A Letter to Me, at 14

A Letter to Me, at 14

By Natalie Kemp

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You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her.

 

I know you’re trying so hard, too hard, to make her see you, but she won’t, not now, when you’re blossoming into young adulthood, not later, when you’re graduating or getting married or divorced. She won’t be there helping you get ready for school dances, or ever see you march in the band, or even ask you what you want to do with your life. When she is there, she’ll usually be drunk. It will, now and always, be all about her.

In fact, when you are going through the worst of your divorce and find yourself completely alone, she’ll call you one day, and your heart will leap when she asks if you want to go on a vacation, just the two of you, to Florida. You’ll jump at the chance, though part of you will question her motives right out of the gate. But you’ll push down your doubts and forge ahead into the make-believe land she inhabits.

You’ll find yourself alone, again and still, right there in Fort Lauderdale, as she takes off on the back of a motorcycle with a guy she met on the Internet. She’ll toss a handful of twenties at you as she giggles her way to the door and tells you to get whatever you want for dinner, that you’ll watch T.V. when she gets back, just like the old days when she worked second shift and you’d wait up for her, hoping she’d remember to invite you into the living room before Dobie Gillis reruns started. You’ll wait up for her in that Florida hotel room, but she won’t come back that night or for two more days.

While you wait for her to return, you’ll take the rental car she left you and go to the mall, alone. You’ll cry as you drive down the freeway, real, choking, foolish sobs that are way more about her than they are about your soon-to-be ex-husband. You’ll be 24 and hate yourself for still not being past this, for still needing your mommy, for never allowing yourself to feel justified in your anger toward her. You’ll still be making excuses for her, still apologizing and hiding and wrecking yourself with constant grief, anguish and worry. You’ll force a smile when she finally returns, giddy and still reeking of beer. You’ll pretend to agree with her when she says she thought it would be good for you to have some alone time.

At 30, you’ll be remarried and expecting your first child. She’ll live across the country, and she won’t come. You’ll cry to your helpless, sweet husband while you’re in the throes of labor that no, you don’t want more medicine or a drink, or for him to rub your back. All you want is your mom and nobody can even get her on the phone. She’ll never lay eyes on you when you’re pregnant, either time.

Years will go by, the same, jagged patterns carving out a tired rut. You’ll have insomnia and you’ll blame it on motherhood and being so busy and some kind of anxiety thing, but you’ll know the truth. Nighttime is reserved for worrying about her. You’ll make sure your phone is on because you know that someday, the call will come, and it will come in the middle of the night, but somehow, maybe not, if you don’t go to sleep.

If you don’t sleep, you can keep your world propped up, and hers, too.

Somewhere along the line, she’ll own some of it. She’ll actually admit, in plain terms, that she’s an alcoholic, that she’s fucked things up along the way. She’ll detox. She’ll promise to stay sober, but she won’t for long. She’ll be too far gone, too lonely, too far away from everything she knew and threw away.

You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her. You’ll overcompensate and coddle your kids too much, but it will be better than her neglect, which you can recognize in hindsight now.

You’ll realize you’ve given up on her when you don’t even cringe when she has manic, hateful fits on Twitter for all your friends to see. It will be like you’ve already mourned her passing. You’ll cling to the good memories you do have of her, back when you were very young, when she didn’t correct people who thought she was your big sister.

But then when you’re 15, cigarette in hand and smirk on her lips, she’ll casually tell you that you were a mistake, one that ruined her life. You’ll try to brush it off, to find some compassion for the younger version of her, pregnant at 16, only a year older than you. “She doesn’t mean it,” you’ll tell yourself.

And maybe she doesn’t, and maybe she loves you, but she will hurt you. She is your mother and she will hurt you deeply and repeatedly until you’re broken, and then she’ll sob that you care nothing about her. Nothing will appease her and nothing will shake her from the chains of victimhood. You will have to watch yourself so you don’t fall into the same patterns.

But know this, too: On the other side of the pain, when you’re well past 30 and a mother yourself and finally brave enough to accept that you have value, when you’re so far past 14 that you can no longer remember it sharply, there is love. You’ll find it everywhere because you have a big heart and relentless, unrealistic hope, and though you will never fully believe it, you’ll deserve the love that emanates from within you. You’ll hold out hope for her, too, to the end.

And I’ll be here waiting, trying to pass some kind of motherly love back to you through time, because you need it now, at 14, and you don’t even know it.

Natalie Kemp is a freelance writer based in the upper Midwest. She is a daughter and a mother, and feels compelled to share the stories that bind us all.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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The Promise of Maybes

The Promise of Maybes

By Audrey Hines McGill

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We walk into my two boys’ new school and check out their new classrooms. We meet their new teachers; I say hello, and then introduce the boys. I explain how we’ve recently moved cross country for my husband’s new job. But what I don’t tell these new teachers is that I’m secretly hoping for a new start, a reprieve from judging eyes and ignorant staring that made up much of my previous interactions with teachers and other parents at my children’s prior school. I wish my boys have more play dates and birthday party invitations. I dream of neighborhood friends and for my children to feel like they belong.

At this very moment, I also secretly hope my children’s telltale eye rolling tics don’t happen as we make our introductions. Just for a little while, I hope for a break from the explanations and the reciting of diagnoses.  For just a few minutes, I want my children to safely blend into the sea of students soon about to enter the classroom.

Since it is the dreaded beginning of the school year, it is time to inform yet countless more people of both of my children’s special circumstances. It is time to discuss 504 plans, IEPs, and special accommodations for their needs in the classroom. They have Tourette syndrome I will say. But how do I describe how Tourette syndrome affects them daily, while trying to sound as nonchalant as possible?  I can tell them my standard, “It’s no big deal. You probably won’t even notice the tics” intended to alleviate some of their fears as well as my own.

I can say they have verbal tics, otherwise known as a constant stream of strange noises, snorts, and grunting.

I can say their eyes roll around making it difficult to read or keep their place. I can say that my youngest son, only 7, struggles with Copralalia, which is the unwanted urge to say socially inappropriate words and phrases.

But I cannot say that my 7-year-old is so tormented by his Coprolalia that despite my constant reassuring and comforting, he is convinced he is a bad person.

I cannot say that on my darkest days, I am angry at the world, angry at God, and angry at the genetics that my children could not escape.

I cannot say that I constantly become overwhelmed with the inner struggle of wanting to hide my children and keep them safe from the world’s glare or let them go and trust that they will be okay as they set off bravely on their own.

What I cannot say is that I am terrified that suddenly one day the tics will overtake my children’s ability to find happiness and joy in their life.

What I am not allowed to say is that sometimes my children’s tics annoy me, but I am asking that as their teachers, to please disregard the noises and movements in the classroom.

What I really cannot say is that I am tired of the explanations, the quizzical looks, and even the rude stares my children receive as we try and assimilate into any social gathering.

What I know I cannot say is that sometimes I feel extremely selfish and wish that this burden wasn’t mine and my children’s to bear.  I wish for a reality much different than the reality we’ve been handed.

What I most certainly cannot say is the heartache of having children who by the very definition of Tourette syndrome, are considered Neurologically Impaired, sometimes makes me resentful. And now I am yearning for those carefree days before the words Tourette syndrome became a part of our lives and my daily fear for their future threatens to overtake my joy of living in the moment.

And so I reassure myself with maybes. Maybe everything will be different here. Maybe my children will find a place where they feel like they belong. Maybe I will. Maybe there will be a permanent vacation from the pity filled eyes. Maybe so many friendships will be made we will have to pick and choose playdates. Maybe my boys will be regarded for their beautiful big blue eyes and their senses of humor. Maybe their only noticeable characteristics will be their kindness toward others and their generous personalities. Maybe here they can just be little boys. Maybe here they can be recognized for more than their affliction’s definition. Maybe they can just love being 9 and 7.  Maybe here their stream of internal torment can absorb me instead.

So I smile big and brave and kiss them each goodbye as I tell them that I love them and that they will have a great day. I watch as they walk through their new classroom doors as the promise of maybes swells so big inside of my heart that I can barely breathe.

Audrey Hines McGill is a contributing writer and Northwest native living in Seattle, Washington. She is writing her way through life one paragraph and one cup of coffee at a time.

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Motherhood is a Relationship

Motherhood is a Relationship

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Once upon a time, way back in The Olden Days, when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark, the Cold War was just ended, and Rodney King was wondering why we couldn’t all just get along, I wanted to have a baby.

So have a baby I did, and less than two years later I had another, and while I wasn’t naïve enough to think that raising children would be easy, neither did I recognize the potential for gut-wrenching agony in the whole enterprise.

Thank God I didn’t know then what I know now.

I was young and insecure and married to the wrong man, so it’s not like I started parenting strong, and I felt all the social pressures that many new moms feel: am I doing enough? Have I given them the best? I loved my kids deeply (they were very easy to love), but I was tormented by anxiety over whether or not I was a good mom, in spite of the fact that they were healthy and happy.

I experienced no real counter-pressure to this angst. The books, magazines, and websites that would deliver new messages about good enough parenting hadn’t begun to show up, and I wasn’t strong or self-aware enough to intuit it myself.

Here’s the problem: I thought of mothering as an endeavor, a thing to do. Growing up as I did in the wake of Women’s Liberation, I heard pundits talk about whether women should have paid employment or stay home with their kids. Gloria Steinem said that every mother is a working mother. Oprah said stay-at-home-moms are the hardest working people in the world.

So there I was, in a cracker box house with two breathtakingly wonderful babies, and I figured those babies were mine to keep perfect or destroy. I could do a good job, or I could botch it.

Raising children is, like life, nothing if not complex, and during 1997 I went from married, stay-at-home-mom to working, college student, single mom. I was wracked anew with anxiety over my kids’ well being. I felt guilty over divorcing their dad, and even guiltier over being relieved at the end of that ugly, painful marriage.

In the meantime, I enjoyed my work and loved my classes. In choosing courses and writing papers, I was drawn to topics of motherhood over and over again, and as I read fiction, poetry, memoir, and sociological research, I examined my own experience of mothering and being mothered.

In all that examination of motherhood, I started to see both my mom and myself, and our maternal roles, in new ways. Mothers serve children, but mothers are not their children’s servants. There is work involved in caring for and raising children, but motherhood is not really about the work.

My best memories of my mom, and the times when I knew I was at my best as a mom, had to do not with the work of mothering, but with our relationships. When I came in from school and told my mom how my first boyfriend had gone out and found himself a new girlfriend without informing me, she was aghast and furious (the best possible response) and sat next to me on the couch, passing me a nearly endless succession of tissues while I cried. When I was four, she did my hair up in rollers at my request. After she took the rollers out she brushed my hair hard and said, “Oh, this isn’t good at all. You’re very glamorous but you don’t look like my little Adrienne like this,” and I felt special and extraordinary because my mom liked me best the way I was.

Likewise, with my own children, the best experiences have been the ones when we’re together without an agenda: reading stories with wacky voices, deep conversations on long drives, impromptu dancing in the kitchen, or lounging in bed with our dogs.

Motherhood has lots of work attached to it, of course. There is school registration to do and clarinet lessons to be arranged and soccer cleats to buy. There are books about discipline to be read and decisions to be made and the endless harassing of children to clean their rooms, come home by curfew, and empty the dishwasher. If there is a child with special needs in the mix, there is infinitely more work to be done.

Even with all that work, motherhood is first and foremost a relationship, and how lucky for us, that we get to know these people we brought into our families. I have never met people more fascinating than the ones who call me mom.

Twenty years into this thing we call motherhood, I’ve had lots of time to contemplate my reasons for becoming a mother when I was so very young and unprepared for it. Some of those reasons were selfish or morally ambiguous and aren’t nice to consider, but the motivation at the bottom of all of them, the one that came from my best self, was this: I was curious. I wanted to know what my children would be like, who they would be in the world. I wanted to experience the kind of relationships motherhood would bring.

There has been more pain in motherhood than I could have contemplated, and I’m convinced that, had I known, I’d never have done it. Thank God I didn’t know, because the world without these people who are my children would be a much emptier place. My relationships with my mother and my children are at the center of my life, and good relationships are the foundation of a good life.

I wouldn’t trade any of them.

Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style [nopointsforstyle.com].

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My Only Sunshine

My Only Sunshine

By Amanda Rose Adams

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Recently I brought my children, who are eleven and twelve, to the dermatologist too, in hope that she could educate them about proper sun care.

 

It began as a small white spot above my lip, beneath my nose, less noticeable than my adult acne. The acne far was more frustrating and what drove me to the dermatologist. During my visit I did ask her about the spot. She shrugged and told me if it started to bleed to come back. The spot never went away but grew so slowly that when it finally started bleeding I didn’t realize how large or deep it had grown.

My dermatologist barely looked at my cracking skin and said, “It’s probably cancer.” I left that appointment with a bandage over my lip, while a layer of my spot went to the pathologist. It was cancer, specifically a basal cell carcinoma. The irony was that I never spent much time in the sun compared to my siblings or peers. I’ve never seen the inside of a tanning booth, and am not an outdoorsy person. Being so pale, I usually wore sunblock and hats on the rare occasions I was outdoors as an adult, but that was too little too late. As a parent, I’ve always stressed sun block and hats. My kids are both pale too, and neither has ever had a tan or serious sunburn. The burns they’ve had are extremely rare and relatively mild, but we live at high altitude and with every mild burn damage is done.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, “The two most common types of skin cancer—basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas—are highly curable, but can be disfiguring and costly.”

For several days after the nurse called to confirm my diagnosis, I was conflicted. I felt angry at myself for being upset about a cancer that wouldn’t kill me. Basal cell carcinomas can spread to the bone but are far more disfiguring than dangerous. My mother-in-law is a breast cancer survivor, and I lost my father to esophageal cancer. I felt like I was being a baby about my minor cancer.

Still, it was a cancerous growth and it was on my face. The Internet was not reassuring. Every photo I found of basal cell carcinoma or the Mohs surgical procedure to remove it, presented an extreme case of a “Carcinomas gone wild.” Nothing resembled my little white spot.

The day of my surgery, I learned that the little white spot was fairly deep, not to the bone, but deep enough that the doctor sent my cells to the lab three times before they came back clean and he could close my incision. This small spot left a hole that required over forty stitches to close inside and outside of my skin. The seemingly innocuous white spot was gone but I looked like I’d been mauled by a dog or gone through a windshield, and it took months for me to get any feeling back on the left side of my upper lip.

At the pharmacy, even with bandages covering my stitches I felt strangers stare and knew what they were thinking, “What happened to her?” The answer was too simple, too much sun.

Since my diagnosis in early 2013, I have an annual skin cancer check. This year, I’ve had three. The first was with my old dermatologist whose treatment of two suspicious growths failed to take. The second was with my new dermatologist who successfully removed what turned out to be a wart on my thumb and identified a scar tissue growth on my ankle. On my third visit she froze two suspicious white spots from the tip of my nose and on the side of my face near my ear. She called them “precancerous.”

The one on my nose seems to have disappeared, but the spot at my hairline is still bumpy. If it bleeds again, I’ll be back for my fourth visit and another biopsy. As a patient, this journey has been relatively minor compared to other medical issues in our family.

Recently I brought my children, who are eleven and twelve, to the dermatologist too, in hope that she could educate them about proper sun care. I’ve bought them daily moisturizer with SPF that the dermatologist recommended, but I’m usually at work before they are dressed and at their age I cannot be sure they’re using it. Forcing them to wear a hat is about as effective as it was when they were babies and dropped them out of their double stroller.

When I had my surgery in 2013, I rested a lot and kept the wound covered. By the time the stitches came out it wasn’t nearly as frightening. After two years and regular use of a silicone gel the scar isn’t any more noticeable than the little white spot that caused it. So, my kids don’t seem to even remember my surgery or the wound.

As I struggle to get my adolescent children to take their sun protection seriously, I wonder if I should show them my after photos since they don’t seem to remember what Mom’s face looked like. Maybe I should show them the before photo of the little white spot to show them how minor the carcinoma looks.

I can’t bring myself to show them the over the top photos of people whose basal cell carcinomas went unchecked until they were genuinely disfiguring, but part of me is tempted. As if the outrageousness of it would unsettle them like a driving school video of a car accident. It would probably be as effective. Thinking these things will never happen to you, even if they are heredity, is a right of passage for kids. So, I keep buying the sun protection, nagging, and taking them to the dermatologist. Maybe the knowledge will soak in before too much sun damage is done.

Amanda Rose Adams is the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Well Family, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at www.amandaroseadams.com.

This essay was originally published on Brain Child in May 2015

Photo: Alexander Shustov

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He Has Autism

He Has Autism

By Jennifer Smyth

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After her 8th birthday party in October, my big hearted, brown eyed daughter, Holly, decided this was the year she wanted to educate her classmates about Autism, and more specifically about her twin brother, Nick.  A petite girl, and classmate, named Emily had been the impetus that chilly fall night, arriving at our house overwhelmed by Nick’s jumping and loud shrieks of excitement, but leaving with an understanding of him.

“Mom, I want to explain Nick to people, but not because he is doing something they think is weird.” She had become an accidental interpreter for her brother, fielding questions such as “Why won’t your brother say hi to me?” or more hurtful ones, “What’s wrong with him?” from peers on the school playground and from strangers at the grocery store, who apparently felt it was OK to turn to my 8-year-old and say, “What’s he so mad about?”

“He has Autism” had been her dump and run response since we had “given” her that response language in kindergarten. But there had been lots of swings, slides and checkout counters since then, and it just wasn’t enough anymore.

“It doesn’t help to say he has Autism, if no one knows what it is. And I don’t like talking about it in front of Nick. I think it hurts his feelings.”  With her teacher’s blessing we chose a Tuesday in April, during Autism Awareness Month, to talk to her class. The night before, I scattered picture books on the dining room table. Kneeling on the chair she leaned forward on her elbows to study each one. Her long brown hair still wet from her bath dripped onto the table as she declared, “This one” with confidence, holding up a brightly illustrated book told from the point of view of a twin sister, whose brother has autism.

“Great choice. Which one of us should read it?” I asked.

“I will,” she said.

Still riding the wave of excitement in the morning, she slid the book into her backpack along with the rubbery blue wristbands with the words Autism Speaks, It’s Time to Listen that we purchased for the class. “I’ll see you in two hours,” I said as she slid out the car door, blowing me a kiss.

Minutes dragged as I cleaned the kitchen and then drove aimlessly up and down streets so I would arrive at just the right time. Waiting outside her classroom door, my stomach churned. Maybe this was a bad idea. What if I cried in front of all these kids? Her teacher, Miss Howard, smiled and welcomed me inside. Holly hid her face in my shoulder and hooked her arm through mine as we situated ourselves on chairs facing the classroom filled with 23 2nd graders who were negotiating their spots on the rug. Emily smiled as she crisscrossed her legs at her chosen location at my feet.

Holly leaned her mouth to my ear, using her hand to shield any would be lip readers, and with a whispery warm breath said, “I don’t want to read by myself, let’s do every other page.” I nodded.

“Some of you have met Holly’s twin brother, Nick. He has Autism, and since April is World Autism Awareness Month, we wanted to share some things with you.” Hands started flying up. Some with extra wiggly fingers as if begging to be called on. “We’re going to start with a book,” I said, as their teacher motioned them to put their hands down. Most of them did. Holding the book up high for everyone to see, Holly read the title “My Brother Charlie” and then the first page. She hesitated, waiting for me to read the next one. “You keep reading,” I said. Her voice grew stronger and steadier with every page. “When we were babies, I pointed out flowers and cats and fireflies … but Charlie was different.” The words of the story could have been her words. It WAS her story. So when she read the line, “One doctor even told Mommy that Charlie would never say ‘I love you'” my throat tightened, I chewed the inside of my mouth and tried to find a point on the wall to stare at, but instead my eyes locked on her teacher who had tears running down her cheeks. Hold it together. This is not about you.

Shutting the book with finality, Holly looked to me. I turned to the class. “Any questions?” Almost every hand went up

“You said it’s hard for him to talk. Does he have a voice box?”

“Does he go to a special school?”

“Is Asperger’s the same as Autism?”

“How does he tell you what he wants?”

They used words like sickness, and disease.

“Will he grow out of it?”

Sitting up straight now and addressing her class, Holly called on students and answered the questions as fast as they were asked. Emboldened by her authority, she went for a little shock value. “He doesn’t get embarrassed like we do. He could walk down the street naked and it wouldn’t bother him.” She giggled when she said it, knowing that she was kind of getting away with something by saying “naked” in her classroom.

And she told the truth. “He will yell and scream when he wants something. It doesn’t matter where he is or who is there. But he’s not a brat, he is sweet. His brain just works different.”

“Noooo,” they protested when Miss Howard announced it was time for recess. Heading towards the classroom door they blurted out the tidbits they still wanted to hear more about as they passed me. Holly had already skipped off with her friends, but there was one boy was hanging back, a sweet class clown of a boy, waiting for my attention.

“Hi Jackson.”

“My grandpa writes poems and there is one I think you would like.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s about a guy who accidentally walks into a spider web and thinks it’s really gross. But then he takes a step back and looks at it and realizes how beautiful it is. Anyway, you might like it.”

“Thank you Jackson. That’s beautiful,” I said, dumbstruck by the deep connection he had made. He ran out the door with the rest of the kids.

The next morning, watching my beautiful spider web of a boy saunter into school, my phone dinged the arrival of an email. It was from Emily’s mom.

Here is a photo I took in Emily’s room. After the Autism Awareness talk she came home and taught her dolls all about it!

There were two notebook pages taped up to an easel. Both had “atsam awarnis” written across the top with bullet points from the class conversation. My favorites were “likes to fluff hair” and “they hear everything you say.”

Emily had never met a child with Autism until she met Nick and since then we have met another family with an Autistic child and I don’t think Emily even blinked. Thank you, Jennifer and Holly for raising awareness.

PS I’ll work on her spelling!

Best,

Mindy

 

Jennifer Smyth is a work in progress. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with her wonderful husband and two amazing kids.

 

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Perfectly Imperfect

Perfectly Imperfect

By Elizabeth Richardson Rau

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Best friends often don’t come in the prettiest packages. The true friends I have made are like me, willing to show dents, battle wounds and flaws. 

 

In 2011 my world imploded when I left my husband. The decision was the right one; the fallout nothing short of apocalyptic. It was during this time that I learned that friends of substance run towards the burning rubble that life can become while most others flee. This friendship culling, much like that of a spring garden, is laborious and painful but necessary so as to make room for more sturdy roots to thrive. During times of crisis it feels devastating, but, as one of those fleer-friends once told me: God sometimes draws straight with crooked lines. You will get where you are meant to be with the right people standing beside you, even if the journey there doesn’t look like you expected it. This was the friend who, after three decades of friendship, told me she needed space and a break from the drama; an understandable request. That break is going on over three years now and I haven’t heard a word from her since; she is now on my ex-husbands friendship roster.

Years later, with lots of therapy under my belt and a much better understanding of who I was as a woman, I landed happily on the friendship isle of misfits, among others who are unashamed to admit the imperfections of their lives, of themselves. I suppose we are social outcasts to some degree. Unlike years ago, my circle of friends is no longer made up purely of tidy, socially embraced Jack Rogers wearing, Coach bag sporting, SUV driving stereotypes. One is a recovering addict who is physically compromised from an illness that kills most people, and prefers jeans and plaid button-downs to capris and cardigans. Another, despite criticism, waited out her husband’s affair to save what is now one of the strongest, most admirable unions I’ve ever seen. And the friend who endured not one, but two, children’s battles with substance abuse. We are the women others whisper about — the ones who have the courage to show scars without apology. This does not come without a price of course. Gone are the invitations to book clubs, cookie swaps and wine tastings. Also gone, though, is judgment, comparison to others and the unspoken need to conform.

My daughter is now navigating the complicated ‘tween’ friendship labyrinth as she enters middle school. The complexities of her relationships are really no different than mine. Society teaches us that having popular friends is something to strive for from a very young age. Even Barbie has a bestie, Midge. One of the most successful sitcoms of all times was devoted entirely to the subject of…Friends. I learned, though, that popular doesn’t necessarily mean healthier. The friendship circles of my past included those who would be considered popular: they drove the right cars, wore the right clothes and had wealthy husbands. They sipped lattes on the sidelines at Saturday morning soccer practice, wore skinny jeans instead of yoga pants and gave fake air kisses instead touching lip to cheek. In these circles, though, publicly-perceived perfection was not only a goal but a requirement. The messiness of real life was simply too unpleasant for anyone with a hyphenated last name. Then I met the runners.

I joined the morning running group at the encouragement of a friend (who does not drink latte) which was not an easy feat for this night owl. I went religiously, however, after learning it was formed to support a woman who was experiencing unimaginable grief: the death of a child. I roused myself each morning at 5:30 with the stern reminder that if she could get out of bed in the dark to run, then I had absolutely no excuse. What happened on those runs changed my life. I found women who were honest about their life struggles and I, too, was completely honest about my unpleasant life’s circumstances: that my children’s father was more interested in destroying me financially and emotionally and protecting his bottom line than he was in being a father to his two children. That I, a Master’s educated woman, had taken to cleaning houses when I could not find a professional job. The final straw was at the gas pump on a Friday morning when my debit card was declined and I had been driving on fumes and prayers for a day and a half. My child support deposit hadn’t been made. I sat in the car and cried, feeling hopeless and helpless. So I did something I hadn’t ever done — I told these new friends, women I had known for mere weeks, the truth. Within days I had a frenzy of support around me. I had a fridge full of food, gas in my car and bills that were paid. My daughter had enough back-to-school clothes when her father refused to help, declaring “that’s what child support is for.” These women had not shunned or scolded me for “making my bed and having to lay in it” the way others had; they saw a friend in need and immediately took action to help. I had finally found women who were like me: imperfect and hurting, each in her own way, but loving, loyal and generous. They taught me to believe in myself the way they believed in me.  

The book of my friendship life has not been a romance novel. Nor has it been a tragedy. I have learned that best friends often don’t come in the prettiest packages. The true friends I have made are like me, willing to show dents, battle wounds and flaws. We might not win any contests around town for having it all together, but what we do have is authenticity.

Elizabeth Richardson Rau is a single mother of two children living in central Connecticut. She earned her B.A. In communications from Simmons College and her M.F.A. in creative and professional writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and a certified domestic violence victims advocate.

Photo: Melissa Askew

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Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

By Jenna Hatfield

adoptionsupporthatfield

I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

 

Just over two years ago, I quit adoption.

I pulled down my award-winning adoption blog. I removed myself from all online forums and listservs. I unfollowed certain adoption people on Twitter and unfriended them on Facebook, keeping only my daughter’s mother and those who held rank in other categories in my life. I even cold turkey stopped attending an in-person adoption support group, which I had been helpful in creating and sustaining.

I walked away without looking back. If we’re speaking in adopto-speak, you could say I “closed” my adoption world.

And I’m better for it.

I so badly wanted to be understood in those early days after placing my daughter. I wanted to talk to people who knew the deep hole ripped within my being. I didn’t want to explain the loss to people who had no clue; I wanted the silent understanding that comes with having been there, done that.

I turned to online groups first, my inner introvert and the area in which I live not leaving me other options. I wasn’t welcome in any support groups for birth parents as I maintained an open adoption with my daughter’s family; their losses as birth parents in closed adoptions were more real than mine. At one point, a woman took pictures of my daughter and placed anti-adoption rhetoric on them.

But those with deep hurt, caused by adoption and its years of secrecy, its problems with ethics, and life-long loss associated with relinquishment weren’t the only ones who didn’t like my presence in their online groups. Adoptive parents didn’t like the way I shared the realities of my loss; should openness heal those wounds? They called me bitter and angry when I questioned unethical laws. Instead of offering solace when I grieved the loss of my daughter in my life, they lashed out and told me to quit complaining; I chose this, after all.

We talk so much about the mommy-wars, about breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, but no one was talking about the parent-on-parent hate so prevalent in the adoption world. No one wanted to discuss how to fix the problem as nobody wanted to own up to their own participation in the hate. I needed support to make sense of the challenges I faced in open adoption, but I couldn’t find any. I knew many parents who gave up long before I did, their adoption relationships paying the price.

I shared less and less of my adoption-related life online, instead choosing to help local women start a face-to-face support group for birth parents. My hopes of being heard and, most importantly, respected soon shattered on the floor of a coffee house basement when another mother yelled at me and stormed out for sharing my truth.

My truth isn’t always to understand, of course. Sometimes I’m thrilled when my daughter’s family includes me in her life, when she texts me to ask me a question, or when the sons I am now parenting delight over a visit. Other times I struggle with the overwhelming reality of loss, most often when my younger, parented children express their own feelings of grieving her lack of daily presence in our lives. I present an odd mixture of truth to the adoption world, one that doesn’t fit a mold.

A few months later, I quit everything.

I don’t fancy myself a quitter, but a human being can only stand so much hatred, so much blame-game, so much time in fight or flight mode. At some point, it has to be acceptable for a person to say, “This is enough.” And so I said, “This is enough.”

I turned inward, sharing and seeking comfort in only those closest to me. I turned to those trusted few each time her birthday month rolled around; I struggle the most around her birthday. I found a new therapist who also helped me understand some of the bigger picture of my adoption journey. Together we focus on what I need at any given time rather than engaging in a combative back-and-forth as to who has it worse. I’ve also learned to share more with my husband; I thought by not sharing how I felt, I protected him. Instead, I isolated both of us from bigger healing.

In the past few months, I’ve been writing about adoption again, gently sticking my toe into the water. For the most part, the tentative return feels a bit like the first ocean swim after a winter spent indoors. I’m struggling a bit, but I remember how to do this. I’ve already felt some of the hatred in anonymous comments and not-so-anonymous questioning of my exit and return. But I’ve also felt the warmth of love from friends, family, and strangers alike.

The warmth of the larger community, even beyond just those specifically touched by adoption, is what drew me in over a decade ago. People wanting to connect with people, to meet others in their space, to say, “You are not alone;” these things will always matter the most to me.

As I find my footing again in what I share online about adoption and how it touches me and affects my family, I feel grateful for the lessons I learned before, the space I gave myself, and for the open arms of the online community. I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

For now, I’ll wade in a little deeper, but maybe only to my ankles.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at http://stopdropandblog.com.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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The Pit

The Pit

canstockphoto6548311

There was no reason to tell my daughter that the thrill of the tickets paled in comparison to the very idea that my sixteen-year-old daughter was willingly, of her own accord, taking ME to a concert.

By Ellyn Gelman

I was in Hartford, Connecticut, but I was dressed for Nashville. The country music fans appeared to grow exponentially as the concert start time drew near. Unusually warm for May, spring had finally pushed out winter and was showing off with vibrant yellows and greens. A light breeze carried with it the smell of beer and hotdogs. The concert tickets folded in the back pocket of my jeans were a gift from my teenage daughter, Dayna. I remembered back to a week ago…

The hastily made card had been crafted from a single piece of white paper, folded in half, the scent of sharpie ink still fresh. The card was signed, “Happy Mother’s Day!!!! Love you too much, Dayna.” Tucked inside were two concert tickets.

“Lady Antebellum Mom, just you and me, Darius Rucker is the warm-up band; it’s in Hartford, so awesome right?” Her words spewed forth like a fountain of teenage joy as she danced around the family room.

“Road trip Mom, next Friday, can you believe it; aren’t you so excited?”

“Yes. So excited,” I said.

No reason to tell her that the thrill of the tickets paled in comparison to the very idea that my sixteen-year-old daughter was willingly, of her own accord, taking ME to a concert.

We waited for the gates to open.

“Is it almost time to go in?” Dayna said, her smile full of the metal braces she couldn’t wait to get and now hated with a passion. She was five feet, five inches of beautiful with tight ripped jeans tucked into Frye boot knock-offs. Her small white T-shirt, tied at the waist, showed a only whisper of belly when she moved.

I scanned the crowd. Cowboy hats and denim, short skirts and cowboy boots. Lawn chairs lazily tucked under arms or slung over shoulders. Wait, lawn chairs? I reached into my back pocket for our tickets. No row, no seat numbers.

“Dayna, do we have seats?”

“Uh, um, I don’t think so,” she said. She kicked at a pebble on the ground.

“Do we need lawn chairs?” I said.

“No Mom, these tickets are for the pit.”

“The pit?”

“Yeah, up front, at the stage, you know, you stand in the pit. The tickets were twenty-five dollars each on Stub Hub.”

“I know what the pit is,” I said.

I had been to a few concerts in my fifty years. Foreigner, Cars, Grateful Dead, to name a few, but I had always had a seat. The pit had always been that “place down there” where bodies that were too close moved wildly.

“Are you bummed?” She said. The truth was, I was bummed. Five hours of standing? I looked down at my feet. My toes had already begun to protest their confinement in the points of my brown leather and suede cowboy boots. I had purchased them years ago on a trip in Colorado. They were authentic, hand-made, and spent most of their time in the back of my closet. Don’t blow this. You’re at a concert with your daughter, in cool boots. When I looked up, Dayna’s dark brown, thickly lined eyes wore a veil of worried hope.

“No, I’m not bummed, really. I’m just surprised, in a good way. I’ve never been in the pit before.”

“You’ll love it,” She said.

She wrapped her arms around my waist and laid her head on my shoulder. Her soft brown hair smelled like grapefruit and possibility.

We were among the first to enter with our neon yellow “pit access” wristbands. The theater was shaped like a giant fan. The seats spread out behind the pit, and then fully opened to a green uncovered lawn. Dayna grabbed my hand and pulled me right up to the stage where, like prospectors, we claimed a front-row spot. My chin rose just above the stage. There were x marks on the floor where Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum would eventually stand. A maze of electric cords taped to the floor resembled arteries and veins that would carry the force of sounds and light to the stage. Tiny specks of dust swirled in the light cast off from a hundred theater lights above.

The pit filled slowly with teens and young adults. A slight teenage girl in skinny red jeans and a black Lady Antebellum t-shirt stood next to me with her dad. I was relieved to see another parent in the pit—even better, he looked older than me. We smiled a bit awkwardly at each other. An alert young security guard, whose sole purpose was to scan the crowd in the pit, stood to our left. Behind us, two stocky young women in their early twenties posed repeatedly for “selfies” with cell phone and beers held high. One wore a baseball cap backwards.

The start time approached and brought with it an anxious sense of ‘ready,’ and the crowd grew tighter. Darius Rucker took the stage amidst bright lights and loud cheers. Everyone danced in a tight collective, jumping up and down. There, next to the speakers, it was as if the music made its way through me before it was released into the rest of the theater. I felt connected to everything: my daughter, the music, the crowd, all of it. Dayna was right; this was “so great.”

In an unguarded moment, Dayna and I were shoved to the side and the girls, who had stood behind us waiting for the past hour, displaced us. They danced as if our spot had always been theirs.

“What? That’s so not fair?” My daughter said, pointing at them.

“I know,” I said. Thinking, fair?

“They can’t do that,” she said in the full outrage of a naïve teen.

“Well, they just did,” I said. I had no intention of confronting them there, in the pit, or anywhere.

“No way. Come on.” Dayna grabbed my hand to pull me forward.

Instinctively, I pulled my hand out of hers and stayed put. I simply watched as she slipped around the women and reclaimed her spot. She turned back to look for me. I motioned for her to come back to me where we would be safe. She shook her head.

“Mom, come on, this is our spot,” she said.

I was taken aback by her nerve—or was it confidence? I no longer felt connected. I was hot and sweaty, trapped between my daughter’s boldness and my timidity. Left up to me, I would have done nothing (go ahead, take our spot), drowning all potential for a good time in a pool of resentment. That would have been my story, but I didn’t want that to be my daughter’s story. There she stood in her reclaimed spot, a lone soldier fighting for “fair.”

I pushed my way gently, somewhat apologetically, between those women and stood next to my daughter. I was forced to hold on to the stage for balance with my back slightly bent backwards like the letter C. I waited for something to happen, like a beer can to the head, yelling, something. Nothing. I looked over at my daughter. That is when I saw one of the women jab Dayna in the back with her elbow. The other pushed her from behind. Dayna kept her eyes forward, jaw clenched. She refused to acknowledge their aggression. They pushed her again and laughed. I knew that laugh. Suddenly I was thirteen again, a new girl in a new school.

The lunch lady handed me my change. As I made my way to an empty table, three girls approached me. “Give us your money new girl, we know you got money.” They were like seagulls on the beach and I was a single scrap of food. They pushed me and grabbed at my clenched fist. It only took a couple of hits to my back before I handed over the quarters. The girls laughed as they walked away. It was my first and last hot lunch in eighth grade.

I turned to the two women.

“Hey, stop that. Don’t touch her again,” I said.

“This is the pit, man, everyone gets touched in the pit,” the one with the baseball cap sneered.

“Yeah, if you’re in the pit, you’re gonna get touched. Get over yourself,” the other chimed in. She waved the back of her hand in my face.

Dayna grabbed my arm.

“Mom, if this is going to ruin the concert for you, we can just move back” she said.

“No,” I said.

I turned and grabbed the security guard’s arm.

I explained the situation to him as I frantically pointed out the aggressors. He made his way over and spoke with them. They pointed at me. I stared hard at them. The guard pointed to the exit. Yes that’s good make them leave. Behind me, Darius Rucker continued to sing and the crowd around me danced. I waited for the next move. They did not leave, but they backed up. I turned back to the stage, shaky, still on guard, but no longer afraid.

Darius Rucker sang his last song and yelled goodnight to the crowd. He reached down and touched all the out stretched hands as he made his way off stage. In a sudden move, he stopped in front of Dayna, bent down, and placed his guitar pick in her hand. The crowd roared.

“Mom, that did not just happen,” she said. She jumped up and down, her fist clenched around the guitar pick held high in the air. I jumped up and down, too. Her joy was my joy.

Lady Antebellum was up next. Before the night ended, Dayna was the recipient of three more guitar picks, each one handed to her, none thrown. She gave one to the girl next to me in the red jeans. A teenage boy ran up to her at the end of the concert.

“Oh my god, you are the luckiest girl on earth,” he said.

Dayna gave him a pick, too.

It was after midnight as we made our way slowly to the car.

“Wasn’t it all so great mom?”

“It was perfect, Dayna.”

Author’s Note: Two summers have come and gone since Dayna and I saw Lady Anetebellum in concert. We learned a lot about each other and ourselves that night. This summer, I went to see Chicago in concert at the same venue with my husband and friends. We sat in our own chairs in the upper lawn section. I could barely see the band and I felt disconnected and uncool. I spent the entire concert longing to be in the pit.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Wilton, CT. She has been published on National Public Radio “This I Believe” and in Brain, Child.

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To My Son, Turning 8

To My Son, Turning 8

By Wendy Wisner

8

 I so desperately want to wrap him up in my arms. And I can’t. At least not in the way I used to.

 

When I turned 8 years old, I declared 8 my favorite number. I liked its loopy, curvy shape. I traced it on the roof of my mouth. I saw it everywhere, and in everything. Eight o’clock was my bedtime. School started at 8:00 a.m. I read Ramona Quimby, Age 8 cover to cover, thinking the book was written to me.

I thought everything was about me, really, and that everything could have a direct effect on me. If the kids on the playground got in trouble for exchanging Garbage Pail Kid cards, surely I was next (even though I was watching them from the other end of the playground). My teacher pointed to the graffiti sprayed on the door to our trailer classroom, warning us never to do such a thing. I was sure she thought I had done it. After all, my friend and I had played tic-tac-toe on the wall a few weeks before. We’d erased it, but still.

There was a looming, ethereal, obsessive quality to my thoughts and feelings when I was 8 years old. I’m sure it had something to do with my parents’ divorce, which I had shoved into the back of my mind. I thought it was my fault that my family was falling apart. But my main worry was that my teacher was going to get me arrested for vandalism.

*   *   *

Everyone says my son is just like his father, but I see myself in him—his tender soul, his need for love and approval. And because he is the first child I have raised, I fear for the little things that happen to him, and hope that we are doing right by him, making the right choices, leading him (without smothering, without neglecting) in the right direction.

As his 8th birthday approaches, I take note that he has a good life. My husband and I have a loving, solid marriage. He has a cute little brother, a nice group of friends, a small, nurturing school.

And yet. He is highly sensitive, as I was. If two children laugh at a picture he drew in class, he is certain that EVERYONE in the class is laughing at him. If he didn’t get a chance to shoot the basketball at recess, he is angry for the rest of the afternoon. He takes even the littlest things to heart, and doesn’t let go very easily.

At his school conference, his teacher told us that he is doing well in every area of school but recess. Apparently his sense of injustice on the basketball court ran deep—his teacher relayed a few stories of him lying on the ground, screaming and sobbing.

When she told me this, I could see him lying there, how alone and exposed he must have felt. I felt it in my own body. I wished desperately it had been one of those afternoons his little brother and I took a walk by the schoolyard, that I had found him there crying, scooped him up and brought him home.

And I wondered what had happened—or, really, what I had done—to make him so vulnerable to such meaningless things as basketball scores. Had my own 8-year-old fears somehow reached him even though his family life was far from falling apart?

*   *   *

When I relayed some of the stories about my son to my friends who have similar aged kids, they empathized. Their children were going through many of the same things: the social world around them magnified significantly, and rather suddenly.

Maybe 8-years-old is just like that, with different shades for different kids. Eight-years-old, the age almost precisely between early and late childhood. All ages after babyhood seem a little betwixt-in-between, though, don’t they? But there is something about this now, where I so desperately want to wrap him up in my arms. And I can’t. At least not in the way I used to.

*   *   *

At night, I lie with him as he falls asleep. The darkness melts everything away and we talk. Sometimes he’ll confide those twisted up feelings he has about his social life at school. Sometimes he’ll share the joys—a laugh at what one of his friends said, a game they made up. Sometimes we’ll cuddle for a few minutes. But not for long, usually.

His little brother is two. He curls right into my body. He fits there perfectly. If I leave the room, he toddles after me. He’s soothed simply by my presence.

My older son was like that once. Long ago, it seems.

*   *   *

On his 8th birthday, I want to tell my son how incredibly beautiful he is in his stretched out, lanky body—the moles that magically appeared on his arms and neck this summer, his widening jaw, his new, crooked teeth. His mind always racing, his gorgeous, fiery thoughts.

I want my son to know that his feelings matter, all of them, and I want him to feel them, really feel them, but learn to let them go a little, before they spiral out of control. I want him to know that he will learn this in time, as I did. I want him to know that even though I don’t always seem patient with him, I trust the path he is on.

And I want him to know that the fire that pushes him to the playground floor will one day make art, poetry, justice, peace. I want him to know that his fire is a gift to the world. And to me, always.

Wendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC).  Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, Scary Mommy, The Badass Breastfeeder, Natural Child Magazine, Lilith Magazine, and elsewhere; she blogs at www.nursememama.com.

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It’s Nature to Nurture

It’s Nature to Nurture

Tea bud and leaves. Tea plantations, Kerala, India

By Diane Lowman

I met a friend for lunch the other day at a restaurant called Green & Tonic. She walked in and we hugged, and then I started to explain Green & Tonic’s offerings.

“They have pre-made salads and sandwiches over there in the case,” I said, pointing, and then turned her manually toward the menu board, continuing “and they make good smoothies…” But I trailed off, my hand still on her shoulder, as I heard my boys, in my head, in unison, protesting:

“Mom. Thanks. We can read the menu.”

I looked her in the eye.

“Sorry. You’re a full grown adult. I’ll bet you can navigate the place on your own.”

The need to feed our children is perhaps our most primal instinct, taking precedence even over feeding ourselves. Especially we of the Jewish persuasion. Animals in the wild, and wild Fairfield County mothers alike will go to great efforts and distances to make sure that their offspring have adequate nutrition. Some of us are pushy about it. Some of us forget what the jungle moms aim for: training their young to hunt for and nurture themselves, so they can quickly step out of the picture. I remember a very wise pediatrician telling me, “Diane, the only thing your young children can control is what goes in and what comes out. Don’t fight with them about either.” But I neither followed the laws of the jungle, nor the sage advice of my kids’ doctor.

Long after they could read, long after they graduated from high chairs to big boy seats, long after they transitioned from the children’s to the adult menu, I remained involved.

“Look, Devon,” I’ll say. “They have a T-bone steak on the menu.” I neither eat nor cook red meat. He does both.

“Thanks, mom. I can read.”

“Dustin, they have gluten free crust!” He does not have Celiac, but refined wheat doesn’t agree with him.

“Thanks, mom, I see that.”

Their reactions range from mildly amused to mildly annoyed, and vary in direct proportion with how many menu items I’ve pointed out. So I bite my tongue now, both when we peruse menus together and when we order. I try very hard not to let my mommy and nutritionist personas rear their Hydra heads in unison, saying things like, “Lamb? I didn’t know you ate lamb?” or “That’s all refined carbs, honey, no protein?”

Yet I wish, too, that they would see that I offer these well-intentioned interventions in the spirit of love, concern, and wanting my children to be sated and healthy.

My teenage and young adult irritation gave way to appreciation when my mother, having seen a news report on an impending storm or subzero temperatures would call from Florida. “You’re not going to drive in the storm, are you?” or “Are you dressing warmly? They say it will feel like 10 below with the wind chill.”

Now that she’s gone, I miss the motherly admonitions.

I try hard to navigate the fine line between nurturing and noodging. I will never stop doing the former, but need to wean myself, as I weaned my children, from the latter. When I do that, their annoyance might tip toward appreciation, too.

Meanwhile, my friend managed, with elegant aplomb and without my guidance to pick out her own lunch. I know my children can do the same.

Diane Lowman is a single mother of two young adult men, living in Norwalk, Connecticut.  In addition to writing about life, she teaches yoga, provides nutritional counseling, and tutors Spanish.  She looks forward to what’s next.

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This is Adolescence: 14

This is Adolescence: 14

By Catherine Newman

art-banjo

Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown.

Fourteen stands in the bathroom doorway with a smear of foam above his lip and a razor in his hand, chatting into your bedroom. You remind yourself to pay attention. In four years he will be gone.

You put a finger in your book to keep your spot while your manchild fills the doorway with his tall, talking self. You remind yourself to listen to the actual content, not just to the fact of his little lemon-drop voice getting buried in gravel. Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown. He wants to work in a paper factory or a fabric mill or inside the enormous cross-sected engine room of a ship. “I mean,” he says, “Believe me. I know those are all totally crushing jobs in real life. But still.”

Fourteen watches The Possession, The Shining, The Birds with buoyant delight, but looks on with frank, exaggerated horror when you pluck your chin hairs in the bathroom mirror. You can tell from his expression that every revolting thing in the world has been concentrated in the lower part of your face. When you catch his disgusted eye in the mirror, he reshapes his mouth into an apologetic smile. You stick up your middle finger and he laughs, leaves the room noisily beat-boxing.

Fourteen picks up a banjo to accompany his sister on guitar. He bends over her math homework, his long hair hanging into the long-division problem he is patiently explaining. He says to her, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Great. Now I have to wash all over again because you pet me.” When she snatches her hand back from the cat’s damp fur, you remind her that it wasn’t really the cat complaining, and Fourteen says, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Yes, it was.”

Fourteen is full of sudden domestic judgments. “Does the kitchen sponge have to be so gross?” (Yes.) “The recycling smells.” (Indeed.) “Didn’t our floors used to be nice and shiny?” (They did!) Coming in from his monthly lawn mowing, Fourteen manages to communicate more overheatedness than a supernova. He flops on the couch, conspicuously fanning himself, and asks, breathless and, it would appear, having a small stroke, if you wouldn’t mind getting him a glass of ice water. You bring him the water, then can’t help yourself. “Fourteen,” you say, “it’s, like, ten square feet of mowing. I think you’ll be okay.” “You’re welcome,” Fourteen says. You’d love to stay and argue, but you have to rush out and buy him pants, pants, and more pants. The getting of pants is your new full-time job. If you listen hard in the night, you can hear his legs growing.

Speaking of the night: Fourteen no longer looks like a baby while he sleeps. For years, even as his limbs stretched and dangled, his dreaming face regressed to the contours of infancy: downy cheeks, pearl of nose, the pink, pouched lips of a nursling. But now that it’s been kiln-fired, the face has taken this opportunity to chisel out its jutting new edges: brow and jaw, nose and chin. Like a Neanderthal crossed with a peach.

Fourteen sits on a stool with a wooden spoon in one hand and a fork in the other, eating buttered noodles right from the pot. Fourteen and three friends eat two pounds of bacon in four minutes. Fourteen is a bottomless pit, and you secretly love this, although you don’t know why. Probably because feeding him is your idiom for loving. As is grabbing his face in your two hands and kissing his reluctant cheeks, breathing in his fleeting scalp scent.

Fourteen is lazy in the best possible way. One day you and he lure the cat into bed with treats, then spend the glorious start of the weekend in leisurely conversation about Friskies Party Mix. “If they were human treats, which flavor would you pick?” He shows you the package and you pick Meow Luau. He picks Mixed Grill, then asks which you would pick if they were still cat treats but you had to eat them. You both pick Cheezy Craze.

The cat snores softly, draped over your four shins. An hour passes. “This,” Fourteen sighs happily, “is a classic Friday afternoon.”

Fourteen is also lazy in the worst possible way. You have been arguing for fourteen years about his teeth and whether they really need so much brushing. “Fine,” you say evenly, one night. “Don’t brush them. They’re your teeth.”

“Oh god!” Fourteen says, his indignant voice like a deep-dug hole. “Mama! That’s brutal! You still have to make me.”

Fourteen scrambles into his enormous boots to take a walk when you invite him. The oak leaves on the ground are thick as leather, and they fill you with joy and sadness. In four years he’ll be gone. These are the same oak leaves that Fourteen crunched through when he was a chubby, staggering toddler, proud in his brown lace-up shoes and knee-deep in autumn. “I feel like we’re just walking through the leaves, and the calendar pages are flying off, and we’re already walking through the leaves again,” you say, and Fourteen says, “I know, right? Even I’m starting to feel like that.” He bolts away to look at something, then smiles at you from a patch of sunlight. And it’s not so different from when he was two: all you can do is be there, open-armed and always, in case he turns. In case he runs back.

Author’s Note: I wanted to write a piece about teenagers and evolution: how nature adapted for acne as a kind of lifesaving flare-like reminder: “Note this pulsing red beacon of my hormonal state! I have a neurochemical situation here, people!” And how cave teenagers with clear skin were killed off by their irritated parents who’d forgotten that they were just going through a little adolescent something, and didn’t mean to be such a pill about taking out the mastodon bones or whatever. But I wrote this instead.

Catherine Newman is the author of Waiting for Birdy and the forthcoming Field Guide to Catastrophic Happiness, and of the blog Ben & Birdy. She is also the etiquette columnist at Real Simple. She lives with her family in Amherst, Mass.

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Opinion: No Services

Opinion: No Services

portrait of a sad little boy in red soccer jersey seated on a bench and holding a ball

By Jenna Bagnini

What do you do when your child isn’t disabled enough to qualify for services, but isn’t typical either?

My eleven-year-old son can’t brush his own teeth. He chews on the brush and he doesn’t know how to spit, no matter how many times I’ve tried to show him. So at some point I gave up, took the toothbrush from his hand, and started brushing his teeth for him every day. He walks around with his shoes untied all day, not because he can’t tie them, but because it’s hard for him and he doesn’t want to expend the effort. He can’t ride a bike. He refuses to go to the movies, because it’s too loud and the sensory piece is overwhelming. He can’t prepare himself a sandwich. He can swim, but he won’t put his head in the water. Yet this same child doesn’t have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or even a 504 plan to arrange some special help during the day. Despite his high-functioning autism and ADHD, he’s “not disabled enough” to need services at school.

My son used to have an IEP. He got speech and OT and a social skills group. We moved at the start of this school year, and he was immediately declassified. The new district decided that he no longer needed the assistance. And he is a bright child. He gets good grades. But his behavior is not that of a typical eleven-year-old boy. I believe, even though he is getting some counseling as a building-level service, that his behavior at home is suffering because he is not getting the help he needs at school

Though my son has good grades, if you look in his backpack you will see that it’s a complete disaster. He has an accordion folder for all his subjects, but he just shoves things in and then can’t find them. When I need to send something to school with him to hand to a teacher, I’m pretty sure it isn’t ever going to make its way to the intended destination. And he has a very hard time keeping track of his homework. It’s fortunate for him that he has an incredible memory so he does very well on tests without needing to study for them, because he is constantly forgetting when they are scheduled.

We are restarting the process of evaluating my son and I plan on bringing the paperwork from the neuropsychologist to the school to try again for school-based services. Unfortunately, we are unable to afford private OT, so I am hoping that the school will read over the neuropsych’s report carefully and make a decision that is in the best interest of my child. But I am not entirely optimistic, because he simply doesn’t look “disabled enough” to qualify.

The problem with having a child like mine is that he holds it together so well at school that they don’t see the concerning behaviors (meltdowns, crying fits, refusal to leave the house), and we don’t benefit from any of the interventions that other kids with autism could get. I am constantly hearing that “he is able to access the curriculum.” Yes, he is, but that should not be the end of the story. Grades do not make the whole child. He needs to have social skills and he needs to stop the behaviors, such as picking his nose, that make him distasteful to the other kids. I hear stories from him about being picked on and teased, and I’m afraid it will only get worse as he gets older.

I think it behooves the school to redefine what “able to function in the classroom” means. Are we really doing the best for our children without testing their social skills as well as their ability to regurgitate the facts. If our ultimate goal is to raise productive adults, we have to do better for our fringe kids.

Jenna Bagnini is a divorced mom of three boys (one with special needs), feminist, mental health advocate, yogi, and dancer.

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Womanhood

Womanhood

By Stephanie Andersen

womanhood“It’s still snowing out there,” she said.

Mom and I were tucked under her blue comforter on her bed late one afternoon, staring out the window into the backyard. The snow had settled on the pine branches, and the windows shook a little in the November wind. I pushed my head into the space between her arm and breast, tracing the hardness of the catheter buried under her skin. She was holding a tiny portrait of a young Victorian woman with big brown eyes, soft curly hair, and pursed lips.

“This is how I imagine you’ll look when you grow up,” she told me.

I stared at the face of the woman and tried to imagine myself as her. She seemed gentle, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes shy and hopeful, her breasts round and high. I was only nine years old, and it was the first time in my life I ever seriously considered the possibility of becoming something other than the child I was.

Mom had found the lump in her breast five years earlier, and the doctors had told her she had only three months to live. She told the doctors, “Go to hell,” then started her treatment. She’d changed her diet, exercised, meditated, repeated positive affirmations, lost her hair, burnt her skin with radiation, and begged God to save her life. She had a little girl to take care of.

She had lived six years longer than the doctors expected, but when they told her they would have to remove her breast, my mother refused. She told my father that she was sure losing a breast would take something from her that she wasn’t prepared to lose.

I had not yet developed breasts. All I knew of womanhood was the shape of my mother’s body, the way she fit around me in her bed, the way she smelled of St. Ives lotion, of baby powder, and of ginger. I had no interest in attaining any of this for myself. I loved the simplicity of my own body, my ability to run barefoot and shirtless in my own backyard. I was thankful that I did not bleed from my private parts and have to leave diapers drenched with blood in the bathroom garbage. My father and I were free, untangled by the chains of what kept my mother from throwing off her shirt and jumping into the lake at the park with us.

I didn’t want to be a woman. I didn’t want my mother’s body. Strength was freedom, and a woman’s body was weak and stifling.

One morning, I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest. I ran to my mother.

“I have a bump on my chest,” I told her. “And it hurts.”

She smiled. “You’re getting your breasts,” she said, rubbing her fingers gently over the tiny bump. “You’re becoming a woman.”

I backed away from her. “It’s breast cancer, isn’t it?” I asked. “It must be.”

For several weeks, my mother argued with me, explaining that I was not dying, just growing up. But I could not be convinced until she took me to a doctor for a thorough examination.

“I don’t want breasts,” I told my mother. “My life is over.”

“No, Stephanie. Your life is just beginning. You’re going to be a woman. And that is a magical, wonderful thing. You’ll see.”

“Breasts stink,” I told my mother after school a week later. “And so does womanhood.” Then I stomped into my bedroom and slammed the door.

Two months before my twelfth birthday, I stood over her, studying her lifeless body. She lay stiffly on a hospital bed in our den. I raised her cold hand and tried to memorize how her fingers felt between mine. Above her on the wall hung a picture of us, me as an infant in her lap, my two sisters flanking us, Mom’s hands wrapped tightly around my waist. It was only then that I realized why my mother stared so intently at the picture of that Victorian woman. It was the only image of me as a woman that she would ever see. And as this realization crept through my thoughts, I suddenly felt a new desire that I had never known before. I wanted to find out what it was about a woman’s body that my mother sacrificed her life for. I wanted to understand what I had been missing.

*   *   *

I was finishing my junior year of high school when I made that happen.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror one afternoon, watching my boyfriend’s white ejaculate drip from my abdomen. I was supposed to be studying for the history final. My boyfriend was still in my bedroom. As I studied how the sperm appeared against my tan, summer skin, I imagined what it looked like under a microscope. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was wrong: I was too young, and I was certainly not considering the other party involved. But I wondered if I were capable of growing and swelling like other girls I had seen at school.

In the late nineties, in upstate New York, teenage pregnancy was no longer a surprise. My hometown, a small suburb just outside of Binghamton, was home to at least five pregnant adolescents in 1997, and they were not the first of their kind. These girls came late to school, flaunting growing bellies and exciting plans for their very own apartments. Two-bedroom, two-bath. They let us all touch their stretching skin. They said things like, “Only two more months,” “We think it’s a boy,” and “I don’t have to take gym anymore.” They were separate from the rest of us, more grown up, more in touch with the future, more interesting, and far more sexual. I watched them as they waddled down our high school hallways with heavy book bags, heavy bodies, and severe looks of determination. I found myself eager to know what it felt like to be watched and touched, to be mysterious, and to have such unavoidable purpose. These girls were at once scorned and cherished. They were our future and our failure. They were not ready but going ahead with it. They were dismal and exciting statistics. They were pregnant.

The longer I stood in front of the mirror, the more honest it all seemed. I was built for it. I needed it. I told myself that in the end nothing I did would matter to anyone else. It was my body, my choice, my wish.

*   *   *

Ten years and six hundred miles later, I hold a cell phone to my ear and listen to a fourth-grader tell her sixth knock-knock joke in three minutes.

“Knock, knock,” she says.

“Who’s there?” I ask.

She giggles. “Egg.”

“Egg who?” I say.

“Egg knock’s my favorite drink, too.” Then she laughs uncontrollably, squealing and hiccupping into the phone.

It’s difficult to fake a laugh. But I giggle nervously, tell her it was “a good one,” knowing that she had made it up on her own and is proud.

“What did the picture say to the wall?” she says, not ready to quit yet.

I pause for a moment as if to think about it. Then I admit, “I don’t know.”

“I’ve got you covered.” She squeals again with delight, hiccups twice, sighs, and continues laughing.

Elianna lives in upstate New York, just outside my hometown. She hiccups if she laughs too hard. She likes to read; she loves to draw. She takes gymnastics but accidentally kicked her instructor last week at practice. She’s tall for her age, almost five feet now, and embarrassed by it. She always has a good report card and likes to impress her teachers. She enjoys jumping on the trampoline in her backyard, swimming at the YMCA, shopping for clothes at The Limited and Old Navy, and listening to music, mostly Hilary Duff; she loves going to yard sales and has been begging her parents to let her start taking piano lessons.

When she heard there were people in the world without hair, she grew hers out, cut it off, and donated it. Her favorite color is blue. She watches Survivor every Thursday night at eight o’clock. She loves having her nails done, being an older sister, and staying up past her bedtime. She doesn’t like bras or mean people. When she grows up, she wants to be an artist.

This is the first time we have ever spoken directly to one another on the phone, but she has a picture of me in her bedroom she stares at, brings to school for show-and-tell, and sleeps with. She has never met me, but Elianna, the girl on the other end of the phone, is my daughter.

What I want to say to her: None of this is your fault. It was never you. I want to smell you, your head, your hands, your toes. I want to know what your hair feels like between my fingers. I want to see the way your thighs turn into your calves and your calves into your ankles. I want to find out, for myself, if your big toe is shorter than your second toe. I want to know the direction in which your arm hair grows.

I dream about you, wake up in the middle of the night worried that you are sick, sad, angry, or afraid. I want to crawl in bed next to you, wrap myself around you, finally feeling the shape our bodies make together. I want to feed you, cook the food myself, make you strong and healthy. I want to help you learn how to read, write, paint. I want to read you my favorite stories, the ones my mother read me. I want to walk through a mall with you, help you try on clothes, tell you how beautiful you look in blue.

I want to know the people you know. I want the pain in my breasts and abdomen to go away when I hear your voice and see your picture. Forgive me. Let me kiss your face, your arms, your ears, your fingers. Your jokes, as much as I love you, are really not that funny.

What comes out: “Very clever, Eli. Very clever.”

Before we hang up, she tells me good-night and that she loves me.

I tell her, “Sweet dreams.”

I’m back in my apartment in North Carolina, under this blue comforter. I cannot complain about much here. I have just earned a master’s degree. I work at a community college, teaching freshman English. I rent a nice little apartment outside the city on the third floor of a brand new building, behind an almost-finished Wal-Mart. I have a large friendly group whom I am lucky to call my friends. There’s no boyfriend, but this doesn’t bother me. I run through the routine, wake up every morning early, walk my dog.

Life is normal enough. I am free and strong, a product of my father’s firm encouragement to be an independent woman. “Women are no different than men,” he always said. “Women can do everything a man can do. Don’t ever sell yourself short.”

The only signs of weakness are the colorful stretch marks on my breasts, the grip I still have on the phone long after she’s hung up, and the picture of my daughter hung on the wall over my bed.

*   *   *

A baby. I would make it work. “No,” my father said. “It will ruin your life.”

“I can do it,” I begged.

“Not in my house.” He ran his fingers through his beard and flipped through his mail. “I won’t be a part of it. If you have this child, you will never know what it means to be independent, to be successful, to accomplish all that you’re capable of. If you choose this path, you choose a life I can’t support. Find another place to live.”

No problem. I would find a place to live. A charity organization. A family who would give me a home, tell me it was okay to be a mother.

At first, inventing myself as a teenaged mother-to-be was exciting. I collected baby clothes, pacifiers, bottles, and bonnets. My charity family gave me a tiny room in their basement. At night, as I lay alone in the dark staring up through the windows into the flower bed outside, I had no doubt that I was becoming who I was meant to become.

As my breasts and abdomen grew, I became thrilled with the changes, finally feeling like I was being given the opportunity to be a real woman. School no longer seemed important. Homework seemed petty. College seemed like a fantasy. In the waking hours of the morning, I would get up out of bed, my bladder full again, tip-toe up the stairs, and stare in the mirror. In my reflection, I searched for a change in my face, something familiar, any sign of the mother I planned to become. But my face never seemed to change. My growing breasts and the bulge in my abdomen grew on their own, separate from my eyes. I’d crawl back into bed and run my fingers over my stomach, feeling my daughter kick my hands through my skin, and ask her to have patience with me.

I wanted to keep that baby just as naturally and vehemently as I wanted my mother to live. And I tried for seven long months to find a way to do it. But 1997 was a difficult year. Clinton reformed welfare, making it impossible for anyone under the age of eighteen to receive aid, and I couldn’t find a way to keep a stable job, finish high school, and care for a baby all at once without at least a little help from the father, who was unwilling to admit to his parents that he even had a girlfriend.

At seven months pregnant, it became clear to me that there was no hope. I couldn’t do it. It had all been a fantasy I couldn’t live up to. I was no mother. In fact, I was little more than an irresponsible teenager with a penchant for the dramatic. I had no job and no future.

Worse, I found myself desperate for reprieve. I wanted out of the martyrdom. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night for anyone, much less for a child I had nothing to offer.

And one night, as I collapsed in the corner of my borrowed basement room, I knew in the most horrible sincerity that I was unwilling to give up my freedom and security for my womanhood. I didn’t want it badly enough. And when the realization came, I wanted to empty myself of my miracle as quickly as possible, renewing myself to the state of freedom, loneliness, and asexuality to which I’d become accustomed.

I would do what my father had told me and do everything my mother hadn’t. I would graduate high school. I would go to college, pay my own bills, travel, and live a long, successful life.

“I’m so proud of you,” Dad said, his eyes red with weepy gratitude.

“This was a hard decision to make but a very strong one.” I was still living in my basement room, but when the pregnancy was over, Dad promised, when life was back to normal, he said, I could return home.

“I want to be strong,” I told him. “And successful.”

“I know you will be,” he said. And I believed him.

*   *   *

Angel and her husband, Matt, had been trying to have a baby for eleven years. Every month, for all of those years, she had hoped she was pregnant, picked out a name, constructed themes for the nursery, and imagined the baby’s face. And every month, when the blood came, another imaginary child died. She had long since lost count of all the faces that might have been.

A friend of hers mentioned a pregnant teenager with whom her daughter went to school. She tried not to get her hopes up. It took me a while to work up the courage to dial her phone number.

“I can’t do this,” I told Angel over the phone. “I’ve decided to go to college. I just can’t do this alone.” I listened to her cry, in what I would later find out was relief, for several moments. Part of me hoped she would tell me she would adopt both of us, the baby and me. I wanted to tell her how desperately I wanted to keep my baby, but I just needed her to help me. I wanted to explain what it was like to feel a human being growing inside me for so many months, to learn what sounds made her sleep, to learn exactly the way I needed to walk in order to lull her. I wanted her to know that what I was saying was dangerous for me.

“Can I meet you somewhere?” she finally asked.

“Okay.”

We chose McDonald’s on Main Street.

Angel became a mother there, when I nodded my head across the table from her, licking the ice cream cone she and her husband bought for me. I said they could have my baby.

It would be Angel who held Elianna minutes after she was born. It was Angel who held her when she first cried and learned the motions of her body and the difference between hungry and wet. It was this other woman—whom I met by accident when I doubted my ability to be faithful to my own instincts—who watched my child grow from a seven-pound, eight-ounce infant into this nine-year-old girl who tells knock-knock jokes and giggles until she hiccups. It was never me.

Because of this, I cannot complain now if Angel, this other mother, chooses to explain the adoption in such simple terms as, “You grew in Stephanie’s belly but in Mommy’s heart.” I can’t blame this woman for waiting so long to let my daughter communicate with me. I can’t tell my daughter that her jokes are not funny or that it is the hope of one day meeting her that keeps me waking up in the morning and trying to be successful, impressive, and strong.

Friends ask, “How do you talk to your daughter on the phone so casually?”

And I respond. “How do I not?”

Since they brought my daughter to their home for the first time, this couple has repeated my name in her ear like a mantra, wanting to “do the right thing.” They want for her to be aware of her heritage and proud to be adopted. My daughter’s only questions have been whether or not I love her and why I gave her away. “Of course she loves you,” her parents tell her. “Stephanie was just so young.” But Eli repeats the same questions, seemingly waiting for a truth she’s sure she has not yet heard.

When her parents first told her she could speak with me, she decided it wasn’t time. Instead, she listened over the speakerphone while her mother spoke to me. When she did this, I tried to adjust my voice and attempted to comfort her with my words, even if I was only telling Angel about the weather in North Carolina. Sometimes I would hear her giggle in the background or whisper something to her mother. But she wasn’t going to talk directly to me, not for six more months.

“Eli’s doing really well in school,” Angel would say.

“Oh, wow,” I responded, trying to express a pride recognizable in my voice. “That is so wonderful.”

I heard a tiny giggle in the background.

“Stephanie’s proud of me,” she told her mother later.

“Yes,” Angel said. “She’d be proud of you no matter what you did.”

Angel always calls and tells me the whole conversation later, all the questions Eli asks about me. She reports that my daughter, her daughter, is making me a glazed plate for Christmas with my name and my dog’s name printed across the front in child’s handwriting and swirls of purple and blue along the edges.

It was my sister’s idea to create a website for Elianna. It may have been illegal for a nine-year-old to have her own MySpace profile, but it wasn’t illegal for a birth family to create a profile titled “We Love Elianna.” With a few keystrokes, my sister made a profile that displayed several pictures of all of us, even my mother. There were pictures of me as a baby, of my sister and me carving a pumpkin when we were children, of my father, of Elianna on her first day of fourth grade, of Elianna when she was a baby, of Elianna when she was still inside me. I e-mailed Angel the password, and we waited.

Three months later, I received a message from Elianna over MySpace. DEAR STEPHANIE, I AM JUST STARTING TO TYPING. WRITE ME BACK PLEASE! I WOULD LIKE TO MEET YOU VERY MUCH.WELL I HAVE TO GO. BY LOVE. ELIANNA

“At Olive Garden,” Angel told me later. Apparently Eli imagined a girls’ lunch with the three of us at the same restaurant where I had celebrated her first birthday, one candle stuck in a scoop of ice cream, my father and I wondering how to celebrate without the birthday girl.

“Does she mean it?” I asked Angel.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

“Why now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Angel said. “I asked her, and she said she wanted to know what your favorite color was. And she really wants to meet Daisy.”

Daisy is my Jack Russell terrier. Eli refers to her as the “birth dog.” I paused. “Will she ask me why I did it? Why I gave her…”

“I don’t think so.”

“What will I say to her?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Tell her what your favorite color is.”

“When?” I asked.

“Are you coming home for the holidays?”

I haven’t been home for Christmas in three years. In fact, I rarely go back to New York for any reason. I opt for distraction—grad school, affairs with married men, short-term love affairs with strangers, menial social melodrama, heavy drinking, various jobs I latch onto and pour myself into, my writing. Now I dial my sister’s number and tell her I’ll be home in a month for the holiday.

She says, “Okay,” but I can tell she doesn’t believe me.

“Elianna said she wants to meet me,” I say.

She’s silent for a minute.

I think about the last time I went home. I can’t remember whose idea it was to spy on my daughter. We had never driven by Elianna’s house before. We hadn’t expected her to be climbing out of a minivan in her driveway, her face so much like mine, with moving legs, with a real mouth, a living, breathing little girl. I slammed on my brakes and fumbled for my sunglasses. My sister slid down in her seat, thinking, like me, that Eli would look up and somehow recognize our car, maybe from the North Carolina plates. We pulled our car behind the tree across the street and watched her for a minute while she waited for her mother to unload the van. I held my sister’s hand, surprised at how much we were shaking.

“That’s your baby,” my sister said, shaking her head. “That’s her.”

I knew she was waiting for me to do something remarkable, to become the lioness confronted with her stolen cub. She stared at me, watching the way my face trembled. Maybe she hoped these long years had been enough to awaken the mother inside me. But after Eli disappeared into her house, I shifted the car into reverse and drove away up the hill.

My sister has often tried to stir my maternal instincts. There have been days I cry in her arms and tell her how much I regret it all. And she’ll call an attorney, tell me to get creative, get angry, claim duress, anything. Just get my daughter back. But I’ve never tried. And I know I never will.

“Are you ready for that?” she asks now.

“I don’t know,” I say.

*   *   *

“You’re not ready for this,” my boyfriend, Elianna’s father, told me ten years ago, the night before I would promise my child to another couple. “You’re not ready to be a mother.” And then I was hitting him. I punched him for all the decisions in the world I felt I had no control over. I clawed at his chest for my dead mother and the baby I couldn’t find the will to keep. I screamed because I couldn’t remember my mother’s face, I would never see my daughter’s, and I couldn’t find my own. He let me go on like that for several minutes as the snow fell against the windshield and melted into water.

There wasn’t anybody who wanted to help me be a mother. But there was a world of people who wanted to help me go to college. And slowly, this became my answer. I constructed a new truth out of what I decided the rest of the world expected of me. I learned that most everyone would respond delightfully to my change of heart. Teachers gave me extra time on my assignments; my father bragged about me in church; my boyfriend thanked me with wet eyes, told me he loved me, and that he would marry me one day.

Over and over, for years to come, all I had to say was that I gave a daughter up for adoption, and people would do everything but bow at my feet, chanting the popular “what a selfless, brave decision to make.” This gave me identity. I was the teenager who gave her daughter up for adoption. But the only image I had of the life I was choosing was the word my father repeated to me over and over throughout my childhood: college. And now that I had no choice, it sounded so good.

I waited, but no matter how many times I recited my mantra—”I’m going to college. I can’t be a mother”—my hand still found its way to her and I still spoke to her. I knew then that my instincts to care for the baby would not disappear when she did.

*   *   *

It’s been three days since Eli wrote to tell me she wants to meet. I tell myself that nothing—no lunch at Olive Garden, no knock-knock jokes—will ever make me her mother.

In the small box in the corner of my bedroom, I keep two ultrasound photos secretly tucked away, the two I once hid from myself just in case one day I needed to remind myself the pregnancy actually happened, that Eli was not a dream. I take them out occasionally and stare at them. I keep her second-grade picture sitting on the antique end table my mother left me in her will.

A year ago, Eli sent me a box for my birthday, a collection of her things she thought I needed to have. Inside, there are leopard print pillows, blue sandals, necklaces, pictures she drew in school, photographs of her swimming, lotions, Beanie Babies, and a letter that she wrote, explaining the little details of her life. I keep the box in another corner, sit next to it some- times. I smell the little pillows, hold the earrings in my hands, study the letter. Once I took out the sandals and tried them on. They fit perfectly.

Eli’s need to show me who she is doesn’t surprise me. These years with- out my mother and daughter have brought me no happy endings or clear answers, but I have realized that my inability to become the Victorian woman in the portrait is not tragic. My mother did not show me that picture to assign me an identity to live up to. That picture was for her. She would never know how my face would evolve as I grew older. This woman I have become, nothing like that portrait, with all of my regrets, with my two diplomas hung on my wall, with an absent daughter, is a woman my mother will never know.

My daughter and are I left to struggle through this strange distance from each other, memorizing pictures of each other, unable to put the pictures away. When asked whether or not I regret my decision to give my daughter up for adoption, I answer honestly. Yes. Going to college has never made up for the nagging regret. I can still smell the milk that leaked from my breasts for a week after she was born. The smell of those leopard pillows is still more comforting than any freedom or success I have earned. But what I’m left with is not a gift I take for granted. I have my daughter’s face next to me as I sleep. It changes in every new photo, her eyes like my mother’s, like mine, but with their own nuances, unexpected, miraculous.

*   *   *

Elianna was born on March 7, 1997, at seven o’clock. She was seven pounds, eight ounces. Lucky seven baby. As I pushed her out, I begged the doctor to not let anyone take her from me, but my words were dismissed as nothing more than the emotional roller coaster of a seventeen-year-old girl in labor. My father stood over me and covered my eyes as she slipped from between my legs. I heard her gurgle for a second, and then she was gone.

I saw her only once before I left the hospital for good. Angel’s husband passed her off to Angel who brought her into the hall for me.

“Do you want to hold her?” she asked.

I looked down at the baby. I waited for something in my mind to click. I waited for whatever it was inside me that might have become a mother to react, but nothing happened as I clung to the IV stand I had wheeled along with me. It was over.

“No,” I whispered.

“Is there anything you want to say to her?” Angel asked.

I thought about it for a second. But only one thing came to mind.

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess there is.” I reached into the blanket and found Eli’s hand. She wrapped her finger around one of mine as I cleared my throat. “Go to college,” I said. Then I pulled my finger from her grip, turned around, and walked away.

*   *   *

I won’t meet my daughter this Christmas. She’ll change her mind, lose the courage, send her mother in her place. I’ll have lunch with her mother alone. I’ll offer Angel a picture of Daisy and me along with a wrapped gift to give to Elianna. It will be a necklace that splits into two halves. Angel will sit across the table from me, run her fingers over my hand, and tell me Eli has my fingers.

“Are you okay?” I’ll ask her, watching the way her eyes well up at the sight of me. I understand that I am a reminder that Eli will never have her eyes, her fingers, or her lips. She will never be able to know what it felt like to carry her daughter to term in her own uterus. And she will watch me remove the necklace from the box myself. I will keep one half, and Eli will keep the other. I’ll never take off my half. I’ll run my fingers over the charm while I am at work, driving in the car, grocery shopping, or staring out my apartment window into the Wal-Mart parking lot.

“I’m dealing with it,” she’ll say. She will return home to my daughter, maybe brush the hair off her forehead, feed her dinner, and tell her what it was like to have lunch with Stephanie, the birth mother.

Back in North Carolina, I will continue to occasionally stand in front of the mirror naked, staring at the scars on my breasts and at the ever changing slope of my abdomen (which has never shrunk back to its original size). It reminds me that there’s a part of me that’s missing.

One night, to my surprise, my nine-year-old daughter will call with an unusual question. “Do you have big boobs?” she’ll ask.

“Elianna’s getting her breasts,” Angel will say in the background. “And she’s not happy. She has to wear a bra.”

I’ll laugh and tell Eli that mine aren’t so big, that there’s nothing to worry about.

“Okay,” she’ll say, sighing.

“I know how you feel,” I’ll tell her, picturing her standing there, staring hopelessly down at her swelling chest. “I didn’t want to get boobs, either.”

And after a small silence, she’ll clear her throat. “Well,” she’ll say. “Your boobs look big in your picture.”

We’ll laugh, and she’ll hiccup, both of us remaining somewhat damaged and slightly delighted.

“I don’t think she’ll ever take this necklace off,” Angel giggles in the background.

And I’ll be thankful, with the phone held tight to my ear, for my own breasts, for the shape of my body, and even for this regret.

Author’s Note: Birthmotherhood has followed me like a grinning ghost into an existence I thought would be empty of my daughter. I am a mother who is both without her daughter and full of her. I have both abandoned her and taken her with me. This essay was a grueling process of discovery and redemption.

Stephanie Andersen teaches college writing in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

The Sky Isn’t Falling

The Sky Isn’t Falling

Broken nest egg

By Sarah Coglianese

As a new mom, I experienced moments of utter bliss and moments of pure panic. I imagine that’s not unlike the experience of most first-time parents. Of course it’s not exactly the same for everyone, but it’s safe to say the adjustment period can be rife with anxiety for many of us. Among the concerns I recall having after Scarlett was born: Why was breastfeeding so much harder than I thought it would be? Why was the baby’s poop green? Why did she detest every nanosecond spent in her car seat? And why did I decide to start sleep training the night my sister-in-law and her family were staying with us, seven people in one small apartment? I guess that last one is less of an anxiety and more an example of poor decision-making.

But then there were the more obscure fears: What if the ceiling fell on her while she was sleeping? What if she was stolen out of her crib? What if she somehow got stuck in the refrigerator? Unlikely to happen though they were, these were the images that kept me up at night.

As my daughter grew, my anxieties abated. She was thriving, and developing quite a personality. A good eater, a terrible napper, alternately sweet and feisty. We got the hang of breastfeeding and took naps together in my big bed. When she was 17 months old, I quit my job and we spent days exploring our city, going to music classes, walking in the park, splashing at swimming lessons.

Then one day, I was pushing her stroller down the street when suddenly I stumbled, the stroller pitched forward, and we ended up on the ground. I scrambled to stand, to right the stroller, and then I just stood there looking down at my flip-flopped feet, one bleeding ankle. Scarlett was fine, not even crying, but my heart was racing. I pushed the stroller back to my car and told myself it was time to stop wearing flip-flops, but something in me knew that wasn’t the real problem. It wasn’t the first time I’d fallen. It wasn’t even the second or the third time. Though I’d been trying to ignore them, the falls had been happening more frequently, especially when I tried to go running. What was once my favorite activity was now nothing more than a three-minute exercise in frustration. My feet just would not lift.

Ironically, with something to actually be worried about, I stayed calm. I decided I wasn’t drinking enough water, that I was indeed wearing the wrong shoes, that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. But when Scarlett was 22 months old, I saw a neurologist who suspected Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the muscle-wasting disease that carries with it a prognosis that no one wants to hear. I’d been worried about the ceiling falling on my sleeping child. Now the sky was falling on our life together. The diagnosis was confirmed, making my new probable lifespan two to five years. No treatments, no cure. I held my baby in disbelief. I’d had such a vivid imagination when it came to what could go wrong. But a terminal illness that would slowly paralyze me until even my lungs stopped working?

That one had not occurred to me.

Despite my ALS, our lives continued. There was no other choice. I began walking with a cane, and then wearing ankle braces. Scarlett started preschool. Eventually I acquired a bright purple walker, which made me feel like a little old lady. Sure enough, when I went to visit my grandma in the senior living facility to which she had recently relocated, a woman in the elevator took one look at me and one look at my walker and said, “You don’t live here, do you?” I was 34 years old at the time, but I knew it wasn’t a foolish question. Walkers like mine were everywhere, as I made my way to my grandmother’s apartment.

Were these my people now? Aging bodies slowing down. Death no longer a future glimmer, but a reality too hard to ignore. And was my grandmother, who had no trouble walking, actually in better shape than I was? Well, yes.

I was spinning, untethered from the person I felt I had once been. A marathon runner, a devoted mom and wife, an independent woman who had never particularly liked asking for help. I was consumed by my sadness and confusion, by my anxieties about what was to come.

And then I discovered other people who were like me. Young moms and dads, people in their 20s who never had a chance to start a family, all of them living with ALS. I found them by writing about my experience, by joining a group on Facebook, and by becoming heavily involved with several nonprofit organizations that raise money for ALS research. My people, it turned out, were not the ones in the senior home who had lived long lives and had much to show for it. My people were the ones who were fighting for their lives, fighting for more time with their children, fighting a disease that we’d been told would certainly kill us–and soon.

***

Scarlett is five years old now. She just started kindergarten. I haven’t run in a long time, and I can’t even stand up anymore. I spend my days in a wheelchair, my hands and arms are growing so weak that I often need help eating, and a machine helps me breathe for a few hours each day.  But I am still writing, and I’m still working to raise awareness and money to end this disease.

Each new phase of my experience brings fresh anxiety, but it is important to me to keep my daughter’s life as normalized as possible, to spend time with her—just the two of us—even if a caregiver is hovering nearby or waiting in the car.

ALS is relentless, and it will take my breathing muscles away from me. I don’t know when, and the worrier in me wonders if I’ll be sitting across a restaurant table from my daughter, watching her take down two slices of pizza, when my chest gets tight and an anti-anxiety pill isn’t enough.

For now, I take breaths as deep as they come, breaths that would horrify my former yoga instructor, and tell myself it’s okay. I still have time. The sky has not fallen. No one has gotten stuck in the refrigerator. And ALS, as scary as it is, is what we’re living with. The past five years of being a mom have taught me that I can’t let the fears, real or imagined, take over my life. I can be safe, I can be prepared. But I can’t give up.

Sarah Coglianese is a writer and blogger whose work has been published in The New York Times, Redbook Magazine, and CNN.com, among others. Sarah was diagnosed with ALS in 2012 at age 33, and started speed4sarah.com to raise awareness of the disease. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, their six-year-old daughter, and a puppy.

The Case Against Crowdsourcing Motherhood

The Case Against Crowdsourcing Motherhood

Surprised black woman sitting with computer isolated on white background

By Jody Allard

I came of age alongside the Internet. I used my first computer in eighth grade, a clunky Mac tower that mostly just gathered dust in the back of the classroom. My college years were punctuated by computer crashes and floppy disk failures that consumed entire papers and projects in an instant, and printing was always a perilous proposition. Rarely, if ever, did the cursed thing just print as it should. Even when it did, the dotted edges of the paper had to be torn off, and they almost never left smooth, presentable margins in their wake.

I had my first child before I reached adulthood. The Internet, too, was still in its adolescence. I read “What to Expect While You’re Expecting” as I watched my belly swell and press against my ugly hand-me-down maternity blouses. I stared at nipple positioning charts and tried to figure out how to breastfeed, or whether I even wanted to breastfeed, with only the guidance of those dog-eared pages and my mother’s voice ringing in my ears. I stumbled along, always trying my mother’s approaches first, but eventually I found my own way. Despite all of my missteps and mistakes—and that one time I forgot to buckle my baby into his highchair and was convinced his tumble had killed him—my son and I survived his first two years of life largely unscathed.

By the time my next two children were born, red-faced alien twins who surprised everyone by arriving as a pair, the Internet had also fully arrived. This time around, as I juggled a toddler and newborn twins who weren’t fond of eating, much less sleeping, I turned to the Internet for advice. I searched for a bulletin board for mothers and, just like that, I embraced my very first “moms group.” Pretty soon, we all began to gather during our babies’ naptimes to talk twins, marriage, food, and everything in between. When something good happened, I couldn’t wait to share it with my mom friends. When my son finger-painted the walls with his poop during a nap, two days in a row, I knew exactly where to turn for commiseration.

I don’t know when I began to doubt myself and my parenting but it happened somewhere along the Information Highway. Every day there was a new article to read about the best way to raise children and the risks to my kids if I messed it all up. All of the moms in my moms group had different opinions and approaches, and what had begun as a lifeline of support eventually led me to constantly question my own methods. “Know better, do better” became my mantra and I forgave myself my early awkward attempts at mothering while earnestly committing to be better.

I had wonderful intentions. Who doesn’t want to learn from their mistakes? Still, I was determined to give my children the very best version of myself, even if that perfect me was just a fantasy—and even if being that perfect me made me miserable. In a world of eternal options, it never dawned on me that my children just needed me: scars, flaws, mistakes, and all.

The Internet makes crowdsourcing seem sensible. I wouldn’t buy a printer without reading the reviews on Amazon so why shouldn’t I crowdsource my parenting? In an age of endless access to information, it feels almost foolhardy not to use it. The problem is that none of this information or advice made me a better mother. All it did was remind me of what I didn’t know while making me forget how I really learned to mother. No matter how many articles I’ve read and online posts I’ve made, I became a mother in a rocking chair in the middle of the night, sobbing as my baby screamed into my engorged breast. I learned to mother each of my seven children uniquely and individually, as they, and I, grew up.

I stopped spanking my children when I spanked my oldest son in anger and realized how easy it would be to cross that line. I pumped breastmilk for my children when I couldn’t get them to latch because my heart broke at my inability to nourish them. I’ve made thousands of parenting choices, and probably a hundred mistakes, but the best decisions I’ve made have always come from deep inside me. The mistakes I’ve made, like pumping for months past when it made sense to stop, came from my insecurities and fears; often, they stemmed from the advice of strangers I learned to trust more than myself.

The Internet tells me what science says about mothering, but it rarely changes how it feels to mother. When I spend long afternoons sitting on my friend’s couch as our kids wreak havoc, we rarely talk about the hot topics online. We don’t argue over breastfeeding or formula feeding, cloth diapers or disposable, and neither of us care that she unschools and I gladly send my kids to school. Our friendship is about each other, as mothers but also as women, and it’s watching her mother that makes me a better mother, not arguments about our differences.

Five years ago, when my youngest children were still infants, I went to therapy for the first time. It took me 13 years of motherhood to recognize my own needs and to consider myself as valuable and important, too. Therapy has given me the gift of myself but it’s also made me recognize how deep my need for external validation runs. Last week, as I told my therapist yet again about my fears for my kids, she said: “Jody, you always look outside yourself to find proof that you’re right and okay. You need to learn to reassure yourself that you’re right and okay.”

The Internet is by no means entirely to blame for my need for validation. My habits are rooted in my childhood to at least some extent. Yet, as I left my therapist’s office and texted my best friend to get her opinion of my therapist’s advice, I realized just how much of a role the Internet has played in my distrust of myself. I have amassed a decade of experience asking everyone but myself how I should mother.

I’m not the only mother struggling to find balance in the Internet age. Megan O’Hara, a licensed clinical social worker, explored the downsides of social media use for new mothers in an article for Christiana Care Hospital last year. In it, O’Hara cites a study that found 86 percent of mothers use social media and 70 percent of them believe technology makes them better mothers. Her own observations tell a different story. “Becoming a mother is a journey that comes with much uncertainty. It is quite natural to look to our peers for guidance and a frame of reference that tells us whether we are doing a good job,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, in this age of social media, what we see is not reality. What we are seeing is just a snapshot of a very complex reality full of failures and successes.”

After a few years of searching to find my parenting foundation, I left my mom groups. I stopped asking for advice on social media, and I created new accounts with only trusted friends and family members. Yet, even now, when I compose just the right snapshot on Instagram or tweet about my kids, I always keep one eye open for likes, comments, and reactions. I may have learned to stop asking for parenting advice, but I still haven’t learned how to reassure myself that I’m doing a good enough job. I don’t know how I’ll finally learn to stop crowdsourcing my sense of parenting self-esteem but I know I won’t find those answers online.

Jody Allard is a freelance writer and mother living in Seattle. She writes primarily about parenting, life with a chronic illness, and current events viewed through a feminist lens. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, Vice, and The Establishment, among others. She can be reached through her Facebook page.

They Are Not Half Sisters

They Are Not Half Sisters

By Stephanie Sprenger

halfsisters

 I believe with all my heart that my children will never regard each other as half of anything.

 

A row of three-year-old ballerinas clad in leotards fidget at the barre, a gangly eight-year-old wearing jeans and a T-shirt smack in the middle. My oldest daughter holds her tearful little sister’s hand as they plié together. It is my three-year-old’s first dance class, and the instructor gently invited her big sister to dance as well, a panacea for her jitters and sobs. Izzy bends down to whisper words of comfort in Sophie’s ear. Little brown heads pressed together, I again marvel that their hair is the exact same shade of chestnut. When I come across an errant baby picture, it’s sometimes hard to tell which daughter I am looking at if eye color—one of their few distinctions— is not immediately evident. My own childhood photographs contain uncanny whispers of each of their faces.

“Strong maternal genes,” I hear from friends who are in the know. I concur, astonished by my daughters’ similarities when they only share partial DNA. My youngest inherited the brown eyes accompanying the fraction of Native American blood in my husband’s veins, while her older sister’s eyes are the nebulous and changing color of the sea, framed by a luscious canopy of thick black lashes. Her chameleon eye color matches mine, but her large eyes and ebony lashes are a gift from her biological father.

Her “birth dad,” she calls him, on the rare occasion he comes up in conversation. When she was in preschool, we began awkwardly referring to him as “Dad in Phoenix” to distinguish him from my husband, whom we called “Daddy.” “Dad in Phoenix is on the phone,” I’d announce every 2-3 weeks. I couldn’t find the gumption to change his moniker, so when he moved to Texas I never bothered to tell my daughter. “Did you see the card from Dad in Phoenix?” I’d inquire, ignoring the postmark from north Texas. It bordered on comical. We had no plans to visit him, so I assumed my lie of omission was harmless.

After several years of using a geographically incorrect nickname, Izzy finally asked the hard questions. On the way to first grade one snowy morning, we managed to fit uncomfortable words like “divorce,” “biological,” “legal,” and “adoption,” into the same vast conversation that encompassed her gay uncles. I pulled away from her school building feeling stupefied, wishing I could temporarily resurrect my decade-gone cigarette habit to absorb the enormity of the ground we’d just covered.

I had never concealed her intricate history—details unraveled as they needed to, and, possessing an excellent memory, my thoughtful daughter even recalled details of “adoption day,” a stifling day in June several months before her fourth birthday when my husband became her legal parent.

Soon after her adoption, Izzy began campaigning for a sister. Not a sibling, a sister. She eerily placed her hand on my belly days before I hovered over the stick on the bathroom counter, praying for a pink line. “There’s a baby in your tummy,” she announced matter-of-factly. She continued to inquire until the day I finally confirmed her hunch, confident that the preceding pregnancy losses wouldn’t jinx my unborn child; Izzy jubilantly ran around the backyard proclaiming, “I’m going to be a big sister!” Whenever we stopped to converse with acquaintances, Izzy would possessively touch my belly, marking her status as big sister.

One day during my pregnancy, a friend innocently, if not foolishly, asked if I was worried about my husband loving Izzy as much now that he had his own baby coming. The implication was unmistakable: only one of his daughters was a real one. My daughters would only be half siblings. Waves of nausea rolled over me and I could feel the pink rushing to my face. “Izzy is his real daughter,” I replied stiffly, causing my flustered friend to back pedal.

When my phone rings this time, it’s been over three years since Izzy laid eyes on my ex-husband. As I announce the call, I suppress the old urge to label him “Dad in Phoenix,” and carefully articulate each syllable of biological dad, mentally tripping over the complications the term brings.

“I want to talk!” my three-year-old announces gleefully, elbowing her way onto the sofa while her big sister glares at her. “He’s my dad,” she whispers irritably, and I stiffen. My youngest child is simply not equipped to absorb such distinctions; having only met the man once, during her infancy, Sophie has no paradigm in which to tidily arrange him. I try to distract her with Daniel Tiger, but she erupts into sobs as I haul her from the room in an effort to respect the sanctity of Izzy’s connection to her birth father.

“That was my baby sister,” Izzy explains ruefully, and I wonder how this makes him feel. He had a family once. He doesn’t anymore. His daughter has a sister who does not belong to him. Do these surreal truths keep him awake at night?

Last Christmas, Izzy tore open a box of gifts from her paternal grandmother in Arizona. She brandished a conciliatory gift bag with one misspelled name, “To Izzy and Sofie,” but the generosity of the gesture was not lost on me. I pictured my former mother-in-law carefully wrapping the presents, deliberately including a sibling who would surely be jealous and confused when no corresponding package arrived bearing her name. A bag filled with marshmallows, candy canes, and chocolates that a pair of sisters would share.

From the moment our tentative five-year-old climbed into the hospital bed next to me to hold her sister for the first time, she was a full-blown sibling and took her role very seriously. Izzy orchestrated elaborate adventures, her dazed infant sister a captive audience in her vibrating bouncy chair. As her sweet companion became a tower-destroying toddler, Izzy tolerated The Wiggles redux while I lamented my bad luck at enduring a second round of the Australian quartet. She quietly advocated for the inclusion of her sister when other children would have begged for respite.

Her efforts to create a playmate paid off—oh, how they play. They race around the living room, vintage aprons tied backwards around their necks. Yellow gingham superhero capes and peals of laughter stream behind them, and they collapse together on the floor in a heap. While I originally entertained fleeting concerns that the five-year age difference would be an obstacle to their closeness—a worry dispelled by deep affection and a shared love of toilet humor—not once have I ever regarded them as half siblings.

Maybe it would be different had there not been a biological parent who signed away legal rights, had my husband not adopted Izzy. Maybe the fraction present in their genetic link would be magnified if there were custodial arrangements, a step-family with other children for whom to apply classifications and nicknames. I’ll never know. What I do know is this: I believe with all my heart that my children will never regard each other as half of anything. Their relationship contains everything that full-blooded siblings experience. It is full of loyalty. Full of conflict. Full of that deep understanding and witnessing that only siblings can share. Full of love.

Author’s Note: As I watched my daughters playing superheroes, it dawned on me how often I forget our family’s complex history. As the girls are only 3 and 8, we have many hard conversations ahead of us.

Stephanie Sprenger is a freelance writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.

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Finding Hope in Parenting After Loss

Finding Hope in Parenting After Loss

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Art: Linda Williis

By Tara Shafer

My second child was stillborn ten years ago.

A decade out from loss and this is what I know.

When a sonogram showed no heartbeat, I understood I had to deliver my baby.

If I try hard enough I can put myself back there, but I can’t stay. The horror of the moment makes me resist. It propels me like a magnetic force or a backdraft – away.

That day I was admitted to the hospital. I lay in Labor & Delivery stoned on Valium. I was in labor with a dead baby. I remember falling in love, observing great beauty, and getting my heart broken.

I looked out the window at the orange glow of urban pollution against platter-sized flakes of snow that made up a muffled peaceful hush drifting upwards like specters.

Time was vaporous. I had been induced to deliver with Pitocin. My body had come undone. I waited for contractions to start.

I cried for my dead son. I cried also for my two-year old son, Reid. He had never been away from me and now we were forced apart without warning. That morning he and I had walked through the Central Park Zoo. We passed the carriage horses on the way to a medical appointment and Reid watched them eat oats out of big buckets.

I closed my eyes. These children. I did not know how to occupy both the lands of the living and the dead. I could not be in two places at once. I looked at my heavily pregnant stomach. Then, I remembered the little red sweater Reid wore when he waved and left the room, glancing backwards.

I can no longer remember the sequence of what happened or when. What I remember most vividly about my son’s (still)birth is playing with the edges of things – discovering all sorts of peripheral realities where death meets birth.

As I labored I imagined stranger hands on him. He was mine but I could not keep him. I tried to imagine this infant, alive, asleep at home.

On television that night John Lennon was being over-remembered on the anniversary of his shooting. Lennon singing Imagine was on news clips over and over again. I was drawn to the tinny end-of-the-world music box quality of the song.

After many hours my baby was born. We named him Dylan. I did not even anticipate the sound of crying. Still, the silence was shocking. In the room there is no one talking. My devastated husband Gavin was there. The nurse readied the receiving cart but without a sense of urgency. She was somber and deliberate in her movements. She swaddled him in standard issue hospital blanket and put a hat on his head. She looked more like an undertaker than a nurse.

In holding my son, I was aware that there would be no second chances. I did what I could to stay present even as I left behind the life I had been leading until that point.

After a while someone (I don’t remember who) asked, “Are you ready?”

I suddenly understood what it would have felt like to give up a child for adoption when adoption was secret and mothers too young. You hand your baby over.

As I did. But I knew he would never grow up. He would never find me.

“Are you ready?”

It is a terrible way to phrase this question.

We cremated our baby. We returned to our life with Reid. We tried to figure out how to explain the death of a baby whose existence had had never known to a young child. A play therapist assured us that young children do not see death as either permanent or negative. Several days later we explained that the baby would not be coming to live with us. That night as I lay in bed, soapy softness wafting off of him, I asked Reid whether he would crawl back in to my stomach and be a baby once more. Not my finest moment as a mother. He answered, “yes Mommy, so I could die and die and die.”

When we tried again, sex was multi-faceted. It was recreational, procreational, and post-traumatic.

When we did get pregnant again I had difficulties processing this reality. I took Reid to a nearby orchard and sat we sat there. I tried to understand that the coming months would be living moment to moment. I thought about the fear I would face as I waited for fetal movement. I thought about how this was the gift of another chance. I considered this all under the kaleidoscope sky with the apple trees, and the earth smell of fall everywhere. There were creeping early shots of colors in the trees as they prepared to burst into color and then retreat – a half death – until the spring. I looked at the weeping willows tacked up perfectly against the blue fall sky settling down from the scorch of summer; the world around began to recoil temporarily.

Reid grounded me and I had to let him.

I hid the fact of pregnancy for an absurd amount of time. Depending on the moment in the day, I loved or tolerated or survived this pregnancy. I learned to exist in crisis mode. Phone calls made me jump. It began to feel like alarmist Zen. I did weekly non-stress tests at the hospital. I gazed upon my baby on an ultrasound screen in sanity-saving weekly ultrasound appointments. He was so near and so far. I could grow him but I could not save him if it came to it. I was more voyeur than mother.

These were hard months, but so too, were they full of grace.

As the days before birth approach, I found I could not stay present. There was a biblical storm and the rain came down in sheets. Non-essential travel in New York State was officially discouraged.

We drove slowly from upstate New York to the city hospital on the flooded roads that were looking delta-like. There were houses sticking up through water. I half-expected to see destitute children sitting atop roofs without shoes. I glanced at Reid in the rear view mirror and I thought about his sustaining love and how he could never know the impact of his presence. I was shocked at the finality of and the force of regret I suddenly felt at what will be lost between he and I.

As panic at the thought of the alternative rose like bile within me, I tried to steady myself. I told Reid how very much I loved him.

He looked into the rear view mirror and placed his fingers on his eyebrows and moved them around.

“Mommy?” he said. “Did you know that my eyebrows look like corn cobs when I do that?”

At the hospital my husband and I stood outside in the early spring wind blows dampness around imagining the promise in existence everywhere. People walked by, hospital staff stood smoking in scrubs, the lights of a diner flickered. I remember thinking that I had never seen anything more beautiful than this. The rain was stopping but rainbow colored oil slicks ran down in rivers towards gutters on the city streets.

The next day, my son David was born and they put him on my chest.

He was so small. I had forgotten what newborns felt like and how much like a petal their skin is.

I lay there, an infant at my breast and I again recognized that humans are frail. There is honor in trying to become strong.

A few years later another baby would be placed on my chest. This one would be a girl. Isabelle, like her brother, would be born in a snowstorm. However, she lay next to me fully in my possession.

My family is growing up. I can’t even believe how old my children are now as they set their courses. I try, as all parents do, to provide perspective. At the Haydn Planetarium there is a plaque that describes the potential for interstellar life and how little we know yet about galaxies. Part of it reads: “The stars in the sky seem permanent and unchanging because it takes millions and billions of years for their lives to unfold.”

I have a memory from childhood. There is nothing significant within it except that I understood something abstract without being told. I was walking with my father once in mid-winter at dusk. The snow was blue against the winter sky and the embers of the orange light were fading and strewn across the sky. The blueness of the snow looked like the sea but perfectly still, beautifully captured imprisoned and resolute. It had stored the light from the sun and it was still there within, beneath despite the general appearance of death, of nothing stirring. My father told me, “This is the harsh beauty of winter.”

I understood that the scene was both beautiful and harsh and that these two things could easily be fused. What is absent can be just as glorious as what is present. On that rising hill beneath the sky there was lots of life but it was suspended, waiting. The winter was the victor there and it contained much in the way of dormant things all trapped within it. For all that winter freezes, it coats and protects.

Without all that is absent – what is taken from us  –  we do not know the truth about what is present. These losses, these tragedies, provide a context. They give the gift of hard-won self-knowledge too important to bury or obscure.

Tara Shafer is the co-founder of Reconceiving Loss (www.reconceivingloss.com) an online resource center to support families coping with baby loss. Her work has appeared on the New York Times and Mashable. She is a contributing blogger for BabyCenter, Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

Love, I Mean Like(s), Conquers All

Love, I Mean Like(s), Conquers All

By Francie Arenson Dickman         

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We had a crisis in our house this morning. It hit during the thirty seconds my daughters allot for breakfast. Instead of sitting stone still and staring at the counter, I noticed some last minute scrambling—not the physical kind, but the virtual—a frenzy with the phones, which I assumed had to do with school. They had math and science tests. A forgotten formula, maybe? Worse, it turned out. An almost forgotten birthday.The birthday of a good friend, no less, brought to their attention by another friend’s Instagram post…or maybe it was Facebook. I can’t keep track anymore.     

I’m sure if you are a parent of a girl who has finished breast feeding and is therefore old enough to have an online presence, you know where I’m going with this. You’re already aware of the online protocol required to appropriately acknowledge the birthday of a friend (defined broadly to encompass anyone they’ve ever met) via social media.     

The formula for online well-wishing for middle schoolers is complex and as incomprehensible to me as the formulas in my kids’ geometry books. It centers around “the post.” I’m not talking about a run-of-the-mill Facebook birthday wish. A simple, “Have a great day,” apparently won’t do. An acceptable birthday post is a multi-step venture. Step one involves digging. Deep and focused digging, one by one, through the eight trillion selfies and other shots in your child’s camera roll in search of pictures that show any sign of the birthday girl. (“Oh look, there’s her elbow.”)    

Not all photos, I’m afraid, are created equal. I’m fairly certain (though if I’m wrong, perhaps one of my children’s friends who are now on Facebook will correct me) but the further back in time the picture goes, the better. As the adage (updated for social media) goes, new friends are silver, old friends are gold and old photos of old friends are even golder. In other words, a picture speaks a thousand words and if you’ve got a photo with the birthday girl from preschool, you have said, “I’ve been friends with the birthday girl longer than you,” without uttering a sound.   

When we were kids, moms used to send their birthday kids to school with cupcakes that the birthday kid got to pass out with the help of a few chosen friends. Today, allergies have done away with the homemade cupcake tradition, but nothing will ever do away with the middle school girls’ ability to jockey for position. Human nature is alive and kicking: A one picture post (unless, as stated above, it’s a picture from way, way back), means you probably aren’t the girl who would have been called up to help with the cupcakes. But if you can amass 25 pictures or more, and then take the time to lay them all out in a collage, you are in the running.      

I’m not talking about the kind of collages we used to make. The ones that required hours of combing through magazines, cutting out photos and words that related to your friend or your friendship, laying it all out on cardboard and then carefully gluing it down. The modern day collage is similar, except it is, naturally, done in an app. If a kid has the technical know-how and the eyesight, she can kick out a hundred picture collage during the two minute ride to school, which is really all the time she has because, according to what I’ve gathered, a post must be live by the time the well-wisher arrives at school.  

To pass muster, the posts also incorporate words, or at least parts of them. Letters. Like H14BD ILYSM. While grammar lessons do not seem to be hitting home these days, kids really understand the value of the hyperbole. Sweeping statements like, “You are my best friend in the entire universe,” “I don’t know how I’d ever live without you,” or “I’d do anything for you,” are thrown about with abandon. On the one hand, I’ve got to hand it to these girls. They’re sure not stingy with the love, which is refreshing in a political climate plagued by constant hate and heckling. Furthermore, the unending love is not wasted on one birthday girl. Rest assured, the exact outpourings given to the birthday girl of today will be bestowed on the birthday girl of tomorrow. When it comes to effusiveness, today’s teens are equal opportunity employers.       

Yes, one may contend that it’s impossible to actually harbor so much love for so many people. Those who know better (i.e. parents) might say that there’s an element of disingenuousness to this free love business, and that perhaps all of this online PDA is indeed for the benefit of public consumption. One might be inclined to invoke the adage, empty tins cans rattle the loudest and those truly close to the BDG shouldn’t have to take such grandiose measures to prove it. After all, the reality is that behind all the birthday love, there is a quiet sting felt by the other girls (yours, of course) who look at their screens and see that the person they thought was their BFF is now labeling herself BFF with the birthday girl. Love hurts, even if it is spread too thin to have any meaning.

The good news is, the hurt doesn’t last—well the hurt may but the post itself doesn’t. Unlike the collages we used to make and receive (some of mine still occupy space in my attic), the modern day collage is ephemeral. Blink and you’ll miss the outpouring of affection. The unstated rule is that birthday posts are only meant to last the length of the birthday itself. My kids, when asked, didn’t give a reason for this but my guess is (and again, my kids and their friends can correct me if I’m wrong) that birthday posts don’t garner that many likes since they are only of interest to the birthday girl and the BFF who posted. As much as all the BFFs would do anything for the birthday girl, anything does not include leaving up a post that isn’t popular.                   

It’s truly a strange new world, this world of social media. The only place I know where love seems to know no bounds except when measured by likes.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completing her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Illustration: gettyimages.com

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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Like nearly all parents, I sometimes yell. I don’t like it, but it happens. Usually it’s close to the end of a particularly long or challenging day when the button-pushing preschooler in my daughter overtakes the exhausted mother in me, and for a split second I lose my cool. I yell, then I breathe, then I apologize.

I am grateful that these times are infrequent. I am grateful that I know I am not the only parent this happens to and that I just need to forgive myself and move on. I am also grateful because I know from experience just how much worse it can be.

There was a time in my life when I was stretched incomprehensibly thin, with no hope for recovery in sight, and it felt like all I did was yell or cry.

My daughter was barely three and my husband Steve was dying; one afternoon remains vivid in my memory.

I was trying to transfer Steve from his hospital bed to his wheelchair. His hospital bed was pushed against our bed, which was pushed against the opposite wall, and there was just enough space on the near side to maneuver the wheelchair.

He had not walked in nearly two weeks. The week before, I had signed the DNR order his hospice nurse had slid over the coffee table before she moved across the living room to listen to his heart and lungs. The prior day he had suffered a massive bloody nose and nine seizures, including one that lasted for seven full minutes. We were both exhausted and at our wit’s end.

During the last months of his life, Steve took high doses of dexamethasone, a corticoid steroid, to help control his persistent and insidious brain swelling. At six feet tall, he quickly ballooned from a slim 165 pounds to over 240 pounds.

Always fond of humor, we joked about our matching stretch marks, but it was truly a terrible transformation for him. People who didn’t know Steve before the steroid treatment did not recognize him in the photographs in our home. Though he had never been one to care much about looks, the uncontrollable weight gain and disfiguring side effects pained him, and he especially hated that it made it more difficult for me to take care of him.

I had transferred him hundreds of times. Sometimes the transfers were challenging, but I was strong, he helped as best he could, and most of the time they went fine. I knew from my brief stint in nursing school that no one in their right mind would ever transfer a patient of his size without multiple assists or a mechanical lift, but I also knew that he very badly wanted to stay at home and that I was going to make it work.

The transfer went terribly. He had almost completely lost his ability to use his right side in the preceding hours, a fact that neither of us was aware of until it was too late. I was not strong enough to bear all of his weight as we pivoted and he ended up half in the wheelchair with his right arm pinned beneath his body.

Every time something went wrong—a transfer, a medication complication, an infection, a functional decline—I felt somehow responsible, whether I had any actual control over the event or not. I knew, logically, I was not to blame, but I felt so guilty that I could not seem to manage it all, and all those months of challenges, complications, and of things going wrong had piled up.

In the midst of wrestling him upright and eventually back into the bed, our daughter came into the room. I have no recollection of her action—whether she was in danger of getting hurt as I struggled to move her father or she simply tried to speak to me at that moment—but I screamed at her at the top of my lungs. I bellowed. She burst into tears and ran out of the bedroom.

At that point, I felt the weight of everything, unbearably. I so desperately wanted to do everything right: to give Steve the life and death he wanted and deserved, one with as much dignity and as little discomfort as possible; to love and support our daughter through that process; to keep all the little pieces of our quickly crumbling life together for just a little bit longer.

I wanted just a small slice of grace and peace in the throes of my chaos and grief. Instead, my life imploded in a matter of seconds and I unleashed all that fury, loss, and disbelief on my daughter. I felt like the absolute worst mother in the world.

I managed to get Steve back into bed. We were both exhausted and in tears. I called our daughter back into the bedroom. I apologized and told her that I shouldn’t have yelled, that I had been scared and that I was sorry. She hugged me and nodded and climbed into my lap. I kissed her forehead and wiped her cheeks.

On the wall above Steve’s hospital bed was a framed picture of our daughter taken the previous summer on White Head, the island in the Bay of Fundy where we visit family every year. The photograph was the epitome of light and joy: her grin haloed by wispy toddler hair, green fields, and blooming fireweed.

She pointed at the picture and asked if we could go to White Head when the snow melted. Yes, I nodded, of course. She paused and then asked if Daddy could come with us. I knew what was coming, but I couldn’t, just yet. Maybe, I said, maybe.

Steve died almost exactly three weeks later, on the second day of spring.

I still sometimes feel guilty about those days, wondering if I could have somehow handled the stress better. I cringe when I think of the times I was frustrated or short-tempered, but I also recognize it was the weight of an impossible situation, exactly where no one ever wants to be: watching one’s life, love, and family disintegrate piece by piece.

I also remind myself that it wasn’t all burning rage and pain, though those memories are sometimes the ones that surface first, especially when guilt is at play. We had a lot of moments of love and light, of sacred time together as a family, and of beauty breaking through the suffering.

Those horrific months that I often wasn’t sure I would survive are now some of the most valued of my life. I was a disaster of a person and a thoroughly imperfect mother and wife, but I was there and I gave it everything I had.

It will always be one of my greatest honors that I was able to take care of Steve until the end, that he trusted and loved me enough to grant me that esteem. Despite everything we were facing, I never for one second considered not accepting that offering.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in Maine. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

When I Said Goodbye to Nursing

When I Said Goodbye to Nursing

By Jennifer Berney

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Some months ago, after enduring four hours of dental surgery, my toddler emerged from anesthesia groggy and pissed off. He punched at my ear and my jaw as I carried him to the car, and then he cried the whole ride home. I brought him to the kitchen where he clung to me and threaded his fingers through my hair, still sobbing. I offered him some blueberry yogurt in a bowl. He calmed himself enough to eat a few bites, and then he pointed to the couch. I carried him there, and once we settled, he asked to nurse. I lifted my shirt and cradled him. His breathing steadied, as did mine. I wiped the tears from his face with the edge of my sleeve. My eyes wandered around the room. “Other side,” my son requested eventually, and so we changed positions. All in all he nursed for maybe fifteen minutes, and in that time he was restored to his usual self. As I righted my bra, he slid off the couch and began to chase his older brother around the living room.

I had no idea that this would be the last time we ever nursed.

My approach to weaning had been so haphazard that perhaps it’s a stretch to even call it an “approach.” A year earlier I had wanted to quit because my son—newly two years old then—woke up desperate to nurse every morning. His demand was so insistent that it limited my ability to meet my own basic needs. I learned to master the art of peeing with a child propped on my lap and to brew a cup of hot tea with my one free hand. He seemed to have an internal rule: his feet could not touch the floor before he nursed.

Once I brought him to the couch, he wanted to keep me there all morning. If I tried to unlatch him after, say, twenty minutes, he looked me coolly in the eye and moved my hand away from his mouth. After several months of this, I left town for a conference and was gone for seven nights and seven mornings. Without me, my son woke up happy. He walked straight to the kitchen table and ate his breakfast.

I returned home wondering if our nursing relationship was over, and also knowing that I need not wonder—the decision was mine to make. If he asked to nurse, I could simply tell him no. The airport shuttle dropped me off at home an hour after bedtime. I peeked at my sleeping children and settled in my own bed. In the morning my younger son wrapped his arms around me, smiled, and asked for a bowl of cereal. We had spent two hours of our morning together before he put one hand on my shoulder, cocked his head, and asked me “nursey time?” I hesitated for a moment, and then I said, “Okay.”

In the months that followed, my son nursed less and less. Sometimes he’d go two days without asking. Occasionally, he’d ask twice in one day. Each time he asked, I wondered when I would start saying no.  With my first son, I had drawn a clear line. “This is our last time nursing,” I had told him before our final session. It was late on a Saturday morning and sun blasted through my bedroom window. I propped up pillows so that I could comfortably sit and nurse, just as I’d done a thousand times before. I thought about his first days at home and the hours I had spent in this same spot latching and unlatching my newborn, trying to get it right. I thought about the midnight feedings and the naptimes, and all the times that nursing had put an end to tears. It was a tender moment, this final goodbye, and the clarity of my boundary allowed me to savor all of the flavors, the bitter and the sweet.

I had expected to do the same with my second son, eventually. And then one day I realized that we hadn’t nursed in weeks. Our nursing relationship had ended without ceremony. I only remember our last time because it was such an unusual day.

I am thirty-nine now and, by choice, I will have no more children. I will never be pregnant again. I will never nurse another baby. I feel relieved about this, and sad about this, but more than anything I feel puzzled. How did I get here so quickly? Every day I look at my seven-year-old son and tell myself that he’s halfway to fourteen. Before I know it, he’ll be shape shifting into a man. My second child, my three-year-old, still looks like a baby to me most of the time. But then last night as he raced two imaginary friends across the living room, he looked suddenly taller, leaner. I could see in him a preview of the child he’s becoming. Somehow, suddenly, I’ve arrived at the phase of parenting where my children leave my embrace as often as they seek it.

I leave behind the years of intensive physical parenting, the years of rinsing diaper inserts in the toilet, of wiping drool away from chins, the years of mastitis and sore nipples, of baby whorls and cradle cap, the years of rarely being alone and always being needed, of being too crowded in the bed, of being asked to sing the same song over and over and over in spite of my broken voice.

Those years are now behind me. They are years that were as frustrating as they were joyful, but I have no doubt that the filter of nostalgia will eventually render them perfect. There’s no token I can hold—no lock of hair or beloved blanket—that will actually bring those years back. That era has come to an end with no clear warning, no announcement. This is of course, the way of things. To say goodbye, I must turn around and wave to the thing that is already gone.

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

First Leap To Learning How to Read

First Leap To Learning How to Read

By Emily Brisse

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I remember a frog—a green one, and speckled. He must have been on an adventure, leaping from one place to another—from land to a lily pad, or from a lily pad to land. I can’t say which; all I saw were his back legs, a tipped down and lazy V, bent and vaulting onto the next page. How do I know it was even a he, that frog? Did he have a name? Some larger purpose beyond that leap? I’ve tried finding answers to these questions—I asked my mother, librarians, elementary-school teachers, the Internet—those inter-webbed webs of message boards devoted to children’s books about frogs—but the pond is too big. Frogs that are just two green legs jumping from one white page onto another are as indistinguishable as water weeds.

Unless you’re me.

If you’re me, you remember those two green legs, those two green keys, as vividly as spears of light because they mark the moment when language unlocked and you started to read.

I wonder now if that’s why I can’t remember the frog’s body or face, because the moment was so bright, and all the illumination breaking open made me close my eyes so it wouldn’t escape—leap.

Whatever the reason, I remember it. I’ve always remembered it. I was young, maybe three? My mother was there. We each tell the story. “I’m reading!” I’d said, clutching the book, pointing at the legs and the letters.

It was memory, of course; I’d memorized the words from my mother’s repeated renderings. I watched the movement of her hands against the print, the way certain words were paired with certain images. There was a rhythm. A timing. A hop and a skip and a jump from one idea to the next. I’d put it together and had the dance, had the beat and the steps and the sound, I was swimming, floating, leaping.

It was performance. But it was for me. It was because I wanted to know the steps so badly, how to kick my two green legs in just the right way.

It was memory.

But it was reading.

I was reading.

You can’t unleap a leap like that. The pond is too big.

So I am reading still, tonight about a tiger with four orange legs. I have fewer questions. I know the story’s title. I know the purpose of the journey. I know the tiger—a he—has stripes, and why they’re there. He is wearing a top hat, which is part of the journey. He says funny things about dancing and top hats and green olives. Every detail, the rhythms, the timing, each word—I read it. I read it aloud, with a kind of gusto, the vim that arises from the best corners of childhood. And I watch my son, not yet three, sitting on my lap, yes, but not really—really he is in the book, in the story, finding his way among the stripes and the olives, the dancing and the letters.

I feel him stalking along behind those four orange legs, making his own discriminate leaps. I haven’t said where they will lead him, but even without the words, I know he understands.

Emily Brisse’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Literary Mama, Mamalode, and Two Hawks Quarterly. She teaches English at Breck School in Minneapolis and reads picture books every night.

Illustration: gettyimages.com

Raising a Multicultural 4-Year-Old

Raising a Multicultural 4-Year-Old

By Sarah Quezada

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“Mom, we do not kiss kids at school.” My four-year-old stared up at me as I covered her with a blanket.

Oh good. The before bedtime conversation every mother wants to have. Of course I’m the mom of the classroom kisser.

“Um… were you kissing kids at school?” Please say no. Please say no.

“Yes.” There it is!

My daughter went on to explain how she was playing with a friend when his dad came to pick him up from preschool. So she gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek to say goodbye.

“Ms. Terri was laughing and laughing,” my little girl said. “And then she told me, ‘We do not kiss kids at school.'”

My initial horror shifted to gentle amusement. Of course my daughter was kissing kids goodbye at school—that’s what her dad told her to do! My husband is Guatemalan, and he has been teaching her since birth to greet and say goodbye with a kiss.

I’m terrible at this practice, and it’s become a source of family humor that I’m able to make cheek kissing one of the most awkward experiences for everyone involved. I’m always too early, too late, too shifty, too nervous.

We have been passionate about nurturing my daughter’s bicultural identity, supporting her as fully Guatemalan and fully American. And it seems she’s 100% adopted her Latino kissing along with my penchant for making other people uncomfortable. But we always knew her light skin and perfect English would cause people to doubt her Latina-ness, so we’ve been even more intentional to promote bilingualism and take her as often as we can to visit her abuelos in Guatemala City. We also attend a Spanish church, where everyone kisses good-bye.

So what do I do as the mom of the classroom kisser? I know she is discovering what it means to balance her two heritage cultures. Through trial and error, she is learning who speaks which language, what’s culturally expected in different situations, and when it’s okay to kiss. Adapting to a multicultural world is a tall order for a four-year-old. It’s a tall order for any of us.

I want my daughter to be her full, authentic, bicultural self. But I also want her to fit in, right? I definitely don’t want her to be made fun of for kissing good-bye the way we’ve taught her. I never want her to look back and say, “My parents taught me to kiss everyone, and then I was ridiculed at school.”

Many months after our bedtime conversation, I witnessed her kissing in action. I came to pick her up from the gym childcare when she announced she’d made a new friend. Terrific. Then, she darted back into the playroom and kissed her new buddy goodbye. I watched as the girl wiped the wet from her face and yelled, “Ewww. Disgusting!” My daughter was unphased.

On the way home, we talked about how not everyone kisses good-bye and she should always ask first if it’s ok to do so. I didn’t want her to feel like she shouldn’t kiss friends whose culture was different. But we also discussed how it’s all right if a friend says no. And that simply means we don’t kiss them.

Weeks later, I then watched her ask a new friend at the park if she could kiss her good-bye. When the little girl said yes, the two accidentally smooched on the lips while I looked at her mom apologetically. I wanted to offer explanation, but instead just mumbled and scurried away. I wondered if my instructions had been sufficient since perhaps it would be better to simply hug in some situations.

It seems conversations about culture, context, and identity will be ongoing with my daughter. Where we are intentional to establish her heritage roots, we must also be committed to walking alongside her as she navigates their application in her world. But through it all, I am struck by how flexible she is in today’s multicultural world.

Flexible is generally not a word I would use to describe my daughter, who still needs a very specific spoon to eat her cereal in the mornings. But kids seem to have an easier time moving between cultures and adjusting with ease. My daughter gobbles up the Cuban food in the church fellowship hall while talking with her friends in English with a bit of Spanglish thrown in for good measure. But she is just as comfortable at all-English events in our mixed white and African American neighborhood. This is her world. And it is in cultural flux. As I watch my daughter interact within her world, I realize a multicultural experience is all she’s ever known. While she continues to adapt to these changing contexts, I will remain close by, helping to guide her and encourage her to maintain a groundedness of her own identity.

Sarah Quezada lives in Atlanta, Georgia in a talkative, Spanglish household with her Guatemalan husband and two kiddos. She writes about culture, family, and immigration on her blog, A Life with Subtitles. You can connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Our Birthday Blog Series

200296650-001Happy Birthday Baby

By Candy Schulman

This year felt empty, her absence just another reminder that she was no longer our baby, hadn’t been for a long time.

 

 

 

theirbirthdayCelebrating Their Birthday

By Kelly Burch

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. 

 

 

 

 

The Cakes That Bind Us Im1The Cakes That Bind Us

By Susan Currie

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.

 

 

 

fewcupcakesDo You Invite The Whole Class To Your Kids’ Birthday Parties?

By Rudri Patel and Stacey Gill

Since the age of four, I’ve invited all of her classmates to her birthday parties, instead of handpicking just a few, because I am sensitive to the need for young girls and boys to feel included. 

Your party, your terms. No one has the right to dictate whom you can or can’t invite to your own kid’s birthday party.

 

izztbdaylistThe First Disappointment

By Stephanie Sprenger

I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.

The First Disappointment

The First Disappointment

By Stephanie Sprenger

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I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.

 

After months of begging, I finally caved. Eight years old seemed like a fine age to host our first birthday sleepover party; it seemed almost cozy, a pleasant contrast to larger birthday party adventures of years past. Maybe I was eager to re-live my own popcorn-eating, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”-watching, truth-or-dare-playing slumber party days.

My daughter was elated. Being the ultra-organized, hyper-planning apple from my Type-A tree, her sleepover party would not be a “go with the flow” type of event. Hours before the girls came over, she had fashioned sleeping stations in her bedroom, carefully mapped out with colorful blankets spread around her floor. On each station was a BFF necklace and an itinerary listing the sleepover’s events. Yes, an itinerary.

Four girls were attending, including the one child who rightfully claimed the official BFF title. The other three were girls from her class whom I didn’t know well. When I sent out the invitation, I offered parents the option of not committing to the overnight portion of the party—they were free to pick up their kids before bedtime. Only one family took me up on it—the parents of a shy child who was new to school.

The first half of the party was like an advertisement for “Girls’ World Magazine.” There was whispering, shrieking, dancing, Karaoke, pizza, cake, and nail-painting. For a group of 3rd graders, it was idyllic.

My mother and I cleaned up the kitchen to a soundtrack of laughter pealing from my daughter’s bedroom. Raucous dance moves shook the ceiling above me, and the girls’ singing nearly (sadly, not completely) drowned out the Kidz Bop CD that was blaring. My daughter was having a fantastic time. It was just what she’d hoped for, and as such, all that I hoped for as her mother.

After pajamas were donned and sleeping bags unrolled, I carried a tray of popcorn and M&Ms upstairs and tiptoed into the dark bedroom where the pre-bedtime movie played.

“Lindsay, your mom will be here in about half an hour,” I whispered, hoping she wouldn’t feel too badly about missing the rest of the fun.

At 9:30, the girls paused the movie and came outside to bid farewell to their departing friend. Lindsay’s parents pulled into the driveway as the girls hollered and swung from the tree swing, the porch light illuminating their grinning faces, nightgowns, and bare feet.

Returning to the movie, the mood was only slightly dampened by the decimated ranks. I sat in the kitchen, finally daring to pour myself a glass of wine, and de-briefed with my mom. “I think Izzy’s having a great time,” I said. A foreboding gong of doom may as well have sounded at that moment.

I heard a clatter of footsteps on the stairs. My daughter’s chagrined face poked around the corner. “Taylor wants to leave,” she whispered tearfully. I hastily rose to intervene, my premature glass of celebratory wine forgotten.

“Honey, we knew that was a possibility,” I reminded her gently. “She hasn’t had a sleepover before—neither have you. It’s hard for kids to be away from their parents all night. We can’t make her feel bad.”

It was after ten by now, and Taylor’s mom quickly arrived at our house after I called her. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” I assured her, waving off her apologies and discomfort.

“OK, girls, it’s time to get in your sleeping bags,” I announced cheerfully, trying to ignore the dark mood that had descended. The three remaining girls dutifully arranged themselves and their stuffed animals on the carpet.

“Mommy, will you sing us a lullaby?” my daughter requested quietly. “I think it will help us sleep.”

I of course agreed, snuggling next to my daughter and singing a few of her old favorites. The girls smiled and listened, and as I crept out of her bedroom, I felt downright smug. I was the best sleepover mom ever.

Ten short minutes later the next round of wails began. Another casualty was imminent—the girls were dropping like flies. But this time it was bad: It was Jessie, the best friend, who wanted to go home. Her slight frame was shaking as she sobbed, “I just—want—my mom. I want to go home!”

My daughter was borderline hysterical. “Jessie can’t go! She was supposed to stay all night! I was counting on it!” Her tone was frantic and I quickly ushered her downstairs before she said something that would hurt the feelings of the only guest still standing, something like, “Jessie was the only one who really mattered!” Which was, of course, what we were both thinking.

I handed my devastated child off to my mother while I hurriedly dialed Jessie’s mom and let her speak to her hyperventilating child. Meanwhile, the lone friend stood somberly by. There was no way she was going home. With a 20-year-old sister and 17-year-old brother, I got the feeling Abigail would probably spend the night at anyone’s house. She watched us impassively, knowing full well she was here to stay.

As Jessie packed up her belongings, sniffing quietly, my daughter sat in my lap and sobbed. My mom snuck downstairs to text my brother, a psychotherapist, to fill him in on our vicarious devastation and to perhaps beg for clinical reassurance that this event would not ruin her granddaughter for life. He was undoubtedly delighted to be included in the unraveling drama.

I consoled my bereft child, reassuring her that I knew how sad this was, how disappointing. I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.

And there it was—that one sentiment expressed all of my darkest thoughts and fears about raising children. I cannot bear the knowledge that they will ultimately be hurt over and over. It was my daughter’s first real taste of the disappointment that accompanies epic unmet expectations. It was her introduction to celebration let-down, and not just the Clark W. Griswold variety of mishaps and disasters, but the deeper, darker kind, the variety that leaves you feeling small, unimportant, and unloved. I knew it wouldn’t be the last time she cried on her birthday.

As a Gen X parent hell-bent on not succumbing to helicopter parent status, I am mindful that it is counterintuitive and harmful to shield our children from disappointment and failure. But on that one night, on her birthday, at the party she’d worked so hard to create, I wanted to. I wanted to make it perfect for her.

We dealt with the fallout as best we could. My daughter and her emotionally stout companion fell asleep, enjoyed a pancake breakfast, and swung in the sunshine waiting for the girl’s mother to pick her up. She was nearly a half hour late.

We spoke of it wryly, we persevered. Truth be told, the failed sleepover will go down in family lore as a story we will likely giggle about over shared bottles of wine in decades to come.

And although it was perhaps a valuable learning experience, I still offer this precautionary advice to mothers considering hosting sleepover parties for their eight-year-olds: Don’t do it.

Stephanie Sprenger is a writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.

Do You Invite The Whole Class To Your Kids’ Birthday Parties?

Do You Invite The Whole Class To Your Kids’ Birthday Parties?

Children’s birthday parties aren’t always easy to plan, especially the guest list. Do you invite the whole class or not? Rudri Patel thinks that you should, because promoting a philosophy of inclusion is the most important thing for young kids. Stacey Gill believes every family should be able to throw the party it wants, even if that means handpicking only a few friends from school.

 

I Invite the Whole Class to My Kid’s Birthday Party

By Rudri Patel

manycupcakesMy car slides easily into the designated school lane. I watch a set of girls and boys interact, laughing, swinging their arms, the boundary between innocence and knowledge still a blur. Third in the carpool line, I turn around and glance at the back seat as my ten-year-old daughter climbs in, maneuvering her backpack as she lands in her favorite spot.

My daughter’s words start to spill. “Momma, I didn’t get invited.”

The air is contaminated by her sadness.

“Invited to what, honey?” My voice is calm, though I cringe at the thought of her being excluded from anything.

“Jenny invited all the girls in the class to her birthday party except for Heather and me. I’m so sad. I thought I was her friend too.” She crinkles her nose, a sign—one I know well—­­­­­that tears will soon overpower her.

“It’s fine, sweetie,” I say. “I understand you are upset, but don’t let it get you down. It’s only a party.” I hope to distract her by turning on the radio, as Taylor Swift’s anthem of positivity, Shake it Off, blares from the speakers.

But she is immune to Taylor’s battle cry, and I feel powerless as tears run down my little girl’s face.  

*   *   *

As an introvert, I often breathe a sigh of relief when I am not invited to a large social gathering. I prefer connecting with a few friends who get me, rather than bulldozing through a crowd of people who may not remember my name.

However, what works for me does not always gel for my daughter and that’s the reason I don’t extend my preferences to her social life. Since the age of four, I’ve invited all of her classmates to her birthday parties, instead of handpicking just a few, because I am sensitive to the need for young girls and boys to feel included. To keep parties from being cost-prohibitive, I may choose to have them at home or I may select a venue where fun doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. I also might budget in other areas—having a less costly cake, for example, foregoing on goodie bags or incorporating simpler decorations. Teaching my daughter the philosophy of inclusion matters more to me than accessorizing a party.

Parties where everybody is invited allow girls and boys to play, talk and learn from one another. This act of inclusion might get a more introverted girl to stop hiding behind her mother and take a shot at the birthday piñata or it may give the boy who moved to a new school mid-year a chance to get to know his classmates. Inviting everyone to the party offers girls and boys the possibility of making new connections, of meeting a special friend they wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Our children spend the bulk of their time at school, interacting with their classmates for at least eight hours a day. When one of them chooses to exclude a few children from a birthday celebration, the message being conveyed is “you are not good enough to come to my party.” This does nothing to further an atmosphere of kindness in the class and only creates unnecessary negative feelings among students who will most likely be exposed to each other for years through the same school system.

When only a few kids are singled out from a birthday party, it is also likely the chatter about the upcoming event will infiltrate the classroom. This kind of exclusion may cause a climate of bullying, one that has the potential to intensify as children grow older. I want my daughter to understand there is room for all of us in her schoolmate’s lives, at least for now. Of course I know it won’t stay this way forever. As children mature, they will naturally gravitate toward certain friends. But at this young age, they are still forming their personalities, opinions, likes and dislikes—so why not include all the kids so they can have the freedom to get to know one another better outside the school?

I understand the view that at some point all of us are excluded from something and that this is a lesson children will eventually learn. But why does it have to happen when they are so young? Why not preserve some of their innocence and build our children’s self-esteem? A stronger foundation in their youth might teach them to be more inclusive in day-to-day interactions in the future, whether this means refraining from gossip, protecting another classmate from bullying or saying a kind word to a friend.

*   *   *

As soon as we get home, I hug my still distraught daughter and wipe away her tears. As I embrace her, I envision her own upcoming birthday party in my mind.

The invitation will go out to all of her classmates.

One of the best gifts a kid can get, whether it’s her birthday or not, is feeling wanted by her peers. This is why there is much value in learning how to make room at the party for everyone.

Rudri Bhatt Patel is an attorney turned writer. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Brain, Child, Role Reboot, The Review Review and elsewhere. She writes her personal musings on her blog, Being Rudri. She is working on a memoir which explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

 

I Do Not Invite the Whole Class to My Kid’s Birthday Party

By Stacey Gill

fewcupcakesWhen my kids were in elementary school I had a conversation with a friend who was planning her daughter’s birthday party. She wanted a simple party at home but lamented that she couldn’t fit all the kids in class in her house. She’d have to come up with something else. When I asked her why she was inviting the entire class to the party she said, “Well, you have to invite everybody.”

I looked at her pointedly and said, “No, you don’t.”

An entire class of first graders is a lot of amped-up six-year-olds to corral, keep track of and contend with, to say nothing of the cost. I understood the impulse to be inclusive and while inviting everyone is perhaps “nice,” throwing an enormous, extravagant party, especially for a six-year-old, was something I had no intention of doing.

This birthday party conundrum continues to be the source of much parental angst, but I’ve never particularly felt conflicted by it. To me the answer is pretty clear. Your party, your terms. No one has the right to dictate whom you can or can’t invite to your own kid’s birthday party.

Although recently some have tried. Schools are now stepping into the fray in an attempt to placate parents and avoid hurt feelings on the part of the students. Some are issuing policies that require everyone in the class to be invited to a student’s birthday party. I find this intrusion into family life not only rather unbelievable but completely out of line.

Of course I understand the desire to protect children from getting hurt, but a child’s birthday celebration is a personal, family matter, one no school (or any other entity) has any business insinuating itself into. The school is certainly well within its rights to set rules about distributing invitations on school grounds during school hours, but to tell parents how to run their personal affairs is overstepping its authority.

That’s not to say these matters shouldn’t be handled delicately or responsibly with consideration for others. But including everybody isn’t the priority above all else. The fact of the matter is children should be free to invite whomever they’d like to attend their celebration and not everyone is a friend. Not everyone is a pleasant child (or person). And, not everyone gets invited to everything. Pretending otherwise doesn’t protect or in any way serve our kids.

Back in preschool, my children’s school policy was that every classmate was referred to as a friend. At that young age the policy was understandable. It enforced the notion that everyone should be kind and treat others as you would a friend, even if not all children abided. But as my kids grew I didn’t feel the need to maintain the charade. I knew better and so did they. Kids are pretty perceptive creatures. They may not articulate it, but they are keenly aware of the social situations around them. The insistence that everyone is a friend despite actions demonstrating otherwise doesn’t fool them, and I’d rather speak honestly with my kids and help them work through any difficulties with classmates than gloss over problems or pretend they don’t exist. I’ve always taught my children they don’t need to be friends with everybody—not everyone has the same interests or shares the same views—but they do need to be polite and try to get along with the people in their class. That’s just solid life advice.

So when it came time to throw parties for my own kids in grade school, we planned the parties that made sense to us. Typically, they were small affairs. Both my children have winter birthdays so I’ve never had the luxury of throwing a backyard party or one at the town pool, where space and cost wasn’t much of an issue. We planned what I thought were appropriate, manageable and affordable parties, and my children invited the kids they were truly friends with, some kids from the block, some from school and some relatives. I made it clear that they were not to discuss the party at school. We never distributed invitations there: I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

It’s possible word might have gotten out about the party at school, but I did everything in my power to minimize that risk. My goal was to be realistic and practical and do what was best for my family, which I believe is every parent’s aim. If some of the children’s feelings were hurt in the process, that’s unfortunate, but it’s also a part of life. I don’t believe in shielding kids indefinitely from reality. Disappointments and frustrations are a part of that reality. We need to help our children learn how to deal with it.

Stacey Gill is an award-winning journalist, the mastermind behind the humor blog, One FunnyMotha, and co-author of I Still Just Want to Pee Alone, the third book in The New York Times best-selling series. Her work has appeared on such sites as The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, BlogHer, Babble, and Scary Mommy. For a good time, find her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

Do You Invite the Whole Class to Your Kids' Birthday Parties?

 

Join us today, Thursday, February 24, 2016 at 1:00 EST on Twitter to discuss the issues. Please remember to use the hashtag #braindebate. We look forward to hearing your views.

The Cakes That Bind Us

The Cakes That Bind Us

By Susan Currie

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I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.

 

My mother always told me my birthday was a celebration for her too. I’d come from her. Neither my son nor my daughter came from my body, because we’re a blended family. They spend weekends, Tuesdays, and week-long interludes during the holidays with their dad and me, and the rest of the week they’re with their mom. We do our best to be as involved as we can, often going all out on holidays and birthdays.

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.

It was the end of a busy semester and my inner pastry chef yearned to break loose. What better excuse—it was my then-boyfriend’s daughter’s birthday. I mused over this cake, carefully constructing it in my mind until I was ready to embark on my great creation. Three towering layers. Devil’s food would alternate with pink and purple vanilla cake. The outer layer would remain snowy white, maybe with some chocolate shavings for elegance.

Only two years out of his divorce, and not a wizard cake-maker, my future-husband’s cupboards were not equipped to handle my project’s needs. I lived between my roommate’s and his place, therefore my cupboards were also barren. He an entrepreneur, and me a broke student, we turned our pockets out to make multiple trips to the grocery store. Cocoa, whipping cream, stabilizers, butter, food colouring, bricks of chocolate, and the list went on.

The tiny galley kitchen afforded me little room to work, his dented stainless steel bowls were not ideal for mixing, and he didn’t have a single mechanized way to whisk the whipping cream. I assessed my tools and MacGyvered to the best of my ability. His daughter looked on with awe.

If I think back now I can only imagine the production I must have put on for my almost seven-year-old step-daughter. The organized chaos of a veteran baker who didn’t have access to a dishwasher: batter splattered spoons set aside and elevated to be used later, whisks whirling and bowls turning in opposition. Items in the freezer, and other items in the oven. A carefully timed cacophony.

“What are you making?” she asked carefully.

“Your birthday cake,” I said.

It had been a year-and-a-half-long budding relationship. Their father had met me two months after his divorce, we’d become friends, and then we had become something more. When he originally introduced me to his children they stormed into his home elated to be visiting Dad, and hazarded me no more than a passing glance and a hello before mutilating the art supplies he’d recently picked up for them. As time progressed I began to appear at more events. I was invited on an outing to see their grandmother. Soon I was accepted as Dad’s girlfriend.

“That’s not my cake. Mom got me a cake. It’s ice cream,” she stated firmly.

“Well, that cake will be for your birthday at Mom’s house, with Mom’s family. This cake is for your birthday with Dad’s family.”

Her eyes lit up. She looked around for a second time her mouth opening slightly and her face changing as the nature of blended family birthdays struck her for the first time, “I get TWO family birthdays?”

“You bet.” I said, and as charming as her excitement was, I was suddenly struck by the enormity of my task. I’d been making a cake for the sheer fun of it, with the excuse of her birthday. Suddenly I realized, this was so much more. I whisked harder.

“And you’re making it?” she said cautiously. We looked at each other.

“Yup. That’s what all this is for,” I said, aggressively attacking the task of hand whipping cream.

A spark lighting in her eyes, she chirped, “Can I help?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I was making the cake for her. I’d spent hours developing the plans. “I guess,” I said. I relinquished the whisk, and instructed her on how to beat the cream over the ice without it slopping over the sides.

It slopped over the sides.

I showed her how to drizzle chocolate without blotches.

There were blotches.

Soon her brother and father were taking turns with the whipped cream, all of us rubbing our forearms by the time the task was fully accomplished. As our cake stacked higher and higher my future step-daughter and I gleamed with identical maniacal glee.

“It’s huge!” She said, thrilled.

“It is huge.” My vision had been realized, but only kind of. It was gaudy, with a clutter of decorations that veered wildly from my original idea. It tilted ever so slightly. We placed the chocolate initial that I had shown her how to create on the top of the cake, and wrote her birthday message in red gel icing on top. It wasn’t what I thought it would be, but I was slowly falling in love it.

We were finished.

“How are you two going to get this to Granny’s?” her father asked.

We froze.

It’s safe to say that the cake made it to Granny’s. Perched on my lap it was dangerously close to the car heater, the gel icing running until the perky red we’d chosen to write “Happy Birthday” in looked disturbingly like blood. The chocolate initial had condensation on it. Before it was served I carefully did my best to make touch ups, afraid that the little girl who it was intended for would be disappointed. I shouldn’t have been concerned, because when it came time to sing Happy Birthday there she was, sitting at her grandmother’s dining room table—too excited to sit still. She blew out the candles and declared, “Susan made this!” to the room of individuals who I’d later call family, “And I helped!”

It’s four years later, and a week before her eleventh birthday, “Do you know what kind of cake you want?” I ask.

She chews on her lip, “I can’t decide, here’s what I was thinking,” she thrusts her iPad at me and we scroll through images of gummy-bear pool-party cakes, fondant iPad cakes, cakes more complex than the me of four years ago could have imagined—I blame Pinterest.

“I’m not working with fondant,” I say smiling.

“But—”

“No.”

“Okay.”

We scroll together, taking note of the cake elements we like and don’t like before settling on this year’s winner. It’s our family tradition now, we find our cake and we make it deliciously real.

Many years, and many cakes on my step-mom resume, a ring on my finger, and a baking cupboard bursting with supplies, these are only a few of the things that make my family mine. Cakes baked in ice-cream cones, Kit-Kat cakes, dirt cakes: we’ve made them all, together. What my mom said about birthdays still resonates with me, but for our family it’s a bit different, birthdays are another way for us to celebrate our unique way of becoming.

Susan Currie is a stepmother of two living in Vancouver BC.

Soulmate

Soulmate

By Lexi Behrndt

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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.

The Second Time Around

The Second Time Around

By Allison Slater Tate

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It’s not easier to watch a child grow up the second time around. It’s harder.

 

When we filed into the elementary school last May on the morning of fifth grade graduation, my husband and I didn’t need to be told where to go or what to do. We dutifully walked around the arc of chairs set up around the stage, saving only what we needed toward the back. We knew the seats in the front would already be gone, snatched up by early bird parents wielding cameras on their laps, their faces eager with anticipation. We were more excited to be close to an exit; we knew how hot the auditorium would get by hour two when that many people filled the room and the class photo slideshow was on song three of the soundtrack.

From the time I held the fateful pregnancy test in my shaking hand, I wondered what it would be like to have more than one child. Our firstborn had consumed us, especially me, the first year of his life—literally and figuratively. I had submitted to the tide of motherhood and let it take up every thought, every feeling, every physical twinge. How could I do that, but squared? It seemed unfathomable.

But my second son was nothing at all like my first, and my experience as a second-time mother wasn’t motherhood squared, exactly. Where my first seemed to come from the womb speaking in sentences after we survived the colic of his first six months, my second was a quiet, content, jovial baby who eventually needed years of speech therapy. I feared I would suffer the same extreme sleep deprivation with my second baby that I did with my first, but my second ended up being a completely different kind of newborn—one I didn’t know existed—and he slept in his own crib early and often.

My first two children continued to be completely different personalities and people despite being separated by only 21 months in age, one independent and assertive, one more reserved and shy, one literal and straightforward, a fan of math and science; one lost in his own world of make believe and imagination, an artist and a dreamer. We added two more children, another boy and a baby girl, later. They too are distinct individuals, none of them following in the footsteps or even on the same path as any of their siblings.

A lot of my experience of being a mother has been marked by firsts: first birthday, first day of school, first ER trip, first lost tooth, first cavity, first field trip, first sleepover, first time going to sleep-away camp, first elementary school graduation, first teenager. All these firsts have been daunting in part because they were firsts; they hit me hard when they happened because I had never experienced them before as a parent and didn’t know what to expect. So when my second child prepared to go through each one, I thought, I got this now. I’ll know what to do, how to react, how to prepare. This will be easier.

But I was wrong. Because for as much as I desperately wish parenting worked that way, it just doesn’t. The second time around, following hot on the heels of my first, has still been its own individual parenting experience. I thought it would get easier to say goodbye to footie pajamas; instead, it was tougher, because I knew it meant the true end of babyhood. I thought I wouldn’t grieve preschool as much the second time, but I did even more, knowing that now time would speed up through the elementary years. In fact, every milestone hits me harder. I know exactly what I am saying goodbye to with each watershed moment—though I am never sure what I might face next, because it’s always different in some way or nuance.

That is how fifth grade graduation crept up on me. I have four children now, and my days fly past me in a blur of drop-offs, pick-ups, practices, meals. I was so focused on my firstborn going to middle school that I didn’t quite process how quickly my second child was finishing elementary school, and with it so many wonderful elementary school things: field trips to the zoo and daily recess on actual playgrounds, class holiday parties with games of BINGO and 7-Up, endless supplies of FunDip Valentines, shoebox dioramas about sharks, kickball games. I hardly paid attention to the details of the final days of school last year. I knew the drill.

But sitting at the graduation, surrounded by first-timers tucking in their kids’ shirttails and adjusting their collars, I was surprised to find myself feeling overwhelmed and a little shell-shocked. When my first child went through all of it, it was daunting, but exciting. It was new. It was an adventure. It felt surreal. I was nervous about middle school, but also so curious. I wanted to see where the path led, what the baby I brought home so many years ago now would look like as an adolescent.

But with my second child, though I still embraced that same excitement and curiosity about what his own future would bring, I couldn’t help fighting off grief for the things I knew would be over now. It felt final. It felt real. He is no longer the baby of the family, but he was once. He was the second child that made my first baby look gigantic overnight in the way newborns do to toddlers. He was the second child that promised to always seem little compared to my first. But now he is no longer little.

I’m preparing now for my oldest child to graduate from middle school. We’re filling out high school registration forms and going to open houses and talking about course selection. My second baby, now 5’5″ and wearing man-sized shoes, is finishing 6th grade. He still has his baby face—his beautiful skin hasn’t met hormones yet, thank goodness.

I wiped tears away from my eyes that morning, realizing that it’s not easier to watch a child grow up the second time around. It’s harder.

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and a mother of four children ages 13 to 3. In addition to Brain, Child, her work can be found at her eponymous websiteToday Parents, Scary Mommy, the Washington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and the Huffington Post, among others. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

By Aileen Jones-Monahan

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I wondered if part of my fear of the “tough guy” son came from a fear of this very disapproval—that a “tough guy” son, when he got old enough to really think it over, would be mad about having two moms.

 

The first time my son put on a tutu, he was almost four. We stopped in at a coffee shop, and while I lingered at the counter to rifle through the sugar packets, Matthew wandered over to check out the bin of gnawed-up kid’s books. The tutu was in a heap next to two sparkly pink shoes, as if shucked in a hurry. Matthew’s eyes lit up. He’d seen little girls in tutus zipping around the playground, but hadn’t mustered the nerve to ask for a turn. Now he hastened to pull the tutu up over his jeans, looking down at himself in delight.       

A part of me instantly relaxed. And I realize it was because I don’t find a child in a tutu the tiniest bit alarming. What I find alarming, is a child jabbing a plastic sword into another kid’s fleshy belly, shouting “Die! Die! Die!” Or a teenager lost in the folds of a dingy sweatshirt, only the tip of his oily nose visible when he slumps past you on his way to his den in the basement. Maybe tough guys in general.    

But when my partner and I were trying to get pregnant, I didn’t think about a full grown man—a potential “tough guy”—living in my house. I thought about, I don’t know, pajama bottoms with little ducks on them.  

But now the kid is real. If he draws a picture of half a bloody antelope—because the other part has already been eaten—we hang it up. If he grows up to play that game at the kitchen table where you jab a switchblade between your fingers super-fast, then I’ll have marks in my table. And maybe part of a finger. The point is, we’re stuck with him. And I hope he turns out to be gentle.

Sometimes I wonder—quietly, to myself—if not having a father in the house is the magic needed to avoid “the tough guy.” Maybe, because we spend so much time building fairy houses in the woods behind our house, it will never occur to my child to stomp up the stairs, yell at me to mind my own business, and kick his little brother. It’s not going to be from me that he gets the idea to plot the purchase of a motorcycle.

But then I think of my brother, and the hole he punched through his bedroom wall, and how he certainly didn’t “get” this from my father, who wasn’t even there, and I realize I’m not on the right track.

I sit down by the bookshelf, take a sip of my coffee, and settle my foot on my knee. “Does the tutu make you magic?” I ask, leaning forward, my face alight with wonder.

“Nope,” Matthew says. “It just makes me fancy.” He flounces up the sides and grins.

I allow myself, for a moment, to fantasize that he will always be this way. A little boy sitting on the carpet brushing the mane of his plastic horse, humming to himself, sounded nice. If no one ever told him ponies were supposed to be dinosaur meat, maybe he’d never figure it out.

But what was I trying to do here? Raise a wimp? At a birthday party earlier in the summer, Matthew had been quietly swinging on a tire swing when three boys his age came up and started spinning him. It didn’t seem mean-spirited, exactly, but when he started calling “Mommy! Mommy! Help me!” like a child being lifted off from the ground in the talons of a dragon, the boys tightened their circle—a little hungrily, I thought—and it occurred to me that maybe this was why parents tried to toughen their kids up. What would have happened next if I hadn’t been there to pull him off?

In my cousin’s family, she is the one who meets her son’s eyes in the rearview mirror and snaps “Stop crying,” and it is her husband who catches her sleeve and says, “Can you be more gentle?” It is good for me to remember the two of them. Because I think it is this very gender-expectation switcheroo that gives me the answer I’m looking for. Or, makes me understand that I’ve been asking the wrong question. I want to be thoughtful about how much aggressive behavior I expose my son to, not how much maleness.

Because of course there is my friend Debbie, who is married to a woman and cheers her son on when he torments snakes in the yard. We don’t play at their house anymore.

I set my empty coffee cup on the floor by my chair and watch Matthew plop down on a bean bag chair, the tutu bunched up around his tiny waist. “Do you want to make those felt finger puppets when we get home?” I ask. He sits up to grab one of the sparkly shoes and struggles to fit his foot under the strap. “Yeah.”

We recently found a book in the library with color illustrations of outfits worn by Victorian women, and we’d agreed it would be cool to glue together little puppets, so we could make them do things.

When we got home, Matthew ran upstairs to get the library book, and I pulled the art bin down onto the rug so we could get to work.

“This lady is going to sit and write some poetry later,” Matthew explained, rubbing his glue stick along the hem of the skirt he’d made, so he could press on a little strip of lace.

“Neat!” I exclaimed, feeling somewhat smug. If snake torture was in our future, it wasn’t here yet.

But as I watched him carefully trim the yarn glued to the puppet’s head, holding her at arm’s length to see that her hair was even on both sides, I caught my breath—because I suddenly realized I was enjoying this for an altogether different reason, and I instantly felt ashamed of myself. If Matthew kept this up: kept wearing tutus and making his dolls exclaim “These flowers smell wonderful!” then he would be…a bit of a gender variant. Just like dear old Mommy, who never giggled coyly when the boys talked about bikinis or minded holding frogs. We’d be up to the same tricks, and he could never turn to me as a teenager and say, “You’re not normal.” He couldn’t decide it was selfish of me to marry a woman, or wish I’d been straight, so he could have had both a mom and a dad.

I wondered then if part of my fear of the “tough guy” son came from a fear of this very disapproval—maybe it seemed more likely to me that a “tough guy” son, when he got old enough to really think it over, would be mad about having two moms.  

It’s not that I’m worried he’ll conclude not having a Dad failed to teach him something—shaving? Modulating a deep voice? No, what I worry is that he’ll get it all wrong and decide that I kept an entire person from him—a person who would have loved him, and knelt down to look in his eye, and explained things to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. Growing up thinking your mom knowingly kept such an important person out of your life—a person that kids all around you are running to catch up with—is awful to consider. Because of course that’s not what happened—he got that whole person, his other mom has been there every day of his life, kneeling down and looking him in the eye. He got his two parents, and I consider that lucky. I hope he will too. And I hope that when he’s a man, he’s not too much of a tough guy to hang out with his mother.

Aileen Jones-Monahan lives with her family in Western Massachusetts. For weeks now she’s been allowing her children to do things she herself was never permitted to do: take bed pillows into the backyard, plug-in extension cords, and draw on each other’s arms with “body markers” before school. Everybody seems fine.

Photo: gettyimages.com

What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

By Liz Henry

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Read fast, read slow, read however you’re going to read, but live your life outside the little circles demanding all the ‘right’ answers.

 

“What would you consider a successful future for this student?” The question comes with checkboxes for college and technical school, high school and a blank space for me to expand upon my thoughts. I skip it and keep going.

It seems odd I’d be asked to whittle down my 12-year-old’s future into one sentence within a packet to be scanned by a computer. But then again, finding a link between not reading so good and prenatal vitamin intake during pregnancy is like turning a hair dryer on and calling it a key factor in global warming. When it comes to the success or failure of our children, it’s always the mothers who face the firing squad of empty bubbles demanding a filled-in answer and other people’s opinions.

As I make my way through the packet of questions from my daughter’s middle school, I can’t locate the answers. What age were her first words? First sentence? First steps? I remember bits and pieces, I didn’t keep a detailed log or scrapbook. I was in college, when she was a newborn. I was twenty-one, forgive me.

I know for sure she was almost walking by her first birthday, but crawling was steady and reliable so she was prone to do that. There were two cakes and almost a hundred guests at her first birthday party, this I remember. The tiny, free cake from the grocery store was for her to sink her hands into and make buttercream gloves. The adults nibbled on massacred Sesame Street characters in primary colors.

I haven’t thought much about what I want for my daughter beyond what she wants for herself. When she was young, her father and I would drive her to the soccer field, softball diamond and basketball court; before that he lifted her high in the air and sang terrible songs with women in paisley bathing suits at the YMCA so she’d know how to swim.

My daughter hated sports. She’s not a fan of competition; we figured this out later, and didn’t push her because what would be the point? She’d be playing to make us happy, and we only had her in sports because that’s what you do in the suburbs when you have children—you make them play even if they aren’t very good and don’t particularly like it.

She does love swimming, we got that right.

I don’t know what the future holds for my daughter, so how could I possibly write it down when she just turned twelve? Right now her favorite heroine is Ripley from “Aliens” and there doesn’t seem to be an end to Build-a-Bear extorting us. A few years ago, she was obsessed with “Titanic” and I read her the books, we watched the movie, bought the Blu-Ray and I took her to the theater to see it in 3-D. And then we went to an exhibit of Titanic artifacts where we were both humbled by the sadness of lost lives and chilled to the core after touching a block of ice the size of a paddle boat.

Yesterday “Titanic” was on TV and she didn’t want to watch it. That’s the thing about watching your child grow up, the last day of once beloved things never comes with a celebration, they end before you know it, and you’re left with the memories.

The question, however, demands an answer and leaving it blank seems neglectful. I check off high school and college, and technical school. I write, “I would like for my daughter to do whatever makes her happy and sustains her lifestyle.” The implication: do what you like, kid, try and fail. Go and live! Don’t send me a bill.

“Today at school we were talking about what color we would be if we could be colors,” she tells me. “Purple, that’s my color. It’s my birthstone and the color of royalty.”

“Ah,” I say.

I know the royalty part isn’t a big deal to her, but it doesn’t hurt to have something aristocratic associated with her birth.

“Mom, what color do you think I am?”

“I think you’re a rainbow,” I say. “I know that’s all the colors, but when someone sees a rainbow they stop and look because it’s unique. A rainbow rarely happens, but when it does, it gives people a lot of joy. That’s you.”

I know as a mother I’m supposed to say these things to encourage my daughter, but my words don’t define her. Or, anyone else.

Fuck it, I want to tell her. Read fast, read slow, read however you’re going to read, but live your life outside the little circles demanding all the “right” answers. The only test my daughter needs to pass is the one she’s written for herself. Have I made myself available to the ones I love? Do I bring them joy? Have I made myself happy, first? If my daughter can do these things, she’ll be successful.

Liz Henry’s writing has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post and she’s a contributor to The Good Mother Myth from Seal Press. Follow her on Facebook.

Photo: gettyimages.com

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

By Cindy Hudson

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I never questioned the right my parents had to spank me, never felt abused, never expected things to change. So spanking my own daughters felt like something I was supposed to do, a responsible way to teach them right from wrong.

 

My three-year-old daughter glared at me as she lay stretched out next to where I sat on her bed, the sound of my slap to her bottom hanging in the air.

“You have to learn it’s not okay to bite your sister,” I said.

My daughter responded by lowering her chin and rolling her eyes before answering. “I’m cutting off your head with my eyes right now.”

I raised my hand again, wanting to hurt her, wanting to slap her into feeling remorse for what she’d done. A primal anger urged me to hit her hard, make her cry, show her who was boss. Frightened by the force of it I stopped, hand in the air. My breath came fast and shallow. For a few seconds we glared at each other.

Shaken, I slowly stood and walked to the door of her room. “You stay in here and think about what you did. You can come out when it’s time for dinner,” I said.

But I walked away knowing I would never hit my daughter again.

I grew up being spanked and until that moment accepted it as a reasonable form of punishment. My mom kept a yardstick handy by the stove so if my sister and I started pulling hair or pushing each other in the kitchen she had an extra three-feet to reach our bare legs or arms. While I don’t remember my dad ever using his belt to whip us, the threat often hung in the air. “Don’t make me come in there with my belt,” he’d say to the dark, warning my sister and me to stop arguing across the bed we shared.

The two of us were dramatic criers, screaming during a spanking and bawling hot tears after. In response my mom or dad, whichever one had doled out the punishment, would often say, “Stop crying before I give you something else to cry about.”

Everyone I knew got spanked. And everyone I knew realized the punishment was worse if you sassed or talked back to your parents. Like my daughter, my sister glared during confrontations. She stood with her legs apart, fists balled at her sides, eyes hard and angry. “Don’t you look at me with those eyes,” my dad would say. Even though my sister and I had fought moments before, I stepped between them to defend her. “Don’t spank her, I’m not mad at her anymore.”

I never questioned the right my parents had to spank me, never felt abused, never expected things to change. So spanking my own daughters felt like something I was supposed to do, a responsible way to teach them right from wrong.

While I read parenting books when I was pregnant and kept reading them for advice as my daughters grew, I passed over the sections on discipline, thinking I knew all I needed to know.

My eldest daughter turned out to be easy going, which reinforced my views. The couple of times I spanked her she cried and seemed contrite, even though I imagine her emotions hurt more than her diapered-bottom. We talked afterward about what she had done and why I spanked her, and her even temper quickly returned. I thought I was being a good parent, teaching her how to behave while doling out light physical discipline that fit her sensitive nature.

That self-assurance faltered as my youngest daughter grew old enough to act up. She often pushed me to the edge, wearing me down physically and emotionally. She climbed my body like I was a tree, grabbing the waistband of my pants, wrapping her legs around my lower limbs and pulling herself up, hand over hand, until she reached my shoulders. Frustrated at being confined in her car seat, she yanked chunks of her hair out as I drove down the freeway struggling to concentrate on traffic. She grabbed toys from her sister, her face defiant, daring me to respond. Now she challenged my assumptions about spanking.

Walking away from our stand-off in her bedroom, I headed downstairs to take my aggression out in the kitchen, furiously chopping onions and telling myself the fumes wafting up were causing the tears running down my face. Chopping gave me time to think, time to realize I didn’t want to be a mom who hit her children when she got angry. I didn’t want to teeter on the edge of the thin line separating discipline from abuse. “Don’t hit, use your words,” I told my girls when they fought with each other. Maybe I needed to start following my own advice.

Feeling calmer after prepping dinner, I went back upstairs to face my daughter, unsure yet of what I would say. When I walked through the bedroom door, my three-year-old glared up at me, still defiant, still cutting off my head with her eyes. I looked at her and in place of anger, I felt sorrow for her smallness, her vulnerability, her trust in me to love and protect her. Her trust that I would not hurt her.

Right then I knew I needed to apologize, to let her know I could be wrong sometimes, too, and when I was, I would work to set things right. I realized some would say showing weakness and uncertainty to your children is a mistake, that they need parents who are firm. But my heart told me different. I moved to her bed and sat down beside her.

“I’m sorry. I should not have hit you,” I said. “I didn’t like that you bit your sister, and I want you to know it’s not okay for you to do that. But I also know I should not have spanked you, and I won’t do that again.”

Her lower lip started to tremble and the tears I expected her to cry earlier came now. She buried her face in my chest, and I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her head.

Cindy Hudson lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, and her articles and personal essays regularly appear in parenting publications across the U.S. and in Canada. Visit her online at CindyHudson.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Making Room for Joy

Making Room for Joy

By Jennifer Berney

Joy

I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.

Too often when my children are full of joy, I take it as my job to curb it.

Take the following scene, for instance:

“Get your pajamas on!” I yell to my older son for the umpteenth time. It’s eight thirty in the evening and I wanted my two sons in bed half an hour ago. But instead they are still naked from their bath, chasing each other through the living room. My toddler jumps out at my older son from behind a half-closed door. He shrieks, and our small house fills with peals of laughter. “Enough!” I shout. I put my hand on my son’s bare back, and guide him into his bedroom. I close the door between him and his little brother. In moments like this, I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.

One of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve ever received came from an older friend, her child already grown. “I was good at being present through the hard emotions,” she said. “But I wish I’d been more present for the joy.”

When she said this, my jaw dropped a little. So far I had measured my parenting on how well I tended to my children through their daily disappointments, their struggles and grievances. But when it came to how well I engaged with their happiness, I never measured that.

I began to consider the moments when I interfere with my children’s fun. There’s always a reason: it’s bedtime or it’s time to leave for school. They’re messing up the bed I just made, or their shrieks are hurting my ears. It’s true that sometimes the fun must end. But it’s also true that sometimes I can make room for it by starting our bedtime routine earlier, for instance, or training them to help me remake the bed that they’ve unmade.

The more I think about these things, the more I must face a truth about myself: Joy is a challenging emotion for me. Sadness comes easily. Anger hovers in the background. Anxiety is ever-present. These are my resting emotions. I don’t want to overstate it here. It’s not that my life has been particularly hard, or that I’m a chronically unhappy person. It’s just that joy is such a big emotion. One I find hard to inhabit comfortably. When I embody it, I feel like I’ve put on an outfit that doesn’t quite suit me—like I’ve borrowed a friend’s neon party dress to wear to a PTA meeting.  

I suspect that I’m not the only adult who feels this way. I suspect that for many of us, by adulthood joy has left our emotional landscape or we must go to special lengths to engage it: we might finish a bottle of wine on Friday night, or empty our wallets for brief thrills like sky diving or bungee jumping. Some of us might have even wanted children, in part, because we thought they might help us regain the sense of joy that has dimmed over the years. But then, after a year or so of parenting, we might claim to be so overburdened with the tasks of work and keeping house that there is no room in our lives for such a big and frivolous emotion.

At first glance, joy doesn’t help us to vacuum the car or put away the groceries. But I do wonder if joy may act as a medicine, a balm, if it might help me move with ease through life’s sharp turns and corners, if yesterday’s dose of joy might make today’s to-do list feel less daunting, or less important. And so lately I try to take note when my children are joyful. I try to open myself to this strange and foreign feeling.

Yesterday morning my children were ready for school and we still had ten minutes to spare—a small miracle in my world. To entertain themselves, they took turns jumping off the coffee table and into my arms. As they leapt, they shouted random words like cat-face! or jellyfish!

In the past, I might have acted as catcher for a hundred jumps and never noticed what a good time this was. I might never have noticed how good it felt to have their full weight land on me, each of their bodies creating a gentle ache with each landing. But at some point, after at least a dozen falls and catches, it registered: this is joy. I opened my arms wider. I cheered. When they finally landed, I held them tighter.

On the couch that morning, no miracle occurred. All of my resting emotions—my sorrow, my anger, my worry—remained. But for those minutes I also felt suspended, held inside a bright and hazy light. I was at once two selves, present and distant, joyful and fearful, a human existing in time, space, and also light.

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

An Open Letter To My Son Regarding The Stuff Left On His Bedroom Floor

An Open Letter To My Son Regarding The Stuff Left On His Bedroom Floor

By Eizabeth Bastos

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Dear Son,

I do want to come into your room at night and give you a goodnight kiss like the children’s book Love You Forever but ALL THESE LEGO PIECES on the floor are killing it for me.

The Lego-brick head of what you call “a minifig of Sensei Wu” embedded itself in my heel. It really hurt. I’ll probably always have a limp.

It will remind me of the the injury I sustained wanting to kiss your damp sleeping sweaty forehead.

I’m not blaming you. But could you clean up a little?

When you’re old you’ll understand why old people like Mommy clean floors—clean of debris that might cause them to trip and break a hip.

I’m sorry I woke you and you heard me shouting that little f&*er! (I wasn’t referring to you. Honey, how could you think that?!?) I was referring to the Sensei Wu minifig wig that I had just stepped on, sweetheart. I’m so sorry I woke you. My foot was bleeding. I hit my head on your lamp shaped like Lord Vader. For a moment I saw stars shaped like Princess Leia.

Dear one, could you possibly not spread it around at school tomorrow that last night I threatened to sue the entire Lego company and the company that’s making all the new Star Wars drek? My foot was bleeding, and I thought maybe a raccoon had gotten into your room because I had to fight off something furry. That turned out to be your bathrobe. Covering a pile of overdue library books. Honey, really? How many times do we have to talk about the library book thing?

I’m not making excuses. I’m sorry I broke your Lord Vader lamp. It was dark—I don’t see so well at night, honey, please believe me: the raccoon theory was plausible.

Also, I thought your laundry pile was a bear. The darkness at night was immense and disorientating.

What the h-e-double hockey sticks!? I said. But not to you, darling. To Daddy. Why the f^%k is there a bear in the house?

Then “Oh. Never mind,” I said to Daddy. “Go back to bed. It’s just gym socks.” But I’d already woken him, and he had to go to the bathroom of course, and he slipped on your sister’s My L’il Ponies in the hallway.

Without my glasses I couldn’t see that it was Daddy and not an intruder stumbling in the hallway in Daddy’s slippers toward the bathroom so I punched him. “Intruder,” I yelled. Then I also slipped on your sister’s My L’il Ponies.

We might laugh about it later.

In the meantime, like I said, Don’t mention my wanting to sue toy companies. We all know sometimes Mommy gets angry and threatens to sue toy companies for outmoded gender roles, racism, predatory pre-blockbuster movie marketing, and the degradation of our suburban landscape with plastic. That’s just how Mommy is. Mommy is in a period of life called Perimenopause. But you haven’t even had 4th Grade Health Class yet, have you? This is not something you would understand.  

But just because Mommy is angry all the time about injustice and can’t see at night, but can’t sleep either, and Mommy lashes out at what she doesn’t recognize because she’s misplaced her glasses and has a deformed foot because Sensei Wu Lego brick head hat is permanently fixed in her flesh, doesn’t mean she doesn’t want you to be happy.

Darling, Mommy loves you.

Mommy just wants you to clean up all the toys that your grandmother (don’t get me started) keeps sending you that will eventually end up in the Great Pacific Garbage patch as floating garbage killing marine life, sea turtles and stuff, doesn’t mean she doesn’t want you to be happy, you know that, right, sweetie?

Furthermore, please tidy your gym clothes. I thought they were the Loch Ness Monster and I used your Lord Vader lamp on them and your Lego Lion Chi Temple in a manner in which ought not to be used. I’m sure grandma will send more.

Love you forever, even if I have a limp because of—you know.

Mommy

Elizabeth Bastos is a Baltimore freelance writer and mother of two, currently working on a book essays about the Venn diagram between anxiety and parenting. Her personal blog is Goody Bastos. Follow her @elizabethbastos.

Illustration: Christine Juneau

Scared By My Abuelita Amable

Scared By My Abuelita Amable

By Kelly Clem Ruiz

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I had always thought Abuelita Amable liked me. She had been nothing but nice during all of my years here.

 

Chicomuselo, Mexico, 2009

She was having trouble breathing.

My two-year-old was choking on the hard, round, drop of sugar she’d swiped from the counter when no one was looking.

While my husband was at work, I was with my two small girls at his grandmother’s house. The house was chocked full of family as usual. Two teenage grandchildren were doing homework at the kitchen table while another fed the dogs in the backyard. I sat with two of my husband’s cousins while several young children ran from room to room chasing after one another. Spanish voices echoed from the walls of every room and some more filtered in through the open windows from the street.  

With all the visitors milling about the house, I was the only one that seemed to notice the panic on my small child’s face as she desperately tried to take in air. I had no idea what to do. I tried frantically to dislodge the candy from my daughter’s throat while searching for the Spanish word for choking to ask for help. The word never came to me, but thankfully my husband’s cousin, Mariola, saw what had happened. She was used to taking charge and I was happy to let her do so. She knew what to do, and was calm enough to remove the candy.

The longest fifteen seconds of my life passed before the solid, sticky, pink treat popped out of my daughter’s mouth and hit the floor. She took her first big gulp of air. I hugged my child and sobbed uncontrollably.

That’s when all the commotion in the house stopped.

Every family member was staring at the spectacle. My little girl quickly recovered from and ran off to play with her second cousins. Her baby sister continued to sleep in the stroller by my side. Her little breath had never changed rhythm during the entire event.

I needed a moment to regroup, to breathe normally myself, and wipe away the tears, when my husband’s grandmother, Abuelita Amable put her hand on my shoulder. In my state, I hadn’t noticed that she’d left the room, but all of the sudden she was back by my side holding a glass bottle containing a clear liquid with bits of twigs and leaves floating around inside. The bottle looked like an aged vodka bottle, so old all the writing had rubbed away. Abuelita was asking me to drink from it. She repeated herself twice before I was able to understand what she wanted me to do. I tried to politely refuse.

I gently pushed the bottle away because she was already moving it toward my mouth.

“No thank you, Abuelita,” I whispered hoarsely. In my head I screamed, Give me a minute, I’m recovering from a trauma right this second if you didn’t notice! But I was too polite to speak those words aloud.

Abuelita would not take no for an answer. She kept insisting. To my complete surprise, she grabbed the back of my head and tipped it back with her left hand as her right hand poured some of the liquid into my unwilling mouth. No choice but to take a drink, I swallowed as little of the fiery potion as possible and looked up at her in bewilderment.

Apparently not satisfied with the small quantity I had consumed, Abuelita took a big gulp from the bottle herself and then, to my utter amazement, spit the liquid all over my body, spewing it through her teeth with such force it was like being hit by a garden hose on full blast. I was wet from head to toe.

Shocked, I sat as she continued to spit. She even pulled open the back of my shirt to let the spray hit more of my skin directly.

What chain of events in my life led me to this place where I was just spit on by an ancient, four-foot-tall Mexican woman?

My husband I had been living in Mexico for nearly five years, since our Kentucky wedding ceremony, without word from the US Immigration department as to whether they’d finally issue him permanent US resident status so we could resume our lives again in the States. Up until this point in our journey, I had always thought Abuelita Amable liked me. She had been nothing but nice during all of my years here. Now, I was in the twilight zone.

I managed to stand from my chair and walk a couple steps toward Mariola, my only hope of sanity. I raised my eyebrows in her direction and waited to see if she could offer any explanation for what had just happened.

“Amable believes she is curing you of the scare you just went through when your daughter was choking. Her belief is that a great scare can cause you damage. That liquid is the cure.”

Droplets of my grandmother-in-law’s spit fell from my jeans and T-shirt, leaving a trail across the floor of her front room. My child had almost choked to death and I was still emotional from that, let alone the absurdity of what had followed. Still a little confused and unable to respond, I weakly said my goodbyes to the family and even thanked Abuelita Amable while she rattled off words so fast in Spanish I could only understand snippets like “not good” and “this will help.” She patted me on the back and I could hear the squishing of my wet shirt in between our flesh. I hung the diaper bag on the stroller, told my little girl to put her shoes on and hop in and we strolled out into the night.

By the time my husband came home from working the late shift that night, I had put both of our babies to sleep and in bed was reading by flashlight, the overhead lights off so as not to wake the girls in our shared room. I kept quiet while he changed into his pajamas and crawled into bed.

“How was your day, babe?” he asked after a quick kiss. He settled his head down on the pillow.

“Your grandmother spit on me,” I said dryly.

He sat up straight and looked directly at me. “Oh no, did something scare you?”

Kelly is the author of On the Other Side, a memoir chronicling the five years that she and her family spent living in Mexico while wading through the U.S. Immigration process in hopes of an American VISA for her husband. Visit Kelly at: KellyClemRuiz.com.

Blue Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair

Blue Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair

By Angelique York

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To most people, she is a young person with great hair. To the right person though, that hair whispers that she could be a sprite from a mystical valley, here to bring goodness and joy.

 

Little girls stare and smile. They wave and laugh. Their small faces fill with expressions of wonder and delight as they look and turn away, and look back again.

Perhaps they see a fairy from a faraway place, or a pixie escaped from a magical island. She could be a princess visiting from her kingdom in the mystic mountains. Or perhaps she is a mermaid from a distant ocean, somehow walking on land. It’s hard to tell who she might be, especially for the smallest of the small, but they clearly recognize that she is someone special and they are momentarily in awe.  

My 22-year-old daughter’s hair has been bright pink, deep purple, and a blue so dark and rich it was almost black. But none of the colors has attracted as much attention as the current one, a green the shade of tropical seas with highlights of turquoise and lowlights of azure. As the thick and softly waving tresses cascade across her shoulders, it reflects the sun in shimmering rays like a sparkling lagoon, yet gives the impression that there is more, like the unknown depths of the ocean.

Little boys look with wide eyes. Little girls squeal and point, telling their mommies to look too. Sometimes the mommy agrees that here is a magical being incognito, a princess out of her ball gown and crown, instead wearing cargo shorts and a tee shirt to blend in with the crowd at the amusement park. They allow that a pixie might take time away from sprinkling dust to go shopping at the mall, or an enchanted creature might grab a bite to eat with her family at a local restaurant. These mommies understand the importance of the fantasy and encourage it. Here is the image their child has seen in movies and read about in their picture books. They affirm that yes, this is what magic looks like. Here it is, in person.

A little girl, maybe three years old, looked at my daughter, smiled, and threw herself into her arms, hugging her tightly. Her mother was horrified. She apologized and was embarrassed that her daughter would simply embrace a stranger. My daughter just smiled and told her it was fine. Although caught by surprise by the uninhibited display of affection, she understands her role as ambassador for all things fantastical, all things wondrous, all things we wish we could see but never will. Unless someone is willing to be that for us.

She loves the looks and comments from the children. I tell her she should carry a wand or a bottle of fine glitter, just in case someone needs a wish made. She laughs. Other than her hair, she looks like most any recent college graduate. She is fair skinned and dark eyed, a beautiful and approachable young woman. Quiet and reserved, she allows her hair to speak for her, an expression of her creative heart and her artistic soul. To most people, she is a young person with great hair. To the right person though, that hair whispers that she could be a sprite from a mystical valley, here to bring goodness and joy.

Childhood moves quickly. The opportunity for a little one to glimpse someone who might be a figure from their favorite DVD or bedtime story is rare and unique. What pleasant dreams that child might have that night, or on nights to come. The vision might linger in their mind and become a wonderful story to tell their own children and grandchildren someday. Will they remember the mermaid they met on the train, or the gem in human form who smiled back at them in the grocery store? Maybe that will remain a wonderful memory to call on when things are difficult. Or maybe it will stir them to write their own story, or paint a beautiful picture. It might inspire them to find the cure to a disease, or solve an environmental issue, or build an incredible machine. That moment of magic could be the beginning of understanding that the impossible might just be very possible—if you believe it can.

Mothers ask my daughter questions. Do you do that yourself? Do you go to a professional?  How long does it last? Clearly there are many supportive parents willing to ask the questions for their own daughters who want colorful hair. She is delighted to explain that she has a professional who does the initial coloring, but she keeps it up herself. She graciously gives out her stylist’s name and phone number.

Teens approach to tell her they love her hair. Guys tell her it looks cool. Young people who appear to be otherwise shy are unafraid to talk with her. Her hair is an icebreaker, a conversation starter. Adults comment, too. She gets the occasional sideward glance or look that states the giver clearly does not agree with her choice. Some scoff, or roll their eyes. She ignores the negative, instead enjoying wearing her hair as an accessory that can be changed any time she likes.

Other adults tell her her hair is fun and pretty. They say they would wear their hair brightly colored, if only they could. Perhaps as grown-ups, they are too self-conscious. Or perhaps they are held to an employer’s dress code that forbids anything other than a natural color. I encourage my daughter to do what she chooses, now, while she can. Cut it, color it, curl it or straighten it. Change your mind and do something different. It will grow back.

She had no idea when she started coloring her hair, first with streaks and tips of blonde, then with highlights of blue, then with an all-over color from a world of fantasy and imagination, that she would stir the hearts of so many. I’m pleased that something she does just for fun has given joy to children and reassurance to parents. My daughter has fully embraced the responsibility that comes with appearing to be an ethereal being. She is unique and amazing, a quiet reminder to those who see her that the magic and wonder of our dreams might be found in the most common of places.

Angelique York is a Dallas-based freelance writer and mother of three. An essayist and former newspaper columnist, she is currently writing a memoir.

All Mom and No Fun

All Mom and No Fun

By Sharon Holbrook

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I take parenting seriously, and I’m afraid that’s both my triumph and my failure.

 

The kids were at school when I grabbed the handful of papers lingering on the car floor. Oh, here was the family tree my second-grader did for Girl Scouts. I hadn’t seen it since she’d completed it, so I stopped to read the fun facts she’d jotted down about everyone in our family. “Adam likes to play Minecraft.” “Laura likes to draw.” “I like to read.” “Dad likes to dance with me.” And, the last one: “Mom likes to clean.” Oof.

I laughed to myself. I quipped about it in a Facebook status. I assumed she was just an 8-year-old in a hurry to scribble something down, because cleaning clearly isn’t my hallmark. (I actually don’t like to clean, and I’m afraid that’d probably be apparent if you popped in unannounced.)  Yet, her little offhand remark continued to roll around in my thoughts. Was that really how I seemed to her? Could she think of nothing that I enjoyed? Had I forgotten how to have fun? Was I destined to become one of those grandmas that’s impossible to shop for? “She just has no hobbies,” my children and grandchildren will say as they shake their heads sorrowfully and buy me sensible slippers.  

The thing is, I take parenting seriously, and I’m afraid that’s both my triumph and my failure. It’s my job to guide, to correct, to teach, to protect, to discipline. I do this job faithfully, but none of those things make me nor any other parent particularly fun.

A few weeks ago, at Christmas Eve Mass, we sat near a family with two lovely and spirited little girls in fancy dresses. The smaller girl, about three years old, wore a jaunty red bow in her long curls and matching party-perfect red tights and Mary Janes. She simply could not sit still, or even stay in her pew, almost certainly because she was amped up on the singular sparkle and promise of the night before Christmas. Each time she tapped her little feet into the aisle and bobbed and twirled, all of us nearby smiled indulgently, and even our jovial priest tried to stifle his amusement.  

That mom, though. While everyone else saw a charming, adorable preschooler, Mom saw a responsibility, a transgression, a mandate to correct. Her face was tense and unamused. I saw myself, not at that moment in church, but perhaps in too many other moments of motherhood.  

I’m sure my children have seen this face on me, and often. Pick up your coats, I scold again, because if I don’t they will certainly become everlasting slobs and nightmare college roommates. Take a shower-clear your dishes-use a tissue-where’s your fork?-wash your hands-pick up your socks. (Cleanliness does, in fact, seem to be a recurring part of my ongoing monologue. Points to the second-grader for noticing, I suppose.) Turn off the screen-do your homework-work it out with your sister-have you practiced piano? I’m forever monitoring, on high alert, trying to shape my three children into responsible people.  

Sure, we do lots of mom-kid stuff together, outings and camping and road trips and bike rides and nature walks and much, much more. Never, though, do I stop being Mom. See how we have the walk signal? I say to the child who won’t be walking to school alone for years yet, Always watch for the turning cars. They have a green light too, and they might not see you. I cannot turn it off, the instinct to impart and, I suppose, to mother.

That’s not a bad thing, of course, but it strikes me that I’ve probably been saving too many of my favorite pleasures for moments when the kids aren’t around. I go out on restaurant dates with Daddy, or watch movies or shows with him after bedtime. I get together with friends and laugh. I treasure my solo time doing Pilates while they’re at school or reading books in bed before falling asleep. I blissfully lose myself in my writing work. Although I’m a happy person overall, the kids are not there so much for the most relaxed, easy-laughing side of me.

Maybe I’ve just drawn too hard a line between on-duty and off-duty. When I’m with the kids, it’s a bit like I’ve punched the clock and I’m at work, mothering. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun at work—don’t all the best jobs have their fun side, and what could be better than working with these three amazing, silly, exuberant little people? They feel my love, yes, but they should also feel my joy. Not every moment—let’s be realistic—but in our house we could all use a little more lightness and laughter, from me in particular. More yeses.    

Yes, you can jump at the trampoline place and, yes, I will take my shoes off too and jump as high as I can with you. Yes, I will read you another book. Yes, how fun, let’s go out to lunch. Yes, I will try to listen, as carefully as my foot-dragging brain will let me, when you explain the latest Minecraft or Xbox thing. Yes, I will watch “Master Chef Junior” and “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” with you, instead of “just finishing up” in the kitchen. (There’s that cleaning again.) Yes, let’s squeeze in a board game before bedtime. Yes, I will help you play a little joke on Daddy, and yes, I will help you search Google for silly llama pictures to execute this joke.  (That last yes is proof positive, I suppose, that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.)

Years ago, when I was a swoony newlywed still trying to enjoy my new husband’s favorite hobby, I took up golf. Years ago, I also quit golfing because it turned out I spent too much time on the course swearing and thinking of the many, many ways I’d rather be spending five free hours. One bit of surprising wisdom, though, has stuck with me through the years. “You’re gripping too tightly,” the instructor told me, as I stood in the tee box with all my muscles tightly tensed, preparing to swing the club and blast the ball towards the green. “Relax your hold a bit, just swing smoothly, and the ball will go farther.” And so it was, incongruously, quite true.

I’m still serious about the responsibility of parenting, and I’m securely holding on to that part of me. At the same time, though, you could say I’m relaxing my grip a little as I swing. With any luck, we’ll sail a little higher and farther. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. Her work also appears in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook. Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

By Jennifer Palmer

I recently found an image of my husband’s grandmother stashed away, hidden on some forgotten corner of my hard drive. I was purging; after years of simply dragging and dropping files from my camera to my computer without bothering to sort, I had many gigabytes of mediocre pictures needing to find a home in the recycle bin. I was flipping through old memories quickly—next, delete, next, delete—when this particular image jumped out at me, gave me a moment’s pause. It is not good in any technical or artistic sense; the light was dim and I did not use a flash and so the image is grainy, the faces blurred ever so slightly. It should not have survived my sweep, and yet it held my attention, demanded my contemplation. I did not delete it.

The photo was taken six years ago, when Grandmommy was in her early eighties. In it, she is hunched, bent slightly at the waist. Her poor posture is not due to age, though that would certainly be a reasonable excuse; after eight decades on this Earth, one earns the right to stoop. No, she leans forward for an obvious purpose: she has a hold of two of her great-grandchildren, cousins of mine, one small hand clasped in each of her own. The kids are young. The girl sports the holey grin of one recently visited by the tooth fairy; the boy is barely past the age of diapers. Grandmommy’s eyebrows are raised, her mouth open with a hint of a smile, her face forming that expression of excitement and fun adults so often assume when indulging a child they love. They form a circle, two blonde heads and one gray.

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Other photos in the series offer a fuller explanation of what is happening: in one, the three of them are walking in a circle, in another, they’re seated on the floor. Or rather, the kids are. Grandmommy is bent nearly double, feet still planted, her hands touching the ground so that the human chain remains intact. Ring around the rosy, then, played together while waiting for supper to be served. A children’s game, reserved for those who are very young and those who are young at heart, captured in a moment of pure innocence. The participants are unaware of the camera, unaware of the bustle of food preparation in the background, unaware of anything, really, except each other and the circle they form.

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This is a group of images worth keeping, worth sharing.

My hard drive is home to another group of images worth sharing, this set more carefully taken, more lovingly preserved. Five and a half years after the ring around the rosy series, it is now 2014, and, though you can’t tell from the photographs, the intervening half decade has not been kind to Grandmommy. Age has taken its toll. Dementia has set in, devouring memories and leaving nothing but confusion in its wake. A fall and resulting broken hip have made mobility for Grandmommy more of a challenge. But the woman in the photographs does not look much different from the one who played with her great-grandchildren a few years earlier. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think no time has passed at all.

Grandmommy sits in a rocking chair in the corner of a room, the walls behind her a pale green hue found only in hospitals. She holds the tiniest of swaddled bundles in her lap—my daughter, just two days old. There are many photographs of the two of them together, taken one after another; a moment such as this, the meeting of one so very young and one so very old, does not happen every day. Most of the images depict what you might expect from such a moment. The baby lies in Grandmommy’s arms, asleep, oblivious to the world around her. Grandmommy’s head tilts downward, her gaze fixed on her great-granddaughter’s face. The scene is one of tranquility, of peace, of wonder.

My favorite photo in the series, however, is the first—the only one in which Grandmommy is not looking at the baby at all. Instead, she looks up and out of the frame, as if at someone who didn’t make it into the shot. Her mouth tips up in a grin, her eyes alight with an unspoken question, and her hands wrap protectively around the little one in her lap. She is a young child clasping some precious treasure, an heirloom doll, perhaps, or an antique rattle, something far too special for her to hold. She impishly begs an older and wiser adult if she can keep it. The Grandmommy in the photograph does not seem to remember she has difficulty walking, or that her memory is fading, and she is no longer able to care for an infant, even for an hour. She cannot recall the work involved in changing diapers, in middle-of-the-night feedings. She has forgotten much, but the look in her eyes implies that she remembers this, at least: that children are precious, that the world is a fascinating place, that there is plenty in our lives that is worthy of reverence.

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I have other photographs of her, of course, images with her beside Granddaddy at his 90th birthday celebration; of her reading a picture book to a great-grandson, the younger sibling of those who played ring-around-the-rosy; of her wearing a paper headdress clearly fashioned by young hands, made for fun from a child’s imagination and worn out of a great-grandmother’s love. But these two groups of pictures—of her playing ring around the rosy, of her delighted with the baby in her arms—embody Grandmommy to me more than the others. Gracious, gentle, kind. A lover of children. An observer of the world, not afraid to lose herself in wonder.

Grandmommy passed away this week. I did not know her as well as I wish I had, to my shame and regret. Feeble though the excuse sounds in my ears now, modern life got in the way with all of its distraction and obligation, and kept me from making the time I should have made. Still, even as she aged and her memories slipped away, the core of who she was remained true. These photographs, moments frozen in time, were taken when she was unaware she was being watched, when her defenses and masks were stripped away. They capture this woman, reveal her heart and her spirit to those who will take the time to look. Until her final days, she maintained her fascination with the world and her love for children and babies. Though befuddled and confused, she remained cordial and loving, becoming ever more childlike in her wonder for the smallest things and people around her. Though she is gone now, the images remain, a testament to who she was, to the treasure hidden beneath the surface.

Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Author’s Note: Grandmommy passed away on January 15, 2015, and I wrote this piece shortly thereafter. Though the emotions surrounding her death are no longer fresh, the traits I highlighted here stand out ever more clearly in my memories of her. I hope that who I am at the core, when everything else is stripped away, will be as kind and gentle and loving as Grandmommy was. It seems fitting, somehow, to honor her memory with this essay, one year later, and I’m grateful to Brain, Child for including me in their grandparent blog series.

Jennifer Palmer lives in Northern California with her husband and daughter. Her essays have appeared online at Mamalode, Good Housekeeping, and Brain, Child. She writes about finding the beauty in everyday life at Choosing This Moment

How to Wake Up a Teenager on Vacation, in 16 Easy Steps

How to Wake Up a Teenager on Vacation, in 16 Easy Steps

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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When the twins were young, I thought they would never sleep. Or never at the same time and never at the time I also wanted to sleep. Now our trouble is the exact opposite. My twin teenagers go to school for three months and then have a month break. By the time that break comes, they are exhausted and all they seem to want to do is sleep and eat.

So, to ensure the teens participate in our family activities even while on vacation or to get them to their jobs on time or to simply see them during daylight hours, I’ve had to take drastic measures. I have employed a variety of methods and they always end with me laughing, the kid groaning, and Mom emerging as victorious.

Here, I pass these suggestions on to other parents, also desperate to see their teens open-eyed before noon:

Preamble: In between each step, wait five to ten minutes. Always knock before entering the room. Even though they are probably still sleeping, you just never know and should respect their privacy. Remember, their brain chemistry is undergoing some serious hormonal onslaughts and they do need inordinate amounts of sleep. Remember also that they are working hard at school, enduring the stress of the teenage social world. It might help to have breakfast (or lunch, depending on the hour) already on the table so they can just stumble from bed to chair. This list builds upon itself, so each additional step is performed on top of the preceding steps.

After step 3, you will begin entering the room but you have performed the required knock several times by now, so feel free.

It is vital to remember that each step must be enacted with love, affection, and the teens ultimate best interest in mind.

I skipped some earlier steps which seemed self-evident and which I also employ before launching the following onslaught. These could include things like setting alarm clocks (my son sets five and misses them all), simply knocking on the door and saying, “Time to get up,” gently rubbing their back or leg or arm and reminding them of the day’s obligations, and sending younger siblings in to do the job for us. When/if these fail…

1. Pound on the door. I mean pound, full-fisted, make it rattle.

2. Shout, “Time to wake up. Time to wake up. Time to wake up.” 

3. Add the loudest rooster crow you can muster.

4. (You are now in the room) Shake their shoulder and say, “Good morning.”

5. Yank the pillow out from under their head and say, less gently, “Good morning.”

6. With great gusto, whip away their sheet or blanket.

7. Start hitting them (gently) with the pillow and with each tap say, “Up. Up. Up.”

8. Flick their ears repeatedly. Alternating ears is helpful but not required.

9. Flick other parts of their body: head, back, chest. Or tapping, tapping can also prove effective.

10. Pull arm hair. Pull leg hair. Stay clear of the armpit air.

11. Plug their nose so they are forced to breathe out of their mouth but back up quickly or turn your head away when that mouth exhales.

12. Crow like a rooster (yes, again), while performing karate on their back or chest (you know I mean to do this gently but firmly, right?)

13. Pull them by one arm out of bed. This will only leave them asleep on the floor but they are now a few feet closer to the shower, consider that time saved later.

14. Threaten to record this whole ordeal (which has taken over an hour and can replace your aerobics routine for the day) and offer to post it on YouTube and Instagram.

15. Say all kinds of wonderful things about yourself, like what a great mother you are, how good-looking and smart and creative you are, something about your awesome sense of humor and ability to relate to younger generations. Move their heads up and down in agreement. Record this as well and threaten to post it.

16. And last but not least, ice cubes. They never fail.

In my experience, the only method that produces my desired result is #16 but I just can’t bring myself to start there. The result probably won’t be what you are really aiming at—an alert, up and about, teenager but it does result in opened eyes and verbal acknowledgment of what an annoying mother you are. I consider that: mission accomplished.

Though, on second thought, I have yet to follow-through with the YouTube threat. That might be a pretty effective method if I did it just once. The dread of such shame could be enough to get those sleepy teens out of bed.

Now if these methods would only be so effective in getting them to do their homework…

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

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The Physical vs. Cognitive Stage of Motherhood: Two Perspectives

The Physical vs. Cognitive Stage of Motherhood: Two Perspectives

Motherhood has different stages. The early months and years are dominated by physical interaction: feeding, cuddling, carrying. At a certain point, however, this changes and new parenting skills are required: answering questions, playing games, negotiating. Tanya Slavin prefers the former phase; Christine Organ the latter. What about you?

 

I Prefer the Physical Stage of Motherhood

By Tanya Slavin

IMG_1630“Mom! You’re not listening!!!” My six-year-old pulls at my sleeve in frustration. He is right. I tuned out mid sentence, when he was telling me something about his new favourite dinosaur. It’s not that I’m not interested, I really am, but we’ve spent the last several hours together, and I just need some personal space. Some personal space to think. Now that he is bigger, I require more frequent breaks from him than I did when he was a baby (or than I do from his baby sister now). Not only that, but the typical challenges of parenting a six year old—setting boundaries, discipline, and so on—are much more of a struggle for me than any of the physical responsibilities tied to parenting an infant.

A friend of mine recently revealed that she often resented breastfeeding because she perceived it as an invasion of her personal space. That made me think: I am very much the opposite. Breastfeeding felt wonderful to me, while too much talking and playing with an older child is what becomes an invasion of my personal space. I suppose the physical-emotional side of mothering comes more naturally to me than the cognitive—thinking, reasoning, communicating—one.

I absolutely love and crave the physical closeness that is inherent in a baby’s first year of life. I welcome the near non-existence of boundaries that is part and parcel of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, carrying her on me. In those moments, I don’t have to say anything, and don’t have to make a conscious effort to connect with my child. My presence is enough. My body is enough. My smile is enough. My touch is enough.

I never tire of holding a baby, and I rarely feel that her needs are intrusive. That’s because while I can be physically there to comfort her, my mind is free to drift in and out of the situation as it pleases. I realize now that this is why I nursed my son until he was two and a half, and co-slept with him until he was at least four years old (and even now, at six, he still sometimes sleeps in our bed). Because being physically close is the easiest way for me to say “I love you,” to fix any rifts between us, to strengthen our bond.

Now that he is six years old, my interactions with my son revolve mainly around playing buses, talking about Minecraft, and getting him to brush his teeth every morning. I can enjoy an occasional board game, I love our conversations about life, and dinosaurs, or whatever his most recent interest is. I consider him one of the most interesting and engaging people I know. But too much talking and playing wears me out. Pretend play often feels like torture to me. My ideal is to sit side by side with my son in a cozy coffee shop or at the dinner table at home, each doing our own thing. We would have an occasional chat, be there for each other for a hug or a cuddle, but would mostly give each other space.

At the same time, I’m not too bothered by a transgression of my physical boundaries, even with an older child. I don’t mind it when my son climbs onto my back as I’m nursing the baby on the couch or if he wants to snuggle when I’m busy talking on the phone or working on my laptop. I still let him slip into our bed for a cuddle towards the morning, or even spend the whole night there, especially if he is sick or distressed.

I sometimes wonder how my introverted ways affect our relationship in this regard. I tend to withdraw into my own world when I’m concerned or upset. I also tend to need a lot of mental space. I often worry that these traits of mine will contribute to a disconnect between me and my son in the future. But understanding my own strengths and needs has helped me find different routes to connect with him. Even now that he isn’t a baby anymore, I often rely on the physical to mend things between us.

That’s how it is in difficult times, after a rough day at school or at home, after I’ve screwed up and want to make amends. I know that something needs to happen before the day is over, if not to fix things, then to smooth them out a bit. I open my mouth to say something but the right words don’t come. I feel awkward with words, they never come easily to me. So, I simply sit him on my lap, press his head against my chest and hold him like this for a few minutes, breathing into his neck. I say nothing, just breath, breath, and watch the invisible threads of our broken connection weave themselves back together again with every exhale. After that, we can talk. Or maybe we won’t even need to.

Tanya Slavin is a freelance writer and a recovering academic who was born in Russia, grew up in Israel and spent most of her adult life moving around North America and documenting a Native American language. She now lives in the UK with her husband and two kids. You can find her at her blog Invisible to the Eye where she writes about the challenges of parenting and growing up, and on Twitter @invisible2the

 

I Prefer When the Physical Stage of Motherhood Is Over

By Christine Organ

99308365This morning I did what was once unimaginable. I lay down on the couch and closed my eyes for a few minutes while my son played quietly on the other side of the room. Just a few years ago, the idea that I could lie on the couch without a child crawling on me would have been impossible. Heck, the idea of simply going to the bathroom alone seemed like a pipe dream.

Motherhood, for many years, blurred the lines of personal space between my children and me. The early stages of motherhood—from infancy into toddlerhood—are inevitably defined by its physical demands and constant contact. Feeding, rocking, bouncing, and cradling are the cornerstones of a mother’s role in the early years —not to mention the physical and emotional toll sleep deprivation takes on a mother. Even in the toddler years, motherhood involves a significant amount of crawling on the floor, carrying children, and feeling the tug of little hands on pant legs.

As an introvert, personal space is absolutely essential to my peace of mind. Though I like to cuddle as much as the next person, I can only take so much physical closeness. At some point, if or when an indefinable threshold is crossed, physical contact begins to feel suffocating.

After the birth of my first son, the loss of autonomy and control over my body and self was staggering. Due to undiagnosed postpartum depression, my mind didn’t feel like my own. And in light of the physical demands of mothering a newborn, my body didn’t feel like my own either. As the stay-at-home parent, the physical demands of motherhood were so all-consuming, so pervasive, and so relentless that I sometimes feared that my life had been taken hostage, that I would never feel like meagain. I felt smothered by their needs, like I was being swallowed whole.

Exacerbating my frustrations with early parenting were the relentless messages that motherhood—especially early motherhood—is defined by physical closeness and affection. Everywhere I looked, I saw images of mothers serenely smiling at their nursing baby. Grandparents clamored to hold babies and pouted when they surrendered the little bundle. Other mothers talked about how they instantly fell in love with their baby.

I, on the other hand, prickled with anger when I nursed, was more than happy to let someone else hold my baby, and felt dazed rather than in love most of the time. Lack of conversation about this uglier side of early motherhood made me feel like something was wrong with me. But as a child grows, candid conversation about the challenges of parenting becomes less taboo. Complaints about difficult threenagers, homework battles, and sassy teenagers are not only common, but accepted and almost celebrated, whereas admitting that you don’t want to hold your baby is akin to blasphemy.

Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems, they say. As a new mother, I found this phrase to be both condescending and depressing. It seemed to imply my problems as a new mother were insignificant, my struggles were just whiny naiveté, and the dilemmas I faced were inconsequential in the long arc of parenthood. What’s more, this cliché made me feel hopeless. You mean it only gets harder?!, I wanted to cry. You mean I might never feel like me again?

And yet, somehow, I did start to feel like me again. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but eventually the smothering sensation abated when the physical demands of parenting lessened as my children moved through infancy and toddlerhood and into the school-age years.

Parenting is still hard, confusing, and demanding. Parenting will always be hard, confusing, and demanding. But the parenting challenges I face now are less physical and more cognitive in nature—something I am far more suited to handle.

Now there is whining, bickering, and negotiating. But while these challenges are frustrating and have more long-lasting consequences, they don’t feel as suffocating as the physical demands of early motherhood. I can ignore the whining, discipline the fights, and listen to the pleas (or not). I can talk to my children about the problem, resorting to logic when possible, or simply dole out a firm response. I can take the time to gather my emotions, if necessary, ponder a response, consult with my husband, and find the much-needed space—both emotional and physical—when I am pushed to the brink of frustration, fear, or confusion. And even my parenting mistakes can be teachable moments about the importance of grace, humility, and forgiveness. Paying attention to my own needs doesn’t feel as selfish anymore, but an opportunity to teach my children about respecting others’ needs.

People also like to say parenting doesn’t get easier, you just get better at it, and having been a parent for nearly ten years now, I can say without a doubt that parenting, as a whole, does not get easier. As my kids have grown, the issues have also grown in complexity, with more nuances and deeper ramifications. Having the sex talk is more awkward than a diaper change in a Target bathroom. The decision to let my son play football (or not) could have repercussions more far-reaching than whether to give him a pacifier. And I can only imagine the perplexing challenges we will face as we move further into the tween and teenage years.

Yet despite the “bigness” of the problems, they somehow seem more manageable simply because I am better equipped to handle them. Parenting didn’t get easier, but I got better at it—and I finally got that much needed personal space.

 

Christine Organ is a freelance writer who lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two sons. Her work has appeared on The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Brain, Child, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Country Living, Mamalode, and Scary Mommy, among others. She is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life and writes at www.christineorgan.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Join us on Twitter Thursday, January 14th at 1:00 EST to discuss the issues. Do/did you prefer the physical stages of motherhood or the cognitive ones? Remember to use the hashtag #braindebate.

 

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

By Sara Ackerman

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When she puts her small hand on top of mine I tell my daughter that it’s so interesting people can be all different colors. 

 

The night before the first day of school I lean over the curl of my three-year-old daughter’s sleeping body. She’s pulled off her sleep cap and one of her braids is bent backwards and wrapped around her finger. For as long as she has been able to grasp a chunk in her tiny fingers, she has fallen asleep twirling her hair. I unwind the braid from her index finger, press it in the right direction, and pull the cherry printed cap back on her head.

In the dark I lay out clothes for the next morning and right the sideways tumble of containers on her dresser. This includes what must amount to hundreds of dollars of hair and skin products tossed into an online shopping cart in triplicate in an attempt to compensate for styling skills I don’t have with money that I also don’t have. With tubes of styling pudding, bottles of olive oil lotion and vanilla conditioning spray, and tubs of coconut oil and curling butter, it is not always obvious whether I am about to groom my child or make a dessert.

As an amateur baker I once made a nine-layer, thirty five-pound wedding cake. You know what is harder to construct than that? A cornrow. At the end of the third page of the “cornrowing made easy” tutorial were the words “you now have completed one braided stitch.” Of one cornrow. The tutorial does not mention placing your child in an approximation of a headlock. It has to be implied. I cross my fingers and squeeze about eleven bucks worth of product onto my daughter’s hair.

“We talk about adoption everyday,” one blogger, also an adoptive parent, brags. I panic because there isn’t a single thing I manage to do every day other than lose my keys. “Talk with your child about race; Don’t be colorblind,” experts say. I know all this, but knowledge does not equal a competent execution, as I wade through a shelf of Beverly Daniel Tatum, a thousand Ta-Nehesi Coates articles, and a case of shea butter. Note: wading in shea butter is messy. Also not tidy: the following conversation. When she puts her small hand on top of mine I tell my daughter that it’s so interesting people can be all different colors. She stares blankly. “My hand is peach, and yours is brown.”

Yours is brown,” she answers. “Hmmm,” I reply, “It’s ok that we have different color hands. Your hand looks brown to me. My hand looks different. Like a peach color.”

“I want peach,” she says. “Also blueberry. I have banana now please?”

A year and a half earlier, my daughter and I were walking down a tiny street in Rome. A drunk man lurched out of a doorway and turned toward us. “What’s your name?” he slurred, and when my daughter, then a month shy of 2 doesn’t answer, he continued “That’s ok, I’ll just call you chocolate.” “That’s ok,” I answered, “I’ll just call you asshole.” “Hey,” he mumbled, “it’s just a joke.”

I did-I-do-the-right-thing-myself? for days. If I say he is an asshole for referencing my daughter’s skin color, then what am I saying about her brownness? Chocolate can be a compliment, right? But then, I reason, he was drunk. A stranger. White. Also, it was apparently a joke?

“Asshole,” my daughter repeated to the Colosseum and to Trevi Fountain. “Asshole,” she said to strawberry gelato, cobblestone, and Fiumicino airport.

A few months later in Penn Station, we climbed down an almost deserted staircase. My daughter stepped slowly, holding carefully to the railing. A woman walked down behind us. “You have to lift her up,” our fellow stairgoer insisted, and when I didn’t, she hissed at me, “bitch, whore, bitch, whore,” all the way down. At the bottom of the stairs she added, “You wouldn’t make her walk if she was the same color as you.” That night I googled, “making black children walk down the stairs.” It didn’t seem to be a thing. “Is it a thing?” I asked my friend Jackie. “No. That is not a thing. That is a crazy person.” Jackie is black but so was the stair lady. But Jackie is definitely not crazy and the stair lady might have been. I sided with Jackie. Then I googled “black children; stairs; racism.”

I read that by age three a child should know at least one color. Mine is nearly three and a half and can’t name one. Oh my god. What if my child is actually, literally colorblind? I search, “is my child colorblind?” The first hit tells me that color blindness is rare, but something conclusion-jumping parents regularly ponder when their three year old can’t identify colors. Guilty.

I point and name the colors of everything we see. “Red,” I touch her sheets, “blue,” I touch her plate, “brown,” I touch her skin. “Blue,” she shrieks pointing to her arm. “Orange,” she screams about nothing in particular.

I get a book about how all people have different skin colors. Most colors are described with food analogies, and the rhyme scheme requires more oral agility than Dr. Seuss. “You’re brown, like the cinnamon,” I say mid-page. “And I’m peach, like, wait, there are no peaches in this book. I’ll be here. The cookie dough page.”

“I’m blue,” my daughter says, “and” pointing at the illustrated ice cream sundae, “I want that.” She calls it the ice cream book. She demands the ice cream book nightly and then claims she’s blue. I imagine she plans it like this: ask for ice cream book, insist I’m blue, repeat.

After her first day of school I take my daughter to my work for lunch. I carry her down the corridor to the cafeteria, my long, straight ponytail swinging from side to side. “Your hair is shaking, mama. My hair is not shaking.”

“You’re right. My hair is shaking and yours isn’t.”

“My hair is pwetty?” she asks. “You got it,” I tell her. “Plus,” I add inhaling her braids, “you smell like a cupcake.”

That night, we snuggle in the gray armchair to read. I wanted to hide the ice cream book but it turns out I don’t have to because after ripping the end papers to shreds my daughter hides it herself. Reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? instead, my daughter places her hand over the bear’s body. “I’m brown, mama” she says. “That’s right,” I say, “brown and so beautiful.” She puts a finger on my arm, “You’re peach mama.”

“That’s right,” I reply. She turns her hand over to reveal her palm, light and pink and chubby. “I’m peach, also.”

Sara Ackerman writes and teaches kindergarten in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Illustration: gettyimages.com

New Year, New Gear: Moving to Airplane Mode?

New Year, New Gear: Moving to Airplane Mode?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Girl held aloft flyingshould parent like my kids’ iPhones are now set, on airplane mode, instead of reacting, even if only internally, to every issue that rolls in.

 

We are en route to visit my family in California. A mother and her infant sit a row ahead and across from me. As she takes out a bottle and a burp cloth, I smugly take out my notebook and pen and prepare, from my place above the Plains, to write something rich for my final essay of the year.

However, as I put pen to paper, commotion comes from across the way. Not from row 8 with the well-behaved infant, but from the one behind it, seats 9A and 9B, the row with my 14-year-old girls.

The mother of the infant looks back with judgment as the daughter in 9A swears at her computer because, I soon gather, her movie didn’t download and now she has nothing to do but—dare I say it—read. In addition, I learn when I lean over, the Afrin isn’t working for the daughter in 9B, who has a cold. To help with the stuffiness, 9B is chewing gum and the chewing is driving 9A, already distraught due to the download failure and, the real issue, the fear that she failed to make the school musical, bonkers. In all my planning, I realize, I overlooked the reality that in addition to the notebook and computers, we also took ourselves.

9B blows her nose and announces that while her movie is functioning, her earphones hurt her clogged ears too much to listen.

Then 9A hollers over 9B to me in seat 9C, “Do you think I’ll make it?”

I say, “I think so,” to appease my daughter as much as the horrified mother in 8B. I feel like explaining to her that we are not concerned with 9A’s actual survival, she simply auditioned for the school musical earlier in the week and will, upon landing, find out whether or not she made it. For several reasons, the odds are stacked against her and so in my daughter’s adolescent, all-or-nothing view of life—a view which her sleeping baby will have someday—9A’s future hangs in the balance as we fly. But of course, I say nothing. Instead, I long for my husband’s window seat as I hold my breath and hope that we survive everything from the flight to the musical to the rest of our lives.

As it seems I’ve been doing all year. I lived the past year like we now are flying, minute by minute, holding my breath. I’m not only referring to the real kind of breath holding that comes with, say, waiting for biopsy results, but the maternal kind of breath holding, the kind that comes from shuttling folks through the angst of adolescence. The year was characterized by crises that mandated my repetition of the line, “In 2 weeks, will you remember this?” A bad grade. A bad pimple. A bad exchange with a friend. And currently, a bad audition. But though it’s been minute by minute, two weeks at a time, 52 weeks have suddenly passed, and I, suspended in air, stare at the baby in 8B and wonder when it was that the ones in 9A and 9B grew up. I’m sure I’m not the first to say that time with teenagers is no different than time with infants; the years pass quickly though the minutes drag on.

And on. We have an hour and 45 of them left in this flight. 9A is saying something again about the musical but the good news is that my ears are now clogged. I can’t hear, so I do what I rarely do, I shrug my shoulders and turn away, which is, I suppose, the strategy I should always use. I should parent like my kids’ iPhones are now set, on airplane mode, instead of reacting, even if only internally, to every issue that rolls in. I don’t need to be high in the sky to see the big picture. I’m well aware that the school musical crisis is only a matter of the moment. Just as I know that as 2015 rolls into ’16 and 14-years-old turns to 15, the conveyor belt of crises is only going to move faster and the shelf-life of my daughters’ issues will extend. I see what’s coming down the pike. I have a girlfriend whose daughter is dealing with high school finals and heartbreak. I have a mother whose daughter (me) dealt with breast cancer. So do yourself a favor, I want to tell the mother in 8B, train yourself now to take it down a notch. Put yourself on airplane mode, you’ll extend the life of your battery.

Previous generations of parents tuned out all of the time. When my mother, back in 1950, told her mother that she had no clean underwear for school, her mother told her that she didn’t need any because it was warm outside, then she went back to sleep. When, back in 1976, I cried at my birthday party because I wasn’t happy with my gifts (in fairness, I received about six or seven of the same very girly tube-tops), my mother sent me to my room and continued the party without me. Yet, we grew up fine. Well, maybe not fine, but good enough.

And guess what? Good enough might just be the new gold standard. In his article, “The Good Enough Parent is the Best Parent,” published on December 22, 2015 in Psychology Today, Psychiatrist Peter Gray, says good enough should be the goal. His basic message to parents is chill out. Even if you mess up, even if your children struggle, all will be okay.

So, for the new year, I resolve to get on trend and adjust my settings.

Though I see already that it’ll be hard to teach an old(er) mom new tricks. With 30 minutes left in our flight, with 9B still obsessing about the musical and 9A still complaining about her ear, the mom in 9C does what no good enough parent would ever do, she hands the paper and pen with which she planned to write her essay to her kids and tells them to, “Do something productive.” Surprisingly, they listen. They use the paper to make a list of the things they want to do on vacation, which they hang in my parents’ kitchen. As the days go by, my girls cross off goals as they accomplish them. Including 9B’s goal to make the musical. She’s part of the ensemble, it turns out. She’s doesn’t have lines but she gets to dance. She is happy. “It’s good enough,” she tells me.

I tell her that good enough is, in fact, the goal.


Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completing her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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The Art of Saying No

The Art of Saying No

By Kim Drew Wright

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-after Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Art of Disappearing”

When they say Don’t you want to join the PTA?
          say no.

When they ask you to aide kindergartners
at the start of school,
remember last year before buckling.
          Ten minutes guiding cute faces off buses.
          Three hours shoveling packets—stuffed. Paper
          cuts. Numb ears. Manila smile stuck to seven
          hundred bland envelopes.
Then answer.

If they say You’re a stay-at-home mom
          with time.
Do not reply fine.

Start clocking your hours spent
          cutting patterns for gingerbread houses,
          segregating beads by color, shape—piling
          minutes like papers instructing parents how
          to file for discount lunches in an upper-class
          neighborhood.

Tell them you would if you could, but time is
a commodity just as important to you as that kid’s father
who’s a brain surgeon at VCU. You bet he doesn’t give
brain surgeries away for free—at least not repetitively.

When they chase you down in the halls, squat down
and become a water fountain. Let them spout on and on.
Accessorize your outfit with yellow caution tape.

Hang a hand-written note around your neck that states
Shut Down.

Thank them for the invite to the volunteer tea,
          then decline.

 
Kim Drew Wright volunteers at her three children’s schools in Richmond, Virginia. Her debut collection of stories and poems, The Strangeness of Men, won Finalist in the USA Best Book Awards. Find out more at KIMDREWWRIGHT.COM.

Tween Anger: No Hugs Welcome Here

Tween Anger: No Hugs Welcome Here

By Karen Dempsey

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

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

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

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

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

I touch a wisp of her hair. “STOP.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Have Never Cut My Daughter’s Hair

Why I Have Never Cut My Daughter’s Hair

By Lela Casey

REDHEAD GIRL

I resigned myself to the fact that, without that ginger gene, I was just going to have to accept a life of passivity.

 

I was the kind of girl who could usually be found tucked away in a corner with a book, my long dark hair hanging over my face, an impenetrable wall of protection against the world.

Books weren’t entertainment for me. They were friends and lovers and mysterious rabbit holes. They were a way to escape the almost impossible task of socializing with my peers. They were a validation that being “weird” or “different” was OK, and perhaps even necessary to leading a novel-worthy life.

Literature was so entwined with my childhood that I often have trouble separating my own memories from the stories I read long into the night.

There were many characters that captured my heart. Sarah Crewe from A Little Princess, Prince Dolor from The Little Lame Prince, Sara Louise from Jacob Have I Loved, Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, and so many others.

And then, when I was ten years old I discovered Anne of Green Gables and nothing would ever be the same. Like me, Anne loved to read and had a magnificent imagination. But, Anne had something else. Something I thought I never would possess. FIRE!

She was strong and passionate and no one, not even the boy she was so obviously in love with, could diminish her flame.

I didn’t just love Anne Shirley, I wanted to BE Anne Shirley. After reading the entire series of books over a few weeks I convinced myself that I, too, could be brave. So, I mustered up all my courage to try using a bigger voice and standing up to the many bullies who ate shy bookish girls for breakfast.

But, my soft voice cracked and those bullies were relentless and finally I had to admit to myself that I just didn’t have that fire.

Where did it come from then? Was bravery inherited? Developed? Earned?

I thought about the people who I knew who were fiery….. both in literature and in real life. A pattern began to emerge. Pippie Longstocking, Annie, my cousin from Israel… Red heads, every one of them.

I resigned myself to the fact that, without that ginger gene, I was just going to have to accept a life of passivity.

The years went by. I did eventually grow my soft voice into, if not a fierce one, at least a confident one. I learned to stand up for myself. I developed passions. I stopped hiding behind books. I became a mother of a bright, enthusiastic little boy,

One day another mother at the park falsely accused my 3-year-old son of taking her daughter’s toy. She ripped the toy from his hand and yelled angrily. Without a moment’s hesitation, I marched up to her, looked her right in the eye and demanded that she back off.

The voice that came out of my mouth that day shocked me. Looking at my little boy’s scared face, realizing it was my job to protect him, allowed me to finally overcome my genetic deficiency and be brave without having red hair.

Around the time I started to feel this fieriness developing inside of me I became pregnant with my third child. I was already a mother of two little boys and I couldn’t even let myself dream that this (my final child) could be a girl.

Seeing my daughter may have been the most powerful moment of my life. Not only was she the most perfect, most beautiful, most girliest creature, but from the top of her head rose one glorious red curl.

My daughter is 6 years old now. Her long auburn hair hangs well below her waist. She is sweet and smart and fiery … oh lord is she fiery! Sometimes I look at her and wonder if she is the manifestation of all the passion of my recent years, or perhaps the product of a genetic shift that came from my reading Anne of Green Gables so frequently.

Whatever the cause of her spirited nature, it absolutely delights me. She has already won all the battles I was too afraid to fight, earned respect from all the bullies I was too timid to stand up to, and demanded all the rights I never would have dreamed of asking for.

She is my very own Anne Shirley.

Managing a 6-year-old’s long hair is not easy. Especially one who loves to roll in dry leaves, dance in mud puddles, and burrow head first into the sand. We have long emotional battles every time a hair washing is imminent. But, each time I mention so much as a little trim, she melts down into angry tears.

“You CAN’T cut it. My hair is wild like me, Mama. It matches my insides.”

 
Lela Casey was raised by a fiery Israeli mother and an all American father on a farm which often doubled as a resting place for foreign travelers and families in need. Her unconventional childhood has had a great impact on her parenting and her writing. She is a regular contributing writer at kveller.com. She has also written for themid.com, femininecollective,com, and jkidphilly.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Why I Pump in a Storage Closet at Work

Why I Pump in a Storage Closet at Work

By Marjke Yatsevitch

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While many support the idea of pumping at work, the world of the nursing mother is still happening in a shadowy corner.

 

The recliner sits in the corner of a storage closet, surrounded by old telephones, bedraggled hangers, boxes of bank statements and purchase orders, and spools of tickets used for 50/50 raffles. It is not a nice chair. Its upholstery might have once been a shade of pink, but it now reflects a low-pile sadness that must have a name like puce, or dun, or boiled yam.         

For the second time today I am sitting in the intermittent light of a motion sensor, wearing a brazier-like contraption that allows me to write, while I extract as many vital ounces of breast milk as I can, before second lunch ends.       

I am at work—and compared to many other nursing mothers who work, I have it pretty good. I am not perched on a toilet trying to negotiate an absence of power outlets. I have not been walked in on, yet. I have not made agonizing eye contact with an athletic director as he stands in the doorway of my hiding place, jawing a palm-sized piece of pizza, and too slowly, saying, “I heard a weird noise,” without apology. I have a supportive and generally good humored administrative team, and I have a Styrofoam cooler next to me on which I can place a water bottle and the apothecary of herbal supplements that I need to produce 16 ounces of milk each day.        

The whole situation would be hilarious if it weren’t so important; if it didn’t drive the two greatest pressures of my life, teaching and parenting, right into each other, divining one of my least favorite circumstances: one in which it is impossible to succeed.

On the first day of school, I returned from maternity leave knowing I would need to pump. I underestimated what that meant, and had not developed any real system for it. I glibly transported my subpar breast pump in its neat little carrying case to work with me that first morning, with a few bottles and an ice pack. What I should have done is walked through the step-by-step process with impeccable precision.

Instead, I was a hot mess. I made the rookie mistake of washing all of my pump parts in the front office sink. Where else could I have gone? Could I have laid out some elaborate sanitary blanket on a bathroom floor somewhere? Where would I put all of these damp tubes and bottles? I hadn’t thought through the systems, and I was too embarrassed to ask a veteran. While scrubbing a sink full of phalanges and nipples, the school art teacher came to my rescue—she suggested I put the unwashed parts into a paper lunch bag, one that breathes, to keep in the front office fridge until the next time I would need them.

Even armed with the cleverest of tips, so much depends on timing; fire drills and schedule changes, faculty meetings, and kids in crisis can dismantle the best laid plans. Or, more intimately, the limitations of my own body: dehydration, leaks, swollen breasts, raw nipples, and exhaustion compromise my professionalism, daily. Milk production is mostly out of my hands, and so are the inherent needs and obligations of my career.

I had not spent a day away from my son until that first day back; I had never developed a pumping schedule, one that might work once I returned to school. Thankfully, the first day had been for staff members, not students. The principal’s secretary lent me her storage closet key.

A low mechanical drone overpowered the room, with halting thwacks sounding like a tennis ball hitting a wall. I wish I could multitask while pumping, but most are off limits: phone calls, filing, anything that involves movement or engaged brain cells. I settle on answering email, usually, but still wonder at the surrealness of me in my surroundings: shirtless in a storage closet sending out missives to unsuspecting colleagues. It just feels weird.

In the throws of pumping at work, so many things can go wrong. Spills, overflows, running out of bags, power shortages. There are figuratively and literally a lot of working parts—tubes, sterile bags, bottles, caps, phalanges, membranes, motors, power supplies, adapters, freezer packs, and a whole array of materials used to disguise my goods when I have to store them in the community fridge. But the comedic humility of it all is nothing.

There is something about having to hide, even as I perform a vulnerable and essential task. While many support the idea of pumping at work, the world of the nursing mother is still happening in a shadowy corner. For each of us who sit in a storage closet, while trying our damndest to remain invisible, there is a cost. The variable conditions and compromises that women who return to work have to make, reveal the wide gaps in understanding what we go through, and the need for some candor.           

I count the bells through lunch hoping that I am still safe within a cushion of time that will allow me to return to my room with my game face on, ready to perform, as if nothing humbling and indiscrete has happened. As if I had not just balanced everything that mattered on a very thin wire.
Marjke Yatsevitch grew up in the woods among reclusive farmers and artists, and has slowly been adapting to quasi-suburban parenting, teaching high school English, and seeking comforts in gardens and kitchens on the Seacoast in New Hampshire.

Learning to Get Out of the Way

Learning to Get Out of the Way

By Jennifer Berney

learningtogetoutoftheway
What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him.

 

For the six years that I’ve been a parent, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to enrich my child. When he was a baby, I hovered as he explored a toy xylophone, wondering if he might be a prodigy. As he grew old enough to talk, I wondered if, with a little coaching, he might be reading and writing fluently by the time he was four.

This is what good parents did, I figured. They helped their children identify their passions and then, through active instruction, they crafted them into geniuses.

About a year ago, I thought I’d found my opportunity when my son started dancing any time there was music within earshot. My partner and I had a blast watching him shake his booty across the living room, mimicking every kind of dance he’d ever seen. Within a week, I was on the phone with our local ballet school, asking them if my child was old enough to train. From what I understood, boys were a rare commodity in ballet. Clearly, my son would be the next Baryshnikov.

My son wasn’t certain that he wanted to take a dance class, but he agreed to visit the classroom with me on a Saturday morning. We sat together on the sidelines and watched a group of girls and boys his age move across the room like dinosaurs and elephants. I looked at him to see if he was inspired to join them, but his face remained blank. As they moved into formal instruction, practicing standing en pointe and demi plies, he leaned in and whispered “Mommy, I’m not interested in that.”

“Are you sure?” I prodded.

Though I gave up on ballet, I still waited for my moment to help him shine. That summer, I signed him up for a day-long painting class. He had agreed it sounded fun, but when the day arrived, he clung to me, not wanting to go inside the classroom. It was the sight of a like-minded boy in a Spider-man shirt—not the easels and paintbrushes—that helped him settle in. That afternoon, when I arrived to pick him up, the other children had painted skies, mountains, and trees. My son held up his canvas, smiling. Apparently he had started painting and couldn’t stop. He enjoyed layering color after color. The result: a canvas that looked like mud. This would not be going on our wall.

For a while after that, I laid off the courses and stopped trying to turn our time together into a curriculum. I accepted that my son, more than anything, liked to play Angry Birds and watch Spider-man on Netflix. He liked to be read to, to play with friends and build forts, and he didn’t care to go for walks. In short, his interests were unexceptional.

And then, about a month ago, my son began asking me for paper. I’d pull a couple of pages from my printer and he’d spread his markers across the kitchen table and fill the width of the page with sketches of superheroes and remembered scenes from movies. He found a sketchbook I’d bought for him a year earlier and began filling the pages systematically. Looking at my son’s sketches is like looking at a cross-section of his brain. There are lines firing like neurons in all directions, depictions of good versus evil, of the sun and the moon, his baby brother, and all of his friends. Taken together, the pages are his universe.

What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him. By definition, a passion is something that can’t be controlled. It’s not the thing that someone pushes you to do; it’s the thing you have to do, the thing that beckons you. That’s why it’s called your calling. It knows your name. It comes to find you.

For once I’m learning to hang back and let him do his thing. I bought a small set of pens that I thought might allow him more precision than the wide-tipped markers he’d been stuck with. But that’s it. I don’t correct the way he uses his pen. I haven’t signed him up for any more art classes. For the moment, I don’t want anyone to come between him and his passion—not me, not a teacher, no one.

As it turns out, my son is the one instructing me. I watch the way he gravitates to paper, the way he ignores any bids for his attention. I watch how the minute he completes one sketch he moves on to another. Lately, when I bring him a plate of toast in the morning, I usually find it untouched twenty minutes later as he continues to sketch Darth Vader’s cape.

“Why haven’t you eaten?” I ask him.

“I got distracted,” he explains.

Really, it’s the opposite. The daily tasks of life are the distraction. The work that calls us is what matters. It’s a lesson I try to teach myself daily when I find myself buried in the daily minutia of laundry, errands, preparing meal after meal. “What do I actually want to do?” I ask myself.

It was a quiet voice at first. It whispered, walk that trail to the beach, or blow off laundry and watch TV. The more I listen, the louder it grows. Write that book, it tells me. Not just on the weekends, but every single day.

With two sons now, I’m busier than ever, but that voice will not be ignored. On the best of days now you’ll find us in a house piled high with unfolded laundry, dancing and drawing and writing till we drop.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times Motherlode, The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Illustration: Harlan Shincke, the author’s son

A Military Mother, and Christmas Day in Afghanistan

A Military Mother, and Christmas Day in Afghanistan

By Mary O’Brien

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Not everyone considers a promotion in the military cause for celebration—it often comes with an inevitable relocation. After seven moves, my 13-year-old daughter knows all the signs leading up to moving. She brings it up every chance she can. What are your options? Where will they send you? When will we know? If Dad retires, can we stay here in Maryland? If you move somewhere boring, like Texas, I don’t want to leave. I like our new house, my school, my basketball team. I’ll only move if you go somewhere cool, like Europe, Japan or Korea.

This go around, I get the news shortly before Christmas, but we decide to wait until mid-January to tell the kids. We choose the sunporch, the most cheerful place in the house we bought seven months earlier, when I saw retirement on the horizon. We used to go to a favorite pizza place to break this kind of news but can’t anymore because both kids learned that pizza restaurants mean family discussions regarding new assignments. The last two family discussions broke the news that my husband and I were being sent in different directions. We’ve been stationed apart ten of the last fifteen years.

I tell my daughter she was right—I’ll have a new job in the spring. Before I can finish, she asks “Is it overseas?” I pause a moment, not expecting her to ask about the overseas options, and say yes. Bursting into tears, she tells me, “I thought I wanted to go, but I don’t want to move.” I try to talk over her sobbing, “You aren’t going—I’m going to Afghanistan and you’re all staying here.” Her crying stops immediately. Embarrassed, she admits being relieved, but immediately feels guilty for being happy that I’m going to a war zone. They all know how deployments work. My husband spent a year in Helmand while the rest of us were stationed in the United Kingdom, meeting him in Germany to ski on his two week mid-tour leave.

Once we break the news, both kids promptly go back to their own worlds; to them, I suppose, five months until my departure seems a lifetime away. Occasionally, there’s a glimpse of concern behind their denial. After I make white chicken chili, a particularly favorite meal, my son asks my husband “Do you know where mom keeps her recipes?” Which reminds me, I have to share the kids’ practice schedules and game locations with my husband.

One morning in May shortly before my deployment, I laugh at my son’s comment about only being able to picture me sitting behind a computer when I announce I’m going to the shooting range to requalify on the 9mm. He can’t imagine me carrying a weapon, even if it’s just the small handgun that officers carry. “Contrary to popular belief around here, the Air Force is a branch of the military,” I respond. Soon after, I add my departing flight information to our family Google calendar and note the possible conflict with my son’s lacrosse game. “I can do both,” I tell him, hoping I can keep my promise. We drive to the airport in my minivan after his game and I feel a little guilty standing in the long line with my family. Other deployers who don’t live in Maryland already said goodbye to their families days ago and won’t get any more hugs tonight. My husband keeps the mood light and they all manage big smiles for the last photo at the airport—the kids on either side of me in my scratchy Army multicams.

In Afghanistan, tears creep out of the corners of my eyes every Sunday in the dusty base chapel, the only time I allow myself to admit just how much I miss my family. I’m the senior military woman in Kabul, and possibly all of Afghanistan—showing weakness is not in my job description. I follow the guidance I’ve given to many new military mothers I’ve mentored over my career. Limit the photos on your desk—a family portrait and one individual shot of each child. Too many cutesy photos and the men (and some women) won’t take you seriously. My husband and I are both in uniform in my carefully chosen family photo. My way of saying our whole family is “all in.”

The days turn to weeks, weeks to months. I try unsuccessfully to set up predictable times to call home. The 9 ½ hour time difference, my long hours on duty and the kids’ busy after-school schedules make it impossible. High school basketball tryouts are underway so I rummage through the stack of greeting cards I picked out before coming to Kabul. “You won’t be able to get anything good over there,” a friend told me. Taking her advice, I spent an hour in the Hallmark store picking out a “Congratulations” card, then decided I didn’t want to risk jinxing my daughter, so added a “Don’t Give Up” encouragement card. Remembering her sprained ankle from 8th grade, I threw in a “Get Well Soon” card for good measure. She makes varsity; she’s elated, and I promptly mail the “Congratulations” card with its handwritten “FREE MAIL” where the stamp normally goes. Knowing by then that the card will take at least three weeks to arrive, I use the Internet to send flowers overnight, too.

Surprise and disappointment set in when I realize our FaceTime calls are too hard for my son. He’s never been able to say good-bye. I ask my husband to stop coaxing him into the room when I call. I’ll wait until he asks to talk to me, which isn’t often. I’m thrilled by the rare text from him—”hi mom I lost that molar.” I accidentally discover that he’ll talk to me longer if I catch him home alone when my husband drives my daughter to basketball practice. I try to synchronize my work schedule and the time difference to take advantage of these moments. When my boss tasks me to attend multiple long-winded PowerPoint briefings about the possible reduction of troops in Afghanistan, I try unsuccessfully to hide my grumpiness as I see the rare opportunities to talk to my son slipping away.

My favorite aunt vows to make this Christmas special, but privately shares with me that my son has convinced himself that I am going to surprise everyone by coming home for Christmas unannounced, just like all those military reunion stories on Facebook and YouTube. I’d like to say that I despise everyone who has ever had anything to do with these videos, but actually I’m also envious.

On Christmas Day in Afghanistan, I wake up at 4:30 a.m. to hear my son play Christmas carols on his saxophone for all my relatives. It’s still Christmas Eve in Maine. Everyone can see me on the iPad placed on a chair in the center of the room and I’m mildly embarrassed that I’m still in my pajamas with messy hair and puffy eyes. My son opens with “Blue Christmas” in my honor and my heart breaks all over again. They sing along to “Deck the Halls” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.” He’s sounds really good and I’m surprised by the noticeable improvement in only six months of middle school concert band. “I take requests,” he boasts proudly. I’m amazed at this new confidence—what else will happen this year—and I request “Silent Night.” I hide a few tears as he plays it perfectly.

Mary O’Brien has more than 26 years of Air Force service and was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan from June 2014 to May 2015. She is currently stationed in Maryland with her husband—a retired Marine, 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. She hasn’t missed a basketball game this season.

What the Photographer Saw in My Special Needs Child

What the Photographer Saw in My Special Needs Child

By Marilyn Maloney

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When my daughter was born, she was perfect. She had blue eyes like sparkling pools, dimpled cheeks, and a smile that gave her a constant look of a kid opening presents on Christmas morning.

She slowed down in development and started missing milestones around 8 months. When she was 13 months old, an MRI told us she had a Leukodystrophy, a fatal disease with no cure and no treatment. We went from a state of baby bliss to rock bottom and had to start over in a world we had not been exposed to. It was like we had previously looked through a pane of glass at the world of special needs, and now we were on the inside.

Even as my daughter grew, she did not look like she had a disease. She had bouncy curls and a happy smile. Although she did not walk or talk, she was small enough that people didn’t notice. Well, maybe they noticed, but I told myself they didn’t.

When I saw other special needs kids and adults who could not control their movements, arms in odd positions and drool sneaking from the side of their mouths, I was ashamed of my thoughts. “Maddy is different. She is beautiful and any drool is from teething. She holds a spoon and brings it to her mouth.”

As months stretched to years, she slowly began to look like she had special needs. She had a hard time holding up her head. Receiving blankets transitioned to become bibs for the drool. She lost her grasp reflex and could no longer hold the spoon. There was no denying that we were a special needs family.

Avoiding the Texas heat, we had family photos done while visiting my mom in Western New York. We asked the photographer to come to the house during that short time when neither our toddler, Jimmy, nor Maddy would need to eat.

Megan came walking down my mom’s street in a loose white top and shorts, camera hanging from her shoulder. She looked relaxed and welcoming, even while carrying a bean bag chair about half her size. We played and sat with the kids while she snapped photos and chatted. There was no formal setup. The humidity pulled Maddy’s curls up into perfect spirals as she laid on the bean bag chair in the shade.

My mom’s backyard grass was a vivid green color I don’t think exists in Texas. It was soft and cool, a background framed with Rose of Sharon and lilac bushes. Jimmy was quiet and curious, just starting to walk on shaky legs. He stared intently at the camera while holding my hands. Maddy smiled and laughed when my husband, Jim, threw her into the air.

The shoot was simple and easy and the time flew. Megan tried some gluten free coconut chocolate chip cookies my mom made and we thanked her as she said goodbye. She thanked us too, because, we quickly learned, that’s just how she is.

Over the next week or so Megan emailed me about how gorgeous my children are and told me she was interested in learning more about doing photography focused on special needs. Many special needs families don’t bother getting family photos because after the stress of getting the family ready, the photographer may not catch one smile or the slightest hint of eye contact.

Another week passed and Megan sent me the link to our photos. I logged on with a password and there she was–my Maddy. The first photo was the way I saw my daughter every day, as if the camera saw through her disease. She was a beautiful girl with the big blue eyes, bouncing curls, and a smile that makes everyone around her smile. I did not see my daughter struggling to hold her head up or drooling onto her bib while unable to stand and walk. I saw my girl looking right at the camera, smiling and laughing with her dad.

To the outside world, my daughter is the girl in the wheelchair, with children staring and friends who are so sorry she has this disease. These photos showed the girl as we see her, disease-free, holding up her head and smiling proudly, free to be Maddy, instead of Maddy who has Leukodystrophy. These were so much more than family photos.

You know how in some photos, you can tell what the photographer is feeling? In these, I could tell that Megan saw my daughter as her perfect self, Leukodystrophy and all.

Marilyn Maloney is an engineer and late-night medical journal reader.  She lives with her hero of a husband, beautiful puzzle of a daughter, and her cheeky son who likes to jump off the furniture.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

By Barbara Brockway

After the initial joy of finding out I was expecting my first baby, a dark thought crossed my mind. This was in addition to all the concerns first-time parents have; will my baby be healthy, will I make a good mom, will I survive labor?

“I’m worried about the baby’s birthday being so close to Christmas,” I said to my husband, Matt. The December 19th due date was determined after an early sonogram, and declared to be extremely accurate by our doctor.

“Honey, I know how you feel about your birthday being right after the holidays,” Matt said, wrapping me up in a hug. “We’ll do things differently than your parents.”

“We have to always make a big deal out of the baby’s birthday, to not let it be overshadowed by Christmas” I said, thinking about a young me feeling hurt that my special day was treated as an afterthought.

“I promise,” Matt said, smiling a goofy expectant-father smile.

I secretly vowed to hold him to that, more importantly, to hold myself to that.

I had first hand knowledge of the disappointment that comes with having a birthday so close to the holidays. Raised in a small, midwestern town with no diversity, Christmas was my end-all, be-all of holidays, followed by runner-up New Year’s Eve. My birthday, coming on January 2nd, was at the tail end of this bacchanalia. After all the rich food, expense, and parties of the holiday season, who wanted to celebrate a birthday–my birthday?

As a kid, my presents were always wrapped in leftover Christmas paper, my birthday cake eaten begrudgingly by my parents on what should have been the second day of their New Year’s resolutions. My friends were no better. Amidst the excitement of returning to school after the long break and exchanging stories about what Santa had brought, they rarely remembered to wish me happy birthday. What should have been my special day was celebrated as a half-hearted afterthought or forgotten altogether.  

I pledged to do things differently for my child.

The weeks leading up to my due date flew by, filled with an ambitious home remodel, gearing up to turn over my job to a co-worker, and frenetic nesting. I stopped working on December 18th and picked my mom up from the airport on my due date.

“Any signs this baby is coming?” she asked as she happily clutched my big belly.

“The doctor says it could be anytime,” I replied. I unfurled a big list from my purse.

“In the meantime, let’s do some last minute shopping,” I said.

I dragged my mom around Atlanta the next few days, running Christmas errands and buying last minute things for the baby’s room. I delighted when someone asked me when I was due.

“Last Tuesday,” I’d say with a big grin. My mom and I loved the shocked responses. Inside, my worry grew. Each passing day meant future birthdays would be that much closer to the “big” day.

I took to walking around our neighborhood for hours, as walking was supposed to induce labor. Not one contraction. I ate spicy foods. Nada. On December 22nd the three of us walked up and down Stone Mountain. The baby didn’t budge. On December 23rd, Matt and I dined at Indigo, requesting the locally famous “labor table.” I kept the fingers of my left hand crossed all during dessert. I woke up the next morning feeling no different.

With each passing day I worried not only about the baby’s birthday being one day closer to Christmas, but about the health of my overdue child. The doctor started to talk about inducing labor.

On Christmas Eve, the three of us went to see the Live Nativity at East Rock Springs Presbyterian. Matt grabbed my gloved hand and held it in both of his. “You know, honey, at this point, I’m almost hoping the baby is born on Christmas,” he whispered.

My heart swelled as the tinny first notes of “Silent Night” strained through the outdoor speakers. “Me, too,” I confessed. “If it’s this close anyway, it might be better if it’s actually on the same day.”

We stared into each other’s eyes, grinning like two fools who didn’t know what was about to hit them.

At about 3am on Christmas morning, I woke with a start. Was that a contraction? I waited a few minutes. It was definitely a contraction. My heart pounding, I woke Matt.

He flipped on the light and started timing them. At about 6am, we took a two-hour walk around the neighborhood, reveling in the perfect quiet that is Christmas morning. I spent the day alternating rest with walking, squeezing in Christmas dinner, present opening and It’s A Wonderful Life.

At about 10pm we headed for Northside Hospital. Sweet baby Nicholas was born at 2am on December 26th, missing Christmas by two hours. And no, he’s not named after that Nicholas. My husband is Italian; it’s practically a requirement that every Padula family has a Nick.

Was I disappointed that our baby was born the day after Christmas? In retrospect it seems so silly. Once I locked eyes with my trusting, precious little soul all else seemed insignificant. I understood the meaning of unconditional love, and, as a faithful person, felt closer to God. I understood the fuller meaning of Christmas for the first time in my life.

Have Matt and I kept our promise of always making a big deal out of Nick’s birthday? We’ve tried to, although as the years have ticked on, we might be slipping a bit. Last year, we gave him the dreaded combined birthday and Christmas gift, an expensive GoPro camera that seemed too extravagant to be given for just one special day. Did Nick think he’d been ripped off? I’d like to think not, but I can’t really be sure.

One thing I am sure of is that my perspective on having a holiday birthday has changed. Gifts and celebrations aren’t meaningful, no matter what time of year, unless you’re spending them with loved ones. My favorite birthday memories now revolve around special times: ice skating, playing board games, or just watching a movie. No need for cake or decorations, just togetherness. Maybe keeping the focus on that should have been my objective for my son, instead of trying to create space and distinction between the two events.

As for me, If I’m ever asked about a favorite Christmas, how could I say anything but the day I spent laboring with my firstborn, and how could I say my favorite present was anything but my son?

Not a cherished family tradition or a perfectly wrapped gift, my favorite Christmas memory involves sweat, panting, excruciating pain, and, of course, a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.

 
Barbara Brockway’s work has appeared in The Maine Review, The Southern Tablet, Torrid Literature Journal, and elsewhere. She’s received writing awards from WOW-Women On Writing, the Chattahoochee Valley Writers, and the Atlanta Writers Club. Read more on her website: barbarabrockway.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

It Takes an Indian Village

It Takes an Indian Village

By Sharon Van Epps

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The day I left Delhi with my new 5 year-old-daughter, Didi, an Indian “auntie” I’d only just met issued a warning: Take good care of our child.

We’d been invited to attend a friend’s birthday luncheon mere hours before our departure for the US. The unexpected admonishment came from another party guest, a woman who’d never even seen Didi before but nevertheless felt the right to claim her. The woman’s message was clear: You are not an Indian, and this Indian girl will never truly be yours.

“Of course she will take good care!” my friend snapped in my defense. “You think this lady would go to such trouble to adopt an Indian child for some other purpose!”

I’d spent enough time in India to know that offering unwanted advice is a national sport, but still, the stranger’s words pricked. The truth is, in that moment I scarcely knew this little girl who stood beside me, bravely holding my hand. She was an Indian. I was an American. As soon as we boarded the plane bound for San Francisco, everything she understood about the world would disintegrate. We didn’t even speak the same language.

Adopting a child from another culture demands that you incorporate her culture into the identity of your family as a whole. My husband and I felt as prepared for this task as any two non-Indians could be. John had visited India multiple times, and I’d briefly lived in the southern city of Hyderabad. I had Indian relatives-by-marriage eager to be role models for our daughter. I’d even perfected my aunt’s recipe for yellow dal. Still, the list of things I didn’t know was long: Hindi, for starters. The Ramayana. Or how to make roti, or butter chicken, or gulab jamun. Most importantly, I had no idea how to tie a sari, a skill that I was certain that my new daughter would one day want to learn.

By the time Didi reached fifth grade, I’d mastered butter chicken but still couldn’t speak Hindi. Thankfully Didi had learned English, as international adoptees are forced by circumstance to do. With her elementary school graduation looming, she made an announcement: “I want to wear a sari to the grade graduation dance.”

I offered a million reasons why this was a bad idea. Saris are hard to move in. She didn’t own a sari. I wasn’t sure where to buy one. A salwar kameez (a long tunic with pants) or a lehanga choli (a skirt, blouse and scarf set) might be more practical. Most importantly, I couldn’t tie the sari for her, and I suspected I didn’t have the aptitude to learn. I can’t even tie a scarf more than one way.

“Get me a sari,” she said. “I’ll figure it out.”

And so I bought my then 11-year-old her first sari, a dress traditionally reserved for adult women in her birthland. Didi chose electric blue with silver embroidery, plus matching bangles, a necklace, electric blue heels, and a package of stick-on bindhis. Finding somewhere to shop in Silicon Valley wasn’t hard at all – I’d fibbed about that. A quick trip down El Camino Real in Sunnyvale put dozens of saree palaces at our disposal. We picked one at random, where the shopkeeper kindly explained how to wrap and drape while I filmed the tutorial on my phone, hoping her advice would be enough.

Once home, we consulted YouTube videos, but of course there’s more than one way to wrap a sari, and we both ended up confused. I asked my cousin’s wife, Priya, if she could help tie Didi’s dress the night of the dance, but she confessed that she wasn’t adept at wrapping herself — my cousin Gabe or her mom usually tied her sari for her, and besides, both she and Gabe would get home from work too late to help.

“Why don’t we ask Reya’s mom?” Didi suggested.

Reya, the only other Indian girl in the fifth grade, was a friend, but the girls weren’t especially close, though when they’d played in the basketball league together, Reya’s grandmother had once brought Didi a bag of sweet ladoo. Remembering that thoughtful gesture gave me the courage to approach Purvee, Reya’s mom, for some assistance.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Saris are really hard to wear. She may not be able to walk in it. I don’t even like wearing them.”

I agreed with her completely, and then I begged. Donning a sari meant something to Didi that she couldn’t fully articulate. Purvee relented, inviting us over to her house for a trial run, expecting that once she’d wrapped my daughter up, Didi would come to her senses. That didn’t happen, of course. Once draped in several feet of satiny blue material, Didi grinned and gleamed like a sapphire.

“This girl was born to wear a sari,” Purvee admitted. “Some people just have a knack for it.”

On the night of the dance, the girls got ready together at Reya’s house. Thanks to Purvee, Didi’s vision for the night came true.

A couple of years later, another occasion arose that Didi deemed sari worthy: my cousin Mike’s wedding. There would be plenty of Indians at this wedding, including Gabe and Priya, but they were in the wedding party and too busy to help Didi dress. My Aunt Allison volunteered her sister, who recruited her daughter, which is how Didi ended up getting wrapped by the cousin of my cousin, a confusing turn of events that felt culturally authentic. Cousin Robyn turned out to be the ideal teacher, patient and perfectionistic in terms of folding and refolding the pleats in the skirt. Once again, Didi looked beautiful and confident and the sari didn’t even unravel when she danced to Michael Jackson at the reception.

Last month, when an invitation to a Bat Mitzvah arrived, Didi again announced that she’d be wearing a sari, but not the blue. She wanted to go swathed in gold, wearing a dress she’d picked up on her first return visit to India, but getting her wrapped was more complicated now. We’d left California for Seattle, where we had no Indian contacts at all.

“I can do it myself,” Didi said.

This time, with more hands-on experience, the YouTube tutorials made sense, at least to her if not me. In the end, the golden fabric proved too slick to wrangle, but the old blue sari came through, and when Didi descended the stairs to depart for her friend’s celebration, she looked perfect – the beautiful and self-assured Indian American I’d hoped to raise. I’d been afraid that day we left India together that I would never be enough. Now I know. I’m not enough — what mother is? — but I’m also not alone.

“I’m so proud of you,” I said.

“The pleats aren’t quite right,” she replied, “but I’m okay with it.”

 

Sharon Van Epps is a writer, wife, and mother of three teenagers whose work has appeared in Redbook, McSweeney’s,  DailyWorth, Motherlode and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter @sharonvanepps

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting: A Book Review

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

61nvr3kwpnL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_It has been said that the Bard’s words can be applied to any human situation. James Andrews, a British humorist, puts that to the test in Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting, just released in the United States. In a month full of planning and parties, this short book (155 pages) is a great way to wind down, reflect, and chuckle as you head into a new year.

William Shakespeare had three children—first a girl and then twins, a boy and a girl. While he must have been familiar with the demands of children (including but not limited to dirty diapers, sleepless nights, teenage insolence, etc.) none of his works are devoted to the topic. Enter Andrews who organizes quotations from Shakespeare’s oeuvre into timeless and timely comments on parenting.

The book is divided into five acts that are roughly chronological. Act I focuses on newborns, so the issues here are evergreen. There is crying, breastfeeding, and calming. Of the latter Andrews pulls out a quote from The Tempest to apply to a father who tosses his child, with these words in a thought bubble above the baby’s head: “Prithee, do not turn me about. My stomach is not constant.”

And then, of course, there is the biggie, loss of sleep:

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Notice that the drawings that accompany the quotes are very basic, which adds to the charm of Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting. The words are the stars, but the images do add to the sardonic tone that is pervasive throughout the volume.

That tone is evident as Act II begins, with a focus on the toddler years. Sleep remains an issue, as these two pages on “Up In the Night” illustrate with not one, not two, not three, but four lines from different Shakespearean works (both tragedies and comedies):

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Act II also begins to take on some of the more modern challenges of parenting, like tantrums in supermarkets. Andrews and Shakespeare advocate for a denial approach, captured in this line from Much Ado About Nothing: “No part of it is mine; this shame derives itself from unknown loins.”

Acts III and IV continue to wind through way through childhood, both perennial and contemporary (car trips, sweets, hobbies, siblings, school refusing, and the list goes on), while the penultimate act, Act V, culminates with teenagers, who present new challenges.

 

For parents of female teens, there is this about clothing:

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And for parents of male teens regarding food consumption:

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Modern audiences need to keep a sense of humor when reading about punishments, and remember that Andrews is not advocating physical abuse or food deprivation, but rather cleverly using Shakespeare’s words (and even when taken out of context of a play, remember that disciplinary standards were quite different in the 1500s and 1600s!). For instance, a quote from Titus Andronicus regarding “smacking:” “You shall know, my boys, your mother’s hand shall right your mother’s wrong.” And another from Titus about children who act improperly at the dinner table declares, “There let him stand and rave and cry for food.”

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting draws exclusively from the plays, and does not include any lines from sonnets. You can imagine that the tone of the book would change quite substantially if it included lines like, “Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” as opposed to, “My womb, my womb, my womb undoes me.”

The purpose of James Andrews’ illustrations and commentary in the end is to make you smile, and perhaps provide some reassurance for those days when you say to yourself in your head the line from The Tempest: “Good wombs have borne bad sons.”

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She has two good sons borne from her good womb.

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Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettymages.com

My Flight From The Empty Nest

My Flight From The Empty Nest

By Wendy Biller

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Nothing really prepared me for the day when my child would go off to college, and I would join the dreaded “empty nester” club.  

We do everything in our power to try to brush it off like a bad case of dandruff, but the term gets slapped on anyway. One day you are a parent. The next day, an empty nester. It takes you back to your most primal self. We birth our children, protect them in the nest, and then they are yanked away from us, leaving behind a path of blood and regrets. No matter how we prepare ourselves, there is nothing natural about their leave-taking.  

Friends and family try to be hardy and forthright and write you emails with the subject line HEY EMPTY NESTER! The exclamation point being the clincher. But I was determined not to fall into the “empty nester” stereotype. I would accomplish this by making sure I did not have a moment to breathe. I would drop my daughter off in Oklahoma City, where she was beginning college, and then immediately segue to New York City where I was fortunate to have my play in rehearsals. I had already experienced this with my other child, saying goodbye, four years earlier. Weeping unabashedly for weeks, venturing off to the supermarket for the first time. Joining the ranks that clutch that box of Honey Nut cereal, knowing that it might never get off that shelf. Discarded, because it was a kid’s favorite cereal but he is no longer around. And you don’t think the others can smell your despair? It’s like a scent that permeates through the supermarket. The scent of the lost tribe of motherhood.  

But when there is a remaining child, you do not join the empty nester club. You are spared from that title. In fact you parade the remaining child around, reminding everyone that your membership in the club is years away. You shower the remaining one with gratitude and chocolate and neediness until they want to kill you. In fact, they can’t wait to leave the nest, almost throwing it in your face. “Ha ha, you will soon be an empty nester. Get used to it sucker!”

I vowed not to let my sentimental side get the best of me when we arrived at the college. That would mean doing things I hated. I hated going to Bed Bath and Beyond where I’d have to feign enthusiasm over a garbage can. And let’s not forget Target, for the rest of the billions of necessities for dorm living like posters, and special tape to hang the posters that wouldn’t damage the walls, or make the paint peel. I feigned enthusiasm for meeting all the other dorm gals, from the sullen hipster from Westchester, NY to the perky church gal from Texas. Back again at Target, I faked excitement for picking out towels, and a mesh shower caddy holder. But then something strange happened. As I clutched my huge bag of popcorn that I secretly bought for comfort, I forgot I was in Oklahoma. The layout of the store was exactly the same layout that was back in Los Angeles, my hometown, with one minor difference. The people seemed kinder and gentler.   

And then I glanced up, and saw my daughter down the aisle. She waved to me. I waved back. The realization hit that she wouldn’t be coming back to Los Angeles with me but staying on that prairie where “the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.” For one fleeting moment, there was a pit in my stomach. But I brushed it off burying myself in the popcorn.

The day finally came to leave. We said our goodbyes, mine behind a humongous pair of black sunglasses. I headed straight to New York City, got on the sweaty trains, headed to Long Island City, to watch the actors rehearse my play. Not one actor knew where I had just been roaming. I even spent two nights in Brooklyn with the first born, who made the mistake of saying “How does it feel being an empty nester?” I wanted to smack him. I was fearful of sleeping with this thought in my head. Luckily my thoughts were diverted when a mouse darted out from the closet. I began screaming and tripped over a rug, pulling a leg muscle. The rest of the trip was spent in pain, which I strangely welcomed.

Two weeks passed quickly. I felt like a vagabond with a suitcase filled with filthy clothes. But I was determined not to get back to LA. Six hours later on a Peter Pan bus, one ferry ride, I arrived in Martha’s Vineyard to talk shop. “Hey Ray, maybe you would consider directing a play I wrote?” I exhausted everyone with my non-stop chatter.  Three days later it was time to leave. Bus and ferry back to New York. There were no more places to crash. No more rehearsals. People stopped answering their phones. There was no other choice. I willed myself to Kennedy Airport where I booked a flight using frequent flyer miles. Sadly the flight left on time.

That night I stumbled in around 1am. The house smelled dusty. Like it had been hibernating for weeks. I finally figured it out. The smell of childhood was gone.

I set my alarm clock. Morning came. I opened the door. Dirty underwear under the butterfly chair, papers and candy wrappers, and a stuffed teddy bear with one eye. But the bed was empty.

 

 
Wendy Biller is an award winning screenwriter and playwright. She has written and produced projects for Showtime, TBS, Fox and won the Writer’s Guild of America award for best family film as well as the Andaluz jury prize for her play The Refrigerator that was produced as part of The Seven (Cell theatre, New Mexico).

Photo: gettyimages.com

Dear Diary, What Ever Happened To Having Crushes?

Dear Diary, What Ever Happened To Having Crushes?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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You know you are old when you think all of the boys in your daughters’ 8th grade class look adorable.

“Are you crazy?” my girls say as I mention this to them as we wait in the drop off line which moves at a snail’s pace, leaving me plenty of time to study the student body.

“Don’t you think anyone is cute?” I ask. They roll their eyes and run out of the car. I don’t blame them, I remember having similar exchanges with my mother who was also obviously old because she, too, used to think all the boys in my grade were adorable. The difference between my kids and me was that I could laundry list a slew of guys that were in fact cute, while my daughters, now fourteen, cannot.

“You’ve got to have a crush on someone,” I said to my daughter last year. We’d just watched the movie The Duff and my big take away was that the boy next door was no ordinary boy next door. “I didn’t notice,” my daughter said.

“That’s impossible,” I argued back. “You are thirteen,” I told her. “That’s what girls do when they are thirteen, they have crushes.”

She shrugged. “Maybe I’m a lesbian.”

“That’s no excuse,” I told her. “Even if you were a lesbian, you’d have crushes, they’d just be on girls.”

She shrugged again. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Before I wrote this essay, I researched—meaning I talked to friends with daughters around my kids’ age. Most said that their daughters had no interest in boys, either. They were too busy with school work and extracurricular activities. This is the same thing my girls tell me when I ask, and I do ask because I’ve got to be honest, I’m just not buying it. Liking boys is not a business decision. Liking boys (or girls) is hormonal. Crushes just happen. Like acne.

Who among us didn’t love David Cassidy or Rick Springfield or the entire cast of The Outsiders? We did, and we had Teen Beat posters to prove it. For the personal crushes we had diaries. Or at least, I did. My mother gave me a diary in 6th grade when I was being bullied, and a few months ago, I shared it with my daughters. I don’t know where I got the brilliant idea that by reading their mother’s first-hand account of her year dealing with mean girls that they would come away more enlightened than they already were from having heard my stories ad nauseam. I’ve shared the stories despite that my girls, to my knowledge, never have been bullied and never have been the bullying kind. Until of course, I shared my diary. Then they began to bully me.

“I wasn’t boy crazy,” I told them, grabbing the diary from their hands.

The truth is that I should have read the diary to myself before I read it to them because there was a remarkable dearth of material on girls. Maybe a line here and there about my daily existence, like “Lisa was mean again today.” But for the most part, the pages were littered with charts ranking my favorite boys on a scale of one to five and hearts with initials in it. You know, the kind that we all used to doodle.

“You were weird,” they told me. Not only do girls these days, at least the ones in my house, not have crushes but they don’t doodle, either. I’ve leafed through the pages of assignment notebooks looking for signs of crushes, only to come up empty handed. The diaries I’d bought them, in preparation to start journaling when the bullying and crushes began, are empty. Their walls hold no posters. Their bulletin boards are collaged in pictures, all of girls. Girls hugging. Girls piled in photo booths. Their worlds are raining girls. There are the school girls, the camp girls, the dance girls. Not that I wish it were different! I’m so grateful that my girls have girls. That they have spent years learning to be a good friend, understanding how to have female relationships. Nonetheless, shouldn’t there be some boys? If not in body than at least in initials penciled on the side of sneakers? Or maybe these days kids’ personal lives, their secrets and representations of their inner selves are buried down deep within their smartphones instead of their diaries, making it impossible for people who don’t Snapchat (otherwise known as parents) to get a picture of who they are. Or maybe, as hard as it is for me to believe, they really are just too busy.  

I don’t know where I got the notion that my daughters’ teenage experiences would mirror mine, and I’d be able to turn my childhood lemons into lemonade by dispensing relatable advice in a way that my own mother, who never proclaimed to relate, could not. But sure enough, time, as it tends to do, has created gaps between my middle school days and my daughters’, making not just my diary but my thoughts on how girls and boys should relate, outdated. According to my “research,” the trend among high schoolers these days is to have “hook up” parties, gatherings en masse in basements to fool around. Rumor is, these occur weekend to weekend, and kids switch partners as often as they switch houses. Like musical chairs with sexual favors, which I for one, find horrifying.

I suppose there might have been a time when I would have found it gratifying that young girls would prioritize goals and friends over going out with boys, and I would have believed that they could actually be okay with this free love business. I would have called it feminism and progress, and I would have been proud. But now that the girls are my own, I call it crazy. I can’t help but think that by-passing the harmless crush phase and heading straight for the physical will backfire. I can’t help but think that kids in middle school who don’t have the time to daydream and doodle are getting shortchanged. And, with the same benefit of time and distance that allows me to see all of the boys in the 8th grade class as adorable, I view my own middle school experience, no matter how brutal, as better than my kids’ today. Maybe my mindset makes me old. Or maybe it just makes me a mother.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

Photo: gettyimages.com

When Parents Can Have Some Fun of Their Own

When Parents Can Have Some Fun of Their Own

By Campbell C. Hoffman

Can grown-ups have fun? Can we play? Can I experience something akin to what my kids feel when they are bouncing on the trampoline?

 

If you want to see the face of fun, to know what it sounds like and looks like, just watch kids jumping on a trampoline. Santa Claus brought one for our family last year, and the kids still haven’t gotten bored with it. Their ragdoll bodies flop and fall, they squeal and scream. When I worry for just a second—is it a belly laugh or a broken bone—the laughter becomes contagious, smiles abound, and I know that my kids are having fun. Real, playful, uninhibited fun.   

As I wipe my hands with a dishtowel and throw it over my shoulder, I pause for a moment to watch them before I have to put an end to it, for now. I try to remember the last time I laughed like that, easy and carefree. I come up short. I begin to wonder if maybe my only way to know fun is to witness it in my kids. But does it even count, then, if it’s not actually mine? Maybe my days of fun were officially over, now that I’m a parent.   

“Ok, guys, time to come in to wash up for dinner,” I tell them, marching toward the trampoline.  

I help them with the zipper of the net, offer a stable hand as they climb out and march towards the house, grumbling about dinner, but still smiling with residual joy from their play.

I’m not even sure I know how to have fun anymore. At best, having fun seems outside of my grasp. At worst, it looks like more work. The circles of dishes, dinner, laundry, and lunch can be tedious and never ending. When it is punctuated it is either with the opposite of fun in worry and drama, or small meaningful moments that, though glorious, are not ripe with play and fun. It seems that the grown-up way of handling this lack of fun is to suppress the desire even to have any at all. If I can fool myself into thinking that I don’t want to have fun anyway, then I can’t be grumpy or resentful of all the things that displace fun in my life, can I?

There are countless things that hold me back from having fun, things like being too self-conscious, or the fear of being foolish or selfish, or worse, unproductive. Not to mention, so much of my job as a mother is risk assessment, which can be the nemesis to fun. So I wonder: can grown-ups have fun? Can we play? Can I experience something akin to what my kids feel when they are bouncing on the trampoline?

As parents, we are often on the sidelines of fun. We are the wallflowers at birthday parties, pausing in conversation to wave to a child who has reached the top of the slide. We are the ones that tuck sweaty hair behind ears and offer a drink of water. We are the ones who listen to the stories afterward, collecting these treasures and holding onto them for the kids, like souvenirs in a pocket for later, even noting their beauty and goodness. We stand in our places, safe and on guard, on this side of the line of fun. The un-fun side.

Last week, my son, Griffin, age 3 and the youngest at his cousin’s birthday party by a handful of years, was unsure about climbing the tall blow up slide at the bounce-house. He sought me out, wanting help, or company maybe. I looked at the other parents and felt sheepish about joining him—like I was breaking some unspoken rule: parents wave from the sidelines and leave the laughter and play to the kids. But my son wanted me (and truthfully, I was glad for the break of small talk with mothers I didn’t know). I smiled wanly, tucked my shoes into a cubby, and then, with his outstretched hand in mine, walked toward the bounce slide.

For the next 20 minutes I followed Griffin, climbing, scrambling, toppling, sliding, sometimes with him on my lap. It was real fun, physical fun, a deep tickle in my belly, a smile and even laughter that I couldn’t hold back. It was not just an intellectual understanding of blessings or goodness, not witnessing the fun of someone else, namely my children, but fun of my very own. By the time we were called in for pizza and cake, I was the one with the sweaty ponytail and a smile I couldn’t contain. I even compared brush burns with a few of the kids as we were ushered into the party room. I had crossed over, following the kids’ lead, from stoic parental responsibility into pure childlike fun.

My default posture of motherhood has been as the onlooker, arms crossed holding water bottles and jackets, at the ready to rescue and serve, but after the freedom of fun that I experienced at the birthday party, I realized that fun was within my grasp. I didn’t always know how to get there, but I was pretty certain my kids could show me the way. I started saying yes to that childlike sense of play. Yes, I’d love to jump on the trampoline. Yes, turn up the music and let’s have a pajama dance party. Yes, I’ll go down the water slide, too. Timidly at first, finding it work to choose yes, but the more yes I said, the louder and stronger I said it. I was saying yes to fun.   

This past spring I coached my oldest son’s soccer team. It was a slow yes, a reticent yes, to agree to this responsibility, and that’s exactly how I saw it: a task, a job. There is joy and beauty in watching our kids grow in strength and accomplishment; heart-swelling pride in seeing them try something new or work hard at something practiced. But as the weeks of the seasons ticked by, I began to feel myself having fun, playful fun, fun of my own, running alongside these first graders back and forth on the soccer field.

Our last practice of the season was a parents vs. team scrimmage. A handful of the parents showed up, and what happened was glorious: we had real playful fun together. Parents laughed as we tried to play this game, whiffing a ball, missing a goal, occasionally making a nice pass. The kids saw us, unpolished, unfettered, unproductive even, smiling joyously having fun of our very own.
Campbell C. Hoffman lives in Southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared at Brain, Child Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and Mamalode. She can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

By Allison Slater Tate

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I am missing the little boys who believed in reindeer food on the front lawn.

 

I cried in the Star Wars aisle of Toys ‘R’ Us at 10 a.m. this morning.

In a rare show of industry, I was trying to knock out the majority of my Christmas shopping in just one (painfully expensive) trip. With my four children all safely ensconced at their respective schools from middle down to preschool, I took my sweet time pushing my cart through the giant toy mecca, pausing at each aisle, carefully picking out candy canes and wands for stockings.

It felt indulgent and strange to actually give myself the permission to shop leisurely instead of bum-rushing my way through an online order—or, more likely, five online orders. I enjoyed picking up the toys and reading the boxes the way I obsessively did when I was a child; though I find the whole “unboxing” phenomenon on YouTube a little jarring, I understand why my 3-year-old daughter enjoys watching others open and play with toys so much, since it reminds me of how I was riveted to the Saturday morning commercials at her age.

I had made it through most of the store, and my cart was piled high with things for my youngest, who is my only girl—Calico Critters and Beanie Boos, Breyer horses and Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Paw Patrol figures and a Play-Doh kitchen I know she will squeal over—when I found myself in the Star Wars aisle. I was suddenly staring at a pile of lightsabers, red and green and blue.

Like a blurry video in fast forward, years flashed through my mind: all the other Decembers when I had walked through these same aisles, picking up Little People farms and Hexbugs, Hot Wheels tracks and Razor scooters. I remembered running my hands over heavy plastic playhouses, debating between massive Lego sets, searching for Thomas trains we didn’t yet own. I thought about 12 years of Christmas mornings, oranges in stockings, tiny, sticky candy cane fingers, nights of driving around neighborhoods with the radio station set to the Christmas music channel, the kids in their pajamas staring out the windows and admiring our neighbors’ handiwork. They were always ready to go home before I was.

And that’s when, for a few minutes, I just leaned against my shopping cart and let myself cry, right in the middle of Toys ‘R’ Us, amidst the Yodas and the Ewok dolls—not an ugly cry, not heaving sobs, but just a few tears—as I realized that those days, when I had little people constantly underfoot and Santa was definitely real in my house, are over. My oldest boys have grown out of toy stores altogether now. They’re not even that interested in the video games sold there; they now look to download more sophisticated computer games straight from the source. My 8-year-old, whether because of his personality, because he is a third boy and jaded by the knowledge he’s acquired through his brothers, or because 8-year-old boys are now somewhat more savvy and less into toys than they were in generations past, barely plays with traditional toys at all. And after a recent brutal grilling by the third grader, I am pretty sure the 3-year-old is the only one left who truly believes in Santa Claus.

So I cried, because I miss those little boys who so carefully placed the plate of cookies and glass of milk by our fireplace chimney and brought home sacks of be-glittered handprint ornaments from preschool and kindergarten. But in truth, I cried more because I miss those days that I used to just survive, and then only barely. I miss when my days were just chaotic blurs, ping-ponging through naps and playgroup meet-ups and hurtling toward bedtime every night. I miss them because now, through the magnifying glass of hindsight and the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, they seem so much simpler, even in their tedium.

My days have a different timbre now. No one wears diapers, no one drinks from sippy cups with a bazillion parts to clean. There are no naptimes to work around. Instead, there is homework and practices and school. My little girl still keeps me with one foot partly in the world of the toddler; she is my excuse for knowing what’s popular on Disney Junior, my reason for collecting picture books and acorns from the yard. But things have changed.

I am mourning the Christmas tasks I had just a few years ago. I am missing the little boys who believed in reindeer food on the front lawn. But even more, I mourn their mother—the younger version of me, who was able to immerse myself in the physical labor and emotional chaos of young motherhood, whose parents were still strong and hearty and not yet concerned with the trickiness of retirement and aging, who didn’t worry about puberty and high school transcripts. I miss the version of me who could spend naptimes baking dozens of Christmas cookies and whose biggest worry was making it to the preschool Christmas concert on time.

One of my friends often quotes George Bernard Shaw: “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.” As my children grow up and out of the routines and rites of childhood, I learn with them. I learn what each new stage means for them and for me as a parent, what the view from here now looks like and feels like. Yes, at first, it feels like I have lost something. I miss something. I mourn something. But even as I wipe a few tears off my cheeks, I know that this Christmas, when we are all piled around the tree again in our pajamas and bare feet—the bigger kids with smaller, fewer, and yet more expensive packages, the youngest with a plethora of tiny treasures to delight a preschooler’s big eyes—I won’t miss anything. Everything will be there, in new shapes and sizes: all the pieces of my heart.

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and a mother of four children ages 13 to 3. In addition to Brain, Child, her work can be found at her eponymous websiteToday Parents, Scary Mommy, the Washington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and the Huffington Post, among others. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Missing Your Mother Is The Distinct Taste Of The Immigrant Life

Missing Your Mother Is The Distinct Taste Of The Immigrant Life

By Betsy Parayil-Pezard

Nothing can quite describe the varying songs of loneliness, sometimes vague and subtle, sometimes acute with longing, every time the sun sets in an immigrant life.

 

My sister asked me what my birth plan was, and I laughed. The French hospital where I was registered to give birth had never heard of birth plans. I peed into a plastic cup at my monthly appointments and stood in the neon lights of a hallway, waiting for a nurse to finish weighing the round-bellied ladies before me. People would pass by as I held my warm pee. I obsessed over this detail for weeks. Who can think about birth plans when you don’t have a dignified place to set down your urine sample?   

When I became pregnant with my first child, I felt a surge of panic. With this flesh bean in the womb, I questioned all of my choices. I had married a Frenchman. We lived on the second floor of an apartment in Paris. But it was okay. No need to worry just yet. We could still move home. I would enroll our baby in the Montesorri preschool where I had gone as a kid and we would open the college fund. There would be baseball and tuba and Sunday school. And of course, he would speak American English with a nice Midwestern accent.

The morning my water broke, I stood on the street corner trying to hail a taxi with my husband. No taxi ever came, so we plunged into the corridors of the metro. Everything on the train beamed with a surreal glow. My husband and I stared at each other, sandwiched between the other passengers.

My mother showed up in Paris the day I came home from the maternity ward. She cooked and cleaned and let me sleep. “Mothering the mother,” she kept saying. “Back home in India, a pregnant woman goes home to her parents for the last trimester and after giving birth, she doesn’t set foot on the ground for a whole month.”

Every afternoon, she fell asleep with the baby curled up on her chest. I might have been jealous of her bonding so strongly with the baby, but I was thankful. In a couple weeks she would be gone, and I would be alone. Alone with my husband and my friends and all of the other people that loved me here, of course.

Missing your mother is the distinct taste of the immigrant life.

Whenever I travelled to my parents’ house in Minnesota, I often stood in the front hallway staring at a picture of my mother taken just after she had arrived in Detroit from India. She was leaning back on a couch, legs in white tights tucked to the side, and you could see the darkness of her knees glow through where the nylon was stretched taut. She was wearing one of those little nurse uniforms from the sixties, a little paper hat tucked around her beehive, a white mini-dress with buttons down the front. She had only been in America for a few weeks, and she was waiting for her fiancé to come in from Seattle. He was finishing up school and then he would come, but the blank limpness of her features seemed surprising, because all other pictures from this era are full of happy teeth, even though everything in the first apartment was loaned or donated from the church, even though the blue Chevy was purchased for only fifty dollars, and even though peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had to sometimes be served to guests.   

This was before the arrival of any children, I imagined that my mother’s heart was missing and loving my father, and that is why this misery had robbed her face of its one million dancing expressions. The cushioned lips hung softly open as if she were waiting for mouth to mouth resuscitation. The dark and intelligent eyes ignored the camera and stared off at some image of the mind that no one else could see, of a charismatic young preacher with wild eyebrows and a laugh that rocked through windows and down hallways.  

When I pressed my fingers against the glass of the frame, little halos of steam flared around my fingertips.

Nothing can quite describe the varying songs of loneliness, sometimes vague and subtle, sometimes acute with longing, every time the sun sets in an immigrant life. In the park where my children play, I watch the refugees come to use the water fountain and the toilets. We are worlds apart, but I feel close to them. The men take tomatoes and berries from the neighborhood gardens. Sometimes, if they cannot get a bed in a shelter, they sneak back into the park to sleep. Somehow this is better than the war torn countries they have left behind. As you are sleeping in the cold grass of a dark, empty park in Paris, wouldn’t you miss your mother and the little songs she sang to you?

My mother had crossed the ocean to follow that young preacher from India to America. They had met in Bombay while she was in nursing school and he was studying economics. He stood in the courtyard and called up to her dorm room. They walked together in silence, the sound of their feet crunching into the dust. One day, someone caught on and a family council was called. My father declared that he would be marrying my mother. “She was the smartest girl, and the most beautiful,” he told me emphatically years later.   

In the evenings, she climbed up to the roof of the dorm and clutched the letters to her chest, looking out to the west and holding him in her thoughts. He wrote to her regularly. After theology school in England, then a speech degree in Seattle, he eventually got things figured out enough to send for her. “Things were looking up,” he told me. That photo of my mother hanging in the hallway was taken when he hadn’t yet moved to Detroit, where she was waiting for him. Everything was so wildly different here. It was 1968.   

I had crossed an ocean too, not really following anyone else other than the small voice inside. In Oslo, I bought loaves of fresh whole grain bread and devoured them with slices of cheese or hazelnut spread. I ran down to the ocean and felt its vast mouth of grayness echoing the questions I etched into my journals. Why have you come here? What do you know about love?

My mother is pushing my son in the stroller on a lush sidewalk in Boca Raton. She speaks to him in English and he answers in French. I didn’t mean for him to be so French, actually. When I spoke English to him as a baby, I kept slipping back into French again and again. After fifteen years in France, I think in French. I dream in French. But still, I know that this is no excuse.

I had raised a child that couldn’t speak with my own mother.  

She would have to teach him herself.

For this too, we needed her.
Betsy Parayil-Pezard, an American with Indian roots, lives in Paris, France with her French husband and two children. She works on both continents as a professional coach and mindfulness facilitator with Connection Leadership, and blogs about the mindful life at The Paris Way (theparisway.wordpress.com). Betsy is currently working on a collection of recorded meditations for dealing with difficult times.

Photo: gettyimages.com

15 Reasons Moms Are Just a Half-Step Away From Insanity

15 Reasons Moms Are Just a Half-Step Away From Insanity

By Jackie Ashton

1. “Have you seen the butter?” heard three times a day per child, caregiver or other “human” who frequents your home. (On any given day, there are at least three sticks of butter in, of all places, the refrigerator.)

2. Just as you are walking out to take a much-deserved yoga class, your first in ages, the babysitter texts in a cancellation: she has been bitten by a spider.

3. “Mommy! Where! Is! My! Bobo!?” screeched at ear-piercing volume, 300 times per day per child. (Note: Bobo, the bright-blue elephant, is usually splayed out on the kitchen floor—right where he was left!—often within eyesight.)

4. Your 2-year-old daughter returns from preschool clutching a bag of clay and detailed homework instructions involving said clay. That’s weird, you think, I didn’t know preschools assigned homework. You cancel wine night with the girls and dutifully follow the instructions, cheerleading and coaching your toddler along with enthusiastic fist-pumps. The next day you help your daughter pack her clay creation ohsocarefully into her backpack. For weeks, you inquire about this important (and unannounced!) clay homework. You receive the same cheerful reply each time, “Oh, that! She never collected it!”

5. Subsequent calls to the now radio silent, spider-bitten babysitter are returned with a text that says “I’m. Just. 2. Emotional. 2 B UR babysitter. I quit. L8R!”

6. Lice.

7. You stop at the vet’s office to pick up special “Diarrhea No More” food for the geriatric family dog. You leave your 3-year old son and 4-year old daughter in the car for a blip of time that does not exceed one nanosecond. You return to find a pile of your son’s warm poop perched like a bow on the present you just bought for your nephew’s birthday.

8. In an attempt to be an involved mother, you volunteer to organize the kindergarten end of year party. You receive 47 emails to discuss and re-discuss, hash out and re-hash out, schedule and re-schedule the five tasks that need to take place to pull off a one hour party for five-year-olds.

9. You send your son to school wearing red pants and a black Spiderman T-shirt. He awaits you at pick up wearing shoes, a pull-up that does not belong to him and nothing else in 40-degree weather. No explanation for his strip tease is provided.

10. The mother-loving lice are back. Your children will now wear tea tree oil-dipped ski caps at all times. So. Help. You. God.

11. You are thrilled to receive a last-minute invite to see Phoenix, your favorite indie band. You call your top five babysitters; none are free. You try the B-list babysitters, eight of them: they’ve all been bitten by spiders. Your cousin calls to say that her next door neighbor’s nanny’s ex-husband’s parole officer has a new girlfriend who sort of likes kids and would you like her number?

12. You volunteer to drive some of the children in your daughter’s class to the zoo for a field trip. It’s unclear whether he suffers from the bubonic plague or swine flu, but one of the children assigned to your car is definitely dying.

13. You receive a 5-inch thick packet in the mail from the school your children have attended for three years. “New forms must be filled out by hand each calendar yearthanks in advance!” chirps the letter from the Director.

14. You pay a boatload of money to send your kids to the “Summer Fun Zone,” a June camp marketed as a week of fun-filled outdoor frolicking for your kids while you work. “How was camp?” you ask them on the ride home, hoping for festive tales of water-balloon-tossing and capture the flag. “Awesome!” your 4-year-old son replies, “We didn’t even have to hold hands crossing the street!”

15. It’s your 10th wedding anniversary. You’ve planned a much-anticipated night away with your husband. As you are applying mascara for the first (and quite possibly the last) time in 2015, the just-hired-quadruple-reference-checked babysitter calls (ah-ha! she does have vocal cords): “Jackie, hey, listen, I know this sounds super random and weird, but I think I’ve been bitten by a spi”CLICK.

Jackie Ashton is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon and Redbook, among other publications.

Photo: Getty Images

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

By Jennifer Berney

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The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.

 

At two years old, when my younger son began putting words together, his first complete sentences were all variations on a theme.

“Watch this, Mommy!” he would shout over and over as he frog-hopped across the living room floor or threw a ball into a hoop. When the action was complete, he always asked, “See that?” his voice crackling with pride.

Once my son had these sentences, he used them hundreds of times every day, and I thought about what it meant that he wasn’t saying “feed me” or “hold me” or “keep me warm.” The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.

Now that he’s approaching three he finds more creative ways to remain in my line of vision. When I make dinner he often struts into the kitchen, demands to be held, and then physically turns my head so that I must look him in the eye.

Because of both his age and personality, my younger son refuses to be invisible. But my older son, who is seven, can sometimes fade into the shadows. He spends hours sitting alone in his room building Legos, or lying on his top bunk reading comic books. In our house, he’s often a friendly background presence rather than a force to be reckoned with. Because his little brother steals the show so often, I often worry that I sideline him, that I don’t actively see him the way he needs to be seen. It’s easy work to tell my older son I love him, to hold him tight when he’s near, but sometimes those words—I love you—feel inadequate and hollow. Sometimes I suspect that to convince him of my love, I must first convince him that I know him.

Two weeks ago, his first grade teacher gave me the opportunity to see him with new eyes. It was parent-teacher conference week, and on the day of our conference my son and I walked to school holding hands. It was a rare moment for us, one where he and I could be alone together, free from his brother’s toddler antics.

When we sat down with his teacher, she laid out a folder of his work and told me, “Your son pays close attention to detail.” This wasn’t a thing that I knew about him, but once she pointed it out, I could see it everywhere. As we leafed through the pages of his folder I noticed how tiny and careful his letters had become. I noticed the way that, in his self-portrait, the sky was not just a line of blue at the top of the page—it actually met the ground.

But there were other things worth noticing in my son’s self-portrait. He had drawn himself not as a giant smiling face but as a tiny shadowy figure at the bottom of the page. I remembered a video I had seen years ago that demonstrated how much children’s self- and family portraits revealed about the way they saw themselves in the world. If my son, when asked to draw himself, could only summon something tiny, then clearly he needed some building up.

That night as he soaked in the bathtub, I dug through his school folder to retrieve a hand-drawn book his teacher had returned at the conference. “Will you look at this with me?” I asked as I sat on the bathmat and showed him his own work. He straightened his back to look over my shoulder. I pointed to every detail I noticed—the fluttering fins on the goldfish that swam inside a fish bowl, the disco ball he’d drawn on the page with the dancing canary. My son nodded and giggled, impressed with his own sense of humor. He pointed out details I had missed.

Once both of my sons were in their pajamas I kissed them goodbye and left the house—it was my partner’s night to put them to sleep, my night to meet a friend for adult conversation.

When I returned that night the house was quiet, dark except for a fake candle—a battery-powered tea light that flickered on the coffee table next to a glass of water. I thought nothing of it until later when I settled on the couch to read and I noticed the water glass was full. Between the water glass and the tea light was a tiny illustration. It was a picture of my son and me standing together beside a candle, holding hands.

Some part of me was humbled by son’s deep generosity. I wasn’t sure that a parent-child relationship was supposed to be so reciprocal. I had given him ten minutes of my undivided attention and he had returned my investment immediately. He had thought about me and my after-hours quiet time, had pictured me on the couch with a book reaching for a glass of water. I had seen him, and in return he saw me too.

I looked closely at the picture and considered it. The paper itself was tiny, but in this illustration both my son and I took up the full width of the page. Were we big or were we small? I couldn’t tell. I only knew for sure that we were the same size as the candle that lit us. It strikes me now that he perfectly captured the magic that happens when we witness each other, when we take the time to look and narrate what we see: we stand in the glow of that other person’s view, and know not just that we are loved, but why we are loved, and how.

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

My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

By Mandy Hitchcock

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Being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.   

 

“Cherish every moment!”  

“It goes by so fast!”

“You’ll miss these days when they are gone!”   

Parents hear these refrains from every corner these days, especially when their children are small.   

I know better than most how fast it can go, how quickly it can be gone. In 2010, my seventeen-month-old daughter Hudson died from a sudden, aggressive bacterial infection. If anyone were going to tell parents to cherish every moment with their children, you’d think it would be me.   

But what I really want to say is this: it’s okay if you don’t.   

In the early days of my grief, I felt a terrible resentment toward parents of young children, even close friends, as their children turned two, or potty trained, or graduated to toddler beds—I was so heartbroken that Hudson would never get the chance to reach any of those milestones. I didn’t want to resent my friends, but I did. I flinched at their Facebook photos, which showed an intact family enjoying a life I would never enjoy again. And now, five years on, I still flinch when I see a family with three living children like I should have, or my friends’ children all turning seven in the coming year like Hudson would be, all of them looking so grown, while Hudson will never be any bigger than the chubby-cheeked toddler I last saw lying on a bed in the pediatric ICU.

What I’ve never resented, though, are my friends’ frustrations about parenting young children. After my daughter died but before my younger children were born—during the long year when I was a childless mother—I often saw Facebook posts or listened to friends’ woeful stories about children who wouldn’t stop crying, or potty-training lessons gone wrong, or strong-willed toddlers refusing to do what they’d been asked. When I heard these stories, I’d first think that I’d give anything to be dealing with these problems myself. But the next second, I’d remember that if I were dealing with these problems myself, I’d have many difficult moments, too. I’d complain and express frustration. It was only when held up against the unimaginable crucible of the death of a child that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood might seem like they should not be so hard. The last thing I ever wanted was for any other parent to feel guilty for feeling frustrated or overwhelmed or short-tempered with their children—solely because my child was not here for me to experience those same emotions.   

Now, seven years into the journey of mothering small children, one dead and two living—Hudson’s younger siblings Jackson and Ada—I can say that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood are unbelievably hard for me. Are they as hard as losing my daughter? Of course not, but just because they are not hard relative to the death of a child does not mean that they are not hard in absolute terms. There are many moments when my kids can drive me to the precipice of fury, when I have to clench my jaw and speak to them through gritted teeth in order to keep myself from flying over the edge directly at them. And during those moments, it’s rarely the memory of my daughter that pulls me back from the brink—instead, it’s the small, warm body right in front of me, my child who, in his or her own exasperating way, is asking for my attention or my love or my help.   

My daughter’s death changed me, irrevocably, but it did not make me superhuman. It did not magically endow me with equanimity in the face of poop smeared all over the crib after my two-year-old decides to remove her diaper during naptime, or in the face of my four-year-old’s nonchalant but persistent “No” when I ask him to take his plate to the sink, or in the face of the rapidly intensifying shrieks of “MINE!” from both of them as they struggle over some suddenly coveted item that neither cared about until the other picked it up.

I’ve been so grateful when others have shared that Hudson’s story has changed how they look at their lives, and their relationships with their children. I say often that the only consolation I have after Hudson’s death is knowing that her life can continue to have meaning in the world that she loved. Sharing her story with others is one of the only ways I can still mother her, so I take great comfort whenever another mother tells me that she thought of Hudson during a frustrating parenting moment and found a way to pull her own child closer. At those times, it feels like Hudson’s spirit is somehow still doing important work.     

And I, too, am grateful to Hudson, every day, for pushing me to be a better, kinder parent. Her absence does help me better appreciate even the most mundane moments with her siblings. And being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.   

But life is also life. A healthy dose of perspective is helpful, but it is relative. There is little value in downplaying our feelings because we think someone else has it rougher than we do. Someone else will always have it rougher than we do. I survived my daughter’s death, but having to clean up poop smeared all over the crib (not to mention all over the child who did the smearing) is still really hard, right now, today, in this moment.   

Living in the moment means actually living in the moment, not taking ourselves out of it or stopping ourselves from feeling our feelings. Among the many things I’ve learned on this long road after my daughter’s death is that it’s not only possible, but totally normal, to experience deeply conflicting emotions at the same time. Extreme grief and extreme joy. Deep anger and deep love. Incredible frustration and incredible gratitude. Parenting both living and dead children at the same time is a constant lesson in that kind of emotional duality.

Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. Her essays also appear in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Teaching Our Children About the Meaning of Friendship

Teaching Our Children About the Meaning of Friendship

By Meagan Schultz

“See, bud, THIS is what friends do.” I tell him, returning to the conversation we started earlier. “Friends do nice things for each other, to make each other feel better.”

 

“Augie is my friend,” Silas says proudly one morning as we’re eating breakfast at the kitchen table that straddles the french doors to our back deck.

“Lucky you,” I say.

“And Finn, and Shay, and Ivy, and Matilde … ” he goes on, listing every kid he can remember in his nursery school.

“And what do friends do?” I ask him.

“Friends give hugs.”

“Oh,” I say.

“Friends kiss.”

I try to imagine him kissing all of these kids and my mind moves quickly to the email the school sent last week about the case of lice going around. I shudder.

He returns to his granola and berries, staring down at his bowl, determined to get the fruit on his Elmo spoon without using his fingers. He’s a righty, and today he props his left elbow on the table next to the bowl, resting his head on his knuckles. He’s half playing, half eating, and keeps glancing towards the family room where his train set still covers the floor from last night.

The doorbell rings and I leave him at the table to answer it. I return with a delivery from UPS.

“For me, Mama?” He asks, sing-songing the mama, as he does when he is excited. He expects all packages are for him after his birthday last month.

“Nope, this time it’s for me buddy.”

“No, MINE.” He bangs his little fist on the table, nearly knocking his bowl over, and shouts through clenched teeth.

“Oooooh, but look what’s inside,” I say, trying to distract his disappointment.

And it works. Suddenly his face softens into a smile, his dimples return. He lifts his eyebrows and his neck to see over the top of the box I’ve just set on the table next to him. He’s forgotten that it’s not his gift and sweet Silas is back.

“Look Mama, a cardinal,” he says, and points to a speck of red on the telephone wire that runs across the backyard and above the garage. And then he turns his attention back to the box.

I pull out a beautiful flowered gift bag with purple tissue paper hanging over the edge and read the card. His eyes focus first on the bag and then follow my hands as I open the envelope. It’s a care package from one of my best friends, someone I only talk to a few times a year, who lives across the country, but who knew I had been grieving. Two weeks earlier, I’d suffered yet another miscarriage, my sixth. This one came at twelve weeks after a miserable morning in the ER and a D&C that followed.

“Oh my goodness,” I say. “I can’t believe this. This is so NICE,” I say, my voice inflecting and emphasizing the ‘nice.’

He watches me quietly while I open each little tissue-wrapped gift inside the bag.

“See, bud, THIS is what friends do.” I tell him, returning to the conversation we started earlier. “Friends do nice things for each other, to make each other feel better.”

I realize I have a captive audience here; he’s put both elbows on the table now and is holding his head in his hands. So I slow down, unwrapping with wide-eyes and gasps as if—with each gift—I’ve discovered an oyster pearl the size of a golf ball. Socks, a bracelet, a candle, a notebook, a mug. He watches me silently, but opens his mouth slightly with each “oooh” and “ahhh,” mimicking my expressions.

When I’m finished, he slides out of his chair and onto the bench next to me, his little hands reaching for the candle, pulling it to his nose for three quick and shallow sniffs, looking a little like a hamster. I doubt he smelled the ollaliberry and tangerine, but he is satisfied and moves on to fondle the mug, intrigued by the heart shaped handle.

He spends the next half hour in the family room focused on rebuilding his train tracks. I know he is working hard because I can hear him breathing. I sit at the kitchen table with my coffee, finishing the morning paper. He talks to himself while he plays, in the high-pitched voices he uses for the stuffed friends he takes to bed each night. Every so often, I look up to find him staring at the bag on the table. I quickly look away.

“That’s SO nice,” he squeals, delighted with himself.

“OHMYGOODNESS, that was so NICE of you.”

“Thank you so MUCH.”

He’s trying out patterns, giving weight and prominence to the different syllables of gratitude.

He’s copying the melodramatic exaggerations he heard earlier.

He’s practicing for when it’s his turn to be a friend.
Originally from California, Meagan Schultz lives in Milwaukee Wisconsin with her husband and two young boys. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming on Write On, Mamas, Literary Mama, and Mamalode.

Photo: Getty Images

Moms Night Out

Moms Night Out

By Susan Buttenwieser

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You don’t know these other Moms very well, haven’t gotten past the small talk phase of friendship during late afternoon pick-up, when everyone just wants to get home. You’d been hoping that socializing with them might produce kindred spirits, maybe somewhat of a support network even.

 

The Moms from Toddler Room A have the night off. They are letting loose at the back table in a T.G.I.F. knock-off.

“Get your husbands to baby sit,” the email from Cruise Director Mom instructed earlier. She’s the self-designated organizer of the monthly snack schedule, teacher thank-you gifts, and lice outbreak alerts. “Because tonight is MOM’S NIGHT OUT!!!!”

Immediately, the Reply Alls started rolling in.

Compara-Mom was the first to rsvp. “So TOTALLY psyched!! Can already taste the salt on my margarita! I am ready to PAR-TAY!” Her main reason for getting out of bed each morning is to display her vastly superior child-rearing skills.

Cheery-Bitter Mom chimed in. “Literally cannot wait! Stuck at home all week with two sick kids and they are driving me crazy! Let’s get this PAR-TAY started!” She makes baby food from scratch, sews all her children’s clothing, and loathes them.

“Just wish we could start the PAR-TAY right now!” Overly-Aerobicized Mom signed off with her signature yellow smiley-faced emoticon.

Now here you all are in this brightly lit restaurant with no discernable cuisine. It is mostly empty except for a few happy-hourers anchored to the bar. The Moms pound umbrella drinks and nibble at nachos smothered in cheese and hot chilies. Nearby speakers blare that one Edie Brickell hit that gets Cheery-Bitter bouncing in her chair.

At first everyone is giddy and the conversation is easy. It is seven p.m. and you are in a bar. Not home navigating baths or bedtime stories or scraping barely touched chicken nuggets into the trash. So giddy that everyone is able to overlook the fact that the Cruise Director chose a place that is subpar to an airport lounge.

You discuss the preschool teachers where you all know each other from. How hard it is to find something to wear that feels remotely flattering. How hard it is to find time to exercise. How hard it is to find time to do anything for yourselves. How lucky you all are that the Cruise Director organized this.

But then that first sheen of excitement wears off and an awkward lull washes over the table. You are missing the social crutch of attending to your children’s constant needs in the confines of the playground or the pre-school hallways. The Cruise Director tries to flag down the waitress for another round. Compara-Mom tells Cheery Bitter that she looks like she’s lost weight. Overly Aerobicized agrees. And then there is more awkwardness.

So the Moms turn to the one subject that comes so easily: husband hatred.

Compara Mom won’t let her husband buy groceries. The Cruise Director can’t trust her husband to take their kids to the playground because he doesn’t provide “appropriate supervision.” Cheery Bitter’s husband always fucks up the laundry and Overly-Aerobicized’s can’t cook.

“He still hasn’t figured out how to put a diaper on!”

“He won’t get up with the kids in the mornings. Not even on Mother’s Day!”

“He thinks cereal is a suitable option for dinner. Sugar cereal!”

“He has no idea what he’s doing!”

Another round of umbrella drinks arrive along with baskets of Buffalo wings and fried mozzarella sticks. One Eagles’ song after another plays, followed by a Randy Newman double shot. The fluorescent lights beat down on as the grievances fly around the table.

“He never even thinks about buying wipes.”

“Oh don’t get me started on wipes.”

“They think the wipes somehow appear mysteriously in the apartment by themselves.”

“He won’t do anything about a routine.”

“He’s let’s the kids watch TV whenever they feel like it.”

It is hard to get a word in edgewise as the outpouring of vitriol grows louder and more vicious. Then Overly-Aerobicized over-shares about sexual problems.

A long silence follows. Finally the Cruise Director comes up with a lighter topic.

“Do you remember right before you gave birth? Those last few days of freedom,” she slurs. “What is your favorite memory from The Before?”

The Moms clamor to share their memories: getting breakfast in bed, foot massages, candlelit dinners.  

You decide to keep yours quiet. The week before your daughter was born, you and some friends went to a strip club in your neighborhood, which has since been shut down and turned into a bagel cafe. It was a no frills dive, a rarity in the city now. A small stage lined the whole of one mirrored wall with the bar directly opposite it. At one point during the long evening, the dancers all gathered around you, placing their hands on your outstretched belly, squealing whenever they felt movement. “Bless this baby,” the women said a few times, in between quietly complaining about the lousy tips they were getting that night.

You don’t feel like these Moms would understand how at that particular moment, right on the edge of motherhood, it was just the boost you so desperately needed. The dancers’ collective excitement at your huge belly was like having your own personal alternative cheerleading squad.

Remembering this right now only widens the chasm you have been feeling all evening. You don’t know these other Moms very well, haven’t gotten past the small talk phase of friendship during late afternoon pick-up, when everyone just wants to get home. You’d been hoping that socializing with them might produce kindred spirits, maybe somewhat of a support network even.  

Instead, after making up an excuse about needing to get back home you leave some money on the table and start gathering your things. When you stand up to leave and push your chair in, the Moms seem to barely even notice your imminent departure. As if you hadn’t really been there in the first place. 

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in  Women’s Media Center Features and other publications. She teaches writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. This piece is part of a collection that is being developed with the artist/illustrator Sujean Rim.

Photo: Patrick Schöpflin

Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents: A Book Review

Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents: A Book Review

By Julie Burton

strengths-based-parenting-9781595621009_hrIn today’s world, so many parents feel the mounting pressure to not only “do it all,” but to be good everything they do. To top it off, doing it all often includes raising kids who also can do it all, and, of course, do it all well.

Thank goodness Mary Reckmeyer’s new book Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents offers an alternate approach for parents to raise happy, confident children who become joyful, fulfilled adults. Reckmeyer, Executive Director of Gallup’s Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center, gives parents permission to let go of the “all” and urges them to focus on discovering and nurturing their child’s innate talents, instead of trying to fix their weaknesses. Strengths Based Parenting suggests that parents need to embark on this journey along with their children in order to gain a better understanding of how to utilize their own strengths in their parenting, and to model this behavior.

Reckmeyer draws the reader in by presenting heartwarming stories about parents who utilized strengths based parenting principles. Take Steve, a boy who did not perform well in school, was bullied by his peers, and had trouble finishing projects that didn’t interest him. As it turns out, Steve had dyslexia that went undiagnosed for years. But Steve’s mother, instead of parenting him by the “deficit model” noticed that he loved photography and making movies. I won’t ruin the surprise and tell the last name of this boy and how he continued to use his strengths to become a very famous man,  (it’s in the book), but let’s just say, he has made some of the biggest blockbuster movies of our time.

As a mother of four, ages 21 to 11, I processed Reckmeyer’s anecdotal stories, interviews, research, and advice through the lens of my personal experiences. My son, a college freshman, despised writing all through middle school and his first year of high school. It didn’t come naturally to him, he did not feel successful as a writer, received low marks on his papers, and basically stopped trying to improve. While my husband and I nurtured his strengths (he currently plays college baseball and studies economics and Spanish), I did feel the need to address his issues with writing. With a tremendous amount of effort on my part, met with equal amounts of pushback from him, we worked on strengthening his writing, and he was very happy to become a strong and confident writer by the time he left for college.

While I agree with Reckmeyer’s strengths based approach as one method for parents to utilize in their attempt to help their child thrive, I think there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, how a person expresses them, and how they are interpreted. Chapter Two, “Can Weaknesses be Fixed?” gave me pause as I thought about my experiences with my own children. Over time, my husband and I realized that my son’s issue with writing was not that he was necessarily a weak writer, but his under-par writing stemmed from behavioral issues relating to frustration and defiance, which were blocking him from success.

Laurie Hollman, psychoanalyst and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence—Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, would most likely say that my husband and I used “parental intelligence” to help our son through these challenges. I only wish I would have read Hollman’s book earlier in my parenting journey, but it is not too late! Thanks to Hollman’s book, my two children who still live at home, and my two children who I parent from afar, will benefit from my clearer understanding of what parental intelligence means, how essential it is for a healthy parent-child relationship, and how to put it into practice.

To help parents like me clearly identify their own and their children’s strengths, Strengths Based Parenting contains two unique access codes (valid for one use only) that can be used to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 (for ages 15 and older) and the Clifton Youth StrengthExplorer (ages 10-14) assessments for free (you can also take these on-line assessments without the access codes for a fee). These assessments, originally developed by Reckmeyer’s father, Donald O. Clifton (now deceased), who was known as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology, are used to identify your and your child’s top “themes of talent” (top five for adults and top three for kids), which you receive in a report of the findings. Reading this book without having taken the assessments (although I do plan to do so and would love my kids to do so as well) was still worthwhile and provided me with some new, exciting, and useful information to add to my parenting toolbox. I was, however, a bit deflated when I realized that pages 89-329 (the end of the book) is the “Clifton StrengthsFinder” section, which contains the definitions, action items, and questions to consider for all 44 themes of talent that are included in the assessment. I found myself skimming through them, trying to figure out which ones sounded like me, my husband, my kids, and grabbing nuggets of helpful information when something resonated with me. Truthfully, I was craving more of Reckmeyer’s stories.

But my biggest take away from both Reckmeyer’s and Hollman’s book is inspiration. Spending the past several years studying motherhood and self-care for a forthcoming book, I believe that both of these approaches are empowering for mothers. While the authors do put the onus on the parents to be thoughtful, engaged, and aware, they provide manageable roadmaps for how to help you and your child be your best self.  

Julie Burton is a freelance writer, blogger, co-founder of the Twin Cities Writing Studio, a yoga instructor, and a wife and mother. Her first book, “The Self-Care Solution—A Modern Mother’s Essential Guide to Health and Well-Being,” will be published in May 2016.

Sleeping Children of War

Sleeping Children of War

By Betsy Parayil-Pezard

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We cross the Avenue de la République and look down the street toward the Bataclan. We won’t walk down there, not with the children, but I sense a deep, grinding silence like an abyss opening.

 

On Friday night, my son is strewn sideways across my bed, one arm over his head, face buried in a pillow, his foot peeking out from the duvet. I should have put him back in his bed hours ago, but the sight of him sleeping is comforting. It is also resoundingly surreal as I listen to sirens raising welts on the smooth skin of night.

I reach over and run my fingers through his curls. In the places where we sip our coffee, poke our chopsticks into noodles, and listen to concerts, the warm bodies of young Parisians are plunging forward into pools of blood. Slightly buzzed people are dragging their dying friends across the vintage fifties tiling. People are holding their breath in kitchens and crouching behind shiny zinc bars while lipstick-painted glasses of wine shiver with each round of bullets. A concert venue is under siege. The dying children of rock n’ roll are scattered across the floor where we dance. My baby boy sleeps as if none of this were real. He is even dreaming.

My husband is managing an artist tonight, but not at the Bataclan. He calls to tell me that he is stuck. They are not letting anyone out. The show goes on. At the end, people leave in droves, texting frantically. He catches a ride with a colleague and they get back to the office and turn on the TV. At the Bataclan, hostages are being taken. The night stretches itself out into a long, thin, pointing finger of horror.

He takes his usual route when he walks home the next day, and passes over bloody sidewalks. Someone has thrown sand over the area. He arrives at the door with tears in his eyes. The children run and jump on him joyfully crying Papa! then squirm away as he clings to them.

On Saturday, we are restless and withdrawn. I am stuck to my phone, answering questions about our safety from friends and family back home in the US. I scroll mindlessly over my Facebook feed, over and over again, reading bits of articles. My husband cradles his iPad on the couch. We don’t say much to each other. We are like those old couples that speak by moving about the room.

In the evening, I invite some friends over and my husband traipses dejectedly toward the shower. Our friends’ children are all three years old like our oldest. They are gloriously happy to be together, jumping on the beds, screaming and running from room to room. The Big Bad Wolf is chasing them. My littlest patters after them, wherever they go. “The wolf!” she cries with raised eyebrows, giddy with fright.

On Sunday, we go out to buy bread. The temperature is warm for the autumn season. My daughter refuses to walk, then my son refuses too. We end up carrying them. We cross the Avenue de la République and look down the street toward the Bataclan. We won’t walk down there, not with the children, but I sense a deep, grinding silence like an abyss opening.  

When we bump into friends, we ask them if they have lost someone. The answer is yes.

There is a thick, funereal atmosphere as we proceed. People are standing on corners, bread in hand, speaking in low voices. The terraces of the cafes are empty. It is much too warm for November.

What will change, I ask my husband as we walk back.

He shrugs. Then he answers: Maybe now when we go out, we will know that it is possible to not come back. Maybe when I go to concerts for work, you will have that thought in the back of your mind.

On Monday, there is an epidemic of children peeing their pants at school.

In the evening, my son goes to the window with his little sister and looks up at the building across the street. His little head peeks through the wrought iron. He waves, calling out a bright “Hello, soldier!” to an officer smoking a cigarette out of the window. The officer smiles and waves back at him. Since January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, our street has been under continuous patrol. The troops protect the Jewish school and the synagogue on our block. They camp on the third floor of the school building, taping cardboard to the windows for privacy. Sometimes they come back with a pizza. I think they might be bored out of their minds.

Tuesday, I come across a Buzzfeed post with images of Syrian refugee children by Magnus Wennman. Like my baby boy, their sleeping bodies contort into the strangest forms, as if they have been dropped from the sky into the arms of Morpheus. But they are stretched onto dirty, abandoned mattresses, onto a cardboard box on a thin strip of sidewalk, and across patches of grass in the night.

 

Betsy Parayil-Pezard, an American with Indian roots, lives in Paris, France with her French husband and two children. She works on both continents as a professional coach and mindfulness facilitator with Connection Leadership, and blogs about the mindful life at The Paris Way (theparisway.wordpress.com). Betsy is currently working on a collection of recorded meditations for dealing with difficult times.

 

Thanksgiving Tips For Parents of College Freshmen

Thanksgiving Tips For Parents of College Freshmen

By Kathleen Volk Miller

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By 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning your college student has not even gotten up to go to the bathroom. You know this because you have been downstairs banging pots and pans around since 8:00 a.m.

 

Your child is coming home for Thanksgiving, for 3 days or 5 days or a week. You haven’t seen him since parents’ weekend in late September, and what with all of your time together being in public—the school’s organized events, the restaurants, the hotel—that visit barely counts.

I’m a college professor, and your son or daughter has spent more time with me than you the past two months. If I wasn’t also a mother, maybe I wouldn’t see the fear right beside the bravado, fighting for dominance on the freshmen’s faces. I saw her on the first day, looking neither to left or right and fixing squarely on me, fussing with her coffee, because she’s allowed coffee in the classroom and so she brings it to class because she can. I’ve seen your boy start to laugh at something and then catch himself, wonder if he’s blown any kind of cool he’s built up. None of them realize the others are just as scared, no matter what we, professors or parents, tell them.

I have watched your child establish certain patterns, the coffee, the route to class. But he is nowhere near mastering the best time to do laundry or how to quickly find his ID when he comes back into the building, what pocket he should keep it in. Your freshman is still very fresh.

And now your child is coming home, with everything that home means. You pick her up at the train/bus station/airport and you drive so you have to look at the road and you aren’t able to stare at her, which you’re both afraid you will. Count to three (in your head) when you hug, or else you will lose track of time; she’ll hear you breathing her in; she’ll sense you’re not going to let go. You chat about simple facts that can be covered—who is at home, when others are arriving, the new butternut squash dish you’re making for Thanksgiving.

But then you get home and your son reaches in the back seat for the duffel of dirty laundry and you notice for the first time something different about his face—an angle, a shadow that wasn’t there before. You are trying not to stare and your kid is out, up the front steps and shouldering the door before you are fully out of the car, you are just watching like this isn’t your driveway anymore. Don’t worry; it is yours, it’s just different now.

You get in the house and exhale and see that your college kid has moved straight to the kitchen and you are thrilled—this is something you know how to do—you know how to feed your kid, so you practically bound into the kitchen, but try to hide your enthusiasm, your joy at doing something you so often resented. Assume the position you hated to find him in, just a few months ago, look casual while you prop the fridge door open on your hip, and stare inside, looking for something, and ask, “Hungry?”

The turkey sandwich is in front of her now, with salsa and mayo and lettuce, like–you forgive yourself for thinking this—like she has not had for 9 weeks. Sandwiches are always better when someone else makes them, and you are still her mother; yours are still the best.

But everything feels different in this November early dark and now you are staring at her. And you know you shouldn’t, that you have to stop, but you cannot help yourself, because look at her: The softness under her chin is gone. You cannot see that blue vein you used to stroke for hours while she nursed. Don’t worry, it is still there, it’s just under the surface.

Your other daughter finally pulls herself away from her room of devices and joins you in the kitchen. When you say, “We’ve been home 20 minutes,” she says, “I know” and holds up the flat face of her phone. You don’t know if they’ve texted or the returning daughter posted something on some form of social media. It doesn’t matter: Know that you have to leave the kitchen very soon. They begin to talk, to say what they can in front of you and you can see so much under this surface talk, waiting to be said: leave the kitchen, like a good mother. Just as much as you are thrilled with the relationship between your daughters you can’t help but sting a little, feel a little sore in a band right across your chest, because they don’t both want to share it all with you, only you, interrupting each other, sidling against each other trying to step just one millimeter closer to you, to you, to you. Like after-school time when they were at the grade school three blocks away and came in together bubbling with stories, legs, clad in pastels, tangling, pink and blue and yellow papers falling out of their backpacks. They have things to say to only each other now, and as you move up the stairs they are already laughing, a different laugh than grade school, to be sure, but laughing; hold your fist to your heart in both joy and pain and continue up and away from them.

Prepare yourself: by Wednesday night all of the high-school friends are also home, and they pull together like magnets. It’s a good thing—of course you want her to continue these friendships, despite what one mother told you about another’s daughter, despite what you believe you can predict about any of their futures. They gather at your house, but it cannot contain them all, whoever they are now, and whatever it is that compels them back outside cannot be stopped. They drive around. They text each other from two cars away in the convenience star parking lot—still posing like they did in high school, making decisions of import on whose house to converge on—and leave—next. When you hear them go out, know that they will be back. When they come back, hunker deeper under your covers, revel in the fact the kids are in their rooms, your family is breathing the same air. Rest easy.

By 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning your college student has not even gotten up to go to the bathroom. You know this because you have been downstairs banging pots and pans around since 8:00 a.m. Do not make more noise then you need to, but now, at 11:20 a.m. you do not need to try to be quiet. When they were little, the day before Thanksgiving meant watching a movie and ordering pizza, which you always joked about since your fridge was barely able to shut, the counters full. You didn’t let yourself look at the clock when he got in last night, but it was 2:45 a.m.

Keep cooking. You think you’re angry but you’re not. It’s just that you want him there, at the counter, always. He will be down soon. Yes, somehow your son’s voice is deeper. Somehow he did grow two or three inches in nine weeks. Your daughter’s face is older in a way you can’t explain. She can’t already have wrinkles, can she, but yes, something has changed around her eyes. You can hug her again when she comes into the kitchen; she’ll allow it if you count to three.

Later, when bottles of hard cider are being distributed don’t wonder how you will be judged if you hand her one. Have one yourself. Your sister will engage her in a conversation about immigration that she would never get into with you. Your son will still drink orange juice out of the carton but he will take out the trash without being told for the first time in his life. Allow the pride and pain to battle inside you like her fear and courage, every day. You have both been in training for this since the day she was born.

Kathleen Volk Miller has written for Salon, the NYTimes, Family Circle, and Philadelphia Magazine and has work forthcoming in O, the Oprah Magazine and others. She is Director of the Graduate Program in Publishing at Drexel University and co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly.

Photo: gettyimages.com

White Privilege in a Police Car

White Privilege in a Police Car

By DeeAnn Veeder

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I almost posted it. A photo. On Facebook. My son and his friend. Both 13-years-old.   

A policeman came to my door one Monday last November. We had just moved into town the week before, town being a village of 5000 people in the upper Hudson Valley of New York. The policeman was at my front door to introduce himself and the ‘Your Cop’ Village Police Program.  

My son was home on a half day and his friend was over. They were playing X-box in his room. Last spring my son got crazy excited when we saw the new village police car; it’s a Dodge Charger, black, all fitted up with stuff, lots of stuff, a boy’s first-car dream. So I asked the officer if the boys could meet him and see his car. “Sure,” he said.

“Hey guys!” I yelled up the stairs. “There’s a policeman here to meet you! He said you can see his car!”

They came trouncing down the stairs. (Now I know how to break up an X-box game.) “What?”  “Where?” “Here?”

The officer’s presence in the living room slowed them down a bit. But they pulled it together and walked calmly out to his squad car. The officer was kind, pedagogical even, and he showed us everything about the car and told us about his job.

They have a $600 annual allowance to fit themselves up with what they need. Before they can have a pepper spray, they are pepper sprayed at the Police Academy. They are tazed before they can have their own tazer.  He was earnest about knowing what he might do to a person by feeling it first. I asked if he was shot before he could carry his glock. There was an uncomfortable silence.

After our Your Cop showed us everything in the front seat, the boys asked if they could see the back seat. The officer opened the back doors. The back seat and floor were hard plastic and sectioned in half. One half had bars. Both halves could be washed out with a hose and drained.   

My son’s friend asked to be handcuffed, but the officer declined, telling him that it hurts. Then the boys asked if they could get in the back, and the officer said they could. They wanted me to take their picture so I took one with my cell phone.  

There they were. Two boys who, by their very skin color, were able to learn about a police car and sit in the back for fun, as a joke.  

I almost posted this photo on Facebook that Monday, because by my very skin color, I could do that, I could forget for a minute. On the very day many Americans, Black Americans and their allies, were waiting with desperately hopeful hearts, I almost forgot. I almost forgot the grief, this centuries old, wordless, gut-wrenching grief. On that night we learned it was all a sham, the Grand Jury charade in Ferguson, and that the whole systemic bullshit of this country was still strongly in tact. I almost forgot and posted a photo on Facebook of my white son and his white friend, posing happily in the back of a police car.

That is white privilege.

 
DeeAnn Veeder is an artist, writer, and mother of two living in the Hudson Valley.  

“Mommy, Will I Be OK?”

“Mommy, Will I Be OK?”

By Sharon Holbrook

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I’d look around at a room of smiling, playful children, and wonder why mine was the only one crying and clinging to a parent’s leg. I had known my child—a bright, fun, and friendly 3-year-old—would love preschool. But I was wrong. “I missed you, Mommy, and I wanted you to hug me,” he cried as he tumbled into my arms at pick-up that first day. Though he eventually adjusted and enjoyed preschool, the separation troubles ebbed and flowed for years, tearing at both our hearts. Even in early elementary school, goodbye kisses came with a daily send-off question: “Mommy, will I be OK?”

I’d been blindsided that my bubbly, happy child was so different at school. I was used to knowing my child better than he knew himself. I had seen his laughter and inquisitiveness, and his friendly nature with kids his age. The child I thought I knew was comfortable, confident, and smiling.

What I didn’t know was what he was like when I wasn’t there, and as a first-time parent I had mistakenly assumed what I saw was what the world would get. But, no, the preschool world got a child with struggles I didn’t recognize.  

I ultimately became the mother of not just one but three children with sensitive natures, and with experience I realized the clues had been there all along. During library storytime, I always had a plump diapered bottom in my lap, and a sturdy toddler back leaned firmly against my chest. While other children clapped, laughed, sang, and danced during library storytime, mine always watched quietly from the safety of Mommy, thumb in mouth.

Even earlier, there had been the baby picture debacles. At home, my babies were deliciously round and smiley, perfectly photogenic. In the photography studio, though, with a bright light shining and a strange person making faces, each of them in turn cried and cried. One studio offered a free sitting and a small package of free photos, assuming that parents would snap up an armful when they saw the endearing results. I left with a free set of photos of a somber 1-year-old with tears in her eyes.

What was “wrong” with my kids, that they seemed to have a hard time with things that seemed easy for most other children? Had I done something wrong to make them so delicate? Now that I was noticing, I saw even more of what I had missed. My children were different: Preschool, babysitters, loud noises, and the doctor’s office. Introductory sports or classes, distant relatives wanting hugs, and mildly “scary” kid’s movies. When other kids might take on these things with gusto, for mine each situation was a source of overstimulation and distress, of tears and wanting to opt out and curl up in Mommy or Daddy’s arms.

An astute friend recommended The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, and the subtitle said it all: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them. Highly sensitive people are not disordered, this 15-20% simply have a personality that comes with a highly attuned nervous system, one that notices everything. Sometimes noise and busyness and unfamiliarity can be too much for a sensitive kid, as if the volume of the world is cranked too high. But sensitivity often comes with gifts, too:  notable empathy, kindheartedness, intelligence, creativity, insight, wit, imagination, and curiosity.  

Aron’s book told me what my children needed: Understanding of their temperament. Routine. Quiet play. Calm. A sense of safety. Parental patience in new situations. Encouragement to take on new challenges, which can feel unsafe to sensitive kids. Acceptance of their feelings, both positive and negative.

This was good news. There was reassurance that my kids would be OK, and that they would indeed learn to cope. Yet—I was the one who had to get them there. Their father of course, too, yes, but in those early years, I was undoubtedly the lead parent. I was at home full-time. I was in tune with the rhythm of their days, and the witness of their moments both grand and small. So, too, I carried much of the weight of how to get them from a fragile, tentative participation in life to confidence and resilience.

I understood, rationally, what my kids needed, but that didn’t always mean it was easy. I tried to respect their temperaments by not pushing too hard. At the same time, I knew they didn’t need coddling, either, and I wanted to avoid treating them as delicate, breakable souls. Figuring out how to translate this into practical, everyday decisions was an ongoing challenge.  

Should they learn to swim, for example? I decided that they must, that it was a safety issue and a nonnegotiable life skill. After much trial and error, and tearful children who one after another would not put their faces in the water, their (third) teacher and I found the middle line between pushing and coddling, and that line was years of consistency, patience, and encouragement. The last child, now 5 years old and in the water since age 2, is at last finding her way in the water after what feels like the slowest, longest swim lessons in history. (Actually, it’s been eight years of on and off lessons, starting with my firstborn.)

Some blooms cannot be forced like an amaryllis bulb on a winter windowsill. Some must instead plod in their own good time towards their natural season, though the winter may feel long. I knew this rationally, but I admit to impatience and worry and frustration along the way.

I’ve had to project a calm I did not always feel, since my sensitive, intuitive children would be sure to sense my own unease and pile it on to their own. More than once, I fought tears on my way down the preschool stairs after leaving a bereft child during a particularly bad period of separation anxiety. Once or twice, my voice shook during preschool parent-teacher conferences while discussing one or another of the children’s social-emotional development and resilience, and whether they needed an extra year of preschool. Though I am usually placid, at these times I felt their struggles physically, with tightness in my throat and a sweat breaking out.

My children are all in elementary school now, and, to my great delight, they are all thriving academically and socially. I still walk a line between respecting their sensitivity and resistance to certain things (none is a big fan of sports or risk-taking, for example) and pushing them out of their comfort zone so they can live in the real world without fear and fragility. I confess that even now I still sometimes feel a pang as I watch my kids’ occasional struggles with things that seem to come easily for so many other children.  

But I’m seeing those beautiful positive qualities of a sensitive temperament, like a daughter’s poetic description of a tree or a son’s tenderheartedness towards the weak and small. I’m also seeing an admirable toughness and independence in all of them, qualities that they’ve more than earned through years of struggle.

I’ve had to change along the way too, and that is perhaps the hardest part. I’ve had to understand, and accept, and resist comparison. Mostly, I have had to believe that along with patience and encouragement, time and natural development would give them the coping skills they needed to make their sensitivity an asset rather than a liability.

“Mommy, will I be OK?”

I’ll say again what I said back then: an emphatic yes. They were always going to be OK. We just had to believe it, to take our time, to walk the scenic route together. And we’re getting there.

Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. Her work also appears in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook. Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Why I Don’t Regret Taking All Those Baby Photos

Why I Don’t Regret Taking All Those Baby Photos

By Christine Organ

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I have a list of parenting regrets about a mile long. Wasting money on an expensive rocking chair and signing my three-year-old up for soccer, for instance.

But one thing I don’t regret, however, is the excessive photo taking—and photo sharing—during my son’s first year.

Though I’m no shutterbug by any means, after my son was born, I took hundreds—if not thousands—of photos and then shared a culled set with family and close friends on a regular basis. I quickly filled memory cards, and given the frequency and quantity of photos shared, I have little doubt that when my family saw an email from me with the subject line “You’re invited to view my photos,” they rolled their eyes and groaned. They may have even deleted the email without ever opening it. One could hardly blame them. I was relentless.

I was also desperate.

After my son was born, like many parents, I stumbled into the trenches of new motherhood. I was consumed by loneliness, confusion, and exhaustion that bordered on delirium. But in addition to the typical first-time parent anxiety, an inconspicuous (and untreated) case of postpartum depression pushed me further into an unrecognizable void. At the time, I knew that something wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know what. I didn’t know why I hated being a mother, why everything was so hard, why I couldn’t shake the baby blues. All I knew was that the old me had disappeared, my joie de vivre had vanished, and every day was an uphill battle as I tried to claw my way out of the deep ravine of shame and guilt.

The abyss of postpartum depression—not to mention the resulting shame and self-loathing that this illness brings with it—is a dark place whether a woman is diagnosed or not. Most days I felt as if the lights had gone out… on everything. Living in denial about what I was feeling and experiencing, I did the only thing I thought to do at the time: I took pictures. A lot of pictures.  

Back in 2006, during the pre-smartphone era, I relied on my trusty Canon digital point-and-shoot to photograph everything from first smiles and giggles to diaper blowouts and messy faces. I took photos of my son with our dogs dressed as Santa and his reindeer. I took photos of my son wearing new clothes, and then sent a few snapshots to the giver of the outfit. I took photos of him drooling and crawling and playing with Tupperware. I uploaded the photos to my computer, spent hours editing them, and inundated my family with album after album.

The photos weren’t my only distraction, however. Along with hundreds of digital files, my computer also housed a document that I refer to simply as “The Spreadsheet.” A complex color-coded chart, The Spreadsheet documented every minute of my son’s life—the time he spent sleeping, eating, or playing—in half-hour increments. Convinced that if I could only “crack the code,” mastering the art of baby-caring would be a whole lot easier and I, in turn, would be happier (or at least less miserable).

As if that weren’t enough, next to the computer that housed the photos and The Spreadsheet was a stack of books taller than my baby about everything from sleeping training theories to post-baby marriage tips. I highlighted, tabbed, and took notes. I was convinced that locked within the pages of these books was The Answer to all of my parenting woes.

By throwing myself into the photos (the taking, editing, and sharing), meticulously maintaining The Spreadsheet, and voraciously reading parenting books, I believed that I could somehow find a way out of the darkness. Or, at a minimum, distract myself enough to make the darkness less scary and all-consuming. Distraction, it seemed, was key.

These days, however, distraction is marked as the enemy. Mindfulness, on the other hand, seems to be the holy grail of parenting. Truth be told, I am a staunch proponent of mindfulness—or paying attention, as I like to think of it—not just with respect to parenting, but with all aspects of my life. And excessive photo taking—not to mention the quest for (and obsession with) the perfect photo—is just one more way that technology runs the risk of thwarting mindfulness. When we are behind the camera we are, in essence, focusing on how we can preserve a moment, instead of paying attention to the moment itself. And as a result, the excessive photo taking, documenting, and micromanaging has the potential of distracting us from the privilege we, as parents, have to simply bear witness to our children’s lives.

But sometimes—typically in those desperate, in-the-trenches times—we need distraction for precisely the same reason. We need distraction to keep us from falling further into the abyss. The distraction—whether it’s photo taking or baby-book reading or Facebook scrolling—gives us a way to pay attention without becoming overwhelmed, a way to take it all in without losing ourselves under the weight of it all. It is mindfulness with a buffer.

I’m not sure why I took so many photos. I’m sure boredom and loneliness played a role, but perhaps the root of it went deeper than that. Maybe I subconsciously hoped that each flash of the camera would shine a light into the dark pit in which I felt I was living. Maybe I hoped that each click of the camera, each activity recorded, each page tabbed would bring me one step closer to the light. Or maybe the milestone-preservation, information-gathering, and documentation were a manifestation of my need for control during a chaotic time.

Whatever the psychological reason, however, the taking and sharing of photos—along with the spreadsheets and documentation, the book-reading and the note-taking—became my lifeline, a tool to cope with, and then recover from, postpartum depression. Not only did they distract me from the darkness in my own mind, thereby saving me from falling further into that dark pit of despair, but they created the world in which I wanted to live.

And while they may have glossed over my reality, they also blurred the harsh and jagged edges enough so that I could zoom in, using a fisheye lens to focus on the beauty that was my son.

Christine Organ is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life, which is a collection of stories about the paradoxes of parenting and the fullness of life. She writes at www.christineorgan.com, and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

Braving the Impossible Together

Braving the Impossible Together

By Lexi Behrndt

Lexi and Charlie

We are made to carry one another when we’re too weak to go on. This is community. This is survival through the pain.

 

We met on the 11th floor of the children’s hospital. It was in the summer, I remember but not because of the weather. It could have been storming or blazing hot outside, but we never would have known the difference. Our entire worlds were wrapped up in those tiny, sterile rooms with the rock-hard, pull-out sofas, monitors beeping at all hours, and the sticky hospital floors. Our children were both inpatient, receiving treatment and care for complications surrounding congenital heart disease. Our “home” was the pediatric cardiac unit.

When it came to other parents, I generally kept to myself. It’s not that I wasn’t friendly; I like to think of myself as a generally extroverted and warm person. But it got old after four months of seeing so many families come and go, sick babies in, generally healthy babies out, all while my infant son lay in the same bed and only moved as far as from floor 10, the ICU, to floor 11, the recovery floor. My friends were the staff. They were the constants I had and held onto, as they cared for my son Charlie; they popped in to visit and check on us day after day.

One morning, my social worker asked me if I would be willing to reach out to another parent on the floor. I had picked up my home, which was two hours away, and relocated to live next to the hospital, so that even when my son was well and discharged, he would be close enough in case of emergency. This mom, with a three-year-old who was a “frequent flier” at the hospital, was in the process of doing the same. I hesitantly agreed to meet her, and she came down to my son’s room.

She walked into his hospital room, and it was like looking in a mirror. Hair thrown in a disheveled ponytail, sweatshirt and yoga pants, dark rims beneath her eyes, and a mixture of ease and exhaustion. Like me, she was young, and like me, she had spent enough time in the hospital to have grown accustomed to the environment. Her name was Makenzie. Her little three-year-old, Jaedyn, a feisty red head, would eventually need a heart transplant. It could be years, but it was her airway issues that were causing her frequent hospital admissions.

Makenzie and I talked that day, and we bumped into each other a couple more times as we met over the community coffee pot in the early mornings, desperate for friendly conversation and caffeine. Jaedyn was discharged a couple weeks later, and they made their way back to their current home in South Dakota to tie up ends for relocation. Meanwhile, my Charlie stayed. Two weeks later, he moved from the recovery floor back down to the Pediatric Cardio Thoracic ICU where there he stayed.

The months went on, and sometime in mid-October, I parked my old minivan in the hospital parking garage. On my walk to the elevators, I ran into Makenzie and Jaedyn, who were leaving after a quick appointment. We talked briefly and casually, completely unaware of what the coming days and months would hold in store. Neither of us understood the weight of those days. We do now.

A quick conversation in passing, and we had no idea the significance it would hold. Charlie passed away the next Monday morning.

Jaedyn was readmitted to the hospital and put on the transplant list in February. Makenzie and I had lost contact, all except for casual conversation through social media. We had never talked much to begin with, besides friendly conversation over morning coffee, but the death of Charlie only created more distance. We were living in two different worlds, she was fighting for her child’s life, and I was aching to have mine back in my arms. She may have reminded me of what I still could have, and I may have reminded her of what she could lose. But when I learned through Facebook that Jaedyn’s condition worsened, and she became critical, I lost it. I texted Makenzie, called her, and I did whatever I could to support her, because Charlie died, but Jaedyn wasn’t supposed to. And I knew the pain, the deep, deep pain, and I did not want Makenzie to feel it. Ever.

I could barely think. It put me right back in Charlie’s hospital room, standing over my child, oscillator running, barely able to hear my own thoughts. ECMO (life support) on, blood being pumped through his body by a machine, oxygenating and giving life and beating his little heart.

And when Jaedyn died, I was there— not there with her physically— but I was jolted right back to the room where I held Charlie for seven hours after he died. I couldn’t let go. I knew Makenzie couldn’t either.

And it was in those moments, after losing Charlie, after supporting Makenzie through losing Jaedyn, that I made a vow. We couldn’t have our babies, but we sure as hell had to make sure the other made it out alive. She was stuck with me. The bond we shared is a bond of pain and loss and heartache, and I vowed to never let her face it alone.

We are made to carry one another when we’re too weak to go on. This is community. This is survival through the pain. This is the bond between grieving mothers—the soul tie exchanged between moms who have to kiss their babies goodbye, who have to give them back, who have to walk away, who have to live with the constant ache. We don’t have to face the impossible alone. I’ve seen that with so many strangers who have become sisters along the way, and I’ve seen it especially with Makenzie, the mom I met on the 11th floor.

We stood together on the side of life, while both our children lay in hospital beds, three rooms apart. And now we move forward together, with ashes, memories, slightly morbid senses of humor, and broken hearts, clinging to hope, and holding just enough joy to share with one another when it’s too hard to go on alone.
Lexi Behrndt is a single mom of two boys (one in heaven), a writer at Scribbles and Crumbs, and a communications director. Connect with her on Facebook.

Intensive Care: The Nurse Who Saw Us Through the Night

Intensive Care: The Nurse Who Saw Us Through the Night

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Getty Images

A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

By Alison Seevak

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I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog?

 

Just before I turned 35, I made an appointment to meet a pregnant golden retriever named Angel. Everyone I knew was having babies and I was plain miserable. I wanted a family of my own, but had yet to find lasting love. I didn’t think I could handle a baby by myself. However, I did think I might be able to handle a dog. It would take my mind off of things.

Angel’s owner, a woman named Rosalie, told me over the phone that she would need to size me up in person before she’d let me take one of her puppies. So I drove down from Berkeley to Mountain View and spent a few hours drinking iced tea with Rosalie, a large 50ish woman with cat eye glasses, while she questioned me about my work schedule and whether or not I had a fenced in backyard. I tossed a green tennis ball to Angel, who had plenty of energy, even though she was about to whelp eight puppies. I told Rosalie about the park in back of my house and feigned interest when she told me that a former San Francisco 49er, Joe Montana lived down the street. I knew nothing about football, but when Angel lay down and panted by my feet, I knew I wanted one of her puppies.

At my birthday party that year, two of my exceptionally pregnant friends lowered themselves onto my sofa with slight groans. Their attentive husbands hovered nearby, ready to hand them slices of birthday cake. One still had enough of a sense of humor to note “Alison, it’s like you are trapped in a Wendy Wasserstein play.”

But by now I had Sophie, one of Angel’s puppies, and she had become my grand distraction. We took long walks in the hills at dusk, looking for owls. She ran ahead of me, a flash of gold fur in tall grass, chasing after things I couldn’t see. Every morning, I took her to the park with a bunch of neighborhood dog owners, people I’d only said a passing hello to before. Now we stood around drinking coffee and gossiping while the dogs ran. I brought Sophie to the afterschool program where I taught. My students wrote her letters or drew pictures of her wearing wings and a crown. Sophie brought me onto the sidewalks, into the hills, into the world.

She was the constant while I dated in those nerve wracking years leading up to my 40th birthday. One of my dog training bibles at the time, a book written by a group of monks who raised German Shepherds, recommended that dogs sleep in their owner’s rooms. It was the one recommendation I actually followed. So, the first time I brought one boyfriend home, I had to explain the enormous crate containing the excited puppy in my bedroom. Together, we carried the crate into the kitchen. I tried hard to ignore Sophie’s howling that night.

Another boyfriend insisted that I board Sophie when I came to visit him, two hours away, in Santa Cruz. He lived with a skinny 18-year-old cat named Sallie.

“Sophie has too much energy,” he said, explaining why I couldn’t bring her with me. Not too long after that, I had a session with a pet psychic who told me that Sophie felt Howard could not open his heart to me.

“She’s right,” he said when confronted. We broke up shortly after that.

In between teaching and unsuccessful dating, my life was a series of long dog walks. Sophie’s leash tethered me to her, but it also tethered me to something solid, to the here and now. When I was with her, I had some respite from the “what if” and “what if not” that threatened to carry me away, as if I were a balloon from a child’s birthday party that escaped and floated high into the blue sky.

And then one night I dreamt that Sophie turned into a tall languorous teen aged girl in a red baseball cap who drove away from me in a convertible. I couldn’t wait any longer. I realized that if I was going to have a child, I’d have to do it by myself. By now, I was 41. I decided to adopt a baby girl from China.

While I did piles of paperwork and waited to fly to China to meet my daughter, I worried. I worried about attachment disorder, sleep deprivation, being a white woman raising an Asian child. I worried about getting time alone in the bathroom. But mostly, I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog? What if Sophie’s barking woke the baby up from her nap? What if they hated each other? I had never followed the monks’ advice too closely. I’d spent years letting Sophie do all the wrong things — sleep on my bed, pull on the leash, run in the opposite direction when I called her name. In a fit of desperation, I sent Sophie off to doggie boot camp. But after a week, the trainer called me and said I should just come get her. It was too late.

A few months later, I stood in a gray civil affairs office in Wuhan, China and was handed the most beautiful, angry one-year-old I had ever met. Red-faced and screaming, she arched away from me the first time I held her. I had prepared a list of questions for Mr Cheng, the orphanage director. I knew she had lived with a foster family in the countryside. Right after a question about favorite foods I asked, “Did her foster family have a dog?”

Mr Cheng shook his head no while the translator explained. “They only had chickens.”

After that auspicious meeting, we both came down with something. I lay feverish and nauseous in a fancy hotel room with a limp, grieving Anna plastered to my chest. My friend, Grace who had come along with me to help, looked at the two of us on the bed. “Maybe you’re going to have to find another home for Sophie. I don’t know how you’re going to manage,” she said.

But we both got better. By the time we’d arrived back in California and Sophie came home from where she’d boarded, things looked brighter. When Sophie walked into the house for the first time, she bounded right over to Anna, who grabbed her fur and pulled herself up. At night, when I walked the rooms of my house with a jet-lagged baby, the only thing that consoled her was when I let her rest on Sophie’s back. Sophie sat under Anna’s high chair waiting for bits of food. Anna’s first word in English was “sit.”

Sophie and I both finally grew up. My dog became less of a child, more of a collaborator. She was actually like a concerned canine aunt. When two-year-old Anna threw bedtime tantrums in her room, screaming “I don’t want to sleep in this crib! I want a book! I don’t want to wear these pajamas!” I’d watch the clock thinking if this goes on for ten more minutes, I’ll go in. But Sophie looked at me with serious brown eyes. Aren’t you going to do anything, it seemed like she was saying. Are you going to just let that kid scream?

Every night after dinner, we took a walk around the neighborhood, Anna in her stroller and Sophie trotting obediently alongside us. Once Anna got old enough, she’d walk too, my hand in one of hers, and Sophie’s leash gripped tightly in the other.

In preschool, when other kids pasted pictures of mothers, fathers and siblings onto posterboard for show and tell, Anna glued on photos of Sophie and me. When she was about to turn six, she described the birthday cake she wanted for her planetarium themed party. Anna, Sophie and I, wearing astronaut suits would float in a dark sky of chocolate frosting. There’d be a big vanilla moon and in the distance, a green and blue frosted earth. We’d be adrift in space, but love and our linked hands (and paws) would hold us together.

I knew I could not attempt this cake myself. I found a neighborhood mom with a baking business. “I have curly brown hair and glasses, my daughter is Chinese and we want the golden retriever’s fluffy tail sticking out of the astronaut suit,” I explained over the phone.

“No problem,” she said, calmly as if this request was an everyday kind of event. And in our world, of course, it was.

Alison Seevak‘s writing has appeared in The Sun, Literary Mama and Adoptive Families magazine. She lives in Northern California with her twelve-year-old daughter and their new dog, Buddy.

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

By Jennifer Berney

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

 

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

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

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

“Oh,” she said, unfazed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a suh-pwise,” he told me.

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

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

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

When Your Son is Stronger, Taller and Faster Than You

When Your Son is Stronger, Taller and Faster Than You

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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Short men make better husbands, and make up in wisdom what they lack in stature, says self-confessed small man, Adam Gopnik.

My son is fifteen years old. He is still shorter than me but for the first time since birth he has passed his twin sister and I suspect I will be next. He has always been thin and wiry and a scrapper and now he is stretching out long and lean.

I spent the first roughly thirteen years of my son’s life being bigger, faster, and stronger than him. And then one day, I wasn’t. Well, still bigger, but barely. I remember the moment it struck me clearly. We were swimming at my parent’s lake and he wanted to dunk me. I had a meeting soon and didn’t want to get my hair wet but I could do nothing to stop the onslaught of octopus-like arms and legs and teenage laughter. Before I knew it, I was under the water and he was victorious.

The other day I told him I have a goal of being able to complete three full pull-ups. He laughed at me. Laughed at me! And then went and did fifteen without even breathing hard.

Now I stare at him in awe. I made that, I think. Obviously not all by myself but I played a major role in bringing this human into the world and now I can no longer physically control him or even catch him.

Now he is the one who carries my heavy suitcase in airports, he is the one who hauls 20-litre water jugs, he is the one who unscrews glass jam jars for me. It is totally awesome.

He is also teaching me new things, like how to throw a rugby ball, and he offers me tips on improving my soccer game. I need a lot of tips.

When women are pregnant and we picture our unborn children, we imagine them as infants. Maybe as toddlers. But we rarely picture them as full grown men. We spend the early years of our parenting shaping them into the men we want them to be but then one day we turn around and they are that man.

A voice comes from the living room and we wonder when a man stopped by to visit, except that is our son and there is hair on his face.

An arm scoops up a bag of groceries and we wonder when biceps grew on toddlers because aren’t our sons still toddlers? Won’t they always be toddlers?

A rugby ball comes hurtling at our heads and we wonder when the infant we breastfed developed such aim and power.

When did this happen? How did he get stronger than me? Faster than me? Bigger than me?

I suppose the past fifteen years is when this happened. I didn’t miss it, I marked every inch on the wall. But somehow I never comprehended what it would feel like to become physically smaller than my son.

It makes me feel dizzy, old, and powerful. It makes me hopeful and humble and inspired about his generation. It helps me appreciate roots and history and it feels like a weighty responsibility – to give a young man this strong to the world in a few short years.

It also makes me wonder, how does he see this development? Will he lose respect for me? I know he wants to be taller than my husband and me, he is aiming at several inches taller, as though by sheer force of will he will pass us.

My husband and I are the same height, 5’6″. We don’t have high height expectations for our children, though I suppose subconsciously we expect at least our son to pass us by. And we would both be happy for him to do just that. Height, especially for men, is fraught with social baggage.

According to this article in the National Geographic, physical height is associated with power, a sense of vulnerability or paranoia (if lacking in height), leadership ability, even financial situations:

“Taller men are perceived as having higher status, stronger leadership skills, and as being more occupationally successful than average or shorter males,” Jackson wrote in an email interview. Men of average or shorter height also suffer in the realm of social attractiveness, which includes personal adjustment, athletic orientation, and masculinity. Her caveat: “What NONE of these studies establish is that it is HEIGHT per se that is responsible for these benefits or characteristics associated with height (strong leadership skills, self-confidence, professional development).”

While it is true that height has been proven in exactly zero studies to actually correlate with these positive characteristics, the fact remains that this is the culture we live in. A culture that values height, that associates height with strength and positive leadership qualities and physical prowess.

While my son continues to hope that one day he will look down on his parents, we are more focused on preparing him for the cultural context into which we will launch him one day. That means developing leadership skills, building confidence, encouraging his academic pursuits. Oh, and we tie buckets of cement to his ankles and drape them over the end of his mattress at night to encourage the bones to stretch. Okay, maybe not. But I do feed him well, if that counts for anything.

And for me, for this mom who is watching my son pass me by? I’m not worried. I’m not worried about him losing respect for me or his dad as he grows. I’m not worried about the physical strength he could exert over me. I’m not worried about him never growing taller than 5’6″.

He is strong and gentle, intelligent and creative and no matter what height he reaches, when he offers to carry my suitcase, I’ll admit: It feels pretty awesome.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child. Her work has also been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Dear Fellow Soccer Mom: I’d Be So Grateful If You’d Talk to Me

Dear Fellow Soccer Mom: I’d Be So Grateful If You’d Talk to Me

By Kristen De Deyn Kirk

Soccer Ball on Blackboard

 

We’re both watching our teens play soccer, and we’re likely to see each other three times a week for a few months, so please allow me to introduce myself: I’m Kristen, middle-aged mom of two teens. I’m an introvert who knows for sure that “introvert” does not mean “anti-social.”

Let me explain. Most days, I talk to no one outside of my family. It’s my fault; I choose to be a freelance writer, comfy in my yoga pants and day-old hairdo, at home, with my laptop. Yep, me and my laptop.

Sounded ideal at first. Then the loneliness kicked in.

My next-door neighbor, a fellow work-at-home mom, used to be reliable for a couple of chats a week near the mailbox. But she moved.

My other friends are weighed down with homeschooling, from-home businesses or traditional jobs. We catch up once a month in person, a true treat.

If only those 29 days between get-togethers flew by instead of dragging….

So, fellow soccer mom, when I see you standing near the field, I smile. Forgive me, my smile might be too wide, and as I approach you, I might talk too loudly.

I’m not completely crazy, I promise. I’m grateful to see someone who is around my age, who gets the agony and amazement of raising teens and who is bravely stepping outside the safety of her minivan.

You can talk about whatever you want. Tell me your son is not much of a talker, and you wonder if that’s true in school, too. I’ll understand when your face lights up when you then see him chatting with a teammate. (My face did the same at our last game, when my son saw an old friend and actually walked over to him to talk.) If you’d rather talk about the long drive you have to the practice field, and how your husband can’t get out of work in time, that’s fine too. I will commiserate and share that mine is hoping to drive to the next practice. We like the dads involved, don’t we? You can also mention that you’re starting a full-time job soon and you’re thinking of a million contingency plans. What happens if the school bus doesn’t come in the morning — and you’ve already left for work? What if one of your children has an afterschool club and no school-provided transportation back home? How will you manage dinner and then practice if you’re late driving home because of traffic? My heart will ache for you, and I’ll tell you I get it: The trade-off for a full-time job is a gut-wrenching juggle of responsibilities. As we continue to talk, you can even go political and tell me you love the candidate I hate. I’ll appear diplomatic. I’ll ask questions, and you’ll think I’m in the undecided camp. Or if you’d rather keep the conversation light and mention your addiction to The Real Housewives of New York City, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the team and The Property Brothers, I’ll do my best to play it cool, nod in agreement and save my happy dance for the privacy of my kitchen.

If you want to talk as long as that last paragraph, I’ll listen.

If you want to talk as short as this sentence, I’ll talk instead. Either way, I’d be happy.

Kristen De Deyn Kirk is a freelance writer from Virginia. She writes about parenting, education, politics and wine — and dreams of regular assignments that combine the four. She tweets at @KristenKirk.

Photo: Getty Images

What The Water Gave Me

What The Water Gave Me

By Michelle Jacobs

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This boy who was saved, spared, blissfully alive and crying and kicking swimming, all movement in his father’s grasp, all slimy fish and gills breathing somehow underwater.

 

The fish pond is the center of my parents’ backyard, a natural refuge, an Eden-like garden delight and a playground for my two-year-old son, a wild boy running free.

Circling the pond is a Buddha statue, a carved pelican and my grandmother’s garden girl sculpture which all seem now to be guardians of the pond.

The Koi fish swim deep, unseen mostly, but I saw them in a quiet moment of unspeakable gratitude. After the sparing, after the shadow passed, the reaper walked on and breathed on us all as he passed. After it all, I stood staring at the pond, at my son’s would be grave, at the murky, quiet undisturbed depths, a sheen glowed green and brown. The tangled net that held him lay ripped and snagged, torn apart by his father, to free and to save this miracle boy, this little fish, this wild Huckleberry boy of rivers, oceans, pools and ponds. This boy who was saved, spared, blissfully alive and crying and kicking swimming, all movement in his father’s grasp, all slimy fish and gills breathing somehow underwater.

I started to walk away from the pond, from the stillness after the chaos and the afterglow of evening dying and in the quiet, a splash erupted as insistent as a voice, a call. I turned to look at the pond and the fish were at the surface slapping their fin bodies and moving their mouths for food, of course, but in my myth they spoke of what they saw, bearing witness under the water.

For they must have seen the will my boy had to live, the grasping hands seeking air and sky and other arms to hold him. The fish must have seen his strong legs and body twisting, fighting the weight of water, sinking depths. They must have seen the shadow of his cousin running, leaping, reaching, clinging and struggling to save my boy, my boy, my boy. They must have felt her fall in with all her effort and love holding him, lifting him, trying to untangle him. Until his father overtook them all scattering the fish, the lily pads, the algae and the slime, a force moving the pond, moving time, hands reaching and reaching, feeling the slippery boyfish caught, stuck in the netting that kept the birds out. They must have seen him slipping, slipping, slipping away while the seconds, minutes, hours ticked and ticked and ticked until his father ripped the netting and lifted the boy from the depths of the earth holding tight to life.

The fish swim on. The stone and wood statues are quiet, mute with explanation. I walk away from the now tranquil scene, from the wise and knowing trees silent with reasons to tell me why we were spared. No one can tell how much time really passed, how long he was under water, why the splash made his cousin alert and wondering, looking once and looking again from the hammock hearing a splash but seeing nothing, laughing in the hammock, sorrow hovering so close to happiness. Only the trees towering above it all, filtering the wind, sheltering the birds, watching the humans, the mistakes, the triumphs, pure chance, pure action.

I don’t know what my two-year-old saw in the depths, but I know he felt his father’s hands sure and solid, of this world, holding him and lifting him out of the dark, out of the water.
Michelle Jacobs lives in Virginia Beach, VA with her husband and three kids. She can be reached at mabjacobs@gmail.com

I Know You Had Surgery, But How is the Dog?

I Know You Had Surgery, But How is the Dog?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Pickles5One look at the dog and I knew that my surgery had been upstaged. 

 

This was going to be like any other road trip home from Wisconsin to pick up stuffed animals that had been accidentally left on the camp bus, except that on this one, I needed to tell my kids I had cancer. I’d been stewing on what I’d say for sometime, and being a writer, a fan if there ever was one of controlling the narrative, I had my presentation scripted. I’d kick off with, “This is going to sound worse than it is.” I’d wrap up with something like, “It’s no big deal.” In the middle, I’d drop the phrases, “a little bit of breast cancer” and “a little bit of surgery.” I’d be breezy. I’d be calm. And I’d be acting. Isn’t that so much of what mothers do? Spin-doctoring is not in the basic job description. But it should be. All mothers, at some point or another, will pretend the new hair-do isn’t hideous. Or the bloody gash is just a little scrape. Or the bi-lateral mastectomy and reconstruction will, for her kids, be just another day, only without their mother. I suppose these maternal charades fall into the category of the little, white lie. We mean well. We’re out to either make our kids feel better or ourselves look better so that in some therapist’s office somewhere down the line we’re not catching the blame for something.

My own mother, for example, in effort to introduce healthy foods, once tried to pass off fish as veal. She disguised the fish in breading so that it resembled her familiar veal cutlets. “Tonight’s veal is going to be delicious,” she told us gesturing, without pause, to the baking sheet on the counter. But then she put the “veal” in the oven, and the house began to stink. Like fish. Her cover was blown. We ended up at McDonald’s.

But where would we end up aside from a therapist’s office if my own cover was blown, if my daughters had to digest the full story of my bout with breast cancer, including the risks of surgery and my own fear? And so, I went to great lengths to ensure that during the weeks of my surgery and subsequent recovery, our house would run so smoothly that my girls, both 14, would barely know I was gone. There wouldn’t be a wrinkle in their routines, let alone their psyches. I arranged for dinners. I typed out schedules. I even sent the dog away to a sitter. As anyone who’s ever had a dog knows, if you are attempting to control a narrative, a dog in the picture is the last thing you need.

I went into the hospital. I came out. All with little issue, fanfare or expression from my daughters, which at the time—right up until the dog was in a fire at the dog sitter’s—I took as a sign of their strength, that they’d bought into my campaign of “It’s no big deal.” It didn’t cross my mind until, as I mentioned, the dog got stuck in a fire, that the absence of their questions and their stoic sweeping of floors while their mother sat motionless on the couch was, in fact, a charade, as well. They didn’t know how to handle the situation, I’m sure they’ll be telling their therapists, because their mother, who was plugged into Netflix, binging on Friday Night Lights and Norco, wasn’t giving them the words or the tools or the permission. In fact, they’ll tell their therapists, their mother was beginning to enjoy herself.

This was true. While a six-hour operation does seem like a ways to go for a little time off, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a part of me wasn’t enjoying the role-reversal. “There are many positives that come from cancer,” people all along my journey had told me. All along, I’d added the words, “assuming you survive,” in my head. But now, with the surgery behind me and drugs in my system, I was beginning to buy into this narrative, too. “It’s a blessing in disguise,” I told my husband. I was getting rest and our kids, who lacked in household skills, were gaining experience. “It’s a win-win,” I said from the couch as my children took in the mail and boiled the noodles.

Soon after I convinced myself of this, the house began to smell. Not like fish but like smoke. The dog hadn’t been burned, but he’d inhaled smoke for hours on end. My husband had collected him from the sitter’s while my kids and I, exhausted from pretending that everything was no big deal, were still asleep. When we awoke, there it was—a furry hole in my narrative—another patient on the couch. This one couldn’t open his eyes. Or wag his tail. Not only couldn’t he move, but he couldn’t breathe either. My first reaction was, of course, to curse the situation. One look at the dog and I knew that my surgery had been upstaged. Next to him, the beloved dog, I became as I’d been wanting to be seen: no big deal. Forget the research I’d done on how to talk to your kids about cancer, I was now scrambling to explain the term hyperbaric chamber, which is where the dog spent the next four days at a hospital in the hinterlands with my children and my husband at his side. So long to the mother being mothered. So long to the round-the-clock care. So long to the drugs, even, as I now needed to be lucid to care for myself. So long, too, to my charade. Our house turned to chaos. My own mother, who I’d forgiven for the “veal” incident, came over. She did the laundry and brought me food, while I murmured, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Only after the fact, after the vigils were held for the dog, the tears over the dog dried, the worry about the dog’s prognosis died down, could I see that the dog did us a favor. The dog himself had wagged the dog. He’d made me seem in relatively good shape, but more than that he was, as he always is, a diversion. He vomits on the car keys as we’re rushing to leave. He pulls the last piece of steak off the dinner table. He lightens the mood, relieves tension and makes us forget our concern of the moment, which on that day at that time, I know, was me. At least that’s the story I’m telling myself now.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

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To The Disapproving Man Watching Me Breastfeed in a Restaurant

To The Disapproving Man Watching Me Breastfeed in a Restaurant

By Allison Martin

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To the disapproving gentleman at the corner table,

I’ve been lumbered with ample bosom since my mid-teens and it has been a source of embarrassment, not pride. I’ve covered up in baggy tees and long-envied more athletically built ladies, their ability to wear tank tops or halter necks without unsightly straps spoiling their sartorial elegance.

So, believe me when I say that sitting here, in this restaurant with my breast on show, I’m as, if not more, embarrassed than you could ever be.

I say on show but there’s less flesh flaunted here than you’d see on MTV, in the movies, on the covers of dozens of newspapers and magazines or on any beach across the world on a hot, summer’s day.

My baby son’s head and body cover much of my milk-filled mammary as he, oblivious to your distaste, enjoys his own lunch while you attempt to choke down your steak in the face of such horror.

I could cover the little guy with a scarf to spare us both any blushing, but I suspect if the waitress asked either of us to eat with a tablecloth over our heads we would be aghast, an unpleasant, hot and bothersome way to take a meal. I’m sure you’d agree.

I could remove myself to avoid your embarrassment, feed my hungry child in the bathroom but then, the idea seems somewhat ridiculous and, not just a little, unsanitary.

If the manager suggested you or I munch our margarita pizzas to the backtrack of hand dryers and toilets flushing we would, I suspect, protest.

I understand that the sight of me feeding my child is a painful experience. Getting to the point of being able to feed him was something of a painful experience for me. I knew I wanted to breastfeed but boy was I surprised when it didn’t come naturally. Initially it was agonizing, so much so I almost threw in the towel, then an infection meant I was unable to feed him for two weeks. I can’t tell you how heart-breaking this was, expressing milk only to pour it down the drain in the vain hope my little man wouldn’t reject my boob having developed a taste for the bottled stuff. Again, with much support and encouragement from friends, family and an incredibly patient partner, we persisted.

I know you’re embarrassed to be eating your green beans just yards away from such exposure, I can see it in your eyes. I had that same look as my boobs were manhandled by a wonderful breastfeeding counsellor who came to my home and worked with myself and my son as we tried to get it together as a feeding team. I’m not ashamed to say there were lots of tears, a good dollop of anger and the occasional expletive along the way. But I’m guessing you’ll understand that level of frustration, you look pretty frustrated right now as you mutter to your friends and throw disapproving looks in my direction.

I could, I suppose, pretend I haven’t noticed your annoyance or ignore your feelings but, then, I was raised to respect the feelings of others and I intend to raise my own son that same way. I’m sure you’d agree that compassion is a much-underrated quality and, God knows, society could do with more of it.

I am, I like to think, a caring human being and, as such, I’m sorry that you’re unhappy. I know you came here hoping to enjoy a delicious meal, good company and maybe a beer or glass of Chardonnay. I know this because it’s why I’m here too. I don’t get out that much so I aim to enjoy myself on the rare occasion I do. I can only apologize that the sight of something so offensive, so freakish as a mother mammal feeding her cub is putting you off your potato dauphinoise and putting a real chink in your dining experience.

I wish I was able to oblige you but, unfortunately, my priorities must be with the hungry 12-week-old and, unlike you or I who may complain to the maître-d if the service was tardy, my little boy has neither the communication skills nor patience, he will, if denied, just howl the place down. Perhaps that would be preferable, less intrusive to your lunch than the vista of the top third of breast you’re currently being confronted with?

Maybe if we both focused on our own meals, our own friends and their lively conversation it would make life easier. In short sir, if the amount of bosom on show, which would frankly fail to raise eyebrows in a Jane Austen novel, troubles you so deeply, might I suggest, to avoid yours and my own discomfort, you simply STOP LOOKING, and let me feed my baby.

Yours sincerely,

A breastfeeding mum

Allison Martin is a freelance writer and mum-of-one. She used to be a news reporter for The Daily Mirror and now writes features and blogs for The Guardian, Reader’s Digest, Mother & Baby and the Huffington Post amongst others. She lives in London with her partner, three-year-old son and a goldfish called Bookworm. You can follow Allison on Twitter @AlliMartin

Author Q&A: Jessica Johnson

Author Q&A: Jessica Johnson

bw headshotJessica Johnson is the author of the essay The Intertidal Zone. We spoke with her about writing and motherhood. Here is her story:

What inspired you to write this essay?

When I started this essay, I had just started teaching creative nonfiction, and as I helped my students think about the structures of their essays, I got ideas about how I might write about my experience at the Newport aquarium. That moment in Newport seemed tied to many other parts of my life, but in order to write it, I needed to get an idea about how to structure this multifaceted story.

What was the greatest challenge in writing it?

I had trouble figuring out where to start and where to end, and I wrote many, many drafts.

How do your children inform your writing?

I’m enchanted by my children. They’re like a big ball of light and love in my consciousness. On the other hand, when I take a more detached view, my children—their developmental phases, their ways of seeing the world, the surreal aspect of being around them—are fascinating objects of study, full of unexpected insights. I write about them and the experience of raising them, but even when I’m not writing about them, the imperative of love and care hopefully permeates my writing.

How do you balance writing and motherhood?

Most of my writing friends now have small children, and we talk about this question all the time. One of them recently said, “All I can do is get up early.” That seems about right to me.

Do you share any of your writing with your children (if they are old enough of course)

My oldest child is four, and I have never shared my writing with her, but I often imagine her grown-up self as my true audience.

Back to November 2015 Issue

 

My Son Lived

My Son Lived

By Nicole Scobie

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We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop.

 

Most mom friendships are formed because of a shared mutual experience, like two kids in the same daycare, the same class, or team. The moms get to know each other, first exchanging a few words at drop-off or pick-up, then warming up over a cup of coffee. Over time, they become friends. The shared experience of their children’s similar activity creates a bond that can last for years, as the moms watch their kids grow up together.

Natalie and I met that way, when my son Elliot was 5 and her daughter Zoé was 4 years old.

Our kids had shared the experience of cancer.

Elliot was diagnosed two weeks after starting school. A 6-inch tumor in his abdomen, multiple smaller tumors all over his lungs, making it stage 4. Zoé’s was in her bone marrow, requiring high intensity treatments.

Almost a full year of some of the hardest days (and nights). I held my son’s hand as he asked why this was happening. I talked to him about life and death, telling him how brave he was, while I was shaking with fear inside.

Friendships between two moms born this way are like no other — there are so many things that fall away when you’ve seen each other at your worst, at your angriest, at your most anxious and at your most relieved.

Bizarrely, despite the horrific situation we found ourselves in, the thing that drew us closest was laughing together. Nothing beats watching your child squirt a syringe of liquid at the doctor with another cancer mom there to witness it and laugh hysterically with you later. Laughing is great — I actually think laughter might just be the antonym of fear.

The downside of these friendships is that you now worry for another child. The burden is huge — knowing just how serious the situation is, feeling the fear because it is so bitterly familiar.

And then, the magic word: remission. No cancer left. Clear scans.

Both our kids entered the world of “normal,” where they could play outside with other kids again, where their hair started to grow back, where they, and we, were free of the hospital except for the regular three month checkups.

Natalie and I founded a non-profit organization together, to raise funds for research and help other families. One out of four children with cancer will die — we wanted to change that. We worked endless hours at it but still laughed at some of the ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Speaking in front of large groups, for example, something we both hated, became a regular thing. What a strange path our lives had taken.

And meanwhile, there were always those three month checkups, to make sure the cancer hadn’t come back. The stress of watching Elliot lying on that table, me standing nearby with a heavy lead vest on. The technician telling him over the intercom, “Ok now lie very still.” The table sliding through the scanner. “Now take a deep breath and hold it.” The table sliding back through the scanner. “Ok now breathe.” I’d exhale. “Now we’ll do it again, lie very still…”

And the wait until days later, when my husband and I would be escorted into the oncologist’s office to get the results. Scanning the face of the doctor and nurse for some sign. Relief streaming out of me like hot air from a kettle after finding out all is clear. No relapse. We were free to go, back in three months.

First thing out of the meeting with the oncologist, as we walked down the hallway and before we got to the hospital elevator, I texted Natalie. We were both thrilled, relieved.

And then, a few months later, I got Natalie’s message, when she was in the hallway of the hospital.

But it was not good news this time.

Zoé had relapsed.

The cancer was back.

You are expecting me to write that we cried together and supported each other, like close friends do in the movies. But we didn’t. We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop. And won’t help anyone get through what happens next.

We didn’t cry. We fought back. We rallied. We researched and learned about this cancer, about the treatments. When one treatment failed we were ready for the next. Up until that last day when Zoé had bravely endured a brand new promising treatment and her parents went in for the results to see if this time, it had finally worked.

And I got the message from Natalie. I can’t say what I felt. Empty, I think.

The cancer was still there. The scan showed a little 4-year-old body, full, from head to toe, with cancer cells.

We knew even before the oncologist officially said it that there would be no more treatments.

Zoé died in her mother’s arms two weeks after that text message. I spoke at her ceremony. I couldn’t face the audience so instead I turned and spoke to the big, poster size photo of Zoé on the altar next to the flowers and toys placed there. I thanked her for what she had given me, the chance to have known her, the friendship with her mom, and I thanked her for her laughter. Zoé laughed a lot too.

My son lived. Her daughter died. There was no logical reason for it to turn out that way. It just did. We got lucky with one and unlucky with the other. Despite it all, we are still close friends.   

Almost two years have passed. Elliot has checkups every six months now. I text Natalie right away, and she’s relieved.   

Our non-profit has grown and now funds critical research, and supports families while their child is in treatment. It’s what we always wanted. Even though things didn’t turn out how we wanted.

Nicole Scobie, mom to three great kids, one of whom is luckily in remission from stage 4 cancer of the kidney.

Author’s Note: Nicole and Natalie now run zoe4life.org, the non-profit organization that supports kids with cancer and their families.

Photo: Samuel Zeller

I Just Needed A Hand

I Just Needed A Hand

By Amy Challenger

overwhelmed-mom“Get that kid OUT OF HERE!” yelled Cindy the music teacher, swatting at the air with one hand while holding up a basket of CDs with the other. She elevated the gifts she had promised to the toddlers, high above their chubby grabbing hands. Her torso twisted, pulling at the seams of a tight, bright-colored jacket. One fuzzy-haired 3-year-old grabbed at her polyester pants. Determined to get to the CDs first, he had already leapt across the room to get to her, like a mini ninja warrior, ignoring her request to stay seated. The other toddlers had followed—a drooling sea of arms and “gimmees.” Now Cindy toppled onto herself, tripping on her awkward feet, before regaining her balance. Her round nose wrinkled beneath her eyes bulging downward, glaring at the lead ninja.

My boy.

Did she really just yell that in front of all of these moms and kids? I thought, glancing at the horrified faces of the women standing along the rim of the scene.

My face flushed. I felt like I might pee my pants. I was helplessly on the far side of the mass of little bodies, and now my arms reached out, paddling through the toddler current to get to my boy. Must. Get. There. Before he tantrums! I thought, panting, trying not to fall on top of my seven-week-old baby girl, who was sucking from my breast, beneath a white cotton sling attached to me.

As music class had ended, Cindy announced that she’d give gifts to all children who remained seated, waiting for their names to be called. The gifts were CDs packaged in colorful cases. I had calculated that these “flingable” objects handed around could trigger my boy’s impulse to chase and grab. And surely the word “gift” would zap his impulse control. The excitement could inhibit his ability to consider other bodies, recognize sounds, or follow commands. As I had considered the impending doom, my infant started to cry. Surely this additional shrill sound would only make my boy’s sensitivity worse. I quickly looked down to quiet the baby, latching her on to my nipple beneath the white cotton fabric of my sling. And then my boy disappeared.

Now Cindy’s perfectly manicured fingers were attempting to detach him from her thigh. “Let go!”

While still clinging to the polyester, he screeched back, “Gimee. Gimee da CD!”

He had been diagnosed with ADHD and symptoms of sensory processing disorder. He had anxiety, maybe PTSD, possibly from his open-heart surgery during infancy and the hospitalization and medications he had received for a life-threatening arrhythmia.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” I said nervously, knowing loud noises, chaotic motion, and prizes yanked AWAY would ensure a complete meltdown.

Weeks before that morning, I had explained to Cindy that my boy had special needs. He’d been kicked out of preschool on the first day for no specific reason while I was in the hospital having my third C-section. “He just doesn’t fit here. Can’t return tomorrow,” his preschool teacher had said through the phone by my hospital bed. Since that morning, I had called all sorts of classes, therapy groups, and preschools, searching for help while caring for my two toddlers and infant, all born in less than three years. When I found Cindy, the music teacher, I had explained that my boy sometimes became “over-stimulated,” particularly during transitions; but a calm music class could provide therapeutic benefits if lead by a patient instructor. She had assured me that, with her numerous years of experience teaching in Tiburon, California, she was fully capable of teaching every kind of child—even a boy like mine.

But there we were. Commanded to GET OUT.

“We have to go, honey! Come on!” I tried, when I finally reached my boy. He kept jumping and pulling on Cindy, so I lifted him with my free arm and pulled him away hollering, kicking, and hitting me. Once close to the doorway where our shoes waited, I lowered myself to the floor, with him on the opposite side of the baby still nursing in the sling. I groped for his shoes with my free, shaky hand. “We have to go,” I said, using my feet to slide our bottoms toward the door while my clumsy swinging arm attempted to land a blue crock onto his wild foot. It was hopeless. My boy hated shoes—they itched his skin—they confined him.

Meanwhile, Cindy handed out the CDs, smiling to the other moms and children, compensating for her earlier outburst. She dropped a plastic case next to me with a grimace, reminding me that I needed to leave.

“I’m trying!” I yelped in disbelief as my boy grabbed for his prize.

“Lemme go!” he screamed kicking at the air, scratching my arm. My infant girl finally became irritated, belting out a cry from below. It was all so ridiculous—opposite of how I had imagined motherhood to be. I sucked cracker-smelling air inward, as I tried to imagine a way out of my humiliation. The tears forced their way out with the exhale, exploding down my red cheeks. My sobs jerked uncontrollably, revealing the truth. I was so tired. So lost. So lonely.

I’m a terrible mom, I thought. Pathetic. I couldn’t even get out of the damned classroom. Worse, I was partially blocking the door, like a wet, ugly mat. The other moms’ white sneakers stepped across our sobbing heap on their way out of the classroom, yanking children behind them, tripping and bumping our legs. They did not speak to me. They did not look down at me. They just left. The children stared a little, peering back, as they were pulled out the door.

After most mothers had disappeared, I finally dragged my shrieking boy outside by the legs, into the dry fall breeze. As soon as we reached the pavement, he jumped up and ran barefoot through the busy parking lot. I chased him, seeing Cindy through my tears. She watched through an open window. “I told you about him… I told you,” I cried.

“This was your fault. Not his. Your infant, your breastfeeding was disruptive,” she called like an angry crow. (I had seen many other moms come with infants, so her comment made little sense to me. But nothing did that day.)

Six years later, after thousands more difficult days of parenting, I reflect back on that episode, and I feel sad. I needed kindness. I needed help. But believe it or not, I think that flailing on the floor of a classroom was one of my early motherhood gifts in disguise. That day, I was forced to learn about parenting from down on the floor where part of my pride fell away in a stream of tears. I had to learn to stop seeking approval from Moms. In order to embark on my mothering journey, I had to find my reward in loving, understanding, and advocating for my struggling boy and his siblings. I needed to focus on my family.

And later, as my mama feet became steadier, that lonely low-down perspective taught me to watch closely for the mothers who might need me. Because I know that a hand lowered, a nod, or even one kind word can make all the difference to a mom.

I hope that my lessons from the floor can become another Mom’s bench to rest on—perhaps a sturdy platform to reach out from, finding at last another mother’s welcoming hand to hold.
Amy Challenger is an artist and writer working in Fairfield, CT on her first novel about a boy’s struggles and triumphs growing up “different.” This year her work relating to parenting has been published in the Washington Post, Mamalode and on her two blogs specialneedsblessings.blogspot.com and thefruitofmotherhood.blogspot.com.

The Broomstick and the Plunger

The Broomstick and the Plunger

By Rachel Ida Buff

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The year Ginger was three years old I started dressing witch-ugly instead of witch-sexy. I painted my face green and blacked a tooth.

 

My kids don’t need me anymore, not like they did when they were little and wanted to dress up as my familiars on Halloween. Of course, they still depend on me for some things: who else is going to stockpile the discount candy, order the pizza, and plunge the toilet?

Witches too are useless in a way, beyond the demands of husbands, children, town or civic associations. Maybe this is why they are scary: they soar defiantly through the night sky, glorious in their freedom. Sometimes they are seen together, in the dreaded covens. But they are more often outsiders — alone.

I am not exactly alone tonight. My house is full of enough to delight even that cranky, child-luring, deep woods creature made notorious in the story of Hansel and Gretel. My husband is out of town and both of my daughters are getting ready for the evening with their own covens of friends.

The archetypical witch rides a broomstick, converting that modest implement of domestic order into a vehicle for nocturnal flight. Her hands are free to clutch the broomstick while she is riding it, even when she dismounts, she is often seen holding the thing. When the girls were small, I barely swept, let alone drag a cleaning utensil around for show.   

Instead of taking off on a broom tonight, I ply the plunger. This is urgent: some indignity cannot be swallowed by our toilet, and we have eight of us, in and out of the house. Dressed in my long, black witch dress, wearing the green-face I have carefully applied, I confront a familiar adversary — the toilet in the second floor bathroom. I have a complicated relationship to plungers, more fraught than the question of order or flight provoked by the broom.

For one thing, there is my father-in-law’s house, where they don’t stock the regular rubber bulb with the stick coming out, the kind that waits unassumingly behind the toilet, to be mustered into service when the time comes. Instead, when the need arises, a request must be made from the master of the house. The plunger, a tripartite device the likes of which I have never seen before or since, is retrieved with great fanfare from my father-in-law’s workshop in the garage.  A big deal is made of the inconvenience. The plunger is then paraded through the house, before being deployed in the bathroom. Only the master of the house can use it; the rest of us are forced to stand by.

This happened on two successive visits, before I realized I had to conjure an alternative. I now make a habit of driving to a nearby gas station once or twice a day during visits to that household. That solved that problem.

But somehow, our toilet at home also backs up frequently. Thinking it might have to do with the ancient plumbing in our house, we eventually sprang for a new toilet. The handyman who installed it left the house grinning, assuring us, “you could get a bowling ball down that thing.” But plunging is still a routine task, something that just has to happen. And somehow it often seems to fall to me.

Plunging takes skill as well as courage. First, when the water refuses to go down, there is the grudging realization that something will have to be done. The shit lurks towards the bottom, silently threatening to ride a swirl of water back up, even out. So I try again, flushing and jiggling the handle, hoping for a miracle. I panic as the water swirls up and threatens to surge over the top of the rim. Then I am antic with the plunger, relentless, until that sound I have learned to wait for–the unmistakable suck, the still second before the water swirls and goes back down, this time.

What would a real witch do? I hitch the long black dress up and deal with the situation, emerging victorious from the bathroom. There is riotous teen laughter on the front porch, where Celeste and her friends are handing out candy and waxing nostalgic about the costumes they used to wear. Ginger and her friends are roving the neighborhood, dressed as pirates and hippies; they are almost too old for costumes, but still flushed with the excitement of the cold, dark night.

My current long black witch dress was once a pregnancy shift. The label announces it: “Full Moon.” I first wore the dress trick-or-treating with Celeste on a warm and misty Ohio Halloween evening over a decade ago. That night, the dress caught moisture from the air, from the ground and from puddles. It lengthened, trailing behind me as we made the rounds of our neighborhood. I was a few months out from giving birth to Ginger then, that elasticity a welcome reminder of what the dress and I could be capable of.

Growing up, I never thought that witches were ugly. I knew that the Wicked Witch of the West was supposed to be dark and ugly in contrast to the simpering good witch of the North. But Margaret Hamilton looked a lot more like the women in my family than Glenda ever did. I am far more scared of simpering blonde locks than scolding dark tresses.

Since my twenties, the opportunity to dress as a witch on Halloween has seemed like a relief and a party rolled into one. “Type casting,” I cackle to myself. (A cackle does not ask for or require an audience.) And dressing up as a witch is a popular costume: you can easily go witch-sexy by tossing on your favorite little black dress, a pair of heels and a pointy hat.

The year Ginger was three years old I started dressing witch-ugly instead of witch-sexy. I painted my face green and blacked a tooth. Ginger cried until I convinced her it was really me. “Mama Witch!” she finally said, happily. After that she always recognized me, waiting impatiently for Halloween and planning ever more non-traditional familiar outfits.

The witch archetype reaches back, through wicked Hollywood witches west and east, to Salem, to the medieval European archetype and her troubles with the law. Witches are scary because they are powerful outsiders. And because of that cackle. When The Wizard of Oz was first screened, Margaret Hamilton’s laugh was considered by many to be over the top. Small children had to be escorted out of an early screening.

Having cleared the toilet, I rove the house. Most of the candy has been given out; I locate a bag of Snickers my husband has hidden for himself, pour it into our black plastic cauldron, and hand it out to the last tiny stragglers. Ginger and her friends go up to the attic to engage in elaborate candy trades. Two of Celeste’s friends go home, and she and her best friend, Serena, shut themselves in her room to pour over their iPods together.

It is cold and I am almost ready to shut off the porch light on the evening’s trick or treating. Just then, a boy of around 6 in a rainbow afro wig rings the door. I have seen him already and given him candy. “Back again?” I ask him.  

He shakes his head and gestures to a tiny, barely-walking girl dressed as a pumpkin. She is almost completely hidden behind him. I crouch down and address her. “Want candy?” I ask.  

She shakes her head. “Pee!” she says, wide-eyed. Her brother nods vigorously. I prop the screen door open, looking beyond the porch to the sidewalk. A woman bundled up in a wheelchair waves and nods emphatically. I take the pumpkin girl’s hand and lead her inside, and up the stairs to our fully functional toilet. Her brother stays on the porch. Halfway up the stairs, I realize that this tiny pumpkin girl, her brother and her mother in the wheelchair have to put their faith in me: a strange white woman in a pointy hat, black dress and greenface.

Pumpkin girl is small enough that she needs me to help her get her pants down and sit on the toilet. I wonder if I could have let tiny Celeste climb the stairs with a stranger who would have had to help her in this way. I don’t think so.  

Pumpkin girl slides off the toilet; I help her with her pants. She pauses at the top of the stairs, and I pick her up and slide her onto my hip, carrying her down to where her brother waits. She grins at me and snatches a Snickers bar from the cauldron. Her brother takes her hand and they run down the stairs to where their mom waits for them.

I take off my hat and close the door. Sitting on the couch, I sort through the cauldron to see whether there is one Almond Joy left for me.

For several years, off and on, I have had the feeling of flying. It comes at odd times, like when I am driving Ginger and Celeste to the dentist and we are all singing songs we remember from the Shrek soundtrack; or when I am walking the dog in the morning after we have all eaten breakfast and the girls have gone off to school and I am thinking about what to do with a couple of hours of writing time. It occurs to me to google this, just to see if I am suffering from some identifiable syndrome: “feeling of flying in middle age.” And then I remember the witch, soaring off on her broomstick into the night sky. I turn on the computer and get to work.

 
Rachel Ida Buff is a mother, a writer and a history professor who has already stocked both greenface and tooth blacking makeup for Halloween. She is a writer of essays and short stories as well as academic articles and books. Currently, she is completing a novel, Into Velvet.

Sometimes Three-Year-Olds Do Know Best

Sometimes Three-Year-Olds Do Know Best

By Alexis Wolff

 

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These little people we’re tasked with raising, the ones who we’re supposed to teach right from wrong before releasing them to make their marks on the world, they come with lessons for us too.

 

It was the last night of our Disney cruise, a Christmas gift to my sons from their grandparents. After a final visit to the ship’s Finding Nemo-themed splash pad, then a decadent dinner capped off by Mickey-shaped desserts, my family of four was crowded together in our cabin. My five-month-old son slept sweetly in a Pack ‘n Play while his big brother, three-year-old Flynn, rooted through a backpack of books we’d brought, picking out a few for bed.

“So, what do you think?” I whispered to my husband.

“If you really want to,” he replied.

Starting in a few minutes was one final character meet and greet—something I knew Flynn would love. But, it was already well past his bedtime. And frankly, mine too.

“It’s vacation,” I decided after a moment’s thought. “I’m going.” I turned to Flynn. “Hey buddy, want to come with Mommy? Mickey’s boat has one last surprise.”

The backpack of books? Old news. Flynn’s green eyes sparkled as he nodded, grabbed my hand and raced for the door.

I started to pull the handle but then turned back. “Hang on small fry. Mommy needs to get her phone.”

I found it on the nightstand, shoved it in my pocket and headed out the door and down the narrow cruise ship corridor with my pajama-clad preschooler.

We arrived atop the stairs that led down to the ship’s Art Deco lobby, where dozens of characters were holding court. Flynn jumped up and down at the sight of them.

“Which friend can I meet first?” Flynn asked.

“Whichever you want.”

“Hey, this is like the Frozen stairs!” Flynn announced as we descended the regal staircase like Disney royalty.

“Mmm hmm buddy,” I replied. “Sure is.”

In the lobby, Flynn wandered over to Chip and Dale, who I wasn’t sure he even knew before our trip. We waited in a short snake of a line for his turn to hug each chipmunk and then squeeze between them while I shot a photo on my phone.

Next up was Cinderella. Snap snap. Then Donald. Click Click.

“Who now kiddo?” I asked.

Flynn looked up at me. “Can we not take any more pictures?” he asked, his voice even and calm.

“If that’s what you want, of course. Are you tired? Are you ready to go back up to the room now?”

“No!” he protested, stomping a foot to the floor. He was calm no more. “I’m not tired.”

“What then? I don’t understand what you want. Tell me what you want.”

“I want not to do any more pictures,” he whined. “I want to give Mickey and Minnie and Daisy big hugs and tell them bye-bye. Can we do that? Yes or no?”

Suddenly I saw that all around me, adults were clambering for perfect final photos—just like I had been. Turn this way, they were saying to their kids. Now that way. Smile. Say cheese. They stopped to assess the images on their screens. Another one, they would say. Let’s try again. And then time was up. The kids continued on to the next character hardly having interacted with the first. It was another parent’s turn to try for a photo that would be frame or Facebook worthy.

Why were they doing this? Why was I?

“Can we do that?” Flynn repeated, reminding me about his request for no more pictures. “Yes or no?”

“Of course we can do that,” I told him. I put my phone in my pocket for good. “Of course. You’re absolutely right.”

These little people we’re tasked with raising, the ones who we’re supposed to teach right from wrong before releasing them to make their marks on the world, they come with lessons for us too.

The unadulterated perspective of my three-year-old son reminded me: The point of pictures is to remember the moment, so when pictures become the moment, what’s the point?

For the rest of the night, I followed Flynn as he moved from character to character. Last up was his favorite friend.

“Mickey!” he said with an excited grin before wrapping his arms around the mouse’s leg. Then he took a step back and tilted up his head. He just stood there staring, his eyes wide with admiration.

“Photo Mom?” Mickey asked me.

It would have made a great one, but I’d made a promise. I shook my head. Mickey shrugged and let Flynn stare.

“Bye-bye Mickey,” Flynn said after a bit. “I had fun on your boat. I’ll see you later in your clubhouse. I love you. Bye-bye.”

Hand in hand, my pajama-clad prince and I headed back up the regal staircase and down the carpeted cruise ship corridor to our cabin.

“Shh,” I whispered before opening the door. “Your brother’s sleeping.”

“Okay,” Flynn whispered back. “Hey Mommy?”

“Yeah small fry?”

“I’m so glad that happened.”

A year and a half has gone by—a year and a half filled with cute soccer uniforms, dinosaur-themed birthday parties, ill-fitting snowsuits and other photogenic fun. And I have photographed some of it, but sometimes I make myself put my phone away. I make myself because: those hundreds of pictures I took on our Disney cruise? I never look at them. When I think back to that trip, the un-photographed final moments are the ones I remember most.

Alexis Wolff’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Mamalode and the Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, among others. She lives with her husband and two young sons in Mexico.

Photo: Getty Images

Pure Nepali

Pure Nepali

By Elizabeth Enslin

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Speaking in our private, mixed language had been hard but precious–perhaps the most intimate time we would ever have aside from pregnancy and breastfeeding. 

 

My six-year old’s wooden arrow arced toward the sun and nailed its mark: a yellow nylon kite. Both fell into the sawdust of the beachside playground.

Amalesh had whittled the arrow and bow from sticks he’d collected during our hikes around Whidbey Island. I had reluctantly let him bring both to the year-end kindergarten picnic because I couldn’t imagine such a crude bow propelling a heavy arrow any distance at all.

For a few seconds, I froze, replaying the event in my mind and marveling. Then I noticed many eyes turned our way.

Once again, my parenting skills were in question.

Since I’d separated from Amalesh’s Nepali father four months earlier, I’d been learning to bear such judgments alone. That, plus the inquisitive stares and mostly silent questions: A brown-skinned, brown-eyed, black-haired boy with a White, blue-eyed, blondish-haired woman? Where does he come from? Is he adopted?

I shook off my dreaminess and scanned the crowd: the child–not from our group–cradling a torn kite, his mother and father comforting him and glaring at me, other adults edging closer as though to intervene.

I took Amalesh’s hand and dragged him over to the now-crying child and told him to apologize. He mumbled a quick, “Sorry.” I made an apology to the parents too and offered to replace the kite. The parents said it wouldn’t be necessary and turned away. I took Amalesh aside. Grinning, he refused to look at me. His eyes beamed back and forth between his bow and that victory spot in the sky.

Before I had a chance to scold, he said: “Ma bow shoot garnai parthie. Ani ma target hit garye!” Since we had left Nepal, I had grown accustomed to sentences made of two languages and understood: “I had to shoot the bow. And I hit the target!”  

*   *   *

Up until that point, Amalesh had spent nearly half his life among his father’s extended family in Nepal. I had given birth to him there, so Nepali was the language he’d heard more than any other during his first six months. Then we moved back to the U.S. for three years, where he spoke his earliest words in English, the language his academic father felt more comfortable using when not in Nepal. For several years after that, we lived between two countries. Every move required an adjustment in language. Talkative and outgoing, Amalesh usually transitioned well.

The family farm in Nepal was the most permanent home Amalesh had ever known. Homes in the U.S. had been temporary–graduate student housing at Stanford University, various rental homes for my postdoctoral position in Iowa City and his father’s professorship in Syracuse, New York.

Our last stint in Nepal had lasted eighteen months. Amalesh had been surrounded by grandparents, aunties, uncles, numerous cousins and even neighbors who spoiled him. As they doted on everything he did and said and excused his tantrums and mischief, he became fluent in Nepali. Now I had wrenched him away from that language of unconditional love and adoration.

*   *   *

“Kina angry hunuhuncha?” Amalesh asked.

Why was I so angry?

Early June sunlight shimmered on Useless Bay. Snow capped the Olympic Mountains behind. Amalesh skulked off to sit alone on a log in the sand. I decided to gave him his space so we could both cool down. I mingled with other parents in his class, attempting feeble explanations and apologies for my son’s behavior.

Amalesh’s kindergarten teacher took me aside. “It wasn’t right for Amalesh to do that, of course,” she said. “But I had to keep myself from smiling when he brought that kite down. He had to see if he could do it, and he did. No one but you understands his words right now, but we can understand when he aims an arrow and shoots a kite down so skillfully. He’s speaking to us with his actions.”

*   *   *

When Amalesh and I had arrived back in the U.S. in February, my parents were getting ready for an extended RV tour of The Southwest and invited us to live in their house on Whidbey for as long as needed. I figured Amalesh might adapt better if I put him in a local kindergarten. I would have some time to update my resume for college teaching positions, and he would have playmates to help him ease back into American culture.

I began my inquiries at the nearest public school.

“He doesn’t speak English right now,” I said. “He understands it, but he chooses to communicate mostly in Nepali.”

“Don’t worry,” the woman at the front desk told me. “We know what to do. We have ESL teachers. They can straighten him out.”

Sure that I did not want my son “straightened,” I thanked her for the information and drove down the road past llama farms and into a forest to check out the Waldorf School. I didn’t know much about it then but was enchanted by the curved walls and toys made of wood, stone and natural fibers.

School had just let out, so I was able to meet the kindergarten teacher, a soft-spoken woman about my age. I explained the language issue to her.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll find other ways to communicate with him.”

I enrolled Amalesh the next day.

Except for occasional outbursts in Nepali, he remained mostly silent in his class that spring. For a boy who usually chattered from waking until bedtime, that must have been tough. Unable to make himself understood through language, he often squabbled with classmates, threw fits or pouted more than expected for a child his age. But his teacher guided him without words and often calmed him better than I could.

A few weeks before the June picnic, Amalesh’s teacher told me he had finally spoken English in class. It had happened during a forest walk. He touched Douglas fir trees of various heights and announced their relationships: “mother, father, brother, sister.”

After that, he used some English words at school. But he still didn’t speak in complete sentences with anyone but me since those still came in a mix of Nepali and English. By the time I picked him up each day, he had a lot to say and talked for hours.

*   *   *

Two days after the kite incident, we sat in the living room of my parents’ house. Drained from single parenting, I stared out the window at the ferry gliding back and forth between Mukilteo and Clinton. Amalesh drew stick figures on drawing paper strewn across the carpeting. He pushed some drawings and a crayon into my hands.

“Book banaundaichu, Aama. Tapai write garnos, huncha?” I’m making a book, Mother. You write it down, okay?

“Sure.”

“There was once a girl who was the spirit of the whole world,” he began in his usual mix of Nepali and English. “That is, until the evil giant decided to trick her.”

Translating into English, which was easier for me to write, I scribbled quickly to keep up.

“He brought her a beautiful gold coin that he had stolen from a magic box. It was so beautiful that she wanted to taste it. But the moment she tasted it, she fell down and died. She was on the very top of a tree, so she fell down far.”    

I continued writing as Amalesh described gnomes and fairies who were sad to see the girl fall but too scared of the giant to get involved. Then, came a giant who could see for millions of miles, even across the Pacific Ocean.

“Don’t write this part, Mom. But remember how we flew across the Pacific Ocean when we came back from Nepal? It was pretty far, huh?”

“Very far,” I said.

I thought of all the ways that distance would grow now. Over the months since leaving Nepal, I had reassured Amalesh that his father would soon return to the U.S. But he may not have understood that we would no longer all live together. He and I would make our home somewhere in the Pacific Northwest while his father lived three thousand miles away in Syracuse.

“You can write again now,” Amalesh said.

Working with the thick crayon, my hand began to cramp. I shook it out and tried to keep up as he described the hot lava–a popular theme in his stories–and the girl falling toward it. Then the fairies reappeared, caught the girl’s body and brought her back to life with a special potion.  

Finally, the story returned to a giant. This one was good and wanted to help the girl.  

“He gave her a sword to cut her in two so that she became two spirits,” Amalesh said , then stopped, put his fist to his chin and looked over his drawings. “Maybe you shouldn’t write this part,” he said. “But one was Jesus and the other was Buddha.”

I didn’t write that at the moment, but—please, forgive me son–how could I not remember and write it down later?

“We made a book, Mommy,” he said and hugged me. “I’m going outside now to play.”

I watched him from the window and read what I had scrawled. It may have been the first story he ever told that had a beginning, middle, and end. I sensed something else important in the narrative but didn’t realize what until a few minutes had passed.

It wasn’t that his father’s family was Hindu–not Buddhist–and that my family never went to church and rarely talked about Jesus. Nor was it the violence, magic and hope. It wasn’t even the imagery of being divided by an ocean or a sharp blade. It wasn’t the content at all. It was the transformation in Amalesh as he told it. He began telling the story in Nepali grammar with mostly Nepali words. By the end, he used all English grammar and English words.

Squealing and laughing outside, he chased my mother’s dog in circles.

Speaking in our private, mixed language had been hard but precious–perhaps the most intimate time we would ever have aside from pregnancy and breastfeeding. I tried to commit to memory his lilting, singsong way of speaking Nepali. Pakka Nepali, our neighbors had called it back in the village. Perfect Nepali, indistinguishable from the Nepali other children spoke. He even ornamented it with the same head bobbles and hand twirls.

Now he shouted commands at the dog in English. I could still hear a faint Nepali accent, but just barely. Maybe he’ll weave some Nepali words and phrases back in once he gains more confidence in English, I told myself. Surely, this won’t be the end of his birth language.

But in many ways, it was. With his father and other Nepali relatives living so far away, he never did speak that pakka Nepali again. At age nine and again at fourteen, he returned with his father to the family farm for a few weeks and re-learned some Nepali phrases. He went on his own for nine months after high school and six months after college and became fairly fluent in speaking and understanding. Yet even I can hear his American accent.
Elizabeth Enslin is the author of While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal (Seal Press 2014). She has published literary nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Raven Chronicles, Opium Magazine, and other journals. Currently working on a sequel to her first book, she raises yaks on a farm in northeastern Oregon.

Batter Up

Batter Up

By Amy Yelin

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My son Ethan stands with his arms crossed while listening to retired Red Sox legend Nomar Garciparra. My husband and I huddle a few feet away, watching while attempting to read lips and interpret body language. There is a battle of wills going on, and it’s tough to tell who’s winning.

Less than a month before, I’d gifted my two boys, seven-year-old Ethan and six-year-old Jonas, this baseball clinic in Foxboro, Mass. as a Christmas surprise. Looking back, I should have recognized this was a risky choice for a present. But I was on a mission that holiday season to enrich our lives by gifting experiences, rather than toys—a gut-level change inspired by my recent breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. As the holidays approached, I announced we’d do less materialism and more memory making this year and everyone—my husband and two boys and ALL OF HUMANITY DAMN IT— would be the better for it.

Right around that time I received an email promoting the baseball clinic. I immediately thought Whoa. The boys love baseball. And on the heels of the Red Sox World Series win in 2013, what could be a better gift than a baseball clinic with second baseman Dustin Pedroia?

That’s not a typo. I’d misread, or my lingering chemobrain was confused by both names ending in “a.” It was a mistake I realized only after I’d made my purchase, unfortunately.

I casually asked the boys at dinner one evening if they’d ever heard of Nomar Garciaparra.

They both said no.

The question then became how to both present this gift to them while educating them at the same time. I searched for a Nomar action figure on Amazon and immediately ordered it. I also printed out an information sheet on Mr. Garciaparra. I put it all in a nice bag with tissue paper and felt proud of myself for not feeding the materialistic monster this year.

Until 5 am Christmas morning. That’s when I woke up in a panic. Without the tangible toy gifts, the area under the tree looked barren compared to the year before. What did I do? I worried. But then I consoled myself: they’re going to love the baseball clinic. You did the right thing. It’s a former Red Sox. What could be bad about it?

That morning, they grabbed the bag with their gift, pulled everything out and looked confused.

“What is this?” Ethan asked. It dawned on me at that moment that no child has ever dreamed about reading a printout from the Internet on Christmas morning. Nor is it very fun to have to have your gift explained to you in detail, which I had to do. More than once. And no one touched the action figure.

“You’re going to love the baseball clinic!” I assured them, but they quickly moved on, looking for more. For “better” of which, there wasn’t much.

Several times that day I heard my younger son ask his brother, “What was our big present again?”

“The baseball thing, I guess.”

After Christmas, no one brought it up again, and despite my best attempts to get them excited via their new action figure, no one paid any attention to Nomar.

On the day of the clinic, there were a few hundred kids present. Certainly more than I’d expected. The boys were split up into different groups according to age. I knew Ethan, my more anxious child, was overwhelmed because he kept sneaking off to the men’s room and hibernating there. “Maybe you should check on him,” I said to my husband, and he did, but it wasn’t easy to get Ethan to come back out. Eventually he did, but he snuck off to the bathroom several more times for a break.

Nomar didn’t make an appearance until noon. He arrived in a grey hoodie and sweatpants (looking little like his well-groomed action figure). He gave a pep talk to all the boys, some of which was garbled due to either the sound system or the gym acoustics. After the pep talk, it was time to move from fielding exercises in the gym to the batting cages.

“Isn’t this fun?” I asked Ethan as we started walking toward the batting cages.

“No,” he said. He stopped and leaned on a wall while his group kept walking. “What are you doing?” I said. “Go catch up.”

He shook his head. “But this is the best part! You get to practice hitting!”

“I’m not going,” he said.

I gave him a snack to see if that would help. It didn’t.

My husband and I looked at each other helplessly.

“Ok, so take a little break and then you can go back in.”

“I’m not going in,” Ethan said, arms crossed.

And then Nomar walked by. Nomar: who I really had no idea about until buying the tickets and now suddenly it was like I was in the presence of royalty.

That’s when I grabbed him by the arm. He looked at me, surprised.

“Hi,” I said. “My son here doesn’t want to go hit. Could you possibly talk to him?”

“Sure,” Nomar said.

That’s when he called Ethan over and their conversation ensued as my husband and I tried and failed at eavesdropping. Despite Ethan’s crossed arms and slight scowl,  I remained hopeful.

As more time passed, however, my hopes dwindled. In the meantime, I snapped endless photos to post on Facebook.

When I moved closer to see if I could hear more of their conversation, I knew Nomar was losing this battle. When he said, “Come on, Ethan, I’ll walk you out to your group,” Ethan only shook his head no.

I turned toward my husband and loudly whispered, “He’s saying no to Nomar!” Suspecting the reason might be stranger danger, I intervened.

“Ethan , it’s OK. You can go with Nomar. It was really nice of him to offer to walk you out there.”

“No,” Ethan said, shaking his head this time for emphasis. Nomar shrugged. “You sure Ethan?”

The boy nodded.

I wanted to scream: But it’s Nomar—the guy I mistakenly thought was Dustin who I’m now obsessed with! Instead, I asked Nomar to take a photo with me, which he graciously obliged before moving on.

Looking back, I’m not sure why any of this surprised me. Ethan had always been a cautious and strong-willed child. Even before he was born. He held on so long inside the womb that after three hours of pushing, they decided to use the vacuum to force his hand. He came out screaming.

It was the same when he learned to swim. Although he was one of the older children in his class, he refused to swim in the deep end with the rest of the kids, despite our best efforts to get him there. Despite the fact that his little brother was already happily swimming there.

It was the last class when Ethan’s teacher talked with him in the middle of the pool, after which she brought him out to the deep end. She left him there, with his floatation device on, and backed up to the shallow end.

“Come on Ethan,” she said. “Swim to me.”

And then that it happened. To this day, I have no idea what she said to him. But he swam to her. He swam to her, and then he was mad, as though he’d been tricked. As my husband I cheered for him, Ethan walked toward us and threw his floatation device on the side of the pool.

“That was awesome, Ethan!” I said.

He wouldn’t look at me.

About thirty seconds later and still not looking at me he ordered, “put my bubble back on.” So I did. Next thing I knew he was swimming on his own toward the deep end and he’d never fear it again.

It never ceases to surprise me that my children have minds and hearts and powerful wills of their own. That they are not just carbon copies of me and their dad. Logically I get it. But emotionally, I tend to forget.

At the baseball clinic it was the same. Not long after Nomar walked away, Ethan made his own decision to go to batting practice. And he loved it. When he was done and walking back to the gym with his group, Nomar called from across the giant room, “Nice going Ethan!”

That evening at dinner at a nearby hotel, we asked Ethan why he refused to walk with Nomar.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It was like I was in one of those cartoons…with the angel sitting on one shoulder and the devil on the other. That was happening. I couldn’t decide what to do.”

And that’s what it boils down to, I think: learning to make up one’s own mind. As parents, we get to take our kids to the field, but we must remain in the dugout, quietly cheering them on while they choose their next play: Yes or no. Good or bad.

Angel or devil. And … swing.

 

Amy Yelin’s writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Literary Mama, The Mid, The Manifest-Station, The Boston Globe and more. Her essay about having boys, titled “Once Upon a Penis,” appeared in the anthology Mamas & Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting. She is managing editor for SolLit-Diverse Voices and her website is yelinwords.com.

The Truth About a Fat Little Boy

The Truth About a Fat Little Boy

By Trish Cantillon

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He’s just round. He’ll grow out of it. We need to leave him alone.

 

I was twelve when I had an electrode strapped to my arm to administer shock. It was all part of the Schick weight loss program my parents had signed me up for in 1977.

Jeff, my counselor, was a handsome, cheerful man who made me want to do whatever he said to please him. He was tan, dark hair, and a smile like someone you would see on a toothpaste commercial.   

Jeff sat me down at a small metal table, making sure my chair faced the mirror that ran the length of the wall. He was to my left, a big machine with dials in front of him on the table. There were several wires extending from the back of the machine to the electrodes encased in a white plastic sleeve. Jeff was chirping about how great it was that I was doing this now, at my age, because it’s so much harder the older you get. He winked as he slipped the plastic sleeve on my left arm, just above my elbow, pulled it as tight as he could.

“Did you bring the items?” he asked. I nodded and reached into the paper bag I carried in with me. “A good food and a bad food?” I nodded again. I set a Nestle Crunch Bar and nectarine on the table between us. “Super! Now, I want you to take the wrapper off the candy bar.” I tore a piece of the wrapper off the end and slid the Crunch bar out carefully. I held it in my hand and looked at him, confused. “Okay. I want you to take your time. Look at it. Smell it. Feel it in your hand.” The smell of the chocolate reminded me of Easter baskets and Trick or Treat bags. Jeff turned a switch on the machine. “Make sure you are facing the mirror,” he pointed to my chair. I scooted a bit to face completely forward. “All right,” he said, “take a small bite.” Zap! A brief stinging sensation on my arm as I chewed. I didn’t flinch. I took another bite while he read the ingredients from the back of the Crunch Bar wrapper. Hydrogenated vegetable oil. Zap! Sugar. Zap! Milk chocolate. Zap! He turned the dial up on the machine. I wondered if I said ouch, if he would stop, but I didn’t want him to be mad at me or think I was a baby. Cocoa butter. Zap!  Milk fat. Zap! He asked me to take another bite. Jeff turned the dial up and as I chewed, he told me why this Crunch bar was “bad.”  No nutritional value. Rots your teeth. Makes you fat. Zap!  Zap! Zap! He checked the dials and then made some notes on the pad of paper next to him. The machine made a faint whirring sound as he turned it off.

Jeff reached across the table to remove the electrodes from my arm. The plastic sleeve scratched my skin as he tugged at it. He carefully folded the wires into two neat piles. He then took what was left of the Crunch Bar, which was still in my hand, and pushed his chair back to stand up.  He wrote on the mirror with the candy.  He settled back into his chair and put the nectarine in front of me. “Just like with the candy bar. I want you to hold it, smell it, and then take a bite.” I rolled it around in my hands once, put it to my nose and looked at Jeff before I took my first bite. I chewed slowly and listened to him tell me how “good” this nectarine was. All natural. Juicy. Tasty. Satisfying. Sweet.     

I went back every Thursday for eight weeks and repeated this scene. Presenting Jeff my “good” and “bad” foods, along with my checkbook-register-styled food diary for his review. He would initial each day’s entry with a smiley face or a frowny face, depending on what I ate. I lost sixteen pounds in those eight weeks, with some help from the stomach flu (a ‘blessing in disguise’ my Mom had said). I was a superstar. An emblem of perfect will power and control.  The pride of my family.     

It’s a typical weeknight at my house. I am clearing the dinner dishes with my husband. He says he worried about our son’s weight.  

“He’s fine,” I say, a little too quickly, hoping he’ll drop the subject.  

“I don’t know. Maybe we need to do something, talk to the doctor?”  

I cut him off.

“He’s just round. He’ll grow out of it. We need to leave him alone.”

My husband considers this for a moment.

“I’m not sure that’s right.” His tone is now serious. He’s not buying my explanation.

Just then, our son walks in, fresh from his shower, wearing Batman pajamas. He plops down on the chair across from me, gives an exaggerated smile so I know he’s brushed his teeth. In that moment I am back in the little room with Jeff. Staring at myself in the mirror, sporting my new short haircut that made me look like a fat little boy, the letters “B A D” written in candy bar above my head, eating a nectarine.
Trish Cantillon lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two kids. Her work has been published in the Berkeley Fiction Review and in the upcoming issue of Gold Man Review.

The Things We Keep

The Things We Keep

By Sharon Holbrook

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I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself. 

 

I sat on the living room rug last week, surrounded by messy stacks of DVDs and CDs, almost all of which we have ignored for years. I had pulled them all out at once to decide what to toss and what to save. I blame Marie Kondo for this attack on my belongings, of course. Fresh off reading the Japanese organizing guru’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” I was fired up (again) about getting rid of the excess junk.  

I’m a serial declutterer, but it’s not because I’m naturally neat and organized. It’s quite the opposite. My head and hands and house are always full to overbrimming, and I desperately try to throw enough overboard to keep peaceful clarity afloat.  

Why is that so hard? Right now, it is almost 10pm on a Monday night. On my computer, I have open tabs for my kid’s birthday Evite, the sign-up link for the school picnic I am supposed to be running, a flyer for a race I might run with my son if we decide to train, and, of course, email. Each tab represents a long sub-list of items to do. That’s not enough for me, I guess, so I also have a tab open for an article about why punch is the best drink to serve at a party, because apparently I might throw a punchy party soon — even though I’m not terribly fond of hosting parties. My paper calendar, cell phone, several bills, a health plan reimbursement form, and notes and lists for my nonprofit work cover the desk next to me. I am overstuffed with the bureaucracy of life.

It’s no wonder I can’t think straight, but somehow I feel donating the outgrown Curious George DVDs and reuniting CDs with their lost cases will confer serenity upon me. Maybe it will also magically clean my kitchen and inspire the children to hang their jackets up. And so I sort on. I grab a stack of unlabeled CDs (or are they DVDs?) and mull whether to just toss them or pop them in the computer.  

I’m too curious; I must know what they are. The first one is my son’s, a montage of photos from his second-grade year compiled by a thoughtful teacher. Nice, let’s keep that. Next, a mix CD of songs I don’t even like. Easy toss. I catch my breath as the next one whirs to life on my screen. It is a DVD, chock-full of family videos from the year the youngest of my three was born. I didn’t even know this DVD existed.

I ignore Marie Kondo’s tidying-up orders to set aside sentimental items for last. (She warns that they will trap us into relentless reminiscing. She is correct.) I watch.

There we are on Christmas morning, at the zoo, and at the dining room table. I click on another, and there I am in a hospital gown. I had had a c-section that morning. My voice is dry and cracked, and I wear no makeup. My husband is taking the video, and I hear his and my parents’ voices floating in the background. My older children are there too, with their impossibly high voices and impossibly round cheeks. They have come to the hospital to meet their new sister. The 4-year-old gazes at the baby, beams, and pronounces her “good!” The 2-year-old stares at her, serious and silent. Now they want me, and my mother offers chairs, but I don’t seem to hear her, and I eagerly make cozy little nests in the bed on each side of me to snuggle my big kids.

The next one is shaky, a sure sign that one of the children is taking the video. It’s an ordinary day, and the images flash by, blurry, sideways, and now and again clear. There are shoes on the floor, pairs I’d forgotten. The cat wanders by, and toys are sprinkled across the rug.  I am wearing my glasses and slippers, and not all the children all fully clothed, so I take it we are parked at home for the duration. It is no day in particular, and it is every day.

I have decluttered, I realize now. I see the evidence there in the videos, the toys and outfits and baby gear that are now gone. Outgrown, and jettisoned. Even that old house is gone — our family grew and moved on, quite literally.  

We are encouraged, always, to look forward and keep discarding. Don’t look back. Don’t keep items you never use. Don’t hold onto old, outdated things that don’t suit you anymore. Ask yourself who you are now. And, yes, watching those videos, I didn’t wish for one material thing back. We have changed, after all, as we should.  

But — that change that has happened — that is exactly why I find myself wanting to grasp and hold on to those people, those moments. I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself. Looking at them from afar, like a shadowy time traveler, I am surprised by the pure fullness of their past selves, their golden, glistening kernels of individuality, ready to pop into who I know they are today.

The real stranger in the videos is me. I do not recognize this young mother — not really. She is very sweet, and a tender mother to all three children. Somehow, I have let myself forget this part of me, or maybe I never knew her. Those years were at once full and fierce and lovely, and I gave myself over. I truly saw the children during that time, yes, but I was in too deep to see myself as a mother, unless it was in my failures.  

I remember yelling. I remember the winter mornings when I struggled to get out of bed, and the evenings when I counted the minutes until Daddy would get home. I remember thinking I thought I would be better at this mothering thing — more patient, more joyful. But now, seeing this woman in the sum of small moments and with the distance of years, I see that she — no, I — was a good mother.   

When you’re on a mountain, the climb is rocky, exhausting, treacherous. Once you’re past it, you turn around and it’s lovely, magnificent, breathtaking. How could you have missed it, you wonder?

I’ll continue to declutter the old clothes and toys and almost all of that never-ending stream of youthful artwork. But I won’t let go of all of the past. I’m clinging to the parts that let me turn around and take in that scenic view after the climb, the things that let me fill in the pieces of the pictures of ourselves I was too close to see the first time.

There’s something else, too. Every present day somehow twists and flips into the past, even if messes of bills and to-do lists and homework and calendars don’t seem like the stuff of memories. If someone took a video of me at my desk today, and I watch it in ten years, what will I think? Maybe how young she is, so smooth-faced, and only 40! How dedicated she was, showing up every day for the minutiae of life, simply because it had to get done. (And, hey, look at that old computer!) If my children were in frame, I’d see a warm closeness with those small people, and I’d long for it, perhaps with tears in my eyes.  For they will not be small people in ten years.  

Just tonight, my ten-year-old hugged me at bedtime, proclaiming, “I want to hug you for ever and ever and ever!”  In a decade he will probably be gone, far away at college, and he won’t be saying that anymore — not to me, anyway. I’ll be left to hold on to that moment any way I can.

Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child.  Her work also appears in The New York TimesMotherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me.  You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook.  Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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

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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

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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 zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.

 

I Survived Postpartum Depression, But it Never Left Me

I Survived Postpartum Depression, But it Never Left Me

By Lisa Romeo

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I never got to be the kind of mother who doesn’t, daily, remember and fear the possibility of returning to that hole.

 

Survive is a terrible word to use about one’s transition to motherhood. Fulfilled. Joyful. Happy. These are the right words. But “surviving” was the word I used to label what it was like for me, from virtually the moment of my first child’s birth until he was nearly two. I survived, and eventually realized that motherhood, after all, was not going to kill me.

Having battled severe postpartum depression (PPD), however, is not the most important part of my story. It’s what came next, after I was was supposedly no longer fighting off PPD that matters. What came next—what, even now that my sons are 21 and 17, persists—are days and nights and long worrisome moments of everyday life as a mother who is indelibly marked, thoroughly different from a mother who did not have PPD.

Because here’s the truth about what comes after severe PPD goes away: the deepest, darkest clouds may wash away in a few months, or a year, or in my case, about 22 months. Your therapist may wean you off the anti-depressants which saved your sanity (and probably your marriage). You may have more good mornings, and eventually only the kind of mornings when you wake up and you are no longer already crying. You may not any longer be overcome, hourly, with feelings of guilt, shame, hopelessness, and fear. All this may happen, and you may begin to enjoy your child (or children), sink into your role as their mother, relish your little family—but. That will never feel like your right or your natural state, and you may, at any given stressful mothering moment, think you certainly are going to drift away, back down that hole. The truth about having survived severe PPD is that it is incipient. It lingers. There is a legacy. Its shadow, the fact of its presence in your history, never goes away.

And you are a different person for it. You are a different mother.

You are not the mother you always thought you’d be, the one you’d planned and hoped to be, before you were even pregnant, before you gave birth, before your slippery, perfect baby was laid on your chest in the hospital and instead of feeling love and joy, you were dead and numb and ashamed. Of course, motherhood frequently does not turn out as expected for many others, mothers whose babies are born with serious medical conditions or neurological deficits or are born but never breathe. Those terrible, unexpected, difficult new-mother experiences occurred because of something that happened outside of a mother’s control. PPD feels as if it exists because of the mother, because of something that lives in her mind and body, and feels like something you—something I—must have caused. After “conquering” PPD, for me the guilt continued, and morphed. PPD’s long-term after effects hung around, its contrails crippling my ability to make confident mothering decisions as my babies turned into toddlers, and school children into adolescents and teenagers, and even college students.       

When postpartum depression slammed me, in 1993, the condition was not yet widely understood. It took grit to find any professionals—unlike many pediatricians and ob/gyns, including my own—who weren’t telling PPD-suffering new mothers that they were sleep-deprived, or self-centered, and either way, needed to “snap out of it.”

Eventually, after hearing all that and more (relatives loved to say things like, Stop worrying about getting back to work! Just relax! Motherhood is not easy, buck up!), I found my way to a psychotherapist who understood, who was frankly a bit astounded that I was still functioning considering the severity of my PPD. We talked, for months; she prescribed the medication that allowed me to understand it wasn’t my son, it wasn’t me, it was a disorder, a bungled chemical process in my brain and misfiring hormones in my body.       

I got better. I got well. But here is the price: I never got to be the kind of mother who doesn’t, daily, remember and fear the possibility of returning to that hole. I survived only by adopting an extreme cautiousness in my approach to mothering, an overbearing protectiveness of my children, and the admittedly irrational conviction that some way or another, I would eventually lose my children—physically, emotionally, or metaphorically—because I wasn’t, from the start, a good mother, not even a good enough mother.

With one child who is now an adult, and another on the threshold, I still feel the reach of PPD. Every day, I am still outrunning those greedy, grabby tentacles. They tug, spawning shame and guilt and fear and remembered hopelessness, stalking my every mothering decision, reaching back to when my first child was an infant and I knew, with certainty, that I was incapable of making mothering decisions because I was incapable, period.

Since I am still married to my children’s father—who, let’s face it, except for my lactating boobs, was in many ways father and mother to our first infant—I am not parenting alone, and so I often check in with him when my PPD-induced fears and insecurities are pushing me to make mothering decisions that pivot not on helping my sons to grow and flourish, but on providing too much safety and shielding my children in ridiculously overzealous ways. For nearly two decades now, he has affirmed what I already knew but couldn’t accept: that keeping my children where I can see them, or in environments I think offer safety, doesn’t make me a good mother, or expunge any damage I think I did to them in the early months when I was, empirically, not a good mother.

It’s my belief, or at least my experience, that a mother who has battled severe PPD, is a mother marked forever by its tight grip, its insistence that, devoid at first of natural parenting instincts, one is thereafter doomed to doubt every future mothering instinct. You’re never sure. Never without the worry that something’s wrong, that fundamentally, you don’t have what it takes. Even when standing before you are two pretty terrific young men.

Looking at them, I’m reminded that in the late 1990s, when working for a nonp