it was hard and I was tired. John took the bottle out one day when he was cleaning the fridge. “Why are we keeping this?” he asked. The stubborn silvery beads that had not broken down after all those months. I knew what it held and represented, and I didn’t need it anymore. I told him he could toss it, and I heard it disappear into the trash.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

About the Author: Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at

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