Lessons on a Pirate Ship

Lessons on a Pirate Ship

APACHE JUNCTION, ARIZONA - MARCH 14: The Arizona Renaissance Festival on March 14, 2015, near Apache Junction, Arizona. A pirate ship ride thrills visitors at the 27th Annual Arizona Renaissance Festival held near Phoenix.

By Erica Witsell

“This is the best weekend ever!” my five-year-old son Clayton proclaimed as he buckled himself into his booster seat. He proceeded to enumerate for his younger twin sisters all the glories of the fair.

“We’re going to see the animals! And the pig races! And the flying dogs! And Dad said we could have cotton candy!”

Dee Dee, caught up in his excitement, punctuated the end of each proclamation with her own little cheer: “Animals! Pig races! Dogs! Cotton candy!”

And we’re going to ride the rides!” Clayton said. This finale, the part of the fair that for him trumped all others, was met with worried silence.

“It’s okay, Dee Dee,” I told my daughter. “You don’t have to go on the rides if you don’t want to. You can watch.”

And watch she did, quite contently, while her sister Sylvia went on the Nemo ride and Clayton and Daddy rode the caterpillar coaster. She gathered her courage for the flying dragons, and while Sylvia waved and posed like a movie star, she clutched the bar with both hands, her face frozen with worry and concentration.

After an hour of rides, we broke for lunch by the sea lion tank where the kids dutifully ate the carrot sticks and hard-boiled eggs I had smuggled in.

“If we eat this healthy stuff first,” Clayton explained to his father. “We’ll get the cotton candy.”

Soon after, with sticky hands and coated teeth, we headed for the Mooternity Ward, where a calf was born before our eyes. Its mother stared at us with wide, startled eyes as first the front hooves and then the black round nose of her calf emerged.

“Poor thing,” I muttered, more than once. The mama cow circled inside her small enclosure as if searching for somewhere else to be, away from all the staring eyes. Still, I pointed and exclaimed with the rest of the crowd, lifting my children up so they could see. You came out of your mother just like that, I told them, suddenly overcome by a desire to remind them of the births they would never remember, the miracle of their presence in a world that, mere seconds before, did not contain them.

Watching the wet calf sprawled in the hay, struggling to find its feet while the mother licked it with her thick tongue, I was struck not only by the raw intimacy of my connection to my children—their flesh was of my flesh—but by their undeniable and persistent separateness. There the little calf was, quite its own little unique being in the world, when just moments before the mother had been alone.

I squeezed Clayton’s shoulder. “Isn’t it amazing?”

“Yeah,” he agreed politely. “Can we go ride some more rides now?”

Our tickets were running out.

“One more ride each,” I said. I was growing weary of the crowds and noise, the endless temptations of food and prizes and Dee Dee’s corresponding chorus of “I want! I want!”

Clayton, on the other hand, allowed no distractions. His heart was set on one thing: he wanted to ride the pirate ship. As Clayton triumphantly measured himself against the Are you tall enough? post, his little sister Sylvia piped up.

“I want to ride with Clayton!” She was still sore that we hadn’t let her ride the teacups, so I let her check her height, too. I was certain she wouldn’t be tall enough, but the bored ride attendant dipped his head at her.

“She can ride if someone goes with her,” he said.

“I’ll go with them,” my husband volunteered, but no, I insisted I would go instead. The pirate ship was an indelible icon of the fairs of my youth. I could clearly remember climbing aboard with my best friend Mary, my chest tight with excitement, while Billy Joel’s You May Be Right blared over the speakers, beating its thrilling soundtrack in my brain.

Handing the last of our tickets, I directed my children to the center of the ship, the least scary row that Mary and I had always avoided when we could. Sylvia sat between Clayton and me; I kept my arm around her as the ride began.

It was exhilarating at first, the rush of the wind in our faces as the ship surged through the air. We screeched as we climbed higher, laughing happily.

But within moments, it all went wrong. Clayton’s face turned green; his jaw clenched.

“I don’t like it,” he said. His lips were pursed. Was he going to be sick?

“It’s too scary,” Sylvia observed matter-of-factly from beside me.
In an instant, all joy had fled. Oh, what had I done? I had willingly—intentionally—put myself into any parent’s worst nightmare. My children were terrified and there was absolutely nothing I could do. I clenched my arm tighter around Sylvia and tried to reassure Clayton.

“It will be over soon,” I promised.

He glanced at me hopefully, but I was wrong. We were climbing higher and higher, so high it was impossible not to think that in a moment the ship would break free from its finite pendulum and spin us wildly through the air.

“When?” Clayton groaned. “When will it be over? I want it to be over.” He had wrapped his arms around the bar, holding on with all his might.

I squeezed Sylvia to my side. She was very quiet.

“Just hold on, Clayton,” I said. I wanted desperately to reach for him, to pull his frightened body against mine, but I could not let go of Sylvia. She was so small it seemed to me that she could easily slip beneath the metal bar that ostensibly held us in.

“Just hold on, Clayton!” I repeated. “Look at your shoes. It will be over soon.”

But it was not over — The awful swinging went on and on. Suddenly I could stand it no longer. The ride had to be stopped, and there was only one person who could stop it.

My husband stood grinning at us from the ground, camera in hand.

Get him off!” I screamed desperately.

I opened my mouth to call again when suddenly I felt a shift in the relentless momentum of the ship. Relief flooded me.

“It’s okay, Clayton,” I gasped. “It’s stopping.”


“Now. It’s stopping now.”

As soon as we were off the ship, I reached for Clayton, pulling him to me. We were safe! I felt hollowed-out by fear and adrenalin. I had not saved my children, but at least they were safe. I wanted to wrap my body around them; I wanted to drench them in apologies for having put them through such an ordeal.

But already Clayton was wriggling free. The green terror in his face was gone, and he grinned proudly at his dad.

“I rode the pirate ship!” he said. Already he was putting it on the list for next year’s fair.

I knelt down to hug Sylvia.

“Are you okay?” I asked. She was still so quiet. Had she been traumatized? What kind of awful parent was I, to take my three-year-old on such a ride? But my brave little girl seemed totally unfazed.

“The other boys were making happy faces because they were happy,” she explained. “But I was making a scared face because I was scared.”

And that was that. “Get him off!” my husband mimicked me, laughing, and suddenly we couldn’t stop giggling. We laughed about the pirate ship all afternoon. The next morning, it was the first thing Clayton wanted me to tell his teacher.

“Just don’t tell her how you screamed, ‘Get him off!'” he told me. “It’s too embarrassing.”


Erica Witsell the mother of three young children and a community college instructor of English as a second language. Following the birth of my twin daughters, she began a blog, On The Home Front, to capture the joys and challenges of mothering three young children while caring for a fourth.





That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

By Jennifer Berney


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


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

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

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

“Oh,” she said, unfazed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a suh-pwise,” he told me.

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

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

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

Just One Box to Define My Child

Just One Box to Define My Child

By Michelle Robin La

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My kids have told me they feel lucky to be unique, belonging to two cultures. At other times, they’ve said, “I don’t want to be half. I want to be one or the other.”


Name, address, birthdate. Those were easy questions to answer. I sat at a low table on a tiny chair in an elementary school classroom filling out forms so my oldest daughter, Trinh, could enter kindergarten in the fall. Then I got to the boxes. Check one. One? When the 2000 census forms arrived, I checked off multiple boxes for each of my three children to define their race. Which box should I check when my child fits into more than one category? White like me or Asian like her dad?

“Your daughter doesn’t look anything like you,” the owner of the photography shop said when he developed our family pictures. “It looks like you didn’t have anything to do with them at all,” a family friend told me. I had laughed away these comments. But when I was forced to choose one box in which to define my child, I didn’t want to justify these comments by checking a box I didn’t fit into. My dad had joked that because my husband was half Chinese and half Vietnamese, but three of my grandparents were Swedish, the kids were mainly Scandinavian. There wasn’t a box for that.

Despite our superficial differences in appearance, whenever I take my kids to school, the store, or a playground, no one asks if they are mine. Maybe it’s because we live on the West Coast, where interracial marriages are common, or because people mistakenly assume my children are adopted. Or maybe it’s because when a child runs to his mother for comfort on the playground, no one questions the bond. Well, there was my mother’s elderly friend who asked, “Where did you get your children?” When I told her I got them from inside of me, she argued.

I can’t remember which box I checked to enroll Trinh in kindergarten. I probably checked different boxes for each of my three children when I registered them. Trinh, on the other hand, showed no hesitation when her fourth grade teacher had asked which box to fill in on the standardized tests. “Asian,” my daughter said. I was surprised she was so definite. Do people always identify with the most unique part of them? Didn’t my daughter feel she was part of each? Was it the Asian last name? The coloring of her features? The rice we ate every night?

I asked my younger daughter, Emily, which ethnicity she identified with. “Asian, of course,” she answered. “My hair and eyes are brown, so I look it.” She laughed. “Besides, I’m smart—I fit the stereotype.”

I was happy for my daughters to have their own look, different from mine. I resembled my mother so much that people made a joke on her name and called us “Dot and ditto.” Although I take it as a compliment now, at the time, I just wanted to look like me. People used to think my daughters looked so much alike they’d ask Trinh about the smaller version of her they saw.

My son, Kien, looked uncomfortable during these discussions. When I asked what he considers himself, he said, “I’m not anything except me.” When Kien was a toddler, his wispy baby hair was a strawberry blond. I held it up to my own hair and it matched. Later it turned a light brown. People say my son looks just like his father. Now that my daughters are older, people don’t say they look just like their dad. But my friends say they see my smile or expressions in their faces.

My kids have told me they feel lucky to be unique, belonging to two cultures. At other times, they’ve said, “I don’t want to be half. I want to be one or the other.”

Back in Seattle, people thought of my girls as white because there were so many Asian kids, a lot of them their friends, who had both parents from Asia. But, when we moved to Santa Barbara, people seemed to think of them as more Asian because there were so many Caucasian and Hispanic kids but not many Asians. My husband says we’re all-American.

When the 2010 census came, I checked multiple boxes for all my kids. But when Trinh handed me the form for a college class she was applying to for the summer, she had only checked the “Asian/Vietnamese” box. “You can check ‘white,’ too,” I suggested.

Emily—my daughter who said she fits the Asian stereotype—has said people mistakenly refer to her as Irish or Japanese. After her trip to Europe with her grandparents, she became interested in that part of her heritage. We joined the local American Scandinavian Foundation and she’ll be Lucia in their Christmas festival this year. Emily started to check any box she could on forms: Swedish, German, Chinese, Vietnamese. When her AP exam results came, I noticed she checked “white.” Puzzled, I asked her why.

“I could only check one,” she said. “I usually check ‘other,’ but they didn’t have it. I don’t feel Asian because I didn’t grow up in an Asian country. Maybe if both of my parents had come here from Asia….” I told her that on her college application she can check both.

Like my husband, I can only check one box. So it’s interesting to see which boxes my kids choose and how their reasons for checking them change. Curious, I asked Kien which box he picks. “I usually check ‘Asian’ because most of our relatives are Asian.” When I told him his sister usually picks “other” he gave me a funny look. “If I could, I’d check every single box and say I’m human.”

Michelle Robin La is the author of Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands, the true story of her husband growing up in the Mekong Delta during and after the Vietnam War. She lives with her husband and three children in Santa Barbara, CA, and blogs about her culturally-blended life at michellerobinla.com.



Doppleganger ARTBy Erica Mosley

Shel was half way to the car before she realized she had the wrong kid.

Half way! Of course when she told her husband about it later she did not say “half way.” She told him she was just gathering her bags and yelling goodbye to the other moms when she looked down and saw she was holding Ethan Penderton’s hand and not Milo’s. She did not tell him she’d gotten through the door, into the parking lot, and half way to the car with a boy who was not their child. She did not tell him about how she ran back, red-faced, clutching this doppelgänger, or about how shocked she was when she slinked into the gym and saw Ethan’s mother, stooped over her phone, oblivious to the error. Nor did she tell him about the look Ethan Penderton gave her when she released his small hand, the way he stood there, at the free-throw line, calm and grinning. He hadn’t spoken or pulled away, and she wondered how far he would have allowed himself to be taken.

She told Nathan none of this. Instead she presented it as a joke, after Milo was in bed and after Nathan emptied into her glass the bottle of Cabernet they’d started two nights before. It was too cold because it had been in the refrigerator, and it was beginning to turn. She drank it anyway. She said: “Hey, so I almost brought the wrong kid home today.”

Nathan snorted. “I believe it. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before, all those peewees running around in matching uniforms.”

And then it was over. Just a laugh, an amusing anecdote told over a bottle of wine. Nathan moved on to the dumb thing his boss said about turkey bacon and they never spoke of Ethan Penderton again.

Shel would never tell him how frightened she’d been, how ashamed that she’d been unable to recognize her own child. Yes, the gymnasium was a dizzying jumble of five-year-olds, one big blur of red and white jerseys. And yes, Ethan’s hair was similar to Milo’s: sandy blond with the faintest hint of curl on top, where it was longest. And yes, she’d been on her phone with the chiropractor’s office when she grabbed Ethan’s hand by mistake, and yes, she’d been in a hurry because the post office closed in fifteen minutes.

And yet, she told herself, not really listening to Nathan’s story about the turkey bacon, none of her excuses cut it because at the most crucial moment she had failed. She had grabbed the wrong child.

Nathan turned on the TV to check the weather. Shel carried her glass to the computer room and lingered over the last sip while scrolling her news feed.

There it was: the viral video she’d shared that morning, the body wash commercial. A row of mothers—each with perfect hair, white teeth, wedge heels—stood side by side in a sunny meadow. One by one their blindfolded children, arms outstretched, wandered toward them and felt the hands, the hair, the noses of the mothers until each found his own. The bond a child has with his mother is so strong, touted the body wash company, that he can pick her out of a crowd using only touch and smell.

Shel had cried at the video earlier, had tagged each of her mommy friends, had stirred the oatmeal feeling inspired, had dressed Milo slowly, savoring the milky-sweet skin of his wrists and his gangly toes and his fresh-from-sleep smell: fabric softener laced with sourness, like a lemon turning to vinegar.

Now she hit “refresh” and watched the video again. And again. Watched each boy and girl stagger down the row, sniffing ponytails, feeling for familiar fabrics. Did she see something, on that fifth, sixth, seventh viewing? Just the hint of doubt in the eye of the mother on the end of the row, the fear that her child would not be able to find her?

Shel thought back to the gymnasium.

After releasing Ethan she had found Milo on the bleachers, stooped giggling over his friend’s iPad. “Time to go,” she’d said, and he’d hopped up, still giggling, oblivious that he’d almost been left behind.

He never noticed she was gone.

On the screen in front of her, five blindfolded children sought out their mothers. And hers hadn’t even missed her.

Shel sat her glass on the computer desk and tiptoed into Milo’s room. He slept. He wasn’t a snorer, not yet, not like Nathan, but he tittered with every other exhalation. She sat gently on the bed, careful not to wake him. She bent her head over his, buried her nose in his sandy blond hair, breathed him in. Deeper and deeper, breathed him in.

Erica Mosley lives in the Missouri Ozarks. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Austin Review’s Spotlight, and elsewhere. Check out her website at ericamosley.com or follow her on Twitter: @ericamaymosley.

Dear Kindergarten Teacher

Dear Kindergarten Teacher

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. I wanted to see how my son had settled into kindergarten, if he had made friends, if he followed the rules, to make sure he didn’t spend the day hiding beneath the table or whispering to friends. I wanted to see you, his teacher, in action. Also, I thought that kindergarten on a Friday might be entertaining.

You didn’t disappoint me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bare-Bottomed Bliss

Bare-Bottomed Bliss

By Carisa Miller


In the summer sun, my children shed their attire and along with it, the last of their baby skin.

It is impossible not to smile, watching their bare bottoms bound around the garden. I am desperate to imprint those sweet cheeks on my memory, to hold visions of round little rumps in my mind, long after they stop streaking through the yard to splash in the kiddie pool.

Do children grow faster in the summer? Am I watering and fertilizing mine too much? When their bodies aren’t buried under layers of clothing, their rapid growth is much more evident.

I carry my youngest less often now. Yesterday I leaned over too far when I set her down; her feet hit the ground before I thought they should.

This is full-blown childhood. Little girls with grubby hands and tangled hair shriek and gallop across the lawn. Babies no longer live here.

Life is all giggles and skinned knees again. I feel myself wanting to live this way forever. They have only just gotten here and already, I can feel myself missing my daughters as children. In the heat of each day, I attempt to freeze them in time.

I peek over my book from the hammock as the girls dash between the water and the raspberry patch, becoming wetter and more berry-stained with each pass.

I chase them, as they squeal away from me on chubby legs. I feel a sense of urgency, to catch them before those legs grow long and lanky and are able to outrun me.

We roll into a pile of tickles in the grass. I scatter kisses on warm bellies and pinch those irresistible tushies.

This is the summer destined to become That Summer in my memory. It is this moment in my children’s lives. The summer of an almost-five and two-and-a-half-year-old. The only one of its kind.

They are just old enough to play outside on their own. They are still young enough to cling to me and fight over which one of them is taking up too much room on my lap.

In our world, just being in the backyard is an activity.

Holding still and applying sunscreen are mutually exclusive.

We surround ourselves with bubbles.

Popsicles are our religion.

I marinate in these sticky-sweet moments and emerge more childlike myself.

“Squirt me with the hose, Mommy!”

“Can I pick a flower, Mommy?”

“Look! A butterfly, Mommy!”

Each breath of this passing season counts down to the end of a sacred lifestyle. Kindergarten is coming to force the children back into their clothes. Rain will dampen carefree spirits and wash away our lazy days. Time will no longer be entirely ours.

My arms feel weak and useless when I imagine wanting to fill them with children who are no longer children. When their small bodies exist only in memories, I pray I will be able to look into their grown eyes and see my little girls running naked through the yard.

Carisa Miller is a sarcasm wielding, cheese devouring, nut-job writer and Listen To Your Mother show director/co-producer, living in Portland, Oregon with her astonishingly patient husband, two fireball daughters, and an ill-tempered cat. CarisaMiller.com

When ADHD Goes to School

When ADHD Goes to School

By Keaghan Turner

Converse C w colorIt’s about that time in the semester when the first paper due date looms on the syllabus, and college students start pulling out their ADHD. They approach the lectern after class and spill their psychological guts. About their quiz grades … about the paper length … about that first novel we read … about their paper topic.

Eventually and awkwardly they get to the point, trotting out what I know is coming: They have ADHD. They might need an extension, they’re planning to come by office hours, they can’t remember what they read for the quizzes, they had a tough time getting through the whole book, their doctor is adjusting their Ritalin or Adderall or Vyvanse dosages. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I would think. “If I had a nickel,” I wanted to say. What a pop-psychology diagnosis! What a crutch! I shook my head in academic dismay over such a Made-in-America “disorder.” How could so many parents be hoodwinked by the big pharmaceutical companies? Maybe if they made their kids read a book once in a while instead of allowing them to play video games for hours at a time they wouldn’t have ADHD. What is the world coming to when college kids need medication to help them read, write, and study? Why are they in college if they can’t do what kids are supposed to do?

Turns out, ADHD is real. At least, it is at my house. And no one was more surprised than me. I wound up with a toddler who might be down the street—naked—before I realized he had left the kitchen, who couldn’t be trusted not to draw blood on the playground, and who broke my nose once (at least) by throwing his aluminum thermos at me from point-blank range. “This is not normal!” I cried, holding an ice pack to my nose. My little boy McDiesel faces off with Escalades in the middle of the street, he cannonballs into the hot tub, he smashes Lego Starfighters—with no provocation or warning—that his big brother has painstakingly built. He has shattered two flat-screen tvs and one MacBook, pulled a leaf of the kitchen table clean off its hinges, and reduced a 1920s mahogany dining room chair to sticks. He is fierce. Feral.

My mother said it was lack of discipline. Friends said it was the Terrible Twos (and then Threes!). Doctors started saying things like it was too early to say for sure if it was ADHD, and that we wouldn’t want to jump to the conclusion that it was ADHD.  My husband didn’t know what to say. I didn’t say anything. (I was shocked: Why in the world were they talking about ADHD? What could my kid breaking my nose have to do with writing a paper? Plus, I do everything right—I recycle, I clip box tops, I have a Ph.D., we have good genes! Nothing could be wrong with my kid.) Everyone said, “What? ADHD? He’s just … active.” or … just impulsive, just curious, just energetic, just willful, just physical, just fearless. Check, check, check. Almost every word matched the Child Behavior Checklist we filled out at the pediatrician’s office, then at the behaviorist’s, the child psychiatrist’s, the occupational therapist’s, and the chiropractic neurologist’s.

We were all right, of course: it wasn’t normal. That is, it wasn’t “typical,” but it was “just” something: textbook ADHD. A severe case, but still, according to our Beloved Behaviorist, it could be worse. I’ll have to take her word for it.

And now we’re sending McDiesel to school. Real school. Public school. True, as my husband says, finally we don’t have to worry (much) about him getting kicked out the way we did at his preschool. But being part of the school system seems much more serious. They have official paperwork for this kind of thing. There, under “Asthma,” is where we check the box. Now is when we label him. Until he goes to college and will label himself, approaching a lectern and saying that he has been having trouble with the material, that he needs help understanding what exactly the professor is looking for, that he has ADHD.

In the meantime, McDiesel’s new kindergarten class newsletter explains the breakdown for daily behavior reports, which, in the past three years his big brother, Typ, has been in school, I have never paid much attention to before:

Happy Face

Squiggly Face

Frowny Face

These three options seem at once overly simplistic and completely adequate. The school day is long and most of McDiesel’s days are filled with happy, squiggly, and frowny faces in different combinations. (Aren’t most kids’?) Every day is a behavior grab-bag and slim chance the Happy Face is going to take the day. McD’s a Squiggly-Face kind of kid, after all. Just textbook ADHD, as our Beloved Behaviorist would say. His happy-face behavior lights everything up; his frowny-face behavior is impossible to ignore and difficult—in the space of a mere six hours of almost constant contact—to forget or overlook.

On the first day of school, McDiesel proudly comes home with a Happy Face and a note that he had a “great” day. Oh, I think. Maybe it won’t be that hard. Maybe he won’t need medication. Maybe we won’t begin filling out Individualized Education Plan paperwork. Maybe he can behave for six hours. My anxiety ebbs. The second day, he hops off the bus and pulls out his chart—obstructing the bus doors—and thrusts it in my face: “Squiggles!” he pouts. Attached note reads: “Sassy!” (Also a deceptively adequate measure of behavior). My anxiety flows. Next day, I take necessary precautions. I dress him in an overpriced preppy T-shirt, madras shorts, and Kelly green converse chuck Taylors. The strategy is to distract Mrs. W. with cuteness. Can she possibly give a Frowny Face to a kid who looks so stinkin’ good? Alas, yes. As if on cue, confirming my sense of some cosmic inevitability, the third day of school, last Friday, brings the dreaded Frowny—a face that has never before entered the house in the two years our family has been at this elementary school so far. (Big brother Typ—wide-eyed—gasps and avoids contact with the paper altogether.) Mrs. W., the teacher I have special-requested, provides a short laundry list of ADHD symptomatic behavior alongside the Frowny: distracting others, talking during instruction, laughing while being disciplined. My anxiety flows some more, approaching tropical-storm categorization. (Come on! I think. What about the Chuck Taylors?)

McDiesel sulks. Things had been going so well. Behavior seemed to be on the upswing during the summer—to the point I was crediting 45 minutes of Occupational Therapy a week for working an almost miraculous transformation: Maybe some beanbag tossing and a sensory tunnel really can undo ADHD! Now OT seems useless. McD seems doomed to a Frowny Face-filled kindergarten year. All of the statistics about learning disabilities, poor academic performance, and social difficulties jockey for position among my myriad anxieties. I sulk.

I spend all weekend promising to come to school for lunch, reinforcing the extra-special milkshake celebration we will indulge in if Monday sees the return of the Happy Face, and even madly agreeing to a trip to the Target toy aisles (negotiated by opportunistic big bro Typ) as a reward for a week’s worth of Happy Faces.

I drive to school Monday, quizzing McD on how to earn a Happy Face (“Listen to Mrs. W.”) in case he might have forgotten or tuned out any of my coaching sessions.

Then Monday afternoon comes and the cosmic forces have realigned: McDiesel has earned a Happy Face with a note that he had a “way good day!” My anxiety is checked, the tropical storm dissipates. We head out for vanilla milkshakes.

Now I’m worried I might have been too lax this week in continuing the behavior pep rally. Yesterday, I drove up hopefully to the drop-off point in front of school. Carpool kids and big brother Typ hop out with waves and smiles. McDiesel unbuckles and acts as if he’s about to do the same. Then, he doesn’t budge, wants me to walk him in, holds up the entire drop-off line, and dangles halfway out the open car door. Frantically (and I hope not too sharply) I call Typ back from the school entrance to grab and drag (if necessary) McD away from the car and through the door. The principal announces over the PA there will be no tardies today because of traffic back-up. I have no choice but to jump out of car, walk around to his side (avoiding eye contact with all parents stacked up behind me in the drop-off lane), remove McDiesel and his backpack, close the back door, and leave him standing curb-side in the rain, a scrunched up squiggly face in my rearview mirror.

But that afternoon, when I ask McDiesel about his day, he says the happy parts were bigger. He was only a little bad. I open his folder and, voila, it’s true! I’m going to get Mrs. W. the best teacher gift ever this Christmas. She gets it. McD is not doomed to a Frowny Face kindergarten year or to years of academic distress. In the center of the Wednesday box, she’s drawn a medium-sized Happy Face. Beside it she’s written: “Precious little boy!” In the bottom right corner, she’s drawn a smaller Frowny Face. In parentheses: “Kept jumping in puddles when told not to.”

“You know,” I tell my husband, as if this is news to anyone. “A good teacher is going to make all the difference for McDiesel.” Back on campus, I assess my students, not as their professor but as McDiesel’s mother. I see the telltale signs: That kid always has to get up and throw something away. This one shakes his foot for the entire fifty minutes. There’s one who can’t stop talking. Here’s one who is approaching the lectern. I imagine their kindergarten selves, their anxious parents who wait to hear how they did, if they got a Happy Face, if all the medications and therapies and specialists and interventions did the trick. And I know they’re like me, waiting for the report, waiting to learn if their kid is making the grade, if he’s going to be all right.

So my student comes up to the lectern and begins his fumbling explanation.

“Sure,” I say. “I totally understand. Let me help you….”

You won’t believe this, but it’s true: he’s wearing green chuck Taylors.

Keaghan Turner teaches writing, literature, and women’s studies at Coastal California University. Her recent essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Babble, South Writ Large.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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The First Day of Kindergarten—and the Photograph

The First Day of Kindergarten—and the Photograph

IMG_8955This week we marked a big first—the first day of kindergarten for the small gal. She set off ready, with her brand-new lunchbox—just like two of her preschool pals had—and her ladybug backpack and her pigtails. I said no to flip-flops; she insisted upon wearing them. Like the seasoned parent I am, I consented, because I knew the teachers would let her know the rules—no flip-flops—and then we’d return to the sensible summery appropriate-for-school footwear. She wore a headband and her hair was sprayed with the rosemary lice repellent.

Many people said things to me along the lines of this being our last first day of kindergarten. That’s true. I certainly thought about how much easier this fourth first day of kindergarten drop-off was than the first one, as I left her amongst nervous peers and a more nervous thicket of camera-wielding parents in the midst of first-time kindergarten starts. She was fortunate that her first grade partner, Max, was so easygoing and warm and directive. They took off from the sign-in board to the rug. Just before she left me after signing in and before she walked to the rug, she grabbed an extra hug, one she made super-strong. Fortified with enough mama love, she was on her way.

After I said goodbye, I went from drop-off to meeting to another meeting. It wasn’t until later that I had a chance to look at the photographs I’d snapped at school. There she was, signing in with all the seriousness a starting-kindergartner musters for this most big-kid event. I sent out an email of those initial moments—to all the grandparents and to her birth mama, and a few others. As I hit send, I had a tug I sometimes feel when I share these milestones. I felt guilty that I got to be the one to experience this prideful, somewhat shaky, completely exciting moment firsthand.

The photograph allowed me both to feel this and to share the milestone. It’s funny how it did two things. Certainly, in the ragtag mess of kids and parents and teachers eager for the extraneous adults to leave, I didn’t think about her birth mama, my dear husband or anyone else. I was focused upon one thing above all others and that was to make as hasty and uncomplicated a retreat from the classroom as possible. I left the tears to other kids and other parents. The fact that I’d documented the moment allowed for reflection.

When I did stare at her serious little hand grasping that marker to circle her name on the sign-in board, I was able to feel my sense of amazing fortune. I’ve spoken to enough adoptive parents about this to know that I’m not alone in feeling fortunate this way, not just during babyhood. I know others have told me this goes on for years and years. It’s one of the things about adoptive parenthood I hadn’t really anticipated, the strong and ongoing waves of gratitude. I hadn’t anticipated that when you talk about the sensation with other adoptive parents, it’s as if you’ve joined a club, a little subset of the parents’ club. I don’t expect to stop feeling grateful.

I also allowed myself to acknowledge that I felt a momentary wave of guilt wash over me. I felt it right alongside the sense of fortune, and I don’t feel it nearly so often as I feel grateful. But, that morning I did. Maybe, along with the gratitude and the guilt was vulnerability, the not-knowing what the best move would be just then. I wondered whether the secondhand moment I’d just sent along would be a happy gift or whether it would be melancholy, in the way big markers or holidays might be more fraught than regular ones.

This is not mine to know, necessarily. There might not be one single answer for her mama. These seem the way birthdays do, like moments to share. If we can share the picture, maybe the moment becomes all of ours? I wanted to share the moment, and the pride. I didn’t want to intrude. Not all of the extended family—birth family and my own—are on Facebook, where I could simply post the photos and leave to chance whether they see them. I didn’t want to do that, anyway. I did want to reach out, intentionally. I do that routinely enough for lesser reasons. The bigger-ticket ones I capture on the camera, I do like to share, even if sometimes, I have these flashes of insecurity around them. I imagine these images and feelings to fall into the muddled and confused and generously loving pile that we could characterize as what makes open adoption open.

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