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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The Other Way Around

The Other Way Around

imagesBy Elizabeth Richardson Rau

I am the mother of the kid you are probably afraid of. The one that you heard other kids used to buy pot from. Yours bought from him, too, yet you refuse to admit that, and I understand why. Pretend hope is much easier than unpleasant reality. I have never been the “not my kid” mom who would rather not know because the repercussions had not yet come home to roost. For a time, that was someone else’s problem. Until it became mine.

Now you look the other way when you pass me on the street and whisper about me in the grocery checkout line. You are relieved it is not your kid who got into trouble the way mine did. You are sure it’s because you are a better mother; more involved and on top of things than me. These are the lies that mothers tell themselves right before the other shoe drops right in the middle of a perfectly manicured, freshly mowed lawn.

I didn’t ignore my son’s fall from grace or handle it privately so as to spare the community any adolescent unpleasant reality. Most moms like things neat and tidy for appearances sake; those unfortunate things happen to other people.  I, on the other hand, wanted to spare another mother my nightmare and get support for my son; a fine young man who had lost his way. My brutal divorce paired with my kids’ father’s open hatred of me was the catalyst for my son’s descent into substance abuse. Yet I stayed strong and positive for their sakes—no one else was. Isn’t that what we do as mothers—fill in life’s holes so our kids don’t trip in one and disappear?

He slept on your basement floor for years, when he was clean-cut and dressed a certain way. Now he is sporting platinum, knotty dreadlocks and prefers not to shave. He looks homeless, I tell him. He thinks he looks rad. It is a phase, like when he wore all black when he started skateboarding. We celebrated together when he asked for a pink shirt for his 11th birthday. But that phase was different. That was before. Now he’s on that list of kids you don’t want your own kids around—the ones with the reputations. You hadn’t met many of them personally, but you just knew, because you had heard things. Now you are the one saying those same things. About my child. The boy you’ve known since he was 6-years-old.

Some of the things you say are true. Most of them are not. The night my son overdosed on a combination of non-lethal drugs, your son was right alongside him doing it, too. He lied to you, I know; that you need to believe him, I understand. My son is the same boy inside that he’s always been—kind, funny, smart and gentle. And now battling severe depression, perhaps because you’re all afraid of the Hester Prynne-like A on his chest. He’s still respectful at school, has a part-time job, skateboards past your house and waves, even though you ignore him and break his heart. And mine. He’s the same kid you took with you on vacation and cheered for from the lacrosse bleachers. He’s still that kid. I am still the mom who loves him and would die for him without hesitation.

I suppose you are still that mom, too. Though, you’re the fair weathered kind, who hung around when times were just tough enough that you could be supportive, but not so tragic that it might affect your social status. You’ve taught your kids to be the same type of people. I know because they turn and walk the other way if they see me coming. I have the disease of life’s reality and it just might be catching. I understand. I do. Fear is powerful. But love even more so. Thank you for inspiring me to show my children how to love, even when those on the receiving end might not seem so deserving. This is when people need love the most—when they face their greatest hardships. Thank you modeling how not to behave towards others who are less fortunate or are struggling through the unimaginable. Appearances really are deceiving because it is not you who should be afraid of my kid; it is actually the other way around.

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.

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Mother’s Day of Peace

Mother’s Day of Peace

Art Mothers Day

By Francie Arenson

This Mother’s Day marks the 35th anniversary of the biggest feud in my family’s history. The Microwave Fight broke out, as I’m sure our neighbors could tell you, on a Sunday morning in 1981, the morning of Mother’s Day and my mother’s 40th birthday, when my father, brother and I bestowed upon her a microwave.

The most upsetting part of the fight—aside from the realization that the highly anticipated contraption would apparently be going back to the store—was that we’d thought the gift was a sure thing. For months, my mother had been talking about how we needed one of these machines that cooked food instantaneously. Yes, she’d haggled over the safety aspect. There was concern about cancer. But in the end, she, like any right-minded mother, decided to err on the side of making dinner preparation easier.

The three of us took her decision and ran straight to the appliance store, and on Mother’s day, we smugly unloaded our perfect gift from the back of the wagon and hefted it towards the door to the house where the woman of the hour stood waiting. We didn’t even bother to wrap the cardboard box, that’s how good we thought it was. So we were blindsided when my mother’s face fell upon reading the word OVEN on the side of the box. From there, chaos ensued.

“But we thought you wanted a microwave,” my father said as the three of us marched the box and our dumbfounded selves back into the wagon.

I remember racing out of the driveway with my mother still in it, hollering, “No woman wants a appliance for Mother’s Day!”

Words I’ve chosen to live by. In fact, because technology may fall under the appliance umbrella, she will not be getting an iPad for this year’s joint 75th birthday and Mother’s day gift. Nonetheless, these words didn’t shed any light on what my mother wanted. Only now, thirty years and a husband, two kids and a dog later, I think I have some idea. My guess is that she, like many mothers, mothers who devote their unpaid days to putting others’ needs before them, want their people to think about them in the way they think about their people. Which, clearly, we did not. Or else we might have realized that a gift for the kitchen is not the best idea for a woman who is looking for ways to get out of there faster. And no one, regardless of their line of work wants a gift that screams, “Enjoy today, but tomorrow it’s back to the grindstone.”

For this, I would like to take the opportunity to formally apologize. Not only do I see you, Mom, but I give you credit for handling the situation as well as you did. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. We recently fixed up our house and I refused to spend the money specifically allocated to a new microwave on a new microwave. I, instead, bought throw pillows and a glass knot at West Elm. With the change I got a facial.

My guess is that miscalculations of microwave magnitude don’t happen as often today because of the “tools” in place (marketing campaigns) to guide husbands and children towards the perfect gift. And by perfect, I mean satisfactory. One to which a mother can say, “Although I’d rather have a necklace, you all and your gift will do.” Because really, how can any single object, or day for that matter, give justice to all that we mothers are and do?

It cannot, the concept is inane, as are the countless websites, articles and emails dedicated to helping us do just that. This year, for example, Esquire Magazine lists the top 30 Mother’s Day Gifts of 2016. It suggests flannel pajama bottoms for The Mother Who Needs a Nap. To which I ask, whose mom doesn’t? It suggests a top for The Mother Who Always Dresses her Best. To that, I ask, whose mom does? Even the financial publication The Street offers a list of sure-fire Mother’s Day gifts. Though you won’t catch me putting my money on items 2 and 5, the Robotic Vacuum Cleaner or the Multi-Cooker Crock Pot.

Many stores around the country now help eliminate the guesswork altogether by offering wish lists. Yes indeed, mothers can now register for Mother’s Day. We can come in, shop around and set aside items we want, which the husband or children can acquire ten seconds before presentation with the simple offering of a wallet. On its face, this concept seems at odds with the point of Mother’s Day, which as we just established, is to put thought into your mother.

On the other hand—as my family learned the hard way—the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So perhaps the online marketing and the in-store wishlists, while seeming to commercialize and superficialize Mother’s Day, are actually heading off a storm. They are keeping the peace, which is, when all is said and done, what mothers want above all else anyways, and which, ironically, is what Mother’s Day was intended to be about.

The origins of Mother’s Day date back to 1870 and to Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist and poet, who, after witnessing the devastating loss of sons and husbands due to the Civil War, fought to establish a Mother’s Day of Peace. A day when woman around the nation could come together and figure out how to prevent war.

“Arise then…women of this day!” she wrote.

“Arise, all women who have hearts!

Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: ‘We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,

Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,

For caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn

All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country,

Will be too tender of those of another country

To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

Nothing like a proclamation to put things in perspective. It turns out that Mother’s Day—what do you know—wasn’t even intended to celebrate mothers, and it certainly wasn’t intended to be about gifts. Julia Ward Howe called for nothing to be bestowed upon us, other than the presence of our children. So, technically, it seems anyone who asked for a day alone at the spa is doing it wrong. As is anyone who turned in a wishlist. Although to the extent that the wishlists help to keep the peace, perhaps Julia would have been in favor. Although I have a hunch her list would have never included a microwave.

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 completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her work at: Read more of her work at franciearensondickman.com

 

My Daughter’s Silence

My Daughter’s Silence

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By Megan Nix

When I found out that my month-old daughter Anna was deaf, I felt like my feet had floated away. I was sitting down, but the ground was gone. I think, for a moment, sound disappeared for me, too. Between my ears was a speech-ceasing buzzing, a grayness, a feeling that already, my past life was a remnant.

I was in an audiologist’s office in Seattle while my husband was somewhere out on the Alaskan sea and my 3-year-old daughter was picking up black crabs with friends on the beach. I had flown from Alaska down to Seattle for 24 hours to see how much Anna could hear. As it turned out, she could hear nothing.

My mother-in-law was there, too. We’d been eating licorice together. When the audiologist said the words, “no repeated responses in either ear,” I put the candy down. The audiologist brought her finger to the bottom of a chart, below images of a faucet running and a bird chirping and a lawn mower mowing. “Anna has profound hearing loss. Which means she cannot hear anything at the limits of our machinery. She could not hear a jet engine if she were standing next to it.”

“Are you saying she’s deaf?” I asked. I had not heard the word yet. I was starting to tear up. I wanted to hear it clearly, I wanted to hear the sound of our future, hear the word deaf, hear the way it would sound when I told family members and friends what she was.

“Yes.”

***

From May to September, my husband salmon fishes on a small island in Southeast Alaska called Sitka. We rent a house there with seven sea-facing windows that are always punctuated by rain and beyond those drops and the navy blue water are the many mountainous islands that jut up, sharp and tree-covered, from the fog-rimmed horizon. Sometimes we camp on an adjacent island and we won’t see or hear another human for days. Luke has fished there for 13 years. Sitka is a place of great beauty and great isolation and great amounts of precipitation. The summer Anna was born, the rain killed three people after it took part of the mountain down. I struggle there, having come from Colorado—a state with 300 days of sun and lots of close-by people and stable ground.

Last summer, Alaska meant danger. Not only because of the deadly landslides and the fact that we live at the foot of the tallest mountain, but also because we didn’t know if we could get Anna the care she’d need. We had never needed any medical professionals in Sitka till last summer after Anna was diagnosed with CMV—a random virus I caught while pregnant that crosses the placenta and can cause deafness, blindness, neurological delays, and total devastation to an infant’s central nervous system.

After the revelation in Seattle that CMV had taken Anna’s hearing in totality, I returned to Alaska and called the early interventionist team to come over and assess my baby. At that point in the summer, we didn’t know anyone who was deaf besides our daughter. The early intervention team didn’t either. The Orthodox priest in town and a friend of mine are the early intervention team. I served them tea and store-bought cookies and we sat on the carpet and talked to Anna like she was any other baby. The priest’s long white beard shook as he cooed to her and looked into her gray-blue eyes. Zaley, my older daughter, handed out Pecan Sandies dutifully. Anna was the only deaf person on the island. I was the only mother to a deaf child on the island. The priest said he didn’t know much about deafness. The one woman he knew who spoke sign language had moved to a bigger city where she could communicate with other people like her.

I thought of how Luke and I had decided he’d fish in Sitka indefinitely. I thought of how Anna’s aloneness might be indefinite.

Sitka has 14 miles of drivable road. For the rest of the summer, I didn’t feel it had any drivable roads. I felt like I had lost one of my senses.

***

When I feel overwhelmed, I read. Luke is not inclined towards research and cautions me to draw the line, but I thought then that to know all is to be surprised by nothing. Within a week, I’m sure I knew everything a lay person can know about CMV (which isn’t much, so under-studied and under-publicized cytomegalovirus is). I knew that if we came away from Anna’s diagnosis with just hearing loss, we were incredibly blessed. I conference-called with Children’s Hospitals and alternative movement therapists and friends who came out of the woodwork because of deaf family members and acquaintances. My parents’ neighbor had taught deaf children for 30 years. A distant friend was fluent in sign language because her uncle was profoundly deaf. Another friend’s cousin was finishing her PhD dissertation on the difficulties of hearing parents in choosing whether to cochlear implant their deaf children or not.

Never having heard of a cochlear implant (despite the hundreds of YouTube videos documenting the first time deaf children hear), I looked them up online. By way of a surgically embedded magnet, the implant bypasses damaged cochlea—tiny hair cells—and sends a signal directly into the auditory nerve. If you see a person with a cochlear implant, it looks like a large hearing aid connected by a chord to a suction cup on the back of their head. The hearing aid part is the microphone, which changes sound to electrical impulses.

On a day when the rain was coming sideways through the front door in Sitka, we stayed in, and Zaley and I watched the YouTubes of cochlear implants being activated. I cried. She asked what the wires were sticking to the kids’ heads. I didn’t understand yet. I thought sound would sound the same through the cochlear implants. I thought it was a miracle. I thought, why am I crying if Anna won’t always be deaf? When I look back on my summer self, I look so fragile and unknowing to myself even though it’s only been six months.

Having a deaf child changes your world quick. You notice the pitch of the wind. You notice the way your other child speaks, her shh‘s just perfect, how many letters are in a sentence like “I don’t know what extremely means, Mom.” You see that other children don’t wear anything on their ears. That every child you know—squealing on the slippery playground and petting octopi in the Science Center and slowing down on the dock when their mom calls “walk!”—can hear.

***

I was so tired. I took a two-hour nap every day while both girls slept, the quiet baby tucked into the nook between my heart and my ears. The auditory-verbal therapist we’d end up working closely with in Denver told me over the phone that choosing to do auditory-verbal therapy (AVT) was like being a mom times ten.

Being a mom times one was hard enough. Splitting time between Alaska and Colorado was hard enough. Now I found myself straddling so many worlds, my legs had not only returned from the initial announcement of Anna’s deafness, but I seemed to have too many appendages. One foot in the hearing world, one in the deaf. One foot planted in sign language territory, the other stuck on teaching her spoken language only. One foot was at home and one foot was in this new, forever place of confusion where I was an outsider to my own daughter’s experience.

Underneath every minute of cooking or speaking or driving or swaddling was a current of inadequacy.

When you’re seasick, you’re supposed to look at the horizon because it does not move. On Luke’s boat, I had memorized the outline of the trees on Biorca Island and rimming Salisbury Sound. When we tied up for halibut, I could always think, soon, soon, we will be home and there is a hot shower and I won’t have to look at the horizon because we live on it.

But having a child with a diagnosis you didn’t expect takes away your horizon and your experience of even the shower. In the shower, I could hear the water, I had the words for hot and cold. But I did not have even the simplest of signs for everything in Anna’s world. There were so many of them to learn (or not learn if we threw ourselves fully into the spoken language camp), so many choices to make unaided. Simple shampooing became a question of language. Language was confusing now, and confusion became anxiety. Anxiety became an issue of self-worth, of questioning myself as a mother more than ever. If Anna could not hear me, could she know me? It was like being seasick all day long.

Even though Luke drives his truck to the harbor every morning and then drives it back up our gravel road each night, there was one day I was online more than I should have been, and I left him a message to leave his truck at the harbor when he was done. At 5:00 pm, he unloaded his fish and called me. A friend came over to watch Zaley for an hour. I put Anna in the back of our old Chevy Suburban and prayed she would nap. Then I drove the long way to the harbor, past Totem Park then the cathedral then the old Russian cemetery nearly overtaken by ferns. The baby was quiet, and at the stop light in town, I listened to the gentle, puffing miracle of her breath. When Luke got in, I told him what I’d read.

“CMV is like, a really big deal.” I didn’t know how to bring him deeper than the stability and optimism I’d married him for. “It’s more serious than we thought. These kids are in wheelchairs. A lot of them have cerebral palsy. Some of them have eyes that don’t open.”

Any time in our marriage I’ve had trouble, Luke’s first resort is to calm the waters. I love him for this—for his ability to see way beyond the initial hurdle, and for his ability to plot the steps to get us over it. It’s how he got to Alaska in the first place: a Colorado boy whose dream was to be a salmon fisherman, so he left home, worked hard, bought a boat, started a business.

But this day, this time, as we took Anna from one end of the island to the other, he just looked out the window at all the wet green going by. I could tell that he couldn’t comfort me out of this one, which meant there was no salve for him in what we knew or in what we could or couldn’t do, either.

There was rain and rain and rain and we drove through it and under it and over it. An eagle left a tree and flew back to it. A friend passed us and waved, with no idea that we were driving around with our deaf daughter in the back and thinking about the rest of her life, the rest of Zaley’s, the rest of ours. At Mosquito Cove, we did a U-Turn through the fog. There was nowhere else to go.

***

Even though the rain was intense last summer, we would have three-day stretches of glorious sun. Out came the shorts and the coolers and the excited flurry of Zaley naked, running the hallway, and screaming “Beach day! Beach day!” My friend Jenn and I would text each other, “Did you see this sun?!” We would meet at her house and walk down a rocky path to the private beach.

Sitka’s tides swing to the extremes, the sea fluctuating sometimes up to 12 feet. At low tide, Zaley and Jenn’s son, Jake, could run out to a forested island where there are boulders to climb and plump mushrooms bordering an old and hidden rope-and-wood swing. At high tide, the ocean eats up the spit connected to the island, and then we are left to our big island with a long log the kids balance on as we eat our crackers and smoked salmon and drink our seltzers, the seltzers switching to beers as the sun gets higher in the sky.

After Seattle, I had stood in front of Jenn on that beach and sobbed. She held me there, on her shoulder, sobbing, too. “I just can’t believe it,” she said. She lifted her head and looked at Anna. She said it again. I said I couldn’t believe it either. Part of me still can’t, every time we enter a sound booth and I put earplugs in because the sound they are pumping into the room would damage my hearing.

“Nothing,” the audiologist says.

Each time, because I love Anna, because I think Anna is a genius, because everything is getting better and she is changing physically, I believe that Anna will somehow, someday, of her own accord, without a device on either ear, hear some of this. I know it’s delusional, but there’s nothing I can do about the way I ascribe hope to physicality. It’s the only way I can get through our seasons in Alaska—the physical beauty is what makes me believe we can be there happily, unlike so many separated fishing couples we know.

One day, when the sun was high enough to be crossed by the float planes bringing people over the island and the kids were clambering towards the old swing, Jenn said she didn’t want a beer. After years of trying for a second child and a miscarriage last year, she was pregnant. She was over 40, she was worried. If there was anything wrong with the child, her husband wouldn’t want to keep it.

I looked at Anna in my lap. I wondered if a deaf child would be considered a case in which something was “wrong with the child.” For the first time since I’d found out, I didn’t wish away her deafness. I wanted it. I wanted her. I told Jenn not to have tests run, that they would love any child, and maybe an unexpected child even harder.

A week later, Jake and Zaley were taking swim lessons together at the indoor pool when Jenn told me her ultrasound had showed a slow heartbeat. We were sitting in the bleachers, both of us crying then, while Anna’s steel eyes scanned us left to right, like she was reading. I told Jenn to keep celebrating that she was pregnant, that we would pray for a pick-up of the heartbeat. Jenn said that she didn’t know if her marriage could survive a complicated pregnancy or the revelation of circumstances you might call “special needs.” I couldn’t imagine her grief, and I had learned that it was better not to pretend to—that genuine sympathy, or even reverent silence (or, sometimes, disbelief, at best), is much better than pretending to understand. In fact, it was Jenn who had taught me that.

I didn’t know what to say. Sometimes, I fill my silence with quick little prayers. I picture them like tiny birds darting upwards from cupped then opened hands. But in the dim, white noise of the roaring indoor pool, I didn’t know what to pray for. At a Wednesday morning rosary group with other women and their children the next morning, another mom prayed for acceptance of all children with illnesses. Two days later, Jenn texted me. She didn’t want to dwell on it. She had lost the baby.

***

Because I knew Anna was different, I scrutinized her unlike I did Zaley, my hearing child, whose every early milestone and sound I took for granted. I learned to be slow with Anna, to study the patterns of her white-streaked irises as they scanned my hands making the “mommy” sign and the “I love you” sign over and over. I learned from the auditory-verbal therapist to turn her body when there was a sound she may have felt as a vibration. The only person Anna would take a bottle from was Jenn, and Jenn would sit with her on the couch, with the light coming in the long windows, the baby pulling the milk from the bottle and her wide eyes looking straight up at Jenn, and I would stand in the kitchen, my back to them for a few minutes to stop the start of tears.

***

Outside of fishing season, we live in a small, once-farmhouse just west of Denver. We have speakers in the dining room for listening to music while we’re eating at the table or playing on the deck. We have a doorbell. We have a TV and a CD player and a three-year-old who loves to sing. When we returned home in September, our home was as we’d left it, but it was as though even the air had changed. On my desk was a beautifully illustrated book I had ordered in Alaska for Anna before we knew she was deaf. It is called Symphony City. It is the story of a girl who is lost in a city, but then she finds music and she is not alone.

I look back on this past summer as though it was a wound. Every memory has a rawness to it: the first time I played music, months after finding out Anna was deaf, and bawling in front of Zaley who asked me, calmly and over the sound of the fiddle, if I would like to play with some beads. Or, finally gathering the courage to hear what it will be like for Anna to hear when she gets cochlear implants, and again, deteriorating when I heard the metallic, nearly toneless version of music we will be giving to her when we give her the thing we call music.

Wounds are a mystery. We cannot know their depths. We cannot gauge which elements of our pain will last, just as we never know which memories will remain the sharpest. I assumed music was ruined for me, not that it would be better than ever when I tried listening again a few months later.

It is winter now and Anna is over half a year old—over half the distance to her cochlear implant surgery. You could bisect the length of her life into deaf and being able to hear. Music fills our home—Luke on the banjo, Zaley singing “Let it Go” an inch from Anna’s face—and only on snowy days when we are stuck inside and my rainy summer emotions creep up, do I feel the inching up of a sadness for my daughter. But I have learned it is important to investigate sadness: am I sad for me? Or am I actually mourning something in the life of my daughter? Usually it is the former.

I grieved a choking kind of grief this summer, but this summer is over. Anna has more at her doorstep than at any other time in history as a deaf child. Technology will bring sound into her brain, and we will create its meaning. We have world-renowned therapists who are teaching me how to place consonants in the middle of words (piggy instead of pig) so she can hear or feel them through her rose-colored hearing aids despite the fact that her deafness—which is of a rare severity—is as profound as it gets. The virus that used to devastate children seems to have passed her over and left in its shadow an amazingly happy baby who chuckles when you put her arms in her sleeves.

When I cry, I cry for the loss of the life I expected, not for the losses my daughter has so far suffered. When I begin to go to what Luke calls “the general sadness department,” I turn off the music. At some point this year, I realized it was important for me to leave behind my immature, idealistic expectations and grow into acceptance at the same time as I’m trying to teach it to a toddler. My daughters should not have to carry the sadness that comes with being a parent to any child when we watch our children change in ways we did not expect.

Plus, I see now the surprise in Anna’s initial diagnosis and what all my online searching could never tell me: Anna merits nothing close to pity; she has given my life, and Luke’s, and Zaley’s, an unusual and special excitement. Every time she makes a loud giggle or a new noise or begins to look like she’s signing something to us, we become giddy. And, our audiologist assures us that the brain adapts to the sound it is given through cochlear implants, that what we hear as a simulation of their sound is not nearly as nuanced as it will be in Anna’s brain.

Here we are, heading towards a surgery that will bring back a sense she never had—something that still seems to me like a miracle, even though I know the science behind it, know the amount of electrodes that will be threaded into her miniscule cochlea, know her brain will have to work overtime to decode sound. I want Anna to learn any language she likes. But I love her with a fierceness that is beyond language—spoken or signed—and this keeps me from feeling that I have to decide which one we prioritize.

This is what I didn’t know last summer: that the best way to research Anna would have just been to love her.

I look forward to Anna hearing her sister’s voice go dreamy and husky when she’s telling a story. I look forward to reading Symphony City to Anna and getting to the last page when the girl hears her mother calling her home. I look forward to the last thing at night—or anytime Anna wants to, really—when she reaches up, and can take her cochlear implants out.

Anna’s cochlear implant surgery has been set for April. They will activate her devices just before Luke leaves for Alaska, and I’ll go up with the girls a few weeks later.

Part of me dreads next summer. Every summer in Alaska presents us with new unknowns: when should we find renters in Colorado, when will I have a baby, when will I go up with the girls, when will we stop expecting that we can expect everything? Also, I dread the rain, I dread having to do auditory-verbal therapy remotely by Facetime, I dread the absence of Target on the hardest days.

But part of me wants to bring Anna back to Alaska to hear it. Zaley loves the sound of the eagles (a gentler burble than you’d expect) and the raven that frequents our roof (making a “potluck” noise, like a jack-in-the-box being punted). There is the sound of the surf coming in over the gray, finely spread gravel and the purr of Luke’s engines as he turns them on and we sneak out past the no wake zone and into the hum of the open ocean.

In Alaska, there is also the loveliness of silence that only Anna can access—a flip of a magnet from the back of her head, and she is in a sanctuary I will never know.

When I picture silence, I picture Alaska. When I picture silence, I picture my Anna.

Megan Nix’s work won the 2009 Fourth Genre Editor’s Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has been published in The Iowa Review, South Loop Review, The Denver Post, DiningOut Magazine, and elsewhere. Her blog at www.megannix.com details the journey of raising a deaf child and a hearing child in Colorado and in Alaska. She is also a teacher at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.

           

 

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.

The Explosive Child

The Explosive Child

large tornado over the meadow (3D rendring)

By Tracey Watts

I have an explosive child. I have been aware of this fact for well over half of my son’s six years. Our days are fraught with outbursts that go off at regular intervals and then dissipate, like so many summer storms. We are hit with a sudden downpour, then the skies clear and the sun returns, hard and clear as ever.

I have an explosive child. I know this. Still, when I write the words on paper, they stare back at me, awkward and confrontational. Perhaps they carry so much force because my son’s anger carries so much force. Or perhaps they startle because they appear once the rage has subsided and we have resumed the ebb and flow of household stasis. At that point, they are aftershocks invading the recuperative calm. Or perhaps I am jarred by the very simplicity of the sentence, its stark illumination. In the space of five words, the mystery of the rage – the incomprehensible cause, the elusive solution – suddenly appears ordinary, even manageable. Sometimes demystification feels surreal.

I haven’t learned how to manage the problem, not yet, though I am trying. I stumbled upon another set of potential solutions yesterday, in fact. I was browsing through a consignment store, waiting for my potential sales to be tallied, when I saw the book: Dr. Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child. I hesitated. The title was perhaps overly obvious. It lacked nuance, which meant that the advice inside might be short-sighted as well. It also wasn’t the sort of book you’d like someone to see you reading in public. Whew! they might say. Thank God she left those kids at home! But the store was empty, and the clerk wasn’t finished with my bag yet, so I thumbed through it.

I scanned the pages that the former owner had highlighted. I could see that we were living in similar homes. I wondered how they were managing now. Had they sold the book because it didn’t work? Or had they, by adhering to a miracle theory, dumped the book because they resolved the issues? Could that parent now go quietly to brush her teeth, trusting that her son would not unleash a torrent of reproach upon his sister?

But after awhile, the initial kinship began to feel more like exposure. The book included a series of scripts in which the parents tried but failed to reach their children, allowing the fuse to ignite. I saw myself in these parents. I told her she would have to eat the chili. But she seemed unable to get macaroni and cheese out of her head, and I continued to insist that she eat the chili for dinner. The more I insisted, the more she fell apart. There I was, on the page. Quivering, confused, pandering, hostile, embarrassed, inconsistent.

Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground. Seeing oneself on the page, even as a hypothetical parent involved in hypothetical wrangling, can make one feel immensely vulnerable.

I closed the book and turned to the first page of the book in my other hand, Artemis Fowl. I was hooked on that one by the end of page one, but even the child hero of that text, as I had learned in the space of about 200 words, had had to submit to psychological testing. Quit quitting, I chided myself. When I opened The Explosive Child again, Dr. Greene was trying to comfort me. He knew that I had tried. No no, he seemed to soothe, it isn’t you. Your child’s brain cannot manage the influx of stimulation. His ability to manage frustration is compromised. His tolerance levels are low. Learn the triggers. Learn to avoid them. Learn the methods to diffuse his tensions. Diffuse. Yes, I thought. He is a bit like a bomb.

I flipped the pages again, looking for a section without highlighted prose. I stopped at page 95, where Dr. Greene was casually recommending not taking one’s explosive child to grocery stores. I’m sure I smiled. I was back on the page again, represented, but not so nakedly.

About a month ago, I cried in Costco. It had been necessary to take both children, the explosive six-year-old and his less-than-compliant four-year-old sister, on my grocery errand. My explosive child, as you might surmise, if you know an explosive child yourself, is many things besides explosive. He is curious, impulsive, boisterous, gregarious, and oblivious to the flow of shopping cart traffic. In the course of half an hour, he and his sister, who emulates and encourages him, had delighted in frolicking up and down the wide, breezy aisles of the store. They had darted across the paths of several shoppers, requiring them to stop short. They had caused at least one worker to snippily inquire about my whereabouts when they asked for a food sample. They had balanced on every ledge they could find in the store, tightrope walkers who badly needed a fix. What they had not done was the one thing that, in my pre-parenting years, I had expected difficult children to do in grocery stores – beg for a food item that they couldn’t have.

As always, I managed the in-store discipline that day using methods like redirection, reprimanding, and quick progress toward the checkout line. When we reached it, a kind man offered me his space in line and commented on the wonderful enthusiasm of my children, who really seemed, he said, to have a zest for life. But taking his place meant that we landed a spot behind another mother. My children approached her, questioning her about the toys in her cart.

They are for my children, she said, not a hint of defeat in her voice.

Where are they? my children asked.

Oh, she said, at home with their grandmother. She smiled at them indulgently. She began telling him more about her children as she calmly moved her items to the conveyor belt. She spoke slowly, with palpable calm. Her skin was radiant. The word beatific surfaced in my mind, and in response to it, I teared up.

My children were starting to hop around her instead of simply asking questions, so I called them back to me and tried to redirect them, to ask them about what she said. But they were like bunnies, bounding with energy and slippery to hold onto. One was behind the register, alongside the cashier, before I could begin loading my items on the belt, and the other had slipped past the checkout line entirely and was aggressively pushing buttons on a soda machine about 20 yards away.

Still, I managed not to yell, and we did leave the store. The explosion, in fact, came as we were leaving. At Costco, some of the workers who check the receipts of exiting customers like to please little children. Some draw happy faces for them on the backs of the receipts. One woman even draws Olaf and Elsa. Of course, some just mark through the numbers on the front side and hand the receipt back to you with a brief smile and nod. That day, we picked a worker who drew one smiley face instead of two.

There isn’t much left to tell of that story. The storm opened with a torrent of rain. Then it cleared. The day went on. I texted my husband that I would never ever ever ever ever bring our children to the store again. In the next week, I told a few other moms, mothers of boys mostly, that I had cried at Costco. It’s the holidays, one of them responded. I cried on Christmas morning this year.

I know I am not alone, but sometimes I feel alone. I want to feel less alone. I look for solutions every day. I bought The Explosive Child at the consignment store. I am reading it. Maybe there is a useful theory in the book – a framework, a lens that will help me understand him. Maybe there is a script, a conversational outline, which will work. I have learned, over time, to be far less suspicious of scripts. Sometimes scripts are revolutionary.

Last night, I was lying in bed with my son – my six year old, boisterous, curious, impulsive, explosive son – the one who takes an hour to finish his relatively light first-grade homework. I thought it might help if I built up his confidence more during a restful moment together. So I reached for an idea and came up with what I’ll admit sounds like a line: Your bed is so snuggly!

You see, I’m not always good at this. Complimenting my son effectively feels a lot like dating, like I’m trying to court the popular girl at school and always coming up short.

Still, he bit, but not in the way I had hoped. Whose bed is snugglier? he wanted to know, looking to out-shine his sister.

I like both of your beds, I said, limping through the attempt. Still, I kept trying. Do you know why your bed is so snuggly?

Why? he said. His eyes were sparkly, even in the dark.

Because you’re in it, I said.

He giggled. After a second, he asked, Who’s the best kid?

You know, I said, there’s a reason why I can’t love one of you more than the other. It’s because I love you infinitely.

In the quiet that followed, I realized that I had gotten it right – right for him – so I kept going. If I love you infinitely, and I love your sister infinitely too, then I can’t love one of you more than the other because my love for both of you is infinite.

My son, my explosive and beautiful son, readjusted his little legs and arms on my body. The moment grew even quieter, and his body felt close, nearby, in a way that it usually doesn’t, even why I’m lying right beside him. But what had changed? Was it the fact that I had attached a measurement to my love? I mean, I know that infinity is immeasurable, but for him, it’s like zero – a fascinating idea that has something to do with numbers, those reassuringly concrete entities. Had I finally quantified my love the right way for him, even if the concept itself relied on being unquantifiable? Had I given him a more concrete framework for understanding how love worked?

This morning, I was hoping that I had filled his bucket enough before bed to circumvent the fireworks that might be on the horizon. But no luck. My husband cleared my son’s cereal bowl before he had finishing sipping the milk from the bottom, prompting a meltdown that involved lines like, You did that on purpose! and Everybody in this family hates me!

In The Explosive Child, Dr. Greene laments that explosive children often don’t find the sympathy they need from adults because their rage is alienating. Criers, he says, are far luckier, relatively speaking, because people sympathize with tears. That was a big truth for me. Had I had a highlighter in the store, I would have pulled it out for that section. My son’s anger often made me angry too.

As the meltdown waned, my husband I took turns picking up the pieces. I offered to sit in my son’s room while he dressed, fulfilling a daily demand that we usually ignore. But my son mooned me and then farted in the process. Irritated, I labeled his behavior inappropriate, and he exploded again. My husband tickled him to lighten the mood, but he complained that my husband was trying to hurt his arm. So we gave him some space, and afterwards announced that it was time to leave for school.

The sky broke open again. I haven’t had time to play with my Legos! he screamed. He ran to the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat, pressing his back up against the tank. You hate me! No one in this family loves me!

I thought of the movie Looper, which involves a telekinetic preschooler who uses his TK to explode people’s chests open in his fits of rage. I thought of the climactic scene in which the boy’s mother is hovering in the air in front of him, just as he is about to blow open all the people in his line of sight. I thought of the measured calm in her voice, how she said, as quietly as possible, I love you, Sam. I love you. I thought of Dr. Greene, and I thought of empathy as love, and I thought, How radical.

I love you, I said to my son. I love you so much. I have infinite love for you. Then I looked at his sister, who had followed us, wide-eyed, into the bathroom, perplexed although she had seen similar situations unfold before. Hey, I said to him, realizing, do you want to see how much your sister loves you? Do you want to see what she wrote yesterday? She wrote your name down. She wrote, “I love Finn.” Do you want to see it?

He got quiet, radically quiet, and he nodded. I picked him up, even though he is almost seven, and I carried him into the room where we keep the art table. Look, I said, showing him the paper. It says right here that she loves you.

I looked around the room and spotted a set of Valentine hearts he had painted as a toddler. Five years after he had created them, they were still taped onto a cabinet. Oh, I said, walking him over to them, and look at these. Do you know what these are? He shook his head no. You made these when you were just a little toddler, and I couldn’t throw them away because they made me so happy – because I loved them so much. Because I have infinite love for you.

And then the storm passed. I was still holding him, and he put his head on my shoulder and sucked him thumb. He chest became soft against my chest.

On the way to school, he was curious and impulsive, boisterous and fascinating. He told me that some geckos have to lick their eyes because they don’t have eyelids. He talked about how fish swim when they sleep. He told me that sharks are fish but whales are not fish.

I told him about a poem I had heard someone read once, when I was visiting Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was a poem about whales falling to the bottom of the ocean floor after they die. I told him that the idea had fascinated me at the time, since I had never thought about what happens to the bodies of whales. I wondered aloud for him whether the whales ever passed up submarines when they were falling, if the submarines had to move out of the way. Go on, he had said, and he had sounded much older than six.

I think he was the first person I had ever described that poem to, who had wanted to hear more.

Tracey Watts is mother to two spirited children who spend their better hours immersed in elaborate pretend narratives. She wishes she could still imagine with such abandon. She teaches writing at a liberal arts university in the South. You can read more of her work at www.insquiddibleink.com.

 

 

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Art Growing up is hard to doBy Alisa Schindler

Dear Jack (My first born),

You’re not going to remember this because it happened just the other day and it was so ordinary, so unremarkable that there’s no reason you ever would. It was a small moment  that caused my heart to seize with love and anxiety.

We were in the kitchen and I was busy getting dinner ready. You trudged in to join your brothers at the table and finish up your homework, and as you often do, came over for a hug first. We hugged and somehow that hug turned into a sway. Your head rested near my shoulder and we rocked in front of the refrigerator to the sizzles of breaded chicken cutlets on the stove and your brothers arguing over a pencil.

I had a flashback of my wedding 18 years earlier when my husband, your father, danced with his mother. I see them there, rocking slowly, his head of dark waves leaning down against her coiffed blonde; her little boy grown into a man ready to start a life of his own. Wrapped up in my twenty-something self and the day that was all about me — I mean your father and me — I didn’t fully appreciate how bittersweet that moment must have been for my mother-in-law, your grandma, until now, until I saw myself as her in a few years that will be gone before I know it.

Tears dripped down my face and you didn’t even notice, but of course your brother Owen did.

“You’re crying, mommy,” he said, stifling a little laugh.

“Why are you crying?” Leo chimed in curiously, bouncing up and down on his chair.

None of you were in anyway upset or surprised by my emotion, and only mildly curious. Apparently I’ve cried into your hair a few too many times. I actually made the mistake of starting to explain to you all about the dance and your dad and about how fast you were all growing, until Owen interrupted me by cutting right to the heart of the matter.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Me too!” said Leo.

Jack, you gave me a sheepish smile and pulled away. “I’m hungry too.” You agreed and made your way to the table to do your homework.

Well that heartfelt talk passed quickly. Such is the attention span of a seven, ten and 13 year-old. It was back to the usual dinner making and homework doing, but I  couldn’t get the dance out of my head and I sniffled back my bubbling emotions as I dumped a box of pasta into boiling water. Soon you’ll be grown. You’re already in middle school, your bar mitzvah closing in and high school graduation just a hop, skip and a driver’s license away.

I swear it was a blink ago that you and your brothers just arrived. Blink, you’re all walking, talking and potty trained. Blink, you’re all in school. Blink, you’re having sleepovers, playing on travel teams and hanging out instead of going on playdates. We’ve already reached so many milestones together that have been filed away in the photo and video folders on our computer; blink, blink, blink, gone gone gone.

Remember when we went to Disney World when you were three and every time we got on the monorail you asked hopefully if it was going back to Long Island? Remember the entire summer before Kindergarten when yourefused to get on the school bus in September, but on that first day, terrified and so very brave, stepped up and on. Remember how afraid you were that I’d send you to sleep away camp like so many of your friends? You never even liked going to friends’ houses or having sleepovers. You’ve always loved your home and the familiar; so content to sit wrapped in a blanket and a book in your comfy chair, to boss around your brothers and snuggle with me.

But now that you are older, you’re changing every day. This last year has been a giant leap for you developmentally and socially and it’s just the beginning. Now, you love hanging out at other people’s houses. You walk home from school with friends. You recently unceremoniously bagged up the stuffed animals that you cuddled with every night and almost broke my heart. You tell me, “That’s private, mom.” when I can’t stop asking questions.

You’re growing up. Sometimes at night I look at your sweet face relaxed in sleep; your body growing out of boy and into man and cry happy tears for the young man you are growing up to be and sad tears for the baby you will never be again.

All these milestones watching you grow; watching the old you slowly disappear and the new you emerge amaze me. Every stage of you has been a gift, but I’m afraid of the day you leave; how every step of independence is a step away from me. It’s no secret I’m a bit over-attached; that I’ve worked hard to turn you and your brothers into mamma’s boys, although it was certainly your natural tendency anyway.

Growing up has been as hard for you just as it has been for me. Each year, at four, five, six and so on, you’ve wistfully mourned the loss of the passing year and I’ve mourned it with you. We’ve clung to each other with our mutual dependency but I can see by your shy smile and your new walk and talk that you’ve started the process of moving on.

But for the woman who stalked the nursery halls, has been class parent every year in school, has volunteered as often as they’d allow, and has lovingly finagled almost all play dates at our home through fresh cupcakes, a large supply of Wii and X-box games and a lot of balls and boys on the lawn, the idea of you (and then your brothers) leaving me is an inevitable that I don’t like to think about.

But I have to. So for self-preservation, I’ve also started finding myself a bit, branching out with my writing and reconnecting with the world outside my bubble. I’ll admit, somewhat begrudgingly, that I enjoy the time I’m spending on me. Those days where I could barely keep my sleepy head above water; snuggled up on the couch nursing your baby brother, with your younger brother climbing all around us while reading you your favorite Bob the Builder book seems so far away; another time, another place, another me. Another us.

Even though it is still years away, on a crisp autumn day that will be here before we know it, you will be going off to college. You’ve always maintained that you want to stay local and live at home but I’m not naively hopeful enough to believe that. No, you’ll go off to some fabulous school, where you’ll make many friends and the girls will love you (oh, that’s going to be a tough one). And it’s good. It’s so good but still it’s not easy watching your baby grow. It’s beautiful but it’s not easy as one day you’ll see.

“Mama!” Your brother Owen calls to me, interrupting my cutlet flipping and musings. “I need homework help…”

As I make my way to the table, he continues, “I also need milk.” I stop, turn on my heels and grab the container of milk from the fridge.

“I need help too,” Leo pipes in.

“Why are you copying me?” Owen says.

“I’m not!” Leo says, “I need help too!”

Back and forth they go, amusing me and then completely annoying me until I am forced to freak out on them, “Boys! Are you kidding me? Stop fighting over nothing. You know I’ll help you both.”

I place the milk in front of Owen and Leo immediately squeaks, “I want milk.”

And the fighting resumes.

I roll my eyes and look over at you, Jack, your face in your text book, not hearing the commotion all around you.

You don’t need my help to do your homework. You’re busy doing it yourself (Thank God, it’s Latin). And you don’t need me to get you a drink, but I will anyway. Because I intend to enjoy every second I have with you: I will cheer at your baseball games, drive you all over town, help you with homework I don’t understand, sit by your bed at night to cuddle and talk for as long as you let me, and always dance with you in the kitchen when the moment allows.

Love,

Mom (Formally known as Mommy)

Alisa Schindler is freelance writer who chronicles the sweet and bittersweet of life in the suburbs on her blog icescreammama.com. Her essays have been featured online at New York Times Motherlode, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Kveller among others. She has just completed a novel about the affairs of small town suburbia. 

 

Lighting Up

Lighting Up

Art Italy

By Beverly Willett

Four years ago, my youngest daughter and I flew to Italy to celebrate her 16th birthday. I’d been saving up frequent flyer miles for a decade. She’d been setting aside birthday and Christmas money from her grandmother to buy clothes. We couldn’t afford the couture houses, but my daughter wanted to shop in Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, before we took the train to Venice.

As our trip grew closer, I realized I’d never gone on a mother-daughter trip with my mother. Back then I never even heard of anyone taking what has become de rigueur today. But those were different times: My mother was born during the Depression; I was a late baby boomer. Unlike my citified daughter, I grew up in a family of modest means in a small rural conservative town. Even now, the rigid roles of parent and child are occasionally still evident between me and my own mom.

In fact, I didn’t even know she smoked until the week after my father died. It was the year I turned 30, and I’d stayed on after the funeral to help my mother organize papers.

I’ve got a secret, she blurted out one night as we picked at leftovers from the covered dish supper held at the church hall after the funeral, my mother breaking down to tell me she needed a cigarette.

How long have you been smoking? I asked, astonished.

Since I was 13, she said. A total of 43 years. My father had been a chain smoker, and Mom hid her smoke behind his during my growing-up years, lighting up only at night with a cup of coffee after I went to bed. Then again while I was in school.

“I knew smoking was wrong,” my Mom had explained. “I didn’t want you to do it.”  Back then, whatever was considered dirty laundry was kept well hidden. And if not, it became a scandal. But Mom was distraught over Daddy’s death that night, and so desperate for a smoke, that she came clean.

When she did, I sat there transfixed, realizing for the first time that my mother was undoubtedly a more complicated woman than I’d ever imagined. She’d given me an opening by sharing her secret so I suddenly unloaded mine.

“I like to drink,” I said, spitting out the words. Drinking was against our Southern Baptist religion growing up, and I didn’t have my first taste of alcohol until college. I’d kept that fact from my mother, too. And although she still adhered to her childhood faith, I eventually became an Episcopalian, where drinking is allowed.

So that night I told my mother I had a bottle of wine in the car, and minutes later, we sat at her kitchen table breaking bread, Mom with a cigarette dangling from her lips, puffing and exhaling through her nostrils, me sipping wine from her crystal dessert goblet. Me, feeling closer to my mother at that moment than perhaps I ever had. Stunned that she’d taken my revelation equally in stride.

Both full-fledged adults, it had nevertheless taken alcohol, cigarettes and death for us to fully let our guard down. It was a turning point in the slow evolution of our relationship.

I flashed back to this moment more than two decades later as I stood with my 16-year-old daughter in the shadow of the Duomo, the magnificent 14th-century white marble Gothic cathedral in Milan.

Should we go in? I said.

Can we sit outside in one of the cafes first? she asked. The piazza in which the Duomo sits is the city center, and the squares porticoes are lined with shops and cafes.

“Sure,”I agreed. We’d just gone shopping, and I’d snapped photos of her in the dressing room, smiling even as I struggled to rein in my sadness. My daughter was on the cusp of womanhood. The full transition was inevitable, and once it occurred, irreversible. I was savoring my daughter’s last days of childhood.

“You know I’ve had this dream since I knew we were coming,” my daughter said as we stood in the piazza, hesitating before she continued her confession. “I thought it would be cool for us to sit in one of those little cafes and have espresso and smoke a cigarette. My daughter knew how I felt about smoking. The scientific research had become indisputable. And more than a Marlboro pack-a-day had undoubtedly contributed to my father’s too early demise. Maybe my own mother had even somehow saved me from a lifelong habit I might have come to regret.

I drew in my breath as I formulated a response in my head for my own daughter. Somehow I figured this moment in the piazza was a turning point for us, too. I was petrified to make a wrong move. This girl with her still developing brain needed a parent for the many transitions ahead. I would always be her mother and she my child. But one day I hoped I could also be her good friend. And that it wouldn’t take as long for us as it had between me and my own mother.

Mine had been a difficult divorce, too. As the custodial parent who attended to the nitty gritty, I was concerned that I fell into the role of bad cop all too often. It was hard saying no when part of me wanted to say yes.

“Sure”I finally said to my daughter. But you know smoking’s not good for you.

I’m not going to be a smoker like Grandma, my daughter said, giggling as she skipped over the cobblestones and into a tobacco shop to buy cigarettes.

After she returned, our waiter led us to a table. A soft breeze blew through the square during the several attempts it took for my daughter and me to light up. I coughed and mostly pretended to inhale. My daughter looked as expert as Marlene Dietrich as she held the cigarette between her index and middle fingers. “My friends are never going to believe this,” she said. I had to smile. Caffeine and cigarettes (and perhaps a bit of shopping), and for the moment we felt as one.

Beverly Willett lives in Savannah, Georgia after nearly a lifetime in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Salon, Family Circle, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She’s a proud member of the Peacock Guild writing group at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Fiction: Skyping for Life

Fiction: Skyping for Life

New York City Manhattan street aerial view with skyscrapers, pedestrian and busy traffic.

By Danielle Ryan

What kind of mother leaves her children to improve their lives? Had it been a mistake? Because it sure as hell felt like one. The ambiguity of the answers to these questions made Sarita’s stomach roil with unease so often that she’d switched from daily cups of coffee to daily pots of chamomile tea, hoping, in vain, to soothe her tired nerves. Sarita pondered these questions as she returned from the corner bodega where she’d gone to purchase that morning’s tea, and had been shocked by the bitter winds howling down the concrete streets. She’d been unprepared for the bluster of the day, dressed only in a fleece jacket she saved for quick errands, and had paid for her lack of preparation with frozen ears, which now stabbed with tiny pinpricks of pain as they defrosted and returned to room temperature.

There had been so many unpleasant discoveries during the adjustment to life here in the United States – though Sarita would argue that there had really been, in fact, no adjustment at all, as though adjusting to being here would be a betrayal to her girls, Leta, who’d just turned 7, and June, who was 9, but one of the hardest things to get used to, other than the hollow, echoing void rattling around inside her when she yearned to hug her children or to see their faces with her actual eyes, rather than through a computer screen, was the cold weather. Sure, there had been chilly days at home, and some of the storms they’d experienced in the Dominican Republic were hide-under-the-bed frightening, but the deep, bone-chilling, toe-numbing cold of New York City in the middle of February was actually physically painful; probably the millionth detail Sarita had been unable to predict about life here in the States. The whole reason she had moved here in the first place, though, was to provide her family back home with basic needs and maybe even some humble luxuries that had not been a possibility had she stayed there. So here she was, on a Sunday morning, freshly woken from a bad dream and contemplating the bad dream of the day that lay ahead. Every day without her family was another bad dream day.

Before Sarita’s move, Sebastian, her husband, had spent all of his time lying prone, unable to move without keening in an agony that terrified their daughters, Leta and June. His pain was the result of a terrible accident from his days as a loyal employee of a tree-trimming service that did work for several of the major resorts around the Dominican Republic. A freshly cut tree limb had swung the wrong way and slammed into Sebastian’s back, mercifully not breaking his spine but doing enough damage to irrevocably ruin his chance at making a living through physical labor, or living a normal life, really. Sarita often wished she could go back in time, find a way to prevent her husband from going to work that day; if only he hadn’t been hurt, they’d still all be together. But it had happened — and after many months of fruitless job searching in an economy drastically affected by the worldwide economic downturn, Sarita finally denied her denial and accepted the fact that her family’s situation would not improve unless she took drastic steps. The torture of starvation, already etched into the faces of her young daughters, was too much for Sarita to bear. She knew she’d do anything to stop their suffering, even if meant she’d never be with them again.

It hadn’t taken much planning to get Sarita into the United States, where she spent her days working at a nail salon, along with the eight other women with whom she shared that cramped apartment in Flushing, Queens. Sarita sent nearly all of her paycheck home each month to her family, and they were thriving as a result of the money. She was able to see how well they were doing thanks to a weekly Sunday night Skype session, made possible by Sebastian’s former boss from the tree-trimming company. He must have felt guilty about the accident, and his supposed inability to offer any monetary compensation for it. Each Sunday night he would stop by Sarita’s family’s home in the Dominican Republic with his laptop and set it up so the family could “visit” with one another. Maybe if he had had any insurance money, Sarita might not have had to move away in the first place and wouldn’t have to visit with her family via Skype. Nonetheless, Sarita lived for those Sunday night Skype sessions. She felt quite certain that if she was not able to see her family – her two daughters, especially — during that weekly session, she would go insane.

These weekly meetings did provide Sarita with a measurable level of serenity. She could see how her girls’ cheeks had gone from concave and pale to full and rosy in just a few short weeks after Sarita started sending money home. Leta and June would twirl in front of the webcam, giggling and falling into one another, showing off the uniforms they wore to the private school they were now attending. Sebastian was able to afford some medicine that tamped down enough of the pain so, on his rare good days, he could help Sarita’s mother, Anna, with the most basic household chores. She’d let him water the plants or roll out a tortilla to help him feel like a contributing member of the remaining household. When his smiling face would fill the screen, Sarita could confirm that he was, indeed, improving – the hurt lines were gone from his eyes and there was a relaxation in his smile she hadn’t seen since the accident. Watching her family through the computer screen gave Sarita the strange sensation that she was watching a television episode featuring her family, so detached did she feel from the goings-on there. And yet, seeing how well they were doing thanks to her hard work and diligent efforts gave her a quiet sense of satisfaction along with the usual yearning to be with them.

Each time she wanted to complain about living in an overcrowded apartment with women she didn’t know well nor particularly like, each time she wanted to cry from the pain in her back after a day of bending over strangers’ feet, every time she walked down a blustery avenue, face freezing in the wind, feeling invisible to the world, she would mutter the same sentence to herself: “I’m not happy, but they’re not hungry. I’m not happy, but they’re not hungry.” She loved them all enough to be unhappy. It wouldn’t be forever, they’d all agreed. And yet, she wondered how they’d ever manage to be reunited. The possibility of that ever happening seemed to move further from her grasp each day; like a helium balloon, she could see it rising into the sky and out of her reach, and when she thought of it, she wanted to cry like a little child, but there was no one around to offer meaningful comfort. Of course, what only made the situation worse was that she was an undocumented immigrant, and because she didn’t have the proper paperwork, there was no way to just go home for a visit. Even if she could afford to do so, there was no guarantee she’d be able to return. She pictured all of the events in her daughters’ lives she wouldn’t be there to see – the school plays, the sick days when surely they cried out for their mother, the lonely nights, the broken hearts – it was as though she were dead already.

The nightmares had started within days of her arrival in the States, and had intensified the past few weeks. In the dream, she’d fallen inside an icy chasm, and there was no way to get out. She clawed at the walls, scraping at them with her fingertips, until they were bloody and numb. Her children and Sebastian were at the top of the chasm calling her name. Sarita begged for them to go get help. After much pleading, they agreed. As though it were happening in real life, Sarita could hear their feet crunch on the icy snow as they trudged away from the chasm. Then she’d sit on the frozen floor, surrounded by the cool blue glow of ice walls, and bunch herself up into a tiny little bundle. She waited, and waited, until, inevitably, at some point, a realization would dawn upon her – that somehow, they’d all died when they went to get her help and in her dream she would weep, knowing she’d never see her family again.

She’d wake confused, heart a-flutter, until she realized that it had all been a dream. With that realization came a moment of relief, quickly replaced, though, by the dread of another day of walking around with an icy chasm in her chest, brought on by the grief of missing her family, and compounded by the dread of knowing there were so many nails – toenails and fingernails, yellowed and thickened and chipped and misshapen and dirty and sometimes even smelly – of haughty strangers waiting to have their cuticles cut and their asses kissed. She had to stay in the moment and breathe, or the mere thought of all of those nails and the faceless strangers behind them would send her into a claustrophobic panic attack.

“I’m not happy but they’re not hungry.” Her mantra was starting to lose its effectiveness.

Still shaken by the previous night’s nightmare, and unable to wait until that evening for their Skype session, Sarita called Sebastian Sunday morning, eschewing her typical Sunday duties like washing her underwear and replacing her meager groceries to instead get some much-needed reconnection with her family. She really just needed to hear their voices. Her call to the cheap pay-as-you-go phone she’d sent them went unanswered and was sent through to a voicemail box they didn’t know how to set up. She didn’t leave a message.

Distracted, she got into the shower, trying to make the time pass a little faster until she could try to call home again. Despite her aching heart, it was turning out to be a pretty good Sunday. For possibly the first time since she’d moved to New York, she had the entire apartment to herself. All of the women were out doing laundry or food shopping. Two of the women – Tiffany and Winnie – had taken the subway over to Jackson Heights to visit Little India. Typically Sarita would have loved to go with them – after all, she was in New York, and there was so much to see and do, and they only had one day off each week — but she had been angling to have some time to herself, and it could be months before the opportunity to be alone would present itself again.

Sarita took a long, hot shower, and for the first time since living in that apartment, she didn’t need to rush, as there was no one waiting to go in the bathroom after her. She washed her hair, put in some conditioner and let it just sit while she shaved. She would never have anticipated that moving slowly could feel like such a luxury. To not be scrambling through the day, to not feel constantly pushed forward by an invisible crowd on their way to important appointments felt like a much needed respite from her hectic days. In her home country, there were so many hardships, but her days there had unspooled without the frantic furor that her days here seemed to embody. Did everyone in New York feel this way? It certainly seemed that everyone else was always rushing to and fro. Only here, it felt like everyone else was on their way to opportunity and promise – to good jobs, good meals, good shopping, good homes, good families – while her days were tedious and back-breaking, and only filled with the promise of more tedious, more back-breaking work, magnified by loneliness and isolation.

“I need to stop feeling sorry for myself,” she said to no one as she rinsed the shaving cream off her legs. “Today, I want to have a little fun.”

She got out of the shower, and forced herself to dry off slowly, to get dressed slowly, to listen to her body’s need to move at a snail’s pace. Before heading out the door, unsure of where the day would bring her, she called home one more time. Still no answer. This time when the call went to voicemail, she did leave a message, though she was certain they wouldn’t be able to figure out how to retrieve it. “Hello,” she said, “It’s me, mommy. I have to run some errands but I wanted to call and say I miss you all so much. I’ll try you again later. I love you!”

She tried to button down the anxiety that was rising in her. Where were they? It was Sunday — Anna might have taken the girls to church, Sebastian was probably sleeping or unable to get up to get the phone. She knew they were having trouble keeping it charged, so that was another possibility. She felt the icy chasm open up in her heart, as wide as the ocean that separated her from her family. She was powerless to know where her family was or what they were doing at that moment. Hadn’t she surrendered her motherly right to track her kids’ every move the moment she’d gotten on that plane? How had she not foreseen the dismay this would cause her?

She went back into her bedroom, put on a pair of jeans, and a black top – but this outfit felt too much like her work uniform, so she kept the jeans on but instead switched out the black top for a flowy, lightweight turquoise sweater she’d purchased before arriving, in anticipation of the cold New York winters. Turns out, it wasn’t nearly warm enough for a New York winter, but Sarita put a long sleeved shirt on underneath it – she simply had to wear that sweater today. On one of her last days before leaving for New York, they’d done a bit of shopping with some tips Sarita had earned from a cleaning job. She had very little money to spend, but there were some necessities that had to be procured, and it was a way to get the whole family feeling like they were helping Sarita prepare for her journey. June had picked the sweater out. “This will look pretty on you, mom,” she’d said, so excited to show Sarita her finding. Anna had seen Sarita’s face fall when she’d looked at the price tag. “I’ll buy this for your mommy,” Anna had said. “So she can think of all of us, and this beautiful, happy day when she wears it.”

Sarita hadn’t had a chance to wear it since arriving, though. All she’d worn were the black shirts that the ladies in the salon were told to wear by Paul, the dictatorial manager of the establishment. During her off hours she wore old t-shirts and sweatshirts she’d brought from home; those, too, reminded her of her family. But the real reason she hadn’t worn the turquoise sweater yet was because she didn’t want the dread of her days to taint the sweater – it was too precious. Today, though, she was determined to break free – if only for a few hours — of the sadness that shadowed her every move. Today wouldn’t taint the sweater.

She combed out her long, glossy black hair as she dried it, curled her lashes and even put on some mauve lipstick. She looked at herself in the mirror and felt that she looked more like herself today – relaxed, groomed, in a colorful top – than she had in the past 8 months. She wished she could Skype with her family so they could see her like this.

Instead she pulled on her puffy black jacket, put fuzzy white earmuffs over her head, eased a pair of cheap black gloves onto her hands, and walked out in the frigid sunshine of a Queens afternoon, feeling her spirits rise as the sun lit upon her face.

Danielle Ryan spent time working as a small town news reporter and writing for a number of well-known websites before turning her attention to creative writing. Danielle lives with her family in New York, and is currently at work on a novel. This story, which earned an honorable mention from Glimmer Train Magazine, is her first published short story.

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

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.

What I Wanted For My Daughters

What I Wanted For My Daughters

By Patrice Gopo

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Because society calls girls sugar and spice and everything nice. And turns their rainbow to pink, magenta, and wisps of purple.

Because we sell them glossy magazines with headlines like, “Get Your Best Bikini Body,” “Look Cute All Summer,” and “What No One Tells You About Your First Time.” Because we give them bendable dolls that look nothing like the bodies they will grow.

Because there are contests that reward them on the curve of their hips, the lack of flab in their thighs, the way they spin in ball gowns and bathing suits.

Because we teach them to be smart—but not too smart.

Because we decide that if they can crack glass ceilings, they must. Not just for them but also for the ones who follow. We forget their shoulders can buckle under this burden.

Because we teach them being fearless is spending a day without make-up or posting their postpartum pictures. Because we tell them they are beautiful even as we diet and exercise and give up dessert. Because we ignore them when they ask, “How can I be beautiful when the most beautiful woman I know doesn’t think she is?”

Because society says they can have it all.

Because they are berated for not leaning in to their careers. And for not staying home with their children. Because we pity them for not leaning in. And we pity them for not staying home.  

Because we tell them that to lean in, they need to adopt an assertive spirit, embrace strong ways. But if they are too assertive, too strong, if they ask for fair treatment or stand firm for equal pay, we label them “spoiled” or “brat” or both.

Because we say they need a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Because we teach them to hide in their relationships and tolerate the unacceptable for far too long. Because when they wonder why marriage is passing them by, we tell them they should fix themselves up, stop being so aggressive, lose a little weight, hide their degrees, quit expecting perfection.

Because we train them to be the caretakers, the nurturers. Because we never tell them that their broken bodies and emaciated lives can heal no one.

  • *   *   *

Because my mother has always called me beautiful. Because she gathered glue, ribbons, and lace and made hair bows to slide against my scalp. Because she taught me how to pull the bed sheets taut and make diagonal folds before tucking the fabric beneath the mattress.

Because she read my graduate school entrance essays.

Because she didn’t wait for an unknown wedding and instead gave me new pots and pans when I moved into my first apartment. Because she suggested I end a relationship. Because I got upset with her for making that suggestion, but now I’m grateful.

Because she never showed me how to apply mascara or chop up a raw chicken. Because after the birth of my firstborn, she scented my home with the aroma of roasted meats and savory gravy. Because in those quiet hours of new motherhood, she held my soft baby while I slept.

Because she wipes the streaks and smudges off my windows and calls me when I’m sick.

Because her conversations cradle advice, suggestions for improvement, tips for life, but I still know I make her proud.

  • *   *   *

Because I was once a girl. Because I am now a woman.

Because I imagined my daughters sitting on a stool between the curve of my legs, their elbows pressing against my thighs while I unraveled their braids.

Because I wanted to teach them to crack eggs in metal bowls and find the derivative of a quadratic equation. Because I wanted them to discover the satisfaction of feeling a perfect thrift-store sweater snug against their bodies. Because I believed they could learn to create gorgeous phrases from the music of an ordinary day.

Because I kept my deep red, hard-covered Introduction to Chemical Engineering textbook, believing their fingers might one day rub the dusty spine, read the title, and know they could become that too.

Because I stay home and fold fresh laundry, pull duvets over crisp sheets, stir fragrant pots of soup, and stand in my bare feet sweeping the floor. Because at nap time I hold my warm toddler to my chest, brush my lips against her forehead, and touch her hair with the tips of my fingers.

Because I called one laughter and the other miracle.

Patrice Gopo‘s recent essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Gulf Coast, Full Grown People, and online in the New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in North Carolina with her family.

Photo: Daria Nepriakhina | Unsplash

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.

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.

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

When We Were Two

When We Were Two

 

SU 15 WHen We Were Two Mother and CHild ART 1By Dorothy Rice

There was this time. Friday night and I was getting ready for a date. I plucked at my brows, first one, then the other, then back again to even it up. I sat cross-legged on the gritty orange shag in one of several apartments my son Fred and I lived in after the divorce, my face close enough to a full-length mirror to see my breath, a David Bowie poster taped to the sliding closet door. Fred, three at the time, lay on his tummy beside me, a He-Man action figure clasped in each hand. I would take him to my sister’s house to spend the night before my date arrived.

I had decided, what the hell, I’d have sex with this guy. I didn’t want to. Or not want to. I was ambivalent. But it felt weird not to after so many dinners, clubs and flowers delivered to the office. It loomed. I remember my brows after the tweezers, two thin, peaked lines I reinforced with brown pencil and that I wore a clingy purple dress and pink fishnet stockings. He was taking me to a French restaurant that at the time was reported to be the most expensive restaurant in Sacramento. The bill would likely exceed my monthly food budget, a fact that seemed to underscore the implicit expectation the evening would end in sex.

In anticipation of the rich food, I’d starved myself all day. Seated in the restaurant, I ordered and sucked down the first of several Margaritas. On an empty stomach, the cocktail made me woozy. I excused myself and wobbled to the restroom on six-inch platform heels. There was a girl in the john, early twenties. I was twenty-nine. She was bent forward over the washbasin, studying her reflection, staring at a pimple on her chin. Our eyes met in the mirror.

“You hardly notice it,” I said, lying.

We talked, neither of us anxious to get back to what we’d left. I showed her a wallet photo of my son. She showed me one of her cats.

“I’ll check him out for you,” she said, when I told her about my date and how I figured the evening would end. “I’ll shake my head yes or no.” We left the restroom, arms linked, leaning into one another, laughing. It was unlikely we’d ever meet again yet in that moment we were conspirators and friends.

When I returned to our table my date stood and pulled out my chair. I searched for my ladies’ room friend to give me a sign. She did a ‘meh‘ with her shoulders.

I don’t remember much about the sex. I do remember how fastidious he was. He arranged his creased pants and shirt neatly over the back of a chair. He folded his underwear and laid them on the seat. His shoes, with the socks tucked inside, sat side-by-side beneath the chair. Last, serious as a surgeon, he unstrapped a Rolex and laid it so it nestled on his Fruit of the Loom’s.

Saturday morning I drove to my sister’s house to pick up my son.

Well?” she said, lifting her brows.

I shrugged then stooped to hug Fred. He buried his face in my neck. Soft, blondish hair tickled my nose. He was dressed the same as the day before, and the day before that—a pair of navy-blue tights with superhero Underoos over them.

My sister handed me his magic cape and the black rain boots that completed the costume. She wrinkled her nose. “I think it’s time to wash Superman’s cape.”

He-Man,” he said, glaring up at her, his eyes like two raised fists.

“My apologies, little man,” she said.

“I’m He-Man,” he repeated, muttering softly as he clutched handfuls of my sweater.

Sunday evening I sat on the bathmat turning the pages of a Rolling Stone magazine while Fred whipped the bathwater with an egg beater, plastic bowls of water pudding balanced precariously on the tub’s rim. His costume lay on the bathmat. I reached for it, to add it to a white, plastic basket half filled with the week’s dirty laundry.

No,” he shrieked. He stood abruptly, teetering on the slick porcelain and toppling two bowls onto the linoleum. I tossed a dry towel over the puddle.

“It’s dirty,” I said. “If I wash it you can wear it tomorrow.”

Tears gathered in his eyes. His chin began to quiver.

“We’ll go to the store while the washer runs,” I said. “When we get back, I’ll put the clothes in the drier. When you wake up in the morning, it will be ready for you.”

He cried in earnest then, with a ragged edge to his sobs. His skin was puckered and goose-pimply from the bathwater. I pulled the plug, wrapped him in a towel and lifted him from the bath.

“How about this,” I said. “We’ll get your pajamas on.”

No. Only those.”

“Okay,” I said. “You stay in the towel. Come with me to the laundry room. You can put the clothes into the washer yourself.”

His body tensed.

“You can add the soap and put the quarters in.” He relaxed, a little, searching my face for adult trickery. “Then we’ll go to the store. But you have to wear something. You’ll get cold.”

“If we go to the store, somebody will steal it,” he wailed between sobs.

We didn’t go to the store that Sunday evening. We sat in the apartment complex’s laundry room while the washer completed its rickety cycle. We read books about superheroes and their super powers. I made up stories about a finger boy and a finger girl who could fly. Fred watched my fingers leap on the stage my hand made and for those moments his grip loosened and the fear receded from his eyes. We transferred the damp clothes to the drier, verifying that each piece of the costume had survived the wash. The clothes in the drier thumped and twirled, the laundry room grew warm and steamy, his body heavy on my lap. His eyelids fluttered and closed. In my mind I catalogued the meager contents of the cupboards and refrigerator, thinking what I could possibly pack for his lunch in the morning, what we would have for breakfast besides dry cereal.

Fred was in full superhero regalia when I dropped him off at daycare Monday morning. The mother of a tidy girl with a perfect French braid gave me her best down-the-nose stink eye.

My mother once imparted this pearl of wisdom. It is a parent’s job to break the child’s spirit, she said, so they don’t grow up with foolhardy expectations or with the mistaken notion that the universe revolves around them. In her opinion I wasn’t doing my son any favors. At the time I wondered if she was right. Not about breaking children as if they were horses, but whether embracing his fantasies was a good thing or had I inadvertently made life even harder than it already is. Both, I now think. The other boys and girls teased him because he wore his underwear on the outside. Yet that didn’t deter him. He knew what he knew.

The fastidious guy who took me to the French restaurant asked me to go to the state fair with him the next weekend. It was in my heart to say my son would enjoy the fair and could I bring him. But I wanted my date to be the one to ask. And he didn’t. So I left my son with my sister.

The fair was the fair, a monster agglomeration of all the county fairs, heat rising like swamp gas off the black top, carnies in the midway you’d cross the street to avoid anywhere else, everything battered and fried. Kids ran from ride to ride, tugging a parent’s hand. They watched baby pigs being born and new chicks toddling in the straw. I watched them, the children, not the piglets and chicks, and felt alone, sharing the horrors of the state fair with the wrong person.

That was our last date. No regrets there.

I do sometimes miss the little boy who clung to a pair of tattered blue tights. I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to deep six the underwear and cape. For those few months in 1984 they made the world a safer place than I could.

***

On my desk was a small album with a padded cover, favorite photos of my son, several of them taken while he slept, covers kicked off, clutching a stuffed penguin. Sometimes it seemed I rarely saw him any other way.

 

Most of the eighties I worked in California’s capitol building, in an office on the fourth floor of the new wing, as an analyst for a standing committee that heard legislation related to toxic waste, a political hot potato in the wake of Love Canal and countless other chemical disasters. The work was exacting and the hours long. I delivered my son to daycare early each morning. If I had to work late, as was often the case, my sister or mother picked Fred up from daycare and kept him for me.

It had taken me several years to work my way out of the clerical ranks and into the job at the state capitol. Lacking the educational credentials and experience of most of my counterparts, I compensated by researching the hell out of every topic and then checking and rechecking my facts. I never considered myself ambitious, though I may have appeared so. I was responsible for a child and received little to no support from his father. Holding onto my job and advancing were necessities, or so I thought.

Out my office window I watched squirrels leap from branch to branch, and at night the lights of cars bumping down L Street. On my desk was a small album with a padded cover, favorite photos of my son, several of them taken while he slept, covers kicked off, clutching a stuffed penguin. Sometimes it seemed I rarely saw him any other way.

Each year the Legislature worked long into the night in a mad scramble to complete its business before adjourning for the summer. One such night I wore a big-shouldered suit, turquoise with matching heels. It was past midnight and the building was ablaze, the capitol dome an electric wedding cake. Willie Brown, Speaker of the Assembly at the time, had stopped the clock so they could continue voting, though by any other measure it was a new day and the end of session. There was a carnival atmosphere in the halls and offices. The squawk box was cranked up high. Bells chimed to herald when the vote opened and then closed for each bill. The clerk intoned the ayes, the nays and the final outcome with rhythmic solemnity.

The office phone rang.

Our committee secretary answered. Winifred, or Winnie, was a tiny woman with lipstick and foundation thick in the cracks and wrinkles that radiated outward from her mouth. She seemed an ancient relic to me, though she was no older than I am now—this was before sixty became the new forty. Her fingers quaky from going too long without a drink, Winnie scribbled down the numbers of the bills due to be considered on the Assembly Floor in the coming hours. The analysis for each of these bills—which included a description of the problem, proposed changes to the law and who supported and opposed the change—needed to be reviewed, quickly revised and delivered to the eighty Legislators’ desks, all well before the vote was called.

Winnie stood behind my chair and set two tiny Snickers bars on my desk blotter along with the slip of paper on which she’d written my latest assignments. She gathered up the six-inch tail that trailed down my neck—my hair was short and spiky on top, long in the back, my attempt at an edgy rock and roll style. Her yellowed fingertips smelt of cigarettes and cheap perfume. She looked over my shoulder at the photo album in my lap, open to an image of my ruffled-haired, snoozing son.

“You okay, honey?” she said, her voice husky and thick.

I unwrapped a candy bar, ate it in two bites, chocolate, peanuts and caramel blending in my mouth, my gums numb, barely tasting. It wasn’t recreational drug use; given the unforgiving hours and the need to stay at the top of my game, the occasional line of coke was a necessity, or so I told myself.

I opened a document on the computer and pulled the latest amended version of the corresponding bill from a short stack on my desk to see what changes I needed to make to the text. The clock was ticking. The bells chimed to signal the vote on another bill. There was always the sense of an impatient machine, grinding on, waiting to be fed.

“I married the same man three times,” Winnie said, with a throaty laugh. She’d told me the story before. They would bump into one another on a street corner, have a drink for old time’s sake and wind up back where they started. As she reminisced, my fingers moved on the computer keys, one anxious ear tuned to the squawk box.

The backup secretary pulled my updated bill analysis from the printer.

“Want me to run it up to third reading?” he said, referring to the office that churned out the paper copies that would be delivered to the Legislators’ desks down on the Assembly floor.

I said I’d do it. I had energy to burn.

“You’re the boss,” he said, with a cheeky grin, because I wasn’t.

Outside, J, K and L Streets had been returned to the homeless for the night. Under the dome it was Mardi Gras—laughter from open office doors, a buffet spread in one, cookies in another, Irish Cream and Kahlúa for your coffee, big boxes of See’s chocolate, tokens of appreciation from lobbyists, reminders of their sway.

I speed walked in my heels, ankles popping from side to side to ease the friction against nascent bunions. Not fast enough to match the beat of my heart. I shucked the shoes, tucked them under one arm, and sprinted down the hall. The polished floor was slick beneath my stocking feet.. One foot in front of the other, knees bent, I slid the final few feet, light from the bustling third reading office spilling into the darkened hallway. I slapped the paper on the counter, shouted out ‘hey’ to the faces I knew, the faces that knew mine.

Rumpled from the run, a big toe sticking through my stocking, I returned to our office bearing cookies. The backup secretary saluted. Waiting for me, on a clear corner of my polished wood desk, was another line of white powder. I pinched one nostril and sucked it in.

“It won’t be too much longer,” Winnie said, though she couldn’t know.

Fred was four when I started that job, eleven when I moved on. My first daughter, Veronica, was born in between, the product of a short-lived second marriage. It’s been over twenty-five years since her birth but I still recall what my boss, the Assembly woman we all worked for, said the day I brought my newborn baby into that capitol office for everyone to see.

“When the fuck are you coming back?” Those were her words, muttered around a skinny, brown cigarette clamped in her lipsticked mouth. I was back at my desk before Veronica was six weeks old. I added her sleepy-time photos to the padded album.

There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others, while I pounded out analyses for legislation long forgotten or superseded, flew through the capitol’s hallowed halls as if I owned the place, bantered and bartered with a cast of characters who thought no more of me than I did of them. It was the price I believed I had to pay to get ahead.

***

I was forty-five and pregnant when I married for the third time. Unlike Winnie, I married three very different men. The wedding was at a rural inn, with a garden-size, rocky waterfall out the tall dining room windows.

I was anxious about the marriage, about having another child at my age and about blending our disparate families. My soon-to-be-husband’s two boys displayed varying levels of animosity towards my kids and I. My son and daughter, seventeen and eight at the time, were resentful at being uprooted from their schools and friends.

I awoke with a migraine and as the hour of the ceremony neared, the pain intensified, pulsing behind my eyeballs, pressing against the sore spot on my skull. My son found me in the bedroom of our rented chalet, standing before the mirror, smoothing my bridal muumuu over my middle, convinced I would never see my waistline again. My eyes were puffy with tears, spoiling the garish makeup I’d had applied at the local Merle Norman. With fat, droopy curls framing my face, I looked like a frowsy, aging saloon girl on an episode of Gunsmoke. Fred was dressed in a pressed white shirt and tie. Though he would turn eighteen and start college in less than a year his cheeks were still round with baby fat.

“You okay, Mom?” he asked.

I dabbed at my eyes, sopping up streaks of black mascara.

“Hey, don’t cry,” he said.

“I’m just scared, I guess. It’s nothing.” I waved a damp tissue and forced a smile.

“If this thing,” he said, which I took to mean the marriage, “if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always be here. I’ll take care of you.” He studied the carpet, digging at it with the toe of a stiff dress shoe.

Which snapped something inside me back into place. It had been just the two of us for nearly ten years. And then, during junior high and high school, while his friends goofed off and did sports after school, Fred had helped me with Veronica. I took a deep breath and blew my nose.

***

There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others.

 

Three weeks before my third and last child was born, we moved into a house big enough to accommodate seven and merged our two families. I started maternity leave a week later. I had parlayed my years with the Legislature into an executive position as the advocate for the California agency that regulates solid waste. A temporary replacement was conscripted to manage my programs and staff until I returned from maternity leave.

When my new daughter, Carolanne, was six weeks old I packed all the requisite baby paraphernalia into the car and drove to the office to show her off to my coworkers. The building was a three-story glass and steel box along the freeway, one of half a dozen cut from the same mold that hugged the exit. On the elevator, headed for the third floor where the executive offices were, one of the clerical staff, a plain woman with an active mouth, beamed at me as though I’d made her proud. She clasped my baby girl’s bare foot.

“It’s so wonderful that you finally took time to have a family,” she said, with a beatific smile. “I’m so happy for you. It’s the ultimate experience. Believe me, you have no idea how wonderful.”

It took me a moment to make sense of her words. “She’s my third child,” I said.

At the second floor, the elevator doors opened with a hydraulic whoosh. The woman stepped out. Before the door closed she turned and with an saccharin smile, said, “Well, maybe you’ll make more time for this one. So busy with your career and all, I just assumed.”

The director came out of his office to greet us. A trim man, he sometimes bragged he was the same weight as when he ran high school track. He was trussed up pretty tight. I was used to that. But it did seem as though his collar was even more confining than usual, his face a more uncomfortable shade of red and his jaw stiff with the effort of holding onto a smile.

“It’s good you’re here. Keith has something to discuss with you,” he said. Keith was our new Chief Deputy, second-in-command. “Better if someone keeps an eye on the baby so you two can talk.”

Carolanne had dozed off in her car carrier. I left her with the secretary. Keith rose from behind his desk. He looked more like a professor—classics perhaps, or philosophy—than a regulator. He wore a jacket with leather patches at the elbows. Wispy hair sprouted around his bald pate.

“Shut the door, if you don’t mind,” he said. “Sit. Make yourself at home.”

I tugged at a blouse button that kept springing open and hoped to God I didn’t leak. He dropped a manila folder in front of me as though it were a hot plate that had singed his fingers. Inside the folder was a duty statement for a job doing something called “data integration.”

“I’m sure the director has told you all about this,” Keith said.

“No he hasn’t,” I said.

Keith blinked behind his glasses. “This will be your assignment when you return.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Well, when you told him you wanted a less stressful job when you returned from maternity leave, I, um, he…”

I cut him off. “I never said that.”

I’d done what Keith was doing half a dozen times. I’d fired staff at the director’s behest. And I’d cooked up ludicrous special assignments like the one I was being offered. “Opportunities to fail,” we’d jokingly called them. It was my turn. I was being banished to the civil service equivalent of Siberia, consigned to the F Troop.

Through Keith’s closed door came Carolanne’s thin whine, working up a cry. I hugged my breasts tight to keep the milk from coming. But it was no use.

It had taken me fifteen years to get where I was in my career. I had charted uphill progress in terms of a growing paycheck, the size of my office and the position of my name on the organizational chart. I’d convinced myself it wasn’t only for me. It was for the kids, who deserved to live in a nice house in a good neighborhood and to go to college.

Clasping the baby seat for the long walk to the car, I felt the weight of those years, the choices I’d made, the many times I missed one of my children’s performances or events because of work. All those lost moments were rendered inconsequential by one swift managerial decision.

***

The next few weeks were a blur. I roused from bed to feed and settle the baby while the new house and its other occupants stormed around me. When even that became too much, I crept into our dim, walk-in closet and closed the shuttered doors, the baby in a small bassinet beside me, mercifully asleep.

At intervals there were voices at the door—my husband, one of my sisters, my husband again. Their words seemed distant, unconnected to me. Cocooned on the carpeted floor, with a pillow and my robe for a blanket, I drifted in and out of dream-choked sleep.

“Bob says you won’t come out.” It was my son. He’d started college and moved into the dorms.

“I will,” I said. “You didn’t have to come here. I’m sorry.”

Fred nudged the door open, just enough that we could see one another. He sat on the bathmat and hugged his bent knees. His eyes were round saucers of concern, his gaze steady, without judgment. I was simultaneously proud and ashamed. Proud of the young man he’d become, of his solid goodness, of how much he wanted to help. Ashamed that it wasn’t the first time he’d found his mother past coping and dealt with it as best he could, no matter his age.

“He shouldn’t have bothered you,” I said.

“It’s okay. You need me to take you someplace? A doctor or something.” I sat up and lifted the fussing baby from the bassinet. “I’m a heifer,” I said. “A fat, bloated cow.”

He gave me that sad smile.

“I missed your sixth grade graduation,” I said, my voice cracking. “There was some stupid deadline at work. I can’t even remember anymore.”

“You sat through an entire Depeche Mode concert with me and Chris.”

“Two Depeche Mode concerts,” I said, patting Carolanne’s behind.

“Oh yeah, that’s right,” he said, nodding. “Two years in a row.”

“Junior high. I missed that graduation too. Got tied up at work.”

“It’s no big deal, Mom. Remember that one time the sheriff drove me home. Woke you up at three in the morning. That wasn’t the only time. It was just the only time I got caught.”

“And the golf team,” I said. “You should have joined. You liked golf.”

“You needed me to pick Veronica up from daycare when you worked late.”

“You could have at least asked me.” Even as I said the words, I wondered whether the outcome would have been any different if he had asked.

“There are way worse parents out there. Believe me. My friends all thought you were pretty cool.”

“I bet they did.”

I looked at my son. Really looked at him. My mother was right. I’d told her she was crazy when she said he was starting to look like a concentration camp survivor.

“What do you weigh these days?” I asked. Fred shrugged.

“Stand on the scale,” I said.

I put out my hand and he pulled me to standing. I stood beside him, bouncing the baby, as he stepped on the scale. The electronic numbers flickered until he steadied. 117. My son had lost over fifty pounds since the wedding. Fred was skin and bone, jutting cheek bones, jaw and clavicles, wrists and ankles I could have wrapped the fingers of one hand around.

Consumed with getting married, moving into a new home, having a baby and losing my job, I hadn’t noticed.

***

I stood beside him as he stepped on the scale. The electronic numbers flickered until he steadied. 117. My son had lost over fifty pounds since the wedding… Consumed with moving into a new home, having a baby and losing my job, I hadn’t noticed.

 

I lay on the unmade bed with Carolanne. Two small, dimpled feet kicked at the air. She found them with her hands, first one foot, then the other and her eyes grew bright with wonder, with discovery, and she gurgled, telling me about it, telling herself, about these new things, attached to her, yet apart too, elusive, challenging her to catch them, and then the feeling when she did, of recognition, of touch that registered in the brain as pleasure and as an accomplishment, one of hundreds of discoveries brought by each new day. Light from the sliding glass door broke into dancing fragments all around us. She reached for it too, chubby fingers closing in fists, again and again, as slippery coins of light eluded her grasp and played on her soft skin and over the bedspread all around us, transformed into a tranquil sea of dancing, sunlit fish.

Though it would take months for me to shake the sense of shame and loss, being demoted within weeks of Carolanne’s birth allowed me an emotional freedom I hadn’t enjoyed when the other two were small. I returned to work after six months, rather than six weeks. I got back on my feet professionally, worked for another dozen years and ended my career as the Executive Director of a different state regulatory agency, yet my priorities had been irrevocably reordered. I never forgot that no matter how important or demanding a job may seem, it has no heart. I hope that I have been a good mother to all of my children, yet I know I have been more present this last time around.

***

I was a young twenty-six when Fred was born. He seemed to me an older twenty-six when he married. His wife once thanked me; giving me at least partial credit for the man he has become, always kind, thoughtful and empathetic. And with more pride than regret, I wonder, as I imagine all parents, and particularly single mothers, must sometimes wonder, did I just get lucky or did he feel my love and support, did he find what was good in me, in spite of all the rest.

***

Author’s Note: Fred, my eldest child, is now 35 and, among other things, an amazing husband and father of two. When he was small and it was just the two of us, getting through each day, balancing work and all the rest, often felt like a battle I didn’t always win. In many ways we grew up together and are, I hope, both the better for it. I know that I am.

Dorothy Rice lives in Sacramento with her husband and the youngest of their five children. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Still Point Arts Quarterly, The Louisville Review and The Saturday Evening Post website, among others. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist, a memoir about her father, will be published this year. At 60, following a career in environmental protection, Dorothy earned an MFA in creative writing.

Return to September 2015 Issue

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

Why I Don’t Regret Taking All Those Baby Photos

Why I Don’t Regret Taking All Those Baby Photos

By Christine Organ

004_Zappier_5135 copy

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

A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

By Alison Seevak

IMG_3587

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.

Is it Okay Not to Invite Young Children to Your Wedding or Special Event?

Is it Okay Not to Invite Young Children to Your Wedding or Special Event?

Is it acceptable to have a wedding or special event and not invite the young children of a close friend or family member? Debi Lewis says that excluding kids from an event sets a certain tone and has consequences for your relationship with the hosts. Lisa Sadikman argues that it’s the hosts’ choice full stop, the world doesn’t revolve around your children.

 

It’s Not Okay That You Didn’t Invite My Baby to Your Wedding

By Debi Lewis

images-2In the swirling cold of a winter fourteen years ago, my husband and I called all of our closest family members to announce joyfully that we were expecting our first child at the end of May: the first baby on both sides.

After the news sunk in, I received a phone call from my brother’s fiancé. I liked her and the way she and my brother had fallen for each other. Their romance was lovely, and their engagement quick. I’d only met her a few times, but my brother sounded so happy and talked about her so much that I felt like I knew her. Their wedding was planned for the end of June, and she’d asked me to be a bridesmaid.

She called me at work and asked if I had time to talk about something.

“I want to offer you some help,” she said. “When you come for the wedding, I know the baby will be so little…I wanted to offer to help you find a good babysitter.” In the moment, I didn’t understand. It was my first baby; the idea of a babysitter had not even occurred to me, and so, at first, I considered it: did I want one? And then, I had my very first intense parental instinct, and it whispered insistently inside my head: hell no.

“That is so sweet of you, Carrie*,” I answered, “but I can’t imagine wanting a babysitter. The baby will be nearly brand new! My brother said you’ll be inviting my mother-in-law, which is fantastic. I’ll just ask her to hold the baby during the ceremony. I think that should be fine.”

Carrie paused, and then said: “Well, we’re not really having children at the wedding.”

I know now, years later, that the topic of whether babies or young kids should be allowed at weddings has been debated ad nauseam. There are dozens of articles that take each side of the question, and then hundreds more that analyze the merits of setting a cut-off age, hiring a babysitter, inviting children to the party but not the service or the service but not the party, and every other permutation of making a wedding work for families that include children.

When Carrie told me that they weren’t having children at their wedding, my stunned response was that I wouldn’t be bringing a child, I’d be bringing a baby. That baby would not be able to cry loud enough to be heard from behind a sanctuary door, or run up the aisle and grab flower petals, or throw food at the reception. That baby would be nestled against me in a sling or sleeping in someone’s arms. I could not for the life of me understand how that newborn baby—who would be whisked away by my mother-in-law if she made any noise—posed a threat to the success of her wedding. But after a while, the real reason the baby wasn’t invited emerged: the bride did not want to “compete” with it.

While I believe that the bride and groom are the stars of the day, the idea that a baby might usurp that stardom says much more about the wedding couple than it does about the baby in question. There are many solutions to the concern about interruptions and distractions potentially posed by a child at a wedding: a frank conversation with the parents about the amount of noise the bride and groom will tolerate; a relative or friend poised to take a crying or fussing kid out of earshot; or, if none of those is possible, the suggestion that the child only be present for portions of the celebration where their noise won’t be noticed. If distraction is the main concern, that is easily managed.

To be clear, I accept that it is the wedding couple’s prerogative. If the question under consideration is, “Does etiquette allow for a couple to invite only adults to their wedding?” the answer is yes. It allows for a bride and groom to invite only the people they want to invite. If, however, the question is, “Is this decision likely to affect your relationship with the parents whose children you are excluding?” the answer is also, unequivocally, yes.

There are as many acceptable ways to get married or stage an event as there are people who stage them, but none is without consequences. The consequence of not inviting a guest’s children is that the guest is likely to feel their children are unwelcome—both at the event and, to some degree, in the hearts of the hosts. Parents might welcome an opportunity to leave their children at home, but an invitation for the entire family allows the parents themselves to make that choice. Being forced to decide between an occasion and one’s children is something a parent will never forget, and that parent will remember the hosts as the ones who forced the decision. For more casual relationships, maybe this doesn’t matter. For close family, it probably does.

No matter how acceptable the decision made by my brother and his wife was according to the rules of etiquette, there is no getting around the tone they set. This applies to any couple at their wedding; when they choose to exclude the children in their extended family, the wedding ceases to be a celebration of their two families joining together. It is not the prelude to a life of messy beauty and generosity. While it is a performance that they have every right to choreograph, the way they do so sends a message about their priorities.

When I remember my brother’s wedding, I don’t remember the beautiful ceremony, the joy on the bride’s face, or the love with which my brother must have given her their first kiss as husband and wife. I remember the bride’s grandmother coming to me at the reception and grabbing my hands. “Where is that new baby?” she demanded. “Why didn’t you bring her!?”

I steeled myself, my breasts aching, and answered. “She wasn’t invited.”

*This name has been changed.

Debi Lewis is the mother of two daughters and blogs regularly at swallowmysunshine.com. You can find her essays at Brain, Child Magazine, RoleReboot, Mamalode, The Mighty, Kveller, and ChicagoNow. She is currently at work on a memoir about her younger daughter’s journey through medical mystery.

 

It’s Okay If You Don’t Invite My Children to Your Wedding

By Lisa Sadikman

imagesMy husband and I sat in the front row nervously holding hands as the sanctuary filled with family and friends. In a few minutes, an emotional year of learning and planning would all come together as our eldest daughter chanted from the sacred scrolls to mark her bat mitzvah. Our two younger daughters, ages ten and four, were sitting with us. Well, the ten-year-old was sitting. The four-year-old was squirming around as she set up her miniature princess dolls. At least she wasn’t making too much noise—yet. Ten minutes into the service, however, she decided to crawl under the seats to look for the sparkly silver flats she’d immediately shucked when we came in.

“Here they are Mommy!” she yelped, flinging them excitedly in my lap.

“You have to sit down honey,” I whisper-yelled. “Your sister is about to start.” She gave me that classic you-can’t-make-me grin and took off up the main aisle. My husband and I looked at each other, exasperated, the decision made. I followed her out the double doors and took her down to childcare. She’d lasted all of 12 minutes.

Not every event, be it a bat mitzvah, wedding or run-of-the-mill party, is meant for children of a certain age or children at all. While excluding kids, even babies, from grown-up events may seem harsh or selfish, hosts have every right to invite whomever they choose. Maybe they’re on a tight budget. Maybe the venue isn’t kid-friendly. Maybe they simply don’t want kids at their event.  

This is not a popular stance to take, especially if you’re a parent. In a culture that encourages us to include our kids at every turn, it can be difficult to be okay with leaving them out. From the moment we give birth, we are urged to wear our babies, sleep near them, nurse them and be in physical contact with them as much as possible. When my first daughter was born, my worldview altered dramatically. Instead of wondering how to get a reservation at the latest hotspot, I wondered whether or not she’d nursed enough. Instead of logging hours at the gym, I logged the color and time of day of each dirty diaper. Waking and sleeping, showering and eating, my ability to carry on a coherent conversation all depended on the needs and demands of the baby.

Without question, my world revolved around my child and then two children and now three, to varying degrees. Whether we mean to or not, we often place our kids in the center of our universe, at least for certain periods of time. That doesn’t mean everyone else has to, though.  

While I wasn’t ever invited to an event without my girls while they were infants, if I had been, I’m sure I would have been indignant and angry: How could so-and-so expect me to leave my newborn at home? If they really wanted me there, I figured, they would understand that I have to bring the baby with me. These are valid feelings and arguments. But just as the host has the right to include whomever they choose, I have to right to opt out of the event. As a parent, I think you have to be willing to swallow your disappointment and, in some cases, outrage and RSVP “Will Not Attend.” If it’s an event you really can’t miss, such as the wedding of a close family member, you might need to find another solution: shell out for a babysitter or bring a caregiver with you.

Depending on their ages, having kids present at a grown-up party, performance, service or ceremony is stressful and distracting. They can change the dynamic of an event with a cry, a giggle or an ill-timed potty break. Just the act of having to walk them out of the venue can shift the atmosphere. I’ve learned that no amount of cajoling or bribing guarantees that they’ll behave “nicely” or even semi-appropriately simply because they’re at an adult event. Even if by some miracle they do, my attention is quietly divided between whomever I’m talking to, tracking their whereabouts and keeping an eye on the clock so we don’t totally blow their bedtime. It’s exhausting.

The boundaries between parent and child often feel almost nonexistent. We tote our kids on every errand, take them to our appointments with us and dedicate entire weekends to watching their sport games and recitals. They hang out with us while we pee and interrupt our phone conversations with snack requests. We eschew Date Night for Family Time, or, if we’re desperate, we take them with us on a sort of hybrid Family Date. We’ve given up on relaxing, grown-up vacations instead opting for hyperactive family trips that include amusement parks, water slides or both.

My parents had no problem leaving me and my younger sister at home while they went on vacation or to an event or even over to the neighbor’s house—and we were fine with it too. Whether it’s financial or time constrains, the lack of safe and caring support systems, or a parenting philosophy that says we must spend all of our waking—and sometimes sleeping—hours with our kids, most of us simply don’t indulge in adult-only time.

The truth is, I’m relieved when my kids aren’t invited to social occasions with me. Having permission to leave them at home without feeling guilty is a gift. It’s an opportunity to reclaim myself, collect my scattered parts and recharge in ways only possible in the company of other adults. I think it’s also healthy for my kids to see me and my husband as individuals apart from them and for them to develop relationships with other caregivers, like older siblings, grandparents and babysitters. It’s okay for them to realize that the whole world is not actually their oyster—at least not just yet.

 
Lisa Sadikman is a writer living in Northern California with her husband and three girls. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Club Mid, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamalode and others. You can read more about her adventures parenting a teen, a tween and a preschooler, managing marriage and living a grown up life on her blog, Flingo and by following her on Twitter @LisaSadikman.

 

Join us on Twitter this Thursday, 11/5, at 1:00 EST for a discussion on this issue. We welcome your thoughts and perspectives. Please remember to use the hashtag #braindebate.

The WASP vs. The Guju

The WASP vs. The Guju

By Malena Hougen Patel

Ba & Nana 2

As I worked up some crocodile tears, we peeked out of the kitchen to scope the scene. What we saw made us pause.  

 

When my husband and I brought our baby daughter home last September, it was a small affair. Just us, with our new daughter, in our new house, in our new neighborhood. We had 10 days of quiet family bliss, lounging in our underwear, dancing in the living room at 3am, binge-watching True Detective at noon, shutters tightly closed to the brightness of the day and the cacophony of the world.

But all that was shattered one crisp, sunny day in early October. The Mothers arrived.

We had been somewhat concerned. Both of our 65-year-old mothers, under the same roof. Would they get along? One, a disciplined blue blood from shabby American aristocracy, who preferred fitted linen pants and crisp white sheets, anorexia and hydrangeas, who had her hair set weekly by Francois, taught her daughters the importance of the right fork, and who only drank G&Ts.

The other, a native of Gujurat, India, who defied her parents by coming to America to study, who defied her sisters by never dying her hair (or really, washing it) and who defied nature by never wearing anything but polyester. Oh, and who defied any common sense by drinking only the sweetest of margaritas.

But beyond their cultural and cocktail differences, there was something else that worried us. Our mothers are both trailblazing women in their fields, with 2 PhDs and 3 master’s degrees between them. They are strong, good women who relish work and adventure–but neither takes pride in domestic drudgery.

But surely they could tie on the proverbial apron for a week to change my milk-stained sheets? Perhaps, we thought in our most hopeful moments, we should be concerned: would these two highly competitive yet vastly different women compete to see who could serve the exhausted new parents best? My head swam with images of having to choose between truffled mac and cheese and tikka masala on a nightly basis. My husband and I heatedly debated who we would let diaper Baby N first, and who would be more honored to fold her onsies. We were worried they would exhaust themselves in their rush to serve us. After all, they were no spring chickens. And so it was with open, if cautious, arms we welcomed both my mother and my mother-in-law from LAX that crisp sunny October day.

Margot, my mother, arrived first, alighting from the cab in her Kay Unger knit dress hugging her lithe figure, lipstick bright and perfect, hair helmeted. She cooed appropriately over the baby while discreetly assessing my figure, which I pathetically tried to camouflage with a belly band and loose tunic from (gulp) Chico’s.  

Soon after, my mother-in-law Sita showed up, her inside-voice challenged greeting startling the baby from 50 yards away. She barreled through our front door, her compact 5-foot body swathed in a polyester sari and “well-loved” flip-flops, revealing pedicure-challenged toenails. I caught my mother’s short intake of breath. She glanced down at her own feet, safely ensconced in LL Bean travel moccasins, and seemed reassured that all was right in the world.

Margot, who was holding Baby N, got up to greet Sita. Sita gently took Baby N from Margot’s arms. Margot held on. Their eyes locked. My husband and I glanced at each other. Would they start to squabble over her? As we waited with bated breath, the two women simultaneously launched into a cascade of adoration for the baby.

We sighed with relief.

But then:

Margot (east coast Brahmin accent): You know, Sita, I saw a Times piece on a wonderful exhibit at LACMA.

Sita (thick, incomprehensible Gujuarti accent): I’m ready when you are.

Me: Oh, um, but there’s some laundry in the dryer…

Sita: And what about that Frank Lloyd Wright house I read about?

Margot: I heard it has marvelous gardens.

Me: Oh, um, but maybe you’d want to take the baby for a walk?

Sita: Nonsense! Newborns should not be taken from the house.

And with that, our fate was sealed. We had created a loud-talking, raucous-laughing, museum-hopping, grandchild-adoring, early-rising, non-cooking/non-cleaning/non-sheet-changing/non-dusting/non-diaper-changing cocktail-swilling 2-headed Beast. And that Beast ran our house for 3 days like it was a Hollywood Cocktail Party Invitational/Ladies-of-a Certain-Age Touring Company.

The next morning, they bustled into our bedroom at 6:30, fresh from a 3-mile jaunt around our neighborhood:

Margot: Rise and shine!

Me: Mom, we’ve been up all night with the baby. She’s not latching and…

Margot: I read about the most wonderful exhibit at MOCA in the Times this morning. They open at 11. Could you drive us?

Me: Mom, we’re a little tired…

Margot: Nonsense! I was never tired when I had children, and I was in graduate school.

Me: Maybe you can take the baby for a walk while we sleep?

Sita: No, no. Not good for her to leave the house. Margot, let’s go!

And so they headed off to LACMA, MOCA, Eames House. My husband and I sterilized bottles, flung together dinners, scrubbed lipstick stains off tea cups, and folded Baby N’s onsies, our resentment simmering.

The final straw came Saturday night.

During their morning walks, the Moms had met all sorts of neighbors, and being naturally outgoing and fond of cocktail parties, invited everyone over for a meet and greet. My husband and I could barely believe our eyes when we saw smartly dressed people strolling up our walk. We couldn’t see straight, much less talk coherently.

But by 7, Erik & Chip–from that cute Spanish bungalow on Gennesse–were sharing their Pimm’s Cup recipe. By 7:15, Julian and Abbie–they’re renovating the Tudor on Orange Grove–were wondering if they could use the oven to heat up their world famous shrimp dip. By 7:30, Tim and Carol, Francine and Cheryl were knocking back martinis.

As the evening wore on… and on… my husband and I decided to Take Back the Night. Our plan to bust up the party involved me having a breakdown in the middle of the living room, maybe flinging out the word lochia for good measure.

As I worked up some crocodile tears, we peeked out of the kitchen to scope the scene. What we saw made us pause.  

Margot was wearing one of Sita’s saris, Sita was chatting with Chip about Shah Rukh Khan, and Baby N was being passed from neighbor to neighbor and looking as delighted as a 13-day-old baby can.

Frankly, Margot & Sita looked like a happily progressive post-menopausal inter-racial lesbian couple, gleefully showing off their little bi-racial bundle of joy.

We looked at each other, eyes wide. And started laughing–an exhausted, relieved, disbelieving, rollicking, braying, healing laugh.

It is my mother’s fate that her daughter is not the energetic go-getter she thought she raised, but not all is lost. Every now and then, when it’s 2pm and I’m still in my pajamas, I catch my daughter giving me a look, a look that says “Why are you still in your pajamas? LACMA closes in 2 hours!”  

Oh, and Cheryl’s daughter babysits, Chip brought over a delicious lemon-roasted chicken, and Francine gets our mail when we travel.
Malena Hougen Patel is a writer and mother living in Los Angeles. You can follow her on twitter @malenahougen.

Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Unlocking Parental IntelligenceIntroduction

By Dr. Laurie Hollman

Do you ever wonder why your child behaves the way she does? How many times in a single day do you ask yourself, “Why did she do that?” Even little things can throw you. Your three-year-old lies about brushing his teeth. He lied? At age three? Sometimes it’s subtle. For example, your teenage daughter tells you about her day, something she rarely does. Why now? Is she just feeling chatty or did something happen that she’s not quite ready to tell you yet? Sitting in a parent-teacher conference, or even a principal’s office, you may ask yourself, “Why did my child behave that way? How am I supposed to handle this?”

We’ve all experienced that awful feeling of fear, surprise, or incomprehension when our kids do something unusual, unimaginable, or outright distressing. And when nothing changes, despite our best efforts to address the behavior, all we can do is wonder, “Why?”

It’s common to have moments of despair, when you feel that parenting is beyond you; when you believe that the job requires a special kind of intelligence that wasn’t encrypted on your brain and you’re waiting for the time when you can sustain—for just one day—that important parent-child bond psychologists say is necessary for a healthy family life.

In this book, I am going to give you a new perspective on behaviors that may confound you and cause you powerful inner pressure or even panic. I’m going to lead you up a path that enlightens, uplifts, and relieves you as you learn how to unmask the meanings behind your child’s behavior. As you continue to practice this process, you will become a meaning-maker, empowered to read your child’s actions like an open book. Using the tools I provide, I will help you experience the heightened energy and deep satisfaction that come with unlocking your Parental Intelligence.

Parenting offers many humorous, precious situations—like the time you invited fifty people to your daughter’s first birthday party and she pressed her chubby fingers into the center of the chocolate cake you baked, swirled them around, and then happily put them into your mouth like there was no distance between the two of you. If only it could stay that way; if only that instant could last forever, like a memento that reminds you of the cow that jumped over the moon. You hoped she could have a dreamy childhood and never stop believing that family life is all chocolate cake. We all wish it could stay simple—all good humor and pure joy.

But parenting can have a difficult side, too—like the time your eight-year-old fled the house yelling, “I’m running away! Why do you ruin everything? You never get it.” He came back, exhausted after fifteen tortuous minutes speeding around the front yard like a freight train that had gone off its track and landed in a deep ditch. You stood by the window, watching him, heart pounding, worried and scared. You felt winded, as if you were the locomotive spinning off the track. Tears pushed out from your tired eyes. And your son came in defeated and spent. Even though he returned, you knew there was some deeper meaning behind what he did. But what do you do when you’re afraid that whatever is wrong will shadow you and your child everywhere? The stakes are high.

The circumstances and backgrounds of the parents I’ve worked with as a psychoanalyst vary greatly—yet, I discovered that they had some crucial things in common. They were conscientious, thinking parents. And most importantly, they all wanted to understand their kids. This was key.

They were all searching for that special intelligence needed for respectful parenting, even if they didn’t quite know how to ask for it. What they were searching for is what I call Parental Intelligence. I coined this term because I believe parenting requires the persistence and rigor of an intelligence that can be honed with the right tools and life experience.

I believe parents should never be underestimated—even when they doubt themselves. With a clearly designed pathway, you can unlock your Parental Intelligence, access and harness your parenting capacities, and solve the most important problems your children are facing.

With Parental Intelligence, you will figure out the whys behind your child’s behavior. Knowing why your child behaves a certain way will allow you to find the best approach to dealing with the behavior. Understanding why your child acts out, disobeys, or behaves in disruptive and disturbing ways is the key to preventing the recurrence of the behavior. Parental Intelligence provides that understanding.

I have narrowed down and systemized the learning process into five steps that will unlock your Parental Intelligence. And I will illustrate—through examples of many difficult scenarios of compelling family situations—how to use these positive parenting steps in order to achieve the outcomes you desire.

With Parental Intelligence, you enter the inner world of your child and understand where he or she is coming from. You will no longer focus initially on stopping misbehavior, but you will first try to understand the meaning behind the misbehavior, and even consider it a useful communication. This approach not only prevents undesired behavior more effectively, it also strengthens parent-child relationships. You and your child grow together.

Three basic interrelated tenets lie behind Parental Intelligence: (1) behaviors have underlying meanings; (2) once parents understand how their own minds are working, they are liberated to understand their child—how their child’s mind is working; (3) once meanings are clear, options surface by which to change unwanted behaviors. When the three core concepts come into play, the ambiance of family life fundamentally changes.

This means that parents no longer focus on the child’s specific misbehavior as the overarching troubles and problems emerge. When those problems are addressed, the original misbehavior loses importance and usually stops.

The book is divided into three parts. “Part One: Developing Your Parental Intelligence” describes the theory behind Parental Intelligence and the five steps toward creating it: Stepping Back, Self-Reflecting, Understanding Your Child’s Mind, Understanding Your Child’s

Development, and Problem Solving. The five steps are geared to parents who look to support their children’s growth, and happiness. In today’s society, there is a broad array of roles that mothers and fathers take on as they participate in parenting. These varied roles are readily adapted to family life as parents use their Parental Intelligence.

“Part Two: Stories of Parental Intelligence in Practice” offers eight short stories about parents using Parental Intelligence with their children. Each family portrait reveals that as parents understand themselves, they can better understand their children. With these understandings, misbehaviors become a catalyst to change. As open dialogue evolves, parents discover and clarify the meanings behind the behaviors. In turn, parents and children grapple with the underlying struggles that, though not apparent at first, were hidden behind the behaviors. Once brought to light, problems can be solved.

These stories about infants, children, and adolescents—including three with special needs: ADHD, a pervasive developmental disorder, and depression—demonstrate the broad spectrum to which the five steps of Parental Intelligence apply. The eight stories focus on the pivotal roles fathers and mothers can have in their child’s behavior and development.

“Part Three: The Future with Parental Intelligence” describes a world where Parental Intelligence has become commonplace. This philosophy of parenting has ramifications at familial and societal levels. I discuss how this parenting approach provides a meeting ground where parents and children get to know each other in profound ways as they solve present

problems that affect their future values and directions. Children of such families will have the skills to work through conflicts in their daily lives and future relationships.

This book doesn’t have an ending. Many mothers and fathers raising their children with Parental Intelligence have told me that using these principles as a guide have led to a new way of being together—a new parenting life.

Chapter One

The New Parenting Mindset

 The voices of empathetic parents become the inner voices of self-assured, secure children.

The major premise behind Parental Intelligence is that a child’s behavior or misbehavior has meaning—and often more than one. Once the treasure trove of meanings emerges, we realize that there are many possible reactions to misbehavior. If these ideas are new and even challenging to you, the following journey will take you to a positive and satisfying stage in your parenting life.

This important parenting mindset is founded on the belief that external behavior has internal causes. Parents and children alike behave based on what they think and feel. Using my approach, parents begin to learn how to hold in mind their own thoughts and feelings as well as their child’s thoughts and feelings simultaneously.

Let’s fast forward to two of the parents and children you will meet in this book: Clive and his father, and Olivia and her mother. Let’s assume that Clive’s father and Olivia’s mother have completed this book and have acquired a secure parenting mindset.

One morning, when Clive’s father told him to put on his shoes to get ready for school, the six-year-old threw them across the room. Clive’s father learned a great deal about parenting by following a series of steps about effective parenting (which will soon become apparent as we get to know him later). Therefore, he was able to experience Clive’s impulsive reaction and his own annoyance with Clive’s behavior simultaneously. He learned that holding both his and Clive’s feelings in mind was a requisite for understanding what may be going on when they are working at cross purposes.

He wanted Clive to get ready for school, but he didn’t know yet that Clive didn’t even want to go to school, something that had never happened before. Clive’s father knew he had to look for meaning behind his son’s behavior. He understood that if he jumped in and insisted that Clive put the shoes on immediately, he might miss an important opportunity at real and true communication. He held back from giving an immediate consequence to Clive’s action. He held his breath and forced himself to wait for Clive to calm down.

Because he and Clive had worked on this approach for months, Clive’s father was able to ask Clive if something was upsetting him about putting on his shoes to get ready for school. Eventually, Clive was able to explain what was bothering him. Clive told his dad that during an arithmetic lesson in his kindergarten class, he gave a wrong answer to a simple addition problem and a classmate laughed. In response, Clive poked the boy with the eraser end of his pencil. The boy cried out and the teacher, who is generally quite sensitive to kindhearted Clive, took a most unusual but spontaneous action—she yelled at him. Clive didn’t know that was the reason he threw the shoes, but his father was able to make the connection in his mind.

The father’s awareness that his child’s impulsive behavior must have a reason enabled him to take a step back and create space for Clive to explain what happened at school the day before. The parenting mindset that asks the parent to hold both himself and his child in mind creates a sense of safety for both child and parent. An atmosphere of safety allows children to communicate feelings and events that are most distressing, exciting, and important to them without embarrassment or self-consciousness. Using Parental Intelligence, misbehavior becomes a catalyst for communication.

On the way to the kitchen, thirteen-year-old Olivia said to her mother, who was not yet in sight, “Mommy, I have something to tell you, but I don’t want you to be mad.” Implementing the principles of Parental Intelligence, her mother immediately adopted the nonjudgmental, empathic mindset needed to help Olivia feel safe enough to talk to her. “Whatever it is,” her mother said, “we can work it out.”

Olivia, head down, walked into the kitchen where she raised her face to show her mother a golden ring piercing her lower lip. Her mother was shocked, but she worked hard at reserving her feelings, holding Olivia’s worry in mind as well. It was important to Olivia’s mother that Olivia could tell her about this without fearing her reaction. Olivia started to cry and explained that her best friend convinced her to go to the mall where they each got a lip ring. At first, they thought it would be fun to have a new look, but as soon as it was done, they knew it was a big mistake.

“How big a mistake could this be?” Olivia’s mother asked. “If you don’t want to leave it in, take it out, and the hole will close up in a few days.”

Even though Olivia already knew this, her mother’s response allowed her to experience her mother as a safe parent, someone she could approach with her problems. She and her mother discussed as openly as they could why Olivia experimented with the lip piercing, learning together that there may be several reasons. Olivia wanted to feel prettier: her self-image was uncertain, and she wanted to experiment with a new look that she thought was more mature. She also wanted to do something independently from her mother. The conversation with her

mother allowed her to feel her mother’s acceptance, which, in turn, supported her attempt at independence, even though it didn’t turn out well. Keeping her shock to herself, Olivia’s mother reaped tremendous rewards. She learned much more about Olivia than she had imagined was possible, and she suffered along with her daughter as Olivia poured out her lack of confidence and desire to be independent.

Olivia’s mother knew that keeping both herself and her daughter in mind would provide the safe environment her daughter needed to truthfully explain what had happened. This led to greater understanding, not only of this experience, but also of their relationship as a whole. The sense of safety between Olivia and her mother didn’t come with this one incident, but with hundreds of such encounters in everyday life.

These examples show that a parent is not only responding to physical, but also to psychological reality. Throwing the shoes or getting the lip ring constituted physical reality. Clive’s desire to be liked by his teacher, to be a good child, to not be embarrassed at school, and for his father to take his side constituted Clive’s psychological reality. Olivia’s psychological reality included her fear of making her mother angry, her worry over her self-image, and her wish to do something independently.

This parenting mindset can and will affect your daily life and give you and your child a greater sense of well-being. Olivia and her mother felt safe and comfortable enough to be discussing Olivia’s problems. This reinforced their relationship, giving them a feeling of strength and comfort within themselves and a feeling of being grounded and secure. Olivia’s mother’s self-image as an effective parent grew, and Olivia’s self-image as a daughter who can safely experiment and trust her mother despite a mistake was affirmed. Clive and his father felt a strong connection because Clive’s empathic father recognized and understood Clive’s conflicts. Both children felt accepted by their parents as they worked out their troubles together.

Parental Intelligence allows a hopeful outlook. You are ready to learn the steps that are necessary to evolve as effective and loving parents who listen to their children through words and actions. This orientation, once established, stays inside of you.

Read Brain, Child’s exclusive interview with author Dr. Laurie Hollman

Unlocking Parental Intelligence, published by Familius, is available now.

Unlocking Parental IntelligenceAmazon

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Cold Inside

Cold Inside

Toddler Boy Playing ArtBy Lynn Adams

Before I had children, Autism Spectrum Disorders were my specialty. I reduced my child psychology practice to half time after James came along, and soon realized I couldn’t close the door on autism at the end of the workday, because it was in my house.

I first heard about autism in high school, at a children’s residential facility where I volunteered. Sam was lying on his back and spinning around in circles by kicking his feet, as if on an invisible merry-go-round. He wasn’t brushing his teeth alongside the other children, because he was having too much fun at his own carnival.

I determined to become part of Sam’s carnival, and eventually learned to play with kids whose parents thought they couldn’t play. So 20 years later, why did I find myself on our playroom floor, my back against the sofa, writing down everything James said, while he did his own thing? “You sit on that. You like that. You put it down there,” I transcribed, noting he had his pronouns reversed. I hope I took the time to talk to James as I wrote, but I don’t remember.

My son was a loner. It didn’t come naturally to him to connect with anyone, including – and maybe especially – me. Instead of crying or looking for help in a tough situation, James mounted a noisy protest. Every tantrum was a puzzle. When he started talking, my first sign that he’d hurt himself was hearing him screech, “No ice!” as he ran away from me. If I figured out he had a pebble in his shoe, captured him, and removed it, he calmed down immediately.

By contrast, every time I kissed James’ cheek, he would rub the spot with his hand, looking away, like a teenager. He was unaffectionate. He had sensory issues. Of course. He had autism.

I knew that underlying health issues could be a source of toddlers’ developmental and behavioral problems. So, I arranged a medical evaluation for various thyroid, allergy, immune, and metabolic problems that might have been an easy fix. And the doctor found something. We discovered that one of James’ vaccines hadn’t been effective, exposing him to frequent upper respiratory infections. And all that time I thought he had allergies. He got a booster shot and the colds went away, but the autism didn’t.

That’s right, I’m the mom who thought that a vaccine might cure her child’s autism.

Practically speaking, as part of these work-ups three-year-old James had to have his blood drawn three times in three weeks. Although James freaked out the first time, the second and third times he patiently held out his little arm as the nurse poked around for his tiny veins. She kept looking up at his face, waiting for him to blow his stack. He never did.

The nurse remarked, “This is the best-behaved child I’ve ever seen!” Then she gave him a jumbo pack of Starburst and a full roll of stickers.

Her compliment felt like an accusation. I was still out of breath from forcefully extracting James from under the Lego table in the waiting room, where he’d been holed up catlike for a half hour. Before that, I’d pried him out from under the car seat, and then carried his noodle-like body through the parking lot. Back at home, he’d resisted brushing his teeth, getting into his clothes, leaving the house, and getting into the car. The whole way out to the suburban office he’d looked out the window, exclaiming with joy anytime he saw a construction truck. But each time a truck disappeared from his view, he’d kick the back of my seat.

James was a good boy, just not for me.

As my office became a refuge and I accepted a patient who would eventually become James’ first friend, I began to wonder whether I was ever meant to be a mother. One evening, my infant daughter asleep on my shoulder and a glass of gin in my hand, I made a suggestion to my husband Bruce. Maybe I was better off, and James was better off, and the community would be better off, with me as a psychologist rather than as a mother.

A parent-ectomy. That’s what Bruno Bettelheim proposed in his 1967 book, The Empty Fortress, a book my parents might have read if I’d had autism. Early professionals observed that mothers whose children had autism were cold and distant: Refrigerator Mothers. But sometimes it feels better to focus on doing right by your child, than to interact with him. Contemporary studies refer to “parental stress” and investigate the effects of having a child with autism on the parents.

Instead of condemning me for my cold-hearted suggestion, Bruce appealed to my sense of reason. “Think of your favorite families you’ve worked with, your favorite adults with autism,” he suggested. “What did they all have in common? Good psychologists, or good parents?”

Kids in our town had some choices when it came to psychologists. But James had only one mother.

Around this time, I came across a newspaper article. Researchers at the Yale Child Study Center, my old stomping ground, found that administering oxytocin, “the love hormone,” led to activation in the brain’s social regions in a small sample with mild autism. I wondered where I could get some oxytocin for James, and then flagellated myself for wondering.

James needed a mother’s love, and I was giving him everything but that.

I stopped reading about autism, and started reading about motherhood. I especially liked Erma Bombeck, who wrote, “A child needs your love most when he deserves it least.” At first I took my fondness for this quote as further evidence that I’d become a refrigerator mother, but later I realized how many kids it’s kept alive.

So James didn’t know how to connect with people. I did. It was time to show him how.

Neglecting to tell Bruce where I’d learned it, I pulled out the trusty “basket hold,” a form of restraint I’d used during my internship in a children’s psychiatric hospital. It was the only way to get ahold of James. You grab the child’s wrists, cross them in front of him, and pin his body in your lap with your legs crossed over his legs and his head under your chin. It’s a hug you can’t refuse.

As I held James I would say things like, “I know you’re mad because your toy broke. No biting, though. That hurts me. You’re my boy. Mommy loves you no matter what.”

I was talking to myself, more than James.

Over time, I didn’t have to hold James so tight to keep him near me. When he was really upset, he’d often give up his struggles and sob on my shoulder. Then I really felt like his mother. 

One day after a basket hold I kissed James wetly on the cheek, and he immediately wiped it off. I decided to ask him about it. How did I know why he did it?

“Did you wipe that kiss off?”

“No,” James said, still rubbing.

“Well, what are you doing?” I asked.

“Rubbing it in. That way it makes you love me more.”

Now at this point, James had his pronouns reversed. So, he probably meant, “It makes me love you more.” But who cares what direction he was heading? The fact that the word “love” was in his vocabulary suggested I was on the right track.

Author’s Note: James still struggles with the stresses of everyday life, and our family struggles along with him. But I don’t dwell on the word “autism” as much as I did when I started writing this piece. Instead, I focus on James’ love of guitar and flag football, and on his strong relationships with his family, neighbors, teachers, and friends. I’m proud to say he’s the only member of our family who’s consistently described as “sweet.”

Bio: Lynn Adams is now a full-time wife and mother in New Orleans. Her work has appeared on Salon, Brain, Child, and The Mid, as well as in the anthology, It’s Really 10 Months: Special Delivery. Find more at www.lynnadamsphd.com.

 

Calamity Ben

Calamity Ben

WO Calamity Ben Art

By Laura Jackson Roberts

 

Fear Itself

“Abnormally fearless,” the doctor tells me. “Your son is abnormally fearless.”

I’m sitting in the pediatrician’s office listening to the sounds—howls, mostly—coming through the walls from other examining rooms. Somebody’s getting a shot. Abnormally fearless. I can see my reflection in the mirror on the wall. She’s nodding and she looks a bit concerned. Is her mouth twitching just a bit? She stops looking at me and blurts: “Yes! See how he’s on that stool, trying to reach that electrical outlet? That’s what he does all the time!”

The doctor sees and he’s smiling, but it’s not a good smile. Almost frozen on his face, it’s hiccupping somewhere between pity and regret.

I pluck two-year-old Benjamin from the wheeled stool as he spins around, and tuck him under my arm like a suitcase. He kicks his legs. “My husband and I don’t know what to do.”

The pediatrician is a good doctor. He helped us in the past, when Ben needed a rabies shot after a bat encounter. He’s going to help us now.

But when he opens his mouth, he stammers. “Just….just….” He stops, regrouping.

Now my own mouth opens in anticipation, because the advice is coming. I’m going to be able to breathe again, to sit on the toilet without worry that I’m missing an electrical fire or a mauling. The floods will stop. And the structural damage. This beautiful man is going to give me the gem for which I’ve been digging. I don’t have to live like this, because there are men like him, who have framed diplomas on their walls and stethoscopes in their breast pockets.

The smile on his face evolves into a genuine grin. “It’s probably going to get worse. Just keep him alive.”

Ben is my second child. A number two always surprises, because they never follow in the footsteps of their older sibling. Like many second children, Ben is a fun-loving attention-seeker who is far more outgoing than his Type-A brother, Andy. Andy is thoughtful, reserved, and loaded with common sense. Ben hasn’t a drop. In fact, he shows a startling lack of fear.

The word “fear” comes from the Old English word “fær,” meaning “calamity, sudden danger, or peril.” Babies are born with two: loud noises and falling. These applied to Ben for a few months, but he soon morphed into a ballsy doppelganger. While Andy never stood on the kitchen table—it was the place for eating—Ben didn’t see it that way. To him, the table was not a facilitating tool for consumption, but a challenge worthy of Mallory and Irvine. He climbed because it was there, and moved ever higher, ever closer to danger.

My husband and I would not understand our tiny creation for many years.

 

Pub Crawl

“Was it dark beer or light beer?” asks Poison Control.

I am so ashamed.

Ben is nine months old and it is a bright April day in the hottest year we can remember. His chubby legs are utterly delicious and he has reached that splendid explosion of personality a parent waits for. He babbles in his own language as he practices his hop-along crawl. And he’s achieved the pull-up.

The beer bottle was in the cup-holder of a plastic Adirondack chair. Ben sat in the grass around me, poking at dandelions and eating bugs, and this was okay because I was an experienced parent who didn’t get riled up over minor things. But I did have to pee, and Ben couldn’t go far in the ninety seconds it would require, so I ducked into the house. When I emerged, still pulling up my pants, I caught sight of my son. He had pulled himself to his toes, leaning against the seat of the chair. The beer wobbled as his sausage fingers reached. And then, as I stared, his hands found the bottle and he tipped it to his mouth. But he didn’t spit out the bitter brew.

My baby swilled that beer like a fat little frat boy.

The voice of Poison Control Guy breaks through my recollection. “Ma’am? Are you there? Was it a light beer or a dark beer?”

“It was a Corona.” I am holding him now as he tries to squirm away. He smells like a brewery. His onesie is soaked and the front of his diaper has absorbed all of the liquid that spilled down his round belly. Ben is alternately sniffing and licking his palms, and every few seconds he stares down at the beer bottle and strains to reach it.

Poison Control Guy says, “Oh, good!” with audible relief. “If it was a Guinness, you’d be on your way to the ER right now.”

“Oh.” I can think of nothing else to say. My infant has a taste for pale ale, and this wasn’t on my preparedness list today. “Is there anything else I should do for him?”

“Watch for signs of drunkenness.”

I stammer. “You…want me to watch my baby for signs of drunkenness?”

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

I watch Ben. He lurches. He drools. He slurs his words. He takes a few tumbles. He is either drunk or a regular, sober baby. I can’t tell. Have I averted disaster or invited it in?

 

An Episode in Which…

It’s noticeably quiet, but the rational part of my brain tells me that shit can’t possibly be going down because I’ve only been out of the room for the length of time it takes to pull a toothbrush out of the shower drain with a pair of tongs. Ben has done this before, so I’m a self-taught expert. The key is to visualize the angle of the trap and if I’m lucky the bristles will be at the top. Crap. I’m not lucky today. The bristles are down in the trap, but I get it out anyway.

Double crap. It’s my toothbrush this time. What is that? Slime? Can I just dip that in alcohol and keep using it?

Creak.

I recognize the sound of a twenty-five-pound body on the landing in the kitchen. How did he get downstairs? I follow the sound, but he’s perfectly safe and…

Why are his hands blue?

Why are his lips blue?

“Ben, what is on your hands?” He looks at them, then at me. “Ben! What is on your hands and mouth? Were you playing with something blue?” Food coloring? Magic Marker? 

“Ben! Why are you blue?” I’m certain he’s going to show me a blue marker, or maybe an open baking drawer. It’ll be cute—there will be flour on the floor and maybe some little blue food coloring handprints around the kitchen.

But the kitchen is clean.

While I’m having a frenetic moment of worry inside my own head, he toddles off into the living room. He sits on the floor next to the fish tank, where I have been tending to a pair of angelfish who are suffering from a parasitic infection. Fish medicine is blue.

Benjamin’s mouth is blue. I see the boxes he’s dragged over to use as a stool. I see the discarded squeeze bottle. The child-proof cap has been gnawed off.

Toxic! In case of ingestion call a poison control expert and seek immediate medical attention.

Poison Control Guy is kind to me again. More importantly, he doesn’t remember me. He has a gentle tone, which somehow eases my physical anguish but can’t quite touch the mental component, the reality that my child guzzled fish medicine while I was in the bathroom with a set of kitchen tongs trying to un-wedge my toothbrush which that same child shoved into the drain.

I’m instructed to hydrate Ben, to dilute the poison. He should be okay, but I must watch closely for vomiting. Poison Control Guy calls me back in an hour, and again in two hours, to check on the boy.

The UPS guy asks me if Ben has eaten a smurf.

All babies have escapades. A tumble down the stairs ends in maternal and infant tears, or a swallowed substance triggers a frantic call to poison control. But as the tiny human grows, he learns that putting things into his mouth results in a bad taste and a belly ache. Ben either never learned or never cared, because he was abnormally fearless. Something inherent and primitive was missing: the fear.

But Benjamin is fearless. He won’t preserve himself.

It’s up to me.

Can I get a punch card for this?

The West Virginia Poison Control Hotline is 800-222-1222. I have it on speed dial in my phone, and posted in the kitchen, and the bathroom.

“Poison Control. How can I help you?” he asks.

Oh my God. It’s the same guy. This is his full-time job. He sits in a chair and answers the phone every time I call him.

I hesitate.

“Hello?” he says again.

“Uh, yeah.” I have to think fast. This is my tenth call. There was the beer and the bleach and the fish medicine. There was the Comet and the toothpaste and the Resolve Carpet Foam. There was the child-proof Tylenol, and the little packet of desiccants in a new shirt pocket that specifically said “DO NOT EAT” in bold letters. They should have rewards points for frequent callers. Nine poisonings and the tenth is free.

I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t leave booze and bleach out on the floor. In fact, it was quite the opposite: they were behind closed cabinet doors, with child-proof locks. They were six feet up in the air. They were supposed to be safe. But they weren’t. They weren’t safe from the tiny tornado. His fat fingers worked at those child safety locks, or broke them completely, and he climbed like a mountain goat. From the toilet, to the sink, and up on tiptoes to the top of the bathroom cabinet. And today, while I was speaking with the lawn tractor service man…today was not my fault. The tractor guy left the dirty oil filter out, right on the ground.

“What’s the child’s name?”

Poison Control Guy is going to recognize me.

“Aye. The lad’s name is…Scott.” Oh damn. I’ve affected a Highland brogue so as not to be detected. “The wee one tossed back a bit of motor el from the lon trahkter’s el felter.”

“He drank from a used oil filter? Oh no. How much did he swallow? Do you know?”

“Weel, it’s on ‘is lips and his got a bit on ‘is tongue.”

“Alright,” he says. “I’m going to need you to hydrate him thoroughly. Motor oil is toxic, but it sounds like he probably spit most of it out when he got a taste of it. Hydrate him and watch for vomiting and fever. I’ll call back in an hour to check on him.”

I promise that the lad will be hydrated and monitored. And I wonder how this has happened again, his tenth poisoning, when I have tried so hard to be vigilant. Rather than proving myself worthy of the sacred title of “mother,” I have revealed my ineptitude time and again. The task of raising this child has proven me to be a failure. It seems my arms just aren’t long enough to keep him safe.

 

Curious George Flips a Switch

We had ribs for dinner last night, and the kitchen isn’t so clean. In fact, my husband put rib bones in the garbage disposal, and it sounds like the engine on a Piper Super Cub about five minutes after it’s crashed into a barn.

I’m flummoxed by the rib bones, which have splintered into shards now, and have begun to work their way into the mechanism of the disposal. Luckily, my wrist is narrow enough to reach down into the hole and fish these wretched little time-wasters out, piece by piece.

I can hear Ben. Trains. Living room. He’s alive.

When I think I’ve retrieved all of the rib bones, I reach under the sink and turn on the garbage disposal. Horrible noise. Damn. More bones. I turn it off and find another piece. Turn it on. Horrible noise. The pattern continues as I turn the disposal on and off repeatedly. When it stops sounding like mangled metal, I’ll know it’s clear.

I’m feeling around for that last rib bone when I hear the grinding. It seems I hear it before I feel it, and then my fingers blaze with scarlet pain. Thankfully, evolution has given humans quick reflexes. I pull the hand out and stare at it for a few milliseconds before I release the scream. It’s a long scream, a primal scream. It’s the scream of a hand in the garbage disposal, a thing of horror movies and unimaginable what-ifs.

And while I’m screaming, there is Benjamin at my feet. He’s crept up quietly beside me, and he’s watched me turn the disposal on and off and on and off. He’s seen the switch. And he’s gone for it. His hand is frozen on the switch, and his face is frozen in horror. When he hears my scream, he jumps as though there are electrodes in his butt cheeks. Then he too begins to scream. We’re both standing in the kitchen, looking at each other, screaming. For a brief moment I swear that I see a hint of fear.

As my adrenaline tapers off, so does my howl. And then I begin to yell. Ben falls apart, running from the room as fast as he can, tripping over the dogs’ water bowl and upending a potted plant. Dirt spills out everywhere, mixes with the water, and congeals to a soupy sludge. On the uneven floor it all slides to the west and runs under the refrigerator. I can hear him sobbing in another room.

I stare at my hand. It’s still there. It’s actually still there. Oh, it took a hit—it’s purple and gnarly-looking, to be sure. A few of my fingernails aren’t so much damaged as they are gone. Lucky for me, garbage disposals are designed to grind, not to slice. We all imagine they slice, but there are no blades. Just grinders. I’ve been mashed like a Yukon gold.

He tried to mutilate me.

This thought settles into my head for twenty seconds, and though I can still hear him bawling, I don’t think I can move. I continue to stare at my hand. Ten fingers. Holy shit. I carried this child for nine months, I gave birth to him and loved him. I let him barf on my shoulder and now he’s tried to de-finger me.

Finally, I’ve got the wherewithal to wonder where he has gone, and I find him in the next room, crying toddler tears of regret in the corner. He comes to me with a soaking face and wails, “I’m sorry Mommy, I’m sorry I did that!”

I tuck my flaming fingers into the folds of my shirt and use my good hand to wipe his tears. The horror which flickered across his face evolves so quickly into remorse that I’m not sure it was there at all.

 

The Little Engine That Had No Choice

At the park, I chat with a woman supervising her three-year-old daughter. Our kids run from slide to rope ladder to swing. We follow them, conversing, knowing we’ll never see each other again. I am tired, deep in my heart. The weight of being Ben’s caretaker is putting knots in my shoulders. It feels like keeping suicide watch in a room full of firearms, and my safety record sucks.

Eventually, the woman asks me the question I’ve been expecting. She tries to be casual. “So, what’s that on his head?”

“That bruise shaped like a pear? He fell.”

Every child falls, and boys do it with aplomb. “It sure is bluish,” she says. “Glad he’s okay.” She looks at me out the side of her eyes. “How’d that happen?”

I don’t sugar coat my answer. “He launched himself down the stairs.”

“Oh.” There’s a pause. She looks hard at my son, who is climbing the rope ladder in his bare feet—God knows where he’s put his shoes. Her daughter stands on the ground and looks up as Ben hangs on with one hand and leans backwards over the abyss. At least there’s a rubber mat on the pavement.

“My daughter sometimes jumps on the new couch. It makes me nuts. Is that…stair-jumping thing….is that something he normally does?”

“Yes. It is.” I want to say something about Ben’s pediatrician and the abnormally fearless, but I don’t.

She bites the inside of her lip. “Is he still in diapers? I think I smell something. Maybe it’s my kid.”

Was I really going to have to do this? “No, it’s his shirt,” I reply.

This woman can’t contain her curiosity. Not that I blame her. “His shirt?”

“He found a bottle of deer repellant and sprayed his shirt a few times. It was in a bag on the backseat. I bought it at the garden store and he reached it from his seat on the way over here. You should smell my car.”

She gapes.

“It’s dried blood and putrescent egg solids.” I add, and grin because it’s so damn vile.

She’s repulsed. And she’s starting to think it’s time to get her kid away from mine. Up on the apparatus, Ben lets out a howl and holds his thumb. I coax him to the edge beside the fireman’s pole and he throws himself into my arms. Something electrical shoots up my back and I grunt hard. This child is breaking me down. My vertebral column is giving up.

My new acquaintance approaches me. “Is he okay?” she asks. “What’s that on his thumb? Is that a rope burn?”

Oh great. This, now?

“No,” I answer, deciding to being honest. “That’s a regular burn. He got up on the counter and made himself toast in the night.”

Under my breath, I mutter, “I’m just trying to keep him alive.”

On our way home, I wonder what special combination of genes came together to form this unusual child. His father and I are prudent, logical first-borns. His brother worries constantly about things like an escaped bull on the playground, and a colony of flesh-eating ants nesting in his jack o’lantern. Andy is always on alert. The boys have an unequal distribution of fear, with none left for the younger. My husband and I are paying the price for our roll of the genetic dice. We’ve created abnormally fearless, and now we have to raise him.

Now we have to save him from himself.

 

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Ben is on that spinning stool in the doctor’s office again. He’s going to make himself sick. He knows how to vomit on command, so it won’t be a taxing performance. And he’d love to be able to show the pediatrician the extent of his intestinal pyrotechnics.

Kids are howling in the next room. I hear a tired mother’s voice. Ben is no longer on the spinning stool. Crap. He’s on the scale. It’s broken. He actually broke the doctor’s scale. Am I going to have to pay for that? Maybe they won’t notice.

I’m sitting on a chair in the little room, staring at myself in the mirror. My reflection just looks back at me. She looks like me from last year, listening to the abnormally fearless diagnosis for the first time. It doesn’t yet thunder in her head like a mantra, like a warning. On her side of the mirror, she’s still wondering how to fix it, rather than how to accept it, as we do on my side. I miss my own fearlessness, but it no longer fits my body, no matter how many times I try it on. Everything about motherhood worries me now.

Perhaps when we begin a parenting journey for the second time, we’re all abnormally fearless. With the first child, we battle. We slay the dragons of ignorance and sleep deprivation. We triumph and find patience and earn our smug-parent stripes, imagining how easy another child will be. But each child is a blank slate, one who pays neither mind nor homage to his predecessor. And my reflection doesn’t know this. She’s sitting there wondering why the Andy-rules don’t apply to Benjamin. How can she tweak this little blonde problem, this tiny boy, so that he fits into his proper place, where she can steer him along with one hand?

Benjamin won’t be steered. The only hands on the tiller are his own. I’m in the boat, but I’m sitting up front, and I just can’t get control. Do I claw my way to the back and take over, or do I keep a watchful distance? Would it matter to Ben what I tried to do either way? Is my only job to stay the course?

I don’t know how to raise this child.

Ben’s poking around in the garbage can. He pulls out a discarded tube of….ew. Lube? Is that rectal thermometer lube? Christ on a kayak. I snap at him, haul him out of the rubbish, and mentally prepare my questions for the doctor.

When he walks in, he’s a new face, a new partner in the practice. Damn! He’s going to think I’m a delinquent. Our other doctor gets it; he knows I’m trying. He told me to keep the kid alive and I need to see him so I can stand up and point at the little garbage weasel and shout, “He’s alive! You told me to keep him alive and I did and now I need you to tell me how much easier it’s going to be!”

The new pediatrician is ridiculously handsome. I watch Ben receive an examination. I watch him jump up and down and tell the doctor his name and his dogs’ names and where he goes to preschool. And I watch him begin to swing from the broken scale in the corner while the doctor takes notes. It makes a wretched clang and I pull Ben off, because it’s time to receive my assurances that this is just about over. I’ve put in a solid year of life-saving duty, of vigilance. I’ve dropped the ball many times, but the boy is in one piece and there’s minimal scarring and no major head trauma. Almost all of our pets still have tails and we’ve developed a healthy relationship with our plumber. Ben even has his own Facebook fans. They call him “Calamity Ben.”

“Do you have questions?” the doctor asks.

I take a big breath. “Last year the other doctor told me that Ben was abnormally fearless and that I just had to keep him alive. I’ve been trying and he’s still diving off of furniture and picking up snakes and throwing knives. He’s not afraid of falling or traffic and he takes off his life jacket and throws himself in the pool. I keep calling Poison Control. It’s been a year from hell. Is he going to stop soon?”

This pediatrician doesn’t bat an eyelash or miss a beat. He flashes me a Ken-doll smile.

“Keep him alive for another year,” he chuckles, and touches my shoulder. “You’re doing fine.”

Author’s Note: I’m often asked if Benjamin’s stories are the truth, and I reply, wearily, that they are. As of this morning, he has a black eye on the left side of his face, permanent marker on his nipples, and no desire to live gently. For some reason, I was chosen to be his mother. He and his brother are the loves of my life.

Laura Jackson Roberts lives in Wheeling, West Virginia with her husband, Shawn, and sons, Andy and Benjamin. Recently published on Matador Network, she is an MFA student at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, focusing on humor in nature.

5 Ways Living Abroad Changed My Parenting

5 Ways Living Abroad Changed My Parenting

By Rachel Pieh Jones

parenting1

I realize that ‘home’ for us essentially means family, and anywhere that we are all together.

 

I moved abroad with 2 ½ year old twins and gave birth to our third child in Africa. They are now 15, 15, and 10. This means I’ve spent most of my parenting years not in my home country. So I don’t really know what kind of mother I would be in Minnesota. But I can make some assumptions about ways that living abroad has changed the way I parent and here are some of them.

Community. When the twins were born I somehow had the idea that I needed to be everything for them. I was the mom and so I should be able to do it all: twins, 22-years old, c-section and natural delivery, and all. Turns out I couldn’t do it all alone but it took some dark days in the mire of postpartum depression to acknowledge it. But in Djibouti I quickly figured out that few of the women around me parented alone. They had house helpers and nannies and multiple live-in relatives. And all these people invested in, loved, and trained their children. Pride had kept me from asking for help when I most needed it but as I watched these communities of women raise children, I saw that I could let go of that pride and it would be better for my kids. Because, guess what? I’m not perfect and I don’t have all the resources or character traits my kids need. I don’t have all the creativity or skills that could benefit them. A variety of input is invaluable for kids. And, I discovered that when I am willing to ask for help and am able to graciously receive it, there is a huge bonus – more people to love my kids.

Friendship over fear. There aren’t fewer things to be afraid of in Djibouti and in some ways there are more things to fear because we lack a decent hospital and we are surrounded by countries like Yemen, Eritrea, and Somalia, but the people around me don’t live in fear of day-to-day activities. Like sending a child across the street by himself or letting a kid use a sharp knife to slice watermelon. Fear is contagious and the parents I relate with in Djibouti don’t seem to be afraid of letting their children explore and experiment. My own kids have flown internationally alone before they were teenagers. Kids use knives and light fires and explore volcanic crevasses and they are learning to navigate life with courage, adventure, and confidence. Of course, I’m still afraid of choking, car accidents, playground injuries, bullies…parents are probably never entirely free of fear. But fear won’t rule my parenting. As one friend said, after the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya when her daughter was invited to a different mall, “We will chose friendship over fear.”

Conversation topics. I can’t avoid challenging discussion topics: race, poverty, religion. We are the white, Christian, middle class family in a black, Muslim, developing-world community and I have to help my kids navigate and understand their world. I have to give them words to use as they wrestle with how to respond to the beggar who is the same age but a foot shorter from malnutrition, is illiterate, and has never set foot inside an air conditioned building. Refugees, diplomats, people of other religions, a variety of skin colors and language and values, these are the realities that braid themselves through our every day, mundane activities. When we talk about these topics, it isn’t in theory or because of a news story. It is because my fourth grader’s friend moved back to Paris and lived across the street from the Charlie Hebdo offices. It is because our next door neighbors are a Yemeni refugee family. It is because people want to know what arm hair feels like or what blond hair feels like. I’m giving the kids words for framing their experience and helping them process.

Experiences and people above stuff. We can’t always get the fancy gifts or even the practical tennis shoes that we’d like to give our children for Christmas or birthdays. But we can hike down into an active volcano or kayak around Turtle Island where sea turtles swarm and flying fish jump into the kayaks. We’ve learned that while grandparents do send fabulous packages, they are not about gifts and things but about the way they meet us at the airport with signs and hugs, the way they play and listen and feel to our grandparent-starved hands. We see family and close friends once a year, sometimes once every two years. Those times are about flesh and blood and hugs and time together is precious.

Gratitude. We have had to make painful choices while living abroad – about education, housing, finances. And we’ve endured things that are difficult to be thankful for from emergency evacuations to the preventable deaths of friends. We could complain (and sometimes we do) but we’ve also learned that there is always something to be thankful for and this has become inseparable from my parenting. I think (hope) the kids are picking up on it. Once on the most epic-fail airplane journey we’ve ever experienced (endless airplane delays meant it took us five days to get back to Africa), my son said, upon arrival, “That was exhausting and awful. But we made some really great memories and I’m thankful we are finally home.”

When I realize that ‘home’ for us essentially means family, and anywhere that we are all together, I also realized that his words pretty much sum up my attitude about parenting.

Let’s make some good memories. Let’s be thankful to be home.

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.

Cancer Mom

Cancer Mom

WO Cancer Mom ARTBy Kristen Brookes

I am a cancer mom. Like a gymnastics mom or a swim mom, but different.

At gymnastics, we would all huddle around the window into the gym, admiring the strength, grace, and coordination of our daughters. Seeing how hard they were all working. Sharing in the pride and excitement as one child did a beautiful beam routine or nailed a back handspring for the first time. We passed many hours in a very small room with long, rambling chats. We talked about our children together, and we shared stories of our lives. We were friends.

At cancer, although I smile at the familiar faces from weeks spent inpatient on the 8th floor, compliment the cleverness of a dad bringing a futon on the elevator, and show another mom a picture of how great my 13-year-old daughter looks in her new wig, I do not talk with other cancer parents. We are not cancer moms and dads together.

I am sure some people create community around their children’s cancer, but I do not see a lot of parents happy to see one another at the clinic, picking up their conversations where they left off or sharing the mundane details of their lives. I believe we are not cancer moms together because what we have to share may not be very nice. I do not want to know other children’s diagnoses. I don’t want to know how other children are doing because I do not want to be more afraid or experience more pain. I do not want to hear of more bad things that might happen to my daughter. I do not want to know children who might die. And I do not want to know their parents. I do not want to feel their loss. And I do not want the possibility of my own loss to be any more real than it already is.

Rather than connecting with the cancer moms, I google-stalk their kids, hungry, despite myself, to learn about their diagnoses and prognoses, finding out things I didn’t know. I feel a silent empathy for the mother whose child kicks and screams every time she has her port accessed, extending their clinic stay needlessly and aggravating even the most patient of nurses. And I feel both disturbed by and sad for the fifteen-year-old boy who tried to escape admission to the hospital and had to be wrestled into submission by security guards. I feel concerned when “Big Boy,” the tall young man who drives himself to his appointments, looks drawn and hollowed-eyed and even more when I hear a doctor lecturing him about his defeatist attitude. Relieved when I see him again, months later, looking much better.

Being a cancer mom doesn’t mean that you have a child who is a gifted athlete, who makes age group cuts, who has beautiful strokes, or who is still swimming hard at the end of practice when everyone else is slacking off. It doesn’t mean sustaining yourself during long meets with the hope that your child will beat her best time or with the dread that she might actually make finals and have to come back in the evening. It doesn’t mean becoming over-invested in the activity not only because you enjoy your child’s success but also because it is easier to endure six hours of swim meet when you are tracking her times against meaningful markers.

Being a cancer mom means, of course, that your child has cancer. It means that all the fears you ever had and laughed away were warranted. Your absolute worst fear—or maybe even something much worse than you ever dared to fear—has come true.

Being a cancer mom means having ripped from you the confidence with which you faced the world, the certainty that things would work out. And along with it, your ability to tell your child that everything will be okay. It means being left with a heightened sense of vigilance, an understanding that something terrible could happen at any moment.

Being a cancer mom means always having your bags packed, in case you have to go to the ER and then get admitted. Lecturing an alarmist resident, telling him that, for hematology/oncology parents, low hemoglobin is really not “of concern:” it just means she needs a transfusion.

Being a cancer mom means losing yourself in hospital time. It means spending six or sometimes eight hours at the clinic, sitting and sitting as the poison that is to save your child’s life drips into her body. Finding a fondness for the characters in the Disney shows you before disdained. Losing your ability to think, as your mind becomes filled with blood counts, chemotherapy drugs, and countless medications for side effects. And mostly with worry.

Being a cancer mom also means gently bathing your child’s head, gathering the clumps of loosened hair, as one cares for a baby, with love and as a matter of course.

And it means feeling close to and dependent on people you wish you had never had to know and whom you can’t wait to never have to see again.

I do not want to be a gung-ho cancer mom. A mom who takes up the fight, raises funds for research, organizes a team for the fun run for the local clinic. And I pray that I will never be the ultimate cancer mom, who, after the death of her child, creates and dedicates herself to an organization to help find a cure or to make easier the lives of children and their parents going through what her family went through. In her child’s name. To honor her child’s life. To keep her child’s spirit alive.

But I am a cancer mom. And being a cancer mom means being part of the magic of The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. It means wearing a dog tag from camp around your neck as a reminder that joy can happen, along with an orange “positivity” bracelet for hope. Appreciating how beautiful your child looks bald and seeing what a great model she would make as she poses for Flashes of Hope and with a monster truck for a fundraising calendar. Being a cancer mom doesn’t mean a shining moment of pride when she earns an all-around gold medal at the state meet or drops 8 seconds in the 100 Fly. It means a long-term appreciation for how she is handling a horrific experience with as much courage and grace as possible. A gradual realization that she has become more much bold and assertive than before.  It means gaining the sense that so much of what mattered so deeply before is not at all what really matters. And it means the unfortunate sense that the cancer team is not one you can just quit when you have had enough. I am going to be a cancer mom for a long, long time. God willing.

Author’s Note: This essay was written in October 2013, after my daughter had begun the maintenance phase of a treatment that lasted 857 days. She completed treatment this spring and is doing well. I now find myself engaging more with other cancer parents than I thought I would and better understand the incentive to create community (but am grateful not to have needed it). I still follow stories I would be better off not knowing and sometimes google, fruitlessly, for information that would bring me certainty about my child’s future.

Kristen Brookes, a teacher and writer, lives in New England with her husband, daughter, and puppy. In a previous existence, she published articles in early modern studies, on topics such as race and tobacco and gender, sexuality, and colonization. Kristen is currently working on a collection of essays about her experiences as a “cancer mom,” an identity from which she wishes to flee.

Photo credit: Team Photo.

 

The Bird Family

The Bird Family

WO Bird Family ArtBy Liz Blocker

In the thick heat of a June afternoon I walked out my front door and down the stairs and nearly stepped on a dead baby bird.

I saw it just in time, and stopped, my foot hovering over the tiny, flattened thing. The sun baked my neck and shoulders; sweat dripped from my scalp onto my forehead. Careful, slow, I withdrew my foot back to the bottom step. I wanted nothing more than to escape into the cool air-conditioning of my car. But still, there was this thing, this dead thing.

The baby bird was small, barely the size of my palm, and half-naked. That was my second thought: why is it naked? Its pink skin was patchy: in some places downy with new feathers, in others, bare and bald and shiny, like the scar from a terrible burn. I wanted to cover it up, dress it, shroud it in feathers. But feathers would have meant it was ready to fledge, and then it wouldn’t have been there at all. It lay on its stomach on the sidewalk, neck weirdly twisted, wings stretched out across the ground as if, at the moment it fell from the nest, instinct took over and it made a first, impossible attempt to fly.

I should move it, I thought; I can’t just leave it here. But no, I’m skipping ahead. That was my third thought.

First there was the rush of nausea and the burn of bile in my throat, and then I thought, the universe has one sick fucking sense of humor.

***

My wife and I had been watching the robins for months. First, in early April, there were just the two adult birds. They were nearly identical, with glossy grey backs and warm orange breasts. The female was slightly smaller, and slightly duller than the male – or at least, that’s what we guessed, standing at our bedroom window the day they first arrived, watching our guests busy themselves on our front porch. The world was still cold and gray, and the arrival of two robins, family-bent, seemed like the first true sign of spring.

“Which one is the female?” I asked, craning my neck to look over my wife’s shoulder.

“They look the same. Maybe the smaller one?” she answered after a moment.

“Maybe they’re both male,” I said.

“Gay robins, hon?” Jen turned her head back to look at me, smiling, teasing.

“Maybe not,” I laughed, and slid my arms around her waist. “Maybe she’ll get pregnant the same time we do,” I whispered. I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of the robins: they, at least, didn’t have to find a donor and make ovulation charts and, eventually, enlist the help of doctors to start a family. With a sigh, I laid my hand over my wife’s flat belly.

She leaned back into me, warm and soft against my chest. “Maybe they will,” she whispered.

“So – we let them stay?” I phrased it as a question, even though it wasn’t, really.

In the silence that followed, we considered the birds, framed against the backdrop of a clear spring sky. Our front porch was small and already crowded; seated on the two wide chairs, we’d be less than a few feet away from the new family.

“We can’t sit out there with them,” Jen said. Again, it wasn’t a question.

“No. They might attack us,” I said, drawing on something I thought I had seen or read, sometime, somewhere.

“Really?”

I nodded. “Birds can be very protective of their young,” I said, and my wife accepted my guess as fact. I was the resident animal nerd, the only member of the household who considered watching an episode of National Geographic the perfect way to unwind.

The problem was that we loved that porch. When the weather was mild enough, we ate breakfast and dinner there in relative solitude, relaxing as the sun rose or set over the city, and watching below us as our neighbors walked with strollers or dogs into the large, quiet park behind our house. In Boston, the months of warm weather were brief and altogether precious. We rarely missed a chance to sit outside.

I looked at the robins on the porch; they were busy. One – the male? – brought long strands of thread, straw, and grass, while the other bobbed and pecked and wove everything into a surprisingly solid little bowl.

“We’ll eat inside,” my wife said, and I agreed. We both knew there was no way we’d kick them out now.

***

If I leave it, there will be flies. I stood above the little corpse, long past my first and second and fifth and tenth thoughts. The seconds ticked by, measured in drops of sweat. I had to move the dead nestling; I couldn’t move it; it had to be moved.

I’d tried to do something, three or four thoughts ago. I’d stepped with care onto the sidewalk next to it, found a stick – there was no chance I could touch it with my bare hands – and bent down to prod it. Where to, I didn’t know. My plan hadn’t progressed beyond the stick. But as my face drew closer I could see the wrinkles on its snapped neck, the dull yellow glaze of its eyes. I reared up and dropped the stick, and stood still again.

Who could I ask? Our dead-end street was quiet and still in the suffocating heat of the afternoon. No dog-walkers or babies to be seen. The only person nearby was my wife, and she was out of the question.

My wife, I thought. Shit.

***

Late April, and the robins were well-established on our porch. We knew there must be eggs, because Birdy – the female robin, whom Jen named in a burst of creativity – spent all day and night sitting on the nest. Mr. Bird – the male, whom I named in an equally creative burst – took over for small amounts of time, most likely when his mate was off finding dinner for herself, but he was always nearby. (It wasn’t until later that I realized we had effectively named our pair of robins the Birds, which made the female’s name Birdy Bird, poor creature. I tried to rectify this, but it was too late. The names, as they have a habit of doing, stuck.)

Weeks passed. We checked the nest obsessively, emailing and texting each other updates:

“Birdy isn’t on the nest! How long can she leave the eggs? I hope they’re OK.”

“Mr. Bird just took over. Birdy is hungry.”

“Nothing yet. I’ll keep watching.”

We knew we were too involved, but we were helpless to stop ourselves. We watched the robins as if they were our own personal Downton Abbey: desperate for updates, obsessed with the plot twists, hanging on every hint and gesture for a sign of life. It was thus far much more productive and successful than our own year-long attempts at nest-building.

One morning in early May, on my way out to my car, I saw a speck of blue on the ground. I was running late, but the color was so bright that I stooped down for a closer look. It was an egg: tiny, speckled blue, and shattered. The shards were bright against the dull pavement; the yellow yolk was brighter. The colors were beautiful and vibrant, so different from the brown and pale green of early spring. In a twist of irony, those broken pieces seemed more alive than anything else on the street.

Later that evening, we found two more eggs, scattered in pieces along the concrete. The nest was empty, the robins gone. We stood at our window, staring out at the porch as the sky dimmed towards night.

After a long time, Jen asked, “Do you think they’ll try again?”

I shook my head, and closed my eyes, and turned away.

It was no more than a few weeks later that I glanced out the bedroom window and saw Birdy standing on the nest. She fluffed her feathers, shuffled her feet, and settled down on three round blue eggs with a little shimmy of satisfaction.

I pumped my fist in the air, and I swear Birdy winked her round black eye back at me. “Us too, Birdy,” I whispered, and grinned.

The Birds were back, and everyone was pregnant.

***

I stood on the sidewalk, sweating in the June heat, thinking. There was no reason for Jen to come outside. Not now, not today, not while she was still recovering. But tomorrow – or the day after –

Flies were gathering around the dead bird already. Crawling on its pink skin, sucking liquid out of its eyes, laying eggs. There would be maggots soon. Without thinking, I clapped my hands at the insects. They rose in a wave above the body, then resettled, slowly, like leaves floating down to the earth.

I couldn’t bear the thought of Jen seeing this; I knew I had to move it myself, now. If I couldn’t protect her from loss, at least I could protect her from this.

I shivered in the heat. The thought was clarifying, cleansing. It removed the paralysis and freed my body to act.

There are so many things that could have happened in that moment, so many ways I could act. There is the action that I took, for example, and then there are all the actions I could have taken, that I wish I had taken – a wish so fierce that as time passed it became palpable, visceral, like a memory itself.

This is what I wish had happened:

With slow, methodical movements, I walked to my car. Found a plastic bag. Walked back and picked up the stick. Didn’t think about the Bird family, the broken eggs, the weeks and months of patience and hope. Laid the bag on the ground, open, like a hand. Used the stick to push. Closed my eyes when the flies rose in a protesting cloud. Ignored the scrape of skin against the concrete, the dark patch staining the ground. Didn’t flinch when the wing got stuck on the bag, had to be jostled, then shoved, then tossed in a flopping movement of skin and bone and flies. Held my breath. Tossed the stick into the bag. Tied it. Didn’t think about Jen, or the Fallopian tube she no longer had, or the living bulge inside the tube. Didn’t consider that just yesterday a doctor had gathered up a different body, also tiny, also now dead, also the result of weeks and months of patience and hope, and disposed of it. Didn’t think, didn’t breathe, didn’t look around, walked to the trash and opened the lid and dumped the bag and ignored the flies that slipped inside and put the lid back over the hot dark hollow of the bin and let out a breath and walked away.

***

Wishing for something doesn’t make it so, of course. Why must some lessons be learned over and over again, before we remember them? I don’t know what happened to the tiny dead bird, the lost child of our robin family. I don’t know, because I wasn’t the one who laid it to rest.

This is what really happened, regardless of what I wish was true:

I shivered in the heat. The thought of Jen seeing the body was clarifying, cleansing. It removed the paralysis and freed my body to act.

I looked at the corpse, already dotted with flies. I looked up at the sky, hazy and blue, and felt the sun wash my face with heat. And then in spite of that clarifying thought, in spite of everything, I walked to my car, and drove away.

When I came back hours later, the body was thick with flies. They rose in a protesting cloud as I passed, then resettled, slowly, like leaves floating down to the earth. By the time I’d opened the front door and disappeared into the cool dark inside, they were feeding again, but I didn’t look around to watch them. I turned away, and left them behind.

They were still there the next morning, and barely moved when I walked past them and got into my car. I shouldn’t know this, because I turned my face away when I walked past, but I remember that there was no movement in the periphery of my vision; the flies knew I wasn’t going to bother them.

Later that morning, Jen went for a walk, slow and careful, with a friend. The baby bird was there when she left, darkening the sidewalk with its cloud of flies. It was still there when she returned from her walk, but when I came home hours later, the body was gone.

We wondered who had moved it. Maybe it was a dog-walker, rescuing the corpse from the jaws of her pet; or maybe it was our neighbors, cleaning up the sidewalk for their upcoming open house. Whoever it was, I like to imagine that they were gentle and careful; that they disturbed it as little as possible as they scooped up the tiny body and threw it away.

All I know for certain is that by the time I got home that evening, the only thing left on the sidewalk was a small, dark stain; and even that disappeared in the next cooling wash of rain.

***

And this, too, really happened, two or three days later:

Outside, the air blazed with heat. Inside, I stood in the air-conditioned break room at work, staring at the long list of texts on my phone. Picture after picture came flying in from Jen: Birdy and another, much smaller bird standing on the porch; Mr. Bird perched on a telephone wire, watching, a worm dangling from his beak; Birdy and Mr. Bird and two little fluffy feathered babies hopping down the sidewalk towards the park.

The pictures scrolled by quickly, too quickly to believe. I went back to look at them, again and again, but they didn’t change. It had cost them multiple losses and patient effort, and taken three months – an eternity in bird years – but the Bird family had fledged at last.

And one day, I thought, ours would, too.

Author’s Note: Fourteen months to the day from when this story took place, my wife gave birth to our own nestlings. A sweet, calm boy and a feisty little girl sleep peacefully behind me as I write this note. Soon, they’ll wake, and with wide open mouths will call to their parents, demanding and insistent as only the very young can be. I can’t imagine any better ending to this story.

Liz Blocker lives in Boston with her wife and newborn twins. Her essays have been published in The Toast, Role/Reboot, and in the forthcoming issue of The Dallas Review.

Clam Chowder Memories

Clam Chowder Memories

100_3816By Vanessa Wamsley

I perched on a porous boulder at the edge of California’s Monterey Bay with my three-year-old son, Brad. The September sun warmed our backs – local’s weather, as it is fondly called, when the summer rain and mist lift after the tourist season quiets down. A huge Styrofoam cup balanced on the rock between Brad and me. We took turns spooning out thick, creamy clam chowder, blowing to cool each bite.

Clam chowder was my son’s favorite food back then, and we visited the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf every Monday morning for a year to share a cup of chowder, our weekly ritual while his dad was at work. Just my son and I on the rocks. But we were a nomadic military family. We would be leaving Monterey and its chowder soon for the East Coast. And like every other move, home would be where the Army sent us.

From our rocky seat near the wharf, we stared down at some sea lions floating together in the shallow water. Their sleek rich coats shone in the sunshine. Pelagic cormorants, black and shiny as patent leather, preened in the sparkling water before suddenly turning tail-up to dive after a darting fish. Brad pointed out a slick sea otter floating on its back under the pier, hacking a clam open with a small rock.

I lifted another spoonful to my lips. The salty, bacon-laden chowder tasted of sunshine, seawater, and tender clams. I would miss that chowder when we moved. Brad and I belonged in that place with our soup and the salt air and the marine wildlife. Would we belong in our new home, too?

Our family moved six months after that day on the rocks. But that would be just one in a series of moves since I met and married my husband Jake in 2004 while he was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. In the last ten years, we’ve lived in Texas, Alabama, Illinois, California, Maryland, and Virginia, where we live now – that is, until we move to Alabama again this summer. All of these moves have addled my sense of where I belong in this world, even though I have roots like a cottonwood tree reaching deep into the small Nebraska town where I grew up. But I wonder where Brad belongs. His roots might be shallow after all our transplants, and I am afraid they are too weak to support him as he goes through life.

***

Three years and two moves after Monterey, in October of 2014, I took Brad, then six years old, camping at Assateague Island National Seashore off the coast of Maryland, a mother-son camping trip. While I was preparing for the trip, Brad overheard me tell his dad that we could find clams right off the island.

“We have to go clamming, Mama! Please, please, please, please!” he begged, hopping from one leg to the other.

“I’ll look into it,” I promised.

“And we’ll make chowder, right?” he asked.

“Um, sure,” I answered.

I didn’t know what I was promising since I had never been clamming. But I wanted to give Brad good chowder again. In the three years since we left Monterey, I had tried to make his favorite dish a few times. But my chowder never reminded me of the sea on a sunny day. It tasted more like a muddled lake in the rain, a poor imitation of the chowder my son and I ate on those rocks next to Fisherman’s Wharf. I suspected that canned clams had ruined my previous attempts to recreate the Fisherman’s Wharf chowder. Fresh clams could be the answer.

Two months after promising my son clam chowder, we went clamming on Assateague Island. We rented equipment and got basic clamming instructions from a man at the rental shed on the beach. The rental man handed me a clam rake and a basket.

He told me to look for a spot with a nice mix of plants and sand covering the bottom. Too many plants would tangle up the rake. Too much sand meant the nutrient mixture in that area wasn’t right for clams. He stepped out onto the beach to demonstrate how to drag the rake behind us.

“When you hear a clink,” he said, “you’ve hit a clam.”

I imagined us shuffling around in the cold October water for an hour, struggling with the long, heavy clam rake. I pictured opening the canned clams I’d brought so we could make chowder even if we failed at clamming. This chowder might taste like disappointment, I thought.

We carried our equipment to the edge of the marsh about 100 yards from our campsite on the western side of the island. Rake and basket in tow, we waded into knee-deep cold water – almost waist-deep for my son.

Assateague Island is a 37-mile long barrier island between Sinepuxent Bay and the Atlantic, one in a chain of islands draped along the East Coast like a long string of beads from Maine to Texas. As wind, waves and storms constantly buffet the chain, the sand on one beach slides to the next island, a process called longshore drift. Each island constantly moves south, its sand no more a part of any one place than Brad or I was. We visited, we drifted along the island’s surface, and we moved on.

At my feet, the deep blue bay flowed into vivid green cordgrass. Salt marsh stretched back into the island for about fifty yards before hitting a bank that rose up into a forest. Loblolly pine trees reached gnarled branches over a thicket of wax myrtle and bayberry.

We dragged our rented rake and floating basket behind us with the edge of the marsh on our right.

When we stopped and the water cleared, we could see our toes wiggling. My toes looked just like they did under the clear sapphire-blue water in Monterey Bay when Brad and I used to wade in the surf. But Brad’s toes seemed to have doubled in size in three years. He wasn’t a toddler running from the waves anymore. He had grown into an inquisitive boy.

Around our feet under the brackish water off Assateague Island, small patches of plants clung to the sand around us, just like the rental man had described. My son pointed out little holes on the bay floor. He claimed the holes meant crabs were filter feeding under the sand.

“It’s the perfect spot!” Brad said.

We crisscrossed the area, the rake leaving ridges behind us in the sand like those Zen sand boxes some people groom in their offices. Clink! Brad and I sank our fingers into the sand, feeling blindly for pay dirt. Or pay clam. My fingers curled around something flat and hard, a clam the size of my palm, almost two inches thick. We leapt in the water, nearly soaking ourselves in our enthusiasm. A pair of kayakers decked out in jackets, paddling gloves, and thick hats stopped at the mouth of an inlet in the marsh to watch us, the lone clammers wading through 65-degree water on a chilly fall day.

“It’s our first clam!” I shouted to them, sharing our exultation. “Ever!” They laughed and saluted with their paddles.

Excited by our success, we covered the area in rake tracks. We found a couple more clams but threw them back because they were too small. A keeper has to be at least one inch thick. We decided to try another method the rental shack man told us about: searching with our bare feet. Removing our shoes, we threw them into the clam bucket and ground our heels into the muddy sand, twisting like Chubby Checker.

“Feel for a rock with your toes,” I told Brad. We added a couple more clams to the bucket and returned a couple more to their sandy bed.

After nearly an hour of dragging the rake and squishing our feet around in the sand, nine good-sized clams, each a triumphant treasure, lay in the bottom of the clam basket.

We waded back to the shore. I could taste the chowder already.

Back at the campsite, I scrubbed the ridged shells and laid them gently in my cast iron Dutch oven on our camp stove. After pouring in a little water, I lit the gas flame to steam open the clams. Remembering the sea otters in Monterey Bay smashing their shellfish open with a rock, I was glad I wouldn’t have to resort to their technique.

While the clams steamed, Brad and I put on dry clothes. Then I chopped an onion, a leek, and three potatoes.

I checked the clams. All were yawning wide, revealing tender white meat the shell once protected. I transferred them with their liquid into a pitcher to cool and tossed butter into the now-empty kettle. When the butter sizzled, the onions and leeks went into the pot.

I chose a cooled clam from the pitcher, its delicate morsel still clinging to the pearly inner surface of the shell. I had never cleaned fresh clams before, and their tenderness surprised me even as their slipperiness made them difficult to handle.

With pride and hope, I chopped my nine clammy trophies and slid them into the pot along with the broth left from steaming open the clams.

My potatoes went in next. The clam broth barely covered the white cubes. I left the chowder to bubble.

While the potatoes cooked, I built up our campfire. The coals had been smoldering all day, so a few dry twigs under a pyramid of logs started a blaze. Our campsite filled with the scent of our chowder mixed with the salty air blowing in from the bay and the wood smoke wafting from the campfire.

Another camper walked by our site.

“You from Texas?” he asked, eyeing the license plate on our pickup.

“No,” I answered. “We live in Reston, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. We just moved there.”

The man sauntered on, satisfied.

But the real answer was more complicated.

I grew up in an agricultural town – population 244, depending on who is home on any given day – in rural southwestern Nebraska. I changed bedrooms once, but lived in the same house for eighteen years before I graduated from high school and moved away to college. As a child, I knew I belonged to Hayes Center, Nebraska. No matter where we live now, rural Nebraskan culture still shapes how I move in the world. At thirty-two years old, I haven’t lived in Hayes Center for fourteen years. But I drink pop instead of soda and cheer for my home state’s Cornhuskers. I clip my words when I speak, and I still gawk at tall buildings and marvel at public transportation. I breathe more easily under a clear blue open sky. Hayseed grows in my heart.

Since marrying a man in the Army, I haven’t stopped moving. But I am from Nebraska.

Brad was born in a hospital in Iowa, so even though we never lived there, he often tells people he is from Iowa. What else is he supposed to say? He has lived many places. He doesn’t really belong to any one of them the way I belong to Nebraska.

I want what every mother wants for her son: I want him to grow into a happy, healthy, well-adjusted, productive man. But I worry that Brad cannot be any of those things unless I give him more time to live in one place, letting the rhythms of its people and landscape sink into him.

***

Back at our campsite, I checked a potato in my chowder pot, and it nearly dissolved under my fork. Perfect. I turned off the camp stove burner and added the final touch to the pot: heavy cream.

While I worked, a small group of Assateague’s famous horses with their shaggy coats, stocky stature, and bloated bellies wandered toward our campsite. As the horses drew closer, my son became nervous and hid in the pickup cab. A park ranger had told him that in the summer during high tourist season, a horse bites at least one visitor every week. The feral animals protect their territory and their food.

Clicking my tongue and banging an empty cup against a plate, I tried to shoo the horses away from our site. They eyed me warily and moved on.

I ladled chowder into two blue enamel bowls while Brad hovered near my elbow, excited for his favorite meal. We perched on our camp chairs next to the fire and savored a moment of anticipation before tasting the chowder.

“Cheers!” I said, raising my bowl.

“Cheers!” he echoed, touching his bowl against mine.

I grinned at him, my spoon to my lips.

Salty clams and broth mingled in my mouth with velvety potatoes melting into rich cream. Savory onions and leeks lingered at the edges of my tongue. The simple ingredients melded like ripples merging to form waves.

I’ll never cook with a can of rubbery, watery clams again as long as I live.

“How’s your chowder?” I asked Brad.

“It’s the best I ever had! The best chowder anyone ever made ever!” He was as enthusiastic as I felt.

We ate in silence. Finally, I leaned back in my camp chair, having eaten more creamy clammy goodness than my stomach could bear. The fire snapped and crackled. I sipped a beer.

Brad groaned. “I’m so full, Mama,” he told me. “I can’t move.”

He threw his head back and closed his eyes. I let a lazy, satisfied sleepiness creep into my body.

Soon I would have to clean up our dishes. The fire needed another log. Our wet, sandy clamming clothes lay in a pile next to our tent. Always little chores at a campsite. But for a few comfortable moments, I just sat by the fire next to my son with a belly full of clam chowder.

My mind drifted back to another clam chowder day, the two of us balanced on a boulder next to the bay savoring a shared cup of chowder. What makes us belong to a place even when we live a rootless, nomadic existence, like the sand that blows across Assateague Island? In that moment by our campfire, smoky, creamy clam chowder memories anchored us to both the East Coast and the West Coast. My young son’s adventures bring a perspective to his life that my small-town upbringing could never have encompassed. Brad’s roots may be shallow, but they already stretch from coast to coast, held to the earth by the breadth of his experience rather than the amount of time he has lived in any one place.

Tucking the fireside chowder memory away next to the seaside one, I pulled myself out of my camp chair. I arranged our empty clamshells on a log next to the fire like someone else might display awards on a shelf.

We caught them. We cooked them. And they were good.

Author’s Note: I pass my children pieces of my childhood by experiencing the world with them, just like my mom and dad did for me

Vanessa Wamsley writes science, nature and education stories in northern Alabama where she lives with her husband, Jake; son, Brad; and daughter, Nora. Her recent work has appeared in Slate, Modern Notion, and The Atlantic.

 

September 2015 Issue

September 2015 Issue

SEPT 15 Cover 2

Table of Contents

 

Editor’s Letter: New Beginnings

 

Essay: When We Were Two by Dorothy Rice

There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others, while I pounded out analyses for legislation long forgotten or superseded, flew through the capitol’s hallowed halls as if I owned the place, bantered and bartered with a cast of characters who thought no more of me than I did of them. It was the price I believed I had to pay to get ahead.

 

Essay: Pieces of Him by Sara Tickanen

The nurse was still talking, but I hadn’t heard a word. “The pill that they put inside of you is basically telling your body that it’s time to go into labor. Your water should probably break soon, but if it doesn’t they will break it manually. Things will progress like normal labor… Our son was dead, but I still had to go through labor.

 

Feature: Postcards from the Sandwiched by Amy Yelin

I’ve been spending the last two years both helping my parents move out of their house while helping my exceedingly anxious 18-year-old daughter get her brain around that she’s going to college. We went to look at schools and she had a panic attack. It’s been a tough process. And I feel like I’m constantly bouncing from one anxiety-ridden thing to another.

 

Fiction: Losing Hart by Hannah Thurman

“Did you know Elsa is the first Disney princess not to be a teenager?” Hart says, twisting her thumb out of the glove so she can scroll down the screen. “She’s 21. And she’s only the second princess to have magical powers.”

 

Debate: Should Kids Have Homework in Elementary School?

NO! By Stephanie Sprenger

YES! By Sarah Rudell Beach

 

Nutshell: Oh, Nuts by Charlene Oldham

The simple answer is that we don’t definitively know why food allergy among children has risen at such a dramatic rate.

 

Poetry: In the Absence of My Son, By Christine Poreba

 

Poetry: How to Love Your Teenage Daughter by Jennifer L. Freed

 

Poetry: The Photograph by Laura Snell

 

Motherwit: Warts & All by Sharon Trumpy

 

***

Cover art: By LuLu Blaquiere

“The symbolism of elephants is magnificent and strong. I wanted to depict the special relationship between mother and child through this symbolism.”

In the Absence of My Son

In the Absence of My Son

images-6By Christine Poreba

 

A white fluff drops onto my arm

and a wind from inside the wall of me

almost pushes me over—

 

because the errant milky puff reminds me

of “danaliah,” which my son loves for me to pick for him

on walks, so he can blow and blow the seed pods off.

 

But what has dropped on me

is not a dandelion and my son is not here and the wind

soon carries the mystery gossamer away and I am left

 

to go back to my room to study his drawing,

bold circles dashed in waxy streaks. In my solitude,

the world seems to be moving in slow motion,

 

nobody else to determine what comes next.

The quiet is too quiet but then I can’t get enough,

but my arms are bearing a wilderness.

 

Our goodbye was saved by his being two

and not yet bearing the weight of the knowledge of time,

making this hug and kiss goodbye for him no different

 

from any other. I, on the other hand,

went out on the porch and wept, leaning over the railing

to wait for one more glimpse of him

 

over the mountain with his grandparents,

on their way to pay homage to “the broken boat”

he’d been telling everyone about the whole vacation.

 

Every time we walked up close, there was no

avoiding the fact that the boat was really a charred stack of logs,

remains of a ski lodge burned down last winter.

 

But the illusion for him never seemed broken.

And why shouldn’t one thing become so easily another?

The old ski lift, then, a seat from a Ferris wheel.

 

Which I can almost see turning as I wake this morning

to a room of gorgeous light, to acres of silence, an ache but also a dream

of unsharpened pencils being sharpened.

 

Christine Poreba lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her husband John and their now three-year-old son Lewis. Her first book of poetry, Rough Knowledge, will be coming out from Anhinga Press this fall.

Return to the September 2015 Issue

A Day in the Life of a Mother of Teenagers

A Day in the Life of a Mother of Teenagers

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Teens2

Who puts empty ice cube trays back in the freezer? Empty bags of frozen fruit back in the freezer? Teenagers.

 

My summer day starts at 5:20 a.m. when I push open our squeaky metal gate and go for a run just as the sun begins to emerge. A rose-colored ball slithers through pockets of the gray clouds that still hover over the Gulf of Tadjourah, tinting them pink. Normally I listen to Longform podcasts—interviews with journalists—while I run but this morning I couldn’t find my iPod. I set it out last night, in the armband and with the earphones, all set to go. This morning it was gone. I could probably find it near the pillow of one of my teenagers. I also planned to eat a banana before leaving the house but those were gone, too. I could probably find a banana peel curled around the iPod.

Djibouti is hot, this morning the temperature already registers as 42 degrees Celsius, that’s 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It is so humid my moisture-wicking shirt shows a line of sweat before I even walk outside the house and by the time I get home, sweat flying from every pore of my body (did you know eyelids sweat?), the only comprehensible thought in my mind is of the banana-orange-mango juice popsicles in the freezer.

Except…they’re gone. The popsicle box (still in the freezer) is empty. The countertop is littered with yellow and red plastic popsicle sticks with enough residual juice left on them to attract dozens of huge black ants. I would make a smoothie with frozen strawberries and ice cubes but the ice cube trays are empty, the bag of strawberries, though still in the freezer, is also empty. Who puts empty ice cube trays back in the freezer? Empty bags of frozen fruit back in the freezer? Teenagers.

Fine. I’ll have coffee. They haven’t inhaled that yet.

It is now seven a.m. and I have until noon to get my work and errands done before they wake up.

My first clue that the teens are awake is that my Internet suddenly slows down. They’ve moved from horizontal on their beds to horizontal on the couch, still in pajamas, and are watching YouTube videos. The second clue comes when I’m in the kitchen preparing lunch and I hear the ping of a metal spoon against a glass bowl. My son is eating corn flakes for breakfast. He uses the biggest spoon we own, more like a shovel. Lunch will be ready in thirty minutes but no problem, he will be hungry again by then.

Lunch is the main meal of the day in Djibouti and the whole family sits around the table together, sharing stories from the morning. The teens have nothing to share since they slept most of the morning away but their mouths are too full of lasagna to talk anyway. After lunch we plan the afternoon which, unfortunately for the teens, doesn’t include naptime. A trip to the grocery store, sports practice, visiting friends, work meetings, and for them, the never-ending hunt for more food.

So far, they haven’t spoken very many audible or intelligible words all day, but that starts to change around dusk. With the setting sun, at the end of my day but in the middle of theirs, conversation begins to flow. I try to be careful to not say something so eye-rollingly mom-ish that they shut down but inevitably I do. After a few minutes of stern silence, they launch into a new topic, sufficiently convinced that I’ve learned my lesson. I have, at least for a while, and bite my tongue. Sometimes literally, so that I wind up with canker sores, but it is worth it. As we talk a question pricks at the back of my mind but I don’t voice it: Does sarcasm come along with their hormones, the way a sense of invincibility does?

By the time night comes and the dinner dishes are put away and my youngest, not yet a teenager, has gone to bed, the teens are back, horizontal, on the couch. Or they are absent, at a friend’s house, and will catch a ride home. When I am ready for bed, they are finally fully woken up. We talk some more and they start flipping through television channels. When I can keep my eyes open no longer, I slip away to bed and they turn on a movie.

All day I have been almost irrelevant, invisible. I made the food, drove the car, managed the schedule. But they could have gone on just fine without me. I hover and when an opening appears, a conversation topic, I pounce. Sometimes this feeling of being unnecessary feels heavy, but it is also a lie. Babies and toddlers needed me to keep them alive, my care for them had a sense of urgency and vital importance. That same keeping-them-alive interaction is absent from my relationship with my teens but that in no way means I am unnecessary.

They can, driving issues and adrenaline-induced risks aside, keep themselves alive now. But they are in the middle of learning how to navigate life, relationships, work, studies. They are exploring values and morals and interests. And since I want much more for my kids than simply to remain alive, the kinds of things I can offer them now, or steer them into, or help them understand, are of vital, urgent importance. So I’m not irrelevant, even if they think so or pretend to ignore me.

A day in the life of a mother of teenagers stuns me with its wide-ranging diversity. Physically demanding (cooking, finding, and cleaning food), conversationally rigorous (how to not sound mom-ish except when sounding mom-ish is the right thing, when to butt in, and when to shut up), emotionally draining (are they making good choices? Have I failed them in some way?), and identity-challenging (that whole am-I-still-relevant thing).

This is the last thought in my mind as I drift off to sleep, that I’m not irrelevant, that they do still need me. It is comforting even as I recognize that I will have to fight to believe it again in the morning while sifting through the empty cereal boxes on the shelf to find one with food still inside.

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.

Doppelgänger

Doppelgänger

Doppleganger ARTBy Erica Mosley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shel thought back to the gymnasium.

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

He never noticed she was gone.

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

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

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

The Haircut

The Haircut

By Dorothy O’Donnell

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I couldn’t summon the words to defend my child.

 

The hairdresser grabbed a hunk of my daughter’s waist-length mane and scowled. Look how dirty and messy,” she said, shaking her head. “You need to learn to take care of your hair.”

We’d stopped by the salon spur of the moment after school. It wasn’t our usual place, but I knew they took walk-ins. Sadie needed a trim and wanted bangs. Linda, the hairdresser who greeted us, said she was free and led my daughter to a chair in front of a mirrored wall. At first, my 11-year-old preened at her reflection. But as Linda rattled off a list of her hair crimes, she dropped her gaze to the floor.

After a long day at school, Sadie’s hair wasn’t looking beauty pageant perfect. But I didn’t appreciate the way Linda was treating her, the way she assumed her tresses were always a disaster. Sadie is usually a stickler about brushing her hair and often gets compliments on it.

As Linda continued to criticize her hair—split ends, greasy roots, too long—my daughter slumped lower in her seat. My gut screamed at me to forget the haircut and get my girl the hell out of there. Instead, I chuckled awkwardly and did nothing.

Shy by nature, I grew up with a moody alcoholic father and, at a young age, learned to keep quiet to avoid triggering his anger. I’ve worked hard to shed this behavior as an adult, but still slip back into default mode more often than I’d like.

I’m trying to raise my daughter to be comfortable sticking up for herself. And I knew, as I avoided her wounded eyes in the mirror, that I was setting a terrible example—not to mention being a wimpy mom—by remaining mute while this woman belittled her. Yet I couldn’t summon the words to defend my child.

As I paid and tipped Linda, she leaned across the cash register to offer some parting advice: “Tell her she needs to wash her hair,” she hissed through cupped hands, as if Sadie, glued to my side, couldn’t hear her. “And brush it!”

I gave another feeble laugh, grabbed Sadie’s hand, and fled.

“That lady was such a bitch!” my daughter said as we walked across the mall. “Why did you tip her?”

“Sadie!” I scolded.

But I knew she was right. And that her saying the “B” word didn’t compare to what I’d failed to say to Linda. I stopped between two rows of terra-cotta buildings and looked down at her.

“You know what?” I said. “You’re right. I’m going back.”

“To take her tip away?” Sadie asked, hopefully.

I explained it wasn’t about the money. It was about letting the hairdresser know it wasn’t okay to talk to her like that.

I left Sadie to browse in a toy store and marched back to the salon, my head churning with all the great lines I’d lay on Linda. But when I approached the entrance, I saw she was busy with another client. Other customers sat in the waiting area, flipping through magazines or tapping on their phones.

My throat tightened; my mouth went dryI froze a few yards away from the door, too scared to go in. Defeated, I slinked back to the toy store and found Sadie in the doll aisle.

“Did you tell her?” she asked expectantly.

I stammered that Linda was busy—maybe I’d call her manager later. Sadie swatted my outstretched hand away like it was a fly and bolted out the door. Disgusted with myself, I chased after her. I steered her back to the toy store, then headed for the salon.

Linda was finishing up with a silver-haired man when I arrived. I took a deep breath and went inside.

“Can I help you?” she asked, raising her brows.

“I just wanted to talk to you for a minute,” I said, surprised at how calm I sounded, how unruffled I was by the curious stares of the other stylists and customers following us as we stepped outside.

“I know you probably didn’t mean to, but you hurt my daughter’s feelings when you said those things about her hair,” I said, looking her straight in the eye.

Linda blinked.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I was just trying to help her.”

Whether she was telling the truth or not didn’t matter. My anger at her—and at myself—vanished as soon as I said what I needed to. I’d scored a victory for my daughter. For us both.

Dorothy O’Donnell is a freelance writer. She is working on a memoir about raising a young child diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder and blogs at dorothyodonnell.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

 

I Had A Boy

I Had A Boy

By Carrie Goldman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages

The Many Personalities of A Mother

The Many Personalities of A Mother

By Aileen Santos

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The Enraged Mother

“If I come downstairs, someone’s gonna be in trouble!” I slam the bannister and stomp my feet, standing on the landing of the basement. My heart pumps loudly, a throbbing sound in my ears. I just want to finish marking these damn essays. Why can’t these fucking kids stop fighting?

I hear whimpering then one quietly says to the other, “Ssshh. We’re gonna be in trouble. Stop crying. It’s okay, stop crying.” The whimpering stops then silence. A little while later, laughter. I trudge back up the three steps, back into my office.

I don’t know why I get like this, why my adrenaline makes me want to whip a stapler against the wall, punch a hole to show them I mean it. That was the way it was with my father and I hated him. Whenever I saw his face darken, lips tightened, eyes wide, brows furrowed in a upending arch, I cowered in his shadow, ducked for fists and arms for protection over my head. I said I wouldn’t do it to my own kids. At least I don’t hit them, just raise my voice so loudly it shatters the ground they stand on, an eruption in their world. I don’t know why I get like this. It just happens sometimes.

Sometimes I have no patience so I scream and yell. Usually, when their dad’s not around, because I can’t handle it, two kids, three and six years old. I’m scared for them to get older. What will I do then? When they tower over me, challenge me, defy me, rebel… what will I do, then?

The Perfect Mother

I cuddle them, having just awoken from our collective slumber, they jump in our bed. We tickle, kiss necks, praises of love and encouragement. Or around the dinner table—we pray together, share highlights of our day, safe and loved in our cocoon. Or watch movies on a Friday night, on our couch, snuggle bugs under blankets, the perfect looking family, perfect children to perfect parents in our perfect looking world.

Out in the world, the performance intensifies, in front of others, smiles and soft words. Going down to their level, patting them nicely on the head, others looking on, “You have such a beautiful family,” strangers tell us. Puffed out chests, pregnant with pride, we have a beautiful family, so blessed, we tell each other. The enraged mother stays away on these days, out in public, in front of others, in our perfectly posed world.

The Sorry Mother

“Stop laughing I said!” My daughter rages at my son. They sit side by side, watching TV on our bed. She shoves him hard as he falls back on the bed.

“Don’t tell your brother not to laugh!” I command, “And don’t push him! Do you want to be a bully?” I eat my words as I feel their sharpness. I look at her face, see familiar darkness on innocent eyes, agitation in small limbs.

“I’m just trying to listen and he’s being too loud!” She responds aggressively, then turns her back and hides her face in her knees, a curled up ball of fire. She looks up, searches the room to see if I’ve gone. I soften when I see her bottom lip quiver and she begins to cry. I hold my arms open and she sluggishly complies. I rub her back and hug her, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do.

I need to change.

I see her anger model my frustration, mimicking my words. She’s only six but I see my traits bleed into hers, my eyes—her eyes, enraged, upset, hurt and afraid.

Apologetic, still holding her near, I kiss her neck, pat her hair and try to make her giggle.

“I’m sorry Mama,” She says.

“I’m sorry too,” I say too quickly.

The Un-mother

I pick up my pen and open my journal.

I close my eyes and remember, swaying hips, on top of tables, belly shirts, my form fitting figure, travelling freely from city to city, being in love and feeling sexy.

“Babe?” I hear a voice over my shoulder. I turn to face my children’s father.

A mother. A wife. A daughter.

Who am I, but the un-mother?

Uninterested in homework, cooking or baking, none of the roles I fit into easy. Red eyes from being rubbed too often, tiredness soaks into my skin.

“Yeah?” I ask, his arms wrap around me, enveloped in warmth, he kisses me sweetly.

A mother. A wife. A daughter. A lover.

A woman. Survivor. A fighter.

A pink line brushes the sky. Enraged mother slips away into the night. Perfect mother’s illusion is broken. Sorry mother’s voice remains, but eventually, it softens.

Aileen Santos is a high school teacher and mother to two adorable children. Her work can be read at literary zines and journals such as commuterlit.com, Ginosko Literary and Words, Pauses, Noises. She has a novel forthcoming in 2015.

Where We Go

Where We Go

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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I knew it would come back to haunt me. I knew that I would wish I had come up with a better, more personally truthful explanation to give my daughter, but at that point it was the best I could do, so when prompted to talk about where Daddy had gone a few days after he died, I took the easy route and answered: heaven.

It felt like such a moment of weakness. Even in the thick of the worst days of my life, I had always told her the truth.

I am a spiritual person, but I do not believe in God. I do not believe in heaven or hell, angels or demons. While my spiritual beliefs are still evolving, I do know that I believe in love, and positive energy (whatever form that may take, be it prayer, meditation, or simply good juju). I believe there is another aspect of our beings that is beyond the body, but I do not place my belief in God.

My daughter was barely three when her father died, however, and I was at a loss for what to say to her. Death and permanence are difficult concepts to comprehend at that age. After having the “Daddy is dying” talk, I wasn’t sure how much more I was capable of. A tiny part of me still didn’t believe that it was actually happening, that there was going to come a day very soon when my husband’s body would finally fail.

Almost all of the kids’ books that we had read together about death and grief talked about heaven, so she was at least vaguely familiar with the concept, and “heaven” seemed like an easy answer during an extremely difficult time.

Most people would probably struggle with the idea of wanting the love of their life to die, but I have been there and come through the other side. The day before he died, I told my husband he could go, that I loved him and that he could go. He seemed to know we were there briefly that morning and then he was gone again. He was no longer aware of the world, was in constant pain, and had not been able to speak, eat, or move in days.

I laid down with him in his hospital bed, my head on his shoulder and my hand on his chest, the way we used to lay together in the old days, and I gave him my blessing to die. I wanted him to die. The state he was in was not life. He was ready and I was as ready as I was going to be, and it seemed that all that was left in the meantime were varying degrees of suffering.

I called time of death the following night at 9:40 pm.

Fourteen months later at the dinner table, my four-year-old daughter asked me where Daddy went.

“I know it was the cancer that made him die,” she said, while spooning macaroni into her mouth, “but where did he go?”

I started explaining again how when some people die they get cremated and their bodies become ashes. I talked about how we had spread Daddy’s ashes in the places he loved most. This was a conversation we’d had many times before. She knew what had happened to his body, and it became clear that wasn’t what she was asking.

“But where did he go? Did he go to heaven?”

“Some people believe that when we die, we go to a place called heaven,” I said. “And Mama doesn’t believe in heaven, but she believes that Daddy isn’t hurting anymore, and that all he feels now is love.” She nodded.

“We’re always connected to Daddy through our hearts,” I continued, “because we will always love him and he will always love us.”

“We feel him right here,” she said, placing her small hand on her chest.

She was content with my answer and we finished our dinner talking about school, friends, and princess books, but I kept replaying the conversation in my head. Was I saying the right things? Was I giving the right answers? Did right answers even exist?

I don’t know how to explain suffering of that extent to my child, and I don’t know how to explain a religious place where the dead go that I don’t believe in. There will always be difficult questions, and I know that I often won’t have the answers, but I do know that I am doing the best I can.

I have seen and felt my husband since his death: in a sole firefly floating through our bedroom on a dark summer night; in a beautiful Luna moth clinging to a tree when I suddenly felt compelled to turn around mid-step on a trail; in a bottle of bourbon opened the night he died that inexplicably exploded while every other bottle in the cabinet remained intact.

Our daughter will grow up to develop her own beliefs about spirituality, religion, and death, and I hope she does plenty of exploring and inquiring in the process. It’s okay if she doesn’t end up on the same page as me, as long as she finds her own truth in the end.

In the meantime, I teach her about the good in people and about being kind to others. I talk to her about the wonder of life and about the beauty we can find in the world. I give her all of the love and energy I have to give, and then some more I didn’t even know was there.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury outreach coordinator, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in central Maine.  You can read more of her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

Photo: Kundan Ramisetti

In the Line of Fire

In the Line of Fire

By Dawn Turzio

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I was washing breakfast crumbs off my daughter’s highchair tray when a newscast replaced the high-pitched inflections of Elmo. Thinking my four-year old was fiddling with the television remote, I continued cleaning as my sleep deprived mind wandered.

“Mommy, why do they hate Daddy?” my daughter said, running into the kitchen.

I shut the faucet and grabbed the dishtowel, drying my hands as I knelt down. “What do you mean, sweetie?”

Her eyes scanned mine. “The people. Why are they fighting?”

I placed an arid palm in hers. “Show me.”

She led us into the living room where coverage of riots in Baltimore sprawled across the television. Upon seeing the newsreel of yet another outrage roaring through an American city, I hurried to turn it off, blocking the screen and nervously jabbing at the controller. I didn’t want to believe that another black person died senselessly at the hands of a white law enforcer, but I was wrong. My heart immediately went out to the parents who’d lost their son. How could I explain the racism that led to the violence my child was watching?

“Ice cream!” I declared, a stalemate tactic until I could wrap my head around the enormity of my task.

As the wife of a fireman whose teaching career has been in an elementary school in a low socioeconomic section of Brooklyn, I showed my students the different roles that service members provide to our neighborhoods to keep us safe. We’d dressed up as police, firefighters, nurses, postal workers, all of the important contributors to our society. We participated in live demonstrations when my husband Jim visited my classes with his bunker gear and fire safety coloring books. To my horror, when my preschooler accidentally changed PBS Kids to CNN and saw the civil unrest that included fire trucks, she came to me in panic; suddenly the cool red apparatuses and the people like Daddy, who rode in them, were in trouble.

My little girl gobbled her vanilla cone as I peered out the window, pondering how to explain the complexity of social injustices to her. I needed a better narrative than the good guys versus the bad ones. Yet my inner teacher and motherly instincts were experiencing temporary paralysis. Maybe Jim will know. I grabbed the phone and dialed.

“This is a tough one, Dawn,” he said.

After his heavy sigh (which induced a twinge of guilt that I was at fault for getting us into this) he suggested I seek counsel from former colleagues.

“Great idea,” I said, and hung up to log onto Facebook. As I was about to contact my best friend, an expert in education, I saw a breathtaking picture in my news feed of a small African American boy distributing water bottles to the line of officers suited in riot gear. I leapt from the chair and ran to my daughter, ready to deliver a lesson necessary for her understanding of delicate matters. “Honey, what do you see here?”

She took the cell phone and studied the image. “I see a boy giving a drink to a policeman.”

“I see that too. Why do you think he’s doing that?”

She stared again at the photo and shrugged. “I think the man is hot in those clothes. He’s thirsty.”

Now that the physical aspects of the photograph were out of the way, I zeroed in on the emotional portion. From those years in early education, I’d encountered children engaged in disagreements of all kinds. Whether debating over the right answer to a math equation or a dispute in a friendship, I’d have them identify their feelings, guiding them through their thinking during conflicts so they’d take ownership of their emotions and formulate cohesive responses they truly believed in.

“I agree. That officer sure looks thirsty,” I said, examining the snapshot with her. “So how does the picture make you feel about the boy and what he’s doing?”

“It makes me glad that he wants to help the policeman. And the man is happy he’s getting water.”

“So they are, in a way, okay, right?”

She nods.

“Well, what you saw on TV was sort of different. There are people, like this boy, who don’t always feel safe. And people like Daddy and the police officers are trying to figure out what to do. I believe they’ll be okay soon. But right now they are nervous and angry, and are forgetting to be nice to each other.”

My daughter handed me the phone, her eyes filling with optimism. “Will you help them remember, Mommy?”

I looked at her, the educator in me now brewing with ideas of how to imbed acceptance and kindness into our daily lives. The curriculum would not only include visits from my husband and his coworkers, but also from other prominent community members especially those from African American decent.

“I will sure try, sweetie, and you can too.”

Dawn Turzio is a NYC-based wife, mother, and teacher whose busy life led her to writing in order to capture the fleeting moments. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in many publications including Salon, Parents Magazine, and New York Magazine, which can be found on www.dawnturzio.com and social media.  

Image: dreamstime.com

An Ordinary Adventure

An Ordinary Adventure

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My co-worker was miserable about his ambivalence regarding children. His relationship with his girlfriend was getting serious, but she wanted to have kids someday and he thought a childfree life might suit him better.

I was 27-years old, a newly divorced mom of two very small children and quite enamored of those children. I was also exhausted by a life that felt relentless: I woke the children at 6 am on the weekdays, and they woke me at 6 am on the weekends. I drove them to daycare, went to work, went to my classes at the university, picked the kids up at daycare, fed-bathed-sang to them, and when they were asleep I studied until I was too tired to hold my head up anymore and I went to bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Do the laundry and cleaning on Saturday, go to church and do the yard work on Sunday, study in every available minute, try to blend parenting and schoolwork by reading Hamlet to my kids in between performances of Are You My Mother? and Green Eggs and Ham. I tried to shoehorn a bit of a social life into the few evenings the kids spent with their dad.

My co-worker, feeling like he was at a point in his relationship where he had to make a decision about children right away, was a little frantic when he asked me, “If I don’t have kids, will I be missing out? Will I be cheating myself somehow?”

I broke into laughter, which I regretted immediately. I could see that he was struggling with a major life decision and I didn’t want to make light of it, but the answer seemed so clear to me at the time.

When I pulled myself together, I said, “Yes, if you don’t have kids, you’ll be missing out. If you do have kids, you’ll also be missing out. Whatever you choose, you’ll miss out on some big, amazing things.”

“But you love your kids so much. The way you talk about them, it’s like they’re magic or something.”

“Oh, they’re magic. I didn’t know I could love anyone like I love them, but look: my relationship with their dad failed and leaving was agonizing because divorce is hard on kids. I wouldn’t trade them for any amount of money, but being broke with kids is a hell of a lot harder than being broke on your own. I don’t know; I don’t think you can really compare two lives this way.” I trailed off because I did adore my kids and never thought of them as burdens or mistakes, but it seemed a dangerous mental door to open.

*   *   *

When we were little girls, my sister and I would try to press our mom into expressing some hint that one of us was favored over the other, each of us hoping fervently that she was the one, the best one, the most important. Even now, when I call her, I respond to my mom’s hello by saying, “Hola, Mamasita! It’s your older, better daughter!”

The question we asked, to try to pry the secret of who was best loved from her, was, “If we were drowning (or burning, or being attacked by a bear, or otherwise being killed), and you could only save one of us, who would you save?”

Her unvarying response was, “I’d sooner die trying to save you both than make a choice like that.” The answer was not as satisfying as hearing that I was her favorite, but it was reassuring nevertheless. She wouldn’t choose me over my sister, but neither would she choose my sister over me. Inexplicably, she would choose us over herself, a thing I would not appreciate until I was newly pregnant with my first child and was nearly hit by a car in a parking lot. I slammed my fists down on the trunk of the car that was backing towards me, startling the driver into hitting the brakes, then screamed at her for almost murdering my baby (a seven-week fetus no bigger than a pinto bean) while my then-husband dragged me away.

I was pleased and surprised, and not a little relieved, to know of myself that I was capable of loving someone more than myself, but I never wanted to be the self-sacrificial mom. I didn’t hope I’d be the one who gave everything up, ignored her own needs, or let her life grow hollow while she fed the children everything about her that mattered.

*   *   *

My co-worker, still at sea and still trying to find his way to a decision about whether he would be a father someday, was frustrated with my inability to tell him if not having children would be a tragedy. He emailed me the evening after our conversations and said, “They bring out the best in you, right? Will I live my whole life, never being my best, if I don’t have kids?”

I couldn’t answer that question either, but I know that being a parent has showed me all the extremes of myself, good and bad. First I discovered my vast capacity for patience, and then I ran up against its limits. I found that I am a fierce advocate for my kids, and then I found that I may go too far before I knew what I was doing and sever essential relationships.

In short, my kids showed me my humanity. I thought having a child would make me something very different from myself: that I would know more, feel different, that somehow Adrienne as mom would be a new person entirely, with none of the challenges and maladaptive behaviors that plagued Adrienne as person without children. My children would be my redemption. As a mom, I would be worthier, better, nearly perfect.

*   *   *

Children should never be born with a job. It is unfair to conceive or adopt a child in the hopes that child will save a relationship, or be the person who finally loves us, or redeem us, or bring out the best in us. Those are enormous responsibilities to hang on a wee babe.

I had no conscious idea when I had my children that I hoped they would change me. It took years of self-reflection to understand that I had expectations of my children before they were born. Having a child is both cataclysmic and utterly ordinary, an experience that changes us in surprising ways, but never in all ways. Under the surface, I hoped having children would making me someone new, but I found (unsurprisingly) that once I had children I was still me, with kids.

I don’t know what my co-worker eventually decided. We were both students at the time, making the frequent job changes that some adult students make as our marketplace value shifts. I hope, whatever he chose, that he’s very happy, and that he remembers our talk as often as I do. When I feel like the worst parent ever, our conversation reminds me that my worst moments don’t tell the whole story of my life any more than my best moments do. I’m glad to know I’d rather die trying to save all my children than choose just one. I’m relieved that, in spite of my secret desire for my kids to save me from myself and the selfishness that lies beneath, I love them with an intensity that surprises me. Being a parent has showed me the worst of myself, but it’s also revealed the best in me. That doesn’t mean it’s better to have children than not, but it’s good to live a life in which I love some people with such ferocity it occasionally takes my breath away.

Photo: Olivia Henry

Summer of Independence

Summer of Independence

By Zsofia McMullin

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It’s still weird, the silence in the house. I wander around the living room, puttering, putting away toys and books and crayons. I make tea and sit by the kitchen table waiting for the water to boil. I suppress the urge to peek out the front door, walk down our driveway and look across the parking lot to the grassy area where Sam is playing with the neighborhood kids.

It’s a recent development, this sudden burst of independence—last year, at four-and-a-half, he was too young to wander far from our front porch. But this year, it’s a regular occurrence. A couple of kids knock on our door and Sam swooshes past me to put on his sandals, standing still just long enough for me to smear some sunscreen on his neck and face.

He usually returns sweaty and muddy, with the names of new friends and tales of new adventures spilling from his lips, as he chugs ice-cold water and kicks off shoes.

We have our rules: You don’t go into other people’s homes. If you see a gun or anyone playing with a gun, you run home like a motherfucker (we don’t use that word, of course, but in my mind that’s how it goes.) You don’t get into anyone’s car. You don’t accept candy or food or drink without asking me first. You don’t help a stranger look for a puppy or a bike. You don’t go out onto the street.

*   *   *

I always believed that something magical would happen to me during the summer. It was during the summer that I read my first novel cover to cover on a balcony overlooking Lake Balaton in Hungary where we vacationed. It was during summer months that I learned to swim, ride a bike, walked to the grocery store by myself, went to my first rock concert. First time at a bar, first crush, first time holding a boy’s hand, first kiss—all happened during warm, perfumed summer evenings.

I always felt more grown-up once summer came to an end, as if all of my maturing and growing was limited to those few warm months. Once school started and my freedom was taken over by schedules and after-school lessons and homework, it was harder to feel that forward movement, that sense I was really changing.

I see that in Sam, too. We are not even halfway through summer and he’s gotten taller and stronger just over the past few weeks. His skin is darkened from the sun, his knees are scraped and skinned, and his body is filling out with muscles. In May he was a baby. In July he is on his way to being a kindergartener.

I watch him run off with his friends and wonder what kind of magic will happen to him this summer, the next, the one after that, and after that…

*   *   *

“You should take a bath by yourself. You are a big boy now,” my husband tells Sam and instructs him on how to wet washcloth, lather soap, scrub toes and ears. “But I want Mama to give me a bath!” Sam protests and I am right there with him. “What is this hurry with independence?” I ask, only half-joking.

Of course, he has to learn to bathe himself. But not yet. Please not yet. He still has baby thighs and soft skin. I can still kneel next to the tub and let the warm water from the washcloth trickle down his neck, chest, and belly. He still lets me wash his hair, the soft slope of his shoulders, his twig-like arms. He has tiny toes that look like shrimp and when I look at his knees it’s hard to tell what is a bruise and what is dirt.

I am already letting go of so much that it seems impossible to let go of more right now. Especially because he gives this time, this moment of closeness so freely, willingly, giggling as I tickle under his arms and at the bottom of his foot. I towel him off and put lotion on his sun-kissed skin, dress him in soft PJs.

Is there a simpler pleasure than a freshly-bathed, sleepy child?

*   *   *

The day camp where I drop Sam off is new to both of us. It came highly recommended, but I don’t know any of the camp-counselors or the other kids or parents. We get there early and the kids are already gathering on a large, open field.

Sam doesn’t hide behind my back as I talk to the camp counselor—what is she? Nineteen, maybe?—and I can tell that Sam likes her long, dark hair and friendly smile. I stand around for a bit, but Sam is already chatting with another little boy. “So, are you ready for me to go,” I ask after a few minutes. “Yes, go!” he says without even turning around.

I walk back across the field to my car and sit there for a moment, watching as Sam and the other boy chase each other with their bug spray bottles. I want to run back and say, “Be careful! Don’t get that in each other’s eye!” But I stop myself.

I drive off wondering if maybe I have done something right with this parenting thing, after all. Isn’t it a good sign when your child separates from you easily? Doesn’t that mean that he is attached to me, that he feels safe and confident? I think I read that somewhere.

I pull over and inhale my ice coffee to stop myself from breaking out in loud sobs.

*   *   *

During the summer I paint my toes rainbow colors, drink beer on the back porch, eat ice cream every night. I wear pants with elastic waists and slip into comfy flip-flops. I pick up Sam early from daycare so that we can hang by the pool or eat snacks and watch TV on the couch together. I make him lemonade with sun-shaped ice cubes. We stay up late, play with the water hose, plant flowers, eat tomatoes off the vine, roll down the car windows.

*   *   *

From time to time, Sam gets scared of his own independence. He hates the conflict of wanting to do things on his own—tie his shoes, ride his bike—and his inability—as of yet—to do so. “I can’t do anything! I am stupid!” he yells as he tries over and over again. He wants to roam farther afield—walk to Taekwondo class from my car parked a few doors down, ride the tilt-a-whirl alone. But some of these are just too scary, so he returns to my arms sad and disappointed.

That’s when I remind him of all the things he can do by himself, that he couldn’t do before: sit up, walk, talk, chew solid food, pee in the toilet, put on his clothes, make his bed, build with Legos, operate the remote control, play soccer with his buddies.

“It will come,” I tell him. And I want it all to come for him quickly. But I am also secretly thankful every time I have to zip his jacket, because when I bend down to do so he is just at the right height to bury his nose in my hair and whisper: “Mama, you smell so good.”

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.

Photo: gettyimages

Should Young Girls Be Allowed to Wear Bikinis?

Should Young Girls Be Allowed to Wear Bikinis?

Yes!

By Daisy Alpert Florin

485204867-1My nine-year-old daughter, Ellie, is going to sleep away camp this summer, and the packing list calls for four bathing suits, but “no two-pieces.” While I understand the likely reason for this rule—one-piece suits might be more appropriate for active play—it still irritates me because it seems to imply that there is something shameful about young girls wearing bikinis, so much so that they are forbidden.

In our house, bikinis and one-pieces are both suitable choices for swimming. I have purposely not drawn a line between the two because I don’t want Ellie to think there is a big deal about choosing to show more or less of her body. Granted, a string bikini might not be the best choice for swimming or cannonballing into the lake. But a well-fitting two-piece suit that gives her room to play and can easily be pulled down for bathroom breaks—well, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

When Ellie was little, I dressed her in one-piece bathing suits simply because they fit her better. If she wore a two-piece suit, I discarded the top and let her run around in just the bottoms. Putting a bikini top on a pudgy toddler chest seemed impractical to me, but I didn’t have a problem with parents who did. For the most part, I think mothers (and it is usually mothers) have fun dressing up their daughters in tiny versions of their own clothing, be it skinny jeans or bomber jackets or bikinis. I did this to Ellie myself when she was small, but by the time she was four she would have none of that, and I had to respect her decision to dress herself the way that made her most comfortable.

I prefer a bikini to a one-piece suit because I like the way it looks on me, plain and simple, so why should I ask my daughter to do anything different? I trust her internal monitor to signal when something feels right for her, and when it doesn’t. I want Ellie to carry herself without shame, and telling her not to wear a certain article of clothing might suggest that there is something wrong with showing a part of herself. I think there is a fine line between modesty and shame.

When they were first introduced in the 1940s, bikinis—which take their name from the Bikini Atoll, a site of U.S. nuclear testing—were considered dangerous, explosive even. Early in their history, they were banned in several countries and declared sinful by the Vatican. This idea of female sexuality as wild and destabilizing might seem silly to modern sensibilities, but forbidding our young daughters from wearing bikinis seems to be an extension of that kind of thinking.

There is something about girls and their burgeoning sexuality that we as a culture—and as parents—still find threatening. We worry about our girls growing up too fast because we feel there is something scary about female sexuality, and watching them step into that murky landscape terrifies us, when it ought to be something to celebrate. But our daughters don’t stay little girls forever of course, so what’s the tipping point when wearing a bikini is suddenly okay?

Nine years old was the last time for a long while that I saw only the good in my body—its strength, beauty and possibility. At nine, I hadn’t yet started to judge my body against some external ideal. Puberty hit me hard and by thirteen, far from wearing a skimpy bikini, I went to the beach wearing an oversized t-shirt covering my bathing suit. Even then I can remember wanting to go back to the version of myself that still felt beautiful and powerful. Now, at 42, I wear a bikini all summer and try to do it with confidence; I hope it sets a good example for my daughter.

Watching Ellie move through the world without self-consciousness about her body brings me a bittersweet joy. I want to bottle that feeling so she can always access it, opening it every now and then for a whiff. Because I know it doesn’t last. The world is hard for girls that way.

But maybe if Ellie wore a bikini now, those two pieces would imprint on her somehow. Maybe by owning her body in all its glory now would help her bank some self-love for later on, for 13 and 25 and 42—for whenever she needs it. Maybe wearing a bikini now would help her love her body that much more for that much longer.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer, editor and mother of three. A native New Yorker, she lives, works and lounges poolside in Connecticut. 

 

No!

By Sharon Holbrook

159626626It was a beautiful, warm June day on our backyard deck, where we were celebrating my daughter’s birthday. She pulled a little flowered tankini out of one of her grandma’s gift bags, and Nana hastily announced, “It’s open in the back, but it’s not sexy!” I sure hope not. It was my daughter’s second birthday.

My mother-in-law already knew my feelings on this subject, and kindly respected them. I don’t care for bikinis, or any other “sexy” clothing, on little girls.

I’m usually hands-off about clothes, almost to an extreme. My daughters dig through their drawers and match or mismatch as they like. I don’t care if they wear pants or dresses or—as on one recent school day—a bandanna around the 7-year-old’s hair, an ankle-length flowered skirt over patterned leggings, and a brown velour bolero jacket inherited from her cousin. “You look like a fortune teller,” her older brother commented, not unkindly.

When I do draw a line about clothing, I like to have a good reason. Icy winter day? Must be warm from head to toe. Special occasion? Be respectful, and wear something a notch or two above the everyday. Dirty or damaged clothes? Just, no. Underwear showing, very short skirt, super tight leggings on the butt? Cover it up, because those areas are private.

Not surprisingly, bikinis don’t pass my modesty rules. Sure, we’re all wearing small, tightish clothes at the beach, because that’s just a practical reality if you want to move in the water. I don’t think anyone in their right mind wants to return to those awful bathing dresses of a century ago.

But a bikini takes it to another level, and its small size has nothing to do with practicality. A bikini is meant to emphasize the breasts, hips, and bare skin of a woman in a sexy way. That’s the whole appeal of it, and it’s why men are such big fans of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, right?

That focus on and sexualization of the body isn’t appropriate for girls. One could argue that it’s innocently silly when a toddler’s little pot belly pops out of a teeny two-piece. Adults laugh and wink and say, “Isn’t that cute?” Amid the attention, the little one learns to vamp for others, to entertain them with her looks, her body, and the way she’s dressed.

Instead, the longer we can protect girls from focus on and display of their physical selves, the stronger and more mature they will be when they meet the full reality of a world obsessed with their bodies.

Their round babyish selves seem to turn lean and leggy overnight, then rounder again with the buds of breasts and the swell of hips and, before we know it, their bodies are womanly in every way. We owe them clothing and modesty rules that are consistent over the years and don’t fixate on or show off their bodies at any given moment—that let their bodies just be their own.

When she’s four, it means we can allow her a little girl body, instead of imitating sexy grown-up clothes and pointing exactly to where she’s going to have boobs someday. She can wear simple, practical clothes that allow her to run, jump, play, and swim with ease.

When she’s eight or nine, it means she can still be a little girl, even if she’s entering puberty early, an increasingly common reality. It means we don’t have to burden her with why she suddenly shouldn’t wear a bikini top that emphasizes her budding breasts, when it was okay before, a conversation that might make her feel her perfectly normal body changes are somehow shameful.

Even when she’s fourteen, though my daughter might argue otherwise, it means protecting her from her own sense that her body is all grown up, and therefore she is too. Just because her body has sexualized does not mean she has the maturity to take on all aspects of her brand-new sexuality. Sure, like all women, she’ll have to learn to sift through the admiration and catcalls and come-ons. But she needn’t come out of the gate into that reality wearing a bikini.

Through all those stages, her body is just as it should be, a beautiful thing, neither to be flaunted for attention nor covered up by shame. And when it comes time for bikinis, if she’s someday interested, it will be when she herself has the adult maturity and sense to know — and handle — what a bikini says: “Look at me!”

Sharon Holbrook is a freelance writer, who lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio. Find more from her at sharonholbrook.com, and on Twitter @216Sharon.

Please join us TODAY, Thursday, 7/9, at 1:00 p.m. EST for our July Twitter party to discuss the issues. Remember to use the hashtag #braindebate

 

Photos: gettyimages

Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother?

By Cynthia Keenan

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My daughter Audrey and I stood on the platform at the Stratford train station at 6:15 a.m. to catch the 6:35 to Grand Central. She carried her Little Mermaid backpack full of juice boxes, PB&J, pretzels and a fig bar. My law firm offered employees free day care at a center nearby where I’d drop her off at the lower Manhattan facility and then head to work, one stop north.

I held Audrey’s soft, brown, little hand and looked up the track for the bright light on the steel head of the train. Whoever saw it first “won.” She was five years old.

The train pulled into the station and the door to “our car” opened. The conductor stepped onto the platform to greet us as he always did.

“Good morning ladies.”

I gripped Audrey’s hand tighter, almost lifting her over the gap. She knew where to go as we took this train at least once a month; the first set of two seats facing forward. As the train pulled out of the station, the conductor came to collect tickets. I flashed my MetroCard and Audrey held out her 10-ride for him to punch.

“Thank you very much young lady.”

My daughter clutched Dee Dee, your dark-skinned doll with the Raggedy-Ann style dress, whose hair had taken on a certain Rasta-look after she had recently dunked her head into a sink full of water. We had tamed it by pulling it into two ponytails with rubber bands.

Although we were clearly behaving like mother and daughter, Audrey and I are visibly different, something she realized at an early age, when she asked “why is my skin brown and yours is so ‘pale’ Mommy.”

“Because you were born in the tummy of a woman who had brown skin,” I had said. We had a pregnant friend at the time so she knew about babies in “tummies.” This became my daughter’s explanation when friends asked the same question.

My daughter was curious about the woman with the brown skin, the one whose tummy she was in, and occasionally she asked questions about her—”Where is she?” “What is her name?” “What does she look like?” I supplied age appropriate information as best as I could, but was also extremely cognizant of not appearing hurt or disinterested. I actively listened to her, occasionally nodding my head in understanding and asking her simple questions to prompt her to talk more about it. As a single mother, I relied on many, mostly other mothers, to help me. If some goodness could be found in a relationship with the woman whose tummy my daughter was born in, I was all for it.

Within four stops Audrey’s head was on my shoulder, and by the time we got to Stamford, 40 minutes into the trip, her head had slipped to my lap for the first nap of her 12-hour day. I placed my hand over her body, slipping my thumb into the faux hammer loop on her pink striped overalls to guard against sudden stops, and put my head back and closed my eyes for the first nap of my equally long day.

“Next stop! 125th Street! Next stop! Check the overhead racks and seats. Make sure to take all of your items with you.125th Street, next!”

I opened my eyes and nudged my daughter gently on her shoulder.

“We are almost there,” I said. “Time to get ready.”

The train slowed into Grand Central and we worked our way to the door, scrambling off the train with thousands of others. The volume of the crowd seemed to create the pace of movement. Audrey held my hand while also gripping the strap of my briefcase. We snaked our way through clumps of crowds to the escalator down to the subway platform.

I positioned us near a steel pillar, far back from the edge of the platform, to wait for the train. Although I knew she wouldn’t fall onto the tracks, the image of it happening was horrifyingly vivid and flashed in my brain every time we took a subway. I tethered myself to her via the Little Mermaid, the fingers from one of my hands tightly clinging her backpack loop while my other clutched her hand. Her free hand covered one of her ears to block the loud screech of the arriving train.

We took the number 5 to Bowling Green, to the day care center. Her little hand squeezed the shiny subway pole as best as it could during the 20-minute ride, fitting only a third of the way around, while darkness sped past us. I held the same pole and hovered over, our bodies swaying to the motion of the train, as we held on a little tighter around each turn. The piercing sounds of the turning train prompted a mild look of terror, her eyes wide, mouth partially open.

“Are we going to tip?” she asked, grabbing my coat.

The train partially emptied after a few stops and we grabbed seats. Young black women sat all around us, some with children in tow. Audrey’s polite stares revealed fascination. From their hair, to their faces, clothes, and shoes, she quietly observed them.

“Can I sit over there?” she asked as she pointed to the seat across the aisle that happened to be occupied by one of these women. She was an independent little girl so this was not out of character. Audrey moved next to the young woman who acknowledged her with a motherly smile.

The woman was about 34 years old, dressed in a black pencil skirt and black and white stripe rayon blouse, a typical workday outfit. Her short-cropped hair was neatly styled, and held in place around her hairline with a hair product that shined. Her face was the color of very tanned white skin. Just like my daughter’s.

She moved her head closer to my daughter’s to hear what she was saying. I sat across the aisle wishing my ears were amplifiers. I could only hear snippets of the conversation; words like “day care,” “my mom’s work” and “Connecticut.” I was sure Audrey was asking her questions, as she was also very curious about people. My 5-year-old seemed so grown up in that moment, and so comfortable talking to this stranger who looked more like her than I did. At one point they both looked at me; the woman smiled and nodded her head. I felt like an outsider.

She left the train at the next stop, and Audrey made her way back across the aisle and nuzzled up next to me.

“Hi,” I said. “I see you found a friend. You know talking to strangers is fine, as long as I am with you.”

“She was really nice.”

“She was quite pretty too,” I said. “Did she tell you your name?”

“Yes.”

“Well was it a nice name?”

“Yes.”

After a few minutes of silence, I spoke.

“Do you think that nice lady with the nice name might look like the woman whose tummy you were born in?”

“Yes,” she said.

She stared at the seat she and the young woman had occupied and looked around at the few young black women remaining on the train. She was thinking. A lot.

“I wonder if that was her?”

Cynthia Keenan is a lawyer, writer and stepmother to six grown children.  She is working on a serious of vignettes about life with her daughter and lives in New York with her husband.

Photo: gettyimages

The Googly Eye

The Googly Eye

By Jill Christman

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 5.24.35 PMElla was not quite three on the afternoon of the googly eye. My husband, Mark, had gone to work, and Ella and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating avocado sandwiches.

Laying a finger aside of her nose, Santa-style, Ella looked me in the eye and said, “Mommy. My nose hurts.” She paused. “I have a googly eye in my nose.”

A “googly eye,” in our family lexicon, is a three-dimensional white eyeball containing a shiny black disc that jiggles around behind a transparent plastic cornea. That’s what makes it googly. (I Googled “googly eyes” and learned they’re also called “wiggle eyes” or “moveable paste-on eyes.”) Googly eyes are flat on one side—the paper side, the side used for gluing eyeballs of various sizes to paper, shells, and upside-down egg cartons to make monsters, crabs, and silly caterpillars. The other side, the googly side, is convex, like the surface of a real eyeball. The googly eyes Ella’s babysitter had brought over to stick onto funny monkey faces a few days earlier were big ones, at least half an inch across—not the kind of thing you’d want to have in your nose, especially if you were three and in possession of such a small nose.

I considered all this as I chewed a suddenly over-large mouthful of bread that had turned hard and dry between my teeth. Washing it down with a gulp of lemonade, I studied Ella’s face, her miniature button nose. How would a half-inch googly eye fit in that itsy bitsy nose? Pulse quickening, I mustered all my parenting skills to keep my voice level and calm. As with most circumstances involving human error, I began with denial. “What, honey? What did you say?”

She was watching me as carefully as I was watching her. Ella knew I had heard exactly what she’d said.

“Oh, Mommy,” she said, reading the panic under my act. She tossed her hair back in mock hilarity. “No! I don’t have a googly eye in my nose! Ha ha ha! I don’t. I was just kidding you around, Mommy.”

I didn’t know what to do. How did she even think to say a thing like that? I have a googly eye in my nose.

“Honey,” I said. “Do you have a googly eye in your nose?”

“No,” she said, glaring now. “I said I was kidding you around!”

I let it rest. Maybe together we could pretend this one out of existence. And really, how could Ella have a googly eye up her nose? That would be nuts. That would be a medical emergency. And furthermore, how would it have gotten there? Ella’s a smart girl. She wouldn’t be foolish enough to insert a googly eye into her nostril.

*   *   *

An hour later, I tiptoed into her room to check on her during her nap. She was snoring like a piglet. I put my face right up to her face as she lay on her pillow, cheeks pink, blond hair sticking every which way, cherubic as all get up. The snore really was more squeal than snore—and, was I imagining this?—the sound seemed to be coming from just one nostril. The right nostril. Yes. A kind of whistling wheeze.

While Ella slept and sang, I consulted a book. Foreign objects, Nostril. The book said to not, under any circumstances, attempt to remove the object at home using a pair of tweezers. Tweezers! I thought. Of course! What a good idea! I read on. The removal process was a delicate one and not only could a hapless, panicky parent with a pair of tweezers damage the delicate nasal tissue, she could also make matters worse by a) lodging the object more deeply in the nose, or b) actually pushing the object into the throat, which could cause choking. The thing to do, the book said, was to call the doctor. I considered a plan of action, contemplating the possibility that this was all in my mind, and waited for Ella to wake up. I leaned over her face and studied her nose. Was that a lump on the right side?

Meanwhile, Mark was still at work at the University. Talking about poetry.

*   *   *

When Ella woke up, I was waiting. She sat up and rubbed her nose. She whimpered and repeated her confession: “My nose hurts.”

I pulled a book light from a shelf and sat on the edge of her bed. “Okay, honey. I’m just going to look up your nose and see what I see.”

As I moved in with the light, I heard echoes of that fierce child from William Carlos Williams’s “The Use of Force”— the flushed and feverish girl the country doctor has to hold down, using a big silver spoon to pry open her teeth so he can see her throat. It’s not quite that bad, but Ella fights it. Just as the wild-haired, blue-eyed Mathilda refuses to reveal, and thus confirm, her diagnosis—diphtheria—Ella wants to hide her own disaster. “No, Mommy! I was kidding you around! I don’t have a googly eye in my nose! I don’t, I don’t…”

Swinging a leg over her little body, I pinned her forehead to the pillow with my left hand. Gently. Then I angled the thin beam of the book light up into her right nostril.

How do I describe what it was to look up into my preschooler’s nose and see an eye, a googly eye, staring back at me? Accumulating mucus had slicked the surface, giving the eye a shining, evil glint. Ella twisted under my hold and let out a squeaky cry. In this sudden burst of air, the eye shifted and the dark pupil rattled with a menacing shimmy. I wanted to scream. Holy shit. But good, calm, handling-things mothers don’t scream when they shine lights into their children’s noses, do they? Even if there’s someone there, staring them down? I blinked, and looked again. Crap.

I flicked off the light and released my grip on Ella’s forehead.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Okay, sweetie, there is a googly eye in your nose.”

*   *   *

I wanted to grab the tweezers and get the eyeball the hell out of Ella’s nose. But I restrained myself and walked steadily to the phone. I am no good in a crisis. I have friends and relations, quite a few actually, who work as nurses and doctors in emergency rooms. This is what they choose to do. Not me. I simply don’t possess the disposition.

I dialed Ella’s pediatrician. It was 4:00 p.m. Of course it was. The nurse explained that because it was so late in the afternoon, there was no time to squeeze Ella in, but she reminded me that the after-hours emergency pediatric care, PrimeTime, would be opening in an hour. If we got there early to check in, we might be able to avoid a long wait. “Don’t try to get it out your- self,” she said before I hung up. “Really. Don’t.”

I was so tempted. This whole ordeal could be over in 30 seconds. By the time Mark got home, it could be a funny story instead of a medical emergency. We would eat dinner. I would finish grading that stack of essays.

Lining up all the tweezers I had in the bathroom, I chose a pair with a satisfyingly tapered and blunted tip. What could it hurt? I turned them over in my fingertips. Glint. How tempted we humans are to follow one misstep with another. I could fix this, I thought. Yes, mistakes were made, but if I do this right, I could get us all out of this mess. In an instant, everything could be okay.

*   *   *

Tweezers in hand, I checked my watch and called Mark, who was just then getting out of class.

“She has a what in her nose?”

“A googly eye,” I repeated, and then I broached the plan with the blunt-tipped tweezers.

“No,” Mark said. “Jill. No.”

Now, at least, I had someone to be mad at for this mess. Now, thanks to Mark, the risk was too great, and I would not be able to make it all better. Plus, where had he been in our hour of need? “Fine,” I snapped. “Just come home then. We’ll be ready to go by the time you get here.”

With Ella, I remained upbeat. “Sweetheart! Come to Mommy so I can give you a nice hairdo!” My inflection was cloying, way off. Ella eyed me suspiciously and I imagined her third eye, rattling, sharing her disapproval. My own mother calls me “sweetheart” when she is feeling one of two emotions: annoyance or helplessness. Here, the false-ringing endearment contained nuances of both.

*   *   *

At PrimeTime, I answered all the receptionist’s questions with a straight face.

“Reason for visit?”
“She has a googly eye in her nose.”
“What?”
“You know, a googly eye. Those little plastic eyes you can glue on to make faces? A googly eye. I don’t know how long it’s been in there. And it’s pretty big.”

I wrote it that way on the form she slid across the counter to me: googly eye in nose. Later, on the bill, I noticed my description had been modified: foreign object/nasal cavity. Whatever.

*   *   *

The doctor’s name was unpronounceable, but the nurse recognized this and told Ella she could call him “Dr. Rock.” Dr. Rock was not a man of great humor, and so I tried to sit back and let the man do his work without too much intervention on my part, but his gravitas made me edgy. He shone his special nose light up into Ella’s nose. I can only imagine he saw the same thing I did. He flinched a tiny bit, mumbled something about taking a minute, and left the room. Dr. Rock didn’t come back. Long minutes ticked by.

“He’s looking it up,” I whispered to Mark. “He doesn’t know what to do.”

We read the same Sesame Street board book over and over, and Dr. Rock remained gone.

*   *   *

When he finally returned, two nurses flanked him. Shit, I thought, It’s going to take three of them? What are they going to do to her? What does he think is going to happen here? Can’t he just pull it out with a pair of tweezers?

Indeed, he had a pair of tweezers, albeit super-long ones with an astounding slanting beak. The nurses were giggling a bit. One of them asked Ella why she did it. “Did you think you were going to be able to see up your own nose?”

Titter.

Ella didn’t answer. She wasn’t talking. Sensing the fear in the room, she sat in my lap as rigid as a stone.

*   *   *

The actual extraction was scary. First, Dr. Rock gave Ella a tissue and tried to get her to blow out the googly eye, but in my limited observation, nose-blowing is a skill that develops wondrously late in children. Even at almost three, Ella always sucked in instead of blowing out. Besides, she wasn’t exactly in the mood to follow instructions. Dr. Rock glided in on his wheeled stool. He was verrrrry deliberate and careful with his long tweezers, but they let me hold her. They never made me hand her over to the grinning nurses. That would have really freaked her out. It took way longer than I thought it should. It was not over in an instant. There were many missed attempts. Dr. Rock had to wriggle the beak over the top of the googly eye and pull it down. This was a delicate operation.

Finally, out it came. The googly eye.
“Ugh,” I said, “it’s even bigger than I remembered it.”

Dr. Rock held the googly eye aloft in his needle beak, both for the benefit of the nurses and his own consideration. He looked at Ella. “So now you know that we never put anything in our noses or our ears.” I waited for the “smaller than your elbow” bit, but it never came. He plunked the googly eye onto a tissue and handed it to me. Ella, still snuffling, asked if she could take it home for her memory box. I agreed that was a good idea, and with the anxiety of our own situation abated, I quizzed Dr. Rock about the kinds of things he pulls out of kids’ noses. I thought he was going to tell me that he extracts something from a nose every week or so, but in fact, he said the things-in-noses visits averaged three or four a year.

“I would have thought it would be more,” I said. “What kinds of things do kids put in their noses?”

“Mostly vegetables,” he said. “Beans, peas, things like that. Also, little stones.”

He finished writing on the billing report and handed it to me.

“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever pulled out of someone’s nose?”

Dr. Rock thought for a moment and then said, “A high-heeled shoe.”

I gasped. “A shoe?!”

“Belonging to a Barbie,” he clarified, raising his substantial eyebrows. Still, he didn’t smile. Silly, hysterical mother who doesn’t supervise her kid well enough to prevent the introduction of foreign objects to the nasal cavity. Then he shook our hands and left the room.

For her trouble, Ella got a purple Care Bear sticker, which she stuck in the bag with the sticky eye—the googliness of which seemed intensified, or maybe, somehow animated for the time it had spent in a living body. Eek.

*   *   *

The next morning at breakfast, I asked Ella why she did it. What, I wanted to know, compelled her to stick that googly eye in her nose?

“I thought it would be different,” she said, looking sad.

Oh, I thought, yes! That’s it. Ella’s assessment explained a lifetime of my own biggest mistakes. I thought it would be different.

As a kid, when I jumped off the roof of the house with a garbage bag as a parachute, I thought it would be different. In high school, when I signed up for that course in trigonometry, I thought it would be different. Still in high school, when I climbed into the Jeep with the way-too-old-for-me boy who’d been drinking Blue Hawaiians out of a milk jug, I thought it would be different. Having survived and made it to college, when I stuck out my tongue and accepted the proffered tab of LSD at the Oregon Country Fair, I thought it would be different. Later, in graduate school, and certainly old enough to know better, when I traipsed after my girlfriend in the steaming, snake-infested Alabama woods at midnight to find a skinny-dipping hole, I thought it would be different. When I was laboring with Ella and I refused to let the nurse find a vein and put in a heplock, I thought it would be different.

*   *   *

In all of these unfortunate circumstances, before I stepped forward and entered my own mistake, too deep to extract my- self without feeling the pain or embarrassment or both of my own bad choice, I thought it would be different. I neglected to consider how hard the ground, how unfathomable the function, how drunk the driver, how potent and troubling the drug, how thick the underbrush, and how much a woman can bleed. What, then, had I wanted? How had I thought it would be different? Well. I thought the bag might catch the air and carry me, like a paratrooper or a butterfly, gently to the ground; I thought my mastery of sines, cosines, and tangents—Some Old Hippie Caught Another Hippie Tripping On Acid—might elevate me to another level of intellectual superiority in my high school; I thought the boy in the Jeep might think me adventurous and cool, and in return, would love me; I thought the LSD might take me somewhere beautiful, away from the stinking port-a-potties and patchouli of the dusty fair to a place of pure happiness; I thought the swimming hole would be right down the road, just five minutes, and that the Alabama moon shining on the water would illuminate everything; and I thought I would give my baby safe and natural passage into this world without drugs or intervention. On this last one, thank God, I got what I wanted—sort of—but I did have to receive a blood transfusion to counter what my doctors surely considered a grave misjudgment.

I thought it would be different. Of course. I wondered what Ella had wanted when she stuck that eye up into her nostril. What had her desired outcome, that different ending, looked like to her? “Different how?” I asked, watching her listlessly skewer a piece of waffle with a toothpick.

She couldn’t say. “I thought it would be different,” she repeated, as if that were all I needed to know, all I deserved to know. Maybe she thought the big googly eye wouldn’t slide so easily into her nostril, but would dangle humorously from the end of her nose and make everybody laugh. Maybe she thought she could stick things all over her face, as she and her babysitter had done to the monkey faces, and in this way become a kind of living craft project. Or maybe the giggling nurses were on to something. Maybe she thought if she stuck an eye up her nose she would be able to see the inside of her body.

Whatever the answer, Ella either didn’t know or she wasn’t telling, but what struck me as I watched her crunch down her apple slices was what she already knew about what we humans do when we mess up. Not even three, and Ella had known she shouldn’t tell. Her mistake would be her secret. How did she know that? Had we already modeled concealment for her? I gripped my coffee cup like a talisman, holding onto the lesson of the googly eye. I knew if I let that instinct for cover-up stick in my daughter, and deepen, the next big error would be mine to regret.

“Can I play now?” Ella asked. I nodded and she slid down from her booster seat, dutifully parroting Dr. Rock’s good ad- vice, using the not-so-royal “we” of adults talking to children. We NEVER put anything in our ears or noses.

Right.

But then, what if we could stick googly eyes in our noses to see the dark secrets of our bodies? How cool would that be?

Author’s Note: Seven years have passed since the googly-eye incident, and Ella is now a sophisticated ten-year-old with a six-year-old brother to keep an eye on. She has never forgotten Dr. Rock’s admonition about all that we must never, never put in our noses. (In fact, apparently she’s still peeved about his tone. “I was three,” she says now. “And Dr. Rock was talking to me as if I’d just committed some terrible crime. I was three! I didn’t know!”)

Jill Christman‘s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and in 2011 was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies.She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com.

 

Trusting Your Parenting Instincts: Two Perspectives

Trusting Your Parenting Instincts: Two Perspectives

Do you have a “gut feeling” that helps you make decisions about your children or do you rely on a mixture of logic, trial and error, and expert advice? Olga Mecking found that her maternal instincts were not all they were cracked up to be. Amanda Van Mulligen discovered that she parents best when she follows her own internal compass.

 

My Parenting Instincts Don’t Work

By Olga Mecking

woman-reading-bookWhen I was pregnant for the first time, I expected there would be a little voice in my head—a maternal “instinct”—that would explain how best to bathe, feed, care for my newborn and how to get her to sleep.

Throughout the pregnancy, however, the voice remained silent. I didn’t know what was or wasn’t “normal.” I didn’t know whether the pains in my abdomen meant I was having a miscarriage or whether they were simply a result of my body expanding to accommodate the baby. While everyone told me there was no way I would miss being in labor, I didn’t realize I was actually about to give birth until I arrived at the hospital and the midwife confirmed I was 9cm dilated. And, of course, I expected that my body would know how give birth (“You’re designed for it!”). It absolutely did not.

I felt like a failure, but hoped my parenting instincts would wake up once my daughter was born. When she finally arrived into this world, though, there was no inner voice to help me out, only her cries and my silent pleas for sleep. I felt alone and I was miserable.

I confided in an old friend. I told her that I thought the concept of a parenting “instinct” was a big fat lie. She said she believed that mothers usually knew what to do; they just had to find the courage to do it.

I felt clueless but slowly, and steadily, began to figure things out. I still remember the day my parenting instinct first presented itself. My daughter, maybe six months old at the time, was crying. She wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t tired, she had a clean diaper on. I cuddled with her but nothing was calming her down. And then I heard the little voice in my head, saying: “She’s too warm, take off her tights!” And that voice was right, the crying stopped immediately, as if by magic, after I undressed her! I felt so powerful, so wise, so knowing. Finally it seemed like I had a grip on the situation.

Since that voice established itself in my head, I assumed it would be consistently right. That’s what everyone was telling me: “Trust your instincts,” “You’re the parent, you know best,” “Follow your gut.” I started paying attention and the little voice was useful in some circumstances, but it completely missed the point in countless others. Over and over again, it told me to overreact when there was nothing to worry about, such as a stranger innocently smiling at my child. It also requested that I do nothing in cases when taking action would have been preferable. When my parents-in-law pointed out that my little girl could benefit from physical therapy, for instance, the voice told me that everything was fine. But it turned out the therapy was very much needed.

I’ve come to realize that the idea of a foolproof parenting instinct is a myth. It is not an inherent thing we all have that kicks in upon conception. Some mothers have to learn everything, slowly and painfully, through trial and error, through laborious research. And going with “your gut” will not always provide the best solution. We want to pretend it will, because that would provide a simple answer for all of the complicated issues our children face.

“You are the expert on your child.” I hear this often. And I agree: there are things I know about my children that no one else does, their particular likes and dislikes, how long it takes them to get used to new environments. But I don’t expect to know every ailment they have, or whether a delayed milestone is indicative of a problem or not, and that is why I consult an expert. Maybe there are parents who have it, that “gut feeling,” that “little voice” that predicts everything accurately about their kids. But I think the majority of mothers don’t and we choose whichever course of action seems most reasonable or logical at the time.

Nowadays, I don’t expect my parenting instincts to be right. Instead, I consider the possibilities, weigh the pros against the cons, find a solution that works and adapt or discard it if it doesn’t produce the results I want. I consult various voices, not only the one in my head. I ask family, friends, yes even strangers on the Internet, because the more information I have, the better I can understand the problem and find a fitting solution—not just a solution that “feels” right.

Olga Mecking lives in the Netherlands with her German husband and three children. Find her at: The European Mama .

 

My Parenting Instincts Are Usually Right

By Amanda van Mulligen

pregnant-woman-meditatingI’d been a mother for a few years before I learned to follow my instincts, to trust the gut feeling that shows up when it’s decision time. Becoming a mother illuminated how powerful and intuitive my internal compass is.

During my first pregnancy I had no idea what to expect of motherhood. I muddled my way through babyhood and toddlerhood with my first son. My shelves sighed under the weight of parenting books, full of conflicting advice which I tried to make sense of. By the time my second son was born three years later, I realized I was mothering instinctively; I merely dipped in and out of books or advice on the Internet. By the third baby, I was able to detect infinitesimal changes in the way my children breathed, how they smelled and in their emotional reactions.

I’ve been with my children since the minute they came into the world. I have watched them grow from helpless babies into increasingly self-sufficient young boys. Along the way I figured out that no one knows a child’s own version of normal better than his mother.

No matter which qualifications a professional holds, be it a doctor or a therapist, they come into a family’s life and take a snapshot of a child at a single moment in time. I, on the other hand, have a rolling film in my mind of every moment since my sons were born. While I have respect for the expertise of a professional with years of training and experience, I am confident that I am a qualified expert on my own children as well. I know things about them that no doctor or therapist could possibly know. When my instinct tells me a doctor needs to probe further, I have learned to trust that unconscious feeling.

I felt instinctively, for example, that a child therapist was on the wrong track with my five-year-old son. I sensed she was wasting her time with elaborate and costly tests to determine the root cause of his explosive emotional outbursts. My instinct told me that my son’s meltdowns were the result of his highly sensitive personality traits, that they were a part of his character and not an underlying behavioural disorder. I voiced my feelings quietly. We moved in circles for months, months of strain and stress on my family whilst a cause was sought. Eventually the child therapist declared my son free of any behavioral disorder and said he was, in all likelihood, indeed just a highly sensitive child. I learned then to listen to my instinct, to listen hard, and to honor my instinct with a loud, authoritative voice.

It is my instinct, guided by experience, that tells me when to push my highly sensitive son to try a new extracurricular activity, and when to leave him be. His former schoolteacher insisted we should give judo lessons a second chance, that it would be a good way to boost his self-confidence. While I agreed with her reasoning, I knew that the scenes in the changing room—the tears and the reluctance—would be as harrowing as they were the first time. Her advice was sound, but not for my child. I can see the limits of my children that are invisible to others.

I relied on the same instinct when I postponed enrolling my reluctant four-year-old son in swimming lessons. He’s eight now and as competent in the water as any of his classmates, despite his later introduction to formal instruction. Similarly, I trust my decision to acknowledge my son’s fear of being alone and co-sleep with him. My gut in this regard is to ignore the grim warnings from an online world of parenting doomsayers and to find my own path through, one that works for my family.

It’s not just because of my years of parenting experience that my instinct deserves to be listened to. It’s reaching the mid part of my life. I’m now in my 40s and I know myself better than ever before. Through learning that my children are highly sensitive I have come to realize that I am sensitive too. I understand myself.

Relying on my instinct doesn’t mean I don’t seek help from experts; I listen to the advice of others and will continue to do so. I don’t abandon all logic and reason: feeling something is not the same as knowing something. However, the best parenting advice I ever received from an expert is “follow your heart and do what works for your family.”

I am a mother who has learned to listen to the voice inside, whether it calls for caution or reassures that things will work out fine. I know by now to respect that feeling in my gut, to let my instinct take center stage, which is where it should be.

Amanda van Mulligen lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and three sons. Find her at:  Expat Life with a Double Buggy.

The Unfine Art of Raising Twins

The Unfine Art of Raising Twins

By Francie Arenson Dickman

unfinearttwins

Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike.

 

The last weekend of every May, I stock up on tickets and Exederin and brace myself for the two-day storm of overlapping dance recitals. We bounce between auditoriums in different cities to see shows that are worlds apart. From the beautiful world of Russian ballet, with numbers called Waltz of the Hours and music by Tchaikovsky to the underworld of hip hop, a dark and dirty counter-culture where they do dances called Haters to music by Wiz Khalifa.

“You can’t call this dancing,” says my father, my 84-year-old tap-dancing, Vaudeville performing, Gershwin loving father. He convulses in his seat as my daughter convulses on stage.

But dancing it is. I am used to it by now, not just the gyrations but the dancing between extremes, the whiplash of raising twin girls, the parenting of equals who occupy separate spaces. It’s not what I expected but after 13 years I have my dance down as much as they have theirs’. My father, not so much.

“Can’t you get her to go to dance class with her sister?” my father hollers as Lady Gaga belts out Born this Way—a concept he obviously doesn’t buy.

Like I do every year, I shake my head. “No.”

They started out going together, my daughters did. Back when they were both dancing in my belly while I was consuming sausages and books with deceptive titles, titles akin to the numbers in the ballet recital, like The Joy of Twins. I can tell you now that any book on raising twins worth its baby weight in gold would have been called something more hip-hop, like Load Up on Your Lorazapam, Ladies, and Hunker Down for the Ride. Because there is no ballet in raising twins. It’s an art that’s imprecise and anything but pretty.

According to the books, I was to make a concerted effort to help my twins develop their own identities. At the time, this made sense. Who wouldn’t want her own identity? So, instead of buying two stuffed bunnies, I bought one stuffed bunny and one stuffed pig. One pink onsie, another purple—coordinated combinations, similar enough to mark them as a duo, but distinct enough to allow people tell them apart.

Then they were born. One with blond hair and blue eyes. The other with brown hair and brown eyes. Different enough in appearance to suspect confusion in the fertility lab. Different enough in being to suspect that different colored onsies wouldn’t be needed to establish my daughters’ separate identities.

Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike. As infants, twins meant one baby with colic, another with a constant smile. One who loved the stuffed pig, the other who wanted nothing to do with stuffed animals at all. In preschool, twins meant one who jumped out of the car without looking back, the other who had to be pried out of her seat in hysterics. In grade school it meant one who loved to read, another who wouldn’t. And now, twins means one who headsprings in high tops, the other who echappe’s in this white long gown, the kind of costume, my father told me during the ballet portion on the day, both of his granddaughters should be wearing.

“Not according to the books,” I might have told him but again, I didn’t need to go by the book because the hip-hop daughter did it herself. “Not on your life,” she told my father. “I’d never wear that. It’s not me.”

The question I would have liked to have asked her but didn’t because I’m sure no one—neither my daughter nor the books—has the answer is: why not? Is the dress not her because it’s just not her or is the dress not her because it is her sister? To the extent that Twin A is influenced by Twin B (and vice versa), how far will my girls go to seek out their own identities? And why did the books instruct me to go out of my way to make sure it happens when, at least in my house, it seemed to happen on its own? I never organized separate playdates or outings with grandparents like I was instructed to do. I was too busy running in opposite directions, first at the park and now to the recitals, to organize anything. For my sanity, I had to ditch the script and move to the beat of my children’s respective and very different drums.

My father would benefit from doing the same. “You can’t compare what the two of them are doing,” he continues to grumble.

“No, you can’t,” I tell him. And, according to conventional wisdom—which went out the window at my daughters’ one-week weigh-ins—you shouldn’t. Comparing twins is a Cardinal sin. But c’mon, who among us mothers of multiples has not, at the annual doctors visit, analyzed (at least to ourselves) one child’s height against the other’s? Certain traits are begging for it. The oldest. The tallest. The bigger foot. The thicker hair. Or, dare I admit, the better grades. That’s called keepin’ it real, the book might say if it was written by Wiz Khalifa, with the added footnote to compare and contrast all you want, mamas, but know it won’t mean anything because, from the physical to the personal, traits of twins, especially teen-aged ones, are constantly in motion.

For a time, the ballet dancer loved to talk, the hip hopper was quiet. Now, it’s the other way around. Just as I was ready to award the neatest room prize to the hip hopper, I found a rotten pizza beneath her nightstand. They are, like all people, too fluid to peg down. In fact, the only constant I’ve observed (one which the books should have mentioned because it is a bright spot in an otherwise muddled world) is that my kids rarely occupy the same space in emotion or opinion, at the same time. We have few five alarm fires because they figured out long ago, maybe even in utero, that when one is in the dog house, it’s the other’s time to shine.

The book of all books, the Oxford English Dictionary, assigns several definitions to the word twin. The first definition reads: One of two children or animals born at the same birth. The second definition is: A person or a thing exactly like another. In many ways, it seems my girls fall under the first definition—children who simply share a birth date. Yet, they also share recital dates. And clothes, friends, teachers, and the grandfather from whom they got their dancing genes. So maybe my twins sit somewhere in the middle on the twinness scale. A scale which slides from day to day. Up and down, back and forth, and I move too, as they do.

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.

Unsolicited Child Training Tip #1: Benign Neglect

Unsolicited Child Training Tip #1: Benign Neglect

dreamstime_l_31086967By Dawn S. Davies

A few years ago, one of my daughters, who was happily and healthily bored, was outside coloring the bark of a tree red with Kool-Aid powder mixed in oil.  Kool-Aid is a wonderful permanent dye that I suspect may color-fossilize the small intestine of anyone who drinks it. Kool-Aid stains never go away. If I ever got into tattooing, I would consider using Kool-Aid powder to mix my pigments, seeing that my mom has a Kool-Aid stain on her counter top that I put there 25 years ago, which has proven itself immune to bleach.

So anyway, my 12-year-old daughter mixed some Kool-Aid up with water, and some with oil, and spent an afternoon trying to figure out which one held a stain better.  Earlier in the afternoon she had done some noninvasive animal testing on her little brother by trying to dye his Mohawk red with Kool-Aid, and had moved on to the bare, stubbley sides of his head above the ears, and then, punitively, beyond—on his face and neck, since her brother was breaking one of the cardinal rules of little brotherhood: he was Speaking Too Much, and she must always Put Him In His Place whenever she accidentally found herself enjoying a quality moment with him.

Disgusted with the camaraderie, my daughter left her brother dripping Kool-Aid stains so far down his naked torso that he began to stain his own butt crack, and went out front to see what she could do with the leftover Kool-Aid mixture.  She spied the dog.

“Comere, Rocks,” she said.

The dog cowered under our truck as if he were about to get a bath, not knowing that he had escaped the much more humiliating fate of pink-stained blonde terrier fur.

So my daughter started pasting the Kool-Aid and oil into the crevices of the bark of a big tree, and began to race stripes of it down to the bottom. She was naming the stripes in honor of famous Thoroughbreds when she spied a friend of hers getting out of her mom’s car.

“Hey…ya wanna come color this tree bark with me?” asked my daughter. “Uh, I dunno. I have to check my schedule,” said the friend. My daughter’s arms dropped to her sides, staining her shorts and thighs.

“You have a schedule?” my daughter and I said in unison.

“Sure, “she shrugged. “Don’t you?”

It is true. My daughter’s friend, even smack dab in the middle of summer, had a schedule of activities that she followed, which included strength training, speed and agility specialization, soccer practices, and soccer games, not to mention soccer meetings. She was twelve.

We have met so many kids like this throughout the years that, in comparison, my children appeared to be neglected slackers, since I purposefully did not book too many scheduled activities for them. Sure, my kids played sports, but they also played with stuff. I let them take apart my old small appliances and electronics that broke down, then I let them remake them into little cities on the floor.  I let them paint furniture, set up fish tanks, breed mice, cut up cloth to sew clothes for the dog, and take the boat out alone for miles in the canals in our neighborhood. Doing these things without a hovering parental drone to correct or second-guess them allowed them to expand their abilities to take care of themselves, make sensible decisions, get out of scrapes, and do things without needing approval, not to mention it left me alone for two seconds, which is important to my survival and theirs, because I am not a natural lover of children, noise, chaos, questions, or even bright light most of the time

We are the trailer trash of our solidly middle class, suburban neighborhood. I cut my family’s hair. We drive used cars and repair them in the driveway. We light firecrackers in the backyard just for fun. We do rocketry — sometimes with real rockets and sometimes with Diet Coke and Skittles. We do our own house repairs. We buy used everything except socks and shoes and underwear. We take clippings of other peoples’ plants and plant them in our own yard.  If everyone who lives on our block donated one of their luxury car payments to, say, Angola, there would be enough money to feed and deworm every child in that country for a quarter of a year, and as such, I am sure some of our actions are viewed as “low-rent” by our neighbors, but we don’t care. Our kids have grown up grubby, active, usually happy, occasionally busy, and sometimes bored.

Some of the best learning, thinking and creativity come from bored kids. Here’s how you train bored kids to become people who can amuse themselves while stretching their creativity:

Turn off the television, put away the video games, and ban the internet for a significant part of each day. Let your kids get so bored that they start plucking at their shirts and whining and pacing about the house. Suggest to them a “fun” activity, such as scrubbing grout, cleaning out their closets, or organizing that little drawer in the kitchen that holds all the old batteries, solar calculators, stubs of colored pencils and orphan power cords.

After you suggest these truly awful ideas, quietly set out a pile of magazines, some glue and glitter and scissors and paper in the middle of the table. Ignore the little whiners and start washing the windows. See what they do. When they ask you if they can use it, don’t say “yes,” because then they will think you want them to do it.  Instead say, “I don’t care, just don’t cut each other up,” and go about your business. They will be drawn to the glitter and glue as if they were candy, and they will make you some fine art. Later, do not bitch about the glitter you find everywhere: your shoes, your toothbrush, the baby’s labial folds, the refrigerator, or in your husband’s beard. They should not be punished for this activity in any way.

Or, put an empty bowl, a spoon, and a box of brownie mix on the counter and leave it there while you are doing whatever it is you do at home. Don’t speak except when spoken to, because you don’t want them to think you care.  Sing loudly to yourself. Do not say the word “brownies” because if you suggest to them that they might want to bake the brownies, they will decline, as they know that if you have brought it up, it must be Educational, and therefore something to avoid. Out of the corner of your eye, watch them bake brownies on their own. Do not yell at the mess that arises from this foray, and do not grumble to yourself when, later that night, you step in a drying piece of brownie splatter that pastes your sock to the floor.

Or, get some old telephones, appliances, or speakers from bulk trash or yard sales. Give your kids some tools. Let them take stuff apart, and put it back together again. What better way to learn about technology than to understand the mechanics of some of it? When my husband was nine years old he built a floating wall for his parents’ Colorado home, to accommodate the swelling and heaving of the basement walls. He was the type of kid to take apart appliances and put them together and he grew up to be an engineer. I still count on my fingers and can’t match the right Tupperware lid shapes to the bottoms, but I do okay in life overall, so mechanical lack is survivable. If they can’t put the eviscerated gadgets back together, no matter: their futures are not hopeless. Let them count and categorize the bits, or draw them. Let them use a slingshot to launch the prongier spare parts into a hunk of old cardboard you lean up against the side fence in your yard. Maybe instead of engineers, they will be marksmen or markswomen. Or inventory specialists, or deconstructionists.

And I know it sounds like child abuse, but send your children outside with a watch and a bottle of sunscreen, and tell them not to come in for at least 45 minutes. If you give them some jars, they can collect bug carcasses, strange leaves, birds’ nests, wild herbs, chunks of bark or other natural bonne bouches. You can have a show-and-tell when they get back in, after you have a nice bath with a book, or catch up on some of your own work.

Are these activities really less valuable than a summer of elite soccer training, enrichment courses, or time spent online? Despite modern society’s drive to create mini-me child prodigies who specialize in something that will ensure a Full Ride somewhere down the line, I am certain that these free, borderline-chaotic exercises are just as valuable. In fact, I think untimed, unfettered activities give their minds freedom to think more creatively, in the way people used to think before technology crept into our lives like kudzu.

Some people call my parenting style lazy, but I call it benign neglect. When done well, it can add a boost of independence and creative thought for your children that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. If they learn to keep themselves occupied without becoming bored after five minutes away from television or the iPad, they will be well on their way to being lifelong learners, and hopefully immune to the constant need for external stimulation, which to me, is far more valuable than twenty-four hundred dollars’ worth of summer agility training, and well worth the slog of time it will take to bleach the Kool-Aid stains, scrape up the dried brownie, and pick the tiny shards of glitter out of everything you own.

Author’s Note: One of my daughters recently thanked me for parenting her the way I did—denying them TV time and unfettered access to technology, and, horror of horrors, dragging them to the library every week. Best of all: she said she plans to raise her kids the way we raised her. I guess I wasn’t an evil despot after all.

Dawn S. Davies (www.dawnsdavies.com) lives in the South. She is the mother of a blended family of five kids. Her work can be found in River Styx, Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere.

Photo: © Elista | Dreamstime.com

There When I Need You

There When I Need You

By Stephanie Farrell

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.59.26 PMMy mom often joked that the second baby should be called “the nervous breakdown baby.” I’d have found this funnier if I hadn’t been her second baby and if she hadn’t subsequently had a nervous breakdown. Now, with two children of my own, my stepfather reminded me that I am the same age she was when she was hospitalized. It was a gentle nudge, his way of telling me not to take on too much, but it made me feel like my biology has faulty wiring. Now on those days when I feel isolated or exhausted, I picture an old kitchen timer, ticking louder and faster right before the buzzer goes off. Time’s up—this is all you can take, no more.

In the years before her breakdown, Mom put on a fabulous act. She was Supermom. She set up a preschool in our garage and taught all the neighborhood kids. She taught us how to bake cookies, make collages, and collect bugs. She would make up stories about Mrs. Carter, a little old woman in tennis shoes who secretly rode a motorcycle. Much like the fictional character Mrs. Pollifax, created by Dorothy Gilman more than a decade later, Mrs. Carter was often hired by the CIA for international adventures. Mrs. Carter, much like my mom, led a double life.

Every morning Mom would say that she needed to put on her face. She meant her make-up; she’d rarely stray out of the house without it. But my mom put on a face all the time, a happy face that belied what lurked inside. She wore it to Garden Club and League of Women Voters and to Little League games and to my Brownie meetings. She wore it with her neighbors. She wore it with most of her friends. Underneath the face, she was hurting. Despite her joke, I know that we didn’t cause her nervous breakdown (okay, I say that only after a few years of therapy myself), but we probably hastened its arrival.

My mom’s mom, who wore a capable-Mormon-mother-of-six face, became a closet alcoholic. Grandma was recovering from her own childhood; she’d had to raise her siblings in poverty when she was just a kid herself. At her best, she could make a mean lemon meringue pie while at the same time assisting my grandpa, a doctor, with his patient on her kitchen table. At her worst, she said horrible, not-to-be-repeated things to my mother. Since they weren’t to be repeated, my mom didn’t repeat them. She didn’t speak of them. She didn’t laugh at them. She just stuffed them down and put on her face and carried on.

I have learned a lot from my mom. One of the things I learned is that you can be in a great deal of despair and still get up and put cereal on the table and change a dirty diaper. You can take the kids to Monroe Falls every day in the summer, teach them to swim, and laugh at their antics even though you secretly long to die. You can sing silly songs to them, read stories, and comb their long hair, being gentle because it’s so tangled. And you can act like everything is okay and fool most of the people most of the time. But not your kids.

I knew my mom was sad. I knew it at an early age. It was my job in the family to cheer her up, keep her happy, and do what I could do so that on the rare occasions when my dad was home, everything was fine. If that meant keeping my sister quiet, I would distract her. If it meant bringing my dad slippers and his newspaper, I fetched. I was my mom’s cleaning helper. I also became the entertainer, remembering ?funny stories to share? with her.

I also know that each ?of us has a breaking?point. When my mother ?reached hers, she finally got ?help. Though kids can add? pressure to a stressful life,? they are also a tether to ?remain on this side of the? grass. She felt the tug of us even ?when she was in a locked ward making brown-glazed piggybanks and pink crocheted slippers. When she got out, her face wasn’t so firmly on. She would allow cracks to be seen. She would say she was sad. She told us that for years she had tried to be perfect and that it was a mistake—we are not perfect.

My mother taught me a profound lesson. You are allowed to get help, but don’t wait until you desperately need it. I am determined not to follow her lead into the hospital, to sedatives and group therapy with permanent locked-ward residents. So in my own recovery process, I have learned to shed more of the face, to be out there with my feelings. I also find tremendous comfort in my faith. As a Christian, I easily acknowledge my imperfections and rely on God’s grace. I also like the promise that God is not going to give us more than we can handle. (To which my brother likes to quip, “God must sure think a lot of us.”)

When I became a mom five years ago, my mom drove out from her home in Ohio to South Jersey as soon as I went into labor. Our son, Daniel, was born while she was en route. She stopped by the hospital at the tail end of her drive. I looked at his tiny little feet next to my big feet and then over at my mom. “You’ve known me since my feet were this small,” I told her. I was filled with love; I got it for the very first time how intensely a mother can love a child, and I realized that this is how much she cared for me.

She was full of nervous energy that visit and my house seemed to be her best outlet. She scrubbed the bathtub, made the laundry room sink sparkle, polished the wood floors, and swept the driveway. I think she rearranged my cupboards, too. I haven’t been able to find my small bowls since.

Three years later she flew out again, this time not to celebrate a birth but to join me in grieving. I had had two miscarriages in a row. The first one knocked me off my feet. I was at fourteen weeks and the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat, so he ordered an ultrasound. The screen showed an empty womb, the baby almost disintegrated. I was heavy with grief and sobbed for days like I had never cried before. But the doctor told me that what had happened was very rare: I could have done nothing to prevent it, and there was just a one percent chance of its happening again. Five months later, I learned something about percentages. I had “vu jà dé”— it’s like “déjà vu” except it has all happened to you before, just a little differently.

The second time, I was eleven weeks, at a regular check-up, and again no heartbeat. I stood in a doorway at the doctor’s office, just where I’d stood before, while they called to order the ultrasound. If it happens again, I told him, I’m going to fall apart. Someone is going to have to come and pick up the pieces. This time there was a fully formed baby, but it was no longer alive. My mom came to pick up the pieces.

She was again there for me, but not in the way I expected. Daniel was then two and a half and ready to be potty-trained, she declared. I said, Knock yourself out. And I meant it. Potty-training was the last thing in the world I cared about. Really, I didn’t care about anything, not eating, not sleeping, not anything. It was the first time in my life when I couldn’t make any kind of decision. And there my mom was having this incredible bonding experience with my son, the trips to the bathroom a special adventure for the two of them. After three days, the job was finished. Daniel was dry through naps and at night. I am still amazed at this, but at the time, I wanted to yell, I am the one who needs help. Every now and then she would show up on the screened-in porch where I planted myself early in the morning and stayed parked all day. She’d let me cry for a minute or two and then would leave again. After a week, I started to make meals. “I put those dishes in the sideboard, not there,” I told her. “Hey, we recycle!” I’d say, pulling a two-liter bottle out of the trash can. She smiled at my irritation, happy to see that I was beginning to engage in life.

Many months later my husband and I somehow summoned the desire to try again, and this time everything went fine. Our daughter, Emily, arrived with lots of hair and bright blue eyes. My mom was thrilled. She loaded her car down in pink packages for her first granddaughter and made the drive out. Yet again, I sat on the porch, this time content to nurse and read and drink lemonade. Mom’s nervous energy returned and this time she attacked my yard. She weeded, mulched, and planted. Perennials and rhododendrons appeared along our side fence, orange hibiscus along the back fence, impatiens and lilies in front of the house.

Despite previous experience, I expected her to take care of my postpartum needs: meals, diaper changes, etc. But again, she just gave me space, this time to bond with my baby on the porch, every day transforming the view of the yard from its state of neglect. Now I could look up from my book and enjoy the view rather than think, “Oh, I should really take care of that” before turning back to my novel. (I rarely let anything get in the way of a good book, especially not housework or weeding.)

On her last morning with us she gave me a pedicure on the porch, gently massaging my still-swollen ankles. With cotton balls between my toes, I cried as I watched her car pull out of my driveway. How could I take care of both of these kids and this house and do all that I am supposed to do? I was overwhelmed, mostly by sleep deprivation and by the feeling that my son had become possessed. Why else would he choose this time to pee in our closets and write on the walls?

It was a crisp fall morning a few months later when my mom called to tell me that she had cancer. The Big C. Not cancer—no one in our family has cancer, I thought. Emotional breakdowns, depression, drunk and disorderly conduct, this we understand. Nothing some rehab or Prozac couldn’t cure. Cancer is a whole different planet, one our family has never visited. My mom had always joked that she didn’t have a moderate bone in her body; she went overboard in whatever it was. Well, this time was no different. It wasn’t a little lump to be removed. It was Stage IV uterine cancer.

It was my turn to pack up the car and drive to her. I made four trips over the next four months, a total of forty hours in the car with my two kids in tow. We drove through thunderstorms, hail storms, a blizzard, and fog. I wondered whether I really knew my mom. I had this desperate need to capture her. I was panicked with a deep nagging fear that her good days were over, that I was going to watch as she slid into a period of illness that she wouldn’t recover from, that she would die. As I was driving I realized that even though she was not there for me the way I thought I needed her to be, she was there for me.

When I got to Ohio, I embraced the opportunity to mother her, for she had taught me how to do it. When she was determinedly positive, I smiled with her even though I didn’t share her optimism. I drove her to chemotherapy in Cleveland, twice through blizzards. We stopped for coffee and bagels on the way, fortifying ourselves. We had always talked about making a quilt together. With no time to waste, we worked on a quilt wall-hanging while we watched the I.V. drip, drip, drip into the hole in her chest for six hours.

She didn’t look like a cancer patient at first. “I always wanted to be a blonde,” she said when she first showed me the wig she’d picked out. She had a head shaving party, inviting her friends to a day at the salon. Later, when her head got itchy at a chemo session, she shed the wig with a smile. “Guess I am having a no-hair day,” she said. Her starkly bald head, more than anything else, made the cancer real.

During the winter of her cancer, we cried together only once. I caught her on the Monday after chemo, when the effects were worst. She was honest about how terrible she felt. I blurted out how much I hated this, hated all of it, that I still needed her and that she absolutely was not allowed to die yet. Not yet, I am not ready. I don’t think I will ever be ready. But maybe when you’re in your nineties and I’m in my sixties, we can talk about it.

We cried together on the phone, my handset getting all wet. I was in the kitchen, leaning over my counter, looking out at a gray winter day. She was in her king-sized bed, confined to it for the next few days by the chemo that had wiped her out. Normally, she was distracted from the pain by the birds who visited her wooden balcony. But that day we didn’t have to talk about the birds and I didn’t have to tell her funny stories about my kids that I had saved up or about how happy I was to have organized my linen closet. I could just say, it stinks. The whole thing. Winter, living far apart, being positive, feeling sick, cancer, death.

Months later, when she had made it through chemo, the strongest stuff they can give you, the kill-ya-to-cure- ya strength, she said, “Just thank God that He has cured me of cancer.” But here’s the problem: you never really know if you are cured from cancer. When you’re on the toxic stuff, nothing is growing. So after she was done with chemo, we were in wait-and-see mode. Her face was back on, adamantly positive. I was a little kid again, knowing that everything was not all right but not allowed to talk about it.

I really wanted to call my mom this morning. There’s a terrible time in the morning when I linger between sleep and alertness—it can be a good fifteen minutes before I remember that she is dead. Our winter of cancer was followed by a spring of false hope. Then on my daughter’s first birthday, right before we cut the cake, she called to tell me that she was in the hospital. The cancer was back and she was terminal.

Our last month together was surreal. It was as if every morning she walked toward her grave, eyes wide open, but upon getting there, she found herself still standing. No? Not today? she’d ask politely. Well, okay, then. There was no more pretending. During that month, she talked about her hopes for us, and she shared how painful it was when her mom died. She gave me tips on finding mom-substitutes.

The week before she died, my mom checked into the presidential suite at the spa. It was there that I saw her for the last time. She treated me and her two sisters to pedicures and manicures, facials and massages. The next day I brought the kids there for a swim in the pool. When we were done, we said goodbye, and she and my aunts climbed into the hot tub. I tried to do our funny goodbye schtick—you say goodbye, walk away, then come back and say goodbye again. But she had already turned after my first goodbye; she was laughing with her sisters and didn’t hear me. I stood there in the hallway, holding my kids’ hands, looking at her. It was as if her trial with cancer had crystallized her, like a fire burning away all but the core. What endured was her strong, joyful spirit, determined to live a full life to the very end. I left, knowing I had just seen my mom for the last time, but I smiled at the kids. In the car, I put on their favorite Sesame Street tape and cranked up the volume so they wouldn’t hear me weeping.

In some way that I can’t fully put my finger on, it feels significant that my mom died just after my daughter was born. When I talked to my ob-gyn about my own risks for cancer—and told him, wasn’t it crazy, but I might want to have another child—he assured me that it wasn’t. The alpha and the omega, he said. The alpha and the omega.

Author’s Note: Since writing this essay, my father’s been physically and mentally ill and I’ve had two more miscarriages. What are you doing to take care of yourself? my mom would ask. I’d tell her that when I can find the words, I pray or write. When the words won’t come, I quilt. I just finished a quilt for my daughter Emily (now two), that is made from her outgrown sleepers and my mom’s flannel nightgowns. It felt like a tangible way to recognize my role in connecting these two generations.

Stephanie Farrell lives in Vineland, New Jersey, with her husband, Peter, and their two children. She does freelance work for her regional newspaper. This was her first essay published in a magazine.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

Ground-Level Memories

Ground-Level Memories

By Jennifer Fliss

ground-level

When I ran a search for “parents with disabilities,” all that came back were articles and experiences on raising a child with disabilities. Scores and scores and scores and probably not nearly enough if you are the parent of a child with special needs. But still, it was not what I was looking for.

I am a full-able-bodied new mother. However, my own mother, who lives nearby and wants to play a visible role in her granddaughter’s life, is not. She is 62 and walks, not very well, with a walker. What started as a limp when she was young has degenerated to an almost lack of mobility in her legs. As a child, I was bullied and only one of the frequent taunting refrains was about my mother being a “cripple.” As if that made her less of a person. As if that made me, her child, less of a person.

It is true that it has made things difficult. For years I’ve had to help her with stairs, walk her to the bathroom, provide the sturdy arm that I always thought should be the parents’ responsibility to their children. It is something I struggle with. Often. But it is also something I’ve had to just get over. Be okay with. Not easy.

When I moved from New York to Seattle, my mother followed. When I had a baby, naturally she wanted to spend time with her grandchild. Isn’t that what so many grandparents want? But how would this work? What would she do? There would be no bouncing on the knee, no pushing in swings (as I remember my mother doing for me, while singing Elvis songs), no walks to the duck pond (as I had done with my beloved grandmother), and later, no bowling or trips to amusement parks.

Of course, going through my mind were frustrations when people would say “Oh, it must be so nice to have help nearby.” The thing is, I couldn’t trust my mother to hold my daughter. In her thin and shaking arms, I was sure she would drop her. I certainly couldn’t get a breather while grandma watched over a sleeping or crying newborn. When out of my mind caring for my colicky girl, I desperately needed the help I thought a mother should provide. But, I couldn’t get it. Yes, she wanted to help. She bought us a stroller, a car seat, and myriad other baby items. But I wanted more than that. I wanted what money could not buy. I wanted someone who would hold me and tell me I was doing a great job and here, why don’t I watch her and you get a break, some sleep Sweetheart. But those fantasies never came to fruition. If my mother came to my house, I had to watch over my baby and my mother. And in that selfish time, I just couldn’t.

So, that led me to my Google search. There had to be parents or grandparents with disabilities and challenges like my mother’s. What did they do? How did they do? Surely there was some kind of online support network with resources. Here is a little game Grandma can play with an eight month old. Look at this new gadget that makes it easier to hold a baby for someone with such little body strength. Read this story on this fantastic parent and her experiences and how wonderful her children turned out. Nothing. The digital version of crickets.

What do I do then? I still struggle selfishly, but as a parent, my selfishness must be put aside for the benefit of my daughter. So, I do what I can to foster their relationship. I bring my now thirteen month old daughter to Grandma’s apartment. I set her on the ground, at the same level as her grandmother. And they laugh together. I’m never very far away. If I’m lucky I can sit up on the couch, check my email, read a book. We have gotten a wheelchair for my mother that allows us to go on walks with her. Baby in a carrier or baby backpack, or if my husband is with us, in a stroller and granddaughter and grandma tour the park next to each other, laughing at the ducks or pointing out the resident elusive heron.

I am never going to have a fully-physically able-bodied mother. It is still going to bother me sometimes; the unfairness of it. But I’m also an adult, one that, I think, turned out pretty well, despite my mother’s declining difficulties. Maybe it’s helped me learn compassion. Maybe I understand that others have situations that are worse. I have a mother. And she lives just up the street, less than a mile away. And walking doesn’t mean loving and holding doesn’t mean laughing. She cannot walk. She cannot hold her granddaughter. But she can love and she can laugh and together, they’ll make wonderful ground-level memories.

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based new mother, writer, reader, runner, and has been known to do the flying trapeze. She has written for book blogs, including The Well Read Fish and BookerMarks and other publications.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Summer Camp For All Ages

Summer Camp For All Ages

By Candy Schulman

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 2.34.48 PMI missed Amy’s first day of sleep away camp. I was in Florida, registering my mother at a senior activity center, deciding if she needed bus service and watching an eighty something man flirt with her—while my ten-year-old daughter was unpacking for camp.

Ever since my mother’s heart attack, I’d been visiting her regularly. At the age of ninety she’d finally slowed down from a busy life of competitive golf and chiseling large alabaster sculptures. Juggling my marriage, child-rearing, and responsibilities as a college professor, I was often exhausted overseeing Mom’s care 1,500 miles from my home.

At first I didn’t think I’d mind missing my daughter’s first summer separation. She’d be gone less than a week, playing soccer on a bucolic boarding school campus. Her dad was driving her up to help get settled; I’d made sure her duffle bag contained everything she needed for six days—enough sweatshirts for a sub-zero plunge, when New England was encased in an unrelenting heat wave.

There are a number of “firsts” that every mother misses: a baby’s first tentative steps that occur while we’re at work, or a wiggly tooth eased out by a school nurse. Momentarily I cheered up when Amy suggested we buy matching journals, and write to each other when we were apart. I predicted that I’d run out of pages, while Amy would document each day with something succinct: “Camp was great.” Or I could write something terse myself, using her vocab: “Life without you sucks.”

Other camps have Web sites with updates and new photos of your child daily. Other camps have e-mail addresses to write to your child. (“Use sunscreen. Eat vegetables. Drink lots of fluids so you don’t get dehydrated and throw up on the soccer field. Love, your nagging Mom.”) But Amy’s camp is only six days­. Although I haven’t yet given in to buying Amy her own cell phone, two of her friends have brought theirs … do I dare call? Or is the whole point to allow your child to experience freedom, responsibility, and independence? I want to call so badly! All I’ve gotten so far is a message from Dad: “Tell Mom my room’s really cool.” I need to know more … would she shower in six days, or consider the daily swim in the pool an act of body cleansing?

On Day Two, after touring and approving Mom’s new Senior Camp facilities and programs, I fly home. Amy calls on her friend Emma’s phone. I lunge to hear her voice, proud that I’ve held off longer than she had.

“Hi,” I say, hyperventilating. “How’s camp?”

“Good.”

Silence.

“What did you have for dinner?”

“Pasta.”

“Lunch?”

“Pasta.”

Silence.

“What are you doing now?”

“Talking to you.”

“Anything else you want to tell me?”

Her voice picks up. “We had a ping pong tournament. I came in second. I had two killers a 12-year-old boy couldn’t return.”

Ping pong? Why did I pay so much money to send her to soccer camp?

“Gotta go.” Click.

On the way to bed, I pass her room. It seems stiller than all the times she’s been to sleepover birthday parties. I empathize with the zoo of stuffed animals on her colorful striped comforter … alone … lonely … abandoned. She’d asked me to watch over her Golden Retriever, a frail yet cuddly “lovey” named Puppy, who’s been in our family since Amy was born. She still sleeps with her every night. We’ve joked that she will take Puppy with her to college. Amy is only in middle school, but friends with older kids warn me how quickly time passes; before I know it we’ll be unpacking her and Puppy in her dorm for freshman year. I don’t want to miss more “firsts” than I have to, yet I know that the older she gets, the less we will share. I place Puppy on my night table, feeling foolish when I tell her, “Good night,” the way Amy always does.

*   *   *

After work on Day Three, I go to the movies, then meet my husband for a late night out. It feels luxurious, almost decadent. I almost forget that Amy is 175 miles away. My husband and I stop for gelato on the way home, like a couple on a date without babysitter curfews. Instinctively we glance at our cell phones and look up, alarmed, when we see two missed calls from the same number: Amy’s roommate’s cell. While we were enjoying our freedom, she was needing us. I dial quickly. No answer.

At home, a small almost quivery voice on my answering machine: “Hi Mom and Dad …. It’s Amy. I was just wondering where you are. I love you. Bye.”

It’s 10:02 p.m. Do you know where your parents are? I want to be there whenever she needs me—but the older she gets, the more often she’ll have to navigate the world without me.

I finally reach her at 10:18. “How’s camp?”

Pause. “Okay.”

“What’s wrong?”

“My ankle hurts.”

“When did it start hurting?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Does it hurt now?”

“No. Only when I put pressure on it.”

“Are you crying?”

“Of course not.”

Of course she is. “Did you go to the nurse?”

“I haven’t told anyone. But I bought some tape in the canteen and taped up my ankle.”

What kind of tape would they sell? Scotch tape? What does she know about taping up ankles? What if she’s sprained it, stressed it, damaged it? What if she’s sidelined for the rest of camp? I picture her, limping on crutches, duct tape holding together her sore joint….

I make her promise to see the nurse the next morning, and then do what any other parent would do: call the dorm mother, who has no idea my kid is ailing. Amy’s school reports always say: “She never asks for help when she needs it.” Tenacious on the soccer field, reluctant to report a serious orthopedic injury. Here I fretted she was going to have heat stroke, when the real worry is that she’ll come home in a full body cast. I lay awake half the night, convinced that freedom and independence are not a good thing … not for my little girl … not for me.

*    *    *

Day Four is interminable. The phone doesn’t ring until 10:04 p.m.—again via Amy’s roommate’s cell.

I grill her, but she says her ankle doesn’t hurt anymore. She talks again about what fun she’d had playing ping pong.

“How about soccer?” I ask.

“Did I tell you about the magic sponge? The coaches have a huge sponge in a bowl of water. Whenever we get too hot, they squeeze the magic sponge over our heads and it cools us off. Like magic.”

I need a magic sponge. Only fifty-one hours to go.

*   *   *

It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t have to pick up or tend to a child. Each day I accomplish twice as much as I usually do. I cook salmon with wild mushrooms for dinner—something Amy would never eat. My husband and I have a romantic dinner alone. Then we have a fight. About nothing much really, just your average, typical, marital spat that lasts no longer than the next morning, and is indicative of how stressed we both are—by the usual daily burdens of life, coupled by our only child being Gone.

“I don’t feel comfortable when she’s not under my roof,” my husband says, after we start talking again. He, who’s always lax. I’m the overprotective one. He’s the one who went to sleep away camp as a child; I’m the one who never left home until college.

“Why? What do you think could happen?” I imagine bears, disease-ridden mosquitos, her glasses shattering from a hard-hit soccer ball, broken permanent teeth….

“Tonight’s the dance,” he says morosely.

“She’s only ten,” I remind him.

“Much too young for that sort of thing,” he says, shaking his head. I don’t confess about the micro-mini skirt I let her pack for camp.

The phone rings at 12:23 a.m. Is it an emergency with my mother? Groggily my husband misses the call. There is a message on my voice mail, which I don’t hear until morning: “Hi you guys, it’s Amy. Um, we got back really late so I didn’t call you because it’s … like twelve now, but I’ll try calling in the morning. If I have time. I’m gonna fall asleep any minute, I’m so tired. G’night.”

*   *   *

During the four-hour ride to fetch her at camp, I recall my husband reporting his phone conversation with her while I was still visiting my mother. When she said, “How’s M—” he was certain she was about to say, “How’s Mom?” Instead she asked, “How’s Macaroni?” Her hamster. It reminded me of the time in preschool, when she drew an abstract “family portrait,” and she identified the blobs of color on the page: the huge splash of purple was “Daddy,” and, pointing to a tiny speck of brown marker all the way in the bottom corner, she added, “This is you, Mommy.” Was I just a speck of brown in her whole universe?

When I get out of the car in the parking lot, I see groups of kids emerging from the cafeteria. Searching for girls Amy’s size, I soon spot her, but am unsure what to do. At Amy’s age, being coerced into hugging your mom in public will be used against you, in countless future hours on the analyst’s couch. Her roommate leaps into her mom’s arms, but she’s a year younger. Coolly I approach Amy. Gingerly, without much oomph, she gives me a perfunctory hug.

In the car I tell her to put her seat belt on. She rolls her eyes. “Sleep away camp was great—no parents to boss you around,” she growls.

It isn’t until much later, when we are alone, that Amy sits on my lap like a toddler. She plays with my hair. “I missed you,” she whispers.

“I missed you too,” I say. “A lot.”

She gives me a light kiss on the cheek.

I extend the moment, holding my little girl on my lap as long as she allows. Soon enough, she’s off and running again. Away from me, then back to me. I would have to get used to it. And so would she.

Later that night I get a phone call from my mother, documenting her first week at Senior Day Camp. She loved Chair Yoga, enjoyed “Kibitzing with Cantor Jack” and the discussion “Imagine” Bladder Control Therapy, felt foolish playing dominos and bingo, missed progressive bridge because of a dental appointment to finalize her lower bridge, and absolutely hated the meatloaf and mashed potatoes at lunch. She’s a picky eater, just like her granddaughter.

Author’s Note: Similar to many mothers I know, I juggled raising my daughter with the growing demands of looking after my aging mother, who lived 1,500 miles from our family. I saw both humor an poignancy in the parallels they both faced. Even though I wasn’t always at their sides for all the important “firsts,” both of them filled me in on what I’d missed. I couldn’t always be physically present, but they learned to thrive in my absence.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Art: Michael Lombardo

Faking Bravery

Faking Bravery

By Kristin Shaw

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Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large.

 

My mother made parenting look easy.

I grew up in the 1970s, when kids were shooed out the front door in the morning in the summer and expected back at dinnertime. My bike was my trusty steed, and my sister and I met our friends down the street for Barbie play time and races around the block. I didn’t have a cell phone, pager, or any other kind of GPS tracking device, and I don’t remember my mother ever worrying about it.

That is a testament to how well she managed her own anxiety; the anxiety I didn’t know existed until I was well into adulthood and learned that she had been actively managing hers with medication and exercise for several years already.

“Mom, how did you deal with not being able to reach us during the day?”

“I knew where you were.”

“How did you learn to let us go and be independent?” I asked her. I am the mother of a five-year-old little boy, and I get panicky leaving him at another family’s house for a playdate for a few hours. I have had to adjust, as I went back to work and traveling when he was three months old, but it was never easy for me.

I had to, she said. You had to learn how to grow up.

“I guess so. But didn’t you worry?”

I held my breath until you came home, she said, not entirely kidding.

Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large. I, too, fight the demons of anxiety, the pilot light ignited when I experienced postpartum anxiety after the birth of my son.

When he was born in the fall of 2009, it was smack in the middle of the outbreak of swine flu. My doctor told me to keep him out of the public and away from germs for a few months, and I did exactly that. I checked his breathing constantly. As he grew and I corralled my postpartum anxiety into something more diluted but still potent, I had to learn how to let him fall and learn on his own without my constant intervention.

My friend Cheryl is a family counselor in Texas, and she sees parental anxiety often. She is my anxiety sensei.

“Vigilance is inherent when becoming a parent,” she told me. “We develop keener vision, hearing, and reflexes, which enable us to better protect our tiny new ones. This level of vigilance can become too intense, crossing the line into anxiety. For those of us with a little extra imagination, the fears can take on a big screen-vivid quality which distracts us from the present moment.”

My “extra imagination” is certainly vivid. In The Lego Movie, which I have now seen dozens of times, the “Master Builders” see a 3D model of the object they are building on a virtual blueprint in their heads. When I see my son carrying a stick, I see that kind of 3D model, but my model ends not with a fully-built spaceship, but a vision of my son with a stick through his eye. My brain has turned into a set of Instagram filters all called various versions of “DANGER.”

One of my best friends has a son who is a week older than mine; we met when our boys were six months old. Her son is more adventurous than my son is, and he often chafes at the boundaries that have been set to keep him safe. He wants to scale, jump, and do things his mother might not be ready for him to do, and she has had to learn to let go of some of her own anxiety. It’s one of the things that has bonded us as friends; “I understand your crazy,” we tell each other, and we laugh.

While I work hard to bite back the words “Be careful!” to allow and encourage my son to stretch his boundaries, she has learned to let go. She told me that by holding him back and trying to keep him from doing things she perceived as too risky, they were both miserable. So she gave him more freedom and it’s harder, for her, but it’s easier in some ways, too, because he is proving he is capable.

“Dealing with your anxiety as early as possible can help you be a calmer, more focused parent,” Cheryl says as she coaches me to take a deep breath and loosen the reins. “Kids rely heavily on us to help them decipher what in the world is safe or dangerous. The goal is to be a concerned, safety-conscious person, while reminding yourself that no matter what happens, you are strong and resourceful. Your kids will see this, and have a better shot at a confident journey through life.”

Maybe being aware of anxiety and doing my best to manage it is a big step forward. Being cognizant of hovering tendencies and actively giving my son more opportunities to stretch within reasonable boundaries helps keep me on track. I WANT to give him as much free rein as makes sense. But it is extremely difficult for me as a mother with anxiety tendencies. It feels like trying to hold back a hurricane inside my head; I want to circle and hold him close to me and instead, I push the storm back down, deep inside, and put a smile on my face.

“Go ahead, honey. You can do it,” I say, while inside I am thinking, “Please don’t die.”

At this point, the challenge is not overcoming my anxiety completely, because that would require a brain transplant. It’s the not letting my son see my anxiety that I work so hard to conceal. He already has his own measures of anxiety, and whether I passed them to him through the umbilical cord or via his observations of what life looks like from my perspective, I feel guilty enough. All I can do is to fake as much bravery as I can.

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-producer of the Listen To Your Mother show in Austin. She was named a BlogHer Voice of the Year for 2014 and 2015, and has been featured at several national sites, including The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.

Photo: Breno Machado

Phantoms

Phantoms

By Rachel Pieh Jones

phantoms

It’s like the cries of our offspring have been perfectly designed to ping with a Doppler effect unique to the frequency only our ears can pick up.

 

I hear phantom voices. I’m in the bedroom and I hear “Mom” from outside and it sounds exactly like my daughter. I hear babies crying and it sounds like my babies. Except my daughter is in Kenya and I’m two countries away and the babies crying aren’t babies, they are kittens and my babies are fourteen years old now.

As soon as my twins were born I developed a powerful sense of hearing. My husband did not develop this, which makes me think it may have been in the medication I received post-surgery. At first it felt like a super power, my sense of hearing was so strong I could identify which twin was crying before my husband was even aware they were making noise. But this quickly deteriorated into the realization that, as with Spider Man, so with motherhood: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Sure, my new hearing capabilities were powerful but they meant I woke up in the middle of the night. Over and over and over. A baby cried, whimpered, coughed, rolled over, sniffled, snorted, shifted, breathed unusually heavily. I heard it from way down the hall. Since there were two babies making all these nighttime noises, I heard a lot. I didn’t sleep a lot.

During the daytime the super sensory hearing powers continued. At the playground a child would skin his knee and at the first screech I would know that I didn’t need to race toward him. Not my child. Some other mother with super hearing would already be making her way between slides and swings to comfort him. At a play group with dozens of kids and half a dozen moms, a kid would call out, “Mom!” and I would immediately respond. Not only was that now my name, but it entered my ears with the exact pitch and tone of one of my own. I was the mom being summoned to meet an urgent graham cracker, sippy cup, or bathroom need.

Moms can sit in large groups and a single, faint cry wafts in through the window. One mom will stand up and say, “That’s mine.” And almost every single time, she’s right. It’s like the cries of our offspring have been perfectly designed to ping with a Doppler effect unique to the frequency only our ears can pick up.

This is excellent for rushing to the skinned knee and for speedy graham cracker delivery. It is decent for middle of the night needs (effective, which is a good thing, but too effective, leaving my husband sleeping while I instantly wake, which is not a good thing when it happens night after night after night). It is not so excellent or decent once kids are in school.

See, the trouble is that the kids move on but our hearing doesn’t change. They are now in kindergarten and then junior high and then off to college but our ears are still designed to hear every little squeak and cry and ‘Mom.’

Now that it is not our babies or toddlers or middles calling out for Mom to please, ‘look at me just one more time,’ our hearts start to mess with our hearing.

I could be at a high school soccer game and my daughter is on the field, in front of my eyes, but I hear a little voice call, ‘Mom!’ from the parking lot and now I turn to look and I remember my daughter toddling across a gravel parking lot, lips stained red from a popsicle. Or I might be in the library, enjoying some time alone to read and write, and a baby squeaks and I turn to look and am flooded with a memory of scouring through board books with pictures of dinosaurs for my son.

These voices don’t belong to my children. They aren’t calling to me, not anymore. But I pay attention and respond with nostalgia, the feeling like when a lawn mower revs up on a quiet Saturday afternoon in June and someone else mows their grass while I lean back in a chair and sip lemonade. I pause to listen to the little voices, to wonder about the mom they are calling. It feels happy-sad, those beautiful, hard, exhausting days are mostly gone now, though not entirely. Never entirely. And it feels proud, look how far we’ve come. It feels full, brimming up and over. It feels comfortable and familiar, like home.

The kid calling for his ‘mom!’ isn’t mine, that’s true, and the swelling memories that come with it are misty phantoms rising from the past. But the word is mine and I do still hear it, just not for skinned knees and dirty diapers.

‘Mom!’

Now the call is for me to watch them learn to drive, call a girl, choose a dress, study for an exam. The voices are deeper, the call harder to discern. But my super power hearing is still there and I’ll respond because one day soon these calls, too, may turn into phantoms.

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.

Glitter and Glue: A Book Review

Glitter and Glue: A Book Review

By Rebecca Luber Sullivan

Glitter and Glue Paperback coverAn Amazon search for humor parenting books relies on the shock factor; drinking during playdates and calling whiny toddlers a-holes and letting children watch TV all day while drinking Mountain Dew out of a sippy cup. These books are a departure from the parenting books on the other extreme that put pressure on mothers to breastfeed exclusively, sleep train with military precision, and only feed kids wild raised salmon, organic berries, and quinoa. There’s something in between those extremes, which is what Kelly Corrigan recalls in her funny, yet realistic, memoir Glitter and Glue.

There are mothering memoirs and there are memoirs about mothers. The mothers I tend to read about are dramatic, glamorous, neglectful and manic: mothers of authors Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle, Wendy Lawless in Chanel Bonfire and Diana Welch and Liz Welch in The Kids Are All Right. But Kelly Corrigan’s mom, Mary Corrigan, is as steady as can be, a middle class, devout Catholic, strict and serious mother. Practical, predictable and judgmental and sometimes cold, Mary Corrigan as a mom is the opposite of Greenie, Kelly’s fun loving dad, who she adoringly wrote about in her first memoir, The Middle Place. She looked at motherhood less as a joy to be relished than as a job to be done.”

“Glitter” and “Glue” refers to Mary’s description of parenthood in the Corrigan household. She was the glue and Greenie was the glitter. Even now, in the most progressive parenting dynamics, Mom is typically the one enforcing bedtime, while Dad is the fun one, wrestling and riling up the kids when they should be calmed down. (It’s maddening!) Dads can be more fun, but moms get things done. Most Moms will be able to relate.

After college in the early 90s, Kelly decided there was no way she was going to “be just another apple rotting at the base of my mother’s tree,” or the glue, and decided to leave her entry level job to travel to Australia. Plans for glittery adventure and working abroad don’t turn out like Kelly envisions, and she ends up taking a job as a live-in nanny to care for the young children of John Tanner, a recent widower. John Tanner does his best, but the kids need their mom, or a mom-like figure.

Through his grief for his wife who died from cancer months before, John Tanner tries to hold it together for Milly (who is wary of Kelly) and little Martin (who laps up affection from Kelly). Kelly realizes what these children need is the steadiness of a mother to cook meals, check homework, and drive them to school and her twentysomething self conjures up memories of her mother to help her get the Tanner family back on track as best as she can. Kelly realizes, through caring for the family, how much her mother taught her and how she needs her mother.

Turns out that every family needs some glue, even though that glue can be so judgmental that she grouses about non-serious churchgoers who just want to see who is at Mass or only show up at Easter and Christmas to show off their outfits. Mary Corrigan’s grumpy diligence as the glue of the family and no-frills attitude, often foiled by Kelly’s desire to be a fun loving young woman, are part of what makes the book as witty as it is heartfelt.

The humor in Glitter and Glue comes not just from experiences, but Corrigan’s telling of them. When Kelly decides to start feeding the Tanner family homecooked meals, she buys ground chuck on sale at the grocery store, remembering: Once or twice a month after a sale, she’d pull a block of anemic brown turds from the freezer, slap it against the Formica to break the patties apart and voila- dinner for five!

Throughout her time with the Tanner family, Kelly reflects on her relationship with her mother. When Kelly wonders who will tell Milly about her period, Kelly remembers Mary giving her the talk and asking if Kelly had any questions. I had noticed something in the Reilly master bathroom the last time I babysat… “What’s a douche?” “Oh, Kelly!” She shrieked like I’d put a centipede on her leg. “That is dis-GUS-ting!” “It is? Even Summer’s Eve?” Mary goes on to describe a douche and then exclaims, “And to think Susan Reilly is a Catholic!”

Glitter and Glue reflects on motherhood and being mothered through the eyes of a woman in her 20s, who thinks she knows everything, but realizes how much her mother really knew all along. Someday our kids will realize this, too… Hopefully all the glue and glitter will look back with humor and love together someday.

Rebecca Luber Sullivan is the mom of a middle school girl and 2 boys (elementary school and preschool-aged). She handles PR for companies in the advertising industry, and would love to do more creative writing instead of writing press releases. www.twitter.com/@rebeccasullivan

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

LadybirdsBy Banks Staples Pecht

They call it a loveliness when thousands of ladybugs gather.

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

Several minutes later, the back door opened.

“Mom, look!”

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

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

Oh no.

“Guys, where’s the bag of ladybugs?”

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

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

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

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

Oh, NO!

I sprinted to the boys’ bedroom.

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

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

My little boys were supposed to die.

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

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

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

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

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

If they survived.

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

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

If they survived.

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

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

Where is God in all of this? I raged.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

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

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

If they survived. 

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

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

I couldn’t imagine life without them.

I couldn’t imagine life with them.

I pulled over and sobbed onto the steering wheel.

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

If they survived.

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

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

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

When they survived.

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

When they survived.

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

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

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

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

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

When they survived.

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

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

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

How? I wondered.

When they survived.

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

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

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

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

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

When they survived.

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

When they survived.

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

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

When they survived.

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

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

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

Ben caught my eye.

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

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

When we survived.

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

Fearless love. Ferocious love.

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

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

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

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

Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting

Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting

By Rachel Pieh Jones

schoolmtg

A warning to new expatriate parents: You will forever remain slightly confused. This became perfectly clear to me at a PTA meeting in Djibouti a few years ago. It wasn’t actually the PTA. But there were parents and there were teachers and they were associating. I conformed the meeting to my own cultural bias and called it the PTA.

French parents arrived ten minutes late. It took me four years of meetings to realize this and I was proud to be among the ten-minute-late-crowd. This was the last decision of the evening I made instinctively and accurately.

The room filled with French parents. Tight, pink, and short seemed to be the fashion in menswear that season. Mostly soldiers, the men were strong and stocky with quiet laughs, scant facial hair, and open stares at each other’s wives. The women were beautiful, appreciated the stares, and had come prepared for them. Cleavage-revealing tank tops, chunky jewelry, and white capris wedged up to, well, there. Tanned and toned arms, legs, and shoulders displayed tattoos of fire-breathing dragons, butterflies, flowers, and psychedelic patterns on both mommies and daddies.

Of course, I’m generalizing. There were also average looking women and men who weren’t admiring other’s wives. But this meeting was one of those expatriate moments in which I am one hundred percent aware of not belonging. My arm hair seems to vibrate with not-belongingness and I feel like my posture screams only American in the room! And so these are the moments in which I am hyper alert to who has more beautiful hair, looks sexier in jeans, exudes more confidence, is cheek-kissed by more people, and clearly has a more natural and classy eternal sense of style. In other words, this is when I, the expatriate mother, succumb to jealousy and judgment.

These other moms are expatriates too, the French ones. But they are expats in their own former kingdom. Djibouti used to be a French colony. The school is French. The language is French. The items on school supply lists are French. I think of Djiboutian women, French women, and myself as in three concentric circles. The inner circle is for those who truly belong. They are second or third generation expatriates or they are local, entirely Djiboutian. The second circle belongs to the rest of the French who come for two or three year stints. The third circle is for outside outsiders, like me. We are so far out from center that we can barely see it. We are sometimes the only one of our passport color in the vicinity. We come from Nigeria, Madagascar, Germany, the United States, Korea…

Cigarette smoke wafted into the room. I sat alone, choosing a seat which gave me a clear view of the presenter so I could watch his lips and improve my chances of understanding. The meeting started fifteen minutes later, now almost half an hour late. A man with a microphone read in a monotone voice word for word from a slide show presentation. We were there to elect the board of directors from among the parents of the elementary school and high school.

A disruption came from the back of the room as many of the Djiboutian parents arrived en masse. They chattered and greeted one another with kisses on the cheeks, re-draped loose scarves, and filled the room with perfume while the speaker droned on, introducing the candidates.

All of the French candidates were present, seated in the front and stood, silently, when their names were called. A few of the Djiboutian candidates were present, standing in the back of the room. When their names were called, they cut off their side conversations and shouted their credentials.

“I was Vice President last year at Dolto (the elementary school) and will be the best candidate this year for Kessel (the high school).”

“I used to work for the Minister of sports.”

“I have five children and am already a grandfather.”

“I used to be a national school inspector.”

I knew none of the French candidates and most of the Djiboutian ones. I was an outsider, the sole American at that particular meeting. I didn’t understand the selection process and didn’t understand the choices before me. Even when I understood the words, I didn’t know what choice to make because I didn’t understand the French educational system. I didn’t know the implications or the goals or the methods or the values. I didn’t know what to expect and I expect that I never (fully) will.

But I love my kids and want the best for them so I have continued attending these meetings over the years. They have become slightly less confusing, I know a few more people, and the number of other Americans has drastically increased. I’m still in that outer circle but I don’t mind anymore. I’ve stopped caring about beautiful hair, sexy jeans, ogling of wives, or the number of cheek kisses. I’ve made friends in all three circles now, after eleven years. Djiboutian women and French women and other expatriates from around the world. I might not fully belong in any of the groups but I can move almost seamlessly between them and I’m content. Mostly.

Now if only I could get a handle on what makes a ‘cool’ school snack at a French school or understand what happens during field trips and parent-teacher conferences…

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.

What To Do

What To Do

By Debi Lewis

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Cry, a lot, alone in your car, at intersections, without noticing the teenagers and old people and truck drivers around you, or the people at the corner stomping their feet in the cold and blowing on their hands. With the radio murmuring about wars and genocides and snow plows and someone’s book, someone’s article, someone’s question, you can heave your mother-strong shoulders together toward the steering wheel, clench your jaw and release it, clench and release, open it wide and howl, then when the light turns green, shudder and put your foot on the pedal and go, leaving it back there.

Or cry at your kitchen counter, silently, just a tear or two running down onto your collar, listening to your daughter laughing, and feeling fully and painfully how beautiful it is to give her the gift of not knowing. Wipe the tear from your finger on your pants, stare at the pot with oil sizzling around onions, and don’t see it anymore. The pot is sucked into a hole in the world. The onion smell lingers, but you can’t feed your family a smell. Come back to the world in time for a dinner across from her.

You can cry with other people watching, but not too much. Let some tears bubble out of you until they become like the flu and spread across the table, and then you must stop. Yours plus theirs are more than the sum of each set, and the table can’t contain them all, the roof will blow off the building, the other people will fly away, pulled into the typhoon of tears you can’t control. Pull yourself together. Get into the car. Get to an intersection.

You can always just run away, not really, but a little. There’s an adult way to rock in the corner with your thumb in your mouth, and so you can do it in furious motion, anywhere you like. In the shower, raging. You can imagine the wreckage of muscle, of flesh, of reaching tendons and joints bent. You can make it so your heart is visible, naked, pounding under your skin. Look at me, it says, I might just break.

What you can’t do is look at your daughter’s skin, the skin of the place they’ll cut. You can’t look there at all, you mustn’t, you’ll wrap it in fleece and cashmere and angora and mink, if you have to, you’ll cement bricks around it before you’ll look. You are, however, allowed to touch it, with your lips, in the dark or with your eyes closed. It feels like any other skin on her, soft and young and warm, smooth and brushed with the faintest scent of you, somewhere, deep, from when she was in you. Linger there, on her skin, just the right amount of time to memorize it, not so long that she’ll wonder why it’s interesting.

You can look around you and plan, gently, for what to delete from your life after. You can imagine the holes: furniture, books, clothes you could never wear again, games you could never play, places you could never go. You can picture the spaces that would emerge, the new set of choices, the caverns in your day to fill with something else.

Actually, no, you can’t.

You can list a thousand horrible things said to you and by you, you can fill up with bitter and sour, you can hurl your buckets of boiling oil at the telemarketer, the bus driver, the barista. You can dump trays of badly made food in the garbage, scrub ugly stains from the floor, throw the trash bag in the dumpster harder than you need to. You can weigh your fantasy of breaking dishes in an alley against your terror that waste is waste is waste is points against you, somewhere, from someone keeping score, someone you don’t believe is real, but just in case.

At night, while someone is sleeping next to you, you can press your hands into your chest and feel your heart push against your little finger. You can breathe into that pushing, mouth as loose as possible. You mustn’t scream, even if the dream turned out to be not a dream, but something real that’s going to happen. You mustn’t run to her room, mustn’t wake her and take her away somewhere, mustn’t steal her. She isn’t yours.

You can lie there in the dark and list the things that are real about her: the baby sounds, the feel of her head under your palm, the smell of her sweat, the songs she sings, the way she pulls a blanket to her chin on the couch. You can shoot your love straight up through the floorboards to her bed, you can jam it hard through anything until it fills her while she sleeps.

The stakes are high. You may never have thought about that phrase much before, but now, you can ponder it, sipping at the edges of the words like a bitter drink you’re supposed to be old enough to enjoy. You can picture the stakes, hammered in high above your head, holding your arms up as if there was a gun pointed at you, redundant because the stakes themselves might just kill you anyway. Those high stakes trap you so you can’t pry them out. Every word you say is designed to detract attention from what’s left you dangling, childish—or like a puppet—high in the air.

Some days, you can wait as patient as a moon, you can watch the slow flow of days pool under and around you, you can wax and wane anxious, calm, melted, spreading, colder, frozen. Several cycles of this will reveal the pattern, and so you can start watching for the next phase, planning appointments around the coldest spots, where your face can freeze into whatever shape you set.

Your books never told you about this, and you can get angry about it here and there. Someday, you might be able to crack those bindings again and see, yes, this is just a heat rash, this is a cold virus, these are growing pains. Someday, you might not. There is no someday. You are now trapped in a Mobius strip of time overlapping on itself: there is just this moment, and there are also all the moments you must plan. There are also rules for what you should or should not plan, and people who want to help and need instructions you can’t possibly write. This is how it has always been, even if you didn’t know it, and this is how it always will be, as time folds back on itself now and again later, simultaneously.

You can do whatever the fuck you want. Except that. And no one will tell you what that is.

In the end, your only real plan can be to stand on the edge of your love for her, staring out at the waves coming in, and look up at the sun. The waves will hit. The sun will be warm—sometimes warm enough, sometimes not. Stand right there. Your orders are clear.

Debi Lewis is currently at work on a memoir about her family’s experiences throughout her daughter’s journey to health. Their story is underway at www.swallowmysunshine.com.

 

Graceless: Sleep Deprived Thoughts on Raising a Chronically Ill Child

Graceless: Sleep Deprived Thoughts on Raising a Chronically Ill Child

By Amy Roost

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I have two sons. The youngest is Predicament; the eldest, Circumstance. It’s always been the case. Under the circumstance, I’m limited in what I can offer my employer. Under the circumstance I’m exhausted. Under the circumstance I’m penniless. Under the circumstance, I’m frustrated. Under the circumstance, I’m stuck. Some days I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I’m stuck, under the circumstance.

Circumstance is graceless. He crashes cars. He bumps into walls, breaks dishes. He chops his finger not the onion. He chews loudly. He walks loudly. Clears his throat constantly, loudly. He is graceless. And I’m his mother. I want to help. Really, I do. But I also want to scream. I’m so tired. It’s been a long time. Like holding-your-mouth-open-during-a-root-canal long time, trying to get out from under this circumstance. Trying to get unstuck.

Stop making noise. Stop breaking things. Stop being depressed. Stop siphoning money. Stop being sick. I hate that most of all. Stop it! For me. For you. Please stop being sick. I’ll get you a set of Legos, take you to Disneyland, buy you a new laptop if you’ll please just stop being sick.

Broken elbow from soccer. Broken wrist from skateboarding. Broken arm from walking the dog. Trips to the ER for anaphylaxis on Valentines Day, during a block party, after a plane ride, on the last day of high school, your sophomore year in college. Anaphylaxis, for God’s sake, while I’m visiting my dying mother in the hospital. That’s right, side-by-side gurneys. You can’t make this stuff up.

What’s that you say? You’re good now? Whew. Thank goodness. You won’t let it happen again, will you? Say it. “It won’t happen again.” Isn’t that right, doctor? Isn’t that right allergist, neurologist, pulmonologist, orthopedist, dermatologist, gastroenterologist, neurosurgeon, pain specialist, psychiatrist? No more being sick! We’re all done, right?

Hey, you! Yeah, you over there, Predicament. Who said you could break your leg mountain biking and get medevaced to a trauma center? That’s definitely NOT okay. Who gave you permission to break bones and have surgery? It wasn’t me, that’s for sure. Not while Circumstance is broken. Not now. Not ever. You are not allowed to break, Predicament. Got that? Good. Now go back to being predictable.

Your circumstance, Circumstance, is that you are a bowl breaker. My circumstance is that I am a bowl sweeper. A bowl fixer. All the while cracking. Slowly cracking.

What is it they call that in Japan? Where the bowls are glued back together, the cracks filled with gold? Broken and yet completely whole. Beautiful really.

Did I say you were graceless, Circumstance? You’re not graceless. You are grace. You are my favorite word in the English language. Grace. You are the middle name of my best friend. Grace. You too, Predicament. You are grace as well. You are both grace.

I’m the graceless one. I am graceless forever expecting. For never accepting. How graceless of me to expect perfection from either of you.

Hold tight guys, hold tight. Okay, here I am. I’m back. Just like in Owl Babies, I’m back. I’m right here. Your mother. The one who loves you just as you are. It’s all right now. We’re together. Separate, broken—each in our own way—and yet whole. Beautiful really.

Amy Roost’s writing has appeared in The Manifest-Station, MariaShriver.com and Huffington Post. Her first collection of personal essays, Hot, Wet, Mess: Tales of a Chaotic Yet Reassuring Life due to be published in Fall 2015.

Mothering in the Rain

Mothering in the Rain

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I hear thunder, I hear thunder.

Hark don’t you? Hark don’t you? 

Pitter, patter raindrops,

Pitter, patter raindrops,

I’m wet through; so are you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Peace With the Life I Didn’t Choose

Making Peace With the Life I Didn’t Choose

By Jennifer Berney

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A friend of mine once observed that I was “deeply monogamous” by nature. She said it one day while I was talking about my dogs. It was odd, I remarked, that even though my partner and I had adopted two dogs in the years we’d been together, and even though I fed and cared for both, I only thought of one of them as mine.

“That’s because you are deeply monogamous.” She said it offhandedly, as if it were something she’d always known, and it struck me that she was right.

At the time, I very badly wanted to have a child, and her comment haunted me as I planned my future family. If I was monogamous by nature, prone to focusing my affections on one object at a time, then perhaps it would be a mistake to have more than one. If I had two children, would I see them the same way I saw my dogs? Would I feed them both and clothe them both, but allow only one to sit close to my heart?

When my first son was born, several friends warned me that a single child would not quell my biological urge, that I would crave baby after baby the same way I craved chocolate after dinner. But this did not turn out to be true. As Harlan grew older, I sometimes felt a twinge of nostalgia for his newborn smell, his wispy hair, but for the most part I felt capable of moving on. My body had filled its quota. I could have stopped. But I didn’t.

Though my own biology didn’t pull at me, something else did: I wanted Harlan to have a sibling. The tug of this was gentle. It was a voice that I put off for years, but it was insistent. You have big expectations, it whispered. It might be better to spread them out between two children. The voice urged me to consider my own siblings—two sisters and two brothers—and the way they helped me understand my place in the world. I didn’t want to deny my son that sense of self-knowledge and belonging.

And so we conceived our second son. As he grew inside me, his brother spoke to him through the wall of my belly with ardent devotion. But the moment he arrived, I felt instantly torn. Harlan, who was now four, still hadn’t learned to sleep through the night on his own. Every night he’d wake and call for me, but I couldn’t come to him. I had to stay in my own bed to hold and nurse the baby. My partner replaced me.

In the daylight hours, Harlan would ask things of me, like to sit at the table and draw with him or help him make a puzzle. I couldn’t do these things because I was holding the baby, or nursing the baby, or changing the baby’s diaper. It was disheartening: Harlan had finally reached the age where he was an engaged conversationalist, a steady companion. These were the things that I had looked forward to, but I could no longer fully enjoy them.

At the time, I reassured myself that this era was temporary, that this is simply what it meant to have a newborn. But now, two years later, this reality persists. I cannot, for instance, play Candyland with Harlan while his brother Andy is home, because within minutes he will disrupt our figures and toss the cards across the room. If given the chance, Andy would tear the board along the seam with his brute strength.

Often I imagine the life I didn’t choose. In this life I am the parent to one six-year-old boy. I sleep through the night. I spend long Saturday mornings with a book on the couch while he sits on the floor playing Legos. Some days he goes over a friend’s house and our own home is completely quiet. This imaginary life, the one I left behind, has its perks.

But I haven’t so much lost these small pleasures as I have traded them for others. These days when I put on a favorite album, my two sons dance across the living room, shaking their booties and kicking the air, and I laugh from a bright place that would have been unfamiliar to me in the years before I was a parent.

Every morning, Andy stands outside Harlan’s door and fiddles with the knob, crying “Bro-Bro? Bro-Bro?” until I carry him back to the kitchen. When Harlan finally wakes and emerges bleary-eyed from his room, Andy coos his name and leans in for a hug.  Sometimes I stand from a distance and admire their devotion. Other times I get down on my knees to join the embrace.

Even when things are hard—when Andy dismantles Harlan’s Lego rocket ship by chucking it across the room, and when Harlan slaps him in retaliation, I feel grateful for conflict as a teacher. “I hate your attitude!” Harlan shouts at his oblivious little monster of a brother, and I laugh at these hot moments, where both children must come to terms with the fact that the world won’t always bend to them. This is a lesson I want them to learn.

Every day I remind myself that this is the life I’ve chosen, a life of two children, both of them rowdy and loving. It’s a life that, quite frankly, my introverted, monogamous self was not designed for. But though it is an awkward fit, it is indeed my life. These are indeed my boys. Several times a week they prove it by attacking me on the couch and making farting noises against my bare belly, the same belly that now jiggles and sags from having carried them. My boys giggle wildly at their antics and my body.

It’s too much—all of it: the kisses and the screams, the dancing and the fights, the sleepless nights and the cuddles in the morning. It’s a life that stretches me beyond what I ever would have imagined. These boys have twisted me into a woman I barely recognize: a woman who’s aged visibly over the last three years but willing (mostly) to let go of her vanity; a woman who can be stern and loving in alternate breaths; a woman who finds the frayed end of her patience daily and either fails or succeeds at remaining calm.

The life I didn’t choose would have been rewarding, I think. It would have been restful, and sensible. But richness and growth, spontaneity and joy, those come at a price too.

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

The Judgment That Wasn’t

The Judgment That Wasn’t

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We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them.

 

I cringe a little when I’m with a group of moms and the hot baby topics come up. You know the ones: breast or bottle; home or hospital; disposable or cloth. The decisions that, when we are parenting brand new people, are so vital and consuming. We fret over them. We go to playgroups where all the moms do the same things we do, and discuss them, and defend them, and it all feels so important.

Now, from the distance and experience of many years as a mom, I know these conversations by heart, and I know the defensiveness that comes if I reveal that I had my youngest child at home, or that I breastfed and used cloth diapers for all three of my babies. Immediately, the explanations begin to pour out as moms defend their need for a C-section or an epidural. They explain their inability to breastfeed and I want to shrink into a corner because I hate that our culture has done this to us. I hate that we feel we must defend ourselves so much that we engage in these wars.

My home birth is not a judgment of anyone else’s birthing choices. In fact, I wouldn’t describe myself as a home birth advocate at all. I am an advocate for every pregnant woman and her family having access to the best possible medical care and the birthing environment that is safest and most comfortable for her and her baby. I’m not an advocate for breastfeeding as much as I’m in favor of babies being fed. I want all the babies to have their milk delivered to them while they are snug in the arms of someone who knows they are feeding a miracle. As to the diapers, I didn’t choose cloth for any noble reason. I was too poor when my first two children were born to buy disposable diapers, and by the time my youngest was born I was used to it.

We have become a culture that questions every decision a parent makes, from where they are born to whether or not they should be allowed to walk to the park to how involved parents are when their children are at college. We judge each other and we judge celebrity parents and when something goes wrong, we immediately look to the parents to find a place to lay blame. Likewise, when a child gets accepted to a great university or lands a dream job, we congratulate the parents, assuming they must have done well to produce such a successful person.

The problem with all of this is our children are not products and we are not half as powerful as we believe ourselves to be. I wish the whole world could take a collective deep breath about kids, take two steps back, and re-evaluate everything.

Parenting matters. Good parenting is vital to a child’s healthy development. They need to be safe and loved. Every child needs at least one person who thinks he or she is absolutely the best person who has ever happened in the history of people. Babies need full tummies and dry bottoms, and toddlers need someone to patiently teach them to use a toilet. Preschoolers need someone to read them stories and let them help in the kitchen even though they make a mess. Grade schoolers need reassurance that even though they are beginning to move into the world, away from their families, they will return home to the same loving arms that embraced them when they were small and helpless. Teens need to learn so many things, I’m amazed most of them manage to fit it all into the few years they have, and they need parents who will still receive them with those loving arms when the world is overwhelming. Small children need a great deal of care, and older children need a great deal of guidance, and while it’s a big responsibility, there is no single decision that will make or break a child.

When my second child, my daughter Abbie, was three months old, I became very depressed and needed to take anti-depressants. It was 1996 and my psychiatrist and Abbie’s pediatrician insisted I must wean her before I took the medicine. I was devastated at the thought of giving her formula, but I was very sick and I knew my children needed me to be well and happy, so bought some bottles and formula and weaned my daughter.

I made a good decision based on the best information available at the time, but I was terribly ashamed. I was embarrassed to give my baby a bottle in public, as if the way I fed her said something about my character. Of course, in our culture of hyper-awareness and judgment, we assume that how we feed our babies does speak to our character. I beat myself up for years for weaning Abbie so young, even as the girl herself stood before me, shining and healthy.

As my children grew, life got very complicated. I divorced their dad, then remarried and my kids gained a new stepdad and stepbrother. I had their youngest brother who has multiple disabilities, and finally my eldest two children’s dad alienated them from me and robbed us of five years together. By then it was almost too late, but I finally understood that the only thing that truly matters is the relationship. We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them. Good education is important, and feeding our kids well protects their health, but what they need most is loving parents who are interested in them, curious about them, and willing to be their safety and warmth in an unpredictable world.

I took too long, was too focused for years on doing parenting the “right” way, and beating myself up because I could never meet the false standards I created for myself. I am fortunate to share my life with my children and I wish I’d known sooner that I could set aside the weight of responsibility sometimes and simply be with and know them. I’m glad to know it now.

Don’t You Need a Daughter?

Don’t You Need a Daughter?

By Jenna Hatfield

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I could have been an integral part of the club that I am supposedly missing out on. I had access. I had the key, the invitation, the secret handshake, the password. I was invited.

 

The woman looks at my two sons as they run up to me where I sit on a bench at the playground. They gulp down some water while trying to talk over one another about the fun they are having. Before I can respond, their feet run in the opposite direction. I smile at the whirlwind of their affection, their joy.

“Two boys?” She doesn’t need to say more. I understand the question being posed. “Yes. They’re five and seven. They keep us busy.”

“Right.”

Her daughter meanders over, much younger and clad in pink. Their exchange is gentler, a whisper compared to the cacophony of my small but boisterous brood. I return to my book, the happy place where I force myself to go so as not to hover at the playground. I read the same sentence twice as I peek over the top edge, making sure they are safe, secure, not tackling strangers’ children.

She speaks again.

“Are you having any more?”

My vision blurs. I am thankful for the book in front of my face as it blocks my furrowed brow — and my rolling eyes. I think of all the inappropriate questions I could ask this strange woman — a woman I’ve never before laid eyes on — about her fertility, her health, her emotional well­being, her finances, her ability to mother more than one, more than two, more than none. I come up empty handed, because I know how it feels to be asked those questions.

Like now.

“No.”

It’s all I say. No. No, we are not having any more children. On the one hand, the answer is so simple. No. However and but and beyond there are legions of words behind that solitary syllable. Mountains of reasons and hurt and pain and, yes, even happiness and gratefulness and thankfulness for all we have been given, entrusted with, blessed to be consumed by. The single word with which I reply does not even begin to encapsulate the painstaking decision making process that went into being able to say that word — that “no” — without crying on a park bench in front of this stranger.

I do not move the book from in front of my face, hoping that my semi­cold and solitary word response will discourage her from moving forward, from asking more questions, from going where I know in my heart, in my soul, she is already going to go.

“Don’t you need a girl?”

I physically force myself from throwing the book at her. My stomach rolls. My heart drops. My eyes close. My teeth clench. My body recoils and simultaneously pitches forward. I hurt, physically and emotionally. I sigh. “And here we are again,” I think to myself. “Forever here, in this space.”

If I have learned anything by being the everyday mother of two boys, other than a wealth of fart and poop jokes, it is that our culture is beyond obsessed with girls. With having girls. With wanting to have girls. With pink bows and frills and princesses. With women being required to want those things. When women don’t verbalize wanting those things or when they dare to admit that, no, they don’t really want a girl, they are brandished as some oddity, some heartless woman who obviously has no femininity, no real attachment to the womanly ways of the world. A mother of just boys is to be pitied! She never got to do hair in pigtails or buy fancy Easter dresses. She is obviously missing out on the joys of motherhood, of womanhood at its central and epitomized core. She is less than.

And then there’s me — and others like me — everyday mothers of boys who relinquished their only daughter.

I could have been an integral part of the club that I am supposedly missing out on. I had access. I had the key, the invitation, the secret handshake, the password. I was invited.

I grew a little girl in my womb. I cared for her even when my own health was put to the test, when my life was on the line. I loved her more than my own life, more than I will ever be able to convey with letters and words and punctuation. And I handed her over — to another woman, another mother — thus transferring the invitation.

I didn’t know at the time I would never get another invitation, that it was a one time deal. I didn’t know I would be shut out from all that moms of girls get to do and experience. I didn’t know.

I watch as my daughter’s mom goes through some of the early tween stuff and I am perplexed. It feels odd to know that my daughter is now this old and experiencing things that girls her age experience, and I don’t know the slightest bit about any of it, other than vague memories of what I went through at similar ages and phases. I haven’t read books on how to mother girls, on what to expect as girls age. I don’t shop in stores for girls. I don’t know what girls her age like; though I know she loves music.

I suppose that’s one good thing, that while I don’t understand girls as a whole, I know about my daughter; I know what she likes, what she doesn’t like, what she’s going through, what she is doing. I try not to get hung up on what I do not have and try to focus more on what I do know, what I do have with and through her, with and through her mom.

I return to the park bench, lost in thought for what probably equated to a few seconds but felt like a decade of memories and missed milestones. I think of how to answer this intrusive, sexist, ridiculous question. I wonder how my grandmother, a mother of three boys, might have answered it without the additional weight of adoption loss. I begin to smile because I know that my grandmother would have given this nosy woman the what­for; I am thankful for her light in my life.

The woman seemingly assumes the smile is for her.

“It’s just girls are so fun. You can dress them up. And they’re less of a hassle than boys.”

I think of my boys. I think of my daughter. I smile some more.

I do not need more. I do not want for more. I occasionally get a rash of baby fever, overwhelmed by the cute and the soft and the tenderness of newborns. In those moments, I have a flash of irrational anger that my decision making hand was forced by my health, but it passes quickly, and I embrace the present, the reality and beauty of the life we are living — together.

This is my family. Some are here. Some are there. This is who we are; this is what our family looks like. I breathe in before I answer, the cool, not­quite­spring air pushing down any heated bits of anger and frustration. I exhale.

“No. My family is just fine.”

And we are. And we are.

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: Jenna Hatfield

Notes to My Self of Ten Years Ago, When I Was a New, New Mom

Notes to My Self of Ten Years Ago, When I Was a New, New Mom

newmom_karendempsey

You are doing okay. You are doing great.

You are not actually losing your mind. Okay, you are, but you will get it back. For the most part.

He will sleep, I promise. He will one day be an amazing sleeper. (His yet-to-be-born sister is another story. Worry about that later.)

It doesn’t matter if he watches a second episode. Really. Close your eyes for a little while. You’ll both be better for it.

When you first begin to wonder if you are depressed? You are. Ask for help, accept it, as much as you can. You will be okay.

Staying home will be good for you both. Returning to work, when you do, will be good for you both.

Your first day back, you will go to a conference and forget everyone’s name. It doesn’t matter.

Those women in your moms’ group will still be in your life ten years from now.

The remarkable young women you hire to care for him will love him like no one else. You’ll get to watch them grow up, too, and go on to have families of their own.

When you briefly meet a single mom in the coffee shop who tells you, with a teary smile and newborn strapped to her chest, that she’s trying to do it all on her own, you will write down the moms’ group info for her. Ask for her phone number. You will worry and wonder about her, years from now.

You will find moments to relish, like when he falls asleep in the car and you have nothing to do, in these low-tech days, but sit and wait. And rest. And breathe. You will relive these moments on a far-off, bittersweet evening when he falls asleep in the car after a long day and you have to ask his dad to carry him because he’s grown so heavy you simply can’t any longer.

That favorite pacifier you can’t find when he really needs it? You will come across it a long time from now, when you reach into the pocket of your heavy brown sweater. He will have long forgotten it by then—but you will savor the slight weight of it in your hand for an extra moment before you tuck it in a drawer.

He will fall out of love with fire trucks but continue to love dogs. One day—not yet—your little family will be ready to get a dog of your own that he will love and you will remember these days, how he scans the park for dogs and squeals softly and pants at them.

Your instinct to surround him with the kids who make him laugh and delight in himself—that is a good one. The time will come when you can no longer choose his playmates; you’ll want him to look to the friends who are kind and funny.

Watching him become a sibling will make you see and understand and love your own siblings in a new way. Watching him torture his sister, well… He will love her and he will be cruel to her, except when they are banding together against you. But she is the one who will make him laugh most even though he will never admit it.

The thing that terrifies you most, the fear that you could lose him, will almost come to pass years from now. It will come close. But after the surgery, the hours in the ICU when you watch him sleep, when he gets better, when he comes home, you will be a better parent than you have ever been because you will really know that you cannot control these things. You will become a freer parent. A freer person.

In the future, there will be nights when you will sneak a kiss on a sweaty, sleeping forehead because he won’t otherwise allow it and you will watch him sleep (remember—he will sleep) and you will know: I did okay.

 

Photo credit: Megan Dempsey

Worth the Risk

Worth the Risk

By Jennifer Palmer

Worth the risk

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” – CS Lewis

We tried to adopt once, my husband and I brought a baby girl home from the hospital a few days after she was born in the hopes that we might be given the privilege of raising her. Those early days of new parenthood were so very sweet, even fraught as they were with the constant fear that they might take her from us. From the first moment we held her, we loved her, and we could not imagine our lives without her.

Our worst fears were realized, however, and that which we could not imagine was forced upon us. Though we had done all we knew to do, though we had followed the advice of our lawyer who was experienced in such matters, though the odds of such things happening were vanishingly small, our daughter’s biological father contested the adoption and won. Five months—five months!—after we brought her home from the hospital, we kissed her for the last time and walked away, leaving our shattered hearts on the floor of the ugly courthouse room where we said goodbye.

One month later, two pink lines made a surprise appearance on a stick in my bathroom, and for weeks, I alternated between anger and excitement, between fear and hope. My second daughter, who will almost certainly never know her older sister, was born in the spring of this year. She is a joy and a delight, a happy and affectionate baby, and, while she could never take the place of the girl we lost, she has brought some measure of healing to our lives.

We hope to give this little girl siblings some day, brothers or sisters as companions and playmates and friends. And despite the pain we suffered, despite our ability to conceive without medical intervention, we hope that one or more of those siblings might come through adoption.

Many people don’t understand how this can be the case; they hear our story and cringe, weep tears on our behalf. “How good that you are able to have children of your own,” they say, as if this child I carried inside of me is any more “my own” than the one who first made me a mother. As is the case for so many of the decisions that change our lives, we have myriad reasons for adoption, many of them inexplicable even to ourselves, but the one underlying them all is the same reason most parents choose to bring children into their lives: love.

This isn’t to say that growing a family through adoption and growing a family through pregnancy are identical experiences; even the best adoptions begin with profound loss, and everyone involved requires support and resources and knowledge to handle that loss in healthy ways. But there is room in our home and in our hearts for another, and there are children out there in desperate need of parents to love them. This seems a match made in heaven.

There are risks involved, to be sure, and there will almost certainly be pain along the way. But then, this is true no matter how we come to be parents, is true whenever we choose to love someone or something other than ourselves. Loving another, be it a child or a spouse or a friend, is a risky business. It invites suffering and hurt and sorrow. But it also invites growth and meaning and joy—joy beyond measure. The deeper the risk, I believe, the greater the potential reward, and the hope and love and healing adoption can bring to all involved is worth chancing the heartache.

Had you asked me before all this happened if I could withstand losing a child, if I could make it through such heartbreak, I would have said no. Had I known what was coming, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to walk the path I did. And yet, while I would never wish such sorrow on anyone, while I wish with everything in me that things had turned out differently, that I was living the crazy, hectic life of a mom with two under the age of two, I did survive. More than that, I grew and I learned and I tapped depths of my faith and of my friendships and of my marriage that I did not know were there. Somehow, through grace and love and the support of those who matter most to me, I was given the strength to weather the storm.

And so, if you’re considering adoption, considering making yourself vulnerable in that way, I pray that my story does not scare you away. I pray that you would heed that voice compelling you forward. I pray that you would be willing to risk the pain and the sorrow, trusting you will find the strength for what comes, and in so doing, that you would be rewarded with a joy that knows no bounds. I pray these things for you as well as for myself; though the need for foster and adoptive parents is great, though the faces of children who have no stability in their lives tug at my heartstrings, the pain is still fresh and I, too, am afraid to open myself up again in such a way.

To you on the other side of this journey, wondering if you should take that first halting step forward, to the face I see in the mirror each morning, I pray you hear me when I say adoption is worth the risk. Parenthood is worth the risk.

Love is worth the risk.

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

When Her Life Passed Through

When Her Life Passed Through

By Ann Tepperman

When Her Life Passed Through_BLOG

It’s been 485 days since my mother died.

Four hundred eighty-five days ago I sat next to her on her bed, the only sound in the room the breathing machine and her heavy, thick, watery breaths. Her body was gently propped up with pillows so that she could face the setting sun through her bedroom windows. Her eyes were open and wild and she could no longer move or talk. The blood cancer had seeped into every cell of her. It had won.

I held onto one of her limp hands with one hand; the other rested on my swollen, nine-month pregnant belly. Inside me, swimming in quiet bliss was the daughter who would never meet my mother, her Nonna, except perhaps as spirit floating through the veil into the other world. I recall my mother having two final breaths: the second to last was from this world and the last seemed to be her breathing in the atmosphere from the other. Then she stopped. Then she was gone. And she is gone forever.

We were guarding my mother’s body, sitting next to her until the men in the truck came to pick her up. They wrapped her in a white sheet, preparing her to be taken away, and it was then that I turned my tearstained face to my husband and in agony asked him to help them carry my mother away.

Will the circle be unbroken by and by Lord by and by, theres another home awaitin, in the sky Lord in the sky…”

I watched my husband carry her body away in the most reverent and loving way. Even though we had been together for nine years and had (almost) two children together, at that moment we created a deep, inexpressible bond that carried us through this horrible tragedy and everything that was to come.

Three weeks after the death of my mom, my water broke. It was the middle of the night, and I was awoken by a surge of warm liquid pouring onto the bed from between my legs. We called the midwives and my husband began filling the birthing pool with water. Then we waited. And we waited, and waited. But labor did not come. So with a quiet, desperate longing to meet our baby, we retreated back to bed.

A few days later the midwives called. “We are coming over,” they said. “Today you are having your baby.” I scoffed. I was already past due, walking around with a broken bag of waters. I had decided this baby would stay put indefinitely. How could I possibly give birth without my mother?

When the midwives arrived, they handed me an herbal cocktail to induce labor. We sat together on the floor of my living room and I placed the tinctures in front of me. I closed my eyes and imagined opening up the space between the two worlds, a doorway I had locked, unknowingly trapping my daughter. And although fearful and reluctant, I took the herbs, practiced my hypnosis and waited. Slowly, after several doses and a forced inward focus, I began to feel the first twinges of labor.

I had been laboring for a few hours but my labor was inconsistent. I decided that I needed to be alone. I went upstairs, removed my clothing and sat on my bedroom floor. I began to sing. Slowly and quietly at first, the words of one of the oldest prayers from the Torah moved past my lips: “El na refa na la. Please God heal her. (Numbers, 12:13).” This small and powerful prayer was said by Moses to God after his sister Miriam had fallen ill. Like Moses, I was now surrendering to the most powerful force I could imagine. I, too, was asking for help and healing, and the surges of labor increased dramatically with every word of my heartfelt prayer.

Naked, on my hands and knees, my giant, pregnant belly brushed the white, wool carpet. I was gliding in circles, riding the long, strong surges of labor that arose from deep inside my being. I sang out louder and louder into the Universe, my voice embodied with full power and force.

Then time became surreal. I remember the midwives looking down at me from above. I remember the warm tub water. I remember stumbling deep into my husband’s compassionate eyes as I pushed and pushed and pushed. And just when I thought I could go on no longer, I gave one final push.

And she was born.

I had now stood at the gates of the death and birth of two of the most important people in my life.

I looked down at the baby in my arms. I had no idea who my daughter was. Up until then I had only been able to feel her through the veil of my own perceptions. I didn’t understand that the grief and suffering I had felt from losing my mother had been holding her back from entering fully into this world and into her own being.

It’s now been fifteen months since her birth. She’s talking and running, fiercely independent and full of warmth and compassion. I still grieve the way her birth transpired and often wonder if the loss of my mother and the emotional turmoil I suffered has left a mark on her. But just when I am doubting her strength, she shows me her spirit, her individuality and perseverance, and I am amazed. Independent of my life’s story, of all my grief, sadness, joys and losses, she is her own person and I just need to get out of her way so she can be born into herself and thrive.

Ann Tepperman has dedicated her life to raising the consciousness of others through her holistic psychotherapy practice and personal essays. She lives, loves, parents and meditates in Columbus Ohio. Learn more at www.anntepperman.com.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Fissures

Fissures

WO FIssures ArtBy Adrian J.S. Hale

The Columbia River Gorge opened up before us. We were in a car—his car—driving 70 miles an hour through the rough-hewn Columbia River Valley surrounded by massive rock formations that took as long as 17 million years to form. We’d last seen each other the week before, just two families meeting for pizza. We decided on this plan when we discovered that both of our spouses would be out of town. We’d pile into one car and take the kids hiking in the damp, mossy forests beneath towering Oregon fir trees.

He secured the car seats and I filled water bottles. We left after lunch. His daughter was on the passenger side, and I buckled her in, as he reached to the middle seat, across my son to buckle my daughter in. I glanced over and he smiled in a peculiar way. All of this felt too familiar, yet still uncharted, like we both knew some dialect of a language that we had never practiced with each other.

Twenty miles outside of Portland, his grip was tight on the steering wheel and my window was open, salty gusts of warm air wafting through, hitting my face in gentle rhythms. His daughter had fallen asleep and he kept fiddling with soft crooning songs, one after another. I wanted to stop the moment and close my eyes to listen to each lyric, but my kids kept asking questions, wanting snacks and stories and other diversions. “How long?” they kept asking. “An hour.” “45 minutes.” “15 more.” I answered in succession.

“How much longer?” my son asked again.

“Three hundred years,” I said. Next to me, looking straight ahead, he laughed.

As we passed mile markers on either side of the road, the vast blue skies and craggy mountains lined the valley, and we forged our way through. I put my hand out the window to feel the air pushing against me. I wanted to feel the struggle of keeping my hand open and resisting the force of what was coming at me. I was restless with him sitting there, silently smiling, the wind and mountains opposing each other in their stubborn, old ways. I wanted to crack the day open and see what was really inside. I searched for things to say but remained silent, resisting the desire to ask him questions about his inner world. The kids kept stirring or asking for this or that, and my attentions were folded into origami-shaped figures that only came together when each crease was in place for the next. I wanted to unfold it all, crumple it up and see what else it could make.
Truth be told, watching his hands on the steering wheel roused me. His hands were nicked and bruised from hard work but they rested there gracefully. I blushed thinking about where his fingertips had been—what thoughts they’d scrawled out for him, what juicy foods they’d lapped up in a fit of ecstatic satisfaction, what kinds of lovers they’d pleasured. I thought about these acts like I thought about the acts that made our surroundings: they were a flood that thundered through the valley of my mind.

And then—a tap on the glass, the moment broken.

“Oh, look,” he said, his finger lifted. “Look what just happened.”

For a second, I thought he’d caught me watching his hands and was deliberately moving them out of the way of my gaze, but I followed his fingertip to the windshield. I thought he was pointing at the valley itself, the beauty of the gorge, its stands of trees and miles of open sky crowded with cumulous clouds and I was confused.

“Just happened?”

“Look,” he said again with conviction.

His finger, strong and exact, pointed to the windshield, to the plate of glass separating us from the gorge. I felt a sensation travel up my spine as I followed his fingertip to a round, even pinprick in the glass. From somewhere out there in that vast open world, an infinitesimal fragment of rock had hit us with enough force to make a hole in the glass. I didn’t get it at first. I had driven in this gorge hundreds of times and had never been hit with a rock that put a hole in my windshield. He leaned over and touched the hole, and I looked again, sliding my gaze over the glass, groping for the reality of its existence. All that filled my world for a moment was that tiny hole covered by his finger. He brought his hands back to the steering wheel and with my eye suddenly focusing through the small aperture, I saw the world passing by in wild, messy brushstrokes, a swirl of unrecognizable shapes and twists of color. Everything looked abstract until I refocused, my gaze leaving the hole and once again allowing the prodigious valley beyond to come back into view. We were traveling at our maximum speed through this place that was once carved out by a massive flood, an act of destruction that is hard to fathom. Today, it is peaceful here. Then I saw the tiny radiating cracks growing like webs from the hole.

“Will it shatter?” I asked. He shook his head.

I reached out, running my fingertip over the hole. I longed to feel it, but it was only broken on the outside. Inside it was still smooth and untouched. I shrugged. As I pulled my fingertip back, my own hand came into focus. My long fingertips, marked with scratches and knife cuts from long days of cooking, my strong, hard nails. I didn’t have to guess; I knew where my own intrepid fingertips had been. In that moment, they were there reaching out against the ancient topography, having this chaste adventure with a man I hardly knew. My fingertips extended as far as they could for a pinprick of a hole, one limited window to the great big world, yearning desperately for more than one lifetime could give them.

Adrian J.S. Hale has been writing professionally for over a decade. She has worked for various food and lifestyle publications, including Country Living and Saveur. She and her family travel extensively, but their home base is Portland, Oregon.

Excerpt: Who Knows Tomorrow

Excerpt: Who Knows Tomorrow

By Lisa Lovatt-Smith

WhoKnowsTomorrow-COVER

Prologue

The complicated thing about living in the African bush is water—or rather the lack of it. Sure there was a stream, but it was in a snake-prone bamboo grove and the local fetish priest had bewitched the water so that it killed dogs (or so everybody in the village believed), and I wasn’t about to chance it. Fortunately we actually had piped, honest-to-goodness government of Ghana water, which was bloody unbelievable considering we lived three miles from the nearest settlement

on the main road. So somehow we got our own tap at home. You turned it on and piped water came out. Sometimes. In the capital city of Accra, three hours’ drive and a whole different lifestyle away, the water flowed once or twice a week. Here it arrived maybe once a week and for some unfathomable reason, usually at midnight. “Because you are up a hill,” the bespectacled water guy confidently informed me. Anyway, you filled your bucket and took it into the outdoor bathhouse, on your head gracefully and as if you were wearing a particularly odd hat if you were my daughters, or huffing and puffing and poking your arm out lopsidedly if you were me. Still, we had never thought it was even a remote possibility to have water coming out the tap in our forest home, however intermittently, so whenever it did flow it was a big deal. Which was why

I came to be standing in the middle of the tropical night holding a hosepipe thinking about my foster father’s death . . . and the flight back from the funeral the day before yesterday… and how the flight attendant wouldn’t let me sleep on the floor of the airplane, which was the only thing I felt like doing after he was gone. I was filling the water tank under the tropical night sky, which because we lived so far from any form of electricity was full of the shiniest stars. I was doing all this in the complete darkness and with no shoes on, wrapped in a scrap of African cloth, because that is how we lived. Tanks were assiduously filled up, no matter what time of day or night the water started to flow. Our tank took a long time to fi ll. My eyes were itching and the dried sweat on my forehead was irritating. So after a while I jammed the hosepipe into the top of the tank and held it down with a biggish rock, checked on my two children, and snuggled down beside my husband, Kweku, for a rest. I fully expected to get up again to turn the tap off, since after many years of water shortages our ears had become finely attuned to the different water gurgles, especially the tank is full and precious water is splashing over the top type of gurgles. Except that night. Worn out from the week and my daughter’s thirteenth birthday party the day before, and the funeral and the flight, I fell sound asleep. With the bedroom door unlocked.

?w? foro ad?b?.

—Akan proverb of the Ashanti people, Ghana

A snake climbs the raffi a palm tree.

(You can achieve the apparently impossible.)

1

My story starts with Italian tomatoes; apparently they were directly responsible for my conception. My curvy, tiny English mother, who had dyed her blond pixie cut brown to downplay her gorgeousness, was having trouble getting pregnant. The market women in Lerici made her success their own personal quest. “Pomodori, signora, deve mangiare gli pomodori . . . di piu, di piu.” The village of Lerici’s claim to fame is that the British Romantic poet Percy Shelley drowned there in the blue Mediterranean while returning from a visit to Lord Byron. Sunny, beautiful, Italian, and romantic. And it had tomatoes. So that’s where I was conceived while my mum and dad—English like Shelley and his wife Mary, who wrote Frankenstein—lived in a rented house. My parents were temporary visitors, just like they were.

Mum and Dad were both from the North of England, and had married in London, where the bride wore a dark-purple mini (it was the sixties, after all). My father’s family disapproved, since my mum was a grocer’s daughter from Scunthorpe, and thus was considered common. My dad was a lanky blond art student of no fixed ambition who excelled at the Royal College of Art. He was raffish and apparently not common at all.

My mother was determined to see the back of Scunthorpe as soon as she could escape its dreary confines. One can hardly blame her: this was the lackluster industrial North of England. As a child, for six months of the year she had to break the ice in the pail before bathing. She dropped out of school at sixteen and apprenticed to a hairdresser, where she practiced on poodles dying them pink and blue, kick-starting what was to be an illustrious career as a colorist. Not, mind you, before she’d carried off the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” title from the local US Marines. My mum loved dancing—she was really good at it—and rockin’ and rollin’ in the center of an admiring crowd was when she felt most alive.

She bought herself a two-week package tour to Italy, where every good thing she had ever suspected about the south became a certainty. Her tiny waist and lively looks attracted trails of adoring Italian boys. From the day the joyful recipes of Elizabeth David had crossed my mother’s path, the notion of the Mediterranean with its sunlight, fresh figs, dark wine, and bare legs descended upon her like a religious experience. When the tour ended, she promised herself she would live there one day.

In the meantime London would have to do and so she moved there, staying at the YMCA. By 1964, the year that Swinging London was invented, my mother had turned twenty-six, rented a flat, changed her name from Margaret-Ann to Margot, and dyed her hair as blond as could be. She had reached the pinnacle of her profession as celebrity colorist at the famous House of Leonard. The salon was a tiny, bright star in the world’s hippest city, because in the early 1960s, hairdressers and makeup artists changed the world, and London was the epicenter of the funky new universe. My mum could pull off any shade of blond from Twiggy to Bardot. She gloried in her talent, partied, and surrounded herself with a lot of nice gay boys. She was hot, sociable, and fun. London was about to become the swinging belly button of the world, but Mum still aspired to the Mediterranean. Then she met my dad and they made a pact; my mum wanted to get as far away as possible from England, and my dad would tag along for the ride.

So my young soon-to-be parents drove to the South of France in a rented “yogurt pot” of blessed memory, a quintessentially sixties vehicle with three wheels and no balance. Once on the coast, itimmediately overturned (with no damage to my parents) and expired on the spot. My parents wafted around by train until the holiday was over.

The following year my father neglected to come home one night and sent a dozen red roses in his stead. My mother shredded them and danced on the ruins of her marriage in the living room, while downing a bottle of red wine. To cap it all, her husband had run away to Italy (“Italy, my country”) with a girl named Dorothy (“Dorothy, what a common name”). Chain smoking and with only twenty-five British pounds in her pocket, my mum threw in her brilliant career and finally moved, as she had always wanted, to Italy—by bus, and broken-hearted. Soon, Dorothy exited the picture and my father courted my mum all over again, until she relented and they settled in the Bay of Lerici on the Italian Riviera, where pale-pink and yellow houses tumbled into the sea like pastel baby blocks. My mother remembers two main things about their crumbling apricot house: the plumbing (lack of) and the wall geckos (abundance of). It was perched on terraces cut into the steep rugged landscape near the top of a cliff and had a wonderful view of the sea. It was the most impractical choice of location, as it was inaccessible by road. In a gray flannel suit, my father commuted weekly to his job at a top-notch, ultra-trendy advertising agency in Milan. Secretaries in heavy black eyeliner and shiny vinyl miniskirts tripped across the white shag carpet in their platform shoes. Knowing my father’s roving eye, my mum hated every one of them. During this time she stayed home and lived in a bikini, theoretically nesting but in reality dedicating herself to her lifelong religion: sun worship that involved lashings of tanning oil. The one time she was called upon to entertain, the chic Milanese guests had to kill and pluck the chicken themselves, as my “Made in England” mum hadn’t realized it would be delivered from the market alive.

* * *

 By New Year’s Day 1967, with bright hopes for what turned out to be a seriously turbulent year, all those tomatoes my mum had ingested had paid off: they were about to have me. It was the year of the Summer of Love, and in a bout of early onset spring fever, my parents, then six months pregnant, blithely decided to leave their pleasant Italian life by the sea and transport themselves to a repressive military dictatorship: Generalissimo Franco’s fascist Spain. I still fail to understand the logic; compared to other cities, Barcelona had very little going for it. London was booming, Milan’s golden age of design was about to climax, the United States was one big hippie love-in—but Barcelona? Apparently, my parents were once again in search of a blank canvas. This time, though, they were about to get more than they bargained for.

Under dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, the capital of Catalonia had been for decades an oppressed and angry city where the people were barely even allowed to speak their own language. Nothing was happening in Barcelona beyond a few strikes and a lot of resentment. And even if the subtleties of political repression escaped them, my father was soon to discover there was scarcely any advertising industry to speak of.

They leisurely crossed the Mediterranean from Genoa to Barcelona by boat, my mum with her elegant white coat flying in the wind and her big belly peeking out. Boy, she must have trusted him, to prepare to give birth somewhere in a new place where she didn’t even speak a word of the language. Characteristically she hit the ground dancing; so much so that after a particularly energetic night on the tiles and a midnight snack of strawberries and cream, I

popped out a month early. It was the fifteenth of April, the day huge demonstrations were held against the Vietnam War in New York City and San Francisco. I was a worryingly tiny two kilogram, or four-and-a-half-pound, baby. They had been in Spain barely eight weeks.

My parents took the usual vastly impractical decision and moved to Sitges, a tiny quiet coastal village forty minutes drive south of Barcelona. Picturesque scenery, white-washed cobbled alleys ending in sea views, steeples and churches, women dressed completely in black . . . That apartment was on the top floor in an old fisherman’s house beside a café called Gustavo’s, ten feet from the sand. My parents had several cages of singing birds. And they had me, who swam before I could walk. It was the Mediterranean dream incarnate. By the time I was two, my young brilliant father with the easy infectious laugh had become the toast of the elite who dreamed of a newer, more groovy Barcelona. His ad campaigns were light-hearted and airy. At the end of the sixties wave, they spoke of a freer era.

He and my mother threw parties on the beach attended by men with goatees and women whose fringes brushed their eyelashes. These yé-yé boys and girls (the Spanish version of “yeah, yeah!”) were the Gauche Divine, the Catalan intelligentsia who looked to France for inspiration and were waiting for the old dictator to die. They smuggled porn, rock music, and champagne from France, along with magazines that revealed the latest fashions. The foreign sheen still on him, my dad was their darling. He was a breath of fresh air, and Barcelona loved him.

Our family fortunes picked up. We moved to a splendid art deco apartment overlooking Turó Park in uptown Barcelona. A Portuguese contessa lived next door, and she fed me perunilla cookies flavored with cinnamon and lemon, and weak milky tea. Afterward, a governess wheeled me through the park in a navy-blue pushchair. I had white-blond hair and blue, blue eyes. I posed for tons of bonnie-baby commercials that my dad made.

My father was the darling of the incipient advertising and magazine industry, and therefore was never home. My mum was not having as good a time. Also, in the endless Spanish summer, the streets of Barcelona were dusty and gray, and the light was harsh. The city had turned its back on the sea, despite being a port. It was also profoundly conventional; the small freedoms my mum had previously taken for granted were absent. Censorship was everywhere in the form of black squares in every newspaper and magazine. Sex did not exist, and neither did bare breasts or legs. Foreign radio services were blocked. In the butchered movies shown on TV at night, clumsily cut by a censor, the protagonists invariably went straight to breakfast after the firstkiss, as empty film slithered across the screen. On Sundays only brass bands and religious services were on TV, and the dictator endlessly pontificated in a language my mother could not understand. If someone invited you to come to their apartment for dinner, you had to stand outside the building and clap, which was the signal for the sereno, the night watchman, to open the door. You could not just turn up. The codes of society were strict and hard to crack. Everyone over thirty wore black; married women never wore trousers, and they stayed indoors. On Sundays they wore lace veils to church.

This dark bitter Catalan city was not Mum’s idealized southern world. She wore bright-colored mini-shorts and clickity-clackety wooden sandals until November. She was like the Coppertone girl, tan all year round, smelling of coconut and carrot oil. She loved the sun, long white beaches, and the juicy pleasures of eating and cooking.

At this point, with her simple zest for life, the stay-at-home wife with peasant tastes might have slightly embarrassed my father, who was now playing a bigger game. One day she returned from the market to our expensive apartment, only to find that all my father’s clothes were gone. He had taken off with a woman named Debbie. There and then, when I was four, he disappeared off the face of my earth. He left behind:

  1. Piles of thick, peculiar-smelling storyboard paper, which for the next ten years I would use to draw on. These were a very exotic and inky black, with six white squares that represented TV screens with the space to write the scripts below each screen.
  2. One big box of Caran d’Ache colored pencils, arranged by tone like a rainbow.
  3. One box of pastels; square ones that left clouds of powdery tint on your fingers.
  4.  Four postcards from Paris, all identical, all saying the same thing: “I love you, Daddy.” The snapshots from before I was four show a tall slim man; a sharp dresser. I can’t remember him at all, not even his smell or his eyes. I can, however, recall the myth of him with outstanding clarity.

My mum was devastated, although she would never show it. Without my dad, my mum felt like a nobody. Instead of damning him for leaving her stranded, she immediately started weaving the fairy tale of him. This was the myth that sustained us both for twenty years. Unbelievably, she never spoke a word against him. She felt they’d had ten good years together and she’d been blissfully happy, which was more than most women got out of marriage, she said. That they never fought. That until it was off, it was always passionately on. His friends were divided into two opposing camps. The men wanted to sleep with her. The women wanted her to return to England and get welfare and legal aid.

* * *

She had absolutely no money. She had never finished school, had few marketable skills, and could not drive. She could not speak a word of Catalan; only a little Spanish mixed with Italian. And yet my mother didn’t leave fascist Spain, where she had no one, for an easier life in England. In this solitary fact lies coiled the essence of my profoundly unconventional childhood. She didn’t go back to Swinging London, which by 1971 had seen the breakup of the Beatles, the exodus of the Rolling Stones, and the rise of hard drugs, glam rock, and a haircut called the shag. She was plucky and stubborn, and determined not to drop her Mediterranean delusion.

She moved us to a small apartment in Castelldefels on the long beach south of Barcelona. From then on, our apartments would only get tinier and more dismal, and there would be a long succession of them, sometimes two or three a year. These were rundown rooms in buildings slapped together for seasonal holiday makers on the long streets that ran between the pine forest and the endless dunes. My mum decided not to look for a hairdressing job because it would mean too many long hours away from me. She found a summer job teaching swimming for a few pesetas, but by the time autumn rolled around again we were both very lost. I vaguely remember a boyfriend with a Doberman. That is, I remember long hours playing with a Doberman. And another who bought me a dress that was too small, but I could not tell him so because I was supposed to be nice to him. Within a few months, when I was five, Paul and Barbara, a very affluent couple also from the North of England who had two children and who had socialized with my parents in better days, offered to take me in.

Read an interview with Lisa Lovatt-Smith

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The Other Mother

The Other Mother

By Stacy Lewis

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 5.12.48 PMThe teacher is describing boxes—heart-shaped, circle, and square. She explains how to cut the clay, flatten it, shape and assemble it, and how to put on the finishing touches. She talks about slabs, scoring, coils, and slip. I keep my eyes on her while helping Orlando manipulate his own little clay clump. He is showing his work to his friend Ellery, whisper-yelling questions to me, and ignoring the teacher.

This is the first day of our family clay class. My son Orlando is four and a half. I notice that the older kids do most of the work themselves while the younger kids tend to assist and embellish the work of their parents. Orlando is making clay flowers, and I am rolling out the sides of our heart-shaped box when our attention, and everyone else’s, turns to the little boy and the mother sitting to our right.

“The teacher said that it would be too difficult to make a star!” The mother slams down her rolling pin.

Tears spring into her son’s eyes. “But I want to make a star.”

I go back to my own rolling pin and listen to the mother and the teacher suggest putting star shapes on a square box or creating hanging stars or cutting out star shapes from the box or anything but a star box. But by now the boy wants nothing but a star box.

The mother stands up and starts push-pulling her son to the back corner of the studio. He shuffles his six-year-old self in front of her with his head down and his feet dragging, and eventually they disappear around the corner. We hear him continue to tearfully plead his case. We hear the mother hissing at him to stop insisting on a star, to stop whining, to stop being difficult, to just stop.

When they come back, they proceed to make a star-shaped box. The mother is making the template and with each mistake either of them makes, she says things like, “See, I told you it wouldn’t work! Now you’re messing it up. We don’t have enough time! Get your hands off, stop touching it, I’ll do it!”

Everyone can hear her and everyone, including the teacher—everyone, including me—looks away.

*   *   *

A few days later, I talk with Ellery’s mom, Heidi, about the other mother. Heidi had been in a previous session with the mother and her son, and she had felt terribly anxious around them. We both felt disturbed by how she berated him, and saddened to see the boy alternately apathetic, agitated, crestfallen. We wanted to help him. The mother didn’t seem to realize how she sounded. Should we talk directly to her about it? Bring it up with the teacher? What if we made her angrier, and she took her anger out on her son?

In the midst of our indignation over the mother’s behavior, however, another thought crept in. I admitted to Heidi that I, too, had lost my temper over spilled paints, squished figs, or one too many stray Legos. I had, much to my shame, used my words in ways that diminished both my dignity and my son’s. Heidi insisted I was a good mother. But, I ventured, what if the other mother was stressed, and the class was bringing out the worst in her? What if we could help her? We decided that we would try it—to connect with the child and the mother.

At the next class, I introduced myself to the other mother and asked, “What was your name again?” She breathed out a soft “Thank you” and gave me her name. I asked her son his name, too, and made comments on his work—”Wow, what great ears your dragon has!”—or smiled at him when he caught my eye.

After that class, the other mother made efforts to connect with me and Orlando, by sharing tools and sitting next to us. And yet, her angry actions continued—she bossed her son, sighed with exasperation over his slowness, grabbed tools from his hands—and I shrank away. I didn’t have the guts to do it. Maybe Heidi was right. How could I really make a difference in their lives? I decided it would be best to stay out of it.

Then, toward the end of one class, I went straight into it—but not as I had expected to. Orlando wanted to play with his friend Ellery, but she was still absorbed in her project. He was doing anything and everything to get her attention, though Ellery and her mom and I kept explaining that she didn’t want to play. Yet neither of us grown-ups stopped what we were doing to help redirect or stop him.

Finally, Orlando took his wet, goopy paint brush and plopped it into her hair. And that was it.

I stood up and took Orlando around the corner. I squatted down in front of him, pulled him toward me by the shoulders, and whisper-threatened:

“We will never come back to class if you don’t leave Ellery alone.” The embarrassment I had felt about his behavior had already rocketed into shame—my own. He shifted his shoulders and kept his eyes down. I tugged at him again. “You are making it impossible to get anything done in this class!” He turned away from me, and I grabbed him, “You aren’t listening!” I felt a sudden hot drive to stamp out the source of my stress—all of my energy was concentrated on obliterating my discomfort, and I could see myself, just as I could see that other mother, aiming herself at her child.

And then I saw my child, standing before me, small and sound with a contained anger of his own.

I let go.

I closed my eyes, turned my head away, and exhaled. How had shame railroaded me into acting even more shamefully? When I opened my eyes, I was startled to see someone from another class standing nearby. I quickly stood up, leaving behind those hot, uncomfortable moments, and blindly turned Orlando back toward the class. I don’t know if that person, or anybody else, heard or saw me. I didn’t make eye contact as I walked back to our table.

It seems almost everyone turns a blind eye.

*   *   *

At a doctor’s office once, a receptionist came over and leaned down to help me when I was clearly becoming impatient and frustrated by my over-tired toddler’s attempts to explore the contents of the garbage can. She made a joke—”It’s always the garbage!”—gave me a smile, offered a toy to my son, and sat down right next to us for a minute or two.

Then there was the time someone in the parking lot of the grocery store offered to take my cart back, freeing me to unload my child into the car along with the bags. Her offer was really a small gesture, yet to me at the time it seemed wondrously thoughtful.

There have been times when family members or friends have swooped in to engage Orlando in a new activity when the interaction between us became charged, when I was too tired to deal with cascades of bathwater over the side of the bathtub or was feeling exasperated by his hyperactivity and disregard for decorum.

All these examples have something very basic in common: The people who intervened simply saw that I had my hands full, figuratively and literally, and they acted without judgment.

It had seemed so straightforward when Heidi and I laid out our similar plan: Let’s help ease the tension between the parent and child by connecting with each of them. We would intervene in a way that was helpful rather than critical. Yet the reality proved far more impenetrable. Why had I been at such a loss to offer that other mother and her son a hand? Was it because the other mother seemed so mean? So unaware of her censorious tone and pinched face? Was it because of the taboo against intruding on someone else’s parenting? Or because deep down I wanted nothing to do with her and her pain?

Not long ago, I read an article by psychologist Jeanne Denney that hit home on this topic. In “The Ritual, Tribal Abandonment of Mothers,” she writes:

I have a picture in my mind that will probably never leave until the day I develop dementia. It is a scene from when my children were young. I happened to be in a mall without them. I saw a mother with a baby in a stroller and a two year old in full tantrum running for the escalator. It was one of those scenes full of pathos, wherein a mother just has to “miraculate” some kind of response out of simple desperation. We all saw it. That is when I heard two women in front of me talking. One said: “I remember those days.” And the other one, probably in inner recoil from [the] memory of her own abandonment, coolly responded, “Yeah … I’m glad those days are over.” I remember feeling in that disengaged assessment the perfect expression of the ritual, tribal abandonment of mothers. … [T]here, in public, witnessing hearts did not extend out in compassion. Kind hearts did not listen to a silent plea for understanding, holding, and help. In my mind there is no better way to help children than learning this adult act of silent holding and loving witness for their parents.

I think about when I was squatting down with my own son in the corner of the clay studio, or any of the times I have borne down unfairly on my child, and I can barely stand the thought of someone interrupting us. Like the second mother in Denney’s example, part of me wants to believe that by ignoring the pain, we can make it less painful. Yet another part of me knows there is something powerful and healing about not ignoring. There is something less literal than instructing and more gentle than intruding and it begins with a compassionate gaze.

*   *   *

After the class in which I pulled Orlando aside, I realized that I was stressed during clay class, and that it was bringing out the worst in me. I was overwhelmed by all the details, clumsy with the clay, experiencing afternoon blood sugar crashes, and bothered by what I saw as Orlando’s inattention. I figured I had a choice: change my response or change the circumstances (or some combination thereof). So my husband, Rom, finished the class with Orlando, and I stayed home with our one-year-old, Mica. No one was getting yelled at, at least not in our family; at least not in our family during clay class.

I didn’t quit because of the other mother, though I have questioned myself about that. I think of her and her son as a window onto my son and me, but I also think of them as their own two people in the world. I think of the connections between all of us that are simultaneously undeniable yet unrealized.

At the time, I thought that I didn’t have the guts to reach her, or that I needed to know all the details of her private constellation of stress before really making a difference. But now I realize that I did know something. I knew that simply asking her name helped her shed some of the stress she was under. Our eyes met, for just that one second, and I saw her clearly.

At the time, it wasn’t enough to push me out of my comfort zone toward a place where I could be of real service. But now I feel compelled to keep going. Now I offer a hand to the pregnant woman with bags of groceries. Now when I see a dad and daughter in excruciating negotiation over a second ice cream cone, with the daughter beginning to screech and the dad beginning to clench, I try not to run away inside. I try to acknowledge that I’ve been there, too. I’ve been there, too.

What if I had persisted in my small gestures of ease and kindness toward the other mother and her son? What if I had continued to stay near, silently telling them, “I see you”? Not in a creepy way, like, I see you, and you better behave. But in this way:, I see you, because I see myself.

What if I had told her: “There is no other mother”?

Author’s Note: I began this piece eighteen months ago, just as I was beginning to come to terms with my own first serious bouts of parental impatience and anger. I had always been drawn to and inspired by respectful parenting and was deeply troubled to find myself talking to my young sons in ways I knew I didn’t believe in.

Being in clay class with the other mother showed me both who I thought I would never be and who I feared I was becoming. It is only now, after a certain amount of my own healing, that I can imagine opening myself to that other mother, and holding her experience alongside my own.

Stacy Lewis lives in Seattle with her husband and children. She is a Hakomi therapist and teacher, a homeschooling mama, a walker of woods and neighborhoods, and a lover of the beach. She has a blog at http://sweetsky.net.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

On Shame and Parenting

On Shame and Parenting

onshameand parenting

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except…do you know this about shame? It makes life into playacting and my love for my children was as real as mountains and gravity, but I was shaky in the middle of myself. Worse than shaky; I was ephemeral and not quite real. I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Object of Desire

Object of Desire

By Tricia Springstubb

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 5.32.07 PMIt reminded me of that period in my life when, if a friend called up with a tremulous note in her voice, I knew her next words would be, “We’re splitting up.” Or, years later, when an urgent request to meet for coffee meant a brilliant son was failing out of school, or a daughter was whittling herself to a skeleton and what, what could you do to stop them?

Now it was our aging mothers who gave our voices a ragged note, that hiss of despair. My friends and I staggered through the long stretch of midnight phone calls, of step-down and rehab, spouting diagnostic numbers we didn’t really understand, comparing tips on home aides. While we struggled to be noble, our mothers remained the pessimists or the optimists, the divas or the earth mothers they had always been. They thanked us over and over, or told us we were doing everything wrong. And then, they died.

After all that, they went into the ground without complaint, heavy seeds that bore no fruit, not any more. But oh, it wasn’t over. Here are some of the things they left behind: boxes of feathered, veiled hats; a collection of pietàs; sweaters; poetry by the shoebox; rooms full of hideous furniture pristinely preserved. A tattered rain coat, thirty unopened sponges, photo albums full of smiling people no one recognized. Without the mothers to pick them up and show them to us, to put them on, or dust them off or gently unfold them on the kitchen table, these things lost their enchantment, the way luminous shapes picked up on a beach turn into unremarkable rocks once you get them home. Standing in my mother’s silent house, I thought of a beekeeper regarding his swarming hive—all that golden dazzle of movement, that hum of wings, and sweet, heavy smell of honey. Then one day the bees are gone. Gone! And he realizes that all he’s looking at is a ponderous box.

Yet what to do with all they left behind? One friend built a pyre, and the hats in their cake-shaped boxes went up in smoke. She couldn’t bear to give them away and what in the world would she ever do with them? Another painstakingly sifted and compiled her mother’s poems, bound them and gave us copies. My siblings and I were lucky, in a way, because our penny-pinching mother didn’t leave very much. She liked to use things up; she was one of those rare people who can throw something away without a second thought. (Something like my original Shirley Temple doll, no doubt worth a fortune.) There was nothing for us kids to argue over, though we wouldn’t have anyway, not if there’d been mountains of silver and crystal. Our parents’ marriage was tempestuous and hard. How well we children get along was one of our mother’s rare, pure pleasures. That, and her grandchildren.

And we were lucky in another way, because one of those grandchildren, my youngest daughter, was planning to move into her first apartment and would need things like colanders and kettles. The mothers’ dying, the daughters’ setting up house—the fearful symmetry of that! The day we closed up our childhood home, my siblings wrapped juice glasses and measuring cups for their niece, gratified that these things would get a second act. It seemed so natural, the wheel of life taking a spin, the baton passing, and we were off the hook about what to do with it all. This was a rainy day in late July, our parents’ anniversary in fact. Just as we were leaving, the sun came out, and condensation rose from the roof. We all started laughing, all thinking the same thing: It was Mom, steamed up over our abandoning the family homestead after fifty-four years.

This granddaughter who was moving out, moving five hundred miles away to New York City, this youngest daughter we still call Baby—this girl once misplaced her cello, which was in a case the size of a closet. While she lived with us, I found twenty dollar bills wadded up in the bottom of the washer as regularly as I did her cell phone (and once her bra) between the couch cushions, her wallet beneath the seat of the car. The floor of any room she occupies quickly becomes little more than rumor. Where her grandmother was thrifty, she is careless, but in the end doesn’t it amount to the same thing? Possessions are their servants, not the other way around.

I, on the other hand, am prone to endow objects with, if not sentience, at least the power to conduct memory and its attendant emotions. Some current scintillates in the weave of that ugly shirt, the first present my husband ever gave me, which he chose with such care and offered with such diffidence and which he’d be astonished to discover still residing in my bottom drawer. This isn’t sentimentality. It’s primitive faith, or else superstition of the purest sort: If I don’t honor you, dear thing, what’s to keep the universe, which after all is mostly composed of things, from turning its back on me? It’s not me converting this bit of cotton into a talisman, but the reverse: The power resides in that shirt, this yellowed prayer book, the envelope of baby teeth tucked in my jewelry box. “I hear the songs the objects sing,” my friend who collects glass and textiles once quoted to me, a line from a German poet. A Siren song, I fumed, surrounded as I was by far, far too much stuff. Possessed by possessions, those treacherous tricksters! After we emptied my mother’s house, I vowed to learn my lesson.

And yet, two months later, a week before my daughter was set to move away, I became fixated on acquiring a dresser. A dresser and a hamper, I told my friends, comrades in this latest stage: the empty nest. If this careless girl at least starts out with receptacles for clean and dirty clothes, her life may assume a new, vertical order. The chaos of her life will fall away, stunned into submission by shining towers of organization. All will be well! My friends nodded. They were busy buying de-humidifiers for basement apartments, curtains for windows that faced brick walls. The song of the objects still sang in our heads, but now, instead of a dirge, we heard a love ballad.

At Target, the Baby glanced at the various dressers, pronounced them all just fine, and drifted toward the jeans department. That night my husband examined the model I bought, which mysteriously fit into a very flat box.

“There’s really a dresser in there?” I’d asked the sales clerk, and she’d murmured something about assembly, and hardware, though maybe she’d said nightmare. My husband returned the box the next day, vowing to take charge of the dresser issue himself.

He came home with a chest of drawers the size of a child’s coffin. It was assembled, yet would fit in the car (a station wagon, a near replica of the one my mother drove). “It’s too small,” I said. He argued it was practical. I insisted it was flimsy. He said look, he’d reinforce the bottoms of the drawers, and tighten the knobs, and while he was at it give the top another coat of varnish. “Why don’t you just build a dresser from scratch?” I cleverly rejoined. Our daughter raised an eyebrow but dutifully filled the drawers—her underwear and half a dozen T-shirts did it. The rest of her clothes went into garbage bags she wedged in around the dresser. Her grandmother’s linens and kitchen things, my dismantled childhood bed—the car was crammed. We were ready.

But sometime between then and the next afternoon, when we were to leave, her father began to have qualms. He e-mailed me from work that the dresser was, after all, too small, and we should take it out of the car. “Are you nuts?” I e-squawked back. He wrote that he was a flexible person, able to admit a mistake. I wrote that the dresser might work out after all, because our daughter said her room was small, and if she said that, it meant Lilliputian. He phoned to say he didn’t want to drag a dresser five hundred miles only to discard it on a New York City sidewalk. I said that would be easier than wrestling it back out of the car at this point.

The dresser stayed in the car, but by now we were both furious and miserable. We left late, throwing off the (completely arbitrary!) schedule he’d set us. He and I, when we spoke at all, continued to argue, all across Pennsylvania, past the signs for Barkeyville and See Penn’s Cavern by Boat and the giant Sapp Brothers Café coffee pot, milestones that in the past always made us happy. Demented, we fought over when and where we should stop to eat, whether we should stay in a Motel 6 or a Comfort Inn. If it had been possible to enumerate the hairs on our daughter’s head, we might have argued over the final number. She and the dresser rode in the back, equally silent.

When I left home for the first time, I moved to a big city, too. I had no job, but a good résumé, friends with room in their apartment, and high hopes. Just like my daughter now, precisely the same scenario. Yet my mother didn’t fret over what I’d sleep on, or where I’d stash my clothes. Surely she never bought me a single piece of furniture, not even a set of towels. By then my father’s drinking was bad. She had four other children, the beginning of her own serious medical problems. Did she believe I’d be better off if, from the very beginning, I understood the price we pay to own things? Or maybe she’d already surrendered, this woman whose homemade wedding dress we found crumpled and yellow in her own dresser’s bottom drawer, surrendered any trust or hope she’d once placed in objects.

The apartment was tiny! The dresser was perfect for it. Where would the rest of her clothes ever fit? That no longer seemed to matter, now that we were standing in her new place, which was so cute, and meeting her roommates, who were so smart and sweet. There was a park at the end of the street, and every passer-by my husband interrogated said the neighborhood was safe, it was a delight, our daughter would love it here. We sank onto a bench, and I leaned my head on his shoulder.

These days when I imagine the Baby’s room I see the little reinforced dresser, a would-be beacon of our love and support. I try not to feel sorry for the poor, stalwart thing, struggling to live up to its task but no match for her usual maelstrom. My friends laugh ruefully as I say this. We shake our heads. What we leave behind, what we choose to give—it’s always so paltry, compared to what we meant.

My mother can’t know (unless she can) that her granddaughter now squints at her Pyrex measuring cup, the red lines all but worn off, or fills her dented tea kettle with New York City water. Thrifty as she was, Mom would be gratified, but more than that. How happy it would make her, what proprietary pleasure she’d take, to know she was part of this new adventure, this blank and gleaming slate of a life!

And when this child uses her grandmother’s things, doesn’t some of that happiness pass through to her? For her, unlike me, these objects are no burden; they make no demands, evoke no regret or sorrow, disappointment, or grief. A single power resides in them now, and that is the magic to make our girl feel embraced, enveloped by something ongoing. Look at her washing the measuring cup, not very well, and setting it on the shelf. Look at her dashing out the door, late, careless, brimming with hope.

Author’s Note: My mother loved to read. Thrifty as she was, though, she never bought books. Stacks from the library anchored every table in our house, and one of my favorite memories is waking in what seemed the middle of the night and seeing, down the end of the hall, her reading lamp shining like a tiny lighthouse.

These days the Baby spends her daily subway ride to work (yes, she found a job!) reading, and has probably endowed a special collection or two with all the library fines she’s paid. How I wish my mom could read this piece about the two of them, and how glad I am that her granddaughter will.

Tricia Springstubb’s fiction has appeared in Redbook, The Iowa Review, and Hunger Mountain, among other places. Her books for young readers include What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren, Lost and Found, and the picture book Phoebe and Digger.

 

Brain, Child (Fall, 2010)

The Remnant Child

The Remnant Child

By Susanne Paola Antonetta

remnantchild

When our teenagers seesaw between adult and child.

 

My son is calling us from his upstairs bedroom, his newly deep voice urgent: Mom! Mom! Dad Dad Dad! My husband sprints up the stairs, me just behind. We zigzag around the slalom course that is a seventeen-year-old’s room—the Little Caesar’s box a friend toted in last night, glasses half full of juice, hoodies strewn across the floor. Normally we are less than welcome here, in our boy’s sanctum sanctorum. But now he needs us, and just as if he were a toddler again, he simply screams until we appear, roused and ready to fix whatever ails him.

“Hornets!” he screams. And there are hornets, three or four of them, buzzing sullenly.

Jin as a child had a desperate allergy to hornet and yellow jacket stings. He wound up in the hospital in full anaphylactic shock after his first bite from a yellow jacket, and the allergist we took him to after his hospital release warned us even EpiPens might not be able to save Jin were he stung again. He had a long slog of desensitization treatments, several shots of weakened venom every week, then every month, with the amount of venom per shot ramped up until finally, after years, he could receive the equivalent of many stings at a time with no reaction.

Jin is no longer allergic to any insects, in other words, but the sight of hornets in his bedroom set off the old panic. My husband ran for the fly swatter and dispatched the bugs into whatever afterlife hornets swarm off to, then we were both politely but firmly ushered out of the sanctum.

A day after the hornet incident, my husband and I stood in the kitchen discussing an upcoming trip to visit family in Georgia when Jin came slouching in, looking for snacks and full of attitude.

“I’m not going!” he announced about the trip. “I don’t want to give up any of my summer.”

“Of course you’re going,” Bruce said. “We have plane reservations and you have to see your family and anyway, you can’t stay home alone for two weeks.”

“Can’t stay home?” Jin glared at us both. “Dad, I’m seventeen. I’m an adult now. I don’t need you guys here.”

My husband and I looked at each other, the same thought flashing through our minds: until a hornet flies into your room. We didn’t say it.

There are things we know to expect, going into the adolescent years, about teenagers. We’ve heard about the teenage brain: undeveloped, lacking the frontal lobe growth that gives what’s called in brain science executive function, meaning the ability to use impulse control, moderate yourself, think ahead. We expect teens to be messy and impulsive, to argue and demand their independence, sometimes sneaking more of it than we’re willing to trust them with.

I think the shock in raising a teenager can be how quickly they turn into children again. Something frustrates them and they bellow, shorn of any coping skill other than shrieking your name. Then the problem’s solved and they go back to being teenagers, as if the former state hadn’t even happened. It gives me maternal whiplash. The young adult looms over you—mine, at six feet, happens to loom far above me—and all of a sudden the child’s face looks out, eyes wide and helpless. He’s lost his favorite pair of skinny jeans, or he can’t quite remember what button starts the microwave. He can’t find the computer file for the English paper he spent hours writing. He screams for your help because that’s what he’s always done. Then, jeans, found, microwave whirring, paper located, the teenager steps up again, quite certain he can negotiate the world without your help.

It can be sweet to see that childlike need for us again. I imagine there will always be those moments, even when Jin truly is an adult, when he will dissolve before my eyes into my baby again, looking for something that’s ageless and primal and ultimately comforting from me, his mother. I have never, since Jin hit adolescence, been able to hear a war story about soldiers crying for their mothers as they died in trenches or on Civil War battlefields—that story you so often hear with war—without crying myself.

It’s the turnaround that makes my head spin: the moment after you pick hornet corpses from all the other detritus on the bedroom floor and get summarily dismissed, the casual assurance: how could we possibly think, were we to leave him alone for two weeks, that he might need us?

What do we parents do with him, this remnant of the child? Sometimes, when he weeps, as my son still does occasionally—over a friend’s betrayal or a girl who doesn’t like him, or not enough—we hold him for as long as he will let us. We try to be the parent he, at that moment, needs. Maybe we hope this look at that remnant child will not be our last glimpse of him, that somehow the role as mother will be, from time to time, this comforting, this pure. And we hope against all the world teaches us that when he cries out to us from his deepest heart, we will always be able to answer. But for now, sometimes we just kill his hornets and beat our retreat.

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s most recent book, Make Me a Mother, a memoir and study of adoption, was published by W.W. Norton. Awards for her poetry and prose include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science book of the year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, a Pushcart prize, and others. 

Free Range

Free Range

By Anne Korkeakivi

FreeRange_Main_artMonths before our trip to Tanzania two-and-a-half years ago, first on safari in the Selous Game Reserve and then to the beaches of Zanzibar, I began my campaign to keep our daughters, then aged thirteen and fifteen, from peril.

I made sure the girls had booster shots up to date and received jabs against yellow fever. One by one, I lined up bottles of 50+ sunscreen and 50% DEET bug repellent, pocket-sized dispensers of hand sanitizer, and LED flashlights, like ready soldiers, on a shelf in my closet. I purchased new sneakers, pairs of tube socks, and long-sleeved but lightweight blouses.

I ordered regulation-size duffels in impenetrable material, and then hovered over the girls’ efforts at filling them, although—having grown up mostly as expats because of my husband’s work as a human rights lawyer, and having traveled often—they were used to packing. Because our weight allowance was small for the prop-plane flights we’d be taking once in Tanzania, but also to limit the possibility of loss or theft, anything of monetary or personal value—other than cameras and my younger daughter’s totemic baby blanket—was deemed verboten.

For clothing, Internet forums advised against taking on safari: black (too hot), dark blue (attracts tsetse flies), bright (scares the animals), and white (too many problems to enumerate) clothing. Bare legs and shoulders would be no-nos on Zanzibar (about ninety-six percent Muslim). Oscillating between the girls’ bags, I nixed and naysayed.

“You do realize,” my older daughter finally said, “you aren’t leaving many options.”

I moved on to my husband. His employer, the United Nations, provides him with an emergency First Aid kit; I insisted he empty it onto our bed and explain each item. After, I raided our medicine cabinet and made a trip back to the pharmacy, scoring Norfloxacin and Azithromycin, Loperamide, paracetamol, a topical antihistamine, an oral antihistamine, water-purifying tablets, rehydration salts, an antiseptic gel, a thermometer, bandages, and a small mountain of Malarone, the pricy but side-effect-free anti-malarial prophylactic.

Had I thought of everything?

“Remember,” I told the girls, “these are wild animals.” I went through a litany of behaviors they mustn’t exhibit on safari, finishing with, “At all times, you do what the guide tells you.”

The night before our departure, we watched a biopic about Bethany Hamilton, the champion surfer girl who lost an arm to a shark attack at the age of thirteen. When my younger daughter, during the closing credits, asked, “Are there sharks around Zanzibar?” the better, saner parent inside me realized I might have freaked out the children.

“Honey,” I said with a laugh, “don’t you worry about it.”

Then I went into my office and googled “sharks” and “Zanzibar.” (To note: offshore, there are reef sharks, tiger sharks, lemon and white and whale sharks, and hammer-heads. Stingrays and barracuda are also known to Zanzibar’s deeper waters.)

As largely expat parents, my husband and I are set up for giving our daughters broad and varied experiences of the world, something I deeply want for them. I just don’t want any of those experiences to leave them hurt or unhappy.

I am not a tiger mother. I am a lion mother. I do not fight with my children, but—from the moment I insisted one be birthed by Caesarean, rather than forced to turn in my womb, and the other be nestled, against all local convention, in my French hospital room as a newborn—I’ve fought for them.

As my kids were growing up, there were times when some people told me I was being overprotective. Maybe there were times when I was.

We set off for East Africa.

Over five days in the Selous Reserve, we came eye to eye with lions, elephants, buffalos, warthogs, wildebeest, hyenas, zebras, giraffes, monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, hippos, and impalas. I was having the time of my life—except for that moment when a crocodile slithered directly beneath one of my daughter’s feet as we putt-putted along the silty Ruffiji River in our flat-bottomed boat. Or, when my other daughter absent-mindedly stood up in the back seat of our Jeep to get a better view of a group of seven young male lions—about six feet from us. (In fairness, this was the only time I saw our usually very calm guide lose his cool as well. “Get down,” he hissed) Slowly, I began to trust in the experience. In potentially hazardous situations, I saw my daughters learn fast and listen carefully. Like the heat, it sank in. By the last day of our stay in the game reserve, I had relaxed enough to leave the girls to their own devices while my husband and I joined an armed ranger on a walking safari, proscribed to kids sixteen or under. They had a good time. Amongst giraffes and whistling thorn trees, my husband and I did also.

We left the next day for Zanzibar exuberant and unscathed. I thought the most perilous part of our trip was finished.

Somewhere over the dusty red expanse between the Selous and Dar es Salaam, our flippety floppety twelve-seater prop plane hit turbulence. Miles above the wide earth, we were flung up and down like puppets. It hadn’t escaped my notice that of the two “pilots” on board, the one actually flying the plane was receiving instruction from the other.

“Look,” I said, pointing out the window, while gripping my seat. “There’s the Ruffiji!”

As I successfully diverted both the kids’ and my own attention from worrying about falling out of the sky to appreciating the beauty of the river snaking its limpid brown way through the acacia-dotted landscape beneath us, I thought: Maybe I’m finally becoming a cool mother.

At our hotel in northern Zanzibar, there was a problem with the reservation. Sleeping quarters were located in two small, whitewashed structures in an “L”-shaped configuration, separated by a thatched-roof reception area. Despite having booked adjoining rooms, my husband and I were put in one building; the girls in the other.

My mouth dropped. “No way.”

“We like our room,” the girls said.

“We don’t have anything else,” the reservationist said. “They’ll be fine,” my husband said, patting my shoulder.

By the time we were ready to move on to Kizimkazi in the south of Zanzibar, my family was laughing at my fussing, and I was laughing a little at myself also.

Our arrival in Kizimkazi was the stuff of dreams. Placid monkeys played around thatched-roof villas of the resort where we were staying, sheltered by huge gnarly baobab trees. Green-blue water glistened just steps from our villa’s patio. The feeling of peace was as soft and sultry as the weather.

When the girls asked to go surfing off a reef in open sea at sunrise, I personally zipped up their wet suits, and waved as their little boat disappeared towards the lightening horizon.

That’s when it happened.

Halfway through lunch, with my daughters back on land, the thirteen-year-old announced, “I think housekeeping took my blanket while I was out surfing.”

Since her birth, this daughter had slept entwined in a soft white cotton blanket with a turquoise trim, bestowed upon her by a doting aunt in America. That blanket had been everywhere; every move we made, every journey, every overnight visit. I’d turned whole houses upside down searching for it, a baby perched on my hipbone, small trusting hands clutching my shoulder. In a life with a lot of transiency, that blanket was a constant. There was no coincidence in it having been the only object of personal value either of the girls was allowed to bring on this holiday.

An investigation was launched. After discussing strategy with the hotel owner, I joined my thirteen-year-old by the pool, where she was sipping passion fruit juice over Jane Eyre, her blue-painted toenails dangling in the water.

“They’re going to look for it,” I said, keeping my voice level.

“Okay.” She smiled. She went back to her reading.

“Okay?” I searched her face, ready to offer comfort and assurance.

“Okay.”

A few hours later, the owner had news: Yes, housekeeping had taken the blanket. They would wash it and then leave it in my daughter’s room.

At dinner, my daughter said, “My blanket’s back.” She added, with a wry expression, “I think it was used for cleaning.”

Back at our villa, she showed me the once snowy-white blanket. It was now gray, threadbare in places to the point of being almost transparent. Swathes of the satin trim hung loose from the cotton. The housekeepers must have washed down the whole resort with it.

I gathered what was left of the blanket and gingerly tucked it into a plastic bag. “I’ll fix it up as soon as we get home,” I promised. “I’ll bleach it and patch it, and I’ll make it okay again.”

“Great,” my daughter said, serenely. “Thank you.”

All that night, I churned under my bed’s swirling mosquito netting. There was no one to blame—mistaking the blanket for a cleaning rag had been a careless but innocent error by housekeeping. But, I knew no matter how I sewed or patched, I would never be able to turn that blanket back into the pristine unbroken white square with continuous green-blue border it had been for the thirteen years previous.

The more I thought it over, the more upset I became. And the more upset I became, the more I began to wonder. Of all the things to go wrong—this was something I’d never even thought about. Was my daughter more upset than she was showing? Was she less upset because she trusted me to be able to make the blanket all right again?

As the eastern skyline turned from periwinkle to pink to bright blue, and quiet dhow fishing boats appeared on the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean, the truth dawned on me.

I was more upset than she was.

During the years I’d been busy trying to give my daughters the world at the same time as shielding them from it, a curious thing had happened. Even my baby daughter had grown older.

The blanket sits on a shelf in my office cupboard now. When we returned home to where we live in Switzerland, I bleached it white again but didn’t try to patch it. I decided, instead, to see what would happen. Sure enough, my daughter never asked for it.

I catch a glimpse of what’s left of the blanket sometimes, when I’m extracting a copy of my novel to mail or looking for a new ink cartridge. I know my daughter sees it too, because she keeps things in that cupboard. A little part of her surely misses her old blanket and would like to see it whole again, but not enough to ask me about it.

She’s dealt with the loss in her own way, just as I’m learning to deal with it in mine. Allowing your kids to grow up is a slow letting go that continues all through their teenage years. Next year, my older daughter will leave for college. Two years later, my husband and I will be empty nesting.

“Don’t worry,” my younger daughter remarked recently to me, as I was marveling over how she and her sister both tower over me. “We will always need you.”

And they will. And they won’t.

As I learned in an unexpected way, under the shade of baobabs and at the feet of lions.

Author’s Note: As a journalist, before becoming a novelist and before having kids, I travelled far and wide. I can only once remember feeling real fear. Becoming a mother may have increased my sense of peril, but it has also enlarged my appreciation of going out and about in the world. My daughters are great travel companions! Everywhere we go, they share not only laughs but also unique perspectives. Becoming a mother has enriched me as a writer too, bringing out the gentleness and vulnerability that allows me to ponder a trip to southern Africa in a way I would never before have expected.

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of the novel An Unexpected Guest. Her work has been published by The Atlantic, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

Backstage Motherhood

Backstage Motherhood

By Rebecca Kerr

backstagemotherhood

There are things I don’t let them see: the times when my face won’t hold its shape the way I want, the ugly words that bubble out when I’m angry at myself and everything else that fails. I try to hide it in my bedroom, behind my cheap, white door with the blue marker circles all over. I bury myself in the work piled up on my desk. And when I have to face them after all, I pretend I’m strong. “I’m fine. Let’s go to the park.”

My older daughters help me put pants on the toddler again. He’s been half naked since he turned two and decided the potty was okay, but clothing was not. They find his shoes and socks, where he left them in a weedy corner of the yard. My youngest daughter wants to eat waffles before we leave, so the oldest makes her one to take along. I am standing by the front door, waiting. Or sitting down to check another email, while they do the fifteen-minute loading dance that happens every time we try to leave.

Other mothers have their children dressed and ready by 9:00 a.m. Other mothers know where the clean laundry went. But it’s better not to think about those things.

It’s mostly quiet as we drive along 183. The oldest four know that Mommy is not entirely on board with this idea of going out. They know, but don’t mention anything. They just sit in this uneasy silence, looking sideways at the windows and one another. The youngest two don’t care that everyone seems quiet. They ask questions about license plates and make up songs about fighting bad guys, and I only ask them to please not shriek, but singing is fine, “I love it. That’s a beautiful song,” and tune out again.

I forget to turn at Cypress Creek. My son reminds me after we pass by. He does it gently, like a question, “Which park are we going to?… Oh, isn’t it that way?”

I try to laugh at myself and my spotty attention span, but it comes off wrong. They laugh with me anyway. Then they go quiet again, because they know it isn’t real.

This is the wall you hit when your kids grow older. They see you. They notice the red-rimmed eyes and the long trips to the bedroom to cry away the frustration.

Younger kids see things, too, but when they get to be seven or eight or more, you know that they memorize every clipped syllable, never miss a single false chuckle. And instead of calling you on your crap, they show mercy. They sweep it right back under the rug.

It’s worse than being called out, because you can keep hiding, in total denial. Part of you willingly buys the idea that you’re conning them with this strong mommy mask. But at moments like this, you know.

It’s the thickness of the silence in the car, while the little ones chatter away, and the store fronts and brittle trees pass on slowly down the road. And you realize that your son hasn’t mentioned the fact that we were supposed to renew his Lego subscription today. Your daughters only speak to each other in whispers, especially if they’re arguing over something small, and when they work up the courage to ask, “Are we planning to go to practice tonight?” they do it in this small, placid voice, as if you might break under one more request for carpooling or last-minute shopping.

And this is the last thing you want for your children. It’s absurd and wrong that they feel the need to tiptoe around you like peasants in the court of a mad king. So you overcompensate, “Of course! We’ll go early and have dinner on the way.” And this encourages your son, who was holding back his, “Can I go to the library on Sunday?” And you grant that too, because it’s reasonable and right, and a little voice crops up in the back of your head saying you have three new deadlines to meet by Monday, and you haven’t gone to bed before 3:00 a.m. in days, and you already fell apart over a broken coffee cup this morning, and how are you supposed to babysit for your friend like you promised last week—and you push all of those thoughts down, because somehow you’ll get it all done, always do, just don’t know how, not yet…

We climb out of the car in the empty parking lot, and I barely get the toddler onto the curb before he takes off running for the slide with everyone else. Except my oldest daughter hangs back with me. She’s walking close beside me, saying nothing. I put my arm around her shoulders, because I want her to see I’m okay.

She puts on this brief little smile. But it isn’t real. It’s just her way of acknowledging the effort. So I take her hand and walk with her, and forget all of my lines, at least for now.

Rebecca Kerr works at home with her kids in Austin. She writes all day for her clients, so she can work on her own stories at night. This year Rebecca is a featured poet at Winter Tangerine’s Summer Reading series at Poets House in NYC.

Scars

Scars

WO Scars art 2By Elizabeth Knapp

Molly has five scars. Scars on her neck, scars on her chest. A dimple in her lower back from a bone marrow aspiration. A small hole in her belly from which a gastric tube used to emerge. Her torso is a map of her babyhood.

The first time Molly had surgery was the night she was diagnosed with infant acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was on Valentine’s Day, the day before she turned four months old. My husband and I had been in the ER with Molly for scarcely an hour when her future oncologist entered. He told us that the results of her blood work, drawn earlier in the day at a different hospital, had arrived before she did. He told us that we might want to sit down. John did; I remained standing and stared at him as he said the startling and fearsome words, “Your baby has cancer.” The diagnosis was given and suddenly Molly’s life flew out of our control. A flock of nurses in brightly colored scrubs rolled her away on a small bed to a procedure room somewhere in the bowels of the hospital. My husband and I were led to a dark, deserted waiting room. We were shocked, weary, frightened, confused. I pumped my leaky breasts, watched as the milk filled up the small bottles in tiny streams. We called family. We held hands, silently. We waited. Finally the bed rolled by, this time with only two nurses steering it. Dr. S., the surgeon, peeled off from the procession and sat down with us.

“I’ve placed a PICC line in Molly’s leg and a catheter in her neck.” He rubbed his eyes with his large hands. It was around midnight and he had been working on her for two hours. “The procedure went well. She probably will stay asleep for a while.”

“A PICC line?” I asked.

“A catheter in her neck?” John said.

We could only repeat what he told us, in question form.

I got a good look at my baby girl in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. She had so many wires and tubes attached to her, I couldn’t figure out how to hold her. Three electrodes stuck to her tiny chest, an IV was hooked up to the line in her leg, a blood pressure cuff hugged her other leg and there were two enormous tubes coming out of her neck.

A large machine was steered into the room, followed by a doctor in a sensible skirt. “Molly’s white blood cell counts are so high we can’t start chemotherapy yet. Her body wouldn’t be able to process the large amount of dead and dying cells.” I fixed my wide-eyed stare on he. “This machine will hook up to the catheter in her jugular vein. We need to take the blood out of her body and spin it to remove as many excess white blood cells as we can before treatment can start. This is called leukopheresis. We need your signature here, and here.” She handed John some paperwork. “It will be very loud, and will take a couple of hours. We may have to do it twice, depending on how clean her blood gets the first time. You’re welcome to stay but you could also try to get some rest in another room.”

We stayed. We sat on a cot, bleary eyed, exhausted, watching the machine do its work. Molly’s blood flowed through the clear tubes that snaked around the machine, then returned to her body. We later found out that she was the youngest patient at this hospital to survive this treatment.

The next morning, the tubes in her neck were removed. And there was her first scar.

***

My mother has a scar smeared across her chest. When she was four years old she climbed up on the kitchen counter and pulled the pot of boiling water over her as she fell. Afterwards, instead of healing, the wound became infected and she spent three months in the hospital while she recovered. She doesn’t remember the hospital stay, but I bet you anything her mother remembered it clear as glass for the rest of her life.

As a child, I never questioned her scar. It was just another part of my beautiful mother, like her fine blond hair or her bottle top glasses or her strong, narrow shoulders. She always covered up, wearing high-chested bathing suits and crew neck shirts.

***

The next time Molly had anesthesia I was wholly unprepared. She had been receiving chemotherapy for about four weeks and had been inpatient the whole time. John and I took turns staying with her at the hospital so that one of us was always with her and one of us was with our older daughter. Molly was scheduled for a lumbar puncture, which in later months became routine. She was five months old, on steroids, and not allowed to eat anything including breast milk. She was hungry and in a rage. Neither one of us had slept well the night before. We had been quarantined in her hospital room because her low blood counts made her extremely susceptible to infection. By the time the orderly came with a wheelchair to bring us to the operating room, I was crying, still in my pajamas, and my heavy breasts were leaking and sore. No one thought to tell me that I’d be waiting in the waiting room with all the regular people who were there for outpatient procedures, or their loved ones with normal, daytime clothes on.

After I lay my sleeping baby on the stretcher, I went into the bathroom, slipped my bra on, washed the tear streaks from my cheeks, tried to smooth my greasy, bed-tousled hair. Blotted my armpits with a damp paper towel. Then I shuffled back to the waiting room in my blue slippers trying not to cry again, trying to ignore the polite non-stares of the others in the room.

I was unable to think of anything except the way Molly’s body felt as the anesthesia went to work. She was suddenly limp and heavy and utterly still. Her eyes rolled up and closed. She would have seemed dead had I not felt her hummingbird heartbeat or her warm breath on my nose as I bent down to kiss her goodbye.

Later, in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit, she nursed hungrily and angrily, sucking milk from deep within my breasts until they were soft.  I had been instructed to hold her sideways and not prop her up for a half hour, so the chemotherapy could settle in her spine. I imagined the long needle piercing her spinal cord, both delivering poison and sucking precious drops of spinal fluid to test for leukemia in her central nervous system.

***

There were lumbar punctures every six weeks and so much to be angry about, but I had nowhere to direct the bitterness. No one was responsible for Molly’s illness. I had to be happy that her body was skeletal, that her blood was stripped, that sores would erupt in her mouth and down her digestive tract all the way to her bony bottom, because if she was not pumped full of all these toxic chemicals, she would die.

***

Almost a year into treatment, Molly stopped eating. She was still nursing, but still losing weight. She weighed fourteen pounds. I began writing down everything she ate and obsessing over calories. A typical day would include a tablespoon of refried beans with butter, two bites of avocado and a few Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies. Usually she would throw it all up. I stopped hoping she would gain weight; at her weekly clinic visit I would feel happy if she hadn’t lost any. Eventually she got down to twelve pounds. The same size as a four-month-old baby. She was seventeen months old.

A team of doctors stuffed themselves into Molly’s glass-walled clinic room and recommended that she have a gastric feeding tube placed in her belly. It was a difficult decision to make, as it meant another surgery with small but serious risks. We could have opted for a nasal-gastric tube, which is a tube that is inserted through the nose, down the throat and into the stomach. But we thought this would interfere with her eating altogether.

The two gastroenterologists worked as a team to carefully punch a hole through Molly’s skin into her stomach.  A fourteen-inch tube was anchored in her belly and coiled out of the hole like a worm. We had to tape the coil to her soft skin so that it didn’t pull. All this time, Molly was clearly in pain and not afraid to let us know it. She was inconsolable.

After x-rays and CT scans, a hole in her colon was discovered. Dr. S. opened her up yet again and sewed the hole shut with two layers of stiches. The doctor was a big man with enormous hands. He said the hole was about as big as the tip of his pinky. Another scar was slashed onto her body, vertical, two inches long, an avoidable scar, a scar about which I never stop being angry.

***

Now, at three years old, she looks down at her pockmarked chest and belly and doesn’t think twice about it. Sometimes she pokes at the hole where her g-tube was, delighted with having “two bellybuttons.” What will it be like when she’s thirteen, and wants to wear a bikini? Or when she’s casually changing out of gym clothes in the locker room, will the other girls whisper and stare? Will she have lovers who trail their fingers over the delicate lines on her chest, wonder in amazement and awe at her trauma? Sometimes her sister tells her the story of her scars, “Here’s where your tubie was, and this is where your port was…”

Maybe Molly’s own children will absentmindedly trace the scars, fluttering from line to line with their butterfly fingers. Maybe one of her babies will decide that the vertical scar near her bellybutton is just the right ridge to stroke while nursing. Maybe her children will see the scars as just another part of their beautiful mother.

Elizabeth Knapp lives in a small town in central Vermont. When not enjoying the antics of her two young girls, she can be found writing, gardening or wandering in the woods. This is her first published piece.

Shorts Story

Shorts Story

iStock_000003843423SmallBy Tyann Sheldon Rouw

Early Thursday morning, I awoke to a shadowy figure leaning over my bed, wielding a big pair of black scissors. They weren’t scissors one used to cut paper. No, they were the scissors someone reaches for to finish a heavy-duty job, like cutting wire or a chicken carcass. In one hand, my 12-year-old son Isaac held the scissors, the sharp ends pointed down towards me. In the other, he dangled a pair of shorts. My eyes struggled to focus while I gave him instructions.

“Let me cut the tag off for you,” I said. For most people, the first task of the day might be turning off an alarm clock or walking into the bathroom to pee. For me, it’s occasionally cutting a tag out of clothing for Isaac, who has autism. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last. Tags irritate him. Literally. Tags must feel like sandpaper when they rub against his skin.

Still in a daze, I told Isaac it was too cold to wear shorts and watched him set the shorts on the couch in the living room. In typical fashion, he didn’t respond. Isaac struggles to verbalize his thoughts. After he was on the bus, I put the shorts back in his dresser.

A few weeks before, a friend had asked me if we would like some clothes her son had outgrown. I was grateful to be the recipient of such generosity, but when she asked what size my boys wore, I was lost.

All of the tags have been cut out.

After rummaging around in Isaac’s drawers, I found a couple of pairs of pants I’d bought at Target labeled size large. That would have to do.

It felt like Christmas when my friend dropped off two bags of clothes. Isaac was particularly happy when he saw the shorts and tried them on right away. He was pleased they fit. The new shorts were long athletic ones with the Nike swoosh, much more casual than anything Isaac owned. The way he strutted around the living room with his faint smile said it all. He had hit the jackpot.

Every Thursday afternoon, Isaac has respite time at the YMCA. He goes with a caregiver, Lacey, giving the rest of our family some much-needed down time. He never deviates from the routine. Never.

Isaac qualifies for respite services based on the severity of his disability. My sweet blond-haired, blue-eyed boy has gained a bit of functional language in the past few years, but it’s not always intelligible to new conversation partners. He suffers from anxiety. He is obsessed with opening doors, turning on water and controlling meal time at our house, such as who is eating when. He loves elevators and swimming pools. He is particular about listening to a certain song in the van as we turn onto a street near our home. He cleans dishes and watches his favorite TV show every night before bed.

For the past few months, Isaac has been “hanging out” at the YMCA during respite time — eating a snack, watching people and opening doors. He used to shoot baskets, hit the racquetball around, play foosball or walk the track, but lately he hasn’t done anything at all. I tried not to make a big deal out of it. As long as he was happy and didn’t cause problems for anyone or himself, let him be, I said.

Later that day when Isaac returned home, I asked Lacey how things had gone.

“It went well,” she said, as she came inside. “Did you know he brought his shorts?”

“No, we were in a hurry and I didn’t see what he packed,” I told her.

“Well, he changed into shorts, and then he went into the gym and played basketball with a group of guys,” she said.

“You played basketball, Isaac?” I asked, surprised.

Isaac didn’t respond.

“I love it when people are nice and let him play with them,” she said.

“Me, too,” I answered. I bit the inside of my lip when I felt the tears well up in my eyes.

I looked at Isaac, who was grinning from ear to ear as he took a bite of a fig bar.

Isaac doesn’t really play basketball. He’s a great shot, but dribbling up and down the court is not his idea of a good time. If someone passes the ball to him, he might not pass it to anyone else. He might take a shot or leave the game altogether and take the ball with him. He may just laugh hysterically as other players pass, dribble, rebound and score. When he’s interested in the game, however, he wants to be part of the group.

It occurred to me that perhaps he dug out those scissors and woke me up this morning because he wanted to play with the other guys. I bet he thought if he looked more like them – everyone wears these long athletic shorts – he could more easily join the group. Could it be?

I imagine a group of junior high or high school students looking his way and allowing him to join. I imagine him shrieking with delight when someone shot the ball and it was nothing but net. If the students are there playing most Thursdays, they have seen Isaac around. I’m sure Isaac had noticed them. If they’ve ever seen him shoot, they’ve likely witnessed him sinking three-pointers, even when he shoots underhanded, granny style. Although he’s not running the offense or making an assist to someone who can score, Isaac loves to play. He just does it his own way. It makes me smile. He has a lot to offer the world. People just need to take time to know him – and to include him.

I am reminded of a passage from The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, who is severely affected by autism and communicates through typing. The introduction states, “Naoki Higashida reiterates repeatedly that . . . he values the company of other people very much. But because communication is so fraught with problems, a person with autism tends to end up alone in a corner, where people then see him or her and think, Aha, classic sign of autism, that. The conclusion is that both emotional poverty and an aversion to company are not symptoms of autism but consequences of autism.”

Hmmm, so someone with autism might be excluded because of his communication challenges? Could it be that these people want to be included and don’t know how to get involved?

Isaac likes people when they understand how to interact with him. He rarely leaves his brothers alone. He is glued to my elbow most of the time. He sticks close to his dad. When his brothers are playing and interacting with him, he radiates pure joy.

Like everyone, he likes to be left alone at times. Who doesn’t? There are times when he doesn’t want to be involved, but at least we extend the invitation. Sometimes his anxiety about a situation doesn’t allow him to participate. We ask anyway.

Can he communicate his wants and needs to people he doesn’t know very well? Not usually. There have been many times he’s been at the YMCA, watching people play ball. Perhaps he has wanted to join them every time? Sometimes fetching a stray ball and refusing to toss it back to a player might be his way of saying, “I’ve got your attention now. Let me play, too.”

I was reminded of a flag football game a few years back in which Isaac’s twin brother Noah played. (Noah has autism, too.) As we were loading up the van to head to the football field, Isaac came outside wearing Noah’s football uniform from the prior year. While the game was underway, Isaac ran across the field and stood on the sidelines, happy to be there. He stood shoulder to shoulder with his brother and Noah’s teammates. I’m not sure Isaac wanted to play football, but that day he was dressed for the part. He was wearing the right clothes so he could belong, too. He was – at that moment – one of them. When he dressed like a football player and wore the basketball shorts, those actions communicated more than his voice ever could. He wanted to be included.

As I watched Isaac interact with his brothers in our living room, my thoughts drifted to the events at the YMCA. I am grateful to the guys at the YMCA who included Isaac, who decided they were not going to play a basketball game that was too competitive, so they could include the kid who was wearing the bright orange shirt and the new-to-him athletic shorts.

I hope they understood what an impact their kindness had on my son — and how happy we both felt when we realized he could belong, just like anyone else.

I need to grab those giant kitchen scissors and dig through Isaac’s dresser to find the other few pairs of shorts we were given. I have the feeling he will be wearing them again at the YMCA. I need to cut out the tags.

Tyann Sheldon Rouw lives in Iowa with her husband and three sons. Her work has appeared in various newspapers, and she is a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She is an autism advocate and blogs regularly at http://tyannsheldonrouw.weebly.com. Follow her at @TyannRouw.

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Max’s Eyes

Max’s Eyes

Max's Eyes ArtBy Lynn Shattuck

“Does your husband have blue eyes?” the cashier at the grocery store asks, her brown eyes peering into my equally dark ones.

“Nope, his are hazel,” I say. I paw around in my coat pocket, my fingers reaching for the smooth, thin debit card within. I stifle the urge to make a joke about the milk man being the real father of my child.

“He has such beautiful blue eyes,” the cashier says.  She looks at my five-year-old son Max, who is half-hiding behind me, deciding whether to peek out and flash his ridiculously charming smile.

“Does anyone in your family have blue eyes?” she asks.

I pause for a millisecond.

“His uncle does.” Did.

“Okay,” she says, loading my goat cheese into the bag. Mystery solved.

*                                  *                                  *

When Max was born his eyes were a steely blue, as most babies’ eyes are at first. We all waited for them to turn hazel or even brown.

“I’m pretty sure they’re going to turn brown,” my mom said.

“They’re going to be green—I saw a little ring of green around his pupil,” said my husband Scott.

Being an olive-skinned, dark eyed gal, I expected that the fetus who had wreaked havoc on my body for nine months would be a dark little bundle, the male version of me. When my husband handed Max to me for the first time, after three nights of false labor and one night of very real labor, I stared at my new baby. My first thought was that he looked so utterly foreign. The crown of his head was stretched into an enormous cone from all the hours he’d spent trapped in my birth canal. His pale little face and eyelids were swollen, making him cockeyed.

He looked so other, so un-mine.

A beautiful photo of my husband Scott and Max peering into each other’s eyes is perched on our mantle. Max looks like an ancient soul, and Scott looks mesmerized and delighted. “What I was really thinking was, God, all those ugly baby jokes and now I have one,” he admits later.

Swollen and ocean-eyed, coned and tiny, Max looked alien.

With time, he looked more and more familiar.

*                                 *                                  *

“Haha!” Max shouted when he was two, pointing to a picture of my little brother when he was about the same age. It was the kind of ‘standing at the window’ shout Max favored at that age, as if he was an old man railing on about the whippersnappers in the neighborhood. Kids today, he seemed to be hollering.

I followed his gaze and was once again struck by the similarities between Max and my younger brother, Will. Like Max, Will had big blue eyes that seemed to have come from a blip in the gene pool—like me and Scott, my mom has brown eyes, my dad hazel.

“Yeah, that’s your uncle,” I said, trying to keep an even voice. Max smiled at the photo. I took a deep breath. It’s a beautiful photo: my gap-toothed brother, little wisps of hair curling on his forehead as he gazed, smiling at something in his sightline. What Max doesn’t know is that his uncle Will died of a combination of heroin and alcohol at the age of 21. I kissed Max’s forehead, inhaling the earth scent of his skin. I brushed a tendril of hair—medium brown and pin straight—out of his eyes. For a second, I considered the thought that something similar could happen to him, especially given the genetic plague of alcoholism that burns through his bloodlines. I choked on the thought and pushed it aside—or at least as aside as it could go while the picture of my baby brother smiling, unaware of his future, remained visible.

*                                  *                                  *

Fifteen years ago, my phone rang and everything changed.

My mother’s words slipped through the phone: police officer, brother, heroin. Coroner. The words rumbled in my head, black and stilted, colliding into each other. My brain tried to comprehend. “No, no, no,” I said, a mantra. As if I said it enough times, my words could somehow stop what had already happened, what could not be stopped.

*                                  *                                  *

Me, almost three. An only child all this time, forever. The dark comforter of my mom and dad’s bed cool against my legs, bare beneath my nightgown. “Do you want to feel your little brother?” my mom asked. I pressed my palm to her growing stomach, tentatively. Brother. The word sounded wild, yet solid. “Brother.” I tried it on for size. And sister. “Sister” felt like a fur coat, warm and soft and sure. I pressed my palm to her stomach and I felt a small fist or a foot connect with my hand. The orb of her belly where I too had grown, shifted beneath my hand. Everything shifted, or at least it would, very, very soon.

*                                  *                                  *

After my brother’s death, I moved from Maine back to my childhood home in Alaska to live with my parents. I was 24 and blindsided. Flowers crowded our home, turning the air sickly sweet. A box arrived with my brother’s ashes. I sat on the porch and smoked. I watched clouds smudge across the sky and waited for a sign. For the first three months, I slept in bed with my parents like a scared toddler to chase away the dark thoughts that came with nighttime. It was just us three again curled in the dark, and I hated it.

I wrote letters to my dead little brother, and I went to grief groups. I watched my parents suffer and I thought not only is my brother gone, my parents are too. I mourned that the person that should’ve been with me the longest in this life wouldn’t.

“You’ll have good things in your life,” my mom said one day. “You’ll have your own family someday.” I knew she was right. But at 24, I couldn’t picture that someday family. I could only see what was gone.

*                                  *                                  *

I first noticed the resemblance between Max and my brother when Max was several weeks old. He was nursing and I studied him as his eyes darted back and forth, intense with concentration. His almond-shaped, Atlantic-blue eyes were the first part of his face to smile. He looks like Will, I thought. It unnerved me.

When we were kids, people used to bend down to my brother and ask, “Where did you get those big blue eyes?” They’d look from my mom to me, from me to my brother, trying to reconcile the dark hair, eyes and skin that my mom and I had with my brother’s butter-toned hair and big turquoise eyes.

“From God,” he once answered, elevating charming to a whole new level.

Max’s eyes are wide and luminous. A little tease of green still swirls around his pupils. When he’s observing the world, his eyes are big and as round as a quarter. When he’s sad, they crumple and go navy. When he’s happy, they glitter and take on an almost feline shape.

When Max was about six months old, I briefly considered whether he could be the reincarnated spirit of my dead brother. “Will?” I whispered first, then louder. The first months of parenthood were already so otherworldly, it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch. Max kept playing though—he didn’t turn to me with knowing eyes and a wink.

I asked him again when he was a little older, too.

“Do you remember Booger from Revenge of the Nerds?” I’d been asking Scott for some reason.

“Yeah!” Max exclaimed. Scott and I looked at each other and our 21 month-old offspring and started laughing.

“Are you my brother reincarnated?” I asked Max.

“Yeah!” he shouted, just as excited. My eyes widened. I held my breath and thought for a moment.

“Do your toes smell like sour pickles?”

“Yeah!!!”

“Phew,” I exhaled.

And yet, I still sometimes wonder. At five, Max’s temperament resembles my brother’s teenage moodiness. He also inherited my brother’s passion for music. When Max is tossing his body around to “Party Rock Anthem” or thrashing on his guitar while singing “Back in Black,” I’m struck with the image of my brother attacking his own electric guitar, belting out a punk version of “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.”

And in my dreams, the two sometimes swim together. “Will!” I call out, then realize it’s Max. “Maxie!” I say, and my brother, once again, disappears.

*                                  *                                  *

One of the hardest, most simple parts of grief is the pure and utter goneness of the one who is lost. My brother was here… where is he now? I know his body was scorched and blazed into soft grey sand. We left a sprinkle at a white beach in New Jersey, and folded handfuls into the damp moss beneath the thick pine trees at our old house in Alaska. But how could he just be gone when he was so, so here before? I am speaking of his spirit, the piece of us that is more than our fumbling, fragile bodies. The piece that brings us dreamscapes that later thud into our waking life, the piece that picks up the slick, cool phone to call a friend just as they are calling us, the piece that is utterly certain we are carrying a little boy fetus long before our eyes rest upon the white glow of bones on the ultrasound, the curves and shadows blooming deep within.

Similarly, I find myself asking Max, sometimes out loud, and sometimes in a whispered string of words that brushes my throat, “Where were you?” Because just as my brother is so, so gone—Max feels so, so here. So vivid, so distinct, that I can’t imagine that the sum of him used to lie split and dormant, half within me, half within Scott, waiting quietly among billions of other possibilities. That he is all split cells and coincidence, a random card plucked from our genetic deck.

When Max was not quite five, Scott asked him why he picked us to be his parents.

“There was no one else left,” he said plainly. We laughed, not caring so much how he had gotten here – just glad that he had.

Max brings great joy to my parents. We visit often and my dad, Max’s Papa, lets Max roughhouse with him. Max runs and lunges at my dad, and they both topple over, laughing. My mom, whom Max has coined, ‘Baba,’ hands over her iPad, fresh mango and popcorn to Max, along with most anything else he asks for. When we leave to go home, their knees ache, but they say the pain is worth it. I know that Max doesn’t replace my brother—no one could. But I like to think that he eclipses the pain of their loss a little bit.

Each night when I used to nurse Max before bedtime, I’d watch his lovely eyes and wonder what he was thinking as another day wound down. Sometimes he would look up at me, a smile curving into his mouth and eyes. I held him close and silently asked for help, from the universe, from Will, from whomever would listen. Keep him safe, keep him healthy, keep him happy. I watched his eyes, near-navy in the dim room, sweet slow songs wrapping around us. Keep him here.

Though we’ve been done nursing for three years now, the prayers remain the same. I repeat them in my mind and in whispers that gather around his bedroom door. With a mother’s force and a sister’s ache, I pour my deepest wishes into small words. Let him outlive us. Let him have a long and lovely life.

Let him stay.

As a mom of two young children, Lynn Shattuck attempts to balance diapers and laptops, yoga and running, and tucks as much writing as she can into the remaining nooks and crannies of her life. Besides writing for her blog, http://thelightwillfindyou.com, she is a featured columnist at the elephant journal and blogs for Huffington Post. Find her on Facebook.

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Now I Mother From a Distance

Now I Mother From a Distance

By Dina L. Relles

motherfromdistance
It is dark and still. The single lamp casts a warm glow on the orange walls. His tiny hand wrapped in mine; his chest rhythmically rises and falls with each breath, nearly lulling me back to sleep. I’m curled up in the rocking chair, my tattered gray t-shirt raised slightly, his warm body cradled around my soft, bare belly. He nurses.

I could hear a lone car drive by on 8th street. Otherwise, it feels as if we are the only ones in the world.

For most of his first year, my son would wake at 4 a.m. and cry out. Weary with the weight of months of sleep deprivation, I nevertheless traipsed into his softly lit room each time with meaningful purpose. To feed, to comfort.

Nothing changed when I went back to work. I would still nurse him before dawn and place him back into his crib for more sleep. Then I would start my day, fitting in a couple billable hours before the world awoke.

How I loved those 4 a.m. feedings. I never wanted to let them go. I savored the time alone with my son and the peaceful possibility of those early mornings. Years later, it’s still when I like to wake, when I write—my sacred, silent start of day.

But when my son was nine months old, I went away on business—a two-day stint to Dayton, Ohio for expert depositions. My mother came in from New York to stay with the baby. I’ll never forget receiving her call to my hotel room to proudly report that my son had slept through the night.

What I heard was that he no longer needed me.

Indeed, even when I returned home, he had weaned himself of that 4 a.m. feeding. Most mothers would be thrilled.

Why couldn’t I let it go?

Because this I knew. This was comfortable. These needs were simple, basic. I could do this. Even in my (light) sleep, my ears knew his cries; my body fed his without effort. I instinctively knew the rhythmic sway of midnight, the cries for company of 4 a.m., the subtle stirring of 6 a.m.

Some long for the sturdy that is One, the mischievous that is Two, or the inquisitive that is Three. For me, the newborn phase couldn’t go slowly enough. That time when you measure in days or weeks, not months or years. When my baby’s whole body fit snugly on my chest, when he was fresh and fragile. When a long walk outside was entertainment enough. When everything was new.

And so those early months of motherhood were filled with comfort and ease, like a favorite sweatshirt. I could have lived in them forever.

Now I’m in uncharted territory. Now we are five, and three, and 18 months—all at once. Now is dirt everywhere, monkey bars, and puddle jumping. Germs and lice. Now is impatience and bullies, bad influences at school, and requests for movies with too much violence.

Now is setting limits and testing them. Now is negotiating. Now is No! Stop! And Don’t Touch! Now is asking five times and still getting ignored. Now is a big boy bed that is too easily escaped. Now is defiant.

Now is discovery and fierce independence. Now is biking too far, too fast away from me. Now is hoping, with bated breath, that he remembers to stop at the corner. Now is skinned knees and gravelly palms.

Now there is a person I can’t wrap in a swaddle blanket and protect from the world.

Now I mother from a distance. My eyes working overtime to catch a fleeting glimpse as he darts fearlessly around the playground. Kisses must be invited. Embraces brief. Legs dangling.

Now is complicated. Now is uncertain. Curiosity about god and death. Now is more questions than answers.

The distance will only grow greater, I know. I recently met a middle-aged woman who told of her grown sons scattered around the globe—the closest lives clear across the country. I tried, hard, to imagine a time when my children wouldn’t be safe in their beds, under my roof. But I couldn’t. I can’t. Especially when it rains.

We want another.

Won’t we always? When will I feel ready to bid a final farewell to the early morning of my motherhood, with all its brilliant possibility, utter dependence, beautiful vulnerability?

But now. Now is “I love you” drawings and racing down the hall to greet me at preschool pickup. Sometimes letting me hold his hand. Now is discovering how his mind works. Learning who he is and seeing glimpses of who he will become.

Now is never still. Now is quickly turning into then. Now we are growing. Now we will figure out. Together.

Dina L. Relles is a lawyer, writer, aspiring doula, and mother of three sons. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Kveller, Mamalode, and Scary Mommy, and she writes regularly at www.dinarelles.com. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.

What The Living Do

What The Living Do

By Emily Rapp

BC_FA2013_Final_layout“Is this your first baby?” Any woman who is visibly pregnant has likely been asked this question by strangers in the grocery store line, other expecting women at the doctor’s office, random passersby in the street.

Pregnant women are often asked deeply personal questions in public: if this is our first child; how far along in our pregnancies we are; if we’re having a boy or a girl; if we have a name picked out. However indelicate these questions might seem, to some degree they make sense. Pregnant bodies are a visible symbol of life andgrowth. People like to engage with women who are expecting to give birth to another human being, which is itself a way of altering the progress of time, of literally changing the world by bringing into it a new life and new possibilities.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I loved answering these questions. As a woman with an artificial leg, I have had a problematic relationship with my body for most of my life, and was accustomed to fielding questions like “what happened to you?” I was well acquainted with our culture’s prurient interest in bodies that are considered “different” or “strange” or “wrong.” When I was pregnant with my son, I felt that my body was doing something right and good in the world; “what happened to me” was no longer an incident of limb loss that required an in-depth explanation. Instead, I was about to be amother. I finally felt normal.

I am pregnant now with my second child and how to fieldthese questions from strangers has become much more complicated since the birth, and then the death, of my first child. My son Ronan died of Tay-Sachs disease in February of 2013 when he was nearly three years old. Tay-Sachs is an always fatal, rare genetic condition that robbed him of all his physical faculties—hearing, sight, movement, and eventually the ability to swallow and process food. Ronan was diagnosed at nine months old, when he was happy and smiling and seemed “normal,” yet he had failed to meet any of his developmental milestones. Some of my most heartbreaking memories are trips to the doctor’s office where a nurse took his pulse with a tiny finger thermometer as he giggled and baby-flirted with her. Many times I watched that nurse’s eyes fill with tears, because here was a doomed child, a sweet baby with red-gold hair and long, pale eyelashes and chubby wrists and ankles who would not live to be a toddler, and whose life would unravel in a devastating way. It is terrible to look at your child and think he will suffer and then he will die.

“How old is he?” people would ask me when I walked Ronan in his stroller on the walking path near my house in Santa Fe before he began to physically manifest the signs of his decline. When I told them they might say, “Oh, it goes so fast,” or “You’ve got so much to look forward to,” and “he’ll be walking and talking soon,” and I would wheel Ronan home, weeping and furious with a horrible raging sadness about the wrenching and ridiculous unfairness of the situation. Sometimes I told the truth. I’d say that he was dying, that he would never talk or walk, and brace myself for the response, if only because I wasn’t ashamed of my son and didn’t want to act as if I were hiding anything. This didn’t matter to Ronan—his cognitive abilities were stalled at a six-month-level before they deteriorated—but it mattered to me. At home I would pluck him from the stroller and hold him and cry and wonder why this was happening to me, how it could possibly be happening to such a sweet and innocent boy. The whole order of the world was reversed—babies dying while the parents lived on.

Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but to be entirely helpless as an unstoppable, incurable disease takes a child from you, to be told by a doctor “this child will die,” and then to witness the slow fade of personality and then the body, is a situation that on many days I did not think I would—or wanted to—survive. And yet I did.

My desire to have another child emerged just after Ronan was diagnosed. I wanted to plan for another baby right away. My husband, my supportive parents, many well-meaning friends all questioned this course of action. My therapist, too, cautioned me about having another baby. She warned me about the dangers of having a “replacement child.” I found and still find the idea of a replacement child odious and horrifying although it is a documented term. No child is replaceable. A child is not a couch or a job or a great spot for your next vacation. I was 36 when Ronan was diagnosed. I did not have the resources for the complex fertility treatments that my husband and I would have needed to pursue to make sure that our next child was not affected with Tay-Sachs (both parents must be carriers for Tay-Sachs to manifest, andthere’s a 1 in 4 chance that a child will have the disease when this is the case). When I met with the fertility doctor he cautioned me that the next two years were crucial if I wanted to have another baby. The literature I read online and in magazines assured me that it would soon be too late for me to get pregnant. I was facing the combined loss of my child and my newly formed maternal identity—the future seemed to me a skeletal, miserable existence, a shattered and frightening world.

The only people who encouraged me to have another child in short course were the mothers of other children with Tay-Sachs disease, who understood perfectly. Of course you want to feel life again, one mother told me. I began to argue with my therapist that clinical terms like “radical acceptance” of my difficult situation and “replacement child” were entirely divorced from real-life situations. I wanted another child, in part, to anchor me to the world, to the after life of living without my son, butI never thought a new child wouldreplace him. I would have to live through what happened to him, but did I ever have to fully accept it? What would that look like? Of course these were questions that nobody could or ever will answer.

Although my relationship with Ronan’s father did not continue, we parented and cared for our child until his death. When I look back on those two-and-a-half years of Ronan’s care—the seizures and suction machines and medications and finally, a feeding tube through his nose, it seems thunderous and unimaginable. And yet my imagination conjures up these images with ease and I remember and mourn him all over again. Ronan’s absence in my life is present to me—with varying degrees of force and sadness—every day, and this will be true for the rest of my life. The memory of what was lost becomes its own reality and then lingers. This is true of the leg I lost and it is true of anything precious that is taken from us, any loss that changes our lives on such an epic scale. I don’t believe that people “recover” from loss; we can only hope to absorb it in a way that still allows for daily moments of happiness. Even this is sometimes a struggle, but it is one worth engaging in. We press on. We continue to seek life and love and meaningful experiences. Otherwise, what are we doing?

I met Kent, my current partner, aftermy husband and I had already separated and decided to divorce, putting an end (I assumed) to my hopes of having another baby. At this time, Ronan was still alive but entering his period of greatest and most rapid decline. When it became clear to Kent and me that our relationship was one that we wanted to pursue for the long-term, we immediately talked about having a child together. Both of us were older (I was 38 and he was 58) and we both wanted to be parents, me for the second time and him for the first. I got pregnant four months after Ronan died, in the midst of deep grief but also fully supported and loved by a partner.

*   *   *

I took the first pregnancy test before dawn. When the stick read “pregnant,” I was gripped by euphoria, fear, guilt and surprise, all at once. I ran into the bedroom and woke Kent up to show him the results. All of the competing emotions rushed in: the impossible desire to hold my son again, in real time, with my own hands, to smell his hair and kiss his face and touch his skin; and the great hope that this microscopic, newly formed child in my body would live on, first in the womb, and then in the world. This child would replace nobody, I realized. Ronan existed, and this child would exist. Yet I still wondered: could I find full joy in this new baby when his or her half-brother had died?

A few days later I didn’t think I’d need to worry about it. My first ultrasound at six weeks showed a gestational sac with nothing inside: no heartbeat, no fetal pole, no signs of the beginning of viable life.

“Well, it’s a no-go,” the doctor said, asif I had planned a party that had suddenly been cancelled. “Probably a blighted ovum.” My friend, Elizabeth, who had come with me since Kent was out of town for work, switched off the video she’d been taking to show him the next day.

I blinked at the fuzzy screen, the great space waiting to be filled. Ronan had been driven away from my house in the funeral home van only four months earlier. I would never see him again. This baby had disappeared—but where? The doctor snapped off his gloves and began to make quick marks in my chart. “I see from your chart that your son has Tay-Sachs disease,” he said.

“He did,” I said, still on the table, undressed from the waist down and wearing the flimsy cloth robe. “He died.”

He looked up. “You must be Jewish,” he said.

“I’m not,” I said. The room was cold. My legs were cold. “People think Tay-Sachs is a Jewish disease, but it isn’t.”

“It is,” he said.

“It isn’t.”

“You must be Jewish,” he repeated. Ilooked at him and repeated that I was not.

Elizabeth, sensing my agitation and increasingly annoyed, said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I don’t think you can catch it from over here.” The doctor flushed red, said no more, and left the room. I never saw him again.

The next week I went to a different doctor, who found a strong heartbeat—a vigorous rapid thumping—and a baby forming just where it should be. Kent was with me, and when we saw the tiny form on the screen, we cried. Out of relief, disbelief, fear, happiness, and the idea of these feelings occurring simultaneously.

The pregnancy progressed smoothly, as my first pregnancy had. When I began to show and people began asking me if I was pregnant with my first child, I was determined to remember Ronan in my response, no matter how uncomfortable it made the asker. “No,” I replied. “I had a son and he died.” The conversation often stopped here, the narrative halted. When the questions first began I scrambled to make the awkward exchange a bit easier for the other person. “Sorry to throw that on you,” I’d say, smiling. But now I don’t. My new policy is: asked and answered. Or, as a relative of mine used to say, if you don’t want the answer, don’t ask the question. I don’t elaborate on how or why my first child died when some people go on to ask those questions (and they occasionally do); at that point I tell them that I prefer not to say any more. I don’t want to offer up the details of Ronan’s illness like the pieces of a tragic tale. But I want it to be known—to strangers, to everyone—that he was in the world, that he was fully loved, and that he was my first baby.

I believe that the real danger of having a child in the wake of child loss is the idea that the child who came first and was unconditionally loved will be entirely forgotten. This was an idea I could not and cannot bear. Ronan was singular even after his death. His half-sister will be singular as well, just as loved, just as irreplaceable. She is filling no space; she is creating her own, just as Ronan did, just as every child does. No person’s place is taken by another’s presence. I don’t believe a desire to have another child is a way of healing wounds, or a way of mitigating the great sadness of losing a child. This great joy and sadness can coexist, and in fact they must. This is the responsibility those of us who have lost children have to our living children: to remember. To make known to those we love and live with that each life has a precious place in the world and a significant purpose, no matter how short that life is or might have been.

These are uncomfortable thoughts for all of us, especially parents, because it is so painful to imagine the death of our children; we’d rather not think about it. In general we attempt to avoid thinking about death in this culture, and we pass this culturally sanctioned phobia on to our children. We think they can’t handle it, don’t know about it, but they do. They sense it. They’re humans. They know. It is our job to find an acceptable way to tell them; to make them understand the existence of death and life together. Years before I had Ronan, I met a woman who had framed her stillborn boy’s footprints and hung them on the wall between her bedroom and her living daughter’s. I thought that was just right; I thought that made sense. Death isn’t morbid or unseemly.It’s the inevitable end of any life.

To not discuss Ronan with my daughter, as I will one day,is to devalue both of them in some crucial and profound way. That said, it is not an easy story to tell someone. “Mom had a baby with another man before you were born, and that baby died.” I can see her, years later as a writer, trying to tell that story in a novel, in a poem, in some other book. To whom do these stories belong, and who is in charge of their safekeeping? This is not mine to decide. I can only tell my own truth.

What the living must do is remember.

Author’s Note: Writing about our children is a strange and necessary task as writers who are also mothers. When my son was sick and actively dying, I felt it was my duty to document his life in a meaningful way. I couldn’t save him, but I could save his story. After his death, I am still in the process of trying to make meaning from a situation that felt absent of all meaningfulness. Writing this piece invited me to consider again the strange ways in which chaos works, turning us toward joy and despair, and many times in unequal amounts. This idea of chance, luck, karma, however you name it, is one with which I have long been fascinated, and writing this reignited in me that intellectual interest.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Redbook, O the Oprah Magazine, Salon, Slate, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. She lives with her family in New Mexico.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

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How I Lost 4,163 Pounds

How I Lost 4,163 Pounds

minibus on the country highwayBy Rebecca Lanning

My friend Juli once said that driving a minivan was like announcing to the world you’ve got stretch marks and saggy boobs. I swore I’d never drive one, but something happened on my way to turning 40. In the span of one summer, I became practical, succumbing to both the skirted bathing suit and the mom mobile. But little by little, my van grew on me.

Spaciousness was what sold us. A distant cousin to the RV, the van hauled our family of four to destinations near and far. During a thunderstorm one summer night, when our tent proved to be as waterproof as a paper bag, we piled in the van, reclined the seats, and slept in quasi-comfort. We criss-crossed the state in that van, traveled south to Orlando, north to D.C. By the time it hit 100,000 miles, the cloth seats had grown fur. Twenty thousand miles later, when side curtain air bags debuted, we traded it in. For another van.

For fourteen years, I drove a minivan.

I schlepped loads of kids to the pool, Chuckie Cheese, skating parties, soccer games. I drove on countless field trips. To the recycling center, Lemur Center, art museum.

“Settle down,” I’d say.

Gazing at my charges in the rear view mirror, I’d recall my senior year in high school when I drove a school bus. When the state of North Carolina actually thought it was a good idea to let high school students drive school busses. But I loved that job, and the students loved me, bringing me sweet notes and brownies wrapped in cellophane. I’d wave to the gaggle of moms at the bus stop as I closed the door, retracted the Stop sign, pulled slowly away from the curb. Don’t worry. I got this.

That was the hit I got from driving a van. The sense of doing something vital. Serving as chauffeur to the next generation. Taking children places they’d never been or just places they couldn’t take themselves. The designated driver. Captain of a tour bus with a moon roof and front strut suspension.

Even after my sons grew big enough to sit shotgun and refused to go on family camping trips, I still loved driving them around. Maybe more so than ever because sitting next to them in the van was often the closest they’d allow me to get to them. They pulled away from my kisses, ducked from my hugs. But belted in the van, they couldn’t keep me from looking over at them, smiling. Hands on 10 and 2

Only it’s 9 and 3 now. Who knew? Apparently, when an air bag deploys at 150 to 250 miles per hour, it can rip your hands off if they are positioned at 10 and 2. Mr. Phipps, the driver’s ed teacher, told my sons this, and they told me. Good to know.

That my sons were giving me tips on how to drive should have been a clue that my van driving days were numbered, but I vowed to drive this second van until my younger son graduated high school in June of 2016. With a flush of pride, I imagined the odometer hitting 200,000 and beyond. Saggy boobs and stretch marks be damned.

But three months ago, while I was I was driving my younger son to a sports event in a flat, far-flung town neither of us had ever set foot in, the van started making a strange noise. A loud whine during acceleration. I glanced at my son, but he was staring out the window, listening to music, oblivious. And I wondered: Can the engine of a minivan sound like a vacuum cleaner sucking up a brick if only a 51-year-old, post-menopausal woman hears it?

When I described the whining sound to my husband that night, he went outside and started the van. I was standing by the side door when I heard what sounded like an F5 tornado. The dogs went beserk. My husband popped the hood, jiggled wires, shot me a look. I knew what he was thinking: The last thing we needed was a major car malfunction. We’d just put a new roof on the house.

The next day, two different mechanics gave us the same dreaded news: It was the transmission. A repair would set us back $4,500. The van was worth less than that. I felt, oddly, betrayed.

“At least we have a roof over our heads,” my husband said, Neither of us laughed.

With the van disabled in the driveway, I forced myself to test drive several vehicles, but they all felt flimsy. The seats were stiff. The trunks too small. They didn’t have enough cup holders. Nothing excited me. Not the 0% interest. Not the free oil changes for life. After weeks of finding fault with every car in our price range, I finally settled on a station wagon.

On the morning of the deal, I sat for one last time in the driver’s seat of the van, ran my hand along the worn upholstery. When I opened the console where I once stashed juice boxes, I spotted the orange crumbs of Goldfish crackers. Gripping the steering wheel, I gazed in the rear view mirror at the empty seats behind me.

I could almost hear the laughter of children, their corny jokes. I could see the pretty girl who’d had a crush on my older son, the way she slid so close to him in the third row seat when she joined us for a family outing.

I saw my nieces and nephew crammed inside on our way to a seafood restaurant at the beach. Eight of us in a van that held seven. Rose, the youngest, stretched out on the sandy floorboard, hiding from phantom police.

I recalled the swirl of snow that surprised us as we left the movie theater one Christmas Eve and ran, leaping and laughing, to the van. I opened all the doors, even the trunk, remotely, so it looked as if the van were opening its arms, welcoming us in from the cold, the rain at the camp site, a hard day at school.

For eight years, this van had sheltered us like a second home. It was part of our family, and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

But I did. I patted the dashboard, closed the door, and went inside the showroom where Fred, the straight-talking salesman was waiting for me, smiling behind a mountain of paperwork.

It wasn’t until I was driving away in my new car that it hit me. I liked this car. The roof rails and raised suspension. Puddle lights and new car smell. It was tight and sporty and nothing like my minivan.

It wasn’t my van I’d been mourning. I was mourning a part of my life—the room parent/carpool/Mom-in-charge phase—that was over. It had been over for a while, and I’d been milking it, driving the van well past its prime, ignoring not just the whine under the hood, but the thin voice inside me saying, It’s time to move on.

As I pressed the gas and felt the kick of the CVT transmission, I sensed a curl of joy in my chest. If my sons needed me less each passing day, then maybe it was time to reinvent myself, hang up my chauffeur’s cap, take up a new cause.

Like that, I was ready for a new adventure. And grateful for new wheels to take me there.

Rebecca Lanning lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. As a former editor and advice columnist at Teen magazine, she admits that writing for teenagers in no way prepared her for the humbling experience of raising two of her own. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Brain Child, The Washington Post, Sunday Reader, Southern Magazine, Haven and Woman’s Own.

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Motherhood, Defined

Motherhood, Defined

 

aubreyhirsch_motherhood definemoth·er·hood  (muth’er-hood’)

noun

1.  the state of being a mother; maternity.

 

2.  the qualities or spirit of a mother.

 

3.  mothers collectively.

 

4.  more laughter; more tears. Everything is deeper, brighter.

 

5.  having someone who knows you in new ways, inside and out.

 

6.  the fallout from this eight pound, four ounce bomb that leveled your old life.

 

7.  the way your heart tracks the number of miles between you and your child.

 

8.  paying close attention to where things fall when you drop them. You never thought you’d spend so much time          tracking down those little plastic barbs that hold tags to clothing.

 

9.  keeping him safe.

 

10.  playing with toys again. You’d forgotten how fun play-dough can be.

 

11.  making sure you always have milk in the house.

 

12.  making sure you always have enough energy to smile.

 

13.  dishes. So many dishes. And laundry; the dirty socks multiply and spawn. Where do they come from?

 

14.  being warmth, food, home.

 

15.  reading the same books over and over again; singing the same songs over and over again; picking up the same toys over and over again.

 

16.  you never thought you’d baby-talk him. It embarrassed you when other mothers did it. Why not just talk to your kid like a normal person, you thought. But now you know why. He likes those lilting tones, the wideness of your eyes. And you’d do anything for one second of that smile.

 

17.  diaper after diaper after diaper.

 

18.  knowing you’ll be the first person to disappoint your child. But you’ll also be the first person to make him smile, make him laugh, give him love and comfort.

 

19.  finding other people’s babies cute for the first time.

 

20.  learning to cook, or at least, assemble.

 

21.  a new first every day.

 

22.  after your parents, your sisters, your friends, a rotating cast of boyfriends, and your pets, you thought you knew all the different ways there were to love. But then, here is something completely new. You get to learn how to love all over again.

 

23.  taking care. Your baby is small and squishy. Everything you do leaves an impression.

 

24.  understanding a secret language, so that when your baby says “baa” you know he wants a spoon.

 

25.  some days you count the minutes until you can put him down for the night. Then, as soon as he’s down, sleeping peacefully in his crib, it’s all you can do to keep yourself from waking him. You miss him so much.

 

26.  instinctively knowing just how high your child can reach.

 

27.  getting more colds, more stomach flus, more hugs, more kisses.

 

28.  finding your limits: the least amount of sleep that will get you through a month; the ceiling of your happiness.

 

29.  new courage; new fear.

 

30.  growing a second heart and letting it out into the world.

 

Lucky Day

Lucky Day

WO Lucky Day ArtBy Amy Silverman

One morning not long ago, I found myself in the bathroom with my 10-year-old daughter, Sophie.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. We live in Tempe, Arizona, in an old house with screened porches and original hardwood floors, but only one bathroom you’d want to spend any amount of time in, and let’s just say its charm is limited. I’m pretty sure that if you tugged too hard on the soap dish in the bathtub, the entire house would come down.

 

But it’s all we’ve got, and my husband Ray affectionately refers to it as the “his and hers and hers and hers bathroom.”

As our daughters have gotten older, Ray’s bathroom time has shrunk considerably. Our little girls are growing up.

Well, one of them is. At nearly 13, Annabelle is a ballerina, petite and poised; she leaves behind a trail of hair nets, nail polish bottles and Instagram photos, and is appropriately modest about her changing body.

Sophie’s a little more complicated. She has Down syndrome, an extra 21st chromosome that affects every bit of her. From her straight hair to her oddly shaped toes, Sophie doesn’t look like the rest of us. I have heard that sometimes kids with Down syndrome go through puberty early. That is not the case, so far, with Sophie. She’ll soon be 11 and shows no physical signs of change.

She’s not very happy about that.

So there we were, Sophie and me, together in the bathroom one morning before school. We both needed showers, and she was up first. I turned on the water, then turned to Sophie.  Much like getting Sophie to put on her shoes, or eat her dinner, or give me back the iPhone she’s snagged, this task – getting her into the shower – required a serious game plan.

I cajoled and bargained her out of her clothes, and was insisting that no, taking a shower did not deserve the reward of a shopping spree at Barnes and Noble, when Sophie stopped, grinned and held up one arm.

“I have armpit hair!” she insisted. “Feel it!”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” I said, running my fingers along her armpit, distracted by the clock and the day’s long “to do” list.

“Hey, Sophie, I’m sorry,” I said, pulling my hand back and tuning in to the conversation. “I don’t feel any armpit hair. You’ll get it, but you don’t have it yet.”

Her eyes welled with tears, her naked little chest started to heave.

Shit! I thought. At this rate, we’ll never get to school.

“I know!” I said. “Let’s check and see if you have any hair – you know where.”

“Okay!” she said, super excited.

I crouched down and squinted hard, standing up straight to report my findings.  A white lie wouldn’t really hurt, right? We couldn’t afford another tardy at school.

“I see some!” I said.

You would have thought I’d told the kid we were going to live at Disneyland. She jumped up and down, squealing, her entire body shaking with the kind of pure joy most of us are lucky enough to experience once or twice in lifetime, and announced,

“IT’S MY LUCKY DAY!”

It was my lucky day the day Sophie was born, though I certainly didn’t know that then. Before Sophie, I’d never met another person with Down syndrome and had no idea what it meant, other than that this was going to seriously fuck things up. When Sophie was about two weeks old, I suddenly remembered something that made my stomach fall to my ankles: Pink Slip.

In the early 1990s, there was a VHS tape that made the rounds at certain parties in Phoenix. Ray and I had both seen it. Known as “Pink Slip,” it was an instructional video about menstruation from the 1960s or 70s, the kind the school nurse showed, but different because this one was geared toward a girl who was “slow.” That’s all I thought of her as – slow. It wasn’t until Sophie was an infant and I went back and watched the video on YouTube that I realized that, like Sophie, this girl had Down syndrome.

Since she was “slow,” it took a lot of extra explanation to teach this girl, Jill, about her period. In fact, in the video, the entire family gets in on the act. Mom and sister Susie show Jill a big calendar and explain (again and again – and again) that “every 28 days, blood will come out from an opening between your legs for three or four days.”   We all thought it was hilarious. At least, I thought we all did. I know I did, a fact I owned unhappily the day I made the connection between Sophie and Pink Slip.

“I’m going to have to show that video to Sophie someday,” I thought, wincing.

Ten years later, I realized it was time to teach her about puberty. I didn’t know what I was going to do about it, but I did know one thing: No way was “Pink Slip” going to be the way Sophie learned about her period.

There had to be a better way, something less condescending. Something that hadn’t made the rounds at parties – and now on the Internet – as a big, fat joke.  So when the local Down syndrome support group sent out an email advertising a puberty workshop, I signed us up.

The workshop, led by the foremost authority on Down syndrome and puberty, was split into two parts. The first day was for parents only, with a Power Point presentation and hand outs about how to teach a developmentally disabled young person about puberty. The plan was to come back the next day and separate into two groups, boys and girls, for The Talk.

“So tomorrow,” the speaker said as we were wrapping things up on the first day, “I will be showing a video about menstruation. It’s pretty out dated, I know you’ll all laugh at it, but it’s – “

I raised my hand.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Pink Slip,” was all I could get out. Ray was staring shut-the-fuck-up daggers at me.

“Oh no,” she said. “That’s not the name. I don’t recall it at the moment. You’ll love this one. It’s about two sisters -“

“Jill and Susie,” I said, my face hot.

“Well, yes,” the instructor said. “But it’s not called “Pink Slip.””

Oh God, I thought. It has a street name.

“Yes it is,” I said.

“How do you know about it?” she asked.

“Let’s talk after class,” I said.

“Okay, here’s the thing,” I told her after class. “I’m not proud of this, but we used to watch that video at parties and laugh.”

Ray chimed in: “I never thought it was funny.”

Thanks, Ray.

The next day, Sophie and I showed up for the girls-only meeting. We talked about safety and crushes and the girls went into the bathroom to try on pads. When the instructor drew a girl’s figure on the board and asked everyone to add a body part, Sophie added a bra.

When it came time for the video, the foremost authority on Down syndrome and puberty gave me a funny look then showed something else. Not “Pink Slip,” but instead an innocuous, modern, dumbed down explanation about getting your period.

Since the workshop, Sophie has been obsessed with puberty. And so in the morning, when she’s procrastinating, I find myself agreeing to let her wear deodorant – which she doesn’t need – if she brushes her hair first.  Mascara if she takes her thyroid medicine. And always, a bra from her collection.

The other day, Sophie was about to get in the shower when she announced, “I got my period yesterday!”

“You got your what?!” I sputtered.

“My period!” she said.

“Well, okay,” I said. “Here’s the deal. If you really got your period, then there would be blood on your underwear.”

We both looked down at her crumpled Barbie panties on the floor and lunged for them at the same time. A spirited game of keep away ensued.

I held the stain-free panties aloft, victorious.

“I really did get it!” Sophie said.

“You didn’t get it yet, but you will – soon,” I said. “I promise. Now get in the shower.”

Sophie climbed carefully into the tub. I adjusted the temperature of the water, secured the shower curtain, made sure she could reach the No More Tears shampoo. As I walked down the hall to my bedroom, I could hear her singing her ABCs and was reminded that, despite the bra collection and the hair obsession, Sophie is still a very young girl. And on so many levels, despite what happens to her body, she is destined to stay that way.

Amy Silverman is managing editor of Phoenix New Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, on the radio show This American Life and on salon.com. She co-teaches the workshop Mothers Who Write and blogs at Girl in a Party Hat [www.girlinapartyhat.com]. Amy lives with her husband and children in Tempe, Arizona.

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