Young Love is Real Love

Young Love is Real Love

Couple Rear View Love Holding Hands Drawing Simple Line Vector Illustration

By Jennifer Berney

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just loved her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: © gow27












Sister Act

Sister Act

Back view of two little girls on caribbean vacation

By Maryanne Curran

The hostess seats the two of us at a booth. The restaurant is fairly quiet – just a handful of other diners are there.   We are late for lunch, but early for dinner. I’m not sure what to call a meal at this time of day.

My dining partner is Gail, my sister and best friend. We are not Foodies. Our tastes run to simple fare like the type of meals you can find at chain restaurants. I suppose that makes us Chainies. Give us a good burger, chicken teriyaki, or the like, and we’re happy.

As soon as I tell Gail that we are going out to eat, she starts smiling.   She loves going out to eat.

Strangers often mistake us for mother and daughter. Although, there is only an eight-year difference in our ages, Gail looks considerably younger. Gail is developmentally disabled and functions at about the level of a six-year-old. She has a sweetness and simplicity to her face that makes her look far younger than she is. That coupled with the fact that I speak for Gail and order her meal along with mine, would make any new acquaintances assume this is a maternal relationship, and not a sisterly one.

Eating out with Gail is a fun activity for both of us. But it does require me to serve up an extra helping of patience, because Gail uses the time to pose an endless litany of questions and comments before, during, and after our meal.

Sometimes, it feels like Gail is Perry Mason cross-examining me on the witness stand asking me one question after another.

I answer her questions as best I can. Sometimes my answers are not completely truthful – but I have to phrase my responses in ways that Gail can easily comprehend. Because of our relationship, Gail trusts me and what I say to her. To Gail, I am a fountain of all knowledge, and I do my best to provide the information.

Once we have placed our order is when the questions begin. “What’s her name?” asks Gail about our server.

I can’t remember what the server said. “I’ll find out when she comes back,” is my response.

When our server returns in a few minutes, I check her badge. After she leaves, I say, “Her name is Diane.”

“That’s a good name,” says Gail. “Where does she live?”

I’ve just met this woman. I’m not going to ask her where she lives like some kind of creepy stalker. I always tell Gail that the server lives in the same town as the restaurant is. It’s a guess. But it’s probably a good one.

“How old is she?” asks Gail. That question is a little easier.

“Thirty-four,” I guess.

I could say that our server was 16 or 66. The actual number is unimportant, as Gail doesn’t have a clear understanding of what various numbers mean. When asked how old she is, Gail often says the wrong number.

For the most part, Gail’s questions are simple ones. Occasionally, she poses a question that is not so black-and-white. It’s the gray questions that stretch my sisterly caregiving skills thin.

In particular, Gail’s questions about the whereabouts of our parents are an going exercise in patience for me. Our mother passed away in 2008; dad followed a few years. Gail knows that our parents are gone and now reside in a place called heaven.

Gail thinks heaven is like the mall and wonders why her mom and dad can’t drive back to see her. I try to provide consistency when answering these particular questions and choose words that are easy for her to understand. But it can be difficult to explain a spiritual concept to someone who sees things as simply as Gail does.

Thankfully, today’s questions are her standard ones and easy enough to answer to satisfy Gail. When our meals arrive, Gail starts eating and enjoying her meal. As I watch her, I’m struck by how lucky I am to have Gail in my life.

Lucky? You? (I can almost hear the disbelief as you read these words.) Yes, I’m lucky to have Gail in my life.

I’m not pretending that there aren’t challenges to caring for an adult with special needs. Every day, there are issues that cause me concern. I worry about her safety. I worry that she is healthy. I worry that others will be kind to her. Most of all, I worry that she is happy. I try to make sure she has a good life.

My friends sometimes wonder about how I handle caring for Gail, 24/7. It’s easy. When you love someone as much as I love my sister Gail. The joyous moments that we share together outweigh any challenges that we may face.

Occasionally, I wonder what my life may have been like if Gail was not in it. I would have been a very different person, most certainly. Because of our relationship, the positive attributes that make up my character make me a better person.

Because of Gail, Santa Claus lives, rainbows make me smile, and I know what unconditional love is.

Maryanne Curran is a freelance writer from Lexington, Mass.  When not exploring new places to walk with her sister, Maryanne enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

I worry that my son might not understand what I’ve tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything—everything I did, everything you saw—because there’s nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me.

—Kurtz to Willard, Apocalypse Now, 1979

I recently asked my kids about their first memories.

“What was it?” I asked. “What’s the first thing you can remember?” Without thinking, both recalled early images of bold blue macaroni and cheese boxes. They had consumed Kraft by the case at daycare.

“You don’t remember anything before eating macaroni and cheese?” I pressed. I was fishing for proof my parenting fuck-ups weren’t set in stone, floating around in their psyches like a laminated list already prepared for their future therapists.

“Nope,” Andrew, my youngest, assured me. “I just remember playing at Amy’s house and eating mac and cheese.”

Relief set in. Thank God for the hypnotic effect of video games, Finding Nemo, and processed cheese products. I hadn’t been discovered. They don’t know.

I hate babies. I fucking hate ’em. Though I birthed a couple, was one, and acknowledge that everyone I know must have been a baby, I’d rather take my rotund shape out bikini shopping in bright fluorescent lighting with my mother-in-law after eating three helpings of shrimp and broccoli Alfredo than coo over babies, pretend they’re cute, or lie to unsuspecting parents that their baby looks any different than every other swaddled and gurgling creature at the hospital. Babies, I’ve learned, rob us of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they’re anti-constitutional.


I’ve always hated babies. I didn’t even enjoy being a baby. My first memory is of standing in my own crib screaming my lungs out at my tired mother. Perhaps this explains why I’m an only child.

I grew up in Georgia, where the only moneymaking options for a gangly preteen girl were babysitting or prostitution. Since the latter was illegal and possibly dangerous, I chose the former to earn the money to buy a second copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, having thoroughly worn out and scratched up my first one. I learned early on that babysitting young kids wasn’t so bad. After all, they’re easily placated with television and macaroni and cheese. Babysitting actual babies, on the other hand, plunged one into the eighth circle of hell, which I believe is only one step above being frozen in your own shit.

Babies do one thing: they demand. Whether it’s food, wiping, shoulders to puke on, or pacifiers, they pull you into their own shit and demand more. After one particularly harrowing session of babysitting, Baby-in-Crib (whose name I’ve either forgotten or deliberately purged) screamed at me so loudly that I all I could do was curl up, fetal position, in the corner of its nursery. I pulled myself together enough to feed it and change it and keep it safe for a couple of hours until its owners returned from their date night. I stopped babysitting babies after that. Later, in college, I worked briefly as a nanny. There was a standoff with a six-month-old. I lost. That’s all I’m legally obliged to say.

I don’t have a good explanation for most of what I’ve done, including becoming a mother. Some primordial urge must have set in when I was three years into an otherwise blissful marriage. At least I think it was blissful. I’ve got kids now. I can’t remember.

A craving to propagate the species infects some of us at a vulnerable age for reasons that only God and Darwin understand. The copulating part of this whole process is great—over too soon, but great. However, the forty-eight-week gestation period followed by infancy? That first time around, it’s boot camp. You’ve got this outside force compelling you to obey, bending your will, breaking you down. That first tour of duty is the longest.


“The Horror! The Horror!”

William was born in the middle of a hell-hot August to parents with too few skills, living in a steamy, two-bedroom apartment near the University of Illinois. My husband Bryan and I were graduate students, working our way through various degree programs to put off the inevitability of real life. But real life can’t be delayed when you’re carrying nearly ten pounds of dude inside of you, a dude who eventually attempts an exit just below the left lung. William never turned, never got into position, never did anything but suck his thumb in utero, urinate, and kick the piss out of my bladder. He couldn’t even manage to get out on time. Two weeks past his due date, he was content just to sit there, contorting my torso and rewiring my colon to suit his emerging limbs. My OB/GYN was on vacation the week William was due, so I consoled myself that managing to hang on in the sweltering heat was good, since it meant Dr. Shepherd would be back to facilitate the “blessed event.”

The details of birth are redundant and repetitive: push, breathe, scream, curse, try not to take the sharp objects away from the medical professionals so you can stab the responsible party.

William didn’t cooperate, so they shot me up with Pitocin, the induction cocktail, which I endured for about twenty-two hours. Thankfully, Dr. Shepherd needed to get to a party that night, and when he decided he was bored waiting for me to deliver, the nurses pitched the Pitocin and slapped me down on the table for a speedy C-section. Actually, the chatter between Dr. Shepherd and his nurses about his impending party kept me preternaturally calm in the middle of the chaos that is surgical delivery. Emergency sections are very different beasts from planned ones; my second son, Andrew, with the giant-but-healthy head, arrived via a planned and particularly organized C-section. Those are downright leisurely. I’d do that again any morning: have baby extracted, do some mild nursing by midday, then enjoy a little happy-hour gin and tonic at four. But the last-minute emergency variety left me resentful of William, who necessitated the drugs, the shaving, the strapping down of my arms, and the colon cleanse a nurse performed on me because my bowels had shut down after the trauma. We were not on good terms when he got here, and his incessant screaming upon arrival didn’t endear him to us immediately. Yet we managed to get this squirming pile of flesh into the infant car seat and safely back to our suddenly tinier apartment.

As in my early babysitting endeavors, I managed to feed him, change him, and keep him healthy and safe—except this time, no parents were coming back after date night. No one was coming to relieve me. He stayed with us, curdling our nerves from five every afternoon until he passed out just before ten at night. He was inconsolable. What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t inform the reader that the life-sucking malady known as colic will steal your soul and tempt you to make a deal with the devil at the crossroads if only this kid will shut the fuck up. Seriously, editors, get that into the updated fifth edition.


“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”

Gas drops. Baby Tylenol. Rocking. Nursing. Nursing upside down, on the left side. Sleeping with the head in an upright position. Sleeping in the bouncy seat. Putting the baby down. Letting him cry it out. Picking the baby up. Driving around the neighborhood. Sound machines with whooshes of the ocean or a mother’s wombed-up heartbeat. Special bottles that limit air in the baby’s tummy. Trips to the pediatrician. (They love those, at $250 a visit). Listening to a mother-in-law, who claims everything will be fine, and talking to helpful neighbors, who prescribe shots of whiskey.

We tried them all. Some remedies worked for a tiny bit of time, but escape was the only consistent antidote. I resorted to making multiple trips to the grocery store between five and ten in the evening. I dashed to the store at 5:45 p.m. for diapers and again at 6:15 for gas drops, followed by a final 8:30 trip to get some toilet paper. Anything to avoid the baby. My husband would remember we needed milk and then, two hours later, he’d go back for a box of Cocoa Puffs. Between excursions, we managed. Barely. But only because of the Cocoa Puffs and The Waltons reruns, with their infectious family bonding. And boxed wine, left over from our friends’ wedding.

Late one hot August night, about two weeks after William was delivered, Bryan and I sat sobbing on the edge of our bed, the very same bed that had conspired with us in this act of procreation, wondering when those proverbial “real parents” would come and get him. We were grateful he was healthy and normal and had all those feelings parents are supposed to feel. But we wept.

“Damn it,” I cried, sobbing so hard the bed rocked. “This . . . feels . . . like . . . a war zone.”

“I know,” was all Bryan could get out through his own broken sobs. Bryan is quiet, introverted. He never complains because that would draw attention and take effort. Agreeing with me that he felt we had made a huge mistake was like Mother Teresa admitting publicly that cleaning the lepers in Calcutta sucked.

We were sure we were inadequate and inept. William was a perfect baby, except for the colic, and he deserved parents who knew what the fuck they were doing. Not us. We were losers.

“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.” Martin Sheen’s improvised madness at the beginning of Apocalypse Now kept replaying in our heads day and night. They—in-laws, midwives, people from Walton’s Mountain—tell you that having a baby is the greatest moment in your life, a real turning point. That’s true. It is a turning point, but one with innumerable casualties. Bryan and I had to face the fact that we’d been attacked. We’d never been so vulnerable.


“Horror . . . Horror has a face . . . And you must make a friend of horror.”

Not only did I get hit from the front with William’s colic, I was flanked from the rear by postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is the face of horror.

Like a good scholar-mom, I researched solutions. My favorite helpful advice comes from the Mayo Clinic’s website: “Postpartum depression isn’t a character flaw or a weakness. Sometimes it’s simply a complication of giving birth. If you have postpartum depression, prompt treatment can help you manage your symptoms—and enjoy your baby.” Indeed, postpartum depression is a complication of birth. Enjoy your baby? You mean the blood-curdling screams, the engorged breasts that have to be pumped at work, the spit-up perma-stains on every article of your clothing, and the bondage to a colicky creature who keeps you from date night? I’ll be sure to remember all of that during my leisurely stay in rehab. Thanks, Mayo.

Friends, you think. You’ll call friends. Good idea. Wait, but your friends all adore rocking their little ones at two in the morning, quietly singing them back to a gentle sleep after nursing, listening to Baby Bach, and finally turning on the plastic fish aquarium that swirls magical realism all over the freshly painted nursery like an acid trip with Hunter S. Thompson. Your friends and family already think you’re an asshole because you’re not finding that the joys of infancy match the charming version of babyhood perpetuated by America’s Disney-addicted culture.

As a last resort, I checked with my doctor. After a month of uncontrollable crying, I figured this was beyond the “baby blues” What to Expect had described. This was dark. I was in the shit. Dr. Shepherd said it was normal and offered me a mild antidepressant. But again, I did my research, and—like my other new-mom friends—I was nervous about drugs in my breast milk. Even though it’s supposedly safe for babies, this particular antidepressant’s ever-increasing list of side effects includes sleepiness, nervousness, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, skin rash, headache, diarrhea, upset stomach, loss of appetite, abnormal ejaculation, dry mouth, and weight loss. Great. So I’d be less sad but abnormally ejaculating. No thanks.


“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Babyhood invites mothers—the good ones—to spontaneously visit. Friends, your Episcopal priest’s wife, and your sweet cousin all seem to find their way to a mother in need. Babies can provoke terror in those of us under the influence of postpartum depression, but they can also inspire pure unadulterated kindness in people who have survived the Burroughsian Interzone of infancy and lived to tell about it. That is how we have survived as a species. Evolution be damned: we’ve survived because of the tenacity of hearty Episcopalian women.

It was week four of hell. I’d turned down Dr. Shepherd’s antidepressants. I was suffering from a horrific rash under my swollen, nursing breasts. I had already gone back to work just three weeks after William was delivered; I had no maternal leave, just a handful of sick days.

I was grading a set of papers on a Saturday in late September when I heard a quiet knock on our apartment door. It was Mary Hallett, the hearty, no-nonsense wife of Father Tim Hallett, pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church on campus, where Bryan and I had been wed three years earlier. I expected the pastor’s wife to come calling. A few of the kindhearted church ladies had already delivered pans of lasagna and chicken casseroles, and I guessed (correctly) that Mary was here with her signature chicken-noodle soup, a particularly tasty version of the classic healing brew. She handed me the pot of soup and some fresh bread, nodded toward William in his bouncy seat, then turned to me and offered, “Let me grab your laundry while I’m here and I’ll take it home for a wash and fold.”

It struck me that, unlike all the other visitors, Mary wasn’t here to coo at the baby; she was here for me.

“Lord no,” I replied, blearily. “That’s okay, Mary. I got it. Bry and I are fine.”

She looked at me with her gray eyes, brushed her salt-and-pepper bangs to one side, and stated in her efficient Episcopalian voice, “No one is fine after they’ve had a baby.” She pulled out a big mesh bag she’d brought over.

I could see she was serious. I scurried and grabbed Bry’s jeans and my bra from the bathroom floor, underwear from a cardboard box in the closet currently serving as a laundry basket, and random shirts thrown off near the bed by two dazed parents flopping down at night in defeated exhaustion. I put everything in the mesh bag and sheepishly gave it all to this woman, my pastor’s wife, a woman I knew well but not well enough, I thought, to hand her our undies.

When Mary returned the next day with our fragrant, sorted, and neatly folded laundry, I nearly sobbed. It wasn’t anything like the war-zone feeling Bryan and I had a few weeks earlier in our bedroom. Mary handed over the mesh bag of laundry and hugged me. I was overwhelmed by her kindness, unable to even utter a “thank you.” I think she could tell I didn’t want to let go of her. But I did let go, my eyes welling with gratitude.

“I’ll be back next Saturday,” she said. And sure enough, there she was with her determined smile and her laundry bag.

I have never forgotten Mary’s matter-of-fact benevolence. I felt saved by soup and fresh laundry. Fortified with this reminder that the human heart heals, and nurtured by something as simple as the fresh scent of Tide mixed with a hint of lavender Snuggle, Bryan and I managed to get through those first months without binge drinking, overdosing on antidepressants, or running away to a cabin in Maine. We managed. I hadn’t conquered parenting, but I at least felt like this episode had ended with the kind of neighborly kindness so ubiquitous on Walton’s Mountain.

Parents get their lives back only if they stop at one baby. Few do. Most of us are possessed by a demon that attacks when your kid is about two or three, infecting your soul and whispering: Your life can be like The Waltons. Every week a new adventure in which John Boy, accompanied by apprehensive younger brother Ben, pulls Elizabeth out of yet another creek while Mama makes her a new dress out of love, grandma’s old quilt scraps, and used kitchen towels. Have more kids. Have even more kids. It’ll be just like The Waltons.

The Dark Lord loves seventies television in syndication; it’s one of his favorite weapons of mass destruction. I couldn’t fight off the demon possession that talked us into a second one. He may have had colic too, I can’t remember. The second time around, I said to hell with the side effects and took the damn drugs. I was much happier.

Incredibly, there are moms who thrive on infancy, who continue making babies and manage to can ten quarts of pickles and tomatoes in the process. The Spillmans down the street made seven babies, and each one was a natural-born caretaker for the next brother or sister in line. The Spillmans do great babies; we don’t. Bryan and I stopped at two. (Actually, The Waltons’ demon encouraged me to go for more, but my body couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sustain another.)

But here’s the thing: Babies evolve into smart-ass kids who talk, memorize the track listing to Led Zeppelin IV by age three, learn piano, collect football cards, make heart models in sixth grade, and finally learn how not to trump their partners in euchre. Both of mine, now fourteen and eleven, weathered both infancy and toddlerhood and are nicely settled into the hormonal cauldron of high school and middle school, which is, compared to the flashback-inducing horror of babyhood, a cakewalk. (For me, at least, if not for them.)

Toward the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Willard hears on tape Kurtz narrating his symbolic nightmare/dream of a snail “crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor . . . and surviving.” I’ve lived on that straight edge, and let me tell you, it’s scary but bearable—if only you can laugh and let a nice Episcopalian lady do your laundry.

Amy Penne earned her PhD from the University of Illinois while carrying her son William—who inspired this essay—in her gut. She teaches, writes, and takes care of her husband and two boys in a frigid old house on the prairie. Even though she hates babies, she thinks being a mom is probably worth it.

This piece has been excerpted from Oh Baby! – Available now.

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I Had A Boy

I Had A Boy

By Carrie Goldman


I figured it would stop in about five years, when I no longer looked young enough to be adding to my family. It had started a decade ago, during my second pregnancy. First, a quick appraisal of my protruding stomach—taking in the small girl with pigtails already chattering by my side—and then the Question.

“Hoping for a boy this time?” asked the sales clerk, the customer, the grocer, the person in line, the passenger on the plane, the nurse in the doctor’s office.

“We’re not finding out,” was the standard answer I gave, which tossed the ball back into the other person’s court and usually fulfilled my conversation obligations.

The Question, I have learned, is built on automatic assumptions that society holds about a woman’s life, her path to parenthood, and her values, but rarely do those assumptions reflect my truth.

Our second baby was born, and she was another wonderful girl. The Question slightly shifted. People would see me with my two little girls, and ask, “Will you try for a boy next?”

“We are thrilled with our girls,” I would respond. I know The Question is born of curiosity, not malice, and that most people are simply trying to be friendly and make conversation.

But I began to notice the cultural bias behind the curiosity. I grew weary of the gender-based marketing that divides stores into seas of pink and blue and made a point of crossing into the boys’ section to buy superhero shirts and Star Wars toys for my daughters. I stacked little footballs and toy trains alongside princesses and jewelry kits. There are all different ways to be a girl and raise a girl.

When my girls were six and three, I became pregnant again. The Question came at me as soon as I began to show, sometimes in the form of a comment. “I hope your poor husband gets a boy this time!”

I would turn to my attentive little girls and tell them, “You girls are my world, and Daddy’s too. When people say things like that, it shows us how they think, but it is NOT how Daddy and I think.”

Our third baby was born, and we were overjoyed with another little girl. It has been almost five years since she arrived, and our family is complete.

Not a month goes by that a smiling stranger doesn’t comment on how I have three, count ’em, THREE little girls, asking if I will try for a boy next.

For years, I focused my responses on pushing back against the subtle stereotypes behind The Question. It was easier to channel my inner tumult on an external issue than on the additional reason why the question wrenched my heart, the silent response in my head. I had a boy. But something went horribly wrong when his kidneys formed, and he died before he got a chance to live his life.

That silent response erupted unexpectedly into conversation last week, when I was at Trader Joe’s with the trio, and a fellow customer watched my two youngest girls loading up a mini shopping cart with a crazy collection of foods.

She smiled at me and said, “Looks like you have some great helpers. Will you try for a boy next?”

Before I could reply, my oldest daughter said, “She had a baby boy that died and then she adopted me.”

There. There it was. I had a boy. The woman, poor thing, turned pink and beat a hasty retreat. My oldest daughter resumed grabbing cartons of berries. She piled them in the cart that her younger sisters were fighting over.

I tried to make reassuring eye contact with the woman, seeking to let her know that it was okay, that we are okay, but she had fled.

I wondered what led my daughter to speak up with that answer. Perhaps it was nothing more than the blunt honesty—a refreshing quality, really—that we find in children. Or perhaps she was seeking to validate her own place in the family, letting the other woman know that we do not need a boy anymore because we adopted her. Adoption and identity are complicated issues, and our oldest needs frequent affirmation that she belongs.

As we walked through the store, I thought about how simple and freeing my daughter’s answer was. In one sentence, she managed to dispose of the question that always stumps me. It felt good not to have to go through my internal dialogue before coming up with the right response.

It is difficult to reconcile the benign attempts of a stranger to make small talk with the intense thoughts that rush through my head. Do I commit a lie of omission in my response and deny the existence of that baby boy? It feels like a betrayal. Do I breach the unspoken rules of appropriate disclosure by responding as bluntly as my daughter did, thus forcing the other person into an awkward position?

I am not alone in this experience. I have two good friends who lost their first daughters and are now raising little boys. My sweet friends puzzle over how to answer the simplest of questions such as, “How many kids do you have? Think you’ll go for a girl next?” I have two more friends who, like I, lost baby boys and are now raising all-girl families.

The zigzagging of thoughts, the rapid internal dialogue, plays out again and again. I usually make a game-time decision to give a response that opens the door to new thoughts about the value of girls in society, because it does address one of my issues with the Question, while preserving my private pain. But every single time, a voice in my head says, I had a boy. But life is strange, sad and wonderful, and now I am the blessed mother of three phenomenal girls. This is my path.

Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. You can see her work at, including her new children’s chapter book, Jazzy’s Quest: Adopted and Amazing! co-authored with Juliet Bond.

Photo: gettyimages

15 Kinds of Kisses for My 5-Year-Old

15 Kinds of Kisses for My 5-Year-Old

By Estelle Erasmus


When she’s sick and I gently kiss her feverish brow, hoping to heal her with a spoonful of a mother’s love—the best medicine.


Kissing is a universal way to demonstrate love. I like to smother my daughter with affection, and studies support that doing this can help ease her stress and anxiety and help her to become a resilient adult.

Here are the kinds of kisses we share.

1) Angel kisses: Where I lightly kiss her right next to her eyes, on either side. I usually kiss her this way when waking her up in the morning.

2) Blowing kisses: When I drive away from her school, as I watch her adjust her backpack and join up with her friends, I kiss my hand and then blow her bittersweet kisses from my window, which she catches in her hand and blows back to me.

3) Boo-Boo Kiss: A therapeutic kiss guaranteed to make a boo-boo feel better, if not go away entirely.

4) Butterfly kisses: Sprinkled on her cheeks, eyes and lashes like morning dew meeting an upturned flower.

5) Careful kisses: When she is engrossed in a coloring project or LEGO building but I want her to know I’m by her side, I kiss her arm or shoulder or top of her head.

6) Cheek kisses: When she leaves to go to school, I give her a peck on the cheek. In many cultures, it’s a common way of saying hello or goodbye.

7) Devouring kisses: I am often reminded that time is fleeting and that my cherished little girl may soon be unimpressed or unmoved by my physical expressions of love. So I kiss her as if I were inhaling her—her youth, her innocence, her energy.

8) Eskimo kisses: Sometimes right before she drifts off to sleep, we’ll rub our noses together back and forth and she’ll say the nonsensical words “Muga Muga” and expect me to say them back (I always do).

9) Hair kisses: Usually after she’s washed her hair, I smother her with kisses on her clean, strawberry or citrus-scented tresses.

10) Hand kisses: Each morning, we start our day by holding hands as we walk to the car. Right before she buckles herself into her car seat, I kiss her on the palm or back of her hand, as an affectionate benediction. It delights me that she’s recently started returning the favor.

11) Noisy kisses: When my mouth makes a popping sound on her bellybutton, which sends her into paroxysms of helpless laughter at the antics of her silly mother.

12) Rocking kisses: When she is feeling bad, mad, or sad I often can make the clouds drift away by rocking her in my arms. While doing this, I hum a little tune (ah, ah baby, ah ah my lady), while at the same time I press my lips on the top of her head in a never ending kiss, without breaking contact. It never fails to make her feel better.

13) Soft kisses: When she’s sick and I gently kiss her feverish brow, hoping to heal her with a spoonful of a mother’s love—the best medicine.

14) Tearful kisses: Sometimes, I look at her and become painfully aware of how very precious she is to me. Despite my best efforts, I feel my breath catch in my throat and as my eyes fill with tears I kiss her on the cheek or head.

15) Tickle kisses (not to be confused with noisy kisses): When I tickle her on her neck or under her arms and she can’t stop laughing, while I plant myriad kisses on her face.

Estelle Erasmus has been published in numerous publications including Marie Claire, The Washington Post, and National Geographic Traveler. She blogs at Musings on Motherhood & Midlife and tweets at @EstelleSErasmus.


My Heart Knows a Difference

My Heart Knows a Difference

By Jennifer Palmer


Does a parent’s heart make a distinction between adopted kids and biological kids? Is the attachment, the bond, the connection the same?


“How does this experience compare to, well, to before?”

She asked the question cautiously, not wanting to offend, her gaze moving from my face to my husband’s to baby Katie huddled against my chest. I was recovering from an emergency C-section and was grateful for her company, for the meal she brought with her, for honest questions about love, about the nature of family.

She’s a good friend, one who knew our story—that we had tried to adopt a baby girl, Cara*, a year earlier, that Cara’s birth father had contested the adoption, that he had succeeded and we had lost. Cara had lived with us five months before the judge’s ruling came, and this friend had been there by our side, praying and crying and hoping through it all.

I knew exactly what she meant by her question and I was not bothered that she asked it. After all, it’s a natural question, one I ask myself on a regular basis. I wrestle with it, mull it over, wonder—does a parent’s heart make a distinction between adopted kids and biological kids? Is the attachment, the bond, the connection the same? Ultimately, the big question is this: was the love I felt for Cara the same as the love I feel for Katie?

The obvious answer—the one people expect, the one adoptive parents long to give, the one adopted kids are desperate to hear—is yes. Yes. Yes. The love is the same. The bond is the same. The daughter I chose, who grew in my heart but not in my womb, is the same to me as the daughter who shares my genetics. My heart knows no difference.

The obvious answer is yes, but I don’t believe it is an honest answer, at least not for me, for my experience. Other adoptive moms may feel differently, but for me, the truth is more complicated than that. The truth is harder than that.

The truth is that my heart does know a difference. Not a difference in genetics, not one in biology, but a difference all the same, a difference that can only be attributed to adoption, to the way each daughter came to be a part of my family.

My heart knew all along that there was another who could and did call Cara her daughter, that this sweet girl had another family, one not my own, who had some claim on her. It knew she came to me through loss, that such loss can and often does pose an obstacle to a strong mother-daughter bond, that there are those in the world who would never see me as her “real” mom, no matter what happened. My heart knew that there was risk here, in this relationship. It recognized the terrible, awful risk that they would take her from me, that a judge would rule she wasn’t really mine and I would be forced to say goodbye. It could not ignore the tremendous stress, the horrible fear, the drama and the tension and the heartache of that interminable summer of court dates and visitation and lawyer’s fees. And so it was guarded, careful in its love for Cara. The bond, while very real, was tenuous, only as strong as my feeble courage would allow.

The early months of Katie’s life were an entirely different experience, marked as they were by peace and calm and joy. No drama, no stress. No fear that they might take her from me. My heart was free to love without inhibition, without the instinctual reserve that was present previously, and I forged bonds with her that were strong and unafraid.

And so my heart knows the difference. The love is not the same. Not because of any differences in biology, not because of genetics, not because of anything specific about the girls themselves, but because of anxiety, because of stress, because of circumstance.

I wish this were not the case. I wish that I had the capacity to love without fear, no matter the risk, that I could give an unreserved and exuberant “yes” when asked if I loved Cara in the same way that I love Katie. I wish my heart did not know a difference. I wish I were strong enough for that.

And yet, I know this, know it as surely as I know my own mother loves me: I loved Cara. I loved her. I loved that baby girl with a fierce, protective, mother’s love. A love that washed over me, filled me, swept me up in its currents the moment I first held her in my arms, though I selfishly tried to resist it. A love unlike anything I had ever felt. I loved that baby girl. I loved her. I loved her.

How does one measure love? It isn’t as though you can put it on a scale, ladle it into a measuring cup, stack it against a ruler. I do not know how to quantify love, how to compare one love to another, but if one possible measure is what you’d be willing to endure on another’s behalf, then my love for Cara knew no bounds, just as my love for Katie knows no bounds. Though the experience of loving these two girls differs greatly, the expression of that love does not.

And so, if the question is whether there’s a difference, whether my heart makes a distinction between my two daughters, the answer is yes. Much as I might wish otherwise, my heart knows a difference.

But if the question is whether I love my biological daughter more than I loved the one I tried to adopt, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic no. No. No. I would have laid down my life in a heartbeat for Cara, just as I would lay it down for Katie if necessary. And as somebody who is much wiser than I am observed: greater love has no one than that.

*Name changed

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Till Death Did They Part

Till Death Did They Part

By Molly Krause

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 12.57.07 PM

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


My dad was a man who was careful with his words. He was bothered by the incorrect use of ‘excuse me’ when someone should have said ‘pardon me.’ And don’t even get him started on overusing the words ‘you know’ as I did in the 1980s as a teenager. He had the habit of introducing my mother as his ‘former wife’ never his ‘ex-wife.’ Given his precise use of language, his word choice seemed deliberate. It was as if he was saying, “In my former life, back when I was trying to be straight, this was the wife I chose.” When he moved back to Kansas to die, his former life and his current situation intersected.

When I asked my dad in the early 1990s what he thought about research to discover the ‘gay gene’ I’ll admit I was trying to probe into his inner dialogue about his own homosexuality. As usual, he didn’t give me much.

“We all make our choices, we just have to live with them,” he answered.

This was his answer after he came out during a therapy session so many years before, after he chose to leave his own marriage to my mother, after he left his three young daughters behind, after he lived his own life in the big city, after he contracted the HIV virus.

This was his answer before he lost his vision in one eye, before the lesions appeared first on his hands, before most of his friends died, before he started walking with a cane, before he returned to the landscape and family he had once left behind.

Love is a choice, a decision on some level, he was telling me. He didn’t choose to be gay, but he did choose to leave. And while the cultural tide of 1972 may have given my mom a nod to stay in a marriage with her gay husband, as he was willing to do, she wanted him to leave. She wanted to choose love, too.

He stayed away most of my childhood, leaving my mom to struggle with raising three daughters. She never remarried and my sisters and I managed to run off any of her serious boyfriends. My dad was spotty with child support, forgot birthdays and spent time in rehab. She had every reason to feel bitter and to pass that along to her children. She never did. And while my father was prone to being critical, the only judgment he had about her was that she failed to teach us how to make a bed properly. Taking my mom’s lead, I didn’t act angry about my dad’s lack of time and attention. I smiled and tried to be lovable, all the while nursing a hidden wound of abandonment.

As my dad’s health was failing in 1995, his relationship was too. He and his partner lived in Key West when, at age twenty-three, I flew down for an extended visit. I was hoping for a suntan, sleeping in and shooting pool at the neighborhood-drinking hole. What I walked into was not a respite; it was a war zone.

My dad and his partner hardly spoke to each other, and when they did, they screamed. His partner drank a half a bottle of Bombay gin nightly; my dad self medicated with his pain pills. “I can’t stay here,” my dad whimpered to me. “No,” I agreed. “I don’t want to die down here in Key West,” he confessed.

Whose idea was it for him to move back to Kansas with me? Did I suggest it, the grown woman still searching for her father’s affection yet half hoping he would never do it? Did he bring it up as an option, trying to feel me out for how it would be received by my mom and sisters? Or did he just ask me directly, desperate to escape his unhappy situation?

When we decided he would come back with me, I felt full of purpose and determination. This would be the situation where we would finally get close, the barriers removed, a satisfying closure to the buried pain of years of distance.

My focus didn’t last long. Quickly overwhelmed sharing the same house with him for the first time since I was a toddler, I disappointed him by staying away. Away from the Vantage cigarette-tinged fog of the house, away from his moaning that could not be alleviated, away from his biting sarcasm and sharp tongue. My hidden resentments began to bubble to the surface—he feels bitter, does he? I stepped away; my mom showed up.

She drove him in her Volvo to his many medical appointments, singing the lyrics from their favorite musicals together. They huddled over the Sunday crossword puzzle. He defended the use of a pencil in all forms of writing, preferring the textured feel of its scrawl; she tried to convert him to the fountain pen, with its smooth delivery. Bickering over what was correct grammar, she inevitably ended the conversation with an eye roll and “Honestly, John, you can be insufferable.” She emptied his overflowing ashtrays, picked up his prescriptions and bottles of Insure, found someone to come over to cut his hair. They were competitive over Wheel of Fortune, my dad holding his magnifying glass up to see the TV. Yelling out the answer, their voices on top each other, they looked to me to make the call. “Marie Antoinette! Marie Antoinette! Molly, you know I said it first!” my mom shrieked. I raised my hands in surrender and walked out of the room.

I found a photograph as a small child, loose in a box among other forgotten objects. A black and white image showed my parents gazing at each other on a boat, a strand of my mom’s hair loose on her cheek, my dad holding a smoke between his thumb and forefinger. They were laughing as if a joke had just been told. Although I imagined an exotic far-away island, it was likely a mud-bottomed, coffee-colored lake. They looked like a couple in love. I clutched at it, unable to stop looking at them. Evidence, the only I had really, of my parents’ one time love for each other. The sadness I felt for my mom after spending time with the photo caused me to bury it back in that box.

I had never seen my parents fight, but I had never witnessed this new, almost domestic scene, after he returned, either. I always knew they liked each other, but as he lay dying, this affection was amplified. When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.

The last person my dad reached out to was his former wife. He called her; his voice filled with panic in the middle of the night, and told her he didn’t know what happening. His last moments of lucidity were spent with her, but there was no singing together on that car ride. That was the last time he entered the hospital. It was my mother who called me and my sisters to come quickly. We all arrived in time as he continued to make his gasping breaths, clawing at his oxygen mask. His three daughters and his former wife surrounded him in his hospital bed after the mask was removed and he was allowed his peace.

As my mom reassured him, stroking his hair, remarking how little grey he had, I realized for the first time that us girls were not the only ones losing someone that day. We were losing our dad, but my mom, such as he was, was losing the only husband she ever had. The family that they had created together was all he had left at his end. And when that time came and his suffering was over, none of us cared, my mom included, that he preferred men over women.

When I thought about that picture later, it no longer made me feel sad for my mom. Seeing her stringless love made me aware of my own tethers I held to my dad—unmet expectations, unsaid words, unrealized intimacy. Unclenching my fingers and releasing them expanded my view of love. It is bigger than I had thought, too big to be contained to a greeting card, Hollywood movie or perhaps even a marriage. It is big enough to see someone for who they are, who they want to be and forgive them the difference.

We all make our choices; we just have to live with them.

Molly Krause is a writer and restaurateur living in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband and two daughters.

To read more Brain, Child essays on same sex parenting, purchase our themed bundle.

An Open Letter to My Son’s First Lover

An Open Letter to My Son’s First Lover

By Abby Sher


Dear Eleanor,

(I’m calling you that in honor of Eleanor Roosevelt because you’d better be smart, daring, passionate about humanitarian causes, and a big advocate for skirt suits.)

I hope you’ll forgive me when I scowl. And I promise I will definitely Google you on an hourly basis. Maybe by the time I meet you, there will be an easy chip implantation method so I can track your every move and thought. It’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s just that you cannot possibly be deserving of my son, Zev.

He is three and a half years old and already has a dozen original knock-knock jokes. Yes, most of them end in the word poop, but they are truly hilarious. He’s generous and loving and ridiculously kind. The other day as we trotted through an afternoon downpour he said, “Mama, whoever made this umbrella did such a great job.”

Eleanor, you are in for a wild ride. This boy is ravenous. He eats and loves with his whole being. He screams and cuddles, wrestles and roars all in the same breath. Then he usually starts singing a new song he’s just composed about his imaginary friend, Marcel. They run the marathon together on a daily basis.

“Go Marcel! You can do it!” he yells across our apartment.

Because everyone needs encouragement.

I know you will treat my son with respect and admiration. (If you don’t, I will hunt you down.) Maybe you’ll see him across the university quads—he’ll be at least a junior by then and have gotten a scholarship for discovering a rare dinosaur bone. He’ll still have that wild hair, turquoise eyes and cinnamon-colored freckles. You’ll think Who is that? What tune is he crooning that makes him so deliciously happy? And how is he comfortable wearing his shoes on the wrong feet?

You will court each other slowly. Remember, I’m watching. All written materials, like love sonnets or texts must be spell-checked. I am okay with you being explicit, but I cannot stand lazy grammar. You will talk about your feelings before, during, and after any intimacy. I also encourage you to consult a therapist because you will be quickly overwhelmed by his magnetism. You must never see him without bringing snacks.

Let me be clear. I don’t resent you, young lady. I envy you. Zev has turned my world (and our tub of Legos) upside down on a daily basis. Even in the heat of a tantrum, I feel like he’s teaching me how to be truer to my emotions. He is loud and unafraid. He is all I want to be. I have just a few more precious months, maybe a year before he’s done hanging out with me, though. There will be shrugs and doors closed and a scruff of beard before I’m done giving away his old diapers.

This is the ecstasy and the agony of loving someone this much. You’ll know soon enough. So get your game face on and memorize the soundtrack to Frozen. This guy is the real deal.

Sincerely, (but not fondly)

Abby Sher


Abby is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn with her husband and three kids. She is available to eat all leftover noodles.

Love In All Sizes

Love In All Sizes

couple w valentine w gray and redLike all long-term relationships, Valentine’s Day and I have had our ups and downs. But, we’ve made our peace with each other and I’ve decided I’d rather have it around than not.

In the beginning, a brown paper sack full of pre-printed admiration and sweets was enough to make my heart beat quicken. I loved everyone and embraced the opportunity to show it with heart-shaped doilies emblazoned with my best crayon signature.

Eventually, love grew more complicated. I thoughtfully selected the sentiment that best communicated my love for that year’s crush from the four feline themed options in the box from the drugstore and signed it with care (though not so much care as to be impossible to dismiss as random if he thought the third “r” in “purrr-fect” and the heart dotted “i” in my signature was over the top). The factory valentines never had the right mix of messages to match the mix of children in my class, so I employed a complex triage system in which the most (and least) lovely children were identified and matched with the appropriate talking cats first, followed by the second most/least lovely, third, etc. The kids in the middle of the pack sometimes received a more generous or stingy compliment than I would have preferred based on the remaining stock.

In junior high, Valentine’s Day became an angst-filled competitive awards ceremony. Egalitarian recognition was no longer a priority. Existing no longer secured your status as a receiver of valentines. Receiving a valentine required attracting the attention and admiration of a member of the opposite sex. How boys could have missed me in my neon ensembles or failed to admire the gravity defying height of my bangs is an unsolved mystery. But, they did. Other girls paraded through the hallways with chocolates, balloons, and flowers while I carried only my textbooks. Other girls snogged against lockers long after the bell while I walked to class for another on-time arrival.

My high school boyfriend was admirable March through January but February highlighted his weaknesses. He was not prone to grand gestures, was seemingly immune to the traditional Valentine’s Day trappings, and preferred swapping spit in my basement to public displays of saliva. I pretended to be enlightened enough not to need roses to be sure of his affection but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that I finally had the missing ingredient but still wouldn’t be one of the girls arriving late to class with a combination lock shaped indent in my back.

My Valentine’s Day experiences have varied since then. I’ve bitterly shunned the holiday. I’ve embraced stag events with gusto. I’ve eaten fondue in an evening gown. I’ve been proposed to on a beach. I’ve gotten pregnant. I’ve enjoyed a homemade dinner by candlelight with a toddler. I’ve gone to a comedy show. I’ve spent the wee morning hours gluing together Pinterest-worthy valentines for preschoolers. I’ve watched a chick-flick alone while my husband took the kids to story time at the public library.

On balance, I’ve spent more years than not joining the chorus of cynical voices that dismiss Valentine’s Day as a Hallmark Holiday. The first Valentine’s Day with a shared bank account, I cringed at the cost of the flower/vase combo delivered to my office. But, I’ve come around to the idea of overpriced flowers in mid-February. Not ridiculously overpriced florist flowers, but slightly overpriced grocery store flowers.   

My husband and I have been together more than a decade. I haven’t taken a formal survey, but anecdotal evidence suggests he is more thoughtful, kind and patient than the average husband. Fatherhood only magnified his charming qualities. I feel truly, deeply, and completely loved.

When I think about his loving gestures, I think a little about the mushy cards tucked in my sock drawer and about the flowers that arrive home at intervals just irregular enough to be delightfully unexpected.

But mostly I think about chocolate. And coffee. And sack lunches. And socks.

The love that sustains our relationship isn’t showy love. It’s a late night trip to the grocery store to satisfy the other person’s chocolate craving. It’s packing the kids’ lunches to make the other person’s morning just a little easier. It’s a pot of coffee brewed exclusively for the other person before leaving for work. It’s volunteering to be the one to go into the creepy basement to switch the laundry. It’s not pretending to be asleep when the children cry in the middle of the night.  It’s allowing your belly to be used as a foot warmer. It’s crossing the finish line together even though one of you is significantly slower than the other. It’s cuddling on the couch and pretending you didn’t already watch this episode of Homeland. It’s bringing home a Jane Austen movie for that day in the 28-day cycle. It’s intertwined fingers on a walk to the park. It’s being the one to fill the car with gas when the tank gets low. It’s putting your socks in the hamper. It’s being the one who responds to “I need a wipe!” It’s not making the sound the other person hates when you turn the pages of the newspaper. It’s making breakfast while the other person sleeps. It’s returning the wanting kiss even though you’re tired. It’s not telling a single soul that the other person secretly loves The Bachelor.

Little love—small but frequent acts of kindness, consideration, and compassion—sustains us.

But, little love can’t carry all the weight. We still need big love. Over-the-top, frivolous, cheesy love. Junior high hallway love.

Today is a day for big love. Mushy cards. Fresh flowers. Dark chocolate. Passionate kisses.

If I had to choose, I’d choose a pot of coffee made just for me on a random Friday in May over a dozen red roses on a specific Friday in February.

But, I don’t have to choose.

I can snuggle on the couch tonight watching terrible television with my husband, surrounded by a sock-free floor, eating chocolate cake. And then, we can snog like teenagers in the flickering shadows cast by our unity candle and the mushy cards on our dresser.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

The Lost Love Language of the Mixtape

The Lost Love Language of the Mixtape

NinaWith Valentine’s Day around the corner, I’ve been thinking about declarations of romantic, familial, and platonic love. Although I have no problem writing about how I feel, I stumble when speaking heartfelt words aloud. Even with my husband, I giggle, blush, or make jokes while trying to convey anything more profound than “I love you.” I say those three words easily and often, but when explaining why or how much I love him, my skills fall short.

Likewise, if I’m overcome with gratitude for friends and family, then I’ll make a point to tell them, but I usually end up prefacing my gushing with a formal announcement. “I’m going to be sentimental now,” I might say. I don’t know why I get so awkward when all I’m trying to verbalize is some form of “thank you,” or “I appreciate you,” or, “this time we’ve spent together meant so much.”

You know what used to deliver those messages for me and so much more? A mix tape. Oh, how I lament the lost love language of the mixtape!

In Dr. Gary Chapman’s popular book The Five Love Languages, he writes about demonstrating love in a way that your spouse (or friends and family) can understand. For some people, words of affirmation is enough. For others, the gift of time matters most. The third language Chapman identifies is giving gifts, because if receiving a present matters to your partner, then you ought to learn how to give one. The fourth language is acts of service such as hanging the pictures, proofreading an important document, or making a double batch of green smoothies every morning. The final language is physical touch.

According to Chapman, it’s essential to first identify how we best receive love so that we can tell our partners what works. After years of trial and error, Bryan knows (because I finally know) that I value time and acts of service over gifts. For my birthday, for example, instead of a gift, we get a sitter and spend a few hours running the annoying errands that I let pile up for that precise day. Then we sit in a coffee shop with a notebook discussing the past year and my hopes for the year ahead. Bryan is a master goal keeper for himself, so the time he spends listening to my reflections and turning those thoughts into a multifaceted checklist that he later recreates on the computer with little boxes and fancy shading is the best present of all. I hang the chart on my bulletin board and use it daily. The simple sight of the thing screams “love.”

Once we’re aware of how we accept love, we have to acknowledge how the people in our lives receive it. This is where the mixtape used to come in handy! The creation and giving of a tape combined all of Chapman’s love languages except physical touch. It was the perfect gift for almost everyone.

Those of you who also made tapes know what I mean. The song selection communicated words of affirmation since the lyrics revealed what might have been too hard to voice. The tedium of waiting for the right song on the radio or dubbing favorites on a dual cassette player with your finger hovering above the record and stop buttons was an act of service, as was deliberately placing the songs in a sensible order. If you listened to the tape with the intended recipient, then it became the love language of time. The tape was also a tangible gift. Burning CDs combined the love languages too, but nothing compared to the production of a mixtape.

Those tapes also functioned as an audio journal to represent certain periods in my life. I had a mix for every summer of camp and season of school with labels like “Winter 1990.” My deliberate lettering on the cover named each song. It was from my personal collection that I created mixes for others. I had to know the lyrics and atmosphere of the songs before I was certain they’d fit the person in mind or the situation.

There were songs that made it onto multiple friends’ and boyfriends’ tapes. “For a Just a Moment” from St. Elmos Fire was a natural for late 80s, post-summer mixes for camp friends. “Love Will Come to You” by the Indigo Girls was for friends dealing with a heartbreak. Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise” was the anthem for every guy I was involved with in high school and college as I was forever breaking up with and reconciling with the same ones. Through the 90s, Sarah Mclachlan said it all for everyone in my life.

I often made a copy of the gift-mixes for myself. In that way there was this imagined conversation. I’m listening to a song; you’re listening to the same song. Unfortunately, after Bryan and I moved into our second house and had long stopped owning cassette players, I threw the tapes away. It’s the only instance I can think of where my extreme anti-hoarding tendencies has filled me with deep regret. I would give anything to see the covers again and to hear the songs I picked for particular moments in time.

The tapes are lost, but the habit of curating playlists remains—now for my kids, who spend time every day in our car. Although highlighting and deleting files in five-minute spurts on iTunes may not be the laborious undertaking that went into the tapes, I still see the process as an act of love for the four little Badzins I adore more than any words—sung or spoken—could properly express. Hopefully in this way and many others they’re able to receive the love I send their way.

The Valentine Paradox: Advice For My Son

The Valentine Paradox: Advice For My Son

photo 1-1Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, son, and the trick to nabbing a valentine is to seriously up your game, player. However, the trick to upping your game is tricky because it’s all about not having a game or any tricks. I’m sorry, but all the best things are paradoxes.

To construe romantic love as a game is to lose before it begins and you’ll inevitably lose afterwards too because there’s no escaping that part where you’re clutching your heart like Reverend Dimmesdale with snot all over your face and hair and your friends will have no choice but to shake their heads at your incoherent babble between all the cataclysmic sobs. It will end badly. Like everything. But no worries, young man. There’s a deep optimism beneath the surface of pessimism. I told you, man, paradoxes.

This is the part where I tell you to just be yourself. But does such a thing exist when you’re 15? To thine own self be true, Laertes. But what’s that even mean? And what in the world does it have to do with valentines?

What it has to with valentines is another paradox. Seek a valentine and she is nowhere to be found. A valentine never appears until you don’t need her. Being yourself, being true to your complicated self, and just doing what you love, however, is a valentine magnet. But, to contradict myself (only seemingly), playing video games all the time is not very attractive. That’s because—I’m sorry—playing video games is not what you really love. Not at all. It’s a distraction from what you love, like looking for valentines. What you love will call you like a vocation, which is actually, of course, a goddess singing to you with her arms wide open in a gale of black chaos. Embrace her. Hear her song. I’d sing it for you but I don’t know the words and neither do you. That’s why I told you to hear her song. Are you even listening? Get over there and embrace the goddess!

It could be anything. You might love to write or paint or play the drums or fix cars or build log cabins or compete in triathlons or read big fat books about Being or wars or wizards and dwarves. But you’ll know it when you find it because it’ll be love and you’ll lose yourself and you won’t need anything else to make you feel whole because you’ll already be empty, gone, lost in what you love, which—paradoxically—is the substance of fullness.

And then—when you are completely satisfied—that’s when you’ll be swarmed by valentines. Be wary, though, of people attracted to the power of your love who seek to be its object. These are vampires whose thirsts your blood will never quench and soon you’ll be arguing about money, the color of towels, and other incomprehensible matters. Rather, your valentine, also attracted by the force with which you love, will love and protect your love, and you too will love and protect what she loves for only those in the throes of the goddess’ song can recognize and love one another.

The desire to play video games will vanish. You’ll look upon your valentine with no small amount of discomfort because your whole body will vibrate with a million things to say but you, in a dazed and blinky stupor, will be dumfounded, speechless, conked by lust. It is at precisely this moment, when what resolutely resists articulation insists on being said, that you will be called to pull up your chair to the table of poetry. Here, don’t waste your metaphors on her physical appearance, on the pearls of her teeth or the crashing ocean wave from her waist to hip. Stay true to love. Make no sense. She is a book in a thunderstorm, a map of fire, a key to the house of ashes and forgotten songs. Like that. Confuse her. Real lovers will find comfort in confusion, joy in ambiguity, and home in the rotation of seasons.

Seriously, write her poems. I’m giving you all my heat.

And this above all: Be kind. Figure out what kindness means to her and be exactly that. Imagine all your conflicts from her perspective, see yourself with her eyes, and be for her everything she desires. Forget yourself. Unflinchingly, unceasingly, with complete abandon. Chase away every thought about getting or not getting the love you want. Just be the love you want and you will find in so doing a paradox about which the very wise do not dare to speak unless it’s the gentle rain on the silent mountain.



The Wedding

The Wedding

By Mary Ann Cooper

WO The Wedding ArtI’m planning a wedding. Or at least helping to plan one. Sean, my thirty-five year old son who lives in Chicago is getting married next May. The wedding will take place at my younger son’s home in Connecticut, where I also live. The lush yard will hold a tent, dance floor, port-o-potties and everything else that’s necessary for a garden nuptial. Since Sean isn’t here, I offered to help him check things off of his list and make it a memorable day.

My first task was to find a caterer. After speaking with friends and reading reviews, I narrowed my choices down to two. On my first call, I spoke with the owner, an enthusiastic middle-aged-sounding woman. I asked her if we might set up an appointment to review food options.

“I’d be delighted to have you come in,” she said. “I have sample menus you can take a look at and lots of other offerings.”

“Great!” I said.After giving her the date, number of guests and location, we continued.

“Ok,” she said. “Groom’s name?”


“Bride’s name?”

“Well, actually, there are two grooms,” I said. “The other groom’s name is Robb.”

She paused.  “I don’t understand. Another pause. “Oh, wait – is this a gay wedding?”

“It’s a wedding,” I said. “Is there a problem?”

“Um.  No.  It’s not a problem,” she said. The chirp had clearly left her voice.

“It’s just that we’ve never catered for gay people before.”

While I was speechless, seconds went by.

“Well,” I said. “That’s a shame.”

Seething inside, I gave her a quick thank you and hung up.

Through the years, I’ve learned how to handle myself when a gay slight or slur is hurled, whether subtle or blatant.  Previously, I used to fire back, the mama bear ready to protect her own. Now when it happens, whether I’m at a dinner party or just with another person, I exit the situation, finally realizing that I can’t repair ignorance.

I held my breath as I dialed the next caterer. After hearing Sean and Robb’s names, the owner continued taking information without any hesitation.

“It all sounds good,” she said. “We look forward to accommodating your event, and to meeting the grooms. You said they’re in Chicago? What do they do there?”

Wanting to cry with relief, I told her they were both airline captains. I wanted to tell her more, to tell her how kind and wonderful these two handsome men were. But I didn’t.

“Good for them,” she said. “See you soon.”

Sean was twenty-two and finishing college in Vermont, when after some urging by one of his professors, he came out. His first call was to me. I was always close with my sons. While they were growing up, their dad traveled a lot, and now, newly divorced, I was closer than ever to them. Sitting in my driveway, I was just about to get out of my car when my phone rang.

“Mom. Do you have a minute?”

“Of course,” I said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, but listen Mom.  I want to tell you something.”

“Anything,” I said.

The line was quiet for a moment.


“I’m gay, Mom.”

I heard some relief in his voice, mingled with trepidation. I hesitated, letting it sink in, but realized I had to say something quickly, as I knew he was waiting for my reaction and response.

“Sean,” I said. “I’m so proud of you, honey.  I don’t care what you are. I just want you happy. This can’t be easy for you.”

“It’s not,” he said. “For years, I’ve been asking myself, why me? I just wanted to be like everyone else.  But I’m finally ok with it.”

“I’m so glad. But it must have been so difficult along the way.”

“It was awful. Seriously, would anyone ever choose to be gay, Mom?”

After we spoke, I was relieved and saddened. Relieved that Sean could finally embrace who he was, yet saddened for what might be ahead of him in places where there were people not yet willing to accept others that don’t fit their concept of normal.

During high school, Sean dated many girls, I believe willing himself to be straight. But the relationships never lasted for more than a month. He’d then get depressed, despondent, and try again. My ex-husband and I knew he was struggling; we witnessed mood swings, anger, but never really knew what the cause was. We had him speak with a therapist, talk with the school counselor.  Nothing seemed to help. We did wonder if he was gay, but his outward appearance confused us: Sean was the guy wearing the hat backwards and driving a truck with a girl next to him. We had bought into the stereotypical image of what society says a gay man should look like. Sean later clued me in.

“Mom. It’s not always what you look like. Do you know how many cops, construction workers and servicemen out there that are gay?”

I didn’t, but I’m learning.

It’s been pure joy watching Sean grow into himself, content in his own skin, finally proud of who he is. Proud enough to sit in his cockpit and film a segment for the national “It Gets Better” program, which is aimed at kids who are struggling with their identity. And when Sean met Robb two years ago, it was the icing on an increasingly solid cake.

Last month, I had another wedding planning appointment, this time with a tent company.  A representative was meeting me at the backyard to measure and plan the set-up.  Luckily, Sean and Robb happened to be in town. Looking around, I smelled the lilacs, looked at the tiered patios and the arbor, and thought what a perfect place it was to have a wedding. As we waited, the three of us discussed wedding ideas.

“How about having paper airplanes coming out of the centerpieces?” I asked. Sean looked at me and rolled his eyes, while Robb stared at the pavement.

“No?” I asked.

A truck entering the yard stopped our conversation.

“Here’s the tent guy,” Sean said.

From the end of the driveway, we saw him approaching. Short with muscular tattooed arms, the tent guy’s teeth held a stubby cigar in one corner of his mouth. He wore a sleeveless New York Giants sweatshirt, and his jeans had a belt with a chain hanging from it.

Oh boy, I thought. I hope this goes well.

Sean stepped up and put his hand out.

“Hey, I’m Sean,” he said. “This is my mom and this is Robb.”

“Joey,” the tent guy said, shaking hands. “Nice to meet you all. Nice yard. Let’s take a look around.”

Walking the grounds together, Sean had questions for Joey.

“Robb and I have a lot of friends coming. Should we go with the larger dance floor?”

Joey stopped walking and quickly looked at Sean and then Robb. He took the cigar butt out.

Uh oh. Here it comes. I knew it.

“Wait. It’s you two gettin’ married?” he asked, pointing from one to the other.

I stared at Joey, waiting for the inevitable.

“Yup,” Sean said. “We are.”

“Well, Jeez,” Joey said. “That’s freakin’ great. Happy for you guys. Don’t worry; we’ll get the right dance floor. It’ll all be good.”

I smiled. Another learning experience for me. Just as I don’t want my son to be labeled, I shouldn’t do it to others. With this in mind, I continue checking items off my list.

Mary Ann Cooper is a writer who resides in Westport, Connecticut. She has been published in numerous publications including, Salon and Halfway Down The Stairs. She is presently at work on her memoir, “The Hollis Ten.”