By Lexi Behrndt


I never knew a son could be a soulmate


I spent my childhood dreaming of a soulmate. Someone who would be a new oxygen to fill my lungs. I read Wuthering Heights and swooned over the passion between Catherine and Heathcliff, and I knew in my bones that my person was out there. He had to be.

At eighteen, I fell quickly for a boy I thought truly saw me for me, the look in his eyes one of love. I married that boy, and what followed was the opposite of my dream. I spent years cursing myself for my idealistic tendencies, and wishing away the idea that my true love was somewhere out there. Our marriage was over before it was over, my hope for a soulmate long gone.

Together, we had two sons. One and then the other, fifteen months apart. When my first son was born, I was surprised by motherhood, and all that came with it. It was as though I had grown into my true self for the first time, loving and giving all I had to another. I could not get enough. When my son was six months old, on a hot July morning, I took a pregnancy test, and when the two pink lines appeared, instead of the fear I maybe should have felt at a poorly-timed pregnancy, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of joy. I knew this baby would receive all the love I had to give, just like his brother before him.

And when he was born, one cool April morning, he was placed on my chest, the powerful love rushed in, and then, the fear. The room quieted as I asked, “Why is he purple?” I watched as medical team members swarmed around him like bees watching their hive fall. Frantic and hurried, yet calculated and somber. I was forced to say goodbye to him repeatedly over his first few days of life, instead of wrapping him in my arms and holding him close for one, long, never-ending hello.

What followed was six and a half months of living in a pediatric cardiothoracic ICU as he battled congenital heart disease and pulmonary hypertension. Six and a half months of victories, hardships, setbacks, sweet kisses, moments my heart lurched out of my chest with contentedness and love, and moments my lungs deflated, suddenly unable to remember how to breathe. We bonded with cords and monitors, and I sang him songs repeatedly, if only to cover up the noise of the alarms. And when I entered his tiny, sterile hospital room, he always seemed to know, his eyes searched the ceiling, as if they were waiting to lock with mine. I was his, and he was mine. There was nothing I wouldn’t do to keep him with me, healthy and whole. But then, after 200 days, the fateful day came, and I watched all the dominos fall as I held him in my arms, and while everything screamed and raged within me, I told him it was okay to go.

I left the hospital numb with my mother and my older son beside me, with nothing but a lock of his hair, his favorite socks, his stained swaddle blankets. “This is the end of it all,” I thought.

But it wasn’t.

If you had told me two years ago that inside the sterile walls of a children’s hospital I would be forever changed, I never would have believed you. I gave birth to a little boy I had to give back, and the living and the giving was my saving grace. Somehow, my little boy with sick lungs and crummy veins taught me exactly what I needed.

He taught me to fight. He taught me to love without fear. He taught me to find my voice and stand my ground. Before him, I was stuck and desolate, and I didn’t even know it. He took care of his momma more than I took care of him. A little boy with the biggest blue eyes took my life by storm, and made sure he left me stronger, braver, kinder, and with more love than I realized my heart could hold.

I received a card after my son’s death, from a friend who had also lost her son. Her sentiment was simple yet profound, one lovely sentence that has stayed with me in the year since his death.

“I never knew a son could be a soulmate.”

I never did either, until I met mine.

Lexi Behrndt is the founder of Scribbles and Crumbs and The On Coming Alive Project. She is a single mother to two boy—one here and one in heaven, a freelance writer, and a communications director. Join her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage/Having a Kid Strained My Marriage: Two Perspectives

Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage/Having a Kid Strained My Marriage: Two Perspectives

Having children together is a big step in any couple’s relationship and one that will invariably affect the dynamic between them. For some people, like Zsofia McMullin, the arrival of a baby can put a strain on the marriage. For others, such as Carinn Jade, the joint act of childrearing can pull a couple closer together.


Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage

By Carinn Jade

My husband and I met in law school, both of us on the clearly marked path to becoming lawyers. We built our relationship on equal ground, walking parallel and in the same direction. With a healthy chemistry, complementary personalities and a similar vision of marriage, careers and kids, we felt confident as we moved swiftly towards our future together.

We were in sync, but we never learned to operate as a unit. This reality set in only after the outpouring of love and support that held us up during our engagement celebrations fell away, and everyone else moved on with their lives once the wedding was over. We knew we were expected to do the same, but we didn’t know how. We felt unsure and alone as the new entity of “married couple.” We dealt with those feelings of isolation in very different ways, causing our parallel paths to hastily diverge.

We broke the vows we’d made—love, honor, cherish, for better or worse—like naughty schoolchildren testing boundaries, and no one came to save us. When we arrived at the point of collapse, we faced one another with the daunting choice to stay together or divorce. On paper, it would have been easy to leave: we had been living apart, we had no children, we had absolutely no idea how to fix us. Yet neither one of us could do it. That visceral knowledge has proven powerful beyond measure. Surviving that period created some sort of invincibility shield that has protected us from everything else life throws our way.

Once our marriage was on solid ground, we dove headfirst into starting a family. While we waited for the baby to arrive, I soothed my anxiety with knowledge, reading dozens of parenting manuals. When our son was born, colickly and high maintenance, the books went out the window and we operated in a constant state of emergency. Our strategy was nothing less than all hands on deck. Our teamwork was shoddy, our interactions tense. But as our son grew, we grew, and soon the parenting machine ran without mechanical failures.

Our second child completed our transformation from individuals into a team. With a toddler and a newborn, we quickly learned to operate not only with efficiency, but with gratitude for the other adult in the room. My husband’s extra pair of hands provided the relief I needed after a long day at home, his office stories kept me sane amidst a sea of cartoon theme songs, his sense of humor kept me laughing when I wanted to cry.

Despite the fact that I’ve held full-time positions during my six years as a mother, our division of domain always remains shockingly traditional. I’m the lead parent and he’s the lead provider, but we manage careers, money, childcare and household chores together. It’s never easy or simple, but it’s part of our lives. We do all the cooking and cleaning and childcare by ourselves. We don’t have a bankroll to fund tropical island vacations. We are mired in the unsexy, mind-numbing details of domestic life, but our marriage thrives because we work as a team to set and achieve the goals for our family: we debate approaches to discipline, we budget for Legoland, we squirrel away money for higher education.

We do not share all marital responsibilities equally, but we maintain tremendous respect for one another. We treat each other with as much kindness as we can muster. We make no space for contempt and bitterness. We put all our effort into empathy and communication. At the end of the day, I suspect our marriage looks like so many that are strained. Many an evening we’ve gone to bed angry, exhausted and frustrated. But by morning’s light, we shed the tension like the cloak of night. We begin the day in the same bed, as part of the same team.

It helps that I think my husband is as interesting and entertaining as the day we first met. We love doing the same things, we enjoy the stories the other brings to the table, and our vastly different perspectives offer a wider view of the world than we could ever have alone. Do we annoy each other? Yes. Consider the other’s ways of doing things mildly infuriating? Of course. But after eleven years of marriage our initial chemistry has deepened into an unshakeable rapport. I’d rather spend my days with no one else.

Friends often want to know our secret to having a stronger marriage after kids. Sometimes I dip into my well of possible answers: live in close physical proximity to one another (think: Tiny House, or a 1000 sq. ft. apartment), find someone who shares your interests, pick a partner that makes you laugh. If you’ve got nerves of steel: bend your marriage until you find its breaking point and work your way back. But the truth is I don’t have a single ingredient that ensures a relationship will thrive, with or without kids; I only know the magic recipe is one you have to make together, even when the kitchen is a mess.

Carinn Jade is a mother, lawyer, yogi, writer and habitual non-sleeper. She tweets @carinnjade and publishes parenting essays on Welcome To The Motherhood, both in an effort to distract her from the novel her agent has in submission.

Photo: Somin Khanna


Having a Kid Strained My Marriage

By Zsofia McMullin


The story I like to tell about how having a child strained my marriage takes place on the third day of our son’s life. We had just arrived home from the hospital with our tiny, precious baby. My parents were waiting for us with dinner and a house warmed against the snowstorm winding down outside. All I wanted to do was eat a bowl of soup and go to bed.

But we had bills to pay. As in, some of our utility bills were due soon and when my mom offered to help us, my husband immediately accepted and asked her to take them to the post office. But first, I had to write those bills—we’ve always done it this way, because my husband has horrible handwriting and is distrustful of online payment.

So there I was, ripped and bleeding and sore and so, so incredibly tired, writing checks to the electric company. I remember sitting there, thinking that this was absurd, that I should really just tell my husband to cut me some slack and deal with the bills on his own while I took a shower. But I think I was even too tired to do that.

Five years later, I am sort of able to laugh about this. But at the same time I know that first moment at home has come to symbolize how our marriage changed almost instantly when our son was born. All of a sudden, I had needs and wants and priorities that were completely different from what they were just mere days earlier. My husband’s world jiggled a little with the new arrival, but then it settled right back to where it was before.

I don’t want to paint my husband as insensitive, nor do I want to suggest that keeping our marriage strong is his responsibility alone. Clearly, there are two of us in this relationship, and if there is strain, we are both at fault.

But still, that discrepancy between how my life has changed since our son arrived, in the mind-blowing way it can for mothers, and how his life has stayed the same continues to be a fault line in our marriage. And yet, I have come think of it as a gift, as something unique that I carry as a mother, along with my stretch marks. My husband didn’t get those either, that’s just the way it is.

Before kids I was able to be more tolerant of my husband’s eccentricities and whims, I had patience for whatever “typical male” behavior would surface and just roll my eyes and then roll with the punches. I was a lot more forgiving with him—and with myself. Once our son was born, however, whatever grace or patience I had left me. What was once a cute, quirky personality trait that made me smile during our dating days, became a huge annoyance, a problem. My husband didn’t really change—I did.

Having a kid was not the first strain on our marriage. There was the usual tension during our newlywed years caused by not being used to living together, by not having enough money, by moving around for jobs and constantly compromising about careers and where to live. “We made it through those all right,” he said. “Having a kid is just another one we have to get through.”

But to me, this is not some kind of a race to clear hurdles. This strain feels more abiding. We will always be parents, our son a permanent fixture in our relationship, the third point in our triangle. We will always have differing views on how to raise him—we are getting better about negotiating those differences, but the conflict is there nevertheless. And frankly, I will always be a mother first, and a wife second.

We married pretty young—we were both 26. Looking back I realize I was too young to be able to determine what I would need the father of my child to be. At that point, there was just no way to imagine us as parents. The roles were too unfamiliar, too open to interpretation and circumstances. Sure, he is loving and tender and gentle and flexible and caring and understanding. But how could I possibly have known how he would react when I thrust a baby in his arms? I was surprised, for instance, that even bleary-eyed with exhaustion my husband loves order, that he is a disciplinarian and says things to our son like, “not while you live in my house.”

The truth is, we don’t know what life would have done to us without a child. The arrival of our son strained us, but it hasn’t broken us. We have good weeks and bad weeks, days when we can be patient and kind and forgiving and days when we can barely look at each other through our resentment and anger. It has been hard work to get to this point where we know that, although the way we express our commitment to our family is different, we are both motivated by love.

Our marriage has changed—I don’t know if I would call it a rift, but there is a separation there, a distance between who we used to be, how we used to be together, and how we are now.

Zsofia McMullin is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other publications. She blogs at and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.


A Tale of Borscht and Love

A Tale of Borscht and Love

Borscht ArtBy Maria Danilova

On Friday nights, after our daughter has fallen asleep and before we indulge in our guilty pleasure of the week, the latest episode of “The Good Wife,” we begin a familiar ritual.  My husband shreds cabbage, chops carrots and slices onions. I peel potatoes and grate red beets. Standing side by side in the kitchen in our sweatpants, tired and sleepy, we make borscht.

Where we come from, Russia and Ukraine, borscht, a steaming hot soup made of red beets topped with a generous serving of sour cream, is as central to our cuisine as it is to life. Borscht is what a wife serves her husband after a long day’s work. Borscht is what a mother, any self-respecting mother, feeds her child for lunch. Where we come from, borscht is love.

In the bedroom, our daughter is asleep in her toddler bed, her blond hair strewn over her pillow, one hand hugging Mr. Pants, a stuffed brown bear clad in a green corduroy jumpsuit, who, as we later found out, in America goes by the name of Corduroy.

It was a wild idea to leave her toys and our life behind, in Kiev, and invest all of our savings to come to New York to become students, again, when other, more seasoned parents, are already putting money in their children’s college funds.

Behind, we left a devoted nanny, whose biggest flaw was that she loved children too much, my husband’s parents who were always happy to spend time with Katya, a pediatrician who would make house calls whenever she had a fever and a kindergarten where Katya sang Ukrainian songs. And of course, there was my in-laws’ country house in a small village outside of Kiev, where Katya picked strawberries from the garden bed, spent summers splashing in the local pond and drank the milk of the neighbors’ Maya the goat and Visilka the cow.

But last summer, we took one final dip in the pond, boarded a plane and twelve hours later found ourselves in New York, the center of everything, the capital of the world. This time, it was just us.

For the first several days, the only furniture in our New York apartment was two inflatable beds and a red carpet, given to us by family friends, so we ate our first meal – borscht – from soup plates on top of a large carton box fashioned into a table. Everything in our lives was changing, but borscht was still there.

We were ready and eager for the challenging academic life at Columbia University, but the biggest challenge turned out to be our lack of time, since with no help available we have to structure our studies around Katya. So our life is a series of sprints from the lecture hall, to the library, to her school, to the playground. We overlap for a peck on the cheek, one of us hands Katya’s small warm hand to the other and sprints off to the library.

That is why, on Friday nights we make borscht. With no time to cook between classes, we make one giant pot of soup that lasts until the following weekend. During the long week of lectures and homework assignments, I would worry about cracking strategy cases and deciphering financial statements, but my heart would be at ease about one thing – that my child is properly fed.

I remember a profound conversation about love I had, as it happens, with a complete stranger. Years ago, I was taking an overnight train from Kiev to Moscow, after visiting the boy who would later become my husband and Katya’s father I shared the train compartment with a middle-aged woman who had spent the weekend with her daughter and granddaughter in Kiev and was returning home to her husband in Moscow. She seemed like the kind of woman I wanted to be when I reach her age – attractive, fit, full of energy and content with her life. As we drank tea from thick glass tumblers sunk in metallic glass holders, an eternal tradition on Russian sleeper trains, I asked her whether she was still in love with her husband after so many years together. She looked at me like I was five years old and knew nothing about life. “Honey,” she told me in a school teacher’s tone. “Our love boat crashed in the shallow waters of everyday life. That’s just what happens.”

Ten years later, my husband and I were standing at the kitchen counter, slicing vegetables on a Friday night, dressed in baggy sweatpants.

“Cabbage,” I would tell him and kiss him on the shoulder. “Coming up,” he would reply.

This must be the very definition of the shallow waters of everyday life, I thought to myself, making beet soup while my more glamorous classmates were posting photos of their adventures in New York night clubs. Yet, our boat was sailing. We were standing side by side, making borscht for our child, half mine, half his, ours. This is love.

We were both raised in conservative Soviet families, where men would usually wander into the kitchen either by accident or to inquire when dinner will be served. The one exception my father made was preparing French toast on the weekends, while my father-in-law would usually be seen in the kitchen on International Women’s Day, a quintessential Soviet holiday celebrating alleged women’s equality on the 8th of March, that is, once a year. So our making of borscht together is a cultural revolution of sorts. What would my late grandmother say if she knew, I wondered. But for me, it is not about feminism or gender roles, it’s about love. All the more so because despite my devotion to the traditions of my family, the borscht recipe is my husband’s mother’s, not mine.

Growing up, I always wondered, as most girls do, what is love. How does it manifest itself? How do you know that it’s there? Is it your first date? Your wedding? The birth of your child?

I think I figured it out on a recent Friday night, cooking borscht in a big red pot, one of the first things I bought in New York. This is love.

In this borscht that we made together are all our joys and problems, big and small – the first English phrase Katya learned in the U.S. (ice-cream truck), a babysitter who announced on her first day that she was leaving us, the exams we dreaded, but did well on, Katya’s tooth that is hanging by a thread, while the Tooth Fairy hasn’t bought a present yet. And, of course, New York.

As the year was drawing to a close, in this constant maze of studies and sprints between the playground and the library, we still managed to go on a date. When Katya was in school and neither of us had lectures, we met at the library to sit in silence next to each other for an hour. He built algorithms; I struggled with assets and liabilities. We shared a salmon sandwich on rye bread, drank lukewarm coffee and exchanged whispers.

Soon, he blew me a kiss and took off – it was his turn to pick up Katya from school that day. It was sad to end our date so soon, but as I pored over income statements for my accounting class, I smiled. It was Friday. In the evening we will put Katya to bed and, after she falls asleep, we will watch “The Good Wife.” But before that, we will make borscht.

Author’s Note: It has been a year since we came to New York. Since then, my husband and I have both graduated from Columbia University and relocated to Washington, DC to start new jobs and resume our adult, non-student lives. Katya has come to love American food, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and French fries, and getting her to eat borscht now requires effort on our part. But my husband and I still try to find time to cook Russian and Ukrainian dishes for her, including, of course, borscht. 

Maria Danilova recently completed the Knight-Bagehot fellowhip in economics and business journalism at Columbia University in New York. Before the program, she covered Russia and Ukraine for the Associated Press for 11 years. Her work has also been published by Tablet magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, GQ and other outlets.

 Illustration: © Nataliya Arzamasova |

Fiction: Quarry

Fiction: Quarry

EmptyNestBy Molia Dumbleton

It took her a second to recognize him, coming at her with a glass of champagne, but just as she was about to open her mouth, he said “I thought that might be you.”

Kenny must have been all of eighteen the last time she’d seen him, and sweeping Judith off somewhere, the way he had almost every day that last summer, before he and Judith and all of their friends had packed up and left for school. She had loved that summer. It was the last time things felt right. She looked at him now, in a suit, almost thirty, and said “Kenny, my god, honey, look at you.”

She thought he might hug her, or offer a lingering handshake—but he waved instead with his glass, so she waved back, and then they stood there in the bright light of the outer gallery, searching for details they once knew, buried in these new, older faces. Eventually he laughed, and she crossed her arms, and they turned to look out over the cocktail hour at Judith’s rehearsal dinner.

“I was sorry to hear about your mom,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry about Mister Janney, too.”

“Yeah? Well. Thanks.”

Allen had died a few years ago, after the divorce and more than a few years of not speaking, so she still felt guilty when people expressed their condolences as if she were a proper widow. Still, the one consolation of being back in town was that at least people here had known them then—so no matter how things ended or how they felt about it, here, at least, they would be forced to look at her and face what had been lost.

She smiled and tried to will a tray of champagne to pass. “I guess you and Judith have both had a hard couple of years,” she said.

A swell of jazz pushed out from behind the door to the main gallery. Kenny tossed his head in that direction. “Art history, this guy.” He bottomed his champagne and set the glass precariously on a windowsill. “What a prick.”

She hadn’t made it to the main room yet, hadn’t yet faced Judith. She hadn’t even gotten a drink. It was only minutes ago that the airport shuttle driver had flicked a hand toward the building and said “Modern. Can’t miss it,” and been right. The perfect, glowing gallery had appeared around the corner: tidy and geometric, with nothing left to chance.

It wasn’t hard to guess what the wedding would be like, nor the boy. He would look the way he was supposed to look and say the things he was supposed to say, and later tonight, he would tell Judith the things she would need to hear about how hard it must have been having a mother like that, and how brave it had been to invite her after all these years, and of course, sweetheart, of course, princess, how much better it would have been if her precious father could have been here instead.

The gallery was just so. The music was just so. And the boy would be just so, of course—and she would love him, as she loved Judith from the instant she’d conceived of her. But looking around, she also knew. No matter how the weekend went, she would never again be allowed to know Judith the way she once had, or share her secrets, or watch movies with this young man under a blanket at their perfect house, or be invited to breakfast on Thanksgiving.

“Smoke?” Kenny used two fingers to reveal a pack of cigarettes in his jacket’s handkerchief pocket.

That last summer, sweet, lovesick Kenny had come by almost every day, just to sit on the couch with Judith arm-to-arm in the heat, with thick course catalogs or lists of dorm room supplies. He’d come almost every night, too—to fetch Judith out to a party, or down to the quarry, where the kids did god-knows-what, except everybody in town knew what. Had known for generations.

And then they’d gone. All of them at once, leaving their tidy rooms and beds empty behind them.

And how could a mother not miss the nights of worry when the kids snuck out, with their tangled hair and their beautiful skin, reeking of youth, as the short hours of their perfection ticked away?

And how could she not be surprised to find herself tiptoeing into those rooms to smell the t-shirts of the children she had lost, and the prom dresses and baseball mitts left behind in their closets.

In truth, it was only Allen who had turned away, and only he who turned the children.

Couldn’t they see: it was only heartbreak that could cause a mother, of all people, to start going down to the quarry. Only love.

But by the time Allen asked her to leave, the quarry had gone cold anyway, and the buzz in those old rooms had gone flat. And by the time the children finished and came home from college, nothing smelled right anymore, not even them.

She hesitated, eyeing the door to the reception, and Kenny’s sweet fingers in his pocket.


Molia Dumbleton’s fiction and poetry have appeared in New England Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Witness, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and others. Her story, “The Way They Carried Themselves,” was awarded First Prize in the Seán Ó Faoláin International Short Story Competition and nominated for a Pushcart. Her story, “If She Were to Lay Down,” was featured in Huffington Post’s “Read 15 Amazing Works of Fiction in Less Than 30 Minutes.” Her website is

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

LadybirdsBy Banks Staples Pecht

They call it a loveliness when thousands of ladybugs gather.

Humming tunelessly in my kitchen, I unpacked the bag of gardening supplies we had just bought at the nursery. I smiled at the small cellophane bag teeming with fifteen hundred live ladybugs. My children had insisted I buy them instead of plant spray to control the aphids in our back yard. “Enough ladybugs to colonize an average yard,” the bag promised. Placing it on the counter, I walked across the kitchen, through the back door and onto the porch to pot our new lemon tree.

Several minutes later, the back door opened.

“Mom, look!”

Kyle, five, came onto the porch and held out his hand. My stomach dropped as I saw what was crawling on his palm: one ladybug. Kyle’s dark eyes squinted with pride and delight as he admired his six-legged prize through wire-rimmed glasses.

“Look Mom! I have three!” Evan, Kyle’s twin, followed in quick pursuit with arms outstretched, his ivory cheeks turned pink with excitement as three ladybugs crawled up his forearms.

Oh no.

“Guys, where’s the bag of ladybugs?”

Kyle and Evan looked at each other and then turned toward their bedroom.

“Mom, I found this on the floor. ” My eight-year-old daughter, Martie, walked out holding the now empty cellophane bag. One straggler climbed out.

“Cute!” She coaxed it onto her index finger.

Between them, Kyle, Evan and Martie had five ladybugs. That meant one thousand, four hundred and ninety-five ladybugs were missing.

Oh, NO!

I sprinted to the boys’ bedroom.

The floor of their room undulated with the ebb and flow of hundreds of ladybugs scurrying out of the big bowl into which, in an effort to be “careful,” Kyle and Evan had emptied the bag. Ladybugs crawled on the walls, the furniture, even into the boys’ bunk beds.

My hand flew to my mouth as I screamed. Then, I began to chuckle. The chuckle grew into a giggle, then into a deep belly laugh, because this was not supposed to happen.

My little boys were supposed to die.

Five years earlier, on a Saturday morning twenty-five weeks into an uneventful pregnancy, the contractions began. Kyle and Evan were born that night, limp and tiny, into a world of medical emergency. Two neonatal teams intubated my sons, and life support machines restarted their hearts. Kyle and Evan each weighed little more than one and a half pounds, each only one-third the size of the chicken I had roasted earlier that week for dinner.

Three hours later the neonatologist visited our hospital room and described a parade of horribles I could not imagine, but that my pediatrician husband, Ben, knew well. If they survived the first twenty-four hours… If they survived the first seventy-two hours… If they survived long enough to endure a months-long stay in the neonatal ICU… If they survived at all.

If they survived, their chances of engaged, purposeful lives were virtually nil.

If they survived, their chances of severe impairment were almost certain.

Martie, two years old, lay in the hospital bed next to me while the doctor spoke. She looked up with a smile and offered me the half-eaten chocolate Santa the nurse had given her. I took a bite, but the chocolate tasted bitter. I held her close and kissed the top of her head.

If they survived.

Kyle.  Evan. The names Ben and I had settled on just that morning were now written in magic marker on name cards that hung above translucent unfinished people attached to countless tubes, wires and monitors. Colorful paper name cards told me these foreign babies were my sons.

Ben put his strong hand on my shoulder. It had never failed to comfort me before.

If they survived.

“You may touch him with one finger, Mrs. Pecht,” the nurse told me, the first time I sat at Evan’s bedside. I cried so hard I was thirsty.

Beeeeeeeeeep. Four days after the boys were born, a monitor across the room turned black as a baby boy died in his mother’s arms. Ben and I sat with our motionless sons, who languished on life support in their incubators. Ben’s shoulders hunched. I took his hand while he stared at Kyle’s monitor and willed it to stay lit. Doctors and nurses, healers never inured to the death of a child, mourned with a family in crisis. I swallowed my own vomit, my worst fears coming true for a kindred family.

Where is God in all of this? I raged.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

The fly trapped in the fluorescent light banged against the glass. Kyle and Evan were three weeks old. It was almost Christmas. I sat on the faded green sofa in the hospital waiting room and pretended to read a year-old magazine. Ben sat next to me, staring at the flashing lights on the plastic tree in the corner, and chewed the cuticle of his right thumb until it bled. Behind the closed door a surgeon with grown-up hands opened our sons’ two-pound bodies, spread their ribs and clamped off leaks in their hearts.

The fly in the light fixture fought on, desperate for survival.

If they survived. 

Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue,” the Hawaiian singer sang soulfully from the car radio on my way home from the hospital, a week after the boys’ surgeries.

It was the song we had decided to play at the funeral if they died.

I couldn’t imagine life without them.

I couldn’t imagine life with them.

I pulled over and sobbed onto the steering wheel.

Kyle and Evan were five weeks old when I first held them. Two nurses and a doctor managed all of their tubes and wires. My heart burst open when our skin touched.

If they survived.

Brushing my teeth one night I realized that, for the first time since their birth seven weeks earlier, I hadn’t cried that day.

“Either things are getting better or you’ve lost the ability to feel, girlfriend,” I said to the woman with the bloodshot eyes and frothy lips staring back at me in the mirror.

I sure hope its the former, I thought. I rinsed my mouth and drove back to the hospital.

When they survived.

Four months and two days after their birth, Kyle and Evan came home. They had developmental delays and required endless medications and daily therapy sessions. Some days they felt more like high-stakes science fair experiments than my children. I ached with fear for them.

When they survived.

We had been home only five months, and already Ben and I were breaking.

“Banks, I don’t even want to come home at night, and it’s not because of the kids, it’s because of you!” Ben shouted as he slammed the front door on his way to work.

I saw myself in the mirror over the fireplace: a harridan in a stained robe, a crying infant on one hip, another in a bouncy chair and a three-year-old drawing with her yogurt on the breakfast table. A woman who was once an optimist with plans and a burgeoning legal career, now angry, sad and resentful.

Ben, my husband, my lover, my closest companion, had become my punching bag.

“Please come back to me,” I whispered as his taillights receded.

When they survived.

Martie started preschool, paddled around at swim lessons, went on play dates and to ballet class. Inquisitive and engaging, she needed and deserved her parents. We were spent but pretended well, for her sake.

“You know I love you, right, babe?” I said and closed my eyes, feeling Ben’s warm hand on my hip as his thigh covered my naked belly for the first time in weeks.

“We’ll get through this, Banksie,” Ben murmured, kissing the base of my collarbone.

How? I wondered.

When they survived.

“If you want him to learn, you have to push him until he’s about to quit and let him fail and keep trying,” the physical therapist said. Kyle, two years old and struggling to walk, had fallen off the low balance beam a dozen times already that morning.

Kyle looked at me with tear-stained cheeks, his breath ragged. I yearned to jump up and help him but I sat in my chair, hands clenched.

“One more time, Kyle,” the therapist said with an encouraging pat on the beam.

Kyle squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and got back up.

“One foot in front of the other, buddy!” I choked out, my throat thick, thinking how much this advice applied to my own life.

When they survived.

Kyle and Evan graduated from therapy and started a special enriched preschool. They learned to ride tricycles and played with their seven-year-old sister. Their development was delayed and we still agonized, but Ben and I started to breathe for the first time in years.

When they survived.

“How come we never got divorced through all this?” I asked Ben on the way home from the beach earlier that ladybug summer, when the boys were five and Martie was eight.

“We were too tired,” he said with a wink. We laughed.

When they survived.

“Ben!” My voice was shrill with panic as I stared at the loveliness of ladybugs populating the boys’ room. Ben ran in from the backyard.

“What the…? Martie, grab me the broom!” he commanded.

Martie sprinted to the hall closet as I snatched the bowl, still half full of ladybugs, and carried it to the yard, dropping it on the lawn. Wiping ladybugs off my hands and arms, I hurried into the house. We swept load after load of ladybugs into dustpans and emptied them into the bushes. We shook out rugs and flicked ladybugs from toys. The boys sucked up ladybugs one by one with handheld bug vacuums they had received as gifts the Christmas before.

Ben caught my eye.

In that moment, that crazy moment that in any other story would have been a catastrophe, we realized that Kyle and Evan had survived. We realized that they had more than survived, they had thrived and were able to wreak good, old-fashioned little-boy havoc. In that moment, for the first time since the day of their birth, we were no longer afraid.

We started laughing, hard, amid a loveliness of ladybugs and the shocking ordinariness of five-year-old mischief that never should have happened.

When we survived.

Before Kyle and Evan were born, life was a series of ipso factos that suggested that the universe handed out reward and punishment like Halloween candy. Kyle and Evan’s birth destroyed any certainty Ben and I had invented for ourselves and left only questions. Are control and security nothing more than illusions, even acts of hubris? And if that’s true, how do you find the strength to keep going when you cannot keep safe the people you love, when the terror is so overwhelming you can taste it in the back of your throat? Where do you find the courage to keep loving when the very act causes unthinkable pain? Perhaps the answers to these questions lay not in the controlled order I once thought I knew, but in the gorgeous chaos, and this exquisite, relentless connection that impels us to show up, always, regardless.

Fearless love. Ferocious love.

The next morning, as Martie, Kyle and Evan watched T.V. before breakfast, I lifted the lid off the coffee maker. Out crept a ladybug.

“C’mere, little guy,” I said as it crawled onto my finger. I walked across the kitchen, opened the back door and let it fly.

Author’s Note: Kyle and Evan are now eight years old and about to finish second grade, where they pore over books about knights and pirates, concoct explosive science experiments and engage in any game involving balls, dirt, or bugs with equal enthusiasm. We are still in touch with their therapists, doctors, nurses and special ed teachers, who will forever hold permanent keys to our hearts. Ladybugs continue to play a leading role in our family story; recently, Martie, Kyle and Evan spent hours rescuing hundreds of ladybugs trapped in the ice of a frozen California mountain lake. I am grateful.

Banks Staples Pecht lives in Ventura, CA, with her family, a Swiss mountain dog named Bella, two Dumbo rats named Oreo and Ice Cream, and Ninja, the Betta fish. When not writing, working as a lawyer/consultant/executive coach, caring for her three children or staying married, she can be found singing competitive barbershop and being beaten by her children in Wii bowling. This is her first published work.

Notes on a Marriage

Notes on a Marriage

largeBy Addie Morfoot

It was 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve when a shot was fired and a car slammed into our front door.

This was as close to a party as my husband and I were going to get.

In the eleven and a half months since giving birth to our first child, I still didn’t feel like myself. I felt more like a bear in hibernation. My cave was a one-bedroom garden apartment in Brooklyn Heights.

My marriage didn’t feel like my marriage either. Each day got off to a hazy start at 6:30 A.M. and came to an abrupt halt at 7 P.M. when my son went to bed. After a trip to Florida, I realized that our family was more suited for a retirement community than The City That Never Sleeps, especially on New Year’s Eve.

The topic of celebrating the end of that tumultuous year never came up between my husband and me. Instead, after we put our son to sleep on December 31, Ross opened a bottle of wine while I found “Friday Night Lights” on our DVR so we could binge watch season three.

Gone were the days when we rang in the New Year overseas or at our local haunt on Elizabeth Street.

We had just endured a year that consisted of far too little sleep and plenty of financial distress. While our freelance jobs had once afforded my filmmaker husband and me—a reporter—the opportunity to travel the world, the minute I got pregnant we seemed to be in a perpetual state of instability. We had become the cliché of the struggling freelance couple: constantly depressed, moody, scared and only on rare occasions, exhilarated.

For the first time in our relationship, we were on a budget. A coffee machine replaced our morning runs to Starbucks. Then, a few days before my son was born, Ross agreed to a film project that would take him to war torn, dangerous areas of the world. Not bringing in any significant income myself, I couldn’t tell him not to go, so he left for weeks at a time while I tried to figure out how to care for an infant.

“Do you really need Pellegrino?” I hissed one evening while preparing dinner.

“No. But it’s cheaper than your $5 bottles of Kombucha,” Ross snapped back.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, we were barely speaking. Our fatigue had morphed into anger. He’d been gone for three weeks that month working on a film and when he returned he had little time for anything but work. Whenever he had a moment to breathe and actually have a face-to-face conversation with me, I invariably got a writing assignment. The only thing we weren’t fighting about was “Friday Night Lights.”

“I gotta go to bed,” I said, two and a half episodes in.

“Come on,” Ross said. “It’s only ten-thirty.”

I was desperate to close my eyes, but before I could reply, a black sedan came flying toward our front picture window, landing with a boom on our stoop. The car, which sat inches from our landlord’s front door, was perched precariously on the stairway railing. Somehow the iron gate in front of our apartment had prevented the sedan from careening into our living room.

The loud crash didn’t wake the baby, so I followed Ross outside to help what we thought was a drunk driver. But all we saw was an empty car.

“Run!” somebody screamed. I couldn’t see a face, but the voice was coming from down the street.

We were too stunned to move.

We heard frantic feet hitting the pavement. As the sound of the footsteps disappeared, we heard a voice coming from the opposite direction.

“Help!” It was a man, holding his neck and walking slowly down the block towards us. “I’ve been shot,” he said, his voice barely audible.

His left hand fell away from his neck and out came a rush of blood.

As the wife of a documentary filmmaker, I’ve seen atrocities, but I never expected to see bloodshed in our pristine, tree-lined, Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Our particular block resembled a movie set. Early 19th century Federal-style houses lined one side of the street, while the mansion where Truman Capote once lived stood opposite. Bankers who wore loafers without socks, bright Lacoste shirts and carried briefcases strode to the subway every morning, and celebrity sightings were the norm.

I ran inside to call 911 while Ross grabbed a bath towel (our nicest, most expensive one) and wrapped it around the man’s neck.

“There’s been a shooting,” I screamed into the receiver.

“Where are you ma’am?” asked the voice on the other end.

“Brooklyn Heights!”

There was a slight pause and then, “Where?”

Back outside, Ross was holding the towel to the man’s bloody neck with one hand and rubbing his back with the other. The man leaned against our busted wrought iron gate. The same gate I walked by everyday. The same gate I opened to bring my baby home from the hospital and the same gate I decorated in Christmas lights every year.

“It will be O.K.,” Ross whispered to the man.

Those were the same four words he always whispered in my ear when I fretted over an assignment. “I believe in you,” he would tell me.

While waiting for the ambulance, the man told us that he was a livery cab driver. He had picked up two passengers who then demanded the car. When he didn’t immediately comply, the carjackers shot him and pushed him out the door. They then proceeded to botch the robbery by crashing the car into the front of the brownstone and taking off into the night.

“Please call my wife,” the man had said breathlessly. “We have a baby. I need to tell my family I love them.”

I felt terrible for him, but now every ounce of sympathy I had was with his wife. The only thing I could imagine that was worse than being a new mother was being a new mother alone.

Sitting upright, his feet splayed in front of him, the livery driver would occasionally jerk his eyes open, like he was forcing himself to stay conscious. I, on the other hand, felt more awake than I had in nearly a year. The fog of parenthood lifted for a moment and I saw Ross clearly, imagining what it would be like if I lost him. The anxiety that once washed over me whenever he traveled had been redirected towards my son. Now what kept me up at night—instead of worrying about him—was making sure the baby was still breathing.

For six years it had been unbearable to be separated from one another. We were a solidified couple in what seemed to be an unbreakable relationship. Then we became parents and the bond that had once been so strong slowly began to unravel. “Can you do the laundry today?” replaced good-bye kisses in the morning. Sleep deprivation mixed with financial fright and role resentment made our pre-baby relationship unrecognizable and our home not so homey.

I kept Ross company as he continued to hold the towel to the livery man’sneck. While only minutes had passed, it felt like hours had gone by without an ambulance. I worried that the man would die before EMTs could save him. The smell of death at our front door meant that for the first time in eleven and a half months there was no reason to fight about money, formula or whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher.

“Where are they?” Ross said, looking up and down the street for the ambulance.

“They’ll be here. Just keep doing what you’re doing,” I reassured him.

It was the gentlest, most civil exchange we’d had in months. We turned our focus back to the man, who had one eye open, and told him with confidence, “You’re going to be alright.”

I didn’t know if that was true, and I imagine Ross didn’t either, but it felt good to at least agree on something again.

Author’s note: While Ross and I were told that the man survived, we never spoke to him after the ambulance took him away. Our son is now four years old and while we still struggle with some of the issues raised in this essay, we agree on a lot more than just “Friday Night Lights.”

Addie Morfoot is a freelance reporter who writes frequently for the entertainment media. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Marie Claire, Daily Variety and The Wall Street Journal. She’s currently completing her first novel.


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.

On Shame and Parenting

On Shame and Parenting

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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.


On the first day of sixth grade, I entered the school cafeteria for lunch. It was huge, noisy, and smelled like early-puberty sweat and sour milk. The kids were talking, all of them, and I knew they didn’t want me. All the evidence of this was generated by my own guts, which hunched and lurched under their burden of shame. I went to the library and read books during my lunch period for most of my 3 years in middle school.

Later, a girl with a lumpy blonde ponytail and electric blue eyeshadow said, “Why don’t you just kill yourself? Nobody even likes you so why do you bother?” I knew she was right.

Of the raw materials from which loneliness may be built, shame is the most robust. It is the bedrock foundation on which a lifetime of loneliness is best erected. My structure of loneliness was large and strong, a carefully tended prison. I sought evidence to justify its continued existence and rarely left it.

When I was grown, but barely, I met a man. He said he would have me, as a favor. My job would be to tend the shame, to use it to make myself worthy of him. My gratitude for his occasional visits to my isolated world would help me deserve him.

In quick succession came two babies, howling and burning with the rarest human perfection and they seemed to me like a new breed, something different on planet earth, people of flesh, yes, but also of starlight and the night desert and mystery.

The man, entranced, looked into the small, dimpled face of our first child and asked, “Do you think our parents felt like this about us?” The question startled me, made me question all my carefully maintained assumptions about myself and my place in this world.

Alas, a moment of clarity, however piercing, is rarely enough to change the course of an emotional life, so I parented from the place of shame-grown loneliness that was the only home I knew.

My babies were so magnificent, do you see? A mistake of the universe, to give these small, fleshy bits of perfection to a mother so unworthy, a cosmic gaffe that dazzled me with my great good fortune and terrified me because I knew I would ruin them. I would be the person who exploded The Pieta or shredded The Starry Night.

From this emotional place, I mothered those children. I washed their diapers and hung them on a line to dry and kissed them and fed them oatmeal from a yellow plastic spoon. I loved them loved them loved them.

Except…do you know this about shame? It makes life into playacting and my love for my children was as real as mountains and gravity, but I was shaky in the middle of myself. Worse than shaky; I was ephemeral and not quite real. 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.

When the man who said he would have me as a favor began to hate our lives together, he said I will take these babies. No judge would let someone like you keep children! I’ll take them and you will never see them! And I cried and cried because of course, of course he would have them. Of course anyone could see I should not be their mother. Of course I was not worthy.

Except everyone has limits, even one as demoralized as I was. Unable to act in any meaningful way on my own behalf, I began to wish for a solid reason to leave the man who said he would have me as a favor. I prayed he would cheat or hit so I could propel myself out and away.

The man and I danced around each other during the final year we were married, each hoping the other would leave, each waiting for the other to offer a good enough excuse to move on. If I cast my mind back to the feelings of that dark, strange time, they are filled with fear for our children, and fear of being away from them. I was afraid he would take them away from me, even though I knew he couldn’t. All fear, a black and red haze of dread, and the ever-present loneliness and self-loathing. The inside of my head was filled with a relentless drumbeat of How could I? How could I have children with this man? How could I be so selfish as to want out? How dare I?

How does a mind change? How do feelings, well entrenched and carefully tended over a lifetime, transform? I can only guess. Maybe God whispered in my ear. Maybe my anger grew until it was strong enough to out-shout my shame. Maybe I began to believe in some tiny corner of myself that I was born with all the innate value with which my perfect children were born. Maybe all three.

Or maybe none of those. Maybe I just got sick to death of being treated like crap. Whatever the reason, when he came to me on the final day and shouted, “I don’t love you. You disgust me! I’m leaving,” I said, “Fine. Go.”

The next day, I was putting clean sheets away in the drawer in the hall. My kids were playing in some unorganized way, jumping and giggling and horsing around, and I was knocked back by an understanding. I never have to let anyone treat me like that again. I am done with that. I sat down hard on the floor of the hall between the kids’ bedrooms and started to cry. The children were there, worried. “Mommy, what’s wrong? Do you have a ya ya? Where’s your ya ya? I’ll kiss it for you!” chattered my son while my daughter kissed my face and brought me tissues.

“Happy tears!” I said. “Sometimes grown ups are weird and they cry when they’re happy. Isn’t that funny?” They agreed that it was very funny, and we laughed, and we sang a song, and when we got up off the floor I put my wedding ring in a box and never looked at it again.


Photo by Scott Boruchov

The Family I Thought We Would Be

The Family I Thought We Would Be


Figuring out the expectations and realities of merging two families.


I’ve been married to Brian for fourteen years and 24 days. We were both 2 years out of our first marriages. The joke we told for ages was that he had a mildly pleasant marriage and a dreadful divorce, while I had a dreadful marriage and a mildly pleasant divorce. There was a kind of buoyancy to our early relationship, as if we weren’t only newly in love, but also recently released from prison. I might have taken that as a sign that we weren’t ready if I wasn’t so delighted to be with him.

In the summer of 2000, when we married, we had between us three children. My son Jacob was 6 and my daughter Abbie was 4. Brian’s son Spencer was 3. They were bright, charming, delightful children, and Brian and I knew just the kind of family we would make together.

Ay de mi, can I even bear to tell you about us and how we thought it would be?

Our family, we decided, would be just like a traditional nuclear family, except our children would spend some of their time with their other parents. Brian and I would love all the children the same, and treat them the same, but we would never make the mistake of expecting the same from them. We would never put any of them in a position to feel torn between mother and stepmother, or father and stepfather. We would hold ourselves to a very high standard, and expect nothing of the children except a moderate level of respect.

It was all a very Dr. Phil-esque kind of self-abnegation that began to implode almost immediately. Our plans and expectations contained no acknowledgement that we were human, and newlywed. We failed to predict the deep influence our children’s other parents and our extended families would have on our fledgling familial unit and all the complex relationships therein. We were so blinded by early love and outrageous optimism that we scarcely registered we parented orthogonally to one another and our children would notice that.

But love! Oh, love!

Brian and Spencer moved into the house that my ex-husband and I had bought a year before we divorced and we started being a family together. It took us about 4.2 minutes to run into the first wall, which was sleep for the kids. I was very strict about bedtime and naps, and Brian and his ex-wife had always been a bit flummoxed about how to get Spencer to bed so they usually bribed him with food. Actually, my strictness and Brian’s laxity were the sparks that ignited dozens of arguments. I expected he would see the superiority of my methods and change. Brian thought his son was just fine and I should lighten up. Spencer couldn’t understand why this strange woman in his life was being so mean and making him go to bed when it wasn’t even dark out yet.

We went on like that, five sets of expectations banging against each other and the walls, all of us hoping to have our needs met, and neither Brian nor I precisely sure how to make that happen.

In the meantime, other people had expectations, too. Brian’s ex-wife seemed to take his remarriage personally and my involvement in Spencer’s life as a personal insult. My ex-husband didn’t seem especially bothered but he stopped paying child support almost immediately. My parents and Brian’s parents had pre-existing relationships with their grandchildren and we couldn’t seem to communicate in any gentle way that none of them could lavish gifts on one or two children and leave another out. My in-laws didn’t much like me, and my parents didn’t really understand my husband, and the messier it all got, the more defensive and unpleasant Brian and I were with each other, the children, and everyone.

I could draw a map of all the expectations, resentments, and hurts that travelled among us but it would be nothing but an unintelligible tangle of lines before I was half finished. I was happy to resent my father-in-law, and miserably ashamed to find that I resented my stepson. It felt hopeless and ugly and I couldn’t imagine we’d ever find our way our. It almost finished our family, except for once Brian’s and my mutual stubbornness worked for good instead of ill and we hung on.

We’d been married for about four years and I was reading a memoir by a woman who had several sisters, and she confessed that while she loved all of them, she really only liked one sister. I had an epiphany. “Brian,” I said, “I don’t love Spencer the same way I love my kids.”

These would have been fighting words in the first year of our marriage, but Brian responded, “No, I don’t love Jacob and Abbie the same way I love Spencer.”

We stayed up most of the night that night, discussing what this meant for us, and how this revelation (it really seemed like a revelation, though now it all appears very simple and obvious) would change our family, and what we might do differently to make life better. That night was mostly about relieving one another of responsibilities and expectations. We determined that we would stop trying to parent each other’s children and act more like friendly aunts or uncles: we would stop negotiating with each other’s ex-spouses and parents; we would, basically, retreat to our corners and hush up, except we would keep talking to each other.

When I was a little girl, my parents used to take my sister and me backpacking, and I loved the feeling I had when I took off my heavy backpack. The release of pressure made me feel like I was floating just above the ground, and the feeling I had in the weeks after Brian and I admitted our family wasn’t working out quite like we’d expected was psychically similar. I was so relieved I was nearly giddy.

We’d done a fair amount of damage in our floundering and confusion, and there have been more (and much bigger) roadblocks on the journey than blending our families turned out to be, but damn, I’m glad I’m not on this scary road without Brian and Spencer. We had to start from scratch and define for ourselves how our relationships would work, but I’ve decided in the meantime that relationships work better that way anyhow.

Rock Rock Boom

Rock Rock Boom

keith-galick_0001By Deborah L. Blicher

The little blond boy sits too still on the playroom carpet, his feet out in front of him like a doll’s. He stares vaguely at his sister, his cousins, and me. He should be crying. A minute ago I was in the kitchen, scrubbing peanut butter off the lunch dishes, when the cousins surged in yelling, “Misha hit his head! He’s bleeding!” So I dropped the sponge and ran.

Now, in the playroom, I ask Misha’s four-year-old sister,Stoh etta? (“What is it?”) because I don’t know the Russian for, “What happened?” Katja and Misha spent their early lives in a Russian orphanage. My language study hasn’t prepared me for a head injury.

Before Katja can answer, three-year-old Misha focuses his eyes, sees me, and begins to cry.

I think, He recognizes I’m his caregiverhis mother, I correct myself. Then I think, What would a mother do now?

Peter and I had both felt ambivalent about having kids during our courtship, but our feelings polarized when we bought a house together 15 months before our wedding. I loved children, but I didn’t want the sacrifices that come with being a mother. I expected to be laid off from my software job any day, and I hoped to use the time and our new, quiet home to revive my long-dormant writing career, the work I’d wanted to do all my life. Peter, just coming into his medical career, needed to work long hours.  He envisioned a house noisy with children, and me raising them full time.

We shouted at each other, stopped speaking, and finally cancelled the wedding.

I scoop up Misha from the carpet and ask him, “G‘dye balit?” (“Where does it hurt?”). He can’t hear me over his screams. Then I see blood welling from a two-inch gash just behind the top of his head, where his close-cropped hair springs up like a rooster’s comb.

One of the cousins says, “Misha was standing on the rocking toy, and it wobbled, and he fell and hit his head on the wall. Will he be okay?” His eyes plead with me to say yes.

Why does he think I’m in charge?  I wonder. “I’ll see what I can do,” I say. With Misha in my arms, I trot towards the kitchen. Four pairs of small feet follow me.

Terrified of losing Peter, I convinced him to join me for counseling with our rabbi. We laid everything out for her, bristling. She told us, “You guys actually aren’t that far apart. Debbie, you like kids but you don’t want to lose the creative life finally within your reach. Peter, you want to parent as much as you can, but you’re at an inflexible point in your career. I know you’re a compatible couple with good negotiating skills. I think you can work this out.”  She recommended marriage counseling.

We booked an appointment.

While Katja and the cousins observe, I sit Misha on the counter, page Peter and the pediatrician, and call my mother.

My mother sounds calm. “Remember your brother got whacked in the head with a screen door when he was that age? And both your nephews?”

Of course I remember. They all have identical scars.

“It was scary, but they’re fine,” my mother says. “Check the size of his pupils.”

I check. “They’re different sizes,” I report.

“That’s a concussion,” my mother says calmly. “The pediatrician will tell you to go to the hospital. Can Peter meet you there?”

I tell her he has not yet returned my page, which means he’s seeing patients.

“Do you want me to come?” she asks. “Yes!” I reply, thinking, A mother ought to be there.

After five months of marriage counseling, Peter and I agreed to raise a family. He finally understood my desire for a creative life and that I’d need autonomy in order to achieve it. He agreed to put money towards day care so I would not be overburdened. As for me, I understood that he honestly did not know he wanted kids until the moment he told me. He was the genuine, steady, insightful partner I still wanted, and he would be a genuine, steady, and insightful father.

We rescheduled the wedding.

My sister-in-law will take Katja home with her while I rush Misha to the hospital. I worry that Katja might feel abandoned after living with us only three months, but I have to tend to Misha. I explain everything to her in my best Russian. She nods sagely, hugs me, and goes upstairs with her oldest cousin to pack a bag. She’s lived half her life in a group of children, so leaving our home with three kids must make sense to her. It makes more sense, I think, than staying with me.

Peter and I chose adoption so we would not be limited by my fertility’s ticking time bomb. We applied after being married two years, when I turned 42. We chose Russia because we’re of eastern European descent, and we agreed on one child because the happiest writer-moms we knew had only one. The odds favored our being matched with a baby boy about nine months old. I felt a little happy. Maybe I could handle raising one boy. Maybe it would even be fun.

Usually talkative, Misha rides silently in his car seat. In the rearview mirror, I see his eyelids droop, then his entire head. I know enough about brain injuries to fear he will not wake up if he falls asleep. Every so often, I say in Russian and English, “Ni spat! Don’t sleep!” He raises his head but does not reply.

As the traffic crawls, I feel concern, but nothing more, for this child in my care. I ask myself, How I would feel if I were his mother?

I keep reminding myself, I am.

The adoption match came six months earlier than Peter and I expected. Our caseworker called me at home to ask whether we might consider two Russian siblings, aged three and two. Of course not, I thought. I cant raise TWO kids.  But I thanked her and said I would talk to Peter. I paged him right away.

Peter cannot get to the ER for three hours. “There’s nobody to cover for me,” he explains. As we hang up, Misha’s eyes close. I keep shouting, “Ni spat!” to jolt him awake. When that stops working, I set the car radio on “scan” and turn up the volume. Finally, I roll down the windows for the cold air. Misha keeps dozing. I think, I‘ll be in big trouble with his mother if he lapses into a coma.

The Russian siblings were blessed with perfect health and unusually good care. In the photos, Katja had auburn hair and a pout that showed she resented posing on the couch when she could be playing. Beside her, blond Misha grinned into the camera, his chubby hands clasped in his lap.

So cute! I thought. But I felt nothing beyond what I’d feel for, say, a photo of two bear cubs.

As our car inches under the last overpass before the hospital, Misha suddenly exclaims, “SCHOOL BUS!” And indeed, one is passing us in the next lane. Looking out the window, he begins narrating in Russian and English as if nothing has happened.

For the first time in an hour, I exhale.

For the first time in my life, I recognize my son.

Peter and I decided to meet the Russian siblings, so I put my book project away and started reading about adoption. The literature discussed the attachment of children to parents. My questions concerned parents’ attachment to children. How long would it take? What if the mother would rather write books than wipe noses? Was there hope for her?

I swerve into the first parking space I can and gather Misha into my arms. I don’t stop running until I see my mother in the doorway of the pediatric ER.

“Why didn’t you take the elevator?” she asks.

I ask, “What elevator?”

“Where did you come in?”

“The entrance by the big doors?” I say. Inside me, something begins to growl, Must fix boy. 

“By Oncology? Why did you park all the way over there?”

Then it hits me: I’ve sprinted through the entire hospital and up several flights of stairs. Like my great-grandmother running through the shtetl carrying my toddler grandfather when he upended a soup kettle. Like my mother speeding my brother to this very hospital when the screen door smashed him in the head.  I am the mother of an injured child. Must fix boy! comes the bear growl. Get help! Help now!

My mother leads us to the triage nurse.

Peter and I first set eyes on our children in the vestibule of their apartment. Their caregiver Anna, solid and warm, opened the door. Katja stood behind her looking sidelong at us, as if not sure we could be trusted. Misha smiled up at us from between Anna’s legs. I gasped, covering my mouth in astonishment, which did not subside, and probably never has.

When Peter arrives at the hospital, Misha has been diagnosed with a concussion. He’s now playing Legos with three boys wearing gauze patches on their heads saturated with anesthetic. Their mothers didn’t laugh when I called them “the head injury play group.” When the triage nurse asked Misha how he’d hit his head, he’d spread his little hands wide like starfish and said, “Rock rock rock rock rock BOOM.”

Peter tells me that, once the anesthetic takes effect, a surgeon will probably put sutures or staples in Misha’s head. I immediately volunteer to go pick up Katja. I feel I will kill anyone who approaches our son with a sharp object in his hand.

“Mama pupka!” Katja shouts into the phone. (“Mama’s butt!”)

Katja and I are in the bathroom at home. I left the hospital an hour ago. Peter and I thought the kids might want to talk to each other, so we arranged this phone call.

Through the receiver at Katja’s ear, I hear Misha respond, “Mama piska!” (“Mama’s pisser!”)

Both children scream with laughter. I take back the phone.

“Sounds like everything’s normal,” Peter chuckles. “Misha did fine with the surgeon. We’ll be home soon, love.”

Toilet jokes in Russian, I think. A head-injury play group. He’s right: for our family, this is ‘normal.

I tell Peter I love him and hang up. Then I ask Katja, in Russian and English, please to find her toothbrush.

Deborah L. Blicher’s essays have appeared most recently in The Boston Globe Magazine and Lilith.  She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two children, and two redfoot tortoises.  Find her at and on Twitter at @dblicher.

Photo by Keith Galick

Wedding China

Wedding China

By Anne Sawan

wedding chinaI took down my wedding china this morning. I pulled a stool over to the cabinet where it is hidden safely away on the top shelf, climbed up and carefully took it all down: the smooth, ivory plates with the ruby borders, the dusty, cut-crystal wine glasses and the tarnished silver forks, spoons and knives.  I took them down and stacked them all by the kitchen sink and after I finish writing this I am going to wash them off, polish them up and get them ready to be used tonight. Why tonight? Because it’s Monday.  Because it’s Monday and we are having lasagna and salad for dinner. Because it’s Monday and my kids will get a kick out of having their milk poured into fancy wine glasses. Because it’s Monday and after dinner my kids will pull out their notebooks and calculators and start their homework. Because it’s Monday and for the twenty-three years I have been married I have only ever used my wedding china twice. Twice.

I remember the first time I ever used it. It was our first wedding anniversary and I made my new husband a “Chinese” dinner using some sort of pre-bottled sauce that I poured over a few pieces of pieces of chicken and a frozen vegetable mixture. As the gummy concoction sat and simmered on the stove, I proudly set our tiny, second hand kitchen table, taking out two settings of the china, filling the sparkling glasses with red wine and neatly placing the silverware by each plate; and then we celebrated.  We celebrated with cheap wine and gluey chicken over sticky Minute rice in a tight, four room, drafty apartment we had rented above a noisy dance studio, across the street from a busy twenty-four hour gas station, and it was grand.

We’ll do this every year I thought.  But we didn’t, we forgot. We forgot how wonderful it was and went out to eat on following anniversaries because for some reason we thought we should. Because eating in a fancy restaurant seemed better, more grown up, and so our wedding china sat, unused, packed away, waiting for a more deserving occasion.

The second time I used my china was years later, when I hosted Thanksgiving in my now bigger, not so drafty home. I was nervous that day, nervous about the turkey being too dry, the stuffing being too bland and my precious china being chipped or broken.  So, when the kids all gathered around for the feast with their wide eyes and sticky fingers, I smiled politely and quickly handed each one a paper plate, hoping to avoid dropped dishes and shattered glasses; and after dinner, when everyone had finally left, I washed, dried and carefully inspected each piece of fine china before placing it all back up on the shelf; relieved my precious dishes had somehow made it through the celebration unscathed.

Then, this past week my parents who have been married for fifty-four years finally decided it was time to move out of their home. The home they have lived in for forty-five years.  The home where they raised their large brood of children, keeping them safe and warm and sending them off one by one to find their way in the world.  It is a house that is now too big for only two people, it needs a lot of work, upkeep… it is just time.  So, as we sat around the other day, drinking coffee and discussing the impending move, what they will take with them, and what they will have to leave behind, my mother mentioned her wedding china. “I need to take my wedding china. You know… we never even used it.”

“Never?” I said in disbelief (as if using mine two times in twenty three year was so much better than never.) “Why you should be eating off fine china every night! You’ve earned it! Forget getting new plates, use your china!”

My brother chuckled. “I’ve never used mine either,” he said, the pain of his still recent divorce barely hidden beneath his deep laugh.  We paused momentarily and then laughed together as he described the therapeutic relief he might feel if he were to perhaps make a nice, gourmet meal, use his wedding china and then throw it piece by piece onto the floor, smashing those plates into tiny shards, then sweeping them all up and up and throwing them all away.

And so, as we sat there as a family, reflecting on the things that have been, and the things that are still to come, I thought, about my wedding china, tucked away, and I thought, what am I waiting for? Some ultra special occasion? Some momentous event deemed finally special enough for a certain plate or a particular glass? How silly.  The special moments are right in front of me everyday; eating cereal in front of the television on a lazy Saturday morning, sharing a bowl of mac and cheese in the afternoon after school, sitting on the front porch together and savoring a cold glass of beer after the lawn has been mowed.   Aren’t all of life moments special enough to be served on china?  Perhaps, I thought I had misunderstood the function of these dishes.  Fine china shouldn’t be locked away, protected from the bumps and bruises of life, it should be used everyday, to celebrate the life that has been made together, for better or for worse, and if it gets broken or chipped, then so be it.   So be it.

So, that’s why I am using my wedding china tonight. Because it’s Monday, because we are having lasagna, because my sticky fingered kids are special enough, and because the truth is, no one gets through this life without a few cracks.

Anne Sawan is a mother to five wonderful and aggravating children. She also is a psychologist and an author, having articles published in Adoptive Families Magazine, Adoption Today and several children’s books published by MeeGenuis. 

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By Kerry Cohen

fourkidsJames and I were going to get married at city hall, so I went to the den to tell our combined four kids. Ezra, my ten-year-old autistic son, shook his head.

“No married,” he said.

“You’re coming,” I told him. “I don’t make you do a lot of things you don’t want to do, but this you’re doing. My children will be there when I get married.”

I went back upstairs, rushing around to get things together to leave. Ezra showed up in the kitchen with a blue pool noodle.

“Can you marry this?” he asked.

I laughed, but I did. I performed a quick ceremony in which the pool noodle and I became husband and wife. I never know what is going on in Ezra’s head, or rather, it can take me a while to figure it out. Ezra watched me the whole time like I was crazy, so clearly I wasn’t understanding. He followed me into my bedroom, holding the pool noodle, and he lay on the bed.

“Are you upset that I’m getting married?” I asked him.

“No married.”

I didn’t know whether he didn’t want me to get married because he wanted to stay home, playing on his computer, not having to face the uncertain world, a world he rarely understood and that too often took him by surprise, or if he didn’t want me to get married because I was marrying someone new, someone who wasn’t his father.

“I don’t want you to worry,” I told him. “Everything is going to be just the same. You’ll be here for one week, and then with Daddy the next week, back and forth like always. Nothing is changing.”

“Can James fall into a hole?” he asked.

“You want James to fall into a hole?”

“Can I ruin James?”

I sat next to him and brushed his thick blond hair away from his eyes. I understood this was a big deal for him. It was for all of us. Both James and I had two children each, and the past four years of blending our families had been immensely hard, riddled with complications and arguments and negotiations about how we could make it work. It had been a long road, and I didn’t expect it to get easier, but we had finally made it here.

“I love James,” I told him. “I don’t want him to be ruined or fall into a hole. James loves you. Daddy loves you. And I love you.”

He pointed to a laundry basket. “Can I marry that?” he asked.

“The laundry basket?”

“Can I marry that?” He pointed now to the pool noodle.

“The pool noodle?”

“Can I marry things?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think you can only marry humans.”

“No humans!” he said.

I understood then what he was trying to wrap his head around. Things. They had long been important to him. It’s a classic symptom of autism: more interest in things than people. When he was little, he carried around the flat foam inset animals from a book. If he lost one of them, like the purple cow, he grew upset enough that we had to spend hours retracing our steps to find it, more often than not buried in the mud at a park. We thought we’d be smart and buy a second copy of the book with the flat foam inset animals, but then his collection included two of each animal, and there were more things to lose.

James had been listening to my conversation with Ezra. “Ezra,” he asked. “Do you want to bring the pool noodle with us to get married?”

“Yeah,” Ezra said.

So, we did. The two other boys used it to chase and hit each other, swatting one another on the back. Ezra dipped his shoes in mud, paying no attention to us or the pool noodle, and James’s daughter held all the flowers. It will forever be a part of our story. Because Ezra was right about this one. James and I are the ones doing something terribly difficult, blending our two loopy families and trying to make it work. Almost weekly, something happens in which I feel like I can’t do it, this was a mistake; I should have just married the god damned pool noodle instead. So, I get it. Things. They’re comforting. They’re uncomplicated. They make sense. If you lose one of the parts, you go find it. Usually, it can be found. Whereas we humans can hardly communicate our feelings are so complex. And then we wind up divorced, like Ezra’s dad and me did. The things you lose don’t always come back.

Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the memoirs Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity and Seeing Ezra: A Mother’s Story of Autism, Unconditional Love, and the Meaning of Normal. She practices psychotherapy and writes in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with the writer James Bernard Frost and their four children.

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Family Affairs

Family Affairs

From Brain, Child (Fall 2009)

By Meagan Francis

fall2009_francis_ringFour-year-old Charlie has no idea—yet—what transpired between his mom and dad late last year.

Stationed overseas while her husband was on active duty in Iraq, Charlie’s mother, Stella, began to notice her husband, Tom, becoming distracted and disinterested. A picture of her husband sitting with a young woman on his lap on a mutual friend’s Facebook page aroused her suspicions, and the constant texting and e-mailing when he came home on a break confirmed them. Finally, Tom admitted he’d been having an affair with another soldier and said he was in love with her, though he claimed they’d never had a physical relationship (something Stella doesn’t believe).

As she watched the effects her husband’s withdrawal was having on her son, Stella got angry. “Tom was so disengaged that Charlie started wanting nothing to do with him,” she says. Before the holidays, Charlie’s class was working on a project to send deployed dads a “Christmas hug”; a paper outline of the child’s arms on a piece of paper. “Charlie sat in the time-out cubby all day, refusing to participate,” Stella says. Because Charlie is speech-delayed, Stella explains, figuring out what he’s thinking can be a challenge, but after some questioning, Charlie came out with it. “All done with Daddy,” he said.

Lonely and confused, Stella began spending a lot of time with a longtime male friend. Then, while recounting the story about her son’s school to him, Stella found herself thinking, “My marriage is over.” Soon afterward, things between her and her friend got physical and she began a brief affair of her own.

Stella and Tom are hardly unique—infidelity is one of the oldest of human stories. Chances are good that even if infidelity isn’t part of your own life story, you’re hearing about the affairs of your friends or neighbors or watching it unfold in the life of a public figure. The chatter surrounding an affair almost always seems to focus on what it will do to the relationship under stress—the adult relationship, that is. Will they or won’t they stay together? Can he forgive her? Will she walk?

But what about the children? When they figure into the discussion, it’s almost always as an aside. When the Monica Lewinsky story was breaking, the national discussion was about Hillary and the state of the Clintons’s marriage, with far less attention paid to how the scandal might be affecting Chelsea. Ditto John and Elizabeth Edwards, who have three children, or most recently, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his wife, Jenny, who have four.

Or take the saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin of the TLC show Jon and Kate + 8. When news emerged that impossibly laid-back Jon—arguably the more likeable of the couple—had had an affair, public sentiment seemed to shift. Sure, the show’s most rabid viewers thought that Kate was still bitchy and controlling, her hair had gotten utterly ridiculous and who did she think she was with the huge sunglasses, fake tan, and designer clothes anyway … and yet … she’d been cheated on. The viewing world seemed to divide into two groups: those who thought Jon was a cheating bastard and worried that those eight kids would grow up in a broken home, and those who thought Kate had brought it all on herself and needed to give up the public life before she drove Jon further away and wound up raising eight kids by herself.

What nobody seemed to be asking was what affect the affair itself would have on the kids. Even if Jon and Kate had stayed together, news of Jon’s infidelity had been splashed across tabloid covers and blogs for weeks. There’s no way the kids can stay sheltered from that forever. So what happens when they figure it out? And what lingering effects might have haunted them even if the marriage had lasted?

Even if you’re not in the public eye—if you’re a Stella or a Tom, say—there are plenty of questions to be asked. Will your little Charlie one day be blaming you in therapy for mishandling the whole affair? Is there a right way or a wrong way to explain infidelity to children? Does it make a difference to the emotional health of the children if they’re told of the cheating right away or kept in the dark? Are they affected differently in the long run if Mom and Dad reconcile or eventually split? And, given how widespread a phenomenon this is, we have to wonder: Why is there so little research on the effects of infidelity on children?

*   *   *

Recent studies from the University of Chicago indicate that one in ten Americans (twelve percent of men, seven percent of women) will have an extramarital affair in their lives—and those are among the most conservative estimates. Researchers at the University of Washington recently found that twenty percent of men and fifteen percent of women under age thirty-five say they have cheated, while twenty-eight percent of men over age sixty say they have cheated. (The actual numbers are likely to be higher, sociologists say, because people tend to lie about sex.) While it’s equally difficult to pin down what percentage of people having an affair also have children, one recent survey provides an eye-opening clue. In a poll of thirty thousand mothers conducted by Cookie magazine and AOL Body in May, 2008, thirty-four percent of respondents admitted having an affair since giving birth to their kids, and more than half (fifty-three percent) said they’d considered an affair.

Thanks to The National Center for Health Statistics, we know how many people marry and divorce each year. And the short- and long-term effects of divorce on children have been tracked through longitudinal studies like the one performed by psychologist Judith Wallerstein, a former senior lecturer at the School of Social Welfare at The University of California, Berkeley. But when it comes to how children are affected by infidelity per se, the research is conspicuously scanty.

Ana Nogales would like to change that. Nogales, a family therapist in Southern California, has watched the effects of infidelity on her patients for years. To synthesize what she was seeing, she designed a study of eight hundred adults whose parents had been unfaithful. In June, she published the study as a book, Parents who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful.

What emerges from the survey is a mixed bag:  Some of the long-lasting effects of infidelity on the respondents are what you’d expect, while others are more surprising. Nogales’s respondents skew heavily female—eighty-four percent women compared with just sixteen percent men. (This may be because women are more expressive, Nogales says.) Many more respondents (seventy-three percent) report that it was their father who was unfaithful; only sixteen percent report a mother’s infidelity. About fourteen percent of respondents report that both parents had an affair.

Three quarters of the grown children of adulterers report that their relationship with the unfaithful parent changed as a result of that knowledge. The same percentage report feeling betrayed and even more said they felt angry with or hurt by the cheating parent’s actions. Eighty percent report that their attitude toward love and relationships was affected by their parent’s infidelity. About the same percentage say they now feel that people regularly lie. More than half of respondents are afraid of being betrayed by a partner, and more than two-thirds say they have a hard time trusting others.

Yet almost ninety percent of adults who in their childhood experienced the infidelity of one or more parents still believe in commitment, and nearly eighty percent report that they believe in monogamy. Whether they can carry through with those beliefs is another story, though; forty-four percent report having cheated at one time or another.

*   *   *

All this data seems to mean something, but what, exactly? Nogales is the first to admit that her survey isn’t scientific: Participants are self-selected, and it’s likely that the people who feel most affected by a parent’s cheating are the first to get in line to fill out a questionnaire about it. Participants assess their own mental and emotional health, further adding to the subjective nature of the study. There’s also no comparison data and so no way to know whether adults whose parents cheated are any worse off, emotionally, than kids whose parents stayed faithful. We all screw up and fail our children in some way. Is infidelity statistically worse than our other failings?

Many questions linger on the perimeter of the data. If the parents stayed together, did the infidelity continue? If the parents split, did the offending parent stay involved in the kids’ lives or did he or she disengage? Was the cheating a one-time event or chronic? How did the kids find out, and how did the parents treat one another during the crisis? In other words, did the affair lead to family dysfunction, or did family dysfunction come before the affair? How long ago did these marriages and these affairs take place and in what kind of socio-cultural environment?

In Nogales’s study, fifty-eight percent of marriages survived the infidelity. (National averages may be higher; a recent study of 1,084 people whose spouses had affairs found that seventy-six percent were still married to the same partner years afterwards.) Whether or not the parents divorce after an affair is discovered changes the way kids react to the affair, according to Nogales, but neither outcome is all good or all bad: “When the parents didn’t divorce, the children were better able to trust, but felt more shame and had a harder time forgiving,” says Nogales. “When the parents did divorce, the children had a harder time trusting, but an easier time forgiving. They saw the relationship as something in the past that had come to an end.”

Eighty percent of survey respondents reported that their relationship with the cheating parent changed when parents divorced. Nearly that many—seventy-two percent—reported that their relationship changed with the cheating parent when the parents stayed together. There was no significant difference in the relationship with the betrayed parent, whether or not the parents divorced.

Though those questions aren’t answered via the survey responses, the book is full of personal stories that shed some light on the various ways infidelity plays out in the family.  And from those stories and the conversations I had with people who’ve been there, I learned that the effects of infidelity are as individual and unique as the families themselves.

Take, for example, Jennifer Canzoneri, a twenty-seven-year-old mother in Roanoke, Texas, whom I spoke with recently. Jennifer was not merely a bystander to her dad’s infidelity; she was made an accomplice of sorts. When she was about seven, he began taking her and her sister to dinner with a “friend” of his who worked in his building. “I guess he assumed we wouldn’t catch on,” she says. “We caught on. But as a kid, it’s kind of hard to wrap your brain around what your suspicions really mean.” The infidelity continued. Eventually, Jennifer’s mom and dad split and her dad remarried; he later broke up with her stepmother while he was in another relationship.

Jennifer says the affair made her have some trouble trusting people. “I won’t cheat—I can say that with much certainty—and I won’t stand to be cheated on,” she says. “But trust is difficult. I look at my husband, who’s nothing like my father, and sometimes wonder if he’s keeping things from me. He’s open and honest and has given me no reason to doubt him, but as a child of infidelity, you doubt and fight insecurity.”

Again, not surprising. But digging deeper into Jennifer’s past indicates that it may not just have been her dad’s cheating that affected her so strongly, but the way it played out in her family.

“My sister and I told my mom [about the other woman], and, sadly, we tried to defend him. I remember my mom wasn’t surprised, which saddens me a lot in hindsight,” she says. “The woman we met wasn’t his first mistress, and my mother knew of them all. She stayed with him, she looked the other way, and she didn’t demand that he stop cheating or lying. He convinced her she wasn’t worth being faithful to and so she never said she was worth being faithful to. I needed to see, through her actions, that no woman should allow a man to cheat on her. I didn’t see that.” Jennifer tells me that it took much therapy for her to be able to trust, and even now, she finds divorce devastating: “When I see friends go through it or even some random celebrity couple, it physically affects me.”

With that kind of fallout at stake, it’s understandable that a parent might try to keep an affair completely removed from the kids. “In the military, with so many spouses on active duty for much of the year, there are women who have boyfriends practically living with them—picking the kids up from daycare, even—while their husband is gone,” says Stella. She opted out of that kind of arrangement when her own affair began, trying hard to keep Charlie in the dark. “If I wanted to see [the other man], I got a babysitter and went out. My kid was not around.”

Stella and her husband are attempting to stay together, mostly for Charlie’s sake, and she says they have no plans ever to tell their son about their infidelities. “I think adultery always has been and always will be around, and it’s separate from your kids,” she argues.  “There’s this feeling that once you get married and have kids everything is supposed to revolve around the kids. Honestly, I think that’s why some women have affairs—to have some kind of life that’s outside of the cocoon. But I think it can remain very separate. It depends how it’s all handled.”

*   *   *

I can see her point. After all, we don’t involve our children in our sex lives. Why involve them in our affairs? Is it ever appropriate for them to know all the ins and outs of our marriages?

My own parents split up when I was about five, and soon after, my dad moved across the state to live near a former female co-worker. Within a couple of years, the two were married. (They later divorced.) When I was in my late teens, my mom told me that my father had cheated on her with my to-be stepmother. I remember being remarkably uncurious about it, never asking if she had proof, or why she would believe such a thing. In my subconscious, I probably knew that it was true, but as it was all in the distant past, I didn’t have to grapple with the “what does it all mean?” questions. So I chose largely to ignore this tidbit of knowledge and went right back to worshipping my father.

Now that I’m an adult and see things with clearer eyes, I suppose I could confront my dad and ask if it’s true. I’m sure he’d deny it; I’m not so sure I’d believe him. But at this point, what difference would it make? In hindsight, I can see that nothing is black or white. My dad’s purported affairs weren’t a rejection of me personally (my mother was not an easy person to live with—hell, I left her, too, moving in with my dad at the age of thirteen). My dad is a fallible human being. Mistakes were made.

But if I’d been told about his actions at the age of, say, eleven? I’m not so sure I’d have had the same confidence in my view of human nature or clarity to see my parents as they really are.

Nogales would argue that I’m kidding myself. On some level, kids know about affairs even when they don’t know the actual facts, she says. For that reason alone, honesty is always the best policy. “If you keep lying to your child, the child will have more and more problems,” she argues. “You don’t have to give details, but you have to ask your child if he or she has any questions and respond with the truth.” Even if your child doesn’t exhibit signs of knowing about an affair, Nogales believes they should be told.

That position strikes other family dynamic experts as extreme. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem, a family therapist in Burlington, Ontario, thinks children should be told about affairs—but on a need-to-know basis only.

“High stress comes from having a lot of responsibility and little power,” Belleghem argues. “Giving children information that they’re powerless to do anything about increases stress.”

On the other hand, if a child has a sense that something is off, it’s important to validate that knowledge, she says. When kids see something that doesn’t fit into their idea of the world—for instance, they think “Daddy loves Mommy” but then see Daddy kissing the neighbor—they need to know how to make sense of it, says Bellenghem. “When they learn that their perception was right, they say ‘Whoa—what I thought I saw, I really saw!’ It builds their confidence and self-trust.”

Bellenghem suggests that while childhood might not always be the right time to spill the beans, the time will come eventually. Let’s say an affair happens when a child is three, and the parents work through it and agree to stay together. Should the child grow up with the knowledge that one of his parents cheated on the other? No, she argues, but it could be shared when the child has reached young adulthood and is grappling with relationship issues of his or her own.

Emily Brown, Director of Key Bridge Therapy & Mediation Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment (2001), says about affairs, “In most cases, it needs to be part of the family story in some way. It’s not a secret, it just hasn’t been shared yet.”

And if this is the route you’re going—if you’re going to explain the complexities of an affair to your child, it makes sense to have a good grasp what exactly was going on in your own marriage. Why did it happen, after all? Brown, a frequent media commentator on infidelity, has identified five types of affairs, each with its own kind of motivation and potential fallout.

“Conflict avoiders” are the “nice” people who are too afraid of abandonment to resolve their differences directly, she says. The marriage erodes, and so they look outside the marriage for intimacy. “Intimacy avoiders,” Brown says, communicate via intense fighting, and often both partners wind up having affairs. “Split Self” affairs happen when people are so intent on doing their marriage “right” that they deprive their own feelings and needs, and end up getting those needs met in a long-term, serious affair. “Exit affairs” happen when conflict avoiders are looking for a way out of a marriage, and use an affair as a way out. And finally there’s the sexual addict, for whom sex is a compulsion more than a choice.

Within those five types, there are even more differences: serial cheaters and those who have a single, brief affair; those who involve their children and those who work hard to shield them from it. There are cheated-on parents who stand up for themselves and those who allow the infidelity to continue without taking action. There are couples who have mostly respectful, peaceful relationships in which affairs happen and couples who never cheat but scream and throw things at each other. The kids involved can be anywhere from not-yet-born to adults (sometimes, a child is actually a product of the affair, which throws a whole new wrench in the works). But whatever the details, they matter. When it comes to explaining matters of the heart, context is everything.

*   *   *

Like every other issue we face as parents, there’s the ideal, and then there’s reality. No one (well, almost no one) goes into a marriage expecting to cheat or be cheated on—it’s no surprise, therefore, that so many parents find themselves muddling through the aftermath. And whether they get everything out in the open right away or put it off for a later date, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to fumble and fail.

But they’ll also have lots of opportunity to try again until they get it right. Because whether you’re talking with a child about drugs or sex or God or infidelity, no single discussion shapes his or her understanding of the entire topic.

At least that’s what Stephanie, a thirty-five-year-old mother of two from Virginia, is banking on. Last winter, while she was struggling with depression and the demands of caring for two closely spaced young children, Stephanie’s first love showed up on Facebook, and the two reconnected. “I told myself I was just catching up with an old friend and gaining some closure, but I knew I was heading into dangerous territory,” says the attorney, who wrote about her affair on her blog, “This was a man I had never entirely gotten over; someone I had always loved.” On a business trip to Chicago not long after, Stephanie got together with the man, Mark, in person, and that meeting sparked a five-month affair.

When she returned, Stephanie’s husband figured out something was up right away; the two of them separated but eventually reunited. “I guess you could say that I came to my senses,” she told me. “Even though I was in love with two men, I realized that I had to make a choice. I chose my family.”

The children don’t know about her affair … yet. At only three and four, Stephanie thinks they’re too young to really understand: “Hell, even most adults don’t understand.” But she admits that she learned the hard way how perceptive even little kids can be. “During a car ride with my three-year-old, I was on the phone with Mark, just chatting, but I guess there was something in my voice,” she says. “When I hung up, my son asked me, ‘Mommy was that Daddy?’ I said, ‘No, sweetie that was Mommy’s friend, Mark.’ He was quiet for a while, and then said, ‘But who is he? Is he Daddy?’ After that, I never spoke to Mark on the phone with my children in the room.”

Since the affair is out in the open—and on the Internet—and both families involved know about it, Stephanie figures it’s just a matter of time before her children find out what happened. But whether the news comes from a gossiping cousin or Google, Stephanie and her husband are prepared for the discussion they’ll have one day. “We’ve agreed we’ll talk to them about it together and tell them as much as they want to know,” she says. “We plan to tell them that marriage is really hard work and sometimes we make mistakes, but we’re a family first and foremost and we did everything we could to keep it that way.”

*   *   *

Perhaps the reason there’s been so little research on the effects of infidelity on children in the past is simply due to adultery’s secrecy and the difficulty quantifying an experience that’s largely individual. Studying divorce, by contrast, is easy: Either a couple is divorced or they are not. The life cycle of an affair is a much more nebulous concept. We don’t like to talk about affairs in public to begin with; we certainly don’t want to admit to having had one (or several). We even have a hard time defining an affair: Do you have to go all the way? What about emotional affairs? Internet affairs? Sexting?

Maybe the definition doesn’t matter. Bellenghem is quick to point out that it’s the dishonesty—not the sex—that makes infidelity damaging to kids. “Having an affair isn’t just betraying the spouse, it’s betraying what family is about,” she says. “And a family is usually created on the premise of monogamy.” In open marriages or cultures where infidelity is the norm, Bellenghem suggests that sex outside of marriage wouldn’t have as devastating an effect, precisely because it wouldn’t catch either parent—or their children—by surprise.

It’s that surprise, shame, and confusion that often leads parents to deal with the infidelity in a way that’s not necessarily best for their kids. Trying to normalize or cover up the situation to the kids, the betraying parent will often either deny the obvious or—worse—bring the children into the “secret” (outings with mommy or daddy’s “friend”; keeping secrets from the betrayed parent). As for the cheatee? “Usually the parent who’s betrayed goes through a period of obsessing and questioning, and is unable to stop thinking about [the affair],” says Brown. “There’s no way the kids don’t hear that.” Trying to help children deal with the confusion of the family upset in a healthy way may be easier said than done when a parent him- or herself is in the throes of pain and feelings of rejection.

If there’s a silver lining to the often grim reality of living through the aftermath of an affair, maybe it’s the opportunity to get a little more real with their kids about the realities of marriage: the fact that marriage is messy, takes a lot of work, and sometimes, the people we love the most will disappoint us in ways that are both simultaneously shocking and clichéd.

Author’s Note: When I was growing up, secrecy and privacy reigned supreme in families; now, the cultural norm seems to be shifting rapidly toward total disclosure. When it comes to infidelity and kids, I wonder what that will mean for everyone involved. Less shame and isolation, perhaps, but also the potential for an unhealthy dose of TMI. Presumably, it’ll be good for today’s children that we’re more honest than previous generations of parents, but I hope it’s something my kids won’t have personal experience with.

Meagan Francis has written for the Christian Science Monitor,, the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere. Her website is

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Alma Mater

Alma Mater

By Kory Stamper

fall2007_stamperMy eldest daughter first made herself known to my husband and me in the usual way—with a 11:00 p.m. run to the store for yet another pregnancy test, because the first three were totally, totally wrong, I was just sure of it.

I had to be sure of it—I was twenty-one and finishing my last year of college when I became pregnant. My last year at a women’s college. At a radically and notoriously feminist women’s college where my husband is still, to this day, uncomfortable walking around because the students glare at him for the offense that his XY chromosomal pair brings them.

My visit to the school infirmary gave me a taste of what I was in for as a pregnant student. The doctor just barely kept his tsk-tsking in check as told me he could “arrange things” here at the school, if I preferred.

“You guys deliver babies here?”

His eyebrows kissed his hairline. “Do you mean you’re going to carry the baby to term?”

“That had been my plan, yes.”

“Oh. Well, then, you’ll need a referral. We don’t handle maternal care. It’s not really something that comes up often.” He gave me a significant look and would have waggled a finger at me if he hadn’t been holding my medical chart. I walked the half-mile back to the campus center feeling like Hester Prynne.

After my first prenatal appointment with an off-campus obstetrician, where we determined that, yes, the six pregnancy tests I had taken were in fact all correct, I began alerting my professors and my adviser. My art professor was nonplussed when I asked if I’d be okay using the materials for class. “Sure,” he breezed. “Just don’t lick any of the paints or snort the charcoal.” He then told me to go to the faculty gallery to see his wife’s nude self-portraits done throughout her pregnancy. I didn’t think my stomach was up for it.

After I made my announcement, my dance professor acted as if I was going to split into four pieces immediately. “Well, be careful,” he admonished. “If you need to rest for any reason during class, then rest.” He eyed me skeptically. “Your doctor said the dancing was okay? Really?”

I assured him it was, because the OB had assured me it was. “Nothing like backflips,” she had grunted, “but sure, a regular dance class is fine.” I think I was about seven weeks along when we began our first flying flip-kicks in class.

I was most nervous about telling my adviser, who had taken great pains to work with me on a possible thesis topic (a near impossibility in my interdisciplinary major) and felt I would be a great candidate for grad school. I sat in his subterranean office, hemming and hawing, and finally said, “Well, I have decided not to do the thesis. Or grad school. Because, um, I’m pregnant.”

His face hung open in surprise for a few seconds. I cringed. “That’s great!” he bellowed. “Congratulations! Kids are great! You’ll see—much better than grad school.” He grew avuncular. “You know, kids are really what’s important, none of this stuff.” I floated up the stairs, lightheaded with relief and morning sickness.

*   *   *

Then I called my insurance company. You’d think I would have known better.

Because I was a married student, I had my college’s health insurance plan for independent students. Thirty minutes on hold and a five-minute conversation with my helpful insurance representative told me that the college’s plan didn’t offer maternity care, but the birth itself could be covered under a surgical benefit. The surgical benefit was $2,000 with a $750 deductible; anything over that amount was my responsibility. There was no prenatal coverage. There was no flexibility. Thank you for choosing Acme Collegiate Health.

This news almost literally floored me; I was dizzy when I headed out for class. The plan was mandatory for all students and certainly not cheap (not, at least, for a college student). Wasn’t this very situation—an unexpected medical event—the reason I had been required to buy health insurance? The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. If I had mixed feelings about being pregnant before, I sure as shootin’ was gung-ho on my eventual motherhood now.

Being a resourceful woman, I took the logical next step: I approached the president and trustees of my college, all liberated women. Sisterhood! Solidarity!

A week after sending my cordial letter, asking what the hell was up with the health care I was being offered, I received a nice note from the president’s office explaining that I should take this up with the dean of students. It wasn’t up to the president’s office to handle student health care.

Fair enough; I redirected my note. It was answered with a slightly snippy letter informing me that the college had no control over the benefits offered by the insurance company they contracted with and that, statistically, maternity care is not necessary among the undergraduate population. If I was having medical difficulties, perhaps I should take a leave of absence.

I read the note while researching a paper between classes. I closed my eyes and began to breathe deeply to calm myself. Then I thought, Wait a minute, why should I be calm? I used my centering breath to scream a string of profanities that got me forcibly ejected from the library.

I suppose that during the early years of women’s education, a woman in my delicate state would simply leave campus for the duration of her confinement, after which she’d either become the single-parent outcast of her town or she’d rematriculate later, when family (or a nanny) could watch the kids. That changed in the 1960s, when the introduction of the birth control pill meant more women were joining the work force and starting their families later in life. Though my college archives say nothing on the subject, comments from some of my older professors led me to believe that I was probably the first visibly pregnant undergraduate on campus in modern memory. Irritatingly enough, I just wasn’t going away.

One of the things my alma mater taught me was that women can buck the system. I had sat through class after class encouraging me to push back, rough ’em up, play tough. Liberated women were strong, rabble-rousers, hell on roller skates.

Well, then. Since I didn’t consider a normal pregnancy to be a medical difficulty, and I had a hard time believing that a women’s college was so lacking in women’s health care, I did a very liberated thing: I filed a grievance with the state claiming that my medical coverage was inadequate according to state law. A copy of the grievance wended its way to the college offices, and suddenly my calls and letters went unanswered. The state gave me Medicare/Medicaid. The school administration gave me the cold shoulder.

*   *   *

While my husband couldn’t be more delighted with our baby, my adviser couldn’t be more encouraging, and my older friends couldn’t be more helpful during those months of term papers and indigestion, trouble with my fellow students started brewing when I began to show in the spring. Suddenly every third woman on campus was handing me a leaflet about my reproductive rights, telling me I had a choice, you know, I had the right to choose, and I needed to be, you know, completely and totally informed about my rights. None of my peers seemed to believe that I had already (rather clearly) made a choice. No one seemed to believe that I would choose this bizarre burgeoning protoplasm over grad school, over a job in New York City, over all the “liberated woman” stuff. In their eyes, my early marriage just made me odd; my pregnancy made me stupid. My classmates sneered at me in public and told me I was crazy for wasting my education. And then they and their girlfriends wanted to touch my belly.

Somewhere between the school’s disbelief that pregnancy was a fairly normal occurrence in women of childbearing age, and the constant encouragement of my peers to make an informed choice, I snapped. It began with the T-shirts. I got as far as purchasing fabric paint and some XXXL shirts and sketching out my designs while waiting for art history slides to cue.

Exercising My Right to Choose.

Actively Supporting the Patriarchy.

Another Misogynist Pig in the Oven.

I’m With Over-Educated (with a big arrow pointing from my huge gut up at my smiling face).

Since so many people were treating my pregnancy like a disease, I acted like an invalid. I snuck into my old dorm and claimed the common room between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. every day for a nap, snoring loudly and obscenely. I took the freight elevator up one flight of stairs. I took up several desks and starting lying on the floor during one of my foreign-language classes.

When my belly button disappeared, I rolled my t-shirt up so everyone could see.

In April, campus tours were taking place and I happened to be leaving an academic building as a group dripping in furs and jewelry headed my way. The student tour leader saw me and, sensing trouble, abruptly steered the group in the opposite direction. I feigned sudden labor, very loudly.

Though most of my classmates were private about their disdain for my situation, others fought my estrogen-fueled fire with fire. About three weeks before finals and one month before I was due, I was the thinly veiled subject of a long letter in the school newspaper about population growth and our duty to protect the planet by adopting children instead of squeezing out our own (assuming that anyone was so deluded as to even want kids). The article finished by noting that the days of women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen were over.

I went home that night and told my husband that women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen was just so over. He would have to be the pregnant one tonight, baby.

*   *   *

Graduation arrived at last, ninety-five degrees with 180 percent humidity. Many of my fellow graduates lounged around in bikinis and miniskirts before the ceremony. I was blanketed in a long white earth-mama dress and sensible black flats, all topped with a heavy black graduation gown that trailed in the back and was knee-length in the front. I looked like a fat penguin in a funny hat.

Our commencement speaker was Anna Quindlen. Depending on which of the graduates you ask, she either told us that women shouldn’t abandon family for their careers, or told us that women shouldn’t have families so they could have a career. Personally, I don’t remember. I do remember my hugely swollen feet, and sweating a lot, and thinking, “If I had gone on the 5K graduation run this morning, I could be in an air-conditioned hospital room watching cartoons right now.” My name was called, and I waddled up to the stage where I delivered my parting shot: I received my diploma barefoot and pregnant. I would have taken the kitchen stove with me if it weren’t so big.

The school president handed me my diploma, wide-eyed and looking down at my belly (which was invading her personal space). On the way back to my seat, I was heckled by one of my classmates’ parents. “Forget something?” he sneered—whether he was talking about my shoes or my birth control, I can’t say. I smiled broadly and waved my diploma at him. “No, not at all, sir.”

On the plane ride back to their house, my parents sat next to a lovely gentleman who also attended the graduation. They chatted about the ceremony for a bit, and then he said, “Oh, did you see that pregnant girl? My God.”

My parents paused. “Actually,” my father said, with no small amount of irritation, I am sure, “that was our daughter.”

The gentleman stared for a moment, then nodded sympathetically. “Well, it happens in the best of families.”

Once my diploma was in hand and I was out the door, I shrugged off the institutional kerfuffle; it was irritating and frustrating and not particularly pleasant, but it was all water under the bridge. That is, until I started getting the solicitation mail. My alma mater wrote often and, like an enterprising cousin with no tact, asked me for lots of money. I had written the fundraising office twice asking them to remove me from the solicitation list. For a long time I continued to get the sunny pleas for moolah.

Then came the legacy mailing. It informed me that I could start paying my daughter’s tuition by setting up a legacy fund in her name. The principal would go into a general scholarship fund and I would get hefty dividends which I could save for my dear daughter’s education (at my alma mater, of course). After all, my alma mater was not just an education, it was a family tradition.

It was the only mailing I responded to. I sent in a copy of my graduation picture, with the college president goggling at my beach-ball belly, and scrawled underneath of the picture, “No thanks. You couldn’t take care of her the first time she was there.”

*   *   *

In the heat of the controversy, it had been easy to forget that all my fellow graduates who had thought I was out of my gourd were twenty-two themselves and either taking batteries of standardized tests to get into a good grad program or interviewing with big companies where the senior management did not agree that make-up and pantyhose were socially acceptable forms of female denigration.

And if none of those things came into play—even if it wasn’t fear or envy that propelled the criticism, but truly disdain or disgust—is that necessarily a bad thing? We chose a women’s college because we valued women’s minds and women’s voices, and we wanted to be in a place that took all our opinions seriously. In the end, my pregnancy was another discussion point, and that’s what I agreed to when I signed up to go there, a place where the voice of every woman—no matter how crazy, or pregnant—could be heard.

These days, most of my classmates are married or partnered, most have children under three, and most still shake their head at me—though now it tends to be more in understanding and less in consternation. None of us believes that we’re any less feminist for having admitted the necessity of sperm in the propagation of the species. Some of us have even admitted to enjoying the company of the oppressor. If there was tension because of my pregnancy, it’s gone now. The sisterhood is intact and packing a kick-ass diaper bag.

Kory Stamper is an editor with Merriam-Webster, Inc., and she has written for the Chicago Tribune and the Guardian. She blogs at harm·less drudg·ery.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

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Lessons From New Friends

Lessons From New Friends

badzin:snowRecently while flipping through the various radio talk shows I enjoy when I’m alone in my car, I heard a guest on one of the programs say we should treat our spouses as well as we treat our newest friends. I wish I could remember the channel I landed on and the person talking so that I could give proper credit. No matter the source, the advice made me think.

Do I treat my husband Bryan as well as I would treat a new friend? Most of the time, yes, but there’s room for improvement. One example comes to mind right away. Often when Bryan wants to vent about subjects we’ve already covered, I’ll rush us through the conversation. Would I do that to a new friend? Would I sigh then say, “Didn’t we talk about this yesterday?” Would I pick up my cell phone to answer a text? No, I wouldn’t, because that would be obnoxious and embarrassing for both me and the new friend, but since it’s “just Bryan” I’ve been more lax with my standards.

The same suggestion to treat a spouse as well as a new friend works for other family members and for our best friends. There’s a tone of voice—our nicest, most empathetic one—that many of us use with the people we’re still getting to know. We ask acquaintances how they’re doing and offer follow up questions to show that we’re listening. We provide thoughtful, colorful answers when the conversation turns to us.

One could argue that our family members and close friends get the honest, authentic version of us, that we’re more “real” with our family and best friends. That’s certainly one way of looking at it, but I do wonder if in some cases “real” is a positive spin on rude. I also wonder if too much “authenticity” is how layers of contempt seep into relationships over time. Is real always such a prize if real means less considerate or leads to taking the next person for granted?

All of this reminds me of a quote I like from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a novel full of subtle advice about how not to treat the people closest to us. Pip, marveling at the lengths he’s gone to impress some of the other gentlemen in his new societal position, says, “So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.” In other words, one step worse than behaving better with our new friends than we do with our spouses, family members, and close friends is outright mistreating the special people in our lives for the sake of people we don’t even like that much.

Thinking about the way my kids sometimes treat each other, I wouldn’t mind if they were less “authentic” some of the time. And I definitely think they could stand to improve the way they act towards each other when certain friends are at the house.

When Sam, 9, is frustrated with Rebecca, 7, he speaks to her and of her as if she is the most annoying creature in the universe. Like Pip notes, Sam’s even meaner to her around certain friends, kids he’s trying too hard to impress. Rebecca, in turn, takes on a similar air of disdain and disgust when she’s irritated with 5-year-old Elissa, who I’m sure, before long, will give the same eye-rolling attitude to 2-year-old, Nate.

The only action I’ve taken so far is to consistently point out the way they speak to each other when it gets ugly and to help them note the natural consequences. For example, when Sam wants to play outside, he’ll ask Rebecca to put on her snow stuff and join him. If she hesitates for a moment, because, say, it’s freezing or because she’s in the middle of doing something else, he’ll immediately start demanding she play with him. If that doesn’t work, he’ll yell louder, at which point no amount of begging or bribery will get Rebecca to join him outside.

“Would you play with someone who was yelling at you and throwing a fit?” I’ve asked Sam on more than one occasion.

After I heard the aforementioned radio show, I tried a different tactic. “Is that how you get your friends to play a game?” The answer, of course, was “no.” Perhaps one of these days Sam will see that if he were half as nice to Rebecca as he is to his friends, especially his new friends, she would accept his invitations every time. And I’m hoping Rebecca will eventually figure out that coercing Elissa into doing whatever she wants to do by claiming she’ll stop being Elissa’s sister is not a great tactic either. A mom can certainly dream.

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Dancing Queen

Dancing Queen

WO Dancing Queen ArtBy Daisy Alpert Florin

Last summer, my family and I spent a week in Vermont at the kind of family resort that promises fun for all ages.  It delivered: while our three kids participated in wholesome summertime activities with their peers, my husband, Ken, and I had time to reconnect during long bike rides, canoe trips and swims in the lake.  Each night, the resort offered after-hours activities as well, most of which did not appeal to me.  Bonfire and sing-along?  Too hokey.  Trivia night?  Too geriatric.  But Thursday night’s offering seemed perfect: Dance night with DJ.

I love to dance.  Years of childhood ballet have not translated into a lifetime of grace, but give me a few drinks, blast some pop music and I’m unstoppable.  At 40, the opportunities for dancing are few and far between.  Before last summer, the last time I had been dancing was four years earlier at a friend’s wedding.  I danced non-stop, sweating through my dress, pausing only when the DJ took a break for the father-of-the-bride’s toast.  So any chance to dance, I’ve come to learn, should not be passed up.

Ken and I reserved a babysitter, put our kids to bed and headed up to the inn.  The breakfast room had been transformed into a dance floor, complete with disco ball, strobe light and a mountain of sound equipment.  When we entered the room, a few guests were taking salsa lessons.  I sipped my maple mojito through a skinny straw and watched the sad scene unfold.

“What’s up with the salsa lesson?”  I asked Ken.  “I thought we were here to dance.”

“Calm down.  There’s the DJ,” he said.  “Let’s just wait.”  He patted my hand, trying to keep my tantrum at bay.

Dancing, or the promise of dancing, can bring out my nasty side.  At my five-year college reunion, fueled by several foamy beers and the crush of alumnae dancing around me, I had yelled at the college students sneaking some grooves on the tiny square of dance floor set up on the grass for the class of 1995.

“This is our dance floor, yo!” I’d hissed at them.  “Get the hell off!”  I couldn’t stand the thought of them dancing every weekend the way I used to, traipsing from frat house to frat house in search of the best crowd and the best tunes, while we returned to entry-level jobs in the city, our weekends spent in overpriced bars with nary a DJ in sight.

The salsa lesson ended and the dance floor cleared out.  The DJ started spinning some tunes, mostly unoffensive, generic stuff: “I Will Survive,” “Holiday,” “Dancing Queen.”  All in all, pretty uninspiring.  The crowd apparently agreed with me: fifteen minutes in, the dance floor was pretty much empty.

“This is lame,” I said to Ken, eyeing the middle-aged crowd around us.

“Do you want to go?” he asked.

Before I could answer, the doors opened and a crowd of staff members entered the room.  This could get interesting, I thought and ordered another drink.

The young men and women, released from their day jobs as camp counselors, waitresses and Zumba instructors, sauntered in in groups of four and five.  Having shed the cocoon of their uniforms, they emerged like butterflies in low-slung jeans and baby doll dresses.  All week long, I had been obsessed with the group of young people who kept the resort running.  I invented fictions about them–love triangles, bitter breakups, kinky sexting.  Each morning, as I biked from our cabin to the resort’s main buildings, I passed by the staff’s residence.  It was a shabby Victorian-style house covered in layers of colorful paint and strung with Christmas lights.  I could only imagine the amount of screwing that took place inside.

The staff greeted each other, some affectionately, others nonchalantly.  I recognized the waitress who served us breakfast each morning standing on the periphery of a loud group of girls.  She was wearing a brightly patterned dress, high-waisted and billowy around the hip.  Looking around at the other girls, I noticed they were all wearing different versions of the same dress regardless of how it suited their figures.  They were too young to know how to dress for their bodies, but young enough for it not to matter.

Watching them, I couldn’t help wondering how I had entered this other group, parents–or “guests” as we were known–when deep down I felt like I should be hanging out with the the staff.   Why had I never had a job like this instead of wasting my college summers working at internships in fields I’d never entered?  They got to go dancing.

As Ken and I sipped our drinks and grooved half-heartedly to ABBA and Van Morrison, the staff played out their own dramas, oblivious to us.  My eyes tried to meet theirs across the dark room. Can’t you see? I tried to telegraph.  I’m really one of you.

After a few more songs, I walked over to the DJ.

“Are you going to play anything more current?  Like Katy Perry or Rihanna?” I asked the boy-girl pair parked behind the turntable.

“Yeah,” the girl answered flatly.  “We usually play the older stuff first for the older crowd and then we’ll start with something more modern.”

My eyes met hers straight on.  “Well, let’s hit it NOW, O.K.?”  I think I kind of yelled.

Seconds later, Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” exploded through the speakers.  I ran out onto the dance floor, pumping my hands toward the roof as the chorus rang out.  I twisted and grooved through the twangy horns section and stamped my feet during the final na-na-nas.  The music continued, the songs of summer streaming out one after the other.  I knew them all from listening to the radio in my minivan.  I closed my eyes and felt the music pulse through my body.  I shouted along with lyrics that had nothing to do with my life anymore, stories of love and breakups played out in school yards and on city streets.

After awhile, I gave Ken the O.K. to head over to the bar, and I moved around, unfettered, looking for a new group to join.  I found our waitress dancing with a group of her friends.  Their circle opened slightly and I poked my way in.

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the biggest hit of the summer, came on and the crowd screamed.  It was a song my kids and I had hooted along to during our morning ride to day camp.  Now I mouthed the lyrics seductively in the dark: I know you want it… I know you want it.  The girls and I swiveled our hips and shimmied our shoulders, shouting when Robin anointed us all “the hottest bitch in this place.”

Wanting to end the night on a high, I slipped off the dance floor as soon as the song ended.  But before I left, I grabbed the waitress’s arm and pulled her toward me.

“Listen to me,” I said, my lips close to her ear.  “Go dancing every night you can, OK?  And just, like, own it.  Do you get me?”

And then I was gone, pulling Ken away from the bar and out into the summer night.

“Did you have fun?” he asked as we walked along the dark path back to our cabin.

“It was good,” I said, yawning.  Nestling closer to him, I remembered that all I’d ever wanted during the crazy nights of my youth was a man to walk home with afterwards.  All the primping and preening, the sexy moves on the dance floor, all of it had been in pursuit of the life I had now.  The moon rose high in the nearly black sky, crystalline stars stretching on as far as I could see.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a freelance writer. She lives and works in Connecticut.

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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

Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface

By Francesca Kaplan Grossman

Pink Breast Cancer RibbonThe first time I found one, I had just downed a can of Arizona Iced Tea. Sweet, soft on the back of my throat, ice cold and only 99 cents, it seemed to me the best deal in drinks. I needed it. It was August in Massachusetts, and the air was hazy and heavy around my face. The can sweated, and so did my back, in fluid sheets, and I could feel my sports bra forming a damp “o” shape between my shoulder blades. Soccer practice for high school preseason had already begun, burning off the early morning hours with drills I loathed.

I pinched the cotton of my tee shirt between two fingers and pulled it away from my chest, fanning myself with the thin white fabric. Putting both hands in my shirt, I wriggled out of the bra. It felt like a stunning release to let my breasts slap against my chest as I peeled off the sticky spandex. And then, for some reason, I laid my palm directly over my right breast.

I’m still not sure how I found it. The tiny marble under my right nipple shouldn’t have been noticeable, even to me. But somehow my palm landed directly on it. I rubbed it around for a minute, kneading the circle under my skin, the flesh soft and pliable around it. Then, I pulled my hand away.

I was only sixteen and I had a plan. College, work, motherhood. But mostly motherhood. My mother was the example I could hold onto—a working mom home every day by 3:00 p.m. She was equally obsessed with her work and her children.

My mother worked hard, played hard, and knew us well. Nothing would get in the way of my being just like her when it was my turn.

“It’s nothing,” I said to myself, flipping over onto the hot, yellow lawn, the sharp grass scratching my face, the sun drying my salty neck.

The ground felt hard under me, and though I knew it wasn’t possible, I felt the little marble roll beneath me, like the princess and the pea. I imagined it green and tiny, like a pea, but also hard and impenetrable, like a marble. A marble pea.

“Nothing,” I said again.

I ignored the marble pea for six years, until it started to grow a cousin. This one I could not ignore because I was twenty-two and into truth telling. On my neck, right above where I would have had an Adam’s apple if women had Adam’s apples, was what looked like an Adam’s apple. It was oblong, as if I had swallowed a whole olive and it had never gone down.

“You have a thyroid nodule,” the endocrinologist said, looking at my chart and back at me.

“What does that mean?” I? asked frantically. I scanned?the room for the diplomas?that would tell me this man?was the best doctor ever, but all I could find was a? Best of New York Doctors mention from 2000 taped to the side of his desktop computer.

“It’s no big deal, Francesca,” he said, mispronouncing my name “Francessa.” Not a good sign….

“So what do we do about it?” I asked, my hand instinctively flying to my throat to finger the olive. It was solid under a thin layer of skin, and it moved around when I pushed it.

“Nothing, we’ll watch it.”

“Will it affect me getting pregnant one day?”

“Are you pregnant now?” he asked sharply.


“Then don’t worry about it.”

But I wasn’t satisfied with this answer; I couldn’t bear to imagine my life without children. I remained quiet, nodding my respect for a doctor that I was sure must know much more about my body than I did.

So I watched it, in the mirror, in store windows, wherever I could get a glimpse. And it continued to grow.

My husband, Nick, is six foot two. I am five foot nothing, which makes for funny family pictures and a tough time kissing. When he’s on his knees, we’re the same height. There’s a picture of us on our wedding day with my head completely pushed back like a Pez dispenser as he leans down over a foot. At that moment, the olive had grown into a walnut, jutting out of my otherwise flat neck in what should have been the best picture of my life.

“Don’t you think we should take it out?” I had practiced this line a thousand times in the bathroom, at home, and then, right there, outside the doctor’s waiting room. It was the first thing I said to him when he checked on the walnut.

He gave me a stern headmaster’s stare.

“We don’t need to do anything, Francessa. It’s a nodule. Many, many people have them, especially Jewish women.”

Huh? I nodded. It had taken all my courage to get the sentence out, and I could say no more.

“OK.” I finally mustered, unsatisfied and uncomfortable.

“We’ll biopsy it. All right? If that will make you feel better,” he added. It sounded like an accusation.

But I welcomed anything that might reassure me that I was going to be okay.

I had the walnut biopsied every year for seven years, and there was no change. Every time the six-inch needle pierced my neck flesh, I winced guiltily for making the doctor check it.

*   *   *

The first time I shit in my pants I was on the platform of the Number 6 train. I was twenty-six, and a cup of coffee I’d sipped now led to stomach pain I can only classify as agonizing. Though I did everything in my power to get up the subway steps and into a nearby restaurant to relieve it, my cold, shaking body had to let go three steps from the top. The problem in a situation like that, I have since learned, is that walking makes it worse, and stopping gets you nowhere.

Now covered in a putrid brown film that no one could mistake for anything else, I sprinted in shame to my gym, a place that had been my salvation. I rushed? into the shower with all ?my clothes on, peeled ?them off, pumped bright ?green body soap into the crotch of ?my jeans, and threw away my balled-up underwear in a naked dash from the scalding shower to my locker.

When I was finished, I sat on the cold metal bench with towels draped over every part of me, my jeans and tee shirt and bra draped over the bench. How could I possibly live a normal life like this? How could I one day take care of someone else—a child. My child?

I should tell Nick it’s over, I thought. Let him find a woman who is healthy and strong, always ready for life.

Yet I felt elated, having escaped the stomach pain that had overtaken me a half hour earlier. It was blissful, this pause, like a welcome inhalation of normalcy.

I learned later that year that autoimmune disease means your body is attacking itself. It’s chronic pain you can’t escape. You can’t run away from it because it’s inside of you, in some ways it is you.

A delicate young woman with a black gym tee shirt came over to me in the locker room.

“Are you okay?” she asked me.

I nodded, unable to speak. A rising ball of humiliation threatened to choke me, almost like the giant walnut within me. “Do you want me to dry those for you?” she asked gently.

I sighed with gratitude, nodded my thanks and sat in tiny white towels for the next forty-five minutes while a woman I didn’t know dried my shit-stained clothes. She handed them to me in a CVS bag someone had left behind. I had no choice but to put them back on. I proceeded to walk home, seventy-three blocks and two avenues and one bridge, just so I wouldn’t have to get on the subway again.

All this time I hadn’t only been growing a walnut in my throat and developing an angry belly—it felt as though I’d also been growing new skin. Heavy skin. Skin that felt bruised in every pore. Soon, simply turning over in bed was torture. My skin was calloused, pocked, red and raw, especially in the joints.

The doctor told me this pain was peripheral arthritis, connected to the Crohns disease I apparently had developed to accompany my thyroid autoimmune disease.

He actually said, “It goes nicely.”

*   *   *

On a Tuesday I went to have my thyroid walnut biopsied, and, three weeks later, I was having it removed.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” the doctor said. “It’s so rare to have cancer so young,” a second doctor agreed. “Plus, thyroid cancer is a good one to have, if you have to have cancer at all.”

When I turned twenty-nine, I went into Lennox Hill Hospital to have my whole thyroid removed. Doctors suggested I just take half out and “see what we are dealing with,” but I was getting to the point that enduring two back-to-back surgeries was an unbearable alternative. And, I was starting to doubt that these doctors knew what they were talking about, so I demanded they remove the whole thing.

I recovered fairly quickly from the surgery and was home on the couch, a cat curled in the indent of my knees, watching “The Golden Girls,” when the phone rang.

“I don’t want you to come all the way in to hear this,” the surgeon said. “It turns out it was cancerous after all.” He added quickly, “But the good news is, it’s out, so you don’t have cancer any more. Probably.”


I remember hanging up the phone and staring at the TV for a full five minutes. When I thought of Nick, my stomach curdled into ice-cold cement.

“I can’t believe I will never see my own children,” I mourned out loud. And then, “I can’t believe he is going to love someone else.”

Assuming I was going to die, I couldn’t bear the idea that Nick would have a whole life, a good life, a long life, after I was gone. And the children he would have would not be mine.

I called him. “It was cancer,” was all I could say. He was home twenty minutes later, sweating as if he’d run the whole way.

I’ve always been angry that the doctors didn’t acknowledge that I had cancer. For years, they told me I was fine, I was overreacting, nothing was really wrong with me, and then they took the thing out, diagnosed it, and it wasn’t mine anymore.

I am, of course, grateful it is gone, but I can’t help but feel cheated. It is a strange and wicked reality.

In a bout of post-cancer depression, I lay on our couch for twenty-two days. No extra radiation was needed, but I ducked out of society anyway.

No one but Nick knew how long I stayed there, only getting up to pee, eat, and feed the cats. I ignored calls and Nick ran interference. Sometimes, he would come home, walk over to me, kiss my head, make us dinner, and tell me about the world outside.

“It’s nice out, Fran,” he said at the beginning of April, two months after my surgery, seven weeks after diagnosis of something I no longer had inside of me. I nodded through heavy eyelids.

Soon after, Nick took me to Jamaica so I could get away. It was such a beautiful thought, to take me away from the grime of the city so we could spend a few days on the beach. It was a grand gesture because we didn’t have the money, and my guilt spread as I agreed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I couldn’t imagine anything less inviting than spending hours on a plane, in line-ups at the airport, without the comfort of my own bed at night, in a strange, hot place.

The first night, I had a glass of wine and watched the resort show, thinking that if I were pulled up on stage to dance like some of the other vacationers, I would just have to lie down on it.

“You look great,” Nick said to me, smiling his crinkly smile and touching my arm. He was a liar, but he was a sweet liar. I looked at myself in the mirror behind the bar. My eyes were rimmed with a yellowish tint. My skin was flaky and beet red from the sun be- cause the medicine I was taking made my skin sensitive in a new, exposed way. My neck was swollen and my fingernails, for some reason, were blue.

“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at him, knowing that I was about to throw up.

I muttered an “I’llberightback” jumped off the stool and dashed back to our room, three outdoor stairways away. I slammed myself through the bamboo bathroom door and didn’t make it to the toilet. Orange vomit covered the walls of the bathroom, sliding down the tile in gooey bits. I lay down in the middle of the room on the bathmat, and a few minutes later, Nick knocked on the door.


I couldn’t answer.

“Fran?” He pushed in the door and took a step back. I am sure what he saw repulsed him, and though I couldn’t possibly move, I imagined retreating even further into myself.

“Oh, honey,” he said sadly. He got a towel and washed the walls with the floral soap from the shower, scrubbing the floor, literally mopping up the mess.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and took the bundle of towels out into the hallway. When he came back in, he had bedding, a pillow, and a glass of water.

“Can you drink this?” he asked gently.

“I don’t know,” I squeaked. “I don’t know if I can sit up.”

Nick came over to me and slid down onto the mat next to me. He smelled like the floral soap and salt water and the beer he had abandoned. Lifting my head in his hand, he tipped a small sip of water into my chapped lips.

“There,” he said.

He put the glass of water down on the floor?next to me and I rested my?face on the tile in front of the bathmat, the coolness an astounding relief.

Nick tucked my head under the pillow and made a floor-bed under me.

“You don’t have to do this,” I croaked.

He ignored me and slid his body down next to mine. “Try to sleep,” he said.

I tried to nod as his hand traced light circles on my back.

*   *   *

Since that day, I have been to many doctors, but rarely one who smiled. So when I started to see OBs, I feigned calm as they poked and prodded, expecting a deluge of bad news, like “barren,” and “unable.”

I surprised myself (and Nick, too, I think), when we got pregnant swiftly, without event. Both times. And both times I was nauseous and swollen and pimpled and sweaty and so, so tired the whole time.

But I was a “healthy” sick. Which was new to me.

Finally, both times, my body was working like a normal woman’s, and I was finally growing something inside of me that wasn’t going to kill me.

*   *   *

Our son was twelve weeks old when Nick went into the hospital the first time. His first migraine was now six days old. The second time we were practiced in both migraines and newborns, but this one was accompanied with a stomach pain that drove him to his knees.

Covered with monitors, IVs and confusion, Nick stared at me in disbelief. I could only stare back. We were in the wrong roles and weren’t sure how to act them out. I grabbed his hand and squeezed the bruise that had started to form beneath the IV needle. He winced, and I mouthed, “I’m sorry.” So I did what he always did for me. I called his family, got him a ginger ale, cleaned his chin, rubbed his back, sat in the chair, and waited for answers.

We don’t have an answer, even today, for the disease that clots Nick’s blood. Until we know what it is, and probably even if we do, he has to take a blood thinner that prohibits him from any activity in which he might bump his head and bleed to death. He can’t ski or play basketball, and if he gets into a car accident, the prognosis is grim.

But there is more. Our roles have changed and meshed?into one. There is no longer the strong and the struggling. Now we are both.

There is not much we can do. We go to yoga on Tuesday mornings. I work part-time. We both take generic Paxil. We stretch our dollars, we cook on Sundays, we watch Millionaire Matchmaker and chuckle.

Even in the most peaceful, mundane, white-picket-fence version of our lives, there’s a tinsel-thin fear. Another knowledge, one neither of us will admit.

Sure, I’m scared he’ll collapse again from the pain of a clot, shield his eyes from the agony of light, or that his bruises will spread until they paint his skin purple. Or worse, that we won’t see the bleeding, and it will drown him from the inside.

I’m scared I’ll be aimlessly squeezing my flesh and come upon another marble pea that won’t be so easy to remove and will snowball rapidly. But there is more than that.

It is quiet, this fear, and it says: To have two sick parents is a curse. As I tuck in my son and I kiss the wispy hair on the back of my daughter’s sweet head, it whispers around the room. What if they lost us both and had to fend for themselves? Even worse, I wonder if there are silent horrors swimming around beneath their skin? Will their genes betray them? What have we done?

It does not escape me that my two children grew out of me the same way everything else has. They, too, started tiny and unnoticed, growing into the small, wonderful people they have become. I made them.

We made them.

Which can’t be good.

When one of them gets a cold, I prepare for tuberculosis. When one has a bruise, I take a sharp breath in, praying it will not grow. And fevers, well, they just about crush me.

Will my daughter shit in her pants on the 6 train? Will my son be attacked by knots of blood in his veins? Will they grow things the size of olives, walnuts, golf balls under their skin? Will they demand they be removed? Will they hate us for it?

I didn’t drink alcohol for nine months both times I was pregnant. I power-walked and did yoga, tried to sleep well and limited my medications to those that were absolutely necessary. I ate eggs. I did everything I was supposed to do to keep my babies safe and healthy.

But I couldn’t give them healthy, strong parents. And I don’t know how to live with that.

We have dinner together every night, the four of us, like the family we hope we can be.

“Mama,” my son says, his dark brown eyes wide, a yogurt mustache tracing his upper lip.

“Yes?” I say, controlling myself not to wipe it off for him.

“Will you take me to school tomorrow?”

“I can’t, babe.”


My daughter parrots, “Why?” in a two-year-old voice that barely makes sentences work. But her blue eyes are expectant.

“I have to go to the doctor, guys.”

“You always have to go to the doctor,” my son replies, annoyed.

I can do juice cleanses and downward dog myself into my forties. I can strip the negativity from my bones and delete phone numbers from people who will never be real friends. Nick and I can eat more quinoa, love each other late into Sunday night, cut up credit cards, and find family-friendly bikes.

But the very real possibility that something new is happening, is growing beneath the surface of our collective skin, is almost impossible for me to stomach. Though the only choice for us is to try.

Author’s Note: There is a thin line between having it all and losing it all. And it is on that line I balance, and I think we all might balance. We, as mothers, as women, as humans, all teeter between an ecstatic celebration of what we have—a job we are proud of, some people who love us, a home we make—and the impending terror of the possible—a sick parent, or child, or us, a money catastrophe, a splintering friendship, relationship, marriage. The thin line is where life is, and we grab it with our toes, begging them to brace us. That line is where I like to hang out, where I try to write. I hope it is the place where fact becomes truth. This essay turned me inside out, and I feel better after writing it, like throwing up after a stomach bug, or coming up from a deep dive, gulping for air.

Francesca Kaplan Grossman’s previous and forthcoming work includes contributions to Motherlode, the Huffington Post, Ed Week/Teacher,, among other publications. Francesca lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with her husband Nick and two children, Theo and Brieza. She is currently working on her first novel, The Night Nurse, and a collection of personal essays, The Math of Me: A Collection from a Life out of Sequence.


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.”


After Birth

After Birth

By Eve Rosenbaum

This is the third post in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

eveI spent two hours smoothing down buns with hair gel and bobby pins, fluffing tutus, and trying to keep their costumes free of crumbs and crayons as we waited to be called to the stage. I had never imagined myself as a backstage mom, and yet I had written my name on the list, volunteering to keep ten three-to-five-year-old girls alive and stain-free at the year-end ballet recital. My daughter was the youngest, nearly four, and the shortest. After herding them into the spotlight, I stood in the darkened wings, watching her in her white and pink costume, the one she’d been desperate to try on for weeks, gazing at it hanging in clear plastic on the closet door. She had been rehearsing for months. In less than three minutes it was over, and I guided the girls backstage once again. My daughter announced that she was now a ballerina.

It wasn’t just that I had never imagined myself as a backstage mom. Really, I never wanted to be a parent at all. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, I always expected my life would progress down an orderly and pre-determined path: high school then marriage then kids then …  well, I wasn’t entirely sure what came after kids. More kids, probably. I saw my friends being steered into this life and, at first, I joined in their conversations about who would be first in our class to get married, where we would live. On Sabbath afternoons, we would walk to the houses of girls we knew who were already married with babies. I admit, for at least a couple of years, I wanted it too. My own home life was chaotic and sometimes violent, and I could imagine creating a home for myself and a family that would be nothing like where I came from. I could get married at nineteen and never look back. I could be that kind of girl.

By eleventh grade, that dream was dead. I resolved to never get married or have children, as I was positive that a traditional life would make me lose myself to the endless drudgery of carpool and cooking and keeping a kosher home. I was slowly drifting away from religion and by my last year of college I was firmly, determinedly secular. I realized that as much as I didn’t want to bring children into a traditional religious home, I also couldn’t imagine raising a child outside of Orthodox Judaism. Remaining childless seemed like the best, most responsible choice. Besides, I had never really wanted to be pregnant, had never fantasized about the joys of giving birth. I thought about adoption as a distant, distant possibility.

And then I met my partner. It was my second year of graduate school, her first day. She had just moved to town and by October we were dating. I knew from the start that she wanted children. As our relationship turned serious, I had to decide whether I could truly become a parent, and whether I even wanted to reconsider. Religious issues came up almost immediately: Jen isn’t Jewish and she would be the one to give birth. I hadn’t wanted to raise a secular child; could I raise a child who wouldn’t even be Jewish?  At twenty-two I felt too young to make these decisions but they seemed so distant. Jen and I talked in hypotheticals, imagining our future daughter. We would name her Madeline, we decided, and we would buy her a red coat with black buttons and teach her about art, about the world. We were playing, and this amorphous child became very real to us. I could almost see myself as her parent, a child I hadn’t given birth to but would love unconditionally regardless. She flitted through our conversations like a dream bird, and I told myself how easy it would be to parent this imaginary daughter.

By twenty-six, our daydreams turned serious and our conversations now included topics like fertility monitors, sperm banks, and birthing plans. I knew I wanted the biological father to be Jewish, even if under religious law the baby wouldn’t be considered Jewish. All we knew about the anonymous donor was that he played guitar and clarinet, liked to bake, had seasonal allergies, and that he juggled. We started calling him Jewish Juggler.

Three months later Jen was pregnant, and what had seemed like a game before was immediately, unavoidably, real. Now my family acted strange on the phone. My brother said he didn’t know if he could ever speak to me again. He had to think about it, he said. My parents reminded me that I could never bring this baby to their house, to their community, because as far as their friends knew, I was still single. They wouldn’t display her pictures next to their other grandkids. My sister said, “What did you expect?”

As we prepared for the birth, our conversations turned to the imaginary once again. We would name her Madeline, like we’d decided years before. Jen painted turtles and fish onto canvas for the nursery. We bought feetie pajamas and kimono-wrapped onesies and a tiny striped hat with a bee stitched into the front. I was terrified. My doubts about becoming a parent resurfaced, my anxiety about raising a non-Jewish child, one who wasn’t even biologically mine. Would I love her the way a parent is supposed to love a child? Would she grow up and resent having me instead of a father? I had never been one of those girls who smiled at babies or even noticed them. Could this one be different, even if she didn’t look anything like me? I was scared the answer would be no.

In May, after three days of labor, it was time to get her out. Jen was running a fever. I stood near Jen’s shoulders, watching the baby emerge, watching as a team of doctors pulled her quickly away and started running tests. It was a blur. My legs were numb. I thought, “I didn’t get to cut the cord,” and “This is not what’s supposed to happen.”  They started wheeling Madeline out of the room and Jen urged, “Go with her.”

I followed. I didn’t leave Madeline as they cleaned her off, hooked her up to machines, put a breathing tube in her nose. She looked so small, so bruised and purple. She looked grouchy. If she could speak, she would have lectured me for making her go through something so unpleasant. I stood back while doctors and nurses hovered around her. I had always known that babies were small; even that much was obvious to someone as oblivious as I was. But I never realized just how small she would look on that table, arms swaddled tightly against her chest, fists tucked under her chin.

In that moment, it was just me and her. I realized that it didn’t matter what my brother thought or who her biological father was, or even if she shared my genes or liked the same television shows that I did. Bringing her into the world wasn’t about pleasing my parents or following a set path of how my life should turn out. In that moment, I knew that it was about protecting this child, keeping her safe and thriving, keeping her alive. Even at only a few minutes old, I could see how determined she was to live and I knew that her life was my responsibility. I was a parent; more than that, I was her parent, no matter how complicated.

Madeline was in the ICU for a week before we brought her home. Only Jen’s name is allowed on the birth certificate, but there’s no doubt she is my daughter too.  As I stood in the wings watching her first ballet recital, I understood that being a parent isn’t just about sharing your DNA.  It’s about opening the world for your children, showing them your passions and helping them develop their own. I will teach my daughter everything I can. It’s been a privilege to learn from her in return.

Eve Rosenbaum is a writer, editor, and occasional academic in Iowa City.  You can find her on Twitter: @everosenbaum. 

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

The Normalcy Of Divorce

The Normalcy Of Divorce

0-13The most common and only shared symptom of children of divorced parents is having divorced parents.

Having parents who remain married may not the best thing for a child. Having married parents is merely having married parents.

You can argue as much as you want about divorce being right or wrong, but you can’t dispute its normalcy.

Our generally unquestioned assumptions about marriage and divorce and their respective impacts on children spring from the double-sided presupposition that 1). The best possible scenario for a child is to grow up in a family that remains intact and 2). That having divorced parents causes suffering and should, if it can, be avoided. It’s commonsense, right? Married and divorced people—even single people—agree. But what if, because these observations are so ready and apparent, divorce turns out to be the scapegoat of commonsense? Hold that thought.

It’s generally accepted that 50% of marriages end in divorce. Wading through and understanding divorce statistics can be exhausting and one can, if they wish, get argumentative about that percentage or what that number conceals. And it’s true that divorce is on somewhat of a decline, but even if we conceded that only 40% of all marriages end in divorce, the bottom line is that a lot of marriages end in divorce. So many that if you take any given kid walking down the street, there’s absolutely no reason to simply assume that his or her parents are married.

I’m going to repeat that for emphasis: There’s absolutely no reason to assume that any given kid’s parents are married. This fact of our daily lives has consequences that are not yet apparent to our commonsense, which is common. Individually and culturally, our least questioned assumptions about the way things are have a tenacious tendency to lag way behind the way things are. And for more than a few decades now, divorce has been normal. I’m risking redundancy here because I want this point driven home. Grab any two kids off the street and chances are that one has married parents and one has divorced parents. That’s a pretty good argument for the normalcy of both conditions.

And yet, in spite of its normalcy, we still view divorce as a catastrophe and seek to interpret children of divorce through the lens of abnormal psychology. Granted, people enter marriages with the intention of staying together and a marriage’s end feels catastrophic. But, given its normalcy, it is perhaps time to revise our understanding of divorce as something very difficult that a lot of people experience and reserve our catastrophes for hurricanes and auto accidents. Things are never just things. They consist of what we collectively believe about them. And, for some stubborn reason, we’re still making a really big deal out of something that’s no big deal. No big deal? Yes. No big deal. If 5% of marriages ended in divorce, then it would be rare, out of the ordinary, a big deal. But half the time means just as often. It’s no big deal.

And yet where do we first look for the source of a person’s abnormal psychology? ADHD. Depression. Anxiety. Substance abuse. Oppositional/Defiance Disorder. Sexual deviance. Cutting. Suicidal ideation. Suicide itself. Serial killing. It’s a very safe bet that when abnormality of any kind becomes manifest and IF (IF) that person has divorced parents, our attention automatically hones in on divorce as undoubtedly a fundamental cause of the abnormality in question. Ah! Divorced parents; comes from a broken home. The madness of this kneejerk attribution is as crazy as the various madnesses it seeks to understand. It’s equivalent to seeking the cause of psychopathology in a person’s blue eyes (indeed, having blue eyes is less common than having divorced parents) or in a sneaky underworld demon possessing the afflicted. In fact, attributing the cause to a demon would be a much more useful diagnosis because you can at least work with a sneaky underworld demon. Demons can be exorcized. You can’t undo having divorced parents.

For people who suffer AND have divorced parents and for divorced parents with children who ALSO suffer, it’s high time to let divorce off the hook as a catch all for the cause of life’s discontents. Our various mental illnesses no doubt have deep and complex causes and would be much better served by seeking those causes beyond the limited scope of the family and perhaps in broader frontiers like the kinks in our culture or the mystery of brain chemistry. A shot of imagination to revive the depth psychologies of Freud and Jung wouldn’t hurt either. Of course this work is already being done and advances are being made but they seem to be having little to no impact on our commonsense pop-psych notions about the simplistic relationship between our problems and our Family of Origin.

The attentive reader will have noted that I laid a great deal of stress on normalizing divorce while ignoring the unarguable fact that children do indeed undergo an intense amount of suffering when their parents divorce. Agreed. However, the cause of that suffering is not the phenomenon of divorce itself; rather, the suffering is generated by our collective insistence upon living within the unquestioned and commonplace assumptions detailed at the beginning of this essay: mainly, that having married parents is good and having divorced parents is bad. If you want to cite research that supports those assumptions, what you’re actually doing is citing research generated by those assumptions. Understanding “family” as an entity that necessitates marriages that remain forever intact simply does not represent the reality of families as they exist today and we harm ourselves and our kids to the extent that we (viciously) judge half of our actual families as something less than and worse than the other half when they’re both equally common.

We celebrate diversity in so many ways. Why not here? This is not a divorce manifesto. This is not an attack on marriage any more than gay marriage is an attack on marriage. It’s simply an affirmation that there are different ways to be and a proposal that difference is not what causes suffering; refusing to acknowledge the dignity of difference causes suffering. There’s plenty of divorced people who go their separate ways while deftly co-parenting their children. There’s plenty of married couples who muck it up. Marital status is a gasping variable. Beyond the limited focus of this essay, there’s plenty of gay couples and single women and men who do fabulous jobs raising great kids. There are ways and there are ways—all kinds of ways for people to be and be together.

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Dear Drudgery: Xtreme Driving Edition

Dear Drudgery: Xtreme Driving Edition

0-1The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what. The story so far: I was a fun-loving young sprite and then there were three children and also being married can be hard, and for a while I kind of lost the plot. Then I made a Commitment to Fun. Now my life is daisies and nothing ever is the matter!  It helped.

My idea made perfect sense to me; I don’t know why everyone acted like I’d lost my mind.

“Sight unseen? On eBay?! In PASADENA? How do you know this car will even drive?”

Well, sometimes you don’t get to know.

My fun program had been baby steps so far, but this was going to be high drama. It had to be, to counter all the emotional unspooling.

You hear sometimes of the breakdown that can happen in a marriage, right around the decade mark. Some marriages survive it, some don’t. But regardless of outcome, an awful lot of marriages tank for a while. Anthony and I proved to be super awesome at the tanking.

That spring was the Spring I Cried. In the kitchen, in the car, in the office. Would I ever not be tired? Did I love Anthony, really, the way you’re supposed to love your partner? Had he ever loved me? Wasn’t marriage supposed to have more movie-montage elation, fewer protracted silences? While Anthony and I were disintegrating, our poor children were busy being ten, seven, and almost three.

I was a wreck, but it wasn’t a job for antidepressants. I wasn’t inexplicably blue; I was blue-with-explication: I was in a marriage, but it felt like it was just me in there. The man brushing his teeth beside me was kind and good, but utterly silent. Well, not utterly.

“Good morning.”


“Can you drive to soccer?”

“Um…sure. Yeah, that works. You can get to daycare?”

“Yep. Have a good day.”

“You, too.”

I loved my children more than breathing, but most mornings I woke up barely able to breathe myself. Evenings, Anthony and I sat on the couch after the kids went to bed, completely spent, not remembering what it was like to have things to say.

Darkened rooms are for amateurs. I demonstrated my ability to fall apart in the chipperest of settings one sparkling May evening. We’d all gone for burgers, then to the playground. Eldest dangled on the swing with her book and Middlest spouted baseball stats and chewed with his mouth open, but Youngest still loved the slide. I put her at the top and launched her with a gentle push – wooosh.

The tears came silently, and without warning or reason. I tried to blink them back; too late. They, too, launched.


And then more. Eldest sidled over and slid her hand into mine.

Over and over. Youngest slid. I cried. Eldest held on. Anthony and Middlest, unaware, talked infield fly rule.

Well. This wasn’t sustainable.

What do you do when you feel the very core of your life isn’t working? You carefully, thoughtfully, examine that core and make changes, right?

That’s a big process. In the short run, could I maybe just keep from losing my shit on the playground?

More everyday joys to get us through, I thought. Big ones, while I figure out what to do with my head and my heart.

I thought about driving, its slogging constancy. Work, practices, orthodontists, school—I covered an endless loop in our ratty used cars, Corolla and minivan, both older than my marriage and about as tired.

I’d never been a material girl, but I suddenly flashed on a way to transform those hours and hours of drive time. It was so out-of-character I knew it must be right. That night, I looked up the bluebook value of the Corolla—$5,000; I could work with that—then drew a circle with a thousand-mile radius, our house dead center… Any location outside the circle was fair game. My driving renaissance would start with a road trip.

I approached Anthony with my plan, explained how it didn’t have to be expensive.

“I think you should go for it,” he said.

(Eventually, I would notice that the quiet I was raging against was simply the frustrating alter ego of this sterling quality: Anthony doesn’t sweat things. Two sides, same coin.)

I opened an eBay account. I practiced entering ridiculously low bids, to get the feel of things. Four days later, when BMWDude456 was auctioning off his – my – convertible, I knew to wait until the final moment.

At 11:29:30 PDT on a Wednesday, I sat in my office with a conference call on mute—just for a minute; it’s not my fault my car was being auctioned during weekly status—and eBay on my screen. I had already typed in my maximum bid of $5,800 and positioned my cursor square on the Bid Now button.

I kept my hand above the mouse, not touching lest I bid too early or start a nuclear war. I held position until 11:29:52, and then I clicked.

Eight seconds later, I was the gasping owner of a 325i. Fifteen years old, condition: “Excellent.” (Cherry red, but fuck the jokes about midlife crisis. I wanted the car much more than I resented the cliché. Anyway, I was only thirty-four. HOLY MOLY! I WAS A MIDLIFE-CRISIS PRODIGY!) I finished my meeting.

When they heard, my friends and coworkers had a collective cow:

“You bought a CAR on eBay?! How do you know it can even make it home? That the guy isn’t a total crook?”

Excellent questions, one and all, I acknowledged, and made a plan to pick up my car.

*   *   *

I’m pretty sure I met BMWDude456 at a Pasadena strip mall, but I don’t really remember him. My car was so red, so cheerful. It even had those wheels with the super shiny spokes. Twenty minutes later, I waved goodbye to Dude—I think—and headed up the California coast. I’d gone to Pasadena by myself, to be alone for the first time in ten years, to fall to pieces in peace. But as my red car and I tootled up 101, I didn’t feel much like falling to pieces at all.

*   *   *

Back home, two weeks after my historic mouse-click, I witnessed a kind of magic: The circuit was still there and still endless, but carpool-mom drudgery was replaced by unalloyed glee. Someone always begged to join me, on errands I no longer dreaded. The sun shone down on our upturned faces as we sang along with The Magnetic Fields, shouting our delight into the blue, blue sky. Just going to the dentist became sun on the water, wind in the hair.

When Anthony and I were in the car together, I felt the wind whipping away the miasma that had formed between us. Yes, we still had work to do. But the space between the bucket seats was easier to penetrate than the exact same distance, sitting on the couch.

The red-car atmosphere was pure and fresh, easy to move through. In it, I realized that the laughing, the fun, the lightness—they’d been available all along, just as true and as real as the confusion and the lonesome. I’d been missing the great while I focused on the hard. The hard was still there too, of course, but this car—a car, how ridiculous—drove me right up to all the good stuff, made me stop and look.

The mood of the red car persisted even when we weren’t in it, and I knew:  People who say you can’t get joy from material objects have never met the right material object. We zipped around our lives, creating montage after montage.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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