This Mother’s Day, Celebrate Somebody Else

This Mother’s Day, Celebrate Somebody Else

By Janelle Hanchett

Web Only Mother's DayI am the mother who missed your kindergarten graduation. I am the mother who was drunk the morning of the first birthday party you were invited to, when you were four years old, the one who made you wrap up a toy from your own room (apologizing and promising another, though I never did a thing), because we had nothing. I dropped you off wearing my sunglasses so nobody would see the red in my eyes as I watched you walk away, with a gift that wasn’t a gift and blond ringlets and fear.

I am the mother who let you go on a February morning, with your brother, into the arms of your grandmother, who was taking you “to the park,” but for good and I knew it, because it was cold and raining and February.

I let you go because I wanted to go back to bed. You were five. Your brother was 18 months and still nursing and you were older and still small.

I am the mother who spent two more years “finding myself,” so deep in self-obsession, sure this pill and this doctor and this drink would be the next thing to fix it, the thing to set me right, to make me whole. Back and forth, in and out of centers and hospitals and your house and no house, I stopped by occasionally as “mama,” felt sorry for myself, blamed everybody else and wrote letters.

You kept them in a box by your bed. A wooden box stuffed with all I had written, on napkins and notes and cards I bought in thrift stores.

Every single one.

With the little pictures I’d draw from wherever I was of trees and flowers and houses, and love notes to you, my daughter, “I’ll be home soon” and “I miss you so much” and “How’s kindergarten?” and “You’re the best daughter in the world.”

I meant it.

You kept them all.

Each one with its hope of life and family and all the things I couldn’t make but could draw, the few pathetic things I could draw, a little house with windows and grass and sunshine, what I wanted for you, for me, somewhere, drawn on the table in the “art room” of whatever hospital I was in, with the crayons for “art therapy,” before I went outside to have a cigarette and miss my kids and wonder.

One day in March four years ago I woke up and was dead, having been killed by alcohol I knew there was nothing left and it should be so, because all I was and all I had failed, was me.  So I left myself in bed and walked on with nothing to lose, with something I couldn’t see or feel but knew must exist, because others were living freely with the same disease, and they told me how to do it. And I did it.

And I found their freedom and my own, within.

So with no fight left, I found a way to live, to come back to you and life, and for four years I’ve been born, having not had a drink since that day. A family again, you and me and daddy and your brother and new sister – even though families like ours don’t end this way, having been torn apart by alcoholism. They fade into nothing like the ends of tiny streams in a dry land. Like broken branches of nothing scattered on a park green.

Or they become us, something else, experiencing some miracle that reduced it all to a box on your bedside table – to a piercing in my gut that comes sometimes, like Mother’s Day, when you hand me a card written in your hand, with the little pictures drawn and the words you want to say: “You are the best mama in the world.”

There’s a part of me that wants to give it back and it crawls down deep into me and begs you to give it to some other woman, some other mother, who didn’t leave and isn’t me, but why?

When I’m here and I am your mother.

I couldn’t possibly ask.

And so I just hold it and look at you and remember, the house and flowers and sunshine, the messages sent with the dying blood of a mother, now pulsing through my veins and yours, giving new life to the drawings that once lay dead on the page.

On our page, to be lived, now, my daughter.

On Mother’s Day.

And tomorrow.

Author’s Note: I didn’t write the story of my alcoholism for a long time, not because I was ashamed, but because I didn’t feel like I should be congratulated for taking on responsibilities that were always mine. I write about it now because it’s the truth, and it isn’t just a story of alcohol addiction, it’s a story of life and family and truth after failure, after obliteration. It’s the happiest story in the world. I found a giant, bursting life as I emerged from the darkest spot imaginable, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Janelle is a mother of questionable disposition to three children aged 11, 7, and 2. She lives in northern California with her kids and a husband who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. If you want, you can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, Renegade Mothering (www.renegademothering.com).

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A Letter to Me, at 14

A Letter to Me, at 14

By Natalie Kemp

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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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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It’s Nature to Nurture

It’s Nature to Nurture

Tea bud and leaves. Tea plantations, Kerala, India

By Diane Lowman

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

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

“Mom. Thanks. We can read the menu.”

I looked her in the eye.

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, mom. I can read.”

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

“Thanks, mom, I see that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remembering My Mother

Remembering My Mother

AdeleHarsMomandMe1962 copy 2By Adele Hars

I remember my mother. She’s in the hardware store. I’m over by the baseball gloves. She is covered in paint, and wears olive green stretch pants and a sleeveless nylon shirt. Her hair is down – about shoulder length, basically straight, a dark dirty blond streaked with off-white latex. She has paint on her face, paint on her clothes, paint on her hands and ankles and tennis sneakers. Her breasts sag and her stomach hangs out. I’m furious. Can’t she clean up when she goes into town? Why would she clean up? She’s just coming in to buy more paint. But I am 12 and very embarrassed.

I remember my mother. She looks beautiful. She’s going to a ball. Her hair is swept back in a French knot, and she’s wearing a summer-sky gown with a sequined waistband. The dress, slim and elegant, is in two layers: an inner one of darker satin, a lighter one of chiffon. The arms are sheer; the cuffs blue-sequined like the waistband. My mother was a model once, and at times like this it shows. She wears pearly blue eye-shadow and bright red lipstick. I can’t remember if she wore earrings. I don’t remember her wearing earrings until I began to hate her.

On the first floor of the state hospital old men and women with straggly hair and bad teeth sway against the walls. Upstairs, people seem a little younger, but they, too, sway. I don’t belong here, says my mother. All my friends here tell me that. I want you to meet them. She shows me her metal-framed bed pushed up against the yellow cement-block wall. I have to get out of there. I sit in the car outside the massive brick building, waiting for my sisters, listening to an organ concerto on the radio. With the windows rolled up, I am insulated.

I try not to remember my mother when we went to court. When I took the stand against her, I don’t think I ever looked at her. Yet I remember that she always wore that tailored deep-blue, wool suit, which made her look elegant, even though it was second-hand.

I remember going through her bottom drawer after my father left. She heard he was going on vacation to Bermuda. If she could go with him, she’d thought, they could work things out. She’d bought a sheer nightgown, some summer-wear, and a pair of slippers with wispy green fuzz. Did she really think he’d take her? What was she thinking as she bought these things? Then I hardened myself. How disgusting, I thought. He’d never take her. What did she ever do to deserve it? He didn’t take her. Nine years later she was all alone. And she killed herself.

She did it in her car, in the garage. She was wearing her pajamas. She didn’t leave a note. It took me a year to convince myself that it wasn’t an accident. That she hadn’t just gone out to warm up the engine before getting dressed on a cold morning. The UPS man found her. He saw exhaust coming out from under the garage door.

I wish I could tell her I’m sorry. I never knew my mother as an adult. I left her when I was a child, when I was just 15. I thought I knew it all.

I remember my mother lying on a sofabed downstairs. She has a candle burning on the table next to her. I’m five years old. I don’t know why she has a candle burning – it’s not really dark out yet. She’s angry with me. Where have I been? There’s been a power failure. She’s been so worried. I can’t understand why. I’m perfectly OK.

I remember my mother at the dining room table. We’ve finished dinner and I’m clearing the table. She and my father are sitting across from each other, drinking instant coffee and talking, as they did every night. She sits slightly sideways, one hand on her coffee cup, one hand on her belly.

My mother’s eyes were gray-blue. Her nose was small, with a tiny scar. Sometimes she would curl her hair, but most of the time it was straight and lank, tucked dirty-blond behind her ears. On the right side of her neck, just above her collarbone, a peach-brown knob of skin. Her shoulders sloped slightly, the dark nipples on her breasts hung low. A raised pink scar on her round belly marked where her appendix had been. She did not shave under her arms, which was especially embarrassing at the beach. The tops of her thumbs were small but bent back hard. She never grew her nails, although the pink part seemed long and ridged. Her legs were pale and also unshaven; her feet small with high arches and pointy toes.

I remember my mother standing on her head. She did her yoga every day, on a padded vinyl mat: white with big, blue flowers. I could never stand on my head like she did, two hands clasped, nesting her head, elbows forming a tripod. Then she would do that lion thing where she’d lie on her stomach, upper torso propped up on straight arms. Her tongue hung out, her eyes rolled back. I hated it when she did that. It was so creepy. Then she’d go into the lotus position. That was fun. I could do it, too.

I remember my mother lying on the bed with the green-checked ice pack pressed against her migraine. Go without me, she told my father. That happened a lot. It made me angry.

I remember my mother in that long white cotton dress with the green ribbons. Drops of blood stain the hips. See what your father does to me? See this? Her teeth have marked his hand. It’s never clear who starts these things.

I’m in the post office. Hello, Adele. She approaches, quiet, pleading, accusing. Hello. Excuse me. Where are you going? I’m leaving. Is your father still seeing that woman? she snarls. Excuse me, I have to go. She follows me to the car. Don’t you know I love you? she says. I can’t tell her I love her, too. I can’t. She’d use it against my father the next time we went to court. I drive off with her hanging onto the car until she can’t and falls away.

My mother speaks in tongues and does “sacred dancing” to Handel’s “Messiah”. She tippy toes around when she dances, bent at the waist, arms extended. She does it for my friends’ mothers. This is very embarrassing. She also speaks in IG, a silly trick where you put “i-g” in every word so it sounds like you’re speaking another language. She teaches me how. Soon the whole fifth grade is speaking IG.

My mother is singing a song to Anne. Anne is jealous because Maria has two songs about her. Eve and I don’t have any songs, either. But my mother sings, “There was a little girl, and her name was Anne Elizabeth. And she was very beautiful. And her mother loved her very much.” Anne is delighted and claps her two-year old hands.

I remember my mother at the pool, Eve in one arm, Anne in the other. She sings Ring-Around-the-Rosy endlessly. Maria splashes by herself on the steps.

I remember fighting with my mother. I throw a blue plastic cup at her. We wrestle. I pin her and scream at her. What were we fighting about?

My mother comes at me. We are in my father’s kitchen. She grabs my hair and bangs my head against the brick floor in front of the fireplace. I am trapped my a chair. I hate her.

It’s 1975. I am 15 years old. I am sitting at my mother’s piano, writing on the inside cover of the hymn book. Dear Mom, I say. Or do I say Mommy? I’m sorry I have to leave, but you make my life too hard. But no matter what happens I’ll never call another woman Mother. I sign it: I love you. Your Daughter, Adele. I close the book and bury it in the piano bench. I go back to my room to finish packing. My father will be waiting for me.

A dozen years go by. My mother is gone. I want to be happy again and have maybe have children of my own someday. I am sitting in Dr. Lake’s office. We’re trying hypnosis. She tells me I’m going to open a door and see a happy scene with my mother. I do. We are sitting on the bed at the house near Boston. It is 1965. I am five years old. We are waiting for a call from my father to tell us it is time to join him in Puerto Rico. My mother asks me how I imagine Puerto Rico will be. I am very excited. I will be riding a green bicycle, I tell her. A two-wheeler, on a sidewalk by the beach. And she’ll be there watching, waving. Watching. Waving.

Adele Hars is an American writer based in France, and the mother of two wonderful teens. She’s published hundreds of articles about technology, but sometimes she writes about other things, too.

Art: Linda Willis

 

 

Womanhood

Womanhood

By Stephanie Andersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

“Knock, knock,” she says.

“Who’s there?” I ask.

She giggles. “Egg.”

“Egg who?” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tell her, “Sweet dreams.”

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

“I can do it,” I begged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

We chose McDonald’s on Main Street.

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

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

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

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

And I respond. “How do I not?”

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

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

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

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

I heard a tiny giggle in the background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does she mean it?” I asked Angel.

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

“Why now?” I asked.

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

“What will I say to her?”

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

“When?” I asked.

“Are you coming home for the holidays?”

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

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

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

She’s silent for a minute.

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” I say.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

“Do you want to hold her?” she asked.

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

“No,” I whispered.

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” she’ll say, sighing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephanie Andersen teaches college writing in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

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

 

Can Kids Make Us Happy?

Can Kids Make Us Happy?

Smile Freedom and happiness woman on beach. She is enjoying serene ocean nature during travel holidays vacation outdoors. asian beauty

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Some parents I talk to seem rather disillusioned. They thought having kids would make them happy. They thought having kids would satisfy a longing or fill a hole or bring a sense of hope and purpose to their lives. Turns out though, for a lot of us, having kids reveals our selfish natures, impatience, inner rage, and makes us really, really tired.

What if our expectations are upside down? What if the reason people had kids was not to make themselves happy but to make themselves better people? Not to fulfill our own needs but to learn about service, not to satisfy our own longings but to help another person achieve their longings. There is fairly clear evidence anyway that children don’t make parents more happy, though it can be reasonably argued that ‘happiness’ itself is a difficult emotion to quantify.

Personal evidence: I don’t know about other parents, but I didn’t consider myself an angry person or a worried person or a controlling person. And then I had kids. Hello, impatience, rage, anxiety, and obsession.

Researched evidence: “Daniel Hamermesh and his colleagues published a study…finding that mothers reported a sharp rise in stress after the birth of a child…Another study published this year (2015)…found that the average hit to happiness exacted by the arrival of an infant is greater than a divorce, unemployment or the death of a spouse.”

I’m happy I have kids, don’t get me wrong. But it is a different kind of happiness than is implied by the simplistic, ‘kids will make me happy’ idea.

In All Joy, No Fun, Jennifer Senior writes that:

“Having worked so hard to have children, parents may feel it’s only natural to expect happiness from the experience. And they’ll find happiness of course, but not necessarily continuously, and not always in the forms they might expect.”

I’m not angry or mean all the time. I’m just surprised by how often and how angry. I’ve also been surprised by the joy, love, gratitude, and awe I experience as the mother of my three kids. The intensity of these emotions is what has shaken me, both the good and the bad.

The point people like Jennifer Senior are trying to make, or at least one point, is that happiness is not a guarantee when it comes to parenting and that people who think having a child will fill them with endless rivers of continual delight have another thing coming. Parents-to-be could be greatly served by coming to terms with this before the shocker of that first middle-of-the-night who will get up with the baby fight.

Expecting a baby, toddler, middle-grade kid, or teenager to make us happy is an awful lot of pressure to put on another human being, especially one that will go through ridiculous rages of hormones, will demand to use our bodies and physically transform our bodies, will absorb our sleep, time, and money, and who will eventually leave us, off to conquer the world while we stand weeping on the front stoop. We know all this, it is inevitable, and yet, we continue to get pregnant and adopt and then feel shocked and surprised when we aren’t happy and when we are, in fact, less happy than before we had children, in general.

One danger in holding these expectations is that when our children fail to give us joy, when we feel the rising impatience or frustration, we will retreat. This was supposed to be fun. This was supposed to make me happy. So when it doesn’t, we disappear or distract ourselves.

I read in the book Sacred Parenting–“If we have only a selfish motivation, we will run from parenting’s greatest challenges… not by retreating to our bedrooms or backyards, but to our offices, boardrooms, workout clubs, Starbucks or even churches.” 

But what if the expectation was not that having kids would make us happy but would make us better? What if people had babies and expected, sure a little joy, but also a whole lot of challenge and the need for creativity and the desperation for community support, the humility to ask for help, the relinquishing of whatever life plan they had previously mapped out? What if at least one of the motivating factors for having a child were self-improvement? This seems fairly radical and almost selfish. But then again, the idea that a kid should make me happy is also pretty selfish.

This idea that kids can refine their parents takes the pressure off the kids to please us and to succeed and excel and obey and be talented, pleasant, intelligent, good-looking, and to fit into our categories of what we consider successful and pleasing. Instead, the pressure is put back on ourselves as parents. The kids become useful tools in our lives, even as we are training them to become productive adults in the world.

When a child whines for candy at the grocery store, I might lose my patience and then feel miserable – both for losing my temper and for failing to raise a child who doesn’t whine – this also comes with a huge dose of guilt. Now neither one of us is happy and in my mind, it is all the kid’s fault – for being a whiner. Or my fault – for raising a whiner. Either way, we both lose.

Instead, I can recognize my impatience, apologize for losing my temper, and see it as an opportunity to grow in character. My kid still probably won’t get the candy but instead of wallowing in self-pity (her) or guilt (me), we can both experience progress toward becoming better people, one tiny step toward being more patient or toward more self-control. It’s a small example but like so much with parenting, small things illuminate larger ones.

If we parents used the challenges inherent in parenting: sleepless nights, financial strain, marital disagreements, and decided to see them as an opportunity for growth rather than a failure of our children to reinforce our happiness, we might actually become…happier.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She 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.

Why I Let My Kids See Me Naked

Why I Let My Kids See Me Naked

onsenBy Melissa Uchiyama

The majority of my friends’ children have never seen their parents naked. It is not part of the family culture. Kids may scamper diaper-less. Mommy may giggle at their talk of penises or “willies.” But most moms and dads will never be naked with them.

Once babies are through with nursing, they will probably never see their mother’s breasts again. If it happens, it may be later, accidentally, with a sense of shame or even derision. Her body is a mystery and she has zero interest in sharing it. This might sound healthy to some. But I don’t think it is.

I moved to Japan from America seven years ago, before I had kids. I learned about onsens, the public mineral baths. Here Japanese children grow up scrubbing their mother’s backs, walking from bath to bath, or showers to bath, with all manners of women. Girls see teenagers, mothers, grandmothers, all bodies with their different needs and ages, all bodies washed and soaked. There isn’t shame. It is healthy, a place where life and rich conversation occur, especially in the period before most Japanese homes had their own showers or baths.

It was my own visiting mother who convinced me to go to these baths for the first time. It took many jokes about needing a glass or two of wine, and five minutes to shake off my piled nerves, but soon I saw value in being able to relax, truly, in my own skin, and next to hers.

The truth is, growing up, I did not always respect my mother’s openness with her body, the way she kept the door open when she changed or went to the bathroom. I certainly did not approve when I noticed that she was bra-less under a T-shirt. Maybe the hateful derision crept in when I was a teenager, suddenly and keenly aware of my burgeoning sexuality. I didn’t see her openness within the context of community, or say, in the function of nursing a baby, or soaking in the waters of a centuries-old bath house. It is really only since being in Asia, and certainly since becoming a mother myself, that I have cleaned house in terms of my old beliefs about the body.

Living in Tokyo, my husband and I take our kids to the public baths sometimes but, more importantly, we have adopted its lifestyle at home. My daughter is five and a half and my son is almost three years old. It began when my girl was just an infant—after a baby’s first month, doctors and midwives encourage parents to bring her into their own bath. And this is what we did. We bathed with her, the special Japanese way, supporting her small neck, while gently folding her ears back to not let in any water. The other hand used a feathery cotton gauze to clean eyes, scalp, and all of those fatty baby folds in her impossibly soft skin. Both of my children learned to be comfortable in deep bathtubs very early on, also learning buoyancy and the weightlessness of trust. We never really used our baby tub.

There are many benefits to family bathing. Besides the efficiency, the demand for “quick changes” in a frenetic household, I don’t dread future talks about my daughter’s changing body. Through all the seasons of our bathing, questions and conversations come up, organically. She knows bodies change. She sees how my own body molds and adapts to pregnancy and postpartum stages. She knows breasts and nursing. She knows that girls and boys will grow hair. I won’t need four glasses of Merlot, a cartoon picture or diagram to express, through my embarrassment, what happens when humans age. I won’t flounder. At least, not as much.

Some of my best parenting moments happens in the bath. With the addition of our son, my kids better understand the differences between girls and boys. They are completely comfortable with biology, botany, the separateness of male and female. In this setting, with all of us getting squeaky clean together, we talk about big things, like personal space, and my daughter uses her voice if ever needed, to say: “No. This is my private part.” Both of my kids are growing up to understand boundaries and to respect them.

Children have their whole lives to access the multitude of widespread sexual images and beliefs out in the world. But this childhood with mommy and daddy, in a healthy, nurturing context, is the foundation I want for my family, a kind of bedrock of beauty and appreciation of the human body. Let’s not bring a shameful, sexualized belief into the home which doesn’t belong. Let’s not usher our little kids out of childhood before they are ready or developed for the things of young adulthood.

And no, we’ll not keep it up for longer than appropriate. Later the kids will separate, from us and from each other, as is natural. For now, anyway, there is freedom and joy. There is laughter. There are correct names for body parts. I don’t have to stay knotted up in a robe. I don’t have to wear three layers and a bra. I am free to show them my postpartum tummy rolls and say, “Yes” I’ll work on that later, but right now, I’m happy to just be. “They’ll see the transformations as all of our bodies grow.

Melissa Uchiyama is an educator, writer, and mother. She has contributed to Literary Mama, Mamalode, Cargo Literary Magazine, Kveller, and other sites, but this is her first piece in Brain, Child. Connect with Melissa as she blogs about the motherly and literary life on www.melibelleintokyo.com.

The Unexpected Grief Of The Unknowing

The Unexpected Grief Of The Unknowing

By Sonya Spillmann

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When does an adolescent’s desire for independence from her mother wane and the longing for restoration begin? When do mothers and daughters reach a tipping point, and the pushing away becomes a pulling towards?

 

I didn’t think it would start this early: she is only nine. My daughter is not looking at me, but through me. We’re standing in the kitchen and I have one hand on the counter and the other on my hip. I’m leaning into her as she adjusts her elbows and ankles, getting comfortable for my lecture. She is somewhere beyond me. I know her look, her stance. I perfected it with my own mom.  

As I look back on those years battling with my mother, I find myself wondering: Was I a good child with horrible moments—a typical teenager? Or had I permanently damaged my relationship with my mom? Is there a distinction? Where is the line?

I don’t know the answers. I never had the chance to find out.

My mom died when I was eighteen, at the tail end of my senior year of high school. She was diagnosed with cancer ten weeks before she took her last breath. I was busy planning for my big exciting life away at college while my mother counted out her days.

Growing up, my parents were strict, their rules covered by a heavy blanket of expectation from our church’s traditions. No makeup. No jewelry. No dancing. No dating. Modesty always, especially in church, where pants weren’t allowed and head coverings were worn by women of a certain age to show their submission to God.  

As teens do, I challenged the rules and pushed my way onto roads my parents never expected to travel. I wasn’t a bad kid—I was just hard for them. I challenged the status quo. I wore jewelry and went to prom with my boyfriend, all against their wishes. I fought with them over everything and nothing.

We had too many arguments to remember. Except for one.

My mom and I were standing in the kitchen with it’s new cream, navy, and maroon striped wallpaper. She stood on one side of the room and I was on the other. I don’t know what she wasn’t giving me or not allowing me to do, but she wouldn’t change her mind. I had lost the battle, so I went deep and picked a new prize.

Could I push her enough to slap me?

She walked out of the kitchen to the garage, with it’s yellow textured walls and shelves full of tools. I followed her, relentless.

“But you said…”

“I can’t believe…”

“Everyone else…”

From the garage, she went out onto our deck. She needed nothing in the garage or from the deck, minus an escape. Twenty years later, I realize she was running away from me, in the only way loving mothers can. Hoping diffuse a situation with a quick exit, to anywhere the other person is not—allowing physical space and stolen time to shift the dynamic just enough.

My sharp tongue lashed at her soft skin over and over and over. Until finally, I cut too deep and she slapped me squarely across the face.

Anger. Power. Guilt. Pride. Satisfaction. Limits. The pain and mix of emotions (for both her and myself) stopped my self-centered world for a moment.  

My left cheek stung. And I imagine, as she walked past me through the garage into the house and back to our kitchen, closing the door on me, her hot tears of anger, power, hurt, and guilt must have stung, too.

When does an adolescent’s desire for independence from her mother wane and the longing for restoration begin? When do mothers and daughters reach a tipping point, and the pushing away becomes a pulling towards?  

Last week, I asked an acquaintance if she’d like to get our kids together for a playdate. “You pick the day. I’m free.”

“I’ll let you know,” she said, “we usually get together with my mom a few days of the week.”

When I see a woman flanked by her mother and daughter, creating a chord of generational harmony, a very hard note pounds in my heart. Unable to be that middle participant, I wonder, will I have the chance to do this with my own daughter and her child one day?

For my daughter to be a healthy adult, she and I must become autonomous. I need to accept part of her growing up involves our separation, and this is often hard work. Should the next decade be arduous—requiring me to both set limits and keep arms open while she vacillates between childlike trust and the pulling with unbridled independence away from me—am I willing to hold my ground, not knowing if we will have the chance, the time, to move past this stage of life? If I find myself in my mother’s shoes, dying young, will I regret not making these years more pleasant, though I know it would be a disservice to my daughter in the long run?  

Hope Edelman, in her book Motherless Daughters, writes of the many cycles of grief a woman experiences when she loses her mom:

“A daughter who loses a mother does pass through stages … but these responses repeat and circle back on themselves as each new developmental task reawakens her need for the parent. … At each milestone a daughter comes up against new challenges she’s frightened to face without a mother’s support, but when she reaches out for her, the mother isn’t there. The daughter’s old feelings of loss and abandonment return, and the cycle begins again.”

I grieved my mother at my high school and college graduations, at my wedding, and after each of my children’s births. As much as I could, I anticipated those griefs. But surviving them left me disarmed and vulnerable to the emotions I feel with the first strains of my daughter’s impending teenage years. I did not anticipate grieving the relationship I wish I had with my mother now.

This new grief, I call it the Unknowing, is unexpected.

I grieve not having the privilege of time; a gift which makes no guarantees, but at least offers the possibility of true reconciliation. I grieve not being able to show my mom I was deserving of the forgiveness she so graciously gave me in her last days. I grieve not being able to call her and ask her what to do with this little girl who will soon be a young woman. I grieve not knowing what the future holds, and I cannot help but fear I will be taken from my daughter before we have time to mend our relationship which will inevitably fracture throughout the process of her becoming an adult.

So here I am, feeling like a teenager while I simultaneously prepare to raise one.

After my mom’s diagnosis, she started chemotherapy. Although she only got worse, as a family, we didn’t discuss the possibility of her death. Even so, toward the end, each child was given a chance to talk with her alone. Without being told, I knew she was dying. She was in the hospital, requiring oxygen and hydration, and only days away from hospice care. She was cachectic and the chemo partially paralyzed her vocal chords, making conversations quiet and strained. My dad ushered me into the quiet room and I cautiously sat on the left side of her hospital bed.

Because this would be our last real conversation, I felt an urge to ask for her forgiveness. There are no adequate words to apologize for being a teenager when your mother dies.

As I started to speak, she shook her head. I began again, but she stopped me. She put her frail hand up, palm facing out. The same hand which set a limit on our deck years ago set another that day.

With her hand still up, she said four words I will always carry with me.

“You’re a good girl.”

Through all my self-doubt, and the grief I still experience, I am comforted knowing my mom knew my heart. She understood (more than I could have at the time) how typical, though ill-timed, my behavior was. Nothing changes a mother’s love.

Sonya Spillmann is a nurse and freelance writer who lives outside of DC with her three kids and husband. Her personal essays have been on Huffington Post, Coffee+Crumbs, and others. She was a cast member of DC’s 2015 Listen To Your Mother show and writes at spillingover.com to share stories of grief and grace. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Author Q&A: Jessica Johnson

Author Q&A: Jessica Johnson

bw headshotJessica Johnson is the author of the essay The Intertidal Zone. We spoke with her about writing and motherhood. Here is her story:

What inspired you to write this essay?

When I started this essay, I had just started teaching creative nonfiction, and as I helped my students think about the structures of their essays, I got ideas about how I might write about my experience at the Newport aquarium. That moment in Newport seemed tied to many other parts of my life, but in order to write it, I needed to get an idea about how to structure this multifaceted story.

What was the greatest challenge in writing it?

I had trouble figuring out where to start and where to end, and I wrote many, many drafts.

How do your children inform your writing?

I’m enchanted by my children. They’re like a big ball of light and love in my consciousness. On the other hand, when I take a more detached view, my children—their developmental phases, their ways of seeing the world, the surreal aspect of being around them—are fascinating objects of study, full of unexpected insights. I write about them and the experience of raising them, but even when I’m not writing about them, the imperative of love and care hopefully permeates my writing.

How do you balance writing and motherhood?

Most of my writing friends now have small children, and we talk about this question all the time. One of them recently said, “All I can do is get up early.” That seems about right to me.

Do you share any of your writing with your children (if they are old enough of course)

My oldest child is four, and I have never shared my writing with her, but I often imagine her grown-up self as my true audience.

Back to November 2015 Issue

 

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.

What No One Ever Told you

What No One Ever Told you

Little Playing with House

Rebecca L’Bahy

Sometimes you feel a rage build up in you and it is only 7 a.m. You are feeding the dogs, the cats, making waffles, making coffee, making lunches, barking orders: Brush your teeth. Brush your hair. Get your shoes. Get your backpack. We’re late, we’re late, we’re late. You are so close to what you have been waiting for – three kids in school full-time. Your own brain-space. You sit and stare at a wall. There is a bird in your throat, a rock in your ribs. You avoid the kitchen. Sometimes the whole house. Drive around in your mini-van unsure where to go or what to do. Something is missing from your day. From your life. You should, you should…but you don’t. Then 2:30 comes too soon and your six-year-old wants to play house. How about a board game, you suggest. With a board game there is no pretending, there is a beginning and an end. She starts to cry. She wants to play house. Why won’t you ever play house? You yell something at her, something mean. She cries harder. You are her first love and you have broken her heart so you let her: the Disney channel, candy, salamanders in the living room. In the quiet, guilt. Look at her! Do you even see her? How she watches TV upside down in a headstand, her hair spilling out on the couch, her arms vulnerable as spindly tree branches? It isn’t until later, after the final push through dinner, and clean up, and the bedtime routine, after you collapse exhausted into her bed to cuddle that you see her: that hair, those arms, her tiny baby teeth. You were there when they came in. You were there when she chipped one on the driveway, and you will be there when they fall out one by one. You have always been there, even while you were thinking What if.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

A Ghost in My Neighborhood

A Ghost in My Neighborhood

A Ghost on the Neighborhood ARTBy Leslie Kendall Dye

Last month the woman was standing in front of the vintage shop a few blocks from my apartment. She was rocking continuously and her back was bent at an alarming angle. I heard her singing—it was a tune I recognized. My own child was dashing down the street, but I called after her—”Do you remember that song? I used to sing it to you!”

The woman turned toward me and I saw a baby—about seven months old—was snuggled into the woman’s chest, wrapped in the secure folds of a wrap made of soft Jersey fabric. She was putting the baby to sleep.  I remember that time, I thought. I smiled at her, trying to tell her that I had been there, and that I envied her the simplicity of that moment with her baby. I envied the waves of oxytocin flooding her precariously tilted frame. She didn’t smile back, because she didn’t see me.

My own child is now close to four years old and in a matter of weeks she’ll enter a society larger than the one between parent and child: preschool. I am so very ready for it, as is she. Both of us need more than each other now to pass our days productively and to be stimulated. Both of us need a few hours not intertwined but sailing toward separate adventures. Both of us want friends our own age. Still, I cried bitterly when we signed the paperwork for school. My daughter will have a teacher and a cubby hole and things will happen to her during the day that I will not bear witness to. In four years, there is little for which I have not been present.

As we rush headlong toward this new era, I luxuriate in watching another woman in the neighborhood who has a five month old. I don’t want to go back—yes, babyhood races by quickly, but it is also slow and exhausting and besides, I lived it fully—as best I could.

We had such fun. We took so many naps together. We jumped in so many leaves. We nursed for so long.

I started seeing the new mother in the neighborhood a few months ago. I can tell this is her first baby. She gazes at the reflection of mother and child as she walks by windows. She points to her baby’s face and the baby laughs and bobs in the carrier. I remember how the little legs kick with delight and the arms flap with expressive glee. Maybe the baby has one or two words by now.

I saw her in a bookstore a few weeks ago. Her child seems to grow unusually fast; she’s already standing up. She was with a friend and the friend tried to walk the baby on her legs by holding up her arms. The mother grew alarmed.

Never hold a baby by the arms to help her walk! She has to build her musculature by walking on her own and only when she’s ready!”

I was surprised, because I too had guarded my child’s physical development ferociously. I’d read that it was bad for a baby’s hips to stand her up and “walk her.” I almost approached the mother and asked if she’d read the same book—she was the first parent I’d heard espousing the same idea—but I didn’t want to seem interfering or crazy.

Instead, I turned to my four-year-old and told her that she had shown no interest in walking until she was thirteen months old; she tore a lot of holes in her pants while crawling at the speed of light.

“Mama,” she said, with a hint of teenage exasperation, “You’ve told me that before.” And then we went back to reading Frog and Toad, because I had refused to read her that awful princess book.

Yesterday I saw the mother in Central Park. The baby had mastered walking. They were by the Alice in Wonderland statue that my toddler and I had visited many times. There was a pile of leaves and the baby was jumping and crunching the leaves and shouting “again!”

I sat on the stone ledge by the boat pond. I called out to the woman “My daughter used to love climbing Alice!”

A cool wind swept by, chilling me. Strange for August, I thought. I then noticed that the mother and child were dressed for an autumn day. Maybe they’d left the house in the cool of early morning and had yet to shed their cardigans. I remembered arriving at the park at five-thirty in the morning, seeking amusement at ungodly hours when my own baby had awakened and announced the start of the day.

Mothers of babies must get so tired of people wanting to re-live the baby days. People are always talking to them, trying to chat with their babies. I wonder if they think: you had your turn. Please stop telling me how quickly it goes. Stop telling me to enjoy my baby. I am enjoying her, can’t you see that?

She didn’t pay any attention to me. She strapped her child into a Beco carrier built for toddlers.  She then gathered a swaddling blanket around the baby’s legs the way I used to do when the wind picked up and we had a long walk home. She walked right past me, in a hurry, talking to her baby about dinner and a bath. I looked back at the boat pond. The leaves must have scurried past as well because the August sun was once again shining on a bare, hot ground.

Occasionally I follow her. She goes down to the playgrounds in Riverside Park. I often guess where she’ll be and I find her, just to catch a glimpse of her playing with her child.

I saw her on one of my favorite blocks the other day. She was standing under a pear blossom tree in full bloom, brownstones flanking her. She was telling her child that it was nap time. Her daughter wanted to nurse right there on the street, but she’d grown too big for that.

I wanted to tell the mother that I often gave in even when my child got big enough to wait; I’d nurse her right on that very same brownstone stoop, because the pear blossoms were so pretty, and because why not? Before I knew it, she would not be interested in nursing so why not slow time by enjoying every moment?

When I got to the tree, the woman had begun packing up.

She’s avoiding me, I realized.

I must have imagined the pear blossoms, because I was standing under the green and parched-brown leaves of midsummer by the time I’d crossed the street. I must have been confused because of a memory of my child standing under the pear blossoms and asking to nurse.

And speaking of my child, I needed to get home. I hurried to our apartment, where she’d discovered coloring pages. I was pleased she’d found occupation, but sad that the structure now appealed to her. A mere month ago she never would have had any interest in decorating someone else’s picture. She would have wanted only a blank page and a crayon.

She’s not a toddler anymore, I realized.

I don’t try to talk to the mother anymore. She is in her own world, her own time with her child, her own stage of life as a parent. She doesn’t need my nostalgia. Before she knows it, her child will be begging for school and friends and climbing to the top of the jungle gym and swinging from the monkey bars. Let her enjoy this time with no reminder that it will pass one day. She already knows. I’m certain she already knows. I can tell by how consumed she seems to be with motherhood.

She is not in a rush, this mother.

Still, when it comes upon her, she will not be prepared. She may know that, but it won’t help.

There will be a rupture, and she will feel it coming, the way labor pains come on to alert you of your first violent separation from your child. She may have a few months to prepare for it—as I do now—watching the summer disappear into the lengthening shadows of summer’s end, counting down the days to the sudden change.

Still, she will not be prepared.

I know why she never answers me.

She knows I am there—or will be there when her baby ages. For now, I am only an older mother in her imagination. But she is quite real to me—I know her every route and routine, every bench she nursed on, every path in the gardens of the park along which she and her daughter have stolen. I don’t just know her routines—I remember them.

It isn’t only streets across which I am calling to her, it is time—and that is a dimension through which only memory, not voices, can travel.

 Author’s Note: I have a seventeenth edition of “Portrait of Jennie” by Robert Nathan on my shelf, given to me by my father. If it were a first edition it could not be more precious. I’ve no doubt that the book influenced my own little tale in which Time doesn’t play by the rules. 

Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress in New York City. She has recently written for Salon, Word Riot, Club Mid, The Washington Post, and Off The Shelf, and has work forthcoming at The Toast, Coffee +Crumbs, and Vela Magazine.  She and her husband and daughter are a family that rarely sleeps in the city that never sleeps. You can find her at twitter at @HLAnimal.

 

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)

Mother Erased

Mother Erased

_451x600_voor_web_erased_face_2By Dana Laquidara

I am standing inside our home with my sister and our young mother. I am four years old. We are wearing our winter coats, and my mother has her hand on the front doorknob. She turns to face my father who is demanding to know where she is taking us.

You see, my mother has begun an affair with a man she believes will help her get away from my father. This is where she is headed that night, standing by the front door with my sister and me in tow. She is leaving my father. This night she plans to escape from her marriage.

But my father intercepts her at the front door. And later that night while my sister and I sleep, he throws our mother out of the house. There is snow on the ground.  She isn’t wearing shoes or a coat and she has a broken wrist, a consequence of their violent fight. When my sister and I awake the next morning, our mother no longer lives with us

She moves into an apartment alone, and my sister and I visit her on Sundays. These visits are quiet. She is not the same mother who used to take us sledding and read books to us. She is sad and broken. Defeated. We love her fiercely though, and when she returns us to our father after each visit, we cry and cling to her in the driveway.  It’s a terrible scene and as our father is peeling us off of her, he says, “See what you are putting them through? They are better off without you. If you love them, then let them go.” He says this week after week until she believes him. And she lets us go.

The following year my father remarries and we are told to call his new wife “Mom.”  He wants to clean the slate and move on as if divorce, and my mother, never touched our lives. He wants to believe he has put everything back in order, and no one tells him otherwise.

His new wife happens to be a brunette like my sister, with short, straight hair. My father has dark hair as well. My own hair is lighter, like my mother’s, long and curly.  I’ve become the best behaved little girl, but my hair is still unruly and this causes a problem for our family.

One Saturday, we are out doing errands together and a stranger, noticing me with my dark-haired family members, asks, “Where you get your hair?”

I feel scared by this question. I don’t know how to answer. I know I can’t mention my real mother, because she’s been erased from my life. We never mention her. So I stand there, speechless, and my stepmother says, “Oh, it runs in the family. She has an aunt with the same hair.”

I want to disappear. I feel shame that my very existence, the sight of me, could blow the family secret. I sensed that was the worst thing I could do. Shortly afterwards, my stepmother brings me to get my hair cut short. “It was too much trouble to take care of” is the reason she gives to the hairdresser.

The day I turn five, my mother dares to show up at our home with a birthday gift for me. She has her hair pulled back into a ponytail. I don’t remember if I look at her face. I want her there but I feel anxious, too. I’m not supposed to want her there.  I’m not supposed to love her anymore. My father paces, his jaw clenched. His anger is palpable. My mother comments on my haircut. Then she gives me the gift and I open it.

I’m playing with the new toy when I hear my sister say, “We don’t need you to come here. We have a new mother now.” She is only six years old, but she is angry and her words carry power. She has been influenced by our father, has absorbed his rage, and now our mother is the enemy and takes her words to heart. I know then that our mother won’t be back.

Eventually we move three towns away. Years go by with no mention of my mother except for sometimes at night in our bedroom, when my sister and I whisper about the past. We call our mother You-Know-Who because we don’t dare speak her name.  She has become a mystery that we are trying to solve by sharing the memories that we have of her. My sister always mentions the affair, and there is disgust in her voice. This makes my heart heavy. Somehow I know my mother is not bad, but how can I defend her?

Finally, when I am thirteen, my father initiates a conversation about our mother. He says only that the divorce was between the two of them and that she loved us. I know she did, I remember. His words leave me with so many questions, but I’m afraid to ask any of them. My father has built an impenetrable wall between himself and this topic so instead of speaking, I shake. At the end of the talk, he is satisfied. He has done his fatherly duty, there are no questions and we all go out to lunch. I feel my spirit sink. I hate myself for being such a coward.

Behind his back, my sister and I do our own searching. We call our maternal grandmother from a pay phone. Through tears, she tells us our mother has remarried, then divorced again and has two children. She lives in the town she grew up in, in our grandparents’ old house.

When my sister gets her driver’s license, she decides that we are going to go see our mother, and we do. We don’t tell our father. We just sneak away and arrive at our mother’s doorstep, ten years since we had seen her last. I am fifteen now and still feel very much under my father’s control. It terrifies me that we are doing this.

Her two little boys come to the door, and then they run to go get their mother. Our mother. She is petite like me, her hair just as I’d remembered. She is wearing brown pants and a white blouse. It is so ordinary, this outfit, it makes me think of a Sears catalogue. She cries and hugs us. She tells us that she has always hoped we would come and find her. There were cards and letters she sent, she says, things we had never received.

My sister is still angry at her and she has questions. “Why did you have an affair?” she asks. “Why did you leave? Why didn’t you come find us?” Our mother tries explaining, as gently as she can, that she did not feel in control of the situation. She regrets giving us up, she says, more we can ever know. I am numb. Mute. She is not You-Know-Who anymore. She is real again and I am not ready for this. We leave our mother’s home that night and several more years go by before I see her again.I have tucked her back into the past, into the far corners of my mind.

Finally, when I am 23, we meet again, just the two of us, at a coffee shop half way between our separate lives. I want to take in every detail of her appearance. Bluish gray eyes. Copper colored lipstick that looks good against her fair skin. Here we are, two women with similar features, and yet we are strangers. This time, though, I am ready to hear her story.  I need to hear her story.

“I thought of you girls every day,” she says. “I wondered how you were, if you were healthy, if you liked school. I used to drive by your house and park in front, hoping to see you outside. Once I did see you,” she continues. “You were on your bike with the training wheels in the driveway. I wanted to go to you, but I didn’t dare.”

I think back to a photograph we have at home. In it I’m standing by my bike and wearing pink terry cloth shorts with a matching top. Was that the day my mother was there?

I tell her of the void in my life as I grew up without her—the loneliness, the confusion and shame. She averts her eyes, as if she can’t stand to know how much pain her absence caused me.

Finally, after this visit, I grieve. Through my grief I heal and I write. I face the truth. I am telling the truth now. I have a mother. Her name is Jana. On a snowy winter night, she was thrown out of my life. She was afraid. She was flawed. But she did love me.  And I loved her. And there is no shame in that.

Author’s Note: During my early attempts at reconciling with my mother, even in adulthood, I lived in fear of my father finding out. This, along with my mother’s pain, sabotaged our efforts. It was not until recently that I fully understood parent alienation syndrome, and mine is surely an extreme case. I have been given the remarkable gift of mothering three daughters, all nearly grown, but due to the unresolved trauma and distance, I have had to let my own mother go in peace. I still have a difficult time talking to my father about the past, but I’ve learned to seek my own validation through writing. Sometimes kids grow up to be truth seekers and writers, and they tell the story. Somehow, I always knew I would.

Dana Laquidara lives in Massachusetts with her family. A version of this story took first place at the Moth StorySLAM in Boston this year. She is working on a memoir with the same title.

Words Only A Daughter Could Love

Words Only A Daughter Could Love

By Vivian Maguire

wordsa mothercanlove

My mother is not the harsh critic that I viewed her as when I was younger, how others might still view her.

 

“Wow, your mother was really on a roll today,” my husband said as we unpacked the containers of food my mother had sent us home with. I knew exactly what he was referring to; my mother had been full of opinions during our holiday lunch. “Is this all the girls are wearing?” she said as she rubbed the fabric of my daughters’ sweaters between her fingers. She squeezed my six-year-old’s hands between her own, “They’re freezing!” she said. Then my younger daughter committed the ultimate betrayal and coughed. My mother’s hands moved to her hips, her eyes saying loudly, “You see?”

Before we sat down at my mother’s table my mom ran her hand down the front of my dress. “Is this lump from the dress or your tummy? You need to do some crunches. Let me show you.” During our meal, my mother pressed me to eat more, forgetful of her earlier comments about my stomach. After we ate, my mother stuffed spoonfuls of food into plastic containers and sandwich bags despite my protests. “That’s more food than we could eat in a week Mom! Honestly, I can’t eat all of that.” I reminded my mother that I hadn’t had much of an appetite lately. She paused momentarily before reaching into her cabinet and withdrawing a suspicious-looking bag of herbs that she pushed into my purse. “This is yerba buena, it will make you feel better. Do you need a tea ball? You can steep these with a small strainer. I hope you have one! Are you taking probiotics?” I told her I was eating yogurt. She shook her head for a full five minutes in every direction as if trying to shake off a stubborn fly.

Back at home, my husband shook his head. “I couldn’t believe when she started rubbing your stomach!” I threw my head back and laughed, my husband’s eyes growing wide with concern as I giggled until I started wiping tears from my cheeks. I knew I was not reacting to her criticism the way I should, the way I used to react.

I remember snapping into a scalding fury early one morning when I was twenty, and still living at home. My mom had come into my room looking for something that she immediately forgot about when my t-shirt grabbed her attention. “Are you wearing a sports bra or is the shirt making you look flat?” She wondered aloud as she peered at my chest up-close as though she could see through the cotton. She raised a crimson, polished finger to poke at my front when I ducked out of her aim. “That’s quite enough!” I yelled, grabbing her by the shoulders and gently but firmly steering her out of my bedroom. “I’m just asking!” my mother said, throwing up her manicured hands in a gesture of innocence. She is always “just asking.”

But I’m not twenty years old anymore, with an ego that can be cut into bits from a few sharp remarks. And my mother is not the harsh critic that I viewed her as when I was younger, how others might still view her. It is easy to listen to my mother, and think that she is just too much. I know how she sounds to my husband when she comes over, hugs me hello, and then starts weaving her fingers through my hair, grasping at the grays like spider webs and asking when I will color again. I know how my friends must have imagined her, when I told them that she would ask almost daily if I was still breastfeeding, and shouldn’t I cut the cord already? I can tell that my husband thinks I am intimidated by my mother, when I am cleaning the house from top to bottom, and even scrubbing out the toaster lining before a visit. “Who is going to look in the toaster, Vivian?” I don’t answer, but I know. My mother, my mother will.

When I behave compulsively like this, or when I talk about the things my mother says, I can see in people’s faces that they think my mother drives me crazy. But, the thing is, she doesn’t. These days, when my mother puts in her two cents, I sigh, I smile, I usually laugh, but I am not angry. And that’s because, she has always been like this, she has always had something to say, but that is not all she is.

When I see that pitying look in people’s eyes that says, “Oh, you’ve got one of those mothers,” I want to give them some of the other pieces too. Like the night when I delivered my first child, I had encountered a series of complications over the course of fifteen hours. My labor was not progressing, the Pitocin I was given pushed my contractions to unthinkable levels of pain that would spike until I would lose consciousness, only to be brought to again by the next contraction—screaming myself awake. When it came time to push, there was one voice in the room that I remember with razor-clarity. “Bear down, Vivian! Bear down!” I didn’t know what she meant, and my husband would later ask, “Was that even helpful?” It was. My mother’s voice was the solid anchor that pulled me down from my heights of terror in that moment when death felt so possible.

Later, my daughter’s squeak-cries filled the room as I lay perfectly still in my stirrups, so my doctors could sew me back together. My body felt melted; I could not lift my arms to hold my first child. But, I knew she was safe in my mother’s arms. My mother held and rocked her, her eyes bloodshot from the long night, and her nose a matching pink from the sinus infection she had been fighting. She was ill and exhausted, but she never left my side.

Eight months after that, my husband was accepted to graduate school in Austin, and we packed up our house for the move. To our surprise, my mother packed her up her house too, “I want a new beginning.” She had said, referring to her separation from my father. A few days later, she was hired as a counselor at an elementary school just blocks from the school that had just offered me a job. She moved into an apartment four minutes from ours. “Call me anytime,” she offered. “I’ll be here whenever you need me.”

I called her when I had to leave work early one day with a bad case of mastitis. “Will you pick Amelie up from daycare?” I whispered, my head throbbing so hard with fever, I could barely speak.

I called her when I was weeks away from defending my thesis. She came to our apartment many times to stay with my daughter, while I studied for hours in hers.

I called her when we had to go into the hospital to deliver my second child via C-section. She washed, fed, dressed, and entertained my older daughter for four days, while I recovered in the hospital with her second grandchild.

Over time it began to occur to me, that while there were things my mother always said, like, “You’re getting too thin; The girls should be taking vitamins; You might want to put on some lipstick,” she never said, “I can’t right now; I’m busy; Can someone else help you?”

At some point I came to understand that my mother’s well-meaning comments were exactly that; she wanted to help me. And when I think about all my mother has done for me, I realize that I can never, ever repay her. So no, I am not angry when my mother makes comments about the things I do, or the way that I do them. She is as hard on me as she is on herself. She is the voice in my head, the strength in my hands, and the mother I dream to be.

Vivian Maguire is an English teacher, a writer, and a parent. She lives with her husband Randy, and their two daughters, Amelie and Penelope, in El Paso, TX. She writes about parenting and teaching on her blog, storymother.wordpress.com

 

Photo: dreamstime.com

Fighting Dragons

Fighting Dragons

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Illustration: The Manitoban

 

By Amy Cissell

When I was nineteen, my father gave me a portion of a poem to remind me to never give up.

And sometimes when our fights begin,

I think I’ll let the Dragons win…

And then I think perhaps I won’t,

Because they’re Dragons, and I don’t

— A. A. Milne

I hung this in my dorm room, and in my first apartment, and in my home office, and in my heart.

***

My Dragons started to appear so slowly. They snuck up on me and took hold before I even realized they were there. Only by looking back can I see how they crept in without a fight.

I can tell you about the awful third trimester of my pregnancy. How everything hurt and I couldn’t run and I could barely walk. How my father was diagnosed with cancer—brain tumors, the scariest cancer of all—had surgery, had chemo, had radiation, entered hospice, died. How the death of my father on March 19, 2012—two weeks before my son was due—was devastating. I can tell you that complications with my pregnancy meant that I never got to see my father between his diagnosis and his death.

I can talk about the labor and delivery. About my mother being in the room and stressing me out because she was so sad. About the intensity of pain that I had not anticipated. About finally getting an epidural after nearly three hours of pushing so the baby and I could rest. About the rapid deceleration of my baby’s heartbeat, the emergency C-section, the hemorrhaging. I can talk about lying on the operating table, hearing the doctors talk about not being able to get the bleeding stopped, and how I didn’t know if my son was alive.

I can paint the picture of the first time I saw my son, no worse for wear after the craziness of his entry into this world. How my arms were shaking too much to properly hold him. How I cried so much in those first weeks as I looked for signs of his grandfather in his face. How so many people needed him to be a symbol of something that made my father’s death O.K. How I felt that he was the trade-in, a newer model, and how that made me feel guilty. I can tell you that the fact that he was born on Easter Sunday was given special significance by people who wanted to believe that there was a just and loving God.

I can give you that glimpse into my soul and how much I struggled with my feelings of intense grief and ridiculous joy.

I can even tell you what happened next.

The autumn after my father’s death and my son’s birth, the Dragons made themselves known. They crept in gradually. I have never liked bridges. I have other fears: ostracism, irrelevance, spiders. But my number one fear is plunging off a bridge to my death, sometimes in a ball of fire; more often quietly, unnoticeably.

I live in Portland. City of bridges. To get to work, I must drive over at least one bridge. And so I do. But that autumn, the fall of death and birth, it started getting harder and harder. I had panic attacks while driving across the Marquam Bridge. The anxiety started spreading. Slowly, like fog on little cat feet. Creeping into everything.

And then there were whispers.

You are a terrible mother who can‘t even produce enough milk for your son.

Your constant anxiety is stressing out everyone around you and they‘re starting to resent you.

You‘re about to get fired because you‘re doing such a terrible job.

Your friends are sick of your bullshit.

Your husband wishes he‘d never met you, much less married and impregnated you.

You are a terrible wife.

Everything would be so much better if you weren‘t here.

You are an awful mother.

You shouldn‘t be here.

The whispers grew louder each day, until they drowned out the echoing sounds of bridge traffic. I started wondering if they were more than an evil internal voice that always tries to fuck things up. I began to believe it was real, that she was real—a voice of authority and reason. I started avoiding. I fantasized about running away. Sometimes those fantasies would include taking the baby and driving south until I found a place to hide. In other fantasies, I thought it would be better if I left him behind; I was obviously not stable.

I noticed my driving was becoming more erratic. I told my husband I couldn’t drive the baby anymore. I wasn’t always sure who was in the driver’s seat.

The running away fantasies met and mated with the plunging-to-my-death anxiety, and it got harder and harder to not plunge to my death. It would be so easy to just speed up and flip over the edge. To “trip” while looking down from the top tram dock and fall, screaming, to the grass below. To go for a trail run in the Gorge and not watch where I was going.

A tragic accident.

A release.

A new and better life for those I left behind.

Every day, I got out of bed. I could manage nursing my son only once a day. I dressed him. I went to work. I came home. I fed him (formula this time, such a bad mom). Rocked him. Cried.

I knew I was sinking. I knew this wasn’t right. It wasn’t me. I had a therapist who sent me to a psychiatrist. I got some drugs. I made sticker charts and bought gold stars to chart my Aggressive Happinessâ„¢ plans that involved exercise and drinking plenty of water and taking all my medications.

I stopped talking about my anxiety and depression and weird bouts of mania.

I alphabetized my closet.

I stopped seeing my friends.

I drank.

I fantasized about razor blades and blood.

I decided to become a drug addict. And then I realized that I didn’t know where to buy drugs, so I gave up.

I stopped looking down when driving across bridges lest the temptation to follow my line of sight proved too much.

***

Finally one day, I felt a little like myself. And the next, I was a little better.

It wasn’t a progressive upward slope. It was more a few steps forward, and a slow slide back. Gradually, however, I got out of the hole. I stood up and stretched and looked around. And that’s when I saw them clearly for the first time: Dragons. Hovering silently above the ground. Waiting for me to take my eyes off them, like scaly weeping angels, so they could knock me back down.

I backed away slowly, and just kept backing.

They aren’t gone. I still see them there sometimes out of the corner of my eye. They are waiting for me to forget. I can’t blink. Can’t let them win. Won’t.

There are times I want to pull the Dragons out of the dark corners where they’re hiding and wrap myself up in them. There’s something almost comforting in the thought of being smothered in the numbing fog of mental illness. No one expects too much, or is disappointed, or needs me to be strong.

***

I look for signs of my father in my son, but so far they are absent. There are times I resent my son for preventing me from being with my dad when he died. There are times I resent my father for ruining the end of my pregnancy and the birth of my son. For not living long enough to hold his first grandchild.

Last night, I rocked my teething toddler to sleep and gazed at his face. Even though I’ve been unable to find my father in his face, I felt ready to let go. Let go of the expectation that my son was the consolation prize I received for giving up my dad. Let go of the belief this was the trade-in, the upgrade, the newer model. Let go of the nearly crippling grief responsible for my second guessing all the decisions I’d made in the past two years.

Let go of the fantasy of Dragons and the idea that I might let the Dragons win.

Because they‘re Dragons, and I don‘t.

Author’s Note: In the last month I’ve celebrated my son’s third birthday and mourned the third anniversary of my father’s death. The grief still hits me like a truck from time to time, but it’s no longer a constant presence in my life. Although I consider myself recovered from the postpartum anxiety and depression I describe in this essay, I still don’t enjoy driving over bridges.

Amy Cissell is a Portland, Oregon-based writer whose first love is fantasy. She is hard at work editing her first full-length novel when she’s not chasing around an active preschooler. Find her online at http://www.gazellesoncrack.com or on Twitter @gazellesoncrack

 

Die Job

Die Job

By Krista Genevieve Farris

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There was a mother bear incident, her blaming my child for biting her son; then accusations that I’m too soft on my kids, incompetent as a mom. 

 

I noticed the black of her hair turned blue at her scalp and wondered how much of that was intentional. I don’t know much about these things, whether it’s staged, a mistake, or something she hasn’t yet noticed. I like her a lot, so I don’t say anything and understand I’ll probably get it in time. I hope she comes around because I’ve missed her.

She’s big eyed and skinny, simultaneously genuine and put on. She’s not trying to look young. And she doesn’t. But, she doesn’t look old either. She just looks like her. And I love that. I’m caught off guard by her candor when I asked her that question about her life and thought she’d dodge it like a squirrel on a leaf slick sidewalk. I’m anxious and waiting for her to ask me a question. Is she nervous? Is she curious? But I can’t remember if she’s a question asker. I don’t think she is. I don’t recall. Is it up to me to insert myself? To ask about the blue, blue roots?

I realize it’s not my place. Not yet. And doubt if it ever will be. I grieved like someone died when we had our falling out. Not like she died, but like I did. And, indeed, a part of me that believed in friendship, in non-sanguine sisterhood died a sudden death in those few weeks when our relationship decayed.

There was a mother bear incident, her blaming my child for biting her son; then accusations that I’m too soft on my kids, incompetent as a mom. Then an answering machine apology that I missed while my bruised ego was busy sliding a tidbit of criticism or two into our unfriendly circle of friends who loitered like piranha around us waiting to chomp, to tear us down to floating bone flotsam. It was easy and quick, too facile, to cut out someone I knew so well. Every weakness I knew would destroy her; I shared, planting an idea here, asking a leading question there. She threw a few big parties and left me off her list. We made a good demolition team.

Here I sit 10 years later, having climbed the quiet stairs to her studio. It’s just me and her again. Our kids are all in school. Her nails that were crusted with baby blue frosting when she made the cake for my baby shower are short and clean. Her hands that held my sons hours after they were born look a little more worn, but nimble. Oh, our children have grown so much. But us?

I marvel at her art on paper. It’s framed on the walls, nude still shots of herself taken by herself—flying over fences, jumping off bridges, flipping in air—perfectly self-timed. I marvel at her. She is a kinetic sculpture as she sits here almost still. Her skin fidgits on its own; it can’t contain her liveliness When she bends over to scratch her ankle, just above her Converse, just below her the roll of her jeans, I fantasize for a second she wants me to know, wants me to not have to ask if those blue roots are intentional, a tribute, a yen.

She hugs me and says she’s glad I came by. And that she’s moving in three weeks, give or take. She shows me a picture of the island beach, the crystal waters where she’ll dive. And I know the yearning is mine. Her roots are ceylon sapphire, mine an unseen blue.

Krista Genevieve Farris lives in Winchester, Virginia with her husband and three sons. Her recent work has appeared in Right Hand Pointing, Cactus Heart, Tribeca Poetry Review, Literary Mama, The Literary Bohemian, The Piedmont Virginian, The Rain, Party and Disaster Society and elsewhere.

Birth Control’s Invisible Mommy Majority

Birth Control’s Invisible Mommy Majority

gty_birth_Control_pills_thg_120306_wmainI went to the doctor—a new doctor, actually, since we’d changed insurance and had to switch physicians. As checkups go, it was a bit uncomfortable. Unlike my old practice, where they take action only if, say, you drop a body part in the waiting room, this new gal was on her game.

First, she busted me on my three-glass-a-night Chardonnay habit. Then she followed up with a series of passive-aggressive questions about my general health. (Sample: “As your physician, I’m happy with your body mass index. How do you feel about your weight?”) Then we got to the female stuff. She flipped through the pages of the file sent over by my old doctor. Two births, two miscarriages, a few stubborn ovarian cysts, and a fifteen-year merry-go-round of vaginal infections. A thrilling read, I’m sure.

I still had just the one sexual partner? Her pen paused over the file. Uh, yeah, that would be my lawfully wedded husband of about two million years. And were we still sexually active? Yes, I said, resisting the urge to add, define “active.” And we were still using—she double-checked the file—the diaphragm? She smiled up at me so brightly I felt sure she was about to burst out laughing.

Yes. Okay. I’m forty-four years old and I still use a diaphragm. Feel free to lean over with that Sharpie and draw a big L for Loser right on my forehead.

What do you think of when you imagine diaphragm sex? Hot, spontaneous quickies in the middle of the day on top of the new HE washer? Parking the kids at Grammy’s and booking a dirty weekend away, the kind where you don’t even care what city you’re in because you’re not planning on ever leaving the hotel room?

It’s entirely possible to do those things using the diaphragm as your method of birth control. Possible, but not probable. No, the venerable diaphragm, that cheery latex dome with its alarmingly over-springy coil, its demure petal-pink clamshell housing, its absurd beige “flesh” color (I defy even the most militant feminists among us to tell me the color of the inside of their vaginas. It’s dark in there, people!) … no, the diaphragm conjures up visions of exhausted missionary-style coupling in the dark on a random Wednesday night with one ear cocked anxiously for the patter of little feet. That’s diaphragm sex. Or that’s its reputation, anyway.

*   *   *

Lying awake after just such a marital encounter (one of us had allergies acting up, the other was freaking about work and couldn’t relax), I started wondering about mothers and birth control. Was it my fault I was still using the same method I picked out when I walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic in Ithaca, New York, at the dawn of the ’80s? Or has there been a kind of eerie silence about the whole topic, a distinct lack of progress, a pall over the land even?

We’re a capitalist/consumerist society, I don’t deny it. So why isn’t Big Pharma kissing my butt? I’m a marketer’s dream: like many other mothers, I’m an educated purchaser with a steady income, the primary decision-maker for my household of four plus one domestic animal. I have sex regularly, I need reliable birth control that doesn’t trash my health—come at me, baby, show me the goods!

Companies are constantly trying to hawk mothers new personal care stuff they’ve invented or invested in: ten different kinds of diapers, a dozen varieties of toothpaste, countless new ways to tame the menstrual flow, stop various body odors, soften scales, whiten, brighten, and exfoliate. Pharmaceuticals have developed new medicines to treat depression, head off migraines, settle the stomach, soothe us to sleep and keep us there for the night, and, yes, help our men-folk get it up and keep it there.

Yet in twenty-odd years just once has somebody managed to pitch me better birth control—the beloved Sponge—only to rudely yank it off the market while I was distracted birthing my first baby. (It’s back, by the way, as of last fall, but too late to stem my crankiness.)

Is it the products—is there simply nothing new to offer, no better way to stop egg from meeting sperm? Is it me—am I somehow missing the marketing message? (Entirely possible: I’m a cynical consumer, a miserable shopper and a mule about what I do choose to buy.)

Or is it mothers—are we considered some kind of invisible, or perhaps untouchable, market? As women with children, mothers bring a unique perspective to bear on the topic of family planning. On the one hand, having seen that life comes out of us, we might feel less insistent than before that we be able to artificially start and stop the fertility process at will. On the other, knowing better than anyone how hard it is to birth, nurse, nurture, and raise a human being, we’re arguably the most motivated users of birth control.

Could it be that our saintly halo of motherhood obscures the fact that we’d like to be able do the nasty without repeating the baby part every time? This last bit would be particularly ironic, considering birth control was made legal—in this country anyway—thanks to tireless efforts of Margaret Sanger, who championed its use specifically as a way to help the mental, physical and emotional well-being of “sick, harassed, broken mothers.”

But once birth control broke out of its marriage bonds during the swinging ’60s and women’s-libbed ’70s, maybe mothers’ concerns got left on the dusty pharmaceutical shelf. Is birth control, like, say, fashion, now considered the province solely of the young, nubile, and childless? Drifting off at last to sleep, I thought it might be worthwhile to dig through the detritus of our consumer-centric culture to figure out what part, if any, moms play these days in family planning.

*   *   *

When asked about how women find out about and choose new methods of birth control, doctors, nurse practitioners, reproductive rights advocates and even pharmaceutical marketers tend piously to intone, “That’s a decision best made between a woman and her doctor.” Oh yes. The very phrase conjures up comforting visions of serious, quiet consultation between a mom and her health-care pro on just what the perfect contraception is for that precise moment in her reproductive life.

I have two problems with this scenario. First, women’s health care providers can be and often are influenced by the bombardment of literature, free samples, and logo-encrusted office tchotchkes (Post-It notes, light-up ballpoint pens and so on) promoting whichever birth control method the pharmaceuticals are currently?pushing, all of which?reduces significantly your?chances of having a frank discussion about older, lower-profile?(or maybe that should be “lower profit margin”) methods.

Second, I’m sure somewhere in this land there are new mothers who don’t arrive for that first four-or six-week post-partum office visit exhausted, lactating, overwhelmed, fighting depression, jiggling a possibly colicky infant in one arm while trying to keep a jealousy-enraged sibling from committing infanticide in the office. Those women, I’m sure, get the fully informed story on their myriad birth control options.

For the rest of us—and I speak here as someone who wept through her entire post-partum checkup, pre-occupied as I was with slow-to-heal stitches of a number so staggering it can’t be shared in polite society—that office visit might not be the most opportune moment to make decisions that are literally life-altering.

If you’re one of those moms who missed out on the full rundown, here, cribbed directly from vast, deep and authoritative resources of the Planned Parenthood web site, are your choices for birth control as of summer 2006: the Pill, the Ring (NuvaRing), the Patch (OrthoEvra), implants (Implanon), the Shot (Depo-Provera), POPs (Progestin-only birth control pills, sometimes called the mini-Pill), the hormone-releasing IUD (Mirena), the non-hormonal IUD (ParaGard), the diaphragm, the Cap (FemCap), the Shield (Lea’s Shield), the male

condom, the female condom, the Sponge, spermicides, fertility-awareness methods, male sterilization, female sterilization, emergency contraception (Plan B), continuous abstinence, continuous breast-feeding (Lactational Amenorrhea Method), outercourse, withdrawal.

That’s a lotta choices, there’s no argument there. What’s notable for mothers?

Well, first of all, hormones are still all the rage. Joining the venerable oral contraceptive (the Pill), which is by far and away the leading method of reversible birth control in the United States, are the Patch, which you change once a week, the Ring, which you change once a month, the Implant, which lasts for up to three years, and Mirena, a hormone-releasing IUD that can be kept in place for as long as five years—all new ways of delivering hormones into your system.

Are hormonal forms of birth control safe for mothers? Study after study after study says yes (as the editors of the activist women’s health tome Our Bodies, Ourselves point out, the birth control pill is the most intensely researched medication in history). But there is a “but.” New mothers who return to the Pill, or another combined-hormone method using estrogen, soon after giving birth will interrupt lactation, points out Leon Speroff, M.D. at Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland, Oregon.

And estrogen, present in the Pill, the Patch, the Ring, the Implant, and the Depo-Provera shot crosses into a baby’s body via breast milk. Health activists like Judy Norsigian, co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, caution that we don’t yet know enough about what kind of changes it may or may not cause to the baby.

For those reasons—cessation in breast milk and an uncertainty over the long-term effects of estrogen on infants—breastfeeding mothers are generally counseled to choose estrogen-free birth control methods, says Susan Wysocki, president and CEO of the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health, based in Washington, D.C.

The second bit of news: The IUD is back from the dead. Increasingly, what those new moms are being advised to try, says Wysocki, is intrauterine contraception—either Mirena, which contains progestin or the hormone-free copper ParaGard.

For anyone—like me—who came of birth-control consciousness in the 1970s or 1980s, the idea of any IUD being sold in the United States is anathema. Because IUDs ran the risk of perforating the uterus or causing severe pelvic infection, they used to be offered to women who had already had one child, on the (offensive) premise that, should her fertility be permanently impaired, at least the injured mom had managed to pop one kid out.

Worse, it turned out that one brand of IUD, the Dalkon Shield, was liable to wick bacteria up into the uterus, causing thousands of women to suffer severe pelvic infections. Twenty women died, the manufacturer declared bankruptcy, and all IUDs were pulled out of the American market.

Flash forward thirty years and it’s a whole different ballgame. New, improved, and, according to both manufacturers and a wide range of health professionals, safe IUDs are back on the market and once again being aggressively marketed to moms. Consider this warm-and-fuzzy language from the makers of Mirena:

You have enough to do with a family and full life. You don’t have time to think about birth control … You don’t want to waste any of the little precious time you have for intimacy. Especially if it’s spent fumbling with condoms or dealing with diaphragms to pre- vent pregnancy. Mirena long term birth control lets you be spontaneous. For up to five years, you can enjoy birth control freedom and intimate moments whenever the mood strikes (and the kids are in bed).

Notwithstanding that nasty side-swipe at the diaphragm, the reasons for marketing IUDs to moms are backed this time around by some sounder medical reasoning. IUDs should be used by women who are at low risk for sexually transmitted infections—that is, women who have just one sexual partner, like, you know, most moms. IUDs are usually easier to insert in women who have had babies already; they’re best for women who want long-term but still reversible contraception; and, owing to the upfront costs associated with insertion, which must be done in a health professional’s office, they make most sense economically for women who’ll keep them in two-and-a-half years or more, according to Wysocki. Who fits those categories best? Mothers.

But the biggest news since I last hit a Planned Parenthood outlet: Emergency contraception is now available. When I was in my early twenties and just starting to play the please-God-don’t-let-me-be-pregnant game, there was only before and after when it came to birth control. If you messed up on the before part—either by not using any contraception or having your method fail on you—you had a baby, had an abortion, or dodged the bullet (that time, at least).

Now women have a third, in-between option: emergency contraception. If you’ve been too busy these past few years looking for binkies under the crib to follow the headlines, you could easily have missed the news that the emergency contraception pill Plan B, the progestin-only pill taken within a hundred twenty hours (five days) of unprotected intercourse, is now legally available in all fifty states. (You can also use certain combinations of regular birth control pills as emergency contraception or have an IUD inserted within five days of unprotected sex.)

In the press and in its own marketing materials, Plan B seems aimed squarely at the twenty-something market, at young Sex-in-the-City-types who had one too many Mojitos and woke up with a problem on their hands.

But I wonder why it isn’t promoted more to mothers. A woman with an infant, a toddler, and a kindergartner on her hands is just as likely to mess up her Pill prescription as a single working girl who has at least nights and weekends to take care of her bodily needs.

And consider these two facts: According to the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), in 2002, twenty-one percent of women fifteen to forty-four years of age reported their most recent birth was “mis-timed”—meaning, the baby was wanted, just not then. Twelve percent of that total were deemed by the women to be “seriously mistimed”—that is, occurring two or more years too soon. The study doesn’t specify, but at least some of those mistimed babies are likely be moms with birth control mess-ups on their hands.

And this, which we do know about mothers specifically: Sixty percent of women having abortions are already mothers, according to Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit reproductive-health research organization. Sixty percent! That figure alone certainly puts to rest the idea that emergency contraception is needed only by young and/or childfree women.

Even though its advocates argue than Plan B can go a long way toward preventing some abortions, the EC pill has had a long hard battle toward legitimacy. In some states, pharmacists who object to Plan B on moral grounds are being encouraged not to fill prescriptions. And politics inside the FDA have long delayed hearings that would pave the way for Plan B to be available over the counter (at press time, it looked like the hearings were finally going to go forward). Politics aside, for mothers, Plan B is news we can use.

*   *   *

Talk of politics and Plan B brings up an ugly realization many of us mothers might not have had the time in the past couple of years to properly contemplate: Whatever method we’re using, we had better really trust it, because our backup options are under serious attack.

Like a lot of other women, I try to stay up on the issues, but it’s hard to know where to channel your outrage and still have energy left over for the parts of your life you can control, like love and joy and the cleaning up of the kitchen at the end of the day.

So sure, I knew about South Dakota, which this spring passed a ban on nearly all abortions—including rape, including incest—in an effort to push the issue up to the Supreme Court. And I knew in a vague sort of way that pharmacists were being encouraged to refuse to fill Plan B prescriptions.

But I admit it, I was shocked when I started reading past the headlines and got caught up in a hurry on what’s been going on with women’s reproductive rights in this country. The New York Times Magazine‘s “Contra-Contraception” (May 7, 2006) by Russell Shorto details the truly shocking efforts by some religious and political groups on the far right to oppose contraception—any contraception, even within a marriage. Jack Hitt’s “Pro-Life Nation,” also in the Times Magazine (April 9, 2006), details life in El Salvador, where every single type of abortion is illegal, no exceptions, and women are thrown in jail for having back-alley abortions.

The Atlantic‘s June 2006 cover story by Jeffrey Rosen maps out what will happen in the U.S. if (and some on both sides of the issue now say “when”) Roe v. Wade is overturned. (Picture fifty states, each battling over its own definition of when life begins and what a woman’s say in that process should be.) Cynthia Gorney’s June 26, 2006 piece in The New Yorker digs into the hearts and minds of South Dakotans after the abortion ban was passed there and finds deep ambivalence.

Dana L’s wrenching personal essay in the June 4, 2006 Washington Post, “What Happens When There Is No Plan B?” chronicles how her inability to get hold of emergency contraception in time forced her into having an abortion. The excellent, ongoing coverage of the various chips and blows to birth control in Salon’s Broadsheet column online.

To be sure, not all mothers, not even all feminist mothers, support abortion. But a staggering majority of people support the right to use contraception: Ninety eight percent of all women who have had intercourse use some form of birth control at some point in their lives (according to the NSFG).

Clearly, a lot has happened while we’ve been off birthing our babies. But what will it take to turn the average already overwhelmed mom into a contraceptive activist?

Our Bodies Ourselves‘ Judy Norsigian is fairly blunt, and fairly pessimistic, in gauging the political involvement of regular Americans. “The problem here is an assumption that this is a right that won’t be taken away. Right now people don’t believe it could happen,” she says. “We’re going to see limited activist activity until access to abortion is pretty much taken away,” she predicts.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, knows of at least one group of mothers who are taking notice. “We’ve been talking with women who were very active in the reproductive-choice movement, perhaps in college, before they had a family,” she reports. “Now they’re married, working, raising children who are in middle school or high school or grown and out of the house, and they’re saying, what happened to all that I worked for when I was so active so many years ago?”

Keenan says mothers have two good reasons to keep their head in the reproductive game. First, mothers need to be aware that the political emphasis on abstinence-only sex education and limited access to birth control for young people creates a miasma of misinformation that can put their teenagers at risk for STDs, AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy.

Second, she says, is simply this: “We need to stand up for the values of privacy and personal freedom, and there’s a responsibility that comes with those. We have an obligation to stand up for that freedom.”

For those who can’t, don’t want to or aren’t ready to trade Prego-strolling for placard-carrying, Keenan offers an easier path to activism—voting. Not just in presidential elections but in the upcoming mid-term elections, and in other state and local elections, where many reproductive battles are currently being waged and most certainly will, in a post-Roe world, be fought.

“Even women in predominantly pro-choice states like New York and California cannot assume they’ll forever be protected,” Keenan says. “You cannot assume that someone else will be protecting your reproductive choices.”

*   *   *

As the only female child of a Catholic father so opposed to birth control he wouldn’t let us fix the cat, I had to go elsewhere to find info on contraception when the time came. Where I went was Our Bodies, Ourselves, not the new colorized version, but the old newsprinty one with the young, cool-looking feminists with the long straight hair and the no bras, carrying signs telling the government to keep their laws of our bodies.

All these years later, I realize how much that book influenced both my personal decisions and my politics. The young me chose the diaphragm for some good reasons: thanks in part to Our Bodies, Ourselves‘ deep reservations about the Pill, back when estrogen doses were sky high and side effects were multiple, I wanted contraception that was as chem-free and low-impact as possible. (Special shout out here to all the moms who use natural family planning, a truly chem-free alternative that requires more math than this English major can handle).

The older me still wants those same things, which is why, in the end, I’ve stuck with my dorky diaphragm all these years. On a personal level, obviously it’s time for the devoted father of my children to step up to the plate and get the big V.

On a political level, things aren’t so clear cut. I started out wondering why mothers don’t have better birth control and wound up thankful we have any at all. I guess it’s time to re-engage, however reluctantly, in the same-old fight from three decades—keep yer laws off my bod. If you need me, you’ll find me on top of my HE washer, exercising my constitutional rights.

Author’s Note: Lying on the couch late one night, watching Sex in the City reruns on Lifetime, I nearly spit out my Chardonnay when Carrie announced to the other girls that her diaphragm was stuck. Wait, Carrie Bradshaw uses a diaphragm? Never mind that particular detail makes no sense, plot-wise, in the show. I say, welcome to the sisterhood.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

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)

Justamotherphobia

Justamotherphobia

By Andrea Askowitz

10561821_10152551027024831_7837742621201540040_nI’m going on two hours in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office when I send my wife an angry text, “Waiting for the pediatrician is NOT what I envisioned for my life.”

Victoria is at work. She’s a financial advisor at a prominent firm. She texts me back, “You are the most beautiful and sexy mommy.” Feels good for a second. Then I think: That’s like saying, “You look hot doing the dishes.”

I look up at the other mothers diddling on their cell phones; at the sick kids crawling all over the floor; at our two-year-old, Sebastian, putting a filthy toy in his mouth.

I write my cell number on a sticky note and ask the receptionist to call when it’s our turn. “You guys need pagers,” I say, “like at restaurants.”

I take Sebastian outside and call my mom to bitch. She says, “Tree…apple.  Tree…apple. You have a boy and a girl and a big dog. You don’t have a traditional job. You’re the one who takes the kids to the doctor. You’re just like me.”

I get off the phone feeling very afraid. Am I turning into my mother?

Last weekend my mom and her boyfriend Bob were over, hanging out with the kids. Sebastian was tugging on Bob’s mountain-man beard. My mom tugged on Bob’s beard. She said, “If I didn’t take my estrogen, I’d have the same face.”

My mom has Chaetophobia—fear of hair. She has it, I know, I looked it up on the Internet. She’s obsessed with sprouting. On women.

My mom’s so afraid of hair, she gets her legs waxed, the first of every month. I’ve seen the hair growth between waxings. She has four hairs on each leg, and they’re blond.

My hair is much thicker and darker than my mom’s. When I shave, I get a five o’clock shadow by noon. The day I turned 16, my mom took me for my first waxing. I thought it was a thoughtful gift, until the wax lady pulled off the first strip.

Once during a hippie phase, I let all my body hair grow out as a way of honoring my body in its natural state. Coincidentally, during that phase, my aunt was taking a photography class and needed a nude model.

My aunt and I met at my mom’s house. I took off my shirt and my mom must have caught a glimpse of my armpits. Before I could step out of my childhood bedroom, she rushed at me with a razor.

To cure her Chaetophobia, I tried to get my mom to go to MitchFest. At MitchFest, five thousand women converge on a plot of land in the woods of Michigan to play or listen to music, sleep in tents, sweat in lodges, and make paper mache casts of their breasts.

At MichFest it’s clothing optional. You see bushes as wide as the grasslands. You also see more mustaches than you’d see at a Mariachi convention. If you’ve shaved your armpits, which I made the mistake of doing the first time I went, you are out of style. You walk around with your arms pressed down against your sides.

If you have a fear of hair, that place is exposure therapy. But, I couldn’t get my mom to go.

She said, “I’m too old to be sleeping in a tent.” And that got me thinking. Maybe my mom’s Cheatophobia is really a mask for Gerascophobia—fear of aging.

She’s always talking about how she doesn’t have enough time to do all the things she wants to do, like finding the time to buy green bananas. She also complains about how her knees don’t work without glucosamine. And that she misses the days when my brother and I were kids. “How did the time go so fast?” she says and gets a little tear in one eye.

When I asked her about Gerascophobia, she said she fears getting older less than she fears the alternative, which means she has Thanatophobia—fear of death.

“I’m just afraid,” she said, “if I’m ever mugged, the newspaper headline will read, ‘Elderly Woman Gets Mugged.’  I’m not so much afraid of getting mugged. Just afraid they’ll call me ‘elderly.'”

I knew it. She’s afraid of looking old. She has Rhytiphobia—fear of getting wrinkles.

My cell phone rings. I walk back into the waiting room. Sebastian and I are escorted past the sick kids to one of the tiny offices with the chair for the mom and the paper-sheet covered bed for the child. I sit in the mom chair, just like my mom always did.

Am I that apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree? Do I have all the same fears?

I do get my legs waxed, and I am always on the lookout for stray eyebrows—the ones that show up on the chin. But fear of hair? No. Just a healthy concern. And I don’t fear appearing old. Every time my mom greets me she says, “Would you dye that mop already? You look like an aging hippie.”

“Thanks,” I say. “That’s the look I’m going for.”

But actually aging, that scares me. The other day I was at the dermatologist getting some spots looked at. Spots I’m sure I didn’t have five years ago. The nurse and I discovered we both went to Palmetto High. I said, “I graduated in 1986.”

She said, “I was born in 1986.”

I sucked in my breath and my gut. That was my reaction, like I was on an airplane that did a nosedive.

I had a similar reaction the other night when I was lying on my back reading with my daughter and she pulled and stretched out the skin on my neck. She said, “Mommy, why is your neck like a lizard?”

Fear of aging? For sure. I’m getting old, and fast. I have a lot left to do. And I fear death too. I could die before it’s all done.

It has been two hours and forty-two minutes. I am still waiting for the doctor. Sebastian has ripped the sheet into strips. I know the doctor is meticulous about his room, but I don’t care. I yank the sheet all the way off, crumple it into a ball, and throw it onto the floor as hard as I can. It bounces. I put Sebastian on the floor with the paper ball and two tongue depressors. “Play ball,” I say.

I pull out a pad and paper to tally my mom’s phobias against mine:

PHOBIA                              MOM                                   ME

Cheatophobia (hair)             yes                                     no  (healthy concern)

Gerascophobia (aging)        no                                       yes

Thanatophobia (death)        yes                                      yes

Rhytiphobia (looking old)     yes                                      no

 

We only have one phobia in common—fear of death. I am not becoming my mother. I am not becoming my mother! I sing that the second time, even though that’s not what I’m afraid of.

What I’m really afraid of becoming is just a mother. I know motherhood is the most important job in the world. I was hoping for motherhood and…well, more.

I’m a mother but I’m also a writer. I’ve written one book and now I’m working on another one. I want to be recognized as a great talent. But how will I become a great talent if I spend my entire life at the pediatrician’s office?

When the kids are asleep, I sneak out once a week to teach a writing class. I tell my students never to mention they’re writers in their stories. “Don’t do it,” I say, “unless you’re Joyce Carol Oats or Steven King. Yes, own it in the universe, tell all your friends, make it real. But when you write that you’re a writer, if the reader has never heard of you, he or she will just feel sorry for you.”

The only time it might work to mention you’re a writer, I say, if you’re not Joyce Carol Oats or Steven King, is if your point is, you’re just a mother.

I have Justamotherphobia.

The pediatrician comes in. I have been waiting two hours and fifty-nine minutes. I have gotten old in his office. I hand him my list of phobias. He looks at my list. He looks up and wrinkles his forehead. He is a doctor with a flourishing practice. He’s at the top of his game. He doesn’t understand.

Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir, My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her stories have appeared or been heard in places like the New York TimesSalon.comJewcy.comSliver of StoneFourTwoNineNPR, and PBS. Follow her on Twitter @andreaaskowitz

Photo: http://www.michfest.com

 

Calling Ida

Calling Ida

Family in forestBy K.G. Wright

Ida—a soft, round, raven-haired woman so different from my petite, blonde mother—broke up my parents’ marriage. An Inuit from Canada’s Northwest Territories, Ida was forced to leave home to attend a government residential school in Yellowknife when she was seven. She returned, pregnant, at 17. Her parents dead, her siblings scattered and her finances precarious, Ida gave up the baby girl for adoption and set out to Toronto seeking a better life.

When Dad left Mom to live with Ida, my older sister, Laura, followed. A rebellious teenager, Laura (with the help of a family therapist) convinced my reluctant mother that she’d be better off at my dad’s. I was 10, so a judge decided I would stay with my mom. Laura and I were divided like the spoils of war—each parent’s household a separate side of the battle line.

Their side set up, to me at least, the perfect Hippy family. Ida, then 27, played guitar and made dinners of brown rice and tofu. Laura smoked dope and went to Neil Young concerts. Dad grew a mustache and kept a little pot plant on the windowsill of the guest room. The same room where I slept on a futon during my one-night-per-week custody visit.

The rest of the time I lived with my mother and her gun-in-the-mouth depression. She drank whiskey out of coffee cups and took an overdose of sleeping pills that, once she was released from the hospital, miraculously triggered her latent, yet powerful, Protestant work ethic.

At the age of 35, my mother finished college, earned a business degree and became a high-powered career woman. She ran marathons, sewed her own suits and made tiny, designer throw pillows from the remaining scraps of material. She gave lavish dinner parties replete with five-course meals and me at the piano— her charming daughter— entertaining the guests. One evening, after a fabulous meal, her admiring friends raised a glass of expensive wine and dubbed their hostess “Supermom.” The name stuck.

Supermom’s perfectionism was, of course, time-consuming. When she wasn’t working, running, sewing or fighting the forces of evil (a burned soufflé), she was hosting a party or attending one.  Martha Stewart would have knelt before my mother’s extraordinary domestic powers (spice rack alphabetized; color-coded sweaters folded with military precision).  Ironically, her way of parenting by the time I was twelve was to prepare a nutritious, microwaveable meal for me to eat, alone, while she worked late, or attended a fundraiser for orphaned children. A handwritten set of instructions, in the form of my “to do” list, would be attached under a magnet on the fridge:

walk dog

eat dinner

wash dishes

do homework

one hour of T.V.

practice piano

brush teeth

lights out

These lists became her way of raising me in absentia.

I lived for the liberation of Thursdays, my night at Dad and Ida’s, where my biggest to-do was to shred the vegan cheese for taco night. Dad was a book salesman and when he wasn’t traveling, he liked to stay home, stroke his mustache and read. His social life was Ida, and after a time, so was mine.

Because of her longing for the baby girl she’d given away, Ida doted on me. She didn’t have much money, but she loved to buy me gifts: used items from flea markets and yard sales. No amount of expensive piano lessons or back-to-school clothing from my mother could compare to the rusted harmonica or the garbage bag full of old rag dolls that Ida gave me. I played with those dolls for hours, made up names and stories for them— made them the family I longed to have.

More than gifts, Ida gave me attention: she braided my hair, read my Tarot Cards, and strummed her guitar along with my wailing harmonica. She told me stories about her childhood at the residential school. How the children had to eat frozen cow beef and boiled Arctic Char—a diet that put her off meat-eating for the rest of her life. When she first arrived at the school, one of the Grey Nuns, younger than the rest, was told to cut Ida’s hair. But the young woman took pity on the little girl whose dark eyes glowed with tears as her braid slid silently to the floor. Though it was against the rules, the nun let Ida keep the braid. Which she hid, coiled like a snake, in a hollow place she cut inside the pages of her Bible.

I would call Ida when I was alone in my mother’s big, empty house.
“I’m scared,” I’d tell her.
“Don’t be scared little one,” she’d whisper. “You have no idea how lucky you are.”
“How am I lucky?” I’d sniffle.
“Your father loves you so much.”
“Why can’t I live with him?”
“When parents don’t live with their children, they love them even more for missing them.”

Ida’s kindness awakened in me a ferocious desire for attention. Supermom eventually noticed my increasing interest in spending time at my ordinary Dad’s house.  Our conversations became a power struggle over Ida—though we never spoke of her directly.

“I’ll be home late tonight,” she’d tell me at breakfast.

“Maybe I could go to Dad’s.” This was meant to sound like a nonchalant suggestion, though I’d hold my breath until she’d answer.

“Not tonight. You have piano lessons and a whole list of things to do.” Then she’d lace up her running shoes and bolt out the door.

The profound hurt my mother must have felt about the woman who’d taken away her husband and daughter—and won her younger child’s heart with a bag of dolls— did not resonate with me until years later when my own husband left me to live with the “other” woman: a childless, 40-year-old academic, to whose tiny apartment he took our four-year-old son every other weekend. The woman gifted my boy a necklace: a black onyx half-moon hanging on a tight string of rawhide.  Obviously, she didn’t see the choking hazards that gift represented—or did she? The sight of this ominous trinket, encircling my son’s delicate neck like a noose, penetrated a place in my heart’s deep core that I cannot accurately describe.

During my divorce, I spoke of this feeling to my mother over the phone while she was vacationing with her boyfriend in the Bahamas. The long distance connection kept breaking up, making her sound as if she were yelling from inside a rain storm. “My god, darling,” her words crackled far away, “don’t you think … I know … how that feels?”

Looking back, I believe the breaking point came for my mother the day she pulled into my father’s driveway and saw Ida and me walking up the street, hand-in-hand, fresh from a yard sale.  She marched toward us, high heels clicking rhythmically like my piano teacher’s metronome. My mother slammed the car door behind me with such force, the windows shook. As we drove away, I looked back and saw Ida standing on the sidewalk. Black-hair parted into two braids, red feather earrings, knee-high leather beaded moccasins. In her hands, broken pieces of a Madonna and child statue she’d bought at the yard sale. She’d planned to glue the pieces together and put it in the garden along with her growing collection of owls and gnomes.

One night, I ran away from home, arriving at my father’s house with my tiny black miniature poodle, Susie, her head sticking out of my backpack. It was a late summer night; even the crickets were silent. When my father saw me standing in the wan porch light, he sighed heavily. He turned the lock to let me in. I sat with Susie on the couch.

“Why can’t I live with you?” Tears formed like glue at the back of my throat.
“You can stay tonight,” he’d said, quietly. Then added, “But I can’t afford to have you live here all the time.”
“I won’t eat much, I promise.” Susie licked my hand.
“I’m sorry, honey. You need to stay with your mom. You’re all she has. Besides, I don’t have enough money to support you. Your sister already lives here.”

What remained unspoken that night, and forever afterward, was that he supported Ida: her yard sale habit and Saturday night Bingo games. That conversation blasted a hole of loneliness in my gut so wide that now, years later, I still feel its hollow ache. Like the hole that Ida’s missing baby girl must have left inside of her.

When Ida had the affair—a one-night stand—that broke up her relationship with my dad, I took it hard, though I never admitted it. I walked into his house one Thursday, and found her guitar was missing. My father stood at the kitchen counter vigorously chopping onions for beef stew—a rare carnivorous meal. His eyes were moist.

‘Where’s Ida?” I’d asked.
“Gone.” Chop, chop. The hole inside me widened.
“Gone where?”
“Just gone.”

I saw her only once more, a few months after she’d moved out. I was 15. Laura, with a shrug of her shoulders, gave me Ida’s new address scrawled across a piece of marijuana rolling paper. “Why do you care?” she’d asked. “You didn’t live with her.”

On a frigid winter Saturday, I took a Toronto City bus across town to visit her, unannounced, at her new place: a nearly empty studio apartment she was renting, in part, with money borrowed from my dad. But mostly she lived on her modest salary as a switchboard operator at a local hospital. We sat at a little table in her kitchen. She spoke of her mother. One night, after Ida and her sisters and brothers had been sent away to learn the Qallunaat—non-Inuit—way of life at the white school, her distraught mother had wandered away from home without her coat on during a fierce snowstorm. She never came back. Ida rolled some tobacco into a filter-less cigarette as she spoke, and stared out of her kitchen window. It was snowing—a soft downy snow that concealed the hard ice beneath. She lit the cigarette; white smoke trailed upward toward the few grey hairs beginning to sprout at her temples. The smoke seemed to signal to me that this was the last time I should come here. Ida was not my mother—and I could not ask my parents to accept her as my friend. This wasn’t bitterness; it was truth. We drank some tea. The conversation turned to her new job: how anxious people calling Ida relied on her to connect them with the broken ones whom they loved.

K.G. Wright’s poetry has appeared in Midwest Quarterly, Cold Mountain Review, Sanskrit Literary Arts Journal, among others. Her most recent publication is an interview with poet Mark Pawlak in Amoskeag Literary Arts Journal. Currently she is at work on several writing projects, including a memoir essay collection entitled True North, and a scholarly article on multimedia composition.  An assistant professor of English, Wright is passionate about teaching literature and writing courses to college students. She lives outside of Boston with her adorable 7-year-old son.

Sunday Night News Update: July 27, 2014

Sunday Night News Update: July 27, 2014

BC Logo_SquareWelcome to Brain, Child’s Sunday night news update where we look at policy issues impacting women and children with Valerie Young of the National Association of Mothers’ Centers.

With Congress half out the door on the way to their August vacation,  two bills were dropped in the hopper that could  make life better for moms.  The Schedules That Work Act would require employers of part-time workers to give more notice of shift schedules and assignments so that workers could plan accordingly.  Much of the part-time workforce is mothers, as noted by Senator Elizabeth Warren in this article from The Guardian:  “A single mom working two jobs should know if her hours are being canceled before she arranges for daycare and drives halfway across town to show up at work…This is about some basic fairness in work scheduling so that both employees and employers have more certainty and can get the job done.”  Amen, sister!

Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Senator Angus King of Maine get a cheer for  introducing a bill that would give a tax credit to employers offering at least four weeks of paid family leave.  It’s called the Strong Families Act, and will likely go nowhere with the recess coming up and the mid-term elections getting all the attention once our do-nothing Congress reconvenes in September.  But it is an effort to deal with the fact that ONLY the US has no guaranteed paid time off for maternity or paternity leave.  In the 21st century.  With women half the labor force.  Sheesh.

Most states have some sort of laws on the books protecting pregnant or breastfeeding workers.  Does yours?  Here is a handy resource from your friends US Department of Labor.  Just click on your state on the map and see what rights you have.  Pregnancy discrimination runs rampant, and employers often fail to provide new moms what’s required, because we aren’t aware of and don’t ask for what the law allows.  Don’t suffer endlessly. Know your rights.

Some parting thoughts on issues that often concern women with children who work – How do I tell my boss I’m Pregnant?  Not an endorsement, just one person’s experience, from GoGirl Finance, as well as a series of articles on negotiating your salary, and three important tips to keep in mind when discussing your worth, from the same site.

Valerie Young writes about news at the intersection of motherhood and public policy. Follow her on Facebook at Your (Wo)Man in Washington, and on Twitter @WomanInDC, and find a weekly blog post at WomanInWashington.org.

 

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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Our Talking Cure

Our Talking Cure

Friends Walking with Baby and TalkingBy David E. McGlynn

When you move to a new town from out of state, you do what you must to make friends. You strike up conversations with strangers in the park and in supermarket aisles. You ask people you hardly know over for dinner. You accept invitations you would have once declined, to book clubs, parent-toddler support groups and church luncheons. The alternative is isolation, and Wisconsin winters, my wife and I learned quickly, are isolating enough.

We’d followed a job across the country, leaving behind our families and friends, the mountains and ocean, and my wife’s job in the emergency room of a large urban hospital, all so I could teach at a small college in a small city a hundred miles north of Milwaukee. Our son was two years old, our second baby on the way and we didn’t know a soul.

During our first few months, we grilled brats with our neighbors and went apple picking with the other professors who had small children. We welcomed our second child, another boy, and my wife landed a job as a social worker in a nearby hospital. We met people slowly, sporadically, but it wasn’t until our sons were five and three—the year they started school—that we finally found ourselves surrounded by friends.

My wife began volunteering at the school and was soon taken up by a group of women whose children were in our sons’ classes. The women were, like my wife, in their early thirties, educated and athletic. She was invited out for dinner and to their houses, to movies and yoga classes and drinks. Conversations begun outside of school continued at night on the phone, and over email and Facebook and text. The women were funny and sometimes brash, but kind. When a crisis arose at the hospital, they offered to pick up our sons. They were loyal to one other and, it seemed, to us. For the first time since we’d arrived, we had a village to rely on.

I had more in common with the men, husbands of my wife’s friends, than I expected. A few had grown up in town, but many had come from other places, as we had, pursuing careers as lawyers, engineers, teachers and counselors. One of the men invited me to race sailboats on Lake Winnebago with him and a friend. I went, and after the race, we drove to a tavern and talked about how we came to live in this place. We sailed and talked like this all summer.

In July, my wife and I hosted a party to celebrate the release of my second book. A dozen friends reclined in lawn chairs in our backyard, clinking margaritas and dancing in the starlight on a night so warm and filled with laughter that I could practically taste the joy. After the party ended, my wife and I raised one last glass, just the two of us. Our sons, now seven and five, were upstairs in bed; after six years in town, we had accomplished what had once seemed impossible. We’d found a community.

A month later, and with a single email, it all ended.

It happened at a party near the end of August, summer tilting toward autumn. The women were gathered at a friend’s house after running a 5K when a message came to my wife’s phone. She was surprised to discover she’d been added to a Facebook conversation full of gossip about her. Why, one woman asked, was she suddenly a part of everything? Why was she invited to so many parties? My wife, who had been friends with the women for almost three years, was stunned. It just didn’t make sense.

She took her phone into the bathroom and read through the messages again in private, more slowly this time. She tried calling me, but I didn’t answer. So she washed her face and went back to the party. She decided to confront the woman about it, telling her the messages must have come to her by mistake.

“I’m sorry if I did something to make you upset,” she said.

“How were you magically added to the conversation?” the woman wanted to know. “And why were you gone for so long?”

“I was in the bathroom,” my wife said. “I didn’t feel well.”

The next morning, the email arrived. The only way my wife could have been added to the conversation, the friend wrote, was if she’d stolen her phone and hacked into her messages.

A glitch, a bug, a typing mistake in the dark—none of these were accepted as possible. It was an outlandish accusation, almost laughable, except that the email concluded with the statement: “Our friendship is over. Our family’s friendship is over.”

We stood in the kitchen passing the phone back and forth, trying to make sense of it.

“I’ve never had anyone say something like this to me,” my wife said

“You’d better call her,” I said. She tried, but the call went straight to voicemail. “Go knock on her door,” I said. “Maybe if you show up in person, you can talk this out.”

The woman’s husband answered and said she wasn’t home, even though both cars were in the garage. My wife drove to another friend’s house to ask for her advice. That woman’s husband said she couldn’t come to the door. My wife sat in her car and tried calling her other friends, but none of them answered. Finally, she called home. “No one will talk to me,” she said, sobbing. “I don’t understand any of this.”

Fifteen years of teaching literature has shown me that humans are by nature illogical and impulsive. Betrayal is mankind’s oldest sin, and the Western canon is a catalogue of intimates transmogrified, suddenly and inexplicably, into enemies. Yet the plots of novels and plays usually arc toward justice, the accused exonerated and the Iagos led away in cuffs. So it wasn’t the accusation that surprised me, but rather how easily it took hold. At first, I thought our friends were giving the situation time to cool and were trying to stay out of the middle. Every afternoon I came home from work expecting to hear that someone had called my wife to reassure her, to say the piling on was unfair, even to ask whether or not the accusation was true. But no call came.

When school again started in September, we and the other families amassed on the playground to take pictures of our children in their new shoes and backpacks. Our friends acted as though they didn’t know us. The same people to whom we’d brought dinner after they’d had surgery, whom my wife had visited in the hospital when their children were sick, now turned and walked away when they saw us approaching.

One day soon after, I saw one of the men I’d sailed with having lunch in a cafe with his kids. After placing my order, I turned around to say hello. His table was empty. He’d hustled his sons out the door so quickly they’d left their jackets behind. I drove the jackets to his house, fantasizing that he’d answer the door with an apology for hurrying out, maybe even express regret for the way things had gone. I’d sat next to him on the boat every Tuesday for fourteen weeks, and at the bar and in my backyard on plenty of other nights. It was hard to believe we weren’t still, on some level, friends.

His wife answered when I rang the bell. She said little more than “Thank you” before retreating back inside and shutting the door in my face. For once, I felt the sting I’d watched my wife endure every day for the last two months, saw the way people she once counted as friends, treated her: as suspect, untrustworthy, someone to avoid.

Thrust back upon ourselves and with no one else to trust, we spent hours talking. At first we talked about what had happened, as though it was a puzzle we needed to solve. Surely something as trivial and as small as a wayward Facebook message couldn’t wreak so much damage on its own. Perhaps if we could construct a chronology of exchanges and events leading up to the accusation, then maybe we could pinpoint the moment our friends began to see us as no longer good. Maybe then we’d understand where we’d gone wrong.

But as the nights went on, the talk began to change. Our conversations grew more potent and private. We talked less about the accusation and instead about what it meant to be good, and whether being good was separable from doing good, and what it meant to forgive. The television sat dark in the corner, our books lay closed on the table, as we hung on each other’s every word. Some nights we talked until midnight and had to will ourselves to stop so we could sleep. We hadn’t talked this way in years, not since we were first together and spent most of our time imagining how our future would look.

Somewhere in the course of building that future—advancing in our jobs, overseeing homework and swim team and guitar lessons, making friends—this kind of talking had gotten lost, or at the very least set aside. Our efforts to establish connections with our townspeople had come at the cost of intimacy with the one person who mattered most. I hadn’t thought to miss it until I got it back. Now I couldn’t get enough. I realized that I—that we—didn’t need the friends we’d lost. We were our own village, smaller but more intense, more sustaining. After months of sad, sleepless nights listening to my wife cry softly in the dark beside me, we began to feel better. My wife jokingly called it “our talking cure.”

A few days after Christmas, we left our sons in the care of my in-laws and drove to Milwaukee. It was our gift to each other: a night on the town, twenty-four hours of uninterrupted conversation. On our way to dinner, we stopped in a tavern and ordered a beer.

The waiter returned with four mugs. “We only ordered two,” I said.

“They come in pairs,” the waiter said. “Order one, you get two.”

Outside, snow was starting to fall. It was still early, and besides the waiter and the two of us, the bar was empty. We lifted all four mugs and clinked them together. First, a toast to our old friends, and then a second toast to what their loss had given us. A new year was upon us, we were alone in the city, and we had everything—and everyone—we needed.

David E. McGlynn is the author of two books, A Door in the Ocean, a memoir, and a story collection, The End of the Straight and Narrow, which won the Utah Book Award for fiction. David’s work has appeared or are forthcoming in The Yale Review, The Missouri Review, The Southwest Review, The Huffington Post, Best American Sports Writing, The Morning News and elsewhere.   His most recent work appears in the March issue of Men’s Health and the April issue of AskMen.com. Visit him online at http://www.david-mcglynn.com.

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Mothers at the Microphone: Sharing Our Stories

Mothers at the Microphone: Sharing Our Stories

LTYM photoImagine the most loving, honest conversation you’ve ever had with a best friend and multiply that feeling of connection a thousand times and you could be me, last Thursday at the Listen To Your Mother (LTYM) reading in Minneapolis. Visiting the city, I gave myself a pre-mother’s day treat, attending LTYM for the first time. Among a packed audience, I was taken in as each of the 13 authors performed her well-crafted vignette one by one giving a kaleidoscopic view into motherhood: the complexity, diversity, and humor.

Every story stood out—the experience of simultaneous triplets, the loss of an infant, a mother breaking her ankle on the troll bridge at the miniature golf course—each told by the author herself.  The 13 performances were honest, authentic, and perfectly rendered.

Founded by Ann Imig in 2010, to expand opportunities for women’s voices, LTYM is a series of staged readings in celebration of Mother’s Day that now takes place in 32 cities nationwide.  The Minneapolis show was produced this year by two Brain, Child writers Tracy Morrison and Galit Breen (along with the talented Vikki Reich) and Brain, Child author Claire DeBerg who read from Choosing Gloria, which was first published in Brain, Child in Fall 2013.

Tracy, who also performed (tasting small bites of Hostess Ho-Hos between lines for effect) read from her hilarious, yet poignant piece, “The Mommy Wars”:

“I stand here today as a survivor. I was exclusively formula fed as a baby. I never co-slept with my mom.  I watched entirely too many episodes of The Brady Bunch and The Love Boat, and did not eat anything organic until I was 25. We enjoyed pre-packed Hostess desserts and red Kool-Aid by the gallons. I come from divorced parents who both worked full-time, enforcing a childhood at that time that was labeled “latch key” and would now be called illegal—please call CPS.”

She concluded with a forget-the-mommy-wars call to action, that I think we can all learn from:

“I thank my mom for making sure these (Ho-Hos) were always in the snack cabinet and not worrying about what others thought. She and others mothered without a manual, and I hope without a worry of whether they were doing it right, without comparison, without guilt, and without regret…So I’m taking a lesson from my mother and her generation and believe it’s time we make the mommy wars go away by ignoring them, because they truthfully don’t exist if we just focus on doing what we need to do for our own families…”

Tracy’s reading—all the readings of course—got me thinking about my own mothering experiences with my five children, as well as my experience of having been mothered. I left the theater, my eyes still wet, saying goodbye to strangers and friends, all the same really, bound by the common denominator of being mothers.

I went back to my hotel room (I was visiting the city for the first time) and of course I thought of the stories behind my life; the narratives that weave together to make up my reality. How I’ve written so much about my children, and how grateful I am for that. And I thought of my mother telling her stories about me, my ladybug first-day-of-preschool dress, my abhorrence of meatloaf since the age of three. And how now my mother, suffering from dementia, cannot tell the stories any more. Only fragments. I thought more about how storytelling transcends time and what happens when that power is lost, what becomes of my childhood if my mother can’t remember it.

So I thank Ann for creating such an event, and all the readers, for telling their stories—without pretense or judgment. Stories that make me feel less alone in my work to raise good kids, and help me feel less anxious about what I’ve done right or wrong.

A night full of emotions indeed. My own perspectives shifting with every reading, the lenses of who I have been and who I will be. All for the telling.

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Recipes to the Rescue

Recipes to the Rescue

By Candy Schulman

grandmothersEvery Sunday my alarm clock was the sweet smell of yeast dough rising, butter melting, cinnamon oozing. I’d dash downstairs to be sous chef to four-foot-eight-inch Grandma Regina. After observing the Saturday Sabbath, she adorned her baking uniform: a shapeless housedress, high-topped black shoes and stockings rolled beneath her knee. She had a comforting lap that had no beginning or end, and her fingers always smelled like sugar and butter.

Grandma Regina spoke six languages and came to this country in her teens. She was from Prussia, but all the borders had changed, so no one was sure if she was Polish or Austrian. She lived in our house during summers, escaping the Florida heat. Although I adored the coconut patties she brought me every year, I preferred her Sunday refrigerator, packed with rising dough balls in pottery bowls—soon to be transformed into rugelach, danish and strudel.

“Come,” she’d say, extending a spoon to me, the official taster of the sugary cheese mixture. “Is it good enough for mine danish?”

“I’m not sure,” I’d pretend, securing another taste.

Only Grandma could produce a perfect circle from the laborious process of rolling out the dough. “No waste,” she’d proudly say.

She let me spread walnuts for the rugelach and cut them into pizza-shaped triangle wedges, then curl them into crescents. My favorites were her coffee cake cupcakes with streusel topping.

Packing to return to Florida grew more difficult each year. Sighing, Grandma said, “Throw away mine baking pans. I’m too old to bake.”

My mother, whose idea of baking was opening the plastic wrap from Hostess Twinkies, stared sadly at the ancient baking pans. “I’m not throwing anything away. You’ll bake again.”

And she did, for almost a decade. One day my mother and I sat down with a pad and asked Grandma for her recipes.

“I have no recipes,” she insisted. “I can’t say how much yeast to add. It depends on the weather.”

“Your recipe is a bissel this, a bissel that,” said Mother, begging her to try just this once.

Reluctantly Grandma measured flour and eggs, while my mother transcribed onto index cards. After Grandma died at the age of 95 or 96 (she had no birth certificate), we tried to duplicate her masterpieces—but none of the recipes ever worked. We’d lost a cookbook of Eastern European pastries, but when I got married, I took her ancient muffin pan, slightly bent out of shape but full of sweet memories.

Although I was an improvement over my mother, I excelled at Toll House cookies and had a cake phobia—always worried I would overbake until the point of no return. Besides, working full-time and raising my daughter, who had time for elaborate baking projects? It was easier to pick up something savory from a local bakery.

My daughter Amy never met Grandma Regina, but I shared stories about the countless hours we’d shared maneuvering rolling pins, our hands dusted with flour. After showing Amy how to make cookies, she branched out on her own, first with simple achievements from kids’ cookbooks (zebra cake, a concoction of chocolate wafers and whipped cream) and progressing to perfectly layered birthday cakes—never once resorting to a supermarket cake mix. Other parents worried where their tweens were at night, but I knew Amy was at Talia’s or Monica’s house, baking brownies, risking only an occasional minor burn on her finger.

Eventually we tried to re-create Amy’s great-grandma’s recipes, following failed directions from my mother’s handwriting on the fading index cards I’d saved. They always bombed. One day when Amy was devouring baking blogs instead of writing a research paper for school, she came across a recipe similar to Regina’s streusel cupcake muffins. Amy tweaked it, creating the closest any of us have ever come to Grandma’s masterpieces. She made them with vanilla extract, a heritage classic, and also popped a mélange of berries into the mix for color and taste.

The aromas wafting through our house have transported me back to the basement apartment where my doughy grandmother demonstrated why it was a sin to ever step foot in a commercial bakery. Baking genes and recipes may have skipped two generations, but how comforting that my daughter has brought them back to us. She’s made her own version of rugelach and a decadent chocolate babka. Now I am the assistant to my daughter, holding onto the recipe index card my mother had scribbled upon, finally re-creating and savoring the tastes of my childhood—in a pan I saved from Grandma’s cupboard.

Cupcakes

6 TBS butter, softened

½ cup sugar

½ cup sour cream

¾ teaspoon vanilla

1 ¼ cups flour

1 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

 

Streusel Topping

¾ cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon sea salt

6 TBS butter

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Blend butter, sour cream, and vanilla with a whisk or mixer. Stir into the flour mixture, but don’t overmix. Mix the streusel topping in a separate bowl. Pour batter into muffin or cupcake cups. Sprinkle streusel topping on each. Bake 15-18 minutes at 350°.

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.

This piece is a part of our What is Motherhood? Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?

 

 

It’s Become VERY Obvious That You’re a Mom When…

It’s Become VERY Obvious That You’re a Mom When…

This post is republished with permission from our friends at Mothering.com.

By Melanie Mayo and the Mothering Community

mothering1. Having some “me” time seems like a luxury bordering on gross extravagance.

 

2. You think it’s totally normal to say things like “cats are not for licking,” “please don’t put raisins up your nose” and “teeth are for food not for friends.”

 

3. You don’t remember the last time you went to the bathroom (or took a shower, or changed your clothes) without a companion.

 

4. You’ll sleep in baby vomit or pee rather than change the sheets just to grab an extra five minutes of sleep.

 

5. You enthusiastically ask your husband about his “poops” to encourage your potty-learning child.

 

6. You can’t find your keys so you look in any available shoes first.

 

7. You have to specifically suggest that underwear be worn at the dinner table.

 

8. You can whip up four different dinners for four different people in less than 20 minutes.

 

9. You can clean up any mess (or an entire house) with nothing but baby wipes.

 

10. You can successfully snappi a prefold on a sleeping baby without waking them up. You know what the terms “snappi” and “prefold” mean.

 

11. Your toddler eats a day old dried pea from under her high chair and you think, “well, at least it was a vegetable instead of fuzz this time.”

 

12. Your baby is dressed immaculately in hand-sewn matching clothes but you routinely wear a three-year-old nursing top.

 

13. You can’t relax at yoga class due to the anxiety produced by seeing all of the electrical outlets without safety plugs in them.

 

14. You find yourself bouncing/rocking your whole body even   when you aren’t holding your baby.

 

15. You send your cosmetic bag to the sitter while the diapers, wipes and extra clothes are in your purse at work.

 

16. This actually qualifies as a song—”pooper trooper, gunna change your nappy, cos you stink of poo (pa pa poo pa pa) yes you really do (pa pa poo pa pa) its a good job i love you.”

 

17. You find yourself spelling out words to your partner…even when the kids are nowhere in sight.

 

18. You have to wash your child’s things because the dog peed on them…and your dog’s things because your child peed on them.

 

19. Someone asks you want you did all day and you want to punch them in the face.

 

20. Being peed on, puked on, or even pooped on doesn’t faze you because it happens every. single. day.

 

21. You finally have some rare “free time”… and you choose to sleep.

 

22. Quiet signals trouble.

 

23. You look in the mirror only to discover that you’ve been walking around with four owl stickers on your face for the last two hours.

 

24. You sing the happy birthday song twice each time you wash your hands to be sure you washed long enough.

 

25. You’re kneeling in the driveway, scrubbing melted chocolate out of the car’s beige rug, only to have someone come up behind you and squirt you in the butt with the garden hose.

 

26. Leaving the house to go anywhere is such a major ordeal you simply stop doing it.

 

27. The only thing you ate today was the remains of a 3 hour old grilled cheese sandwich you found under on the table.

 

28. 2 ounces of pumped breastmilk is the most valuable thing you own.

 

29. Every paper product in your bathroom is shredded.

 

30. You get crappy sleep, no time to yourself, have a stiff back from nursing, can’t pee without it being an ordeal…. and you frequently fantasize about having another one!

Founded as a magazine in 1976, Mothering is now the oldest and largest resource for natural family living online. Join the community, read articles and find help on everything from birth and breastfeeding to the teen years at Mothering.com.

What is Motherhood? is a Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?

 

My Mother’s Glasses

My Mother’s Glasses

By Daisy Alpert Florin

What is Motherhood?I look in the mirror and see my mother’s face staring back at me, the same sharp jawline, deep set eyes, high forehead, sloping nose. She’s been dead for fourteen years, so seeing her is both eerie and comforting, a kind of visitation. I never thought I looked much like her when I was growing up but now, at 41, as the softness drops away and age takes hold, what’s left behind is my mother’s face.

My new glasses, thick, brown tortoiseshell frames, add to the illusion. My mother always wore glasses. For a brief period in her forties, around the same time she got braces (don’t ask), she wore contact lenses, but the consensus was that she should go back to glasses. Glasses suited her; without them, she looked naked, her eyes slightly too large, her nose a touch too long.  I rarely saw her without them. Severely nearsighted, she put them on as soon as she woke up and took them off only to go to bed. She even went swimming with them. I can still see her bespectacled face bobbing above the waves as she cut through the water with her dainty breaststroke, her curly red hair pinned on top of her head.

And she always had a stylish pair. My father would shudder at how much she would spend on a pair of glasses. “They’re the one thing you wear all the time,” she would tell me. “And right in the middle of your face!” She traveled to Europe several times a year for her work in the fashion business, and would often return home with a new pair, one that no one else stateside would have, which pleased her. The styles and shapes swung wildly, from chunky to wiry, square to round, retro to modern. As a child, it always took me a few days to get used to a new pair.  When she died, suddenly, from cancer at the age of 56, a young resident returned her glasses to my brother and me in a plastic bag along with unfinished bottles of medications and the lip gloss she kept by her bedside. Seeing her glasses lying there, a brown oval-shaped pair so new I’d barely had time to get used to them, I burst into tears in the middle of the hospital lobby.

I was born when my mother was thirty and remember her best when she was in her forties, around the age I am now. I never saw her as anything less than magical, but perhaps she saw something different when she looked into her sleek compact mirror. Her red hair was going gray at the roots and fine lines were beginning to lay tracks across her face. Did she see a diminished version of herself? Did she wonder where the time had gone? “When people say you look tired, Daisy, what they really mean is you look old,” she told me once while powdering her nose.

I would stare at her as she got ready for work in the morning, watching her familiar routine: moisturizing, concealing, plucking. I soaked in every part of her, her long fingers and sharp collarbone, her straight teeth. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said one day when she caught me staring. “I used to look at my mother the same way, always thinking how old and ugly she was and I couldn’t imagine I would ever look like that.” I wasn’t thinking that at all, I wanted to say but didn’t.

As I move through life without her, I remember things I thought I had forgotten. How she curled her eyelashes so they wouldn’t hit the lenses of her glasses. The way she smoothed out her forehead with her fingers in an effort to iron out the vertical indentation between her brows. I see myself doing them too as my features shift and morph into a version of hers. I wear my new glasses on busy days as a way to camouflage the dark circles beneath my eyes. I realize now that she did the same, and imagine that was the reason people preferred her with her glasses. I understand many things now that I didn’t then.

When my children were born, children she never had a chance to meet, I searched their features for a sign of her. Did Sam have her nose? Oliver, her hair? And what about Ellie, her namesake, who, at 8, already sports her own pair of stylish purple frames? She’s in them all, for sure. But when I look in the mirror, I see that she lives on most strongly in me, not just in appearance, but in the steady way she moved through life and in the gentle way she guided her children, nurturing our independence and, yes, our style. I put on my glasses and see the world she missed.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a Staff Editor at Brain, Child. 

My Mother’s Hands

My Mother’s Hands

WO My Mother's Hands ArtBy Lynne Griffin

Without photographs I would not be able to describe my mother’s youthful hands, the length of her fingers, the contours of her nails.  Her skin taut and smooth. Yet in memory the emotions her hands evoke in me are plentiful.

My mother was glamorous when she held a glass of wine at one of the parties she organized for my father’s business associates from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.  She’d be dressed in a cocktail dress, a pearl encrusted tiara—a sixties suburban fashion statement—nestled in her jet black hair.  My two sisters, my brother and I, already bathed and in our jammies, would be allowed to make a brief appearance.  We were polite, making pleasantries, showing off their good parenting, and then with a single wave my mother would banish us upstairs.  Promises of an extra episode of “Gilligan’s Island” had been made in advance of the guests’ arrival.  On my way up, I’d take a detour through the dining room, stealing sweet pickles and dark olives off the food table.  If she caught me, my mother’s hand would give mine a light tap, reminding me to mind my manners.

She was Patricia to my nana, Pat to her friends, Patsy to my father and plain old Mom to me.  But she was mysterious when I’d sneak downstairs late at night and catch her smoking one of her illicit cigarettes.  Her high heels cast off, lying sideways by her outstretched legs, one elbow on the arm of a chair, the fingers of her right hand blurred in hazy smoke.

As a little girl, I was her one and only when she used her hand to brush stray hair from my forehead so that she could check for fever.  Being one of four, I liked being sick because it meant having her all to myself.  I didn’t like my mother’s hands when they were red from washing dishes in scalding hot water, or when they were cold, our New England weather turning them stiff and white.  I was repulsed when she’d use them to wipe my brother’s nose without a Kleenex.

There was something hard to reconcile about my mother’s hands before I knew them.  My nana told me time and time again that as a young woman my mother was an emerging concert pianist, with a solo recital given at Mechanics Hall in Worcester.  The yellowed newspaper clipping she showed me announcing the event proved this to be true.  But I had never seen her touch black and white keys.

“Why don’t you play piano anymore?” I asked one night as she tucked me into bed.

“No reason,” my mother said, looking wistful.

“Nana said you got sick of her making you play every time her friends came over.  She told me once you met Daddy, you said you would never play again.”

“Nana likes a good story. Now go to sleep,” she said, smoothing my covers before reaching to turn off my lamp.  The sparkle of her engagement ring catching the light reminded me of another vow she’d taken.

Her devotion to my father was ever present–he was everything to her.  I knew this not because she was the type to share confidences or gush about romance, but because their private connection was part of our everyday life.  They would share a drink in the living room before dinner, their favorite Glenn Miller tunes playing as they caught up on each other’s day.  Sometimes she sang, often they danced.  My parents went out on ‘dates’.  He took her on business trips and regularly brought her flowers.  Candy came in valentine-shaped boxes.   She cooked special meals, always for him. She shushed us when he needed to study for his business degree and repeatedly warned us not to tell him any bad news until he’d been home for at least an hour. Never show him all your back-to-school clothes at once, she used to say.

What I don’t remember knowing before my father died was that my mother -in twenty-three years of marriage—had never, ever taken off her wedding ring.  I was fifteen at his funeral, and when I looked at her praying hands in church, I saw a ring too big to be hers held in place by her familiar diamond.  Later when I asked about it, she told me she’d exchanged rings with my father twice in her life, the first time at their wedding and the last time in the funeral home, just before a final kiss.

“I put mine on him.  And I’ll wear his,” she said through tears, rotating the gold band freely around her finger.

My older sister suggested she have it resized to fit her, or that perhaps she could wear it on a chain around her neck.  But my mother said she would not change it.  And just as she had never taken off her wedding ring until he died, she would wear his until she did.

After my father’s death, my mother’s hands went as faraway from me as the rest of her.  Dutifully but without feeling, she went through the motions of mothering her teenagers.  She made our meals.  Cleaned the house.  Paid the bills.  Occasionally I’d see her back in their living room, reading the legendary letters my father had sent her when he was in the service.

When the last of us left home to go to school and a few of us began to have families of our own, my mother’s hands made a comeback.  Each week, she would go to the salon and sit through the tedious task of having acrylic nails shaped and painted.  Rosy pink polish graced her nails and for a time I believed they signaled her ability to live again.  But then I’d see her use a pencil to dial the telephone or a knife to pop the top off a can of soda, and I would be reminded that the nails brightening her hands were a façade.  She was still distant, sadly disconnected, having left me at the same time my father did.

Looking back, I realize that I didn’t appreciate the role my mother’s hands played when I was a girl or even during my years as a young mother.  It wasn’t until those hands could no longer function that I truly mourned them.

At sixty-nine my mother suffered a devastating stroke.  An old shoulder injury on her left side coupled with a new right-sided weakness, and my mother could no longer use either hand to manage activities of daily living or connect with the people who loved her.  Worse, the mighty stroke stole her ability to speak.

For three months, my mother fought to relearn to walk; and she did.  To relearn to talk; and she did.  Each time I visited her in the rehab center, her new home, she would show off newfound skills.  Each time she heaved her body to standing, or dragged her feet down the hall, she would smile a crooked smile, seemingly as proud of herself as she was when she and my father were dancing.

During our last visit, juggling two iced-teas laced with lemon I maneuvered her wheelchair out to the rehab center garden.  We sipped and chatted, me filling in the gaps in her sentences, guessing what she was trying to say.

“Kids?” she asked.

“The kids are great.  Did I tell you Caitlin is a turtle in the school play?  And Stephen is a lobster.”

“Tom?”

“He’s working today, but he’ll be here with me and the kids on Saturday.  He told me to tell you he’ll mow the lawn at the house and water your plants before we head home.”

Our lopsided conversation went on like that until she suddenly became silent, tears running down her face.   With all her might she lifted her weak right arm, and with every ounce of effort brought a hand up to cup my chin.

“I’m sorry I happened to you,” she managed to say.

“It’s not your fault—the stroke.  And look at you.  You’re doing great,” I said, my own tears making their way down my cheeks.

And then she spoke as clearly as she did before her stroke. “I love you, Lynne.”

Now I was the one having trouble with words.  I hugged her, not knowing it would be our last embrace.

Days later my mother died of a second, more massive stroke.  When I saw her laid out, her hands, still at last, were folded across her chest.  She looked peaceful, pretty, though her essence wasn’t on her face or in that room.  A nurse had called me, telling me to hurry, but I’d gotten there too late. She’d already left me to join my father.

I touched her hands then, twirling the his-and-then-hers wedding band around her left finger one last time. And I renewed a vow I’d made when I married; to never take off my own wedding ring. I promised my mother I never would.

Lynne Griffin is the author of the acclaimed novels, Sea Escape-A Novel (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Life Without Summer-A Novel (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), as well as the  parenting guide, Negotiation Generation (Penguin, 2007). Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, The Drum Literary Magazine, Parenting magazine, Parent & Child, The Writer magazine, and others. For more about Lynne’s work visit www.LynneGriffin.com or follow her on twitter @Lynne_Griffin.

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Thoughts on Motherhood

Thoughts on Motherhood

 

branch of a blossoming tree“What is Motherhood?” is a Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?

Literary Mama editors and columnists respond to our question “What is Motherhood?”:

Motherhood: guaranteed to make a solo trip to the grocery store feel like a tropical vacation.—Kate Haas, Creative Nonfiction Editor

Motherhood is being sick in bed with a stomach virus, and making it outside to meet the school bus anyway.—Amanda Jaros, Blog Editor

Motherhood closed a window, but opened a door.—Caroline M. Grant, Editor-in-Chief

Motherhood is a beautiful mess of contradictions and juxtapositions: it can make you feel both broken, and mended; free yet bound; it is bitter, and almost unbearably sweet.                                                                                                                                           —Alissa McElreath, Columns Editor

Motherhood is a living expression of hope for our future world.                                                                                                                 —Kristina Riggle, Fiction Editor

When you live in the Midwest, you mark time by wind chill and heat index and in inches of rain and snow. You consider road conditions before heading out to the basketball games, and you watch for lightning from the bleachers that surround the baseball diamonds and swimming pools.  You respect each of the four seasons, and you’re prepared—the trunk of your car is filled with boots, shovels, blankets, gloves, and umbrellas—because you know how quickly a calm evening can turn dangerous.

You weather the hailstorm, tornado, or blizzard and then you pick up the debris and rebuild what was destroyed. You begin a new day, but now, you appreciate the pinks and reds and oranges of the sunset, the brilliant blue of the noontime sky, and the sparkles of a clear night just a little bit more -and you remind yourself to make the most of each moment.Karna Converse, Blog Editor

I’ve learned that to float through the ebbs and flows of motherhood I must remember to honor self-care.—Kelly Sage, Ezine Editor

Motherhood has felt like an awakening and a call to action. Inherent to the idea of the maternal, I think, is the desire for fairness, equity, justice, and opportunities for our children; for me, this has translated from the particular to the general, from my own family situation to activist work on a larger scale.—Rachel Epp Buller, Profiles Editor

Motherhood: the delicate opportunity to see life reflected.—Christina Speed, Literary Reflections Editor

To me, Motherhood can be both grounding and disorienting, as exemplified in this untitled poem I wrote that originally appeared in Thunderclap! Magazine (2010):

Driving on a certain stretch                                                                                                      
of Victoria Park                                                                                                                      
right after Sheppard
and before York Mills
that bridge around the 401
my fingers tighten
around the wheel
although I’ve been this way
more than a dozen times
I don’t remember what comes next
and am grateful for the chatter
from the back seat
the proclamation, “Mommy, I’m done,”
as she tries to hand me
the granola bar wrapper.
I am home in that noisesteering towards the intersection.Maria Scala, senior editor
 

Motherhood: It is

It is a single giggle
that breaks up the monotony of eternal days,
when coffee and a ten-minute nap
are best friends of mine.
The one, I see too often,
the other not enough.
But quickly, too quickly really,
everything about those days changes.
And then, it becomes
the pain that radiates up the back of my leg
as I step on building blocks and Legos and Lincoln logs
and all of the imitation fruit that spills out of the play kitchen;
the one I spend hours putting together
on a dark, cold, Christmas night,
two years after they are born,
but before the next baby comes along.
That kitchen now sits in the cobwebbed corner of the basement,
forlorn and lonely, longing
for the day that future grandkids will bestow on it some love.
Because again, everything changes.
And now, today,
I move the pretend cash register to the side of the play space
since the kids, there are four in all,
have mercilessly moved on.
I’m surrounded
by American Girls and Barbies and Harry Potter and Minecraft;
the children reach for non-existent IPods and IPads and Furbies,
those material goods that I won’t allow—yet.
They ask for computer time and Doctor Who, YouTube, and Scratch.
But it’s not the things.
I’ve gotten past the things that have littered and defined my motherhood.
All of the toys and books and gadgets we bring into our lives when we
welcome these children—they are left behind me.
Instead, it is the sight,
the sounds, the scents;
the immense feelings of love and gratefulness that envelop me
each time the tiny, wiry arms wind around my no-longer-taut middle.
It is the sweetness of the smiles they send to me as they walk out the door,
the thoughtful look that passes across their faces
as they pause, once, to blow me the last kiss of the morning.
I catch those kisses, those smiles,
and place them inside the recesses of my heart,
hoping to store them for later;
for when they leave the nest I have built for them.
And when the time is right,
I will pull them out, along with the memories, good and bad,
and the joy of knowing what motherhood is.

Christina Consolino, Profiles editor

 

A mother’s journey to get her child to preschool when they are late:

“Look, Mama, a rock.”

“Yes, a rock.” I nod.

“I tro it?”

“OK, you can throw it.”

“Look, Mama, ‘nother rock. I tro it?”

One step.

“Oh, Mama! Look at dat one! I tro it!”

–Heather Cori, Columnist

 

Motherhood is Holding…

Motherhood is holding

a finger-long hand

a bum against your hip

a sandy rock from the beach and then another and another

a vigil

a single thought

your breath

your tongue

your belly in

a party for preschoolers

a bowl beside the bed

a bicycle seat

the car keys

out for something more

on to your ambition

worry enough for two, three, four

this fleeting incessant moment

that notion of letting go

and still holding.

Katherine Barrett, Managing Editor and Columnist

 

Literary Mama publishes literary writing about the many faces of motherhood. Since 2003, they have featured poetry, fiction, columns, and creative non-fiction that may be too raw, too irreverent, too ironic, or too body-conscious for traditional or commercial motherhood publications.

Literary Mama is for writers as well as mothers. They function as a collective of volunteer editors and columnists. The magazine was launched in California, but their staff is now located across the United States as well as in Canada, Thailand, and Japan. Their writers hail from all corners of the world.

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Do You Believe in Magic

Do You Believe in Magic

WO Believe in Magic Art(in a young girl’s heart)

By Galit Breen

I sit by the light of the moon, the lamp and the television screen, as my husband sleeps. My knees are drawn to my chest, I lean against them, pen in hand. My eyes are bleary and my alarm will sound all too soon, but this I want to do.

Swirly letters, print that I hope looks nothing like my own, fill the page. Satisfied, I roll the thin paper between my fingertips, walk down the hall in bare feet, and slip the note and one cool coin beneath my daughter’s pillow.

Chloe, my seven-year-old, just lost her first tooth. She’s waited (somewhat) patiently as her classmates have lost one tooth after another, stories of special boxes and tooth fairies and even braces filling their chapters.

My husband, Jason, and I weren’t surprised about her wait time. Chloe got her first tooth at 18 months. It’s just unheard of! Her pediatrician, who I love, kept saying throughout her well check. It’s just unheard of! I reported to my husband while Chloe gummed raspberries and peas and yogurt between us. He nodded in “appreciation” of my worries, threw a She’s fine my way, and passed her tiny, sliced pieces of his meat.

And she was fine. Of course she was. Seven years later when her smile remained whole while her friends’ tooth count dropped by the day, “we” knew how to tow the She’s fine line. But yesterday, when she came home from school, coveted treasure box in hand, gaping smile proud, she looked instantly older and heartachingly proud and I was more than ready to play my tooth fairy roll.

In the morning, she came downstairs with her trademark steps—confident in the way middle children have to be, blazing their own paths between those of their siblings, and quick because she’s used to taking the kinds of steps necessary to keep up with the longer legs she walks beside.

I knew it was her without looking up, but when my eyes met hers—that match mine in shade and intensity and fierce – I saw what I was looking for. They were absolutely lit. She grasped her tooth fairy magic between thankfully still small fingers and held it my way. An offering.

We sat together on the yellow couch, toes tucked beneath us, and read the note, palmed the coin. The sun was just rising and the sky blazed in watercolor shades of red and purple and even a tinge of green. She leaned against me in the way that I love and I breathed in the scent of her hair. Strawberries, childhood.

Her older sister Kayli came downstairs just a few minutes later and sat by my side. “Look, Kay!” Chloe said, giving her a view of the magic she held. Bookended by my two I wondered how this back and forth between sisters would work.

At nine-years-old, I get the feeling that Kayli knows more than she lets on. She keeps many of her thoughts and feelings and opinions tucked into the crevices of her heart, for her eyes only. But every once in awhile she shares a glimpse of that heart; her own offering.

“Look, Kay!” Chloe says again pushing the note and the coin toward her sister. Kayli gets up and makes her way to Chloe’s other side so now Chloe sits in the middle. This feels appropriate. They lean over the note and read it together. Knees and shoulders touching, locks and voices threading in the way that sisters do.

“You have a great tooth fairy,” Kayli announces with authority. A smile plays on my lips as I look up expecting to see their heads still nestled close. But Kayli’s eyes are on mine. They’re impossibly big and brown and where Chloe’s match mine, Kayli’s mirror Jason’s.

I still write tooth fairy notes to Kayli. Its never occurred to me not to sprinkle that kind of magic into her childhood, but for the first time I wonder if she knows, what she thinks, if she’s actually playing into my glitter instead of the other way around.

The morning needs starting, so we do. Breakfast is punctuated by folders that need packing and library books that need finding and a puggle that needs feeding.

The girls are ready and out the door in what feels like just a few minutes, and are home after a full school day in what seems like just a few minutes after that.

Chloe is in a mood. Her lift has always been as high as her fall. As a baby her laugh was always the deepest and most infectious and her cry always the loudest and most intense. Her feelings fill rooms.

So the rest of us try to maneuver around her, biding time, willing her to rest, to take a break, to give us a break. Jason is bringing home take-out and I cross my mothering fingers that she can make it long enough so we can have this treat as a family. But she just can’t—the ups and downs of the day, the late night and the early morning were just too much for her and somewhere between six and seven o’clock she has struck one too many chords and has been sent to bed.

She showers, wraps herself in lotion and fleece and slippers, the same creature comforts I would have chosen for myself. Seeing she’s on her way to okay, I head downstairs to make her a sandwich.  I wonder what my own footsteps sound like to my kids, if they know it’s me without looking up.

As I round the corner into the kitchen, Kayli sits at the counter. Legs crossed, lean body curved, pen in hand. The way that her head is tilted, her almond locks hit the counter. Her eyes are focused, her lips are set. She’s lovely.

“What are you doing?” I ask, running my fingers through her strands that glitter by this evening light.

She looks up, meets my eyes in the jolting way for the second time that day—a smile playing on her lips this time—and pushes her writing toward me.

On a small, thin piece of paper she’s written, “Here’s a sandwich, tomorrow will be a better day. Love, The Peanut Butter and Jelly Fairy” in slanted, curvy, and swirly print that looks an awful lot like my tooth fairy writing. She’s dotted each “i” with a heart. Paused, I look up and take in my girl, note this mark of her tween-ness.

I know this is a turning moment between us and I brace myself for what I think I’m about to feel—sadness, wistfulness, a need to grab onto the fleetingness of it all. But that’s not what happens.

I realize with an inhale that she’s already taken the first steps away from childhood that I’ve been holding my breath for. And with an exhale, I see how beautiful this stage looks on her.

Knowing so much more than she’s let on. Maneuvering between the one being taken care of to the one doing the caring. Using what she knows to show love, to create magic, to be graceful.

“Oh, Kay,” I say, “That was really nice of you.” And not really knowing what else to add, I step aside. Kayli makes her sister a sandwich, calls her downstairs, and, once again, my two share magic while I watch.

So this is the wonder of her tweenness—of being just one step away from the magic of childhood that she still gets and loves and feels the fun and the whimsy and is just looking for her own way to be a part of it.

And as long as I can keep finding these moments to step aside and let her in, neither one of us have lost childhood, instead we’re both tiptoeing into a newfound relationship that is magical in its own right.

Galit Breen is a Minnesota writer. Galit is a contributing writer to Soleil Moon Frye’s Moonfrye, the Huffington Post, SheKnows’s, allParenting, EverydayFamily, and Mamalode Magazine. Galit blogs at These Little Waves and may or may not work for dark chocolate.

See more of Galit Breen’s work in This is Childhood: Book & Journal  – Available Now.

Photo credit: Nicole Spangler Photogrpahy www.nicolespanglerphotography.com

The Adult in the House

The Adult in the House

husband deleting email 2 w grayIn honor of my mother’s birthday this week, I’d like to share her most influential parenting advice, which is also her best go-to marriage tip. That is how helpful and important the following words have been for me.

Somebody has to be the adult in the house.

The implication is that adult individuals in a partnership can take turns falling apart, but both parties cannot crumble at once. My mom was referring to standard day-to-day life. Obviously in a true crisis, the rules change.

As for the parenting ramifications, my mom always thought insuring one of the adults was acting and thinking reasonably meant that the children would never have to prematurely step into that role. She once told me her greatest accomplishment as a parent was protecting my sisters and me this way. She did not want us to become little caretakers, or to worry that the atmosphere in our home could erupt into chaos at any moment.

This mantra of hers provided a mostly peaceful upbringing, and it shaped the mother I would become. I definitely felt a comfort and security knowing that if my mom was out of sorts, I could count on my dad’s predictability and strength. If my dad lost his temper, I could count on my mom to get things under control.

I know from friends who are single parents and from childhood friends whose parents were divorced that among the many challenges for both the parent and the child is this exact issue: The one adult in the household has all the responsibility of maintaining the family’s calm. As the resident grownup feels the mounting pressure, so do the children. I have enormous respect for my friends who have remained that rock for their kids.

On the lighter side, I remember the discovery long before having kids that my mom’s “be the adult” motto could help me in awkward social and work situations. During my first semester of graduate school, I had received an email from a woman in my small group cohort (I’ll call her Gretchen) who was perpetually angry with me and other members of our group for instances when she felt slighted or left out. In my attempt to prove why her version of each “insult” was mistaken, I drafted a long response outlining why the details from her email were a perfect example of her general propensity to misinterpret events. I also included a list of other times when I’d witnessed her paranoia and victim-status outlook.

I suspected that my letter might be over-the-top and permanently damaging to the working environment in our program, but my exasperation with Gretchen diminished my ability to think straight. I was about to hit ‘send’ when I summoned my last shred of self-control to ask my still-new husband for a second opinion.

I read him the email while he was driving home to which he said, “You cannot send that.” Undeterred, I gave him all the reasons I was justified. “Step away from the computer,” he said. “I’ll be home in twenty minutes, and we’ll look at it together.”

Where was the show of sympathy and shared righteous indignation that I deserved? For that, of course, I could have called any one of my girlfriends, but since I had turned to Bryan this time, I would try to hear him out. He was, after all, the other adult in the house.

“Call her,” he said when he walked in the door. “This discussion doesn’t belong on email anyway.”

He had a point, but I was not calling her. No way.

“Fine,” he said and sat at the computer desk. He read my email draft on the screen while I looked over his shoulder, his finger hovering over the delete button. “You can send an email, but not this one.”

Instead of highlighting whole sections and erasing it at once, he repeatedly tapped ‘delete’ as I watched my excessively reactive words disappear backwards letter by letter. What he left me with were two polite lines that sounded nothing like me, which was why the email I sent was mature and balanced instead of regrettably verbose and filled with numerous explanation marks. I should let the quasi-friendship with Gretchen dissipate with my dignity in tact, he suggested. No need to come off like a bridge-burning lunatic.

In the thirteen years that have passed since then, there have been plenty of other instances when Bryan has removed the lighter fluid and the torch from my reach (usually in the form of convincing me not to send an email). On the flip side, there’s no question that when it comes to our kids, I am the brakes. I’m the one who calls a time out for everyone when things get too heated or when I think an argument needs to stop and continue at a more appropriate time. We work in tandem this way, one adult front and center at all times; one of us is always towing the line. And in those occasional instances when we both have our grownup wits about us, I almost feel bad for our kids who cannot get away with much.

With that, I’d like to thank my mom for giving me her “be the adult” advice more times than I can remember and for living those words along with my dad. It was a priceless gift that I can best pay back by passing on the same message to their grandchildren. I’m certainly trying.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Here Comes the Judgment

Here Comes the Judgment

By Eileen Flanagan

Here Comes the Judgment_PhotoA few months ago, I heard author Faulkner Fox present a paper on mothers judging each other. She began with an anecdote about a woman who was giving her child organic strawberry yogurt at the playground when another mother pointed out that strawberry yogurt had a lot of sugar. The stranger explained that she bought strawberry yogurt in tubes, squeezed half the pink yogurt out, and squirted in plain yogurt with a syringe. That way, her child could have the same yogurt package as everyone else without having all the sugar.

Fox used this anecdote to illustrate how mothers compete with each other, how we judge each other, and how we respond to those whose suggestions feel judgmental to us. I appreciated Fox’s point, that mothers should criticize each other less and support each other more. I also agreed with her that we need to find ways to talk about the issues that really matter to mothers and that we should use our playground encounters for constructive things, like community building and consciousness raising.

But the yogurt squeezer story left me conflicted. A part of me sympathized with the syringing mother who was trying so hard to swim against the tide of sugar. I have my own struggles with resisting our culture. I’m always trying to figure out the line between judging our society (which I do, and harshly) and judging other mothers (which I try not to do).

How, for example, can I speak as an environmentalist about my enmity for Lunchables, processed food in disposable plastic, while being sympathetic to the busy parents who buy Lunchables? I don’t judge any parent for wanting convenience, but I do judge the marketers and corporate strategists who put Scooby Doo on the package, knowing that my five-year-old will beg me for it, no matter what kind of junk is inside. I judge the fast food industry that seduces children with little plastic movie characters. I judge the sugar industry that lobbied against the latest health guidelines from the FDA because the guidelines conflicted with the business of selling sugar.

“So don’t buy Lunchables or Happy Meals,” you might say, and that’s basically my approach. But part of me feels it isn’t enough. When powerful corporate forces are setting our children up for a future of diabetes and overflowing landfills with discarded Lunchables packaging, shouldn’t we be working together to oppose them? It’s not just a matter of my individual choice. The choices of parents around me shape the culture my children inhabit and the environment they will inherit. As a mother and an activist, is there a way I can raise consciousness on these issues without coming across as obnoxious and judging?

Part of the problem is that we live in such an individualistic culture that we abhor anyone telling us what to do. Although we may quote the African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” most of us don’t really want a village telling us how to raise our kids. I discovered that for myself when my husband and I considered sending our children to a Waldorf school with strict policies against letting children watch television, wear clothes with Disney characters on them, or eat junk food. While I liked the idea of the school protecting my children from the baser aspects of our culture, I bristled at the idea of someone telling me that I couldn’t use PBS as an occasional crutch. More importantly, I didn’t like the way that many parents I knew at this school seemed to feel shamed into pretending they fit the community.

In traditional societies, villagers are stuck with the values of the village around them, but in a big city like ours parents can seek out like-minded families. Still, it may be impossible to find a community where everyone’s values match perfectly. We ultimately chose for our children a Quaker school where non-violence is taught and war toys are forbidden. But when my son recently went on a play date with a new friend from this Quaker kindergarten, he was given a toy machine gun and allowed to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie that I personally wouldn’t have shown to five-year-olds. My surprise must have registered on my face when I came to pick him up and found him enthusiastically shooting the machine gun at the Nazis in the movie.

When the other mother (probably sensing my disapproval) said, “I think boys are just hard-wired to shoot,” I thought of Fox’s talk and wondered, “Now how do I avoid sounding judgmental here?” What I wanted to say was, “I agree that boys are more attracted to aggressive play than girls, but if you let your five-year-old watch violent movies and play with machine guns, what do you expect?” Instead I did what Fox confessed that she often does in awkward situations with other mothers: I said, “Uh huh,” nodded, and hustled my son out the door.

Fox would say, “Uh huh” when she felt judged and didn’t want to sound judgmental back. But what should I say when I don’t like the way another parent has supervised my child? In my situation, “Uh huh” was a copout used to get us out the door on a busy afternoon. It did nothing to build a relationship with the other mother or guarantee a better play date in the future. Being silent may be the safest response in the moment, but it ultimately creates more work for parents who, if they reject the popular culture around them, have to make their own culture from scratch. It is hard work, syringing yogurt and avoiding violent movies. Trying to change the culture around us can be equally challenging.

I recently heard of parents at a local nursery school who, because they didn’t want their child to eat sugar or animal products, wrote a letter to all the other parents, sharing their recipe for cookies made from carob, tofu, and rice syrup in hopes of discouraging the sugar-laden cupcakes that usually appear on birthdays. The response from the community was a resounding “You’ve got to be kidding.” The friend who told me this story—a mother of three who said she didn’t have the extra energy it would take to stock rice syrup in her kitchen—made a point that stayed with me: “If you are going to take this radical a stand on food, you might as well teach your child now that he is going to be out of the mainstream. The world is not going to change to accommodate him, and you’re doing the kid a disservice to teach him that it will.”

This is, perhaps, the hardest part of resisting the culture as a parent. We want our kids to fit in, even if we don’t fit in ourselves. That, of course, is the real reason the woman at the playground went to the trouble of using a syringe instead of just sending her kid to school with a jar of plain yogurt. She wanted his food to look like everyone else’s on the outside, the way carob looks like chocolate chips until the kids get old enough to tell the difference.

The issue of fitting in only gets more difficult as the children get older. When I picked my eight-year-old daughter up from school the other day, she announced that another girl in her class was teaching her how to dress “cool,” which was apparently going to require me to buy her some new clothes. Feeling my blood pressure rise, I made eye contact with another mother who was standing nearby and said, “I need help.” My friend jumped into the conversation, followed by a third mother, and together we discussed the concept of cool with our three daughters.

“I think everyone has to find her own style,” another mother said, “and it’s not always what’s in the magazines or what someone else thinks is cool.”

“But I’m not wearing my own style,” pointed out my daughter, who has a wardrobe of hand-me-downs. With the other mothers making all my usual points about our consumer culture, I was able to really hear my daughter and realize that she did deserve the chance to pick out at least one new outfit of her own. Because I felt supported by other mothers, I was better able to support her.

Perhaps moral support was what the yogurt mom and the carob cookie parents were really looking for when they shared their quirky food suggestions. If so, I don’t want to judge them too harshly for attempting to articulate their values, even if they did come across as smug and judgmental. We all need support if we want to resist the food, films, and fashion that our culture tries to sell us. What I’ve learned is that I’m more likely to get that support when I ask about the issues head-on—no tips, no recipes, no judgment. Marketers know that it’s not what you say but how you say it. It’s a lesson we could all learn.

Author’s Note: Just for the record, although I don’t buy Lunchables, I do let my children eat way too much sugar, including organic strawberry yogurt squeezers. This essay was inspired by a Literary Mama Mother Talk salon featuring Faulkner Fox, author of Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life

Eileen Flanagan is the author of The Wisdom to Know the Difference, which was endorsed by the Dalai Lama and won a 2010 Silver Nautilus Book Award. Her forthcoming book Renewable is about the midlife journey that lead her to civil disobedience to protect her children’s future. Visit her at www.eileenflanagan.com.

Brain, Child (Fall 2005)

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The Pleasure Principle

The Pleasure Principle

By Elizabeth Roca

Pleasure PrincipleYesterday I bought the biggest pomegranate I have ever seen. My children and I were in the produce aisle at the supermarket. The baby, Camille, sat in the shopping cart’s seat, clutching an onion she had inexplicably demanded to hold, pointing and weeping until I gave in and handed it to her. Three-year-old Jonah was in the basket, looking at a book and nudging aside my groceries with his sneakers. Jonah’s twin, Lily, danced beside me, holding my shopping list and a pen. I was thinking that I shouldn’t bother buying fresh vegetables, because they rot in my refrigerator drawers faster than I can cook them, when I saw it: a pile of pomegranates stacked in a wooden crate, resting just below the pears.

My daughters like pears; I put a few in a plastic bag and tied it shut. Then I lingered, gazing at the pomegranates. I hadn’t eaten a pomegranate since my children were born. They take too much time. These were enormous, like big, bright-red softballs, and they looked to be in good condition, smooth and unblemished. They cost $1.99, which in my Washington, D.C., suburb is a decent price. Greed stirred in me.

I felt around among the pomegranates until I found one that was firm and taut-skinned, holding the promise of fresh, sweet juice. I tucked it on my cart’s bottom rack to keep it out of range of Jonah’s feet and wended my way through the store, piling the cart with milk and yogurt and cheese and bread and pasta sauce and veggie burgers until I almost forgot the pomegranate was there. Almost but not completely: I took care not to crush it with anything heavy, and I kept the thought of it in the back of my mind. My treat for the evening.

My mother was the person who taught me to love pomegranates, as she did avocados, artichokes, carambolas, kiwis, and other exotic fruits and vegetables. These were not common foods in the New Jersey suburbs, where I grew up, in the 1970s. She was a California transplant and retained many tastes of that mellow climate.

My fourth-grade classmates looked askance at lunchtime when I opened my brown paper bag and drew forth an artichoke, nicely steamed and wrapped in plastic, with a dab of mayonnaise in a Tupperware container on the side. Their bald questions—”What the heck is that?”— caused me some embarrassment, but not enough to stop me from peeling off the artichoke’s leaves, dipping them in the mayo, and scraping them with my teeth. Ah, bliss.

It occurs to me now that the foods my classmates found so weird were fun to eat, unlike the workaday apples and pears my mother usually put in our lunch bags. She brought home fresh coconuts and my brothers and I knocked out their eyes with a hammer and a sixteen-penny nail (there were three eyes in a coconut and three of us, so we each had a turn), drained the milk, then smashed in the coconut’s shell and fell to gnawing the dry, oily, delicately flavored meat.

While a coconut required brute force to eat, a pomegranate took a lot of fiddly fingerwork. My mother showed me how to quarter the pomegranate, pushing a sharp knife through the leathery rind. Inside it was packed with small seeds held in sections by a thin whitish-yellow skin. The seeds were the most lovely color, a deep, translucent red, with the white pit visible in the center, like a pebble seen through clear water. To loosen the seeds’ mutual embrace you had to bend back the rind and peel away the papery skin. Then you wiggled each seed until it broke away from the rind. Sometimes I ate them one at a time, and sometimes I collected a small handful and threw them in my mouth all at once. Either way, the seeds burst under my teeth, filling my mouth with thin, sweet, slightly astringent juice. It was a complex, meditative project. I spent happy, quiet hours at our kitchen table, sunlight shining in the little window behind me, peeling and crunching and wiping my red-stained fingers on a paper napkin.

Much of what we learn in childhood we learn through food, and much of what I learned about food I learned from my mother. I learned, to my regret, that men and children eat dessert while women do the dishes— but in the world of my childhood such a practice was commonplace. My mother did her best. She did very well at showing me and my brothers that odd food is something to be enjoyed, not feared, and that a fresh fig, for instance, is a thing of beauty, a reason for celebration.

I am a product of my own time, and I shudder to think what my children are learning from me about food. That women eat dessert with the men and children, then sidle into the kitchen and eat a second helping standing up at the counter. I hope that I am also passing on some of my mother’s adventurousness. My childhood lessons—that weird produce is our friend, that the funny-looking thing on the store shelf might be the best thing I ever tasted—has led me, in adulthood, to purchase such things as kumquats, Jerusalem artichokes, celery root, and jicama. Few elements of life are so constant and so potentially colorful as eating. It makes sense that we should explore every variation available to us.

Many of the foods that seemed unusual in my childhood are no longer considered strange. Artichokes are still more exotic than, say, broccoli, but they appear on my supermarket shelves often enough. New mothers are urged to mash avocados and feed them to their babies for their valuable unsaturated fatty acids. I tried this, but all three of my babies hated avocado so much my husband and I began calling their characteristic grimace “avocado face.” Their taste has not changed, at least in that area, so last week when my mother came to visit at lunchtime, bearing an avocado along with her usual low-cal frozen meal, we only had to divide it two ways. We drizzled it with Italian dressing and forked it up slowly, murmuring with pleasure over the rich, silky flesh.

I thought of my mother last night when I started cutting up my pomegranate. It was much too big for one person to eat, and I wished she were there to share it with me. It split under my knife with a fresh crunch, and crimson juice ran out on the plate. The seeds gleamed like wet rubies.

My husband is English, and although he grew up eating such oddities as trifle, Yorkshire pudding, and Marmite, the uncommon fruits of my childhood were not available in his hometown, a bedroom community midway between London and Cambridge. He’ll politely eat an artichoke if I set it before him at dinnertime, but he doesn’t much care for them. He shrugged at my offer of a pomegranate quarter. “They’re kind of a pain to eat,” he said, proving that some tastes must be acquired in childhood or not at all.

My path is clear: to indoctrinate my children into the eating of exotic produce while they are still young enough to play with it. With this in mind I called Lily, the most adventurous of my eaters, and showed her the pomegranate. “What you have?” she asked. “Lily try this?” I gave her a seed. She rolled it around in her mouth, then bit into it. Her face assumed an expression of dismay, and she spat.

But this morning in the organic market she picked up a Japanese sweet potato. “Lily buy this?” she asked. “Sure,” I said, and she heaved it into our cart.

At home I sliced the potato and steamed it. It had white, sweet, slightly mealy flesh, more like that of a roasted chestnut than the familiar American sweet potato. It was delicious, and I was the only one who would eat it. Lily shook her head at it, and Camille took a nugget and smashed it between her fingers. As for Jonah, he shrieks when served anything that isn’t lime-flavored yogurt or banana bread.

No matter; it was a beginning. Something about the potato’s gnarled shape and red-brown skin had appealed to Lily, and she had claimed it as her own. This is what I want for my children: That they not be shy about claiming pleasure for themselves, that they seek and find the uncommon delights of this world.

Author’s Note: I am fascinated by the ways in which we use food as a means of communication, and also by the simpler ways we use it for entertainment. Recently I left a steamed artichoke on the kitchen counter to cool, thinking with happy anticipation that I would eat it for lunch the next day. I returned later to find Lily standing on a stepstool, scraping artichoke leaves with her teeth like an expert. Denuded leaves were flying everywhere. It wasn’t quite the entertainment I’d had in mind when I cooked the artichoke, but it was funny nonetheless. I think I’m well on my way to having at least one weird food eater among my offspring.

Elizabeth Roca’s work has appeared frequently in Brain, Child. She lives with her family in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Brain, Child (Fall 2005)

 

A Yelper Spreads the Love

A Yelper Spreads the Love

By Bonnie J. Rough

BonnieRough1One midnight in late spring, when Dan and I had been married ten years and had grown a bit conscious of our sex life—was it spontaneous enough? Cooling off? Going completely dark?—a harsh yelping woke us up.

Owp, owp, owp.

I shook Dan’s shoulder. “What is that?”

Owp-owp-owp!

The yelps sounded a little hoarse. I remembered when we had been newlyweds in Iowa and our neighbor had accidentally driven over her own silky white cat. The cat had died under the hostas in our yard, yelping hoarsely.

“Do you think our cat’s okay?” I whispered.

Owp. Owp. Owwwp.

“It’s just a dog,” Dan said, rolling back to sleep.

“That is not a dog,” I said with one ear trained on the sound. “Wait a sec,” I said, listening a little more. “Maybe it is a dog.”

Then a human tone crept in. Dan heard it too.

“Where is that coming from?” he asked, lifting his head from the pillow to echolocate. We live in a friendly and family-packed Seattle neighborhood, full of balance-bikes and front-yard vegetable gardens. Nobody has air conditioning, so we latch open our windows in decent weather and share sounds: dinner dishes clinking in the sink, babies fussing through bath time, the occasional gathering of families with organic juice boxes, growlers of local brew, and cedar-planked salmon. Everyday sounds, all of them.

Owp! Owp! Owwwp!

“It’s definitely not anyone nearby,” Dan finally said, perhaps unwilling to picture any of our docile neighbors in heat.

We listened again for a few minutes as the yelping went on. Finally, Dan shook his head. “Nope. That’s a dog,” he said, and went back to sleep.

But I knew he was wrong—it was sex. And I could not fall asleep so easily while unknown neighbors made noisy bacon, so I lay there listening. Gross! Loud! Impressive. Will it wake up the kids? I could not wipe the adolescent smile off my face.

A few weeks later, the day before my birthday, Dan and I busied ourselves in the backyard, spreading bark mulch, weeding and preparing for my own little party with growlers et cetera. Josie, our six-year-old, and Louisa, our two-year-old, both in brown pigtails, scampered around us in the grass with Ivy and Nora, their preschool-aged playmates from next door.

Owp. Owp. Owp.

Dan and I locked eyes in a stare that said: Definitely human.

OWP! OWP! OWP!

For a moment, the children played on. The yelping took on a familiar hoarse quality, and now we could tell it was coming from the upper floor of the duplex behind our house. A newlywed couple lived there, with the perfect high angle to spot us through our bathroom window. (I opted to slink around like a hunchback rather than deal with window treatments.) Before getting married, the woman had lived in the apartment alone with her cat and a sewing machine in the window. One day, the sewing machine had disappeared and a soccer pennant became visible. I’d never met the woman, but I had spoken to her husband once, briefly, the day we had our backyard cedar cut down. I wanted permission from their landlord to also chop down a sick little birch leaning against our fence. The tenant heartily agreed that the birch was crappy, and passed along his landlord’s number, wishing me a nice afternoon.

OWP owp OWP! Now Dan doubled over and then stood up with his mouth wide open in a silent laugh. That set me off and both of us turned our backs on the playing children, convulsing with laughter. Dan actually slapped his knee.

Owp owp owp owp owp—Josie froze. Louisa looked at her.  Ivy and Nora stopped playing. I looked at Josie, who tilted her head and knitted her brow.

“What is that?” she asked.

Since Josie’s toddlerhood, Dan and I had been working together— talking, researching, reading—to shape ourselves into parents who would openly discuss sex and the body with our children at any age. After writing the story of my abortion in my first book and subsequently discovering that audiences always ask me the same question—”What if your daughters find out?”—I had come to see that the real trick was not going to be how to keep secrets from my children, but how to tell them everything in time. I was now at work on a new book, which I knew my girls might someday read, detailing plenty more pivotal moments from my life in a female body: puberty, sex, childbirth, transgressions, and the everyday exchanges which defined my culturally-female American upbringing. Day to day with the girls, Dan and I made sure to welcome body talk in our house. Without judgment, confusion or shame, we looked at books, diagrams, animals, and one another. So, as the yelper bugled across our backyard, we certainly could have told Josie the plain truth. She already had a vocabulary for this.

But we weren’t about to edify the neighbor children.

Josie gazed expectantly at me, waiting for an explanation. I couldn’t look at Dan. “Oh, Josie,” I said, unable to erase my too-big grin, “I guess somebody is just really excited.”

Owp! Owp! Owp!

“No,” Josie said, listening closely. “I know what that is.”

Now my eyes widened. Dan turned to look at our first-grader.

“That,” Josie said, “is definitely a dog.”

We exhaled as the kids went back to their play, serenaded by wolves. Grocery list in hand, I walked around to the front of the house. The yelping followed me, and I heard a male voice join in as I slid behind the wheel of our family wagon. Driving off with music throbbing a little too loud from my mom-mobile, I laughed again and shook my head. I had to admit that in the midst of our backyard hysterics, I had felt a pulse of excitement in my core.

It happened again the next afternoon, before guests arrived for my birthday party. As Dan and I bustled around arranging patio furniture and flowers and local charcuterie, neither of us could ignore the yelping. We kept accidentally making eye contact. And late that night, as I walked into the kitchen from the backyard with the last pile of dishes, Dan intercepted me by wrapping both hands around my leg—as high as they could go.

“You know what we need to do?” he asked.

“Window treatments?”

He shook his head. “We need to have a war.”

“What?”

“A sex war,” he clarified. “With the neighbors. Like a battle of the bands.”

I agreed in principle at least, and followed my partner to the bedroom—where, although we enjoyed ourselves, it turned out that people with sleeping children do not yelp.

The next afternoon—as neighbors did yard work, couples walked retrievers, kids rode scooters—the newlyweds went at it once again. Their volume was impossible to miss.

“So,” I asked Gina with mock-casualness as we stood in our shared driveway. “Any thoughts on the new neighborhood soundtrack?” A pause. A blush? “Yeah, Tim told me about that,” she said as her husband slipped out of earshot and fired up the lawn mower. We exchanged grins, then quickly broke eye contact and changed the subject to our children.

Later that evening, after Dan’s basketball game, he stepped from the shower and sidled behind me as I brushed my teeth.

“It’s awful,” he said. “The neighbors are kind of turning me on.”

“Me too!” I said through toothpaste foam.

As much as Dan and I had been willing to talk with our children about sex, it seemed we had unwittingly, over time, begun to neglect our own sensuality. In more ways than I first realized, the yelper had woken us up.

In fact, it seemed possible that the busy couple had been lighting up the whole neighborhood. I wondered about the newlyweds’ downstairs neighbors, another young couple. Had they been triggered too? And it didn’t seem a stretch to suppose their next-door neighbors turned down the TV once or twice to let more interesting sounds stream in. Since my grocery run revealed that the noise carried across the avenue, I had to guess that the web developer who fed the crows after work and took his daughter to see harbor seals and photographed gardens on rainy days might have called his girlfriend in Illinois who wanted to move West but couldn’t quite, not yet. And maybe in the house with the blue door, the Canadian couple expecting their second baby while separated by thousands of miles from family support found themselves relaxing more easily. As for the brown pickup that pulled late into the dog-walker’s driveway two houses down—was it my imagination, or a good old-fashioned booty call? John, our lean and silver-haired next-door neighbor to the south, had peered from his side window during one especially high-pitched twilight session, presumably to investigate whether the sounds were coming from my house. He got his answer when he spotted me crouching at my back fence, eavesdropping with my blue-glowing iPhone allowing my sister and her husband to listen in from across town. I waved weakly, freed from one kind of culpability, pinned with another. John lowered the blinds, but left his window open. Suggestion was everywhere, and through my embarrassment, I surmised that after years of marriage and unkind illness, he and his wife were coming together, too.

I tapped my toothbrush on the sink and turned to look at my beautiful dripping husband, his body sleek and muscled, his beard silver and black, his ochre-flecked eyes asking for me. I loved that our bodies responded to that little primal scream in the air, and that we found each other so agreeably. After years spent ruminating on gender, sex and desire, it made me happiest, just then, to see myself as one simple beast in the big rutting herd: earnest, predictable, and beyond reproach. Climbing under the sheets, I realized that the yelper had generously spread not only her legs, but also a gift. I pictured it then, rippling around the neighborhood like The Wave in a stadium, or like electricity after an outage.

Bonnie J. Rough is the author of the Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA. She lives in Seattle, where she is at work on her next nonfiction book. Her website is www.bonniejrough.com

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

The Wanderer

The Wanderer

By Rebecca Martin

RebeccaMartin“Excuse me, I’ve lost my daughter.  She is wearing a purple dress with white polka-dots and white leggings.  Her name is Maeve, M-A-E-V-E and she is 4 years old,” I said it in a rush, but I was so clear and precise in the midst of my panic, the security guard in the Jet Blue terminal in LAX looked surprised that I had left him with nothing to ask—as if I was following a script.  And I sort of was, because the scene where I lose my daughter in a vast place where she could slip away forever, was well-rehearsed.

After four years of being Maeve’s mother, I know the lost child procedures everywhere from Disneyland to our YMCA. I know to expect that the rest of the staff is instantly alerted, in the larger places via earpiece, and that all exits are secured.  At home, I have my own protocol when she doesn’t respond to my call: A survey of our fenced-in backyard from the kitchen window; a run to the garage, including a scan of the rafters I have found her trying to reach in the past, and then a full throttle run out the front door, crying her name until I reach our street’s intersection with a larger one.  Sometimes, I race back to our house breathless and find her in the corner of the playroom, a tiara on her head and a dinosaur in her hand, her full brown brows barely crumpled in confusion at my relief to see her.

One might think I am a negligent mother, and one might be right if they were talking about bed times or table manners.  But I am not that bad about losing my children.  Maeve gives me the slip.  The LAX episode began with me locking her, my son, James, 2, and myself in the bathroom stall.  Just as I was in a position from which I could not quickly recover, she put a soft pink hand on the door latch, turned her head to look up at me from under a falling lock of chestnut hair and smiled a challenge.  Then she turned the latch and used her still toddler-solid legs to shoot out of the stall and then the bathroom, her fuzzy pink wheelie bag bouncing after her while I struggled to recover.  I looked first where I had found her 5 minutes earlier, chatting away on a pay phone. Then I circled the restaurants, before I approached the first uniformed person I saw.

After I briefed the guard, someone from behind me said, “I think your daughter is over there.” I saw nothing of the stranger but the tip of his finger that ended at Maeve, sitting next to a couple she did not know in the mid-century black vinyl airport lounge chairs, balancing her bag on her feet and looking up at the flight information on the screen overhead, as if she were a seasoned traveler in a Doris Day movie, where travel was just a delightful adventure.  I yelled, “Maeve!”  She looked at me as if to say, “Oh, you’re here too?”

I wanted to hug and kiss and scold and shake her, and say everything I have said before that made no difference, like, “you scared me!” and  “I don’t want to lose you!”  But she is unbothered by those things.  She is not afraid of being lost.  Her mother always manages to show up and spoil her fun, and besides, this is who she is.

The first time we unloaded the fuzzy pink bag from our car was at JFK a year earlier, when Maeve was three.  I told her to stay in the car until I had the stroller arranged, but as soon as I turned, she launched herself from seat to sidewalk without a coat.   She seized the wheelie bag and, without looking back, began to stride toward the terminal, dimpled elbows exposed to the February New York chill.  “Maeve!  Stop!” I yelled.  She looked at me over her shoulder.   Then Maeve, who still at three usually spoke in toddler phrases and gibberish, said, “Don’t worry.  I won’t get lost.”  Part of me was pleased at that moment. I had always wanted to give my children the world, and Maeve, for one, was ready to accept it.  I love to watch her jump off the couch and run for the car yelling, “I do!” when I have only asked, “who wants to go to the store?”  That she is game for any kind of going is a joy.  However, the larger part of me was terrified that she would run off right then at JFK and figure out how to board a plane to parts unknown, because, unlike Maeve, I know what can go wrong.

Before I found her scanning the departures board in LAX, that is all I could think of—the risk: that she would find herself someplace where I could not help her.  When I saw her, I was relieved of the fear that someone had taken her, but the fear that she would roam still gripped my heart and made me want to frighten her—to look her right in her calm-as-a-summer-sky blue eyes and lay it all out for her tough-love style, “You like to roam?!  You know where roaming leads?!  I’ll tell you … it leads to being 17-years-old and crying your eyes out in the bathroom of the Brussels airport because the people who were supposed to meet you did not show up after you waited for them for eight hours and a strange older man would not stop offering you a taste of his chocolate bar!” But I didn’t.  She has never heard of Brussels and she is too young to realize that I lived a life before her, so I just said, “Come on!” and grabbed her wrist so tightly she cried, “Ow!”

As I walked the linoleum corridor to the baggage claim with Maeve’s hand clamped between mine and the handle of James’ stroller, I thought how routine this had become: Maeve running, me searching, our remorseless reunions.  I was becoming used to it.  Maybe she was breaking me in, preparing me for the calls from Brussels, or Damascus, or Timbuktu.  Maybe the already dingy pink wheelie bag would end up covered in stickers and releasing clouds of dust from following her favorite band for a year.  Maybe by the time she was ready to really see how far she could get, I would be ready to let her go.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Babble.com, Literary Mama, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

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

A Good Birth: New Mothers’ Birth Experiences

A Good Birth: New Mothers’ Birth Experiences

By Rachel Rose

A GoodBirthThe statement, “If patient-centeredness defines midwifery, then no doubt any of us who attends birth—whatever our degree or relationship to technology—should be a midwife” is a provocative one, especially coming from an obstetrician who had all of her children via cesarean section. But this is exactly what makes Dr. Anne Lyerly’s book A Good Birth a standout. I wish that I’d had a copy of A Good Birth in the early stages of my first pregnancy, as I struggled with decision-making about where, how, and with whom in attendance to give birth. It was hard not to feel wistful as I delved into Dr. Lyerly’s research on what makes a good birth, drawn from interviews with the only people who can possibly know: women who have recently given birth. The experiences of mothers are central to Dr. Lyerly’s research, and inform both her practice and her thesis, which is that women can thrive under all kinds of birthing conditions, and feel that they’ve had a good birth even in adverse situations, provided they have agency.

Interviews with new mothers about what made their birth experiences good (or bad) is fascinating reading material for anyone who has ever created and birthed a baby.  Somehow, medical professionals have divided into camps, with midwives pushing natural birth and obstetricians pushing medicalized hospital birth, and left it up to women to choose what they are most comfortable with (or least uncomfortable with). If I were pregnant now, I would only go to a maternity care provider who had read A Good Birth, or who had already incorporated the lessons from Dr. Lyerly’s book. Her epilogue “Common Ground: Notes to Maternity Care Providers” is worth the price of the book alone. She speaks passionately about the collateral damage in the birth wars: mothers.

“I can tell you that the birth wars have had an effect, though perhaps not the one advocates

may have hoped for. They have set the stage for guilt and self-doubt among childbearing

women who face stark and false choices among caricatured versions of birth rather than

the authentic and messy and uncertain options that birthing, wherever you do it, entails….”

Ideology—whether from the natural birth movement or the medicalized obstetrical movement—divides women, setting them up to judge other women and themselves as successes and failures for where and how they give birth. We as a society can do better, ensuring that all birthing women are able to feel connected with their care providers, are able to give birth in a way that fits their values and their circumstances, and are honored for the new life they are bringing forth.

Reading this book, I revisited that difficult hour when I was in recovery after my urgent C-section, alone, in pain, without a nurse (shift change) and not knowing how my baby was coping in the NICU. Yes, I had an obstetrically good outcome, in that my high-risk pregnancy ended well, but I did not have a good birth for my first child’s arrival, the point where I became a mother.

So many women can recount traumas and heartaches, and we are told to focus on our blessings, our living treasures, and never mind what we lost: an opportunity for sacred transformation. But even though my last birth was over ten years ago, I found Dr. Lyerly’s book provided a healing opportunity to review my birth experiences, to find meaning and beauty and pride in them, and also to mourn the areas where I felt abandoned. In this regard, Dr. Lyerly’s book is essential reading for those who give birth, as well as for those who attend births. In listening respectfully to pregnant and birthing women, both before and after their births, and in studying their collective wisdom like an anthropologist would, Dr. Lyerly’s reframing of what makes a successful birth experience is a gift to both mothers and birth attendants. This book serves as a wake-up call to care providers, whatever their ideological camp, to reconsider how they practice, and the impact their approach has on the women they serve. A Good Birth is a book I’ll be buying for my friends as they go through this transformative experience. For women who have yet to give birth, A Good Birth is critical reading, as it inspires them to consider the choices they make around birth, and also to ensure that their care providers are held accountable.

Women remember the day we bring new life into the world for the rest of our lives, for better or worse. There is nothing routine about it. It is a sacred day, and Dr. Lyery’s insistence on this truth is central to her message in A Good Birth.

Rachel Rose (http://www.rachelrose.ca) has won awards for her poetry, her fiction, and her non-fiction, including a recent Pushcart Prize. Her most recent book, Song and Spectacle won the 2013 Audre Lorde Poetry Prize in the U.S. and the Pat Lowther Award in Canada.

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

The Shema and I

The Shema and I


By Jessica Bram

WO The Sherma ArtWhen I was twelve my mother gave me an instruction that was to stay with me in a most annoying way for the rest of my life.  I was waiting at an airline gate about to take my first plane flight alone, thrilled at the prospect of my first experience at air travel and this undeniable leap toward adulthood.

Finally, the door to the ramp whooshed open.  This was it.  As I stepped forward to board my mother, who had been standing quietly at my side, turned toward me.

Her face was unusually serious.  “As the plane is about to take off,” she said, looking at me intently, “I want you to say the Shema.”

This caught me by surprise.  Although my mother lit Shabbat candles most Friday nights, and attended High Holy Day services each year, I did not think of her as a particu­larly pious person.  Hebrew prayers were not something commonly invoked in our day-to-day life.  Yet here she was instructing me to say the most sacred declaration in the entire Jewish liturgy—not only an affirmation of the sovereignty of God, but also, an explicit statement of the existence of one and only one God, thereby defining Jew as apart from Christian.  It was proclaimed at every service: “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.”  Accompanied by a full throttle organ blast of major chords, Shema never failed to induce a huge shiver like icicles coursing down my shoulders as the congregation sang out, each word almost its own triumphant declaration: “Shema! Yisrael! Adonai! Elohenu! Adonai! Echod!”

I was impressed.  Did air travel really merit a gesture so profound?

It occurred to me then that my mother’s command might have had less to do with reverence than supersti­tion.  My mother was of that genera­tion for which air travel was still regarded as somewhat perilous.  When she had stuffed quarters into the flight insurance dispenser in the terminal earlier, I was quite certain she was aiming for insurance of a different kind.  To ward off “the evil eye,” no doubt, and deliver me safely.  In any case, I imagined her thinking, it couldn’t hurt.

Even at age twelve I could recite the Shema from memory. But I had learned it in the unlikeli­est of places: Girl Scouts.  I had been chosen as one of three, along with a Catholic and a Protestant girl, to recite our respective religion’s prayers at the opening of a huge convoca­tion of Girl Scouts and Scout leaders from the Greater New York area.  So I had the odd experi­ence of pro­claiming the Shema aloud for the first time before a microphone and few thousand Girl Scouts, mostly Christian.

I did not forget my mother’s instructions as the plane, engines roaring, began its acceleration down the runway.  At the very moment of that heart-stopping miracle in which a huge machine lifted into the air, I obediently whispered a quick Shema.  And then turned my attention to the astounding first sight of tiny cars crawling along slim, winding ribbons of highway; of perfect squares of green and rust laid out like a giant, undulating checker­board; and most breath­taking of all, the sudden surprise of rising through grey mist to a blindingly bright blue sky above a snowy floor—the most perfect depiction of heaven I could ever imagine.  Now this, if anything, spoke to me of God.  Not an ancient Hebrew prayer that reminded me mostly of our great stone synagogue with its worn velvet seats.

Over the years, as I grew older and air travel became commonplace to me, the Shema had a habit of popping into my head at that very moment in which the plane’s wheels lifted off the runway.   To be perfectly honest this became, more often than not, irritating.  I meant no disrespect for this sacred declaration.  But when flying to Mexico on college break with not much more than a bikini and a bottle of Bain de Soleil; or off on my honeymoon in Paris; or even, during my young banker days, when flying to Pitts­burgh with a pile of annual reports on my lap, the last thing I wanted to think about was religion, or four thousand years of rabbis in black coats.  Least of all did I want to be reminded of martyrs of the Middle Ages uttering the Shema with their last breaths before being burned at the stake.  But there it was, every time: the Shema.  Seeming almost to utter itself with some odd power of its own.  And suddenly I would become, once again, the obedient daughter. A Good Jewish Girl—dutiful, reverent, and chaste.  It has been that way ever since.

My first born son David was eleven when he flew alone for the first time, to Space Camp in Florida.  At the airline gate, neither of us spoke as David waited to board.  Ostentatious­ly noncha­lant, David scarcely glanced out the large observation window onto the runway, as though air travel was nothing unusual to him.

Should I do it?  I wondered.  Should I tell him to say it?  I wasn’t the slightest bit supersti­tious. But, well—it couldn’t hurt.  And it was tradition, after all.  I hesitated, and then reconsidered. Should I burden David with this annoying instruc­tion for the rest of his life?

I was caught in a small panic of indecision as the plane was called to board.  It was now or never.  Maybe I should just tell him.

I took a breath.  No.  Let him think about Space Camp, and adventure, and the view out his window.  Boy stuff.  Not religion.

With barely a “Bye, Mom,” David stepped out the door to the tarmac where a row of gleaming airplanes waited in the distance.  A flight attendant at his side, David walked briskly toward the farthest plane, which seemed to grow larger as they approached it.  And then, as David’s figure became smaller and smaller, a strange kind of reversal in time took place.  David seemed before my eyes to change back from confident almost-teenager to small boy to toddler, and then to that baby boy whom I once never let out of my sight.

And then I understood.  It hadn’t been superstition at all that had been in my mother’s mind when she told me to say the Shema.  It was the knowledge that she had that day been putting me in the hands of her God, entrust­ing me to His safekeeping.  Deliver­ing me not only to the sky, but to this first step toward adulthood and that inexorable journey away from her.  The words of the Shema—her words, but spoken by me—were the link of their hands as I passed from one to Another.

The small black speck that was my son disappeared into the plane.  I remained at the window, and the words came easily.  Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echod.

Jessica Bram is a writer, radio commentator and author of Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey (Health Communications, Inc. 2009). She teaches at Westport Writers’ Workshop, which she founded in 2003.

 

     

A Letter to My Seven-Year-Old Son

A Letter to My Seven-Year-Old Son

BJ sittingDear Son,

I remember when you first entered my life. I spent hours holding you close, smelling your head, and gazing into your eyes. I lived for your smiles; even the gas-induced ones brought me joy.

Seven years later, not much has changed.

I still love the way your head fits perfectly between my chin and collarbone, though the sight of your legs extending beyond the couch sometimes makes me sad. I still love to breathe in the scent of your hair. Not necessarily after a soccer game, but when you are fresh from the bath. Your smiles—even the fart-joke induced ones—still bring me joy.

I don’t spend as much time gazing in your eyes as I used to. Your eyes have always been expressive.  I see the world in them. Lately, I see the weight of the world in them. The apprehension in your seven-year-old eyes makes it hard to look at them for long.  Your eyes are full of questions.  What if you fail?  How much is enough?  When is the right time?  I see you looking to me for answers, but I don’t have answers to give. The answers used to be easy. When you were younger, it was a multiple choice test every time you cried: milk, sleep, or clean diaper. Now the questions and answers are more complicated.

I remember your milestones. Learning to sit. Learning to stand. Learning to walk and talk. I checked the boxes on those easy-to-define achievements. I even charted your pre-milestone progress. I used to sit you upright and count how many seconds it took for you to tip over. Of course, that was proof not of your progress toward independent sitting but of the existence of gravity in our living room. Nevertheless, I soaked it all in and my new mom heart swelled with pride and relief as the evidence mounted that you were gaining the skills you needed to survive in this world.

The milestones from here are less defined. There are no checklists.

It’s no longer about knowing how to sit or stand, but when to sit or stand. Courtesy—easing another’s burden, putting some else’s comfort ahead of your own, offering a small kindness, showing that you see others and deem them to be of value—is a gift the world needs.  You need to know when to offer your seat to another.  But the rules for doing so are not based on a simple algorithm of gender and age.  They are complicated.  You need to know when offering your seat would wound fragile pride. You need to watch for situations where a person’s need to be perceived as capable exceeds the need for comfort. It’s tricky.

It’s no longer about knowing how to walk, but where to walk. Someday, you will sit in class and your teacher will introduce you to Robert Frost’s poem about two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Your teacher will tell you that what Frost wrote is true. Our choices matter. You will think you understand.  It will be my job to tell you that Frost was writing about the best case scenario. Life’s intersections are rarely simple forks in the road with two defined choices. Life’s intersections are crowded and the road less travelled is overgrown and easy to miss. Choices don’t announce themselves. Defining moments camouflage themselves in our daily routine. Seemingly small choices are turns: to smile or not, to speak or stay silent, to stay within or stray from your comfort zone, today or tomorrow.

It’s no longer about knowing how to talk, but which words to use. Words have power and must be used wisely. They have the power to hurt and the power to heal, although those powers are not equal. The hurt caused by words is rarely able to be healed by words. Even sincere apologies can’t fully erase the damage. The best an apology can do is ice the swelling. Apologizing for hurtful words is like painting over graffiti. The new paint never quite matches the original color; the shadow of the vandalism remains.

There are so many milestones to come: wisdom, courage, discernment and more. None of these have clear metrics to let you know when you’ve arrived. But, you will make progress if you practice. Like a baby taking ten seconds to tip over instead of four, you will slowly learn.  You will learn which battles are worth fighting and which are best served by pacifism. You will learn which risks are likely to yield rewards and which are simply an excuse for an adrenaline rush.

You will learn so much in the years to come. Trial and error will be your greatest teacher. You will be bruised. You will be scraped. You will get bumps that swell to an alarming size. That’s part of the growing. Skinned knees mean you’re doing it right.

Along the way, you will look to me for answers. I might not have them.

But, I still want to hear the questions.

Love,

Mom

Photo by Benton J. Melbourne

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First Communion

First Communion

By Rowen Wilson*

First Communion ArtIt is a school night, and my daughter, in first grade, tries to set the table in the cute way that first graders try to help.  She sets the silverware all around, then the plates and napkins, and the glasses.  “And for you, Mama,” she smiles, setting the wine glass at my place.  An unsettling thought rises in the back of my mind and I push it back.

I am a high functioning person.  I am a teacher, a distance runner, a book reader.  I have a Master’s degree and I teach graduate courses.  I read to my three children daily and I help my daughter practice the violin each morning before school starts.  I don’t smoke and I eat healthy foods.  I enjoy my wine.

I am not an alcoholic.  I can control my drinking.  I don’t drink until after five. I drink chilled Chardonnay while I prep dinner at night on autumn evenings, a couple of glasses during dinner and while we move through bedtime.  I read to my kids every single night.  I bathe them and brush their teeth, and I often get up to run five miles or more before they wake up for breakfast.

The hours between when I pick up the kids from school and when Andy gets home from work are long.  The kids are tired and wild.  I try not to turn on the television, to help with the math homework, to negotiate peace between my three and six year old, to keep my toddler busy, to make something resembling dinner.  I reward myself with the bottle of wine and a plan for a nice meal.  The package store sells pretzels; the children call it the pretzel store.

I do go through a lot of wine. My husband drinks less beer.  My empty bottles pile up in the recycling bin.  Sometimes I throw a few soda cans on top.  My husband suggests we switch to drinking only on the weekends.  I agree.  Bath time is long and the kids slop the water out of the tub.

Winter drags on.  The winter coats are dingy now and the sky is dull.   I can’t drink only on the weekends.   Eventually, I go underground.  I start to hide my wine.  I drink before he gets home.  I pour wine into a water bottle and leave it behind the house.   I pay in cash so there is no record of the sale.  I have a secret now.

Something takes control of me in spring.  It is cunning. It begins planning our day.  It plans when we will get wine, how much we will need, how we will hide it, when we will drink it, how we will hide our drunk.  This becomes the priority of our life.  It is getting warmer; daffodils coming up through the earth.  On weekends I am drinking much more.  Sometimes I can barely read the words of my kids’ books at night; the letters spin.

One morning I wake up and I cannot remember putting the kids to bed.  I look in on them.  There they are, in their footsie pajamas, tucked in and sleeping with their sweet flushed cheeks and peaceful mouths.  At breakfast I ask my daughter what books we had read, hoping it will spark my memory.  “Mama, why did you ask me that?” she says.

Near the end, I have blackouts.  I hide wine in my closet.  I have to be careful to remember to throw it away when I am out.  Sometimes I drink in the morning.  One summer day my husband comes home to find me and the kids in the yard.  We are playing “Drive-in Movie.”  I have blown up a camping mattress and set it up behind the mini-van and let them jump on it and watch DVD’s in the car.  I am there on the mattress with a smile on my face and my eyes closed and the kids are climbing all around me.  I have been drinking all day.

I am afraid now.  I wake up in the morning sick.  I feel sick until I have something to drink.  I look in the mirror and I feel panic rise and I tell myself it is not going to happen again.  But it does.  I do not have control anymore.  I have lost control.  I am not the driver.  Alcohol is the driver.  I have not been the driver for a long time and now it is too late.

One of the last times I drink I almost die.  I go to the liquor store alone at ten o’clock in the morning.  I buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of brandy and I drink both of most in my car right there in the parking lot.  I do not know why.  A small voice inside me asks me to stop but we push it back.

I went into a store.  That’s all I remember.  I was very, very drunk.  Somehow, a clerk in the store helped me.  She called my husband with my cell phone.  He got me to his car using a shopping cart because I was too drunk to walk.  He thought I might die.  I was forty years old, the mother of three.  He thought that I might die.  And I got drunk again all the rest of that week, just as soon as we got the chance.

Alcoholism is a terminal disease.  According to the World Health Organization, it is the third leading cause of premature death.  There is no cure.  However, people who seek treatment and stop drinking can fully recover.

I am powerless over alcohol.  I cannot manage my own life.  I must admit defeat or die.   I pick defeat.  I let my husband take my car keys, my cell phone, my credit cards.  I let my father leave me at High Watch Recovery Center in Kent, Connecticut, where I spend three weeks in treatment.  I let the therapists and counselors tell me what to do.  I don’t fight.

I stop with the rationalization.  I stop comparing.  I begin to identify with who I am.

In rehab, I have the profound experience of sharing a secret with a room full of strangers that I had not shared with myself.   Out loud, I say I am alcoholic.  I say I can’t drink safely.  I say I lied so I could drink and say I schemed so I could drink and say I drank around my children.  I shake and I cry and I rail and other women meet my eye, they don’t look away and they say “Me too,” and they say “I know,” and they say “oh, that was me.”  I see I am them.  I identify.  I see I am a million other women, alcoholic women suffering from this disease, keeping this awful secret and dying from it alone and hating themselves for it silently while loving their children like all mothers do, all while alcohol wants them nothing else but dead.

We sit in a circle and we say our names.  We say we are alcoholic.  To hear so many others say these words aloud is an affirmation.  I begin to breathe.  We begin to speak.

The communion I experience among these women saves my life.  I learn that in fact I am not alone. I learn that lies and secrets corrode my self-esteem and waste my dignity.  I learn that damage to my self-respect fuels my disease to drink.  I hear their stories, and in listening I see the cycle.  In their stories I become awake.

Today, I consider myself pretty lucky.  In the U.S, only 11% of alcoholics seek treatment.  Only 11% of the people in this country who have this disease, from which more than 75,000 people will die from every year, will seek treatment.  I am in that 11% and alcoholism is not going to take me down.  But my God, did it try.

One of the darkest factors of this disease is the stigma that is attached to it, and particularly to those who are parents.  People who have diseases like diabetes or heart disease do not develop resulting behaviors that cause them to drive recklessly, act belligerently, black out, or engage in other types of socially inappropriate and dangerous conduct.  People don’t worry about letting their kids sleep over the girl’s house whose mom has diabetes.  Nobody wants to carpool with the alcoholic mom.

Alcoholism is a disease of the mind and the body.  The shame that comes with this disease makes it difficult for the alcoholic to talk about her disease with doctors, friends, and loved ones.  To make matters worse, her disease tells her brain not to, because her disease doesn’t want her to stop.

I can’t be left alone with the whispering voice perched on my shoulder and I shouldn’t be.  I enter into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and I am no longer alone; I break my silence; I find communion; I hold the hands of my sisters.  I do the next right thing.

I will always be an alcoholic, just like I will always be a redhead and I will always be a mom.  My disease is a part of who I am.   There are many things that I am still afraid of.  I am afraid that one day I will slip and drink again.  I am afraid for my three young children, who will have to navigate their own course through life, with its many liquor stores, its college days, its interstate miles.  I am afraid they might inherit my disease and be alcoholic like me.  There are plenty of things to fear.  More important, though, for me to focus on today and watch my seven year old set the table for supper, fully present.  She smiles at me, gap-toothed, the way that second-graders are.  What a gift.  What an incredible gift life is.

About the author:  Rowen Wilson is a pen name. The photo used here is stock photography.

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Family is Now

Family is Now

100_1669A picture came across my Facebook feed this Thanksgiving. It’s a snapshot of my daughter’s birth mom standing with her 4-year-old son and her younger sister. The three of them are standing in the family kitchen ready to start cooking the holiday meal. My daughter’s mom is wearing her chef’s apron and she’s loaned her little sister her chef’s hat. They are beautiful and they are happy.

My daughter looks like a replica of her birth mom, Pennie, and Pennie’s little sister looks just like her, too. They are like a triple carbon copy of each other and when I saw the photo I could picture my daughter standing there with them and it made me happy and it made me sad. Happy because I am always happy to see my daughter reflected in a family that may be far away but still loves her, and sad because they are so far away.

Parenting means getting comfortable with the understanding that family—any family—is ever changing.

I didn’t get that parenting the first time around. When I gave birth to my son I felt like this was our family eternally. His adulthood seemed so far away as to be nearly a fantasy. I bought much too expensive wooden toys in part because I couldn’t fathom him ever growing out of them; I felt like they needed to last forever because we would be forever. Even when we began trying for a second child it felt like we were planning to build onto a house; an addition that would seamlessly expand our home. But then the second baby didn’t come and so we sat down, considered our options and moved onto adoption.

Enter our daughter. Or rather enter her mother because more than gaining a child, we gained a whole other extended family. Even then I thought our family was constant. I couldn’t imagine Pennie ever moving and even though I knew she wanted more children, it seemed as impossible and fantastical as my son’s adulthood seemed when he was small. But she did have another baby, a wonderful son with his big sister’s sense of mischief, and because she wanted to raise him near her mom, she moved away and out of our everyday lives.

But before Pennie moved, she graduated from chef school here in town and her mother came out to go to the graduation. The five of us—Pennie’s mom, my son, Pennie’s son, our daughter—sat together in the auditorium and cheered as Pennie walked across the stage to collect her diploma. I cried because graduations always make me cry and because Pennie worked so hard to finish school and also because I knew she was moving. I knew that in a few weeks she and her mom would pack up her things and drive away, much too far for casual visits.

After the ceremony we all went out into the lobby to meet up with Pennie. The foyer was packed with happy graduates and proud parents and the crowd pressed us in. As we were worming our way through the people to get out to the parking lot I kept worrying about losing my daughter. Her grandmother was trying to break a path and Pennie was following, holding her son and then I was herding my daughter and my son in front of me. I put my hand on my daughter’s arm a couple of times and the second or third time she spun around to glare at me.

It was because she was aligning herself with her birth family and I was messing it up by claiming her with my attention. This was her birth mama’s glory day and by god, she was going along with it as her mama’s daughter. I knew it. I knew that’s what she was doing. I could see it in the way she leaned into her grandmother and in the way she kept her distance from me.

So I quit trying to touch her as we got through the crowd and I let her claim her family and let them claim her.

That claim, that’s what I saw in the picture on Thanksgiving, although my daughter is not in it. I saw her right to keep her distance someday, to step away from us in order to give herself the space to claim them. It was so clear in the reflection of her smile in the smiles of her mother and her aunt.

I imagine sometimes, what if my daughter grows up and doesn’t choose me? What if she moves to live near her other mom? What if I lose her to her birth family? And I think about that and I get scared. Then I think, so what if she does? I can’t worry about that; I can only parent now how I see fit and I can’t parent from a place of fear and insecurity.

Also I think about how things change. There was a period in my early twenties where I wasn’t speaking to my dad. Once he showed up at the restaurant where I was working so I just went out the back door and went home.

At the time I thought I’d never speak to him again. I thought I’d never like him again let alone love him. But now I love him. Things change. Life changes you. Life will change my kids in ways I can’t expect.

What I do know is that my family is now, here around me. My family is now, far away loving our shared daughter. Someday both my children will grow up and likely they will move away (certainly they will eventually leave my house!) and it will be hard because change is hard and I’m sure that I will miss them both. Someday they may not be speaking to me and they will not be able to imagine in a time where they will want to speak to me. Someday they may make excuses not to come home for the holidays.

Or maybe not. I can’t know.

I can only know now. My family is now.

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The Good Mother Myth:  Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality

The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality

By Lori Rotskoff

Good Mother MythWhy haven’t we done away with the mystique of the “perfect mother”? We know she’s a mirage.  And yet, as editor Avital Norman Nathman writes in her introduction to The Good Mother Myth, the “fabled ideal” of maternal perfection retains its power to make us feel anxious, guilty, and even depressed. The myth of the “Good Mother” reigns on screen and in print, on blogs and on Facebook, flattening the complexity of real mothers’ lives and fostering a “manufactured culture of conflict and judgment,” of second-guessing and self-doubt.

Here, Nathman gathers thirty-six personal essays that hone the raw material of maternal experience into pithy, pointed vignettes that make a strong impact on the reader.  Sometimes confessional; sometimes questioning; and frequently defiant, subversive, and bold, they challenge our understanding of what it means to be a good mother beyond stereotype and social convention.

Some writers plumb the depths of anxiety when a child faces medical problems or life-threatening situations. Parenting experts may chide “helicopter mothers” for stunting their kids’ development, but for a mother like Heather Hewett, whose daughter has severe food allergies, such hyper-vigilance is necessary.  “All parents know the fear of losing their children,” Hewett writes, but for some, controlling a young child’s environment is a daily task in which “perfection becomes an expectation.” Jessica Valenti struggled with a similar issue when her daughter was born premature and spent two precarious months in the NICU. “When I find myself scowling at some other mother’s parenting style, or even being hard on myself,” writes Valenti, “I remember that being ‘overprotective’ is … a mostly reasonable response to the oh-so-scary act of having something exist in the world that you love more than yourself.”

Of course, guilt can arise from less grave circumstances, such as how often Kraft Mac and Cheese surfaces on the dinner table. Any reader who adores her  mother’s holiday cooking will understand the import of Carla Naumburg’s confession: “I’ve never successfully roasted a chicken.  That’s right. I’m a Jewish mother who has never fried a latke or made matzah ball soup.” And let’s not forget the PTA. If you’ve ever found yourself chairing the school book fair against your better judgment, Soraya Chemaly’s trenchant analysis of the gender divide in school volunteer culture might empower you to “just say no” next time. Chemaly doesn’t denigrate the work that volunteers do; on the contrary, she criticizes the fact that female-dominated volunteer groups unintentionally de-value women’s unpaid labor, mirroring and perpetuating the wage gap and sex segregation in the broader economy.

Here, in fact, lies the book’s greatest strength:  illuminating the extent to which mothers’ choices and lifestyles are enmeshed in a broader context, too often constrained by economic insecurity, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of inequality, stigma, and discrimination. Can a woman who takes psychotropic drugs to combat bipolar depression be a “good mother?” Is a poor, teenage mother by default a “bad” one?  What about a mom who smokes pot because it gives her the “patience for just one more puzzle, one more tantrum, and a few hundred more questions” from her three-year-old? Does a filmmaker who makes erotic films about S&M qualify? How about an observantly Jewish male-to-female transsexual whose children resent her radical shift from daddy to mom?

And what about black mothers? Although the book might have profited from more African-American women’s voices, as well as Latinos and women who practice non-Western religions, T.F. Charlton’s piece speaks volumes about the insidious impact of racism and white privilege. “The myth I contend with is not that of the Good Mother, but that of the Bad Black Mother,” Charlton writes.  “It’s a myth that renders my motherhood at turns invisible and suspect…Part of my struggle is to challenge the notion that good motherhood cannot exist in bodies like mine.”

While some essays suffer from vague or familiar observations about pregnancy, childbirth, or toddler mishaps, and most lack the long-term perspective gained through parenting teenagers or young adults, this provocative book is valuable simply because it asks us to suspend preconceived judgments and absorb the stories of women whose experiences differ profoundly from one another, and from our own.  It shows us that the best way to battle the barrage of saccharine sound-bites is to arm ourselves with alternative, candid “tales from the trenches” depicting the messy, real dilemmas of real mothers in an imperfect world.

Lori Rotskoff is a cultural historian, writer, teacher, and co-editor of When We Were Free to Be:  Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference it Made (2012).

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When My Tween Son Doesn’t Love Me

When My Tween Son Doesn’t Love Me

By Allison Slater Tate

907397_10151321959836493_473111420_n“Have a good day,” I said as my firstborn stumbled out of the minivan door, significantly encumbered by a giant Jansport backpack loaded with textbooks and a lunchbox packed with my own hands. “I love you.”

“I don’t love you,” he answered confidently, each word measured and punctuated by his eyes piercing mine. He slammed my passenger door and stalked off toward his friend awaiting him at the end of the sidewalk at our carpool drop-off, his exit less dramatic than he wished due to the way he had to shift his own 90 pounds of body weight to hoist his ridiculous backpack.

I watched his back for a few moments. I saw his friend glance furtively in my direction as he exchanged a few words with my angry son. Finally, I set the car in motion and drove away, down the street, so that we could both start our days without each other. The subject of our disagreement was nothing special; the problem is that these small, tedious disagreements happen almost daily, and they wear on both of us.

This is how our story goes these days. When he was little—when all of them were little—I found myself frustrated and sad because being The Mommy was not very fun most of the time. Once we left their infancies and entered their toddlerhoods and beyond, I felt even less like I was on the same team as my children. I was the bummer, the fun sponge—the one who had to enforce the bedtime, end whatever dangerous activity was occurring that moment, or announce the next transition that would frustrate them. I tried hard to provide discipline and guide them without being their adversary, but in the end, it’s too often Them vs. Me. I am their primary caregiver and the parent most often on duty. And, frankly, it can suck. It makes me feel hard to love.

But it sucks in a whole new way with my tween. I’ve been told these middle school years can be harder than the high school years in some ways, and I am hanging on to that thought—that if I can just eke through these next few seasons of not-awesomeness, it might get better, or at least smoother, afterward. Then I get to do it all over again. (And again. Oh, and again, because I thought once that four kids would be a grand adventure. Woo-hoo! Adventure!)

In the meantime, I have the privilege of being the one to drag my firstborn out of bed in the morning, all the while struggling to remember days when he woke me up way too early almost as if for sport. I have to usher him, however reluctantly, through the morning routine and make sure he gets to school on time. I have to receive him in the late afternoon when he is tired and cranky after a long day in the jungle of middle school. Then the real fun begins: the constant dance of do-your-homework/is-your-homework-finished/I-told-you-to-do-your-homework, with him pulling and resisting the entire time, desperate for just a little more time to play, to decompress, to resist thinking. The truth is, I don’t really blame him. That makes it even less fun to be The Mom, the Enforcer, Buzzkill-in-Chief. I’m on his side, and I can’t even tell him so, because I’m not ready to take on the whole school system and the way it doles out homework.

We still have our moments, and I hang onto them with both hands: when a new book arrives that I ordered without telling him, and he eagerly scoops it up and begins reading it immediately with a genuine, “Thanks, Mom!”; when he comes back to my room a second time before bed because he “forgot to give me a hug,” even on the days that started out with a door slamming and icy words; when my husband is away on business and I let him stay up with me, his nose deep in a book while I finish working on my laptop in my big white bed. He’s fun to be with when our internal agendas align, and I want so desperately to be able to enjoy him more and nag him less. We’re just not always there yet.

He is my firstborn. There is no one in the world that holds his unique place in my life. He is the boy who made me a mother, the boy who has challenged me unlike anyone else. He knows exactly which buttons to push; he knows the nuances and personalities of our little family better than I do. He is still my heart every bit as much as he was the first day we brought him home from the hospital. But sometimes, in hormone-filled (me), puberty-rich (him) moments, when his assertions of independence and will meet my obligatory parental push-back, he doesn’t love me. I have to be okay with that, and I will be, as long as I have hope he will always come home at the end of the day loving me again.

So far, he has.

Allison Slater Tate is a writer and mother of four children. She also writes regularly at www.allisonslatertate.com and Huffington Post Parents as well as Facebook and Twitter. She hopes her writing will make up for a lack of completed baby books when her kids grow up. 

The Society of Late Night Readers

The Society of Late Night Readers

0-25Although I can remember my mom reading on airplanes, in waiting rooms, and in every room of our house, I always go back to the same image; she’s sitting against the pillows on her bed, the lamp near her so dim that it illuminates only her hands and the page of her book. The rest of the room remains dark and blurry.

Before I went to sleep, I would peek in my parent’s room to see if my mom was awake.

“Mom,” I’d say too loud. She would put her index finger up to her lips and finish the sentence she was reading before she placed the book on her lap.

“What are you reading?” I’d ask. She’d show me the cover of her book. Usually she was reading a novel, but she also read nonfiction if she wanted to learn more about a topic. And she seemed to know everything: all the words in the English language, every historical reference in a movie or a play, and all sorts of random pre-Google information. I once saw her buy a series on the Kabbalah from a man selling books door to door.

“What’s this one about?” I liked to ask.

“You’ll read it one day,” she’d say. Around that point in the conversation, my dad would roll over and say, half-asleep but fully irritated, “It’s bedtime.” I never knew if he was talking to my mom or to me, but she would pick up her book again, the sign that I was to leave her alone to enjoy her quiet time.

I’d whisper goodnight then get into my own bed with a book and my own quiet time. I liked knowing that only my mom and I were the only ones awake, that I was a member of our household’s unofficial Society of Late Night Readers.

I do not mean to paint a picture of a child prodigy who read War and Peace or even Pride and Prejudice into the wee hours of the night. My first memory of late night reading begins around fifth grade and includes Sweet Valley High, a series I’d procured by taking my allowance to Chestnut Court, the long gone independent bookstore from my childhood before we had the expression “independent bookstore.” In junior high, I read the entire Flowers in the Attic series and as many Danielle Steele books as I could buy or borrow from my friend Jennifer.

My mom cringed when she saw me reading those books. She tried to get me interested in what she called “serious” literature by suggesting Catcher in the Rye on several occasions. Since Holden Caufield liked to swear and disobey his parents, she figured any kid would enjoy it, but she eventually gave up when she realized that she too loved the freedom of varying her book choices. She read quick mysteries as often as she read the latest well-reviewed literary tome. I would find those “important” books in my own time, she knew.

And I did. Once I got to high school and had to read certain novels for assignments, I stayed up late with those books, too. I remember loving Catcher in the Rye not for Holden Caufield’s use of forbidden words, but for his desire to keep the people and memories he loved in a big glass museum case. I’d find favorite quotes about life in those teacher-assigned books, underline them, then copy them into a journal, a habit that continues to this day. I have snippets in there from works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby to Tina Fey’s Bossypants. We in The Society of Late Night Readers are not literary snobs.

Like my mom, I still stay up too late reading a variety of books. Like my dad, my husband gets frustrated by the smallest beam of light in the room. And like the young version of me, my seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, stays up past her bedtime with books. If she knows I’m awake, she finds me in some room of the house (usually the kitchen) and proudly hands me whatever library book she’s finished. She’s a proud albeit unknowing member of The Society. The worrier in me thinks she should get more sleep, but I’ll never tell her to stop reading. Another unofficial rule to our club is never telling one of our own to turn off the light.

When I lose myself in a book and when I imagine Rebecca doing the same, I see that well-preserved forty-something-year-old version of my mom reading in her bed. The purely positive image reminds me of Holden and why he spent time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Holden says, “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move . . . the only thing that would be different is you.”

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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My Thanksgiving

My Thanksgiving

By Lindsey Mead

0-19Eleven years ago, I learned what it really means to give thanks.  My father-in-law received a heart transplant two days before Thanksgiving, on my daughter’s one-month birthday and his own thirty-fifth anniversary. By Thanksgiving morning, Matt and I were shell-shocked and exhausted, but we still got in the car and drove an hour south to spend the day with my family.  The day was a blur, filled as it was with warm family arms holding Grace and gentle whispers asking us how John was doing. Grace was living up to her name: we had discovered we were pregnant (a true surprise) the day after John was diagnosed with his rare and serious illness. And now, one month to the day after her birth, a heart.

After Thanksgiving dinner, in the dark, Matt and I drove back to Boston, to Massachusetts General Hospital. John was just starting to come out of anesthesia, my mother-in-law, Marti was at the hospital, and Matt wanted to see them both. I had Grace’s car seat slung over my arm as we took the elevator to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) and walked through a maze of shadowy glass partitions. Despite the faint beeping of machines, there was a deep, pervasive hush; the CICU was one of those places, like a church or a library, where you automatically whispered. In contrast to the always-bright ward where John had waited for his heart, this wing seemed to be in permanent dusk. The metaphor that this presented struck me as odd given that this was where John was supposed to wake up and begin the next phase of his life.

John lay in a bed behind two sets of sealed glass doors. My mother-in-law sat beside him, robed in a sterile gown and wearing a face mask and rubber gloves. She turned when she noticed us through the glass and stood up, peeling off her gloves and lifting her mask as she hurried through the double doors. She crouched down immediately, without saying a word, and simply stared at Grace’s sleeping face. I glanced at Matt, wondering if we should say something, and he shook his head slightly as if to say, no, leave her.  Long moments later she stood up, hugged Matt tightly, and asked him if he wanted to go into the room.

“Is it okay, Mom?  I don’t want to bring extra germs in there,” Matt looked worried. “You know, from Grace or something?”

“No, it’s okay, as long as you wear the gloves and mask. Theresa will help you.” Marti nodded at the nurse who was stationed between the two sets of sealed glass doors. I noticed the dark circles under her eyes. My mother-in-law was always perfectly put together; this was about as disheveled as I had ever seen her. And she still had a silk scarf tied around her neck.

“Okay,” Matt went in to the small chamber between the two doors. He spoke briefly to Theresa and then I watched him shrug the paper robe on over his clothes and, after scrubbing his hands at a small sink on the wall, pull on rubber gloves.  Theresa helped him adjust the paper mask over his face and then stood back, looking him over, and then nodded her okay.  Hesitantly, as though he was stepping onto the moon, he walked through the second set of doors to his father’s bedside.  Even through two thick panes of glass I could see trepidation in his hazel eyes above his paper mask.

“He’s just starting to wake up,” Marti murmured at me, not taking her eyes off of the two men in the room in front of us.  Matt sat down on the stool on wheels that Marti had vacated, which was to the right of John’s head, and looked down at him.  He then looked over at the glass wall and gestured at me, holding his hands up in the general shape and size of the car seat. “Oh!  Oh!” I leaned over and picked up Grace’s car seat, holding it up so that John, had he been looking, could have seen it. Matt gave me a thumbs-up sign and turned back to his dad.

“Is he awake? Could he see that?” I asked Marti as I lowered Grace in her blue plastic bucket to the floor.

“I don’t know. He’s been in and out of consciousness, I’m not sure what he can see.”

“Wait,” I said, kneeling down and unbuckling Grace, trying not to wake her as I pulled her gently out of the plastic bucket.  Squatting, I held her against my shoulder and felt her moving gently, her head turning side to side, her little nose pushing against my neck. A waft of her baby smell came over me and I closed my eyes briefly, still. Then I stood up again, holding her in front of my face, knocking gently on the glass so that Matt turned to see. I saw his eyes crinkle in what must have been a smile beneath his mask, and he turned to his father and tapped him on the shoulder. I looked over at Marti who was beaming, looking not at Grace but at John. We stood that way for several long moments before Grace began to squawk and I lowered her back into her car seat.  I’ll never know what John saw because he can’t remember anything about those days. But I will never forget that Thanksgiving.

 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Lindsey Mead is a mother and writer who lives outside of Boston.  Her work has been published and anthologized in a variety of print and online sources including the Huffington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, and Literary Mama.  She blogs at A Design So Vast and is also on facebook and twitter

 

 

My Daughter Doesn’t Look Like Me

My Daughter Doesn’t Look Like Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Raised By Lesbians

Being Raised By Lesbians

By Lara Lillibridge

0-26The story everyone wants to hear isn’t the story I want to tell.  Everyone wants to know what it was like to be raised by lesbians, how we functioned, what made it different.  I want to talk about other things, the things that formed me and shaped me and scarred me. Not my mother’s sexuality.  I want to say that isn’t what scarred me or made me different or made me who I am today.  I want to say that it didn’t matter.  But all of that is a lie. Of course it mattered more than almost any other aspect of my childhood.

Perhaps I don’t want to write about it because I feel an obligation to represent lesbian parents well, and to show that children of lesbians are normal. I don’t want to be a poster child for lesbian families. I don’t want to say it is or is not okay.

It is not something you can place a value judgment on, because it is not something my moms had any control over. They are who they are, and it isn’t fair to say that something that is intrinsically part of them is open to a value debate.  I prefer to use my writing to scold them for things they could control.

Maybe I don’t like the voyeuristic component. After all, every teenage boy I ever told asked if he could come look in my windows, even though I explained that my parents weren’t people any teenage boy would want to see naked. I resented every straight adult asking me if I ever thought I was a lesbian. I don’t like the reduction of my entire life to a discussion on sexuality. I wish there was a way to define who makes up your family without the connection to what happens in the bedroom.

But the case may be that I don’t want to talk about having two moms because I am overshadowed by it. The most interesting thing about my life is not about me at all; it is about my parents. Perhaps I deny its importance because I want to be the most interesting character in my own story.

I can tell you what you want to hear. I can tell you about the kids that weren’t allowed to play with me because of my moms. I can tell you that I was called Lara the Lezzie for most of Junior High. I can tell you about the fight I had with one of my best friends in the locker room after gym class where she accused me of being a lesbian just like my mom and how I never forgave her.

I can tell you that I needed a boyfriend for years to prove I was straight to anyone who wondered during my teen years.  I can tell you that I had nightmares that I would wake up one day and find I had turned into a lesbian overnight, and no longer was the person I was when I went to sleep.

I can tell you about the blue-collar, republican parents of my friends who never batted an eye about my two moms and allowed their daughters to have sleepovers at my house.  I can tell you about the time my best friend’s mother caught her daughter playing doctor with me and how she didn’t freak out any more than was appropriate, and how she never tried to keep us from being friends.

I can tell you about the family my parents created, made up of other lesbian women, because my cousins stopped talking to us after my mom was outed.  I can tell you about the Christmas parties and New Year’s Eve parties and everyone laughing and talking just like a normal family, and about how their conversations were as boring to me as a child as grown up conversations are to children everywhere. I can tell you how both of my moms went to every school concert and even a few track meets, that the school administration accepted that I had two moms even though it was the late 1970s and wasn’t very common. No teacher ever made me feel weird when I made my moms name tags for open houses or introduced them at parent teacher conferences. The Boy Scouts allowed my mom to volunteer with the troop when they asked for father-helpers. The Girl Scouts gave my two moms a troop to lead.

Or maybe you’d rather hear about me living in fear that I would confide in the wrong friend, and that they would tell my deep dark family secret. A lot of people like the story of how my mom lost jobs for being gay, and how I was afraid we’d get chased out of our neighborhood. Another popular story of neighborhood hate can be told two ways; maybe once someone threw a rock through a window, or maybe it just was kicked up by a truck and meant nothing at all.  Most people prefer to think it was a hate crime, although there was no note to clarify.

I can tell you all of it or none of it, but I can’t tell you what it was like to have lesbian parents.  I can’t speak to some universal experience. I can’t tell you what it would have been like if my parents were straight, and what parts would have been different and what parts would have been the same.  I have no other point of view.

Lara Lillibridge is a mother, writer, off-key singer and an occasionally inappropriate dancer. 

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When My Teen Needs a Ride

When My Teen Needs a Ride

 

My boy and Alisa, the new City Councilor

My boy (on far left) and Alisa, the new City Councilor 

Tuesday was Election Day. In our little city, voter turnout wasn’t high. It’s an off year—no races outside the municipal ones. The Mayor ran unopposed for his second term. There were, however, a couple of heated races for seats on the City Council. One was in our ward; another was across town. My fifteen-year-old cared about the latter more.

He is a political guy, a newspaper reader, conversant in current events—and a rabid fan of The West Wing (and Allison Janney). His extracurricular activities demonstrate this, like Model U.N. and Student Senate. He’s volunteered for campaigns and he’s raised money to save rainforests, starting in third grade. When he was in eighth grade, he asked me to take him—we went on foot—to an anti-death penalty vigil.

The city’s public schools were closed for Election Day, because the elementary and middle schools serve as polling places. My fifteen-year-old woke up, watched some television, ate some breakfast, took a bath—in other words, a lazy, cozy morning and then asked to go to the polls to help out. He needed a little help to push beyond the first email inquiry—and being a teenager, he needed a ride. I would like to be clear to anyone reading this with toddlers in the house: prepare yourself for the shuttling, endless shuttling, ahead. The small creatures you wrestle into clunky harnesses will sit next to you one day and demand to go places. Sometimes, the rides will be chatty and sweet and you’ll like the same music. Other times, adolescent sullenness will rub off on you. Sometimes, it’ll feel convenient or at least easy to give the ride; other times, driving duty will be taxing or completely inconvenient and you’ll wish you were elsewhere.

Personally, I am not a terribly eager driver. Long road trips feel more like injuries to be accrued than places to conquer. Achy neck or back or arm or hips bother me more than the reward of arrival at the other end or the music and the ribbon of road and adventure and the snacks along the way. My sense of direction is shockingly terrible. This past weekend I drove my little gal and her pal to a birthday party and took the wrong road in the suburban outskirts of our town. I’ve lived here decades and I couldn’t trust myself to get from the wrong road to the right one so I turned back and rerouted myself from the erroneous turn rather than risk becoming lost. It was pathetic and a tad bit embarrassing. While I have some fond memories of time spent in cars, and don’t mind the annual trek to the grandparents’ for Thanksgiving—Massachusetts to Philadelphia—or to camp, Massachusetts to Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, I do not seek out the open road.

And I don’t seek out the drive to school or even karate or yoyo class (true story, yoyo class), although, obviously, I dole those rides out like so much Halloween candy on the big night.

Election morning, the ride was not a hardship, merely an inconvenience. I lost ten minutes to the drive, maybe twelve from my workday. He wasn’t grumpy and neither was I. We spent some of the drive time discussing who would pick him up from the polls (short answer: not me). My feelings changed instantly when we got to the middle school-slash-polling place, where I left my tall boy with his grey sweatshirt and big green Alisa Klein button (and sign) beside the candidate to wave at voters and drivers and walkers and bikers. I felt proud of him.

Later that evening, I went to Zumba class. This particular Tuesday night class is taught by our housemate Mim, age twenty-five, and has recently become populated with loads of younger (than me) dancers, including some high school seniors. Immediately after class, I called home for election results (class ends at 8:15 PM). Alisa had won, unseating a conservative incumbent (cheer with me, feel free; it was super exciting). I told the teens—two didn’t know who Alisa Klein was, one cheered along with me and explained to her friends how fantastic and improbable (in that ward) the victory was and mentioned instantly how delighted their friend, an eleventh grader, who’d kept track of date for the campaign, must have felt.

The thing about rides and teens (and kids) is often they are the way to help your kids become involved—in politics, in the community, sure, or whatever else. I find it very difficult to remember that when I feel reduced to taxi service provider. Tuesday, it was awfully nice to be reminded of the fact that these rides aren’t given for naught. The fifteen-year-old, he’d grabbed a ride to the candidate’s victory party, as well.

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Teen Boys, and Their Mothers

Teen Boys, and Their Mothers

By Anne Sawan
Photo on 2010-12-18 at 17.24 #5When he was small, he would ask me to sleep with him every night.

“Please sleep with me Mom.”

And most nights I would. I would snuggle in next to him, feeling his small body pressed against mine, an arm thrown across my neck as he burrowed in so close our noses would touch, his breath minty and sweet against my cheek, his hair still damp and fresh from the bath. He would whisper his dreams and silly rhymes in my ear as the room slowly darkened, a gently stillness seeping in, his chest rising and falling in time with the soft whir of the overhead fan. All thoughts of the piles of laundry that needed to be washed, the already late bills to pay, the sticky dinner dishes that should be rinsed, floating away as I lay with my arms around my child, both of us drifting into sweet, sweet slumber.

And some nights I wouldn’t. On those long, hard days when I just needed some space to think, wanting some peace and solitude to collect my thoughts and mull over the day. Those nights when all I could dream about was an empty chair, a cup of hot tea and a good book, or a piece of the couch, a mindless television show and a glass of wine.

“No, not tonight. I am busy. I don’t have the time,” I would say impatiently.

On those nights there would be tears and pleading; “Can I just have a glass of water … maybe one more … can you turn on the light in the hall … open the door just a little … now it’s too bright … please can’t you lie down here … just a few minutes” and then, finally, thankfully, he would fall to sleep, alone.

Those days of asking are gone now.

Gone.

Funny, I remember the last time he asked.

The asking had slowed down, becoming more sporadic over the years as he grew, separating from me, as he needed to, but still, occasionally … after a scary movie, a hard day at school, a lost baseball game, he would ask … and I might.

Then came the dark, dismal, cloudy days of preteen rolled eyes, low mutterings, and out right defiance. Days of arguing, yelling and talking back. He came to me after one of those long days; one of those days that left me still seething hours later from his insolence, the bitter taste of disrespect rolling around my mouth, the heavy buzz of surliness ringing in my ears.

“Can you lie down with me for a few minutes?” He mumbled, his eyes shifting first to the window, then to the ceiling and down to the floor.

“What!” Anger boiled, bubbling and popping inside my chest. I was too annoyed to care that this humble asking was his best apology. Too angry to see that this might be the time he needed me the most. I snapped and snarled, “No! I’m busy! I don’t have the time for that! Go to bed!” dismissing him with a dark glare and a wave of my arm.

He shuffled out, shoulders slumped and I sat, by myself, pretending to look at my book.

Minutes went by. The clock on the wall steadily ticking out the beat of time … passing. I heard him turning in his bed, but he never called out. Never asked for water or a nightlight. Never pleaded for me to open the door just a crack … and the dull space that had started in my head slowly wormed its way down to my heart and landed with a heavy thud in my stomach. The silence of the night surrounded me, and in the quiet, sliding through the anger, I heard the whir of a soft whisper. Not much more time.

I put down my book and shut my eyes and listened to the gentle hum, the quiet warning.

Not much more time.

And alone, in the darkness, I remembered. I remembered the little boy that dragged his yellow dump truck all over the house carefully putting it next to him on his pillow at night as he pulled up the covers. The boy who had me read the same dinosaur book over and over until we both could name and identify the eating habits of each creature. The boy who held tightly to my hand as we crossed the street, readily sharing his vanilla ice cream and always saving the very tip of the sugar cone for me. The boy who showed me the joy of finding worms in the rain, how to collect baseball cards and tried to teach me to like roller coasters. The boy who snuggled next to me, his chubby hands on either side of my face as he whispered about what he wanted to be when he grew up—a baseball player, a rock star, a paleontologist, a dad.

Not much more time.

I walked across the hallway, over the dimly lit space that separated us, and stood near him.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Move over.”

I climbed in next to his awkward almost adolescent body, the sour smell of sweat surrounding him but this time there was no hand thrown across my neck, no noses pushed together or silly whispers in my ear, instead he moved away, turning to the wall, and we slept in uneasy silence, our backs pressed together.

And that was the last time.

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

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Departures

Departures

By Virginia Pye

0-13The TSA attendant hands my children back their boarding passes and before they shuffle over and start to remove their belts and shoes, they look back and wave. “It’s OK,” my teenage son mouths through the glass as his college-aged sister blows a kiss and offers a smile. “They’ll be fine,” my husband says as he takes my hand. I press my fingertips to my eyelids and realize it isn’t our kids I’m worried about. It’s me.

Our son and daughter are leaving the family vacation early, as we had planned it, while my husband and I stay on for another week at the rental cottage up in Maine. The kids are old enough to manage on their own back home; old enough to have anticipated in advance that one week with the whole family would be just the right amount of time.

As we head toward the lone escalator in the Bangor airport, I find myself watching people saying their farewells on the threadbare carpet. I see a somber young man in desert camouflage kiss his girlfriend goodbye. A gangly preteen twirls a cheerleader’s baton with pink plastic ribbons on the ends and calls for her daddy to watch one more time before he steps beyond the stanchion. A young mother helps her father pry his grandson off his leg. The toddler cries and the mother tells him they’ll visit again at Christmas, no doubt a vague eternity to the boy. How, I wonder, do people manage the everyday heartache of leaving?

I remember my father idling in our station wagon in front of Logan airport as my mother and I hugged goodbye on the sidewalk. In my twenties, I was leaving again, far too soon, she said. She brushed back a few tears and complained that they never saw enough of me anymore. I felt a surge of longing as I pressed up against her. Some part of me ached at the thought of saying goodbye to my childhood, but then I pulled myself free. Without pause, I turned and hurried into my new, young life.

My husband and I walk out into a drizzly Maine morning. Almost immediately, the kids call and say their flight’s been delayed. We decide to kill time near the airport: before we drive the hour and a half back to our rental house on the coast, we want to be certain that they are safely on their way. The rain comes in great sheets and we call the airline many times over the next six hours, first to learn about the grounded plane’s mechanical failures, and then about weather delays up and down the East Coast.

We also exchange texts with our children who sit waiting at their gate. They watch movies on their computers and read from their summer book lists. Each time we contact them, they tell us the latest updates, that they’re doing all right. They eat vending-machine snacks and manage. They’re more independent now, with all the glamour that entails. Despite the inconvenience, I sense they’re relishing their freedom. So long as the flight isn’t cancelled altogether, they’ll be fine. The last thing they want is to return with us for another night. We all agree it was a great vacation together, but the kids have places to go now. They’re ready to be on their way.

Years ago, when I had turned from my mother and dashed into Logan, I couldn’t bear the sight of her missing me before I’d even gone. I didn’t yet grasp what she must have already sensed: that even though we would continue to see each other regularly for visits and vacations, this was an ending. I hated the pained look in her eyes and so it seemed best to leave quickly and without a fuss. Back then, with no cell phones, I couldn’t send a text to reassure her that I’d made it to my destination. I might not even have called home for several days. The break was clean and allowed us to experience it separately, and alone. I understand now, it must have been miserable for her.

As the rain continues and we wait for our children to take off, the pain I had blithely tried to avoid back then revisits me full force. My children are departing and my parents are gone now, too. My father died five years ago, but this is our first summer trip to Maine since my mother’s death a half a year ago. As we ate lobster, took invigorating hikes and viewed glorious sunsets from rocky shores, I had a searing urge to tell her all about it. As an adult and a parent myself, I had called her often, especially from wherever we traveled, to reassure her that we had made it and were having a good time. Our kids stranded in airport limbo would definitely have been worthy of a phone call mention. My mother found pleasure in our happiness, or felt concern for our concerns, even when we were far from her. Now, with my own children poised to leave, I appreciate her generous, long-distance attention more than ever. I also understand that she had had little choice. She had to learn to love me from afar.

With her gone, I’m beginning to fathom that I must learn to love her from the greatest distance of all. I notice that without her, and without the kids, I feel rudderless. I hadn’t realized that the ropes that tied me to my mother also helped me set sail in the first place. Because I counted on her to be my pole star, I came and went with some ease.

In our last phone call on New Year’s Day, I told her about the special dinner we’d had with friends the night before. She seemed distracted, even disinterested. I asked if she was feeling tired. “Oh, yes,” she said, “very tired.” Before I could inquire further, she added, “I have to go now.” We said we loved each other as we always did, and then said our goodbyes. When I hung up the phone, I told my husband that something was wrong. My mother had said, “I have to go now,” as if someone on her end of the line was insisting on it. Twelve hours later she died.

The sorrow of departure is woven into family love, although I had wanted to avoid feeling it for as long as possible. My children don’t experience it the way I do, but perhaps they will someday with their own children. I hope to keep them tethered to me, although with a rope that will necessarily stretch longer and grow finer with each next step they take.

Their flight finally leaves Bangor after dark. Later that night, they text and tell us that they made it home. I reply cheerfully, “Great. Have a good time!” From this distance, it’s the only choice I have.

Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, was chosen as an Indie Next Pick by the Independent Booksellers Association. Her award-winning short stories are in literary magazines and her essays appear in The Rumpus and forthcoming in The New York Times Opinionator blog. Please visit her at www.virginiapye.com

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Portrait in Nature and Nurture

Portrait in Nature and Nurture

By Christine Koubek

0-31Ann Mary Roberts was an uptown girl in the ’60s, a pretty, 16-year-old pianist attending an all-girls Catholic school in upstate New York. Her parents had seven children and her father had Hodgkin’s disease. They caught her sitting on a bench one day in a shaded park with the boy they had just learned got her pregnant. She was on a bus the next day, destined for her older sister’s house in Maryland, with a phony wedding ring and an alibi—”tell anyone who asks that your husband is in Vietnam.”

Her last trimester was spent at a home for unwed mothers in Massachusetts. She was eating a forbidden stash of chocolate on Halloween when the stomach pains struck. She thought it was indigestion. I was born the next day.

I knew none of this, not even the correct state of my birth, until the letter arrived.

“Honey, a young man dropped this off for you,” my mother said, handing me a sealed brown-linen envelope labeled “Christine.” It was Mother’s Day, 1987. I had just transferred to a college in upstate New York, and was living at home in Albany until I found campus housing.

I took the letter and headed for the family room couch, thinking it was from a friend until the pictures started falling out: a cute little girl with painted fingernails, a dark-eyed woman feeding wedding cake to a man who looked like a mob boss and that same woman with an older lady who looked just like her, both smartly dressed in crisp black-and-white suits, sipping drinks on a balcony. I was breathless as I stared at the photos of a girl, and a woman, with my own dark brown eyes and auburn-streaked hair.

Dear Christine, The time has finally arrived. I don’t know if you even know you are adopted. I was 17 when you were born. I remember holding you on my lap; your eyes seemed to look right into my soul. I knew I couldn’t keep you and my heart was broken and still is. Words cannot express how I have felt for 19½ years, not knowing anything about you. I visited you at the infant home but I couldn’t hold you or kiss you because you were behind a glass window. You are a five to ten minute drive from my house. I named you Ann Marie. We are good people, nothing to be afraid of. Love, Ann”

While I knew I was adopted, I also understood that adoption agencies brokered two things in the sixties—babies and secrecy, but somehow she had found me.

“Honey, who’s that letter from?” Mom asked from the kitchen.

My cheeks felt hot, as if I’d been caught reading someone’s diary. My mother, had suffered miscarriages; the deaths of a baby, her father and brother; and my father’s affair—the affair that left her with three young children to raise, with me the oldest at 7. If there was one thing I vowed as a girl, it was to make my mother’s life easier in whatever way I could. She had devoted her life to us, and unlike other adoptees I’ve known, I never felt loved any less than my younger brother and sister whom she’d given birth to.

*   *   *

I was 13 and playing the board game Sorry with a girl down the street when she got mad and spat: “I don’t care if you win, YOU’RE adopted!”

I ran home in tears to our babysitter, Vivian, who put her claw-like nails to work dialing my mother at the restaurant as I cried at the kitchen table. I was overwhelmed to think that this woman who had always been my mom might not fully belong to me.

She rushed home from the double-shift she was waitressing. We went to her room. I sat on the edge of her waterbed, across from a photo of us kids dressed in matching green-and-beige plaid. Our clothes matched, but in my family of lights, I looked darker than ever. My mother had always said I looked like my grandmother, her mom, and that I took after her too because I loved music and making things.

“Honey, I’ve got something to show you,” she said. “Wait here a minute.” I listened to her rummage through the deep part of her closet, behind her clothes, where the ceiling sloped down. My sister once told me our mother hid our Christmas presents back there, but I never peeked—I always wanted to be surprised.

My mother emerged from the closet, her hair a little askew. She held a large beige envelope and opened the tiny metal prongs that had clamped the envelope shut. I’m not sure how I knew, or what I knew, but when she pried those prongs apart, something clicked in my head, that noise, the way a padlock clicks before it opens.

She pulled out notes from my first visits to the pediatrician, and a letter, typed on white parchment paper from a caseworker at Catholic Family Services.

We sat together on the bed’s black cushioned edge. My arms goose-pimpled as I read the letter. It told me I was Irish, German and Welsh, that my birth mother was 5 feet 5, intelligent and sensitive, had taken piano lessons for years and hoped to major in music; and that my birth father was 17 when I was born, athletic and enjoyed team sports and the drums.

I’m no longer French or Dutch, I thought, as I looked at the framed picture of me and my grandmother atop the lace on my mother’s dresser. My grandma, with her chestnut hair and large brown eyes, had always been the person I thought I looked like in a family of blue-eyed blonds. In a single afternoon I had traded one ancestry for another. I felt betrayed; yet I couldn’t be mad at my mother. My father had been gone for over four years and she was the only parent I had.

“Chrissie,” my mother said, “when you’re older, I’ll help you search for your birth parents if you want to find them.” I tucked that offer away, thinking I might dig it out sometime after college.

*   *   *

“Who’s the letter from, Honey?” she asked again from the kitchen.

I walked into the room, eyes cast down at our red and cream linoleum floor, and said, “Mom … it’s from my birth mother.”

“What! Who the hell does that woman think she is sending you a letter? What if you hadn’t known you were adopted? I can’t believe she didn’t contact me first!” my mother ranted. I didn’t disagree, but I didn’t know what to say. It was all shocking to me too.

My mother didn’t bring the letter up the next day, or the next, and I took that to mean she didn’t want to talk about it, or maybe I didn’t want to either. Adoption had always seemed like something you don’t discuss.

Yet a craving for answers got the better of me a few weeks later after I finished my last final exam. I called the number Ann had written down and arranged with her husband to meet the following night after I got off work from the local department store.

I scanned faces that entire evening wondering if one might be hers. I straightened and re-straightened the tie displays and paid frequent visits to the ladies’ room.

After work, I stood outside on the moonlit sidewalk in front of the store, waiting for a woman as foreign to me as the person who had just sauntered past on her way to her car. Yet the stranger I was about to meet shared a shrouded part of me. I pulled my cardigan closer to fight the spring night’s chill.

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair walked toward me. She was dressed in navy linen pants and a beautiful white blouse that was billowing in the breeze. She looked like the woman in the pictures, and she was studying me.

When she was only a few feet away, I whispered, “Ann?”

Before I could say anything more, she wrapped her arms around me and cried, “Oh, my baby.”

I put my hands lightly on her back. I felt cold. I’m hugging a stranger. I have a mother; I’m her baby, I thought.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said and pulled back. I don’t recall tearing up, or saying anything more in that moment. I felt as if someone had shot me with Novocain—nothing but numb.

She introduced me to her husband and then I followed them to an Italian restaurant down the street, where Ann and I filled each other in on 19 years of personal history. It was the first time I’d heard a true story about the night I was born. If an adoptee grows up believing one history to be true, what happens when you learn part of it was fiction? Does it change who you are? Should it change who you are? I didn’t know it that night, but it would take more than a decade to answer those questions.

What I remember most from that night were her arms. She had the exact same lightly freckled skin tone as me. And she kept saying, “I always thought you would have blue eyes, like your father.”

A few weeks later, I met my birth father, Gregg. Ann had contacted him in a neighboring town to tell him she’d found me. My initial lunches with Ann and evening get-togethers with Gregg were electrically charged; we had an instant rapport. I learned that Ann had a master’s in music, taught piano and was trying to have a baby after almost dying during a recent tubal pregnancy. And that Gregg was an English teacher, a poet, a music aficionado and father of a 13-year-old boy.

As the months passed, though, that initial excitement ebbed as we each struggled with the fact that I was not Ann Marie. I was Christine, a complicated composite of everyone involved. And it seemed like our reunion made them mourn the loss of Ann Marie again, or at least the Ann Marie they’d imagined all those years.

Gregg put it into words in a letter a few months after our first meeting: “I think there is such a gap between reality and the dream in this situation. Do you know what I mean? I guess I’m trying to say that I want to be everything you want me to be, but, realistically, I’m not sure I have the foggiest idea what that is—do you? I say to myself I hope we can get close—but how close?”

I didn’t have any idea. But those words and a mailbag’s worth of beautiful letters those first few years fostered a kinship and a second chance to have a father. We’d meet for coffee, go to concerts and talk frequently on the phone. But I felt guilty every time I did the same with Ann.

Though our reunion certainly answered those central questions—”Where did I come from?” for me, and “Whatever happened to Ann Marie?” for them—for every detail, every question answered, more unanswerable questions arose, such as: How do I introduce these people whose genetic makeup I share? How often should I see Ann or Gregg? Do I invite them to my graduation? Will knowing Ann and Gregg jeopardize my relationship with my mother? My siblings? My cousins?

 *   *   *

At the time I met Ann, adoptions were still whispered about, and reunions like ours occurred mostly as a result of a private investigator. It was seen as disloyal and ungrateful for an adoptee to want to know his or her birth parents. Somehow a primal desire for ancestry had been construed as a statement about adoptive parenting.

For all those reasons, I grappled with my need to know Ann and Gregg. And I found it easiest to offer people a practical excuse, such as: I’d like to know what medical conditions I could inherit. 

But the truth is, knowing them made it profoundly easier for me to feel at home in my own skin. I discovered Gregg and I both tried to figure out life through writing, and that Ann and I shared many of the same spiritual philosophies. And I realized why I was so damned introspective and curious: I got a double dose from them.

Given all that, I didn’t want to say: Thanks for answering my questions, for letting me know where I came from. Now can you please go away and we’ll catch up again in another 19 years. 

So I fumbled on, even as it became complicated having them in my life, especially around the holidays. “I haven’t seen you in a long while,” Gregg’s mother would say. Or Ann would ask, “A bunch of us will be at my brother’s house on Christmas Eve. Would you like to come?” Though it was wonderful to be included, I was trying not to lose my place in my own family gatherings.

One weekend visit home, a few years after I had moved to Boston, I divided 48 hours among my mother and beloved grandmother (my mom’s mother), who had just suffered a stroke; my brother and his new baby; my sister, who was enduring a trial; Ann, who was going through a divorce; and high school friends who just wanted to catch up over a beer.

No matter how I allocated my time, there was never enough. I was always letting someone down, and always struggling with this sense that I was being ungrateful to my mother.

Through all of this, my mother remained fairly silent, which I interpreted to mean she was stepping back to let me figure it all out. I was immensely thankful for that on my wedding day. My mother looked beautiful in her floral-pink dress as we rode in the limousine to the church. She sat in her place of honor, the front row of the church, like all mothers of the bride. Except this mom shared the day with her daughter’s birth parents as Ann played Christine’s songs from Phantom of the Opera on the piano and Gregg waited at the church entrance to escort me down the aisle.

I know my mother’s stomach was in knots that day as she endured endless questions from relatives who hadn’t met Ann and Gregg, but she handled it with grace. She gave me a gift perhaps not many parents could: She let go and loved me unconditionally, wanting nothing more than for me to be happy. And that is what makes her my mother in every sense of that word.

 *   *   *

For that brief time surrounding my wedding, all my relationships converged, but it didn’t last. I could quietly be a part of each individual family, but not one whole. A few months later, Gregg and I hit a reunion rough patch and took a break from one another. After that, I wasn’t sure I was capable of traversing this rocky terrain anymore, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother and Ann might have felt the same.

A few years later, when my son was born, something shifted. I now understood the anticipation my mother must have felt before picking me up from the infant home. And I began to realize the despair Ann spoke of as I breast-fed my newborn son and stroked his pudgy legs in the middle of the night. I couldn’t imagine having to relinquish him, never to touch his baby-soft skin again, or know the person he would become.

As my son grew, Gregg and I grew close, and Ann and I settled into a sisterly relationship of sorts supporting one another through the ups and downs of our lives: for me, the birth of my second son, and postpartum depression; for her, artistic endeavors as a painter, and a first bout with breast cancer. We’d meet for lunch, then stroll a park when my first son was young. She called him “a wise old soul.” He called her “Grannie Annie.”

  *   *   *

A week before Mother’s Day in 2009, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee before crossing the boulevard to the card store. I had learned that this annual greeting card ritual could take a while, and I needed cards for my mother, mother-in-law, a couple of grandmothers and, toughest of all, for Ann.

That particular Mother’s Day marked our 22nd anniversary. More than two decades of knowing each other, after a childhood apart. It also marked the year Ann’s cancer had spread.

I opened the door and meandered down the card aisle, hands warmed by the cardboard cup as I perused the racks of cards for mothers, step-mothers, grandmothers, godmothers and women who were “like a mother to me.”

I stopped at “grandmothers” and selected a few, then moved on to “mothers” for my husband’s mom and my own. I found one for my mom that thanked her for always being there, for teaching me to take care of myself, to persevere and be strong.

Every year I tried to find a card for Ann, but they invariably said: “the one constant in my life,” “being there when no one else could,” or “since I was a child”—none of which applied. There was no card that said: “I’m sorry for all you went through back then.” “I can’t thank you enough for giving me life and for the gift of my family and for the opportunity to know you, as well as that part of me that is Ann Marie.” Or “in a world where we all could use a parent who truly knows and loves each of us—thank you for being one of mine.”

I tossed the cards aside, and rounded the corner to the blank card aisle. I figured I’d just keep writing it myself.

 *   *   *

Four months after that Mother’s Day, Ann lost her battle with cancer.

A few days before her death, Ann’s younger sister, Lisa, asked how to refer to me in the obituary. “I don’t want to offend your mother by calling you Ann’s daughter,” she said. I thought: God, how that question sums up our 22-year journey.

I told Lisa I needed to think about it. I asked my mother, who said, “Whatever you want to do is fine with me. I know you’re my daughter.”

And then I had an idea. I wrote to Lisa:

After all these years with Ann (and Gregg), one thing I’ve learned is that none of the labels (nor their associated roles and obligations) have been sufficient, and I am so happy that Ann and I were able to create our own meaningful relationship despite them. 

But an obituary needs a label, and you’re right: “Daughter” is true but confusing in the sense that I’m my mother’s daughter. And yet, I’m not a stepdaughter nor a goddaughter, and “birth daughter” sounds ridiculous…. I think using the name she gave me at my birth is the truest way for me to honor her and our relationship. Therefore, please use:

“Survived by a daughter, Ann Marie Roberts.”

Christine Koubek’s essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Coastal Living, Washingtonian and many other publications. “Portrait in Nature and Nurture” is adapted from an essay she had published in Bethesda magazine shortly after Ann passed away. An adoption-related short story she wrote earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s 2012 Family Matters contest.  Christine is the Cofounder and Editor of Secret Sons & Daughters: Adoptee Tales from the Sealed Records Era — A digital publication and community based on the power of shared stories to inspire hope, healing, and change.
http://www.secretsonsanddaughters.org

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Wanting More Than Enough

Wanting More Than Enough

By Kristina Wright

0-2“You shouldn’t have children,” my mother said. “You’re too selfish.”

That word echoes down the timeline of my life. Selfish, selfish, selfish.

I was forty-two when I had my first son, forty-four when I had my second son. I have felt lucky. Lucky. Or crazy, depending on who I’m talking to. My mother, if she were alive, would say I was selfish. Selfish for having them, selfish for waiting until I was in my forties to have them, selfish for feeling lucky instead of … guilty, I guess.

Selfish. Maybe I am. As I look at their faces for signs of me, of my mother, wondering if it’s a good thing or a bad thing when I see some shadow of myself in them, I feel selfish.

*   *   *

I don’t know how to be a good mother. I have no role models. My maternal grandmother died when I was two, I never knew my birth father or his mother and my stepfather’s mother was distant and cold. My mother was not a good mother. She was a martyr to the cause of motherhood. “Look what I gave up for you!” she said when I didn’t do what she wanted, when I wasn’t enough like her. “I gave up my life for you!” Is that what good motherhood is? Sacrificing one’s self to the cause? Because if it is, I’m destined to be a bad mother.

*   *   *

I love my children, I do. They are my sweet, beautiful, funny, playful boys. I love them. But motherhood is not my calling. I have known that my whole life, even into my late thirties when I was told it was “now or never,” even after the miscarriages (three over fifteen years), even when I turned forty.

Conception came easy for me. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am-I’m-pregnant easy. Eight or nine weeks later, there was blood. Always blood. I dreamed about babies before I had my own. Now I don’t dream at all. I’m too tired.

 *   *   *

Pregnant again after a miscarriage eight months prior, my doctor prescribed a progesterone supplement. Carrying to term then became as easy as conception. My first son Patrick was born after three miscarriages. One year and one week after his birth, the very first time I had unprotected sex, my second baby was conceived. I thought I would surely miscarry. But no. With progesterone prescribed again, Lucas was born twenty-one months after his brother.

This double success made the temptation to try for a third, yes at my age, almost overwhelming. I could hear my mother in my head. Selfish, selfish, selfish. Two babies in two years, two Cesarean sections to deliver those large, healthy boys. My body had done an amazing job, but two was enough. Enough.

 *   *   *

“Enough!” I’m screaming in frustration. No, anger. Rage. Two kids testing my limits, one not-quite-two, the other a defiant three-and-a-half year old. Where did he learn that, the defiance? He’s not in daycare. He’s usually with me, except for a few precious hours a day when I escape—I mean leave—to write and edit and reclaim my sanity and self. I entrust my boys to a beautiful young woman who could easily be mistaken for their mother. Katherine is less than half my age. I could be her mother. Their grandmother.

“Selfish,” my mother hisses in the cold dark part of my brain. The part that remembers how she gave up her youth to marry the guy she met while working in a bar, the one who was willing to take on the parenting of her bastard baby by a married man. Was she selfish, to be out dating again before I was even able to walk? Was she selfish to keep me when she realized the man she was with had a wife and maybe even other children? Roe vs. Wade hadn’t come to pass yet. It was the late sixties and the options were adoption, illegal abortion or keep the bastard. She kept me. Was that selfish?

*   *   *

All I ever knew about my biological father was that when I was stubborn or did something my mother didn’t want me to do, I was, “just like him.” I took it as a compliment. I was as different from my mother as any person could be. I imagined him to be wealthy, strong, powerful, kind, loving. He would show up and want to take me home with him, my father who may or may not have known I existed (the story changed over the years). I wasn’t told his name, but I knew it must be beautiful and exotic and go perfectly with Kristina in a way my mother’s maiden name and stepfather’s name didn’t.

*   *   *

I didn’t find out my biological father’s name until after my mother’s death in 2007 when an aunt gave me some information about him. His name isn’t beautiful or exotic and I still prefer my married to name to the other three possibilities. So much for that fantasy.

*   *   *

“Enough!” I’m yelling at my children, my pulse pounding, my heart aching. I sound like her. I feel like her. I have become her. I can’t stand it. I am selfish, selfish, selfish, but not in the way she accused me of being. I’m selfish for wanting my children to be better than me. Better than her.

*   *   *

My husband is going out of town. Jay is a lieutenant commander in the Navy. After twenty-three years of marriage, only four of them with children, I’ve been through more three month and six month deployments than I can remember. But he’s never been gone more than a few days since we had our second son. And now he’ll be gone for two weeks. I feel my heart racing like a rabbit cornered by a dog. How will I manage? How?

It’s not the housework or sleeping alone that bothers me. It’s not the noises in the night that wake me. It’s not even the days when I have our sweet babysitter, whom I trust completely and the boys adore. It’s the weekend, stretching out before me. Solitary parenting with no break, no buffer, no way to escape when enough is enough.

*   *   *

Jay was gone for eight months when our first son was born—the entire third trimester and the first five months of Patrick’s life. He was home for eighteen days after the birth, and then I was alone again with a newborn—me, who had never even changed a diaper before. I had to do it all, even things my doctor told me I shouldn’t do. At less than three weeks post-partum, I shoveled snow off our deck so our old dog could get outside to relieve himself. My Cesarean incision burned for days afterward, but I did it.

I have done other things alone. Managed. Survived. I went through miscarriages and emergency room visits and prenatal appointments and endless tests because of my advanced maternal age. I’ve experienced job changes, family conflicts, the ebb and flow of new and old friendships, a dog’s surgery, the death of two cats and the news of my estranged mother’s death—all alone. I even went through a hurricane by myself. I’ve dealt with all sorts of things alone, confident in my ability to do anything. Anything. And now I’m terrified and depressed over spending time alone with my children with no time at all for myself.

Selfish, selfish, selfish. It echoes from beyond the grave. I am selfish for not finding infinite joy in every minute spent with my boys. I am selfish for not relishing the time I have them to myself, the long summer days and nights, just the three of us. I should be happy! I should be excited!

Enough, I think. Enough.

*   *   *

I can’t recall many days in my childhood when my mother seemed genuinely happy. Nothing was ever enough, nothing was ever just right. I wasn’t loving enough, I wasn’t appreciative enough. I wasn’t enough. And yet, I have known many happy days in my adulthood. Yes, even since I had children. Yes, even now when I am alone with them. I just need some time to myself. Some solitude. Something that is mine and mine alone. My self.

*   *   *

I redecorated our bedroom when I was pregnant with my first son. Rather than buying new nursery furniture, we bought a new bedroom suite for ourselves for the first time in fifteen years and had the old furniture refinished for the baby’s room. Selfish, my mother would have said. But Patrick didn’t know the difference and looking around my new bedroom (“It looks like an adult’s bedroom now,” Jay said), I declared it my sanctuary. Home. Haven. Heaven. Mine.

 *   *   *

I just rolled over on a Matchbox car. The sharp metal digs into my hipbone. I am in hell. They bring their toys to my room, their stuffed animals, their little boy laughs and cuddles. It’s a place between the heaven of solitude and the hell of exhaustion and caretaking. It is home. I am comfortable here now. Almost always.

*   *   *

The days pass in a blur, some better than others. We get through the first weekend and Jay comes home in the middle of the second weekend. It wasn’t so bad, not really. Not at all. Really. They were good boys, I was as good a mother as I will ever be. Jay comes home and they are excited to see him, but not overly so. Not as if he has been gone for two weeks or as if I’d done such a horrible job they couldn’t bear one more minute with me. In fact, when I leave to get coffee at Starbucks, they cry. They’re young, they only know what’s in front of them. I try to put my best face forward. For them. For myself. Fake it until you make it, right? I’m faking being a good mother. Maybe I’ll grow into it.

*   *   *

My mother was not the comforting, coddling sort of mother. She believed in tough love. “If you are too sick to come to the table,” she would say, “then you’re too sick to eat.” No chicken noodle soup in bed for me. It made me self-reliant. I can appreciate her tactics now, though I’m not sure it was a tactic. A bitterness, perhaps. Of sharing her parents’ love with eleven other children, of sharing everything she ever owned with someone else. Of never having anything that was hers and hers alone—until she had me and erased my paternity from my birth certificate and my life. She always seemed hungry for something she couldn’t name. I know that feeling. I inherited it, I think. But my hunger is not for more children or more security or more love. It’s a hunger for life itself. More, always more.

*   *   *

The anticipation is worse than the reality. The intangible fear of losing one’s self is greater than the slow slipping away as hours once spent in self-absorption are now given over to thoughts of breakfast, lunch, nap, dinner, bath, stories, bedtime. In between “The Wheels on the Bus” and “You Are My Sunshine,” I pause to think, “This is my life. This is it. Right here, right now. Forty-six years old, two kids, married for half of my life. This is my life.”

It’s a good life. It’s enough, and yet it’s never enough. I want more of this life, and the life I had before and the life I can only imagine. I want it all. For me. For my boys. For my mother, who never had the chance. Is that selfish?

Yeah, it probably is.

Kristina Wright (kristinawright.com) is a full-time writer and editor, Navy spouse and mother to two young boys. She holds a graduate degree in humanities from Old Dominion University and is the author of Bedded Bliss: A Couple’s Guide to Lust Ever After, published by Cleis Press. 

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

Writer/Reader Profile

Writer/Reader Profile

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

By Kris Woll

Once a month we talk with one of our writers. Here, some thoughts from Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser.

BT_Sarah ButterweiserFirst, tell us a little about your family.

I have a very lovely husband I’ve been married to for nearly twenty years (how did that happen?) and four kids – turning 18 in September; 15; turning 11 in September; and five-and-a-half (the half is important to her). There are three boys and a girl.

Tell us a little about what you’ve written for Brain, Child.

Much of what I’ve written about for Brain, Child is about the experience of being an adoptive mother in an open adoption. We adopted our youngest child.

When do you write, and where?

I work from home. The blessing of that is early in the morning before anyone is awake, I can get to work. The obstacles include sick days, home days, laundry and summer. Mostly, I work when they are in school. I do get childcare or use other time (play dates) to work on weekends, etc.

How does parenting impact your work/writing?

I guess the biggest truth–aside from the ways the work of parenting can get in the way of the work of writing–is that parenting provides so much fodder.

Where do get your inspiration? 

I don’t have to look far. I wrote an essay last week about making a sincere apology to my daughter after I got really pissed off that she was making me late to a Zumba class at the Y. Life is compelling and I feel lucky to be alive, so inspiration is not at all hard to find.

What books are on your nightstand right now? 

I am reading Andrew Solomon’s epic Far from the Trees, which is fantastic – and very long. My next read is Lisa Jahn-Clough’s young adult novel Nothing But Blue. I am a big fan of her picture books.

Which blogs/sites do you frequent for good writing? 

The New York Times Motherlode and Modern Love columns; Brain, Child’s offerings of course; Salon; and so often what people recommend captures me, too.

What is your favorite Brain, Child essay, story, or feature?  

I wrote Motherwit for Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of T(w)eens. I do not think of myself as a funny writer, and to be on that page was a thrill. There are many essays I’ve loved over the years; I think I was one of the very early subscribers. Like so many of us, Brain, Child turned me on to Catherine Newman’s work — and she remains a favorite essay writer (and a very lovely person, to boot).

Any advice to other parent-writers out there? 

My best advice is to write because you want to write. Writing with an end goal muddies the most important part, which is to do the thing you love to do.

Read Sarah’s work: First Day of Kindergarten, Remembering Adoption, She’s Lucky, Read More

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer and Brain, Child contributor. She blogs at withalittlepractice.wordpress.com.

Melissa Uchiyama

Each month we talk with one of our readers, here’s what thinking mother Melissa Uchiyama of Tokyo, Japan  has to say.

Reader Profile_Melissa Uchiyama ArtTell me a little bit about your family…

It is Isaac, my amazing husband, and our awesome clan: Kariin, our spritely, just-last-week-turned-three-year-old, going on thirteen; Jude, the irresistible five-month-old with massive thighs; and our two doxie-brothers, Sammie and Riley. The dogs we had shipped to us; they are the originals. Then came the kiddos.

I am now going on my sixth year in Japan, from a very different life in South Florida. My husband was born here, but grew up outside of DC. Life here is delicious, a bit simpler (no car, but tons of walking and trains), and pretty extraordinary.

I am a teacher by trade, a mom, and a bit of a food writer.

How long have you been a subscriber?

Secret’s out—just…one measly, life-filled month. After a few summers leafing through my cousin’s Brain, Child magazine, beachside, and lazing in hammocks, I knew that one day, when I became a parent, I’d surely subscribe to Brain, Child. That it would be as essential and as nourishing as prenatals kept in the diaper bag.

Well, I became a mother after leaving the US to live in Tokyo. I thought, for sure a subscription is no more. Not in the cards– it will cost far too much. However, now with my punky girl and my sweet bruiser, that same cousin gifted me with a subscription that is actually mailed all the way to Japan. Incidentally, she was also the one to talk me through contractions from her Vermont home to my Tokyo cab, via Facebook messages. Some part of me feels that this is some wonderful rite of passage, the magazines are now mine to recommend or loan out

Why do you subscribe to Brain, Child? (e.g. What does the magazine mean to you; how does it compare to other magazines you read?)

This magazine, my gift, helps me connect with savvy, smart parents, not glossy commercials but rich insights. I feel like it focuses on what we already do well and naturally, rather than focusing on what we lack or what we fear we will not have, materially. Pieces generally bring the reader to some change, some peace. The writing helps me to appreciate just where I am and recognize the beauty in these moments, poetry in even the spit-up moments. Encouragement to jot my own notes, take stock, and exemplify a courageous woman who can laugh at herself. It is honest, well-crafted writing. I appreciate that.

What is your favorite Brain, Child essay, story or feature?

Well, being that I am a newbie, there is a whole treasure trove for me to delve into online. For now, I memorize my dog-eared August copy, waiting for my next installment.

What would you like to see more of in Brain, Child?

Bicultural, bilingual (or trilingual) families, stories and features about growing roots in new places, stories of frustration, growth, and faith.

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

 

 

 

 

Raising Bilingual Children: Habla Español?

Raising Bilingual Children: Habla Español?

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

0-4My son is the color of cream. His skin, like mine, tans golden brown but could easily burn in the desert sun. His cheeks flush winter pink.

Gabriel may look like a dark-haired Caucasian, but his lineage tells another story. On my side, he is one quarter my Panamanian mother, one quarter my White father, and on my husband’s side, one half Mexican, as both Alex’s parents emigrated from northern Mexico to Scottsdale, Arizona when it was little more than a farming town.

I’m proud of my husband’s history. I love hearing the fluty rhythms of his speech on the rare occasion he speaks Spanish. From the time Gabriel was an infant, I encouraged Alex to pass this knowledge on to his son. It’s important to be bilingual. Everyone knows that. And Spanish, even if it weren’t the language of Gabriel’s grandparents, is the natural choice. There’s no reason he shouldn’t speak it.

And then I remember why I don’t speak it.

It is an immigrant’s story: A young woman—beautiful, Hispanic, skin the color of wet earth—marries an airman and bears him a son. This son is born American, on a military base in his mother’s homeland, and he’s learning two languages at four years old when he travels to America. His parents settle in the Deep South; it is the 1970s, and the young woman—now pregnant with a daughter—is full of hope for her new life, in her new country, with her new family.

My mother is the color of wet earth. Roasted espresso beans. Chocolate. She is beautiful, Hispanic. It is the 1970s, the Deep South, and her English is thick and halting. She is crushed like a bug under the weight of her skin.

By the time I’m old enough to form words, the only ones I hear are in English. My mother will abandon her native tongue in the hopes that her children assimilate smoothly. If she teaches us to talk like her, she fears, we’ll adopt her accent. We’ll be followed in stores and ridiculed, assumed ignorant. She will tell us to declare ourselves White. She never talks about her homeland, and we never ask. By the time he starts school, my brother has forgotten all of his Spanish.

My skin is the color of caramel. I’m often mistaken for Caucasian. It is partly for this that I see the depth of hatred. I see it in my job at a nursing home that employs a diverse population. Many times, patients make derogatory comments about their Mexican aides, their Indian doctors, their Black nurses. As if we have a secret understanding: I’m part of their club.

From a patient: “I don’t want that nasty aide touching me. You know, the one that can’t talk English.” She speaks with a lovely Latina accent, like my mother. She speaks two languages, and you speak one.

From a co-worker: “How come nobody in the kitchen knows what the hell I’m saying? Don’t they understand English?” They are trying. Every time their phone rings, a heart freezes in dread of your judgment.

So much hasn’t changed.

I owe my mother an apology. In high school, when it was time to choose electives, she wanted me to choose Spanish. She had changed her mind. She had, by then, put herself through college. An educated woman, working to remind herself every day that she was nothing to be ashamed of. I was a rebellious teenager. I knew what it meant to her, and I chose German.

This essay claims that I’m encouraging my husband to teach our son Spanish. But maybe I’m not encouraging him as much as I could.

Why? What if my husband spoke Italian? French? Some other Romance language, but one associated with an exotic European country, revered, respected by Americans?

Gabriel is six years old, and he doesn’t even know the basic phrases. “Hola, cómo te llamas?” “Mucho gusto.” “Gracias.” Am I afraid it would hinder him? Mark him? Will I tell him to check Caucasian on his school forms? Because my son is half-Mexican, and what does it often mean in this country to be Mexican? Dirty. Ignorant.

Dear Mother: I understand you now.

I’m going to try harder. Gabriel should have the choice. He should learn the language of his grandparents, and the proud history of his father’s heritage. He should be given the chance to enrich his life by becoming bilingual. And maybe, by the time he’s mastered the robust charm and graceful flow of my mother’s native tongue, Gabriel will be able to speak it without shame. It will be easier for him than it was for her. Because his skin is the color of cream.

And because, I hope, we will change.

Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website http://www.elizabethmarianaranjo.com/

Are You Prettier Than Your Mother?

Are You Prettier Than Your Mother?

By Lara Lillibridge

0-7I looked over my shoulder as I was getting in the shower and saw my naked back. I paused for a moment to really look and see what aging is doing to me. The mirror reflected back a younger version of my mother’s bottom.

My body now has that soft doughy consistency that made my mother so pillowy soft to hug. As I lose elasticity, everything is settling lower like a pair of slightly too big sweatpants that I could just shrug off and find my younger body underneath.

I have always thought that I was a prettier version of my mother. Relatives could always pick me out of a crowd as my mother’s daughter, even if we had never met before. When they told me I looked just like her, I always heard their unspoken phrase, “only prettier.”

That was supposed to be how it worked; every generation was an improvement on the previous; daughters were a shade prettier than then their mothers, a hair taller, their teeth improved by fluorinated water. I always felt bad for girls who had mothers who were far more beautiful than they were; it seemed a cruel trick of fate to not be able to live up to your mother’s beauty. I never worried about it myself, because I knew I was prettier, but when I looked in the mirror and saw my mother’s body looking back at me, it occurred to be for the first time that I might be wrong.

It’s unsettling to realize something you have believed to be an absolute truth is wrong, but it is exciting too. I felt like I might be on the cusp of great knowledge, even if that knowledge was that I had lived my whole life as self-centered and arrogant. At least I could come to this revelation before it was too late, as my mother is still alive.

It’s hard to look at someone a generation older than you and appreciate how they looked when they were your age. Bad photography and worse fashion trends mask the natural beauty underneath. I can’t see the lines of my mother’s face in most of the old Polaroids and small three-and-a-half by five-inch snapshots. My mother has the same hourglass figure as I do, but a little more padded. When she was young she had thick straight black hair, which must have been striking and far better than my hair has ever been. It’s hard to sift through evidence of half-remembered photographs; I was always too focused on the once-stylish clothes that now seem atrocious, the cats-eye glasses. I can’t see who she used to be.

If I could see her now how she was then, in modern clothes with non-obtrusive spectacles, whom would I see? Might I see a version of myself more similar than not? When my mother was at my stage of life, she kept her hair short and wore the polyester pantsuits popular for businesswomen in the 1970’s. I can’t remember her wearing dresses more than once a year, and I never saw her with a different hairstyle other than the one she has now. My mother’s hair was salt and pepper almost all of my life, now it is all salt. Although she dyed for a year or two, mostly I think of her as black streaked with white. She always looked older than she was to me, but then anyone over 18 was middle aged in my book. A child can never see an adult as anything but old getting older.

My mother had a bad eye, a swollen red puffy eyelid for all of my childhood. How would she have looked without it? Would I have seen her as a great beauty? I never minded her eye—it had been like that for as long as I could remember. You just looked at the rest of her face and didn’t settle on that one area. It didn’t matter to me, but I know it mattered to her. I know it made her give up on beauty. What if she shaved her legs and had soft, shoulder length hair and wore cute boots? Who would she have been then? Who would I have been, growing up with a mother admired for her looks instead of her brains?

What if I had the mother I thought I wanted when I was a teenager? The kind of mother who cared about clothes and the right hairstyle and taught me how to apply eyeliner properly, instead of the mother I had, who entreated me not cover up my pretty face with shimmery blue eye shadow? Would I have been more popular, prettier, more confident? Or would I have scorned every beauty secret and ran away on my bicycle with unbrushed hair? What if my mother pushed me to sit properly on the sofa instead of reading for hours in the backyard tree, or bought me pretty dresses and yelled at me for getting dirty instead of letting me run barefoot through the grass and hunt frogs in the neighborhood creek? Am I only feminine and pretty because I was allowed to be otherwise, and chose this?

I found an unrecognizable picture of my mother from before I was born. I horde it like the white linen napkins that you only bring out for company; if I take it out too often, other people’s eyes will wear away the image, I fear, with their hungry devouring glares. It is a picture of my parents from before I was born, standing next to my father’s plane. My mother’s hair is dark and shiny, down to her waist. She is wearing contacts and smiling, her figure Monroe curvy in clothes that aren’t mortifying. She is more beautiful than I have ever felt I have been or could be. I don’t recognize her as my mother, but instead as some sort of clone or sister-cousin. Someone I almost know, if I half-close my eyes and picture her with bad hair and big plastic glasses, twenty extra pounds and dated clothing. It is the lurking secret mother I never knew I had, the one that looks like me, only prettier.

Lara Lillibridge is a mother, writer, off-key singer and an occasionally inappropriate dancer. 

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Grieving the Days of Only

Grieving the Days of Only

By Jennifer Berney

Grieving the days of Only ArtThe Sunday after my second son was born, my first son, Harlan, asked if he could shoot his Nerf gun off the front porch. It was bright outside but cold and windy. Storm clouds gathered in all directions.  He had put his new boots on over his dinosaur pajamas. The boots had been a Christmas gift less that a month before. They were navy blue with orange soles, a shade of orange so bright it stung my eyes. He insisted he didn’t need a coat.

All morning we’d been stuck in our new routine: I nursed the baby on the couch while Harlan bounced on the cushions. When I asked him to stop, he’d press his body into me and yell into his sleeping brother’s ear: I love you so much.  I kept a hand on the baby’s head at all times, terrified that Harlan would land on him or bonk him with his own head—a head that suddenly seemed disproportionately large.  So far, having a newborn meant that I clenched my jaw all day long.

And so I said yes, shoot your Nerf gun, silently praying that he could go at least ten minutes without calling for me. But almost instantly Harlan wanted to switch to water guns—never mind the weather. So I wrapped our new baby in a blanket and, with one hand, dug out the water guns from a box in the garage.

But, of course, his favorite one was missing. It was missing because it leaked and my partner had thrown it away, a fact that I didn’t want to reveal, and so I pretended to look for it, poking through boxes and boxes of junk.

“I want you to find it,” he informed me, standing at a distance, watching, and when I told him we’d just have to play with the two we had, he collapsed on the ground and wailed.

This was typical, not of Harlan in general, but of Harlan since the arrival of his baby brother. There was no rolling with the punches, no making do. Every dropped cracker, every wet sleeve was a tragedy. And now, as he threw himself around on the floor, I was stuck: with a baby in my arms, I couldn’t soothe or move or wrestle him. I could only hold my breath and silently will him to quit.

***

Throughout my pregnancy, as we prepared to welcome our second son into the world, I knew that our family in general, and our son in particular, was headed for a time of transition. That’s all I knew. That word, transition, had been tossed about for some time, but no one had offered specifics. Instead, seasoned parents warned me to brace myself. It will be hard, they said, so hard.

I had waited four months to tell Harlan I was pregnant. In my first trimester, morning sickness crushed me. At the height of it, I spent evenings face down on the couch, moaning, too nauseated even to move myself to bed. Harlan tapped on my back, whispered “Mommy,” until my partner coaxed him away. I didn’t explain what made me sick; I didn’t want him to blame my pain on his unborn sibling.

Later, once the sickness had all but passed, I withheld out of superstition; Harlan himself had arrived after years of trying and false starts, and so I had learned to never treat a pregnancy as a sure thing. To name a baby as a certainty was to endanger it.

When I finally did tell Harlan, I told him this way: my body is trying to make a baby. And once that settled in, once my belly was round, once the baby was actual, he was certain that my belly held a sister. He started calling that sister Banana.

I took this to mean that he preferred a sister to a brother. So, at twenty weeks, when the technician spotted a penis on the ultrasound, I was cautious again about breaking this news.  It was the end of summer then, and when I picked him up at a friend’s house, he was sitting on their sunny front porch.

“You know Banana?” I whispered. He nodded.

“How would it be if Banana wasn’t a little girl?”

Harlan’s eyes went wide.  He gasped. “Oh, I would love it if he was a brother!”

I guess that Harlan too, was cautious, guarded about imagining the thing he most wanted.

As my belly grew, he talked to it constantly. “Hi Baby!” he shouted, stripping away the layers of shirt and nylon that covered my bump. I had to train him not to do this in public. Friends thought it was sweet. But I found myself wiping the spit from too many kisses off of my stretched-out belly, and swallowing a desire to push him away, wondering what he’d do once Banana-boy was born. Would he still talk to him, still love him, still want to be around him?

***

What Harlan did after the baby was born was rail against me.

I couldn’t feed him. Harlan refused to eat breakfast, and each morning I waited for the inevitable blood sugar crash, the screaming tantrum on the floor. I began to advocate for food at any cost, offering him ice cream on a toaster waffle or extra honey on his toast. But he would complain that I cut the toast the wrong way, or that he didn’t want butter, or he would shriek because the ice cream melted too fast.

I couldn’t touch him. If Harlan walked by and I tapped him on the shoulder, he would fall to the floor and clutch the place I had touched as if I had prodded him with a hot spear. If I were sitting on the couch with my leg extended, he would walk by, trip, and begin screaming, red-faced: “I am so mad at you Mommy.”

Harder still were the moments of grief that arrived in the middle of the night.  The first night we were home, I lay half awake with the light on and the baby on my chest. My partner slept on the couch to give us space. At 2:00 a.m. Harlan cried out for me, and I lay there, still, waiting to see if he’d go back to sleep. I’d done this countless times before the baby was born without any guilt, but now, this time, I held my breath and felt dread. He needed me and I wouldn’t come. I wouldn’t come because I had a new son now, a son whom I would hold tightly and nurse through the night.

The next night he cried again and this time didn’t stop. When my partner went in for him, I could hear his cries through two sets of closed doors. “Go Away!” he yelled at her, kicking beneath the covers. “I want Mommy Jenn!” He cried the way I remember crying as a child, the way I suppose I still cry when feeling particularly lost and desperate: choking on endless sobs.

I got up, leaving the baby alone in the middle of the bed. I held Harlan, my impossibly long four-year-old, and listened to the grief move through his body, his sobs slowing to a shaky but steady breath. I continued to lie there as he moved back into sleep, half of my mind still trained on the baby, picturing him tiny and lost in the sheets.

Harlan’s body, it seemed, had transformed overnight. His head was the size and weight of a bowling ball. When he cried, I could see inside his mouth and up his nose, his tonsils, his spit, his snot. Suddenly, there was something uncouth in his size, his need, and all his human functions.

The baby, on the other hand was dainty with his tiny head and perfect whorl of hair. He breastfed and slept. His breath smelled like milk and so did his poo. Before I had the baby, my worst fear had been that that I would love Harlan less, or see him from a greater distance. Now that that seemed to be coming true, I began to worry that I had made some horrible mistake, that our relationship was all but over and we’d spend the rest of our days alternating between sorrow and conflict. I knew for sure that things would never be the same. And sometimes I thought: who needs this baby anyway?

Our baby, you see, still did not have a name.

From the moment we found out that Banana was a boy, Harlan had stopped calling him Banana. I had wanted to name him Fox, and shared the name with Harlan, thinking he’d approve and that the name might become a special family secret. But Harlan didn’t like the name Fox. He didn’t like any name that I proposed, not Cooper or Vincent or Ivan or Hudson.  Not Forrest or Cedar or Lake.   This was fine, of course; my partner and I would choose whatever name we wanted. But then one day I suggested Andre, and Harlan, inexplicably, fell in love with that sound.

“I hear you picked out a name for the baby,” his daycare teacher said to me a few days later.

“We did?” I asked. Harlan had shared during circle time that we were going to name our baby Andre.

He called the baby Andre until the day he was born, at which point he called him only baby, a choice which seemed to quietly acknowledge that he didn’t have the final say. My partner and I didn’t hate the name, but we liked other names better.  “Cedar’s a good name,” I tried to convince Harlan. “You know Cedar, like the tree.”

“Andre’s a good name,” he answered, almost in a whisper.

We agonized for days.  We set deadlines for ourselves, and then missed them. We wanted to name him Cedar. We didn’t want to disappoint our Harlan. Friends tried to convince us that it was our right to name the baby, but I couldn’t get past the fear that our choice would impact their connection. Harlan had chosen a brother named Andre; Andre was the name of the brother he loved.

There was another voice in my head, a reasonable one who told me this would pass. Name the baby Cedar, the voice said. Be the grownup; be the parent. It’s silly to think that a name will shape their destiny as brothers.

I listened to that voice and acknowledged its wisdom. And then we went ahead and named our baby Andre.

Three days later, on that stormy day in January, I convinced Harlan to remove himself from the garage floor and come inside where it was warm. I thought I could make him hot chocolate, that I could read him a story and nurse the baby and have some sense, for a moment, that everything would be all right. Instead, as I set the kettle on the stove, I heard the click of the front door. The baby was asleep in his vibrating chair. I took a moment to put my shoes on, not eager to venture out into the cold rain.

No more than thirty seconds had passed, but when I stepped on the front porch, there was no trace of Harlan. I called him. He was not in the yard or in the driveway. He was not down the street or in a tree. I called him again. I raced to the end of the block to peer around the corner, then back to the house to check on the baby who still slept soundly in his chair. I called Harlan again. He was nowhere.

I thought I’d look for him in the garage, and that’s when I spotted them: the bright orange soles of his boots. He had wedged himself between two planters in the driveway. It was his absolute stillness that rendered him invisible; if it weren’t for the color orange, I wouldn’t have found him.

I picked him up like a baby, the heaviest baby who ever lived, and carried him inside, his limbs dangling toward the ground.

“Did you hear me calling you?” I asked him. “Did you hear the fear in my voice?”

“I was playing hide and seek,” he said.

I draped his body on the couch and locked the front door. I couldn’t be mad. I didn’t want to be. This was a challenge he’d somehow designed, like the runaway bunny.  If I leave, will you find me? If I disappear, will you see me? When I’m out of your vision, do I still exist?

What could I do to convince him the answer was yes?

***

Andre is three months old today. Harlan sleeps through the night again. He still crowds the baby when he nurses, and gives him too many kisses. Earlier today I laid the baby down on the sheepskin rug in Harlan’s room and Harlan lay down next to him and showed him a parade of his stuffed animals. In the morning sometimes he asks to see his baby brother, or sometimes when I’m holding him, he asks to see his face. Many times in a day, he greets him: “Hi baby,” he says. “Hi Andre, hi Andre, hi Andre.”

And just yesterday he told me that he loves me, he loves me, he loves me so much. The words reached inside and touched a place that I realized had been cordoned off for just a little while. Those words had been frequent between us, and then for a while instead there was distance, a baby in the middle, whom both of us adored.

I’ve lost my days alone with Harlan—planless days where we’d leave the house to do one errand and we’d let the day run his course from there. I remember once spending over an hour at Panda Express watching him eat Lo Mein, because that was how long it took him. We talked the whole time about whether ghosts were real, and whether the Panda Express Panda and Kung Fu Panda were the same panda.

These days, our time together is interrupted by nursing, by diaper changes, by naps. Most nights, I nurse Andre to sleep while I read to Harlan and they wind up asleep together, Harlan’s mouth agape and Andre’s lips still in the motion of nursing. But there are rare nights that Andre falls asleep with my partner and I have Harlan to myself. On these nights, we snuggle with no one between us and I savor it, this taste of something I once had every day.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, 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.

Potting Season

Potting Season

By Emily Grosvenor

Pine bonsai on whiteIn the months after I became pregnant, my husband, Adam, introduced a forest of 37 tiny trees into our life. As I sat reading parenting books propped on my expanding belly, he was rescuing them from the sale section or pulling stray seedlings out of the mulch.  He gave them new pots on the brick patio of our 1910 cottage. There, he would train them in the styles of the great bonsai masters: formal and informal upright, cascade, exposed root, windswept, literati, clinging to a rock.

To me, they were just one more thing to take care of, worse than a puppy. Given the right care – years of training and attention – they can live forever.

“Don’t you think you should be reading some of these?” I asked him, shaking a book on the Bradley Method in the air.

“Nah. You read them and tell me what you find out,” he said, humming and trimming.

A few weeks later, after 68 hours of labor, a hemorrhage, and four units of blood from a stranger – our baby was there. We drove him home as if we had an IED in the backseat, and in a way, we did. Adam lifted him gingerly and cradled him in the glow of a scraggly, 1.5-foot-tall Christmas tree.

When Adam gives you his attention it is as if your own personal sun is shining down at you. I could always feel it, even across continents and through a five-year long distance relationship.  He’s a talker. He’s a listener. I had never known such connection before Adam.

From the beginning, though he had never before held a baby, he jumped into fatherhood with his whole being. He danced with the baby for hours. He rocked him to Johnny Cash’s “Run On” on repeat. I caught them once, laying on the couch in the dark.

“In a way, he justifies every mistake I have ever made,” Adam said. “If I had made the tiniest decision differently he never would have been.”

He carried the baby outside to his tiny forest and dangled him over the tops of the trees.

Adam snuck out every chance he could to spend time in his forest of azalea, juniper, maple, pine, santolina, devil’s tongue, flying dragon, crab apple. He trimmed, he repotted, he watered, but more than anything, he just looked at the trees, remembering what they looked like before and seeing how the changes he made to their structure would make them prosper. In the tiny forest, the trees were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. They were becoming more and more like themselves, like full adult trees but on a smaller scale.

Inside the cottage, though I was deeply connected to my baby, I found myself feeling increasingly out-of-sorts. The baby’s screams were so piercing they made my arms tingle. When my milk let down, I broke out in hives.

Adam took the baby for me as much as he could, but I was always expecting a cry, always on edge, always waiting like a bell to be struck. If Adam took him outside so I could rest, I could tell you which brick they stood on. This is how it is supposed to be, I thought to myself. Every cell in my body has turned over. I am a good mom. Every day I thanked Adam for giving him to me.

With my child strapped to my chest I was free to never sit down again. I baked soufflés and fermented my own yogurt. I canned blackberry preserves. I outlined a novel. I cleaned behind furniture. I worked through every recipe in the Bride & Groom: First and Forever Cookbook. My hunger went away, as if my frantic activity was enough to take sustenance from the air around me. I had figured this motherhood thing out. I had more energy than I had ever had in my life. But when I held my crying child, I thought about everything there was to be done, and when I worked during his naps, all I could think about was my child, about to cry out.

The night the baby slept through was the first I could not. I thrashed in bed until 5 a.m. The next night, the same. The click of a door latch. The mewl of the cat. The clink of a coffee mug. The sounds in our cottage amplified to Hitchcockian levels and sent my skin crawling. As the leaves changed color outside my mind latched on to increasingly more disturbing images, as if my mind were a movie real of worst-case scenarios.

“What can I do to help you?” Adam asked me more often each day.

“Get me some time to myself so I can work,” was the only answer I had.

After three months of not sleeping, the walls of our cottage seemed to close in. So one bright September morning I decided on the spot we had to get out of the house. We raced to pull together car seats, diapers and extra clothes for an overnight trip. It wasn’t happening fast enough for me. By my projections we should have left at 8:45 a.m. It was already 8:53.  That’s how I ended up on the hardwood floor, breathing into a brown paper bag of branches from Adam’s lavender bonsai.

It might have been a tad late for aromatherapy.

That spring, Adam repotted all of his bonsai as I sat staring at the television. I watched him as he petted them gently and spoke to them. I seethed as he stood in the rain, looking joyous and entranced in his work, covered in mud. Did I remember what the juniper looked like before he coaxed it into a cascade? Could I envision the way the fig had all but shriveled before he poured himself into its care? When he held me at night – as he always had – I felt nothing. During the day, with him gone, working a 12-hour shift, I would rock with our baby at the window and imagine all of the pots – smithereens.

“Can I be your bonsai?” I asked Adam one evening as I watched him hack away at the root bundle of a burning bush. I was aware of how ridiculous I sounded.

He tucked my hair behind my ear, looked straight in my eyes and said: “You don’t want to be my bonsai.”

“Yes, I really do,” I told him.

“You wouldn’t want your roots pruned,” he said.

Bonsai are not very menacing, you know. They’re not some sexy co-worker or flirty neighbor. If you find yourself unraveling and you get it in your head that your husband’s having an emotional affair, you would do well to find out it’s with bonsai. With a bonsai, you have to look into its future and anticipate how it is going to grow. If you try to change a bonsai too quickly it dies. It requires years of focused attention with each individual tree to get it to get that wabi-sabi look of transience and imperfection.

I was desperate to look like that, desperate to be everything and perfect and under control. but felt more like a mass of seaweed tangled around a piece of driftwood, floating, always floating, with the storm.

Adam had never once in our relationship forced me to do anything, but for the first time, all I wanted was for him to shape me. Rewire me. Repot me. Look at what’s happening to me and fix it. Care for me like I’m doing for this plump, wailing ball of skin.

“What are you thinking about when you’re out there with them?” I asked him one night, and on many nights thereafter, as I stood on the porch step watching him with his bonsai.

“I’m not thinking about anything. I’m thinking about what I’m doing,” he said.

This sounded like baloney to me. I have always dreamed while I was doing things: sweeping, laundry, perhaps even typing this very sentence. I wasn’t sure I was capable of it for very long. But I began to try anyway. As I was driving, I would sense the grip of my hands on the leather wheel. Doing dishes, I would feel how the water slipped over my hands. I did less – every day even less than before – but I began to really do it, was there as it happened. When I held my child I caught the scent of soap and skin with a hint of fir. Over time, I was able to rewire myself, but not without some mistakes.

“I’m glad you have time for a hobby!” I yelled at him once as he shuffled pots around.

When I look back at Adam in our first year of parenthood my heart crumbles for him. He coped with a colicky baby and an exasperated new mother in his own way. He watched me wither before his eyes and didn’t have the tools to bring me back. Still, he was playing out a scene of something I needed that every new parent figures out eventually, with or without nervous exhaustion: constancy, presence, the repeated cutting and trimming out of all necessary things we must do in order to shape a beautiful life.

“I know and control nearly all of the variables in which those plants live,” he tells me one night when I ask him again if I can be his bonsai. “Everything I do is with the idea of keeping them as healthy and contained in as small a space as possible, which may not be in tune with their natural growth. If you know how a plant grows, you can predict how they’re going to react. You can’t do that with people.”

Adam’s been watching his plants a lot lately, and I’ve been watching Adam.  I see him out there working on our spruce halfway to Christmas.  God, are they gorgeous. It looks more like a real tree now, with tapered branches, a bound and determined habit, every one of its needles stretched to the sun.

These days, we joke about what kind of bonsai we would be if we, too, were tiny trees. We both agree he is totally the style called “informal upright,” with a trunk that can be bent in many directions. I’d like to be the “literati,” which has a refined elegance despite looking like it is about to blow away. But I’m probably “clinging-to-a- rock.”

Emily Grosvenor is a magazine writer and essayist based in McMinnville, Ore. She is working on a humorous travel memoir, Pioneer Perfume, which shows what happens when you try to maintain the attitudes of a globetrotter in a world that has shrunk to a 30 ft. radius. You can visit her at www.pioneerperfume.com.

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Two Days To Adoption

Two Days To Adoption

By Erin Howard

Ode to a Comfy Chair Art 2It had been a very uncomfortable two weeks.

For ten days I had lived out of a pop-up camper with my hubby, Phil, and our five-, four-, and two-year-old kids.  A pleasant family reunion went downhill as the temperature went uphill, topping off at 100 degrees for two days straight before we finally packed it in and left a day early.   The seven hour drive home turned into nine hours, then ten, then twelve, as the extreme heat broiled the camper tires until one popped.

At 10:00 p.m. we pulled into our driveway.  The kids were as charming as expected after twelve hours in the car and Phil and I wanted nothing more than to pry the necessities loose from the camper and ignore the rest until morning.  Wearily, I turned my key in the lock and slumped into the kitchen.

I have since used this precise moment to explain the definition of the word “ominous” to my children.  The cord to our Wii was lying across the kitchen floor.  A gaming cord in the kitchen? We hadn’t left a gaming cord in the kitchen.  It felt… ominous.  Had someone been in the house?

The answer to that, of course, on this day of the Murphiest of Laws, was yes.  11:00 p.m. and my preschoolers were watching TV at the neighbors’ house while my husband and I examined the damage with the police.  The robbers had broken down a kitchen door, stolen my husband’s laptop, pried our new flat-screen TV off the wall, and trashed our bedroom—even throwing over our mattresses.  I still take a fiendish delight in knowing that those robbers must have been sorely disappointed by our lack of valuables.  All they got was a roll of Chuck-E-Cheese tokens.

We spent the night at my parents.  The next day, sans kids for the most part, Phil and I contained the damage and finagled with the insurance.   Saturday passed—first night at home since the robbery.  Our five-year-old daughter had us check under her bed for “feefs” four times.  Sunday passed; the kitchen was full of power tools and loose drywall.  Phil’s Dad, a jack-of-all-trades/African-missionary (really!) would arrive early Monday to replace the kitchen door and patch the walls.  I craved Monday.  I craved the comfort of a familiar routine.

Monday came.  Work begun.  Routine established.  Relief sighed.  Four hours later, I got a call.  The insurance?  The police?  Of course not.  That would be too normal.  It was Sharon, our adoption social worker.

“So, all I need to know from you is, can you be ready in two days?”

It was noon on Monday.   Sharon, wanted us in Indiana, ready to parent a 10-day-old baby girl, on Wednesday.  Forty-eight hours!  But—Vacation!  Robbery!  Traumatized Preschoolers!

And, beyond all that, we weren’t technically finished with our adoption home study.  Sure, we’d finished our classes and passed our background checks, but we still needed to have our home visit and our one-on-one counseling session with our social worker.  I needed to track down at least one more reference and recreate our adoption profile because the original—an encapsulation of our family’s life and times that I painstakingly designed for our prospective birth mom—had been stolen when those pesky robbers nabbed my husband’s laptop.

How were we going to cram all of this in to 48 hours?  And prepare for a baby when we had thought it would take months to get a placement.  And move our family from Illinois to Indiana for a stay of unknown duration so that the two states could finalize their interstate paperwork?

I gripped the phone. I hadn’t made a sound.  Those words “can you be ready in two days?” hung in the air, awaiting my reply.

“We’ll be ready.”

That was it.  I didn’t know how we would do it, but we would do it.  After two adoptions and an unexpected biological child in less than five years, our social workers knew us well.  I’m an organizer.  My husband, Phil, is an improviser.  We were made for this challenge.  With our first adoption, we’d had seven days notice.  With our second, only four.  Now, just two.  It was as if we’d been training for this moment—like how you steadily decrease your times when training for a race.  We were at peak performance.  We could handle it, even if the circumstances were, well, let’s be euphemistic and say “less than ideal.”

Phil, who had been back at work for a whole four hours drove back home and by 5:00, we had rewritten the adoption profile, emailed references to our agency, verified our insurance for the new baby, notified our pediatrician, and arranged for housing in Indiana.  By 6:00, we were sitting calmly in our social worker’s office answering mundane questions about our parenting style and our philosophy on discipline.

Phil and I can be very efficient when we want to be.

The next morning was marked by periodic shrieks of “don’t touch that right now, we need to hurry to get ready for Miss Sharon.”  Oh heavens, I hoped Miss Sharon wouldn’t be early!  I was losing my cool, and it was the last thing I wanted our social worker to see.  Even though I knew by this point—it being the third time around and all–that our social worker was on our team and that she was absolutely not going to judge us on dust bunnies and dirty dishes, I so wanted to have it all together.  I wanted to be Super Mom.

For our two previous home visits, the house had been painfully clean, the children scrubbed and smiling.  It was a thin, artificial veneer over the chaos that surrounds every young family, but it made me feel good. This time, I couldn’t even fake it.  The house was full of that lovely post-vacation scrum of suitcases and dirty clothes.  There were power tools on my kitchen table and dry-wall dust stuck to the dirty dishes in my sink.  I draped sheets over the debris-filled sink and counter, piled suitcases in my walk-in closet, explained the situation to Sharon, and tried to forget about it.

Sharon, of course, had known us for over five years and wouldn’t have been fooled by any of that Super Mom nonsense anyway.  She checked the location of our cleaning supplies and medications, made sure we weren’t hiding any firearms, and mercifully did not look in the closets.  By 2:00, we were officially qualified to be adoptive parents.  Again.

That left us 22 hours to prepare for our new baby. I threw a load of baby toys and blankets in the wash and rifled bins of my older daughter’s outgrown clothes looking for the smallest newborn sizes I could find.  The new baby, whom we named Mia, was only 3 pounds 15 ounces at birth, and a lot of this hurry stemmed from the fact that no one expected her to be released from the hospital after only 10 days.  But Mia was a feisty one and, now weighing in at a whopping 4 pounds 5 ounces, she was ready to go home.  We had to have a home ready for her.

Wednesday, just after lunch, we set off—our minivan a jumble of kids, clothes, and camping gear. My brother had closed on a house in Indiana a couple of weeks before, but we would need to furnish the empty rooms with camp beds and folding chairs while we stayed for a week or more.  Since we hadn’t actually got around to unpacking the camping stuff from our vacation three days before, we were all set.  At least that part was easy.

Meeting Mia, and having all four of our children together for the first time, remains a shining, perfect moment in my life.   It was as if I had been holding my breath for two days, or even more, since the robbery maybe.  I didn’t even know one of us was missing, but now all six of us were together, just as it should be.   My whole family, safe and calm together.  I could breathe.

The three older children adored Mia and showered the terrifyingly clumsy affections of preschoolers down on her.  They looked like Great Danes hovering around a toy poodle.  They wouldn’t leave her alone, but she was so unbelievably tiny I was afraid they would squash her.  “Leave Mia Be” became such a frequent warning that that the new baby was nicknamed “Mia-B” before she had been with us a week.

We’d made it this far, it was now time to take stock of our resources.  I had made exactly one trip to the store since we found out about Mia, and I had apparently bought all the wrong things.  The words “4lbs 5oz” that I had read on the medical background forms didn’t translate to the reality of “4lbs 5oz” in my mind.  4lbs pounds is small.  Really, really small.  The Size-NB clothes and diapers I had hurriedly thrown into the back of the minivan weren’t going to work.  We would have to make do with the freebies from the hospital and adoption agency.  Two pairs of tiny footie pajamas.  A onezie proudly proclaiming “NICU Graduate”.  Half a package of preemie diapers.  It wasn’t much of a layette.

We weren’t doing that well on the “Baby Must-Haves” checklist that you find on all of those “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” websites.  It was pretty pathetic, really.  Still, after two days of continuous movement just to get to Indiana to pick up the baby, not to mention the two days of burglary clean-up, we were ready to ignore the inconveniences and finally focus on Mia. At least we had what we needed for Day One; we would worry about Day Two when it came.  On Day Two we realized that Indiana has Babies-R-Us, just like Illinois does. Imagine that!  It was a make-do or do-without kind of situation, and Mia didn’t seem to mind, so none of the rest of us did either.

My brother’s house had exactly one piece of real furniture in it—a 30-year-old tan recliner tucked away in the room what would be my niece and nephew’s playroom.  It had once belonged to my grandmother before winding it’s way through the family and ending up in my brother’s dorm room.

That one comfy chair, a much-abused former dorm chair, became the focus of our days.  Whoever was holding the baby got priority access.  My husband and I playfully sparred over feeding Mia, relishing the time with our newborn–and the accompanying benefit of sitting in that one comfy chair.  We would evict our older children (they were not immune to the chair’s attractions), then snuggle in with our tiny, skinny, nearly-naked baby.

In the evening, after getting our three older kids settled down to sleep on their improvised beds, the “winner” would hold the baby in that comfy chair.  The “loser” would pull up a folding chair and hold the laptop so we could watch Arrested Development on Netflix.  We slept on camp mattresses on the floor.  We cooked in borrowed pots and ate off paper dishes.  And, whenever we could, we snuck some cuddles in that one comfortable chair.

Of course, parenting a newborn and three preschoolers in a nearly-empty house is not exactly easy, but even at the time those days seemed very cozy.  We couldn’t go home.  We couldn’t go to work.  We couldn’t stress about the burglary and the repairs and the insurance.  We were stuck.  We were stuck in a place and a time where there was nothing to do but sit and hold the baby.  Maybe it was nothing but “dorm furniture,” but that one comfy chair, which periodically overflowed as all six of us tried to sit in it at once, was all that we needed.  After a few days, the older kids left to stay with their Grandparents for the duration, and it was even cozier with just the three of us.  Phil and me, bonding with little Mia…and the comfy chair.

Eventually, we were able to return home.  I decorated Mia’s nursery, moved in a gliding rocker, and folded a dresser full of preemie clothes.  I conquered that “Must-Haves” list in the end.  But from experience, I know you don’t really need all of those “Must-Haves” in order to have a good start with a baby.  You don’t need nine months to prepare.  You don’t even need to have a fully-furnished house.  It does, however, help to have a comfy chair.

Erin Howard is a stay-at-home-mom to four children from a combination of pregnancies and adoption. Her essays have been published in several adoption and parenting magazines.

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The Universal Language of Motherhood

The Universal Language of Motherhood

By Pat Carr

0-7I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for—a wooden donkey with a wooden rider, a carved puppet, a stuffed cloth baby in a woven shawl, or a set of clay doll dishes—but I knew I had only a couple of hours to search the stalls for toys that could be made airplane proof before I had to catch a taxi to the hotel and repack for all of us.

“Señora, señora. Estàn muy buenos. Venga, señora.” Vendors called from behind trays of pineapple slices and gestured me closer, but I had to smile and shake my head; no matter how ripe and sweet the pineapples, I couldn’t afford to pause beside them or linger near the fragrant pyramids of spiny pitayas or chontadura hulls glittering with a scarlet sheen.

I hurried down the dirt aisles, past farmers with mounds of avocados and purple onions, candy sellers with sugared skulls prepared for All Saints Day of the Dead, spice merchants with baskets of golden saffron and bronze cinnamon whose aromas nearly overcame the metallic beef blood odor rising from slabs of lomobiche.

“Señora, venga. Yo tengo lo mejor.”

This time it was a child’s voice and a dimpled, tanned child’s hand that beckoned me to admire his rubber-banded sprays of gladiolas and trumpet flowers in their tin pails of water. Of course his rosebuds and orchids on their sticks would be the best.

His mother, in a black skirt and blouse of Guatemalan print, red and yellow and green, beamed and stood apart from the flower bench to let him, a boy of possibly six or seven, make the sale. The ebony braids framing her unblemished face glistened with pride.

He waited, smiling, gazing up with enormous dark eyes, and I appreciated his black, black hair, clear coppery skin, his lithe little body in its diminutive tee-shirt and jeans. He was an exquisite child, and in a dozen years he’d be irresistible to any beautiful teenager in Guatemala City.

But I had to smile and once again shake my head.

As I marshaled my Spanish to alibi my lack of a purchase by pleading the airport dash, he returned my smile with a redoubled sunny one of his own, and murmured sweetly, “Usted es muy, muy fea.”

I heard his mother gasp.

Across the aisle from the hanging chickens bleeding out in a row of headless feathered carcasses, our common maternal thread bound us together with crystaline chains, two mothers and a child—who had said to an adult, “You are very, very ugly.”

I glanced away from him to his mother’s face above the cotton primary-color stripes and watched a crimson blush darken her neck beneath her collar, seep upward to stain her chin, cheekbones, forehead.

But which of us as mothers hasn’t had to explain, “I’m sorry, she doesn’t know yet what that word means”? which of us hasn’t had a child blurt to a neighbor offering cookies to the PTA, “Those are burned”? which of us as mothers—?

I looked back at her pretty cherubic little boy and made an effort to retain the smile while I shook my head with faked bewilderment and pretended I didn’t understand Spanish.

Pat Carr has published sixteen books, including the Iowa Fiction Prize winner THE WOMEN IN THE MIRROR, and over a hundred short stories in such places as THE SOUTHERN REVIEW and BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. Her most recent books are a memoir, ONE PAGE AT A TIME (2010), a novella, THE RADIANCE OF FOSSILS (2012), and a graphic novel, LINCOLN, BOOTH AND ME (2013). 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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The Elephant Maker

The Elephant Maker

By Amber Kelly-Anderson
mikesElephant_illustration“You have such a sweet smile,” the elderly man told my toddler son. “You need this.” His hand extended a small carved wooden elephant with tiny wheels.

We were sitting in a restaurant enjoying a late lunch with my mother when the man approached us. Having someone come over to talk to Alex is nothing new: he’s a sweet guy with a charming smile that he spreads around indiscriminately. He flirts shamelessly with women of all ages and ethnicities and growls at men in a playful way that makes them want to fist-bump him. Someone once referred to him as a “ball of joy.”

However, as a mother I am suspicious of people giving things to my baby. When my oldest, Liliana, was nine months old, we traveled through China, where people gave her everything from an umbrella to a toy mouse to some sort of fruit I couldn’t identify by sight. Not wanting to offend anyone, we accepted the gifts graciously, keeping the objects and giving the fruit to my grandfather who was with us (mainly because Liliana had no teeth). I set aside my apprehensions in order to avoid being the typical rude American.

Back home in Texas, it is a different story. Blame it on too much SVU or too many people trying to hand me flyers for comedy, porn, or weight loss pills—I distrust the world. I’m suspicious of any stranger who gives things away. Everyone has an angle.

This man seemed well-intentioned—with his baggy sweater and worn but polished black loafers, he actually reminded me of my own grandfather. But my mind immediately went whirling through a list of reasons why we should reject the gift. Was it really a gift? Did he want money? Did this obligate us to spend time with this man? What was the catch?

As these thoughts flashed through my head in blinking neon warning signs, the man handed Alex the toy. The carving was rough, the outline of a trunk and tail at each end of a smoothed piece of wood about half the length of my index finger. Four wooden wheels made from a different type of wood allowed the figure to balance independently and roll when pushed, emitting a slight squeaking sound. The wood had been left untreated, the pale grain merely sanded to protect little fingers. Even if its simplicity hadn’t been strangely beautiful, Alex’s reaction was. His chubby fingers spun the wheels, giggles of glee bursting forth. I knew that whatever the cost, I would probably pay it.

But the man didn’t ask for anything or try to strike up a conversation. He just stood in silence for a moment, watching my son. With a pat on the little blond head, he smiled, and returned to his table.

“Thank you so much,” I finally managed. The man gave a back- wards wave over his shoulder.

Alex played happily with the toy, racing it around the table and along the sides of his high chair, alternating between growling and vrooming noises. Occasionally my eyes darted over to our elephant benefactor, puzzled.

A few minutes later the man approached another table with a little boy who appeared slightly older than Alex. “Would you mind if I give him this?” he asked the mother before offering the boy a carved wooden car.

Again the man returned to his seat and went back to eating his lunch alone. Before we left, we stopped to thank him once more.

“Did you make it yourself?” my mother asked him.

He smiled.

“Yes, ma’am. I find it helps me pass the evenings. I don’t have any little ones in my life, but I want someone to have them. Hope it makes him happy.”

He said this without sadness or self-pity. Instead, he smiled with delight and let my son’s tiny hand shake his finger. Alex blew him a kiss and then snuggled the elephant to his cheek.

So often I find myself wondering what kind of world I am borrowing from my children. In my classroom, in the news, in my daughter’s school—the world is thick with petty people and seemingly insurmountable heartbreak. As a culture, we appear to thrive on the big moments—the scandals, the tragedies, the violence. And while we like to celebrate the fantastic and the silly, accounting for the popularity of YouTube, experiencing those quiet moments of beauty in our everyday lives is a rare gift. Even rarer is the gift of being open to the reception of such gifts.

This culture has fostered cynicism that leaves me exhausted by suspicion. Although my mothering instinct will not allow me to completely let my guard down, this experience reminded me to open myself to sincerity. There are good people in the world who want nothing more than to bring happiness without a price. A simple gesture can be just that—the human heart exists in the pure state. My challenge, then, is to open myself to both the giving and receiving of such love.

I will never know this man’s name, but I am grateful to him. Alex loves the little elephant, so simple in its loving craftsmanship. When he is old enough to understand, I will explain the gift that was given to us both that day. Since that day, I have been able to go to bed each night just a bit more hopeful about the world, knowing that there is an old man in my town who is quite probably at that moment whittling little wooden wheeled toys to give to children in the hope that it will make them happy.

Author’s Note: Once Alex turned two and became convinced he is actually a dinosaur and/or shark, I had to rescue his little elephant from play rotation. For now I keep it in a box with things like his hospital bracelets and clipped curls as I view it as an important part of his childhood. I am eager for the day when I can return it to him so he can enjoy it as intended.

Amber Kelly-Anderson is a Texas-based mother of two, writer, and professor of literature and history at Howard College. Her most recent publications include: The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Sprout, and Roots: Where Food Comes From & Where It Takes Us. She is also a 2013 blogger for Ploughshares Literary Magazine. Read more of her work at www.generationcake.com.

Illustration by Michael A. Lombardo

 

New England Beach Babies

New England Beach Babies

By JoeAnn Hart

Web Only Beach Baby art“What now?” I muttered as my trowel hit an obstruction. “A plastic something.” In the depths of a major garden excavation for my son’s wedding, I kept coming across indestructible bits of our family’s life. Bare tennis balls, bottle caps, keys to cars we no longer owned. This time, though, as I cut away the roots wrapped around my latest find, annoyance gave way to memory. It was a child’s green plastic shovel, and as I turned it over in my hands, years of sitting at the beach with children washed over me.

“What a luxury,” people had always said, “to live within walking distance of the water.” What a pain, I’d grumble to myself. I grew up with suburban sprinklers, not ocean, so I was not a relaxed summer-time mom. Getting the kids ready for our daily beach expedition was like being backstage at a circus, helping squirming bodies into suits and painting faces with sunscreen. Adding up the hours, I have spent a full week of my life searching for sandals the length of my pinky. I could not begin to guess the time spent packing The Bag: Sunscreen, water, box juices, cookies, mini-carrots, peanut-butter sandwiches, towels, more sunscreen, and a blanket. I was exhausted when I finally hit our isolated patch of sand, and it was just the beginning. Clutching a sweaty baby boy while digging a moat with a toddler without taking my eyes off the oldest at the water’s edge was no day at the beach. I did my best to identify the sealife for the two older girls (“that’s a dead crab, honey, put it down”) and answer their questions about nature. “Why is the water blue?” Because it reflects the sky. “Why is the sky blue?” Have a cookie.

We stayed as the tide played in, then out. (“Where does the water go?”) We kept time by an upright stick in the sand, and when its shadow reached a certain angle they knew we had to head back. After packing up camp, an epic adventure of lost and found, we’d begin our forced march, me pushing the stroller with baby and toddler smushed together like sardines, the oldest lagging behind and whining. This was followed by the hose-down, story-time and a nap. That last one more for me than them.

Oh, it got easier over the years. My job became that of lifeguard, albeit one who burned easily and got dizzy from the sun. I sat in a chair, a magazine open on my lap, and watched the kids float like soap bubbles and swim like otters, dark shapes against the sunlight on the surf. Occasionally I’d be called into duty to help steady a kickboard, but mostly they tried to lure me into the water so they could hear me screech like a seagull. My children, true New England beach babies, are unfazed by the sharp slap of the frigid Atlantic. I will never get used to it.

One by one, they reached the age to beach it alone. My oldest girl would run off after breakfast and I’d meet her down there with the two younger ones. In later years, there was just one with me, and then there were none. After that, I’d only go to check that everyone was using sunscreen and staying hydrated. Usually I’d just find them working on their tans, but well into their teens, I’d catch them building kingdoms of sand, festooned with seaglass and bird bones. At the end of the day they’d watch their creations wash away with a shrug. To them, raised on tides, change was the way of the world.

Not so many years later and there I was with a little green shovel. Slipping two fingers into the handle, I could feel the small hand that once wrapped around it, and suddenly I missed the beach. Not the heat or the sand fleas, but the three familiar shapes moving through the water’s brilliant light. I missed their childhoods, and sometimes, I think, so do they. For his wedding, my son wanted a sand castle cake, a clambake at the beach, and silhouette photos against the sun as it dropped into an orange-red sea.

I stuck the shovel in a pile of dirt and tried to guess the time.

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled. Her short fiction and essays have been widely published, and she is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe Magazine. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts with her husband and a few barn animals. To find out more, please visit www.joeannhart.com

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Isn’t Forty Kind of Old for That?

Isn’t Forty Kind of Old for That?

By Ann Whitfield Powers

spring2008_powersMy mother’s visit is supposed to be low-key. This is the third time she’s traveled across the country to help us since we adopted Zachary, and it’s the first without a nerve-wracking event on the agenda: no trip to the hospital to get the baby, no visit with the birth parents, no visit to the lactation consultant to learn how to nurse an adopted baby.

We’re just living life, taking the kids to the park, grocery shopping with Zachary while my older son, Patrick, takes a dance class. And so we’re back to being a good team and tolerating the familiar low-level tensions, letting the little things slide.

As we wait in the grocery store checkout line, my mother eyes an Outside magazine without pulling it off the rack. I unload the groceries with one hand, cup baby Zachary’s bare foot with the other, and admire our cashier–an older woman with a mane of long, gray ringlets, dramatic jewelry, and a steady patter with the customers. The cashier ohs and ahs over Zachary as she swipes cans and boxes and weighs the oranges mechanically (organic oranges are so expensive! I can almost hear my mother thinking). Then the cashier pauses and gives my mother and me an appraising stare.

“Let me guess. You’re the two grandmothers, aren’t you?”

My smile freezes.

She grins. “I just think it’s great when the grandmas get along.”

The store seems ultra bright, and everything moves in slow motion, especially my thinking. I try to grasp what she just said. I look like the other grandmother? How can that be? People usually guess that we are mother and daughter, we look so much alike. It’s obvious, they say.

The cashier concentrates on the groceries, suddenly silent. I feel pressure to say something. But what?

Should I try to put her at ease, excuse her for the mistake that I think she knows she made. Should I make light of it, make a joke? Or should I tell her straight up, slam dunk, the message that not only young women have children? Should I make a point of claiming my child as my own? Is it disloyal this way I am standing here silently, grin frozen on my face, letting it slide? And laced through it all, the stunned question: Do I really look as old as my mother?

We walk out. As the automatic doors slide silently shut behind us, my mother says, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s nothing,” I say, but we both hear a tinge of bitterness in my voice.

“I take it as quite the compliment,” she adds hopefully. Then she sighs. “But it probably doesn’t make you happy.”

I smile and shrug. Never before has anyone suggested that I am my mother’s peer. She is a beautiful woman, but she looks, well, she looks old.

That night, I turn on all the bathroom lights and look closely in the mirror and see them–a series of V-shaped lines etched on both sides of my mouth, like lines of geese flying north. As I turn my face, the lines fade and reappear depending on how the light hits them. I think of Tennessee Williams’s fading beauty Blanche DuBois putting a lampshade on the bare bulb in her sister’s apartment. That always seemed like a reasonable plan to me–it made the apartment more attractive. Was it such a crime to choose flattering light? Apparently so, according to Stanley and Mitch and my students. I taught A Streetcar Named Desire to college sophomores, and God, they hated Blanche (delicate, destitute, desperate to hold onto a refined plantation elegance that has long since slipped through her grasp).

Anyway, I have to admit that at this point, I look more like an aging Stella–the practical, earthy sister–than Blanche. I’m chubby, matronly, obviously more of a mom than a Southern belle. I wonder, idly, if I could create a merged version of both women. But then I’d be named Blella … or worse, Stanche.

One day, in my last semester teaching English literature–when we were about three years into our quest for a second child and I had finally succumbed to the pressure to take the entry-level fertility drug, Clomid–the class was discussing a novel in which a middle-aged woman pondered getting pregnant. A cute, usually silent boy piped up to say, “Isn’t forty kind of old for that?”

A few of the girls tittered nervously and glanced my way. I said nothing. I hadn’t mentioned my quest, and yet somehow it seemed that they knew. And then it dawned on me: They didn’t know about the second child I was trying to conceive. They were embarrassed for me because they knew about my first child. Yes, a six-year-old at my age. Imagine. Maybe they knew this because the previous spring I had brought Patrick to campus on Take Your Child to Work Day. Walking back to my office with Patrick, one of my former students had shouted to me from across the street:

“Hey, Professor Powers!”

I waved. I didn’t remember her name, but remembered her as upbeat and sweet and always willing to participate in discussions.

“Is that your grandson?” she shouted.

“No,” I shouted back. “He’s my son.”

“I didn’t know you had a kid so young!” she said in the same chipper voice, and then swept her arm in a happy good-bye wave. “See you!”

A sour taste seeped into my mouth. Patrick walked silently by my side. It was impossible to guess what he thought of the interchange. (Years later, he told me that he thought she was “a complete and total weirdo.”) When he was, oh, maybe four years old, he used to brag gleefully to the other kids in his preschool: “My mom’s older than your mom!”

He hasn’t done that lately.

Recently when I was waiting for Patrick to finish class, I overheard one mom ask another: “At what age did we stop wearing makeup to look older and start wearing makeup to look younger?” I smiled ruefully but didn’t say anything. I was fifteen years older than them, easily, and I wasn’t wearing makeup. I hadn’t worn makeup in a long time.

But now, standing in front of my bathroom mirror it occurs to me that I might still have a green tube of wrinkle-covering Clinique cream in the cabinet. I resist the impulse to pull it out. I wish I could say this is a feminist decision–a proud claiming of my age, wrinkles and all–but really it’s only because I am sure that the cream won’t work. My wrinkles are too plentiful and too deep. Like it or not, I’m stuck with them.

I have chosen the path of the older mother. I have fought against the odds and peer pressure and common sense to get right here: a forty-nine-year-old mother of two young boys. Now I’m going to have to live with it, for better and for worse. And usually it’s better.

Neither of our children came easily, and parenting them is as much a challenge as it is a joy; but now the occasional hurtful comment notwithstanding, my life feels right.

I turn off the light and stand in the dark waiting for the bulbs to cool. Then I reach up over the sink and feel my way to the middle light bulb, unscrew it, then for good measure unscrew the bulb next to it. When I turn the lights back on my wrinkles barely show. Call me Blanche. Blella. Stanche. I’m walking away from this mirror and back into my life.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008) 

Ann Whitfield Powers lives in Joseph, Oregon where she serves as the Executive Director of Fishtrap, a literary arts organization.

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Boys Who Push

Boys Who Push

By Amy Ettinger

Art Boys Who PushShe likes the boys who push. Especially Paulie, the outcast. My daughter’s preschool teacher says Paulie and Julianna are drawn to one another like magnets. No matter how much she tries to keep them apart, they find each other. Sometimes it’s at the snack table or on the swings. Julianna gets too close or takes a toy Paulie wants and he retaliates.

Before school we practice saying, “STOP” as loud as we can. I pretend I’m Paulie and I push her hard on the shoulder. “Stop,” she whispers.

“LOUDER,” I say.

“Maybe I will tell Paulie he can’t come to my school anymore,” she says. A 4-year-old’s solution.

“There will always be people in life who try to push you around, who will try to test your boundaries. You have to learn how to stop them.”   (At these moments I wish the house was secretly bugged so someone else could hear my mother’s wisdom). Julianna doesn’t seem to pay attention.

I think, maybe naively, that if I teach Julianna to stand up for herself now, the lesson will be hard-wired into her for when it really matters. When she’s a teen and the other girls are trying pot and sneaking out to parties.

Mostly I’m concerned about this attraction to the rough-housers, the young sociopaths. Of course, we’re not supposed to call them that, but there’s one in every class.  Last year, it was Eric, the boy who threw a wooden block at a visiting puppy, smashed the caterpillars and wouldn’t share the trains. Julianna went over to the train table every morning ready to play.

Julianna’s grandma was also drawn to the outliers, the dreamers, the ones that nobody else wanted. She met my Dad at a dance for college graduates she attended with a friend from group therapy. Mom was in analysis for more than 15 years to deal with her painful shyness. And then she saw my Dad (who was not a college grad) but snuck in to the dance meet ambitious girls—disproving the motto that “men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Dad didn’t care that Mom didn’t talk much. He talked enough for them both. He was rough around the edges, talking back to police officers who often pulled him over for speeding, and mouthing off to his bosses.  Not surprisingly, he was always getting fired.

Mom was a shy do-gooder, a Barnard graduate, who worked for a time with emotionally disturbed children in one of the country’s worst neighborhoods – Bedford, Stuyvesant.  She lived with her parents in their Brooklyn apartment until she was 21, in the shadow of her domineering mother.

She met Dad just as she was starting to find some independence. Dad was unselfconscious. He had an ego and an energy Mom craved.

When they fought, it was explosive. My brothers and I watching as they tore each other apart (often with words and sometimes with fists).

The worst moment in my parent’s marriage came when I was eight years old. My  brothers and I were in front of the TV, when we heard our parents bickering in the kitchen. My parent’s voices got louder, until we heard a thud.

The kitchen of our Silicon Valley home was divided from our living room by a bar-height counter where we ate all our meals. The three kids stood on the living room side of the counter. We saw Dad standing behind Mom in the kitchen, his hands wrapped around her throat. It was like watching two mimes acting out a fight. Neither made a sound.

Mom was trapped. Her stomach was pressed against the tiled counter. Dad’s body kept her from backing up or escaping to the side. Mom pulled at his fingers. They were strong and callused from years of building and tinkering. They didn’t budge.

Finally, Dad let go. Mom ran into the bedroom to call the police, who came a few minutes later. They took Dad out of the house in handcuffs, but released him a half-an-hour later after taking a statement from my mom, and asking my brothers and I to intervene when my parents’ fights got too out of control.

Mom went to talk to a lawyer, but my parents never divorced. They were married for almost 30 years. Dad mellowed a little, but his nature never really changed.

I learned from Mom’s bad choices, even though the odds were against me. Girls who witness their mother’s abuse have a higher rate of being battered as adults. When I was looking for a mate I picked the opposite of my father. My husband’s a pleaser, a shy writer, a kind and sometimes goofy man.  We laugh a lot, even when we argue.   I have always been proud of my choice, feeling like I side-stepped a potentially tragic inheritance.  It wasn’t until I had my daughter that I learned that legacies can skip a generation.

Intergenerational transmission of domestic violence sometimes happens without parents even realizing it. The memories I have of my parent’s relationship are wired in me—sometimes I don’t even know that they’re there until the smell of cigarette smoke transports me back to my childhood home. The memories are a part of me, whether I realize it or not, and that affects what kind of a mom I am to Julianna. Do I lose my cool, “flip my lid”?  Of course. And I have bursts of anger that frighten us both. Especially when she kicks me in frustration when I deny her a special treat or throws a shoe at her father in the heat of an argument.  But why I get and angry, and how I recover is important for both of us to understand.

The relationship between my husband and I is the most important model for Julianna to learn about a healthy pairing.  As one therapist told me: “No one takes a beating at age 20.” When Julianna sees Dan and me making calm, egalitarian decisions for difficult problems, it teaches her what’s normal. And when she sees us fight? Well, that’s important to. That she never sees our anger explode to scariness, that she sees us re-group.  We do our best, although we can argue with heat, with passion, like any married couple. And I tell myself it’s normal, although I have to admit that I have no idea what that is.

There is still so much violence against women, that as a parent raising girls it’s hard not to think about. More than a thousand women are killed each year in the United States in domestic violence. Thousands more are seriously injured.

We need to encourage our girls to have a strong voice, even if her nature is to be quiet.

Every day, Julianna reminds me more of my mom.  She is cautious and fearful, and often painfully shy. Their phobias are even the same: they both loathe dogs of any kind.   Sometimes I wonder if it’s the time they spend around one another. Mom’s been a once-a-week babysitter since Julianna was born. But I know that it’s more complicated. Julianna inherited her sense of humor, her intelligence, and her disposition.

I remind myself that Julianna is four, and that it’s too early to draw these conclusions.  Her preferences for many things change almost daily. One day she loves the slides, going down the steepest scariest one 30 times before I bribe her out of the park. The next day she refuses to even leave the house.  She experiments with different ways of interacting with the world, sometimes sulky, sometimes kind, sometimes an adventurer and the life of the party.

She is an only child, so she mostly learns about other kids at school. She has been sheltered, and so maybe her time with the troubled boys is teaching her what she doesn’t want in life. I hope that the lessons I go over with her each day will stick.

My husband and I half-joke about getting Paulie thrown out of preschool, but I know another ill-behaved boy would take his place(and Julianna would be the first to find him).

My inheritance is my hyper-vigilance, my desire to save my child from a danger (both internal and external) she may never face.  But, if she does face it I want her to be ready. I want her to be strong.

So, I repeat our daily lessons.  One morning she tells me her baby doll also goes to a school with a boy named Paulie who pushes. “She doesn’t say stop, and she doesn’t call for the teacher.”

“You both have to learn,” I tell her.

“Every time, you say stop or call for help you are teaching Paulie that he can’t push people,” I tell her. I can tell that the thought appeals to her. She already wants to be the fixer, the one who makes it all better.

As her mom, I have no such illusions. I cannot control her curiosity or attractions. How can I? I can’t even control my own.

But I can understand a little better about what makes me tick and why. How my parents’ bad marriage may or may have not affected who I am today. And who I am to my daughter, and how she is in the world.

And even as I remain vigilant to outside threats—the boys who use their bodies instead of the words—I have to remember that sometimes the scariest things of all are inside our selves.

Amy Ettinger writes for the New York Times, Huffington Post, New York Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in Silicon Valley. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her husband and four-year old daughter.

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To Borrow a Phrase

To Borrow a Phrase

By Rebecca Martin

0-5Maeve was about to make a break for the goody bags, but I scooped her up and said, “can you say thank you to Olivia’s parents first?”  She flipped her bob of glossy curls back to show off her pillowy cheeks and hammy grin and said, “It was the best birthday party ever!”  Olivia’s father looked surprised; I imagined either at the sentiment (it was a standard party) or at such well-articulated feelings coming from my often-quiet three-year-old daughter.  To normalize the statement, I followed Maeve’s lead. “She just loved it!” But I knew she was putting them on.

It’s not that she didn’t have a good time—Maeve always has a good time–it’s that she had been saying that particular sentence a lot.  It was one of her running gags, whether she was at a birthday party or not.  It always made me laugh and wonder what had inspired her to come up with it.  Then one day, I listened to Holly Hobbie’s Christmas as Maeve was watching it on television, and I heard Holly say, “this was the best birthday ever!” I was crushed to realize that Maeve had borrowed the phrase—the over-enthusiastic delivery even.  I knew my reaction was a little severe.  This was probably the way a lot of us learn to speak, but with Maeve the borrowing pointed to something more serious.

When she was two, Maeve’s preschool teachers noted a delay in her receptive language.  She would ignore instructions in class, fail to answer questions, or respond to every question in the same way.  She would make a big show of formulating a response before she would say, “no way!”—but she would give herself away sometimes by “no way-ing” something she loved, like a popsicle or a bike ride.

She worked with a speech therapist and over time began to respond to questions with specific answers and participated more in group activities.  She made such rapid progress that at points I could tell myself there had never been anything that wrong with her.  She just doesn’t care what other people are saying or doing, I would think.  She is a kid who lives inside her own head.

Then one day, Maeve stood next to me in the pasta aisle at the grocery store.  She began to wag both her arms in comic disbelief and cried, “$45?!” at a box of penne.  Where did she get that idea? I wondered.  How creative!  Then I realized I was being treated to another scene from Holly Hobbie’s Christmas and that Maeve was thinking about buying a popcorn popper for Holly’s Aunt Jessie.  I told myself that anyone strolling by would think she was just an imaginative child pretending that she was shopping.  Only I knew that her language and imagination were limited to a Christmas cartoon that I had let her watch too many times.

A few days later at the pool, Maeve invited someone to “stop by later for a slice of fruit cake on the house!” Holly’s yuletide hospitality plagued me again, but, even worse, so did worries that Maeve could not share her own thoughts.  I tried to reassure myself that she would get past this borrowing soon enough, but it still bothered me.

Until Maeve spoke like her older brother it was going to bother me.  When I was pregnant with my oldest child, John, someone had given me a peacock blue leather journal to write down all of the precious things my children said.  When Johnny began to speak, I was constantly running to scribble down his latest question or observation.  I had continued to write in the book as Maeve began to speak, but I did not have as much material.  I included the “No Way!” phase; and then, having decided to play to her strengths and not just her brother’s, made an effort to write about what she was doing and not just saying, but she was still outpaced by John.  I did not want to include the Holly Hobbie quotes or anything else she had cribbed from books or television.  It was not that I thought she was plagiarizing, I just did not feel like I was capturing the real Maeve.

Then for a few weeks at bedtime when I began to sing the song that we have sung every night since her birth, Maeve would interrupt me.  “No!  Not Horsey!  How ’bout Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?”  And then she might allow me to sing with her.  The last time she did this, I thought, this is a kid who sings her own songMaybe her words are as carefully selected as her music.  Maybe she borrowed phrases but did so knowing precisely what she wanted to say.  The quoting didn’t seem as terrible in this new light.  I resolved to take her at her borrowed words.

The other day she climbed into my lap and picked a notepad off my desk. She looked at the little cartoon drawings of each member of our family printed across the top and, pointing to each one of us, said our names.  Then she looked up at me and said, “I love my family.”  What show is that from? I wondered.  Then I stopped and reminded myself that she had chosen those words—no matter their origin–so I chose to take them to heart.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in Babble.com, Literary Mama, StepMom and Christmased.com. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

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Weighing Down Our Children: The Battle Against Obesity

Weighing Down Our Children: The Battle Against Obesity

By Dawn Friedman

WO Weighty Matters ArtWhen I was ten or eleven years old my parents sat me down to tell me that I was getting too fat. I don’t remember the details—I know it was summer, I know it was just before bed, I know we were in the family room—but I do remember my intense shame and the way my vision tunneled, as if I were looking through the wrong end of binoculars. I remember that I left the room differently than I entered it, as if my parts were strung together wrong and I didn’t know how to operate my arms and legs.

My parents’ loving intervention did more harm than good. I became more self-conscious and less likely to want to be physical in the world. I was afraid people were secretly judging me. This led to chaotic eating in my teens, when I alternately starved, binged, and exercised my way into a perfect size eight but could never believe what I saw in the mirror. My thinking around food became distorted. I lost my ability to know when I was hungry or when I was full or what I wanted to eat. In my mind, there was food that was good for you and food that tasted good but I didn’t know how to manage either.

In my twenties I met my husband and slowly I put weight on by eating regular meals again while my exercise routine became more realistic. Today I am fat and forty and still struggling (but closer) to finding peace in my own skin.

I revisit those childhood feelings of disequilibrium more often since I became a mother 15 years ago and particularly since I became the mother of a daughter whose pediatrician wanted to put her on a diet at three months old. At that well-baby check-up almost eight years ago it was clear she was growing at the top edges of the standard height and weight charts.

“A lot of parents think it’s easier to stick a bottle in her mouth than attend to their child’s emotional needs,” she told me, while I stood stricken. “But you’re not doing her any favors in the long run.”

I often think about that moment. I think how fortunate it is that my daughter is adopted. It’s easy for me to see her birth mother in her and to accept and value the size and shape of her birth mom’s body. If she had been born to me, I think I would have accepted the doctor’s condemnation without question. I am used to thinking that my body is wrong; if my daughter had been born with a body that mirrored mine, I don’t think I would have had the fortitude to challenge the doctor’s thinking.

As it was, I left the appointment in tears but decided to meticulously track her formula consumption to see if I was indeed using food as a proxy for care. My records proved that I wasn’t. My daughter, who we were feeding on demand, seemed to know exactly how much food she needed. Although the amount she was taking in wasn’t enough, according to the standard nutritional charts, to sustain growth, she kept on growing. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ feeding guidelines recommend two-and-a-half ounces of formula per pound of body weight; my daughter was taking in about a half that.

We changed doctors. My daughter continued on her growth curve, always at the top of the pack, a place she continues to stand today. At age eight, she is strong, confident and healthy. Now, however, I see her—and children like her—facing a new kind of danger. In a social climate where larger bodies are increasingly suspect, kids like my daughter are becoming public targets of disapproval, discrimination, and overt disgust.

According to The National Center for Health Statistics, childhood obesity has risen alarmingly over the last thirty years. According to a 2007-2008 survey, nearly thirty percent of children and adolescents aged two to nineteen years are overweight or obese, meaning their Body Mass Index falls in the eighty-fifth percentile or above. The BMI scale for children takes age and sex into account. Toddlers should have more fat than teenagers and girls generally have more fat than boys. What our nation’s numbers say is that our children are getting fatter.

This is a tremendous cause for concern among healthcare leaders and social activists, including Michelle Obama, whose “Let’s Move” campaign is aimed at helping children be thinner and healthier. According to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005, our children are unlikely to live as long as their parents and grandparents due to increasing numbers of them developing “adult diseases” like Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

The pundits aren’t entirely sure what’s causing the rise in those diseases among children. They have theories: Ours is a go-go-go society, where no one seems to have time to cook anymore, let alone time to sit down for a meal. We are drowning in high fructose corn syrup, our schools don’t have time for recess, and our kids don’t have safe places to play after school.

Parents come in for a large portion of blame. In January 2012, the polling group Poll Position surveyed more than 1,100 adults by telephone, asking them their opinion of the causes of childhood obesity. More than one in three (thirty-four percent) attributed childhood obesity to a combination of poor parenting and poor food choice. An additional twenty-nine percent attributed it to poor parenting alone. Twenty-four percent cited poor food choice as the cause, four percent labeled childhood obesity a disease, and nine percent offered no opinion. All told, more than sixty percent polled placed the blame partly or totally with parents.

And among parents, mothers are seen as particularly at fault. This past January a study published in Pediatrics looking at participants of the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a project of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found a link between mother-toddler relationships and teenage obesity. Toddlers who had warm, nurturing, stress-free relationships with their mothers were less likely to be fat teens.

How has our nation responded to the news that our children are getting larger and their disease profile appears to be worsening?

In Georgia, the state holding the dubious honor of ranking second in childhood obesity, according to the U.S. Heath Resources and Services Administration, there has been a concerted media campaign aimed at raising awareness. Last fall, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta began sponsoring a $25 million Strong4Life campaign, airing television spots and plastering billboards with stark and gut-wrenching ads.

In the ad titled “Bobby,” the scene opens on an empty room containing only two folding chairs facing each other. A severely overweight woman walks in and sits in one chair. Bobby, her overweight son, perhaps ten or twelve years old, enters and sits down in the other. “Mom,” he asks, plaintively. “Why am I fat?” His mother puts her head down in apparent shame. A single drum beat sounds and the screen shifts to white lettering on black. “75% of parents of overweight kids ignore the problem,” it reads. “STOP SUGARCOATING IT, GEORGIA.”

The other ads in the campaign are much the same, warning parents that childhood obesity leads to diseases like Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. One spot shows a little girl choking back tears where she talks about being teased; in another, a boy tells us he doesn’t like to play with other kids. “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid,” proclaims the tag line.

Such an uncompromising treatment of the topic has come in for criticism as well as praise. To some, the ads are effective consciousness-raising tools. To others, they are a form of state-sanctioned bullying, which lays the groundwork for ostracizing fat kids.

Despite high-profile campaigns like Georgia’s, some health professionals believe Americans are still under-informed about the issue. Dr. David Katz is founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, dedicated to the investigation and prevention of chronic disease. He is also editor in chief of Childhood Obesity, a peer-reviewed medical journal. Katz argues that the U.S. is a culture in denial about the seriousness of childhood obesity.

“Type 2 diabetes is not fine, heart disease is not fine,” Katz tells me during a phone interview. “What we’ve got to get better at doing is attacking the problem but not attacking the people who have the problem.”

Katz points to research published in the journal Pediatrics in March 2006 that demonstrates how deeply parents are in denial about the state of their children’s bodies. Parents of overweight children are often overweight themselves. According to the research, these parents accurately describe their own weight, but then usually assume their children are lighter than they are.

Doctors aren’t necessarily on top of things either, he says. A December 2011 article in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine  showed that more than three-quarters of pediatricians aren’t telling parents when their children are too fat.

“Knowledge is power,” Katz says. “This is about empowering people to do something. Clearly the answer is not to ignore the relevant information.”

Katz has dedicated his career to helping “bend the obesity trend” in America. He is the senior medical advisor at Mindstream Academy, “a co-ed health and wellness boarding school” for obese teens founded in 2010 in Bluffton, South Carolina in 2010. He has also created a proprietary food scoring system called NuVal designed to help people lose weight. He has founded the Turn the Tide Foundation, dedicated to creating “a modern world in which eating well, being physically active, remaining lean and enjoying robust good health all lie along the path of least resistance, and are simply routine.”

Besides the medical pitfalls connected to childhood obesity, Katz is concerned about the psychological well being of fat kids. While he agrees that no child deserves to be bullied for his or her weight, he also believes a bias against obesity “is really a reflection of our society at large.” Fat people are at a disadvantage, he notes. Fat women, in particular, experience “diminished opportunity in the workplace, being paid less for the same job [and] they advance less rapidly.”

“All the kids I’ve interacted with [at Mindstream Academy] bring stories of persecution that range from a certain degree of unhappiness to suicidal thinking,” he tells me; children at the school are in an “existential crisis.”

“They are asking, can I fit into this world the way it is? Can I live? Can I function? Can I be happy? Every day they wrestle with those questions and most days the answer is no.”

This is the argument in a nutshell: Fat kids are miserable. They would be less miserable if they were less fat. Therefore we need to help fat kids lose weight.

In an enlightened age where we are having (mostly) reasonable discussions about transgender kids, anti-racism, and bullying in general, this attitude stands out. Rather than promoting tolerance, the accepted approach with obesity is to tell fat kids that they’re the ones who need to change.

The rationale for this approach lies in our belief that being fat is a choice. Katz’s Turn the Tide foundation reduces the obesity crisis to a simple formula: “We gain weight when too many calories in exceed too few calories out.” In other words, fat kids (and their parents) have the basic tools to change their bodies. If they change their bodies, they will be healthier and happier, in part because they’ll be more acceptable to the world at large.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Leaving aside the existence of food deserts—parts of the country where low income people don’t have access to fresh food—and whether or not pizza is a vegetable or if schools should house soda machines, the mechanics of weight loss and weight gain are a much more complex dance of genetics, hormones, environment, and behavior than the “calories in, calories out” argument would have us believe.

Most adults already know this: When we do manage to lose weight we usually put it back on. The same is true for kids. In a 2003 study published in Pediatrics examining the relation between dieting and weight change among preadolescents and adolescents, researchers looked at 16,000 children and found that tweens and teens who diet actually gain more weight than those who don’t. In fact, if you want to create obesity in a kid, put him or her on a diet. This is especially true for young women who diet, this and related studies show. Girls who diet gain more weight than those who don’t regardless of how fat or thin they were in the first place. So parents who panic at the first sign of weight gain in a child might be setting that child up for more struggles with weight down the road, not fewer.

Katja Rowell is a family doctor in Saint Paul, Minnesota, who left her medical practice to become a feeding specialist in private practice after her daughter was born. When she was in medical school in the late 1990s, she tells me, the sum of her nutrition training was a half hour on breastfeeding and a lunch-and-learn lecture from a nutritionist whose recommendations leaned toward processed, low-fat foods like “lite” cheese and low-sodium canned soups.

With that training under her belt and buoyed by conventional wisdom, she confidently gave parents advice about feeding their kids. When patients came in worried about their children’s weight gain, Rowell told them to monitor their kids’ calories and limit their access to food. When the children didn’t lose weight, even though the parents swore they were following her instructions, “I assumed they were lying,” she says.

It wasn’t until her own daughter was born in 2005 that Rowell realized that she knew what to feed her but not how. She started researching medical studies.

“There is actually a lot of data showing that overall lean and fat kids don’t eat any differently,” Rowell says. “There’s this bias we have. I had it, too. I used to see some fat kid walk by with a Starbucks drink with a bunch of whipped cream and think, ‘Oh my gosh, what is that parent thinking?’ What I didn’t see was that his skinny brother was drinking the same thing.”

Rowell began studying under Ellyn Satter, a therapist and registered dietician in Madison, Wisconsin, creator of the Division of Responsibility theory in feeding. In it, parents choose when and what to serve and children choose how much to eat. This means that Mom or Dad can put fried chicken, mashed potatoes, a green salad, and carrot cake on the table and their son or daughter can choose to eat however they like. A plateful of chicken. Carrot cake before the salad. A little bit of everything—or nothing but cake. Satter’s theories are based on her own research into the literature of nutrition combined with observation and forty years worth of work as a therapist and dietician.

When given access to a variety of foods, Rowell says, kids will make good choices—not at every meal, maybe, but if parents can nurture their children’s intuition, it will all even out at the end. On her blog, thefeedingdoctor.com, she writes about kids who turn away ice cream or overeat sugar cereal one day and then ask for oatmeal the next.

Rowell argues that the obesity epidemic doesn’t exist in the way we’re hearing about it. Old growth charts and misunderstandings about how healthy kids grow fuel the alarming statistics.

“Yes, there are more kids on the extreme high-end,” she says. “But if you look at the data, in the last ten years it’s actually been pretty stable. Kids and adults have gotten both bigger and taller and our longevity has increased as well during this time period.”

Current growth charts are based on the smaller, shorter people we used to be, Rowell says. As a result, more children appear to be in the upper percentile. Rowell asserts that the charts as a whole need to be moved up a notch to recognize our new normal. Children grow by fits and starts; bouncing around the percentiles is typical for healthy kids. When doctors and parents panic because a child has jumped from the seventy-fifth percentile to the eightieth and they respond by putting that child on a diet, they are interfering with what is likely the child’s natural way of growing.

“Kids will do these periods of incredible growth and they’re often preceded by weight gain,” she explains. “Sometimes kids will gain weight and kind of look a little bit softer and pudgier. Woe is the kid who shows up [for a check-up] right before their height spurt.”

While the Center for Disease Control report that our rate of obesity, based on 2007-2008 numbers, is stabilizing, they disagree that the charts should be adjusted or that we ignore what Dr. Katz calls, “the canary in the coal mine of chronic disease.” After all, health risks for fat kids are real, right?

That’s trickier to ferret out than you might think. The problem is that even the scientific literature is stuck in a chicken-or-egg discussion about behavior and results. Fat children are at higher risk for diabetes and hypertension, true. But it may be that obesity is a symptom, not a cause, of those diseases—and not always a reliable symptom at that. Some obese people get Type 2 diabetes and some do not. Some obese people develop cardiac disease and some do not. An October 2011 white paper, “Adult Obesity in Manitoba,” published by the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, reports that obese people did indeed use more health care services than did the normal and overweight population but that the difference was very small.

In other words, you cannot look at anyone, fat or thin, and know for certain the state of his or her health, say the size acceptance activists. There are fat children who are strong and healthy and active; there are thin children who don’t eat right or get enough exercise. Not all kids with diabetes are fat and not all fat kids have diabetes. So instead of discussing the healthcare costs of obesity, perhaps we ought to be talking about healthcare costs of behaviors—like eating poorly and not moving enough—that can be, but are not always, correlated with obesity.

That’s not to say that there are no fat people who should consider the benefits of weight loss. Yoni Freedhoff is a family doctor and founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, as well as an author of the blog WeightyMatters.ca that discusses obesity in North America. His goal is not necessarily to help his patients reach their dream weight but to help them improve their quality of life.

“Dieting—under eating and over exercising—that doesn’t work,” he says. “The reality is that to navigate this world from a healthy perspective requires skills that are less intuitive. We try to provide that support here and if the consequence is weight loss, good for them, but that’s not the focus of our office.”

Some of the skills Freedhoff is talking about are learning to cook, eating out less, and creating an exercise routine. Don’t get him wrong; he’ll help you lose weight if that’s what you want. But his primary goal is to get patients to see the bigger picture. Healthy lifestyle changes might help his clients reach and maintain just a five to ten percent weight loss. That’s usually enough to see marked differences in any obesity-related health problems.

If that approach marks Freedhoff out among his weight-matters peers, so does his clientele: He is adamant about not treating children in his clinic.

“Weight management is hard for insightful adults,” Freedhoff says. “[Children have] developing frontal lobes, the pressures of adolescence. I have concerns about programs, especially those that target younger kids. Children don’t have a lot of personal choice about their lifestyles. That’s why I’d rather only exclusively treat the parents and teach them healthy lifestyle changes, which may or may not help them lose weight.”

I recently spoke with Echo Leigh, a mother and photographer in Munford, Tennessee, who is struggling to figure out the healthiest way to raise her four kids, who have very different body types

“Three of them are skinny,” she tells me. “But my oldest daughter is a little bit overweight.”

Jaiden is nine years old and in the fourth grade. Leigh says that she is perhaps ten pounds too heavy.

“She’s always been a little thicker,” Leigh says, “I feel guilty, especially because she’s getting to the point that she’s noticing. I wish that I could take that pain away from her.”

Leigh wishes that her children’s school would help her figure out how to helpJaiden. Instead, she feels like they make her job harder. Jaiden has recess twenty minutes a day and P.E. class once a week. For a month last year, she participated in the Coordinated School Health curriculum sponsored by the local health department. Leigh doesn’t know much about what Jaiden learned in the program because Jaiden wouldn’t talk about it, except to say that she hated it.

And then there are the school lunches.

“It’s disheartening to see that this is what the federal government says is healthy for my kid,” Leigh says. “It’s a chicken fajita with a really soggy tortilla and greasy chicken. And cheese, oh my goodness gracious, with nachos.”

Leigh used to pack lunch for all of her kids (she even has an abandoned blog recording her attempts at making adorable and healthy Bento-style lunches) but, like most of us, sometimes she’s just too busy.

I identify with Leigh. She says she worries about her own weight, and while she tries not to talk about it too much in front of her kids, sometimes she does. She knows she should cook from scratch more often and exercise more but she’s busy and sometimes she falls short. The night I talk to her, the family is eating a frozen boxed dinner and she feels rotten about it.

“It was three dollars and I fed four of us and I’ll have leftovers,” she says. “But I still feel guilty for feeding my family something out of a box, truth be told.”

She says it’s hard not to treat her children differently because of their different body types.

“Is it nature or nurture?” she wonders. “I always try to figure it out. We try not to draw attention to it but we can’t hide that some clothes aren’t fitting her properly anymore. I was taught that you eat what you are given, you clean your plate, but now I kind of struggle. I don’t want them to waste food but …”

She trails off and sighs. “I have one really picky, picky eater and one that’ll eat everything. Everybody’s different. We don’t mind if so and so wants to eat extra helpings, maybe five frozen waffles, but then the other one you think, maybe she should stop at two.”

I can feel Leigh’s push and pull, wanting to raise a daughter who is healthy in both body and spirit and unsure of how to do this.

“There are worse things in the world than being fat,” she tells me. “I mean, she could be a serial killer.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to obesity, most people have an all-or-nothing attitude. Not long ago, I went out to eat at a buffet with a couple where the husband kept up a running commentary about the food choices of the fat people around him.

“Look at that, she’s going back for more,” he said, indicating one particularly corpulent woman. “And she’s getting cake this time, too, Lord Almighty.”

I sat silently, acutely aware of my own fatness. How could I defend this woman when my body made it clear that I didn’t know how to eat, either? That’s the thing about being fat or having fat kids or worrying about being fat or worrying about having fat kids: Every meal is a potential battleground. When we’ve internalized the values of a culture terrified of obesity, a piece of cake is never just a piece of cake.

Most of us don’t really know how to feed our kids. Theoretically, we do, sure. We know that whole wheat is better than white bread and that we should offer our kids an apple when they come home hungry and that having them help us in the kitchen is supposed to make them open to trying different kinds of food.

But in practice it’s a whole lot harder. Like Leigh I have one child who is a picky eater and one who is not. Trying to put something on the table every single night that everyone likes and that is healthy and fits our budget is my Waterloo. Throw in the ominous warnings about the obesity epidemic and sometimes I am so overwhelmed that I feel paralyzed. No wonder Leigh sometimes just throws a Banquet frozen meal in the oven and calls it a night. My version of that is ordering pizza.

That brings us back to Katja Rowell, the feeding specialist who thinks the obesity epidemic crisis is blown way out of proportion. The cornerstone of her feeding practice is the belief that children, when given the opportunity, can return to a place of eating competence.

“Eating competence” is a term that describes the ability to eat well instinctively. It’s the power to eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and to enjoy your food without guilt or anxiety. Competent eaters sometimes eat too much or eat too little but overall their diets balance out with their caloric needs. We are all born competent, intuitive eaters, but, needless to say, most of us don’t stay that way.

When I think about the Division of Responsibility approach and feeding kids I am reminded of Erma Bombeck’s definition of a sweater: “Something you wear when your mother is cold.” Most of us feed our children when we are hungry or because the clock tells us to. We deny them seconds on spaghetti until they eat their broccoli. We fret about leftover Halloween candy and birthday excess. The Division of Responsibility frees us up from this. Theoretically, we can trust that our kids will put on sweaters when they are cold and put aside the fun size candy bars when they’ve had enough sugar but only if we let them make mistakes along the way. That means sometimes leaving their coats at home or letting them overeat birthday cake. It also means that grabbing a frozen lasagna or ordering a pizza occasionally is no big deal. Life happens. We don’t always have time to mince onions.

“The number one hallmark of a competent eater is that they feel good around food, there is no angst and anxiety,” Rowell says. “They come to the table, they see what’s there and they can participate in a relatively pleasant family meal.”

But they can only feel good around food if we do. They can only eat without angst and anxiety if we’re not wringing our hands over them or trying to talk them into seeing food the way we want them to see it.

“If you tell the kid, okay, it’s corndogs for lunch, they’re much more likely to eat then if you say it’s a healthy corndog,” Rowell says. “The psychology we’re bringing into it, it screws kids up.”

She tells me about a poster she saw in a classroom. It featured a big picture of a delicious looking cupcake with a big slash through it. The legend read: THIS IS A NO SWEETS ZONE. Staring at the poster all day sets up a craving and addiction message for the students in the classroom, Rowell says. She tells me about a six-year-old child who broke into a neighbor’s house to get to food the little girl wasn’t allowed to eat at home.

“The woman found this little girl on the floor drinking juice boxes and emptying out Ritz crackers and cookies,” Rowell says. “I think a significant portion of kids who are denied so-called forbidden foods never learn how to handle those foods and that’s how you end up with a six-year-old bingeing at the neighbor’s house.”

Linda Bacon is an avid believer in competent eating. A nutrition professor in the biology department at City College of San Francisco and an associate nutritionist at the University of California, Davis, she is also the author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight.  First published in 2008 and now in its second edition, Health at Every Size is considered the bible for activists who want to reframe discussions about obesity and health. Health at Every Size—or HAES—proposes that everyone has a natural set-point weight. Some of us are naturally, healthfully bigger and some of us are naturally, healthfully smaller. HAES argues that if we focus on making healthy changes such as eating more vegetables or taking more walks, our bodies will be the sizes that they are meant to be. Some people will lose weight when they start practicing HAES and some will not; it’s most definitely not a diet book.

According to Bacon, eating too much or for the wrong reasons is actually a part of eating competently; we are human and fallible and always learning. The difference between the competent, intuitive eater and someone who does not trust her ability to intuitively monitor her own food intake is that the competent eater doesn’t beat herself up afterwards. She eats more sometimes because the food is delicious or because it’s a party or because she’s feeling a little down, but she works to tune in to what’s going on for her emotionally and physically so that she’s making decisions in harmony with her body. Nurturing herself in all ways is the goal.

Competent eaters can be fat or thin or somewhere in between. Different bodies naturally have different set points, something the discussion about the obesity epidemic doesn’t acknowledge, says Bacon.

Kathy Kater calls this the “denial of biological diversity.” Kater is a psychotherapist in St. Paul, Minnesota specializing in eating disorders.  She’s the creator of the book, Healthy Body Image, published by the National Eating Disorder Association which outlines a healthy body image, eating, and fitness curriculum targeted to children in grades four to six. Over the thirty years she’s been in practice, she’s seen the age of new patients steadily drop. It’s no longer unusual for her to have eight- and nine-year-old girls in her care.

It’s important to understand, she says, that it’s not just fat children who are negatively impacted by our war on obesity; thin children are growing up afraid of becoming fat, too.

“It just breaks your heart when you see these kids and some of them are chubby little kids and some of them are skinny little things and all of them have the same idea about fat that it’s just about the worst thing that could possibly happen. Kids are told that the reason to eat well and go out at recess and run around is so you don’t get fat. That message is delivered just that directly.”

In other words, say the Health at Every Size advocates, kids caught up in the current frenzy of the obesity epidemic are too often targeted with messages that demonize fat rather than promote health. This has several nasty side effects, they say, such as demonizing fat people and creating an atmosphere of fear and loathing around food.

For a child whose neurobiology is primed to develop an eating disorder, these messages can be deadly. Harriet Brown is the author of Brave Girl Eating (2010), a memoir about her eldest daughter’s struggle with anorexia.

“Kids are developing eating disorders younger and younger,” Brown says. “The numbers are not so much rising as that the ages are dropping down to eight-, nine- or ten-years old. Even kids who are five and six are learning this language. I think that’s a direct consequence of that pressure to be thin and not fat. Research shows that preschoolers now show a very strong preference for thinness.”

We need to take back the word fat, Brown says, and use it as the descriptor it’s meant to be.

“If I say to a friend in a casual way, ‘Oh, I can’t shop in that store because they don’t make clothes for fat people,’ my friend often rushes in to tell me I’m not fat,” Brown says. “But it’s just a descriptor to say that I have more avoirdupois than you do. Fat stands for so many things, as a negative. We need to reclaim it.”

Ragen Chastain wants to do just that. She’s a dancer, educator, writer, and activist who blogs at DancesWithFat.com.

Chastain’s father started criticizing her weight when she was still a preschooler. At the same time, “he made fun of me if I tried to do anything healthy,” she recalls. Chastain stayed active anyway. In high school she was a cheerleader, danced, and participated in team sports, but she was still heavy. A family friend sat her down at seventeen and asked her if she really wanted to start college overweight. Wasn’t college the chance to start a whole new life? So Chastain started dieting. She spent eight to ten hours a day working out, fueled by a mere eleven hundred calories. She lost weight but finally she collapsed “in the most dramatic fashion” while running on a treadmill. She was hospitalized with an eating disorder.

“I started to gain weight really rapidly because I’d tanked my metabolism [by dieting],” she says. The doctors were concerned about her weight gain, which is how she ended up being told that she needed to lose weight while still hospitalized for an eating disorder.

(This reminds me of an anecdote Harriet Brown writes about in her memoir. Her daughter had just been diagnosed with anorexia and was about to have another test. The medical technician, making small talk, compliments Harriet’s daughter on her thinness. I tell Chastain this story and she sighs. It’s all too familiar.)

Over the next few years, Chastain ran through a long list of diet plans—Jenny Craig, Medifast, Quick Weight Loss Center—which she now sees as a continuation of her eating disorder. She tried lifestyle changes and formal eating plans but continued to gain. Eventually she enrolled herself in an inpatient program, featuring a menu that actually offered less food than she was eating just before she was hospitalized. Despite the low calories, she was still gaining a pound a week. She decided to leave. “I was paying a lot of money to gain weight,” she says drily. Before she left, however, an employee brought her into a small room with motivational “Don’t quit!” posters and handed her a binder full of pictures of fat women.

“She said, ‘You might not know it, but this is what you look like, and these women are destined to be alone,'” she told me. “It was a revelation. I realized that I didn’t have a problem with their bodies. I didn’t have assumptions about who they were or what their lives were like. I thought ‘If I can appreciate their bodies, couldn’t I do that for myself?'”

Chastain went home and made a list of every single thing she liked about her body—its capacity to breathe, its strength and stamina. She began to exercise for the love of it instead of to lose weight. Every time she had a negative thought about her body she went back to the list and consciously chose a positive one to replace it.

“I started looking at the diets I’d done and realized that I was using weight loss as a proxy for healthy behaviors. If I want health, why wouldn’t I focus on health? My body would work itself out.”

The result, Chastain says, is that she’s healthier now than when she was dieting.

“I am type 3 super obese, you can’t get fatter than me on the obesity charts but you can’t get healthier than me either. My numbers are in the exceptional range—blood pressure, blood glucose. I have better numbers than my doctor. I can do the splits; I can press a thousand pounds with my legs. I do interval training at the level of a professional athlete.”

Chastain regularly speaks at schools about health and physical activity. During the question and answer periods after her presentations the children often ask her if she ever wants to lose weight so people won’t make fun of her. “I say no, I just want people to stop treating me poorly.” She tells them, “It’s really dangerous when we start to say that the solution to teasing is to make the person teasing you happy.”

“I get a lot of e-mails and stuff that make me cry. Like the one from a little girl that said ‘I’m twelve years old and I can’t lose weight but it never occurred to me that I could still be happy.’ ” She recalls another little girl who wanted to dance but told Chastain her father said he wouldn’t enroll her in dance classes until she lost weight.  “Here’s a little girl being kept from movement. We’re keeping health away from them. Let’s not pretend that our singular standard of beauty is the same thing as health.”

Bloggers who write about fat politics have a name for people who write hateful comments under the guise of compassion: concern trolls. They don’t just exist online either. In real life, they’re the people who will stop a fat person in the buffet line at a party and say, “Should you really eat that? I’m just worried about your health.”

Concern trolls may be doing more than hurting people’s feelings. Peter Muennig is a researcher and assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. His work focuses on the intersection of health and social justice. According to his research, health risks associated with obesity are caused in part, he writes, by “the psychological stress induced by the social stigma associated with being obese.” In other words, perhaps the Strong4Life ads in Georgia aren’t practicing tough love so much as they’re endorsing a cultural mindset that is actually causing the very problems it purports to be fighting.

According to Muennig’s research our anti-fat climate may be hurting our children far more than the weight they’re carrying. Perhaps we could do more to improve their health of every child by modeling greater acceptance of size diversity. As Linda Bacon says, “What we know is that self-hatred is never a healthy motivation for change; people take good care of things that they like.”

“Everybody has assumptions about what somebody’s weight means,” Bacon says. “It’s not that we’re saying that health habits are unimportant. We just believe that focusing on changing someone’s weight doesn’t necessarily change their health.”

So why do we continue to make weight a proxy for health? Bacon believes that our culture frames obesity as a health issue as a way to make discrimination acceptable and to avoid a discussion about social injustice.

“Our culture is really based on unfairness,” Bacon tells me. “Weightism is not much different than racism.”

“Thin people are getting hurt, too,” she says. “What we see when we look at healthcare is that nobody gets good treatment [in this climate]. There are a lot of thin people that have the diseases we tend to blame on weight but there’s an assumption that because they’re thin, they’re okay. They get the message that what they eat doesn’t matter because they’re thin enough so they don’t have to worry about it.”

I ask Bacon if she has hope that society can change, that we can become nuanced in our discussions and silence the concern trolls. She is silent then she says that she thinks Health at Every Size thinking will never be mainstream because there’s no money in it.

“Who would need mascara if you believed your eyes were beautiful without it? Even cars are sold on the idea that they will make you appear sexy and attractive to other people; first they have to make you feel inadequate. Everyone has a stake in our self-hatred.”

Author’s Note: My daughter is eight now and she has, like most girls her age, become more aware of her body. She is taller and bigger than anyone else in her homeschool classes and sometimes she feels self-conscious about it. We often talk about the lack of body diversity we see on television and we talk about the way the media uses our bodies to try to convince us we need to buy what they’re selling. I have also learned to call myself fat without flinching, using it as the descriptor it’s meant to be, because I know that it’s a word that’s already been lobbed against my daughter as an insult.

“Some people have straight bodies,” she says, using her made-up euphemism for skinny. “And some people are round. I have a round body. I eat a variety of foods and I run around a lot, I ride my scooter and I jump on the trampoline. That’s just how my body is supposed to be.”

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

Dawn Friedman is a therapist in private practice in Columbus, Ohio. Her website is dawnfriedman.com.

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Dear Drudgery: I Am Totally Breaking Up With You

Dear Drudgery: I Am Totally Breaking Up With You

0-1“Jeez, Mom! You don’t have to yell!”

“Really? ‘Cause it seems like I do. Just once, I’d like to see you people hang up your backpacks without me having to THROW A TEMPER TANTRUM!”

Sometimes, I come a tiny bit unraveled.

Sometimes, the responsibilities that come with the charming children and the stressy job and just existing on the planet, really, become too much. The drudgey form my life has taken sends me into something of a spin.

A few years ago was my nadir. I scarcely recognized the pinched, exhausted woman staring hollowly back at me above the bathroom sink.

I moved through each day beseeching everyone I encountered to understand that I was not, actually, the careworn hag before them:  I am so damn fun on the inside, I mentally assured coworkers, PTA parents, the checkout guy at Safeway. You people have no idea.

When you find yourself explaining, even internally, that the person you’re being is not the person you are, it’s possible that something is amiss.

As I hit drudge bottom, I knew I wanted to be more fun, to have more fun. But the thought of adding fun activities to my schedule got me exhausted all over again. I needed more outward manifestations of my inner fun person, but where would I find the time?

I stewed for a while.

At last, I announced my solution in the minivan. “I have critical information for you people,” I said, as we headed out for a Saturday of epic birthday-shopping, practice-attending, errand-running proportion. “I’ve made a commitment, and I want to say it out loud so that you can hold me to it.”

My pause here was perhaps overly dramatic. “I am committed to fun.”

While Eldest and Youngest processed this information, Middlest piped up from the way back. “So, like, you’re only going to do fun stuff?” He pitched another M&M in the air and tried to catch it in his mouth. For Middlest, manifesting his inner fun person had never been much of an issue.  “What about going to work, and driving us places?”

“Exactly,” I said. “I can’t drop the things I do already, so this won’t be easy. That’s why I have to be committed.”

My family seemed game. Also, a little disbelieving and not so interested. No matter. The drudgery was my problem. I’d take it from here.

Eleanor Roosevelt, righteous badass and mother of six, was being her supergenius self when she said “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” And you know what? Ditto drudge. I’d let myself get all drudgey, and I could revoke my pass. I was committed to finding fun all over the place. Given my dearth of disposable time, the first step would be to fun-ify necessary tasks.

I like a challenge, so for my starter funification I took on the piece of my world that made me the craziest: nagging. I knew I couldn’t eliminate it; our whole house would implode. But could nagging be hauled out of the drudge zone?  Could I make nagging … fun?

I poked around in my brain, and realized that I had let a lot of things that brought me joy fall to the wayside. That way lies drudgehood, I was convinced. So: What used to please me that I’d let slip away?

Travel, poetry, loud music in a car with no roof. Flowers everywhere, staying out late. Hmm.

When I began composing in the genre we would christen Hassle Poetry, my primary medium was haiku. I found it freeing that my commitment was to fun, not literary excellence.

I taped my first effort to our twelve-year-old’s bedroom door:

My darling daughter,

Teeth cannot straighten themselves.

Call Doc Shapiro.

Sometimes I would add a little vocab lesson, just because I could:

Bifurcation means

Something one, now split in two

Where’s the other sock?

(Lovelies, please: Put all your laundry in the hamper)

I taped my poems to math books and wrote them in toothpaste on the bathroom mirror. They were certainly no less effective than standard nagging, sometimes more so, and the whole operation made me grin.

Kids come into our lives and move into the center, which is exactly where I wanted mine. But there’s lots of room in there. I’d just forgotten is all. Hassle poetry was my first foray into joyfully, goofily, tucking other things I love back in the center of my mothering. As time went on, my offerings would get bigger.

 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

 

Etiquette and the Toilet Seat

Etiquette and the Toilet Seat

 

totoHave you ever sat down on the toilet and found yourself nearly falling in because someone (ahem) did not put the seat down?

For the most part, I live amongst the civilized, which is saying something because I have a husband and four kids, three of them boys and two of the boys, teenagers. Plenty of frustrating things happen when you live with other people, such as stumbling upon wet towels heaped on the bathroom floor or following a blazing trail of lights first thing in the morning. Those are just my personal pet peeves. I’m equally guilty of annoyance (according to my teenagers, sometimes, my existence counts as an annoying habit).

The seat up problem is something I abhor enough to have enforced a put-the-seat-down mandate for my husband and my sons. I began seat down behavior modification long before my husband and I got married, when we were dating and he still wanted to make a good impression upon me. I started to train my boys as soon as they began to stand up to pee. They are pretty good about the seat but they still forget, and I tend to hold grudges about this every single time it happens. It’s not even that I nearly fall in (generally, I see the seat aloft before I try to sit), but when I dip, especially first thing in the morning—and therefore begin my day with a startled reflexive narrow escape from unwanted wet tushiness, I get grumpy. My ability to shake early morning disgruntlement is lacking. There’s nothing like family life to encourage a person to work on forgiveness. Trust me—I’m trying.

I do imagine this particular form of considerateness is one that people who live with other people should demonstrate. When someone (presumably male) forgets to put the seat down, my sense of injustice flares. I’m not content to leave this negligence alone. I rail against such poor etiquette. However, I think my standards may be high, because whenever I go into a unisex public bathroom, inevitably, I find the toilet seat up. It’s possible that men do not value women’s comfort. Note: this is an unscientific study.

I’m not a sociologist so I took to the Internet to see whether there were any guidelines to proper bathroom protocol or if the Wild West reigns supreme. I found Modern Manners Guy with an answer: “When it comes to the perennial debate between men and women about the toilet seat, the answer (for everyone) is to leave both the toilet seat and cover down. It’s just polite.”

Male-humans who use unisex public bathrooms, please take note.

The good news is that technology may help us all. Newer toilet seat designs lower very quietly—no big, loud slam. I think (or hope, or pretend) that this feature means seats lower so much more seamlessly that people (male people) can ease the seat into the polite position. We have two newfangled toilets in our house, because two years ago, two older toilets broke at the very same time. These seats tend to be in the correct position whenever I walk into the bathroom. Although I admit it’s possible I’ve just trained my family very well.

Of course, the person who finds the toilet seat up and the ensuing predicament most amusing is my five-year-old daughter. A slapstick plunge into the toilet—if it’s not at her bum’s expense—is as hilarious as life gets. Although I want her to be incensed about a raised toilet seat (her turn will come), I also think she has a point: laugh more, even at yourself and you’ll be happier—and find the bathroom a funnier place to boot.

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Outbound

Outbound

 

spring2008_mayorI took my son on a bus ride. Boston, Massachusetts, to Ithaca, New York.

In a car, the trip from Boston to Ithaca takes six and a half hours with a pee break; eight if you add a second pit stop with lunch; twelve if you give yourself the quintessential summertime gift of detouring through Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In a Greyhound bus, that same journey inexplicably routes you first through New York City, then New Jersey, then Pennsylvania, then upstate New York till you arrive, like weary Odysseus lo those many centuries before, in Ithaca. Total time, station to station: nine hours, fifty-four minutes.

“It’s an adventure,” I told Connor as we stood waiting for the driver to take our tickets at 7:30 on a July morning already warm enough to heat up and distribute exhaust fumes to every corner of the bus station. In lieu of summer camp, I was taking him to spend a week with my college roommate and her family, his first time far from home without us. “If we hate it, it’s just one day lost out of our lives, and we’ll never do it again.”

Connor banged his forehead against my shoulder in a mock is-this-really-my-life gesture. The impact was enough to send me jumping back to keep my takeout coffee from sloshing on our feet. All spring we’d been dealing with these bodily mishaps–the playful punches that wound up bruising, the hip checks that sent us sprawling across the kitchen.

He was twelve and a half, suddenly just three inches shorter than me, on the edge of something and edgy at home. He’d finished kayak camp in June, already knocked back half a dozen Star Wars novelizations, and seemed committed to spending the rest of the summer idly provoking his brother and interrupting the dog’s nap. It was time, his father and I thought, to get Connor out of his comfort zone.

If discomfort is what we sought, discomfort was what we got. It was freezing inside the bus. Not chilly cold, but meat-locker cold. In my straw bag we’d packed the typical modern array of digital amusements (one laptop, one game system, one cell phone, two iPods) plus a few analog backup devices (two novels, three magazines, a deck of cards) and a pound of M&M Plains that was already hovering on the edge of my radar. But my summer-weight cotton sweater and his requisite ‘tween hoodie were stowed in Connor’s bag underneath the bus, tantalizingly close but irretrievable.

When the bus pulled off the highway a half hour into our trip to pick up more passengers, I popped up the aisle and out into the sunshine to take care of the problem, all jaunty, can-do momitude in my city walking shorts and red leather clogs.

The driver was loading the last of the new luggage into the bay. “My son is cold,” I said to him, smiling, rubbing my hands together to show him what I meant, hoping that when he heard the word “son” he pictured a shivering infant rather than a strapping twelve-year-old. “I thought I’d just grab our sweaters real quick.”

He turned his face slightly in my direction, not meeting my eye, then turned silently back to the bay. It was completely packed. Leaning in, I couldn’t see even a corner of our duffle in the back.

I got back on the bus. Connor had retracted his arms inside his T-shirt like a turtle. “How many hours to New York?” he asked, aghast. “Four,” I told him, which wasn’t true; it was four and a half. “Take my clogs. They’re warmer.” He unstrapped his river sandals.

For what would be the only time in our lives, we were wearing the exact same shoe size. We swapped footwear, wrapped ourselves around each other like puppies and looked out the cold window at the sun-warmed world outside, the wildflowers on the side of the highway waving in the hot breeze as we blasted by.

“Why are you taking the bus?” people had asked in the week before our departure, in tones that suggested urine-soaked seatmates, dirty terminals, and probable criminal behavior against one’s person and possessions. “Gas isn’t that high.”

Gas was indeed that high, but not yet as high as two Greyhound tickets. Moreover, we had two perfectly good working vehicles in our driveway, and I’d made the run to Ithaca dozens of times before. I adore road trips. One summer, a friend and I drove nine thousand miles in a big loop around the country in a tiny car the color of a pencil with no air-conditioning, and often we logged five hundred miles in a day no problem.

But I was twenty-four then, not forty-four. Now in a typical week I drive the same roads over and over at the same time of day, and many afternoons I find myself staring through the windshield with all the mental acuity of a goldfish in its bowl. Much as I hate to admit it, a tiny part of me wasn’t sure I could trust myself to pay attention for that long anymore.

Plus, I was sick of being in charge. On the highway, you feel duty-bound as a driver to judge your fellow travelers as you maneuver in and around one another, pulling ahead to pass them or switching lanes to let them blow by you doing eighty-five. You feel obligated to at least consider calling the cops about the way that mattress is hanging off the back end of the pickup ahead of you.

And if you’re a twelve-year-old boy and your mother is at the wheel and the journey is long, it’s simply impossible not to see her as an eminently lobbyable person, someone who might at any moment agree to exit the highway and head for that Quiznos over there, or stop for the laser tag or putt-putt golf advertised on that billboard, or buy a Big Bag of Skittles at the Stop ‘n’ Go, or detour to Howe Caverns, if only she’s asked frequently enough at sufficiently random intervals.

In the bus, we are driven. The driver is in charge, and because it’s clear from the outset he’s not going to stop for Skittles, we don’t ask. We sit next to one another as equals, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, riding companionably with our fellow travelers, each of us on our own journey but together for now in the same bus hurtling communally down the highway.

As we got closer to New York, we did the things done by New Englanders who don’t get down there much. We hissed out the window, as dutiful Red Sox fans should, at Shea Stadium in the distance; pressed our foreheads against the glass to watch the foreign world of the Bronx whisk past; said things like, “there’s the Triborough Bridge,” but not too loudly in case we were all turned around and that was in fact the Whitestone Bridge we were looking at; passed landmarks even Northern rubes like us couldn’t miss–the Museum of Natural History, Central Park–and then suddenly we were sucked from the daylight into the dark maw of Port Authority.

Connor unfurled our yard-long ribbon of fan-folded tickets to figure out our timetable. “Great news,” he reported. It seemed we had almost two hours before our next bus–to Binghamton–pulled out. Plenty of time, he figured, to bop up to the Nintendo World megastore at Rockefeller Center.

As it turned out, we had just enough time to navigate through three levels of the building, utterly lost, before finding the departure gate to Binghamton, where the only bus of the afternoon was leaving immediately, our tickets’ printed departure time be damned.

This bus was warmer, better. The seats were higher, the windows bigger, the clientele different enough (old couples rather than young students) to make us feel we’d been somewhere, traveled somehow. We lurched out of the terminal, dropped into the shabby cavern of the Lincoln Tunnel, and then we were done–out of New York just as quickly as we’d gone in.

As the day wore on, Connor listened to his music, eyes open but unseeing, staring absently at the houndstooth check of the upholstery in front of him. I looked at my boy, his face so close to mine, with his high cheekbones and thick brown hair standing on end in places and his caramel-colored eyes, the lip that may or may not have the faintest beginning of fuzz on it, his smooth skin with the tiniest hints of pores to come. Short, thick eyelashes. Almond-shaped eyes, straight nose. He is a dead ringer for his father, only purer. More intense.

Connor turned, pulling out an ear bud. “What are you looking at?” he said.

“Nothing,” I told him.

Loving an adolescent is a lot like being an adolescent—you have to hide the intensity of your feelings, the sheer volume and volubility of your emotions, lest you scare off the people around you. “Break out those M&Ms,” I said.

For lunch, we ate orange peanut-butter-crackers, a little box each of raisins, and as much candy as we could handle at one time without feeling sick. In between, Connor described in exhaustive detail how to win when playing “Age of Empires.” (Hint: Destroy the other armies one at a time.) Then we played Crazy 8s, one of the few card games that lends itself to the tight confines of a bus seat, followed by, when we got bored with the 8s, Crazy 7s, Crazy 2s and Crazy Aces. Connor laughed out loud at how easy it was to fool me by playing the wild card from the previous game.

In Binghamton, it dawned on us that the two-something hours we’d managed to pick up along the journey were to be squandered in a bus station that overlooked another bus station in one direction and three crumbling parking lots in the others. There were no earlier buses to Ithaca, now a frustratingly close fifty minutes away.

We walked once around the outside of the building, just to be outdoors, but a hot wind was blowing dirt through the air and our luggage, which we didn’t dare to leave unattended inside, was heavy. We were the only two people out of doors who weren’t there to smoke. This, I said to myself as we retreated back inside, is what people were imagining when they had said, “You’re taking the bus?”

Connor checked my cell phone for messages (there were none), then compensated by leaving a long mournful message for his father and brother on our home answering machine that made our entire journey sound simultaneously disastrous and boring, while I talked over him in the background, saying things like “That’s not true,” and “It’s not so bad.”

On the bus to Ithaca, our last and shortest hop, I tried to think what I should say to Connor about his upcoming week away that wouldn’t sound like micromanaging–advice about how to handle his laundry, how to politely eat around food he didn’t like, how to share a single bathroom with five people, how it was possible at the same time to feel horribly homesick and be having a wonderful time.

In the end, it all seemed like too much yap, so I said none of it, settling instead on an all-purpose maxim. “Try to be more polite with them than you are with us,” I said. We both laughed.

“I’m going to miss you, pup,” I told him, fluffing his hair.

He shrugged. “I’ll IM you.”

We arrived in Ithaca on time to the minute, 5:24 p.m. Our friends took us straight from the bus station to their boat, and as the warm summer evening spread like glass over Cayuga Lake, our trip began already to feel like something we did once, as a lark, a long time ago.

Going home alone the next day was a different kind of journey. The bus headed straight north to Syracuse, mounting the long, slow hill that climbs for miles high above the lake, then back across the New York State Thruway and the Mass Pike, as direct a trip as you could want.

I sat by myself in a window seat and did something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager myself: read an entire novel, cover to cover, in one summer day. I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf, a book so pitch-perfect that every once in a while I had to put it down for a moment, out of respect for its flawlessness. During those pauses I stared out the window and let my thoughts swim around the edges of my boy, stopping here and there on practical things. Had he remembered to bring an extra pair of sneakers, as I had asked him to? Did I give him enough money for the movies, and, if I did, had he put it somewhere where he’d be able to find it again?

But my thoughts kept sliding closer to the essence of our trip. He hadn’t asked for any of this; I had been the one to set it all in motion. But he hadn’t said no, either. We might miss each other terribly, or we might both be perfectly fine. Either way, there was nothing to do now but let the hours unfold until the week was up and I was back again.

I felt hollow under the breastbone and tight at the base of my throat. Missing someone fiercely feels a little like anxiety and a little like grief, but it’s lighter, more buoyant. It’s just plain love, only stretched out long.

As the bus headed east toward Boston, the afternoon slant of the summer sun on the wide window created a hovering double reflection, with an image of the interior of the bus superimposed against the picture of the world outside. I looked out and watched the country flying past and, at the same moment, my own self hurtling forward.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

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Why I Got a Tattoo With My 18-Year-Old Daughter

Why I Got a Tattoo With My 18-Year-Old Daughter

Vector illustration, template for your design

By Carolyn Butcher

I’m no tramp, but at the age of 48 I had a tattoo of a monarch butterfly applied to the back of my right hip. It is in flight–the tawny orange wings are up and the long, graceful hind legs float behind it as if it has just taken off from a flower. It is a butterfly in its prime.

This is the story of why it is there: Around the time of her fourteenth birthday, my daughter came to me with a look that told me I was about to face one of those parental moments that have to be handled just right. With her hand on her hip, Susannah said: “I’m going to get a tattoo.”

“Well,” I said, playing for time, “I have always told you and your brother that you are responsible for your own bodies, so if you really want to do something permanent like that …”

“WHAT?” she shrieked, “You would actually let me get a tattoo?”

My answer to this utilized the golden bluffing rule: When unsure of your facts, state them with such conviction that the opposing side would question their own certainty of your error. I told her: “It is not a question of whether I would let you or not because I would have no say in the matter. After all, no reputable tattoo clinic would take you as a client until you are 18-years-old.”

I had no idea if I was correct, but by using the adjective “reputable” I had an out. If my daughter continued with this plan to mutilate the beautiful alabaster skin that I had lovingly patted with baby powder, protected with SPF 40, and healed with kisses when her brother and his friends had chucked her out of the Little Red Flyer; if she was able to make an appointment at a tattoo parlor, I could always say: “Oh well, they can’t be reputable,” and then frighten the hell out of her with hygiene concerns.

It was only a test–this time–but just when we were both safely back in our corners, I made what some might consider a fatal error, but which turned out to be my Fortunate Fall. Susannah asked: “Surely you don’t like tattoos do you? I mean, you would never get one would you?”

“I would never say never,” I said.

Susannah’s response was joyous and sure: “OK, on my 18th birthday we’ll get tattooed together.” And every year after that, on her birthday, she would give me a look that went through my eyes and connected to my core and say: “Three more years …,” “Two more years …,” and then, “Next year.”

*****

The Christmas before Susannah’s 18th birthday, my mother, who lived in London, died of ovarian cancer. Although she and I had certainly had our own share of verbal battles when I was a teenager, we had grown very close when I had my own family and we talked by phone daily.

I flew to England on the overnight flight on December 19, 1999. Earlier that day, my brother had called me from the hospital and said our mother was close to death; she knew I was on my way and he thought she was waiting for me. I hung up the phone feeling her very close to me and walked into my kitchen where the sun was just hitting the climbing rose outside the back door. Suddenly, an enormous monarch butterfly flew into the sunbeam and floated up and down, back and forth, basking in the warmth.

I thought about the pain my mother, my brother and I would all feel if I walked into her hospital room straight from the airport. As I looked at the monarch, still flitting quietly in the sun, I realized that my mother and I had nothing that needed to be said. Out loud, I said: “Don’t wait for me.  It’s really OK.”

Within the hour the phone rang and my brother said simply, “She’s gone.”

*****

The following April, when Susannah turned 18 and said, “OK Mum, let’s go and get that tattoo,” I had no hesitation. I felt honored that my daughter wanted to commemorate her entrance to adulthood by getting tattooed with her mother, and I knew exactly what I wanted to have done.

I have a tattoo of a monarch butterfly on the back of my right hip.

Carolyn Butcher is a writer living in Santa Barbara, California, who lectures in English Literature at Santa Barbara City College. “The Butterfly” is adapted  from her memoir, “The Posterity Box,” which is a book of reflections triggered by relics of her past.

Why I Didn’t Want to Medicate My Daughter With a Magic Pill

Why I Didn’t Want to Medicate My Daughter With a Magic Pill

By Jenn Amock

0-4From childhood, I’ve been wary of magic.

Our culture and media trained me to be. Look at what happens to the prince in Disney’s Princess and the Frog when he goes to the voodoo man to try to get riches. Or there’s the queen in Rumpelstiltskin who almost has to give up her child in exchange for help landing her man. And even in Snow White, it is the magic potion in the apple that almost kills her.

In all of these stores, the message is clear. Magic comes with a price. You don’t get what you expect in the end. It’s better to be honest, do the hard work, and don’t rely on magic shortcuts to get your end rewards.

So you can see my hesitation with parts of modern medicine, especially pills. I mean, there’s always some side effect when you take medicine. So, if there’s a way to tough it out, change my diet, add more exercise, or get more sleep, I’d rather do that than some kind of chemical intervention.

All this got challenged when my daughter started kindergarten and began having trouble in school.

Over her first three years of school, we watched a pattern emerge. She would start the school year excited and engaged. Then, as the year progressed, the novelty wore off, and the reserves of strength built up over an unstructured summer got worn down, and we would hear from the teachers.

“She’s not completing her work,” they would say. “She doesn’t seem to be progressing. She’s not playing with the other students. She wiggles out of her seat. I just can’t get her to pay attention at all.”

Some of it I could understand. She had very asynchronous development. Intellectually, she was like a kid in a candy store with an unlimited budget. She could recognize every letter of the alphabet at 17 months old and multiply two digit numbers in her head at six years old. She could create stories in her head with the complexity of a multi-level video game at six. Yet her awareness of her body in space (which I have learned is called proprioceptive awareness) was delayed. She could not keep track of where her feet might need to be to keep from tripping over something, she wiggled incessantly, and you could forget dribbling a basketball.

Despite knowing these things, I didn’t know how to understand what the teachers were telling me. It had to be that she was just young. It must just be that the teachers weren’t trying hard enough to engage her. After all, it couldn’t be that something was wrong with her.

But my husband and I didn’t want to rule out a need for some extra help.

So, we went through rounds of specialists: pediatrician, occupational therapist, neuropsychologist, developmental optometrist and finally neurologist. We heard different things, “sensory integration disorder,” “extremely bright and gifted,” “written expression disorder,” “dysgraphia,” and finally “ADHD, predominantly inattentive type.” Through occupational therapy, writing therapy, applied behavioral therapy, in-class intervention, vision therapy, nutritional supplements, a gluten-free diet … we tried almost everything to help her. Except medication.

None of it helped her pay attention in school or do her work any faster.

But still, I did not want to put stimulants into my daughter. “I am NOT putting my child on medication,” I said multiple times.

Was it fear? Was I was afraid of some of the effects that I’d heard other kids go through: the pain of coming off the pills, addiction to stimulants, not knowing how to regulate herself when she’s older, bad drug combinations when she’s a teenager, feeling generally weird and not like herself, losing her wonderful imagination, anxiety, lack of appetite, lack of sleep?

Or was the part about not wanting to take the shortcut? Did I think that it was cheating to do it with the meds? Did I think that she would lose out on learning to self-regulate if I gave her a pill?

Or was it a third thing? Was it denial? Did I just not want to believe that my daughter really couldn’t do it on her own?

I think it was all the above.

But, one particularly difficult day, after a very talented and understanding teacher told me my daughter was having trouble staying present through a four-sentence conversation, I watched my sweet girl struggle to pay enough attention to her math homework to even write the number 6.

And I said, “This is enough.  It’s too hard on her.” I called her neurologist’s office and said, “It’s time to try medication.”

So they gave us pills. They gave us an extended release version of a fast-acting stimulant. The low dose is metabolized over the course of 10 – 12 hours – just long enough for my daughter to do her schoolwork, but not so long that it’s still in her system when she’s trying to sleep. And there’s no need to use it on weekends or vacations.

I skeptically tried it, watching carefully for side effects. All I saw the first day was my wonderful, playful daughter who maybe had an easier time finishing her thoughts when she spoke.

But at school, her teachers told me it was a radical difference. She did her work without redirection. She stopped rolling around on the floor during carpet time. She expressed opinions without being asked. She began socializing with the other kids and working well in a group project. All in the first week.

I am sure that this little pill really isn’t going to solve all her attention problems on its own. We still have to work on some other skills. As she grows, we will have to change dosage and prescriptions. And sometimes she won’t like it as much as she does right now.

But in the meantime, it’s making me rethink my position on magic.

Because magic isn’t always dark and dangerous in those stories. Sometimes there’s good magic that’s used to counteract the bad magic. And that’s always the magic that comes from a place deep inside of us. A place that comes from the most true form of love.

And I’m hoping that this turns out to be that kind of magic pill.

Jenn Amock is a former marketing professional turned Mom and freelance writer.  She lives in Texas and has two daughters.

The Difference a Mother Makes

The Difference a Mother Makes

By Anne-Christine Strugnell

WO Difference a mom makes art v2I’ve always been interested in brain development, but having two teenagers has driven me to learn more. Like any mom, I want to provide them what they need—and figure out how to make them into the people I want them to be.

So at 5:30 a.m. every school day I’ve been getting up to exercise on the elliptical trainer in my living room and watch the latest DVD installment of a 36-part Teaching Company series on neuroscience. At 6:15 I finish the lecture and start my mom day: knock on my son’s door and my daughter’s, make her a cup of sugar-free non-fat hot cocoa, and put it on the bathroom counter so she will unknowingly build critical bone mass while applying thick black eyeliner. I make lunch for the kids—sandwiches and organic apples—and watch the clock to keep our carpooling commitments. And in the midst of all this nurturing, I think about neuroscience.

I got off to a good start with this course. In one early episode, the lecturer, neuroscientist Sam Wang, talked about the Mozart effect, a concept that infants who listened to Mozart became more intelligent, creative, and focused than those whose neglectful mothers—like me—played mostly rock. The Mozart effect was all the rage when my kids were babies, and some women in my newborn’s play group looked at me like I belonged in mommy prison when I turned down the chance to buy the CD, the book, and the video. Dr. Wang dismissed the Mozart effect as sense- less hype. From then on, he had total credibility with me.

There were other reasons to listen to him: he’s an associate professor at Princeton, coauthor of a bestselling book about brain function, and the winner of some major awards in his field. I had to remind myself of his credentials just a few episodes later, when I felt tempted to write him off after his teachings put me in the maternal doghouse. Turns out, I should have taught my kids to speak a foreign language before they turned three. I should have played specific games designed in the clinic to build their intellectual and social abilities. But now it was too late. I had doomed them to being outpaced and humiliated by all those kids whose parents had trained them properly. I crept off the elliptical at the end of that lecture, chastened. Why had I not carried out extensive research and acted on the latest findings when they were infants? What could possibly have been more important?

I returned the next morning grimly determined to hear the worst. Dr. Wang was going to talk about personality, heredity, and environment. I thought for sure that this lecture would unleash a withering internal blamestorm. But I was wrong.

Dr. Wang informed me that heredity determines between 30 to 50% of personality and intellectual potential. No blame here: I got my genes without choosing, and passed them on the same way. And since their dad contributed the other half, I’ve decided only to claim the qualities that I like. When they show artistic gifts, I remind them about the artists in my family. If they later develop any tendencies toward addiction or depression—well, those could have come from anywhere.

Environment shapes the remaining 50 to 70% of personality. I perked up. Though I’d have to take the blame for everything they do wrong, I could also claim credit for some of their accomplishments. Good grades—well, who reviewed all those flash cards with them? Self-confidence and poise—who sent them to drama camp? Who always encouraged their dreams, praised effort but not accomplishment, and linked actions with logical consequences to help build strong characters? That would be me.

But Dr. Wang wasn’t dishing out either blame or praise. He said that though parents love to think they can make a difference, children have innate tendencies that are very hard to influence—which I have to admit I had already noticed. In fact, he said, parents have relatively little influence over how personality develops.

As with all the most important teaching points in the lecture, the words appeared on screen. “Parents have relatively little influence over how personality develops.”

The most influential factors are pre-natal health, environment, the presence of siblings, peer groups, and chance events. Parents, not so much.

At first this seemed like bad news. Bad, as in, “I’ve wasted the past 16 years.”

The lecture ended and I automatically went about my cocoa-making, door-knocking, and sandwich-stacking, mulling it all over. If parenting has “relatively little” influence, let’s say that’s about 10 percent of environment. Environment is the shaping force for only 50 percent of personality, which would mean parenting style has about a five percent influence on my children’s personalities. And since my children spend half their time with their father—who raises them with near-total disregard for my input—that cuts my influence on them in half, to a mere 2.5 percent. The smallness of that number, its ridiculous insignificance, might have tipped a more conscientious mom into an existential tailspin. But in my shock I saw the upside of buying into that number: If my children drop out of college, fall in with a bad crowd and become criminals, or never master the basics of personal hygiene, I’ll be able to say it’s really not my fault.

For the first few days after this revelation, knowing that I just wasn’t that important was freeing. So what if my kids turned projects in late, did sloppy work, or wore wrinkled clothing? Their victories and failures were their own, nothing to do with me. And just to make sure my fellow moms knew that I was not to be judged by my kids’ actions, I spread the word about the 2.5 percent. Every time, it was like instant Botox on furrowed maternal brows.

But before I took this point to its logical conclusion—buying a one-way ticket to Costa Rica to wait out the rest of their adolescence in peace—I looked again at the categories and realized something key.

News flash for those statisticians out there: “environment” doesn’t just hap- pen. Baked into that bland term is all the work that parents do every single day to raise their children well. It takes me and all the moms and dads on my street hours of work each day, both inside and outside the home. It takes our silent competitiveness, our parental arms race of checking what the other parents are doing, what scores the other kids are getting, and how our kid comes off in a group. Those “environment” numbers submerge my nutritional nagging and card-flashing into the bigger pool of my fellow camp-sending and homework- policing parents, but my individual contribution counts for my kids—way beyond 2.5 percent.

So instead of waking to the sound of monkeys and jungle birds, I still start each morning with my alarm clock. I make cocoa, nudge my teens to eat right and exercise, check in about homework, set boundaries, and ask whose house they’ll be at that afternoon. It’s what they need me to do. Still, I find myself longing to make a difference to my children, in my own particular, individual, slightly off-beat way. Two point five percent suggests that would they be pretty much just the same if one of the other moms in the carpool raised them.

I told my friend Varda about the 2.5 percent. Varda has always seemed supremely confident and happy about her four “fantastic!” grown children and her three grandchildren. She smiled and brushed past the surface topic, getting right to the heart of what was troubling me.

“You know the moment when I knew I was a good mom?” she asked me.

I shook my head. I couldn’t imagine her ever questioning whether she was a good mother.

“It was when my kids were very young—between four and eight—and the doctors told me I had cancer and would be dead in two years,” said Varda. “That’s when I knew that nobody—nobody!— could raise my children like I could.”

I understood what she meant. Maybe my unique contribution is only 2.5 five percent different from all the things any mom in my socioeconomically homog- enous neighborhood would do. But look at any recipe: 2.5 percent could be the vanilla that makes a sugar cookie not just sweet but delicious, the yeast that lifts the loaf, or the chilies that transform, define, and even rename an otherwise bland bean stew. It can make all the difference.

Author’s Note: Several times a week, at least, I remind myself—with gratitude and relief— that I have only so much power to shape the direction of my children’s lives. Freed from the crushing sense of complete responsibility, I can focus more on that elusive 2.5 percent. I ask myself, What do I value about myself that I want to show my children in this moment? And the beauty of it is, it’s usually the fun- loving, whimsical part of me that emerges in response to this question. I think we’re all richer as a result.

Anne-Christine Strugnell is a mother of two teens and a self-employed professional writer whose personal essays have appeared in MORE, SELF, Christian Science Monitor, and three volumes of the Cup of Comfort anthology series. Although learning about brain science didn’t help her to transform her teens, she still enjoys starting her mornings with scientific, philosophical, and historical lecture series from The Teaching Company.

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There is No Such Thing as a Perfect Waffle

There is No Such Thing as a Perfect Waffle

By Christine Ritenis

Waffle ArtIt begins, as usual, with a frozen waffle. It isn’t toasted properly; it is too crisp, too soggy, not hot enough, or burned, according to my high school sophomore (let’s call her Nicole). Today, a Friday, the waffle is insufficiently warm.

My face reddens and I sense the upward surge of a normally low blood pressure when the complaint registers. I always prepare it the same way: first toasting it on “light,” and then, when I hear Nicole padding down the upstairs hall to the bathroom, heating it a second time, carefully spinning the gauge to the machine’s “perfect” mark. The toaster lies. There is no such thing as perfect.

“I did what I do every day,” I snap at the disgruntled teen, whose blue eyes have barely opened enough at 6:00 a.m. to see the thing.

“It’s not hot at all,” she responds, fidgeting with sleep-mussed hair.

My voice pitches high. “Eat your waffle.”

“Stop! Just sto-o-o-o-o-p,” Nicole then says, stretching the “o” sound to infinity.

On cue, I start to cry. “I love it when you tell me to ‘stop!’ every morning,” I retort, whining like a two-year old. “It’s a great way to begin the day.” I think, but don’t say, that I’ve raised a spoiled brat. The sobbing comes next (mine, not hers). “Just because you stay up too late doesn’t mean you have to take it out on me.”

“Overreacting,” the only child mutters, lowering her eyes.

I blubber something argumentative, but unintelligible.

“Overreacting,” she repeats, as she cuts the crusts off the waffle and nibbles calmly on the lukewarm center.

She’s right. I am overreacting, but months of near constant physical pain in the neck, head, and foot have taken their toll, and having a fit is my normal response to stress these days. The word “stop” from Nicole has become a trigger that sets off rampages I can’t control. Embarrassing tantrums from a middle-aged mother who remained unruffled through all of her daughter’s previous crises—injuries to the dog, squabbles with friends, failed acting auditions— even undercooked waffles.

“You’ll make your own breakfast starting next week!” I scream, unaware that a hurricane will ravage the area on Monday, that there will be bigger worries than waffles. I’d likely have forgotten by then anyway. In fact, the entire incident will be relegated to the past by noon, except for the self-reproach. That will remain, strapped to my back like a too-heavy pack, further aggravating the already sensitive spine.

My psychiatrist told me that unwarranted violent outbursts are signs of a deep depressive disorder. We were talking about my 86-year-old father—he’s been raging without end at the staff of his senior citizen residence—but I recognized the symptom in myself as well. My father has been overly needy since he left his house several months ago, forced to relocate by my mother and me out of concern for his safety. He calls daily, often before dawn, and generally in a state of frenzy. He demands numerous visits, including weekly rides to have his nails cut, multiple trips to the bank (he’s unaccustomed to using the telephone for business matters), and endless grocery runs, especially for chocolate, cookies, and Diet 7-Up. He claims that the cleaning staff interrupts him on the toilet and accuses the aides of stealing his blankets. He is exhausting, his life a perpetual string of crises, emergencies, and absurdity, a tragicomedy starring a hunched-over old man with his crazed daughter in a critical supporting role.

When hysteria washes over me, tsunami-like, and cannot be contained, I worry that I’ve inherited his predilection for drama. A family member (it might have been Nicole) recently pointed out a sliver of spinach that had caught between my teeth at dinner. Ordinarily I would have plucked the offending strand from my mouth. Done. On this evening, I spun into a childlike frenzy. That casual comment felt as hurtful to me as hearing “no” can be to a youngster, and I morphed into that bawling stomping toddler in the mall, the one that insists on ice cream—the parents apologizing with horrified looks—that drives other patrons away. When the vocal tempest ended, I stormed upstairs, slipped into bed, and wept great pools of salty tears. About spinach.

Nicole knows that I’m seeing a doctor for feelings of sadness. We haven’t dis- cussed depression, but she witnesses the constant crying and fits of temper. The observant 15-year-old has undoubtedly reduced it all to one easy-to-understand word: overreaction. Our quarrels, however, are normal. “I’m a teenager. This is the time we’re supposed to be fighting,” she insists. She often rewards me with hugs and declarations of love after- wards, but they don’t compensate for my humiliation. I wish that depression were a life stage, a sort of midlife crisis, and could be ended by simply climbing a mountain or buying a shiny red convertible. I wish I didn’t feel responsibility for symptoms I can’t rein in.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the bizarre blow-ups and typical parent-teen bickering. Would a non-depressed mother erupt when a daughter rolls her eyes or refuses to start her homework or help around the house? In calm moments, I recognize that it’s a matter of degree. Every parent must be tempted to yell, maybe shout at a youngster on occasion, but my tirades are grossly out of proportion with Nicole’s offenses. Think waffle.

Parents avoid certain actions in front of their children: cursing, drinking to excess, speaking ill of others, and losing control. We’re supposed to be adults, after all. I’ve been successful at refraining from swearing, unless you count calling the occasional bad driver an idiot, and Nicole hasn’t seen me abuse alcohol. I try not to gripe about my father, even when he’s acting foolish, which happens often. It’s the sniveling and wailing, the roaring, the storming about, and the general instability, much like Monday’s hurricane that felled hundred-year-old trees, pulling them out at the roots, some lifting the ground on which they stood, that’s scary.

I despise it, this illness. I want to rid myself of a disease I don’t discuss openly, the disorder that threatens to crack the foundation of our family life. I wasn’t always an unbalanced terror. Until recently, I could restrain unnatural emotional responses. The culprit is obvious. The unrelenting pain started the witch-like behavior, pain that first aggravated and annoyed and eventually became unbearable. Pain that continues, despite foot surgery each of the last three years, and a cervical spine fusion in January.

Pre-pain, I relieved stress through marathon running and an entire identity was tied to the sport. The vanity license plate on my car says IRUNALOT, but I refuse to replace it, a small act of defiance that will never recover what is lost. Now I can barely walk three miles and I shriek at my teen and become overly frustrated with my father and rely on my husband to keep it all together. Not one of us is happy.

It would require a simple keyboard click to unsubscribe, but I still receive Runner’s World magazine online Quotes of the Day, inspirational sayings that once motivated, but now irritate me, like this morning’s from Ben Logsdon: “There is no time to think about how much I hurt; there is only time to run.” I’m sure he’s talking about pain that a marathoner experiences, the type I was accustomed to, like racing 26.2 miles in freezing rain with a sprained ankle. He’s right. It’s possible to ignore almost any discomfort if the end is in sight, even 20 miles away. But when—despite the efforts of a medical team that recommends new sneakers, more supportive orthotics, a variety of pain meds, multiple steroid injections to the foot and spine, anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, surgery, and more physical therapy—there is no visible conclusion, and each day and week and month is a dizzying migraine of pounding, stabbing, and throbbing agony, whether of the foot or neck or head, there is little time to think about anything else. It is all consuming. Work, household chores, and errands play a distant secondary role and parenting the way I’d like has become impossible. That is the pain that causes insanity.

To most people, I look normal, and behave as I always did. Doing my job. Getting by with minimum effort and an abundance of take-out. My family suffers the misery, mostly in the evening when we’re all grumpy, and the affliction is at its worst. By day’s end I bawl if that rare home-cooked dinner is a failure or Nicole casts me a disapproving glance. When I imagine myself in full tantrum, I see a 52-year-old graying-blond toddler, face scrunched and crimson, as if I’m looking into a fun- house mirror where mother inexplicably becomes child.

Medication regulates my mood. Usually I function in neutral, not unduly joyful, but not particularly sad either. (It’s a good place to be, the physician assured me.) The pills haven’t been effective at reducing the number or force of the outbursts and I fear the impact of such volatility on my teen. Will she, too, flare up for no rea- son, like her mother and grandfather before her? She’s remarked that we’re alike, and that’s why we argue. I’ve also noted a new testiness and wonder if, inadvertently, she’s mimicking my behavior. Instead of sympathizing if I complain that a headache is particularly bad, she’ll mouth off, “NOW you’ll be cranky.” The temptation to lash out is overwhelming, until I realize that she’s probably acting like a typical teenager. Or maybe not. In my delicate state, it’s challenging to differentiate regular teen sass from bad behavior.

At the coffee shop where I write after the recent hurricane, the patrons share tables, power cords, and conversation, and the manager puts me in charge of answering the phone during an early rush. “May I help you? Yes, we’re open,” I repeat to each caller. “Yes, we have WiFi.” When an affable young man in a costume walks in, I remember that it’s Halloween, a holiday I’d nearly forgotten. Suddenly I notice the calm community that has developed in this customarily frenetic place. With schools closed, Nicole is asleep in our dark and unheated home. I wish she could wit- ness the friendliness of people pulling together under duress. She should see me as relaxed as I am now, telephone receiver and decaf coffee in hand. I want her to experience the old me, an energetic and spontaneous mom who doesn’t fall apart for random reasons. The mom who takes her and three friends to an amusement park and rides with them on Down Time, where we scream happily through the entire 185-foot drop. The mom who drives into a blizzard to visit the Crayola Factory so that we can avoid crowds. Not the mom who is angry, unmotivated, and requires afternoon naps. Does she remember that better person?

Earlier this week, when the misery became intolerable, a specialist again injected my spine with steroids. The doctor said that if this treatment worked, there could be residual discomfort for up to two weeks. I’ve done this all before and wasn’t optimistic, but the neck and head torment have begun to diminish. Naturally I’m now more conscious of how much my foot still hurts. It’s unclear whether this partial fix will lessen the depression, but there are positive signs.

Nicole complained about her waffle this morning, the one she would have toasted herself, had I recalled my pre- storm threat.

“Sorry,” I replied evenly.

She continued to eat. “There must be something wrong with the toaster.”

There isn’t, but I didn’t argue, and the meal remained peaceful. It was that easy. A normal mother and her teenager survive the morning routine without incident. (Some days from now I will learn how to toast the waffle to my daughter’s satisfaction, a skill that, unfortunately, will not last.)

By 7:00 a.m. Nicole is on the bus, and I decide to try a short jog. My father calls as I’m getting ready, leaving a message on my cell phone, but I disregard the interruption, lace my sneakers, and set off. It’s my kind of running weather, an early bright sky with a chill in the air. Without thinking, I begin what used to be a regular route. I start slowly, measuring my body’s response, observing the surroundings. Despite the massive pines that were felled by the storm, it didn’t tear all the leaves off the deciduous trees, as if to remind me that fall hasn’t yet ended. My toes cramp a bit, but not badly, so I speed up in the second mile, avoiding downed wires and tree limbs at the sides of suburban streets. Even with workday noise, it’s peaceful. The rhythm, the pounding. I smile as I break into a sweat, remembering other miles when layers were shed and turtlenecks felt too snug. Breathing rapidly, I take a quarter mile walk break and then run again, walking and running at intervals until I complete the loop, 4.2 miles. A feeling I had missed returns, barely recognizable. This, I believe, is contentment.

Still glowing, I listen to my father’s pre-sunup message. He called to say “hello,” nothing more.

After school, Nicole and I share news over a snack. She says that her day was fine; I tell her about my run. Nicole looks hopeful and asks if I’m feeling better, perhaps pitching for a trip to buy jeans at the mall. Although the question is simple, I sense its importance and think before answering. “Yes,” I finally respond, “I am feeling better.” Later I inform my husband that Nicole was in a good mood. “For a change,” he replies with a grin, having tolerated the months of drama with steadfast grace. On the edge of sleep that night it comes to me. I had a good day too, not quite, but almost perfect.

Author’s Note: When I began to craft this essay, I feared revealing weakness, worried that I’d be expelled from carpool duties. Yet as I chatted with friends, I learned that some of them too suffer from depression. “I’ve been taking Prozac for years,” one said, laughing. That alone freed me to write openly. In recent weeks, while storm cleanup continues, my doctor and I have cobbled together a more effective mix of medication. At the same time, Nicole has decided that difficult-to-botch breakfast sausages are vastly preferable to waffles.

When not shuttling her teenager or father around the suburbs, CHRISTINE RITENIS writes, runs, and knits recycled plastic totes. She also serves as New York Arts Correspondent for Connoisseur magazine. In 2010, she was a finalist for the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize and her essays have appeared in Still CrazyThe Fiddleback, and The Writing Disorder. Christine earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

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

The F-word

The F-word

By Lorri Barrier 

IMGP0092I am sitting in a large, rectangular dance studio with other parents. They’ve put chairs around the perimeter of the room, and we’ve all squeezed in. It’s parent watch week—a time for us to see what our children have been practicing, and get a sneak peek at the recital number. As I watch the girls tumble, some doing somersaults, others perfecting cartwheels, a horrible thought creeps into my mind. She’s getting fat.

I am looking at my own child, and my immediate reaction to the thought is to beat it back with the mental witches broom I’ve created to banish invasive, negative thoughts.  I vigorously club the thought until it retreats to a corner, a defeated spider. But then the rest of it crawls from the shadows. Just like I was. The words hover there like smoke, start to spread. Instead of bringing out the broom again, I switch off the light. I look at the other girls, laugh when they laugh, casually chat with the other parents. But later it comes back, and I allow myself to face it.

My daughter looks so much like me it is painful. Painful because it is disarming to see such a copy of oneself, and imagine this other self, this self I love—this wonderful, complex little human being—having the experiences I had, experiences that often hurt and harmed. I want to spare her that, but how? How, when even I, her own mother, have such thoughts about her?

As she’s grown older, her hair has become thicker and straighter. As a very young child, she had a mass of loose, dark blonde curls just like my own. The same round blue eyes, the plump, apple cheeks, a dusting of freckles across her nose. People often exclaimed, “Oh, what a beautiful little girl!  She looks just like you!” Then there would be an awkward pause where I mentally brought out the witches broom (because I couldn’t be beautiful), and finally managed to say, “Thank you.” 

My daughter is not fat. She is within the normal range for her height and age, though at the upper end. Just like I was. My father put me on a diet when I was eleven. I am sure he was trying to help me, to spare me the humiliation of the looming teen years as a fat girl.  He wasn’t mean, but I was required to weigh in every week. I was allowed one sugary treat per week. I remember going to a sleepover and stopping at McDonald’s for ice cream. Only I’d had my sweet for the week. I told my friend I was allergic to ice cream, because I had no idea how to articulate why I couldn’t have it without being embarrassed. 

I don’t remember if I lost weight, but I remember how I felt. I take up too much space in this world. Too fat. My body is not the way it is supposed to be. It was the beginning of a lifelong struggle against my natural body type. As a teen I was extreme. I became hyper-aware of every calorie I consumed, every exercise I did, twice a day without fail. I remember being ill once (I’d missed school), and I asked my mother if she thought it would make much difference in my weight if I skipped my exercises that day. She insisted I stay in bed.

I grew thinner and taller (though I stopped at an average 5’5″), but I was still larger than most of my female peers. “Big-boned” my grandmother said. After years of trying and failing, then trying harder, I finally made the cheerleading team at my small, rural high school for 10th grade. People reacted with surprise. When I went to have my uniform altered, the seamstress asked, “Are all the girls as big as you are?” For all that effort, it still wasn’t good enough. I was the thinnest I had ever been, ever would be. The holy grail of female beauty was forever unattainable for me. I cheered that one year, then quit the team.

As an adult, this in an endless loop that plays in my mind—this body image gallery. I can see some pictures clearly and objectively cast them off. They no longer have power. Others have a distorted form; they sneak away only to pop up again, raging. I have tried embracing my full figure. I’ve had boudoir photographs done. I wore a sleeveless top last summer. I’ve decided to (gasp) try a two-piece swimsuit, though the warmer it gets, the less I feel like going through with it. I exercise regularly, though not obsessively. I have re-learned the joy of dance with Zumba classes. I think I might like to try belly-dancing next.     

Sometimes I look in the mirror and think, “Damn!  I look hot!” Until the shadowy thoughts creep in. This would look so much better if you weren’t so fat. I bring out the mental broom, sweep it away, try on other outfits until I’m satisfied. Sometimes I can’t sweep it away, and I just decide not to go out after all. I don’t want to burden my daughter’s psyche with any of this. When I look back at pictures of myself from childhood, I don’t see a fat child. I see a big child, yes. I see a healthy child. I see a happy child. Just like my daughter. 

Compared to her peers in acrobatics class, she’s a tad taller than many, thicker in the middle, with muscular legs. Solid. She is broader in the chest and shoulders. I smile when I think of how she grabbed one of her smaller friends around the waist and lifted her off the floor, both of them laughing. She is strong. She might become good at acrobatics if she wants to stick with it.

I tell myself things are different these days, better. So many places for a girl to fit in and excel. So many things about my girl have nothing to do with her size. She is artistic, she is bossy, she is an incredible story-teller, she is quick to anger, eager to speak her mind.  She is not just like I was.

Later in the backyard, she practices her cartwheels. She runs back and forth, comfortable with the movement of her body, not questioning the way she looks, sometimes skipping, dancing, singing. She pretends she is the teacher, and she has a class of acrobatics students. “That’s pretty good,” she says to the air. “Keep trying. You’ll get it.” I take her words deep into myself, a panacea for my critical heart.

About the Author: Lorri Barrier lives in North Carolina with her husband and three children.  She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  Her work has appeared in Mothering Magazine, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and Brain, Child.  Women’s issues are of particular interest to her.  Her blog is available at lorriann16.blogspot.com.

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

Motherhood: A Life of Mourning

Motherhood: A Life of Mourning

By Sarah Johnson

0“I love my friends! We are friends forever!” My daughter sings this tune, listing the names of her preschool friends while I bring groceries into the house. She’s twirling, her mess of blonde curls swiping her cheeks with every spin.

Lilly is a carefree spirit, having a typical moment for a 4-year-old. But the song has shaken me out of my routine. I stop walking, feeling my eyes water. I’m unable to wipe away the tears because my hands are weighed down by canned tomatoes and boxes of crackers.

I smile anyway, not wanting her to see any despair. “That’s a nice song,” I say.

She keeps on dancing, continuing her display of pure happiness.

Part of me is jealous I don’t remember what it feels like to be so free of worries. But mostly, I’m amazed by her innocence, that she doesn’t yet realize friendships rarely last forever. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean they’ll love you back. And just because I’m her mom doesn’t mean I’ve loved her forever.

“One day you won’t let me kiss you,” I say to her during another typical moment. She’s sitting on my lap in between bites of Special K as we talk about what we’re going to do over the next few days. Tuesday is preschool, Wednesday her grandmother comes over, Thursday is preschool again.

“You’re just kidding!” she says, using her favorite new phrase. “I will always kiss you!”

I shake my head but she insists. Maybe she is years away from spurning my touch, but I have been dreading that time ever since we found out her gender. When the ultrasound technician said, “You are having a girl,” what I heard was, “You are having a teenage girl who will hate you.”

Like most teens, I pushed by mom away during my high school years, creating a fissure that has never fully healed. It began soon after my father moved out and around the time everything outside the house became more enticing than what was inside it, including boys and the concept of adulthood.

My momentary disappointment about having a girl was my first realization that I would be entering a lifetime of letting go. Parents are in constant grieving of what once was, as they fulfill their duty to develop independent beings.

After Lilly was born, two nurses, two doctors, and my husband got to touch her first before she was returned to me. I wish I had held her first, as soon as she entered this world, when she changed from her status as “Lemon,” the faceless inhabitant of my belly we had nicknamed, to a munchkin replica of us.

When my water had broke hours earlier, there were signs of meconium. The nurses had told me a pediatrician would have to look at her immediately to make sure she was breathing properly (in case she had meconium aspiration, or had been breathing her poops). It turns out she was perfectly fine, born as a lady, who would never consume feces, even her own.

By the time she was in my arms, I didn’t know what to do with her. She squirmed and I squirmed, setting off a lifetime of awkward and tension-filled, mother-daughter episodes. In those first few weeks, when relatives and friends came in and out of our house to meet Lilly while I was exhausted and detached, nearly everyone talked about this instant love that I somehow had missed. “It must have been love at first sight!” “Didn’t you just love her as soon as you laid eyes on her?” I nodded, going along with the farce, hoping and trusting that I would somehow come around.

And I did, eventually. Now fully in love with my daughter, I grieve for the 1-year-old, 2-year-old, and 3-year-old version of her, with more versions to come. But I don’t miss the newborn phase at all.

Did I resent her when she was born because I was in defense mode, afraid she’d hate me once she exited the womb? Or was I just a new mother who had very little experience with babies?

“Do you want to hold her?” the nurse asked.

Mothers-to-be eagerly wait for that question, which in most cases doesn’t require an answer. It’s usually YES in neon letters. In the middle of the night, though, exhausted by the late hour and pushing, I gave a quiet answer, aimed at my husband, Phil. “You can hold her first.”

After all, I thought, I had held maybe two other babies in my life. I had no idea what to do with this baby, even though she was mine and I had carried her everywhere I went for nine months.

I didn’t have to tell Phil twice, and I can’t blame him. He was eager to get his hands on his little one. Having watched the birth, he had had more time to let the reality sink in that a new human had entered our lives. For me, five hours of labor went by too fast to feel real.

Letting Phil be the first of us to hold her was a concession during this era of co-parenting, when men have manned up to share diapering duties and are not a rare species during drop-offs and pickups at daycare. In retrospect, though, that was a moment where motherhood should have trumped any symbol of equality. I had earned that “first.”

Instead, my husband wears a hole on his sleeve like a fatherly badge of honor. About the size of a dime at the end of a faded blue shirt, the hole serves as a sloppy reminder of his first (tiny) sacrifice as a dad, when he first held Lilly.

She nestled in his arms, swaddled in a hospital-provided blanket. He stared at her and was – there is no other word – beaming. Feeling hot but terrified of disturbing her, this creature that just a few minutes before had been a wailing, slimy mess popping out of his wife, Phil leaned forward to push his sleeve up with his teeth. In the process, he ripped a hole in his shirt.

I have more permanent (stretch) marks than an old shirt to show I’m a parent and have made sacrifices too. But I wish I had the same memory of his when he first locked eyes with his little girl and, by all appearances, naturally took over his new, lifetime role as a dad.

Those first moments he had with her let me procrastinate my motherhood role for another half hour or so while I was cleaned up. I lay there in a daze while my husband got a head start on bonding. “What should we name her?” he asked. How could he talk so casually at this monumental moment, I wondered. Why did he look so at peace, while I felt ravaged?

As time progresses, I think of my missed moment with Lilly. It comes to mind whenever she acts like Daddy’s girl, even though I realize she may have been Daddy’s girl no matter who held her first. She’s strong-willed, girly, and when things aren’t going her way, I get the brunt of her discomfort.

“One day, Mommy won’t be with us,” she said one night after we all went for what I had thought was a nice walk.

Hurtful words make me remember the fleeting time when I didn’t like her, during her first few weeks of life. I was a dutiful mom even though I didn’t feel like anyone’s mother. I fed her and rocked her, but I felt miles away from her. I didn’t see her as a baby. She was an expensive warm doll that I kept telling myself I would one day love. Maybe that first embrace in the hospital, if it had gone better, would have sped up the bonding process. Then again, adoptive parents find their way to their children without being the first ones to hold their children.

To make up for it, now, I cuddle with her as much as possible. Sometimes, though, the duties of motherhood get in the way.

“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” she says.

“Just a minute, Lilly,” I answer, sighing at her impatience and having already said I would get her a cup of milk.

“Mommy!”

Standing in front of the refrigerator, about to grab the milk but thinking about the long to-do list in my head, including what I’ll be cooking for dinner and giving myself a mental note that we’re running out of paper towels, I make myself stop the mental babbling and look at her. “Yes, Lilly?”

“I love you!”

I repeat the words to her and give her a hug, making up for the one I didn’t give her four years ago.

About the Author: Sarah Johnson is a freelance writer and editor. A mother of two, she lives in Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @SGJComm.

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It Takes a Village

It Takes a Village

By Kim Siegal

IWO It Takes a Village Art sat on the living room floor with my one-year-old, three brightly colored balls atop a plywood box between us.  Perched on my elbows, I watched him raise that little wooden mallet as high as his tiny arms would allow and then bring it down with a satisfying thud onto one of the balls, sending the ball down through the box and careening across the floor.  He reeled at his newfound success at this baby-sized whack-a-mole game, giggling so hard at the commotion he had created that it nearly threw him off balance.  I happily retrieved the ball each time it went flying.

His joy was infectious.  I caught myself reflexively wearing one of those stupid love-struck grins, reveling in the purity and simplicity of his happiness, and thought, “This. This is it. Moments like these are why people have children.”  I almost couldn’t get enough.

And then we played the game another 10 minutes. And I had definitely had enough. The repetition had become simply tedious, and my mind wandered to other more stimulating things I could be doing with my time. Like the dishes.

Not only did I feel my mind starting to numb, but I felt trapped. I knew if I tried to escape, he would cry.   And, anyway, wasn’t this my job as a mother?  Shouldn’t I be enjoying it?  Or at least hanging in there for more than a few minutes?  How did I go from euphoria to bored, trapped and guilty in 10 minutes flat?

Perhaps my impatience was the result of living in our fast-paced, hyper-connected, Insta-Google-face-gram  world, whose myriad distractions were preventing me from being wholly present in any given situation.  Maybe all this was at odds with the slow pace of motherhood.  Even so, I had dreamt of these tender mother-child bonding moments from tweenhood on and was unsettled to find that they could become joyless so quickly.  I had the nagging sensation that my impatience was some kind of indication of my failing as a mother.  We’re made to feel communing with our children is the most natural thing in the world, fueled by the very spirit of motherhood, and so when boredom creeps in so does the guilt.  But is playing with our children the “most natural thing in the world?”

No.  Not really.

***

I learned this shortly after we moved from Boston to a small border town in Western Kenya – the kind with one main road flanked by small dukas (shops) and ramshackle hotels, cutting through a patchwork of small farms.  We moved to start jobs with an organization that studies anti-poverty programs and with a toddler in tow, the only non-African kid in town.

My first month was set aside for “settling in,” making sure our 20-month-old son was adjusting and finding childcare.  Each day I’d set out, hand-in-hand with our son Caleb, taking in our new surroundings.  We’d walk carefully on the craggy paths, making a game out of stepping over the stones while dodging oncoming livestock.  But generally, I was at a complete loss as to what to do with myself and my son for 12 hours of daylight.

There were no playgrounds and the concept of a “playdate” was as foreign as flavored coffee.  Typically, by 10 AM, we had already had four hours of coloring, reading books, building with blocks, putting together puzzles and I would grow increasingly panicked about staving off a meltdown.  For either of us.  It was around that time, we’d set out to explore our new town.  I wondered: what did local mothers do to occupy their own restless children?

The answers were not readily apparent on our walks.  I saw no other mother similarly looking to find entertainment for her child.  I saw plenty of children.  They would be playing with a makeshift soccer ball, cobbled together with plastic bags and string or walking together with jerry cans on their way to fetch water.   There were mothers all over the place but none visibly attached to these benign Lord of the Flies-like gangs of children, and certainly none directing their play.

The mothers I saw on these walks were often chatting with each other in the shade of a storefront overhang or plaiting each other’s hair.  Others were hidden behind walls, preparing ugali, the local staple, or washing clothes in large plastic buckets and setting them in the sun to dry.  I did see plenty of mom-child dyads — moms at the market with babies strapped to their backs and moms riding matatus (mini buses) with toddlers on their laps — but no mother appeared tethered to the whim of their toddler the way I was.  Their daily rhythms were set by an intertwining of chores and relaxing with other adults, and they seemed, at least from the outside, to be enjoying themselves.

We eventually found some remedy for our boredom with our morning visits to little Isaac and his mother.  Isaac was born the same week as Caleb and his parents owned a duka just across that one paved road.  While his mother was tending to customers and asking me polite questions about America, indulging my nascent Kiswahili, Caleb and Isaac would run around in front of the duka and play together.  They became quick friends despite the language barrier, and a ball or a couple of toy cars would keep them occupied for hours. Every once in a while a man would come along and scoop up Isaac in his arms and give him those universally fun-making rides favored by uncles everywhere.

“Is that Isaac’s uncle?” I’d ask.

“No.” Isaac’s mother would respond, settling the issue.

“But who….”

“Oh. That’s Fred. He just brings the bread twice a week.”

In fact, all of the customer and purveyors of their small shop seemed to know the family.  I don’t know if they saw it as a duty, a ritual, a pleasure or if they even thought about it at all, but each person would tease or scoop up little Isaac or give him rides on the back of their bicycle.  Caleb, as Isaac’s new playmate, benefited from this informal web of uncles and aunts too.  And I simply sat back and sipped my chai.

***

As my work start date approached, we found a woman to look after Caleb when I crossed the road to head to work.  Rukia was reassuring and warm and had already raised 4 children of her own.  She seemed to possess a protective instinct, constantly worrying if Caleb was stepping too close to a ledge or running too close to the road.   Of course, not having observed a lot of mother-child interactions, I was a bit nervous about how she would entertain him all day.  I showed her the toys, the crayons, the chalk, the books, and told her which ones he preferred most.   But I had no idea how she’d fill those long hours.

I got my answer that first day, when I came home from work to see 8 or 9 children playing happily in our living room.  Caleb was running around beaming.

“Mama mama!  Look see dat!” Caleb declared, pointing a tiny finger to an older playmate who managed to make something relatively sophisticated out of Caleb’s small set of Duplos.  The child looked over at me and smiled shyly just as another child rammed a plastic truck into his knee.  They both ran off laughing, Caleb giggling and following after them.

As happy as Caleb was to see me come home and to fall into the security of his mother’s lap, his face fell when his new playmates left the house.

It turned out I didn’t have to worry too much about how Rukia would play with my son.   Rukia saw it as her job to feed, bath him, find him playmates and make sure he didn’t fall on something sharp.  But not necessarily to get down on the floor and draw chalk pictures and do puzzles with him for the better part of a morning. She simply found people more suited to that task.

And that’s when it all came together: Maybe modern parenting is asking too much of mothers.  We’re their constant companions, playmates, disciplinarians, teachers and main source of affection.  We’re the entire village. It’s draining on us and probably not always the best for them.  Maybe it’s OK to spend more time tending to a mother’s other duties and even pleasures as long as there’s an extended web of loving pseudo uncles and a gaggle of mixed-aged friends to run around with.  It might even be better.

We’ve since moved from that small border town to the Provincial capital.  We live now in a compound of townhouses protected by a guard hired by the landlord.  But we’re still in Kenya, so the guard acts as a favorite uncle, taking my baby from my arms and kicking the ball around with the older kids; and the neighbor’s kids run freely in and out of our houses.

Recently, I came downstairs after my Saturday sleep-in to see my second son, Emmet, playing that same wack-a-mole game and delighting, just as his brother had, in his success. Just as before, I happily ran after that escaped wooden ball and relished in his wonderment at his emerging ability.  But when his interest started to outlast my own, I, without any guilt, left the room to make some coffee, confident that any one of the 3 neighbor children playing on the floor next to him would provide interest and distraction.  When I returned, coffee in hand, I saw Sylvanos, a 12-year-old boy who adores Emmet, carrying him to the window to point at the bright yellow weaver birds just outside.  When I returned, I could be a better, maybe even more playful, mother.

Kim Siegal lives in Kisumu, Kenya with her husband and 2 sons. She chronicals her experiences living and raising children in Africa in www.mamamzungu.com.  She has written for the Huffington Post, Inculture Parent and is an editor and contributor at www.worldmomsblog.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peeping on the Potty

Peeping on the Potty

By Candy Schulman

WO Peeping on Potty ArtMy daughter is a nudist.  Greeting the Chinese take-out delivery man in a yellow turtleneck, she is not quite three and completely bottomless.

Mortified, I watch my husband pay for our dinner while I say in a loud whisper, “Come inside.  You don’t have any…pants on.”

“I’m just standing here next to my daddy,” she says, while I worry what the delivery man must be thinking about our American culture.

Amy tries to spear rice grains with the tip of a chopstick.  She’s having a great time, even though her bare rear is getting imprinted by the pattern of a cane seat.

We are not weird or perverted.  We are simply trying to toilet train our toddler. I teach; Amy resists. Child-rearing gurus advise parents to delay toilet “learning” until after the defiance of the terrible twos settles down. Given my daughter’s strong will and a case of terrible twos that began at eleven months, I may be waiting until Amy goes to college.

Today’s method is to get those disposable diapers off your child–she’ll never feel the urge to “go” when her butt is padded by super absorbency fibers.  In the homes of young children you’re sure to see a lot of little tochis flashing around.

My mother toilet trained my brother at eighteen months.  She had no choice, or should I say hehad no choice: with another infant to care for, my mother wasn’t going to hand wash two sets of cloth diapers.

Experts today adopt a laissez faire approach, lest the children turn into anal retentive adults. Hence my bare-bottomed girl…and if you need proof how far she is from anal retentive, all you have to do is take one look at the condition of her room.

Months pass.  Finally Amy agrees to start sitting on the potty. She smiles, saying, “I hear it.”  But I hear nothing.

“I hear it!” Amy says, but it’s all in her mind, rather than in the bowl.

“I’m finished,” she announces, wiping herself needlessly in the wrong place.  She flushes and is off.

Someday she will “go potty.”  But the more I see 4-year-olds in diapers, the more I wonder if my mother had a better idea.

I try behavior modification.  If I can “hear it,” she can hang one sticker from an array I’ve purchased. Perched on the edge of the bathtub, my usual observation spot, I finally hear it. I jump up and down, cheering.  Before her feet touch the ground, I dial Grandma in Florida.

“I made peep on the potty all by myself!” Amy screams into the phone.

Then she demands her reward: five stickers.

“We agreed on one.  One for each pee-pee.”  I can’t believe I am actually uttering such words.

“Four,” she says, a fierce negotiator, holding up the appropriate number of fingers.

“Okay…three.” All the money I thought I’d be saving on diapers goes into my sticker budget.

My mother calls from Florida.  “In the middle of my bridge game,” she reports, ” I told three eighty-year-old women that my granddaughter finally peed on the toilet.  They looked at me like I was nuts. Told me to finish bidding.  They might not care, but I’m awfully proud.”

So am I.  A year of reading Everyone Poops has finally paid off!  We buy a dozen pair of “big girl pants”—Amy appropriately selects Pooh.  What a deprived childhood I had, a bland world of only white underwear….

She refuses to put on her big girl pants.  She still insists on being bottomless, or else she wears leggings around the house with nothing underneath.  What have I created?

“When you’re ready,” I say, “you’ll wear big girl pants.” Every two seconds I inquire, “Do you have to go potty?”

“No,” she says, annoyed.  “I alweady went potty yesterday.”

Why do I feel competitive that Amy is the last one in preschool to still wear diapers?  I take comfort that her language skills are high; I don’t think any of her college applications will question the age she was potty trained.

The turning point arrives when Amy puts Pooh underpants on her cherished stuffed puppy.  When I check on her before I go to bed, I find her asleep, mouth ajar, hugging a golden retriever in underpants.  I find this image adorable…until the next morning, when she decides to wear Pooh underpants to school for the very first time.  Puppy goes to school identically.

Amy holds up Puppy in triumph, all fur and underpants. People giggle.  I feign nonchalance.  When you’re the mother of a three-year-old who peeps on the potty, you must pretend that nothing embarrasses you.  It will be decades before we learn whether allowing toddlers to make decisions for themselves will empower them or send them to shrink’s couches with the complaint, “My problems began when my mother was too casual about toilet training.”

On the way home from school, I tell Amy, “I’m proud of you.”

“I’m a big girl now,” she says.

Minutes later, in the grocery store, Amy holds up Puppy in his underwear and boasts to a captive audience, “I’m wearing Pooh underwear too.  But Mommy’s big girl pants are black!”

There is a hush.  People stare.  I smile wanly and reassure myself that this will all seem ludicrous when more challenging times arise.  Such as explaining the facts of life.  I can’t wait.

About the Author: Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and several anthologies. She is Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

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When the #%*& Hit the Face

When the #%*& Hit the Face

 

WO Margot ArtMy three pregnancies were so full of win. I read the books and ingested only nutritious things. I tried very hard, but also remained calm and serene so as not to stress the baby. I did everything exactly right almost. It was the last mile that got me.

With my first pregnancy, I learned that birthing a baby carries with it a possibility so awful that they shroud it in jargon and run-on sentences, then tuck it deep inside the very last session of childbirth class. But I was young and still felt it was possible to know things, so I parsed our teacher’s language until its light dawned:

“During the final stages of pushing,” she told us as if it was nothing, “it’s not unusual for a woman to push so hard, using the same muscles she uses for a bowel movement, that, if her rectum is full, she may evacuate. Depending on the mother’s position, some fecal matter may end up on the baby’s face, but this is quickly and easily dealt with by the OB or midwife.”

I looked, shocked, around the classroom. Everyone else seemed to be taking this in stride, nodding and jotting notes. Sooo sophisticated, my classmates. At the next break, I accosted my husband.

“Did she just say I might shit on our baby’s face?”

I knew even Anthony was rattled when all he did was parrot my words back at me.

“Yes. It’s possible you might shit on our baby’s face.”

“I can’t believe this. My first act as a mother, the very first thing I do?”

“Yes.” he said. “Shit. Baby’s face. You.” Then he got all prim. “I would never do that.”

But Eldest was born and her face stayed unsoiled. Three years later, so did my newborn son’s. But by five years after that, my perfectly clean record must have made me complacent. The possibility of messing things up from the get-go didn’t even occur to me this time around.

Then, two days after her birth, my tiny Youngest was still pinkly screaming her resentment at being in the world when Anthony approached me nervously.

“So, um, Linda got it off.”

I was confused. Our midwife got off? While I was in labor? Good for her I guess, but it hardly seemed appropriate.

“No, got IT off. The, um, poop. On the baby. You know.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“It wasn’t that bad. Really.”

But I had tried so hard! I did everything right almost!  (Almost: the gap where the guilt gets in.)

I felt terrible. And mommy guilt makes me defensive and blamey, which makes me ridiculous. Shortly after Anthony confessed my crime, I produced the following gem of rationalization: “It’s just, she came so fast! I’m sure I wouldn’t have pushed that hard if the baby herself hadn’t been so pushy. Don’t you think?”

I wallowed for a little while, but honestly: If there’s a better object lesson for striving for perfection and messing things up anyway, I can’t think of it. (And if you can’t make a little lesson out of pooping on your baby, why bother?)

The wisdom borne of this Incident should be obvious, but I’m a slow learner and require a lot of repetition: No matter how well I set out to be the perfect mommy, the perfect daughter, the perfect partner. No matter how good my intentions or how hard I try, I will shit on my baby’s face, and there’s no way I can undo it. And every minute I spend wallowing about the poop thing is a minute I’m not admiring tiny fingernails.

Some of my mom-crimes are worse than others, but all of them are forgivable. Yep, Youngest, I did that. I also nursed you and read to you. I drove you places and kissed your owies and lost my temper and said the wrong thing and kept forgetting to sign you up for dance lessons even though you really, really wanted them and you would have been really, really good. I’ve made you a few fancy and complicated birthday cakes and many frozen burritos.

As your mama, all I can do is my best, clean up my mistakes as quickly as I can (or allow other people to clean them up for me, thanks), and then move forward, taking care not to do it again. In this case, I can probably guarantee it.

Margot Page lives with her family in Seattle, where she also writes and works full time. She’s just completed a memoir of the year she hauled her family to Costa Rica. Read more of Margot’s work at www.margot-page.com.

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How Filling Out “The Forms” Makes Me Feel As A Mother

How Filling Out “The Forms” Makes Me Feel As A Mother

By Allison Slater Tate

0“We’re just covering our bases,” we said when we decided to make the appointment. “Just a formality, just in case. Probably nothing.” But we knew it wouldn’t be just a formality or just in case.

When my second child was about three months shy of three years old, I took him to a private speech therapist. I had waited, per my pediatrician’s suggestion, to see if he would grow into his speech. He seemed to understand everything just fine, and he talked an awful lot. But I was his primary caregiver, and I couldn’t understand 90 percent of what he said.

I asked his preschool teachers how his speech compared to his classmates’ in his two-year-old program. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just comparing him unfairly to his verbally precocious older brother, who seemed like he spoke like an adult (if a very irrational adult) from the time he came out of the womb. At first, they said no, they noticed nothing different. I relaxed. About a week later, the lead teacher pulled me aside. “You know,” she said, “after you mentioned it, we started noticing that he actually just doesn’t talk in class … really, at all.”

That was how I found myself sitting in a small room, in a small chair, watching my son play on the floor with well-loved toys while I filled out The Forms. So many forms. It was a booklet. The questions were endless, and the questions were relentless. They asked me about his birth. They asked me about his infancy. They asked me about his toddlerhood. What were the circumstances and details of his birth? His birthweight? What was his first word, and when? When did he roll over? Crawl? Walk? Had he experienced any trauma? When? How? How many of these fifty words would he recognize? How many does he say? How often does he say them? What foods does he eat? When did he start eating them?

I stared at the pages. I felt as if I was on trial. I knew the purpose of these eight zillion questions was just to gather as much information as possible, to help diagnose my son’s issue and more importantly, to help my son. All I wanted in the whole world at that moment was to help my son. But answering those questions, I felt as if every second of his life was under a microscope … and with it, me.

I felt especially keenly aware how little I remembered. Was I supposed to know all of this by heart, off hand? I had two babies 21 months apart. The preceding four years had been a crazy blur of sleepless nights, pregnancy, and diapers. I had no idea when he rolled over or when he crawled. I had no idea when he started talking or how many of those words he knew. The letters blurred together and swam on the page. I would reveal myself, right there on those very official forms, to be a completely unobservant, negligent mother who really hadn’t paid attention to my second baby’s babyhood. No wonder he couldn’t talk.

It’s my fault, I heard in my head as I wrote down the circumstances of his birth. He stopped moving in the womb at 37 weeks. I sat in triage a whole day, waiting for him to move. Finally, we had to induce him, unable to determine why he was so still. He was born a healthy 8 pounds, 9 ounces, his umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck, but not blue. He nursed well, he grew well. He slept early and often, the complete opposite of my first newborn.

I paused at the question about trauma. When he was nine weeks old, my mother was carrying him when she lost her footing by stepping in a divot in the pavement on a road. She fell to the ground, dropping him on his back and the back of his head. It was almost kind of a release to have one of my worst new-mother nightmares come to fruition: someone actually dropped my baby. After a horrific ride in an ambulance with my nine-week-old strapped to a board, X-rays and examinations declared him fine. My heart was not. Two years and change later, I had to write the scene out again on those forms, and the doubts began creeping back. Was he not fine? Did something stop working when he hit the ground that day?

By the time I finished the pages and pages of questions, my shoulders had long since slumped in defeat. I was demoralized. I was convinced I had somehow failed my baby in utero. I was convinced he had brain damage from falling on his back at nine weeks old. I was certain a better mother could answer the questions about his milestones confidently and easily. This is where failures bring their children, I thought. Failures fill out The Forms.

I know it’s not true, of course. I wasn’t a failure. I was weary, a little battered, a little worse for the wear after a few years of sleep deprivation and hormonal roller coasters. I was deep in the trenches of motherhood, not yet able to see a horizon line beyond Baby Einstein and nap schedules and time outs. But as any mother who has ever sought an evaluation of any kid for her child can tell you, The Forms just seemed to cement every slippery doubt, every nagging worry, every small neurosis that had ever kept me awake at night even though my exhausted bones screamed for mercy. They’re insidious, the forms. They’re brutal. They’re unforgiving. They’re poker-faced. They’re merciless. They convince you that your child is not okay.

And sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes, the doubts are right. Sometimes, it’s not until you sit in a small chair in a small room with a toddler playing at your feet—your world still for the first moment that day—and stare at the pages of questions you don’t want to answer, that you acknowledge that you already know that he’s not okay.

For us, two and a half years of speech therapy yielded a child who can speak articulately, if not completely perfectly. He can speak well enough to tell me when he hates me and when I have failed, but also whisper that he loves me before he closes his eyes at night. We still do not know why he had articulation difficulties and mouth weakness. Now, when my friends tell me they are going in with their children for evaluations—any kind of evaluation—I nod my head silently.  I know the first hurdle will be The Forms. They’re awful. But they are the first step toward something else: Hope.

Allison Slater Tate is a mother of four children and Deputy Editor of TheMid.com, a corner of the Internet devoted to GenX parents. Her writing can also be found on the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and Scary Mommy, as well as on her own website, www.allisonslatertate.com. Follow her on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/astwriter) and Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/allisonstate).

More (and Less): Talking About Discrimination With Our Children

More (and Less): Talking About Discrimination With Our Children

 

wilcox-county-integrated-prom

photo credit: nydailytimes.com

“Wait, what are you talking about?” This is my 13-year-old son, Ben. “I thought you were talking about a long time ago.” I picture what he’s picturing: grainy black-and-white Brown v. Board of Education photographs of black school kids escorted through frowning alleys of white faces.

“No,” I say. “That’s what’s so crazy. This is what’s happening now. Literally today.” I am explaining to him about the first integrated prom in Wilcox County, Georgia. “But that’s illegal, right?” he wonders sensibly enough, and I have to describe the parents’ work-around of making the prom, technically, a private party. “That is really not the spirit of the law,” Ben says, and gets a kiss on the head he is shaking in disbelief.

The next day, along with his 10-year-old sister Birdy, we “like” the prom on Facebook and are treated to dozens of photographs of beautiful, beaming, radiant kids, everybody so sleek and newly hatched that you can hardly believe that, already, they’ve experienced so much of the ragged, crumpled world. And yet you know they have. “We’re so proud of you guys!” we write, and I have tears in my eyes. “Can you imagine,” I say to my husband Michael later, “being black and having to send your kids to school with the kids of the kind of people who would figure out a way to keep your kids out of their kids’ prom?” It’s an inelegant question, but he knows what I mean and says simply, “I can’t.”

By the end of the very next day, I’ll have told our children, also, about Jason Collins. My bubbling excitement about his coming out is actually flattened a little bit by the children’s appalledness. The children’s appropriate appalledness. “Wait, wait.” This is Ben again. “I don’t understand. There’s never been another male athlete who’s been openly gay?” I explain that we’re talking about team sports (e.g. not figure skating) but that, yes, that’s right. “But that’s crazy!” It is.

Part of their horror comes—how best to put this?—from the fact that we intentionally raised them to be horrified. We did not want the kids to learn bigotry as a fact of life, alongside the germination of a lima bean in a mayonnaise jar, the mixing of red and yellow to make orange, the cycle of egg, caterpillar, pupa, and stunned, emerging butterfly. I understand that it was a luxury, this waiting—waiting until the natural rightness of difference was so fully, deeply settled in the children’s hearts that the idea of prejudice would properly horrify them. And it was a luxury afforded us, paradoxically perhaps, by our very privilege: white privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege, middle-class privilege, the privilege of living in a groovy, liberal town. We were not exposed to discrimination ourselves, not really, and so I did not have to explain it until I thought the kids were ready.

And I stand by this, even though I then bungled it so badly. When Ben was eight, I finally told him, on a wintery walk in the woods, about the significance of Martin Luther King Day. He took in the information with level gravity and sober, engaged questions about courage, about violence. Birdy, however, was four and not as fully distracted by the gathering and eating of giant fistfuls of snow as I had assumed. “We’re white, right?” she said suddenly. “Phew, Mama, right?” And I was stunned by the magnitude of my screwing this up. “No,” I said, panicking, my mind a blank of shame. “Yes,” I said. “But we’re Jewish, and that’s always been super-dangerous too.” That is really what I actually said.

Later, I tried to explain better: the idea, for instance, that none of us is free until all of us are, and so we are all in this together. This made sense to Birdy. (NB: Three is too little to understand that race is a cultural construction with no actual taxonomic significance. Trust me: I speak from experience.)

I will never wish for silence over truth, even if that truth expresses itself through a grotesque collage of my own awkwardness, ignorance, and mistakes. Well, maybe very occasionally I will wish for silence. At least that’s what I’m thinking right now. Because we’re still looking at the prom photos on Facebook—white kids in black tuxedos, black kids in white tuxedos, gorgeous girls in colorful dresses with smiles as dazzling as optimism itself—and I realize, finally, that the children understand what they’re seeing. I can stop talking now. And so, for once, I do.

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines , including Family Fun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. Read more at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

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How to Know When It’s Time to Get Rid of the Swing Set

How to Know When It’s Time to Get Rid of the Swing Set

IMG_0016It had been nine years since we moved into our house and acquired the swing set left behind by the previous owners. My son Daniel would climb the stairs and look through the telescope. He would see a pirate ship. A far away galaxy. A dinosaur. He would run into the enclosed “clubhouse” underneath the slide, the sound of the screen door shutting behind him. He would crouch down in a secret spot where he had stored sticks and rocks and grass for the caterpillars he had gathered. My daughter Emily would yell, “higher!” as I pushed her on the swing. Then, she too would climb the ladder and come down the slide, head first.

Today, my children are 13 and 15. Recently, I was passing by the window that overlooks the backyard and the sight of the swing set caught my eye. The last time Emily and Daniel had used it was during the 24-inch snowstorm a couple of years ago, when they went down the slide. I had forgotten it had been so long. Now, aside from when family friends come over with younger children, the swing set is never used. And that realization brings me to an uncomfortable awareness that my children are getting older.

The untouched swing set reminds me of Emily’s dolls that she once loved but then cast aside as she got older. She didn’t give them away at first. She just slowly started to ignore them. Unlike the 20 minutes she would spend each night, laying them in a tidy row on either side of her pillow, leaving a small opening for her head and body to fit.

Maybe it’s time to get rid of the swing set. Put down more grass seed. Make a bigger yard, like we did when we got rid of our experimental vegetable garden. But the swing set is somehow different. It’s a constant reminder of memories. Of teaching Daniel how to pump his legs on the swing and the first time he climbed across the monkey bars. And it’s about the passage of time.

What ever happened to those days, when my kids would spend hours with each other and their friends, running from the swing set to the sidewalk chalk, making a hopscotch board to play on and a “road” on our long driveway, complete with stop signs and arrows to ride their bikes on? And their made up games, with imaginary names and corresponding accents. Running around the yard with lightsabers, pretending to be Jedis. Or yelling, “you’re it!” to start an impromptu game of tag. These days they are busy with their respective sports. I’m either watching Daniel pitch at his baseball game or beside a pool at a swim meet for Emily.

Maybe everyone goes through this. But it comes at a time when I’m not sure. When, only a few months ago Daniel started to not hug me back when I embraced him, leaving his arms at his sides during what I now term our “one-sided hugs.” And yet, a few weeks ago, after years of reading on his own before bed, he asked if I would start reading to him again before he went to sleep. As he rested his head, his hair still wet from his shower, onto my shoulder I read Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince aloud. And I thought about the last time we had done this, years ago, when I had read his old favorites to him, like Giraffes Can’t Dance and Duck for President.

But for now, the swing set sits in the backyard, as if it’s willing my children to come play. A small puddle sits at the bottom of the slide. A result of the April rain. My dog, Tobey, goes over and drinks some water. The bright yellow forsythias and a couple of elm trees frame the playground area, accentuating the natural cedar and the cheerful pop of primary colors.

I know my kids are getting older. And they don’t use the swing set anymore. But, for now, my children are caught in a poised place between childhood and adulthood. And seeing the playground everyday in our backyard is like a photo album, a place to see Emily and Daniel as they once were, as little children playing. Maybe they will go out there during the next snowstorm and go down the slide. Or maybe, just one more time, they will turn themselves around and around on one of the swings, twisting the chain tightly before holding out their arms and letting go.

Randi Olin is an Editor at Brain, Child.

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