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.”

The Virtual Aunt

The Virtual Aunt


I’m putting my daughter to bed, but her twin brother is still in the next room, waiting. I hear him chattering away, as he dances a toy elephant across the floor. He’s not talking to himself, though, my sister is with him. Well, technically, she’s some four thousand miles away in Vancouver, Canada, while we are in Glasgow, Scotland, but, virtually, she’s right there. My phone is propped against the bookshelf, the perfect angle for surveying the scene. My son is interacting with her as if she is sitting, flesh and bones, in the very same room.

We are regular partakers, my sister and I, in the phenomenon of the FaceTime babysitter. For me this kind of video messaging hasn’t just been a luxury, a vehicle for allowing an aunt to bond with her nephews and niece across an otherwise vast ocean. There have been moments, periods of time, where my sister’s virtual presence has been nothing short of a lifeline. Such is the way when you have two babies and only one pair of hands, only one set of eyes.

Back when their afternoon nap was the fulcrum of our day, we used to speak to her several times a week. I would put the twins in their high chairs at around noon; my sister would be getting ready for work, dawn breaking in Washington, D.C. They would choose the jewelry that best suited her outfit, oohing and ahhing over the various bracelets on display, as I cut crusts off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, my laptop offering a comprehensive view of the kitchen. And then I would haul one toddler up to bed, while she would occupy the other, bound safely in his seat, and nap time would proceed smoothly, a staggered affair, instead of the manic free-for-all it became when I was on my own.

My sister has been heavily involved in my children’s lives from the beginning. She is a devoted aunt, to say the least, but she is also a woman with a job that takes her all over the world. The two of us have not lived in the same town, in the same country even, since 1999. Our relationship has been conducted through the channels of whatever technological means have been in the ascendency. Hours-long phone calls via special long-distance plans, Skype, when it was a novelty, and now the holy grail of instant visual access: FaceTime.

For my kids, my sister is both a real-live entity and a digitized floating head, sometimes she is a tinny voice in the ether, talking or singing to them as I drag her around with us from pillar to post. When they were very young, fledglings in the concept of object permanence, we were curious to see the consequences of this arrangement: a face on a screen, familiar and representative as it might be, is not itself a person. But then she would walk through the door of our house, after months of being a two-dimensional image only, and the babies would know exactly who she was in all of her dimensions. The transition was almost seamless.

Our children, of course, are growing up with a blurred line between the real and the virtual. Their relationships are bound to be fluid things, the online and the IRL swirling together to form, ultimately, an unadulterated whole. This is how my own life works right now, after all, a melange of interactions, some of which take place across social media, some of which take place across a dinner table, but each just as “real” as the next. Unlike me, however, my kids will have no period of adjustment, they won’t be asking tortured questions, like our generation does, about what constitutes authenticity in this regard. They will simply accept the ubiquity of the technology they were raised with—and how it has, in turn, changed the essential nature of human connection.

The FaceTime babysitter is an outgrowth of our children’s native comfort level with technology, but so too it is a reflection of the modern reality of the scattered family. In typical fashion, the first has evolved to bridge the potentially devastating gaps of the second. It never ceases to amaze me that my sister, despite the miles between us, is a daily fixture in our house. My kids reference her with a frequency that, in another age, could only signal an intimacy born of geographic proximity. It’s because I talk about her a lot, I make the effort. But I’m convinced it is also because they know that she—her face, her existence—is a mere button away.

Eventually it’s my son’s turn for bed. I carry him upstairs with my sister tucked in my back pocket: he wants Auntie G to do his stories tonight. We are a strange trio lying there—mother, son and aunt beamed in from abroad—but we are a trio just the same. She and I read alternating months of Chicken Soup with Rice, while my son listens intently, as if this scenario is normal as normal can be. Before the lights go out, he takes the phone and says goodnight, smattering the screen with kisses. My sister kisses him back. Their lips are touching, but not really. They are so far and yet so close.

Author’s Note: Since I wrote this piece, I have had the great fortune of becoming an aunt myself. I am travelling a vast distance to see my new nephew soon, but of course we have already FaceTimed several times since his birth.

Evolution of a Reader

Evolution of a Reader


You start when he is two months old, you know it is important. All the experts say so, all the articles. Read to them, read to them incessantly. Do it early, the earlier the better. He seems like an alert baby, this one, wide-eyed and curious. The way he bats at his toys, the way he tracks your movements with a searching, soulful expression. Maybe all babies are like this, you aren’t sure. He is your first. You project onto him constantly—thoughts, feelings, skills—as if projecting will make it so.

Your mother sat with him when he was one week old, just home from the hospital, a sliver of a thing, and read him Pat the Bunny in that special sing-song voice you remember well from your own childhood. “Judy can pat the bunny,” she said, as your son stared into the middle distance, head lolling. “Now YOU pat the bunny.” She took the baby’s starfish hand, the nails still peeling from the wetness of the womb, and rubbed it purposefully against the fluffy bunny. And you couldn’t tell if it was ridiculous or adorable to be reading to a baby so new.

All the same, a couple of months later, you decide it is time to begin. Every night, every night without fail. Your husband gives the baby a bath, and then you coo at him, a steady stream of chatter as you stuff limbs into a sleepsuit covered with teddybears or rockets or stripes. You prop him up against you on the bed and read two books. Always two. Sometimes Brown Bear, Brown Bear. Sometimes Here Are My Hands. Sometimes you channel your mother and read Pat the Bunny with just the right intonations. You take it for granted that your son sits still at this age, that he tolerates the books without crying, when what he really wants is his milk. None of your other children will be so patient.

By the time he is one, he can pat the bunny on his own. He seems to understand you now, he has words himself, a bevy of animal sounds and an assortment of other babbles that mean something, finally. The floodgates of communication have opened; reading has become blissfully interactive. Your son loves books. You tell your family, your friends, anybody who will listen: “He loves books!” This makes you proud, as if it is evidence of an impressive feat of parenting or genetics. But of course he loves books, the shelves are lined with them, the house is strewn with them. Reading is your go-to childcare activity.

Over the next couple of years, your son becomes oddly interested in history. Or maybe it’s not so odd because you and your husband are both academics with a flair for the past. The chunky board books give way to early readers, to thinner pages telling tales of the Romans, the Greeks. But the Egyptians are his favorite. He loves the concept of mummies, he traces the Sphinxes with his still-dimpled finger. He becomes obsessed with Darth Vader, how Anakin Skywalker changed from good to evil. You read him endless books about it. He becomes obsessed with Jesus, even though you are Jewish, and you read him endless books about that too.

At some point, it is clear he is ready to read himself, but you don’t want to push it. Your instinct is that this process, this magical process, should happen organically. You talk about the alphabet with a concerted nonchalance, calling the letters by their phonetic names, because you are in the UK and this is how it’s done. M is not “em,” it is “mmmm,” as if the letter itself is edible, is utterly delicious. Your son is getting the gist of it, it’s a game to him. You, however, are newly overwhelmed by the mischievousness of the English language. Its absurd rules feel, all of a sudden, like inhospitable guests. So many exceptions, so many outliers. He can read “hat,” but how do you explain “hate”?

You breathe a sigh of relief when he starts school, that children go to school earlier where you live, and that you can pass off the task of explicating the idiosyncrasies of language to a trained professional. Your son comes home excited about the magic E, the way it makes the sound of the preceding vowel change, poof, just like that, and you think to yourself: thank god. He reads to you happily now, always out loud, in that halting, robotic voice most kids have at the beginning. When punctuation is optional, when the concept of “reading with expression” is a peak in the distance.

And then it happens. He starts to read fluidly and in his head to boot. It opens up a new world for him, an inner world. But it closes a door for you. His reading is a personal thing now, a private thing, he wants it that way. He is somewhere between six and seven, you can’t quite remember. You remember, though, that he read the whole series of Diary of a Wimpy Kid in quick succession, which left you considering what exactly he understood of the middle school dynamics. He is at that awkward age where his technical skill surpasses his emotional maturity and you are not quite sure what books to choose for him.

He likes to read, but he likes other things too. You can’t tell yet if he loves it, if he drinks in the words like you do, if reading is going to be that balm for what ails him, though you recall you weren’t a particularly keen reader at this stage either. He doesn’t seem to read to get tangled in the story, to step outside of himself. His penchant is for nonfiction still, for facts, for science. He pores over statistics in his football magazines. He studies up on Minecraft.

Just when you wonder if he will ever get the taste for fiction, he discovers The Hunger Games. He returns from the bookstore, clutching the first in the series, and he can barely stop to say hello as he marches up the stairs to crack into it. He becomes, almost overnight, what people call an “avid” reader. He devours young adult sci-fi, the more dystopian the better, while you fleetingly deliberate if the subject matter is too old for him. He asks to read The Fault in Our Stars. You hold him off. He asks to read It by Stephen King. You hold him off again. He picks up the books on your night table and inspects the blurbs; Station Eleven catches his eye. For the first time, you borrow one of his books and you actually enjoy it.

Your son is nine, closer to ten. You lie on your bed together, it is late afternoon. He stretches out on one side, and you are on the other side, the only sound between you is the pages turning. You reach across and take his hand. He squeezes back, not meeting your eyes, so engrossed is he in the story. You watch him for a second, resting your own book on your lap. He is long limbs and angular features, but just for a moment you get a flash of the baby he used to be, and it is Pat the Bunny in his pudgy hands all over again.

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers


Never Wish Happiness for Your Children

By Adrienne Jones

“The trouble with that kind of thinking is, a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. Our children are themselves.”



Brave Enough

By Jennifer Palmer

She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.



Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 10.24.21 AM
By Robin Schoenthaler

Then along came adolescence, and my side-by-side parenting began to wane. I noticed it first at the mall, trailing behind the kids like a geisha. And every day it happens more: I find myself hanging back or stepping backwards, turning to move behind them, letting them go forward, out in front. I’m becoming a parent who pivots, scrambling to get out of the way.


The Richest Person in the World

By Adrienne Jones

Well, maybe he’s the second richest person in the world and I’m the richest, because I get to be his mom.




Open and Closed

By Catherine Newman

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality.


Because I Will Always Do It Again

By Jon Sponaas

“Though I can’t, in a general way, believe much of anything, I especially couldn’t believe that you were IN your mom’s tummy, floating around in that complicated liquid…”



The Days Are Long/The Years Are Short

By Lauren Apfel and Lisa Heffernan

With my nest soon completely empty, I face the day that has loomed before me from the moment I became a mother. I am facing three distinct losses, that of their childhood selves, of my identity as their mother and, most painfully, of the daily intimacy that was our life together.


Baby Weight

By Cheryl Strayed

There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for my son. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person.



This is Adolescence: 16

By Marcelle Soviero

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.



How to Smoke Salmon

By Ann Hood

The sadness that comes from your first child leaving home is, of course, not the saddest thing of all. But the ache, the sense that something is missing, the way you keep looking up, expecting him to burst through the door in his size 13 shoes, it is real.


On Shame and Parenting

By Adrienne Jones

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.



I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

By Jennifer Berney

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



Family Motto: More Love is More Love

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love.



She loves Me She Loves Me Not

By Karen Dempsey

Liddy would cup my cheeks and pull my face to hers as if she were breathing me in. “Oh, my mommy,” she’d whisper. “I love that you be my mommy.”




Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same.



love-you-the-same1 I Love you The Same But Different
By Rachel Pieh Jones

I love all my children the same. But I don’t love all my children the same. I love them all the same amount. Endlessly, to the moon and back, from Djibouti to Minnesota and back, forever and no matter what. But I don’t love them all in the same way. I don’t know why this realization surprised me. I mean, of course I don’t love them all in the same way. They are unique individuals and I have a unique, individual relationship with each one.


Bury My Son Before I Die

By Joanne De Simone

It goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.



Armageddon Mama
By Tracy Mayor

Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.


MAMA: Mothers Against More Activities

By Francie Arenson Dickman

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were.



Till Death Did They Part
By Molly Krause

When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.



The Kitchen Is Closed

The Kitchen Is Closed


And when all else fails, we hit the drive-through. Because I didn’t know that, on so many days, motherhood would feel tantamount to being a short order cook.


Children, damn them, they need to eat. Every day. Multiple times a day. It sounds simple enough, one of those straightforward facts of life. But there is nothing simple about my children’s relationship with food. They always want more of it, without ever quite wanting what it is that I have available. Their insatiable appetites and focus on certain food groups to the exclusion of all others is nothing less than an albatross around my neck. It is my Sisyphean rock. The meatball I keep pushing up the hill that rolls right back down again…uneaten.

I will never truly understand the plight of the parents of bird-like children. The ones who pick delicately, listlessly at the contents of their plates, before asking to be freed from the prison that is the kitchen table. The ones who skip lunch or “forget” to ask for a snack. In our house, “nack” was among the first words ever uttered and “nack time” has not once passed by unnoticed. Blood sugar levels plummet to precariously low levels if more than a couple of hours go by without a top up. Dinner is getting earlier and earlier. One of my kids asked me to make it at 3:45pm the other day.

My husband and I recently put up double doors between our kitchen and our living room as a way to stuff the dam of our children’s constant demand for food. For in the absence of a physical barrier, they have been known to swirl in and out of the kitchen at will, eddies of unquenchable hunger, no matter what time of day it is, no matter when they have last been fed (No, you can’t have”breakfast dessert”). Out of sight, the theory goes, and therefore out of mind, because if the little buggers so much as see snack-food or sweets, they need to have it. And if they aren’t allowed it, they start to beg. And then they beg and beg and beg some more.

The older ones ask nicely, imploringly, steeling themselves for my wrath, which comes quick and hot if we are in touching distance of a main meal. They even offer to make it themselves. Just a bowl of cereal, Mom, a slice of toast. I’ll do it myself, Mom, and I won’t spill the milk this time! The younger ones alternate tacks. Either they whine until they wear me down into a nub of spinelessness. Or they approach me tentatively and whisper in my ear, as if the softness of their voices and the especially cherubic cast of their eyes will sway me in favor of the need for a third pack of organic cheese puffs in a row.

Set meal times, you say, of course that’s the answer. Clear limits on snacks. Be firm, be consistent. Make them wait, build the appetite. If they are hungry, they will eat anything! Don’t give them choices! Oh I know the litany of rules and oh how I’ve tried. But I have too many children now and there are too many variables and some nights I end up cooking four different versions of dinner, where “cooking,” you would realize rather swiftly if you saw me in action, is a euphemism for “cobbling together.” I like to think of theses disparate dinners as variations on a theme, because then it at least sounds artistic.

My nine year old, who is as thin as a wisp, eats more and more sophisticatedly than the rest of his siblings combined—I want a REAL dinner tonight, Mom, not just baby things smooshed together! My seven year old’s love affair with bread products and peanut butter and jelly (PbJ crumpet, anyone?) is matched only by his aversion to sauces. One four year old used to eat everything, but now relays a laundry list of fastidious requirements, as much as I assure her that, if fruit and vegetables were meant to be skinless, they would grow that way. The other four year old eats more than he used to, but ingests at a snail’s pace. Have you ever seen a child take on a single meal in eleven discrete stages?

Once, in the face of dinners left barely eaten and mitigating pleas of I’m not hungry, I had two of my kids sign a contract that they would not, under any circumstances, ask for more food for the rest of the night. If they truly weren’t hungry, I reasoned, this was a legitimate approach. And if I could get it on paper, surely it would stick. It goes without saying that I underestimated the three year old. 45 minutes later, with the foolproof logic only a toddler can muster, he was begging for chocolate, because he “really, really likes chocolate.”

Reader, I gave him the chocolate, and all was quiet.

Don’t judge me, this is what I live for. The calm born of full bellies that descends upon our house like a warm blanket, once dinner has been served. The high I experience when the grocery shopping is done for the week. The promise of a refrigerator stuffed with a sufficient variety of food to ensure that nobody will be bursting into tears at the mere sight of their plate.

And when all else fails, we hit the drive-through. Because I didn’t know that, on so many days, motherhood would feel tantamount to being a short order cook. Because I didn’t know that my favorite four words, both literally and metaphorically, would become: The kitchen is closed.

Mothering in the Rain

Mothering in the Rain


I hear thunder, I hear thunder.

Hark don’t you? Hark don’t you? 

Pitter, patter raindrops,

Pitter, patter raindrops,

I’m wet through; so are you. 

This is a nursery rhyme my children know by heart, many British children do, because the pitter patter of raindrops is the soundtrack to so much of their lives. Faces pressed against streaky windows, waterproof hoods pulled tightly over heads, most days my kids leave the house and are touched instantly by some form of moisture. Whether it is a misting that hangs in the air like gossamer or a sideways pelting that stings on impact, onwards they go, always in search of the next dry port of call.

We live in Scotland, where there is measurable rainfall for up to 250 days of the year (in certain parts) and where the seasons bleed into each other with a relatively moderate spread in temperature between them. I have a coffee mug that captures the phenomenon perfectly. It has a series of four pictures on it and, in each one, a bulldog is holding an umbrella against the rain, which continues to spit down irrespective of the season. The only thing that changes is the accoutrement: a scarf in winter, sunglasses in summer, leaves swirling aloft in autumn.

Brits talk about the weather incessantly, which is ironic considering it is so bad, but also telling of how deeply it infiltrates our psyches. There are few psyches as delicate as a new mother’s and, though I am somebody who never complained about it before, the climate here took on a whole new meaning to me when I had my babies.

My second son arrived in late November and for weeks upon weeks we holed ourselves up inside, a scenario I imagine is par for the course with many winter births. But Glasgow winters are particularly bleak. Not only do they fail to produce any fluffy, idyllic-looking snow by way of compensation for the cold but, because of the city’s latitude, the days are shockingly short. The skies begin to darken at around 3:30 p.m. and stay dark until well after eight the next morning. It is a long period to be without natural light and it feels longer still with a colicky baby in arms, a baby who seems already at an obvious disadvantage for developing proper Circadian rhythms.

When I had my twins, who were born in early March, being stuck in the house wasn’t an option. I had no recourse to soothing two squalling newborns other than walking them together. Out we went every single day—whatever the weather, whatever the quality of light—making figure eights around the slick streets of our neighborhood. The babies were protected from the elements, of course, their stroller sheathed in the rain cover that is an essential accessory for every British parent. But because I couldn’t push the double pram and manage an umbrella at the same time, I myself was not. I got wet, a lot.

I was also miserable a lot. Waking in the morning, especially after a broken night, to another day of varying shades of grey was dispiriting to say the least. I am not alone in this kind of seasonal reaction to new motherhood. A Finnish study found that women appeared to be at higher risk for mild postpartum depression in the winter months, and at lower risk in the spring, and that “women were more depressed during periods of limited sunlight.” So too if you are already suffering from PPD or baby blues, the experience might be exacerbated by the sense of isolation that can ensue from shorter, colder, darker days.

As the kids get older, however, entertaining them in spite of the weather becomes easier. We make accommodations. Britain is chocked full of inside playgrounds and sheltered toddler groups, “bounce and rhymes” at the local library and cafes replete with boxes of toys. Indoor soccer pitches and sports facilities are available year-round: we even turfed our own backyard to transform it into a viable play space, as opposed to the sodden patch of muddy grass it used to be. Swimming is always an indoor activity. My children have not actually been swimming in the open air here, that’s something reserved for exotic locations at least a plane ride away.

As a result, summer in Glasgow is markedly different from the magical time it was for me as a kid growing up in New York. My children will have very few sun-kissed memories of lying poolside swaddled in baking-hot towels, of the sweet smell of sweat mixed with barbecue. On the rare occasions it does show its golden face, the sun is a nuisance to them anyway. It’s too hot, it’s too bright. And they have come to appreciate being spared the chafing of stiff new summer sandals and the stickiness of repeated applications of sunscreen.

Once, when my oldest son was fed up with the chronically wet state of the cuffs of his trousers, he asked me quite seriously: why do we live here? It’s a fair question. As much as we love Scotland, we didn’t choose it for the weather, and I do wonder if my kids will leave this country of storm clouds and whipping winds as soon as they are able. Until that happens, though, we will keep putting on our wellie boots and waterproofs and braving the rain. Because when life pours, what better thing is there to do than jump in its puddles?

The Family You Plan For, The Family You Get

The Family You Plan For, The Family You Get


The family we want is not always the family we get, but the family we get is the one that we love.


According to the World Health Organization, the concept of “family planning” allows people to attain their desired number of children and determine the spacing between them.

According to the old Yiddish proverb, men plan and God laughs.

I had a plan for my family. I wanted three children. If you had asked me before, I would have said this: two boys, relatively close in age, and then maybe a girl, though I wasn’t bothered about the sex. I would wait a little longer to have the third child—settle the first one into school, break the back of the second’s toddlerhood—so I could appreciate fully that last ride round the carousel of new motherhood. So I could swill it in my mouth like the fine wine it is.

I had my two boys, just over two years a part. And then three and half years later, I had twins.

I’m not sure I think the configuration of a family is something we should aim to control absolutely, though modern medicine offers increasing opportunity to do just that. There is much beauty to be found in the unknown, in the mysteries the reproductive process is so good at serving up to us. But still we are human. And still we make plans, we make choices, whether Mother Nature is smirking behind our backs or not. We harbor ideas and desires about how many children will be sitting at the dinner table, about what they might be like, and we have regrets, too, regrets that creep in like frost, even though it’s not always socially acceptable to say so.

I planned for three children and I ended up with four, and it has changed my life more than I ever imagined.

Lots of people have four children and are happy about it. Lots of people have twins and are happy about it. The issue is not the number of children or their gender or the spacing or anything else substantive for that matter. It is the gap between expectation and reality and the inevitable effect such a breach has on our psyches. It is the emotional adjustments we have to make when our plans go awry, when the plot twists in a direction we didn’t quite predict.

Those who dreamed of princesses and pink, but find themselves knee-deep in digger trucks. Those who saw a future with siblings entwined, but are only able to have one child. Those who wanted the kids bang-bang-bang, but whose steady rhythm is interrupted by the lull of miscarriage or infertility. Those who expected neurotypical children, but who are nurturing a different sort of mind. Those who assumed their babies would develop according to the books, but to whom time is telling another story.

In my darker moments, when my twins are locked in yet another battle of wills or my husband is miserable because of it or I’ve spent that second half-an-hour putting the other youngest child to sleep though my tank of patience has long since bottomed out, I am hit by what I have come to refer to as “three-child envy.” It flares up when I watch my friends on Facebook announce their third pregnancies, with glee, pregnancies that yield a single baby and complete their families in just the way they hoped. It stirs its ugly head when I watch the mothers stroll into the school yard to collect their pair of older children, the lone toddler clinging comfortably to their hips. Because those families, those families seem perfect to me.

We are all lucky in some respects, we look luckier than we feel to the parent who has the opposite problem—too few children, for example, instead of too many—to the parent who is facing a more objectively serious challenge. But luck is subjective. And how we react to the unexpected, whether we stew in the what-ifs or whether we press on as if this is exactly how it should be, is contingent on the entirety of who we are. The kind of resilience or optimism that allows for the latter is not, for some of us, a switch that can be flicked on at will.

As much as I wish I were, I am not the mother who says: I couldn’t imagine it any other way! Or: it’s a blessing in disguise! Rather I am the mother who says: it is what is. And what it is in our house, unfortunately right now, is more difficulty than hidden delight. More strain on the marriage, more shouting at the kids, more general bursts of distress and disgruntlement. How do I know? Because every so often I get to experience the family I planned for.

Like last week. Last week one of my twins (and it could have been the other) stayed on with his grandparents for an extra five days, for a special trip, while the rest of us returned home. It was easier. It was so much easier. My husband and I all but stopped fighting. The air lost its perennial charge of static. The decibel level hovered somewhere in the normal range. No doubt the power of relativity was working its magic: three children will indeed feel easier when you are used to juggling four. It was also, however, a glimpse into the mists of what could have been, where the cold fact is that what could have been is simpler than what is.

But ease is only one dimension of a life well lived, it is only one value among many. So too playing at a family of three children isn’t the same thing as being a family of three children, because that fourth child exists, he has been brought into the world and he is cherished. And in the end I was desperate to have him home, of course I was, even though I knew it meant an instant return to our status quo of chaos. For the tangled truth is this: the family we want is not always the family we get, but the family we get is the one that we love.

Home Birth

Home Birth


Of the many questions that surrounded my children’s births, “where” was simply not one of them.

There was my house, with its carpeted floors and plush interiors, its tight corners and two flights of stairs. And there was the local hospital, a sterile purpose-built environment. The former I considered a place where people live and watch TV and cook dinner. The latter I considered a place where people go to have medical procedures as safely as possible. Because I counted birth as an essentially medical procedure—a procedure, that is, during which lives are at stake—the distinction between the two locales couldn’t have been clearer in my mind.

So when Jessica Smock approached me with the idea of a feature-length article on the topic of home birth, I was dubious. Jessica and I had already written a pair of essays that turned on the issue of what constitutes a “good” delivery, a debate that illuminated the divide between those of us who view a baby’s entrance into the world as a means to an end and those of us who place a primacy, often a high one, on the process itself. As a woman who is firmly in the means-to-an-end camp, I had to admit to conceptualizing home birth as a rather extreme option on the “process” side, lingering somewhere at the far end of the natural-birth continuum alongside lavender candles and placenta-berry smoothies.

And yet it so happened at the time that a friend of mine was pregnant. This friend, Maria, is one of the most moderate mothers I know, a far cry indeed from the stereotype home birth tends to conjure. She vaccinates her children. They sleep in their own beds; they will attend the school down the road. She is not, in other words, a champion of the kind of anti-institution, “DIY” (do-it-yourself) parenting Emily Matchar describes so well in her book Homeward Bound, the introduction of which contains this gem: “From home births to diaper-free infants to hand-mashed baby food to extended breast-feeding, today’s parenthood often seems to take its cues from Little House on the Prairie.”

Which is why you might be able to imagine my surprise when, on a visit to Maria’s house for tea and cake in the late stages of her second pregnancy, she casually pointed out the pile of birth equipment stashed in the corner of her spare room. It sat there rather ceremoniously, a promise of the major event set to take place a few weeks later in that very spot. It would be an understatement to say I was shocked. But I also became very curious, very quickly. All of a sudden I wanted to understand: what is the motivation to have a baby in your own home?

And this is exactly what Jessica and I set out to discover. We found that home birth, for a certain segment of the population, is not really about answering the question: “Where will my baby be born?” It is about imbuing the birth experience with some sort of meaning that transcends the pragmatic task of getting a baby out of its mother’s womb. Often it is about control and demedicalizing the process of giving life. For once you remove yourself from the hospital setting, with its myriad of medical interventions, there is an inimitable opportunity to let your body lead the way.

Which sounds wonderful, of course, until your body doesn’t quite know the right way to go. Women have been pushing out babies since the beginning of time, fair enough. But women have also been dying in childbirth since the beginning of time, as have infants, in much greater numbers than they do now. A successful home birth might be statistically likely and it’s all well and good if you are in that majority. It can be catastrophic, however, if you are not. And the twist of the knife is that you simply cannot know ahead of time into which group you will fall, however straightforward your pregnancy has been. My sister-in-law, for example, suffered a prolapsed umbilical cord during her labor, a completely unpredictable setback. Had she not been in a hospital, her baby would have been lost.

Risk should be at the center of any discussion of home birth, though as we concluded in our piece, it is a subject about which it is near impossible to draw hard and fast lines. As such, the safety of delivering a baby in your house is one of the fiercest battlegrounds of reproductive medicine: the same data are interpreted variably depending on who is doing the interpreting; new studies with different protocols are drawn up to counterbalance previous studies. Home birth is also an arena that is handled differently in different countries, which affects the perception (and also perhaps the reality) of its safety.

In an astonishing development, announced after our article went to print, the UK has changed its guidelines on home birth and has done so rather drastically. In 2007, the guidelines advised women to be “cautious” about home birth in the absence of conclusive risk assessments. But as of last month the National Health Service is now advising healthy women that it is “particularly suitable” for them to have their babies at home as opposed to in a hospital. That in optimal conditions—low-risk pregnancies of women who have already given birth with no complications—delivering at home is safer because of the lower chances of surgical intervention, accident and infection.

Welcomed here is the idea that certified nurse midwives should play an increasingly important role in childbirth. More suspect is the notion that these midwives should be delivering 45% of Britain’s babies in an environment devoid of certain life-saving techniques should an emergency transpire. According to Amy Tuteur, who goes by the online persona “The Skeptical OB,” “homebirth is no safer than it ever was.” She considers the British development a matter of putting babies’ lives at risk for reasons of political expediency and economic cost-cutting. So too the chairman of the committee on obstetrics practice for American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has reiterated the college’s position in respect of the US, a country with a significantly different medical system from the UK: “We believe that hospitals and birthing centers are the safest places for birth, safer than home.”

What kind of practical effect the NICE guidelines will have is unclear. The home birth rate in the UK has been falling in recent years (2.3%), as it has been rising in the US (1.36%). Whether the new recommendations will ultimately put Britain on a par with a country like the Netherlands (where about 25% of births take place at home) is yet to be seen, as is whether the changes in policy on one side of the Atlantic will have any cross-cultural impact on the obstetric practice of the other side. And while home birth is still something I would never choose for myself, I will now be watching with interest as to whether it becomes a more common occurrence among my friends.

Editors’ Picks: Some of Our Favorites from 2014

Editors’ Picks: Some of Our Favorites from 2014


On Shame and Parenting

onshameand parentingBy Adrienne Jones

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.




Brave Enough

sunsetBy Jennifer Palmer

She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.





For Life

For LifeBy Sarah Kilch Gaffney

We named her Zoe because it means “life” and we could think of no meaning more fitting for our child.





This is Adolescence: 16

This is 16 artBy Marcelle Soviero

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.





Till Death Did They Part

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 12.57.07 PMBy Molly Krause

When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.




Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 5.04.33 PMBy Dawn Davies

At 6:15 a.m., take the children downstairs for breakfast because, even though you are exhausted, the onus is on you. It is always on you.





My Daughter at the Blue Venus

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 12.03.52 PMBy P.L. Lowe

She tells me she is not allowed to give lap dances or blowjobs. She smiles kindly, reassuringly, as she tells me this, as if I have been waiting for this exact information, secretly hoping she will divulge such details to assuage my motherly worries.




Bury My Son Before I Die

Bury My Son Before I DieBy Joanne De Simone

It goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.





The Boob Tube

boobtubeBy Susan Vaughan Moshofsky

On my second day in the hospital, the nurse worried that Rachel was getting little, if any, milk, so she suggested formula supplementation. I refused, determined to succeed. New mom though I was, I knew that supplementing was the Dark Side.


Sibling Rivalry, a Lament

Sibling Rivalry, a Lament


 I didn’t think it would be like this, that my love for each of them, so fierce and unique, wouldn’t be contagious among them. 


I didn’t think it would be like this, that my children would fight so much. I wanted a big family to stand over, the captain of a team, not a referee endlessly blowing my whistle on the fifty-yard line of their rivalry.

I didn’t think it would be like this, when my belly started to swell only a year and half after our first son was born. I chose for them to be close in age, I believed less time between them, less air, would create intimacy, like a vacuum. What more beautiful gift to give a two year old than a baby brother?

I didn’t think it would be like this, that they would be so different. “Chalk and cheese,” as we say in Britain, “apples and oranges.” Both fruit, but the juice doesn’t run the same. Intense, focused, solitary meets quirky, frenetic, outgoing; introvert rubs against extrovert. A strange irony that the qualities I relish in one are the very thing that drives the other to distraction.

I didn’t think it would be like this, their dynamic so repetitive, so predictable it defies logic. The same scenario played over and over again, the dance they do. The younger one goads, the older one lashes out. He’s annoying me. He’s hurting me. It’s a tired record, but it keeps on spinning no matter where I put the needle.

I didn’t think it would be like this, that our third child would be two children, that the way they vied for space in the womb would become a template for all that came next. A tug of war so intense it kindles in me anger, the hotness of which I have never felt before in my life. Bicker, squabble, tussle, tangle, twins who inspire a veritable thesaurus of fighting words. This is mine. No, it’s mine. Value defined solely by another’s interest.

I didn’t think it would be like this, the little ones locking horns with the big ones. Leave each other alone! It’s my mantra in moments when they are four strong, a policy of disengagement, of splendid isolation, the ticket to getting us through the next meal, the next outing. How many times a day do I say it, do I shout it, in a voice shrill and shredded, a voice I hardly recognize as my own? Don’t. Even. Look. At. Him.

I didn’t think it would be like this, my husband and I cleaving the family in half to buy a weekend’s respite. He takes two and I take two so the siblings nearest in age get a break from the all-consuming-ness of their relationship, so we get a break from it. The animating cliche of our parenting not “safety in numbers,” not “strength through solidarity,” it is rather sadly: “divide and conquer.”

I didn’t think it would be like this, that my love for each of them, so fierce and unique, wouldn’t be contagious among them. That their care for one another would sprout, haphazardly, in the cracks between their impatience and resentment. That it would manifest itself in headlocks more often than in hugs. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference, true enough. But aphorisms are cold comfort when your first son is telling your second son he wishes he was never born.

I didn’t think it would be like this, that we would be so close now. She used to pin me down, knees pressing hard into the flesh of my upper arms. She used to lock me out of her room, a lonelier kind of hurt. We fought with purpose, we did: fistfuls of hair, perfectly primed insults. The last time it was physical we were in college already, too old for me to be chasing her up the stairs, ripping a shoe off her foot, because, well because it was mine.

I didn’t know it would be like this, that thirty-six years later my sister would be my best friend, the joint curator of the antiques of our past, the only other product of our idiosyncratic parents. I didn’t know it would be like this, how much I would cherish her simply for being the witness to my childhood.


My Problem With Princesses

My Problem With Princesses


“The problem with princesses is threefold: their aesthetics, their functionality and their relationship with meritocracy.”


I don’t like princesses. I don’t want my daughter called “princess.” I would rather she not play with “princess” things, both those that are bona fide accoutrements of the throne (e.g. a tiara) and those that are merely decorated or marketed as such (e.g. a Cinderella toothbrush). If I had my way, she would never, not once, take to the streets as a three foot tall version of Snow White, bedecked in a satin, gold-sequin-trimmed costume with glitter detail.

Before you cast aspersion on my dismissal of an entire category of plaything, mode of dress and term of endearment, know this: I haven’t just banned princesses from the house willy-nilly. When fate handed me a daughter amidst three sons, I did my homework. I read my Peggy Orenstein (among others) to find out why—not just that—princesses suck. The problem with princesses, as I see it, is threefold: their aesthetics, their functionality and their relationship with meritocracy. Taken together, these reasons have convinced me that a princess is neither a healthy nor a desirable role model for my daughter.

The aesthetic issue is obvious enough, thank you Disney and your billion dollar industry. Princesses seem to come in one size and one shape only, as if being impossibly thin and having perfect hair are requisites for the title. Princesses can have different colored hair, of course, but it has to be long, unless it is possessed of magical powers and cut off to save her life. They wear dresses mainly or other impractical clothes, even while slinging arrows on the back of a charging horse or trekking up a mountain through the snow. Their eyes are caught-in-the-headlights large, their noses resemble something of a button and their bone structure is spot-on symmetrical. It should go without saying that this is not an attainable look for most girls.

Conventionally beautiful and impeccably dressed, princesses don’t really have to do anything. Except be kind or be kissed or catch a husband. This is the functionality issue. Traditionally, the life goal for princesses is to find true love (with a man). Often it involves being saved by the selfsame man and living happily ever after as a wife and, one suspects, not much else. To be fair, Disney’s recent royals are a little more go get ’em. But even for firecrackers like Rapunzel, Merida and Anna, so much of their raison d’être is interpersonal. It’s not that their quests are unimportant: discovering your birth parents, rejecting an arranged marriage, reuniting with your sister, these are worthwhile causes indeed. It’s that they are the stuff, rather, of stereotypical feminine and domestic concern. (Mulan and Tiana are perhaps the exceptions that prove the rule here and are, unsurprisingly, among the least popular Disney Princesses).

The meritocracy issue is the fact that princesses must either be born into their title or marry into it. This tends to be overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant, especially by Americans who have no culture of royalty, but how you come to be who you are is never insignificant as a lesson for children. In the same way we can contrast a princess’ functionality with an astronaut’s or a policeman’s (typical “boy” things), so too we can consider how she got her position with respect to these other professions. A princess does not earn her princess-ness through intelligence or diligence: you can’t knuckle down to become Queen. Princesses are elevated creatures by dumb luck, not by true grit.

And yet, despite all of this, “it has become nearly impossible for girls of a certain age not to own a few Princess trinkets,” Orenstein writes in Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Ah, but Cinderella will not be making a meal of my daughter, I thought smugly, as I read those words a little over a year ago, glancing at a toy chest remarkably devoid of sparkle.

That smugness lasted about six months, my fall from grace a reminder of how even the best laid, mom-made theories can crumble in light of little mouths begging and little eyes crying. For as soon as my daughter turned the corner of three, things started appearing in her room, as if by the wave of a wand. Magazines she had persuaded her father to buy, called, somewhat unimaginatively, “Princess Magazine.” A plastic tiara her grandmother had gifted her, or maybe it was the babysitter, beset with a huge magenta jewel in the middle. And now that she has pinpointed the common denominator of this new toddler lust, the requests for “princesses” are raining down in earnest. She wants a princess castle for her birthday. She wants to be a princess for Halloween, with a princess dress, not Anna’s sadly, but Elsa’s, the one she wears after she morphs from Swiss Alp girl into Barbie look-alike.

Though most of us believe, deep-down, that our influence on our children will prove a force above nature, I was prepared for this, to some degree. Three years old is a watershed moment for gender identity. It is a formative time, when children are learning not only that gender is a defining characteristic, but that it is a fixed one. This period is associated with an exaggerated amount of gender-typical behavior and toy choices, a torrent of pink and blue as it were, and it’s actually a normal part of development. At this age, a report by Princeton Univesity concludes, “girls’ love of pink, frilly dresses may be viewed as a kind of obsession linked to developing knowledge about social categories.”

It’s typical for feminist mothers whose little girls have turned, seemingly overnight, into bundles of fuchsia and frill to wonder where they’ve gone wrong. The truth is they haven’t, we haven’t. Letting our daughters wear frothy cotton-candy-colored frocks, however, is a different beast from encouraging them to identify as Sleeping Beauty. The first might be unpalatable; the second raises alarm bells. My daughter will be disappointed when I don’t buy the princess costume for which she’s asked. But if saying no now means preventing her, even in some small way, from internalizing the message that she is the sum total of the luster of her hair and the circumference of her waist and the ability to marry well, then that’s a price I am willing to pay.


Photo: http://www.droidforums.net

In Praise of the Board Game

In Praise of the Board Game



But as my children get older and I watch them begin to navigate in earnest the landscape of real relationships, I am struck anew by the crucible of morality the more traditional games are able to engender.

I grew up playing games and not just the electronic kind. Before Super Mario Brothers stole my heart and well before I spent weeks of my life launching bird after angry bird across a screen the size of my fist, I used to sit with my mother or a friend or my sister, if my begging wore her down, and move actual pawns around an actual piece of cardboard. I remember from those days the feel of cool, smooth Scrabble tiles slipping through my fingers, as I chose letters from the heavy burgundy sack of our Deluxe Edition. I remember perfecting the art of the “bridge,” my mom’s preferred method of shuffling cards, my mom who still considers not knowing the difference between a spade and a club by middle childhood to be a sign of parental neglect.

It’s not that I don’t like the modern iteration of gaming. I have no aversion to screen time. My kids are digital natives through and through, the little ones masters of Toca Hair Salon as much as the bigger ones are seasoned architects in the fields of Minecraft. I’m not pining away for a bygone age of chiseled wooden toys and Cleaver family fun. Far from it: I think there is room for both types of activity. But as my children get older and I watch them begin to navigate in earnest the landscape of real relationships, I am struck anew by the crucible of morality the more traditional games are able to engender.

We talk a lot recently about how our kids are deprived of a certain sort of play and the negative consequences that come with such a deficit: cosseted children unable to roam the streets and learn the lessons uniquely taught by a free-range neighborhood dynamic. Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray describes the two educations he took from his youth in the 1950s, the one at school and the other one, the more significant one, gleaned from the experience of outside, unsupervised time with friends and siblings. Board games, non-electronic games, are the inside version of this lost phenomenon. The rainy day version, if you will.

Because board games are based on an interesting mix of social skills. Sure, they involve strategic thinking and executive function and other good stuff like that. But in today’s head-down climate of technological immersion, they also require something far rarer for an indoor pastime: face to face interaction. You can see the human consequences of your decisions over a game of Clue, for example, in a way that you can’t by linking up with a buddy online. My kids have playdates now where they sit like ducks in a row on the couch, or in separate rooms of the house even, clutching devices and barely uttering a word. Quite a different scenario from clocking the look on your brother’s face when you are the one to reveal that Professor Plum did it in the kitchen with the candlestick.

Board games are different from electronic games, but they are also different from joint imaginative play because they hinge on a shared set of predetermined rules and on negotiation and compromise as to how those rules apply in individual scenarios (which is what life is all about, right?). In order for the game to work, instructions must be followed, turns must be taken and tempers must be controlled. As a child, I upended the board in frustration more times than I care to say and I suffered the logical consequences as a result. And, what was worse, I suffered them in real time. As Gray explains: “The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit…and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players.”

One of the most salient features of the board games we play in our house is that they are zero-sum. There is a winner and there is a loser or there are multiple losers. Some video games are similarly structured, but many aren’t, set up as they tend to be so that the only thing you are working to top is your own high score. It is a feature of modern parenting that we see it as part of the job to protect our children from the despair of loss. Cue the spate of participation trophies that go hand in hand today with team sports and other extracurricular activities. But nobody is getting a sticker for effort in Chutes and Ladders. Which makes it an important, if not unlikely, early vehicle for imparting the home truths our kids might not be exposed to elsewhere.

When my sons were very young, I used to stack the deck, I’ll admit it. I would strategically place the ice-cream-cone card in Candy Land so that they would be the first to cross into King Kandy’s coveted castle. Or I would slip a Sorry! card to the front of the pile so they could knock me off course, as I hovered on the brink of my “safety zone.” I did it because they were little and I wanted to gift them the thrill of winning. I did it so as to create an experience to which they would ask to come back. Sometimes I did it just to be done with the damn game.

Now that they are older, however, there is no pandering. They are too shrewd and too hung up on fairness between them to let it happen. And really they play with their peers more often than they play with me, where none of the participants tolerates that kind of “cheating.” For ten days this summer vacation my boys had a daily session of Monopoly with two other kids, our family friends. Four children, ages six to ten, sitting around a card table, making eye contact and negotiating who gets to be the top hat, who gets to be the banker and whether or not to put a $500 bill in the Free Parking spot. Then finishing the game, some hours later, with only one of them emerging victorious.

It could have been a scene from the 1980s, which warmed me to no end. I know there are new board games out there, ones that are specially designed for the modern generation. But I also know there is a particular loveliness, a welcomed continuity in watching my kids play the games I am so familiar with from my own childhood. And beating me at them to boot.

Raising Brits

Raising Brits


I was born a Southern belle, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and spent virtually the whole of my childhood a Yankee in Great Neck, New York. Today I live in Glasgow, Scotland of all places, an honorary Brit, and a large ocean away from where I once called home. I first moved to the UK for graduate school, because I was an anglophile. I loved the sarcasm, the scones, the double decker buses, the very idea of Britishness; I wanted to wrap myself in it, like a fine Burberry scarf, for as long as I possibly could. Though I clutched a one-way ticket in my hand as I boarded that Virgin Atlantic plane almost fifteen years ago, in my heart of hearts I didn’t know I would end up settling here. And I certainly wasn’t thinking about what it would be like to raise children in a country different from the one in which I was raised myself.

Now I think about it often. Many of my closest friends live in America and many of them have children. To what extent, I wonder, are our varying experiences of motherhood shaped by the fact that my kids say “biscuit” while theirs say “cookie”? These are the four ways in which it is most obvious to me that my children are growing up British:

They have accents

Accents are only accents if they sound different from the way you speak yourself. And let me tell you: my kids don’t sound a thing like me. It was strange in the beginning, very strange, especially with my first child. I did what the experts say and I talked to him, incessantly. Enunciating as I pointed out the “lorries” (trucks) in his first-word books, unleashing a steady stream of chatter as I changed his “nappy” (diaper) or pushed him in the “pram” (stroller). But when he started talking back, I didn’t hear in his sweet baby voice traces of my own dulcet Long Island tones. No, what I heard instead was the Queen.

My son, it turned out, spoke with a perfect English accent. “Do you want a bath, Oliver?” I would ask (where bath was pronounced with a short “a” as in “apple”). “Yes, Mummy, I’m ready for my baaahth,” he would reply (where bath was pronounced with a soft, yawning “a” as in “father”). His accent was clipped and slightly nasal and a good deal posher than his dad’s. Once he was at school, however, and peer pressure began to work its magic, he came to sound increasingly Scottish, as does my second son. My youngest children, who have revelled since birth in a nanny with a lilting brogue like Merida from Brave, sound as Scottish as Scottish can be. The wee lassie and laddie can even roll their “r”s.

They have other points of cultural reference

America has made a big impression on the popular culture here, no doubt about it, but Britishness itself is still as strong and distinct as a well-steeped cup of Earl Grey. The “telly,” the food, the sport. Where I was plonked down in front of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, my kids have been immersed from the time they were tiny in the wonders of the BBC, with its psychedelic In the Night Garden and its possibly more psychedelic Doctor Who. At the table, their palates have been molded by fish and chips and bangers and mash, by shepherd’s pie and sticky toffee pudding. It is rather amazing to me that, at eight and six years old, my sons have yet to experience the taste sensation of a Snow Cone or a Twinkie or Jell-O pudding for that matter.

And then there’s football. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which football (soccer) is the UK’s national pastime, the significance it holds both socially and culturally. The season runs from August to May, so for the majority of the year my boys are cheering their teams on, to the exclusion of all other sports. The newest Arsenal “kit” or Rangers “strip” (uniform) is the birthday present par excellence. Even the little ones are kicking a ball around as soon as their bandy toddler legs can sustain them upright. There are no basketball games for these kids, no baseball games or Little League. No peanuts and cracker jacks and root, root, root for the home team. If they were to play anything with a bat, it would be cricket, a game the rules of which I still don’t fully understand.

Their elementary school experience is different

It’s called primary school, first of all, not elementary school. And, in Scotland, “grades” are known as “years” and numbered like this: P1, P2, P3, etc. The children have uniforms, even at the public schools (which we call  “state” schools or “comprehensives”) so there is very little agonizing over what to wear. I used to be skeptical about school uniforms, the mundanity of them, the lack of individuality; as a mother, I couldn’t embrace them more. What are you wearing today, kid? The same grey slacks and polo shirt I wore yesterday! School feels quite contained here from the parent’s point of view. There is no cascade of events for which to take time off from work, no birthday cupcakes to bake, perfectly or imperfectly, and share with the whole class.

When my kids started to read, they called letters by their sounds (“mmm”) and not their names (“em”), a system the Brits refer to buoyantly as “Jolly Phonics.” When they learned to spell, I watched them insert “u” s into innocent words like “colour” and swap “s”s for “z”s in unsuspecting verbs like “realise.” And when they study history, the history of America, insofar as it will be touched upon at all, will be treated as a foreign subject. They won’t suffer through state capital tests, like I did, or recite the Gettysburg Address. Rather we will sit together at the kitchen table, constructing mnemonic devices by which to remember the names and order of the British monarchs.

Rain is a way of life for them

At our latitude it gets dark during the winter at about 4pm, the sun only having risen seven or eight hours earlier. Scotland doesn’t see much snow, the temperature rarely dips below freezing, but we make up for it with rain. “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.” It is a favorite ditty in the nursery schools: if there is one thing you can count on in this country it is that the rain will always come again. As a parent, you find ways to cope. You buy heavy waterproof jackets for the cold months and lighter waterproof jackets for the handful of other months. Hoods are a necessity, because you can’t push a pram and balance an umbrella at the same time. And even if you could, the wind, your endlessly whistling companion, would blow it inside out like a buttercup.

You take the babies out for walks, even when it’s wet, the pram sheathed in plastic. You learn to read the sky, its nuances of grey, and to predict when the first drops will give way to mist and when to downpour. You shuttle the toddlers weekly to indoor playgrounds or “soft plays,” of which necessity has made you spoiled for choice. The chronically puddled ground means wellie boots are a year-round staple of the wardrobe. And when the long winter ends and whatever approximation of spring or summer takes its place, your children treat the sun, which has the audacity to herald morning before 5am, as the villain of the piece. “It’s too bright, Mum, it’s too hot.” For of course nobody here has air conditioning.

Who Knew Having Young Children Would Hurt So Much?

Who Knew Having Young Children Would Hurt So Much?

elbow sketch w grayDear children with your sharp elbows and poor depth perception,

I’ll forgive you birth, because that was supposed to hurt. “A necessary evil,” I think they call it. I’ll even forgive you your freakishly large heads, disproportionate as they were to my slender, girl-like hips. I never expected a baby the size of, well, a baby (with a head the size of, well, a cantaloupe) to emerge from one of the orifices of my body and leave it unscathed. But those were the war wounds I was prepared for, at least in theory: the contractions that sent me into a fit of curses through the epidural; the stitches and swelling and stinging in what used to be a happy place; the three-inch incision across my abdomen, still numb to the touch.

No, what truly took me by surprise was all the pain that came next.

Like the time I first put you to my breast. I looked into your wide, grey eyes and smiled serenely as I shoved your face into my inflated balloon of a boob. And then almost shrieked out loud as you clamped on with gusto. Ah the beauty of Mother Nature! I couldn’t feed you in those early weeks without curling my toes and digging them, fiercely, into the fibers of the carpet, so as to concentrate on anything other than the throbbing, sandpaper-against-silk sensation emanating from my red-raw nipples. Before you, would I ever have guessed that the words “blood” and “nipple” could sit together in the same sentence, without a hint of irony or metaphor?

Breastfeeding was when the shoulder and neck pain started. The hunching, the 45 minutes cramped in an awkward position, because I’d rather endure the discomfort than run the risk of breaking a decent latch. All the while that pesky hormone, “Relaxin” (I mean: who’s relaxin’ here?), is coursing through my veins, the one that makes a lactating woman’s joints loosen up and essentially turns her body into a ticking time bomb of injury. Injury sustained from, oh I don’t know, carrying the weight of a sack of potatoes around for 14 hours a day. I won’t name names here, but I’m talking about you, baby number two, who spent at least three months of your life taking “naps” whilst strapped to my chest in a contraption that made me feel like a kangaroo, except without the benefit of such an ergonomic design.

And then you got bigger and heavier and there was the lifting, all the lifting. Into the crib, out of the crib. Into the high chair, out of the high chair. Into the car seat, out of the car seat, which requires that lethal twist of the spine at the end. My lower back has never been the same. (Shout out here to my twins, because doing everything twice took an extra special toll on my lumbar region). I would try to bend my knees for support, the way the massage therapist coached me, but how exactly do you bend at the knee as you yank from his playpen a prostrate, spaghetti-limbed toddler the heft of a small elephant? Oh I longed for the day when I wouldn’t have to lift you so much and then it came and I offered a silent prayer to the attachment parenting gods.

Happy times, you could climb into your own car seat now! But you could also climb all over me. I became, at once, a human jungle gym. Little elbows dug themselves expertly into my boobs, an ideal spot, apparently, from which to gain enough leverage to smack your forehead against mine. Fat feet planted themselves on my lap, bouncing up and down, up and down, and, whoops, that’s my pubic bone you just landed on with your heel. No, no, my shins are not for tightrope walking. How, oh how, was it always that the sharpest, boniest bits of your body would magically find the most vulnerable bits of mine?

As you got older, the games became more sophisticated. “Let’s play hairdresser,” you squealed, raking sticky fingers through my hair and pulling it out at the root along the way. “Let’s play doctor now,” you cried, as you thrust the thermometer into my ear and it occurred to me that maybe I would actually end up in the Emergency Room after all. “Let’s look at a book,” you suggested and I exhaled a sigh of relief. But how quickly I learned the cardinal rule of parenting young children: never let your guard down. For in your hands, even reading could become a contact sport. Like that time you caught me in the corner of the eye with Goodnight Moon. The “Goodnight mush” page still has a smear of my blood on it.

Over time, darling children, I’ve come to see that your affection for me knows no bounds. And I mean that quite literally. Sometimes your eager kisses are accompanied by teeth. Sometimes your sweet caresses leave scratch marks down the side of my face. And sometimes your hugs, your wonderfully enthusiastic hugs, Knock. Me. Over. The old clichés are true. Love is an assault on the senses, they say. Love hurts, they say. You know what I say? Some people’s love hurts more than others.

(Gentle) hugs and kisses,



Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Good Twin/Bad Twin

Good Twin/Bad Twin

GoodTwinBadTwinGood twin/bad twin. It’s just the dichotomy we’re meant to avoid, all the books say so. One child who puts her coat on and goes to bed when she’s supposed to, and wears a halo for it. The other with a forked tail between his legs, because he doesn’t do either of those things without a drop-down fight. Praise the positive behavior, discipline the negative, it sounds simple enough. But what happens when the breakdown of behavior between twins, between any siblings really, is continually reinforcing an angel/devil dynamic? Do you let things slide for the “bad” kid so as to not make him feel oppressed or less loved? Do you hold back compliments from the “good” kid for the very same reason?

I know, I know, let’s not call them “good” and “bad.” Before I became a mother, I frowned upon the linear use of those words. Surely, I thought, parents could do better than bandying about such morally generic expressions to describe their offspring. We’re talking about children, after all, not cantaloupes. Never label the kid, only label the specific behavior, that’s the golden rule, right? Oh how the mighty fall. If I had a dollar for every “Such a good girl!” or “What a good boy!” that escapes my lips, well, I’d have many more dollars than I do now. For bad behavior, I concede, I change the word. I’ll ask my three year olds to stop being “difficult,” I’ll scold them for being “naughty.” Once upon a time, “naughty” sounded so prissy to me, so British. And now, here I am, a schoolmarm in the making.

The reason I embrace this language, I’ve come to see, is because toddlers don’t get nuance. They get “good.” “Good” is clear, “good” is desirable, “good” is a blanket term for sitting down at the table the first time you’re asked, for spontaneously saying please, for eating your food, you know, with a utensil. They get “naughty” too. “Naughty” is “No!”, “naughty” is not what Mommy wants, “naughty” is pouring your milk into your spaghetti and using the mixture as a medium for wall art.

All toddlers are crazy, but each is crazy in his or her own special way (to paraphrase Tolstoy). Watching twins navigate the terrible, trying, testing—whatever T word you care to ascribe to that period of time between 23 months and four years old (if you are lucky), when life feel likes one giant game of tug-of-war—has underscored this for me in an unprecedented way. And some kinds of crazy, truth be told, are easier to deal with than others. Which takes us back to the good/bad dichotomy.

My daughter is dramatic and obsessive and a little aloof, but she is conciliatory by nature. She thrives on order. She follows instructions and accepts convention. She recognizes the link between cause and effect, the fact that certain behavior will ineluctably land you in your room and that it is therefore best not to engage in said behavior. My son, on the other hand, is funny and outgoing. But he marches to the beat of his own drummer. He balks at routine. When all three of my other children are dressed and buckled into the car, there he stands, framed by the doorway, naked as the day he was born. No matter how many times he has been punished for it, he will still throw the remnants of his snack bag across the living room, like confetti at a wedding, just to see the pieces fly.

You might have had a toddler like my daughter. You might have had a toddler like my son. But have you had them at the exact same time?

Siblings are fixated on what they perceive the other one is getting or what they perceive they themselves are missing out on. This is true in general, but it is particularly so, agonizingly so, for twins. If singletons are born with an ultra-sensitive fairness barometer built into their psyches, activated the minute their parents give birth to another child, twins are born with it already dialed to HIGH. Praise one, you’ll get a pleading “But what about me, Mommy?” Speak sternly to the other, you’ll get a “But I’m great at waiting my turn, Mommy!” Fairness is important. Equality is impossible. As confused as these two properties can get in the realm of parenting, they are not the same thing.

I make every attempt to treat my twins fairly, but I don’t treat them equally, if they are not behaving equally well. It might seem obvious in theory, but it’s damn hard work in practice. It means you don’t get dessert if you don’t finish your dinner, despite the fact that your sister is slurping ice cream right next to you. I have no solution to the good twin/bad twin dynamic currently playing out in my house, only the observation that childhood is a series of unequal phases, for the parents as much as the children. Different ages suit different children and different children suit their parents’ personalities at different ages. The hope is that the phases pan out in a roughly equal way over the duration.

My older children have taken it in turns, so far. My “angry” baby transformed into a toddler who was surrounded by an aura of sunshine. My dream baby, the one who was so placid there were moments I would wonder if anybody was even in there, is now filled full of tween sass, calling his brother a dickhead every chance he gets. My twins? They too are bound to flip flop. I see in my daughter’s histrionics, which are containable at three, flashes of the diva she will most likely be at thirteen. I see in my son, once he is old enough to set the pace of his own life, the potential for a boy whose obsession with the mechanics of the world will be a credit to him and not a thorn in my side. I suspect it won’t be long before I’ll be writing another post in which their roles are reversed: good twin/bad twin part two (or three or four). Stay tuned.

This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood.

Writing Memories

Writing Memories

Lauren:Writing MemoriesFor years, I have kept a notebook by the side of my bed, the pages filled with my children’s milestones. With teeth cut, with words uttered, with laces tied, with pedals pushed. When my first son was born, I wanted to catch every last detail, to snare them all, like the slippery fish they are, in the net of permanence language casts so well. I wanted future access to the moments I knew would slip, inevitably at some point, through the cracks of my mind. What I wanted, I see now, was nothing less than to be able to hold his childhood in my hands, once it was gone, and to say, yes, I remember it, I remember it intimately, each fleeting drop.

The notebook was an insurance policy that I would remember who my son was at 16 months old and then again at 36 months old, that I would remember the difference between those incarnations of him and how he got from one to the other. From the toddler who would sleep 15 hours a day to the boy who is still thumping around in his bed gone 10 pm. From the three- year-old with the clipped English accent, performing brain surgery on me with a stethoscope, to the eight-year-old bearer of broad Glaswegian vowels, between whose feet everything becomes a football.

When my second child was born, I bought another notebook. And when the twins came along, I bought yet another two. There were lapses in the entries, of course there were lapses. In between the task of chronicling life is the business of living it. But no major milestone went unrecorded. The when and the how were just as telling to me as the what. Taken together, I felt, these details were evidence somehow of the most important evolutions I would ever witness. I can’t put my finger on why exactly I needed to pin down my children’s development in this way, to preserve these moments like so many butterflies on a collection board, except to say that I sensed, from the beginning, a responsibility.

Before I had children, I was a classicist. An education spent tracing the lines of historical inheritance had shown me that the events of the past only reside with us in the present through the careful transmission of words, because somebody had the foresight to realize this, this is significant, this is worth putting on paper. If I wasn’t that person for my children, who would be? If I didn’t keep custody of the facts of their early existence, there was a good chance those footprints would fade away altogether.

Oblivion was a risk I was not willing to take. And I deemed memory too wily a creature to trust on her own, not with an enemy so powerful as the passage of time. The ancient Greek word for oblivion is lethe, which means “forgetfulness.” The word for “truth” is aletheia, which means, literally, an un-forgetting, because forgetting, the Greeks believed, is the way you lose your grip on the truth. From the night I became a mother and began charting feed times by moonlight, it was clear that, in the battle against oblivion, writing would be my weapon of choice. It was words, I was convinced, that would allow me to hold tightest to the “truth” of this almost indescribable thing that was happening to me.

My pen has not failed me. The written documentation I have compiled over the past eight years has helped me to remember my children as babies, to remember them as toddlers, to remember them in a way that photographs alone, for example, have not. There are reams and reams of pictures saved on my computer, but an image of my daughter at two and a half cannot tell me that that was the age she asked her first “why” question. Nor can it tell me what it was that she asked.

Recently, however, I have noticed a change. While the notebook still sits by the side of my bed, the pages are emptier than they used to be. One of my kids will say something or do something and I will think, aha, a breakthrough in logic! A new feat of independence! But time will pass and I won’t have written it down. My twins, my last children, have just celebrated their third birthday and this can’t be a coincidence. At three, they have pushed through the door which marks the end of the truly formative period, into a room where development is not so fast and furious, where age is no longer measured in days or weeks or months.

Quite suddenly, it seems, we have begun the long march of years. As our family life becomes more about the broad strokes and less about the fine points, so does the way I find myself accounting for it. The details and dates I once obsessed over have given way to bigger-picture essays, essays like this one, that attempt to pin down a different kind of truth. A truth that will, in turn, leave me with a different kind of memory. In Greek mythology, the goddess Memory, Mnemosyne, is the antidote to oblivion. She is also the mother of the muses. Whatever I remember about them in the future, however I write about them from hereon in, the one thing I know for certain is that my children will always be my muses.

“Most sweet, vigilant, she reminds us of all the thoughts that each one of us is for ever storing in our hearts, overlooking nothing, rousing everyone to consciousness.” 

-Orphic Hymn to Memory

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

Why We Shouldn’t Dress Twins the Same

Why We Shouldn’t Dress Twins the Same

Apfel_BMThe two little girls go to the same playgroup we do. Matching blue eyes, matching tufts of blonde hair, and also, every week, matching clothes. Down to the socks. I wish I could say they were idiosyncratic, that this was the only pair I knew with constantly coordinated frocks. But twins with identical wardrobes is a common sight, indeed. As a mother of twins myself, I have an eye for picking same-aged siblings out of a crowd. And when they are dressed alike, as they often are, I’ll admit it is cute. For the parents, perhaps, for the onlookers. What message, however, is it sending the children themselves?

Twins are a source of endless fascination, and there are more of them now than ever before. As a culture, we foist a magical quality onto their existence, which can have little bearing on the hard facts of raising them. We expect their early relationship to be defined by a soothing symbiosis, their later relationship to be tantamount to soul mates. Likewise, the imagery of twinhood is about a fused, harmonious identity: peas in a pod, mirror images, Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The reality, though, is something else. The reality is that twins are two individual people, who through luck or artificial means happened to be born at the same time.

A failure to recognize this is a potential danger to the emotional health of the twins themselves. So says expert Joan A. Friedman, experientially enchanted in this arena as both a mother of twins and a twin herself. By getting wrapped up in the feel-good reverie of the “twin mystique,” as she describes it in her book Emotionally Healthy Twins, we are doing our same-aged children a disservice. “When the longing to see twins in a romanticized way prevents parents and others from seeing them as individuals, twins feel as if they are merely playing a role in someone else’s fantasy.”

The “twin mystique” manifests itself in many ways. Some of it is real, the stuff of viral video sensation: two neonates “hugging” in their postpartum bath, a throwback to the months spent enmeshed in the womb; two toddlers gibbering to each other in the secret language twins are famed for, incomprehensible even to their parents. But much of the “twin mystique” is synthetic, imposed on them by caregivers for aesthetic reasons or from a belief that twins should be linked outwardly in the eyes of society. In this respect, it is not surprising that twins are given similar sounding names, often with the same first letter. Pairs like “Isaac and Isaiah” and “Madison and Mason” are repeatedly among the most popular names chosen for multiples.

Clothes, like names, matter because they are an overt and symbolic representation of identity. When they are matchy-matchy, the message is not one of individuality. A sense of self is important to nurture in every child. And yet, many parents who wouldn’t dress consecutively-spaced siblings in coordinated outfits feel a compulsion to do so for their twins and on a regular basis to boot. Once in a while, it is adorable, to be sure: for a special occasion or a photography session. Done routinely, it becomes parental reinforcement of the idea that two people, with separate personalities and separate core beings, should be seen as painted with the same brush. The wardrobe, Friedman explains, is part of the “identity-building process.”

Twins are already forced to share so much that is out of their control. From a practical point of view, they are bound to occupy a common ground for years—literally and metaphorically—especially before the opportunity arises to separate them in a school environment. They move through the phases of childhood with a friend, a witness, a foil continually by their side. This is a profound partnership, where identity issues are real and problematic. Dressing twins as one of a set during such an impressionable time in their lives, as darling as it might look, only serves to blur the line between them. There is a sad irony in the fact that, as caregivers, we are most likely to conflate the siblings who are in most need of clear boundaries.

Don’t get me wrong: the bond between twins is a powerful, wonderful thing that shouldn’t be denied or downplayed. But it is also a delicate thing, which, from the very beginning, involves two distinct entities trying to figure out, like the rest of us, who they are uniquely. Dressing twins differently in the early years is a parent’s decision. It is a simple, yet far-reaching, way to communicate that however much life may throw them together, twins will always be valued, first and foremost, as individuals.

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



Apfel2I didn’t see the blood, not at first. I saw the small silver bowl, wheeling through the air, a trajectory it shouldn’t have been taking. I heard the thwack as it hit my two year old’s head, followed by a piercing cry. She was on my lap already, facing away, our posture didn’t have to change for me to start the act of comforting her. It was twenty seconds, thirty seconds before I felt the stickiness between my fingers, before I finally turned her round. And then I saw red. I saw it everywhere.

Next we are waiting. For at least an hour, so says the electronic board on the far wall of the Emergency Room. She is calm now, she is fine. But my heart is still clattering around my ribcage like a salsa dancer. How many months will I age in this waiting room, with my anxiety for company and the stale stench of illness? The cut, just below her hairline, is not long. I can see that now I’ve peeled away the paper towels. Now that I am not panicking anymore and I can tell which blood is old and which is new. The cut is not long, but it is deep. I rest my chin on the top of her head, where the hair is matted and smells like metal.

I’ve been here before. In the Emergency Room with blood on my hands, but also in this place of mind, looking at one of my children’s faces and realizing it will be marked for life. Not terribly, oh I know we have been lucky so far, but permanently just the same. It is the permanence that gets me. There is something perverse about young skin being severed. The buttery softness we marvelled over when they were babies, the supple perfection of it, as we rubbed it against our cheeks. It was pristine and now it is broken. And the worst part is that it will never go back to the way it was.

I have two scars between my eyebrows, a crescent and a full moon sitting together in a lover’s embrace. One is a souvenir from the chicken pox and the other is the remnant of an accident involving my sister and a brass barrier and sixteen stitches. They came years apart, these blemishes, it’s funny how they found the same home on my face. For me, they are but another contour of the mirror’s familiar landscape. For my mother, however, they are something else. I still catch her looking, shaking her head, suggesting I get them “fixed.” The small injuries of childhood might belong to the children, but they are the parents’ crosses to bear.

I understand that now. I feel the same way my mother does, whenever I let my eyes linger too long on my son’s forehead, the scar there gleaming white and wider than it should be. He is oblivious to it, but I can chart the coordinates perfectly: not quite central, not quite straight. Friends assure me they hardly notice it, they probably don’t. Only parents, it seems, know their children’s faces so intimately. Which is why we are the ones dabbing vitamin E oil on them as they sleep, trying to remove, in vain, the evidence that they are capable of being damaged in the first place.

Facial scars are particularly hard in this respect. They are visible to us, always, a constant reminder of the fragility of these creatures we love more than life itself. A constant reminder of how we will not be able to protect them in every instance, how they can get hurt, badly, even when we are standing right next to them. Even when they are sitting, curled in our laps.

My daughter lay still as a breezeless day while the doctor, who looked little more than a child herself, glued the wound closed. A lot of capillaries in the head, she said, that’s why it bled so much. It wasn’t too bad this time, which makes me wonder, which makes me worry, what happens when it’s worse. I keep my cool in many parenting situations, bodily harm is not among them. If these minor injuries are a test of my mettle, of my ability to rise to the challenge of the darker moments of motherhood, I have not passed with flying colors. If scars tell stories, they are not the ones about my children I want to hear.

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

What I Learned Between My First and Last Children

What I Learned Between My First and Last Children

ApfelOften the lessons of parenting young children come too late. You do the best you can with the first kid, ushering him through the early stages of childhood, by instinct and expert advice, with varying degrees of success. It is a thrilling time, but it is also an exhausting one, when perspective is elusive. And then, somewhere in the middle of it, you have another baby. You can’t quite apply to the new child, though, what you’ve learned from raising the older one, mainly because you aren’t sure at that point what it is you’ve learned or whether you’ve learned anything at all.

That’s my story, at least. I made mistakes with my first son that I didn’t really correct with my second. With 26 months between them, I hadn’t yet emerged far enough from the morass of “small children” to see the wreckage clearly. By “mistakes” I don’t mean that I parented them “wrongly” in any objective sense. I am measuring myself only by the practical standard of the kind of children I was intending to raise: children who are confident, respectful, polite, well-adjusted and independent.

These are the five things I learned to this end by the time my second set of kids, a pair of twins, came along five and a half years later.

1. Caution breeds caution.

My first child was a timid creature. Slow to walk, slow to climb, for years he wasn’t sure of his body or what it could do. I used to follow him around the playground, arms outstretched, as he tottered from one rung of the ladder to the next. If I could be his human safety net, I thought, he would blossom into a trapeze artist. Except he never wanted to take the leap, literally or metaphorically. His nervousness made me nervous and we spun, together, in a vicious circle: I stopped encouraging him to push past the boundary of his comfort zone, because his discomfort made me uncomfortable. He was then loathe to try something new as a result.

I don’t force my younger kids to scale heights they are scared of or walk headlong into situations that threaten them, but I don’t acquiesce to their tendency to avoid them, either. This means peeling pudgy hands from the top of the slide, despite the protests, and giving that small—but necessary—push. And then seeing their faces alight with glee and pride at the bottom, as they race back up to do it again.

2. A sense of entitlement starts earlier than you think.

When it comes to toddlerhood, there are battles and there is the war, but the two are not as clearly defined as we might like. Often we pick our battles, only to realize later on that we aren’t even sure what it is we were “fighting” for in the first place. For me, now, the war of the toddler years is about establishing patterns of respectful behavior. It is true that toddlers are irrational and erratic and as bossy as can be and these characteristics are, in some sense, “just a phase.” But this is not to say that we should weather the storm of the terrible twos and threes with a pint-sized captain at the helm.

Patience and goodwill are one thing, submission is quite another. From the time he could utter a word (“more!”), my firstborn was making demands. I catered to his whims, because it was easier but also because I thought I was supporting him in the quest to find his voice. What this ended up teaching him, however, is that his voice is more important than everybody else’s. Whether a child has a sense of entitlement or not can reduce to the simple distinction between a question and a declaration. I am helping my twins learn, at the impressionable age of two, that most of the things they “want” are not theirs by right. They are, instead, things that need to be asked for. And the answer will not always be “yes.”

3. Manners don’t teach themselves.

I didn’t push manners on my first two children. I had a view that gratitude and appreciation should stem from some well of personal epiphany and that to use words like “please” and “thank you” by rote, before they acquired true meaning, would only make them empty. We live in Britain, the land of niceties, and I figured the way around the over-formality here was to let the child see for himself when such expressions were appropriate. To wait until he genuinely felt the feelings behind them.

Not only didn’t my kids pick up manners in a time scale I was comfortable with, but they sounded incredibly rude in the process. So from the moment my twins were old enough to talk, it was “juice please” or “no more, thank you” or “sorry I spilled” even though it was an accident. In the beginning, the words are prompted. But over time they build bridges to the emotions and act as a continual reminder that kindness and reciprocity are the cornerstones of human interaction. And let’s be honest: kids ask so much of us, and they make so many mistakes, that doesn’t it feel exponentially better to meet those requests and misjudgments when they come with a “please” or “sorry” attached?

4. Mom is not the be all and end all. 

This is obvious if you work outside the home or have commitments that take you away from your young children. It is far less obvious if you are the one nuzzling up to them for every feed and whispering every soft lullaby before they close their eyes for the night. My first two babies were dependent on me for the vast majority of their basic needs—even Dad played a very second fiddle. This was partly because they were breastfed, but it was partly because I construed motherhood as a zero-sum endeavor. Being a stay-at-home mom made me feel like I was in for a penny, in for a pound. That I was somehow morally bound to be the primary caregiver in a way that pushed everybody else to the edges.

I’ll admit it felt good to be needed completely. But being needed in that way leaves little space for the person so needed. When the twins arrived, letting go of the reins was inevitable. We were lucky to have hired help from early on and they were able to bond meaningfully with people other than their mother in a way my older sons never were. What I didn’t count on was how blissful it is to have another human being that can put the baby to bed or give the toddler the consoling cuddle. What I didn’t realize was how healthy it feels to be able to walk out the door by myself, with nobody in tears.

5. Being a parent doesn’t mean being a constant audience.

“Watch me, Mom!” A constant refrain out of the mouth of son number one, who at eight is still reluctant to play by himself. I can’t blame him: I spent the first years of his life watching him. Watching him, entertaining him, cheering him on and then watching him some more. I was fascinated by his development, every milestone he hit was like a display of fireworks, impossible to peel my eyes from. I didn’t carve out enough time for him do things on his own or to do nothing at all. I propped him up with toys and gadgets and mother-led activities, as if boredom or loneliness would work some irreparable damage. He wanted me there, that was my rationale, of course he did. If I wasn’t a witness to his feats, it was like they hadn’t happened.

Alas, life is not a stream of continuous validation and being comfortable in your own company is a gift. My younger children are left to their own devices a lot more, when I am “busy” or otherwise engaged, sometimes simply when I think it is good for them. Their presence in the world has shown me the magic of what happens when their older brothers are left to their own devices too, both of whom taught themselves how to ride a bicycle without so much as a wink from me. Having four kids means you can’t be an intensive audience to each of their lives. But it also means they have each other to do some of the watching for you.

Are You Maxed Out?

Are You Maxed Out?

MaxedOut_cover-e1365631643648I’m not maxed out. There I said it. I have days, we all have days, where there aren’t enough hours and my nerves are frayed and balls drop left, right and center. But these are just days, they aren’t my life. Eight years ago I chose to “stay home” with my kids, not because I think women should do this as a rule. I chose to stay home because I knew myself. I knew that I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be and hold down a steady job at the same time. Call me unambitious, I never expected to “have it all.”

Katrina Alcorn took a different path from me, one she unfolds with grace in her compelling book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink. If I chose to stay home from a platform of financial privilege (which was, in part, possible because of where we chose to live), Alcorn “chose” to take a full-time job out of financial necessity. “There was no way around it,” she says in chapter two, “we had to make more money.” In this way, hers was not, strictly speaking, a choice—at least not in the first instance. The Mommy Wars do not always hinge on the luxury of decision. More often than not, they are fought on the battlefield of necessity.

Alcorn’s book is an attempt to shine a light on just this reality: to expose deep-seated problems in American culture that curtail a mother’s options, systemic difficulties such as inadequate maternity leave and skyrocketing childcare costs that make the work/life balance a genuine struggle for a good part of the population. But she does this through the lens of a memoir. Unlike Judith Warner, who tackled some of the same themes in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Alcorn’s is not a work of sociology (though there are academic-styled interludes at the end of each chapter). It is a deeply personal account of one woman’s journey to the edge and back. This makes it, at once, both more and less effective in accomplishing its goal.

It is more effective because it is human nature to generalize from the particular. Alcorn holds herself out as an example, one voice speaking for the many. An advantaged voice, true enough, but her point is that if she couldn’t cope with the strain of being a working parent what hope is there for the less fortunate. The logic flows this way: if a lot of women are unable to balance successfully the twin engines of motherhood and career, therefore it is the system that is broken.

The book is less effective as a memoir, however, because when we can’t relate to someone’s particulars, we are unable to generalize from them and we are more likely, as a result, to attribute the glitches they experience to the idiosyncratic brew of their own decisions. This is also human nature. The logic goes like this: sure, there are cracks in the system, but I live in the same system as you and I’ve chosen differently from you and I didn’t have a breakdown. This is exactly what happened when Alcorn’s book was showcased on the New York Times‘ Motherlode blog, where she was judged, to her surprise, for her personal choices and not her political ideas.

I am not trying to defend the Motherlode commentariat—that would require its own kind of madness—but I understand where the criticism was coming from: I’ll admit it, the margins of my copy of Maxed Out are filled with little notes of query about continuing to feed the older baby at 2 am; about taking on a book contract, in addition to a full-time job, while seven months pregnant with your second kid; about travelling to a conference with a three month old; about dismissing the notion of a mother’s helper when you are barely keeping it together with “prayers and duct tape.” The question writ large I kept asking myself, though, is what, that was out of her control, would have prevented Alcorn from reaching the point of emotional collapse?

In the UK, where I live, there is generous paid maternity leave. We have part-time free pre-school from three years old. We have flextime opportunities and, on the whole, a less intense culture of expectation in the workplace. And yet, none of these practices means that women’s lives here are without the psychologically generated conflict that is a natural consequence of having small children and a career simultaneously. Some of my working mom friends would describe themselves as pushed to capacity. Some of them wouldn’t. The devil of why, for each, is in the details—of their personality, of their line of employment, of their family arrangement—even though they all live in the same relatively progressive country. A country that has, already in place, most of the policies Alcorn argues for.

“At every turn of the narrative,” Alcorn writes in the New York Times, “I use my personal choices to show that often there aren’t any good options to choose from.” This is the raison d’être of the book, but, the more pages I turned, the less true it rang for me. Alcorn’s options weren’t bad. She had a great job that she loved, two healthy children that were in quality daycare/school and a supportive partner. The problem was philosophical. The problem was how the options looked in conjunction with one another. The options weren’t good because she wanted to do it all at the same time and to do it to her admittedly high standards (“I couldn’t bear the thought of becoming mediocre”). This is what it always boils down to. Can we fix the workplace so that women are somehow immune to the toll that trying to do two all-encompassing things at once usually takes on us (and motherhood, I would argue, is of a different quality from fatherhood in this regard)?

There is no question that America is a flawed, patriarchal and individualist society and that we should, indeed, advocate for the changes Alcorn outlines in Maxed Out. This is not, however, the only take home message of the book. Better working conditions for mothers of young children will make it easier, but they will not make it easy. Having your heart and mind pulled in competing directions is never easy. What Alcorn’s story highlights in this respect is the importance of acknowledging limitations, the structural ones that might change, just as much as the biological and emotional ones that won’t. “I didn’t know I had limits,” Alcorn says of the reason she fell off the cliff. The sooner mothers learn the potential danger in such a disavowal, the better.

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Book Review: Playing to Win

Book Review: Playing to Win

playing to winEnjoy Brain, Mother’s monthly book review. Comment and/or sign up for our weekly blog update and you could win a free copy of Playing To Win:

If you are interested in after-school activities and the future prospects of the children who participate in them, Playing to Win by Hilary Levey Friedman is a must-read. An astute, well-researched and clearly written account, the book examines the ins and outs of today’s competitive youth culture across three different arenas: chess, soccer and dance. It is not, however, a documentation of the lives of rising Grand Masters and Broadway stars in the making. It is a tour of the psychological landscape of middle-class American parenting, as it relates to the ever-present push to create the most “successful” kid possible.

The premise of the book is that parents believe children need something Levey Friedman describes as “Competitive Kid Capital” in order to achieve the “good life.” And that extracurricular activities are the way, par excellence, to accrue it. The process of acquiring Competitive Kid Capital, which includes qualities such as internalizing the value of winning and learning how to perform in stressful situations, starts young: we are talking about elementary-school-aged children. It is also directly linked to competitive (as opposed to recreational) ventures, where scores are kept, rankings are obsessed over and trophies are doled out one after the next.

Playing to Win is, at heart, a sociological study. It is a laying bare of a cultural phenomenon—its history and its infrastructure—not a judgment on that phenomenon. “Are these parents crazy?” Levey Friedman asks. “Have they lost their grip?” Her definitive answer to these questions is “no” and she walks the line between showing us why and telling us why with admirable grace. On the one hand, she lets the data and the people involved speak for themselves: interviews with both parents and children are a hallmark of the book. On the other hand, she is a careful, explicit and non-biased interpreter of her fieldwork.

The chapter on gender, one of the strongest, provides a good example of this balanced presentation. Here Levey Friedman tackles the influence of sex, and also of class, on a parent’s decision to enroll a child in a particular activity. Upper-middle-class parents, she notices, are more likely to promote an “assertive type of femininity” and so choose soccer for their daughters, whereas lower-middle-class parents are likely to favor a “more traditional type” of femininity and choose dance. So too girls are far more likely than boys to take dance classes at all. These trends are outlined with no aspersions cast and with ample opportunity to hear the parents’ own voices.

One of the major themes weaving through Playing to Win is the perceived relationship between competitive after-school activities and college admissions. The US is unique in nurturing such a connection, as it is one of the only countries to “consider admissions categories other than academic merit.” For American parents, therefore, the drive for their children to participate increasingly in these ventures (“to beef up their resumes,” as the dean of admissions at Harvard has put it) is an extension of the desire to get them into the best college possible, which is often narrowly construed as the elite universities of the Ivy League. And yet, in the end, Levey Friedman acknowledges that “we don’t know conclusively that the activities that fill the leisure time of affluent American children are central to maintaining an advantage for these kids into adulthood.”

Playing to Win will leave you ambivalent, just like the parents it chronicles, who seesaw between “the ‘need’ to keep up and their exhaustion from trying to keep up.” It will make you question where you fall on the spectrum of competitiveness for your children, both in terms of the activities they take part in and the process of getting them into college. You will recognize the potential benefits these activities bestow, the confidence, the resilience, the self-regulation. But you will also probably lament the fact that America has gotten to a point where eight year olds are spending hour upon hour of their “free” time honing skills so they can win at sports we used to play for fun. And when you close the book, you will either immediately sign your kid up for chess lessons. Or make plans to flee the country.

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My Daughter Doesn’t Look Like Me

My Daughter Doesn’t Look Like Me

0-18I play a game with myself sometimes. I pretend I am in a room of children and I don’t know which ones are mine. I scan faces, I consider jawlines. I rub strands of hair between my fingertips like worry stones. Given the chance, I wonder, would I be able to pick my own flesh and blood out from a crowd?

There is my first son, I can tell by the eyes. They are wide-set like mine. He is fairer than I am, but we share a sharpness about the chin and the cheekbones. My second son’s eyes give him away too, the color of espresso like my mother’s, the shape of down-turned almonds like my father’s. He is the darkest of my children, his hair could weave seamlessly into my own. My third son takes longer to find. He is the aesthetic link between the older two. I’ve spotted him now by the nose. I recognize it from pictures of myself at the same age, smallish and slightly blunt. The unruly turns of his hair remind me of my brother’s, save for the tinge of copper.

Three boys accounted for, but where is my daughter? Search as I may, I don’t see her here. My only daughter. Isn’t she supposed to look just like me? Then I notice a little girl sitting in the corner. She has blonde hair, which she lets run through fingers that are long like a piano player’s. I stare down at my own childishly small hands. She watches me do this with cornflower eyes, and despite a familiarity with the laws of genetics, I am even more uncertain now that we are related. She is smiling, though. She knows she is mine before I do. The game is over.

The joke about Phoebe is that there was some kind of mix up at the hospital (she doesn’t look like her father, either). Or really there was only ever a single baby. Phoebe is a twin, but maybe, just maybe, the stork slipped this rosy creature into the bassinet next to her olive-skinned brother and that is how we, a family I sensed was destined for sons alone, came to have our daughter. We brought home one baby that was a match to the others and one that, well, wasn’t. It was fitting, I thought, that she should be the different one. As the lone girl, she would be different anyway. It was fitting, but it made her more of a stranger to me.

That first moment we lock eyes with a new baby, we think one of two things. We think: yes, of course, it is you. We’ve met before, in some past life or in my dreams, you are the tiny person I knew you would be. Or else we think: it’s nice to meet you finally, but where, oh where, did you come from? Whether that baby feels instantly, inexplicably our own often depends on what she looks like. In the beginning, the surface view is all we have. So we obsess over her face like nothing we’ve obsessed over before. This doesn’t make us vain. It only makes us human.

There is something life-affirming about finding your own face in the contours of somebody else’s. The drive to have biological offspring stems from many places, some of which are light and some of which are darker, but there is usually, at the heart of it, a desire to pass on genes. Part of that desire is shamelessly superficial. It is about wanting to look at someone you have made and see pieces of yourself. But part of it is about the grander sweep of history and legacy and immortality.

Because faces connect people through time. I used to judge them quickly, recklessly, is she pretty, is he handsome? Since becoming a mother, however, and a devoted student of my children’s features, I look more deeply now. I look for origins. I look for stories. A dimple that belongs to a great aunt, who was also a twin; an arched eyebrow that wends its way from grandfather to father to grandson; a slope of the chin that goes back further still. The little details that string the generations together are where the beauty lies, even the ones that aren’t conventionally attractive.

My mother has strong opinions about aesthetics, most of which align neatly with convention and most of which I internalized as a girl. Blue eyes are gold dust to her. When she found my father, a Jewish man with eyes that spoke of the sea, she couldn’t believe her luck. She married him and it was that “luck” that allowed my brown-eyed husband and me to produce a blue-eyed daughter ourselves. Phoebe gets attention for her eyes and I admit a small pride in this, fluke of nature though it is. But there is also a small sadness, which I wouldn’t have predicted. I must identify with my semitic coloring more than I realized, coloring that is the same as my mother’s and her mother’s before her.

Every day Phoebe grows to look more like herself, and less like me, and every day we grow closer anyhow. Of course we do. A parent’s love doesn’t hinge on shared phenotypes. And yet, I continue to be struck by our physical differences. At two and a half, she notices them too. “My eyes are blue, Mommy, and yours are brown!” “Our hair is different, Mommy, that’s funny!” She says these things and I picture my mother, who is almost seventy years old and whose face is still the touchstone of beauty for me. I used to think this was because I can trace back to it what I like best about my own appearance. But now I’m not so sure it is to do with resemblance at all. Perhaps my mother’s face is beautiful to me for a much simpler reason: because it was always there.

A Mother-Son Sleepover

A Mother-Son Sleepover

Art Mother son drawing

By Lauren Apfel

I never co-slept with my kids when they were little. I was against the idea on principle. Not for safety reasons, mind you, but because I love my sleep and I love my space. One of the guiding lights of early motherhood for me was to encourage in my babies a similar reverence for the beauty of slumbering alone. They were all sleep-trained as a result. They were all placed in their cribs, with that magical mixture of “drowsy but awake,” so they could learn the secret of drifting off on their own. Without my breast. Without my breath. Without my heartbeat.

Fast forward eight years and I wake with a start into darkness, my son Oliver’s thin leg criss-crossed over mine. I am in his single bed, pushed up against the wall. I don’t know what time it is, but I can tell from the fuzziness in my head that I have been here a while. We are on a sleepover night. The irony doesn’t escape me.

One night a week I climb the rungs to Oliver’s top bunk and I don’t climb down again until he is asleep or on the brink. It started a few months ago, this ritual, when something changed in him. He has always needed a lot of rest, he was that baby. The one who could nod off anywhere, anytime. The toddler who took the three-hour nap and then still went down at 7:30 p.m. Even as a seven year old, Oliver’s last kiss goodnight was hovering on the inside of eight o’clock.

Not anymore. Some nights I hear his footsteps on the stairs and it is touching distance to my bedtime. He has finished reading; he has switched off the light. No such luck with his mind. I know the feeling. So when his head appears in the living room window, bobbing up and down like an apple, I smile and wave him in. He approaches me with caution, I don’t blame him: after-hour surfacings have not been met in the past with such warm welcome. But it’s different now. I pause the TV or fold closed my book and we walk back up together.

I don’t resent these interruptions, not really. Maybe because it hasn’t been going on for that long. Or maybe because there is a part of me that feels like I owe him. I am convinced that Oliver’s natural-born gift for sleep colored my first experience of motherhood in the rosiest shade of rose. He slept like the baby of proverb and, in doing so, he allowed me to enjoy him unambiguously, to loose myself from the grip of the newborn period with no scars other than the one across my abdomen. For that I will be forever grateful.

But I also feel like I owe him for the present. I might not be basking in time to myself these days, but that doesn’t mean my kids are swimming in my time either. There are too many of them for that. I read once that you are “supposed” to spend an hour a day with each of your small children: to ensure bonding and proper emotional development, to obviate the cries, literal and metaphorical, for attention. That’s all well and good when you have one kid or two. But four hours a day of tête-à-tête? Even if it were desirable, it’s usually impossible.

Here we all are in the kitchen, a line of dominoes, one need pinging off the next. The first twin is telling me, for the fifteenth time in a row, that his “snail is sleeping, shhhh,” which on the surface wouldn’t seem to necessitate a response, but at two and a half years old clearly does, each and every time he says it. The second twin is asking me an unending chain of questions, from the potty, some of which involve the very existence of the snail itself. Meanwhile, the five year old is weaving in and out, singing “Hava Nagila” at the top of his lungs or throwing a temper tantrum or angling for food even though dinner is half an hour away.

And then there is Oliver. He is the one who can wait, so he waits. He is the one who can sense the chaos, so he retreats. “It’s quite hard for you, Mom,” he says, patting me on the shoulder, his face poised somewhere between concern and curiosity. As the oldest and the most self-sufficient, his need for me is not as immediate as the others’. But that’s not to say it doesn’t still exist.

Does Oliver stay up later now because he isn’t as tired or because he likes being awake when the rest of the house has gone quiet and it is only him and it is only me? Probably a bit of both. Most nights, especially school nights, I return him to bed, with a quick tuck in and tussle of his hair. But on sleepover night, there is no end-time for my attention. There is no “wait five minutes.” There is no “it’s not your turn.”

I lie with him for as long as it takes and, on this night, he knows I am not rushing off to do the next thing. To sop up the milk, to blow the nose, to tie the laces, to answer the email. And I know that if he drifts off to the warmth of my body, it isn’t going to translate into a habit of unwanted wakings the way it might if he were younger.

Often on these nights I fall asleep myself and Oliver is out cold by the time I leave. Sometimes, though, he dozes first. I sing him the round of songs I have been singing since he was a baby and after the last line of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” when his limbs start to jerk, I edge my way out of the bed. He stirs enough to whisper “I love you,” drowsy but ever so slightly awake, and I creep out of the room, just like I used to.


A Child-less Party with a Child-free Friend

A Child-less Party with a Child-free Friend

0-6I went to a party on Saturday night and I stayed late. This is newsworthy, believe me, I don’t get out much. For the past nine years I have been knee-deep in various stages of pregnancy, breastfeeding, broken nights and the exhaustion that attends them all and I am someone who bows to the demands of my body. I am usually in bed by 10:00 p.m. But my youngest children are not babies anymore and a good friend was turning forty. It was time to celebrate.

The friend is a member of my book club, the only regular engagement on my social calendar. Book clubs are the stereotypical outlet for parents of young kids and ours is no exception. We take it seriously, don’t get me wrong. The books are read, the issues are aired, it even gets a little feisty with dissension from time to time. But more often than not the conversation is pulled, a moth to a flame, in the direction of our children. It is a blowing off of steam in the most needed way: the majority of us are mothers obsessed with mothering.

I tend to surround myself with mothers for just this reason. Before the party, for instance, I had dinner plans with a couple of other friends, a rare occurrence of having double booked the evening. These friends are women I met in a pre-natal group, when we were expecting our first babies. I remember sitting around a cramped room with them, a lifetime ago now, it feels, sizing up each other’s bulging bellies alongside each other’s hopes and fears. We talked about epidurals and episiotomies and I wondered if we had anything in common other than the fact that these creatures we were housing in our bodies were due to make their appearance within days of each other.

It turned out it didn’t matter what else we had in common. As soon as the babies came, once a week throughout that unseasonably warm September, we clung to each other like ivy. Feeding times, how often last night?, cracked nipples (ouch!), the poo is green, that can’t be normal, the tiredness, so tired, our husbands, can they do anything right? All of a sudden, there was very little else to say. My world had shrunk considerably (though happily) and I wanted, I needed, to occupy it with people whose own horizons were comparably narrow.

Of the many gulfs of interest that divide people, children are a chasm. Mothers, particularly new mothers, have tunnel vision. That’s understandable. But it can also be boring, tear-your-hair-out boring, especially to those non-mothers who can see the light, so to speak. I hold onto this perspective tightly, because I didn’t have it when my first kid was little. Sometimes I hold onto it too tightly. I now err on the side of assuming, if you don’t have kids yourself, you don’t really want to hear the minutiae of mine.

But that’s not always the case. Friends without children support friends with children routinely and, often, genuinely. They coo at the photographs. They applaud the story about how the baby turned over the hard way. They make sympathetic noises at the lack of sleep, the cascade of dirty diapers, the diabolical temper tantrums. A lot of the time, though, they do this because they are child-less and you are simply a step ahead of them. They are not child-free, which is a distinction with a profound difference.

One of the women from my book club is decidedly child-free, but she engages with enthusiasm when the rest of us spin our progeny-laden tales. She was there, at the birthday party that night, and we fell into a head-touching kind of conversation, fueled as much by alcohol as by opportunity. We like each other, instinctively, but we don’t spend that much time together. I imagine at least in part because of the fact that she isn’t a mom.

Somewhere in between the third and fourth glass of champagne, or maybe it was the fourth and fifth, our focus shifted onto why this was so. “It’s not that I woke up one morning and decided,” she said. “It’s that I’ve never longed for a baby enough to give up what I love about not having one.” And then her tone grew confessional: “nobody’s ever asked me why before.” She said it almost with giddiness, like this was a conversation she had been waiting to have. A successful and happily married woman on the cusp of forty, I understand the reason the subject isn’t raised off-hand: who likes to conjure the specter of infertility?

Because that’s the assumption, of course, that child-less-ness is more a matter of “can’t” than “won’t.” Mothers can be blind in this way too. Once we embrace the title for ourselves, we fail to see the meaning in an existence without it. We struggle to believe that having it all is not a question of how best to balance kids and career: it is a declaration of not wanting half of that equation in the first place. I fall into this trap myself. Motherhood has become so consuming to me that, despite best efforts, I find it hard not to project onto other women a desire for the sense of purpose it offers.

The party was a revelation in this respect. For as much as I looked at this lovely, child-free woman and wondered if something was missing, I discovered that she was looking at me and wondering the same thing. “Sometimes I think,” she said that night, clearly weighing up either her word choice or whether to continue at all, “What could Lauren be if she didn’t have four kids?”

At 2:00 a.m  we left the dancing behind and that question, among others, unanswered. We went our separate ways, back to different houses and very different lives. I would be woken in the morning, too early, by the scurrying of feet and the tips of my daughter’s hair on my face. She would be stirred by an alarm clock, perhaps, or by the rhythms of her own body. My day would unfold, for the most part, according to the needs of people other than myself, with all of the beauty that entails. She would rise to a day of her own choosing, with all of the beauty that entails. And we would both be happy.

Illustration by Christine Juneau